Obituaries relevant to urbanism: 2017
The New York Times Sunday Magazine runs a piece every year in December, with obituaries of prominent and/or interesting people who died in the past year (The Lives They Lived, 2014).
I got to thinking that to better understand urbanism, it would be important to do a similar feature every year, mentioning/profiling those people who died in the last year for their extraordinary contributions -- positive or negative -- to urbanism.
Not having the resources of the New York Times, I would hardly call this a comprehensive list, more a chronicle of articles and obituaries that I came across that happened to touch a chord.
-- Sharon Ambrose, DC City Councilmember, Ward 6. She is unheralded for the fact that she was the primary driver to get the city office of planning to do a revitalization plan for H Street NE, after the Barry years when the Office of Planning was pretty moribund. H Street NE is now a national best practice example of successful urban revitalization ("Sharon Ambrose, former DC Council member, dies at 77," Washington Post).
-- Gerson Bakar, San Francisco, real estate developer and philanthropist ("Gerson Bakar, developer behind SFMOMA and Mission Bay, dies," San Francisco Chronicle).
-- Baltimore City Paper. Alternative weeklies are a great source for covering stories that a city's major newspaper misses, including arts and entertainment coverage. This papers have been crushed by the movement of advertising to the Internet and the creation of online matching websites, which captured the dating and other classified ad revenue streams that had been a mainstay.
The BCP was acquired a few years ago by the parent company of the Baltimore Sun daily newspaper, and incorporated into the local operation. The newspaper was shut down a few months ago, not because it wasn't making money, but because it wasn't making enough money. I always liked the paper's coverage and features, which I found a bit more "urban" than DC's own Washington City Paper.
-- Benny's general merchandise stores, New England. Another example of the death of a local-regional retail chain. They were an amped up cross between a hardware store and the old five and ten stores (think Kresges or Woolworths + Western Auto.)
The chain announced it was shutting down earlier this year, and closing its 31 remaining stores in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts "Benny's: Bittersweet end of a retail era," Providence Journal).
A developer has since announced they'll be buying the stores as a block, and redeveloping the real estate ("Developer Announces Plans For New Retail In Benny's Stores," Rhode Island Public Radio/NPR).
DC used to have an independent department store chain called Morton's, catering to African-Americans. It had 7 stores when it closed in the early 1990s. The announcement at the time was similar to the Benny's announcement. I think the business was probably doing better than break even, but not a lot better, more just a way to keep people employed, and the next generation wasn't interested in carrying on.
-- Simeon Booker, Civil Rights Journalist for Johnson Publications. The impact of the civil rights movement on American society has been profound. Booker was on the front lines, often one of the only journalists covering the events ("Simeon Booker, Pioneering Reporter on Race Issues, Dies at 99," New York Times). As a writer for African-American newspapers like the Baltimore Afro-American and the Cleveland Call and Post, he won awards for his coverage on "ghetto housing" and other urban issues of particular concern.
-- Robert H. Boyle, writer who sought to protect New York State's Hudson River Valley. He came up with the idea of the Riverkeeper program, as a way to monitor the health of local rivers. The concept has been extended to rivers across the world--rivers are the primary source for local drinking water supplies ("Robert H. Boyle, a Watchdog of the Hudson River, Dies at 88," New York Times).
-- Albert Boscov, Reading, PA, Boscov's Department Stores. Boscov's is one of the last remaining independent regional department stores ("Honoring Albert Boscov: His rescue of bankrupt department store chain ranks as retailing fairy tale," Harrisburg Patriot-News). Not only is that unusual, but the company continues to be supportive of Downtown locations in smaller communities such as Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and Binghamton, NY ("Talks Continue to Keep Boscov's in Downtown Binghamton," WNBF-radio). Boscov's continues to expand, albeit slowly.
This came after the 2008 financial crash, which put the company to the brink of closure. Mr. Boscov came back to the company out of retirement and was successful in resuscitating and reenergizing the firm.
The company supports signature community events, like the Reading Jazz Fest, and the family had an active philanthropic profile, including helping to found and fund the GoggleWorks art center ("Boscov legacy felt at GoggleWorks," Reading Eagle).
-- Macon Brock, co-founded the Dollar Tree discount retail chain. In small towns, dollar stores are often the only "general merchandise" retail store that remains present in such communities, selling not just general goods, but food too ("Macon Brock, co-founder of Dollar Tree and a prominent philanthropist" and "The dollar store wars of the 1980s chronicled in new book from Dollar Tree founder," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot).
-- Jeff Brotman, Costco stores. Brotman was a co-founder of the warehouse store chain, Costco ("Death of Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman, 74, 'a complete shock'," Seattle Times).
The stores have been a scourge of the traditional supermarkets and department stores that once anchored in-city shopping districts. Because when people go to the store they buy a lot, pretty much you have to have access to a car to shop there.
Most of their stores are located in farther out suburban locations, but as cities and inner ring suburbs have revived, Costco has opened stores in such locations, some more urban (Pentagon City in Arlington County) and some very suburban (Westfield Mall in Wheaton, Montgomery County).
