Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
This week’s video is a short film promoting Buffalo. Called “Buffalo: America’s Best Designed City” after a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted, it features simply gorgeous visuals of the city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Thursday, August 29th, 2013
A couple weeks ago I posted a series of photos demonstrating the damage freeway construction did to Indianapolis. Since I’ve been covering Cincinnati this week, I thought I’d show the damage freeways did there too.
Over the Rhine is one of America’s most stunning historic districts. When I visited the city last year, one of the locals explained that there had been “miles” of neighborhoods just like it obliterated by freeway construction. I found this difficult to credit until I came across the photographic proof.
Here’s a picture of one such area, the West End. This photo dates to the late 1950′s:
West End Cincinnati in the late 1950s. Image via Cininnati Transit
Here’s a Google satellite view of the area today. Pretty much everything but Cincinnati Union Terminal appears to have been demolished and replaced with I-75 and an industrial park.
Lest you think Union Terminal survived unscathed, it appears in the 1950s photo that it had a sort of City Beautiful style formal plaza in front of it. Here’s a closer look:
Cincinnati Union Terminal, image via Flickr/whitehall buick
And here’s the Google satellite from today that shows it converted into – what else! – a parking lot:
Almost empty, of course.
Monday, July 29th, 2013
[ This post by Sam Hersh is on a topic that's always sure to get people's blood pumping - historic preservation. I hope you enjoy the perspective - Aaron. ]
In historic preservation battles, it seems we are often fed an oversimplified story-line of two, opposing interests. In conflict with any landmarks or preservation, business interests imagine a thriving city as a place of commerce unfettered by unnecessary red tape. On the other hand, cultural proponents see a thriving city as a place of humanity that preserves its history while providing outlets for creative pursuits. Importantly, both of these views hold at their core the belief that cities as dense nodes of human agglomeration can transform the opportunities of individuals by pooling interests and talents to create something greater than their individual parts.
It seems to me that, given the shared interests in the city as vibrant hub for human collaboration by all parties either opposing or supporting the preservation of a building or district that there should be a third, more dominant and more tempered voice in these debates – those who spend their lives thinking about cities should work to reform their mindset toward preservation. Such a mindset would look for a common ground between both the knee-jerk preservation that many interested in architecture and design have been led to support and the blind search for growth at all costs that many economic development professionals have espoused.
As quick background, I take for granted the belief that land use regulations tend to curb new construction or the amount of square footage offered by new construction, disturb the efficiency of a city’s economy, and slow growth. The true benefits of urbanity are in the economic opportunities that efficient living in compact density provides to its residents. When older buildings are torn down and replaced with more housing or commercial space in a denser pattern, this tends to be good for a city. I also believe that cities are not merely corporate entities to maximize profit and efficiency. That same human density that, since the earliest ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent, has facilitated trade of excess harvests and wares has also created some of the most culturally important artifacts in human history.
I often feel that we have been led to believe that there are only two possible views that a government can take towards preservation – business oriented and culturally oriented. I will approximate these views with the case of Chicago and New York, both of which have been instrumental in the creation and dissemination of built forms throughout the world and both of which have a bank of historically important buildings.
In New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently voted to protect, en masse, over 300 buildings in a swath of land called the East Village Historic District. Though none of the buildings in the East Village are seminal historically or architecturally, they are attractive.
In Chicago, preservationists just came off of what should have been an easy win: The Prentice Women’s Hospital. Prentice has a shape unlike anything else in the world and is widely regarded by critics and historians as seminal in the development of modern techniques in computer-aided architecture, hospital design and central core skyscraper construction. Despite its importance and having met multiple criteria for landmark designation in Chicago, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks decided that the economic benefits of razing the building were too great to preserve what otherwise would have been a worthy candidate for protection. (Disclaimer: I worked for Econsult Solutions at the time that they provided an economic impact study on the benefits of preservation of Prentice for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, though I was not involved in that project).
It might be easy to ignore the discrepancies in these two cases with the simple explanation that the fight for hundred year old low rises in Manhattan was a fight for the aesthetically pleasing while Bertrand’s Brutalist Prentice is “hard to love.” But the differences in landmarking procedures between New York and Chicago are for more pervasive than these two cases. In 2012, the Commission of Chicago Landmarks added ten landmarks to its rolls according to its annual report. In the same year, New York’s Landmarks Commission added at least 965 buildings to its protection, according to press releases I could find on the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission website. (The bulk of these protections were in the East Village Historic District, with about 330 landmarks, and an expansion to the Park Slope Historic District, with about 600 properties added).
More than the staggering disparity in number of buildings that receive landmark status, historic buildings are treated differently in Chicago and New York. In Chicago, buildings that are deemed historic are often stripped of their facades and reconstructed over new innards in a so-called facadectomy. These facadectomies are common throughout the city from the slightly pleasant Legacy to the horrific 10 South LaSalle. In 2007 in Chicago, a landmarked building was given a facadectomy and (to add insult to injury) filled with a parking garage for a postmodern tower next door meant to ape the subtle beauty of the original. In New York, also in 2007, the landmarks commission refused to allow Norman Foster, a world-renowned architect, to build a tower above a building in a landmark district that would have kept much of the original structure intact.
While it might seem that New York’s housing shortage would have pushed city leaders to rethink landmarks and the restrictions that they place on new construction, there has been little movement in this direction. Meanwhile Chicago, with a vacancy crisis on its hands in many of its neighborhoods, fears the impact of landmarking one building (though, to be fair, in Prentice’s Streeterville neighborhood, land is increasingly scarce).
