Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.
American malls are on the decline. Payless ShoeSource is the latest victim, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and announcing the immediate closure of 400 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico. A few months ago, Forbes cited a U.S. Department of Commerce study finding that sales at U.S. department stores—which have served as traditional mall anchors—declined from $87.46 billion in 2005 to $60.65 billion in 2015. Macy’s has announced it will close 68 stores by mid-2017, while Sears has declared its intention to shut down 42 stores by the end of the year.
Many who view malls as the paradigm of soulless suburban culture will say good riddance, though to the extent that these places are replaced by e-commerce distributors like Amazon, their disappearance may be worth mourning. To clarify what we Americans are losing, consider a comparison to malls in Thailand, where I’ve lived for almost three years.
It seems most of the malls in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, cater to the upper-class elite. “Hi-so” Thais, members of the country’s “high society,” find everything they could possibly want to validate their nouveau riche status at luxury shopping centers like Emporium, Em Quartier, and Central World. Wealthy Thais and expats can find every high-end designer brand there, including Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Tiffany & Co. The places are packed—a place to see and to be seen.
What is perhaps most strange about these malls is that they exist in communities surrounded by poverty. One has only to walk out onto the street to find scores of people hawking cheap food and various other bric-a-brac, people who exist somewhere between poverty and lowest of the lower-middle class. You’ll never see such people actually coming inside the Thai malls: the extensive security, frequently dressed up in the most ridiculous old-school European-style costumes (think Windsor Castle meets the Nutcracker), ensure that only those who can actually afford anything inside actually make it in. The malls serve to reinforce the severe stratification of Thai society.
This isn’t to say that America doesn’t have boutique malls oriented toward the most affluent of society. As a suburban Virginian, I grew up near Tysons Corner and Tysons Galleria, centers that also cater to the upper and upper-middle class. But this is not the typical experience in the U.S. For most of us, malls, for better and worse, represent one of the most plebeian, if also egalitarian, aspects of American culture.
The malls my family frequented were places where rich and poor alike rubbed elbows. The mall closest to my home in Virginia featured not only higher-end department stores but also the kind of cheap vendors populated by teenagers with only five bucks in their pocket. Indeed, in the local Chick-fil-A one was just as likely to see an older, moneyed southern couple, wife decked out in her Sunday best, as one was to see the redneck family of six with the father sporting camouflage and a John Deere baseball cap. Sure, some few rich folk might visit a custom tailor for shirts and suits, but the rest of us were renting our tux from the Men’s Wearhouse or Joseph A. Bank at our local mall.
Moreover, malls were the place where people hung out. They were, in their own weak, terribly imperfect way, a humanizing factor in what were in other respects disconnected, soulless suburbs. I remember in high school every other Friday one of my best friends and I would stop by the country club where we did maintenance work, pick up our checks, drive over to the mall to drop our money on CDs from our favorite bands, and pick up some Wendy’s for dinner. Maybe we’d check out a movie. Along the way, we were bound to see some friends, or if we were lucky, some cute girls—maybe from a different school, so that we wouldn’t feel so self-conscious about saying “hey.” So much suburban “coming of age” transpired in those air-conditioned monoliths.
I was reminded of the strange importance of these malls a few years ago when I was inspired to volunteer at a tutoring center located within walking distance of a suburban mall. One of my students was a first-generation Pakistani teenager—bright, energetic, and totally surrounded by bad influences. Yet we would walk over to that mall, grab something to eat and wander around, talking about life. I encouraged him to find work: he got his first job at the mall selling those cheap plastic wristbands then so popular among teenagers. The mall, oddly enough, was central in this kid’s upbringing—albeit not an ideal one, by any means.
As malls continue to die in America, what will take their place? As more and more people buy online (with, I acknowledge, many good reasons), there is an unfortunate side effect: we spend even less time wandering around in public spaces where we connect with people in our neighborhoods, both seeing people we recognize but also encountering new faces, new ideas, and maybe even new cultures. The echo chambers online are showing that the web falls far short of the kind of interconnected pluralist society that it fashions itself to be. Check out most website comment sections, and you’ll get a flavor for how online conversation is weakening, not strengthening, social bonds. Would two kids at a mall record store who disagreed over their favorite artist curse each other like they now do via YouTube?
Yes, malls reflect a certain societal degeneration from the old Main Street culture of Leave It to Beaver, where residential and commercial spaces so fluidly intersected, where most every store was family-owned, and where folks were caring neighbors whom you knew and who knew you. But at least malls maintained many of the positive social aspects of that more classic America. Indeed, as one Washington Post article argues, the loss of “anchor stores” like Macy’s and Sears leads to a decrease in foot traffic and the closure of smaller, family-owned businesses. As we move further into the digital age—and deeper into stratified sub-cultures where we have so little knowledge of “how the other half lives”—we may find ourselves wishing to return to something like the American mall.
Perhaps we can agree with George Washington University’s Christopher Leinberger and many others: “walkable urbanism” is a worthy goal. Indeed, let’s simply declare that pedestrian-rich street life, flaneur-friendly walkability, and nice cafés and shops are a key to improving the quality of life in cities and towns.
But there’s just one thing: we must avoid being run over. And unfortunately, in the last few years, we’ve discovered something quite horrible: in the hands of a terrorist, the familiar four-wheeled vehicle can be a frightful weapon.
Nobody has forgotten the April 7 attack in Stockholm, when one Rakhmat Akilov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, hijacked a brewery truck and drove it onto the sidewalk and then into a store, killing four and injuring 15. According to one report,
The truck mowed down pedestrians along Drottninggatan, a busy pedestrian shopping street. The truck, stolen just blocks away earlier in the day, came to a stop after slamming into the entrance of the Ahlens department store. Photos from the scene showed a billowing cloud of black smoke rising from the store. “I saw hundreds of people running. They ran for their lives” before the truck crashed into the department store, [said] a witness.
