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Sunday, April 13th, 2014

On the Riverfront

Thursday I took a look at my “Cincinnati conundrum,” namely how it’s possible for a city that has the greatest collection of civic assets of any city its size in America to underperform demographically and economically. In that piece I called out the sprawl angle. But today I want to take a different look at it by panning back the lens to see Cincinnati as simply one example of the river city.

There are four major cities laid out on an east-west corridor along the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis (which is not on the Ohio River, but close enough. I’ll leave Memphis and New Orleans out of it for now). All of these are richly endowed with civic assets like Cincinnati is, having far more than their fair share of great things, yet they’ve all been stagnant to slow growing for decades.

This suggests a broader challenge: if urbanity and quality of life are so determinant of economic success, why aren’t these places juggernauts? It’s not that they are failures by any means, but they are long term under-performers.


Over the Rhine, Cincinnati – one example of the spectacular urban assets of these cities

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but since these cities share many characteristics, I wanted to show what they have in common. Doubtless some of these common threads play a role.

These cities came of age earlier than railroad based cities like Chicago. These are some of the earliest major cities in the region, and they owe their prominence to the era when the river was the major form of transport. They’ve all had a heavy German Catholic influence, hence the legacy of breweries and the importance of private Catholic high schools in these areas even today. They have bridge-oriented transportation traffic patterns and bottlenecks. They’ve got interesting geography with hills and trees and some similar climate patterns.

I find it particularly interesting that they have similar political geographies, despite being in four different states. Three of them are multi-state metros, obviously, because the rivers are state borders. But beyond that they all have hyper-fragmented systems of lots of tiny cities and villages that are fiercely independent. Here’s a map of all the municipalities in St. Louis County, for example:


Image via ArchCityHomes

All of these cities ceased annexing early and got hemmed in. St. Louis famously detached itself from the county completely to become an independent city. Only Louisville with its recently city-county merger grew out of this. But Louisville’s Jefferson County still features numerous sixth class cities and such that were excluded from merger, some of which are only a couple blocks in size. Hamilton County, Ohio and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania are similar.

Inside the cities themselves, there are also many well defined, distinct neighborhoods. These are usually small in size compared to what are called neighborhoods in cities like Chicago. Also, there can be deep divisions between the different sides of town. These are very divided cities. Cincinnati has the East Side-West Side divide. Louisville has the East End, the South End, and the West End. And which one you are from is a huge cultural marker. The North and South Sides of Indianapolis are very different and have some sniping back and forth, yet I don’t see the same visceral suspicion across the sides of town compared to say how Louisville’s South End (mostly working class white) sees the East End (the favored quarter). That helps explain why it took Louisville 40 years to build new Ohio River bridges, and why Cincinnati had to overcome unbelievable obstacles to build a streetcar.

These cities are also provincial and insular in their character. As a transplant to Louisville put it, “Louisville is parochial in all the best and worst ways.” These are cities with rich, unique architectural traditions, and with tremendously distinct local cultures compared to other cities in their region such as Indianapolis or Columbus, which have been largely Genericaized. So Cincinnati has its chili. St. Louis has its pizza. Pittsburgh even has its own yinzer dialect. In at least three of the four of these cities – I don’t know about Pittsburgh – the first question you get asked is “Where did you go to high school?” which tells you almost everything you need to know about them.

While provincialism is almost inherently negative as a term, this has big upsides for these cities too. They have an incredible sense of place and uniqueness. The brick houses of St. Louis are unlike anything else, for example. Again, the feel of these places is very notable in contrast to neighbors like Columbus and Indy, which give off a Sprawlville, USA vibe.


Trailer for film Brick: By Chance and Fortune. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. Please ignore the unfortunate preview image.

This provincialism comes with two associated character traits. One is a degree of solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical proposition that nothing can be known to exist outside the self. It’s different from egotism. Egotism says you’re better than everybody. Solipsism says there isn’t anybody else. Obviously we’re talking degrees here, not absolutes. But this is key I think to the retention of those local traditions and local character.

I’ll give an example that illustrate this. Cincinnati arts consultant Margy Waller made a comment to me a few years ago that really stuck with me. She said that when people leave Cincinnati and come back, the stuff they did and learned while they were away might as well not have happened. She left and worked for several years in Washington, including in the Clinton White House. I’m not sure exactly what she did there, but if you’re working in the White House, by definition you’re operating at a bigtime level. But that’s barely mentioned in Cincinnati. Few people ever ask how her DC network or experience can inform or support the city.

Similarly Randy Simes is an instructive case. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati planning school, he got a job with a tier one engineering firm in Atlanta. But he also started and ran the blog Urban Cincy, which is a relentlessly positive advocate for the city and maybe its most effective marketing voice to the global urbanist world (the Guardian listed it as among the best urban web sites on the planet). Eager to come back to Cincinnati, he looked for a job there. But he couldn’t find one. Here’s a guy with 1) legitimate professional credentials 2) a top tier firm pedigree 3) the city’s most effective urban advocate 4) non-controversial, positive, and aligned with the political structure of the city and 5) he’s 24-25 years old and so it’s easy to hire him – you don’t need an executive director position or something. Yet no interest. Shortly thereafter he was head hunted by America’s biggest engineering firm to move to Chicago and then was sent on an expat assignment to Korea where he’ll be working on, among other things, one of the world’s most prominent urban developments (one that Cincinnati actually flew people in from Korea to present to them about). Jim Russell had a very similar experience with Pittsburgh.

The relationship of prophets and home towns has been known for some time, so I don’t want to pretend this is a totally unique case. But I can’t help but compare Randy’s case to blogger/advocate Richey Piiparinen in Cleveland, for whom an entire research center was created at Cleveland State (admittedly, he was already local at the time). I just don’t think Randy’s accomplishments outside Cincinnati resonated.

And secondly, these places do sometimes cross over into a sort of hauteur. I think because these were all very large, important cities in their earlier days and because they had so much amazing stuff, it bred a sort of aristocratic mindset perhaps. Having lived in both Louisville and Indianapolis, I clearly see the difference. In Indianapolis cool people will happily tell you how awesome they think St. Louis, Cincinnati or Louisville are. They’ll make visits to say the 21C Hotel or Forecastle Festival in Louisville and write and say great things about it and even how they wish Indy had some of those things.

But people from Louisville would rather bite their tongues out than say nice things about Indianapolis. If forced to, they will, but they do it in the most grudging way. I’ll never forget a travel guide for Louisville called the “Insiders Guide to Louisville” (I believe different than the one currently being sold under that name). In the intro they were bragging about Louisville’s totally legitimate food scene, but they had to throw in a gratuitous insult by saying something along the lines of, “Every city has good restaurants these days – even Indianapolis, we hear – but Louisville’s restaurants are truly special.” When Indianapolis Monthly did its “Chain City, USA” cover on Indy’s restaurants, I had to send it to my friends in Louisville since I knew they’d eat it up gleefully. (If you watched the St. Louis brick film trailer, you’ll also notice someone in it throwing a similar gratuitous dart at the Illinois brick used in Chicago).

Hot off the presses is this travel piece on Indianapolis written by someone in Louisville. As a travel piece, by is going to be positive by the very nature of the genre, but note the way the writer frames up the trip:

I bristle whenever I hear about flyover country – my home of Louisville is smack in the heart of what east and west coasters think is just the space they have to cross to get from one good part of the country to another – so I should be a little more open minded. But maybe because of my fondness for my hometown, it turns out I’ve been harboring a bit of the same snobbery that those fliers do – toward a northern neighbor.

My friend Kristian was bragging to me about Indy’s tech scene one day. I’d just gotten back from Cincinnati where I’d gotten to see their tech scene showcased, tour the Brandery accelerator, etc. So I said, “What about Cincinnati? Looks like they are rocking and rolling.” Kristian was like, “Oh yeah, they’re awesome. I was just down there and they totally get it, there’s some great stuff going on.” Then he made a comment that I think summed it up: “You know what though? They’re in love with their own story.”

That sums it up. These cities are in love with their own stories. That perhaps also explains a bit of it. With so many amazing assets it’s easy to be complacent. It reminds me of the famous quote from the triumphant (and boosterish) Chicago Democrat as Chicago started to pull away from St. Louis as the commercial capital of the Midwest: “St. Louis businessmen wore their pantaloons out sitting and waiting for trade to come to them while Chicago’s wore their shoes out running after it.”