Despite Chicago’s unwillingness to put some muscles behind its landmark regulations, the city continues to boast an edge over New York in architectural heritage. Chicago arguably has more architecturally significant buildings than any city in America with a diverse collection of LeBaron Jenney and Burnham skyscrapers, Miesian blocks, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Goldberg quirk, and S.O.M. engineering feats like the Willis (Sears) Tower and the Hancock Center. Chicago is a living museum for anyone interested in the physical evolution of America’s cities over the past 150 or so years. Despite the fact that architectural tourism is one of the few categories in which Chicago presents a competitive advantage over New York, Chicago continues to sell off it’s heritage in the name of business and economic growth.
It’s easy to understand why Chicago is so landmark-averse and New York so quick to landmark. These policies are rooted in the attitudes of city elites toward business investment. It’s not necessarily New York leaders’ particular interest in preservation that leads to the disparities in preservation policy between the two cities. New York can afford to lose a bit of economic efficiency, even if that means pushing the poor ever further from their service jobs in Manhattan, because the city is in no real threat of losing its standing as a global economic center. City Elites believe that businesses will not leave the gravity of New York and thus don’t see any harm in impeding some development. Moreover, for the elites benefitting from New York’s economic gravity and the quaint neighborhoods they help landmark, the inflationary affects of landmarking are less salient than to the lower class who see their commutes lengthen, rents rise, and poverty rates grow as wage increases fail to match the rising costs of living in New York.
Chicago, meanwhile, has been fighting stagnant population growth, has massive, disconnected and crime ridden ghettos, and will always play second fiddle as an American financial center to New York. While promoting architectural tourism may be profitable in the short term, no city can survive on the tourist dollars of a few architectural patrons. Chicago city leaders know that at times they must sacrifice their past if the city is to remain competitive as a global (or Midwest) financial hub.
But some buildings are more than buildings and make a city worth visiting or living in. How do we preserve the artifacts that tell the story of a city, a nation and the world while allowing a modern city to act as more than a stagnant museum glorifying the urban achievements of the past at the cost of today’s inhabitants?
To start, if preservationists can only present one justification for the preservation of a building – that it is pretty – then the building is probably not worth saving unless private owners value the prettiness enough to save it themselves. There are plenty of pretty buildings in the world and not all of them can be saved. One way to allow for input on which buildings are worth saving might be to set a number of ‘pretty’ buildings to save and let the people of a city vote whether to remove landmark status of a given ‘pretty’ building in favor of the one in question.
In cases for which the preservation can be justified by more than a building’s aesthetic beauty, but also by historic significance, we should question whether the building is integral to the legacy preservationists wish to protect and, ostensibly, the story they hope to tell. In many cases, it seems that the building itself is saved only because it is a convenient place to tell a story. The stories of Muhammad Ali or Bill Clinton for instance do not need to be told at their childhood homes, both of which are landmarks.
Buildings that are worthy of being landmarked are those in which the story preservations wish to tell could only be told through the building. The importance of the building could be in a particular design, like Prentice. But the building’s importance can also originate in a historical event directly tied to the building. As an example, I believe that the landmarking of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York is justified because the history of that building, not a person who happened to live or work in that building, changed the course of this country.
Even if we have established that a building is important in its own right, the question of how important is important enough still remains. All interactions and lives in cities are important, contributing in small parts to the vibrant and sui generis story of each place. But, to retain some level of economy to preservation measures, a good rule of thumb would be to ask whether the building has either had a large international impact that is understood at least by an educated elite in a certain field or an impact on the city that is understood by all its citizens. In this way, buildings that are important to a given field, like Prentice to engineering, or to a particular strand of history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to labor rights activists, should be preserved. Buildings that are salient in the public imagination of a city are also worth saving. In Chicago, the Water Tower may not be known by many non-natives, but it is an important piece of pre-fire engineering and a landmark to all Chicagoans and is therefore probably worthy of its landmark designation. The low-rises of the East Village of New York, however, are not worth saving. Activists at the Greenwich Village Historical Society spent years researching the buildings, saying on their website that, “research was key in our advocacy for expanding and securing today’s East Village Historic District, and the research was used by the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself in their documentation of the area.” In cases such as this, we should keep in mind why we want to save buildings: to reflect the history of our cities. If the history is not important enough to be relatively widely understood without extensive research, then it is most likely not worth of preservation.
Some people might say that I am calling for our cities to be gutted of their history and culture. But quite the opposite, really. I am calling for cities like Chicago to understand that some heritage is important, especially when that heritage provides an integral piece of history to help us understand a city, a country or the world. At the same time, I am calling on cities like New York to more carefully sift through the rich and multifarious physical legacy left by previous generations. For a city to remain culturally rich (not to mention affordable and economically diverse), some of the history must be moved aside to make way for new, more effective (and often higher density) uses.
Reforming our mindset towards preservation is about understanding that economic development and preservation do not have to be in opposition, but that through compromise we can have cities that are both growth oriented and respective of their history. Through such measures, we can hopefully make our cities more fair, efficient, and culturally exciting.
Sam Hersh is currently a student of urban studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania hoping to use the worlds’ cities to more effectively catalyze human opportunity when he graduates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, May 7th, 2013
Worcester v. Providence: Is Downtown Revitalization the Sum of Urban Revitalization? by Stephen Eide
Worcester, MA and Providence, RI invite comparison for at least four reasons. They’re the same size (pop. ~180,000), they share the same history of deindustrialization and urban decline, they’re only 40 miles apart, and they’re different, which makes comparison stimulating and worthwhile. By most any fiscal or economic measure, Worcester outperforms Providence. But because of the so-called Renaissance, the revitalization of downtown Providence throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence has attracted far more attention among urbanists and the national media than Worcester. There has never been a Worcester Renaissance.
So which city is the true urban success story? That depends on the extent to which one believes that downtown revitalization is the same as urban revitalization.
