Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Place Is the Space by Ben Schulman


West Oakland – Photo Credit: nullboy – Creative Commons

In 1974, the jazz musician/philosopher Sun Ra released the film Space is the Place, his avant-garde sci-fi fantasy about the salvation African-Americans were to find in colonizing outer space. Ra’s vision grew out of his personal philosophy regarding music’s ability to act as both a literal and figurative catalyst for transformation. In Space, music becomes a delivery vehicle to the cosmos, a remedy for the ostracized, poverty-stricken African-American communities stuck in urban ghettos. Using early 70’s Oakland as the model, the film is essentially the story of how the inner cities have failed the black populations who live there. And while not expressed overtly, the underlying current running throughout the film is how the lack of opportunity and continued degradation and alienation of the community has led to a complete disengagement with its physical surroundings. Oakland, the inner city, the built environment – all have become, in a tangible sense, exhausted space.

Space is the Place speaks on various levels, and unfortunately remains relevant to many African-American inner city neighborhoods today. In light of the current recessionary hangover though, wherein we are all being forced to spatially reexamine the manner in which we live, the question of how to retain meaning within the surrounding environment is apt for nearly all communities. When examining the ways in which land-use must be reevaluated to infuse it with structural meaning and usefulness, Space speaks to a larger question of how to prevent disengagement with the places that make up our landscapes, and more aptly, reengage exhausted space. While Ra’s salvation came in colonizing actual outer space, the current reality begs us to evaluate how to actually bridge the disconnect between space and place. Or put more simply, how to make space become place. It’s a tangled process that touches upon many aspects of our development, and delicately unravels nearly 60 years of solidified notions about both spatial and economic growth.

Growth being the operative word. Since the end of WWII, physical growth has until recently been treated as gospel. Growth, horizontally, begat growth, economically, and the whole process reached Abrahamic levels of replicating. By encouraging spatial growth as economic growth, government channels helped foster a one size fits all application towards land-use and personal livelihood in all areas of the country. This outward expansion of physical space was based on the possibilities of abundant and inexpensive resources to act as a connective tissue between economic and cultural loci, and at its peak, brought about an age of unprecedented prosperity. This prescription benefited in part by drawing the assets away from a center, resulting in, amongst many other things, depopulated cities, vacant small-town squares, and a move towards the edge of places. Place was found in the spaces between the center, resulting in a disoriented view of place itself.

In a recent speech at the Global Metro Summit in Chicago, Bruce Katz, vice president and founding director of the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, spoke of the ways in which this decaying dynamic collided with the Great Recession. Katz noted that the hardship and vacancy seen in towns outside of Chicago’s center, such as south-suburban Harvey, serve as “a microcosm of the failed economy and failed economic policy that has deeply touched the lives of tens of millions of Americans during this Great Recession. We had an economy and an economic policy which elevated consumption over production, financial chicanery over real innovation, near term speculation over long term growth. We lost our way and we got the economy and the Great Recession we deserved.”

Using his speech as a convincing jumping board for a new metropolitan-oriented development plan, Katz’s words ring true to those who recognize that cities must embrace what in reality they already are and have truly always been; namely, the drivers of our economy. But it speaks to a broader belief as well that can be applicable to spaces across the country. There’s a slow realization occurring that in the long run, physical growth will not beget any more economic growth. In realizing such, there’s not so much a Great Reset occurring as there is a Right Fix, wherein the elements of place that make our spaces distinct are being heralded and held up as concrete vehicles for investment.

In essence, the nation is asking Ra’s question of itself now: how do places undergo the process of reengaging space. As the outer reaches of the built landscape begin to face these questions, attention will turn to cities that have been dealing with these questions for years. Whether in large-scale redevelopment projects such as Pittsburgh’s South Side Works, San Francisco’s China Basin or small-scale projects in something simple such as the community garden at Hoxie Ave & 106th St. in Chicago’s Far Southeast Side South Deering neighborhood, taking ownership of exhausted space requires a process of reclamation, remediation, and reapplication to produce reengagement.