In the wake of the carnage, a former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter:
Steal a lorry or a car and then drive it into a crowd. That seems to be the latest terrorist method. Berlin. London. Now Stockholm.
In fact, the dolorous list is longer than that. Perhaps the best known such incident occurred in Nice, France, in July 2016, killing 84. Meanwhile, “ram raiding” has been happening in Israel for years. Indeed, in 2014, an al-Qaeda video celebrated the tactic.
In the bloody-minded eyes of a would-be terrorist, it’s easy to see the appeal of vehicular terrorism: who needs an elaborate conspiracy when one can just get behind the wheel? If the authorities are tracking guns and explosive materials, as well as monitoring travel and airports, why not simply turn on the ignition and start killing? After all, there are plenty of “tools” available; it’s estimated that the U.S. is home to 264 million cars and trucks, and another billion or so vehicles inhabit the rest of the world.
So what to do? How to stop such attacks? Obviously, improvements in homeland security, including immigration vetting—extreme or otherwise—is one answer.
In addition, some will argue that driverless cars are the answer, since they could take away the volitional capability of the motorist to kill. That might all be true in theory, and yet we can point to a few practical problems:
First, according to even the most optimistic scenario, driverless cars are years away—and as we have seen, there are more than a quarter-billion “traditional” vehicles on American roads.
Second, even with driverless technology, do we really expect that the “driver” will have no control of the vehicle whatsoever? Do even the techiest of us think that the computer will control every last movement of every last car, everywhere? And if not—if the driver has any sort of latitude or autonomy—then, in the wrong hands, the potential for mayhem is perpetually present.
Third, speaking of computers and mayhem, we have learned by now—or at least we should have learned—that between Murphy’s Law and malevolent hacking, no cyber-technological solution comes without its own passel of problems, including the problem of deliberate homicide.
So maybe a better way to defend against ram-raiding is, well, defense. That is, a wall, or the equivalent of a wall. As we know, good walls have been making for good neighbors for eons—so why not keep a good thing going?
We can put a wall, or barrier, in the category of “passive defense.” That is, as opposed to “active defense.” Passive defense is just what it sounds like—it’s just there, always on guard. Admittedly, active defense sounds cooler, but by definition, it’s more complicated and thus prone to glitches. And of course, active defense is likely more expensive.
Yet in the meantime, in the wake of the Stockholm attack and all the others, the pressure on public officials and building owners to “do something” will only increase.
Indeed, we might add that here in the litigation-happy United States, there’s an additional prod to take steps. After all, it’s only a matter of time before someone who has been hurt in a vehicular incident, terroristic or accidental, files a lawsuit on the theory that the relevant authority has had plenty of “constructive notice” that such a calamity was coming.
In response to such dangers, this author has no doubt that human creativity and techno-exuberance will produce all sorts of defense mechanisms, including traps, pop-up barriers—and maybe even kinetic projectiles and force fields.
Yet here’s a bet: in the end, when all costs and practicalities are factored in, the most commonly deployed solution will be the humble bollard. That is, those stubby vertical posts that have been used forever to guide traffic and, more recently, to protect buildings.
In fact, we already see bollards, as well as other kinds of barriers, in front of buildings and monuments that we really wish to protect, such as the White House and the Capitol in Washington, DC, as well as other prominent structures, public and private, in Manhattan and elsewhere.
We can’t pull walls around every building, or along every sidewalk, but at least we can put up bollards. Of course, bollards won’t stop every threat, but they will stop a car or truck, and that’s something.
Moreover, bollards, simple as they are today, can be improved. That is, they can be made temporary, or mobile, or self-aware, springing up only when told to do so by a sensor. Thus we can see that bollards could prove to be a hybrid of passive and active.
To be sure, the bollardization of streetscapes, low-tech or high-tech, will not be uncontroversial. By our current reckoning, bollards are ugly and obtrusive. Indeed, we might compare the process of bollard-building to the process of bar-building—that is, the protective bars and grates we often see on domestic windows. To be sure, there’s a tradeoff between aesthetics—and, in some cases, zoning or other kinds of regulation—and safety.
Of course, if bollards prove their value at saving lives, people will likely start to become accustomed to their squat and stalwart visual presence. That’s something we have learned about human nature: if something serves a good purpose, we come to like it, even love it. The little fellas will grow on us!
Still, without a doubt, it’s a shame that it’s come to this. It’s sad that the “sidewalk ballet,” as Jane Jacobs called it, needs new guardrails. But then, of course, even ballet dancers need their barre. As noted, if something is necessary, we soon learn that we can’t live without it.