If you’re too in love with your own story, you’re not going to work as hard as you should to take that story to the next level. After all, the story of these cities isn’t finished yet. But there’s a new generation in these places that aren’t wedded to the old ways. They love the story, but have some chapters of their own they want to write. As urban assets they have come back into fashion in the market, it will be interesting to see how they evolve. As the press for Pittsburgh shows, for example, there’s already plenty of signs of an inflection point. And in a region where places tend to flagellate themselves, having some cities with a bit of honest to goodness civic hauteur can actually be a refreshing change.

Friday, January 10th, 2014

St. Louis: Salvage City

A three installment start at a potential Discovery Channel “reality” program called Salvage City has created a minor kerfuffle in some local quarters. I haven’t seen the show, but it appears to feature a group of the Beautiful and the Bearded who break into buildings, ostensibly illegally, on architectural salvage missions one step ahead of the wrecking ball, all for fun and profit. Here’s the trailer. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Not everybody is happy with the “Rust Belt boneyard” take on the city. Michael Allen at Next City says this is an example of the Rust Belt frontier myth:

The term “Rust Belt” itself exaggerates the physical decay and isolates the identity of many cities in static matter. Advocates, journalists and scholars have popularized the term, often endearingly, while perpetuating the emphasis on what makes these places frontiers of decline. Narratives of the Rust Belt are still focused on loss, rife with a cynical nostalgia and a nagging refusal to cast in with wealthier and less damaged cities. The singularity of the conditions of places like St. Louis and Detroit remains mythic fodder for would-be heroes of public policy, architectural design and public art. There are many Daniel Boones of the legacy cities.

Allen, however, isn’t writing just to cast stones at the show. Chris Haxel at the Riverfront Times is more emphatic, saying St. Louis deserves better:

Where the producers really stumble is their characterization of St. Louis as a foe on the level of alligators or hurricanes. Salvage City is rife with images of decay or ruin porn, a style that fails to tiptoe the line between appreciation and exploitation. The salvage scenes are ostensibly about rescuing doomed valuables, but in reality glorify theft, plunder and trespassing.

What he and the show’s producers have done — exploit the city in exchange for personal gain — is the definition of selling out. Not the artistic selling out that is inevitable when a band or artist enjoys mainstream success, but the kind that constitutes betrayal….Here they are on national television, selling the city as an “urban wasteland…ripe for plunder.” Ultimately, Salvage City disappoints because St. Louis deserves better.

I post this because I always find it interesting to see the reactions people have when their city is supposedly mischaracterized for the worst in contrast to the crickets when locals use whitewash and marketroid materials to promote their city to the world. Want to see a real myth? Check out “Here Is St. Louis” (if the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

There’s nothing per se wrong with this. It’s a classic city video that portrays St. Louis as an amalgam of family friendly fun and Portland-style hipness, with a dollop of local flavor a multi-culti thrown in. But is it a full and inclusive portrayal of the reality of St. Louis? I don’t think so. In effect, videos like this are the flip side of Salvage City, but few people ever think to critique them.

I don’t want to suggest too much collective outrage, however. The response to Salvage City is a bit muted from what I can tell. And Alderman Olgilvie strikes a better tone in telling folks to take a chill pill:

Our mini freak-out over Salvage City comes on the heels of several media panic attacks in 2013. Other examples include reactions to a New York Times look at crime and murder in St. Louis, and a humorous Art Forum takedown of an overwrought guided bus tour of St. Louis art venues that culminated with a violet-hour visit to SLAM’s expansion grand opening. The story, and the predictable freak-out. (See RFT‘s “Snobby New York Art Critic Scowls on St. Louis.”) Writers snapped our photo when the light wasn’t flattering, and we didn’t like it one bit.

What it boils down to is a little hypersensitivity about how St. Louis is portrayed in national media, positive or negative. It is this nagging worry that folks on one coast or the other will write us off the same way one of Kendzior’s article headlines refers to us, as flyover country.

Perhaps our New Year’s resolution should be a little bit thicker skin, and a renewed confidence in telling, and hearing, all the stories about our city: good, bad and indifferent. Rather than make one story carry the burden of representing all the facets of our city, let a thousand voices rise in song or storytelling, each with its own particular perspective.

The challenge for St. Louis and other such place is to develop a maturing sense of confidence about who they are. One that accepts the vicissitudes of the media, isn’t afraid to acknowledge legitimate faults, isn’t dependent on the approval of others for a sense of self-worth, and is willing to go its own way into the future.

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

The Broken Nature of Civic Leadership by Alex Ihnen

[ This is a topic I plan to return to in the blog, but I'm frequently surprised by the naivete of urbanists who assume that civic plans must be fundamentally rooted in a desire to make the city better, when in reality many of them are plain and simple cronyism and corruption. There's been a vast decline in civic leadership culture in recent years that has really torn of the veneer that used to cover up some of this. Alex Ihnen gives us a perfect example of the way things really work in cities in this piece that originally ran in nextStL. Sadly, this sort of thing is hardly limited to St. Louis or notorious corruption hotbeds like Chicago. It's standard operating procedure in way too many places - Aaron. ]

museum_delmar

Post-Dispatch reporters Stephen Deere and David Hunn have a must read article about corruption in St. Louis. Though it's not where you might expect to find it, the story lays bare the incestuous nature of the city's politics, "civic leaders" and cultural institutions they govern.

The details from the Post-Dispatch are bad enough: the Missouri History Museum purchased a failed barbecue restaurant at 5863 Delmar Boulevard from former city mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. for $875,000 in 2006. A search of the city's property database shows the site to be the only property owned by the museum other than their home in Forest Park and the library and research center on Skinker Boulevard. The museum also paid $101,000 in legal fees for the purchase, as well as $16,000 in unpaid taxes and then paid to demolish the failed restaurant. That's a total of $992,000+ for one acre. Bosely Jr. and a business partner bought the then 1.65 acre lot and vacant McDonald's in 1999 for $150,000. The lot was divided and homes were built facing Enright Avenue. Bosely Jr. acquired $730,000 in loans, including $255,000 from the city from 1999-2004. If you're keeping track, that's $880,000 total.

The sale occured without a professional appraisal and without the property ever being listed for sale. As reported by the P-D, the chair of the museum board stated that members of the board were real estate professionals and so no appraisal was needed. Specifically, Realtor Elizabeth Robb is on the museum board. She claims that the property is worth more than $800,000 today. The lot is adjacent to the old Delmar High School purchased by Blueberry Hill owner and Loop Trolley developer Joe Edwards in 2004 for $333,000. That building will serve as a trolley car storage and maintenance facility.

You should read Deere and Hunn's P-D story. And you should definitely read Bill McClellan's absolutely brutal take on the issue. He propsoses that Robb and Archibald buy the property from the museum for $850,000 – "no need for an appraisal" he says.

Now that you know the details, you should know that this isn't an isolated incidient, a one-off, not-meant-to-be-reported issue. The list of names that govern St. Louis, the city, the county, its cultural institutions and civic efforts, is frighteningly small. Are we to believe that these are the only people capable of getting things done? That there's simply no other way? That the city and region would stagnate and wallow in its current state if these community luminaries didn't serve us by cutting million dollar deals for vacant lots on Delmar?

It's simply beyond frustrating that our civic institutions are governed by people who continue to show that they can't govern. Perhaps it's not unique to St. Louis that the same names pop up again and again on park boards, school boards, museum boards, non-profits and other civic efforts (think Edward Jones Dome, the effort to remake the Arch grounds and the coming campaign for more local tax money). Perhaps it's not a unique civic failure, but it is our failure.

Corrupt transactions like this make it difficult to support local institutions. Just last year, the P-D reported that the Science Center paid executives more than $260,000 in bonues. It employed nine vice-presidents. Each of the institutions included in the publicly funded zoo-museum taxing district (St. Louis City and County) paid their executive directors between $440-640K in salary, while often adding free housing and vehicle allowances of up to $1,000 per month. These are large institutions and require experienced professionals to run them and they should be well compensated. But it's clear that in more than one instance, the individuals sitting on the boards of these institutons have willfully neglected their responsiblity to the public.

Oh, and if you're not particularly happy about the history museum land deal, the issue at the science center, or the Ram's lease, or the Arch grounds, or… well, sorry. The next time you turn around and see that the city, or one of its cultural institutions is embarking on some bold new endeavor, you will see the same cast of civic actors on stage, the same backroom, off-the-books deals will have already been made, and St. Louis will continue to suffer as a result.

