Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The ongoing battle

Tonight I added a small but important section to the site's front page, with a working title of "Urgent - Help Needed!"

It's something I've wanted to do for a while, based on a long-standing frustration. I get a lot of emails from visitors lamenting the fall of the city's historic architecture, but so very rarely is there any sense that there's anything that can be done about it. Furthermore, I get a sense that it's treated as something over and done, as though the decay had reached its conclusion, and all the possible damage had been done.

But the struggle to preserve architectural heritage is not a on-and-off switch; it is a continual cycle, a living thing, like the city itself. Buildings fell ten, twenty, thirty years ago -- but they continue to fall today. New threats arise; once-healthy buildings go vacant, then derelict; older buildings are reclaimed, redeveloped and rejuvenated, or torn down.

And whether you live in the city today or moved away thirty years ago, there are still things you can do to help.

Let the city's officials know the world is watching. Let them know that you care about the city's physical fabric, the buildings that compose it, and how it's all put together. Give money, give time, give your voice.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

C.A.V.E.: Citizens Against Vulgar Environments!

Clever acronym adaptation courtesy of Steve Patterson.

Evolution of the 'cave' man

All the St. Louis blog world is atwitter over this St. Louis Business Journal article, but I gotta throw my two cents in regardless.

Where to start? I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or scream. It's such an incredibly one-sided article that the developers might as well have written it themselves.

The intention is to portray urban critics as being opposed to all developments, to the very idea of develoment -- which is absurd, of course. We live in cities. Development is requisite to the very environments we have chosen to make home.

But, again, we live in cities -- not the country, not small towns, not suburbs. Those are all different environments with different needs. When a proposed development fails to meet the needs of the city, citizens are obliged to stand up and protest.

I refuse to be silent when someone confuses this environment...

Youree Drive, Shreveport

...with this one:

S. Grand Avenue, St. Louis

One is the city. The other is not -- it's a suburb. There's a world of difference.

The needs of the suburb have been well-met over the last fifty years -- slavishly so. There is so much suburban development that a lot of people don't know any other way of living, can't concieve that there's something wrong with it, and are boggled when someone suggest that building a strip mall on the edge of Soulard might not be such a great idea, and why are you so anti-development??? People point to all the suburbia, its prevalence, as if it's somehow proof that everyone wants everything to be that way, as if the availability of different options somehow threatens to nullify all those strip malls and subdivisions.

This argument makes my head explode. You've got your goddamn suburbs already. You've got suburbs running out your ears and paving every last damn thing for a hundred miles. You've got more suburbs than we can possibly afford to maintain. Now let us have our city!!!

The needs of the city have been too frequently overlooked. THAT is why we're protesting. THAT is why some developers meet opposition.

Show us the urbanism, and we'll show you the love. From the Continental Building renovation, to the new houses at Blewett High School, the infill houses at Bohemian Hill, the renovation of City Hospital, the rejuvenation of half a dozen skyscrapers downtown, the CONECT project in Old North, there are many excellent examples of how to work with urban environments right there in St. Louis.

The city is a place, with character, with unique stuff that can't be found anywhere else. It draws some people. Those qualities MUST be preserved and nurtured.

In a geographic location that looks like this...
Mansfield Road, Shreveport can hardly expect a builder to put terribly much thought into what a building will look like, let alone how it relates to what's around it. Nothing there is worth caring about, so who would care about anything new that comes along? Small wonder developers are taken aback when people raise objections to their projects in the city.

But it need not be so -- we are not protesting the existance of a project; indeed we welcome it! It is the form we are criticizing, for in the city, the form truly matters. People here care. And forms can be adapted, changed, altered, improved, without compromising the nature of a project.

Hmph! 'Cave people' indeed. It is unfortunate that positive citizen action, open discussion of the built environment, and widespread awareness is viewed by developers as obstruction and misinformation.

Look at the Bohemian Hill project. You want to know what's on the site now? You want to know what was there? You want to see a site plan? You gotta go to some guy from Milwaukee!! The local media ain't tellin' ya, and the developers sure as hell aren't either! Shouldn't all this information be readily forthcoming?

