Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great, Part 2 – Raising the Bar on Design

This is the second installment in my series on building demand for increased transit investment in Chicago. Part one was “Building the Vision“.

You must at least skim this article to the end to check out the photos of transit stations from around the world.

Imagine a public transit system that was a source of pride to its community. A system that was so great people would actually take their out of town guests just to see it. What would that do for Chicago? When people take pride in something, when they have a sense of ownership in it, then they want to take care of it and see it thrive. They are jealous of its upkeep. This is one of the emotions we have to inspire to make Chicagoans stand up and demand more – and more money – for transit.

To do that, we need to up the ante on design – by a lot. This might prompt one to ask, “How can we afford to spend even more money we don’t have?” But I firmly believe that better design does not have to mean spending more money. I’ll return to the topic of cost later, but it is worth remembering the words of Daniel Burnham in his Plan of Chicago:

As a rule, the general aspect of our suburban [train] stations is not pleasant. They should be bright, cheery, and inviting in a high degree. More study, not more money, is needed for this work. Let the architectural schools and societies take up this topic; it demands artistic imagination as well as skill. Let the man who undertakes this problem think of the hundreds or even thousands of people who must habitually use the given station, and let him do his utmost to bring into being for these people something that shall be a joy to them. A delightful station conduces cheerfulness as a man goes to work and as he comes home, while a shabby or neglected station produces the opposite effect. [emphasis added]

Or in the words of former Curitiba Mayor Jaime Lerner, father of that city’s famed busway system – which incidentally carries more riders than the CTA: “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget.” Good design isn’t just about looking pretty. It also involves meeting the other needs of the project, and among them are the budget. Good design can embrace constraint, and budgetary constraints is one of them.

Great Design – Millennium Park

Speaking of great design, here it is:

Millennium Park is a fantastic, world class design. It should come as no surprise that consequently it is hugely popular, a must-see tourist attraction for the city, and has become almost an icon of the city’s transformation for the global age. Look at where Chicago is attracting the world’s notice in its built environment today, and you’ll see examples of great design like Millennium Park, the Koolhaas student center at IIT, and the Modern Wing.

The problem with these is that they are obviously very expensive showpieces. The ends up sending the message that good design is for special occasions and special places only. And it reinforces the notion that good design must be a budget buster. But the mark of a great city is not in how it treats its special places, but its ordinary ones. Lots of cities have hired starchitects for major buildings. But what have they done beyond that? Chicago has always been a city that got it on the importance of the everyday urban spaces in which its citizens live. And indeed, much of the design of things at present is competent and workmanlike. Things like bus shelters, street scape improvements, bike lanes, etc. have really improved the livability and attractiveness of the city.

But other cities are going beyond that.

To be direct: in many respects Chicago, for all the great things that are happening, is falling behind on the design front. This includes its public transit system. Chicago needs to take a look around, figure out how to up the ante, and get back in the game. By starting – right now – to change the game on design, Chicago can put down a marker of a new, ambitious attitude towards its transit system, and start building that community pride and sense of ownership that will lead to the demand for more investment.

The rest of this post will compare what is being done in Chicago transit design with what is going on around the world. I think you’ll agree that while we not doing bad, we could be doing even better. Please keep in mind, some of these items are actually not under the CTA’s control in Chicago.

Bus Shelters

Here is the bus shelter Chicago is currently installing:

About the best that can be said for this is that it’s not offensive. It does its job in a nice, background way, but certainly doesn’t inspire.

Here is the new San Francisco bus shelter:

Its polycarbonate roof is made of 40% post-consumer recycled waste and contains photovoltaic cells that store power by day to illuminate it at night and also feed power back into the grid. The steel frame is 75% recycled material. These shelters even contain integrated WiFi hot spots. It is a totally custom, unique design for the city. 1,110 of these are scheduled to be installed in the city by 2013. You can read more here.

Here’s a simple but effective design from, I believe, Brooklyn:

Here is a prototype design from Ljubjana, Slovenia

Bus shelters are an easy one. These are provided, for free, to the city by JC Deceaux as part of an outdoor advertising arrangement with the city. Interestingly, JC Deceaux has an entire subsidiary in Europe that does super-cool bus shelter designs for cities over there. If somebody picked up the phone tomorrow and called them up, they’d probably be very open to talking about a better design considering that they’ve done them elsewhere.

I’d suggest a design competition where we especially encourage younger, local designers to get creative and take bus shelter design to the next level in terms of functionality, amenities, aesthetics, environmental friendliness, local materials and fabrication – and of course, cost efficiency. And they should look uniquely Chicago, like they sprang forth from our Midwestern soil, not just generically “cool”.

Bus Liveries

A CTA bus:

A good, solid design. But not inspirational.

A London bus:

There is simply no more iconic bus design in the world. The double decker bus is one of the signature images evoked by the very name London. London is a perfect example of how to use the design of the mundane to create a distinct urban identity. London is not just the city of the Palace of Westminster, the Tower Bridge and the London Eye. It is also the city of the double decker bus, the black cab, the red phone booth and the bobby’s cap.

The CTA doesn’t have to go this bespoke. Indeed, even London has many single deck buses. But a more unique livery could make a big difference. Perhaps the CTA and Pace could get some local artists and graphic designers to pimp our rides? We’ve got to put the CTA and Pace livery on to begin with, so the net cost of deploying a much better livery on new buses should be low to zero.

By the way, to see one good livery, you don’t have to look very far:

Subway Entrances

Again, let’s forget the old and look at the new. Here are the special decorative subway entrances to the Red Line on State St. in the Loop:

You should click to enlarge this since there’s a more elaborate fully enclosed one in the background. These are very nice. I particular like the illuminated red stripe at the top, which is a nice touch, and the light globes on top. But again, we have a very retro, play it safe design. It’s ornate, but not distinctive. And for some reason I can’t put my finger on, this design makes me think of New York first, not Chicago.

Here are the Blue Line versions on Dearborn. Done in black and with a cleaner design, I actually like these better.

Looking elsewhere, of course, the place to look for iconic subway entrances is Paris with its Hector Guimard designed metro entrances. They define the word classic in this space:

These work in Paris not just because they are excellent designs but because, in a very real way, the embody the essence of Paris. They capture its romance and history. To walk past one of these is to be transported back to the Belle Epoque. Sundered from its native setting, these could easily end up looking cheesy.

I really hate to admit this, but Chicago actually has a clone of this on its Metra system. Here’s the entrance to an underpass at Van Buren St. Station:

Paris gives out replicas of these to cities around the world, and I believe this was one such gift. Even so, this is the sort of thing that would, if done in say Cleveland, make a Chicagoan snicker.

That’s what I’m talking about when I say these designs need to look like they sprang from the native soil. We need designs that do for Chicago was Guimard’s did for Paris, namely capture its core essence in a way that even a stranger can process.

By the way, Paris isn’t afraid to get funky too. Here’s is the metro entrance at Palais Royal. Not my favorite personally, but you’ll never forget it and I’m guessing kids love it.

If clean and modern is more your thing, here is a Norman Foster designed metro entrance in Bilbao, Spain:

It’s probably more likely you’ll end up in London than Bilbao, and Foster has a very similar design at Canary Wharf.

And check out this metro entrance in Perugia, Italy:


I don’t want to show any local transit workers here to avoid invading their privacy. But most people know what CTA uniforms look like. Uniforms have an extremely powerful affect on the person seeing them. Military organizations such as the US Marine Corps have long taken advantage of this. I have not done any real research into transit uniforms around the world, but most of them I’ve seen are very poor. Chicago should not look to them. Instead, look to the military and to military like municipal organizations such as police and fire departments. Another good place to look for inspiration is the airline industry. Here is a picture of some airline pilots:

The camera angle is even great. I’d sure trust those guys to fly me safely home.

Airlines have no doubt put tons of research into the types of uniform imagery and symbolism that creates the desired effect in their customers. I think there’s a big opportunity here too – again, at modest cost since you can use the existing uniform cost as a design constraint. A change in uniform might change completely how the public perceives – and treats – our transit employees.

Chicago already has one good transit uniform example: Metra. My Chicago office has a lot of old time pictures of Chicago in it and one of them is of a couple of railroad conductors from 1910. They don’t look too different from Metra conductors today apart from wearing their uniform a bit neater. Metra is sometimes criticized for its old school operating practices. And while some modernization might be called for, in the case of commuter rail, the old school retro look works. It is a way to tap into a truly Chicago image of its days as the railroad colossus of America. Rather than sleek and modern, perhaps Metra should be trying to make us feel like a 19th century robber baron or Jazz Age plutocat. That private car they’ve got on the UP-North line is the kind of mystique I’m talking about.

L Stations

Lastly, we come to the feature cities’ transit systems are known for: their metro stations. Again, let’s not look at the old, rundown stations. Let’s compare some newly renovated CTA stations to others from around the world.

Here is the entrance to the newly replaced Brown Line station at Addison:

Here is the platform:

I think this was basically a decent concept that got derailed by value engineering. The basic, unpretentious red brick could have been the type of solid, masculine image I think Chicago should be projecting, for example. But with canopies removed from scope, escalators, paint, etc., we are left with a basic working station without much in the way of passenger amenities. You can tell that these were taken last winter. Clearly, being up on that platform in inclement weather is a bleak experience.