This post originally appeared in nextStL on September 18, 2012.

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Urbanoscope

I am a transplant to Louisville, and I must admit that the culture here has been difficult to adapt to, although I still try. There are many things I like about this city, but in terms of jobs, ambition, and looking toward the future, I have to say, these results are not surprising. I don’t get the impression, on the whole, that Louisville wants to move ahead. Every city has its faults. Clannish immaturity is Louisville’s. I hope that Louisville can retain its character while simultaneously opening up. It may not be possible. Young, educated workers do not want to recreate the 1970s in their work environment. I’m sorry if that’s harsh, but it’s the truth. – User “cccc2222″ commenting on Courier-Journal story about Louisville’s failure to achieve its economic ambitions

I’m going to be on Chicago Public Radio’s 848 Monday at 9am talking transportation as part of their “Mayor Monday” series. They might even be taking listener calls, so check it out if you’re in Chicago.

Also, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on quality of place and product at an event on Building Prosperity in the Greater Akron Region on January 18th, sponsored by Greater Ohio and the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce. There will be a lot of great speakers including Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities, Julia Taylor of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, along with many state and local leaders. If you’re in the region and want more information, click here.

How’s this for an offer? The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago is looking for people to host house party gatherings to discuss issues about the next mayoral race. If you’ve got a group who would be interested, let them know and they’ll supply staff and resources. If you support CNT and their policy recommendations, they’ll actually do the work in educating your friends on them.

The National Film Board of Canada created an interactive site called Out My Window showing panoramic views from residential high rises and such with 13 families living in them in various cities around the world.

Top Stories

1. Ben Schmitt: Broken windows in the Motor City: A Detroit exit journal. A reporter talks about giving up on his plan to stake a claim in Detroit’s revival, and moving to Pittsburgh. This is a really tough story. “Those people who helped me that night, as we waited more than two hours for the cops to arrive, illustrate the fight inside many residents desperate to turn Detroit around. For a while I believed in that fight. I purchased a home in one of the city’s stable neighborhoods nine years earlier because it felt real. I scoffed at other colleagues and editors who drove to work on the freeways and never spent a minute in the city they covered. But when I heard my daughters’ screams that evening, I knew I was gone. No more compromises.”

2. Gov. Ed Rendell: The NFL Thinks We’re a Nation of Wussies – Not urban related per se, but I liked this piece. – “To call off this game because of snow is further evidence of the ‘wussification’ of America. We seem to have lost our boldness, our courage, our sense of adventure and that frontier spirit that made this country the greatest nation in the world. A little snow, a potential traffic tie-up, a long trip home caused us to cancel a football game? Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, said that if football were played in China, 60,000 Chinese would have walked through the snow to the stadium doing advanced calculus as they did so. He’s probably right, and it’s no secret why the Chinese are dominating on the world stage.”

3. Ed Glaeser: America’s Revival Begins in Its Cities

4. Demography Matters pointed me at a very interesting blog called Spike Japan that talks about a side of Japan we rarely see, a side falling into Rust Belt ruin – “It may come as a shock to almost all of you living outside of Japan, and to some of you living in the center of its big cities, that as we approach the summer of 2009, swathes of the country are in ruins. It came as a shock to me, too, I have to confess, having lived for almost all of the last decade in the bubble of central Tokyo and only venturing outside occasionally to get to the airport, nearby beaches, and old friends in the mountains.”

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The trailer for a forthcoming documentary about the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, which was designed by starchitect Minoru Yamasaki – architect of the World Trade Center – and demolished in 1972. The trailer looks very interesting, so I’ll look forward to seeing the whole thing. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

World and National Roundup

Miller-McCune: A road less traveled – Have we reached “peak travel” in the industrialized world?

Human Transit: Do roads pay for themselves? – Jarrett Walker looks at a recent study on the matter by the liberal non-profit US PIRG.

Daily Mail: Eco-light bulb cost to triple as ban on old style bulbs kicks in – well surprise, surprise.

Jim Russell: The End of Migration

The Atlantic: Dire States – more bad news about state finances

Alex Marshall: Distinctiveness: A Big Secret to Cities’ Success

Tim Campbell: Cities on the Prowl

Ed Glaeser: Behind the population shift – He credits it to housing regulation.

Business Insider: The 11 State Pension Funds That Will Run Out of Money – No surprise Illinois is #1, but Indiana is #3, and it also scores poorly in many other pension rankings though the pension situation does not even seem to be on the radar in the state. Odd.

New Geography: Washington opens the virtual office door

City Roundups

Next American City: Interview with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

LA Times: In a region that imports water, much goes to waste – A discussion of how rain that does fall in LA is basically just channeled off into the ocean instead of captured and reused.

Richard Longworth: A New Year for the Midwest

NYT: Chicago to redevelop US Steel site on lakefront

Chicago Tribune: Chicago’s transportation infrastructure weakening.

Chicago Tribune: Will Chicago think big after Daley?

Chicago Reporter: Loopholes – Despite the huge investment in TIF money, central Chicago actually lost jobs.

Megan Cottrell: Did public housing destroy Chicago’s black voter base? – I’m convinced there’s a Pulitzer for the person who tracks down where the former residents of Chicago’s demolished public housing projects went. A have a friend who is a cop in Gary who says there has been a big influx of ex-CHA residents there. Dittos a friend in Danville, Illinois. And I’ve heard similar reports out of Iowa. It immediately raises the question, was demolition of the projects less about helping the people who lived there than about a deliberate deracination program?

Indy Star: New projects could boost city’s entertainment districts – Quotes Yours Truly plus Kevin Kastner of Urban Indy.

Indianapolis Business Journal: Indianapolis startup scene gains momentum

Cleveland Plain Dealer: In hard times, Cleveland blacks’ views about immigrants shifting

NYT: Trying to overcome the stubborn blight of vacancies in Youngstown

Audrey Russo: Immigration and In-Migration in Pittsburgh

Pittsblog: The New Pittsburgh

Detroit Free Press: Risky best cost Detroit pension funds $480 million and Where the Detroit pension funds went wrong

NYT: In Michigan, Hamtramck pleads for a bankruptcy option

Welcome to Cleveburgh

Chris Briem had a great op-ed piece in the Post-Gazette this week touting a super-regional “Cleveburgh” corridor running from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. If a true mega-regional concept is ever really going to take off, the first step is probably this sort of cross-metro collaboration between neighbors. Here’s Briem’s Cleveburgh map:

Will the Boondoggles Never Cease?

UrbanCincy reports that in it’s latest five year construction plan, the Ohio Department of Transportation, an agency that doesn’t have enough funds to maintain the roads it has in a state in the middle of an acute economic and fiscal crisis, has allocated $809M to extend I-74 through Hamilton County.

Huh? I can’t believe anyone would put this high on a needs list, if indeed it is needed at all. I certainly don’t think so. Hamilton County actually has fewer people today than it did in 1970s, the region is growing more slowly than the national average, and it may already have more miles of six-eight lane freeway than any peer city in America.

Here’s a great chance for new Gov. Kasich to show his conservative bona fides. He cancelled the less expensive 3C rail project as something that state couldn’t afford. (I was also not a fan of that project). Here’s another one he can kill.

I’m a big believer in building infrastructure, and yes, even in building more roads where appropriate. But even among nominally fiscal conservative governors, it’s tough to find any highway boondoggle big enough that they are willing to cancel it. Here’s a perfect opportunity for Kasich to distinguish himself and step up to the plate.

Chicago Lakefront Trail

I think Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure is great, but it’s always great to get nice videos that come from other places too. Here’s one that Joe Peterangelo put together of the Chicago lakefront trail. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Post Script

Here’s another amazing early film, this done in 1897 by Thomas Edison of the intersection of State and Madison in Chicago. Hat tip How to Be a Retronaut. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Matthew Mourning: Random Thoughts on the Cult of Destruction in St. Louis

In anticipation of a temporary move to Baltimore (more on that later), I was using Google Streetview to surf the city—extensively so.

After an hour or so of clicking and zooming and dropping the yellow Streetview man all over the city, several emotions came over me: shock, admiration, depression, and hope.

