Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Missing the real point: city (re)development isn't about "gentrification" as much as it is about urbanism and urban design

Lights Out! but somebody's home: art is the vanguard of gentrification
Stencil graffiti, Baltimore (on a vacant, bricked up rowhouse, in an area where 1/2 the buildings and/or lots are vacant..

GGW called our attention to a recent opinion piece by Gregory Rodriguez in the Los Angeles Times, "White flight: to the city." To Rodriguez, urban in-migration is a new phenomenon. In places like Washington, DC, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, and various downtowns across the county (see the 2005 Brookings report by Eugenie Birch, Who Lives Downtown?), it's not a new phenomenon, but one of long duration, at least at the level of the neighborhood, although it is only with the 2010 Census that the population has increased over the previous 10 years..

That being said, there are plenty of bombed out center cities across the United States, in fact most of them.

My reading of Rodriguez is that he believes that after outmigration, the people of color who stayed in or moved to the city somehow heroically preserved the distinctively urban (versus suburban) design qualities and building stock that made center cities distinctive and potentially dense. He writes:

Once upon a time, a newcomer to the big city was most likely a country bumpkin obliged to make his way among the sophisticates. But the in-migration today is coming from the suburbs, whose denizens are relatively well-off and capable of wielding cultural power in their new neighborhoods.

Whatever is making them leave the suburbs, they appear to be bringing their suburban tastes with them, and remaking the city in their image. Demographers find that these urban newcomers are split between suburban-raised upwardly mobile professionals and empty-nesters.

The truth is that we've been screwed in both directions. (Also see the blog entry from 2006, "The fifth phase of center-city revitalization.")

First, the 1960s-1970s (and still pretty much in force today) social justice/community development/urban renewal rehabilitation strategy for the city focused on remaking the city over for the automobile, bringing in strip shopping centers, malls, tearing down lots of buildings for parking lots, constructing grim looking but new housing, etc.

It was a decidedly anti-urban, deconcentration oriented approach.

For the most part, these strategies didn't work, although here and there are some urban renewal communities and business districts that do reasonably well (Lafayette Park in Detroit, the Golden Triangle in Pittsburgh).

In fact this was discussed very well in a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story in 1994, in one of the first exposés about the problems with the community development mission, in a piece by Nicholas Von Hoffman, who had worked with Saul Alinsky, in the article, "The Myth of Community Development."

Second, from the late 1950s onward, simultaneously there were waves of so-called urban pioneers who came to or stayed in the city because they appreciated the urban qualities of city life, and they worked to stabilize and reclaim otherwise dying neighborhoods, and they worked to fight off urban renewal and/or freeway building programs that threatened neighborhoods.
Brownstone Awaiting A Wrecking Ball, NYC 1959, by Dmitri Kessel
Brownstone Awaiting A Wrecking Ball, NYC 1959, by Dmitri Kessel. From the Brownstone Revival Coalition website.

Those qualities are best captured in Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (Yes, there are issues with JJ, which I plan to write about, hopefully, sometime within the next month, but I think the real issue with "defects" is that people act as if the book and its proscriptions couldn't be built on further, and that wasn't the case.)

See for example the New York Times obituary of Evelyn Ortner, an early Brooklyn Brownstone promoter, for a discussion of the process embarked upon by urban pioneers.

From the article:

Victorian homes had fallen into disfavor and many middle-class New Yorkers were moving to the suburbs by 1963, when Mrs. Ortner and her husband bought a four-story 1886 brownstone on Berkeley Place in Park Slope.

Mrs. Ortner, an interior designer before she became a preservationist, was so enchanted by that house, with its original mahogany woodwork and papier-mâché and linseed-oil wallpaper, that she began a campaign to save thousands of other brownstones from neglect or the wrecking ball.

Many of the graceful 19th-century single-family homes in Park Slope were owned by absentee landlords and had been cut up into rooming houses. In other parts of New York, old homes were being lost to federally sponsored urban renewal projects.

The Ortners decided to make brownstones — and Brooklyn — appealing to many people who had never considered anything but apartment life in Manhattan. To attract other preservationists, the Ortners and a small group of likeminded Brooklynites began conducting some historic-house tours to present dilapidated houses as opportunities. Mrs. Ortner publicized the tours by dressing in antique clothing and posing for newspaper photographers.

Some cities, with transit, coastal locations, and presence of some great building stock, and the ability to maintain centers of employment have been able, over long periods of time--four or more decades--to recover.

Most have not. And in any case, it's a long process, and if you don't reach critical mass of people able to withstand the inertia of expectations and the increasing velocity that can be associated with disinvestment, you lose. That's what has happened in cities like Cleveland or St. Louis.
The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World's Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town?; Edited by Jerilou Hammett and Kingsley Hammett; Princeton Architectural Press; $24.95.
Third, even the "urban pioneers" came of an age when the suburban style of planning around automobility and separated uses became the dominant land use and transportation planning paradigm in the U.S.

So they don't always advocate for the right type of design treatment. (Especially as they age.) In the 2007 article "CITY BLOCKS LIKE SHOPPING MALLS: A new book helps make sense of un-cosmopolitan currents washing over Gotham," City Limits Magazine reported on a book from Princeton Architectural Press,The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World's Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town?; Edited by Jerilou Hammett and Kingsley Hammett; $24.95.