Providence is a destination city able to boast of its tourism, arts, culture and “18-hour day.” Rare for an old, cold, mid-sized former milltown, the New York Times travel section has done two features on Providence in the last five years. Providence played a starring role in an eponymous television show (NBC, 1999-2002) somewhat similar to the role that the revitalized New York City played in Sex and the City. This all would have been unimaginable in the 70s, at the peak of the deindustrialization era, but, throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence underwent a renaissance. The most notable elements of the Providence Renaissance include uncovering and moving two rivers, relocating a railyard, the construction and rehabilitation of several major retail and commercial facilities, historic preservation, and WaterFire, a public festival that attracts thousands to the city on summer evenings. (For the full account of Providence’s revitalization, including a series of terrific “before and after” pictures, see Francis Leazes and Mark Motte’s 2004 book Providence, the Renaissance City.) No one could claim that the success has been total; both the local economy and city budget remain under strain. But there are many other former milltowns which would do anything (indeed, have done everything) to imitate Providence’s success.
|Financing of Select Major Providence Renaissance Projects, 1980-2000|
|Project||Completed||Approximate cost||Primary financing|
|Capital Center (Railroad and river relocation, Providence Station, highway interchange, and Waterplace Park)||1981-1987||$169 million||Federal|
|Union Station (parcel 1)||1989||$80 million||Mixed private-public|
|Convention Center/Westin/ garages||1994||$290 million||State|
|Providence Place/garage||1999||$465 million||Mixed private-public (land; sales tax rebates/abatements)|
|Courtyard by Marriott||2000||$16 million||Private-public (abatements)|
|Source: Leazes and Motte, Providence: The Renaissance City|
Like Worcester. Worcester’s efforts at downtown revitalization have been unrelenting, and not totally unsuccessful, which has enabled local boosters to believe, at any given moment during the last 30 years, that the Worcester Renaissance was at hand. The most notable project now underway is “City Square,” which involves the demolition of a dead mall in the center of downtown. This is an event of tremendous symbolic significance, as many locals attribute downtown Worcester’s decline to the construction of the mall in 1971. In place of the mall will emerge a new medical center, seven-story office building, and other projects still in the planning stages. City government is thrilled. But, if anything, City Square demonstrates the limits of the Worcester development model, which relies almost exclusively on local investment. The project began under the direction of a Boston developer, but stalled after the developer encountered financing difficulties in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To the rescue came a local insurance company and its public-spirited CEO. Predictably, local officials hailed the benefits of local ownership, but they all missed the point. Worcester is simply not wealthy enough to rely on local capital to bring back downtown. Had a Boston developer scored on a project in Worcester, it would have set a powerful precedent for others to follow. At this point, even if City Square succeeds, many outside developers will likely view the local CEO’s “white knight” intervention as at least partly philanthropic.
By contrast, throughout its renaissance years, Providence had access to a key source of outside investment: state and federal grants. This access was in turn due to the city’s enviable position as a “city state.”
The City State
Providence enjoys a statewide profile unlike that of any other American city. In addition to being the capital, it’s the only large (100,000+) city in the nation’s smallest state. Only three other cities in Rhode Island have over 50,000 residents. 17% of Rhode Island’s population lies within Providence’s borders. (Worcester composes less than 3% of Massachusetts’ population.) The Rhode Island statehouse overlooks downtown Providence. Throughout Rhode Island’s modern history, the vast majority of statewide officeholders were either from Providence, went to school there, and/or got their first break in Providence city government. Providence’s comeback would never have occurred were it not for the massive state and federal aid that backed the projects that formed the core of the Renaissance.
Worcester has always lacked statewide clout. Most of the Massachusetts public, even the most politically-engaged among them, cannot name one Worcester politician. True, that could be said of all Massachusetts cities, which dwell in the shadow of Boston, the state’s capital and commercial center. (Everyone in Massachusetts knows who Tom Menino is.) But even when measured against its peers, Worcester underperforms in state politics. Despite being the state’s second-largest city, the only statewide officeholders Worcester has produced since 1900 have been two lieutenant governors. No governors, no Senators, not even a state treasurer or auditor.
When the Joint Center for Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard issued a report on Worcester’s politics in 1960, it described Worcester as a large city with a small-town feel. Still true. Worcester is well-managed. The local government is competent and honest. There have been no noteworthy political scandals in recent times. But there’s no denying that the city has long suffered from a deficit of political talent, and that this has hindered revitalization.
Benchmarking Worcester and Providence
On the other hand, because it’s in Massachusetts, not Rhode Island, Worcester possesses and enormous economic advantage over Providence. Massachusetts’ economic record of late has been respectable. Rhode Island is the only New England state whose economy has not adapted to post-industrial times. It resembles Michigan or upstate New York more than Connecticut or Massachusetts.
Within Massachusetts itself, Worcester is no pace-setter, but a “Gateway Municipality,” a legal term designating a remedial class of cities that lag behind the rest of the state in measures of income and education. (Gateway municipalities are eligible for special economic development assistance.) But when Worcester’s economic advantages are combined with its superior record of fiscal management, it becomes very unclear why Providence, and not Worcester, should be considered the comeback city.
|Table: Benchmarking Worcester and Providence|
|Peak monthly unemployment, 2008-present||10.5%||15.4%|
|Median monthly unemployment 2008-present||8.6%||13.1%|
|Median household income||$45,846||$38,922|
|Zillow home value index||$161,800||$131,100|
|Median total annual crimes, 2005-2010 (property and violent)||7,914||9,557|
|Median annual murders, 2005-2010||6||15|
|Credit rating (Moodys, S&P, Fitch’s)||A1,A-,AA-||Baa1,BBB,BBB|
|Pension system funding ratio||68%||32%|
|FY12 General fund balance||+ $25.5 million||- $11.4 million|
|Considered Ch. 9 municipal bankruptcy recently?||No||Yes|
|Source: BLS, American Community Survey, Zillow, FBI, Providence and Worcester’s annual financial reports|
Urban Revitalization and Downtown Revitalization
To what extent is urban revitalization downtown revitalization? Downtowns play an outsized role in shaping cities’ reputations to outsiders and natives alike. Regardless of how much of a city’s downtown is taxable private property, downtowns are best-understood as parks, public property. Downtown serves as the geographic equivalent of 4th of July and Memorial Day rituals. You can’t compel people to participate in these rituals and find them meaningful, but their complete absence would signal the complete absence of national pride. Similarly, cities whose downtowns languish usually lack civic pride.
