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Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Why Modern Architecture Struggles to Inspire Catholics by Julien Meyrat

[ Today architect Julien Meyrat looks at why modern architecture, even when excellent and profound, so often fails to engage with Catholics when used for their churches - Aaron. ]


La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier in Eveux, France

Inspired by a recent visit to a Le Corbusier-designed Dominican monastery near the French city of Lyon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the interaction between Catholicism and modernist aesthetics.   It has little to do with whether the Church affects what designers create beyond filling the program.   Instead, I’ve tried to examine how the architect’s religion influences the Church’s own self-image.  I’ve concluded that the Church, an institution that has been the guardian tradition and the patron artistic and architectural development in the West for almost two millennia, never could reconcile itself comfortably with Modernism.

I was reminded of this when I shared with my brother news on the opening of a new convent and Visitor Center buried into the hill on which sits Le Corbusier’s famous Notre Dame-du-Haut Chapel at Ronchamp.  The convent was but the latest creation of the contemporary master Renzo Piano, featuring architect’s trademark manipulation of natural light, spatial simplicity, open views of nature and elegant detailing.  My brother seemed to shrug at these qualities, writing:

Seems more like a fish tank with Ikea finishes than a cloister. I know natural light, rectangles, and windows are nice, but its openness and simplicity feel like some vapid unbearable lightness than a place of spiritual reflection. Zen monks might appreciate it more.

I replied that he seemed to have a very narrow idea of what constitutes a proper place for spiritual reflection, and that lightness and simplicity had a place Catholic doctrine.  I referred to him to a series of pictures  I had taken of Le Corbusier’s monastery, wondering what he thought of his more ‘Brutal’ approach.  My brother elaborated:

Ugh, these architects have no god. That thing (by Corbu) is hideous. Look, meditation takes place in the mind, but more in the soul. Christianity places the priority on man’s soul transcending his surroundings, not blending with it (a la Zen). Man is large, not small. Churches should be ornamented and highly symbolic, teeming with life, not stark and barren. It all has to do with Being not Nonbeing. The church is a foundation, it’s heavy, it imitates the eternal. It’s not some flimsy plates of glass and concrete garnished with random primary colors here and there.


Bedroom of Convent by Renzo Piano Workshop at Ronchamp, France

Though there are indeed gaps in his argument that can be exploited, I think his overall opinion is respectable and shared by many of the Catholic faithful who possess a sophisticated understanding of their beliefs and how to translate them into sacred art.  Often such views completely contrast from many members of the clergy, who have more of an interest in revitalizing the church by embracing contemporary artistic trends than by responding to wishes of their flock.  The Dominican monastic order prizes scholasticism above all else, and finds it fully consistent to hire a leader at the forefront of architectural progress like Le Corbusier.  The nuns were probably thinking along the same lines, wondering less about how sacred life can transform architecture, but rather how architecture can transform sacred life.

Outside a few rare examples such as Ronchamp,  I sense that Modernism has failed to deliver an architecture  that connects with most Catholics and other traditional Christians.  Much of this has to do with fact that Modernism as a cultural movement is inherently atheistic as it is based on a secular materialist philosophy.  Even Renzo Piano admits as much, describing his client from the convent: “She has a profound love of architecture, of landscape, of sacred space – and even of people without religion, like me.  She wanted a place of silence and prayer. I said: ‘I can’t help you with prayer, but perhaps I can help with silence and a little joy.”


Chapel at Convent by Renzo Piano Workshop, Ronchamp, France

And therein lies the crux of the problem: When one has done away with symbols, theology, and the act of worship, there’s little else to inspire a credible work of sacred art or architecture.  Piano, like any committed Modernist, is left with little more than a preference for abstraction, technology  and  some vague nostrums about nature and  space.  For a Modernist, the point of architecture is to convey an image of maximum clarity, in which all elements are related by function and little else.  As long as a space is adequately sheltered and functions for the use of its occupants, there is no need for decorative flourish.  Piano is reduced to checking off boxes for the client’s wish list, from the number of rooms, to furnishings, and to achieving a quality of ‘silence’.  There’s nothing all that particular about an architecture of silence–maybe  a dark room secluded from more socially active spaces.  Given the right palette of materials and details, any space can be turned into something contemplative.  But can this generic approach to design evoke much meaning beyond mere emotional states such as peace?

Sacred spaces achieve much of its effect by emphasizing mystery. This is at the core of any religion, in which divine truth is revealed beyond any logical or rational framework.  As is often said, God is revealed in mysterious ways, and the purpose of any sacred space is to embody this reality.  It is inherent that a secular space is completely  counter to this and thus adopts an architectural language devoid of mystery or even ambiguity.   Secular spaces instead embrace the language of the engineer, someone who works outside the world of art, poetry, and indeed of mystery, by solving problems with the most rational tools of math and science.  There is a lot of work that goes into making successful settings for secular activities, much of it having to do with the science of building, such as lighting, acoustics, and visibility.  There is also a tendency for generating phenomenological effect through technology, such as making walls highly transparent or reflective, surfaces either smooth or deliberately rough.  To the Modernist who puts its faith in technological progress, the more an effect can exceed what can be done by the human hand, the better.


La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier, Eveux, France

Such attention to a material’s effects point to Modernism’s essentially materialist philosophy on architecture. In sacred architecture, the building and the spaces within serve  to connect users to a deeper reality that transcends its walls. They function as a gateway from the material world to a spiritual realm–the focus is on the eternal, not the object that portends to represent it.  In a secular context like Modernism, the object is the thing itself, and all meaning is tied directly to that object.   Walking into a exemplary Modernist space, one is supposed to marvel at its lightness, smoothness and simplicity, attributes that are commonly summarized as ‘machine-like’.  If one desires a more ‘humanist’ look and feel, the designer can instill a quality of ‘roughness’ by texturizing concrete, oxidizing steel,  and inserting warmth by using  natural materials such as wood and stone.  Industrialization gives us that much more control to generate a precise effect, and empowers the designers unlimited opportunities in experimenting.  At the same time, it diminishes the role of the craftsman, who throughout most of human history was the guardian in generating material effects, and in  many ways assumed the role of architectural detailing.  Machines take the human factor out of the art of making, thus producing something devoid of passion, feeling that imbues every man-made object.

Piano singles himself better than most of his contemporaries by his ability to reinsert the human touch in his design process. His architectural details are truly works of art and are usually the result of a distinct craftsman-like approach in generating them.  The name of his firm, The Renzo Piano Workshop, harkens back to the time when architecture was realized by stone masons, who would accumulate specialized design knowledge in the development of style details and templates.  Where Piano departs is the end result of his craftsman-like approach: highly refined, ultra-precise, machine-polished building systems and parts.  The structural connections in his projects are beautiful  and poetic pieces of engineering, much like Apple products, but like most industrial artifacts, they cannot express the ancient, primordial aspects of our humanity.  Is that necessary to fully immerse oneself the Catholic experience?

I believe so.  A fundamental assumption in Catholicism is that history is linear and that God was incarnated in the human form of Jesus Christ at a precise point in history to the point that the period before and after this event are neatly divided (BC vs. AD).  Its doctrines and liturgy are part of an evolutionary process that have taken place in the world for two thousand years, and followers actively partake in this history by participating in the mass.  For most Catholics, weekly mass is the only time that they are reminded that they are tied to humanity in throughout the ages, both in the past and the future.  This goes against ‘modernity’, or the idea that the times are so new and different that prior truths or solutions are irrelevant.  In Christianity, Truth is eternal, and the problems that afflict humanity are no different during the time of Christ than they do now. There is no ‘new and improved’. Rather, the ideal was was established two-thousand years ago (the life of Christ) and no amount of social or technological advance (or regression) can change this. 


View of Crypt inside the La Tourette Monastery by Le Corbusier

In addition, Christianity relies on communicating its ideas through allegories conveyed verbally in the Bible, musically in its music and visually illustrated in its art and architecture.  These are designed to make the message accessible to all people, as opposed to keeping revelations close to a self-selected elite.  The message has to be clear, the context must be provided and the characters believable.  Visually, this requires the use of lines and recognizable figures placed in a narrative relationship. These demands don’t lend themselves well to abstraction, the modus operandi of the Modernist.   Abstraction is by nature open to individual interpretation; Christian revelation is not.  Abstraction is deliberately exercised by an individual, driven by their own desire to create original content; Christian subjects and themes are the content, with the artist sharing his visceral imaginings of truths he does not question (like most European art before the 19th Century).

This probably explains why many Catholics feel a certain frustration with the role played by modern music, art and design in today’s church.  The music uses irregular folk beats, vulgar melodies and harmonies, and seem composed to bring attention to the songs themselves rather than acquainting singers to a more transcendent reality.  In contemporary Christian art, Christ is portrayed as a non-descript figure, and often times and rendered in an abstracted archaic style that is flat and lacks feeling.  The cross is abstracted to emphasize its iconic nature as a symbol, detached from any literal representation of what actually happened on the cross.  In most modern churches, seating is arranged as a theater in the round, focusing the parishioners’ attention to the the priest, or the choir, rather than to God as manifested in an elaborately decorated apse wall or a ceiling pointed to heaven. This was vividly brought to my attention when watching the broadcast of Christmas mass from the Vatican–most of the camera shots showed details of the sanctuary’s glorious interior and symbolic art, with the occasional view of the Pope.  Catholic worship is not about the mere men (priests) who help conduct its rituals but is instead is about how God is revealed in them by means of humanity’s most outward expression of what lies within its soul: Art. When there is nothing meaningful or moving to look at, one is resigned to paying attention to a charismatic individual standing on a stage, transcendent beauty is loss, and the Christian message takes on a banal delivery.


Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier, Ronchamp, France

Architects, a growing number of whom fall into agnosticism and atheism, often seem to forget this when visiting sacred yet Modern masterpieces.  Just because Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel makes some of my colleagues cry doesn’t mean it fulfills its ecclesiastical responsibilities particularly well.  They are likely overwhelmed by the chapel’s poetic mastery of form and light and how it provokes a profound yet undefinable emotional response.  I succumbed to this response myself when I went to Ronchamp as well when I toured  Le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette.  I was taken aback by his buildings’ abstract forms, its play with light, its vivid use of color, its sophisticated relationship to its site.  In the end, I didn’t develop a more profound appreciation of Christian revelation, but a greater respect for mathematical proportion, abstract formal metaphors, primary colors and geometries–transcendent things nonetheless, but a bit too esoteric for most people.  La Tourette was clearly a more regulated composition compared to Ronchamp, which is probably why is probably why the latter provokes a more emotional response.  In  a sense, the chapel is Le Corbusier at his least ‘modern’ and more archaic, while his monastery is likely intended to feel more academicized due to that typology’s tradition of being repositories for knowledge. Ronchamp’s form sweeps up to heaven, its dark sanctuary enclosed in thick walls reminds one of a cave evocative of early Christianity, while its rounded towers mimick Mary in her veil, sheltering the church below. Though these moves aren’t literal, there is just enough reference to the symbols and ideas of Catholic church that make this more approachable to average followers.


Church on the Water by Tadao Ando, Tomamu, Japan

This isn’t to suggest that modern architecture can’t achieve successful spaces for spriritual contemplation. Tadao Ando’s Church by the Water is especially powerful, manipulating natural light and framing views that heightens the senses and fuses nature into the act of worship. The church is stripped of traditional Christian decoration, illustrations of bibical stories or saints, or any other reference to the history of the church. It works for those who wish to understand God through nature’s primal elements and how they change through the passage of time. There is a sense of ignoring the human presence altogether, as it invites one to blend into the natural surrounding (as my brother’s comment on zen indicates), which may work in more minimalist strains of Christianity and even Catholicism, but will leave many believers hungering for a place rich in narrative objects and a more fully enclosed communal response among people.   There is no altar to focus on, only a highly abstracted cross standing in a reflecting pond, which could have all sorts of meanings, but not one that concentrates the mind of the believer on Christ and his passion.

A truly inspiring space that uses a modern architectural language for catholic worship is extremely difficult to find.  While many architects simply choose to employ a historicist style for even newest churches, it is possible to address the particular characteristics of a catholic church while maintaining a modernist sensibility.  I submit a Cistercian chapel located not far from where I live in Irving outside of Dallas designed by Gary Cunningham. Long an admired designer in the area, Cunningham’s work can be characterized as simple, straight-forward, and sensitive to materials. His award-winning residences follow a rather conventional contemporary style but he also is very accomplished in the art of adaptive reuse, in which he repurposes an existing building by carefully juxtaposing old and new elements.  This consciousness of how time plays a role in the way a building expresses itself is strongly manifested in the Cistercian chapel.  The space is enclosed in rough quaried limestone, cut in massive blocks and stacked in traditional running bond, which instantly strikes any visitor as reminiscent of the Catholic church’s earliest Romanesque sanctuaries with their thick walls and small windows. Its wood roof floating above the nave takes the shape of a traditional ceilings found in these churches, while also resembling the underside of a ship (which is where the word ‘nave’ comes from). Spans are short, further emphasizing the weight of the stone, even as they maintain familiar rhythm suggestive of the old ambulatory aisles with the repetitive row of vertical windows.  It follows more of a classic basilica typology than the popular theatre-in-the round, which indicates a desire to focus on the liturgy as opposed to the priest. But more than merely echoing the churches of the past, this chapel appears as a direct architectural metaphor for the creation of the church itself: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…(Matthew 16:18)”  While obviously an abstract design, Cunningham manages to endow the chapel with an important phrase from the Gospel and thus Christian revelation.  Sleek details and delicate connections between the roof and walls betray its contemporary origins, but the way it highlights the split-faced texture of the rock wed the chapel to the church’s long institutional history, and the countless number of people who dedicated their lives in building structures fitting to God’s glory.


Cistercian Chapel by Gary Cunningham, Irving, Texas

And that, to me, is what is necessary for a compelling Catholic worship space–a connection not only with the divine, but just as importantly with an institution comprised of people throughout the ages. Its walls should reveal human intent, either through a man-made texture or through an ornament that is the work of genuine human input. Machine-smooth de-personalizes this experience.  As any human institution that is an essential part of catholic identity, it carries a rich artistic and architectural heritage that brings with it a kind of unassailable authority not found in Protestantism, which devalues the human institution in favor of interpreting directly from the Bible.  The result of of relying on scripture, however justifiable from a theological standpoint, seems to lead towards a breaking down of a rich visual language and an embrace for abstraction.  A small cultural vacuum subsequently takes root, which grows to consume what’s left of symbols, music, and eventually the walls.  The ultimate result is either a television studio black-box with no windows preferred by evangelicals or a zen-like meditation space with no walls and a subtle symbolic indication that it’s even Christian (such as Ando’s church).

I’m sure that Piano’s and Le Corbusier’s clerical clients were pleased with the result, and fans of high-design with no opinion on proper Catholic aesthetics are moved by their examples, too.  But I wonder if these exercises in abstraction, lightness, and trying to stay relevant in fast-changing contemporary culture win much in the way of converts. People who seek the church want their souls nourished by the church’s message in as many forms as possible. When many of these forms are abstracted or simplified to an incomprehensible level, it leaves such people feeling unfulfilled, and causes many of them to leave the church for a place that offer a richer, more visually arresting environment of the older historic sanctuaries.  At least these modern ecclesiastical masterpieces continue to open their arms to the perennial pilgrimage of people most interested in them: architecture students.

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Incrementally Transforming Kokomo Without Debt by Eric McAfee

[ Kokomo, Indiana is a small industrial city about an hour north of Indianapolis. It is one of the rare ones whose industry remains largely intact, with two large auto-related plants. This makes them different from the type of community that really has deindustrialized. Yet they fret that those who earn decent incomes in their town too often decide to live in the Indianapolis suburbs. Hence a program to upgrade quality of life in the city. It should be noted that while they've managed to do this without incurring debt, Kokomo arguably benefited more than any city in America outside Detroit from the massive federal auto bailout. Their civic improvements have in a sense been financed by a unique external windfall unavailable to others. Nevertheless, lots of places have received windfalls and spent them poorly. Cities may not be able to control our circumstances, good and bad, but they at least have some control over how they respond to them. This piece from American Dirt takes a look at Kokomo's response. Keep in mind it ran in 2012 and there are likely some anachronisms by now - Aaron. ]

Across the country—but particularly in the heavily industrialized Northeast and Midwest—smaller cities have confronted the grim realities of the unflattering “Rust Belt” moniker, and all of its associated characteristics, with varying degrees of success. With an aging work force, difficulty in retaining college graduates, and a frequently decaying building stock, the challenges they face are formidable. Cites from between 30,000 and 80,000 inhabitants typically boomed due to the exponential growth of a single industry, and, in many cases, the bulwark of that industry left the municipality nearly a half century ago, for a location (possibly international) where the cost of doing business is much cheaper. Essentially, everything the smaller Rust Belt cities had to offer is completely tradable in a globalized market; the resources that provided the town’s life blood are either depleted or are simply to expensive to cultivate further.

Reinvention is the only condition likely to save many of these cities from persistent economic contraction, but, with an overabundance of retirees and older workers, these towns lack the collective civic will that could be expected in larger communities with more diversified economies. An absence of young people intensifies (and, to a certain extent, justifies) the low level of civic investment in one’s own community; after all, if a resident is six months from retirement, how likely is it that he or she would support public investments intended to improve quality of life for twenty or thirty years into the future? For that matter, how likely will a population of retirees remain engaged to encourage or challenge major private sector investments as well?

By no means am I intending to denigrate needs and ambitions of the senior population; I’m merely observing that a stagnant Rust Belt city with this demographic profile will demonstrate vastly different priorities from a city rife with young families. While every Rust Belt city large and small must avoid obsolescence that results from the spoils of globalization, the smaller cities—which have tended to be dominated in the past by a single thriving industry—are less likely to claim alternative sectors and labor pools if their primary manufacturing lifeblood fails. A dying city of 80,000 may not exert the same impact within a region (particularly in the densely populated Midwest and Northeast) that a city of 500,000 would, but it is far more of black eye for the state than a town of 2,000 that has lost its raison d’être. This conclusion is obvious.  Many of these small cities must reordering of their economies comprehensively; while the state, the county, or private foundations may offer some outside help, the constituents of these cities themselves are typically the best equipped to understand how their city should evolve. Unfortunately, many of these communities aren’t yet even aware of the need for this reinvention, let alone which avenue to pursue in order to achieve it.

It is with no small amount of reassurance that I can assert that Kokomo, Indiana is not one of these latter cities.

No Rust Belt complacency on display here in the City of Firsts. Though as recently as 2008 it was on Forbes’ list of America’s Fastest Dying Towns, a recent visit shows much more evidence than I’ve seen of some comparably sized cities in the region that the civic culture is neither resting on its laurels nor wringing its hands about how much better things used to be. In fact, one of the Indianapolis Star’s leading editorialists, Erika Smith, recently visited the city, and, after receiving a tour from the Mayor, was pleasantly surprised by how proactive it has been in implementing precisely the type of quality-of-life initiatives largely perceived as necessary to help a historically blue-collar city stave off a brain drain or descend into irrelevancy.

I, too, recently received the Kokomo tour, followed by a meeting with Mayor Greg Goodnight, and I can also recognize some of the city’s most impressive achievements at shaking off the post-industrial malaise that saddled the city with double-digit unemployment rates as recently as a few years ago. Since then, the city has introduced a trolley system at no charge to users; prior to this initiative, the city had had no mass transit for decades. The Mayor pushed successfully to annex 11 square miles in the town’s periphery, therefore elevating the population by about 10,000 people. The Mayor’s team worked to convert all one-way streets in Kokomo’s downtown to two-ways, recognizing that accommodating high-speed automobile traffic in a pedestrian-oriented environment only detracts from the appeal. The team has restriped several miles of urban streets to incorporate bike lanes, and it has converted a segment of an abandoned rail line into a rail-with-trail path, branding it by linking it to the city’s industrial heritage. They have deflected graffiti from several bridges and buildings through an expansive and growing mural project. They have upgraded the riverfront park with an amphitheatre and recreational path. They have introduced several sculptural installations, the most prominent of which is the KokoMantis, a giant praying mantis made entirely of repurposed metal and funded privately. And my personal favorite: with the support of the City, the school superintendent has integrated a prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program to the public school system, including an international exchange program for young men from several foreign countries (a girls’ program should arrive in the next year or two) who live in a recently restored historic structure in Kokomo’s walkable downtown, attending demanding courses that bolster their chances of admittance in a coveted American university. Most impressively, the City of Kokomo has achieved all of this without incurring any public debt in the past year.

