Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Diehard Detroit

I haven’t posted any city videos in a while, but here’s a tilt shift out of Detroit for you to enjoy. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here to watch on YouTube. h/t Likecool

And from the “Not everything is so humane on the Upper West Side department,” here’s a story about a guy who rented a 100 square foot apartment there. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here to watch on Vimeo.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Detroit

Friday, August 21st, 2015

When High Density Is Humane

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So many of the complaints about density seem to revolve around all the supposed negative affects of congestion, as well a general sense of the inhumanity of high density living, which in the popular mind is associated with the proverbial “concrete jungle” and a forest of skycrapers.

I can understand why many people want a house on a big lot. On the other hand, high density living, done right, can be extremely livable, humane, and even uncongested.

When I lived in Chicago I frequently would have people tell me that they couldn’t imagine themselves living in such a big, dense city. They no doubt had impressions of living there shaped by their visit to the Loop and other tourist areas, which are indeed crowded and have attributes of the concrete jungle.

But other than a narrow strip less than half a mile wide along the lakefront, most of Chicago isn’t built like that. Chicago actually has some of the most beautiful, livable streets and neighborhoods in America. Except for a few small areas with so-called WPA streets, its neighborhood streets have full infrastructure with generous sidewalks and parkways full of mature trees. Homeowners often landscape this and their front yard such that it’s like walking through a lavish garden simply to walk down the street. Alleys mean no trash in front and the city has virtually no on-street power lines. It also has full and amazing street lighting on streets and alleys. The building stock is mostly single family homes, 2- and 3-flats, and lowrise apartment buildings. Much of it is like a city in a garden.

My old neighborhood was Lakeview, which has 94,000 people in about 3.2 square miles, or 30,000 people per square mile. Yet its residential streets are quiet, tree-lined, and delightful – a far cry from the concrete jungle. Frankly, they are better than the average street in most Midwest cities.

Today I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This neighborhood is the second most dense in the entire city of New York, with 209,000 people in 1.9 square miles, or 110,000 per square mile – almost four times as dense as Lakeview and 25 times as dense as the city of Portland.

Given this density, you might think it would be a horrific urban nightmare to live in. Yet, it’s incredibly pleasant, bucolic even.

The picture at the top of this post is West 68th St., where I live. It’s a tree lined street of low to mid-rise buildings with mature trees and very little traffic. Contrary to the jackhammers all night long stereotype of New York, it’s very quiet.

Most of the streets in the UWS are similar: tree-lined, quiet, with beautiful low-rise brownstones and such. Here are a couple photos that I believe are both of West 69th.

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I should mention that behind these buildings, while there aren’t alleys, there are often interior courtyards between blocks with open space and greenery.

The avenues feature taller buildings, but while there are some skycrapers, there aren’t really that many. Here’s a stretch of Columbus Ave, with typical commercial-residential mixed use buildings. (The average is probably a bit more intense than this shot).

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Here’s the intersection of 72nd and Broadway, one of the major intersections in the neighborhood. There are some taller buildings and more intense retail, but a number of those buildings are just stunningly beautiful as well.

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West End Ave., one of the major residential avenues, has more mid-rise towers, but mostly beautiful pre-War buildings at around ~12-14 stories, or not much different from Barcelona.

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Central Park West is one of America’s premier streets, with similar sized buildings to WEA, many of them truly landmark designs, that overlook Central Park.

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Speaking of which, I am a five minute walk from Central Park, ten minutes from the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center (LC has more arts and culture going on than all but probably five total metro areas in the US), and about 15 minutes to the Hudson River greenway. There are two subway trunk lines passing through the area. Traffic moves very rapidly on the main avenues, which have synchronized lights, and you can often traverse almost the entire length of the UWS on say Columbus without stopping. The streets have very light traffic mostly except a handful of major crosstowns. The grid design makes navigation a snap. Accident rates are low.

Though not everybody is as close to Lincoln Center as I am, all of the UWS has good access to Central Park, subways, and the Hudson River. Other people are closer to other cultural amenities, such as the Natural History Museum.

While not every aspect of the UWS is positive, I feel very grateful to live here. It’s an extremely humane and pleasant place to live, despite the density. In fact, the main knock most people have on the UWS is that it’s so humane it’s boring.

I think the Upper West Side shows the elements you need to make density, even very high densities, work right, namely:

1. The right built form, with a variegated style of low to mid-rise buildings – not high rise – and lots of quiet, tree lined, side streets, with mostly high quality architecture.

2. Infrastructure, notably the subways.

3. Amenities like Central Park, the Hudson River, and Lincoln Center.

4. Well-functioning public services, especially public safety and sanitation.

The last one is of particular note, as the neighborhood was not as nice as it was today with only the first three. John Podhoretz, who grew up in the area in the 1970s, wrote about what it was like before order was restored. The musical West Side Story is actually set in the far south end of the neighborhood. (Lincoln Center, whatever its merits as a cultural district, was built as an urban renewal effort to get rid of the Puerto Ricans in the area). Central Park wasn’t much of an amenity when it wasn’t safe to go into it.

These obviously take wealth to sustain, but not all of it has to come from the neighborhood. Clearly the superior building stock came from neighborhood wealth, but parks, subways, etc. are paid for on a broader basis. Given the vibrant ethnic neighborhoods that exist today in other parts of the city, I’m sure this could have been a successful, safe working class Puerto Rican neighborhood with today’s public services environment. Of course, once safety and services were addressed, the value of the real estate skyrocketed.

There are some high rises in the UWS, particularly to the south, but these are the exception, not the rule. Yet this is still the second most dense neighborhood in the city with a hard to comprehend density of 110,000 per square mile. I can see why it isn’t for everybody, but I think people would agree that a neighborhood built like Paris or Barcelona (and in fact lower rise than those cities in most places) is hardly a concrete nightmare.

Density, done right, can be supremely humane and livable.

I think the UWS also illustrates the fallacy of too much of today’s urbanist thinking which is all about building tall to increase housing supply. If you can get to 110K density with mid and low rise buildings, skyscrapers just aren’t needed to provide any reasonable amount of density in the United States.

