Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Behind the Facade in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

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

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

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

And this place, which left me speechless:

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

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

St. Petersburg - August 2015

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

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

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

Friday, August 14th, 2015

A Visit to Kazan

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

They have their own leaning tower.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

The main street leading to the kremlin.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Take a nice stroll along the lake.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Renovated buildings in the old Tatar Quarter

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Dittos.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

A metro station.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

Signs.

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

Kazan, Russia - August 2015

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

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

A Manifesto Against Completing Sagrada Família Church

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

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

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

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

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

Letters to “LA VANGUARDIA”

Construction Works at the Church of Sagrada Familia

Mr. Director of LA VANGUARDIA

Dear Sir:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours Sincerely:

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

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

Roberto Terradas, Dean of the School of Architecture.

Students of the School of Architecture.

Nikolaus Pevsner, director of “Architectural Review”

Gio Ponti, director oh “Domus”.

Bruno Zevi, director of “L’architettura”,

Ernesto N. Rogers, director oh “Casabella”.

Vittorio Gregotti, director of “Edilizia Moderna”.

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

Carlos de Miguel, director of “Arquitectura”.

Asís Viladevall, director of “Cuadernos de Arquitectura”.

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

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

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

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

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

CARTAS A “LA VANGUARDIA”

La obra del templo de la Sagrada Familia

Sr. Director de LA VANGUARDIA

Muy señor nuestro:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reciba un atento saludo de

Antoni de Moragas, decano del Colegio de Arquitectos.

Alfons Serrahima, presidente del FAD.

Roberto Terradas, director de la Escuela de Arquitectura.

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

Nikolaus Pevsner, director de “Architectural Review”

Gio Ponti, director de “Domus”.

Bruno Zevi, director de “L’architettura”,

Ernesto N. Rogers, director de “Casabella”.

Vittorio Gregotti, director de “Edilizia Moderna”.

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

Carlos de Miguel, director de “Arquitectura”.

Asís Viladevall, director de “Cuadernos de Arquitectura”.

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off on A Manifesto Against Completing Sagrada Família Church
Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: Barcelona

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Viva Havana!


Photo by Scott Beyer

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

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

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

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


Photo by Scott Beyer

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

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


Image via the Guardian

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

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


Photo by Scott Beyer

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Hooray For the High Bridge

IMG_1714

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

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

Click through to read the whole thing.

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

Looking south:

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

The neighbors are fans:

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

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

Replay: Global Cities Don’t Just Take, They Give

This post originally ran on April 28, 2013.

Creativity for the world or for your city gives something back – Charles Landry

I had an interesting conversation about Washington, DC with Richard Layman a few months back. One of his observations, rooted in Charles Landry’s, was that great global cities don’t just take, they give. To the extent that Washington wants to be a truly great city, it needs to contribute things to the world, not just rake in prosperity from it.

Affecting the world, often for good but unfortunately sometimes for bad, is a unique capability that global cities have because they are the culture shaping hubs of nations and world. When an ordinary city does something, it can have an effect to be sure. But things that happen in the global city are much more likely to launch movements.

For example, Chicago did not invent the idea of doing a public art exhibit out of painted cow statues. I believe they copied it from a town in Switzerland. But when Chicago did it, it inspired other cities in a way that Swiss town did not. In effect, ordinary cities influence the world usually by influencing a global city, which then influences the world. Often it is the global city that gets the credit although the actual idea originated elsewhere. Thus the role of the global city is critical. But we shouldn’t assume that all ideas originate there or that other cities can’t profoundly influence the world.

We might also think of bicycle sharing, which was around in various forms for quite a while. But it was the launch of the massive Paris Vélib’ system in 2007 (which according to Wikipedia was inspired by a system in Lyon) that made bicycle sharing a must have urban item the world over.

Similarly it was the High Line in New York that has every city wanting to convert elevated rail lines into showcase trails. New York is really the city that made protected bike lanes the new standard in the United States as well.

Beyond simple urban amenity type items, global cities can also launch profound cultural and social transformations. A few examples.

The first is from Seattle, a sort of semi-global city. It was in such a depressed state in the 1970s that someone put up a billboard that’s still pretty famous: “Will the last one leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?” Yet in Seattle there was a coffeehouse culture that spawned a movement out of which came Starbucks which literally revolutionized coffee drinking in America and event pioneered the entirely new concept of the “third place.”