Shock, primarily, because I cannot believe how intact the city of Baltimore is. I found a fairly large area on the northern periphery of downtown that seemed to have been cleared and replaced with a series of modern housing developments. Yet, for the most part, Baltimore’s signature (and unrelenting) row houses are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. The density and population capacity the city must have had at its height are simply astounding! Even knowing something of Baltimore’s history and architectural vernacular, I was still caught off guard. This was where the admiration came in; at the power of cities working at their best to produce a better quality of life simply by being cities. By being walkable. By having services located nearby. By offering opportunities for a tight-knit community to form. While Baltimore’s rows seem more monotonous than, say, St. Louis’s more architecturally diverse vintage 1880s streetscapes, even they offer a level of democratic individuality.

(I know I’m romanticizing a lot, but keep in mind I’m speaking of cities at their utmost ideal; the fulfillment of their potential).

The depression took me upon seeing whole blocks of these rows boarded, vacant. No cars, no trees, no pedestrians lining the streets. Just walls of row houses sitting vacant. I could “hear” the eerie silence even behind the computer screen, hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I got to thinking: how has Baltimore not torn out more of these rows and created park space or built new housing or just left them fallow, waiting for a time when investment would bring something new? Do whole abandoned blocks not cause issues with surrounding occupied blocks? Do they not pull the image of the city down? This, mind you, was my gut reaction, even as an avowed preservationist. Of course, I was happy to see them remain—thus the hope that later kicked in—but even I was wondering how they could have been spared the wrecking ball.

Then I remembered that I’m a St. Louisan; an automatic member of the cult of destruction.

My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse. Often the replacement is meant to serve the purpose of moving or storing automobiles. This is the city’s greatest power because it is the simplest task at its disposal. Vacant buildings and lots provide convenient opportunities for combining narrow urban lots to form parking lots and garages. A 1920s-era bond issue already widened most roads to an extent likely even then excessive; certainly this was so by the time the region’s vast interstate network was introduced. So a declined city that wants to better move automobiles through itself need only maintain its roads and ensure every new development has ample parking.

The more and more I experience cities, the less and less I am willing to accept St. Louis’s exceptional status as a destroyer of its most unique asset, its built environment.

Check out this recent thread on Skyscraper Page, but especially this 1950s-era photo of a recently-constructed Pruitt-Igoe complex at Jefferson and Cass:

You might see where this is going: I’m going to rail on the brand of urban renewal represented by Pruitt-Igoe. It’s out of scale, tore down a dozen blocks in the making, and apparently was not very well-built to serve the population it intended to serve. Sure.

But look around! Pruitt-Igoe’s decline certainly had a strong influence on its surroundings, but no one at the St. Louis Housing Authority held a gun to the city’s head and demanded they do this to the surrounding neighborhoods!  Of the hundreds and hundreds of structures shown in the photo, nearly all have been demolished, including the 33 11-story Pruitt-Igoe towers themselves.

Look to the south of the site (bottom and bottom-left in the photo). We see, in order, Cole, Carr, then Easton, today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Row after row of cast iron storefronts—gone, no matter how irreplaceable they might have been! Look to the west (far left in the photo), today’s Jeff Vanderlou with apparently beautiful rows of mid- to late-19th Century houses, shops, and churches.

North (top and top right of the photo) shows the portion of St. Louis Place that’s now an “urban prairie”. This site was already tattered when plans circulated in the early 1990s to place a golf course and gated community on the site. Of course, since there was a plan, even an unfunded and ill-conceived one, the buildings came down. Now, naturally, Paul McKee, Jr., of the North Side development, is picking and choosing which of these structures represent “salvageable” “legacy properties”. In other words, we can reasonably expect yet more clearance of a good number of properties in this photo that have clung to life over decades of turbulent change.

New Orleans has endured decades of decline, like St. Louis, and, recently, one of the nation’s worst natural disasters ever recorded, unlike St. Louis. It is said that 33 percent of New Orleans’ structures are officially “blighted” circa 2009. Certainly blight in either city is formidable and a problem that needs to be addressed sensitively. The answer, however, is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant. No New Orleans neighborhood–not even the most-storm damaged–is as empty as St. Louis Place. New Orleans did replace old neighborhoods with a series of low-rise public housing complexes, but their surroundings did not become the urban blank slates witnessed in St. Louis.

We must look to our peer cities and realize that our history and heritage, but moreover our urban built environment are our greatest assets. We need a comprehensive plan, backed by the force of law, to protect our remaining assets and to encourage the growth of new ones bound for their own protection one day. We need to make sure we no longer take lightly the piecemeal (or wholesale) destruction of our built environment for something less or worse than what was there.

We need to recognize that our auto-centric infrastructure not only destroyed neighborhoods upon its introduction. Our interstates and oversize roads continue to provide barriers to pedestrians and still lower adjacent property values and, of course, are still ugly and disrespectful of their urban context.

We need to be bold and comprehensive with regard to stabilizing and strengthening our built environment. Planners and designers of Pruitt-Igoe had the wrong idea–the superblock, the identical hulking towers, the clearance projects–but they had the optimism, the sense of direction, and the boldness and comprehensiveness nailed. Today’s stock of leaders in our city are diffident, conservative, fearful or unwilling to change anything for the better.

We need new zoning and urban design guidelines to ensure that neighborhoods such as those pictured surrounding the Pruitt-Igoe complex can repopulate and spawn a new, bold identity. While Paul McKee has apparently stepped up to the plate to do so, this blog has communicated before its lack of faith in the city to assure something bold and truly beneficial to the area, aesthetically or socially speaking.

So when I use this blog to harp on a business needlessly taking down two buildings for outdoor dining, or a gas station in Hyde Park demolishing a vacant but beautiful historic commercial row for expansion, or yet another church ruthlessly ripping out mixed use buildings for a parking lot…I’m thinking of the photograph above. If only we had pro-urban rather than anti-urban planning! None of this would happen. There would not need to be so many individual battles; prospective parking lot pavers would encounter difficulties, roadblocks in making our city less walkable, less enjoyable, more ugly, less human. The photograph shows we have suffered too much, too long, too deeply.

We can solidify St. Louis as an urban environment. We must!

This post originally appeared in Dotage St. Louis. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Urbanoscope

People – real people – want narrative. They want to be inspired and be able to see themselves as having a place in the stories they witness. They don’t care about graphs, charts, business plans, 180,000 new jobs, capital investment totals, compound annual growth rates, MSAs, multipliers, and on and on. Get that stuff into a dossier for CEOs if you are trying to attract corporations, but get it off line and get some visually stunning and masterfully crafted narratives about Columbus and her residents online for real people to see. – Mike Reed on a Columbus Underground thread about that city’s brand

My Labor Day open thread on what successful low income neighborhoods look like prompted a ton of great discussion. If you didn’t see it, I suggest checking it out.

Top Stories

1. Greg Hinz: After Daley’s Retirement, Chicago Needs a New Approach – “What Chicago really needs now is fewer ideas and orders from the top and more proposals and initiatives from the bottom. In the same way that this city’s economy is much better at applying than innovating, its political culture needs to be opened up so that new, better policies can be implemented. ”

2. Michael Lewis: Beware of Greeks bearing bonds – Not really urbanist related, but a great read. “As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it. ”

3. Streetsblog: The Financial Foolishness of Christie’s ARC Gambit

Indianapolis Parking Meters

One particularly insidious part of the Indianapolis parking meter contract is the way closure penalties work. On hearing that meters can closed 6% of the time, you might think, How could the city possible shut down meters in the city more than that? The key is that this is not an aggregate system wide number, but applies on a meter by meter basis. Per the contract:

“Temporary Closure Allowance” means, with respect to a particular Metered Parking Space and a particular Year, Six Percent (6%) of the number of Days (rounded up to the nearest Day) during such Year that such Metered Parking Space was a designated Metered Parking Space for Metered Parking System Operations… [emphasis added]

The city might overall only close meters 1% of the time, but a major road construction project could knock out a mile of meters – and that would be $15-$20, every spot, every day, all summer long. Yikes!

I’ve previously suggesting using revenue bonds for the meter upgrades or doing a transfer to Citizens Energy similar to the water company deal. A commenter on the IBJ made another interesting suggestion: get the money from the Indiana Public Employees Retirement Fund. Pensions love long term, cash generating assets and frequently invest in privatization deals. Why not cut out the middle man? PERF would also be more likely to structure a true partnership with the city than a private company.

More Radical Racial Segregation Cartography

The previous piece I linked showing a map of racial segregation in Chicago from Radical Cartography prompted Eric Fischer (of locals vs. tourists fame) to do an entire series of dozens of cities across America. Here’s his map of New York:

Check out the whole set.