Obviously the individuals offering me this tour are going to make sure their Cinderella is fully dressed for the ball, and I recognize that not a small amount of the securing of certain infrastructural projects and transportation enhancement grants requires a political savvy that the current civic leadership has in abundance. And I don’t want to rehash Ms. Smith’s article, which more than effectively chronicles this approach at a macro level. In addition, Erika Smith recognizes, as do I, that very few of these initiatives (the IB foreign exchange program notwithstanding) are really particularly earth-shattering. But when most other similarly sized cities in the Midwest seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom, luring new industry through generous tax breaks (often initiated at the state level), Kokomo seems to recognize that a town lacking any amenities outside of low cost of living has to compete with dozens of other cities in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in Indiana, that offer the exact same brand. Whether this investment yields a long-term return remains to be seen, but it certainly demonstrates the right gestures necessary to instill civic stewardship in a place whose decades of job loss have seriously scratched its mirror of self-examination.

What ultimately struck me about Kokomo—which Erika Smith only touched upon—was the level of design sophistication evident in some of these civic projects. I need only focus on a single location in the city, in which two particularly laudatory techniques are on display. At the intersection of Markland Avenue and Main Street, just south of downtown, the Industrial Heritage Trail begins its journey southward. Here’s a view as the trail terminates at its junction with those two streets, looking northwestward:

Here is a view in the other direction:

Continuing a bit further in this direction, one encounters this painted wall:

And, pivoting slightly to the left, another mural that is still in progress:

This photo series identifies two amenities that stand out for the astute decision-making that apparently took place during the implementation. The Industrial Heritage Trail clearly operates in a railway corridor, but it is not a rail-trail. Unlike the more common rail-trail conversion, this Kokomo trail did not incorporate the removal of the original rail infrastructure. The Rails to Trails Conservancy would label this approach a rail-with-trail, indicating that the trail shares the railway easement, typically separated by fencing. Rail-trails such as the Monon Trail in metro Indianapolis are still the more common practice. However, a growing number of communities are embracing rail-with-trails, not only because they obviate the need for costly removal of rails, ties, and ballast, but they reserve the rail infrastructure for the possibility that a railroad company may reactivate the line in the future. If the sponsors of Kokomo’s Industrial Heritage Trail had removed the infrastructure, the possibility of ever reintroducing rail along the corridor would be virtually nil. As it stands, the only conceivable disadvantage to rail-with-trails is that, in the event a rail company reintroduces train service, its close proximity to the path may prove hazardous to bicyclists or pedestrians. Otherwise, the decision to retain the railway not only helped to diversify options, it most likely saved a considerable amount of money.

The other smart decision was the site selection for those murals. The ones featured in the photos above are part of a growing mural campaign that the City of Kokomo introduced, and every one that I recall shows real foresight in the locational decisions. What makes them so good? The murals in the photos above front a public right-of-way, minimizing if not completely precluding the chance that later development will conceal them. I blogged a few years ago about an excellent mural in Indianapolis that showed wonderful care and craft in the entire implementation process…except where the conceivers chose to locate it. Not only did they paint on a cheap, cinder-block building that will likely tumble down if market pressures encourage new development in the neighborhood, but the mural also faces a vacant lot which is large enough to host a new structure that would block it completely, no doubt frustrating the community and pitting them against a developer.

Compare this to Kokomo’s murals. Here’s one a little further south on the Industrial Heritage Trail:

Again, it fronts the trail itself—not a chance that a developer will try to block it. And here’s another along a bridge underpass for the recently completed trail along the Wildcat Creek:

The original intention of the mural was to repel vandals at spot that previously suffered from it frequently; this approach has proven successful in locations across the country.  But it also sits in a park along a new greenway, so it should remain in perpetuity. Granted, Indianapolis has plenty of murals along retaining walls and buildings that front the aforementioned Monon Trail. Those, too, should survive far into the future. But in recent years, the City of Indianapolis has encouraged countless murals on the side walls of commercial buildings—sites where a blank wall faces a parking lot, where a building once stood. While these bare walls often scream for some ornamentation to help distract from what used to be there (another adjoining building), in many instances the parking lots will likely fall under increasing development pressure in upcoming years. Will the locals thwart development in order to save the mural? This remains to be seen, and I don’t want to base too much of an analysis on speculation. But it’s hard to deny that these public art investments seem less astute than the once I witnessed in Kokomo.

One could argue that Kokomo is merely taking advantage of the fact that it is jumping into the game relatively late; it benefits by learning from the mistakes of others. But decisions that stand the test of time also contribute their fair share to foster civic goodwill. Taxpayers are rarely too forgiving of poorly conceived projects, and several successive blunders, no matter how small they may be, demonstrate poor accountability. Only time will determine the return on investment, but Kokomo certainly has a leg up on many of its competing small cities. My suspicion is, if these projects stimulate the discussion and enthusiasm for proactive leadership that they suggest (Mayor Goodnight was re-elected last year by a landslide), the citizens of Kokomo are only beginning to stoke the fire.

This post originally ran in American Dirt on November 16, 2012.

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

The Downtown Dallas Experience

My post Sunday on Dallas in transition put the development of the metroplex into context. Today I want to zoom in and look more specifically at the experience of Dallas from the standpoint of a visitor attending a downtown event. This is a critical experience to get right because that and transiting through DFW may be the only experiences people from outside the city have with it, and it can be determinant in creating an impression.

I first visited Dallas in 2007, and gave the city’s downtown experience a failing grade, writing:

What I’m saying is not intended to be reflective of Dallas as a whole. I hear it has very nice neighborhoods, upscale shopping, excellent restaurants, etc. But based on my convention experience, Dallas is possibly the single most disappointing city I’ve ever visited.

It starts with a long, dreary, and very expensive cab ride from the airport to downtown Dallas. As if your wallet doesn’t take enough of a beating, you drive past miles and miles of sprawl hell, auto dealers, strip centers, distribution centers, fast food restaurants, etc. lining both sides of the road into town. It seems like traditional urbanity drops off very rapidly outside of downtown Dallas, only a mere mile or two from the core, replaced by older sprawl. I expect this in smaller Midwestern burgs, but not in a metro area of almost 6 million. On the plus side, this drive takes you past Texas Stadium (unimpressive unless you are a Cowboys fan) and the new American Airlines basketball arena. I thought the arena was extremely nice and the highlight of the trip. It had a retro-20′s look that was reminiscent of an old London train shed done up in red brick – and I mean that as a compliment.

Downtown is full of drab, generic skyscrapers, many lit up with neon. The hotels I saw were likewise very generic. The Convention Center itself was not easily walkable from hotels, and so it took shuttles to get there. The building is a typical hulking concrete structure. Although near the similarly uninspiring Dallas city hall, the area around it appeared to be an urban wasteland. I’ve never seen such a desolate and deserted area in such a high profile downtown area before. What’s more, it was a 4-5 block walk from there to the core of downtown.

I actually made that walk, and once you get into the center of downtown proper, there is good density, pedestrians – albeit still a shockingly small number, and even a few older buildings, though I didn’t see any truly spectacular structures. A light rail line, called DART, runs through downtown, but the station I saw was deserted, as was the train that I saw stop there. I did see a few restaurants and a Starbucks, but nothing that looked like a major entertainment district. Admittedly, I did not have a guidebook, and I didn’t have time to walk up and down every block searching for interesting things – especially not over a mile from the convention center.

Given the size and affluence of the metro area, and the good things I know from talking to others that it has, I was very surprised to see the poor face it presents to people attending conventions there. This is the only time many people will ever see the city. It’s the first and last impression many folks will ever have of Dallas.

Has Dallas improved since then? Yes, but there’s still a long way to go. I’ll walk you through the experience, along with some specific suggestions for improvement.

The trip starts at the airport. DFW is very convenient to get into and out of. I flew out of Terminal C, which is serviceable architecturally, but was overcrowded. The foodservice choices are quite poor and this is one easy upgrade area for a city that wants to be a global powerhouse. Chili’s and Friday’s ought to be there, but they aren’t enough.

The cab ride is still steep – $70 according to one person I talked to who took it – but fortunately there are now transit options, with even better service on the way. But before I get to that I’ll mention the highlight of the airport, which is their ambassador’s program. This program has volunteers in cowboy hats who help direct people where they need to go, or with anything else. I took advantage of this to get directions to the train station. This sort of super-friendly and also useful introduction to the city is actually a great first impression, and especially good because it creates a human connection to the people of Dallas.


Airport Ambassador. Image via dfwairport.com

There are two transit options. One is the DART light rail system, which stops short of the airport at this point and requires you to take two buses to get there. I’m told a direct airport stop will be available later this year. I took the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter line linking Ft. Worth with Dallas that has a stop at the airport.

tre-trinity-railway-express

You take two buses to get to the train station as well, but they are free shuttle types. The journey to the station was half an hour and the train trip only twenty minutes with a fare of $5. However, it only runs once an hour or so, so you may have a wait at a station with no services or amenities. Light rail will surely prove more popular when there’s a direct connection. I found it interesting that the train was only two cars, has a human conductor, but still uses POP. What is that conductor doing if not punching tickets?

There are a handful of stops before downtown Dallas, none of them featuring any real sort of TOD until the second to last one. The train arrives as the smallish but well maintained Union Station:

dallas-union-station

I’d originally planned to cab it from the station to my hotel, but I decided to try walking instead. Good thing I was up for that since there were no cabs. It was a 20 minute or so walk to my hotel and my original thought is that I might pop into a restaurant for lunch on the way or something. However, the only real restaurants along my path were a diner right by the train station and a McDonald’s. It was a pretty bleak walk in a blazing hot sun, but certainly most destinations can be walked from the station.