There’s also a lot of talk about supply restrictions. I don’t like historic districts all that much, because I think in practice they are abusive. Much of the UWS is in a historic district. There are any number of stink bomb buildings on the UWS I wouldn’t mind seeing replaced with new development, a few new skyscrapers wouldn’t be a disaster. If the population density even went up, I wouldn’t mind – it might even be good. But at the risk of sounding like a NIMBY, there’s just no way a neighborhood like this should see a massive increase in FAR to enable redevelopment with taller buildings. Turning one of the world’s great neighborhoods into Midtown would be a disaster.

Instead going directly to policies like “let’s just remove DCs height limit,” instead people should be taking a look at very high density neighborhoods like the UWS that function amazingly well and figure out how to adopt the lessons of that to other places.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Chicago, New York

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

The Architecture of Dictatorship

Conveniently, last week’s episode of Monocle 24’s the Urbanist had a theme of the architecture of dictatorship. The very first segment is a piece on Stalinist architecture in Moscow. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

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Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Moscow

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Behind the Facade in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg - August 2015

St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s new European style capital for imperial Russia, is the most visited city for tourists in Russia. It has a ton of great buildings, energetic street life in its smallish central core, and world-renowned cultural institutions like the Hermitage Museum and the Mariinsky Theater.

As with Moscow, however, I am not going to attempt to replicate what you can find better elsewhere online or in a guidebook. Rather, I want to show a few things that reflect on something a person there told me, namely that “St. Petersburg is like a facade of a city,” similar to the Hollywood western sets in which the “storefronts” have nothing behind them.

I’m not sure exactly what this guy was trying to communicate about his city, but I did experience a few things that I think relate to it, in which the interior of a space is completely different from what you might expect from the exterior. St. Petersburg would appear to be, like many places, a city where you need a local in the know to really show you around.

Consider, for example, this long, well-maintained, genteel, colonnaded, and I think somewhat dull facade.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

What do you think is behind it? Would you believe this:

St. Petersburg - August 2015

It’s a large and high energy street market in a sort of courtyard space. Here’s another passageway with vendor:

St. Petersburg - August 2015

And this place, which left me speechless:

St. Petersburg - August 2015

Then there’s this building, which the person I was with thought was actually abandoned.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

There was somebody sitting out front on a folding chair who looked like a construction worker because his trousers were covered in plaster. We asked to take a peek and it turns out the whole thing was being used as a studio by several artists.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

I had a much cooler picture of an amazing sculpture someone was working on, but he didn’t want it photographed.

Then there are derelict industrial buildings that are more than what they seem, like this one which is in the very center of town, which you can tell from the cathedral sticking up behind it.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

In addition to being home to several creative firms and software companies, the interior of this space also has clubs and bars, one of which I enjoyed a craft beer at. It was a very cool space but I sadly neglected to take a picture.

Here’s another building that at first look doesn’t appear to have much promise.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

But follow that path to a metal door on the back left corner, walk up the staircase to the roof, and there’s a great cafe with excellent coffee and amazing rooftop views of the city.

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What’s in here, I wonder? Not sure. It’s owned by Roman Abramovich, who did not invite me over for tea.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

I’ll wrap up with a couple of urban planning notes. First, a street sign warning of, well, you get it.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

Both St. Petersburg and Moscow have Uber, by the way. I’m not sure how useful it is for tourists, since the two times I took it in St. Petersburg, extensive phone conversations with the driver needed to take place to physically connect, and my Russian speaking companion took care of that. St. Petersburg, as you might have gathered, has a lot of canals and other bodies of water, and they have rolled out UberBOAT service there as well.

I’ll wrap up with a picture of a newish building.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

The local person who was showing me around noted that there were often disputes over buildings like this, with some architects demanding better designs. You’ll note the ground floor treatment could be improved, and the upper floors are EIFS or some similar product, which urbanists there seem not to like any more than we do here.

You can view more of my iPhone pictures of St. Petersburg on Flickr.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: St. Petersburg (Russia)

Friday, August 14th, 2015

A Visit to Kazan

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

St. Petersburg and Moscow are typical destinations in Russia, but if you’re looking for other places to visit, where do you go? I can’t claim to answer that question as I have not fully surveyed the realm, but I did visit the city of Kazan for a day, so want to share a few observations and photos.

Kazan is a city of a bit over a million people about 450 miles east of Moscow (a flight of around 1:20). It’s the capital of the Tatar Republic of the Russian Federation. The Tatars were a nomads of Turkish ethnicity who established an independent kingdom in the region before being conquered by Ivan the Terrible. They are very proud of their unique ethnicity and history, and have obtained a great deal of autonomy (at least as much as exists in Russia). Originally the province was called Tatariya, but they renamed it Tataristan. To locals, the “-stan” suffix suggests strength and independence on par with other fully independent republics in the region. While they can certainly choose whatever name makes them feel most proud, names ending in “-stan” certainly don’t inspire confidence in America. I don’t think they fully understand the negative brand equity in that term, but don’t let the name scare you off. It’s a modern and as far as I can tell perfectly safe city.

In fact, it’s extraordinarily modern and new. There’s been a vast amount of infrastructure investment, much of it done in conjunction with international sporting events. They hosted the 2013 Summer Universiade (an Olympics for students, I gather), and the 2015 World Aquatics Championship was underway while I visited. They’ve got a brand new airport, brand new freeway network, numerous new buildings, etc.

Looking at Kazan in fact, you might get the impression it’s a boomtown. But it’s not a boom of the type you’d find in the US based on private sector growth. Though the region boasts oil and gas reserves and several manufacturing operations, most revenues go to the federal treasury in Moscow, so it would appear that Putin has showered the region was cash and that is the reason for the construction boom. The difference vs. St. Petersburg, which appeared to be starved for money, was evident. Everything in Russia is more or less state directed, and this is no exception.

Having said that, the state could have invested in purely megalomaniacal projects as has happened in some other regional -stans. Instead a lot has gone into core infrastructure. Yes, some of it is tourist oriented, but the neighborhoods infrastructure I saw was in pretty good shape, and my cab driver said that the city had done a ton of upgrades to neighborhoods streets and such too. They also built a short metro system, though apparently it is under-patronized.