World and National Roundup

Toronto Globe and Mail: China’s new boom towns

WSJ: High speed rail stalls

Stateline: States pressed to fix local water systems

The Atlantic: Why Oklahoma City Could Represent the Future of America

Next American City: How Houston Became a Global City

Felix Salmon: A unified theory of New York biking

Washington City Paper: Inside DC’s Food Truck Wars

The Economist: The Big Sell: Asset Leasing in Chicago.

Chicago Tribune: Daley the Builder leaves unfinished business

Chicago Sun-Times: Suit: Firm negligent in analysis of parking meter deal – Someone filed a class-action lawsuit against William Blair for faulty analysis in the now infamous Chicago parking meter lease.

Terry Teachout: Disaster for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

NYT: Thieves cart off St. Louis bricks – having already stripped all the metal from houses, thieves in St. Louis are now hauling away the bricks themselves.

St. Louis Arch Grounds Competition

UrbanStl first reported that the MVVA design team won the international competition to design the grounds surrounding the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. UrbanStl previously posted a full review of their proposal. Here’s a video of MVVA’s concept. (If the video doesn’t display click here).

More Metra Follies

Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail system, continues to live up to its reputation as “The transit agency that can say No.” This week it was “No” to quiet cars on trains. Add this to no credit cards (until the state forced them), no wi-fi, no electronic ticketing, and more.

Also, the Tribune reports on chaos and angry riders as Metra restricts service as part of its poorly conceived UP-North Line bridge replacement project. Don’t worry, the riders will have plenty of time to adjust to the new reality – eight years in fact. I hate to say I told you so, but….

Time Lapsing

Here’s another short but cool time lapse video, this one via Copenhagenize, that appears to be a promo for a conference of some sort. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Cargo Bikes of Copenhagen

Clarence and the team at Streetfilms have done it again. Here’s a great video of the cargo bikes of Copenhagen. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Historic Billboards of Chicago

Thanks to Lee Bey for linking to this wonderful 1942 promotional video touting outdoor advertising in Chicago. Very interesting. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Postscript

Last week was (PARK)ing Day across America, sponsored by Architecture for Humanity. This involves installing temporary park areas in parking spaces in cities. This is a photo of the installation in Indianapolis. It features a shade built from recycled RCA Dome roof material, designed by Wil Marquez of Wpurpose, fabricated by iFAB, and funded by People for Urban Progress.

Note the bagged parking meter in this photo. If privatization goes through, that will be $20/day in contract penalties please.

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Mike Doyle: Meet Me In St. Louis, Not Milwaukee

Recently, two other fine Midwestern cities, St. Louis, MO, and Milwaukee, WI, launched tourism campaigns aimed at attracting Chicago visitors. Raging urbanist that I am, I love spending time in nearby metropoli, and have a particular fondness for our sister city to the north. It’s the Windy City’s smaller, quieter, less-flashy Lake Michigan alternative–and that’s why Milwaukee’s current tourism campaign has me wondering whether the city’s overselling itself in a potentially damaging way.

This summer, the Brew City’s ads are posted on Chicago ‘L’ trains and buses with powerful headlines claiming things like, “If I had a week, I’d spend it in Milwaukee.” Follow up those ads with a browse of the VisitMilwaukee website and you get more hubris-induced marketing messages claiming the city sits “At the Intersection of Water and Fun“–not to mention celebration, success, and value, too.

Considering that most Chicagoans have likely been to Milwaukee before–and, not for nothing, live in Chicago, already–you have to wonder why Milwaukee’s tourism board would think the ads would be effective here. I mean, I enjoy Bayview restaurants, the Art Museum, and the Domes as much as the next Windy Citizen. Send me to State Fair or Summerfest for a weekend and I’m all set.

But a week? Really? I have never met a Chicagoan willing to spend a week of valuable vacation time in Milwaukee and I probably never will. When we have that much time to get away, we tend to head for O’Hare and Midway airports to really get away–usually from the Midwest entirely, much less from just the Lake Michigan shoreline.

And call me a stuck-up Chicagoan, but those “At the Intersection of Water and…” tourism messages sure sound a lot like Chicago, to me. (Well, except maybe “value.”) Reading them on the VisitMilwaukee website, I couldn’t help thinking how generic and misplaced they were.

VisitMilwaukee sure doesn’t sound like it knows who Milwaukee is, what its values are, or where it wants to be. You can’t tell potential visitors–especially potential visitors from a world city like Chicago–that your town’s worth a week of their time, and then support your grandiose claim with a series of generic marketing messages that could have just as easily been written about any other Great Lakes city. If there’s anything unique or special communicated about Milwaukee in these tourism ads, I don’t see it. And as a result, even as someone who likes the place, they don’t particularly make we want to visit it.

***

I am dying to visit St. Louis, however. Unlike Milwaukee, I’ve never been there, but I’ve been curious about the city since moving to Chicago in 2003. I always say I want to visit, I just never seem to get around to it. Imagine my surprise to discover that hiding behind the KidnappedChicagoan ads festooning CTA transit vehicles (and at least at the moment, positively peppering the Adams/Wabash ‘L’ station) was a cleverly covert tourism campaign for St. Louis.

You don’t know that when you see the ads. They don’t tell you anything except that an average Chicagoan has been stolen away to an interesting place–that it’s not far away, he’s not angry at being kidnapped there, and you’d want to be him if only you could figure out where he’s been taken. Holy Interactive Interest Raiser, Batman!

Every time I saw these ads I thought, “Dammit, I keep meaning to go to that website!” When I finally did, I was greeted by a curiously familiar map with clickable push pins, and an invitation to click through to try and figure out my kidnapped compatriot’s current location. Mousing over each push-pin opened a photo and capsule summary about an interesting tourist destination–a museum, or historic site. Or an arch, for that matter.

I chuckled when I saw the message that sat below the map:

“Okay, so you’ve figured out which city—St. Louis. Der. But admit it. You were a little surprised by all the stuff there is to do in the Gateway City.”

You know what? I was. And without the help of an overblown, generically empty ad campaign, either. Unlike Milwaukee’s currently hard-to-believe tourism claims, the soft-shoed Explore St. Louis approach sends potential visitors on an Internet adventure to learn the city’s glories for themselves. Did I mention the Foursquare badges for checking in at locations he’s visited? (Earlier this week I sang the praises of Chicago’s own Foursquare-based tourism campaign.)

By mischievously whetting their whistle for adventure and then letting them learn about the city from their own task-oriented click-throughs, Explore St. Louis’s Kidnapped Chicagoan campaign gets potential visitors to arrive at the conclusion that the city is an interesting place on their own. (While I’m at it, feel free to check out the ongoing CityToRiver campaign to rebuild the urban fabric of the St. Louis waterfront.)

And in my book, letting the wonders of your city speak for themselves beats unstrategically overselling it any day.

Mike Doyle is a communications strategist and scribe of the CHICAGO CARLESS blog. A native of New York, he fell in love with Chicago and moved there for life in 2003. But he still has no plans to learn to drive a car.

This post originally appeared in CHICAGO CARLESS. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Urbanoscope

“It took many decades for neighborhoods and commercial districts to decline, so we have to recognize that it will take a long time for these places to be improved. It takes even longer when we don’t know what we are doing, and we fail to learn from previous practice, not to mention best practice, and we put in minimal amounts of money so that it makes improvement very hard to come about, and we don’t direct money in ways where it can have great impact so that money gets wasted.” – Richard Layman

Top Stories

Next American City: Who Says What’s Livable? – Vincent Valk explores the issue of livability in transportation planning.

NYT Magazine: The Freegan Establishment – A very interesting look at squatters in Buffalo trying to live without using money by choice. There is definitely some creative ferment going on in that area.

WSJ: Rivals Secretly Finance Opposition to Wal-Mart – As it turns out, a lot of the “grass roots” opposition to Wal-Marts is really astroturf.

James Sanders/Design Observer: Adventure Playground: John V. Lindsay and the Transformation of Modern New York – Long, but very interesting take on the transformation of New York from gritty workshop to glamorous playground.