A lot of people like to attribute the emergence of Seattle as a player to Microsoft moving there from Albuquerque in the late 1970s. However, I think the coffee example shows that there were interesting things already happening in Seattle long before that. It was a proto-global city waiting for a catalyst.

Another example would be the emergence of rap music out of New York City. Or house music from Chicago.

Or consider the 1963 demolition of Penn Station in New York in 1963. The wanton destruction of this signature structure horrified the city and led to the adoption of its historic preservation ordinance. This was not the birthplace of historic preservation in the United States, but this demolition played a key role in bringing historic preservation to the fore, not just locally but nationally.

Lastly, the Stonewall Riots in 1969 clearly played a signature role in the gay rights movement in America. Many pride parades today are scheduled to fall on the anniversary of the event.

Who knows what might have happened with coffee in America without Seattle. But I think it’s clear that both the historic preservation and gay rights movements would have emerged at some point anyway regardless of what happened in New York. However, the events in New York clearly provided a sort of ignition and acceleration.

How many historic buildings in America were saved because Penn Station was lost? (Think about how many might have been destroyed had the historic preservation movement emerged later).

Think about a state like Iowa where gay marriage is legal. How many people in Iowa 40+ years ago had any idea that an obscure incident in New York City would ultimately transform the social conventions of the rural heartland?

I think this shows the power of the global city. I’m sure that there are things happening underground in New York and elsewhere that right now that we don’t know anything about yet that will ultimately transform our world 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. It’s crazy to think about.

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Topics: Arts and Culture, Globalization, Historic Preservation, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, New York, Seattle, Washington

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

I was out in Portland, Oregon last week and while there I sat down for an interview with Mayor Charlie Hales. We talked about the real Portland vs. the idea of Portland, the city’s industrial base, retrofitting suburban infrastructure, and a lot more. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Mayor Charlie Hales. Image via Wikipedia

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

Mayor Hales rejects the idea that we will have to strategically abandon infrastructure because the finances don’t add up:

My point here is that this is about political will. It is not inevitable or immutable that America is going watch its infrastructure decline. It’s a choice. It’s a bad choice to dither and do nothing. And it’s a good choice to step up and do something. And I think you’ll see more cities doing what we’re doing here in Portland. Which is to say, we’re going act locally, and then keep the pressure on Congress and the State House to do their part too.

Regarding how hard it really is to find a job in Portland:

Not hard. In fact, I think it’s 4.8% – the unemployment rate – among 25-34 year olds here – lower than New York, lower than a lot of places. We’re the 3rd greatest city in terms of college educated immigrants moving here deliberately. They move here, and then not long after, they find work. Or they create work by starting their own business because we’re a very entrepreneurial city as well. I did this in 1979. It’s not an original thing for Portland. In fact you could say it’s been happening since Lewis and Clark that we – that people immigrated here from elsewhere because they saw some opportunity here. We’ve been absorbing those people as they come to Portland. They find work. But that’s the value set of that 25-34 year old cohort. They care about quality of place, quality of life, and what they’re going do when they’re not working. And that doesn’t include, say, sitting in traffic in suburbia. So they like the idea of living in Portland, and they come here and try to make it work. And most of them do. Again, we have a better employment situation for those folks than New York City does. So it’s not true that young people come here and are stuck in jobs that they’re way over qualified for indefinitely.

About how the real Portland differs from the idea of Portland people have from the media:

Like all good caricatures, Portlandia makes fun of some things about us that are true. I mean, we do love localism, so Colin the Chicken is somebody that we would care about here in Portland. And we are relentlessly earnest about our values.

There some other ways that we don’t. We’re still an industrial city. We’re a big hands, port industrial city. We build boxcars and barges. We just cut the ribbon on the biggest dry dock in North America last weekend. So we employ a lot of welders and steel fitters and plumbers and pipe fitters, and all those hands-on trades. We build trucks here. We build boxcars. We make steel pipe. There’s a lot of traditional “old economy” industry here.