The conference I was at took place at the Winspear Opera House, which is part of the Dallas Arts District I mentioned in my previous post. They’ve got north of a billion dollars in new facilities. The Opera House is a fantastic place to hold a meeting. It seats 2,300 people, so places like this are where I’d be looking to book high end business functions like global partner meetings for prestigious firms and such. It’s a massive upgrade from the convention center. (Dallas may have improved its convention center since 2007, but I didn’t visit it). When you’re inside the opera house you certainly do feel like you’re in a real global city.

The arts district itself is a bit Lincoln Centerish. The buildings are attractive but are in a plaza style layout that you wouldn’t want to visit if you didn’t have an event there. The DMA and other visual arts institutions at one end are an exception.

flora-street

As you can see, there was no one here on the street during the day. The streets of downtown Dallas are pretty wide, with buildings that don’t address them well, and hold little pedestrian interest. I’m told most of the historic building fabric was obliterated long ago. Today’s downtown Dallas is quite a contrast with what used to be there.

Speaking of which, someone recently unearthed a video of downtown Dallas from 1939 – in color even. You can watch it on You Tube if the embed doesn’t display. The majority of the historic footage starts at 3:44.

The urban fabric of that era contrasts starkly with the city today. I’ll show a couple of examples in a moment.

Downtown Dallas has a ton of concrete and one thing they’ve focused on is creating green space in the city. Sunday I mentioned Klyde Warren Park, which is built on a freeway cap that not only provides greenery, it creates part of a link between downtown and uptown. I walked over to it and given that it was 96 degrees and the rest of the city streets were mostly empty, I expected the park to be as well, but I was wrong:

klyde-warren1

Parts of the park were empty, mostly the ones without shade. But the water park was great (and has shade as you can see) and there were places with trees, such as the spot in the background where food trucks have parked, where people were hanging out:

klyde-warren2

There are also a couple of places serving adult beverages, including this restaurant with a canopy to keep out the sun where I enjoyed a bit of relaxation and people-watching:

klyde-warren3

Klyde Warren Park is definitely a highlight, and while certainly not cheap wasn’t ridiculously expensive as urban amenities go. I think it was less than $100 million dollars, including the freeway cap structure.

There’s also been a lot of residential construction in the central area. Residential uses were previously banned in downtown Dallas, but now there’s a bit of an increase in population. One example is the 42 story Museum Tower that is in the arts district and overlooks Klyde Warren Park:

museum-tower1

So to checkpoint here, what we see is what I described previously: Dallas is putting major pieces on the board. It’s invested in the transit infrastructure, a major arts district, signature parks, and high profile residential development has started to sprout. These represent a pretty high dollar investment in stuff that a major city with aspirations mostly needs to have.

What’s missing is the connective tissue. It’s only a block or two from the arts district to Klyde Warren Park, but here’s the street you walk down:

dallas-streetscape

It’s not just that the street is wide, it features a very poor design in which the uses are incredibly inhospitable to pedestrians. This isn’t legacy either – it’s the brand new stuff. Here’s how Museum Tower addresses that street:

museum-tower2

Not good. I think we have to acknowledge that much of downtown Dallas is functionally an edge city because of designs like this. Until the designs change, there isn’t likely to be much pedestrian life.

This is where we need to take a step back and think about what Dallas needs. The streets of downtown today are clearly inhumane. However, I’m not sure the traditional urbanist prescriptions will work here. There’s a comparison of Dallas to New York in that 1939 video, and indeed the streets were bustling, but I’m not sure Dallas can ever go back to something like that.

For one thing, Dallas temperatures are very high. It was in the 90s and blazing sun every day I was there. This renders the city functionally unwalkable. I wanted to do a lot more exploring but just couldn’t because if I spent more than about 10-15 minutes outside I needed to take a shower.

When I tweeted this people kept talking about other places in the world with high temperatures. It may be that some places are acculturated to this, or too poor to afford air conditioning. But I actually didn’t even get a good counterexample once you factor in humidity. Some folks mentioned Seville, Spain, but the July dew point in Seville ranges from 51-66 while in Dallas it’s 64-72. That’s a big difference.

So walkability and urbanity is going to mean something different in a hot, Southern climate vs. northern cities. Think of that as challenge #1.

Challenge #2 is that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” approach requires modification for pedestrianization and quality of space. Richard Sennett, one of the speakers at New Cities, elsewhere observed that “When we design a street, for instance, so that buildings are set back from a street wall, the space left open in front is not truly public space. Instead, the building has been withdrawn from the street with people walking by tending to avoid these recessed spaces.”

How to fix this? In Sennett’s view it’s about scaling up from the small, not scaling down from the large. As he puts it, “I’m more interested in street furniture than starchitecture” and that one of the most interesting challenges to him is to design a “really good corner.”

Dallas is a place where whipping out the checkbook to hire a starchitect is in line with the DNA. Designing a high quality urban corner, not so much. This is why there are these fabulous major chess pieces, but the street level experience is poor.

Dallas must overcome this to realize its urban ambitions. The mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Everybody treats the special civic spaces right. But what about the average street? What about the details of the feel of the city? This is the mark of greatness.

I suggest two steps for moving forward.

1. Create an authentic Dallas/Texas street experience. This means creating a climate appropriate design, and also figuring out how to work with, not against the culture of “bigger.”

I noticed that outdoor cafes at restaurants have misters, fans, trellises, etc. Maybe Dallas could figure out how to incorporate these sorts of designs into the streetcapes. Maybe the streets of Dallas should be colonnaded or covered with trellises full of greenery to provide shade. These structures could incorporate misters and fans or something. Implementing something unique like this at scale might be a way to channel that Texas ambition. Dallas shouldn’t be afraid to question the orthodoxy here. For example, Minneapolis has skywalks that render that downtown more pleasantly navigable during the brutal winters, even though skywalks are conventionally considered a negative. I’d look at what other cities have done. For example, study Singapore’s Orchard Road.

Secondly, channel the culture into an authentic way of expressing it with taste. At New Cities, Michael Tregoning talked about the design inspiration for the Joule Hotel as in part coming from Stanley Marcus, former chief of Dallas based Neiman Marcus. I visited the hotel and its design has a nice mix of some glitzier elements but done in a tasteful and classy way. That’s somewhat how I see Neimans, which manages to combine a bit of in your face flaunting of luxury with class and attention to details. Stanley Marcus was the first person to bring some French designers to America, for example. I suggest figuring out how to articulate and channel something like this into public space design.

So you take the Stanley Marcus approach and apply it to climate and contextually appropriate street designs, and do some pilots to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Dittos for the way buildings interact with the street. Once you nail it, then scale up, which Dallas does well.

2. Prioritize critical connective tissue. When Jeff Speck does an urban walkability plan, he maps out the high priorities corridors because you can’t fix everything at once.

I’d start with a more pleasant connection between the arts district and Klyde Warren Park, two recent major investments. Basically you want to map where people are likely to go, especially spaces between destinations where you want to get synergies or make a good first impression (such as the corridors coming out of Union Station). Improve the area around the arts district and focus on luring high end events there, and you can make a great impression on the out of towner.

To sum it up, while there have been noticeable upgrades to downtown Dallas in terms of major building blocks, the overall grade is still Incomeplete because the street level experience has not been addressed. Once that’s taken care of in at least a few zones, Dallas will present a much more impressive face to both the out of town visitor and local heading to downtown events alike.

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Dallas: A City in Transition


Dallas Skyline. Source: Wikipedia

I was in Dallas this past week for the New Cities Summit, so it’s a good time to post an update on the city.

I don’t think many of us realize the scale to which Sunbelt mega-boomtowns like Dallas have grown. The Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area is now the fourth largest in the United States with 6.8 million people, and it continues to pile on people and jobs at a fiendish clip.

Many urbanists are not fans of DFW, and it’s easy to understand why. But I think it’s unfair to judge the quality of a city without considering where it is at in its lifecycle. Dallas has been around since the 1800s, but the metroplex is only just now starting to come into its own as a region. It is still in the hypergrowth and wealth building stage, similar to where a place like Chicago was back in the late 19th century. Unsurprisingly, filthy, crass, money-grubbing, unsophisticated Chicago did not appeal to the sophisticates of its day either. But once Chicago got rich, it decided to get classy. Its business booster class endowed first rate cultural institutions like the Art Institute, and tremendous efforts were made to upgrade the quality of the city and deal with the congestion, pollution, substandard housing, and fallout from rapid growth, which threatened to choke off the city’s future success. At some point in its journey, Chicago reached an inflection point where it transitioned to a more mature state. One can perhaps see the 1909 Burnham Plan as the best symbol of this. In addition to addressing practical concerns like street congestion, the Burnham Plan also sought to create a city that could hold its own among the world’s elite. And you’d have to argue the city largely succeeded in that vision.

The DFW area is now at that transition point. They realize that as a city they need to be about more than just growth and money making. They need to have quality and they need to address issues in the system. Much like Burnham Plan era Chicago, this perhaps makes DFW a potentially very exciting place to be. It’s not everyday when you can be part of building a new aspirational future for a city that’s already been a successful boomtown. The locals I talked to were pretty pumped about their city and where it’s going.

How true this is I don’t know, but some people have attributed a change in mindset to the loss in the competition to land Boeing’s headquarters. Boeing ended up choosing Chicago over Dallas. In part this was because Chicago bought the business with lavish subsidies that far outclassed what Dallas put on the table. But it was also because Boeing saw Chicago as a more congenial environment for global company C-suite and other top executives to be, both from a lifestyle perspective and that of access to other globally elite firms and workers available in Chicago.

Meanwhile, the cracks in the DFW growth model were becoming apparent, especially in the core city of Dallas. Ten years ago the Dallas Morning News ran a series called “Dallas at a Tipping Point: A Roadmap For Renewal.” This series was underpinned by a report prepared by the consulting firm Booz Allen. This report is well worth reading by almost anyone today as it is a rare example of a city that was able to get insight and recommendations from the type of tier one strategy firm used by major corporations. Booz Allen was direct in their findings, though perhaps with a bit of hyperbole in the Detroit comparison:

Dallas stands at the verge of entering a cycle of decline…On its current path, Dallas will, in the next 20 years, go the way of declining cities like Detroit – a hollow core abandoned by the middle class and surrounded by suburbs that outperform the city but inevitably are dragged down by it.
….
If the City of Dallas were a corporate client, we would note that it has fallen significantly behind its competitors. We would warn that its product offering is becoming less and less compelling to its core group of target customers…We would further caution the management that they are in an especially dangerous position because overall growth in the market…is masking the depth of its underlying problems. We would explain that in our experience, companies in fast growing markets are often those most at risk because they frequently do not realize they are falling behind until the situation is irreversible.