James P. Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor for 20 years, served as a domestic-policy aide in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
We tend to think of the postwar period as the era of highways and suburbs. But construction has continued apace: Urban interstate lane mileage doubled from 48,000 to 94,000 miles between 1980 and 2015. And it’s not just expansions of existing roads; total urban road length also doubled in that time from 629,000 miles to 1.2 million miles. Some of those new urban roads are former rural roads that have been reclassified as they are absorbed in expanding metro areas. But the changing ratio of roads to people in metropolitan America is still dramatic. In and around cities, road mileage has grown at exactly twice the rate of population. In 1980, there was a mile of urban road for every 273 residents. Now, there’s a mile of road for every 215. That means fewer people responsible for the money that keeps that mile of road in good shape. That frenetic pace of expansion has created a maintenance crisis, among other problems. Old miles still outnumber new ones 99 to 1 every year, but states spend more money making incremental additions to the road network than taking care of the rest. [More…]
—Henry Grabar, Slate
The [postwar] emphasis on single-family detached housing reinforced the idea of nuclear family living, and in practice, has given us “what may well be the lowest-density settlements in the history of the world,” according to Sonia Hurt’s “Zoned in the USA.” Our zoning laws have grown ever more restrictive, and many folks who want some sort of accessory dwelling on their property have to bend or break the law in order to do it…. Our zoning laws may have made sense back in 1950. But as the American family changes, and housing affordability shifts, perhaps the ADU will become increasingly common. Whether it’s an aging relative, struggling millennial, visiting friend, or homeless family, many Americans want to provide shelter to the placeless in their lives. They just need a means to do it. [More…]
—Gracy Olmstead, The Federalist
As with so many stories that rely on fragments of migration or population data, the narrative that some people are moving out of cities implicitly assumes that they are choosing to leave because they don’t want to live in cities. In fact, the growth of city population, and the rising price of homes in cities is a sign that more people want to live in cities than we can currently accommodate. Our failure to increase the supply of housing in cities is increasingly becoming the constraint on urban economic growth. You’ll know cities are failing when you see house prices and land values dropping. That will be a sign that consumers have rejected urban living. But that’s not what’s happening in New York City today. [More…]
—Joe Cortright, City Observatory
The College of Charleston is to be congratulated for instituting the first classical program of architectural education in the South…. The C. of C.’s new [Community Planning, Policy and Design] program joins a recent spate of new classical and traditional coursework within existing university design departments. The University of Colorado, Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning has its new Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture (CARTA), directed by Christine Franck, one of the classical revival’s leading impresarios. Catholic University in the District of Columbia has just added a classical concentration to its master’s curriculum in architecture and planning. Only Notre Dame among universities in the U.S. boasts a full-fledged classical program offering a master’s and doctorate; it ousted its modernist program in a palace coup almost three decades ago. [More…]
—David Brussat, Architecture Here and There
WASHINGTON—It’s late morning on a Saturday in March, and I’m at the corner of 3rd and H Streets NE, waiting for the streetcar. Behind me, on the ground floor of the new corner condo building, there’s a craft-beer store and a daycare center for dogs. Next to them is a big hole (formerly a vacant lot) where a 112-unit mixed-use building is about to go up. Across H Street is a new Giant supermarket, on top of which are more condos with prices in the high six figures. This is the west end of H Street’s 12-block stretch of recent—and if you’ve lived in the city for a while, it can seem like instant—gentrification. I don’t even notice the streetcar line’s slim overhead wires until I remember to look for them.
The first leg of the city’s new modern streetcar line—its six trains, 2.4 miles, and eight stops have cost over $200 million so far—runs from Union Station (where the subway stops) to Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue NE. There’s no subway station there, just a golf course and a park. But if the city has its way, the line will soon connect to a subway station across the Anacostia River.
Most of the passengers heading east—and on the way to the terminus at Oklahoma Avenue, the two-car tram nearly fills up before emptying out again—appear to be shoppers who live on the eastern part of the route. With its level entry and open cabin, the streetcar is a lot easier to hump shopping bags around on than the bus.
The contrast between the two parts of the 2.4-mile route is stark. On the west, along H Street, it’s new condos and bistros and mostly white faces on the sidewalks. East of 15th, along Benning Road, it’s mostly black and aging buildings and low-rent garden apartments and fast-food joints and chain-discount stores. A few years ago, H Street (damaged during the riots of the late 1960s) looked like this.
On the ride back—and on the way the tram nearly fills up again—I ask Tony, a graphic artist who says he’s looking for work, how often he rides the streetcar.
“Seven days a week,” he says, before pointing out that there are no ads inside the cabin.
He wonders if the streetcar is, or might be, privatized. (It’s owned by the District but operated by a state-owned French firm, RATP Dev.)
Unlike the bus, it’s still free. It was supposed to cost a dollar a ride. But for the time being, the free teaser rate has become permanent.
Are streetcars relatively permanent? Like many American cities, DC has had streetcars before, between 1862 and 1962. A few pieces of that original system remain: tracks in two cobbled lanes in Georgetown, an abandoned station under Dupont Circle, a few power poles on the Klingle Valley Bridge. But apart from those relics and the borrowed (from the streetcars) numbers of a few bus routes, today there is little sign that the capital ever had a streetcar system. By the 1960s, cars, city buses, and suburban sprawl were killing off America’s streetcars. At the same time, under President Kennedy, a federal backlash against highways and sprawl had developed. Washington’s busy subway system (which was handed a gift in the form of the oil crises of the 1970s) was being hatched.
In the late 1990s, when a streetcar was being developed in Portland, Ore., former Mayor Marion Barry’s administration laid out a transport plan that included a streetcar. (Barry later became a critic of the streetcar.) In the 2000s the District began working on the system, importing cars from the Czech Republic and laying track. A second line through Anacostia, over the river, was constructed and then abandoned after right-of-way problems and homeowner resistance. Finally, in February 2016, after a Portland-esque seven years of delays, the line opened. By then the urban development the streetcar was supposed to help catalyze—a new theater, bars and restaurants, condos and apartments—was already largely in place. Proponents and critics continue to debate the degree to which this development, like that of other streetcar cities, had to do with the streetcar.
One year later, how is DC’s streetcar doing? At about 2,500, weekday ridership has been better than the city’s projected 1,500. Total ridership reached the half-million mark in late 2016. As U.S. streetcar systems go, DC’s ridership per mile is middle-of-the-pack. On Inauguration Day 2017 and the day after, the system saw its heaviest use so far. And the city says the streetcar hasn’t cut into local bus ridership. Of course, the rides are still free; Atlanta saw streetcar ridership fall by more than half when it began collecting fares.
