Is the city dead? As a result of the coronavirus, office districts have emptied out, with people working at home. In cities like San Francisco and New York there was an exodus to the less crowded suburbs. Retail and hospitality businesses have been wiped out--some studies say 30+% of small businesses are likely to remain permanently shuttered, along with the night time, culture, and tourist industries. Transit is on the ropes, because much of its usage is driven by commuting, and people fear transit as a locus of infection. Commercial real estate may never be the same.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests across the country, with some attendant violence, including terrible rioting and property destruction in Minneapolis, centered on Lake Avenue, although much of this violence was either fomented by rightists or initiated by opportunists looking to loot businesses for personal gain.
“The Gates” in Central Park in 2005. For two weeks, thousands of strollers wandered 23 miles of the park’s pathways, passing underneath steel frames supporting free-hanging panels of saffron-colored fabric. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.
Christo, public artist ("Christo, Artist Who Wrapped and Festooned on an Epic Scale," New York Times). He, with his wife Jean Claude, did massive public art installations, mostly in natural settings, but also in cities.
For many years TJ's wasn't interested in urban locations, but this changed, and today, the demographics of their stores retail trade areas show the highest household income of any supermarket company ("Analysis From ATTOM Reveals Fresh Take on Grocery Stores Impacting the U.S. Housing Market," ATTOM Data Solutions).
Joseph Corcoran, Boston real estate developer ("Columbia Point gives way to upscale Harbor Point," Boston Globe, 2015). According to the website of the Boston College Center for Real Estate and Urban Action, which he founded, he:
earned a national reputation by transforming a Boston neighborhood now known as Harbor Point from a crime-ridden housing project into a safe, vibrant mixed-income community that the residents are proud to call home. Joe blazed the trail for mixed-income developments by helping to enact state legislation, chairing the real estate registration board, and founding a nonprofit to revitalize distressed urban neighborhoods. "People don't grow up in poverty," he says, "they grow up in neighborhoods."This was probably the first example of the rebuild of a "squalid public housing project"--this one was originally called Columbia Point, into a mixed use development that included market rate housing ("Joseph Corcoran Rescued a Squalid Boston Housing Project," Wall Street Journal): "Looking Back at the Success of Harbor Point ," Architect Magazine.
And it was Corcoran who approached HUD about taking on the rebuild, not the other way around. According to the WSJ:
Completed in 1990 at a cost of more than $250 million, Harbor Point created a neighborhood where lawyers and graduate students lived alongside people qualifying for subsidized rent. They shared swimming pools, a gym and views of Boston’s harbor and skyline.-- Video interview, Boston Foundation
-- Privately-Funded Public Housing Redevelopment: A Study of the Transformation of Columbia Point (Boston, MA), Institute for International Urban Development
Although some argue that the redevelopment of the site came at a great cost in terms of reduced numbers of housing units available to low income tenants. The split was about 1/3 low income; 2/3 market rate ("REVITALIZATION OR REPLACEMENT? TWO CASES OF REDEVELOPMENT IN BOSTON: COLUMBIA POINT AND COMMONWEALTH," Joint Center for Housing Studies).
David Dinkins, first (and only) black mayor of New York City ("At New York’s Nadir, Dinkins Gave the City the ‘Freedom to Imagine’,""David N. Dinkins, New York’s First Black Mayor, Dies at 93," and "David Dinkins Doesn’t Think He Failed. He Might Be Right," New York Times). Denigrated by his successor, Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Dinkins doesn't get enough credit for what he did do, including massive support for and expansion of social housing and neighborhood revitalization programs.
Tony Elliott, creator of Time Out Magazine, with a calendar listing urban events ("Tony Elliott, Whose Time Out Clued Readers In, Dies at 73," New York Times). Arguably, Time Out Magazine in London, launched in 1968, was the first city magazine with a weekly calendar listing events. Alternative weeklies and other city magazines, like New York Magazine, adopted the idea.