Locals vs. Tourists

Eric Fischer, using the geocoding information on Flickr, created maps of photographs loaded by locals vs. those loaded by out of towners, presumably tourists. Here’s the San Francisco one:

There are many, many more cities, so check out the complete set if you are interested. (h/t The Map Room)

World and National Roundup

NYT: India’s Clogged Rail Lines Stall Economic Progress

Egypt Today: Downtown Cairo’s Extreme Makeover

Jim Russell: The best talent escapes gravity

Ryan Streeter: City State

Politico: Pols turn on labor unions

NYT Economix: Saving money by slashing prison spending

The Atlantic: Gentrification and Its Discontents

True Economics: Organizational systems and uncertainty

Michael Hicks: An education-related economic model

Terry Teachout: The Pasadena Symphony and the Zero Option – Do regional orchestras still make artistic sense?

Brain Pickings: A (Type)Face for Every City in the World – some very cool typographic logo designs.

NYT: Licensed and Illegal Vans Fight It Out in New York – sometimes literally!

Incredible pension craziness from New York state: State wants to borrow from pension fund, to pay the pension fund

Technology and the City: Minneapolis about to surpass Detroit as the Midwest #2 metro economy

A UIC study shows that intersections with red light cameras in Chicago have more crashes than those without.

Detroit News: Suburbs struggle with industrial blight

Joshua Jamerson: Who controls Detroit’s image?

Lastly, here’s a trio on demographic change in our cities: Atlanta: Minority populations make strides in metro Atlanta demographics; Dallas: ‘Black Flight’ Changing the Makeup of Dallas Schools; Detroit: Black flight is the new worry for Detroit

More City to River

Daron over at St. Louis/Elsewhere takes a look at the idea of removing I-70 through downtown St. Louis to reconnect downtown with the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi River. To show the absurdity of having I-70 in that location, he asks us to imagine Chicago cut off from its lakefront parks by an interstate viaduct on Michigan Ave. It’s ain’t pretty.

Of course Chicago does have Lake Shore Drive…

Gorgeous Chicago Travel Video

Signal vs. Noise linked to two phenomenal videos about Chicago. Dating from 1948 and shot in gorgeous Technicolor, these were part of an MGM series of shorts called Traveltalks. Here’s one of them. (Click the previous link if it does not display for you).

Detroit 187

Apparently ABC is going to be running a new series in the fall called Detroit 187. Time’s Detroit blog posted the trailer for this thoroughly embarrassing concept. (If the video doesn’t display click here).

Julio the Sewer Guy

BLDGBLOG pointed me at this very interesting interview with a Mexico city sewer diver. Apparently, Mexico City has a group of these guys who dive into the sewers to clean them out and do repairs. Yes, there are photos:

Post Script

I was recently privileged to take part in a VIP architecture tour of Columbus, Indiana, which I’ll note in the interest of full disclosure was partially sponsored. For those who don’t know, Columbus has one of the most important collections of modern architecture in the world, including six National Historic Landmarks. While there I got to see a preview of one of them, the Miller House and Garden. It was acquired by the Indianapolis Museum of Art and will open to public tours next year.

Alas, photography is still not allowed at the Miller House yet, but I can share in the next few Urbanoscopes a few interior and other photos of spaces not generally open to the public. Here is one of the First Baptist Church, designed by Harry Weese, also a National Historic Landmark:

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

City Profile: St. Louis by UrbanSTL

[ I write about some cities more than others because I know them better. In an effort to broaden my geographic scope, I'm kicking off today what I hope to be the first in an on going series of city profiles written by a leading urbanist blogger in the city in question. First up is St. Louis with a great piece by Alex Ihnen of urbanSTL. Be sure to click on over and check out his blog and discussion forums - Aaron. ]

The popular image of St. Louis is deeply flawed. The numbers are cliché. Crime, population, education, all largely red-herrings. St. Louis metro has 1,000,000 more residents than Las Vegas, more than Baltimore, Denver, Indianapolis and San Antonio. St. Louis is safer than Salt Lake City, Blacksburg, VA and Toledo, OH. The “city” (1/6 of the metro population) is smaller than Tulsa and Wichita, more “dangerous” than Gary, Indiana and the police and public schools are controlled by the state. Together, the city and county would produce the 6th largest city in the nation. This combination of a small city in a big region skews statistics for the city only.

Much of the image and numbers are an ugly legacy of St. Louis and Missouri politics. The state took control of the police force during the Civil War for fear of insurrection. The city thought building roads and other amenities in the County to be an “undue burden” and the two separated in 1876. This, and subsequent decisions led to 91 incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County today. Fractured government has amplified the worst externalities of local control, racially biased municipal housing covenants and zoning served to racially segregate the St. Louis area, hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue is forgone in an effort to attract car dealerships and the next Wal-Mart to one side of the road as opposed to the other. Such issues will continue to exert influence on the future of St. Louis.

But St. Louis, to its residents and any eyes-open visitor is something else entirely. St. Louis is: an increasingly lively downtown with a wonderful sculpture garden, what may be the world’s best playground at City Museum and a National Park; one of the nation’s largest urban parks with an incredible art museum, history museum, science center, and zoo, all of which you can attend for free; home to world-renowned universities and research facilities such as Washington University, Saint Louis University, and others. St. Louis is a center for plant science research with the Missouri Botanical Garden, Danforth Plan Science Center, and Monsanto.


City Museum – Photo by Serolynne

But then that all sounds as though it could come from the St. Louis Regional Civic Organization for Progress, Development and Synergy. OK, that’s a fictitious organization. More than any other place I’ve been, St. Louisians do not define their city by its institutions or attractions, but by the life one can lead here. The small things and small places define St. Louis. Somehow, many of these things seem hidden. With just more than five years now spent here, I have only glimpsed the wealth of place St. Louis possesses.

Lafayette Square is one such place. So unexpected when I moved to St. Louis, and so quintessentially historic that it successfully doubled as a Chicago street of brownstones in the movie Up in the Air. With million-dollar Victorian homes Lafayette Square isn’t subtle. For that we go to Benton Park, McKinley Heights, Tower Grove South, and more, all distinct neighborhoods, all incredibly intact. Individually, each one offers a great place to live and a great destination to visit; collectively they create an incomparable city.


Lafayette Square

The private streets and mansions of corporate titans of industries past have received due recognition, and they’re a sight to see, but the city is built with red brick. The residents of the city live in red brick. In fact a feature-length documentary titled “Brick by Chance and by Fortune” is in full production. St. Louis grew consistently fast in the first decades of the 20th century and as a result is seems each block and each neighborhood offers a clear narrative on development. The definitive source detailing this story is “St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape” by Eric Sandweiss. However, anyone can travel from Soulard to University City via Fox Park, Compton Heights, The Grove, and The Hill and witness the story of St. Louis evolving before their eyes.


Fox Park – Photo by Mark Groth

Today, many are investing in these neighborhoods, the site of rehabs is common and home prices are going up. One place that may serve to highlight the changes in the urban core of St. Louis is The Grove, aka Forest Park Southeast. Home prices have doubled in the past decade and storefronts vacant for twice as long are springing to life.

Small improvements are everywhere. St. Louis is being rebuilt brick by brick, the older corner stores are seeing new life, century-old homes are being rehabbed to the highest standards and the mansions of the city’s private streets once again command multi-million dollar prices. Retail storefronts from Morganford to Locust are coming back to life and warehouses suitable for loft conversion are today in short supply. Historic preservation has been the engine of the St. Louis renaissance and the progressive state historic tax credit program is largely to thank.


Compton Heights – Photo by Flickr/matthewdiller

Civic institutions are adding to the development boom. The central St. Louis Public Library is beginning a $50M renovation. The St. Louis Art Museum is adding a $130M David Chipperfield designed wing and renovating the original 1904 World’s Fair building. Saint Louis University has added a $66M research building to its medical campus. The nascent CORTEX research district is home to Solae’s new $40M corporate headquarters and a collaborative $36M research facility. The adjacent Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital medical campus has seen incredible growth as well. The $235M BioMed 21 has just been completed, along with several other significant buildings. Barnes-Jewish Healthcare is currently constructing a $75M headquarters adjacent to the medical campus and a new $170M Shriners Hospital is soon to break ground nearby. Finally, at the Washington University Danforth Campus, at the western end of Forest Park, a building boom continues. Several $100M have brought a new student union, 600,000 square feet of lab and teaching space for the School of Engineering, new student residence halls and other academic buildings in the past decade.