Proponents say that streetcars, like other kinds of “premium transit,” add to the transit ecosystem and fuel urban development. Critics say they’re poor value for the money, beneficial mainly to the companies who design, build, and operate them. The District’s system has also been accused of bloat: according to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, for example, the city spent nearly $175,000 on the streetcar website alone.
Several dozen other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Kansas City, have built modern streetcar lines, and several dozen more are actively planning them. However, just across the Potomac River, a proposed streetcar line for suburban Arlington, Va., was recently cancelled after taxpayer backlash. And DC’s current mayor, Muriel Bowser, has scaled back next-step planning and budgeting of the envisioned $1 billion-plus, 40-mile network to a cheaper 7.5-mile crosstown line.
Back on the streetcar, Tony, headed to Starbucks, says he’s enthusiastic about expansion. But he’d prefer the route go farther west, into downtown, rather than across the Anacostia. (Bowser wants to do both.) He says the buses that run the route we’re on are often overcrowded and that sometimes the people on them “don’t want you to sit next to them.” And he says that even if they start charging a dollar to ride it, he’ll still use the streetcar.
Nathaniel Koch is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
The thousands of tourists trooping down into St. Mark’s Square from their dozens of levels of staterooms on a colossal cruise ship might be shocked to hear that they and the others of Venice’s eight million tourists a year are killing, not aiding, Venice. But in fact tourists spend little in Venice, and officials until recently allowed as many as thirteen such ships every day to sail into the lagoon, Venice’s main waterway, “staring the city down, polluting its waters.” All in the name of one reward: money for the cruise ship owners. Just along the Grand Canal, “the last fifteen years have seen the closure of state institutions, judicial offices, banks, the German consulate, medical practices, and stores to make way for sixteen new hotels.” The population of Venice’s historic center has fallen from 174,808 in 1951 to 56,072 in 2015. Tourists outnumber Venetians 140:1. Venetians must move away to find work outside tourism …. Settis’s book, as he rightly insists, is not just about Venice. It is a passionate call to nourish low-lying, walkable Venice as an alternative urban model to skyscraper-dominated, automobile-clogged Chongqing. Beyond Venice, it is an account that can inspire everyone, especially in historic cities all over the world, who loves traditional city life and who cares for homo sapiens as a political animal. [Read more…]
—Mary Campbell Gallagher, New Criterion
Maybe it flies. How else to explain the $1.9 billion that the Oakland Raiders and Clark County, home of Las Vegas, have committed to spend on the new stadium that lured the team to Nevada? … Stanford economist Roger Noll said it was the “worst deal for a city” he had ever seen. [Read more…]
—Henry Grabar, Slate
Of all the urbanism specialists with tunnel vision, fire chiefs, fire marshals, and traffic engineers are probably the most dangerous. And by “dangerous,” I don’t just mean that they’re a threat to good urbanism; they also get people killed, which is exactly the opposite of what they are commissioned to do. A classic example of their silo thinking is playing out right now in Celebration, Florida, where the proposed measures of eliminating on-street parking spaces and eliminating street trees will almost certainly leave Celebration a less safe place than it is today. [Read more…]
—Steve Mouzon, CNU Public Square
[Some residents of a Florida town] are endorsing a local plan to train job-seeking residents in home construction through the rehabilitation of abandoned, working-class cottages known as shotgun homes. There are dozens of them in an Apalachicola district called the Hill, where black fishermen and mill workers have lived for more than a century. The shotguns are historically significant because they are among the first examples of African architecture in the United States.“The original affordable housing here was the shotgun,” said Creighton Brown, a recent transplant from New York who devised the plan. [Read more…]
—Christine Negroni, New York Times
Few could have foreseen the explosive growth in Raleigh-Durham over the past two decades, especially not in Durham’s downtown, which was mostly abandoned by the moneyed class until recently. In 2001 my nephew, then a high school senior from Pittsburgh, was picked up at Raleigh-Durham airport by Duke undergraduate admissions staff—he was visiting for an interview—and as they motored past Durham’s downtown on the freeway, he was told, “Don’t worry about what you see there, it’s a place you’ll never go.” People argue over how to describe what’s happened since then. Pick one—revitalization or reinvestment or gentrification or serial displacement—or all. Three new boutique hotels have opened in the past two years in downtown Durham. Hip restaurants and bars proliferate. Hipsters follow. I recently came across my first Portland-like twentysomething white couple presenting themselves as homeless in downtown Durham. Condos are sprouting up all over. Ground was broken in 2016 on a 27-story building, the city’s tallest by nine stories. [Read more…]
—Sam Stephenson & Ivan Weiss, Public Books
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—On a cold weeknight last month, several dozen residents congregated inside a local school to review the latest plan for one of this city’s busiest local highways. The conversation lasted two hours and reflected a debate taking place in dozens of cities across the nation. As an increasing number of highways reach the end of their design life, city officials are confronted with an important decision: repair or replace? While some cities like Oakland, Calif. and Syracuse, N.Y. have embraced the option of replacement with enthusiasm, others like Providence are reluctant to rip out the infrastructure that has shaped their city for decades.
At the Providence meeting, city officials revealed the future of a highway known as the 6-10 Connector, pointing to several large poster boards arranged around the front of the room. Titled the “Compromise Plan,” it’s an effort to strike a balance between New Urbanist ideals of walkability and neighborhood cohesion—and what Rhode Island’s governor says is an essential emphasis on public safety. The highway will remain a highway, but with a few tweaks: 1.4 miles of new bike lanes, an improved connection between the 6 and the 10, and five new acres of land for development. Officials have estimated that it will cost $400 million to repair the highway over four years, but have not yet released a final budget or construction timeline.