Joe Englert, DC restauranteur (blog entry). He was a pioneer in opening night life establishments in Washington neighborhoods that had potential but weren't always recognized for their capacity for revitalization.
George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police, touched off renewed Black Lives Matters protests across the country, a serious reconsideration of the nature of policing ("Defund the police"), and deeper discussion about structural racism.
Richard Gilder, became wealthy from his work in the finance industry, funded the creation of the Central Park Conservancy and was a major supporter of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research."Richard Gilder, Donor to Parks, Museum and History, Dies at 87," New York Times).
The Wall Street Journal obituary (actually an editorial) said of Gilder "he discovered his calling--not making money, which he did, but using his money to solve civic problems." He also was a major contributor to the New-York Historical Society, and the American Museum of Natural History.
The Manhattan Institute is a "conservative" think tank focused on urban issues. They publish City Journal, and their fellows weigh in frequently on all kinds of issues. I don't agree with all of their fellows (especially Heather MacDonald on policing), but they do push the discourse forward, often in surprisingly interesting ways.
These are important contributions.
Milton Glaser, designer, including the I Love NY campaign and co-founder of New York Magazine, one of earliest of the nation's second generation of city-focused magazines" ("How Milton Glaser Expressed The Best of New York," New York Daily News; "Milton Glaser, Co-founder of New York Magazine and Creator of ‘I❤NY,’ Dies at 91," New York Magazine).
He called for a "social services" model to policing and public safety rather than the military or warrior model. You'd never know that from how policing is organized and conducted.
In 2017, he won the Stockholm Prize in International Criminology, which in the field is considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
-- "On problem-oriented policing: the Stockholm lecture, speech, Crime Science (2018)
James Goode, author of histories on Washington--he died in 2019, but it wasn't reported until 2020 ("James Goode, historian of Washington statues and architecture, dies at 80," Washington Post). Capital Losses, featuring descriptions and photographs of great buildings that have been demolished. Best Addresses is a study of apartment buildings.
From "Make No Little Plans; Part III — Early Attempts to Develop the Air Rights":
The Esso Building was called the largest and grandest service station in the world. The building stood three hundred feet long and six stories high and was clad in limestone.The building was demolished for the Center Leg Freeway, but in an interesting twist, the building for the US Department of Labor was constructed in its place on a deck over the freeway.
Given today’s gas station architecture, it is difficult to comprehend the grandeur of this dignified neoclassical structure. America’s post-war love affair with the automobile carried over to the architecture of automobile showrooms and service stations.
Early automobile service station design often included elements of Colonial, Georgian, Gothic, or other architectural motifs. None, however, surpassed the dignity of this building or its volume of business. Attendants pumped gas on the first floor and serviced cars in the basement and on the first, sixth, and top floors. Cars were transported between floors by elevators.
The second floor housed the Esso Tour office while three other floors housed the offices of the Ford Motor Company, the General Electric Credit Corporation, Prudential Insurance Company, and the Territory of Alaska until it became a state.
William Helmreich, Sociologist Known For Walking Every Block of New York City, Dies (NPR).
Michael Hertz, designer of the modern NYC Subway map ("Michael Hertz — You’ve Surely Seen His Subway Map — Dies at 87," New York Times).
Charles Hobson, early producer of television documentary style programs on the black experience ("Charles Hobson, Who Helped Break a TV Color Line, Dies at 83," New York Times).
Irene Knouye, created the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and as chair of the Kresge Foundation and Ford Foundation, she helped to organize foundation and other financial support to get Detroit out of bankruptcy, while protecting the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
This was necessary because the DIA was not separately incorporated, was considered an asset to be harnessed by the city's creditors ("Irene Inouye, 71, Fund-Raising Champion of Japanese-Americans, Dies," New York Times).
MTS employees, transit officials and well wishers watch a 40-bus procession that passed through downtown San Diego honoring Metropolitan Transit System Chief Executive Officer Paul Jablonski. Photo: Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune.