Put into the language of business, we would note that Dallas is under-investing in its core product, has not embraced best practices throughout its management or operations, and is fast becoming burdened by long term liabilities that could bankrupt the company if the market takes a downturn.

The city responded in a number of ways, some of which were similar to Chicago at its inflection point. Many of these involve various urbanist “best practices” or conventional wisdom type trends.

By far the most important of these was adopting modern statistically driven policing approaches. As crime plummeted in places like New York during the 1990s, Dallas did not see a decline of its own. But with the expansion of police headcount and adoption of new strategies by new police chief David Kunkle in 2004 – and no doubt some help from national trends – crime fell steeply during the 2000s. The Dallas Morning News says that the city’s violent and property crime rates fell by a greater percentage than any other city with over one million residents over the last decade. In 2013, Dallas had its overall lowest crime rate in 47 years.

This is critical because nothing else matters without safe streets. I’ve had many a jousting match with other urbanists on discussion boards about where crime falls on the list of priorities. In my view it’s clearly #1 – even more so than education. It’s simply a prerequisite to almost any other systemic good happening in your cities. Students can’t learn effectively if they live and attend school in dangerous environments, for example. NYU economist Paul Romer made this point forcefully in his New Cities keynote, saying that fighting crime is the most important function of government and that if you don’t deliver on crime control your city will go into decline. Fortunately, Dallas seems to have gotten the message.

But there’s been attention to physical infrastructure as well. The area has built America’s largest light rail system (which was in the works since the early 1980s).


Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail train. Source: Wikipedia

Both the city and region remain fundamentally auto-centric, however, and this is unlikely to change.

There’s been a significant investment in quality green spaces. A major initiative called the Trinity River Project is designed to reclaim the Trinity River corridor through the city as a recreational amenity. This is underway but proceeding slowing. Among the aspects of the project is a series of three planned signature bridges designed by Santiago Calatrava. The only one completed is the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.


The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Downtown Dallas. Designed by Santiago Calatrava. Source: Wikipedia

The single bridge tower is quite an imposing presence on the skyline. However, the size of the bridge creates an awkward contrast with the glorified creek that is the Trinity River. It looks to me like they significantly over-engineered what should have been a fairly straightforward flood plain to span just so they could create a major structure.

Another green space project – and the best thing I saw in my trip to Dallas – is Klyde Warren Park, which is built on a freeway cap. About half the cost came from $50 million donations. I’ll be going into more detail on this in my next installment, but here’s a teaser photo:


Klyde Warren Park. Source: Wikipedia

The Calatrava bridge shows that Dallas has embraced the starchitect trend. This was also on display in the creation of the Dallas Arts District. Complementing the Dallas Museum of Art are a billion dollars worth of starchitect designed facilities including Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center, IM Pei’s symphony center, Norman Foster’s Winspear Opera House, and OMA’s Wyly Theatre.


Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Designed by OMA’s Joshua Prince-Ramus (partner in charge) and Rem Koolhaas

This arts district – which naturally Dallas boasts is the world’s largest – along with the other major investments that were funded with significant private contributions show a major advantage Texas metros like DFW and Houston have: philanthropy. These are new money towns on their way up and local billionaires are willing to open their wallets bigtime in an attempt to realize world class ambitions, exactly the way Chicago’s did all those decades back.

By contrast many northern tier cities are dependent on legacy philanthropy, such as foundations set up in an era when they were industrial power houses. This is a dwindling inheritance. What’s more, what wealthy residents they do have are as likely to be taking money out of their cities through cash for cronies projects than they are to be putting it in. Thus they can be a negative not positive influence.

This shows the importance of wealth building in cities. Commercial endeavors can appear crass or greedy at times, and deservedly so. But without wealth, you can’t afford to do anything. There’s a reason Dallas could build America’s largest light rail system – it had the money to do so. Similarly with this performing arts district. To be a city of ambition requires that a place also be an engine of wealth generation.

I’m sure that Dallas’ moneyed elite are well taken care of locally and exert outsized influence on decision making. I don’t want to make them out to be puristic altruists. But they’ve shown they are willing to open their wallets in a serious way, something that’s not true everywhere.

This is a flavor of what Dallas has been up to. It’s too early to say whether the city will make the same transition Chicago did. Its greatest challenge also awaits some time in the future. When DFW’s hypergrowth phase ends and the city must, like New York and Chicago before it, reinvent itself for a new age, that’s when we will find out if DFW has what it takes to join the world’s elite, or whether it will fade like a flower as Detroit and so many other places did.

Toyota did just announce it’s moving 3,500 jobs to north suburban Plano. But corporations have long seen Dallas a place for large white collar operations. Boeing was what I call an “executive headquarters” – a fairly small operation consisting of only the most senior people. I haven’t seen Dallas win any of these as of yet.

The Dallas Morning News takes a somewhat mixed view on the city itself. They just did a special section called “Future Dallas: Making Strides, Facing Challenges,” the title of which sums it up. Dallas has put a lot of pieces on the board and made major progress on areas like crime, but it’s failed to make a dent in others, such as Booz Allen’s call to make the city more attractive to middle class families. Poverty is actually up since then, and the city is increasingly unequal in its income distribution. Dallas is not unique in that, but that’s cold comfort.

Despite gigantic regional growth, the city’s population has been nearly flat. Despite the vaunted Texas and DFW jobs engine, Dallas County has lost about 100,000 jobs since 2000. The core is clearly continuing in relative decline, and the Dallas County job losses are particularly troubling. I’m no believer in this idea that everybody is going to abandon the suburbs and head back to the city. But as former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut put it, you can’t be a suburb of nowhere. If the core loses economic vitality, the entire DFW regional will take a hit to its growth.

I highlighted some of what Dallas has accomplished recently, as well as continued areas of concern. On Thursday I’ll be back with another installment taking at look at downtown and the visitor experience.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

House Music In Chicago

If you’ve been following the videos and such I’ve posted here over the years, you probably picked up that I’m a fan of house music, among other genres. The Sun-Times recently pointed me at a recently discovered documentary about the Chicago house scene from 1986. Only 12 minutes long, it was shot at the grand opening of a new club owned by Frankie Knuckles. Knuckles passed away on March 31st of this year. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

I was able to sit down this month with new Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to spend an hour on such topics as Cincinnati’s incredible historic assets, its history of social conservatism, streetcars and bike lanes, the repopulation of the urban core, and more.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor John Cranely. Image via City of Cincinnati.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

By far the most provocative thing the mayor talked about to me was his direct challenge to the idea of metropolitan government. Cincinnati hasn’t annexed territory since 1925, leaving it as a smallish, hemmed in city that is only 14% of a very fragmented region. Meanwhile cities like Indianapolis and Nashville had city-county consolidation, Columbus annexed, etc. He thinks that in a new urban era, this model of government is running out of gas and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way:

There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.

Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale. The home owner to apartment mix which looks bad at a distance but, candidly, makes it more dense in which it makes labor pools a lot easier to transport inside the city.

What we haven’t done, in my opinion, is be insistent enough on value for the dollar, because we’re spreading our dollar over a much smaller population than cities of size. So why isn’t the quality of customer service of all services of city government superior? You still get complaints today of people who say, “I live in a nice suburb and my snow is picked up immediately and it’s cleaner and my roads paved faster and less litter. Coming to a city, I can immediately tell it’s a city.” There’s no excuse for that. And I believe that we can provide a better customer service because we have more money over less people than our competitors do. Which if you think about the fact that we lost population to cities this way, people kept moving one suburb out — and I think most of us agree we’re going to repopulate from the inside out — we have more resources to invest in economic growth policies than our competitors do, and we intend to use that advantage to become the most exciting urban city in the country.

We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think there’s something to this. When places like Indy, Columbus, and Nashville annexed all those suburban areas, they were able to capture that tax base to support the central city. Now though they are saddled supporting miles and miles of aging and decaying suburban type development that may ultimately represent a drain on the resurgent urban core tax base. To the extent that the urban core does come back, places like Cincinnati, from a municipal point of view, will get a bigger lift from it because it gets spread over a smaller area. It’s easier to turn around a small ship than a big one.

We also talked about the geography and architecture of neighborhoods like Mt. Adams, which is like a Midwestern San Francisco. Mayor Cranley likes that analogy:

As I always say, if Chicago is the New York of the Midwest, we’re the San Francisco — in fact, that’s exactly my mind is to say Chicago is the New York of the Midwest. We’re the San Francisco. Because we have the hills, the architecture, the arts, the culture, the big league teams, all the advantages of a major city with the livability of a small town. And everyone has an opportunity to be a big fish if you got that kind of ambition. And it really is. Again, we’ve proven that’s true because we’ve been able to maintain such a concentration of Fortune 500 companies which then, of course, leads to all kinds of spin-off businesses and a huge privately held company, group of businesses, that have really been family traditions that have lasted a hundred years and have really continued to come. As I like to point out, what city our size has an entire company dedicated to Shakespeare? We have a theater that does all Shakespeare. And it has full on season.

I pointed out one important difference vs. San Francisco: Cincinnati’s history of extreme social conservatism. A number of wealthy conservatives like billionaire Carl Lindner and Charles Keating (yes, the Keating Five Charles Keating) poured tons of money into anti-pornography campaigns. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was convicted as recently as the late 90s of obscenity charges. In 1990 locals tried to ban an exhibition of explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and even put the museum director on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted). An anti-gay rights amendment was added to the city charter by citizen initiative in the early 90s. There was a race riot in Over the Rhine in 2001.