Rendering of BioMed 21

Preservationists and urbanists often focus on organic growth while single “transformational” projects are shunned. After all, here in St. Louis the “silver bullet” projects are infamous. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project stood for fewer than 20 years, from 1954-1972. When the complex was imploded Charles Jencks, an architectural historian, concluded it was “the day Modern architecture died.” The 57 acre site remains vacant today. St. Louis’ enthusiasm for “urban renewal” projects and the success in receiving federal funding has left many scars on the landscape. Multiple Interstates severed neighborhoods and separated the city from its river, the entire Mill Creek Valley neighborhood was demolished and the area remains incredibly underdeveloped, the 18-block Gateway Mall was clear-cut and remains mostly unplanned and underutilized, save a recent project. Even Saarinen’s iconic Arch and the surrounding Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a National Park, is unfinished. There are plans and proposals to correct some of this, such as an international competition to redo the Arch grounds and a citizen group named City to River looking to reconnect the city with the Arch grounds and river by removing I-70. Recent projects like City Garden have shown how to do major civic projects right.


City Garden – Photo Flickr/SenzEnina

Yet the biggest idea by far for St. Louis is Paul McKee’s $8B vision for the near North Side. Dubbed “NorthSide,” McKee has purchased more than 1,000 city lots, most measuring the familiar 25ft x 126ft of the common St. Louis residential lot. The city owns another 1,000 lots that would presumably be part of the project as well. The project area is more than 1,500 acres and includes plans for four job centers, one at the arterial roads on the north side of the project area, one at a new I-64/22nd Street interchange, one at the landing of the new Mississippi River Bridge and one at the Pruitt-Igoe site. The only project of this size in the U.S. is the Stapleton development in Denver, CO. However, Stapleton was built on the site of a vacated airport and not in a central city with many remaining historic structures, thousands of residents and infrastructure dating from the 1880’s. The North Side project has been very controversial and its sheer size makes it a daunting proposition.

From 700 square foot brick shotgun rehabs to an $8B development vision, St. Louis is practical and ambitious. That civic optimism and the pulse of St. Louis may be best reflected by the local blogging community. There are independent blogs posting weekly and covering Mid-Century Modern architecture, transportation, the city’s neighborhoods, downtown, preservation, one promoting the city’s continued progress, one lamenting its loses, one comparing St. Louis to “elsewhere” and on and on. As mentioned above, blogger Michael Allen exposed the NorthSide plan on his blog Ecology of Absence before anyone else was paying attention. Built St. Louis is a veritable photographic encyclopedia of the city. Steve Patterson’s Urban Review STL has been a staple for years. Several others serve as catch-all blogs, attempting to offer a wide-view of urbanism in St. Louis. My own writings appear at UrbanSTL. Few cities enjoy this depth and breadth of interest. To me, it’s indicative of St. Louis’s “wealth of place.”


Benton Park – Photo by Mark Groth

St. Louis is witnessing incredible development, but some big challenges remain. The most serious challenge is political and rooted in an 1876 vote by the city to secede from St. Louis County, though there is regional collaboration on some issues such as museum and zoo taxing districts, and transit.

The economic health of the city and region will obviously dictate future growth and redevelopment. It has been estimated that it will take eight years for the region to recover the jobs lost to this point in the Great Recession. And irrespective of the current downturn, St. Louis has experienced flat job growth for years. But increasing, local leaders are talking about “bending the curve” and changing the local economic dynamics in order to exceed growth projections. Among the initiatives of local economic
development are seeking to become the premier location for plant
science research and businesses, and an ambitious plan to establish St.
Louis as the principal Chinese air freight gateway to the US between
the coasts. The ultimate hope is that several Chinese companies would locate US headquarters in St. Louis, that high-tech assembly and production facilities would open in the newly established and greatly enlarged “foreign trade zone” adjacent to Lambert Airport.

St. Louis will be a great place to live and an engaging city whether or not these and other efforts come to fruition, but the city needs to bend the curve on growth if the historic built environment of the city is to be saved intact, see significant infill and be repopulated. Much of what is “wrong” with St. Louis is perception, by locals and those looking outside-in. Increased regional cooperation, support for mass transit, a new Arch grounds and economic development efforts will all contribute to changing perception both locally and elsewhere.

For coverage of St. Louis urbanism and the projects and issues referenced here go to the urbanSTL blog at www.urbanstl.com. You can also follow us at @urbanSTL on Twitter.

Active St. Louis urbanism blogs:
Ecology of Absence: ecoabsence.blogspot.com
Urban Review STL: urbanreviewstl.com
Dotage St. Louis: stldotage.blogspot.com
B.E.L.T: beltstl.com
St. Louis City Talk: stlouiscitytalk.com
St. Louis/Elsewhere: stlelsewhere.blogspot.com
Gateway Streets: gatewaystreets.org
St. Louis Patina: stlouispatina.blogspot.com
Downtown St. Louis Business: downtownstlbiz.blogspot.com
Built St. Louis: builtstlouis.blogspot.com
STL Rising: stlrising.blogspot.com
Vanishing STL: vanishingstl.blogspot.com
St. Louis Energized: stlenergized.blogspot.com
Exquisite Struggle: exquisitestruggle.blogspot.com

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Can Your City Compete?

What do you do when your city is falling behind? Well, if you’re a newspaper, you do a major series laying out the issues and the case for change. The Cleveland Plain Dealer did it some years ago with a massive effort called “A Quiet Crisis“. And this week the St. Louis Post-Dispatch does something similar with a three-part series called “Can St. Louis Compete?” The issues discussed are familiar and relevant to any struggling “Rust Belt” type of place, from Buffalo to Birmingham, and thus relevant more broadly. So let’s take a look.

The Problem

The first installment sets the stage:

For a long time, St. Louis has been falling behind. You know the story. The long, slow drift from grand Gateway to the West to the faded outpost of flyover country. The shuttered factories and the departed corporate headquarters. The bleeding away of the best and the brightest. It’s almost a cliché. But it is true. And it is real. And it is threatening to get worse…Our region is struggling to keep up. Our population is growing slowly. Our work force is aging rapidly. And we have a hard time cultivating the sort of innovators, entrepreneurs and bright minds who will build the economy of the future.

St. Louis lost 60,000 jobs in the last two years. Its working age population is going to shortly start shrinking. It isn’t attractive to top talent. All of these add up to a bad brand image that compounds the problem:

Richard Fleming cast the problem in another light: in terms of jobs that didn’t come here. As president of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, Fleming spent a year just before the recession trying to woo a major employer to open a data center. Fleming wouldn’t name the firm, but said it was “a Fortune 50″ company that wanted to hire 1,500 people at good wages. Forty cities wanted the facility, and the company narrowed it down to two finalists — St. Louis and Raleigh, N.C.

The firm’s consultants recommended St. Louis, Fleming said. But the company was worried about the region’s slow growth, concerned that it couldn’t get the workers here it would need over the years to come. “Perception became reality,” Fleming said. “And we lost the deal.”

Jim Russell talks about an “Ann Arbor” dilemma. Ann Arbor has a great economy and lots of amenities and still struggles to attract talent because of its association with Michigan and Detroit. How much more so a city like St. Louis that lacks Ann Arbor’s advantages?

The need is clear: more talent, more jobs, more entrepreneurship, more opportunities, a better brand, etc. The question is, how do you get that?

The Proposed Solution

While the Post-Dispatch is good on diagnosis, they are less strong on solutions. This should come as no surprise. Describing reality is what journalists do. They aren’t turnaround strategy consultants. And this is just plain a hard problem. The role of the newspaper is to put an issue on the public’s agenda, and begin a conversation. It’s looks like they are already having that effect.

The PD wisely recognizes that change is a long term game, but that the city has to start now. Their principal recommendations are in part two, which they title “Finding a Niche.”

The concept of finding a niche is a good one. You need a well tailored target market and value proposition. You can’t be all things to all people in this world and hope to succeed. You’ve got to have unique areas where you can stake your claim. They give one great example that I’ve thought was a good one for some time: plant sciences. St. Louis has set out a goal of being the #1 center for plant sciences. Monsanto is already there. And there is some indication the strategy is working:

With the Danforth center, Monsanto and Washington University, St. Louis is building a strong name in the plant biotech world. Fiorello said he knew scientists who had moved here from hipper towns such as Berkeley, Calif., and San Diego.

“We’re attracting great scientific talent, in spite of our lack of an ocean,” he said. “These men and women are smart enough to know it’s a place where they can advance their careers and do well.”