The reception from the community seems mixed. At the meeting, some locals seemed excited about the additions, but raised doubts about budgeting, timeline, and community involvement. In an interview, Seth Zeren, one of the spokesmen for the group Fix the 6-10, raised other concerns. Why spend $400 to fix aged infrastructure that might later prove unsustainable and that encourages high-speed travel? Why were other options not fully vetted? If the highway is unsafe, why has it not been closed? More than anything, he questioned the assumption that the highway must remain a highway. “If you set project constraints that are only achievable by a highway, you’ll only get a highway,” he explained. “Some people think highways are like physics,” he added. “They’re more like sociology….[they’re] a political choice.”
Like many urban freeways, the 6-10 arrived in Providence in the 1950s. It enabled high-speed trips through the city, easier access for commuters, and access for trucks. But it also cut off various neighborhoods from other areas, disrupted the local street grid, and suppressed the economic potential of nearby communities. The conversation about its future has touched on all of these aspects, especially the underlying tension between suburban commuters and city locals. This tension is one that any city opting for replace over repair is prone to experience. In Dallas, for instance, tear-down advocates have met fierce resistance from critics who point out how heavily commuters rely on the highway to get to work.
Every day, there are nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips on the 6-10, causing many to claim the road is essential to the city’s economy. But transportation expert Ian Lockwood says cities should reexamine this assumption. “There comes a point, from a policy perspective, where it makes sense for the community to have regional commuters traveling on [the community’s] terms, and not on some kind of long-distance commute terms,” he told attendees at one of Providence’s public forums.
Focusing on fast commutes to and from the suburbs, he explained in a later interview with TAC, is problematic on three fronts. First, it holds cities back from activating the economic potential in their cores. “Suburbs don’t add value to the city’s core,” he said. “It’s the other way around. The value of the suburbs is created by exporting value from the city.” Second, from a safety perspective, building highways through cities encourages even more high-speed travel. “It’s in [commuters’] self-interest to want to go faster,” Lockwood said. “But…it’s bad public policy. If everyone were to drive fast everywhere, then the city would be dangerous and unpleasant; a classic tragedy-of-the-commons outcome.”
A more urban, locals-centric option for the connector emerged in 2014 when Providence local and transit activist James Kennedy suggested replacing the connector with a multi-modal boulevard. Inspired by what he had seen in his hometown of Philadelphia, where infrastructure enables multi-modal transportation, he and other activists at Move Together Providence presented a vision of a walkable boulevard. As in many cities, the potential benefits of removing the connector were numerous. A boulevard would have unlocked up to 80 acres of land for development, reintegrated several neighborhoods currently divided by the highway, and improved local travel by connecting streets now truncated by the highway.
City residents and even some officials voiced enthusiastic support for the idea. But at a press conference last September, Governor Gina Raimondo steered the conversation back towards repairing the existing road, citing public safety and the need for swift action. “Like so many of the problems which I’ve inherited, if someone had taken action five, 10, 15, 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have such a big, urgent problem now,” she told local press. “I know this is the right thing to do with respect to public safety, and it’s time to make that decision and take action.” Raimondo and (a hesitant) Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza collaborated on a new design and released the current version in December.
A spokeswoman at Tuesday’s meeting said the plan was designed to improve the lives of people who already live in the highway’s shadow, but tensions between the needs of locals, business interests, and commuters are already emerging.
Gregory Stevens, a local business owner whose shop is less than a mile from the connector, claims that part of the design will actually do more harm than good for the community. He told me that he supports most of the plan except for one part: the closing of an on-ramp not far from his shop. “It’s a huge mistake,” he said. Closing the ramp, he explained, would cut off an entire part of the neighborhood from the highway, disrupt travel patterns, force traffic into the heart of the business district, and possibly prevent future investment. Stevens told me he and other local business owners have hired an engineer to conduct an independent traffic count. He plans to present his protest to the mayor’s office and the city planning department and depending on their response, is prepared to take legal action. He argues the change will create “a catastrophic traffic nightmare.”
Ultimately, Lockwood hopes that all parties will realize that designing transportation around the desires of suburban commuters and drivers is antithetical to the purpose of a city: “Cities were invented to bring people together, to maximize social and economic exchange.” Transportation designers could support that, he said, by emphasizing close proximity over inefficient, high-speed, long-distance highway trips. “If we really want our cities to succeed, then we have to get our fundamentals right: proximity, transit, and most of all, walkability.”
Tiffany Owens, a journalist currently based in Providence, R.I, is a New Yorker at heart.
This article has been updated to correct highway statistics. The 6-10 sees nearly 100,000 one-way vehicle trips per day, not necessarily commuters.
