Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Drew Austin: The Living…The Built…The McDonald’s Parking Lot

[ Brendan Crain’s Where blog was for some time one of the best urbanist blogs, period. As eventually happens to blogs, time pressures forced him to put it aside, but there is still a treasure trove of great posts in the archives I highly recommend browsing.

One of his occasional contributors was Drew Austin, now a grad student in the Boston area. He graciously agreed to let me re-post some of his work here, and even went the extra mile to track down Brendan for me. When I met Drew he was was working as a transit planner in Chicago, which is when he wrote this post. I hope you enjoy it – and don’t forget to check out Where. – Aaron ]

You may not agree with TS Eliot’s statement that every age gets the art it deserves, but it’s hard to argue that we don’t—to some extent—get the cities we deserve. In fact, a city may be human culture’s most perfect expression of collective will, a direct and tangible product of millions of individual decisions multiplied by thousands of days. Certain forces, people and institutions tend to exert disproportionate influence on the way cities evolve, but by and large the masses make the cities, and without all those people cities would not even be cities.

Human culture produces cities, and cities in turn influence those cultures. Eliot thought the same about art, and art’s cultural role is more limited than that of cities. Does this mean that subpar cities are created by subpar cultures, and can one expect crappy cities to foster even crappier human relations in their streets and buildings? Are planners, architects and other creators of the built environment to blame for the desolation of downtown Detroit or for me not knowing my neighbors?

Probably not. Architectural historian Spiro Kostof made this unexpected yet intuitive point in his 1987 commencement address to UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design:

Cities are amalgams of the living and the built, always tidying up, never finished. Their agenda is colossally overburdened, its charge near impossible to rein in. There is no way in which design alone will breathe life into a dying enterprise, any more than a vibrant sense of community can be attributed in earnest to the act of design.

Kostof’s speech—at least that part of it—amounts to a call for more piazzas. That is, more free spaces where human activity can run its course, whatever that turns out to be. The life and energy teeming within cities is bound to find its own way, perhaps guided and elevated by the Burnhams, the Olmsteds and the Koolhaases but never steered by them.

The most vibrant public space near where I live happens to be the neighborhood McDonald’s. Although there’s a beautiful, expansive park only two blocks away, a large group of elderly gentlemen are congregating in that McDonald’s from morning until evening on any given day of the week, usually having nothing more than a coffee. During the summer, they bring their own chairs and hang out in the parking lot. The place is full of people every time I pass by. I opt for the big park when I want to get out of the house, but for some variety of reasons many others find the Golden Arches to be a suitable piazza of sorts. I can tell you this much: They aren’t there for the food.

Many view McDonald’s (and parking lots) as the worst American culture has to offer, and more than a few planners would raze every McDonald’s in sight given the opportunity. Builders and planners can only build and plan, though. They can’t actually add the people or dictate the uses of their creations. Ultimately, I think, we do get the cities we deserve because, to a great extent, we are those cities.

This article original appeared in Where. Reprinted with permission of the author.

9 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture

9 Responses to “Drew Austin: The Living…The Built…The McDonald’s Parking Lot”

  1. Donna says:

    Reminds me of this movie called My Porcelain Past, by Kentucky filmmaker Rod Schildknecht, about a White Castle in Louisville that was closed. He filmed the last 24 hours of the business, which had become a major neighborhood gathering place, including the same old men that Austin mentions at McDonald’s.

    Link here: http://www.ronschildknecht.com/films/myporcelainpast.html

  2. Anonymous says:

    You know, I’ve noticed this phenomenon before too, in many different parts of the country, older people hanging out in a McDonald’s. There’s something about me that loves seeing it. These are people that aren’t over thinking life, McDonald’s happens to be a place close by where you can get decent coffee for an affordable price and hang out with your friends, it’s common sense. It strikes me as a much more genuine expression of culture than people sitting in a New Urbanist café, in a community self consciously designed to evoke some over-romanticized European or early 20th century American ideal. To me, it illustrates the point that human spirit and capital take precedence over urban design when it comes to defining vital places. Actually the progressive city poster child of Portland, OR is a good example of this; outside of downtown and the Pearl District I think we can agree that the urban fabric is pretty mediocre, certainly no better than dozens of other cities that aren’t doing too hot today, but the energy of the creative people there is making this an exciting place. Heck, they’re even making that bane of urbanists, the surface parking lot, into an exciting place with food carts. It’s a lesson to be studied by every city official and developer who thinks they’re going to put up a condo building with a café at street level and all of a sudden creative types will flock to their city.
    So let’s go a bit further and take the 1960’s-70’s era outer ring suburb as another example of this phenomenon. These aren’t the currently trendy inner-rings or the exurbs, just a place where middle class people and immigrants can afford a home and a good school for their kids. People here are happily using spaces like shopping malls, movie theaters and McDonald’s to fulfill their social needs, spaces which most academic planners would deride as junk. What people who live in these areas need aren’t New Urbanists’ precious plazas and piazzas, they need smarter ways to get around the community that exists now. Things like car sharing, planning around the axis of the arterial as opposed to the node of the “village center”, with flexible office space close to home instead of light rail to downtown. There is a hubris in so-called new urbanist planning that is very reminiscent of the Modernist planning of the 1950’s and 60’s, and the potential for social disruption is just as great.

  3. AmericanDirt says:

    Glad to see another (ex-)blogger as enraptured by the mundane as I am. He alludes to the mentality shared by many planners that explains why the profession gets far less respect than it could–and why phrases like “a sense of place” (no discrediting the similarly named blog) or “soulless sprawl” have just started seeming so cliched. Aside from being condescending, they’re incredibly limiting. The American and global palettes are too rich to dismiss anything…even McDonald’s.

  4. Seth says:

    Somehow, the beautiful American culture that thrived before the invention of the assembly line has morphed into a culture of interchangeable, identical parts and not enough people seem to mind. The people in those McDonalds don’t entertain the thoughts or share the values of the man who prefers the grand park or urbanist blogger. The culture has been coarsened and woe is us to deny it.

    Great repost.

  5. John Morris says:

    Must admit that even in a very walkable place like Forest Hills, Queens which had many choices, McDonalds was a popular hang out plus the Wendy’s.

  6. the urban politician says:

    Forest Hills? That was my old digs!

    Agree that the McDonald’s was packed, but it wasn’t really a hang out. Most people went there to eat.

    The real hang out was the park along Queens Blvd with the chess tables, along with the cafe Piu Bello

  7. John Morris says:

    Actually, the kids were more into McDonalds. The Wendy’s was very popular with older folks (closed years ago–there’s something to be said for paying customers). As you said, the triangle park on Queens Blvd was the most popular.

    I guess the area had an overload of people with time on their hands. A lot of retired people.

    Anyway, an interesting area showing one can pretty easily combine both city and suburb with a little common sense.

    I’ve heard recently it’s become popular with Broadway actors who have families. Affordable space compared to Manhattan with quick access to the city. Shows that distance is really about transit time.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t think anyone hates McDonald’s because of the urban planning issues. Parking lots, maybe, but McDonald’s main problem is that its food is bad for public health. In the US at least that’s almost the only criticism of fast food; even the slow food movement builds on this criticism.

  9. John Morris says:

    FYI, The McDonalds in Forest Hills has no parking lot. The honest fact about it is that it’s probably a hang out by default. Not too many places are thrilled or economically set up to play that role. Since seating is fairly abundant and they do a lot of take out business, having some people hanging out isn’t a problem.

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