This is clearly a sore point for the mayor, as he answered at length. He acknowledges the history of these things, but says things have changed radically and wants to be able to get the word out on the new attitude in the city:

I think that’s changed. You take one rather prominent issue with gay rights. In 1993 an anti-gay law was passed in the city charter which was awful, and would stain our reputation for ten years. When I was on council we had a transvestite who was murdered, and even the very conservative chief of police said that this was a hate crime. And I led the effort to add sexual orientation to our hate crime law. And that was sort of — this was 2002, I believe, 2002 or ’03, it might have been 2003. And this had only been ten years since the charter thing had been passed. Remember, the charter thing was passed in the aftermath of Bill Clinton being elected and gays in the military, that first debate. And several cities, including Denver, Colorado, passed virtually identical [language] ran by a right wing group around the country.

Here, we went on a major effort and we progressively, in 2004, in the midst of Bush getting reelected in Hamilton County 54 to 46, got the thing repealed by a substantial margin, which showed a real shift in our culture and our attitudes. And then we immediately passed — reinstated — the human rights ordinance. We immediately reinstated the non-discrimination. We passed benefits for domestic partners and many, many other things. So candidly, and this is why I think it’s so important that you’re here, we need to get the message out. I believe that we have moved many, many miles since then.

In addition, we have been incredibly progressive as it comes to civil rights and to police-community relations. We had, in 2001, a very difficult time with police and the community, the black community in particular. And we voted to invite the Justice Department in the Cincinnati to mediate rather than litigate allegations of police misconduct. And we led to the 2002 collaborative agreement — which I’m proud to say I helped negotiate — which is now held up as a role model for how to improve police community relations around the country. In fact, the judge in New York who struck down the “stop and frisk” law in New York City specifically cited Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement as the right way for the police and the community to work together.

And so I respectfully say that I understand that we have some baggage in terms of what happened in 1993 on gay rights, and we’ve had on the 80’s and 70’s…Larry Flynt… So I’m not denying that there isn’t some reason for that reputation, but it’s no longer fair.

In addition to a Harvard Law degree, Mayor Cranley also has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School as describes himself as a man of deep faith. I asked him how that informs him in his role as mayor:

I think that all of this has to be done in the context of the common good and building a society that expands opportunity. And I think at the end of our lives we’re fundamentally going to be asked did we make the world a better place for those who didn’t have as many advantages as we had and did we leave it better than we found it. A sense of stewardship. And all that comes, I think, deeply from my faith, schooling and family, values, traditions, et cetera.

And so we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how are we going to reduce the poverty rate. One of my major planks in my campaign was reducing the poverty by at least 5% over the next four years. We are engaged at every level, re-examining the dollars that are — federal dollars that come in to the city budget that are earmarks for low income individuals and must be spent to the benefit of low income individuals — are we really getting the most bang for the buck out of these dollars?

Right now we have a cohort coming out of the Great Recession of folks who have never had high school or college degree, with kids, who have got very bleak prospects, and that is not surprisingly where those folks live tend to be some of our toughest neighborhoods. If we can, I think, rise to the moral challenge of figuring out how to not write off this entire generation but invest in job training and skill set to get them at least ready to work at low skill, low paying jobs and bring the dignity back of having a breadwinner in the family, the social dividends of that are enormous in terms of turning those neighborhoods around, those families around, the city around.

But in addition, if we can do it on a systematic basis, we can then market Cincinnati as a place for companies who want to locate with a large, ready to work population. Now, obviously, 20-30 years from now I’d love for us to have a higher education rate. I’m not saying it’s good and we just want to leave the education rates where they are, but given what we have today, how do we turn all that into an advantage and, at the same time, tackle the moral issues of poverty?

And while it’s not the same thing — a very sensitive issue, this is not the same thing — but building a more inclusive and welcoming society for immigrants and for African-American, Hispanics is also, I think, part of my faith tradition of — it does come from a history of prejudice that Cincinnati has been part of. And so we do have a moral obligation to tackle those issues but I do think from a political standpoint, it’s better — and true, not just better political argument, which it is, but it’s also true — that it’s better for all of us to have a more inclusive and welcoming city.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Don Giovanni and the Human Tragedy

Some years back I tried to figure out what I would have to give up if I moved from Chicago to Indianapolis. I came up with only two big things, clothes shopping and world class opera. The internet took care of access to fashion in short order. And world class opera got fixed by the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts.

Most opera lovers know that you can now see the Met Opera in high definition in movie theaters around the country. It’s not exactly being there, but it’s pretty good. And it’s a great way for newbies to try out opera without breaking the bank. Your max burn is less than $20 vs. upwards of $200+ at the opera house, so the price/performance can’t be beat.

But what even many opera folks might not know is that London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is now also into the movie theater game. It’s not as ubiquitous as the Met, but pretty widely available (see end for details).

The next Royal Opera House production to screen in the US is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is coming up this week. I want to take this opportunity to promote it. Selfishly, if these things aren’t patronized, we’ll lose them, and I’d like to make sure this opportunity sticks around.

Don Giovanni is considered by many – including Yours Truly – as the greatest opera of all time. It tells the story of Don Juan (Giovanni in Italian), the mythic Latin lover many of us have heard of, but may not know much about. In fact, Mozart’s version has become the definite telling of the Don Juan myth. The music is also spectacular and easy on the ears. This makes Don Giovanni an ideal choice as a first opera to see, so this week is your big opportunity if you’ve never done it.

To get you in the mood, and to help you make sense of what you’re seeing, I’ll give a bit of an explanation of the opera. But first a musical sample, “Protegga il giusto cielo” (Protect us, O righteous heaven – click here if the video doesn’t display for you).

The Plot

First the plot, which it helps to know in advance. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

After an ambiguous offstage sexual encounter, Donna Anna chases a disguised Don Giovanni from her home. Anna’s father, the Commendatore (Commander) insists on fighting the Don. Reluctantly, the Don is forced to fight, kills the Commendatore, then escapes. Anna’s boyfriend Don Ottavio arrives and Anna makes him swear vengeance against the at this point unknown Don Giovanni.

The Don and his sidekick Leporello come across a woman singing of betrayal by her lover. The Don decides she’s to be his next conquest. But as they approach it turns out she is Donna Elvira, whom the Don had already used and discarded, and he’s the one she’s singing about! The Don bolts for the exits, leaving Leporello with Elvira. He tells her not to waste her time on the Don, singing the famous catalogue aria regaling her with the Don’s thousands of prior conquests – 1003 in Spain alone! Here is a concert version (click here if the video doesn’t display):

Elvira swears she’ll get revenge. Meanwhile the Don and Leporello stumble across the celebration of a pending peasant wedding between Masetto and Zerlina. The Don decides to seize his opportunity, inviting everyone back to his castle to celebrate. He forces Masetto to depart with Leporello, leaving him alone to woo Zerlina with promises of marriage.

The Don is on the verge of closing the deal when Elvira barges in and steals Zerlina away. Then Anna and Ottavio enter. Not knowing that the Don is the one they are seeking, he persuades them he’s on their side. As he leaves, Anna realizes to her horror that the Don is the one who killed her father.

Back at the Don’s castle, Leporello informs him that everyone’s there, but that Elvira had brought Zerlina back and had caused trouble. The Don is unperturbed, and anticipates the fun ahead with his so-called champagne aria (click here if the video doesn’t display).

At the party the Don pulls Zerlina aside to continue his seduction. But Masetto is watching and when the Don discovers him, he’s forced to back off. Meanwhile, Ottavia, Anna, and Elvira have put on masks and come to the party. (Their praying for God’s help in their mission is the first trio above). While Leporello distracts Masetto, the Don drags Zerlina off to have his way with her. But she screams for help, and to cover himself the Don grabs Leporello as if he’s the assailant. The masqueraders reveal themselves and tell the Don they know the real score, but he escapes again.

Act 2 opens with the Don convincing Leporello that they should switch identities. He leaves the disguised Leporello to try to seduce Elvira, while he goes off to try to find Zerlina again. It turns out that Elvira is still in love with the Don, and so responds to Leporello’s serenades. Meanwhile the Don runs into Masetto who, not knowing who he’s really talking to, reveals his desire to kill the Don. The disguised Don, offended at this, beats up Masetto and leaves.

Leporello dumps Elvira but ends up running into Masetto, Zerlina, Ottavio, and Anna who are going to kill him. Elvira arrives to try to protect her “lover”, but Leporello unmasks his true identity, apologies, then escapes in the confusion. When Ottavio and Anna are alone, he begs her to marry him but she refuses to until her father is avenged.

The Don and Leporello regroup in a graveyard near a statue of the Commendatore adorned with an inscription promising revenge against the person who killed him. Leporello is freaked out, but the Don only laughs and tells Leporello to invite the statue to dinner. Much to their surprise, the statue accepts.

The Don and Leporello go back to the castle and throw a lavish banquet. Elvira shows up and tells the Don to change his ways. He only laughs and sends her packing. But as she’s leaving she screams as she sees the statue of the Commendatore arriving for dinner. Leporello goes to investigate but likewise is terrified. So the Don himself goes to the door and invites in the statue.

The Commendatore takes the Don by hand and demands that he repent of his sins. The Don refuses multiple times, upon which with fires of hell erupt through the floor and suck him down to his doom. All of the characters rush in as Leporello explains what happened, and they sing a festive song of celebration explaining their future plans. Elvira will retire to a convent. Leporello says he’ll go in search of a better master. Zerlina and Masetto are to be married. Ottavio wants to marry Anna, but she puts him off for another year, this time for mourning.

Interpretation

What then are we to make of the opera? At one level, it’s simply supremely beautiful music, maybe the best ever written. French opera composer Charles Gounod said of it, “I regard it as a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.” GB Shaw said it was “eminent in virtue of its uncommon share of wisdom, beauty, and humor.” Kierkegaard’s Aesthete in Either/Or said, “Anyone who wishes to see Mozart in his true immortal greatness must consider his Don Giovanni, in comparison with which everything else is incidental, unimportant.” This is all true even just considered as great music, to which you can simply listen and enjoy.