What is appropriate urban design is covered pretty well in the out-of-print DC Office of Planning publication, Trans-Formation: Recreating Transit-Oriented Neighborhood Centers in DC: Design Handbook.

Fourth, but this has been an issue in the city long before in-migration made it to the radar of Gregory Rodriguez. And it's still a problem.

Maybe we can argue that the latest generation of urban migrants with choices and money are more oriented to "smart growth" and urban design and placemaking principles, as evidenced by the growth of blogs such as Greater Greater Washington.

I'd argue we're doing better, but we still have a long way to go.

Especially because the inertia of bad program planning and development and zoning is still so strong, either by for-profit developers who are active in cities because that's where the action is, but their design sensibilities and sense of the market are still very much shaped by suburban development paradigms, or by nonprofit developers like community development corporations and social service organizations who ought to know better, but don't.

In any case, wanting a supermarket is something that unites new and old resident, rich and poor, between the desires for not just Trader Joe's but Aldi, or programs addressing "food deserts."

I do agree with Rodriguez that in many respects, we are f**cked in the city. He writes:

By contrast, today, to satisfy the tastes of suburban newcomers, developers seek to tame stark differences and impose some standardization on the city. The primary example is the remake of Times Square in Manhattan. Once the epitome of the juxtaposition of grime and glitz, Times Square is now, in the words of geographers Neil Smith and Deborah Cowen, "dense with suburban, clean, white middle-class faces and bodies with the odd 'exotic' mixed in." Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin once called it a shift from hookers to Mickey Mouse. But it's really about the tendency to turn cities into what Smith and Cowen have called "suburbs with pizzazz."

In L.A., the latest example is L.A. Live, with its manufactured promenades and brand names. In Washington, it's a massive new apartment complex atop a big-box Giant grocery store on once-scruffy, quickly gentrifying H Street. The calculation is that this is what the newcomers want.

Rodriguez falls into a trap because he is writing from afar and hasn't experienced directly some of the events he's writing about (not that precludes people from commenting), e.g., since when is a Giant Supermarket gentrification anyway?--Trader Joe's, Wegmans, Harris-Teeter, Whole Foods, sure. And because he's looking at too short of a time frame, he's wrong about the who what where why and how. It isn't relatively recent well-off urban migrants that are reshaping the city in deleterious ways.

I wish it were that simple.

(This blog entry from January 2007, "Retail and authenticity: continued" includes cites of three related but better articles, one from the NYT about the chaining up of "independent" retail districts in the outer boroughs, including Steinway Avenue in Astoria, Queens, another from Der Spiegel about the Champs D'Elysées" in Paris, and a piece from the New Yorker.)

1. It's the way that local political and economic elites are focused on real estate development (as explained by the Growth Machine thesis by Harvey Molotch, "City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place") and in very unsophisticated ways, such as evidenced by DC's recent open arms embrace of Walmart (see "The Selling of Walmart: How the world's biggest retailer won over D.C. without a fight" from the Washington City Paper). Especially, because...

2. It's how most cities, in a transnational and global economy, don't make stuff anymore, and so they are forced to organize, create and sell experiences, along the ideas of "The City as an Entertainment Machine" as expressed by Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark. From the paper:

... categories of production and labor in the urban context have been severely impacted by post-industrial and globalizing trends; cultural activities are increasingly crucial to urban economic vitality. Models used to explain the growth of cities during industrial, “Fordist” capitalism are outmoded. Loss of heavy industry impacts the dynamics of urban growth, increasing the relative importance of the city both as a space of consumption and as a site for “production” which is distinctly symbolic/expressive. Even in a former industrial power like Chicago, the number one industry has become entertainment, which city officials define as including tourism, conventions, restaurants, hotels, and related economic activities. Workers in the elite sectors of the postindustrial city make “quality of life” demands, and in their consumption practices can experience their own urban location as if tourists, emphasizing aesthetic concerns. These practices impact considerations about the proper nature of amenities to provide in contemporary cities. The city becomes an Entertainment Machine leveraging culture to enhance its economic well being. The entertainment components of cities are actively and strategically produced through political and economic activity. Entertainment becomes the work of many urban actors. These are the main themes we elaborate below.

People like me moving into the city had very little to do with that, and even the people who've been attracted to urban living in the post-Friends, post-Seinfeld era don't have enough "agency" to be bend the forces of globalization to their consumptist will. They're fortunate that their interests are somewhat congruent with certain sectors of capital.

(John Montgomery's The New Wealth of Cities is particularly magisterial on the monetization of culture for urban economic development.)

3. Finally, it's how the retail sector has, over the past 50 years, become an industry for the most part organized on a national and international scale, and how local planning, zoning, economic development, and entrepreneurship policies and programs--especially in DC, which also had the misfortune to have a goodly portion of its independent retailer base eviscerated during a three day period of post-assassination riots in April 1968--have not kept up.

My discussions on this likely bore most everyone by now, but "Cleveland Park Retail: My off-hand evaluation is that the rents are too high" and "Commercial Retail Rents #2" have links to a number of articles on the subject, focused on DC.

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