Putin has been favoring the region with money in part to highlight and reward what Russians described to me as “good Muslims.” The Tatar region is about 55% Muslim and 45% Russian Orthodox. The split is basically along ethnic lines (though there’s a segment of Tatars that converted to Christianity). The Muslims in the area have long been known for their moderate brand of Sunni practice, and religious relations have been good, including a high degree of intermarriage (or so I’m told). Google tells me there were some extremist attacks in 2012, so I’m not sure what the status of that is, but I personally wouldn’t let it stop me from visiting there.

The locals are really pushing the religious co-existence angle, which makes sense in a world that is looking for examples of Christianity and Islam getting along. That’s a shrewd marketing strategy.

They also have gone beyond the modern and have pushed historic preservation. While no one is going to confuse Kazan for St. Petersburg, they have tried to restore what they have and have focused on obtaining UNESCO certifications. They are also pushing the Tatar cultural angle. There are plenty of elements of regional cuisine and I thought the food was excellent. Of course they would send me to their best places, but since I was only there one day, that didn’t matter. Kazan also has an important university, so has some attributes of a college town. Several famous Russians spent time living in Kazan, including Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

Is Kazan a must-see? No. But if you’re interested in checking out a Russian city other than the big two, it’s definitely worth a visit.

I’ll share a few photos. The one at the top is the main entrance to the Kazan Kremlin. (The term kremlin is an old word meaning “fortress”). Here’s the Russian Orthodox cathedral there:

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

There was originally a mosque in the kremlin that was destroyed when Russians conquered the area. Recently, a new mosque was built on the site to maintain the symbolic religious balance in the area. I think it’s a very nice building.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

They have their own leaning tower.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

The main street leading to the kremlin.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

The kremlin has nice views. There are several rivers and lakes in the area, including the Volga, and plenty of nice vistas.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Take a nice stroll along the lake.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Renovated buildings in the old Tatar Quarter

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

There’s a bit too much hardscape on that redone street for my taste. But it’s interesting because they took out a streetcar and pedestrianized the street. Apparently the vibrations were causing problems with the old buildings in the area, so they wanted to eliminate all vehicles.

Not sure what this is, but it’s in my Kazan file.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Dittos.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

I’ll wrap up with a bit of transport geekery. Yes, they have a bike share system.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Their new metro system is in the Russian style with lots of marble, etc. The system “M” logo is similar to Moscow but in green (the traditional color of Islam). Instead of Moscow style tap cards they are using plastic tokens.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

A metro station.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Station name signage. I believe the top is Russian and the bottom is the Tatar language, which is also written using the Cyrillic script. Interestingly, for at least while into the Soviet period, Tatar was written using the Latin alphabet, but they were apparently forced to change.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Signs.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Here’s a train in the station. These are the exact same trainsets as the new Moscow ones I mentioned by didn’t have a picture of.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

As I said, I was only there a day but was glad I went. It was good to get to see a city further into the Russian interior. Lots of money is being spent there, so I’d expect many further developments in the future.

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Transport in Moscow

Moscow - August 2015

I was in Russia last week and plan to share a few relevant posts from the trip. Since you can easily find better photos of places like the Kremlin than I’ll ever take online, when it comes to Moscow I’m going to focus on more planning and transport items. There’s a lot of other commentary I might make, and if you want to read it, be sure to sign up for my exclusive content by email if you haven’t already, because I may write up further observations on the political scene there.

Writing anything positive about public space and transport in Moscow runs the risk of coming across as seeming to say that “at least Putin makes the trains run on time.” But as he is fully occupied with such critical tasks of state as destroying illicit supplies of Nutella and brie, I doubt he’s bothering himself with such prosaic concerns as transport. Should you be interested, the NYT just ran a good piece on the combination of urban improvement and authoritarianism in Russia’s capital city.

Moscow reminded me a bit of an inverted Buenos Aires. Whereas in BA you get a clear sense that this was once the Paris of South America now well faded, Moscow comes across as a dilapidated city on the rise. You definitely see plenty of run down communist era architecture – the quantity of Corbusian nightmares evident from an aerial view of the city is astonishing – but there are new buildings on the rise and significant evidence of attempts to improve the lived experience of the city.

Moscow is clearly a driving and transit city, not a walking city. Though there is some street life, it’s far lower than comparable high density megacities. But before knocking them too much, keep in mind that Moscow gets bitterly cold in the winter. Even in August the temperature in the afternoon was only the low 70s. Ideal to be sure, but that’s only for a narrow window of the year. Moscow is at 56 degrees north latitude compared to 41 in New York. Moscow is actually further north than every major Canadian city. The sky was already getting light before 4am.

Nevertheless, the outdoor experience there is being enhanced through a number of projects.

Moscow River

The Moscow River flows through the city, passing alongside the Kremlin as you can see in his photograph.

Moscow - August 2015

You see that on both sides it is lined with roads and very narrow sidewalks. It’s not even clear how you would easily get to the riverside on the Kremlin side. A stroll along the bank across from the Kremlin, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and other landmarks should be amazing, but it is not.

There’s apparently a tender underway that would completely redo this for the better. In the meantime, one section of the river called the Krymskaya Embankment has been redone to a slick, albeit somewhat generic design. This has radically transformed the riverfront for the better, and if the rest of the Moscow River upgrade is similar, this will be a huge transformation for the city.

Moscow - August 2015

People enjoying the waterfront.

Moscow - August 2015

Here’s a closeup of the bike lane.

Moscow - August 2015

The numbers and the text in the background give distances to attractions such as Gorky Park.

Neighborhood Streets

In a way similar to the riverbank, there’s been an effort to upgrade neighborhood streets to improve the pedestrian experience. Traditionally, these have had fairly narrow, basic sidewalks. Here’s a typical example:

Moscow - August 2015

And here’s a street that’s been put on a road diet.

Moscow - August 2015

This program is ongoing, as this sign touting forthcoming improvements shows.

Moscow - August 2015

And a picture of the construction in progress.

Moscow - August 2015

There’s also a bike share system.

Moscow - August 2015

Arterial Streets

While there are plenty of smaller, human scaled side streets in Moscow, the arterial roads are mega-wide thoroughfares (“prospekts” in the local parlance) that function as quasi-freeways. Here’s an example that isn’t a perfect photo, but let’s you get the gist of it.