I can say that the CTA did a great job of preserving the public art program as part of this overall project. There are some delightful pieces at the various stations that make me want to visit them.

Here is a picture of what I think is the best new station so far: the rehabbed Red Line subway stop at State and Lake:

This station is like night and day versus what was there before. Check this out, then ride south to Monroe to see the difference. Just the lighting is a revelation. Speaking of which, I love the polished metal light bands along the roof line with the embedded signing. It’s excellent. The flooring is definitely a big upgrade too.

On the other hand, the pale color scheme, apart from the red, is very timid. The use of tile mosaic patterns is also a facile retro effect. Again, it’s seems more New York than Chicago. And its a big cutesy.

People will be very happy to travel through this station, but it won’t inspire pride or passion. It won’t attract people in any way like Millennium Park or other great designs locally.

Here’s a similar version at Chicago and State.

Again, very solid – and definitely a big upgrade – but pedestrian.

Please keep these in mind as I show you a sample of metro stations from around the world. This is, perhaps, a bit unfair since non-US cities tend to treat their metro systems as civic showplaces. But maybe that’s the point. After all, Chicago aspires to be a big time global city. It’s time to check out the global competition.

Los Angeles – Highland Avenue

Vancouver – Brentwood

London – Westminster

This type of industrial motif would have worked great in Chicago, I think.

London – Bermondsey

Paris – Arts and Métiers

Lyon – Valmy



This type of design thinking would be readily transferable to Chicago – not that I’d suggest just copying, mind you.

The Hague

This station was designed by Rem Koolhaas

Rotterdam – Wilhelminaplein

Valencia, Spain

Santiago – Cristobol Colon

Santiago – La Cisterna

Valencia, Venezuela – Monumental Station

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

The famous “Dome of Light”



Moscow is famous for having the most beautiful subway stations in the world. This is but one small sample. Moscow is something that probably can’t be replicated, since Communist-era rulers spared no expense in creating the world’s most lavish system. I believe the Moscow subway carries the most riders of any city in the world.


Chicago may not be able to make its L system Paris grade, but there is a lot that can be done to improve design and start building the affection of the people towards our transit systems. Bus shelters, bus livery, and uniforms would appear to be among the easier places to start.

I’d originally intended to go straight to a concluding part three discussing how we pay for this. But with this so long already, I’ll insert another installment between now and then, talking about cost containment and other matters.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design (this post)
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

Fast Food and the Midwest

Buffalo Rising pointed us at a Men’s Health magazine survey of cities that eat the most and least fast food.

Eats the Most Fast Food:

  • #6 Indianapolis

Eats the Least Fast Food:

  • #1 Buffalo
  • #3 Pittsburgh
  • #9 Louisville
  • #10 Cleveland

Time Magazine Camps Out in Detroit

Time Magazine has purchased a house in Detroit and is planning to have some of its reporters live there as a sort of Detroit Bureau to write about the city’s challenges and efforts to reinvent itself. Reporters could be based there for a couple of years or more.

It will be interesting to see whether this leads to great depth and sophistication of reporting about the city. A lot of times people like to parachute in, take some pictures of Michigan Central Station, and head out. An article in Vice Magazine (h/t @MWEditor) subtitled “Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff” (warning: this article is fine, but can be NSFW) complains about how people come to Detroit only to validate a pre-conceived narrative and ignore anything that doesn’t fit with it.

Of course, there are many legitimate problems in Detroit, such as the 48 vacant buildings “blighted” downtown. Vacant buildings are a problem to be sure, but I’m not sure I’d use the word blighted. Detroit has a treasure trove of pre-war high rises and other great buildings that could, if developed, be a big asset. The pressure to “do something” often leads to pressure to demolish, which in fact simply leaving the building vacant with minor repairs might be a better way to bank the asset.

And the Toronto Globe and Mail reports that Detroit is down but not out.

Lastly, I can’t resist falling prey a bit to the Vice critique by posting this amazing slide show from James D. Griffioen called “The Feral Houses of Detroit“. Here’s a sample:

A Contrary Take on Pittsburgh

American Dirt asks some interesting questions about the Pittsburgh renaissance. This photo sums it up:

This house is in a neighborhood with dramatic views of downtown Pittsburgh from nearby hills, yet appears to struggle. The author contrasts with San Francisco or other places where such dramatic views would command premium pricing.

Vision for Kiener Plaza in St. Louis

Architecture firm HOK did a pro-bono conceptual design for Kiener Plaza on the Gateway Mall in St. Louis. I believe this site is adjacent to the City Garden.

Click for a slide show.

I think it looks cool at first look. Via StL Urban Workshop.

Enrique Peñalosa and the New American City

Here’s a video from the always entertaining Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Columbia (famous for busways and bike paths), talking about the American city. If you don’t see the video, click here.

Building a Better Think Tank had an amusing graphic about Richard Florida’s think tank in Toronto:

National and International Roundup

Joel Kotkin says we need “new radicals” in America.

Some thoughts on creative cities in the 21st century. (via @commers)

Transport for America has a map showing all the transit cuts and fare hikes in America. On a more positive note, here are some interesting subway maps. And states seek a slice of high speed rail stimulus money.

The winner of the People’s Choice award in the Re-burbia competition was the “Urban Sprawl Repair Kit“.

Ed Morrison has an interesting graph of the strategic process.

The New York Times has more on the Lake Lanier situation in “Atlanta Pitted Against Neighbors in Battle Over Water“.

And the New York Fed has some great charts of county by county credit conditions in America. (via @jwalkersmith)

More Midwest

A user named “scutter” has a great Indianapolis photo series over at flickr.

Funds filling potholes and repaving roads (John Hilkevitch @ Chicago Tribune)
Group ok’s downtown changes through 2020 (Sun Times)
Artists courted for ideas factory (Tribune)

Cleveland Museum of Art’s new director brings impressive resume (Plain Dealer)
Mayor Frank Jackson believes citizens think city is heading the right direction (Plain Dealer)

Urban farmer uniquely brings life to Detroit (Laura Berman @ Detroit News)
Bing targets Detroit city workers perks (Detroit News)

Costs grow for I-69 extension project (Indy Star)
Historic US 40 gets a polish (Indy Star)
Where the canal walk first went wrong (American Dirt) – excellent piece

Bridges delay risks flexibility for smaller projects (C-J)
Jeffersonville considers innovative canal district (Broken Sidewalk)
Students propose a Shippingport renaissance (Broken Sidewalk)
Smoketown to be transformed by $200 million Hope VI grant (Broken Sidewalk)

Trucks to be diverted from some Zoo interchange ramps (Journal-Sentinel)

A peak at Pittsburgh’s post-industrial peers (Post-Gazette)

Twin Cities
Towns rethink plans to enhance communities (Star Tribune)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Robert Irwin – Light and Space III

WARNING: If you don’t want to read a post from me on art, delete or skip over this one. I don’t do this very often.

People sometimes ask what qualifies me to write about art. I have no training in the field. But I look at it this way. Art museums want me as a patron. If they want my patronage I see no reason why I shouldn’t give my opinion on what I see. I would hope artists and arts professionals would actually relish an engaged populace. In any case, I don’t make any claim that this is anything other than just my personal opinion.

Robert Irwin’s “Light and Space III” is an installation in the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s main atrium. Part of a program to obtain 125 new significant works for its permanent collection on the occasion of the IMA’s 125th anniversary, this commissioned piece was primarily underwritten by Ann M. and Chris Stack.

The expansion of the museum was an architectural flop to put it mildly. Among its problems was this atrium, which was a large, dead space – and one that you only get to after passing through a boring entry pavilion, an upstairs landing at the top of the escalator, and an antechamber. The museum wanted to liven this space up.

I’m often skeptical of modern and contemporary pieces. Many of them have way too much of the emperor’s new clothes about them for my taste. But when it works, it works. And it really works here. Light and Space III is an absolute masterpiece by a living artist operating at the top of his game. It is a must see art work.

Here is a picture. Please keep in mind, this is a large work, and difficult to photograph, particularly taking the whole thing in. Some of these I took myself with a lousy point and shoot camera. Others I snarfed off flickr. Apologies for the not so great quality. The lights are, in fact, almost pure white.

I don’t think Irwin would go for my view of this art work as a exploration of the concept of the golden mean. But hopefully he can at least accept that is the way I process the experience of the piece, the lens that I bring to the table. To me, I see several opposites brought to bear and perfectly balanced against each other :

  • Simplicity vs. Complexity
  • Flatness [2D] vs. Volume [3D]
  • Order [Pattern,Calmness] vs. Chaos [Randomness,Energy]
  • Perfection [Manufacture,Design] vs. Imperfection [Craft,Accident]

In addition to harmonizing these opposites, they simultaneously exist in tension, creating a work that almost crackles with energy. (If you prefer to think yin and yang, be my guest). This is a powerful piece.

1. Simplicity vs. Complexity

Irwin only uses two basic materials for the piece: fluorescent light bulbs and scrim. From these two very basic things, he builds a piece of astonishing complexity. Consider the very basic way these pieces are utilized:

  • 2 materials (light bulbs, scrim)
  • 3 planes (scrim plane, light plane 1-front, light plane 2-rear)
  • 5 main light areas (three on light plan 1 and two on light plane 2)
  • 5 basic light shapes (_, __, |_, |__, and _|_)

But consider again the result as seen by the viewer. You’ve seen the picture above, here’s another one looking straight at it from the first floor.