They opened a store "in DC", although the location is right on the DC-Maryland border, in 2012 ("D.C. welcomes its first Costco," Washington Post.
A particularly interesting anti-small store initiative by Costco was in its home state, where it mounted a successful Washington State referendum privatizing the sale of liquor, which can be a major revenue stream for Costco stores ("Voters kick state out of liquor business," Seattle Times).
Costco is also big on including gasoline stations alongside their stores, and will fight urban-oriented building and zoning regulations which put strictures on such uses in urban areas ("Costco gas station at issue in Wheaton" and "Montgomery Council puts new limits on large gas stations," Washington Post).
-- Robert Campeau, real estate developer and consolidator of US department stores. The Canadian real estate developer, funded by junk bonds, bought two different US department store companies, Allied Stores first, and then Federated Stores. At that time the companies were primarily collections of individual store groups organized regionally, such as Jordan Marsh in Boston or Bambergers in New Jersey, although some of the divisions operated more nationally or in multiple markets.
His actions sparked consolidation of the department store industry, not just affecting the companies it bought, but others, like the May Company, which operated similarly to the Allied and Federated companies, owning regional companies across the US ("Robert Campeau, Flamboyant Canadian Who Owned Bloomingdale’s, Dies at 93," New York Times).
One of the effects of the consolidation was to spur closure of more center city located stores in favor of suburban operations, furthering the economic disconnection of center cities from their metropolitan economies.
The companies bought by Campeau ended up being acquired by Macy's and eventually all the stores were branded as Macy's, dissolving the regional companies and their more direct community heritage.
-- Jim Fyke, Nashville. He ran the Nashville-Davidson County parks system for 25 years, leading its expansion and the development of stadiums and other facilities, before working in similar positions in state government ("Jim Fyke, longtime Tennessee parks and conservation advocate, dies at 78," Nashville Tennessean).
-- Jim Graham, former City Councilmember, Washington, DC. Graham came to prominence in the city as the director of the Whitman-Walker Center, an organization providing health supports to the Gay community, which helped propel him to a Council seat in the late 1990s. Graham had a mixed record, doing many good things--he helped to get WMATA/Metrorail to extend its hours and add accommodations for biking, but he also aimed to steer development and contract opportunities to supporters at the expense of other parties.
-- hhgregg electronics stores. Based in Indianapolis, a large but not national chain that expanded after the 2008 crash, operating in 20 states, in 2016 the company began closing stores outside its home markets, but that wasn't enough. The company declared bankruptcy in March but wasn't able to raise financing to remain a going concern and announced it would be shutting down in April. The company had 227 stores at its peak.
This example is more about the state of the retail industry. hhgregg stores were mostly located in the suburbs, not in traditional commercial districts.
-- Gerald Halpin, Northern Virginia developer. People like Mr. Halpin helped to transform the DC area into a robust metropolitan economy, albeit at the expense of the center city ("Gerald Halpin's vision for Tysons transformed with the times," Washington Post)
-- Hunter Harrison, new chair and CEO of CSX transportation, the large Class I railroad. ("Harrison’s death a ‘major loss’," Financial Times). Freight railroads are an important element of long distance transportation and also provide access to their trackage for passenger rail.
Before Harrison, CSX had emphasized rebuilding its railroad network to accommodate double stacked containers. This is why they are rebuilding the Virginia Tunnel in DC, and why they had agreed to pay towards rebuilding of the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore, which is also used by passenger rail.
But under Harrison, the Baltimore container yard has been de-emphasized, although it is a key element to maintaining the relevance of the Port of Baltimore as a freight shipping port and CSX dropped out of the agreement to rebuild the Howard Tunnel ("CSX decides not to seek expansion of Howard Street Tunnel," Baltimore Sun).
Likely, it wouldn't have been a big priority for CSX to accede to the expansion of the Long Bridge connecting DC and Virginia. For passenger rail expansion in Virginia and better service between Virginia and DC, this bridge needs to be expanded.
In the January 2018 issue Trains Magazine ("Good Hunter, bad Hunter: Harrison’s ideas for improving CSX had merit. So why couldn’t he execute them?") argued that Harrison's "precision railroading" focus was starting to show success for CSX. It will be interesting to see what happens now, not just in terms of freight operation, but in willingness to deal with passenger rail matters.
-- Houston Press, alternative weekly. Shut down the print operation in favor of digital, firing most of the staff.
-- Vera Katz, Mayor of Portland, Oregon, 1993-2005. Previously serving in the State House, including as Speaker of the House, she built on the sustainability agenda laid down by her predecessors during three terms as mayor, shepherding the redevelopment of a railyard into what is now known as the Pearl District and the creation of the Portland Streetcar ("Vera Katz, as Jewish immigrant and Portland mayor strove to serve adopted home," Portland Oregonian).
-- Ed Lee, Mayor of San Francisco, first Asian-American mayor of the city. Mayor Lee died on December 12th. He was a tenants and civil rights lawyer who went to work for city government, and was appointed mayor when Gavin Newsom became Lt. Governor. He went on to get elected for a full term of his own and was subsequently re-elected. He had about two years left on his term, when he died of a heart attack ("Ed Lee: just an ordinary guy who transformed a city" and "Opinion | Mayor Ed Lee left a legacy of civility," San Francisco Chronicle).
