Thursday, July 14, 2011

Urban renewal

I'm old enough to remember the 1960s, back when we let our cities run down to the point where to some anyway, it seemed better to knock everything down and start from scratch. Back then, "urban renewal" was universally regarded with glowing tems as a positive force for the future. Well, almost universal. Jane Jacobs in her monumental book; The Death and Life of Great American Cities published in 1961, sharply criticized the slash and burn planning strategies of the 1950s and 60s. She believed that people knew what was best for themselves, at least better than the eggheads from the universities or the mucketymucks downtown. She even successfully took on the mucks who wanted to bulldoze her own Greenwich Village neighborhood to build an expressway through it.

By and large however, Jacobs' was like a voice crying out of the desert. Fifty years later, her words sound prophetic. I didn't catch the name of the commentator on the radio the other day, only his critique of Jacobs' work and how the city that she championed is fine enough, but today it's unaffordable for the average person. Well that's not Jacobs' fault. Ever since WWII, we did everything we could to obliterate the American city as it existed up until that point. It just so happens that today we're tired of all the crap we built since then; buildings with no soul, superhighways that divided neighborhoods, segregated public high rise housing, strip malls, windswept public plazas, suburban sprawl, and all the rest of the things that Jane Jacobs lobbied against.

It's a matter of supply and demand pure and simple. What escaped the wrecker's ball in the second half of the Twentieth Century is now scarce and in demand. Gentrification was not Jane Jacobs' doing. She advocated diverse and economically integrated urban neighborhoods long ago, at a time when people who could afford to were leaving the city as fast as their feet could carry them. When those folks and their descendants later "re-discovered" the city, Jacobs was approaching the twilight of her life. In all that time, she never left the city.

The sociologists, planners and urbanologists told us in the fifties and sixties that cities were too dense, that the chaos that resulted from overcrowding bred all sorts social ills, filth, crime, disease, degenerate behavior and more. What we needed to do was lower the density, and open up space in our cities. One solution was to build vertically. Tall buildings with elevators and air conditioning would mean less density at the ground level. The buildings would be connected to each other not by streets but by parks. Streets that carried vehicular traffic would be set far off, inaccessible to the pedestrian, segregated and hidden either in the form of elevated roadways or underground. No longer would there be mixed use areas, housing would be set apart from commerce, government would have its own contained area, as would cultural facilities, and so forth. Everything would be planned sensibly and rationally. "A place for everything and everything in its place" could have been the motto for architects and planners such as LeCorbusier, whose utopian vision of the Radiant City served as a model for the gigantic urban renewal projects that took place in the mid 20th Century.

LeCorbusier's vision becoming reality in Boston between the 1950s and the 1970, is documented by before and after photographs in this article: Medieval Boston, (you'll have to scroll down a bit to get to the article). Three massive urban renewal projects are highlighted by the piece:
  • The West End of Boston was once a vibrant working class neighborhood of long standing that was deemed a slum by the city government. The neighborhood was wiped out in its entirety, replaced by uninspired blocks of flats.
  • At one time there was natural flow in Boston between the West End, the North End, the Waterfront, and Downtown Boston. The elevated highway known as the Central Artery would put an end to that by cutting off the communities from one another.
  • Scollay Square was a lively (and in its last days tawdry) entertainment center, which was transformed into the massive, universally disliked Government Center.
The before pictures in Medieval Boston evoke a sense of Dickensian London with gaslight lamps, cobblestone alleys, and ghostlike images of people, seen through a smoky haze. Admittedly they're not the kind of images one would see in a tourist brochure of a city. One could argue that the bulldozing of large swaths of Boston, and many other cities at the time including Chicago, provided much needed amenities such as highways, civic institutions, and open space as well as rid the city of blight and decay. The cost was the loss of neighborhoods that were deemed expendable by the powers that be, who fell captive to the then persuasive ideas of the utopian city of the future.

I first visited Boston, in the early 80s. I fell in love, as I'm sure many people did with its history, it's narrow, crooked streets leading every which way, the preponderance of buildings that reflected the styles of their eras, going back all the way back to the 17th Century, streetcars, graveyards that accompanied just about every church, the swan boats, Fenway Park, Union Oyster House, the great H.H.Richardson architecture, the North End, in short, everything that had been around long before I was born. It was the stuff that made Boston, Boston.

The newer stuff all left me cold, back then, as it does now. I'm not alone. The Big Dig project, one of the most expensive public works projects in history, put much of the expressways built back in the fifties, underground and out of sight. Plans have been discussed about dispersing the hideous Government Center, tearing down the Brutalist City Hall, and re-developing the area on a more traditional, human scale. The high rises in the West End however will more than likely remain. They were built to be segregated upper-middle class housing, (unlike LeCorbusier's model where the high rises were intended to be mixed income, with the wealthier tenants closer to the ground). The West End high rises displaced the thousands of West Enders who lived in the neighborhood before it was destroyed, and they remain fairly successful in attracting well to do Bostonians.

There was perhaps no image that came closer to LeCorbusier's vision than the view along the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago between 35th and 55th streets. There you had Radiant City incarnate, housing towers set apart by parks where the residents could indulge in outdoor leisure activities without having to encounter the traffic and other hardships of the streets. For their part, the streets were expressways where motorists could travel to their destination at high speeds, unhindered by cross traffic or pedestrian crosswalks. This utopian Radiant City was better known as Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes. The last of the buildings that made up these notorious housing projects was demolished four years ago.

Just as the case with the failed experiment of high rise public housing, we have been coming to terms with the effects of high-minded, well intentioned, but tragically flawed systems of urban planning and design of the mid-Twentieth Century, by reversing them as much as we can. It turns out that cities as they have existed for millennia, aren't so bad after all.

No, Jane Jacobs wasn't wrong, she was very much right, everybody else was wrong.

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