There are an incredible number of surfaces, both bare and seen through scrim. I counted well over 20. And a huge variety of regions and shapes. Again, I counted over 30 regions. You should buy a sketch pad in the gift shop and try drawing just the lines along the edges of these. It is a quite complex drawing.

Additionally, the art takes on very different aspects depending on what angle you see it from. This will be illustrated throughout.

2. Flatness vs. Volume

The work is installed around an escalator. So there are planes of scrim and light both in front of the escalator, and behind it. When you look at these straight on, they merge into a flat/2D aspect. Here’s a repeat of the photo above, which is from the first floor looking directly ahead:

Now, here is on the first floor looking at an angle:

Quite a difference to say the least. Even more so from the third floor at an angle:

At times the piece seems to flicker back and forth between 2D and 3D, like one of those gestalt diagrams. (There’s a similar effect you can achieve by flipping back and forth between seeing the bulbs as the primary feature of the work and seeing the spaces between them as primary, as in a maze).

Of course, the piece really is 3D. One interesting aspect of this is that you can actually get inside of and travel through the work, by sitting on the bench at the bottom, or riding the escalators. The piece offers yet another entirely different feel from the escalator (another example of the complexity of this deceptively simple work).

To me, looking up at the lights on the wall as I ride up the escalator, I feel like I’m traveling past some sort of wacky foreign katakana like script. For some reason, on the way down, I feel like I’m looking at sideways letters I can almost read. You can judge for yourself. I shot a couple of videos of what this looks like.

Going up the escalator (32 seconds):

Going down the escalator (30 seconds):

3. Order vs. Chaos

The work has a strong sense of order as you can see. There are three basic blocks to the piece: a central light filled core with the escalators cutting through them, flanked by two scrim panels extending beyond ribbed wood paneling. The scrim panels provide a nice sense of symmetry. The scrim and wood paneling also take on several delightful roles here. It is like frame for the “picture” in the middle. It also is like a curtain opened on a stage. And while it provides definition, it also has the piece gradually fading off in intensity towards the edges, as much dissolving as having a firm edge. You’ve got this powerful, intense center than just sort of fades out at the edges.

Also, you’ll notice the horizontal bands that partition the piece vertically at regular intervals. And there is the grid formed by the light. All of these provide strong visual reassurance of order and pattern.

But there’s another side to this. Start with the violent slash of the escalators through this scene. Then look to the large numbers of odd shaped regions and textures and effects this creates in the piece. And look at the pattern of lights itself. This looks like computer code, like some sort of well-ordered output. But it contains no visible pattern. Like DNA perhaps, there are a hand full of letters in the alphabet, but they don’t seem to be spelling anything. (I have documented this pattern and would like to spend some time analyzing it, but have not yet had the leisure to do so).

We seem to be programmed to like symmetry and order. I know I am. But too much order is boring. When something is just a little “off” it attracts our attention. It makes us sit up and take notice. Things like this pattern which are ambiguously disordered do this perfectly. It looks like a repeating pattern, but its not, so you aren’t sure so you try to figure it out, etc. This is how the piece sucks you into it. Too much order and you just file it away into a category in your brain. It disappears from your consciousness like it was never there in the first place.

I’ll give just one great example of this. I recommend clicking to enlarge the following picture:

Now look at the light bulbs and how they extend into the metal hand rail area on the escalator and how they dip down below the escalator box. Some of the lights never make to the edge. Others seem to barely touch it. Still others violate the border. But these are all by different amounts. There’s a jagged edge there, and it’s a sort of random one.

4. Perfection vs. Imperfection

When you see a piece like this, something that just screams “digital”, you think that it was plotted out on a computer, fabricated and installed with machine-like precision. But in this case, that isn’t the case. Let’s go back to our original straight on photo of the piece from the first floor:

Again, this is easier to see if you click to enlarge, but look in the light panel on the back wall along the escalator to this floor. Slightly to the right of center you’ll see a single vertical bar (“|”). Notice how it is not aligned to the grid. In fact, the “T” shaped piece to its right has its bottom cross bar pointing at the middle of the piece. There are several other instances of lights like this, where pieces are not grid aligned. (Actually, most of the pieces don’t seem to be, but that’s for another day). One could ask if this was intentional or not, though I assume it is since I observed the same exact thing in one of Irwin’s previous Light and Space pieces.

What is definitely not intentional, but is serendipitously wonderful, is the way the scrim is stapled to the frame. I don’t have a shot of this, but if you get up close and inspect it, you can see large staples that look for all the world like basting stitches a tailor uses while making a suit. These are mostly regularly laid down, but clearly not so perfect as a machine might have done it. These stitches weren’t laid down by a sewing machine, that’s for sure. In fact, they clearly veer offline at various points. The edge of the scrim is also frayed in various places.

These staples are one of the little details that are there to discover if you study the piece closely. It also clearly marks this as not just a work of digital art, but as a work of the craftsman as well. Human beings made this, not a machine or a computer program. Indeed, you often hear purchasers of fine handcrafted luxury goods noting with pride the small imperfections in their items. Only the machine and the mass production process is capable of the perfect product. Again, we see that too perfect, like too much order and symmetry, produces boredom. It’s like an overly coordinated outfit. The true dandy knows that the magic is in breaking the rules from time to time.

The thought of these basting stitches, and the rows of staples that veer off also prompt questions. Is this the finished piece? Or is this a model or trial run? Of course we know this is the finished work, but is it what Irwin hoped it would be? Is there always some other tweak he wishes he could have made?

Before we close, I’ll make a few other observations about this piece.

I noted that you get different dominant impressions of the piece when looking at it from different perspectives. It’s interesting to observe what that is when you see it from the same place, but on different floors. Here are three different views of the piece from directly in front of it, and the dominant impressions I took away:

First Floor: shapes, planes, textures

Second Floor: movement, spaces (boxes, tubes) – it certainly helps to see it live

Third Floor: contrast of light and dark

You might also be interested in a shot of the ceiling. There is a skylight with a grid pattern that plays off against the Irwin nicely.

I’ll also mention the approach to the piece. You check in at the front desk at the ground level in a glass entry pavilion, then take the elevator upstairs to a landing. Then it is through glass doors into an antechamber. From here you walk into the atrium and get your first glimpse of the piece. You can see the lights on the wall along the escalator, but it doesn’t register as anything more than a random piece of art of the type art museums are wont to install in such places. You might see the glow of the lights in the atrium, but it probably won’t register as art. Indeed, it is very easy to just walk past the Irwin without noticing it – until you turn around and go “Woah!” It’s a nice surprise.

Speaking of walking around, walking around the perimeter of the atrium generates the optical illusion of motion in the piece because it of the different depths of the light planes. It’s kind of cool. Here’s a video from the second floor that shows this (45 seconds):

I’ve been told, though have not observed personally, that the piece also has a very different feel at night vs. daytime. I’ll look forward to seeing for myself on a future visit. And I’m also told that Irwin believes the piece would work even with the lights turned off. I believe it.

No surprise, the Irwin dominates the atrium. On the other hand, does it really enliven it? I’m afraid not. The singular quality of the Irwin piece in many respects only highlights how bad the rest of the atrium is. Irwin might be a world class artist, but he isn’t an interior designer. I’m not sure exactly what needs to be done with the atrium, but some interior design consultations are definitely called for. The challenge is not to do anything which interferes with the Irwin.

If you are ever in Indianapolis you’ll of course want to go to the IMA (closed Monday). Light and Space III is an absolute must-see there. It is worth a trip on its own. Just be careful that you don’t end up spending your entire budgeted museum time with just this one work.

If you’ve got an hour to kill and are interested in learning more about this piece, you can watch this conversation between Irwin and IMA conservator Richard McCoy. (If the video does not show for you, click here).

Lastly, as a post-script I’ll leave you with a snap I took of this work by Adrian Schiess. It has nothing to do with with Irwin piece. I just like it and hope you do too.

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The Downside of Living Carless in a Small City

It’s very common for people to live carless in major cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Indeed, owning a car in parts of these cities can be a major hassle. That’s not the case in smaller cities like Columbus or Cincinnati, yet many promote a carfree lifestyle there too. I personally know multiple people living without a car in downtown Indianapolis and Cincinnati – by choice.

I can understand some of this. Urban advocates want to walk the talk when it comes to urban living. On the other hand, living without a car in places like that is a hardship in many respects. It requires a lot of dedication and commitment. Some might admire this, and indeed I do in many respects, but there is a downside.

In a metro area that is nearly all auto oriented, much of the setting of civic life in that city is outside of the core downtown area and districts where it is easy to get to without a car. To live without a car is a deliberate cutting off of oneself from those activities and regions – especially suburban – and from that part of society.

I think that it that last part that is important. Living carless is a deliberate rejection of the majority of the metro area, evidenced by actually enduring hardship by voluntarily depriving oneself of the means to travel there. I’m sure this message is not lost on the people who live those places.

Sure, I get it that there are legitimate concerns about sprawl and other things. But I also hear these same urban advocates complain that suburbanites don’t care about the city, are afraid to visit downtown, won’t support urban core redevelopment, etc. If you are living carless in one of those cities, frankly, you have no leg to stand on in complaining about that. (I’ll make an exception for college students).