Moscow - August 2015

You’ll see at least six lanes in a single direction. This building is actually decent, but illustrates what you also see along these high capacity arterials, namely a preponderance of horizontally oriented buildings. Even with broken up facades, these are buildings that are most legible at driving speeds, not walking.

You might wonder how people cross these things, and the answer is that they mostly don’t. For these streets, there’s a heavy reliance on pedestrian underpasses for pedestrian safety. (This also reduces the number of stoplights, which allows for long distances of high speed travel even in the center city). Metro entrances also do double-duty as protected passageways through intersections. Here’s an entrance to one such pedestrian underpass along a one way street that appears to be ten lanes wide.

Moscow - August 2015

This might seem inhumane, and it is. But it also functions well. Though I’m told traffic is much lighter in the summer when many vacate the city, there is nothing like the gridlock of a New York, and these roads tended to move pretty good most of the time I was there.

Where there were crosswalks, they featured countdown timers on both the walk and don’t walk cycle.

Moscow - August 2015

That’s not a misprint. Some of these lights have extremely long cycles.

Some arterials have a nicer design. One is the so-called “boulevard ring,” which is one of the many ring roads in Moscow. I think (though can’t promise), this shot is from it. Even if not, it’s representative of its design.

Moscow - August 2015

Moscow Metro

Moscow is famous for its metro system, which is one of the world’s busiest and has lavish station designs. I saw some of these and they are indeed pretty great, though this system should never be applauded without remembering that it was built with gulag labor. Again, I won’t show many pictures of the stations, since my iPhone isn’t the best at low light underground shots. Google is your friend on this.

The metro fare is about a buck. Tap cards are sold at automated kiosks that have English available. Lines are numbered and color coded. Here’s an example of the system signage.

Moscow - August 2015

It’s one train right after the next more or less. Even at 11:30 pm there were three minute headways. The cars are older but function well, and there is wifi, which I’m told works even between stations.

Moscow - August 2015

There are some newer cars that appear to be married pairs with open gangway between the two linked carriages, but not between pairs.

While you can buy a ticket in English, the bulk of the signage is in Russian only. This isn’t a problem for the most part, but I found the remembering station names in the Cyrillic alphabet was a challenge compared with Latin alphabet stations in other foreign countries. I would suggest that the station name be transliterated into Latin script to make the system more friendly to international users. (The rest of the signage is fine as is). Here’s an example:

Moscow - August 2015

If I translate that right, this station is Kropotkinskaya (Kropotkin was a Russian intellectual of the 19th and early 20th centuries). The name is certainly easier to recognize in Latin script for westerners (and probably most others who use English as their international lingua franca). But even in Russian only, you should be able to figure it out how to navigate the system if you pay close attention.

Here’s an example of some transliterated signage. This probably goes above and beyond the call of duty as the numeric indicators suffice.

Moscow - August 2015

Air Travel

Moscow has two main airports, I believe, both at a significant distance from the city center. I flew using Sheremetyevo, which is serviceable if not overly pleasant. You have to pass through security immediately upon entering the terminal, then again when going to the gate area. Even domestic transfers require re-screening and passport checks. (I was told by a local, “Russians love checking passports.”)

The most depressing part of the trip was flying three domestic segments on Aeroflot. When I was younger they had an extremely bad reputation, and flew of a fleet of dodgy Soviet made jets. Today, the planes I flew on were newish A-320s and the service levels exceeded US domestic standards (though that’s a low hurdle to jump). They even still serve food on short haul flights. Quite a role reversal there. Red is still their flight attendant colors, and their hammer and sickle logo is still in use.

High Speed Rail

There are a number of rail routes throughout the country, and while I didn’t make a comprehensive survey, I did ride the high speed “Sapsan” service from St. Petersburg to Moscow. IIRC, the fare was around $55. Though using Siemens trainsets derived from the rolling stock used on Germany’s ICE trains, the max speed was 220 km/h (135 mph), comparable to the Acela. However, unlike the Acela, the Sapsan cruises at 200 km/h or higher most of the trip. The journey takes a bit less than four hours and is a pleasant way to travel.

Here’s a picture of one of the trains I took in St. Petersburg’s Moscow Station.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

An interior shot.

St. Petersburg - August 2015

Conclusion

I hope this gives a bit of a feel for transport in Moscow. The city is obviously spending to try to upgrade its urban environment. Whether physical improvements in Moscow or elsewhere will survive Putin’s authoritarian turn is to be seen, but as the examples of the Moscow subway and many of the historic ruins we visit around the world show, it’s certainly possible for the cruelest of dictatorships to produce magnificent physical artifacts in select places. The success of these regimes should not be judged by that measure.

In closing, I’ll leave translating the following as an exercise for the reader.

Moscow - August 2015

If you are interested, there’s an album of iPhone photos I took available on my Flickr page.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Moscow

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

A Manifesto Against Completing Sagrada Família Church

I’ve written before about Sagrada Família Church in Barcelona, an architectural masterwork by Antoni Gaudí. In particular you may remember my essay “Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?.”

I wrote that piece after reading an article by Oscar Tusquets Blanca in Domus magazine in 2011. In it he talked about being an instigator as a student of the publication of a manifesto (his term) against completion of the church. And how he now believes he and his fellow signatories were very mistaken.

While researching a forthcoming lecture, I wanted to read that manifesto, but I could not find it online anywhere in either Spanish or English. Architect Duncan Stroik helped locate a copy for me via Pablo Álvarez Funes in London, who also kindly translated it into English. I’m reproducing that translation in English below, followed by the Spanish original. If you wish, you can view the original newspaper version as a PDF.

As this was an open letter published in a newspaper, I presume the authors have no objection to sharing this important document. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no other easily accessible English language translation. Thanks to Pablo and Duncan for making this possible.

This letter was originally published on Saturday, January 9, 1965 in La Vanguardia, Barcelona’s leading newspaper.

Letters to “LA VANGUARDIA”

Construction Works at the Church of Sagrada Familia

Mr. Director of LA VANGUARDIA

Dear Sir:

We request to please give place to the following letter within the pages of this newspaper that you worthily direct, for which we express our gratitude in advance.