But opera is a dramatic medium as well, and there’s much more to be gleaned from this opera than simply pretty notes. In fact, there’s a nearly inexhaustible supply of things. As with all classic works – Hamlet, Plato’s Republic, and so many others – Don Giovanni is pluripotent. It carries an infinitude of meanings. It’s also highly problematic and impossible to decipher. Just as it’s been said that there’s never been and never will be a perfect singer in the role of the Don, there never will be a perfect interpretation.

My personal view is encapsulated by the diagram below, which I call Don Giovanni In One Chart:

Don Giovanni is a contrast between the world as we would like it to be, and the world as it really is. In our idealized world, the contrast is between the Commendatore and the Don, between the honorable man and the rake. Alas, this is not the real world. In the real world the Don’s opposite is not the Commendatore, but Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized man. This speaks to the nature of masculinity, but also to the human condition itself and the tragic dilemma we face.

Don Giovanni is a scoundrel. Some have tried to paint him as a sort of Enlightenment hero, one liberated from the prudish constraints of a more primitive age. And there is in truth some of that. The Don is living the Sexual Revolution well before his time, and maybe as a 1%er too. Yet, he is exploitative towards women, whom he treats as objects of his lust, he abuses his social status, he’s a liar, he breaks any promise when it’s convenient to do so, is a complete coward, someone who sucker-punches his opponents, and probably much more I don’t recall at the moment. He is pure appetite, pure impulse, completely unreflective, with no self-denial and no self-control. He lives according to man’s more elemental, animalistic nature. Kierkegaard’s Aesthete sees the Don as representing the fleshly sensual nature of man within the context of medieval Christian though, and thus an embodiment of the demonic. Given that he was sucked down to hell at the end, it’s hard to argue with this.

The Commendatore we know little of, but he appears to be a perfectly honorable man. He was a noble, had a prestigious position, defended the honor of his family, was fearless and godly (going to heaven when he died, presumably with his sexual fidelity intact), his quest for justice enduring beyond the grave. As the inscription on his statue shows, he was a man who made plans, ones rationally conceived and patient in their execution. Like a genuine Christian, his first call is to repentance, not judgment.

The Commendatore then is what a man should be, the Don what he should not. It’s tempting them to see them as opposite potentialities within the heart of man. Choose wrong and become the Don, right and become the Commendatore.

However, this is not the case. Except at the very beginning and end, the Commendatore is absent from the scene. He’s literally a ghostly, otherworldly figure. Instead, we are treated to three other men who exist along a continuum extending from the Don. There’s Leporello the sidekick, a potential Don in training though with a conscience. There’s Masetto the peasant. And there’s Ottavio, the pathetic, feminized suitor of a reluctant Anna.

These men display progressively lower levels of masculinity, awareness, and power. Leporello knows the score and is capable of taking action, if only within the Don’s parameters. Masetto also knows the score but is impotent to do anything about it. Ottavio is clueless. Each of these is paired with a woman in the opera – Elvira, Zerlina, and Anna, respectively. Notably, while the Don is irresistible to women and has power over them (even Elvira is still in love with him), these women have progressively greater degrees of control over the other men. Elvira is a somewhat loose match to Leporello and exerts but little influence. But Zerlina has Masetto wrapped around her finger. And Anna is actively deceiving, exploiting, and abusing the hapless Ottavio as an almost inverted female version of the Don. Whereas the Don takes what men stereotypically want from women – sex – without marriage, Anna takes what women stereotypically want – loyalty, support, protection,and commitment – without marriage. Clearly in progression from the Don to Ottavio, there’s a progressive increase in bonding to, dependence on, and control of the men by women.

Of these additional male characters, who comes closest to being in the mold of the Commendatore? Clearly Ottavio. In fact, Ottavio, with his half-drawn sword, excessive devotion to Anna, and promises of revenge, is almost a parody of the Commendatore.

Given that the Commendatore is absent and Ottavio is present, what does this say? It tells that Ottavio is what happens when we try to civilize the rake. In taking away what’s bad from the Don, one also takes away what makes him great. He even loses his attractiveness to women at a sexual level. Anna may sleep with the Don, but she’s never going to marry Ottavio.

Looking at the chart, the oppositions at the bottom are those between evil and good, except for the last. Masculinity and femininity are different but not opposites and don’t map to good and evil. There’s no obvious reason why as we move from evil to good, from appetitive to rational, from the flesh to the spirit that the Don would become Ottavio instead of the Commendatore. But that’s what happens. And therein lies the tragedy. It’s impossible to remove the worst in a man without also removing the best. They are too deeply intertwined one with the other. Civilizing a man is tantamount to unmanning him. It’s why stereotypically nice guys (boring) finish last, and women want to date the jerks (exciting).

This dilemma is also made manifest in the incompatible existences of the Don and the Commendatore. When they come into contact they obliterate each other like matter and anti-matter. They aren’t capable of inhabiting the same universe. It’s not just that in the first encounter the Don killed the Commendatore and in the second vice versa. Rather, both were destroyed in the first encounter, of which is the second was but its completion. The Don never put another entry in his famous catalog of conquests after it. His power was finished. Like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, he was already dead, he just didn’t know it yet.

But what makes this more than a male tragedy but a human one is that the Don represents more than just the male gender. He represents here our more primitive, beastly nature as a species. In that regard, Don Gionvanni tells us it’s not just a man like the Don who becomes enfeebled and pathetic through civilizing, it’s also humanity as a whole.

It’s been observed that the Don is the animating force of the entire opera and all the characters in it. As Kierkegaard’s Aesthete put it, “With the exception of the Commendatore, all the characters stand in a kind of erotic relation to Don Giovanni.” When the Don is removed from the scenes, the wind goes out of the sails of the other characters. Elvira is off to the convent, her life figuratively finished. Leporello becomes a wanderer in search of a mythical better master. Anna and Ottavio enter a type of stasis. Only Zerlina and Masetto seem to have a normal future in view, albeit an utterly pedestrian one – no more adventures for them. One wonders how happy these people will be with the Don no longer around. (I think this point would have been made less ambiguously had the opera ended with the Don being pulled into hell, as Mozart originally wanted it to).

How many over civilized and decadent empires have fallen to barbarians? It is not because the life force of humanity comes from its barbarian nature, not its civilized side? Shorn of its more primitive nature, how long will any society endure? This is the reality that underpins Machiavelli’s famous dictum that, “A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”

Especially in the modern age of technological wonder we have this conceit that we can perfect humanity, that if we can only eliminate the bad, we can achieve a just society and human flourishing. Don Giovanni says not so fast. It doesn’t go quite like that. But the opera does so in a way that goes even beyond the Christian concept of original sin. Whereas medieval Christianity says damned if you do, Don Giovanni says damned even if you don’t. Even if you live righteously or successfully repent, the results won’t be what you’re imagining. The defect is too deep in our natures and in the cosmos to be eradicated even by truly walking the straight and narrow. Humanity is caught between the Scylla of its savage animal nature, and the Charybdis of the enfeeblement of over-civilization. Only a new heavens and new earth indeed can ever truly resolve this dilemma.

Don Giovanni is in US theaters starting March 27th. Cities, theaters, dates, and times are available at Screenvision. Many European opera companies are infamous for obscure modern stagings of operas and unfortunately ROH’s Don Giovanni seems influenced by this, and it got mixed reviews. But the music is fantastic so this remains a good one to go see. For more information on the production, see reviews in the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

My Presence Is a Provocation

The urbanist internet has been a ga ga over an article by artist and musician David Byrne (photo credit: Wikipedia) called “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” Now David Byrne himself is at least a cultural 1%er, and at with a reported net worth of $45 million, isn’t exactly hurting for cash. In fairness to him, he forthrightly admits he’s rich. He also is bullish on the positive changes in New York in areas like public safety, transportation, and parks, and does not fall prey to romanticizing the bad old days of the 70s and 80s. However, in his assigning blame for New York’s affordability, he points the finger squarely at Wall Street, neglecting the role he himself played in bringing about the changes he decries, changes in which he was more than a passive participant.

Back in the early 90s I liked to hang out in a neighborhood called Fountain Square in Indianapolis, a down at the heels commercial district near downtown largely populated by people from Appalachia. I enjoyed browsing the low end, marginal shops and eating at diners where the food was mediocre and the waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them). Today, Fountain Square is not exactly gentrified, but is seeing a lot of investment and new residential construction. It’s a long way from unaffordable, but it isn’t impossible to conceive of a day when it features almost entirely higher prices (by Indianapolis standards) in the way some other zones downtown do.

About that time I also liked to drive around the city and take pictures of various neighborhoods in the inner city. One time I was on the East Side and was walking around taking snaps of streetscapes. I apparently pointed my camera too close in the direction of a white minivan whose owner took umbrage. The driver, who was white, long-haired, with a bit of a redneck air about him, circled the block and pulled up next to me to berate me in a semi-menacing way, alternately demanding to know why I was taking pictures of his van and warning me I should never do it again. (I generally take pains to try to avoid including people in my photographs when possible, and things like this are one reason why).

I’m not going to claim there was any hidden agenda here other than this guy being directly suspicious of my pointing a camera his way. But I can’t help but wonder if subconsciously he was aware of a more subtle but potentially more dangerous threat that I posed to his neighborhood and way of life.

I’m not taking credit or blame for neighborhood change in Indianapolis. But I do know that I’m part of the dynamic of the city I’m in. And when I guy like me walks into a neighborhood, my mere presence can be a provocation. Cities are inherently dynamic places, and we are agents of the forces of change whether we want to be or not. (Which is as true for the poor as for the one percent, we just label it “fair housing” when poor people move into rich neighborhoods, but “gentrification” when the reverse occurs).

While I am a writer and observer on cities, I’m an endogenous not exogenous observer. All of us are players in the development of the places we live and visit, event if only bit players in some cases. And oftimes in the complex world of the city, our actions are part of forces or trends we are not event aware of, ones that may have consequences we would never have desired. That does not absolve us of our role.

As for David Byrne, the role of artists and musicians in paving the way for gentrification is so well known as to be conventional wisdom. Similarly today the hipster. And what’s one of the original signature markers of the hipster? The fixed-gear bicycle.

Just as reductions in crime obviously have an effect of dramatically raising property values (and thus rents) in a place as intrinsically attractive as New York, so do other quality of life improvements such as bicycle infrastructure. By making New York an even more desirable place to live, these improvements, wonderful as they may be and which I would heartily endorse, clearly attract more well-off residents and drive up prices.