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on cities we’ve encountered this week at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros is a long time critic of the architectural establishment…. [He writes] On the disconnect between our bodies and our buildings: “It occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century, in a deliberate break with the past, breaking away from our own nature. Mechanization following violent social revolution required that we disown our biological nature, so the buildings of the future were meant for machines, not humans. Once the Second World War ended, the industries producing glass, steel, and cars threw their enormous weight behind this new vision of the world. Our society inherited and continues to abide by that worldview.” [Read more…]
—Nikos A. Salingaros, Common Edge
Georgetown Heritage, a nonprofit organization formed to rethink the one-mile, nine-acre portion of the canal in Georgetown, has hired the architect of Manhattan’s High Line in hopes of creating an equally buzzy, reimagined urban park along the now-staid industrial strip of land. It’s part of a broader plan to once again make the historic neighborhood a leading destination in the city amid competition from other booming neighborhoods…. “It is a little like the High Line in New York in that it’s an overlooked place,” said Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations, which designed the High Line in the Chelsea neighborhood. “The whole idea of the High Line is to amplify what is already there.” [Read more…]
—Perry Stein, Washington Post
Like Boston’s last citywide plan, released in 1965, Imagine Boston 2030 proclaims Boston a “City of Ideas.” But virtually everything else about the new plan is different, because so much has changed in Boston, in cities generally, and in the way planning addresses urban challenges. The last Boston plan was completed at the peak of urban renewal, an era of city-making and un-making fueled by federal programs for highway building and “slum clearance.” That muscular approach to city-making didn’t end well — and the rise and abrupt fall of Boston 2024 [Olympic bid] brought back awkward memories of this top-down style of planning…. Urban planning, as we once knew it, is over. The current urban revival happened with no master plan and no national urban policy framework, mostly through the “invisible hand” of market forces. An amalgam of development approvals, incentives, and exactions has arisen in the past several decades, largely in place of planning, to harness this private initiative to serve public policy goals. Imagine Boston and other recent urban plans acknowledge this change. These plans express an attitude toward growth, rather than fostering the illusion that cities can or should just decree what’s going to happen where. [Read more…]
—Matthew Kiefer, Boston Globe
[T]he Green Line is the most popular of the Twin Cities’ two light-rail lines, carrying 40,000 people on weekdays, smashing ridership forecasts by almost 50 percent. It carries college students and immigrants, professional and retail workers, and links college campuses, hospitals and the Minnesota state Capitol (in St. Paul) to both of the downtowns. Less than three years since it opened, it has already helped to revitalize stretches of University Avenue, an aging, formerly car-dominated thoroughfare, as new businesses open near the stations and longtime businesses there attract new customers. Transit-dependent low-income and working-class people are commuting to jobs across the metro area, while new housing for professionals is springing up in an old industrial area. And the Twin Cities aren’t done. Planned expansions would more than double light rail’s reach, taking the Green Line and its counterpart, the 13-year-old Blue Line, straight through Minneapolis to the western suburbs and beyond. [Read more…]
—Erick Trickey, Politico Magazine
Bicycling through Boston’s twisting, traffic-clogged streets may seem more about self-preservation than spiritual enlightenment. For the Rev. Laura Everett, her daily 6-mile commute is a way of connecting to her adopted city, its residents, and her sense of community and vulnerability. Instead of hopping on the subway and popping up in another part of town, Everett said, bicycling has exposed her to the warp and weft of Boston’s neighborhoods and the people who animate them. It’s also led her to a new sense of spirituality and inspired her to turn her experiences into a new book, “Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels.” [Read more…]
—Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on urbanism we’ve encountered this week at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
There is a fair amount of research suggesting that traditional architecture, such as Georgian and Victorian terraces and mansion blocks, contributes to our wellbeing. Beauty makes people happy. This can be measured through house prices, which consistently show bigger increases for more traditional buildings. A study from the Netherlands showed that ‘even controlling for a wide range of features, fully neo-traditional houses sell for 15 per cent more than fully non-traditional houses. Houses with references to tradition sell for 5 per cent more.’ London terraced houses built before the First World war went up in value by 465 per cent between 1983 and 2013, compared to 255 per cent for post-war property of the same type. Beauty sells, but because it’s rare, it’s exclusive. [Read more…]
—Ed West, The Spectator
Picture yourself on a bustling commercial street in a hip neighborhood of a newly revived city. You cruise the sidewalk, checking out the businesses that line the glitziest block or two. Here’s what you’re likely to see: a high-end restaurant with pricey small plates and an ambitious chef; a gourmet pizzeria with locally sourced toppings; an artisanal yogurt shop; a microbrewery; and a coffeehouse. And maybe another coffeehouse. A thought pops into your head: This isn’t a business district, at least not in the old-fashioned sense. This is a food corridor. Scarcely any commerce other than restaurants exists here. What we’re talking about is café urbanism. …. [I]n the end, the secret ingredient of a sustainable neighborhood comeback is commercial diversity. Cafés are wonderful; in some places, they may not prove to be enough. [Read more…]
—Alan Ehrenhalt, Governing
American cities today are seriously enamored of trolleys—modern streetcars have popped up in 16 cities, with more soon to open in Los Angeles, New York City, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale and Milwaukee. …. But will this fascination with streetcars end in heartbreak? When it works—as with Portland, which got a head start on second-generation streetcars in 2001—streetcars can unify cities, boost real estate and draw investment. When it doesn’t, though, cities can end up with millions of dollars dumped into a glorified theme park ride. Recent projects in places like Cincinnati and Tucson, Arizona, have been budget-busters that have cost about $50 million per mile of track, says Jeffrey Brown, a transportation expert at Florida State University. The earlier wave of second-generation streetcars ran about $10 million to $30 million a mile. [Read more…]
—Debra Bruno, Politico Magazine
The city, which has long struggled with a declining economy and a violent reputation, is in the spotlight. This past December, the Newark Police Department presented statistics showing crime in the city was at its lowest rate since 1967. New investors have poured around $1.7 billion into residential, commercial and industrial projects, according to the city’s Department of Economic and Housing Development, and bougie businesses like Whole Foods are opening their doors. Add to this a burgeoning arts scene, iconic architecture, surrounding universities and proximity to both Manhattan (it’s about a 30-minute train ride from Newark Penn Station to downtown Manhattan, with trains leaving from both stations frequently) and Newark Liberty International Airport. [Read more…]
—Emily Nonko, New York Post
The L is the best mass transit system in the United States. Not the fastest, nor the most reliable. Not the newest, nor the longest. The best. Yes, it has its drawbacks. It’s undeniably loud, and a quarter of the year, you freeze your ass off waiting on cement platforms 30 to 40 feet above the street, where the wind is cruelly pronounced. Even so, the L is the best because of where you are when you ride much of it. Elevated. So much can be seen. The L reveals a Chicago of a thousand unconsidered angles, offers a view without filter or comparison. So this winter I rode the L—the whole thing, in one day—to see what I could see. To take the measure of a city in full. [Read more…]
—Tom Chiarella, Chicago Magazine
Janie Corley can’t keep customers away from the cashier at her gift shop. From the outside, this looks like a good thing—any small business would want customers flocking to the checkout line in droves. But for Corley, the line’s a sign of a bigger problem: poor cell phone reception. This lack of infrastructure hinders economic development in small communities in many rural areas, and without adequate cellular coverage they remain invisible to the larger marketplace.