Imagine how this looks to someone living in the suburbs. What do they see? They are asked to visit downtown and support downtown, but have to listen to urban advocates claim that the highest and best form of living is to be downtown without a car – a car that is necessary to visit the suburbs and by extension them.

I think this sort of thing, done prematurely, only widens the urban core-suburban gulf when we need to be bridging it. Things are different in bigger cities, which have commuter rail networks that act as a sort of civic glue, binding city and suburb together. Suburbanites are used to taking the train downtown. City dwellers may not regularly use commuter rail to visit people in the suburbs, but they can, and from time to time do. I know I have. In smaller cities, this dynamic does not exist, or is atrophied.

There’s an old saying in sales and negotiation that unless you meet someone where they are, you have no right to lead them somewhere else. Until other people get that you identify with them and their goals, aspirations, and plans, it is hard to make headway in convincing them to a different point of view.

I think creating regional civic cohesion is an absolute imperative for success in the modern world. Ask Cleveland or Detroit if you don’t believe me. Unfortunately, regionalism has become a sort of code word for suburbs subsidizing the city. I believe we need a relationship that goes beyond that. A great city needs great suburbs. A rising tide lifts all boats. We need to make sure all parts of a region are healthy and prosperous. I don’t want to tear the suburbs down, I want to build the city up.

As urban advocates, I hope we don’t end up too much in an insular world of others who are just like us and think like us. We need to think about how we build that civic glue – and how our actions and words are likely to be perceived by those who don’t live in an urban core. Remember, for the foreseeable, they are the majority in the region.

Update: I’d like to add that I think people in cities the size of Kansas City, Columbus, etc. can still live a very walk/bike/transit urban lifestyle in many districts while still owning a cheap car. Owning a car doesn’t mean you have to drive it everywhere. You can leave it parked out back and only use it on occasion if you need to visit people or attend an event that can’t easily be reached in those cities without a car. A family with two or more cars could downsize to only one by living in the urban core. I think these are all good things. But to get rid of a car entirely is something I don’t think is necessary and does come with downsides beyond the purely personal. Again, in NYC or SF, the calculus may be different.

Friday, August 21st, 2009

A New Version of the American Dream

Carol Coletta is the President of CEO’s for Cities. One of the things that really distinguishes her from the pack is her realism about urban change, and most notably the recognition that we actually have to sell people on a positive vision of urban life to induce lifestyle change. So much of the rhetoric around urban policies is about the negatives we are trying to combat: global warming, air pollution, traffic congestion, farmland loss, etc. People are told that they should move from their spacious homes in the suburbs to smaller apartments in the city in dense neighborhoods without cars all for the good of the planet or some such.

This type of dour message is unlikely to convince anyone that isn’t already sold. You can’t sell a product like urban life with “eat your spinach” type marketing. Americans won’t buy malaise, an “era of limits”, and that their lifestyle choices are “unsustainable”. Americans want a positive, hopeful, optimistic vision of the future. This is something Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan understood, and of course Jimmy Carter did not. People want “Hope”.

Carol had an article over at Good Magazine about how we tackle this problem called “Replacing the American Dream“. It is a leadup to a CEO’s for Cities program called Velocity that appears to be designed to create that positive, aspirational narrative of urban life in a way that will appeal to a new target market.

I’m not sure I’d personally say “replacing” the American dream. I’m not anti-suburb. Nor do I think people were conned into moving there. Do I think there are huge subsidies to encourage suburban migration that ought to be cut off? Yes I do and I’ve written about them here. But I have to respect that there are those who have made a fully legitimate choice to live that lifestyle.

But there are plenty of others who made that choice by default, without careful consideration. If given an alternative vision about how they could achieve their personal aspirations in an urban environment, they might be open to being convinced – particularly if there is as much Madison Ave. behind it as there was behind suburbanization for the last 60 years.

Here is an excerpt from the piece:

When GM depicted a new vision of the good life for Americans at the 1939 World’s Fair, it looked like a dream come true. Vivid pictures romanced a new highway system through rural farmland into the heart of a well-ordered city, where every family would live in a single-family home in a single-use neighborhood filled with families from a single income bracket. Such promised order, combined with the freedom of a car in every garage, offered previously unimagined possibilities. And it worked.
Signs of the new American good life are everywhere. Young adults, with their pursuit of 24/7 lifestyles, led the way back to the city. By 2000, they were 33 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods close to the center of town. The interest in cycling has exploded, with commensurate responses by municipal governments in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and, just recently, Boston, to make cycling easier and safer. Similarly, the local food movement has gained a foothold with the mainstream, with farmers markets popping up in the most unlikely places. More Americans are choosing dense condo living than ever before.
The problem is this: These remain only disconnected signals. To date, Americans are unable to see the new pattern that is developing. There is not yet a compelling narrative about this emerging good life into which Americans can project their own lives—certainly nothing with enough power to counter the stories we tell ourselves about what is “normal.”

Even though the signs may be all around them that something new and important is underway, they haven’t put the pieces together.

That’s why CEOs for Cities—a national network of urban leaders from the civic, business, academic and philanthropic sectors, of which I am the president and CEO—is launching a new movement we call Velocity in mid-September. Its purpose is to create an energizing agenda for next generation cities and nurture the initiatives needed to advance that vision—and to pull it all together in a way that defines a new aspirational lifestyle for Americans, one that eventually becomes the “new normal.”

Again, I’d say that I don’t personally think we need to have just one definition of the good life. In an every more diverse society, we need ever more diverse ways of living to meet people’s aspirations in life. But right now we’ve only got one version of “normal” and that’s the suburbs. If nothing else, to renew our cities we need to put out a credible alternative vision of “the good life” in an urban context.

Carol is one of the best out there. She really gets it on these things. So I’m very much looking forward to see what comes next. This is a very important initiative.

In the meantime, if you want to see a positive vision of the future informed by a progressivist worldview, please check out Bruce Mau’s Massive Change.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great, Part 1 – Building the Vision

Earlier this year, I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. So perhaps it is past time that looked at transit in Chicago. While this article is about that city, the techniques are applicable to most places.

Both the current and former CTA presidents, Richard Rodriguez and Ron Huberman, said that Chicago has a good transit system (I agree) but deserves a great one (I also agree). So with apologies to Jim Collins, this article kicks off a multi-part series on taking Chicago area transit from good to great.

The Problem: No Public Demand

Why doesn’t Chicago have a great transit system? I’m going to make a rather contrarian and controversial indictment. Namely, I think Chicago doesn’t have a great system because its citizens don’t want one. If there were greater citizen demand for a better system, that’s what we would have. Absent that demand, we get at best a good system. That’s because it is impossible to create a great, world class regional transit system without more money – a lot more. This might sound a lot like blaming the victim, but please bear with me.

The numbers are stark. According to a joint promotional site run by the region’s transit agencies, Moving Beyond Congestion, Chicagoland needs $10 billion in funds just to bring the current system up to a good state of repair. Even if the city wanted to simply keep the system at current levels, spending at $1 billion per year would be required. The 2007 strategic plan says that $57 billion is needed over the 30 years to give the city the system it wants and needs. The stimulus funds and monies provided under the state’s recently passed capital program are only a minimal start. Even if you think these numbers are inflated – and I don’t – they are certainly not orders of magnitude too high.

Without significant new dollars being made available, it simply isn’t possible for regional transit agencies to create a transit system worthy of Chicago. It’s just not going to happen. I actually think regional agencies do a pretty good job considering the financial and regulatory constraints they operate under. As they say, “You can set your watch to Metra”. The CTA too has improved service markedly in recent years, and has proven that you can accomplish a lot when you take a “can do” attitude despite not getting more money. The CTA has done a lot to reduce the number of slow zones, roll out passenger friendly services like bus tracker, and experimented with things like iGo car integration.

So why do I say that the people of Chicago don’t want a great system? Because it’s true. People in Chicago like to grouse about the CTA the way they complain about the weather. But that doesn’t translate into anything more than amusing newspaper columns and blog postings. Like the weather, the problems of transit underinvestment are viewed as simply the “background noise” you have to put up with to live in Chicago.

Contrast public reactions to the state of transit investment with that on other controversial affairs of the day – parking meters, the Olympics, crime, or whatever. Heck, there are more people out there pounding the table about how upset they are about the pending demolition of Michael Reese Hospital than there are people demanding more money for transit. If tens of thousands of angry citizens were marching, publishing blogs, and writing letters to Springfield and Washington to express their unhappiness about this state of affairs, we’d see action. If politicians thought they would lose their jobs in the next election if they didn’t do something about transit, well, they’d do something about it.

So much of the writing on transit futures focuses on what we ought to do functionally and technically. But that’s irrelevant if we don’t have the money to pay for it. So this series will focus on how we build public demand for transit investment, elevating its status in our civic priority list. And give an idea of how to actually get the money. This will be a five part series:

Part 1: Building the Vision (this article).
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

This installment focuses on building a shared civic vision of the future of the city and its transit system.