Another part of Portland that doesn’t show up in the caricature is…the other half of the neighborhoods that were half-baked suburbia when they got annexed into the city. And we’re trying to make them complete communities with a local economy in that neighborhood and those kind of services that you can walk to. And, oh yeah, in many cases, there aren’t even sidewalks, and there’s no neighborhood park. So, we’re spending a lot of effort and money on trying to retrofit those suburban parts of Portland, to not be physically identical to the old neighborhoods, but have those ingredients of a complete neighborhood that Portlanders like to see.

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Chicago’s Secondary Stations: Little Engines That Could…And Should by Robert Munson

This is part of the series North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable or Not?

To describe how central stations can help us evolve toward sustainable transportation, this series uses a middle category called “Economic Engines.” This category stimulates its surrounds. These three Chicago stations do that job well.

Category: Economic Engines (click for all currently reviewed stations)
Consolidated Scorecard: Click to view full scorecard
Scorecard Summary:

max pnts = 100 80 Ogilvie Transportation Center     (OTC) 75 Millennium Station (MS) 70 Lasalle Street Station (LSS)
  1. A) Function & Flow
18 17.0 While OTC gets busy at rush hour, good design made this Chicago’s best functioning station. 14.0 Despite two decades of missteps between agencies of two states, the station turned out OK … except for cost overruns. 13.0 Chicago’s smallest terminus works well and METRA plans to add about 15% more passengers by adding a second line.
  1. B) Efficient Connections
32 27 It connects just OK to other transit as well over half choose to walk. 23.5 Most walk to destination or one block to “Elevated.” Bus connections are slighted; crowded at street level. 23 The building is less ped-friendly than OTC, but connects best to transit with the “El”, a subway and has a protected bus station.
  1. C) Station Synergies  
50 36 For redeveloping its surrounds, OTC is in America’s Top 5. 37.5 Surrounds are the tops; one of the world’s great urban park destinations, many office buildings and lots of mixed uses. 34.0 Surrounds to the south and west have not redeveloped as fast; being separated by expressway traffic.

Chicagoland’s twelve commuter lines constitute a system that is nearly the nation’s largest. (New York’s LIRR is slightly larger; while Metro North and New Jersey Transit, respectively, run a close third and fourth). But if we bite-size Chicagoland, we see an analogy to mid-sized cities. The first bite is that six lines terminate at Union Station, leaving six more at these three stations. Here are their counterparts in other cities.

1) Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC) terminates three lines with commuter volume slightly more than Boston’s South Station.

2) Millennium Station ends two lines from different states, as does DC’s Union Station with similar suburban volume.

3) Lasalle Street Station terminates one large line with passenger visits at just under 30,000 daily, similar to San Francisco’s Caltrain terminus.

Also strengthening comparison to other cities, Chicago’s secondary stations connect poorly to one another, creating, essentially, three mid-sized rail systems. Comparing Chicago’s three smaller stations shows other regions how to develop better stations and strengthen the national trend to improve suburban rail. Today, eleven systems in North America carry more than 41,000 passengers daily. Some 15 more fledgling lines are trying to catchup. Highlighting central stations’ future importance, there are 28 new lines in various stages of construction and engineering.

In studying some three dozen central stations, I see many similarities to these three in Chicago and hope you find the analogy useful as well.

What Do These Three Stations Have In Common?

These stations were key parts of the eleven decade transformation from a filthy, industrial downtown to a global center today. In 1900, downtown’s chaotic streets were surrounded by rail yards and warehouses. These stations’ predecessors muted this roughness and provided orderly centers. But as private passenger rail collapsed during the 1960s, Chicago’s downtown also lost its balance. Yet, plans boldly were made to rebuild all three stations. The new ones served as leverage for Chicago’s revival from the 1980s through the 2006 real estate crash and were key to transforming the downtown. A century after Burnham’s fantastic depiction in “A Plan For Chicago,” today’s downtown has a different beauty… but arguably, an equal of those drawings.

Transportation established Chicago as central to the nation’s economy. A recent book, Terminal Town, reviews how Chicago used rails. In today’s economy in which people are a key asset, ownership of passenger rails and terminals, again, is strategic.

Unfortunately, all three stations are owned by Metra; the beleaguered state agency. This challenge to Chicago’s future cannot be ignored much longer. While Illinois has fiddled away the last five decades without a management scheme capable of remaking the system into a future regional asset, all three termini, somehow, got updated.