Urbanists grasp the basic civic importance of a commonly-accepted physical center, but they sometimes oversell the economic benefits of downtown revitalization. There can be backlash. Downtown revitalization sometimes fuels downtown vs. neighborhood tension. Was it all for the tourists, or to satisfy some mayor’s “edifice complex”? Did residents benefit at all? Small businesses such as restaurants, boutiques and art galleries are crucial for downtown revitalization. But businesses that small (50 or fewer employees) with no ambition to grow will do little to strengthen the broader metro economy. The holy grail of urban economic development policy is an abundance of good jobs for workers of all levels of skill and education. Heavy manufacturing used to provide such jobs; boutiques and coffee shops do not. Nor, for that matter, do hotels and convention centers.
Maybe downtown revitalization has nothing to do with economic development. The standard justification for the use of taxpayer money to support private development in downtown is that these funds stimulate private investment. Officially, government is making a bet on taxpayers’ behalf, whose success may be judged through tangible fiscal and economic benefits such as a net increase in tax revenues, lower taxes for homeowners, and more jobs for area residents. But perhaps taxpayers are willing to spend this money because they are ashamed of the decrepit state of downtown, and they want it to come back. If downtown is a de facto public park, public expenditures on downtown revitalization may be justified simply for the sake of itself, even we are talking about tax breaks for Starbucks and luxury condo developers. It’s still a bet—all development is a bet—it’s just that the definition of success is different. Free market advocates denounce all forms of public subsidy for economic development, but the public should be allowed to speak for itself. To many citizens, sprucing up downtown is at least as justifiable as improving parks that they haven’t heard of and never visit.
But this argument that public money should be spent on downtown revitalization to boost civic pride would be easier to swallow were it not for the sneakiness of public subsidies for redevelopment. Most subsidies are tax expenditures, which are inherently less transparent than direct appropriations, even though the budgetary impact is the same. Communities want curb appeal, but seem unwilling to pay for it, or, more precisely, accept the fact that they are paying for it.
What do the people want? What’s possible? Everyone wants jobs, growth and good schools, but also a pleasant downtown. The second goal seems to be more realistic than the first set of goals. How many former industrial cities’ unemployment rates or SAT scores exceed statewide averages? Worcester may outperform Providence, but that’s not setting a very high standard. Perhaps the possible, not the ideal should define standards for urban success. If so, then the conventional wisdom is accurate, and Providence does deserve to be more closely studied and more highly regarded than Worcester.
Stephen Eide is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of the blog Publicsectorinc.org, where this article originally appeared.
Sunday, April 28th, 2013
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.
Tuesday, November 6th, 2012
[ George Mattei is a long time reader and frequent commenter on the blog. I find his comments are very insightful. One in particular really caught my eye and I asked him to turn it into a full blog post. Thankfully he said Yes so here it is - Aaron. ]
How Physical, Cultural and Political Differences Shape Development and Economic Growth
I was recently asked to make a comparison living in New England versus the Midwest-specifically how cultural and political differences impact the economic and physical development framework of the two regions. This is something that I have at least a modest knowledge of, given that I have lived and worked in both areas (Born and raised in Hamden, CT near New Haven, attended college near Boston and now live near Columbus, OH). As a real estate developer and planner specifically I have paid quite a bit of attention to these differences.
I moved to Columbus from Connecticut nearly 15 years ago to attend grad school. I must admit the cultural differences between these two areas were a bit surprising at first. The basic differences were obvious-different land development patterns, different industries and even different landscapes. However, after living in Ohio for several years, I came to understand on a personal level the cultural and political differences and how they have -and continue to- shape and form these regions.
These differences show up in subtle ways that are also telling. In New England, my experience was that residents have a much more territorial, parochial view of their communities, and are more likely to resist change and development. In contrast, in many Midwest metro areas the residents have a more metro-focused view of their region, and better understand how the different communities interact. This does not mean that they always cooperate, but by nature some of the governmental functions are already done on a regional basis, making it easier to collaborate on certain tasks and be more open to change.
It’s perhaps deceptively simple, yet revealing, to pick a typical resident in a community in each area, ask them a simple question, and read into their response. Let’s pick two fairly standard metro area cities – Hilliard, OH and Attleboro, MA – and compare them on several levels. First some background information.
Hilliard is a suburb about 10 miles northeast of Columbus that was founded as its own small railroad community in the mid 1800’s. It had less than 1,000 people until the 1960’s, when it began to grow exponentially with the construction of the I-270 outerbelt around Columbus. Today it is a middle to upper-middle income community of about 28,000 residents sandwiched between Columbus, other suburban communities and the rural farm fields of western Franklin County.