“[Customers] get to the end of the counter, suddenly their phone gets a signal, and they get a text message, and they’re like ‘Oh!’ so they all stand right there because they don’t wanna leave the sweet spot.”
Together with her husband, Corley owns Christian Way Farm and Mini Golf, a tourism and heritage farm in Christian County, Kentucky. Between the mini-golf, the pumpkin patch, and Christian Way’s other activities, the small business hosts 18,000 guests a year. But Corley knows there could be more. “I know the benefit of, ‘Oh, you’re someplace, let’s Snapchat about where we are, let’s post it on Instagram, let’s post it on Facebook immediately so that other people are looking’ and, ‘Oh, look where they are. We should go there.’”
Drive 30 miles southwest, and you won’t find better reception. That’s where my parents live. They get a signal if they stand over the heating vent in my old bedroom. There’s also reception on the left side of their couch. But shift to the right side of the sofa, and you get disconnected.
Further down the road, people would say half of a couch is great. That’s because my parents live at the beginning of a roughly three-mile wide cell phone dead zone.
The problem is, no one knows why. Christian County is in western Kentucky—not eastern—so there are no mountains to block the signal or valleys for it to drop off in. Hopkinsville, the county seat, is around an hour’s drive from Nashville, Tennessee, so the area’s not even that remote. Even more baffling is the coverage map on AT&T’s website. According to it, 100 percent of Christian County has full “domestic wireless voice coverage.”
Whatever the reason, if service seems bad now, it’s about to get worse. On August 21, 25,000 to 50,000 more cell phones will suddenly be held to the sky, searching for a signal. Turns out, that three-mile dead zone is at the epicenter of the most historic total solar eclipse the United States has ever seen. 80 percent of Americans live within 600 miles of its path, and they’re bringing their phones.
At this point, the need for better reception is no longer about growing local business. It’s a public liability.
Brooke Jung is Hopkinsville/Christian County’s solar eclipse marketing and events consultant. Last September, she asked AT&T and Verizon to bring in cell-towers on wheels known as COWs. “Both cellular providers have been very receptive,” she says, although it did take some persuasion for them to understand how large the need truly was. Initially, the cell providers were considering using CROWs, which actually sit on top of existing cell towers and enhance the signal. But after learning more about the magnitude of this event, they began discussing COWs. “In fact,” Jung says, “AT&T is providing what is called a Mega COW.” (As of this writing, Jung was waiting for confirmation from Verizon.)
The typical COW provides reception for a two-mile radius. So the one Christian County is getting won’t cover Corley’s company or other small businesses—in fact, it won’t even reach the right side of my parents’ couch. AT&T is putting its Mega COW on Orchardale, a farm centrally located near the point of greatest eclipse. What this means in practical terms is the COW should provide a signal for the eclipse’s best viewing site, but not for any of the roads, hotels, restaurants, or other places tourists make calls from.
“The number of COWs is evaluated by the cellular companies,” Jung says, mentioning that geographically, Orchardale is the same size as where Bonnaroo, a Tennessee music festival, is held. Bonnaroo, she says, “require[s] about 7-8 COWs from both AT&T and Verizon.”
So will one COW with a two-mile radius be enough to cover a whole county plus 25,000-50,000 extra people? “[AT&T and Verizon] feel confident we will be able to operate successfully with just one from each provider,” Jung says.
Personally, perched on the left arm of my parents’ couch, I feel less confident. The area needs better reception period and, while AT&T’s Mega COW is much appreciated, it simply brings reception up to the base level people who live there need already. But I don’t work for AT&T: Maybe a Mega COW can work miracles. So I called Cathy Lewandowski, AT&T’s Senior Public Relations Manager for Tennessee and Kentucky to get more information. She refused to confirm that AT&T was even sending a COW and refused my request for an interview.
Meanwhile, Janie Corley is still trying to grow a business. After reaching out to AT&T for help, she says “a gentleman that is an executive with AT&T and works out of Memphis drove up here and sat at a picnic table with me to discuss what the options were.” At the end of meeting, though, he told her there was nothing AT&T could do.
Before AT&T’s move from 4G to LTE technology in 2015, Corley and her company did have reception. So Corley asked him, “How come suddenly I don’t have the cell phone signal that I used to have?” The answer? According to Corley, the change from 4G to LTE meant AT&T “had to switch [the cell phone towers] to a different angle and since they’re pushing the LTE signal, I couldn’t get anything. And there’s not any appealing, oh, could you send some my way. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, entertainment, public affairs, and the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York.
Few seem to really like it, but for now it seems to be limping along to somewhere. That sentiment describes the latest chapter in the saga of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. It was commissioned by Congress in 1999, and eventually given a site on a public square in Washington a few blocks from the Capitol. But almost two decades later, the project has yet to even break ground—or even finalize a design.
In February, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) allowed three proposed changes to the Eisenhower Memorial design, giving the oft-stalled project permission to proceed a step toward an uncertain future. The 16-year-old memorial project is carried forward not so much by momentum as it is by resignation.