His term in office has been noteworthy for how he helped to shift the Silicon Valley tech economy northward to San Francisco, landing companies like Twitter and Salesforce, and reenergizing the city's economy. This has been contested, not only over wrenching homelessness and affordable housing matters, but over the perception that high income tech workers are displacing the middle class.
-- Marsh's Supermarkets, Indianapolis. This was a regional supermarket chain that with the influx of new competitors (Meijer's, Market District, Walmart) along with tough existing competitors like Kroger, lost its way.
A few years ago, the company went bankrupt and was sold to a private equity firm, which still didn't have the heft to match the competition. Along the way to dissolution, they closed many stores, before calling it quits in June and selling a bunch of stores, mostly around Indianapolis, to Kroger and more suburban stores to another company ("New owner of Marsh groceries calls Middletown ‘a good fit’," Middletown Journal-News), and closing the rest.
I mention Marsh's because they were a rare company in that many years ago they operated a downtown supermarket location that had originally been opened by an independent grocer.
Marsh acquired it in 2001 and kept it operating, allowing the store to remain innovative and more appropriate for its urban market compared to a suburban location. It also is open til 2 am.
The store was one of the company's most profitable and set the stage for the company opening another downtown store in 2014 ("Marsh to open 1st new Downtown Indianapolis grocery in 30 years" Indianapolis Star).
Sadly, such behavior is still rare for a supermarket chain, to have differentiated stores serving urban markets.
FWIW, it's also an example of how half the time, private equity seems to fail at keeping supermarkets alive as going concerns (cf. Haggens and the acquisition of a large portfolio of stores from Albertsons, when they acquired Safeway; Haggens failed soon into the acquisition).
-- Joyce Matz, New York City preservationist. ("Joyce Matz, Fervid Voice for Historic Preservation, Dies at 92," New York Times).
-- Pam McConnell, City Councilmember, Toronto ("Pam McConnell left a huge legacy and a big project for her council colleagues," Toronto Star).
Dr. Herbert Needleman, Who Saw Lead’s Wider Harm to Children, Dies at 89," New York Times).
-- Parsons Brinckerhoff, the storied name of a major national and international engineering and planning firm, has been discontinued. Large planning-engineering firms keep growing larger through mergers. WSP combined with Parsons Brinckerhoff, and named itself WSP Parsons. This year they dropped Parsons from the name of the firm.
The company was started by Parsons, who developed expertise on what was under the streets of New York City. The firm built the first IRT subway in New York City. Brinckerhoff was one of the co-inventors of "third rail technology" for underground electrical propulsion of transit vehicles.
The company went on to construct major infrastructure projects in the US and around the world -- transit, tunnels (such as the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel between the US and Canada under the Detroit River), highways, bridges, power stations, etc.
Such infrastructure is essential to the operationalization of urban mobility.
-- Vincent Scully, Yale University architectural historian. He was an early critic of the urban renewal approach to city revival and taught generations of students, including Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who went on to develop the "New Urbanism Movement." ("Vincent Scully, 97, Influential Architecture Historian, Dies," New York Times).
-- Village Voice, alternative weekly. Still published online, it shuttered its print edition a few months ago.
-- Suzanne Wasserman, Gotham Center for New York City History, City University of New York. The organization brings together teachers, students, academics, filmmakers, archivists, museum professionals, and librarians focused on bringing local history to life ("Suzanne Wasserman, Historian of New York City and Filmmaker, Dies at 60," New York Times).
-- Robert Wilmers, Chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, Buffalo ("M&T Bank CEO Robert Wilmers dies at 83," Baltimore Business Journal). This relates to urbanism because of how financing drives real estate and business development, and the banking industry. Also because banks as "retail stores" may or may not contribute positively to positive activity in commercial districts.
From the standpoint of banking, there are two types of major banks, major money center banks like Citibank dealing with national corporations and "second tier" but very large "regional" banks that make their money from serving business customers in their major markets--not quite a community bank, but compared to banks like Citibank, much more community focused.
M&T Bank is an example of the latter ("Why M&T Bank is thriving despite the financial crisis," Fortune Magazine). Based in Buffalo, New York, the company steadily expanded through acquisition into the Mid-Atlantic region, adding operations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., with more than 800 branches.
M&T is the naming sponsoring for the Baltimore Ravens football stadium.
From the Wall Street Journal obituary:
For Mr. Wilmers ... banking was a simple business of lending to high-quality borrowers in communities the bank knew. ...
In Buffalo, there is hardly an institution that doesn't have his fingerprints on it. He rescued a number of organizations, from the zoo to the orchestra, helped persuade the Buffalo Bills football team to stay in town and expanded his bank to one of the region's biggest employers.
-- William Withuhn, transportation curator, Smithsonian Institution. Among the many exhibits he helped develop was "America on the Move," which demonstrates the link between urban form and various forms of transportation ("William L. Withuhn, the Smithsonian’s transportation curator, dies at 75," Washington Post).