I find it ironic and amusing that St. Louis bloggers as a group are being acused of spreading "misinformation" by people who commonly fail to spread any information at all.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

St. Louis's online community is amazing.

As I skim back over my just-posted take on the Bohemian Hill development proposal, I'm struck by how many links I ended up putting in it. It's amazing how many people are already discussing this proposal, just days after its announcement.

Lest you take that for granted, I challenge you to find any comparable discussion among the residents of Milwaukee. Apart from my little blog, and one or two other bloggers who occasionally touch on issues of urbanism, architecture and development, there's nothing. Silence. A void. There simply is no online community discussing the physical form of Milwaukee or its future.

Granted, Milwaukee can afford to rest on its laurels a bit -- our last Mayor went on to become president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. When he first came to town, he saw a new Walgreens on Brady Street (Milwaukee's equivalent of Delmar) with a parking lot in front of it. "Why'd you build it like that??" he asked the developer. "'Cause that's what the code says we had to do!" was the answer. Mayor Norquist promptly set about changing the code. Then he tore down a freeway; we're just starting to fill in the 16 acres of downtown land that it opened up. It's Milwaukee's poor fortune that he was unable to tear down a second freeway that would have connected downtown to the neighborhoods to the south.

Now we see the results of all that, as urban buildings are popping up like weeds all over Milwaukee's downtown and East Side.

St. Louis, alas, cannot take such consideration for granted. Every bit of urbanism must be fought for, tooth and claw. Ultimately, the city's long-outdated zoning laws need to be replaced; otherwise, it's a case-by-case battle, never-ending and often lost.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

"We'll never be like Chicago!"

Having lived and debated both north and south of the Windy City, I have heard Chicago brought up many times as an example of how to carry out some particular aspect of urban design and planning. And without fail, somebody will pop up with the stock local pride response: "St. Louis/Milwaukee isn't Chicago! And we shouldn't try to be!"

It drives me crazy, because it completely misses the point.

Chicago, while plagued with the same problems that most Rust Belt cities must deal with, is a highly successful urban environment when compared to most American cities. It packs considerable population density across a large area, enough to support a busy and thriving mass transit system. The rail portion of that system succeeds because it runs so frequently that it's a viable alternative to driving. It's desirable not to drive because things are so dense, parking so scarce. Things are dense because a large volume of historic buildings have been preserved, and where they have been destroyed they've been replaced by buildings of greater density. It has both major chains and small local stores. It has a diversified economy, fueled by this variety of scales. It has busy street life. It has, in short, all the hallmarks of a true urban environment.

But those are not the trappings of some kind of mythical aura of Chicagoness that if emulated will turn all your citizens into zombie Bears fans. They are the basic requirements of any successful urban environment, regardless of its size. They apply across the board -- in Chicago, in New York, in San Francisco, and yes, in St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Build upon those things, and your city succeeds. Diminish them, work against them, allow developers to build sprawl instead of density, and your city fails.

It is not about becoming Chicago; it is about becoming an urban environment, and Chicago is the closest example one that works. Your city may never "be like Chicago" in whatever other ways you're thinking of (certainly it's unlikely to match Chicago's population), but it would do well to learn some of Chicago's lessons. They transcend any one location.

Friday, February 09, 2007

...and my city was gone

Published in the St. Louis Business Journal, reproduced in full in Toby Weiss's B.E.L.T.: Look what they want to do to Soulard!!

This is a bad, bad plan. It is suburban in form, scale, and layout. It is meant to cater to the heavy interstate traffic behind it, rather than the pedestrian-scale neighborhoods on either side. It will do nothing to knit together the sundered fabrics of Lafayette Square and Soulard. Its brick facades are only the dimmest and most trivial of gestures toward its context.

And it is certainly not "how you build a great city". You do that by creating memorable physical environments, scaled and planned for people instead of cars, responsive to historic context -- not scattered one-story buildings fronting on five acres of parking.