Why a New Vision Is Necessary

Frankly, it is pretty easy to understand why the public views investing in transit with all the enthusiasm of a dose of castor oil. It’s what I call the “Rusty Furnace Effect”. Imagine you’ve got a gas furnace in your house that is pushing 20 years old. It’s been poorly maintained, is badly rusted, and has an alarming tendency to break down. You open the door to your utility closet and stare at that thing for a while and contemplate a choice: spend $6000 on a new furnace, or pay $250 every time it breaks down. I think most people are going to defer shelling out $6K as long as they can. It’s the same reason I put off getting my wisdom teeth removed until I was in college and had a particularly bad infection. Until the pain of the disease outweighs the perceived pain of the cure, we aren’t going to act.

Transit is in the same boat. We are told that we need to spend $10 billion to “bring the system in a good state of repair”. This will no doubt involve much inconvenience as well, including station closings, three track operation, etc. Why would anyone want to pay $10 billion to get a system that is basically the same as the one we’ve got today, only a bit spiffier? Until, for example, trains start derailing, people don’t perceive the need.

This is basically the problem with all “plumbing replacement” type operations. I don’t think it is any accident that the people selling furnaces tout their potential to reduce heating bills through energy efficient operation. You’ve got to have a hook to convince people that they are getting something.

That’s what we need for public transit in Chicago. We’ve got to have a hook to show people how they are going to get something for all this money. We have to create a vision not just of how transit will be better – though we should do that – but how life in Chicago is going to be different and better when we execute the capital plan. We have to make it real to people and inspire an emotional connection so that they say, “Yes – we’ve got to have some of that!” to the point they support the fund raising necessary to see it happen. That’s the piece we are missing today.

Why Transit Advocates Are Often Poor Marketers for Transit Spending

One thing I’ve noticed is that pro-transit advocates are ofter poor at selling the need for public transit to the public at large. Indeed, except where the public is already primed to support it – places like Portland and Seattle – opponents of transit are generally more effective at making their case. I recently noted this, for example, in the case of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system.

I think part of the problem is that the case is obvious to us, thus we are unable to conceive of others who don’t think or feel the same way, which creates a blind spot on selling. Pro-transit activists tend to view people who oppose it as Philistines or representatives of nefarious forces. The idea that people have to be convinced seems foreign.

We see this problem in the Moving Beyond Congestion site. It relies heavily on facts and figures to make its case, as if the mere fact that we need $10 billion to repair regional transit stands on its own. Well, people like me read that and think, “Seems pretty straightforward to me. How much can we afford to spend now and where can we go start raising the money?” But to others those are just numbers. The facts are not in dispute. The numbers on the MBC site are what they are. But facts don’t inspire. Because many of us live and breathe in this space every day, we don’t need the sales job and thus don’t appreciate the need for it.

Also, as we well know, political decisions aren’t always made on the basis of facts and rational analysis. The numbers elected officials really care about are the vote totals, the number of constituent letters and phone calls, etc. So we’ve got to make sure we create that public demand so that politicians see the numbers that matter.

I’m not going to be prescriptive as to what that contents of the vision should be here, but rather talk about some of the elements and techniques that should be brought to bear, including some that were used to great success in Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

Learning from High Speed Rail

A commenter in one of my blog posts described a lecture at one of the Burnham Plan celebration events, and how the section on high speed rail seemed to really get people excited. This person was wondering why that was. Why has high speed rail captured so much of the public imagination and gotten so much federal funding when we can’t mobilize similar results for metro transit?

It is actually pretty easy to understand why. High speed rail would be a major new transportation system that doesn’t exist at all today, unlike fixing up the CTA to “bring the system up to a good state of repair” which merely lets us keep what we already have. Again, do you want to replace your rusty old furnace or get a shiny new kitchen?

Also, high speed trains tap into a deep romantic streak in the human psyche. The best description of this is Jonathan E. D. Richmond’s paper, “The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. This is actually written as an anti-rail tract (metro rail, not high speed), but also provides the playbook in favor of it. I can’t do it justice here, but this is an absolute must-read paper. Among other things, he clearly explores the idea of the fast train as sex symbol. Per Richmond:

Arnold Pacey (1983) writes about the “virtuosity values” of technology, the enjoyment of:

having mechanical power under one’s control, and of being master of an elemental force. The teenage enthusiasm for motorcycles reflects this. Many farmers, it is said, buy larger tractors than they really need, to the detriment of soil structures, because of the pleasure they get from using such powerful machines… Dennis Gabor talks about “archetypal human desires” which include the wish to communicate at a distance, to travel fast, to fly [p.84-85]

It is the meanings related to power, virtuosity and sex which the train appears to symbolize which most convincingly seem to focus attention on the technology. The technological power of the train was often equated to sexual potency by those interviewed. A train as both genders: it is referred to as “she” and as a penis. According to LACTC Commissioner and Mayor of Santa Monica, Christine Red:

There was an intense amount of ego over the fact that San Diego had whipped a trolley system out, kabloom, like that. They just did it. And I mean everybody else was like, oh my God, you know, what an affront that this little city could do that, and here we are – a big county – powerful, two-thirds of the population of the state, blah, blah, blah, and we can’t do this [my emphasis]

The fact that San Diego got their bright red cars in working order before Los Angeles even got off the market left LA feeling impotent or even castrated. The metaphorical sexual imagery – of penis envy – in this account is unmistakable. When the LACTC (1991) publication Metro Moves announced the opening of the Blue Line tunnel into downtown Los Angeles, furthermore, it headlined: “A tunnel just waiting for a train.” A picture of the tunnel was contained within the outline of a heart (Fig 4)

Clearly, as the ultimate fast train, high speed rail is also high on the sexiness factor. Also, the idea that the United States is falling behind, and that the world’s super-power is being humiliated by much smaller countries (and major competitors like China) with rail investments plays a role.

There’s a lot more in there, and clearly tapping into the lessons Richmond teaches is important. Chicago is a city with a long history of massive civic pride and boosterism. A city that refused to be anything other than #1. This is something that can be leveraged to good effect in selling transit investment. Likewise Richmond’s “social connections” metaphor (investing in disadvantaged communities to connect them to opportunities) would appear to be a good one to leverage.

Learning from the Plan of Chicago

The most viewed article ever in this blog was called “What Made the Burnham Plan Successful”, which outlined nine items that contributed to the plan’s success. A few of these are highly relevant to this effort as well.

  1. A mix of the practical and conceptual. Burnham’s plan both included things like a Michigan Ave. bridge – a practical and concrete item – with items like the harbors and ring road diagrams that were more just ideas. We need something similar here. A mix of practical items like “build this rail station here” with more forward looking items like high speed rail integration or airport express service.
  2. A mix of both work in progress and new items. Burnham wisely glommed onto things that were already in the pipe or partially completed. The Michigan Ave. bridge and the lakefront park came to mind. By mixing these with the new, the forward looking items were associated with recent successes. Plus, by having near term items included, they could demonstrate rapid progress on the plan. The CTA could do the same. Today, projects like the Brown Line expansion or the Douglas L rehab are presented as standalone projects, not part of a larger program of renewing Chicago’s transit system. Similarly, the three new L extensions that were approved are likely to be viewed as ho-hum. Unless it affects you directly, why would you care? I’ll likely never take the Red Line to 130th. Having discrete projects instead of a program means each individual one is of mostly parochial interest. What Burnham did was draw the big picture and showed how the pieces fit in. That’s what we need to do. Actually, a lot has already been done. Combine the past projects with near term items and longer terms with an overarching vision to show the public that we are marching towards a better future. Then you also build a coalition in support of an overall program, instead of just having different groups and neighborhoods who care mostly about their own local project.
  3. High quality renderings and design in the plan document. This is examined below. But the quality of design in the plan itself excited the public, made the vision real to them, and gave it an authoritative feel.
  4. Sustained follow-through on sales and marketing. The plan didn’t sell itself. There was a big, consistent push behind it. This famously included the Wacker Manual, a condensed version of the plan taught to children in the public schools.

Planners today could learn a lot from the techniques of success used by Burnham and his team.

I’ll conclude this post with a look at three examples of efforts that have done this right, focusing on visualizations, to show the type of effect we need to be aiming for: Burnham’s original Plan of Chicago, the “Imagine KC” project from Kansas City, and Louisville’s 8664 initiative.

Burnham’s Artwork

One of great things about the Plan of Chicago is that its backers spared no expense in creating a high quality output. They commissioned an artist to do bespoke artwork to literally show a conceptual picture of what the Chicago of tomorrow would look like, drawing on the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exhibition. These were gorgeous, full color plates in the output. Even children could appreciate them. Here are a couple of samples:

It’s easy for us to take Chicago for granted today. But in 1909 it was a crowded, filthy, dangerous, and rather ugly place. For people to see these gorgeous renderings of a clean, beautiful, well-ordered, spacious city, with gorgeous parks and boulevards must have prompted amazement, perhaps even disbelief. This is Chicago? The city could really be like this? Ultimately, it whetted people’s appetites to actually get it.

Imagine KC

Here’s another example, this one transit specific. It comes from Kansas City. Kansas City does not have rail transit today. A proposal to fund the construction of a light rail system was voted down last November. Frustrated that people did not really understand what light rail would do for the city, a local design agency created this video for Kansas City Public Television to try to make it very clear visually. Some of you may have seen it since I’ve linked it before, but if not this three and a half minute video is well worth watching.

The video shows the time wasted in cars, followed by a demonstration of benefits of dense, mixed use development, then an example of transit creating this very type of environment in Kansas City.