The Church of Sagrada Familia was commenced in March 19, 1882, and it has remained unfinished for many years, with works developing slowly and practically interrupted. We are periodically reminded on the duty to contribute to its completion and an important part of the public considers Sagrada Familia as a task in we are all committed and whose renounce is a collective shame. A special day has been dedicated to remind it to us and raise funds for the continuation of construction works. This day is close and as many people will take part on the collection being convinced on collaborating on a religious, civic and artistic work; and as we are convinced that this work is not only non-positive, but also counterproductive, we think it is our duty to expose our points of view.

1.- The cathedral had as one of its purposes to gather all the city residents during the great religious celebrations; in the cities of today such a big monumental temple has no sense.

It is not a matter of building a great temple for the whole city, which should allow space for almost two million people, but building multiple parishes. In all fields, urban planning tends to these decentralized neighbourhoods, and the Church who strives to support itself in real urban entities precisely, tends to vitalize parishes as centres of evangelization.

A temple such as Sagrada Familia wouldn’t be either useful or large religious gatherings, as the Eucharistic Congress was. An opened space or a vast covered space with different characteristic from the temple designed by Gaudi should be required. We therefore believe that the continuation of a temple following this line is a social and urban mistake.

2.- Sagrada Familia has to be considered from the point of view of a expiatory monument. In this case, the temple would come to focus and symbolize the expiatory fervour of the whole society. But we don’t believe on such popular sentiment, nor anyone feeling really connected to this collective expiatory task. Today’s generation doesn’t understand that the need of expiation has to be precisely materialized in the construction of a temple that will cost millions.

3.- Even if there was no social, urban or pastoral justification to complete the temple, the could be another reason. Sagrada Familia is a work of Gaudí and has an artistic value. Let’s forget for a moment that the artistic value of a building cannot be separated from its social justification. It is a work of Gaudí, it is a work of art, and some people want to see it finished. But, is it possible to finish a building? Nobody would ever finish a painting or a sculpture, but can a building be completed without the architect who designed it? I might be possible if there were very accurate plans, if all building issues were solved on paper. But Gaudí had such a living concept of architecture that created his work daily following messy impulses, with preliminary drawings which could only be used as a guide. There is an essential pictorial and sculptural side of Gaudi which could only have been done by him. Without it, the work keeps distorted and diminished. But we neither have any model or drawings from Gaudí. This reason is conclusive and makes all previous seem unnecessary. Sagrada Familia cannot be continued because there are no drawings; anything done on this side is improvisation. Nobody really respecting Gaudi’s work can cooperate on this mess.

These are our reasons. The temple is inoperative from an urban and social point of view; the city does not need big temples but parishes to allow pastoral action; a great expiatory temple for the whole society is an idea out of time – today popular fervor is expressed in other ways, otherwise the temple would have been already concluding; finishing a building without the architect who designed it is very difficult; but if it desired to be finished following his designs and those drawings are missing, it is just a fully ambiguous attempt.

What to do, then, with what we have built? This lends itself to a long discussion. There are plenty and varied solutions which should be studied and choose the best. Our only certainty is that what is being done now is wrong, and only urgency is to finish with this error as soon as possible. There will be time to study solutions at a later day; from converting the current esplanade in an outdoor temple, leaving the facade and apse as a monumental altarpiece; to continue building adapting Gaudí principles to modern techniques and needs.

Yours Sincerely:

Antoni de Moragas, Chairman of the Colegio de Arquitectos (Institute of Architects).

Alfons Serrahima, President of FAD (Fomento de las Artes y el Diseño – Promotion of Arts and Design).

Roberto Terradas, Dean of the School of Architecture.

Students of the School of Architecture.

Nikolaus Pevsner, director of “Architectural Review”

Gio Ponti, director oh “Domus”.

Bruno Zevi, director of “L’architettura”,

Ernesto N. Rogers, director oh “Casabella”.

Vittorio Gregotti, director of “Edilizia Moderna”.

M. Capelladas, O. P., director of “Art Sacré”.

Carlos de Miguel, director of “Arquitectura”.

Asís Viladevall, director of “Cuadernos de Arquitectura”.

Le Corbusier, Ludovica Quaroni, Paolo Portoghesi, Ludovico Belgiolso, J. A. Coderch, Manuel Valls, N. Rubio Tudurí, Antoni Bonet, Oriol Bohigas, J. M. Martorell, David Mackay, Federico Correa, Alfonso Milá, Joaquim Gili, Francesc Bassó, Vicens Bonet, Ricardo Bofill, Enric Tous, J. M. Fargas, Xavier Subías, J. M. Sostres, Josep Pratmarsó, A. Fernández Alba, R. V. Molewin, J. A. Corrales, Jesús Bosch, Javier Feduchi, J. L. Pico, C. Ortíz Echagüe, Ignacio Araujo, architects.

Pere M. Busquets, O.SB.; Miguel Estradé, O. S. B.; Evangelista Vilanova, O.S.B.: A. Borras, Ricard Pedrals, presbyter; Frederic Bassó, presbyter; Joan E. Jarque, presbyter; J. Alemany, presbyter; Joan Ferrando, presbyter; Casimir Martí, presbyter; Josep Bigordá, presbyter; M. Prats, presbyter; Jordi Bertrán, presbyter; Josep Hortet, presbyter; Pere Tena, presbyter.

Joan Miró, Antoni Tapies, J. Llorens Artigas, A. Rafols Casamada, Todó, Marcel Martí, Hernández Pijuan, Subirachs, Antoni Cumella, Cesc, Oriol Maspons, Julio Ubiña, Leopold Pomés, Xavier Miserachs, André Ricard, Rafael Marquina, Jordi Fornas, Miguel Milá, Joan Gaspar, Miquel Gaspar, Manuel Dicenta, Román Gubern, Joan Prats, Oriol Martorell, J. M. Mestres Quadreny.