When you consider that the 1970s and 1980s saw Chicago battling its suburbs, redeveloping these stations seems amazing. That storm and fury was transcended by a simple deal; the suburbs knew these rail lines were their assets also and, as Chicago did, that they could use the rails to revitalize every municipality’s downtown. For the last three decades, Chicago leveraged its land use authority well and turned eyesore rail yards and warehouses into vibrant blocks around all three stations; improving nearby real estate values in ways that only ambitious cities do.

Impressively, all three stations work well and OTC is close to great. Here’s how.

Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC): How Excellence Redevelops Surrounds


Main concourse adjoining tracks. Photo by the author.

Few stations treat the eye better. Also true of its predecessor, Chicago & Northwestern’s grand concourse evoked the glories of rail travel. But, it was demolished and the new concourse adjoining a 42 story tower was completed in 1984. The new concourse spaciously evokes rail glories in a post-modern setting. Reminiscent of United’s hub terminal at O’Hare Airport, OTC’s main concourse also was designed by the same starchitectural firm. But OTC makes a more important statement on a daily basis: traveling with others in efficient modes makes a better future.

Also, few stations better flow during rush hour’s crush. On the photo’s left, 16 tracks end. In the middle (not pictured to the right) are 6 escalators eventually connecting to four street exits. Also not pictured to the left, each train shed platform has stairs so commuters have the option to exit down to a retail concourse (called MetraMarket) with two more street exits. While neither concourse has a suitable waiting area, one can while away time at some 60+ stores in three distinct malls that seem to thrive on the station’s high traffic.

OTC was named for Governor Ogilvie. His leadership and staff cobbled together the deals that saved a world-class set of commuter rails while places such as St. Louis let their systems die. The Governor’s public service and this station’s quality explains why Chicago’s downtown revival has been so much faster.

A three block radial walk (map below) depicts how a 42 story tower and tracks have leveraged redevelopment ever since. Large warehouses were converted and old low-lying railroad shacks were demolished and rebuilt into a dense urban neighborhood; mixing office and residential high-rises. To address the retail shortage, the station’s ground level under the tracks was converted into the Metramarket complex (see black rectangle) and includes the destination-like French Market with two dozen gourmet food shops; making dinner easier for suburbanites and nearby urbanites alike. The French Market is not New York’s Grand Central Market, but it is America’s stations’ second best.

OTC’s scorecard rating of 80 indicates how well OTC works during its rush hour detraining of passengers to platforms and sorting them to six exits and on paths to their final destination. And OTC does all this while feeding suburbanites slices of 21st Century urban life; hopefully, so they move and add to Chicago’s downtown population which has grown by over 500% since the station was built.

Millennium Station: Destination Made, But No Second Act


Millennium’s main concourse. Photo by the author.

As this station’s metaphor, the center-point above is where the two state agencies and their separate lines meet. Follow those lines and you get to their underground tracks. Yet, redeveloping the Illinois Central rail yard and depots into Millennium Station was not simple for several reasons; a primary one being how cost over-runs of Millennium Park, its above-ground neighbor, affected this station’s construction.

More important, the station required Illinois and Indiana agencies to act like partners and mesh different rolling stock, albeit both electric since they run underground for three blocks. (Metra’s other ten lines are diesel). These and other complications created a construction zone for two decades; instead of a station that welcomed suburbanites. Eventually, the collaboration got OK and passenger levels returned after completion.

Indiana’s South Shore line has six tracks that terminate at the south end and Metra’s former Illinois Central line terminates on five tracks at the station’s north. Both sets of passengers merge into a concourse with ticketing, a decent waiting area and food shops. Efficiently, passengers distribute into three exits of Chicago’s extensive underground Pedway; allowing them to escape bad weather or connect to transit.


Millennium Station’s main entrance comes from the underground Pedway and contains most of the station’s 10 store retail corridor. Photo by the author.

An underground station, it can look like a fancy subway stop. Serving one of the city’s most intense urban areas, the station still is pleasant enough to begin one’s workday and, hopefully, make it less of a grind. With limited room for growth at rush hour, this station is what it is. The scorecard rates it at 75.

Lasalle Street Station: Some Room To Grow


On the far right of this photo of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s model, you see the train shed leading into Lasalle Station and its adjoining tall Stock Exchange Building. To its left is an expressway and considerable undeveloped land. (The other two stations have almost none). Photo by the author.