I remember reading an article on him and the MTS in Mass Transit Magazine, around 2004/2005 and he made the point that one of the problems in the transit industry is that every agency wants to design their own fixed rail transit cars, which drives up the cost because of the loss of standardization and volume.
J. Charles Jones, civil rights activist who led protest walk around Beltway, dies at 82," Post). Among his many activities, he organized against housing discrimination in the suburbs.
Allen Lew, public administrator, manager of large scale construction projects ("Allen Lew, hard-driving D.C. city administrator, dies at 69 of coronavirus," Washington Post, "Allen Lew got it done," Washington City Paper). He managed the construction of the Washington Nationals stadium, ran a not uncontroversial project to rebuild DC schools, and served as the chief administrative officer of DC Government under Mayor Vincent Gray. Before that he ran various projects in New York, and had left DC last year to take a job as vice chancellor of facilities for the multi-campus City University of New York. He died of the coronavirus.
John Lewis, Civil rights activist and Congressman (obituary, Guardian).
Ronald Lewis, creator of the informal museum, the House of Dance and Feathers, which aimed at preserving the street culture of Black New Orleanians ("Ronald Lewis, Preserver of New Orleans Black Culture, Dies at 68," New York Times).
The company had been selling off real estate, including its flagship store in Manhattan, intending to keep a store on the lower floors, but then it decided to shut the store down.
After many years of various ownership schemes, it was sold to an e-commerce focused mostly digital company, under that ownership, it lasted less than two years.
Virginia Savage McAlester, best-selling author and ‘Queen of Dallas Preservation,’ dies at 76," Dallas Morning News). The book is a classic.
Rhody McCoy, New York City Educator and Professor ("Rhody McCoy, Key Figure in New York's School Wars, Dies at 97," NYT . As Superintendent of the Brooklyn division of New York City's public schools, he initiated a program of decentralizing oversight of the schools, and providing for community control, which put minority representatives in charge of schools serving their neighborhoods.
This was very controversial--opposed by teachers unions and white neighborhoods--and didn't last, precipitated by a city-wide strike by the teachers union.
Michael McKinnell, architect who created Boston City Hall. Contemporary writing about the BCH called it humanizing. To me it's an example of the anti-people architecture of urban renewal and brutalism, stark and off putting. From the NYT obituary:
It wasn’t the proper government structure of Boston’s staid red-brick tradition; rather, it was a proudly monumental building that would command the vast plaza of the new Government Center complex with thunderous authority. ...Eli Miller, seltzer deliverer (obituary, NYT). Like milk and juice (and more recently, water), seltzer used to be delivered directly to the home in cities with large Jewish populations, like New York City. Mr. Miller was one of the last to do so in NYC. He retired from his Brooklyn route in 2017.
Spaces and forms interpenetrated. Sculptural concrete projections that housed the chambers and the mayor’s office protruded from a modular facade of offices. A brick amphitheater of stairs on the ground floor accommodated gatherings of citizens, even spontaneous sit-ins; the vast plaza in front, inspired by the Campo of Siena, Italy, anticipated the thousands of protesters of those riotous times.
It was a benevolent structure that took the side of the people, guaranteeing citizens free access through porous perimeters in that cradle of American democracy.
John Mooney, co-inventor of the catalytic converter ("John Mooney, a father of the catalytic converter, dies at 90," Washington Post). This emissions control device was a major contribution to the improvement of urban air quality in the United States.
From the article:
The breakthrough invention, which Mr. Mooney created in the 1970s with fellow chemical engineer Carl D. Keith, was credited with preventing billions of tons of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from entering the air we breathe.
An Environmental Protection Agency report in the early 2000s estimated that Mr. Mooney’s invention helped save 100,000 lives and eliminate hundreds of thousands of cases of throat and lung ailments caused by the emissions of the internal combustion engine. “Billions of people around the world breathe cleaner air because of this invention,” Margo T. Oge, director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the EPA, told the New York Times in 2008.Carvel Moore, neighborhood improvement advocate and consultant, New York City. As a community activist, she led the formation of the 14th Street Local Development Corporation in the early 1970s, which spearheaded the massive clean-up and transformation of Union Square Park, and the foundation of the City’s largest Green Market.