Roberto Pane, Gillo Dorfles, Giullo Carlo Argan, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Alexandre Cirici, Camilo J. Cela, R. Santos Torroella, J. M. Valverde, A. Badia Margarit, Joan Teixidor, Joan Oliver, Joan Perucho, Salvador Espriu, Caries Soldevila, Carlos Barral, J. Gil de Biedma, J. M. Espinas, Joan Brossa, María Martinell, Lluisa Calvet, Pere Vegué, J. Gich.

Remember that the section “Letters to LA VANGUARDIA” is a platform opened to our reader’s opinions, which might not coincide with that of the newspaper, which has its specific sections for that purpose.

CARTAS A “LA VANGUARDIA”

La obra del templo de la Sagrada Familia

Sr. Director de LA VANGUARDIA

Muy señor nuestro:

Le rogamos que dé cabida en las páginas del periódico de su digna dirección la siguiente carta, por lo cual le expresamos nuestra gratitud anticipada.

El templo de la Sagrada Familia fue iniciado 19 de marzo de 1882, y desde hace muchos años permanece inacabado, con una obra a un ritmo lentísimo, prácticamente interrumpido. Periódicamente alguien nos recuerda el deber que tenemos de colaborar a su terminación y un sector importante de público considera la Sagrada Familia como una empresa en la que estamos comprometidos todos y cuyo abandono es una vergüenza colectiva. Se ha dedicado un día especial a recordárnoslo y a recaudar fondos para la continuación de las obras. Este día está próximo y como muchas personas participarán en la colecta convencidos de colaborar en una obra religiosa, ciudadana y artística, y como nosotros estamos, convencidos de que esta labor no sólo no es positiva, sino que es contraproducente, creemos un deber exponer nuestros puntos de vista.

1.- La catedral tenía como uno de sus fines agrupar a todos los habitantes da la ciudad en las grandes celebraciones religiosas; en las ciudades de hoy un enorme templo monumental no tiene sentido.

No m trata ya de construir un gran templo para toda la ciudad, que debería tener cabida para casi dos millones de habitantes, sino de construir múltiples parroquias. El urbanismo tiende en todos los campos a esta descentralización en barrios y la Iglesia que, por razones pastorales, se esfuerza en apoyarse precisamente en las entidades urbanas reales, tiende a vitalizar las parroquias como núcleos de evangelización.

Tampoco para las grandes concentraciones religiosas —como lo fue el Congreso Eucarístico— tendría utilidad un templo como la Sagrada Familia; se requeriría un espacio abierto o un vastísimo espacio cubierto de características muy distintas a las del templo ideado por Gaudí. Creemos, por tanto, que la continuación de un templo dentro de esta línea es un error social y urbanístico.

2.- Puede considerarse a la Sagrada Familia, desde el punto de vista de un monumento expiatorio. En este caso el templo vendría a centrar y a simbolizar el fervor expiatorio de todo un pueblo. Pero no creemos que exista este sentimiento popular, ni que nadie se sienta vinculado de veras a esta empresa colectiva de expiación. La generación de hoy no comprende que una necesidad de expiación tenga que concretarse precisamente en la construcción de un templo que costaría millones.

3.- Aunque no hubiera justificaciones sociales ni urbanísticas ni pastorales para terminar el templo, podría haber otra razón. La Sagrada Familia es obra de Gaudí y tiene un valor artístico. Olvidemos por un momento que el valor artístico de un edificio no puede desvincularse de su justificación social. Es una obra de Gaudí, es una obra de arte, y hay quien quiere verla terminada. Ahora bien, ¿es posible terminar un edificio? A nadie se le ocurriría terminar un cuadro o una escultura, pero un edificio ¿se puede terminar sin el arquitecto que lo concibió? Quizá sería posible si existieran planos detalladísimos, si el edificio estuviese resuelto sobre el papel en todos sus puntos. Pero Gaudí tenía de la arquitectura un concepto tan vivo que creaba su obra diariamente a impulsos desordenados, con unos planos previos que servían apenas de pauta. En Gaudí hay un aspecto pictórico y escultórico que es esencial y este aspecto sólo él lo podía realizar. Sin él, la obra queda falseada y disminuida. Pero, además, no disponemos de ningún proyecto, de ningún plano auténtico de Gaudí. Esta razón es concluyente y todas las anteriores parecen innecesarias. No se puede continuar la Sagrada Familia de Gaudí porque no existen planos; todo lo que se haga son improvisaciones. Nadie que respete de veras la obra gaudiniana puede colaborar a esta mixtificación.

Estas son nuestras razones. Urbanística y socialmente el gran templo es inoperante; para la acción pastoral en la ciudad se necesitan parroquias y no grandes templos; un gran templo expiatorio de todo un pueblo es una idea fuera de época —hoy el fervor de un pueblo se expresa en otras formas, y de no ser así, el templo estaría ya terminado—; terminar un edificio sin el arquitecto que lo ideó es muy difícil; pero sí se quiere terminar según su mismo proyecto y de este proyecto no quedan planos, es ya un intento lleno de vaguedades.

¿Qué hay que hacer, pues, con lo que tenemos construido? Esto se presta a una larga discusión. Las soluciones son muchas y muy diversas. Habría que estudiarlas y elegir la mejor. Lo único seguro es que lo que ahora se está haciendo es un error, y lo único urgente es terminar cuanto antes con este error. Tiempo habrá luego para estudiar soluciones, desde convertir la actual explanada en un templo al aire libre, dejando la fachada y el ábside como un monumental retablo, hasta continuar la construcción adaptando los principios gaudinistas a las técnicas y necesidades modernas.

Reciba un atento saludo de

Antoni de Moragas, decano del Colegio de Arquitectos.

Alfons Serrahima, presidente del FAD.

Roberto Terradas, director de la Escuela de Arquitectura.

Estudiantes de la E.T.S. de Arquitectura.

Nikolaus Pevsner, director de “Architectural Review”

Gio Ponti, director de “Domus”.

Bruno Zevi, director de “L’architettura”,

Ernesto N. Rogers, director de “Casabella”.

Vittorio Gregotti, director de “Edilizia Moderna”.

Capelladas, O. P., director de “Art Sacré”.

Carlos de Miguel, director de “Arquitectura”.

Asís Viladevall, director de “Cuadernos de Arquitectura”.

