Sunday, May 14, 2006

Things Were So Much Better When They Were Filthy and Disgusting? Not.

Gowanus Lounge was amused by a reader's reaction to our "Brooklyn Nostalgia Moment" photo of Dumbo in 2001. The words that went with the photo said, in effect, that the pace of change in some Brooklyn neighborhood is so fast that "nostalgia" can happen overnight. Here today. Gone tomorrow. This led the reader to (anonymously) write:
"Yeah, things were so much better when they were filthy and disgusting and contributing nothing to nobody. Curse those bastards who are making use of decrepit buildings and having the audacity to clean up the streets."
GL admits to enjoying a neighborhood like Dumbo for what it was when it was a relative secret and one could go there and have that wonderful feeling of being a little alone in one's enjoyment of it. Change, however, is inevitable. Cities that don't change die. (To have watched the near death spiral of hundreds of American cities through the 1970s and 1980s is to know that stagnation rips out a city's soul and that change and growth promote life.)

The issue is the nature of the change and what excessive density does to our lives. It is about allowing 40-story buildings where 10 or 15 or 20 floors make more sense. It is a development process that hinges more on political money and power than smart planning.

In a different era, when the issue was murdering communities with big public projects like highways, there were those who said that questioning the megalomaniacal plans was to oppose growth and progress. Today, those that oppose a huge or out-of-scale development are accused of wanting to preserve abandonment and decay.

The issue is not development versus no development; it is overly-dense development that overwhelms and homoginizes versus sensible growth that respects the fabric of a community.


Blogger Dope on the Slope said...

near death spiral of hundreds of American cities through the 1970s and 1980s is to know that stagnation rips out a city's soul and that change and growth promote life.

I doubt it was reluctance to build developments that led to the "stagnation." I think an empirical analysis of what happened to most cities yields a relatively small set of contributing factors:

1. The decline of manufacturing and port based industries in major cities. Trucking replaced rail and ships for a lot of the transportation of goods. Manufacturing moved to cheaper, non-unionized rural areas within America and later to other countries. No work = no pay = no reason to stay (unless you were too poor to move).

2. "White Flight." I know it's a cliche, but it's a cliche because it's true. There were fewer jobs for the middle-middle class in cities, and the Italian/Irish/Middle European immigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries viewed the suburbs as a utopia that would allow them to escape the high-density concentration of newer non-white immigrants, and poor African Americans.

3. The building of ring roads and by-passes around downtown retail centers that cut them off from the new suburbanites weekend trips into town. This was followed by the creation of the suburban mall, which was followed by the mega-mall, strip mall, and big box. The trend has come full circle with suburban attempts to recreate "urban" retail shopping districts out of whole cloth in the middle of nowhere - including fake streets and cafe culture.

Resistance to change by local residents has never been a significant factor in the death of cities in my opinion. Rather, it is resistance to foresight, planning and constructive engagment of communities with competing interests that has created most of the issue. That coupled with a culture that feels entitled to the utmost personal liberty with little or no reciprocation to the rest of the community.

Americans have failed to recognize that individual liberty and community liberty are inextricably linked. That is because we still have enough space to preserve the illusion of complete self sufficiency. When we don't want to face the tough choices required to live together, those of us with the means to do it simply move away.

That "worked" for the last 50 years, but it won't work for the next 50. The edge cities and huge suburban megaplexes in this country are already beginning to experience "urban" problems. Sometimes with greater intensity than the big cities.

It's time to get serious about good urban/suburban planning, no matter how boring or constraining it seems. It's essential to our survival.

1:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home