One cautionary note here. This video would makes Kansas City look like a nearly 100% white city. Plus the development featured – fitness clubs, sushi bars, etc – are oriented towards yuppies. This feeds into criticisms of transit in small cities as being gentrification tools and subsidies to the already well-off. This is a common failing in small city transit advocacy. Of course, Chicago is nothing like Kansas City. The value of transit is clear to the whole community.

The techniques of this video are very applicable to Chicago.


Lastly, I’ll mention again a movement out of Louisville, Kentucky called “8664”. This is a grass roots movement that wants to stop a major new downtown bridge and expressway widening in favor of tearing down an elevated waterfront freeway, replacing it with a park.

8664 tapped into a powerful idea of recapturing the rivertown heritage of Louisville. They’ve relentlessly touted the benefits – financial, recreational, environmental, etc – and have really captured the public imagination. Without any official backing, they have totally changed public opinion. While many many not be sold on the idea of tearing down I-64, they clearly have soured on the idea of the huge Spaghetti Junction reconstruction and new bridge.

Part of 8664 has been a series of wonderful drawings and videos, some of which I’ve shown before. Here’s their compare and contrast of the state’s plan:

with their plan:

Extremely effective. Their marketing is running rings around the state DOT’s. They are rigorously on message, repeatedly touting a more livable future for Louisville, and enumerating the benefits of the project, while continuing to generate quality collateral like this.


To really capture the public imagination and build demand for public transit is going to require the creation of a compelling vision, an emotionally resonant picture of what life will be like in our new and better future, and a strong and sustained marketing plan to sell it. As the examples above show, the vision can be conceptual at some level, as long as it is generally honest and there is a real, credible plan behind it.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision (this article)
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)

Monday, August 17th, 2009

The New Industrial City

My latest post is up over at New Geography. It is called “The New Industrial City“. So many visions of urban futures are explicitly post-industrial. But that’s a mistake. We need to retain industry in our cities. Not only can it provide a middle class living to people without high powered educations, it also has the potential to link the fortunes of the “creative class” with the “working class”. Plus, can we really afford to be a country that doesn’t make things anymore? But tomorrow’s manufacturing will be much different from yesterdays. Instead of large scale monolithic factories, we’ll have networks of smaller firms in the craft and specialty fields. Click through to read.

As always, additional thoughts here. The idea that we can focus on craft and specialty products instead of mass market assembly fits with the fragmentation of the great American common culture we’ve seen in the last 20 years. One size fits all products are going the way of the dodo. Once Americans watched only three networks. Today’s its “57 channels and nothing on” (or 157 as the case may be). Today there are ever more varieties of almost anything, from cars to consumer electronics to beers to types of mustard. Many of these only appeal to the upper end of the income spectrum, but if history is a guide, we can see this filter down assuming we are able to raise average incomes over time. Whatever the case, there is plenty of room in the marketplace for niche products and I see no reason why American’s can’t make them.

Also, I see lots of evidence that Americans can compete and win in the craftsmanship sweepstakes. We think of Europe as the home of old world luxury. And indeed, their design and craft industry draw on a long history of bespoke products of the highest quality for the aristocracy. In America, we’ve got different roots and a different design and craft ethic. I think this is best illustrated by the DIY movement. Think about it. Today, America arguably brews the best and most diverse and innovative beers in the world. It should come as no surprise that there is a robust homebrew scene as well. Similarly, it isn’t surprising that we find all sorts of specialty racing and fancy aftermarket auto suppliers in a country where tons of people still like nothing better than to work on cars. Demand for organic produce and local, small scale organic farms and a home gardening resurgence go hand in hand. There would appear to be almost limitless opportunities to exploit this to start renewing our manufacturing base.

Here are some recent articles that might add additional perspectives to the debate:

  • A Nascent Debate in Germany: Research or Manufacturing (NYT). Here’s an idea: why not both? If Germany decides to eviscerate its manufacturing base to chase R&D dreams, the’ll end up regretting it. Remember, the countries that we outsourced manufacturing to aren’t content to just build cheap toys for the west. They’ve got aggressive plans to move up the value chain – all the way up.
  • Forging Recovery on the Assembly Line (Harold Meyerson @ WashPo). “The long-term decline of American manufacturing has depleted our high-tech, cutting-edge industries as much as it has our more venerable sectors…But at the high end, only one of the world’s top 10 photovoltaic cell manufacturers is American. The United States fell behind China in the value of our high-tech exports in 2004, and we’ve fallen further behind every year since.”
  • Obama’s Plan to Reverse Manufacturing’s Fall (NYT). “The United States ranks behind every industrial nation except France in the percentage of overall economic activity devoted to manufacturing — 13.9 percent, the World Bank reports, down 4 percentage points in a decade. The 19-month-old recession has contributed noticeably to this decline. Industrial production has fallen 17.3 percent, the sharpest drop during a recession since the 1930s.”

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

High Speed Rail and Transit Roundup

John Hilkevitch had a great column this week putting the matter of 110MPH service vs. real high speed rail on the table.

A Milwaukee Road rail line coal-burning locomotive was clocked going 124 m.p.h. on a stretch between the Twin Cities and Chicago — in 1939. Such long-distance trains routinely barreling across the Midwest at speeds exceeding the century mark may have been far ahead of their time 70 years ago. On the other hand, today’s back-to-the-future plans by the federal government to encourage development of 110-m.p.h. train service in parts of the U.S. may simply lack the spirit and forward-looking approach that was alive back then, or even as recently as the 1960s, when 200-m.p.h.-plus “bullet train” systems were built in Asia and Europe. It’s a touchy subject that has received scant attention as politicians glom onto the idea of investing billions of taxpayer dollars on high-speed rail to stimulate the U.S. economy.

It’s a must-read.

A Cincinnati blog compares the cities and distances in the proposed Midwest high speed rail system with those of the successful TGV system in France. The Midwest stacks up favorably. Clearly it is not an apples to apples comparison, but still an interesting data point

If you want to get depressed, watch this Fortune magazine video on China’s $300 billion bullet train. There are some embarrassing errors by the narrator, but still a good one.

The Chicago Transit Authority Board this week approved moving forward with three L expansions: a Red Line extension to 130th St, an Orange Line extension to Ford City Mall, and a Yellow Line extension to Old Orchard. The Red Line extension is the biggest news in terms of ridership – and cost. The extension is projected to add 41,000 new daily riders. It’s 5.3 miles long and $1.2 billion. Stay tuned to this blog for more on that.

Indianapolis Transit Video

People for Urban Progress and IndyCog put out this humorous but sad video about Indianapolis transit.

Minneapolis Pictures

Washington DC blogger Alex Block who writes CityBlock recently visited Minneapolis and put up some nice series of photos of that city’s LRT system and more. Check them out, and check out the rest of the blog while you are there.

Here are some samples to whet your appetite:

What Pittsburgh Can Learn from the Netroots

Mike Madison’s great Pittsblog has a great post up on what Pittsburgh can learn from the netroots. He has a cautionary warning about the limits of Internet activism. Urban enthusiasts around the Midwest should take heed.

Reckless optimism is sometimes warranted; once in a great while, it pays off. The younger/progressive wing of Pittsburgh can learn from NetRoots that naive enthusiasm is not enough. I talk to younger people in Pittsburgh who are wildly and unrealistically optimistic about Pittsburgh’s bright future; they are unaware of the daunting financial challenges that lie ahead. They can learn that social media and connectivity are not enough …. You have to have a message, and you have to connect the content to on-the-ground strategies. Content matters; you have to have something that’s worth saying. And that wing can learn that a narrow base isn’t enough.
Turning from younger/progressive end of the socio-political spectrum to the older/establishment end of the socio-political spectrum, there are complementary lessons to be learned: Adapt or be swept away. When the younger/progressive wing gets better organized and gets more strategic, and if it can come up with serious arguments on the structural economic and financial problems facing the region, then that wing becomes a force to be reckoned with. It isn’t necessarily an irresistible force, but it has to be acknowledged in a way that in Pittsburgh, today, it rarely is.

Frontier Follow-Up

NPR did a story in the Detroit-as-new-frontier genre. It’s similar to the ones I linked to before. More evidence.

BROOKS: Cooley is 33. He grew up in Michigan and worked as a banker in Chicago. But four years ago, attracted by cheap property, he returned to Detroit and bought these three buildings for a little more than $200,000.

Mr. COOLEY: We thought that was really inexpensive.

BROOKS: For a couple hundred thousand dollars, right? And you got three buildings.

Mr. COOLEY: Yeah.

BROOKS: And in Chicago, not possible.

Mr. COOLEY: No. And in fact, we were looking at something similar in Chicago, and we were looking at, like, just a building that would – needed a whole lot of work for about 800,000.

BROOKS: Cooley runs a real estate business in one of the buildings. And in another, he helped open Slows Bar BQ restaurant, which has became hugely popular and the anchor of a mini one-block urban renaissance. His partner is his 31-year-old brother, Phil Cooley.

Mr. PHIL COOLEY (Real Estate Developer): I found that this is a city that really was wide open. I would definitely consider myself young and dumb, you know. I’ve learned far more from my mistakes here than I have from my successes. It’s lovely to be able to afford to do that here because one, the community is forgiving, and two, it’s less expensive than other places, so it’s affordable.