This fourth remake of Lasalle Street Station had a relatively simple deal. It involved only one bankrupt line (the Rock Island) and Metra also bought the tracks; giving it more control. Much like OTC, the main entrance depends on collaboration with one large building owner. But in Lasalle’s case, the Chicago Stock Exchange was not as accommodating. It is an over-imposing host and unwelcoming to pedestrians. While airy and utilitarian, the station itself works well enough to earn an overall rating of 70.

Lasalle does have excess capacity at rush hour and Metra plans to shift the Southwest Service and its 10,000 daily passengers from Union Station to Lasalle, increasing the station’s usage by almost one-third.


Entrance and exit to the east-west Congress Expressway. Photo by the author.

The station’s only major weakness is an east-west expressway ends under it. Eager to reach high-speeds or slow to slow down, eight lanes of traffic make it harder for urban and pedestrian life to develop. This division makes the station’s south side less desirable to live and work in and has been much slower to develop. This is changing as its parking lots are being built into condos and apartments. While Chicago is adding streetscapes for urban fabric, the expressway is hard to hide.

How Can These Good Stations Contribute In the Future?

Each should connect better to transit. While they average about 44% of their passengers who walk to their destinations, the finite number of jobs in each station’s pedestrian shed means that most new commuters are more likely to first want improved transit connectivity. This is more true at OTC, where only 33% of riders walk. To encourage transit transfers, OTC passengers should be able to enter the ‘L’ at the same level they detrain. But with ceaseless inter-agency bickering, de-trainers must go down to the street and up to the ‘L’ whereas a simple passage on the same level would encourage train passengers to use rapid transit.

Also, all stations could improve transfers to standard buses in little ways… if some agency had the authority to force Metra to obey the law and participate in the CTA’s Ventra universal card. (An agency with a future would even subsidize the transfer of train passengers to CTA buses and ‘L’).

When the downtown Bus Rapid Transit starts in 2015, lousy transfer policies start getting better. BRT ties together Union Station, OTC and Millennium with several other key stops downtown. To visualize how the BRT works, here is a downtown map with rail termini as the large blue blocks and BRT as the double-red line.

As big an improvement as this promises to be, BRT in a congested downtown such as Chicago will only provide temporary relief. BRT is no replacement for an integrated system. (Chicago has twice failed to build an urban circulator). Agencies that squandered time and taxpayer goodwill, now, must resort to the BRT stopgap.

Even if achieved, improved connections only will cause the rush hour crush to grow. Now near capacity, the quality of two station’s commute deteriorates with increased ridership. Often touted as panacea, a West Loop Transportation Center (WLTC) that through-routes Union Station and OTC will make greater efficiencies, improve rush hour capacity and speed travel between suburbs. But, a WLTC is highly improbable under Metra’s regime and its poor supervision by Illinois’ RTA.

Besides, the WLTC only marginally helps the core problem: Chicagoland’s lines are radial and bring everyone downtown; causing congestion. So a strategic solution would use rails to bring commuters to Chicago’s employment centers that are not downtown.

For example, many south-side Chicagoans and suburbanites work at the west-side medical district, one of the world’s largest collection of hospitals. The former Rock Island line easily can be connected to a new medical district station two miles west of Lasalle. If successful, that train eventually could be connected to O’Hare Airport; also a non-9-to-5 employment center that requires better train service. And with service in-between the medical district and the airport, other employment centers will be stimulated.

If Metra cannot start this strategy quickly, we should organize a way around it.

Chicagoland should consider how trains increase service and stimulate redevelopment in other global cities. London’s Thameslink started in the late 20th Century. It was so successful that redevelopment around its stations now stretches from the once run-down St. Pancras area for three miles through London’s center and across the river (follow the yellow line) to the much more forlorn surrounds of Elephant & Castle. While hard to see in my photo, the six stations in this three miles, on average, have redeveloped over 50% of their surrounds. (The St. Pancras foreground shows new construction as the lighter shade, whereas renovations remain the darker shade).


Model is in the lobby of the London Building Centre.

As further proof of how trains stimulate redevelopment, note the purple through-line running left to right. The purple is Crossrail; still only mid-way dug. Thameslink’s success signaled to developers that the surrounds of Crossrail stations also are sound investments. Both through-lines have stimulated London’s building boom; one that rarely has been seen by a western city since the industrial era. Such is the leverage generated when suburban rail through-routes and becomes urban rail.