Attleboro, MA is a city about 10 miles northeast of Providence, just over the border into Massachusetts, and 30 miles southwest of Boston. It was founded in the late 1600’s and steadily grew in population to the nearly 45,000 people it has today, but was a community of about 25,000 people in 1950 prior to the time when it would have been absorbed into the larger metroplex. It is now part of the Providence Metropolitan area, located right on I-95 between Boston and Providence, and is also linked to the two via the MBTA Boston-Providence commuter line. It was once known as the “Jewelry Capital of the World” due to the presence of several jewelry manufacturers in the city in the early 1900’s. Today Attleboro has transitioned from a manufacturing-dominant self-contained city into a quasi-suburban middle income community that has melded into the surrounding metropolis.
Now that we have a background on the two communities, let’s pose our simple question from someone unfamiliar with these areas-“Where are you from?” The answers each give would be subtly different, but telling in how they view their community and its relationship to the surrounding region. From my personal experience, here’s how each resident would answer this question:
Hilliard: “I’m from Columbus Ohio.”
Attleboro: “I’m from Attleboro, MA.” (Sometimes, they will abdicate this and say “I’m from Massachusetts”, but that’s just for convenience so they don’t need to go into a lengthy description of where Attleboro is).
The differing level of detail reveals not only how they view their community, but allows us to look at where these views come from. Clearly the Hilliard resident considers him/herself more a part of the metropolitan area. The Attleboro resident sees him/herself as a resident of the town first, and then the State, with no mention of the metro area.
Why would this be? There are several physical, cultural and political factors that play a role:
1. Municipal Borders. Municipal borders in New England were fixed long ago, well before metro areas became the main economic unit. In much of the rest of the country, including the Columbus area, communities continue to change their boundaries through annexation (more on the legal aspects of this in a moment). The borders of New England cities and towns were fixed hundreds of years ago and have rarely changed since.
2. Proximity of Metro Areas. New England has numerous small (except Boston) metros that bump up against one another. As a result, you get an agglomeration of established communities that sit between metro areas. In the Midwest, communities are spread farther apart. In Ohio, a state with several metro areas, many counties still have a modest sized county seat and a few villages. There is still quite a bit of country between many of the metro areas, and the spacing gets farther as you go west into other states.
In our example, it’s pretty clear that Hilliard would still be a small village of less than 1,000 people if Columbus hadn’t sprawled out to meet it and envelop it within its metro footprint. Many residents probably work in Columbus, and the ones that don’t work in one of the other suburban communities that owe their growth to Columbus, just as Hilliard does. When residents want a night out on the town, Columbus is the only game in town without a long trip.
Attleboro is a different case. It was a small city in its own right before it ever became part of a larger metro area. It sits 10 miles from Providence and 30 from Boston, and probably has many residents that work in both cities, plus in several other suburbs in the area that have the same fractured allegiance to multiple metros. Cultural opportunities abound in both cities, which can result in many visits to both.
3. Small Box Government. Although both regions tend to have a “small-box” governmental structure, it is actually far stronger in New England than in the Midwest. This is codified in the governmental structure of the areas in numerous ways:
a. First, New England “towns” are essentially the equivalent of “townships” in other parts of the country. However, there are significant differences. In Ohio, townships are considered semi-autonomous extensions of the County government. They are not incorporated as their own municipalities. They are run by their own elected officials, but have only limited powers as delegated to them by the Ohio Constitution. In legal-speak, they are not full “home rule” governmental entities. For example, townships can have zoning (if they jump through certain hoops), but they cannot approve subdivisions-that’s a County function. Incorporated municipalities in Ohio are full home-rule entities.
New England towns are also not incorporated. However, this is a virtually meaningless designation. They do have home rule, and function in virtually every way just like an incorporated city. They cannot be annexed by a city. A friend of mine that’s heavily involved in my home town’s local government once said to me, “we looked into incorporating ourselves as a city, but it didn’t mean much and required us to pay higher fees to the State.”
b. Speaking of counties, New England has a fractured form of county government. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont do not have any county governments, only lines on a map. Massachusetts has abolished some counties, while some having merged and other still function independently. Only New Hampshire and Maine have what appear to be fully operational county governments. In areas without counties, each town or city provides most of its own services. For example, in Connecticut, each town has its own elected clerk that just handles document recordation in that town. Only services that absolutely can’t be run on a local level are done regionally, such as the judicial system-however this is run by the State via districts that roughly correspond to the county boundaries.
In the Columbus area, each county has a robust governmental structure that provides a number of services that are more easily provided on a regional level, such as courts, auditor and recorder and Sherriff services. In Indiana, their Unigov system merged the City of Indianapolis and Marion County to even further expand the box.
c. In Ohio, Townships can also lose land to municipalities that swallow up territory through annexation. The City of Columbus essentially controlled development in Central Ohio for 50 years through buying up the water and sewer systems and only agreeing to provide service to developers if they annexed to the City or a suburb with which the City had an agreement in place. This was a “big box” approach that was put in place in the 1950’s, and has worked well for Columbus over the years. In New England, the borders were fixed a few hundred years ago, and they don’t change-only “small boxes” available.
4. Population Density. New England is more crowded already than many other parts of the country. This furthers resistance to new developments, resulting in higher real estate prices. This, along with the lack of economic activity that would draw many new residents to the area, means that-outside of Boston- many New Englanders were born and raised there. Not much fresh blood to re-think the way things are done.
5. Local Taxation. The manner in which local taxes were levied in Connecticut is very different than in Ohio. In Ohio, income tax (charged where you work, not live) funds much of the local revenue for cities and townships, with property taxes going to fund school districts which are operated as separate governmental subdivisions. In Connecticut, property taxes support most of the local level spending, so property value is king. In a majority (although not all) of the communities the school district is only semi-autonomous and is funded directly as a line item in the municipal budget.