The first step in the success of such a process is not found in the design of the space necessarily, but in the design of the questions being asked to address the failures of the former space. Essentially, the design of the question will inform the design of the answer. And knowing that these questions of engagement go beyond physical space into managing how we want to live across all types of communities, it demands a non-confrontational and delicate design that recognizes the nuance and specificity of individual location. One need only look at the vitriolic versus mentality that infects the current political discourse at a national level to see to the ineffectiveness of poorly designed questions that inform poorly thought-out responses. The discussion needs to move beyond easy qualifications such as high-speed rail versus highway maintenance, green versus carbon, urban versus rural. Everything moves holistically as part of the same system now, which is chiefly what author Jeb Brugmann means when he states that the entire world has become a city in his recent Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World.

Reengaging exhausted space, to make place, isn’t an easy or seamless process. It requires carefully designing questions that don’t alienate, and paying attention to the inherent attributes and assets of a place that can be reclaimed, remediated and reapplied in a locally apropos right fix to produce the most utility for all. It requires an acknowledgement, and then an inversion, of both America’s past 60 years of development and Sun Ra’s prescription for deliverance. Space, whether it be out among the stars, or out among the sprawl is actually not the place. Rather, it is the creation of meaningful place, effectively and honestly developed and engaged, that becomes the most successful form of space. Done correctly, perhaps the final ending to Ra’s sci-fi fantasy ends not in the Milky Way, but where it begins, in a reenergized and reengaged Oakland.

More by Ben Schulman: Pittsburgh and the Magic of Failure

Ben Schulman is a Chicago-based writer on urban affairs whose work has been noted by outlets such as The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Burgh Diaspora, The Atlantic Online, and the National Review. One of the proprietors behind independent record label Contraphonic, Inc., Schulman also heads the Contraphonic Chicago Sound Series, an attempt to aurally document the city of Chicago through the medium of sound. In the coming year, the Sound Series is set to expand to Pittsburgh, and other cities across the country. Links to his freelance work can be found at http://bdsdispatch.blogspot.com/, and he can be reached at bds.dispatches@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Pittsburgh and the Magic of Failure by Ben Schulman

In recent years, Pittsburgh has developed an almost exotic allure as a successfully reborn, recast city. Since its near complete collapse in the early 1980s, when 85,000 regional jobs were lost as the steel industry decayed, Pittsburgh has been shaking off demographic decline and slowly morphing into an updated version of its former self — if not as a manufacturing colossus, at least in terms of having thriving street-life, dense, small-scale development supported throughout its neighborhoods, and a sense of economic vibrancy. This percolating renewal culminated, or at least achieved validity, with President Obama’s decision to place last year’s G20 Summit in Pittsburgh.

Obama’s decision to do so set off a small media frenzy about Pittsburgh’s determined grit and resiliency, with odes from Newsweek, The Atlantic, and Forbes all heralding the rejuvenation of one of America’s most overlooked urban jewels. Of course, the G20 boost was just landing on the tail end of a long-arc of reformation, as the New York Times had noted even earlier in 2009. On a recent visit just a few weeks ago to the city nestled at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the amenities, vitality, and cultural options available seemed to be mammoth for a place of its size.

Walking through the Cultural District downtown, crossing the Sixth Street Bridge to the Pirates’ PNC Park (adjacent to the Andy Warhol Museum), heading a bit north to the devastatingly beautiful Mexican War Streets Historic District (home to avant-art capital The Mattress Factory), crossing over to the hipster haven of Carson St on the South Side, exploring the teeming Old World-Bronx-circa-1950 feel of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, scarfing down the overwhelming deliciousness of the Saturday morning open-air food market that is the Strip District, or randomly stumbling into a milonga during the Lawrenceville neighborhood’s First Friday evening artwalks, it isn’t easy not to get caught up in the Pittsburgh reincarnation story. (Not even mentioned: Oakland, home to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh; Shadyside, the host to some of the most impressive homes anywhere in the country, and many other neighborhoods of the 89 distinct ‘hoods that make up Pittsburgh proper.)