BROOKS: Phil Cooley worked as a fashion model in cities around the world, but he says he would rather live here in Detroit.

Mr. KOLTAY: And the thing is the spirit of the people that I know is what drew me here. I met people that are like, yeah, I got my own metal shop. And sure, I sleep here and it’s weird and I made this loft in the back of the place. And, you know, for a year I lived there without hot water, it was gnarly, but whatever. Now I’m golden. I’ve never seen a city that has this kind of opportunity for growth. And I think that’s beautiful.

Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert from the NYT piece also figure in this one. Perhaps they are good at getting in the papers, but I think it does offer a cautionary counter-note that, as in many Midwest cities, while great things are happening, the pool is still pretty shallow, so to speak. Via Rust Wire

Elsewhere on the Detroit front, former Bush speechwriter David Frum had a widely debated opinion piece on “What killed Detroit?“. His answer? Poor race relations and the rejection of intellectual pursuits in favor of brawn. It’s worth a peek, and is not entirely unsympathetic to the city.

And Michigan snagged $1.4 out of $2.4 billion in federal grants for battery investments. The state hopes to create a technology epicenter with this money. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. Even without the bailouts, Michigan was going to receive most of any new investment from auto companies into new tech because the headquarters are there. Now with the Obama Administration’s own credibility on the line after its rescue of GM and Chrysler, the federal government as well has an incentive to stuff money into Michigan. Ohio and Indiana would appear to be the losers here.

Why the ‘Livable City’ Rankings Are Wrong

Joel Kotkin had another great piece last week that got widely discussed around the web as his stuff is wont to do. This one criticized all those more livable cities awards out there.

Cultural institutions, public safety, mass transit, “green” policies and other measures of what is called “livability” were weighted heavily, so results skewed heavily toward compact cities in fairly prosperous regions. Most of these regions suffer only a limited underclass and support a relatively small population of children….These places make ideal locales for groups like traveling corporate executives, academics and researchers targeted by such surveys. With their often lovely facades, ample parks and good infrastructure, they constitute, for the most part, a list of what Wharton’s Joe Gyourko calls “productive resorts,” a sort of business-oriented version of an Aspen or Vail in Colorado or Palm Beach….Yet are those the best standards for judging a city? It seems to me what makes for great cities in history are not measurements of safety, sanitation or homogeneity but economic growth, cultural diversity and social dynamism….Such places are aspirational – they draw people not for a restful visit or elegant repast but to achieve some sort of upward mobility. By nature these places are chaotic and often difficult to navigate. Ambitious people tend to be pushy and competitive.

That’s why the world’s truly great cities – London, New York, Chicago, etc. – don’t rate well in these surveys. Their energy, density, and chaos keep challenging you and makes you stay on your toes. These are the places that power the world economically and culturally. And they are the places that offer the greatest scope – and incentive – to personal growth and transformation.

It reminds me of my own previous article “Impossibility City“:

I don’t think people truly get the link between a broad vision of what a city is, a large sphere in which individuals can pursue divergent activities and goals, and economic success. As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” The life of the small town or the suburb are rigidly circumscribed. They might not be about a single vision, but they are about a more narrow and defined view of what life should be. They demand conformity. A place like that, no matter how large or even how successful, is not a true city.

A collision of incompatible demands. What a great way to put it. It is in containing that collision within a geographical, political, social, and culture context that a city creates its meaning. Cities can resolve the paradox, reconcile the incompatible into something new and powerful. It isn’t always pretty. The results are sometimes messy or unpleasant. But its in that resolution process that we create the energy and innovation that moves the city forward and allows its residents, business, and institutions to reinvent themselves and their lives if they so choose.

New York Bike Racks

Somebody snapped a photo of the new city standard bike rack in New York City. (From Streetsblog & @zacfrank)

Looks nice. People do seem to be wondering if it might be too easy to break these off and stea them. New York plans to install 5,000 of these over the next three years.

With things like their bike rack programs, LED streetlights, the High Line, and their Street Design Manual, New York is really has some of the most progressive street/trail design going on out there. While the whole Midwest is behind, I’d like to particularly call out Chicago.

Chicago has done some amazing things with bike lanes, streetscape improvements, etc. But it has stuck with cutesy retro design approach that is very generic, and also has not been a source of major innovation the way places like NYC and Portland have. Chicago uses generic, off the rack u-shaped bike racks, antique gas lamp replicas, basic bike lanes, etc. It is now copying New York with its Bloomingdale Trail – with some of the design team previously having worked on the High Line. With its vast mileage of abandoned elevated freight tracks, Chicago could have and should have been first to this.

My understanding is that there’s a vacancy over at the top at CDOT. Whomever the mayor puts in that position needs to bring a strong sense of design and an innovation mindset to help Chicago catch up in this area.

National and International Roundup

Speaking of New York, here’s a super-cool map of the daytime and night time populations of Manhattan that @PD_Smith pointed us at on Gawker. Click for full size.

Check out the 20 finalists in the Re-Burbia competition.

The psychology of economic development in New Brunswick. “Attitude matters. Psychology matters. If we can reset the narrative on Northern New Brunswick and point it in the right direction, we will have taken a huge step forward.” (via @intelegia)

Why Seattle won’t grow as fast as planners say.

Neukölln: Gentrification as it should be?

More Midwest

The Journal had coverage of the “Living Cities” conference in Dayton. This was a gathering of people from the 10 cities Forbes labeled “dying” in one of its infamous lists.

Chicago’s murdered children (The Guardian) – Chicago’s violence wave gets international press. I’ve got my quibbles with their methodology. I wouldn’t call an 18 year old a “child” for example. But this is clearly a whole bunch of Not Good.
CTA, Pace feud getting nasty (Greg Hinz @ Crain’s Chicago Business)
Saga of the Burnham Pavillions (Blair Kamin @ Tribune)

Poison pill amendment is about less, not more (Enquirer editorial) – The Enquirer weighs in against the proposed anti-rail charter amendment.
$10 million upgrade and expansion for tennis stadium (UrbanCincy)

Foreclosures grow in fertile suburbs (Dispatch)

A new wing, a new direction (WSJ) – Great national piece on the Cleveland Museum of Art and its expansion plans

Detroit school woes deepen (WSJ) – 257 ghost payrollers, five people indicted
Jobs recovery may bypass Michigan (Detroit News)

Kansas City
Downtown, surrounding areas get marketing boost (KC Star)
Funkhouser lists what he hopes to achieve in Kansas City (KC Star)

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Guest Post: Is Sacramento an Indianapolis Wannabe?

[ A few months ago, one of my readers, Michael Scott, a Columbus, Ohio native who has spent time in several cities, including Indianapolis and now Sacramento, pinged me to talk about the parallels he saw between Indy and Sacto. I told him to write them up and maybe I’d post them. Well, he did, so I am. His take was more positive on Indy than I thought. Which made me think. I’ve never been to Sacramento, and only know it from occasional articles in the newspaper. Yet, I just assume it must be far better than a Midwest city to the point that it almost doesn’t seem possible to be otherwise. I guess that just goes to show the inferiority complex even those of us like me who firmly believe the Midwest can compete we sometimes labor under. I hope you enjoy and I’m interested to see your reactions – Aaron ]

Indianapolis has a national reputation for its downtown revitalization and civic rebound from post-war decline. Four years ago, the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce sent a delegation of 95 local leaders to study Indianapolis. The team’s follow-up report praised Indy as the consummate “land of milk and honey”– a noted model for Sacramento to emulate in hopes of elevating itself from being a bathroom stop between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. Indianapolis, the team said, demonstrated great vision and purpose in its redevelopment efforts, its creation of tourist attractions, development of a modern downtown mall, and the construction of two new sports facilities. The main question these local leaders posed was which of Indianapolis’s practices would best fit Sacramento’s special brand of west coast culture? Unfortunately, many Sacramento city leaders are still pondering this question today.

As a former Indianapolis resident now living in the Sacramento area, I can attest to interesting parallels between the two cities. For instance, both are state capitals with respective populations of around two million; both are consummate Midwestern cities in terms of mindset and landscape; and both have major rivers running through them, creating barriers and portending flood risks.

Demographically, a TIME magazine article reported that Sacramento is one of the most racially integrated cities in the nation, as determined by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project. Notably, Indianapolis has a significantly larger African-American population–nearly double that of Sacramento–which factors into Indy’s long-standing reputation as one of our nation’s most progressive black communities.

Both cities also sit at the nexus of major highways. Indianapolis has been crowned the Crossroads of America to denote its status as the hub of several major interstate highways that connect it with the rest of the U.S. Sacramento serves as a major connection point for Interstate 80, the primary east-west artery across the nation to the eastern seaboard, ending in Ocean City, Maryland, 3073 miles away.

While there are numerous commonalities between the two cities, the road diverges when the conversation turns to big-picture issues such as vision, branding, and identity—key elements for a city’s vitality and sustainability. Here, Indianapolis arguably edges out Sacramento.