The impact of this is actually quite dramatic. In Ohio it pays to cram as many jobs as you can into your community. Many communities welcome every office, strip mall and warehouse they can get. In Connecticut, many people tend to react the opposite way-they don’t want these uses. They bring traffic and pollution, which can bring property values down (at least that’s the fear), thereby weakening the municipal coffers. Exclusivity pays when keeping out more intense uses to preserve the bucolic countryside atmosphere leads to wealthy residents building large estates that pay lots of taxes. There is likewise much less of an incentive for local leaders to welcome the newest strip mall into their community, especially when they need to provide more police services and bigger roads. In Ohio, almost every highway exit, even the ones in high-end communities, has several commercial establishments near them. In Connecticut, many exit onto leafy drives that run to quiet residential areas.
6. Terrain. Physical landscape plays a role-if you get 20 feet off the ground in Hilliard, the Columbus skyline is in full view, due to the flat terrain. I guess that it would take a much higher point to be able to see Providence from Attleboro, given the rolling terrain. Out of sight-out of mind.
7. History New England has a very rich history. Pilgrims, founding fathers, settlement in the 1600’s, historic town centers, fishing villages, former industrial powerhouses, Ivy League universities – all of these things contribute to a culture where the past is revered. Here in Columbus, people’s self-worth is in the future. It’s a young, relatively anonymous, but up-and-coming city. It has a history, but most people don’t hang their self-identity hat on it (in fact, I would argue that there is an unhealthy self-angst about Columbus’ past by its residents). Many other Midwest metros also have a slightly older history characterized by the manufacturing boom in the early 20th century-which is still within the memory of many of its residents, and so doesn’t hold the gravitas of New England’s founding fathers.
We can now go back and look at why our two residents answered our question the way they did in the context of the above differences. The Attleboro resident answer Attleboro for two overarching reasons-1) they have more than one metro area with which to identify and 2) the historic, political and physical geography of the area fosters an overreliance on the city/town as the dominant cultural, political and social institution in the region. The Hilliard resident answered Columbus for exactly the opposite reasons-1) Hilliard clearly falls within only the Columbus metro area and 2) there is no dominant physical and cultural reason, and much weaker political reasons, to answer Hilliard to someone else.
Cumulative Effect on Regional Culture
The cumulative result of these cultural, physical and political structures is a significantly different approach to development, both physical and economic. New England has a much stronger resistance to change. Why would a community that prides itself on its historic past want to demolish some of it to build new, modern facilities? They don’t. Even in Boston, the economic powerhouse of the region, many people still deride the skyline as “turning Boston into New York”. Their true pride is placed in the Back Bay, North End, the Commons, Southie, etc.
This also extends to greenfield development. While many areas have residents that resist change, New Englanders have a particularly powerful argument-the history of place. After all, the heritage of the area is small, dense nodes with pastoral, rolling hills in between. A colonial-style home on a 10-acre exurban lot preserves much of that look. A relatively dense subdivision of 4 units an acre does not. Local officials tend to listen to this argument more in New England than in other parts of the country, because their self-worth is strongly tied to their history and their tax base to property values.
Even in a loss, the impact on the local psyche is not as significant. When UPS moved their offices out of southwest Connecticut in the early 90’s, no one felt like the true character of the region was threatened. Sure, jobs were lost, and that was hard, but it didn’t make the region any less proud of itself. Contrast that to many Midwest metros, who keep a scorecard of Fortune 500 companies in their pocket to show outsiders, and who feel real reputational angst whenever a company leaves.
Furthermore, the “small box” view tends to stifle larger economic development goals that would be beneficial to the region as a whole. Today it’s virtually impossible to get an even modest expansion of the obsolete Tweed-New Haven airport, for example, even though it sits in the middle of one of the largest underserved air markets in the nation. It straddles the border of two municipalities that fight over it incessantly (to be fair it is near a number of single-family neighborhoods). Meanwhile many Midwest cities have actively expanded their airports to nurture these crucial links to the external economy.
Without new greenfield development and modern buildings, airports and other facilities, it can be difficult to attract new companies to the area. The communities in New England that do have a number of these newer facilities (such as those off of the fabled Route 128 near Boston) often have them because their sense of history was ripped apart by the momentary fervor for building interstate highways in the area-one which has faded in New England but which still runs strong in the Midwest. Midwestern cities still develop scads of suburban office buildings and shopping centers-often too many- while the relative dearth of development in New England results in some markets being highly overpriced relative to other areas of the country. Surprisingly, although Boston has a very dense core, the area around the I-495 outerbelt (one of the largest outerbelts in the nation) is only very thinly developed in many areas.
Beyond the development aspect, New England has a regional mindset that is from my experiences fairly unique. In some ways the Northeast, with New England as a part of that area, is worldly-a gateway to America, home to several large world-class cities, a history of immigration and a density that make this region feel busy, prosperous and cosmopolitan. It often sets trends that the rest of the world follows.
On the other hand, it is also a region of small boxes, one that lives in the past as much as the future and one that resists change fairly aggressively. The view is not forward-looking in many cases. It’s somewhat inward-looking. The identities are fragmented and parochial. The bottom line is that outside of a few business cluster locations like Cambridge or Wall Street, or a few high-society locations like the Hamptons or Greenwich, the Northeast doesn’t want to necessarily be a trend-setter, even though it often is. It’s not that interested in climbing the ladder to “world class” or the “big time”- partly because it thinks it’s already there, but partly because it would have to sacrifice part of its identity. It’s just fine with its leaf-strewn rolling hills, historic downtowns, fairly moribund economic performance and proximity to world-class New York and Boston.