For reference, here's a map of the immediate area:

The gray houses are still standing. The red ones are gone. I will have much more to say on this -- stay tuned.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Fagin Building

Before there was the Arcade Building, there was the obscure, bizarre, short-lived Fagin Building:

A. W. Fagin Building

This page, by a distant relative of the building's architect, offers some detailed views and interesting commentary. The Fagin Building showed a use of bold forms similar to those of Frank Furness (and similarly reviled in the architectural press of the time); its facade contained vast areas of glass to allow natural light to flood the interior -- a Modernist tenet decades ahead of its time. It was remodeled into the far less interesting Burlington Building after only a few years, but for that short time St. Louis had a truly remarkable gem of architecture.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

There's Still Crime in the City

So now I'm doin' it my way
I took the law in my hands

USA Today: Cities see crime surge as threat to their revival

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Violent crime leaps in city

Time Magazine: The Next Crime Wave

From an interview with outgoing Milwaukee chief of police Nan Hagerty:

First of all, it’s important for people to realize that, as a police department, we end up with problems that are many times created because of society. You’re talking about a lack of jobs. Years ago, there were people who could get good, family-supporting jobs in factories with very little education, work for 25 years and retire with a retirement benefit. That is when Milwaukee was the safest city in the nation. All of those jobs have left.

With those lack of jobs has come an increase in the rate of poverty, a teen pregnancy rate in Milwaukee that’s just out of this world, and, of course, all of the other things that come with that.

Same issue, the Milwaukee Shepherd-Express's response to the Time story.

From user Boxchain: March Against Crime in New Orleans, with some very large and very angry crowds.

In my own life, my housemate's car was stolen, someone got mugged on the street right in front of our house, a co-worker's car was broken into, two more cars on the same lot were broken into this week, and my own car has been rifled through twice in the last few months (lost my MP3 player, the only time I've left anything valuable in the car in years. Damn!!) A lady was punched in the face by a random guy a few blocks from my girlfriend's Chicago apartment. Over in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood (analogous to West Philadelphia, or to a lesser extent, Old North St. Louis), a group has started a foot patrol to help keep some eyes on the streets during peak bar hours.

People want to flee from it, run away to the suburbs, move further and further and further out, as if running away will solve the problem.

It won't. The problem always catches up, no matter how far you run.

You look around and suddenly your 1950s suburb is going down hill, the "wrong people" are starting to move in, and oh crap, it's time to leap outwards to the next ring of the peripheral exurban rim. (And hey, guess what? Scientists have just informed us that we can't afford to keep running anymore.)

The whole system is broken, just unbelievabley broken. We've created an entire underclass of unemployed people who see no prospects, no hope, no future, who have become culturally engrained to oppose anything that might resemble progress or self-improvement. Guns get tossed around like candy and fired off like firecrackers. People are just crazy out there.

And it all spirals onwards because we allow our animalistic craving for revenge, for punishment, override our human sensibility, our rational thought processes. We're locking up more people now than ever before, and can we really say it's working? Of course not. We aren't doing jack to improve these people, to give them hope, treatment, training, a path to follow once they're released, a plan, prospects, a place to go. They get back on the street and they're right back at it. What else do we actually expect them to do??

And it's killing my cities, the places that I love, the all-too-rare man-made places in America that are truly beautiful and humanizing -- not to mention the places that are our best hope for the future, the kind of places that we all need to be re-compacting ourselves into if we're ever to curb our auto-based carbon emissions so we don't wreck the entire goddamn planet and wipe ourselves out in the process. It doesn't matter if we manage to dig up any more oil or not, because the atmosphere simply can't handle our current carbon output. Technology will. not. save us. Urban, non-auto-centric living will, but don't count on our *expletives deleted* president to tell you that. Hell, no politician is ever likely to; it's not a very popular thing to say. It would actually challenge people to change their life styles.

The cities are our future -- as a nation, as a civilized society, as a species. They must be fought for, defended, with both determination and intelligence. They must be rebuilt to accomdate all our population, not just the rich or the poor or the people inbetween. I'd really hope that we might be able to save a few old buildings in the process, because so much of what we build today just isn't very nice to look at compared to what we built a hundred years ago... but in the end that's less important than heading off a global catastrophe and maybe building some cities that are actually good places to walk, work, play, and live in... without a space-consumptive, carbon-spewing automobile.