Her work with the 14th Street LDC prompted Carvel to champion the use of new legislation to create business improvement districts, through the imposition of a small additional tax on commercial property within the boundaries created for the special service district. The 14th St/Union Square BID was the city's first, with Mrs. Moore at the helm. Carvel went on to form and run other BIDs across the City.
The railroad tunnel under Riverside Park, Manhattan, is used by many people who are homeless.
Margaret Morton, professor at Cooper Union, photographer of Manhattan's homeless (obituary, New York Times). From the article:
When the city bulldozed the park in late 1989, scattering those who lived there, Ms. Morton followed them and spent the next 10 years documenting their world and that of others on the margins, not only telling their stories but also advocating for their welfare. The author Philip Lopate, who described her as “our modern-day Jacob Riis,” said recently that “she pulled off a rare combination of socially engaged photography that was also formally exquisite.”
Carol Paumgarten, founder of Steps on Broadway dance studio, New York City ("Carol Paumgarten, ‘Den Mother’ to a Dance Scene, Dies at 76," New York Times). Steps on Broadway is a for profit dance studio, and is an example of anchor spaces, either for profit or non profit, which provide structure and continuity to artistic endeavor within artistic disciplines ("Arts, culture districts and revitalization," 2009; "Cultural planning and the need for arts-based community development corporations as real estate operators," 2018).
John Pingree, former CEO of the Utah Transit Authority ("Longtime UTA chief John Pingree dies at 80," Salt Lake Tribune; "Guest opinion: John Pingree, father of today’s UTA, was a great example of leadership," Salt Lake Deseret News).
As director of the Utah Transit Authority, he successfully mounted a campaign to get funding for the light rail system in Greater Salt Lake City--today the agency runs bus service, light rail and a commuter railroad ("Utah Transit Authority has long, winding road of history," SLDN).
But the state is pretty conservative politically, and anti-transit elected officials deposed him, although the light rail project continued, and was an element in Salt Lake's successful bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Retail Comic by Norm Feuti presented wry observations of working in retail, the travails of the job, of dealing with unreasonable customers, corporate dictates, and the financial instability within the industry. Given the importance of retail businesses to commercial district revitalization I always found it trenchant, He ended the comic in February, by having Grumbel's, the department store chain featured in the strip, go out of business.
Arlene Schnitzer, Portland real estate investor, arts proponent, and philanthropist ("Arlene Schnitzer, Oregon Philanthropist And Art Collector, Dies At 91," Oregon Public Broadcasting). She is an example of the thousands of locally-focused people of means across the country who step up when it comes to making philanthropic investments in their communities.
Shopping malls. Not dead yet, but secondary malls are definitely on the ropes. The pandemic has accelerated negative trends. Ironically, shopping malls usually in suburban locations, shifted retail activity from cities to the suburbs. (In response, some cities built urban shopping malls, although they tended to not be particularly successful as they aimed to draw people off the city's streets into the mall, when what differentiates the urban experience is the activity outside.
Michael Sorkin, architect, critic and writer ("Michael Sorkin, 71, Dies; Saw Architecture as a Vehicle for Change," New York Times). Some essays.
Red Wassenich, creator of the Keep Austin Weird slogan and campaign ("“Keep Austin Weird” Originator Remembered for Choosing Community Over Capital," Austin Chronicle).
Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre, Westchester County, New York ("Westchester Broadway Theatre won't reopen, a victim of COVID shutdown," Journal News). But one example of the failure of a culture institution as a result of the pandemic. It was a for profit, and a reliable employer of actors for over 46 years. It wasn't high art, but it provide opportunities for the audience as well as actors.
Peter Wolff, publisher of the Intowner community newspaper, which covered the Greater Dupont Circle area of Ward 2 in Washington, DC ("InTowner newspaper publisher Peter Wolff dies at 84," Washington Blade).