As a final note-it may sound that I am bashing this mindset. I don’t necessarily think it’s all bad. I do believe that New England could do more to promote more job growth and think regionally about its future. Some forward, big box thinking here would be welcome. On the other hand, not many places in America have the rich history and scenic beauty that New England has, and this is exactly the kind of “authentic brand” of which Aaron Renn has spoken so often of late. Indeed, tourism has become a big part of the New England economy over time as many people recognize this brand and want to experience it for themselves. Artists, authors and creative types, at least the highly successful ones that can afford it, tend to flock to the area to live and work in relative seclusion and anonymity. This lifestyle, in my opinion, should be preserved and nurtured in a nation where so many places do seem like every other place.
Wednesday, September 19th, 2012
Here’s an interesting 1969 video from French TV on Los Angeles. Not only does it contain some great footage of the city from that era, but a number of interesting observations. In French with subtitles. The subtitles are in closed captioning, so hit the “CC” button on the bottom control bar to turn them on. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
h/t Kaid Benfield/NRDC. Check out his commentary.
Report from Rhode Island
I’ve posted a number of historic “newsreel” type city documentaries in the past. Here’s another one, this time of Rhode Island. This video was made sometime during World War II. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.
Tuesday, July 24th, 2012
[ I'm pleased to be able to run today this guest piece from professor and writer Robert Bruegmann. It originally appeared at New Geography - Aaron ]
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Ravenna recently. No, not the town in Italy with its early Christian buildings and glittering mosaics. I mean Ravenna, Ohio, a small industrial city of some 12,000 people near Akron.
Along with Akron and Cleveland, Ravenna flourished as an industrial center in the early 20th century. In recent decades, however, its economy, like most of northeastern Ohio’s, has been sluggish at best, and the town hasn’t changed much physically for many years except for occasional demolitions at the center and new subdivisions at the periphery. News from Ravenna rarely makes it http://www.newgeography.com/even into the Cleveland papers. It is certainly not known for its architecture. It has some perfectly good late 19th and early 20th century houses and commercial buildings, but none of these is likely to draw tourists.
One of the very few really remarkable things about Ravenna is a 150-foot high flagpole erected in 1893. Almost absurdly high for the scale of the city, it is a fascinating product of late 19th century American engineering ingenuity and vernacular design as well as a reflection of patriotism and civic pride. Standing right in the center of the city, it is arguably the most notable monument not just of Ravenna but for miles around.
Unfortunately, township trustees now plan to demolish it.
Image: Ravenna flagpole viewed from East Main Street, Ravenna Ohio. Photo by Tom Riddle, 2012
The battle over the Ravenna flagpole says a good deal about the fate of the great manufacturing belt that stretches along the southern edge of the Great Lakes. Once one of the greatest manufacturing regions of the world, it has struggled mightily since World War II as aging infrastructure, obsolete industrial facilities, a gap in educational attainment, and non-competitive wages have left it fighting to find its place in the late 20th, not to mention the 21st century economy.
In many ways Ravenna is a microcosm of the larger region. In Ravenna, as throughout the region, economic stagnation has taken a toll on the city’s built environment. Main Street has vacant storefronts and empty lots where stores used to stand. Some of the housing stock has started to deteriorate.
The biggest change in Ravenna, as in most Rust Belt cities, though, has been the transformation in the industrial landscape. In city after city from Duluth, Minnesota, to Rochester, New York, icons of American industry have vanished. The Homestead Steel works outside Pittsburgh has been largely demolished, replaced by a shopping mall. The same fate has befallen the LTV Steel plant in Cleveland and the great Western Electric complex on the boundary between Chicago and Cicero.
Image: Hawthorne Works Shopping Center in front of remaining tower of the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero Illinois
Some of this demolition was necessary, even welcome, since many of these factories were located amidst densely populated neighborhoods and constituted a logistical and environmental nightmare. But much of the demolition has been motivated primarily by a desire to remove from sight embarrassing reminders of a previous era. Demolishing the factory, city fathers figure, better allows potential buyers of the site to appreciate a wonderful riverside location or proximity to downtown and the endless opportunities to build something new.
What has replaced those grand temples of industry, however, has usually been underwhelming, with late 19th century brick loft buildings reduced to rubble to make way for cheap one-story strip malls that neither employ a lot of workers nor generate a lot of tax revenue. The old urban identity has been destroyed, but there has been very little to take its place.
The process is akin to the efforts of men and women of a certain age who resort to plastic surgery, hair implants and clothes more appropriate for a younger generation. These cosmetic efforts rarely fool anyone. In fact, what they most clearly convey is a loss of confidence.
Fortunately there is a growing awareness that wholesale demolition of industrial fabric does not necessarily prepare cities for their post-industrial future. This movement to save industrial heritage came into its own first in Britain, not surprisingly, since Britain was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. For decades now important eighteenth and early nineteenth century industrial sites have been preserved, often as historic sites and tourist destinations.
Image: Ironbridge in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, England, named a World Heritage Site in 1986
A similar thing has happened in the United States.
Image: Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Slater Mill, started 1793, now a National Historic Landmark.
Old loft buildings have become residential condominiums, even in some rather unlikely places.
Image: River Mill Condominiums along the Fox River in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, opened in 1986 in a building constructed for the Paine Lumber Company
Image: Quaker Square, Akron, a hotel developed in 1980 in concrete silos built by the Quaker Oats Company in the 1930s and now owned by the University of Akron.
The preservation of the industrial landscape that cannot be easily reused has been more problematic. Even so, there has been a movement to preserve some of the most important examples both as testimony to the industrial heritage of their regions and as a way of showcasing the regions in which they are located, providing amenities for the citizens and attracting tourists.
Germany has been a leader in this movement. The Voelklinger Huette outside Saarbrucken preserves an entire complex intact as a monument to the industrial heritage of the area. Even more spectacular has been the transformation of large pieces of the Ruhrgebiet, the heart of Germany’s pre-World War II heavy industry, into a set of imaginative parks, museums and other institutions.