Le Corbusier, Ludovica Quaroni, Paolo Portoghesi, Ludovico Belgiolso, J. A. Coderch, Manuel Valls, N. Rubio Tudurí, Antoni Bonet, Oriol Bohigas, J. M. Martorell, David Mackay, Federico Correa, Alfonso Milá, Joaquim Gili, Francesc Bassó, Vicens Bonet, Ricardo Bofill, Enric Tous, J. M. Fargas, Xavier Subías, J. M. Sostres, Josep Pratmarsó, A. Fernández Alba, R. V. Molewin, J. A. Corrales, Jesús Bosch, Javier Feduchi, J. L. Pico, C. Ortíz Echagüe, Ignacio Araujo, arquitectos.

Pere M. Busquets, O.SB.; Miguel Estradé, O. S. B.; Evangelista Vilanova, O.S.B.: A. Borras, Ricard Pedrals, presbítero; Frederic Bassó, presbítero; Joan E. Jarque, presbítero; J. Alemany, presbítero; Joan Ferrando, presbítero; Casimir Martí, presbítero; Josep Bigordá, presbítero; M. Prats, presbítero; Jordi Bertrán, presbítero; Josep Hortet, presbítero; Pere Tena, presbítero.

Joan Miró, Antoni Tapies, J. Llorens Artigas, A. Rafols Casamada, Todó, Marcel Martí, Hernández Pijuan, Subirachs, Antoni Cumella, Cesc, Oriol Maspons, Julio Ubiña, Leopold Pomés, Xavier Miserachs, André Ricard, Rafael Marquina, Jordi Fornas, Miguel Milá, Joan Gaspar, Miquel Gaspar, Manuel Dicenta, Román Gubern, Joan Prats, Oriol Martorell, J. M. Mestres Quadreny.

Roberto Pane, Gillo Dorfles, Giullo Carlo Argan, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Alexandre Cirici, Camilo J. Cela, R. Santos Torroella, J. M. Valverde, A. Badia Margarit, Joan Teixidor, Joan Oliver, Joan Perucho, Salvador Espriu, Caries Soldevila, Carlos Barral, J. Gil de Biedma, J. M. Espinas, Joan Brossa, María Martinell, Lluisa Calvet, Pere Vegué, J. Gich.

Recordamos que la sección de “Cartas a LA VANGUARDIA” es una tribuna abierta a la opinión de nuestros lectores, la cual puede no coincidir con la del periódico, que tiene ras secciones específicas de manifestación.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: Barcelona

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Viva Havana!


Photo by Scott Beyer

With pending changes in US-Cuban relations, there’s been a flurry of attention turned towards Cuba and Havana. I want to highlight a few articles on the topic. Firstly, Scott Beyer posted a two-part series over at Market Urbanism. It’s part policy analysis, part travelogue, and his large numbers of photos are a must-see.

His first piece is “City of Scarcity.” Here’s an excerpt:

I found myself unable to buy basic things. For example, during my first night in Havana, I didn’t realize–until it was too late–that the B&B landlord had not provided toilet paper. In America, this would be a glaring oversight, but in Havana, I would discover, is normal. This forced me to navigate my neighborhood at 3am, offering pesos to the many teenage boys still standing outside, to bring out “papel higienico” from their houses. Every time I tried this, they would each explain, in rather comical fashion, that none was available. Finally I found a teenager who spoke passable English, and asked him how this could be. After sending his little brother in to find something, he explained that “in Havana, toilet paper is a delicacy–like chocolate,” and that most residents don’t just have any sitting around. So how did people cope?

“Here in Havana, we have a saying,” he quipped. “We say, ‘Cubans have a good ass. Our asses work for all kinds of paper. Toilet paper, newspaper, book paper–any kind of paper’.”


Photo by Scott Beyer

His second piece is called “Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them.” He uses the example of Havana as a counter-point to the anti-gentrification narrative in which investment in a city destroys is character.

Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation. But a fair-minded look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at America’s most notable historic neighborhoods–the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston–a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth. Meanwhile, there are numerous cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland—that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.


Image via the Guardian

Meanwhile, the Guardian also ran a take on the city, calling Havana “one of the world’s great cities on the brink of a fraught transition.” It’s very different to say the least.

Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in Cuba’s capital, and Havana today can be a jarring collision of the antique and the nouveau. While I was there, the Havana Biennial was bringing in cutting-edge artists and art dealers from all over the world – yet turn the television to one of the state-sponsored channels and one is immediately transported back to the time of Soviet-era propaganda, of shrill declarations and low production values. In contrast, Venezuela’s TeleSUR (now accessible to Cubans), which generally maintains a line favourable to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his allies (of whom the Castros are two), is positively electric and full of flashy visuals and news from the outside world.


Photo by Scott Beyer

Last Spring, City Journal ran a piece on the city by Michael Totten called “The Last Communist City.”

Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.

The maximum wage is just the beginning. Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money; they’re hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.” Perhaps the saddest symptom of Cuba’s state-enforced poverty is the prostitution epidemic—a problem the government officially denies and even forbids foreign journalists based in Havana to mention. Some Cuban prostitutes are professionals, but many are average women—wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers—who solicit johns once or twice a year for a little extra money to make ends meet.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Hooray For the High Bridge

IMG_1714

My latest article is online in City Journal and is a look at the restoration and reopening of the High Bridge in New York City. Part of the original Croton Aqueduct system that first brought plentiful clean water to New York, portions of the High Bridge are the oldest standing bridge in the city. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.

Click through to read the whole thing.

Here are some additional pictures I took. First, the High Bridge peeking through the trees from the Manhattan heights. You can see both the original stone arch spans and the longer steel arch span.

Looking south:

Embedded seal in the bridge pavement with historical info. There are quite a few of these discussing various aspects of the project.

The neighbors are fans:

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Friday, May 29th, 2015

Art Galleries May Be a Signal of Future Gentrification, But They Don’t Cause It by Jenny Schuetz

Jenny Schuetz 80x108The evolution of historically poor, but creative, neighborhoods into affluent gentrification is a common trend in many large cities in the U.S. and the West. In new research, Jenny Schuetz examines the role that art galleries play in this trend toward gentrification. She finds that while galleries tend to choose neighborhoods with affluent college educated households, they are not themselves a cause of gentrification, and are not the source of further neighborhood transition after they are established.