On a relative basis, Britain’s passenger rail system seems flexible; being nationalized, ossified and, now, has had operations privatized. Unfortunately, we live under Uncle Sam’s feeble, federated and seemingly unresponsive transportation laws. This allows Metra to be controlled by suburban mayors who tend not to view rails as a metropolitan asset. Stopped by this regime, Chicago needs a new strategy before it can benefit from London’s example. However given that Illinois laws recently allow public-private partnerships (which have similarities to London’s laws), we should explore how trains can redevelop urban areas. Using an asset to metropolitan benefit leads to sustainable transportation.

Getting To “Should”: Lessons for Sustainability

Mid-sized American cities want what these three stations have. All three stations function well at peak hours and help redevelop their surrounds, the key goals of this series’ Economic Engines category.

But, all three have limited potential to serve as a symbol that pulls their train system into a sustainable future. Chicago’s “little engines that could” — owned by Metra — might improve service with a few small steps, such as improving connectivity to transit. But even if Metra were to be reformed into an adequate agency, these improvements only push the stations past their rush-hour capacity and, thus, still are not on a path for sustainable transportation.

To maximize trains’ potential, strategies must increase off-peak travel and serve employment centers other than downtown. Through-routing can increase ridership and stimulate redevelopment outside of downtown. But these strategies are unlikely to emerge under an outdated, scandal-riddled agency that appears to have lost its social contract with passengers and taxpayers.

So that trains can help inspire the confidence needed to attract new public and private capital to redevelop targeted areas, this series in 2016 will explore how Chicagoland’s agent for sustainable transportation “should” operate.

Robert Munson lives in Chicago and can be reached at robertmunson@earthlink.net.

Comments Off on Chicago’s Secondary Stations: Little Engines That Could…And Should by Robert Munson
Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Transportation
Cities: Chicago

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Bye, Bye, Barcelona

City Lab pointed me at this documentary called “Bye, Bye, Barcelona” that describes that city’s increasingly love-hate relationship with tourists as it starts to choke on the sheer volume of visitors, which increased from around 1.7M/yr in 1990 to about 8M in 2013. The city is now the most popular cruise ship destination in the Mediterranean, and up to seven huge ships can dock there simultaneously, disgorging their passengers into Las Ramblas or Sagrada Familia. This video must have struck a nerve as it’s been watched over 200,000 times. It if doesn’t display for you, watch on You Tube.

Here’s a bonus bridge construction time lapse. It’s from Southern Indiana where the bridge across the Ohio River at Madison was replaced by building a new span on temporary piers, demolishing the old span, then sliding the new span onto the old piers. Here’s a time lapse of the slide operation. If it doesn’t display, watch on You Tube.

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

The Changing Face Of Chicago (1963)

You’ve no doubt seen many posts already about the 80,000 vintage newsreel type videos uploaded to You Tube by British Pathé. The biggest challenge with these is that no human being can possible process that quantity of material. But it’s fascinating and you could probably spend many a day watching these things.

I’ll share a few highlights today focused on Chicago. First, one I found via Ben Schulman. It’s a 1963 video called “The Changing Face of Chicago” and can be viewed on You Tube if the embed doesn’t display.

Listening to the narrator brag about the “27 urban renewal projects under construction” can inspire perhaps horror or laughter. But what it should spark is humility. I’ve little doubt that 50 years from now, the many earnest urbanist videos and policies put forth with equally as much dogmatic fervor and certainty will be the subject of future generations’ puzzlement. My own blog may perhaps be an exhibit.

We need to have a sense of meta-narrative about progress. By that, I mean that we not only need to understand the ways in which we’ve changed or grown vs. the past, but also keep an awareness that we’re not done yet and that in the future we will have gone beyond where we are now. We should never commit the fallacy of believing we’ve reached the apex of our understanding in the present.

Whet Moser also put together a collection of Chicago entries over at Chicago Magazine.

Here’s a fun one of his from 1939 called “Chicago Cycles.”

Here’s one from 1922 (silent) of riots in Chicago with police arresting “anarchists.”

And from the some things never change file, video of a 1938 snowstorm.

There’s plenty more so search and enjoy.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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