Byrne has even taken a direct role in this. He created a series of nine public art type back racks from the city, all but one of which is in Manhattan, and which even includes this delightful example from Wall Street:


Photo Credit: Flickr/zombiete

These racks and his activism with regards to bicycles are what give Bryne his standing an urban commentator.

I for one am glad he made the bike racks as they are fantastic and I’m a fan of New York’s improved cycling infrastructure. But I also recognize that this sort of quality of life improvement contributes towards New York’s attractiveness to the wealthy. It’s just not realistic to think one can clean up the crime, the parks, improve infrastructure, etc. and then expect that prices will remain what they were back in the 70s when Bryne moved to the city. Rather than pointing the finger at the Other, the finance industry in this case, it would be more helpful if those of us who advocate for better urban environments would recognize the inevitable side effects many of our proposed policies would produce, and our own role in bringing them about.

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Is Detroit the Next Berlin? by Justin Fox

[ Given the emergence of an artist movement in Detroit, the comparisons to Berlin are obvious. However, in this piece that ran over in Techonomy last year, Justin Fox argues the comparison is invalid. I'm glad to be able to repost it. And I'd also suggest that you might want to check out more of the material from Techonomy Detroit - Aaron. ]

After the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin had very cheap housing and industrial space, some in spectacularly grand old buildings. Years of division—with repressive communist rule on one side of town and isolation and economic stagnation on the other—had left the city depressed and underpopulated. Reunification initially only made things worse, as uncompetitive Eastern-side state-owned factories closed en masse.

This translated into, among other things, apartment rents much lower than in any other major Western European city. The low rents and post-industrial landscape drew artists and other bohemian sorts. Then low rents plus a burgeoning cultural scene drew young college grads who couldn’t find good jobs anywhere (German unemployment was high in the 1990s). They could get by in groovy, low-cost Berlin. This influx eventually translated into economic revival. Now Berlin is a boomtown, and everybody’s complaining about the skyrocketing rents.

Detroit’s roughly the same size as Berlin (measured by metro area population). It’s got a lot of cheap real estate, some of it spectacularly grand. It’s got abandoned factories. It’s got great cultural history (mainly on the music front). So … let the young bohemians come and the boom begin, right?

Uh … no. I’m moderating a panel at the Techonomy Detroit conference titled “Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” but I just don’t buy it. Sure, I’m rooting for Detroit’s revival. And the revival seems real, although still in its early stages. Studying and learning from the struggles and successes of other cities (as WDET did with its series on the Detroit-Berlin Connection) is never a bad idea. But the notion that Berlin could be a model for Detroit strikes this outsider as wrongheaded and a bit dangerous. It is an aspiration bound to be thwarted. Here’s what makes Berlin so different from Detroit (and vice versa):

1) Berlin is a political and cultural capital. The economic impact of becoming the capital of a reunited Germany in 1990 was actually a disappointment for Berlin at first, as some government agencies stayed away, and corporations did, too. But the reality of becoming the capital city of a major economic power, and the construction boom that went with that, eventually had a big impact. Berlin also was quickly able to regain its pre-World-War II status as the country’s artistic and cultural capital—thanks in part to massive federal subsidies. So it became Germany’s New York (minus finance and media) plus its Washington, D.C. (minus the huge defense and homeland-security industry). With super-cheap rents. That’s a lot of magnetic power, and by the late 1990s Berlin had become the default destination for creative, ambitious, educated young Germans. Detroit has none of these dynamics going for it except the real estate. Bringing in a few curious artists is great, but expecting a mass inflow of hipsters from all over America is crazy. It would already be a huge victory if lots of creative, ambitious, educated young Michiganders began moving to the city.

2) Berlin reunified. Detroit never had a Wall, but it’s been riven by its own division over the past half century, a stark racial and political separation between the city and the rest of the metropolitan area. There’s clearly been progress made in recent years, with new stadiums and other development downtown, and an apparent shift—born of shared economic desperation—toward more of a we’re-all-in-this-together regional attitude. But the divide is undeniably still there, and it means that even a successful revitalization will of necessity have to take a much different, less-centralized shape than in Berlin. Three quarters of metro Berlin’s 4.4 million people live within the city limits. In Detroit it’s the other way around; more than 80% of the 4.3 million inhabitants of the metro area live outside Detroit proper. Finding ways to tie city and suburbs together remains one of the area’s biggest challenges.

3) Berlin has good public transit. Yeah, its air connections have long been something of a joke, but that should improve dramatically with the opening next year of a new airport. The city is also linked by high-speed rail to the rest of the country’s major cities. Detroit’s got a great airport, but beyond that it’s built quite literally around the automobile. The millennials who would have to begin flocking to Detroit to make a Berlin scenario real don’t seem to like cars much. There’s no easy way around this: Detroit simply can’t afford to build a mass-transit infrastructure right now, and a Berlin-style, youth-oriented metropolis is almost inconceivable without such an infrastructure.

4) Detroit knows business. Yes, the city’s main business has been through a really tough time lately, but metro Detroit is full of private sector expertise—not just in automobiles—and seems to be growing a new entrepreneurial class. Berlin has a startup scene now, but that’s been driven mostly by newcomers. When its long, slow return to prosperity began it was a city of bureaucrats, former communists, and the long-term unemployed. Detroit has a huge advantage over Berlin here, an advantage that should be exploited and emphasized.

5) Detroit has better immigrants. Sure, now Berlin is attracting jet-setters from all over—and has attracted hard-working immigrants from Turkey and Eastern Europe for years. But Detroit, and U.S. cities in general, have two big advantages over their continental European counterparts in attracting ambitious, entrepreneurial newcomers from other countries: (1) we speak the global language, English, and (2) despite occasional problems we have a deserved reputation as a nation where newcomers can thrive. The Detroit area has of course already benefited from its status as destination No. 1 in the U.S. for immigrants from Arab countries, and any realistic comeback scenario for the area and the city proper has to include a big role for overseas immigrants.

There’s an echo here of the competing visions of urbanists Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin. Florida is of course the progenitor of the idea that a new, urban “creative class” is the key economic driver of our time—and that cities (like Berlin) that can attract young creatives will thrive. Kotkin argues that this simply won’t work for most American cities, and that messy, immigrant-filled, strip-mall sprawl is an equally vibrant and more realistic model. Florida, who married a Detroiter, has been talking up the creative-class link to the city’s revival. Kotkin, in a recent newspaper profile of Florida, scoffed that “There’s not enough yuppies on the planet to save Detroit.”

In the case of the Detroit area, they’re both right. Locavore restaurants and design studios aren’t going to bring back the regional economy. That’s going to require other, more mass-scale kinds of business success, and possibly some big-time government investment. At the same time, returning the city of Detroit to its rightful position as economic and cultural heart of the region—which seems like an essential prerequisite to any truly sustainable revival of metro Detroit—will take exactly the kind of building-by-building, restaurants-and-galleries-and-cool-little-creative-businesses entrepreneurship that Florida loves so much. Detroit is not the next Berlin. But it may still get a little bit of that Berlin spirit.

Justin Fox appeared at Techonomy Detroit in a session entitled ”Is Detroit the Next Berlin?” For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, conference, click here.

This post originally appeared in Techonomy on September 11, 2012.

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Nashville Symphony Near Bankruptcy, Concert Hall in Foreclosure

Update 6/24/2013: The Nashville Symphony reached a deal with Bank of America to avoid foreclosure. Full coverage of the Nashville Symphony financial saga is available on this special web page at the Nashville Tennessean.

Nashville has been on a roll in recent years, with a rapidly growing population (including a rapidly expanding immigrant base), robust job growth (#1 among large cities in 2012 on a percentage basis), and lots of positive national press. I’ve been visiting about once a year in recent years and have always had a good time and been very impressed with the ambition level and positive change and growth.

But one symbol of the coming of age of Nashville, the nearly new Schermerhorn Center, home to the Nashville Symphony, is now an emblem of trouble, though perhaps less for the city than for classical music in general.

In short, the building is in foreclosure. Bank of America, which received more government bailout money than any other bank, is threatening to seize and auction the building for cash on June 28th. The Symphony’s auditor has given it a going concern warning, and bankruptcy is looking likely.

This would appear to be a strange turn of events for a town and a symphony on the rise. The Nashville Symphony was nominated for a slew of Grammy awards, at least one of which they won. Just last year the symphony’s president was talking about “a golden age of classical music” in the city. The Schermerhorn Center was a symbol of both the orchestra’s and the city’s ambitions to be taken seriously.

But there were warning signs from the beginning. A planned major endowment never materialized. With only $9.2 million in the endowment, the Nashville Symphony is effectively a pay as you go organization. Other orchestras can get up to a third of their budget from large endowments. The symphony also apparently borrowed a significant sum of money to build the structure and did not pre-fund it with donations. As noted by the University of Chicago report “Set in Stone,” cities across America pumped vast sums into cultural facilities in the last decade. Many of these are struggling in a post-crash world.

Also, as I’ve noted before, classical music is troubled, and the symphony orchestra is the most difficult type of classical music organization to reinvent because of its lack of multimedia experience a la opera, and its high costs. If orchestras struggle even in boomtowns like Nashville, that augurs poorly for their success elsewhere.

Also, it appears that outside of truly top tier cities like New York and Chicago, the symphony is no longer considered a must-have civic marker. At least not to the extent that local elites are willing to part with their own money to fund them. As we’ve gone to an ultra-casual world, and theories on urban success like creative class move explicitly away from traditional high culture, orchestras seem increasingly expendable. Cities want to keep one around to avoid looking bad, but they aren’t willing to ante up for true excellence.

In any case, this is one to watch, especially considering how great Nashville as been doing otherwise.

Here is more complete coverage from the Nashville Tennessean:

Nashville Symphony at risk of being silenced
It’s time to start freaking out about the symphony situation
Nashville Symphony faces a future of unknowns

More on Nashville from the Urbanophile:
Is Nashville the Next Boomtown of the New South?
Nashville Rolls On
Impressions of Nashville
Pedestrian Deaths, Nashville Style

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