The Eisenhower family, the commissioners, and the general public all appear resigned to an increasingly muddled and expensive collection of elements piled and hung beneath the stern gaze of the Department of Education building. Some still fight to do “Right by Ike,” advocating scrapping starchitect Frank Gehry’s design entirely for a less-deconstructed memorial design found through open competition, and more appropriate to the classicism of the great presidential monuments. But even these traditionalists find previous incarnations preferable to the latest design alterations. They hope that reluctance may turn into opposition—and eventually the chance may come to go back to the drawing board.
“It’s not like one of these classic memorial controversies where there are two actual sides competing,” said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS). “Here it’s everybody against the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.”
But even members of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission find the current design proposal objectionable. Bruce Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities appointed to the Eisenhower commission in 2013 by President Obama, commented in an email to TAC:
It’s hard to believe, but the new design makes the Eisenhower Memorial even more incomprehensible. The boy Ike has almost disappeared from sight, leaving the Memorial without a focal point and a free standing statue of the president. The enormous metal screen now features a sort of photographic scene of present day Omaha beach. How this empty image tells the story of the heroism and sacrifice that occurred there is unclear.
Cole’s objection summarizes the changes to the memorial proposal. Under the Gehry design as approved in July 2015, the memorial consists of three statues and an 80- by 447-foot steel mesh tapestry suspended from pillars (with a few more elements thrown in), all set in an embowered four-acre site boxed in by Independence Avenue, Fourth and Sixth Streets SW, and the U.S. Department of Education building, a site approved in 2006. The statues depict President Eisenhower as a young man, as a general, and as commander-in-chief. The original design sought to set up a narrative of Ike’s journey from midwestern boyhood to global greatness, placing him as a young man before the tapestry, which then was to depict a composite of Ike’s Abilene, Kansas, while gesturing to the future. No longer.
Now, boy Ike is to be set behind the screen, facing its rear, atop a wall of quotes with his back to the DoE building. And the tapestry is to depict a “contemporary peacetime image” of Normandy, France, focusing on Omaha and Utah Beaches with Pointe du Hoc at the center. Approximately four planned trees will not be planted in the new design. In a February meeting, many NCPC members expressed concern about the altered memorial’s coherence, readability, and even whether the landscape on the tapestry would be identifiable. They approved the changes on the grounds that they were primarily aesthetic ones, not altering the fundamental memorial plan, and outside their purview.
Others disagree. At the NCPC meeting and subsequent interview, Shubow said the movement of the young Eisenhower and the change of tapestry subject represents “a radically changed concept for the memorial” and removes the narrative element of Gehry’s original, what Shubow considers the best part of a bad concept. “What we’ve ended up with is a classic example of design by committee,” Shubow said.
How? And what’s next?
The commission to give President Eisenhower a memorial was written into existence in 1999, with the first official meeting of its commissioners assembling in early 2001. Rather than holding an open design contest, they rapidly settled on Frank Gehry, reportedly a longtime associate of commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano. With site and design guidelines finalized in 2006, already far too late for the originally planned 2007 completion, the proposed groundbreaking moved to 2012.
But in 2011, Shubow’s National Civic Art Society published a report criticizing the design and process, arguing it was inappropriate and too expensive. Unable to get funding and approvals, and despite the report and criticisms from the Eisenhower family, veterans, and many others, the commission continued to put together preliminary site and building plans through 2014. While the proposed design received approval from the NCPC and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2015, it failed to gain the approval of the Eisenhower family, without which the EMC could not (and still cannot) secure sufficient financial support.
Former Secretary of State James Baker III, who serves on the memorial advisory board, led negotiations with the Eisenhowers. In 2012, Eisenhower’s son, John S.D. Eisenhower wrote, “Taxpayers and donors alike will be better served with an Eisenhower Square that is a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings,” But in 2016, Ike’s granddaughter Susan wrote that “While some of us may have had other preferences in the past, all of us support your proposal,” meaning the modified design. Now the commission will put together mock-ups and presentations for the Commission on Fine Arts, who unlike the NCPC will have no reason to hesitate in rejecting the design on aesthetic grounds.
When asked about the timeframe for giving their approval, CFA secretary Thomas Luebke described the process as a little bit like the judiciary, with the CFA waiting for the Eisenhower commission to approach them: “In terms of timing and the process, the ball is really in their court.”
The commission will also seek to secure funding, and a waiver from Congress allowing them to begin building prior to the project being fully funded. In an email, commission spokesperson Chris Kelley Cimko of Cimko Strategies said:
The commission’s budget request will be submitted to Congress in the near future and is currently not public. We’ve had a great first quarter of fundraising thanks to the hard work of our Finance Chairman, Senator Bob Dole and EMC Chairman, Pat Roberts. The Eisenhower grandchildren have joined the EMC Advisory Committee and are actively engaged in commission activities.
Past budgets have been almost $150 million, which Shubow said is more than the cost of the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument combined.
Meanwhile critics, including NCAS and the “Right By Ike” movement, hope that the CFA will kill the proposed amendments—or the commission will fail to secure sufficient funding. Either setback could be enough to restart the process.
Referencing a congressional study of the memorial’s cost increases, delays, and design failures, “A Five-Star Folly,” Right by Ike’s Sam Roche said:
The design for the Eisenhower Memorial remains controversial because the commission in charge circumvented the usual public process for the memorial’s design. A Congressional report found the process was full of irregularities and led to big overruns in cost, compensation, and schedule. Right by Ike has advocated for a return to the standard public process to design and complete Ike’s memorial, through a competition open to everyone.
Shubow thinks a changed political climate might help too, explaining that the National Civic Art Society is “optimistic that Congress and the new president will recognize just how bad the design is and just how much a waste of money it is.”
“In our opinion it’s better to get it right than to rush it. Veterans don’t want a bad memorial.”
Micah Meadowcroft, a former editorial assistant at The American Conservative, is a writer based in Washington.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.