Unfortunately, beyond this, there was nothing. And in all my reading about St. Louis, I’ve never really heard another compelling suggestion. This says to me St. Louis has big work to do in understanding the realistic sectors it should target. I’ve got to believe there are plenty of areas where St. Louis can compete and win though.

The other suggestions are all garden variety initiatives of the type already widely available elsewhere. St. Louis is cheap, there’s an opportunity to make an impact, etc. Yup, but there and dozens of other places. If that’s your bag, why not move to Kansas City, which has all that plus a much stronger economy and favorable demographics? A “Vanguard cabinet” of young professionals and creatives has been done before isn’t going to move the needle. There is no differentiated value proposition here. I further addressed the talent retention issue yesterday. It’s not so much that retention is bad as that attraction is so much more important, and the lack of attractiveness to newcomers is the real issue.

There was also a suggestion that St. Louis suffers from an undeservedly poor reputation, and that better marketing is a solution. This one is a head-scratcher. If the rest of the series can be believed, St. Louis’ branding problem is that it accurately reflects the situation there. My own look at the data shows it to be among the weakest Midwest performers economically and demographically. Better marketing is always better, but if Ann Arbor is having trouble, don’t expect that better marketing is the solution to what ails St. Louis.

A Foe Unlike Any Other

It’s not surprising that it is so hard to come up with ideas to change the dynamic. The challenge facing St. Louis and other struggling places is a foe unlike any other. It is not amenable to normal “fix it” solutions. It’s not a bleeding wound to staunch. It’s not a broken bone to set. It’s a slow, metastasizing rot.

If you’ll indulge me in a bit of a geeky aside, I’d like to quote from a fantasy novel, Stephen R. Donaldson’s White Gold Wielder, the conclusion of his Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. In it, the Land is subjected to a terrible scourge, but despite obtaining possession of multiple All Powerful Artifacts, the heroine still isn’t sure how to attack the ill:

It was a strange battle, weird and terrible. She had no opponent. Her foe was the rot Lord Foul had afflicted upon the Earthpower; and without him the Sunbane had neither mind nor purpose. It was simply a hunger which fed on every form of nature and health and life. She could have fired her huge forces blast after blast and struck nothing except the ravaged ground, done no hurt to anything not already lost.

This is a perfect summation of the fundamental challenge facing St. Louis. And not just there. Indianapolis is one the best of performing Midwest cities, but faces similar challenges in its urban core. I myself noted the rot destroying its core. The city has probably invested north of $10 billion in recent decades – firing “huge forces blast after blast” – into its downtown, yet today almost nothing can be built there without major tax subsidies. It has failed to trigger self-sustaining renewal. Any beyond downtown…..

Saving St. Louis, saving the Midwest, saving any struggling city, is more like trying to save a failed marriage than fix a flat tire. The problems are fundamental, like a cancer. And ultimately, most of the time, if self-examination reveals the honest truth, people don’t really want them fixed. They’re invested in their pain.

It reminds me of the “racquet” concept a reader described:

A racquet is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix it. Upon delving into the roots of racquets one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed – the subject of the racquet is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that “no one wants” are not acceptable to the people (the complainers).

The Path Forward

So what do you do?

I’m not going to pretend to issue a detailed workplan to St. Louis, a city I have visited but do not know in depth enough to speak authoritatively on. I would lay out a few general suggestions, though:

1. Address the root causes and make fundamental change. I-70 is a route with several strong cities on it: Denver, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus. What’s different about St. Louis? There are likely many underlying structural and cultural issues that need to be addressed.

The change that is needed is probably not obvious. I think about St. Louis resident and billionaire Rex Sinquefield and his “Show Me Institute”, a libertarian leaning think tank. Their policy recommendations seem to be standard playbook items, mostly targeting state policy. That’s not to say they are all bad – I am a big supporter of land value taxes, for example – but riddle me this: if state policy is determinant in urban success, why the divergence between St. Louis and Kansas City? Sinquefield is pumping $500,000 into a campaign to put a referendum on the statewide ballot that would prohibit large cities from having city income taxes. This would principally affect St. Louis and Kansas City. Yet, if the city income tax is what holds the city back, why is Kansas City doing so well despite its tax?

Perhaps the cold reality is that state policy – maybe even policy, period – really doesn’t matter as much as we think, at least not in a place like St. Louis. If Sinquefield really wants to turnaround St. Louis, he might better spend his money on a crack team of cultural anthropologists, geographers, urbanists, organization theorists, change management consultants, and sociologists rather than producing free market advocacy research that is already readily available elsewhere.

Jim Russell might say that St. Louis is a brownfield and Kansas City is a greenfield. The question is, how to do flip the switch from one to the other?

I’ll make one observation as an area of further study. It strikes me that almost all of the historic major river cities in America have had big problems. Not just St. Louis, but also Memphis, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati and Louisville aren’t doing badly, but have long been growth laggards. Kansas City is on a river, but my general impression is that its roots are as a western frontier town, not a river city. What is it about these river cities? What lessons can be learned? One place to study might be Pittsburgh. While its steel history renders it unique, it appears to be the first true Rust Belt city that is showing signs of having reversed precipitous decline. Some long time span case studies might be in order.

Whatever this uncovers, change won’t be easy and it will take time. It will take courageous leadership and a courageous community.

Jane Jacobs said that “Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” Anywhere and everywhere there are lots of people who like the status quo. Many of them even profit from it. And they’ll fight to keep it, even if it means fighting prosperity. Remember the racquet concept.

2. Focus on attracting outsiders. The dynamic of change, of re-igniting greenfield opportunities, almost anywhere is from a flow of outsiders into the system. They aren’t bought into the status quo. Once you have a critical mass of outsiders, really good things can start to happen. I’ve got many ideas on how to attract people, but in the interest of time won’t list them here. This is mission critical.

3. Find your niche. This suggestion was a good one. Plant sciences is one. Now go out and find five more. Again, there are analytic techniques that can help with this.

4. Start small and keep racking up wins. Matthew Mourning had some fantastic thoughts in response to the series along these lines:

We need an open government that involves residents at all turns. We need our elected officials floating ideas about how to improve our city. We need our corporate underwriters to get on board with helping ideas come into fruition.

The ideas don’t have to be literally big–like the NorthSide project or China Air Cargo Hub. In fact, as it relates to development, they should probably be small, organic, and incremental. But there should be a constant stream of ideas to improve our city. [emphasis added]

That’s the way you build momentum. Look at what Janette Sadik-Khan did in New York. Many of her ideas didn’t involve radical, fundamental changes of the whole fabric of the city. Rather, she has kept up a slow, steady pace of innovation: bike rack designs, bicycle tracks, pedestrian plazas, sidewalk sheds, etc. These build on one another to create a dynamic of progress. If St. Louis can start racking up a series of wins one after the next, even if they are small, they can all of a sudden get the wind blowing the other direction.

5. Be authentically St. Louis. Every time I hear about “hip” and “cool” in relation to cities I cringe. Sure, there are legitimately hip places. But is “super cool” really St. Louis’ sweet spot? And even if it could be, would it have staying power or would it, like all fashion trends, prove ephemeral and crash?

St. Louis/Elsewhere pointed us at this video for a mix of the good and bad. It starts out with hipsters bowling. I’d believe there are hipsters who bowl in St. Louis. But about a third of it is devoted to a fashion show. A fashion show? Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a fashion show in St. Louis. But is that really the brand promise of the city? You can’t convince people this is some sort of mini-New York as this video series tries to do. It just doesn’t work.

Click the link above if the video doesn’t show up for you. It’s only one minute.

You’ve got to find the authentic St. Louis and figure out how to sell people on that. I again suggest reading my Indianapolis branding series for suggestions along these lines. But I will tell you that it starts with not being embarrassed about who you are as a city. St. Louis might have its struggles. It might have some cultural traits it needs to change. But I’ve got to believe it has many cultural values that are great and worth preserving and embracing, even if they wouldn’t necessarily appeal to a Manhattanite.

These are just some suggestions to get started. Problems this big don’t get solved in a week. But the Post-Dispatch has started a needed community conversation. Let’s hope they continue pushing that conversation forward regularly over time.

Related – St. Louis:
Reconnecting the City to the River
Gateway Arch Grounds Design Competition
City Garden and the Millennium Park Effect

Related – Talent
The Outsiders
“Brain Drain” vs. “Steel Drain”
The Talent Equation
Rethinking Brain Drain
Getting Serious About Talent

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