Voelklingen Huette (Voelklingen Iron Works) near Saarbrucken, Germany. A UNESCO World Heritage site and museum.
Duisburg Nord Landschaftspark (landscape park) in Duisburg, Germany, a coal and steel plant transformed into a public park according to designs done in 1991 by architect Peter Latz who retained as many of the old structures as possible.
Of course, the Ravenna flagpole lacks the grandeur or the historical significance of these places. But it is an important historic relic in its own right and arguably as important for Ravenna as the great industrial complex at Duisburg is to the Ruhrgebiet.
Erected in 1893 by the Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland, the flagpole was one of at least four similar or identical structures erected in the northeast of the United States. It appears that only the one at Palmyra, New York, still stands. Recently refurbished, the Palmyra pole seems to have been built as a mast for displaying banners of political candidates.
Image: Post card of Main Street Ravenna showing the flagpole in front of the courthouse.
Image: Palmyra, New York, flagpole, fabricated, like the Ravenna pole, by the Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland. It has been recently restored.
These flagpoles reflect late 19th century American engineering ingenuity. Earlier poles had usually been of wood. They frequently snapped in high winds and had to be replaced. When the Ravennans needed to replace their pole they used a new and improved technology available to them.
The technology, involving the use of latticed steel boxes, was developed for the railroad and construction industry. The individual elements were not new. Steel had been replacing wrought and cast iron for a number of years. Truss bridges and other constructions using similar structural technologies had been well developed earlier in the century. Inexpensive steel and the techniques of constructing large structures out of it using rivets rather than bolts, however, was new. The technology was ideally suited to the construction of large structures of all kinds, notably bridges.
The same qualities of strength and light weight that made it ideal for bridges also made it perfect for towers. All over Europe and America engineers used latticed towers not just for flagpoles, for but lighthouses, look-out stations, electric light towers and a host of other uses.
Image: Electric Light Tower, constructed in 1881 at the corner of Market and Santa Clara streets in San Jose, California to house arc lights intended to illuminate downtown. It collapsed in December 1915.
Image: A surviving “Moonlight Tower” in Austin, Texas. Manufactured by the Fort Wayne Electrical Company for use in Detroit, 31 of the towers were purchased from the city of Detroit and re-erected in Austin. In 1970 the remaining 17 towers were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city spent $1.3 million to dismantle and restore these towers in the early 1990s.
Image: Villingen, Germany, Aussichtsturm (Observation Tower) 1888. This 30 meter high tower, erected on a hill outside the village of Villingen, provided views over the surrounding countryside as far as the Alps.
The grandest example of this structural technique is, of course, the Eiffel Tower, built for the Paris exposition of 1889. Although larger in scale than any of the other examples, it used many of the same materials and construction methods as the Ravenna flagpole. Initially heavily criticized by much of the artistic elite of the day as being essentially useless and much too big, the Eiffel Tower soon came to symbolize Paris to the world. No one would imagine demolishing it today.
Image: Paris, Eiffel Tower built for the 1889 Exposition. It reaches a height of 1015 feet using latticed steel elements and rivets similar to those used on the Ravenna flagpole
The Ravenna pole, erected four years later was built as a monument to national pride and an affirmation of the place of the city of Ravenna in the larger American republic. The pole also had a more local significance. It would allow Ravennans for once to greatly outstrip their neighbors and rivals in Kent, 10 miles to the west. In fact, at the time of its completion, the pole must have been one of the taller flagpoles in America and one of the taller structures anywhere outside the largest cities. Of course, by now it has been dwarfed, particularly in the last couple of decades when a new battle for flagpole superlatives has broken out, curiously enough this time in some of the most out-of-the-way corners of the globe.
National Flagpole at Baku, Azerbaijan, at 545 ft. flagpole, briefly the world’s highest flagpole before being eclipsed by one in Tajikistan. Both were built by a company in San Diego.
Even if now dwarfed by flagpoles in Azerbaijan, North Korea, and Tajikistan, the Ravenna flagpole still reflects the pride of a struggling industrial city. It has required periodic maintenance and has gotten into the news occasionally when some inebriated citizen has tried to climb it. However, for most Ravennans it has come to be so much taken for granted that citizens were stunned when they heard that the Trustees of the Township of Ravenna, the body that has jurisdiction, decided that it was a legal liability, a drain on township resources and should be demolished. In response, a group of local citizens has stepped in and is fighting to maintain the pole, raising money toward its repair and trying to see if ownership can be transferred to a governmental entity or group of entities willing to maintain it.
In one way, this is a fight about intangibles like local pride, patriotism, a desire to maintain historic heritage and a sense of place. Some people write off these sentiments as mere nostalgia. But preservation of this kind can have tangible consequences. No one is claiming that preserving the pole will generate vast new tourist revenues or solve basic economic problems. But the movement to save the flagpole rests on the notion that stewardship of historic heritage can play an important role in reminding everyone of the specific qualities of a place that made it successful in the past – and perhaps can be built upon to craft a better future.
Robert Bruegmann is professor emeritus of Art History, Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
This post originally appeared in New Geography on June 19, 2012.
Wednesday, April 11th, 2012
The New York Times turned its attention this week to the debate over the preservation of brutalist buildings. In particular, they look at the debate over demolishing a government center on Goshen, NY.
As part of this, they published a Room for Debate segment called “Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive?” I was delighted to be one of the people asked to weigh in on this matter so I hope you’ll check it out.
Wednesday, March 28th, 2012
That great site How to Be a Retronaut pointed me at this great 1921 silent film of New York City by Paul Strand. It’s called “Manhatta” and provides a unique look at NYC at the early part of the 20th century. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Also on the Retronaut recently was this 1925 “infographic” from Popular Science Monthly about how we may live and travel in 1950, and how this new world might solve congestion problems…..