Mimi and Rodolfo of La bohème would have difficulty finding a picturesquely dilapidated garret in today’s cleaned-up Latin Quarter – and even more difficulty affording the rent. Other well-known examples of gentrified Bohemia include London’s Bloomsbury and Hackney districts, Berlin’s Kreuzberg, and New York City’s SoHo and Chelsea neighborhoods. These once-shabby, low-rent enclaves became known for their concentrations of artists, writers, and musicians – not to mention their favorite watering holes – then gradually attracted more affluent residents and mainstream commercial activity.

Many historically artsy neighborhoods evolved organically into affluence. More recently, local economic development policies offer subsidies, preferential zoning, or other incentives to artists, galleries, performance venues, or the “creative class” more generally. One popular strategy is to encourage the reuse of abandoned warehouses and similar industrial spaces as art galleries. Galleries, especially “star” galleries owned by well-known dealers, have the potential to draw culturally-oriented visitors to a neighborhood, which in turn may attract new residents, shops and restaurants. Despite case studies of neighborhoods like SoHo, the causal relationship between art galleries and gentrification has not been rigorously established. Do galleries cause neighborhoods to transform, or are they drawn to neighborhoods with higher propensities to gentrify?

New evidence finds that in New York City, galleries choose high-amenity neighborhoods, but do not independently cause those neighborhoods to transform. To examine whether galleries lead to neighborhood redevelopment, I assembled an inventory of art galleries operating in Manhattan from 1970 through 2003. During the study period, roughly 800-1000 galleries per year operated in Manhattan, more than twice as many as in any other U.S. city. The study first examines whether galleries seek out locations with particular economic and physical amenities, and then analyzes whether gallery neighborhoods undergo more physical redevelopment, conditional on initial amenities.

Like antique dealers and high-end furniture stores, galleries are highly spatially concentrated in a few neighborhoods (Figures 1-2). Roughly 70 percent of all Manhattan galleries are located in just four neighborhoods: Chelsea, Midtown, SoHo and the Upper East Side. These clusters are remarkably persistent over time — Midtown and the Upper East Side have been gallery destinations since the 1940s, SoHo since the mid-1970s — despite the relatively short life-span of most individual galleries.

Figure 1 – Galleries in Uptown neighborhoods, 1970-2003

Schuetz  Fig 1

Source: Manhattan Gallery Database

Figure 2 – Galleries in Downtown neighborhoods, 1970-2003

Schuetz  Fig 2

Source: Manhattan Gallery Database

Some of the persistence is due to agglomeration economies: new galleries benefit from opening near existing galleries, especially “stars” that attract high-volume (and high net-worth) visitors to the neighborhood. Galleries also prefer neighborhoods with place-specific amenities, such as high quality architecture, museums and parks. For instance, about 80 percent of SoHo’s galleries are located within the Cast Iron Historic District (Figures 3-4).

Figure 3 – Gallery in Cast Iron Historic District, SoHo

Schuetz  Fig 3

Source: Photo taken by author

Figure 4 – SoHo galleries (1990-2003)

Schuetz  Fig 4

Source: Manhattan Gallery Database

The high-ceilinged and large-windowed structures were originally built for manufacturing and today contain upscale apartments, restaurants and shops, as well as galleries. Galleries on the Upper East Side also occupy historic structures, mostly elegant 19th century townhouses, and are located near prestigious museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Frick) and Central Park (Figure 5-6).

Figure 5 – Upper East Side galleries in historic townhouses

Schuetz  Fig 5

Source: Photo taken by author.

Figure 6 – Upper East Side galleries (1990-2003)

Schuetz  Fig 6

Source: Manhattan Gallery Database

Starving artists may seek out low-rent, bohemian enclaves, but art galleries prefer to locate among well-to-do households. New galleries are more likely to open in neighborhoods with affluent, college-educated households and above-average rents. These trends are particularly pronounced for star galleries – perhaps not surprising, given the price of an original Matisse or Jeff Koons.

To determine whether neighborhoods with high concentrations of “star” galleries undergo more physical transformations, conditional on the initial level of amenities, I perform a variety of statistical analyses. Based on the evidence of previous case studies, we would expect gallery-rich neighborhoods to be especially dynamic, undergoing more frequent redevelopment. Gallery neighborhoods may also shift from industrial uses or vacant buildings towards mainstream residential and retail activity. If galleries increase nearby property values, the quantity of building stock should increase (in the form of more or taller buildings).

The results indicate that star galleries do not lead to neighborhood redevelopment, once initial amenities are controlled for. The simplest statistical models show a positive correlation between initial density of star galleries on Manhattan city blocks and several metrics of physical change. City blocks near many star galleries have a higher incidence of overall building changes, increased land shares devoted to residential and retail uses, and larger gains in aggregate building stock. However, these correlations are not robust to more sophisticated models, which control for initial physical and economic conditions. The results suggest that star galleries choose locations that subsequently undergo more transition, but redevelopment is due to observable and unobservable amenities, rather than galleries themselves.

Two policy implications emerge from this research. First, this study focuses on one type of arts venue in one city, but cannot speak to potential impacts across other cultural activities or other cities. Policymakers should rely on hard evidence when designing economic development strategies, targeting public funds to activities and locations that provide the greatest return. Second, should the arts be subsidized as a tool for economic development, or because they contribute other benefits to society? Does the value of La bohème extend beyond Rodolfo’s now-gentrified garret?

This article is based on the paper ‘Do art galleries stimulate redevelopment?’, in the Journal of Urban Economics.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics, and do not indicate concurrence by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

_________________________________

About the author

Jenny Schuetz 80x108Jenny Schuetz Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Jenny Schuetz is an Economist in the Division of Consumer and Community Affairs at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Her research focuses on urban economics, real estate and housing policy. Jenny received a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard University, a Master’s in City Planning from M.I.T., and a B.A. with Highest Distinction in Economics and Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia. Her current projects include a study of transit-oriented development in Los Angeles and an evaluation of the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

This post originally appeared in the London School of Economics USA Policy and Politics blog on October 22, 2014. Reposted with permission.

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Demographic Analysis

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