Like any place, the book on Pittsburgh is yet complete. Despite its successes, the city is saddled with a looming pension crisis in which more pensioners are due out money than there are currently city workers paying into the fund. The results of the 2010 census will again show a hefty population decline within the city limits, and the region has shown- up until recently- little growth in terms of international and domestic migration. But unlike places like Detroit or Cleveland, where a slow, spiraling decline of industry and population are exacerbating underlying dysfunctional conditions and dependency on old models of growth, Pittsburgh is undergoing a peculiar demographic turnover wherein more people are dying within the city than are being born and/or moving in at present.

Hence, the city is molting, literally discarding the remnants of its past. When the process is complete, which looks very close to occurring, the city left behind will be in some respects, a new, shining city on (many) hill(s). And an incredibly educated one at that, vying with Washington D.C. for the largest proportion of young adults aged 25-34 with post-graduate degrees. Pittsburgh booster and Burgh Diaspora blogger Jim Russell has been an incredibly insightful and influential voice when discussing Pittsburgh’s structural strengths that bode well for its future. Noting the large amount of students from its universities and colleges moving in-and-out of town, Russell has posited that Pittsburgh’s constant shuffling out-migration of students is actually an asset to the region. Much in the same fashion that cities like Chicago and New York consistently draw in and spit out people, Pittsburgh, on a smaller scale, now has the opportunity to do the same, keeping the homegrown ideas, businesses and most importantly networks, in place. After all, a globalized economy will lead to cities with a globalized network, regardless of actual population size. In other words, less could be more in this case.

This article however isn’t intended merely to be a love letter to Pittsburgh and its champions. Nor is it to say that Pittsburgh is even necessarily an appropriate model for struggling, formerly manufacturing-oriented cities in need of what urbanist Richard Florida, a former Pittsburgher himself, has called “The Great Reset.” The lesson to be gleamed from Pittsburgh isn’t so much in what steps it’s taken on its way to recovery. Rather, the lesson to be learned from Pittsburgh is what happened to it when its Great Recession hit in 1983.

It failed.

The steel collapse decimated Pittsburgh and its region, taking with it nearly 1 out of every 10 jobs there. Entire towns surrounding the city became obsolete. But it is because of that failure, that absolute bottoming-out, that Pittsburgh has been able to cast aside its past and emerge as a unique showcase of what a small, bustling, connected American city can eventually become. The example of Pittsburgh is to fail on the failures and invest in the attributes- granted, of which the ‘Burgh had many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- that a place already has. It is a tale not so much for cities facing similar problems to the Pittsburgh of 30 years past, as it is for the country as a whole in this stage of national transmogrification.

Like Pittsburgh did, the country needs to realize that failure is an option. Failure can be a catalyst for movement and for action. Failure can be a paradoxical assertion of American greatness. It is time for great structural changes that reinvest in our national attributes- granted, of which America has many, in its beautiful architecture, old establishment money, intact communities and ethnic organizations, and cultural trusts and universities- rather than band-aiding failed foreclosure prevention policies.

The current crisis could be used to rewrite the rules in regards to short-sales, allowing underwater homeowners to sell their properties without being penalized, as they are now by having the forgiven loan amount treated as taxable income. By freeing sellers from this penalty, in effect, the mobility of individuals to go where opportunities are increases, and the housing market loosens. As the aforementioned Richard Florida has mentioned, perhaps now is the time to get rid of the tax deduction for mortgage interest and enable the country to settle into new modes of habitation. Let’s let Detroit shrink. Bring back the Public Option. We could radically alter the political landscape of the country for the benefit of all by adopting Neil Freeman from FakeistheNewReal.org’s Electoral Reform Map. By doing so, and combining logical population distributions into political constituencies, the increasingly marginalized communities that currently comprise our States could be eliminated, moving us past the versus mentality that simply infects the country and its politics to the point of stagnation.

There are many, many intriguing, innovative and encouraging ideas floating out there, and our collective fear of failure is the only thing preventing the nation from remedying itself anew. Maybe it’s time to look towards Pittsburgh, a magnificent failure that now seems to be a wondrous place to do business in, a place to create in, a place to live. Riding the steep funicular incline to rest atop the city’s Mt. Washington neighborhood, and taking in the vista of its Golden Triangle, some could even say a place of magic.

This post originally appeared at Gapers Block. Reprinted with permission.

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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