Sacramento’s glass ceiling is a dearth of cohesive identity; the city needs a distinct brand beyond its current calling card– the home of pro basketball’s Sacramento Kings. In a nutshell, the city is still pondering what it wants to be when it grows up. Is it strictly a conservative government town defined by the State of California and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or is it on the cusp of a metamorphosis into a hip, urban sideshow of San Francisco, featuring arts, entertainment and music centered on an emerging Midtown neighborhood? Maybe it truly is seeking to be distinguished by the Kings. Or maybe its claim to fame will continue to be a “fluid-adjustment break” for San Francisco travelers en route to Lake Tahoe.

What irks newly elected Mayor Kevin Johnson is Sacramento’s reputation as nothing more than a stopping point between cities. Voted into office largely on his credibility as a local community leader and former pro basketball star, Johnson minces no words on his desire to see “Sac Town” succeed. But the road ahead is a long haul. With Sacramento being the state capital, California’s legislative process and budget are a constant distraction, and the tepid local economy is due largely to state budget cuts and high rates of housing foreclosures. Unemployment is also at a historic high.

Johnson’s biggest challenge, though, may be keeping the Sacramento Kings in town until plans for a new sports arena can be thrashed out. Voters soundly rejected building an arena as part of a redevelopment project involving an abandoned brownfield railyard adjacent to downtown. The talk now has turned to reconstituting the current California State fairgrounds site into a sports facility—a controversial idea that concerns area residents.

So what perspective can Indianapolis offer relative to Sacramento’s future? For starters, Indy has effectively forged an identity by branding itself as a multi-dimensional sports and events town. The city is a haven for sports junkies attracted to everything from auto racing to college basketball. The downtown corridor is particularly impressive with its array of first-class sporting venues—sites that attract foot traffic and vibrancy to the central-city core. Sacramento would be wise to follow suit with its own unique niche, positioning itself as a destination of choice for both residents and visitors. Putting aside the chatter about the Kings’ plans for a new arena and entertainment district, Sacramento’s identity may be emerging organically via its Midtown neighborhood. Home to a growing number of chic restaurants, coffee houses, and retail shops, as well as a vibrant art scene, this area is rapidly building a reputation for spirited civic and social connection. Many city leaders are banking on this surge continuing, creating much-needed tax revenues and spurring further growth and development.

Sacramento should also take heed of Indianapolis’s government structure, which allows Indy to effectively move forward on progressive civic projects. In many respects the mythological Sisyphus’s unending attempts to push a boulder up a hill symbolizes Sacramento’s myriad failed attempts to gain traction with their development efforts. In stark contrast, Indianapolis hums along with a consolidated city/county system referred to as Uni-Gov—a model that would provide a much more collaborative and simpler political environment for Sacramento. Indianapolis also doesn’t require a two-thirds majority to support a tax for new development, something that seems to be a foreign concept amid California’s anti-tax culture.

Despite its deficiencies, Sacramento is still in the game. The weather is relatively temperate year-round, with clear skies and low humidity–the envy of many central-Indiana residents who loathe unbearable heat and blustery winters; San Francisco and Lake Tahoe are top-notch destinations to the west and east, respectively; and the regions’ cultural and ethnic makeup allows for a broad diversity of creative talent for the 21st century.

Sacramento also received recent praise by noted urbanist and former Indianapolis mayor William Hudnut III. In a speech to the Sacramento chapter of the Urban Land Institute, Hudnut cited the Sacramento Area Council of Government’s 2050 Regional Blueprint for Higher Density Growth as a model for the nation.

So, is Sacramento an Indianapolis wannabe? Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps the reverse is true—Indy has a hidden desire to model itself after Sacramento. What is true is that these sorts of collaborative exchanges can prove valuable to cities in their quest for world-class status, definable identities and strong central-city cores.

Michael Scott is a Northern California urban journalist, demographic researcher and technical writer. He can be reached at His web site is

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Detroit: Urban Laboratory and the New American Frontier

The troubles of Detroit are well-publicized. Its economy is in free fall, people are streaming for the exits, it has the worst racial polarization and city-suburb divide in America, its government is feckless and corrupt (though I should hasten to add that new Mayor Bing seems like a basically good guy and we ought to give him a chance), and its civic boosters, even ones that are extremely knowledgeable, refuse to acknowledge the depth of the problems, instead ginning up stats and anecdotes to prove all is not so bad.

But as with Youngstown, one thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit. Its size, scale, and powerful brand image are attracting not just the region’s but the world’s attention. It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit.

Let’s refresh with this image showing the scale of the challenge in the city of Detroit proper:

There are zillions of pictures to illustrate the vast emptiness in Detroit. Kaid Benfield at NRDC posted this one:

This phenomenon is prompted someone to coin the term “urban prairie” to capture the idea of vast tracts of formerly urbanized land returning to nature. The folks at Detroit’s best discussion site, DetroitYES, posted this before and after of the St. Cyril neighborhood. Before:


A site named “Sweet Juniper” recently had a fantastic photo of the spontaneous creation of “desire line” paths across all this vacant land. You should click to enlarge this photo.

One natural response is the “shrinking cities” movement. While this has gotten traction in Youngstown and Flint, as well as in places like Germany, it is Detroit that provides the most large scale canvas on which to see this play out, as well as the place where some of the most comprehensive and radical thinking is taking place. For example, the American Institute of Architects produced a study that called for Detroit to shrink back to its urban core and a selection of urban villages, surrounded by greenbelts and banked land. Here’s a picture of their concept:

It seems likely that this will get some form of traction from officialdom, as this article suggests, though implementation is likely to be difficult.

Detroit is also attracting dreams of large scale renewal through agriculture, as Mark Dowie writes in Guernica (hat tip @archizoo).

Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.

This isn’t just a crazy idea from some guy who lives in California. He documents several examples of people right now, today growing food in Detroit. It wouldn’t surprise me, frankly, if Detroit produces more food inside its borders today than any other traditional American city.

About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.

The fact that Urban Farming moved to Detroit is exactly the effect I’m talking about. To anyone with aspirations in this area, it is Detroit that offers the greatest opportunity to make your mark. It is the ultimate blank canvas. For urban agriculture and many other alternative urban dreams, it is Detroit, not New York City that is the ultimate arena in which to prove yourself.

It’s not just farmers, intellectuals and artists of various types are drawn to Detroit, both to study it and pursue ideas about the remaking of the city:

Detroit has achieved something unique. It has become the test case for all sorts of theories on urban decay and all sorts of promising ideas about reviving shrinking cities.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Sue Mosey, president of the University Cultural Center Association, who has been interviewed recently by two separate PBS crews and an Austrian journalist writing about Detroit.

“All of us have been inundated with all of these people who somehow think that because we’re so bottomed out and so weak-market, that this is this incredible opportunity,” Mosey said.

Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University who has been interviewed by numerous visitors, echoed that sentiment.

“They realize that there is an interesting story to tell, that has real characters, but even more, they discover a place that is simply not like everywhere else,” he said.

Toby Barlow wrote in the New York Times about out of towners buying up $100 houses, moving to Detroit, and doing all sorts of interesting things with them:

Recently, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town…Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.
A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

It’s what Jim Russell likes to call “Rust Belt chic”, and Detroit has it in spades.

This piece also highlights one the absolutely crucial advantage of Detroit. It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.

Can you imagine a two-story beehive in Chicago? In many cities where strong city government still functions effectively, citizens are tied down by an array of regulations and permits that are actually enforced in most cases. Much of the South Side of Chicago has Detroit like characteristics, but the techniques of renewal in Detroit won’t work because they are likely against code and would be shut down the minute someone complained. Just as one quick example, my corner ice cream stand dared to put out a few chairs for patrons to sit on while enjoying a frozen treat on a hot day. The city cited them for not having a license. So they took them away and put up a “bring your own chair” sign. The city then cited them for that too. You can’t do anything in Chicago without a Byzantine array of licenses, permits, and inspections.

In central Indianapolis, which is in desperate need of investment, where the city can’t fill the potholes in the street, etc., the minute a few yuppies buy houses in an area and fix them up, they immediately petition for a historic district, a request that has never been refused, ensuring that anyone who ever wants to do anything will be forced to run a costly and grueling gauntlet of variances, permits, hearings, etc. Only the most determined are willing to put up with that.

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because of the hand of government weighs less heavily.

What’s more, the fact that government is so weak has provoked some amazing reactions from the people who live there. In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them. And they’ve found some very creative ways to deal with the challenges the result. Consider this from the Dowie piece:

About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.

This might sound awful, and indeed it is. But it is also an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit and defiant self-reliance of the American people. I grew up in a poor rural area where, while hunting is primarily recreational, there are still many people supplementing their family diet with wild game. Many a freezer is full of deer meat, for example. And of course, rural residents have long gardened, freezing and canning the results to help get them through the winter. So this doesn’t sound quite so strange to me as it might to you. The fate of the urban poor and the rural poor are more similar than is often credited. And contrary to stereotypes the urban poor often display amazing grit and ingenuity, and perform amazing feats to sustain themselves, their families and communities.

As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age. No doubt in the 19th century many of those sitting secure in their eastern citadels thought these homesteaders, hustlers, and fortune seekers crazy for leaving the comforts of civilization to head to places like Iowa and Chicago. But some saw the possibilities of what could be and heeded the call to “Go West, young man.” We’ve come full circle.

More Detroit

Detroit: Do the Collapse
Detroit: Not the Future of the American City
For talent – good jobs, cools places, new narrative (Crain’s Detroit Business – featuring Yours Truly)

See also What’s Killing California?

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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