New Urbs

Good Neighboring In an Age of Police Brutality

Boom! (Sizzle.) Boom! (Sizzle.) Boom! Boom! Boom! (Sizzle.)

For weeks after the Fourth of July, the kids down the block set off remnants of their fireworks stash, and they’d scheduled the grand finale—featuring professional fireworks, from the sound of it—for 1 a.m. With houseguests and an early morning deadline, I woke up seething. The afternoon shows had been one thing, but this? About 30 seconds before I’d officially decided to shut it down myself, the booms abruptly stopped. I drifted back to sleep.

In the two years since we bought our home in a quaint but modest neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, that fireworks debacle is merely one of the more memorable noise nuisances. Particularly in summer, when a low incidence of central air invites people onto their porches, our neighbors get loud—whether it’s a yelling match in the street, honking, blaring music, or that apparently bottomless fireworks supply. The times I’ve been jerked awake by late-night cacophony are too many to recall.

Not once, however, have we called the police, though they’d be quick to show up if we did ring: While crime reports show it is objectively safer than the charming section of Alexandria, Virginia, from which my husband and I moved, our Frogtown neighborhood is by Minnesota Nice standards a cause for concern. St. Paul PD cars cruise slowly down the block, their tinted windows shading any chance of building community relations.

But nuisance and an easy remedy are not enough to justify dialing 911 in an age of police brutality. Calling the cops is not guaranteed to be best for our block.

After all, is the very real risk of undue escalation—even violence—worth it to turn off music? To catch the originator of that weed smell? To address a housing code violation, like unshoveled sidewalks or trash strewn across the alley? Again and again my answer has been “no.”

It’s the same answer recommended by a Facebook post making the rounds here in the Twin Cities since the recent police shooting of Philando Castile. “White people,” it reads, “stop calling the police on your black neighbors because you think their music is too loud. Stop calling the police on your black neighbors because you think they’re loitering. Stop calling the police on your black neighbors because they’re hanging out in their car.”

In short, stop calling the police for all kinds of petty, nonviolent irritations, because “These actions don’t affect your safety, your fear of them is irrational, and your call could get [your neighbors] killed.”

Castile’s death isn’t the only evidence that a routine police visit over a trivial offense could turn dangerous. Police misconduct is a systemic issue nationwide; even while violent crime rates are historically low, perverse institutional incentives like overcriminalization, police militarization and escalation, racial bias, and policing for profit foster too-frequent abuses of power.

The St. Paul PD won’t have body cameras until this August, and the laws regulating their use will allow the department to keep footage private at its own discretion. Yet even without that formal documentation, local police have filmed brutalizing young, black men at least twice (not counting Castile) in the last two years alone. In one case, a father waiting to pick up his kids was beaten, tased, and arrested for “trespassing” in a public skyway. In another, a small teenaged boy was violently wrestled to the ground at a church picnic because he told an officer it was “disrespectful” to crassly insult his mother.

Anecdotes aside, a study of Minnesota law enforcement found “a broad and clear disparity” in police attention to black drivers “that’s hard to explain with any other reason than race.” Indeed, in some suburbs like the one where Castile was pulled over, cars with black drivers were stopped as much as 310 percent more frequently than would be expected given their representation in the population—despite the fact that contraband was more often found in cars driven by whites.

I mention all this to say that Facebook post was right to frame its plea in racial terms. Of course, white people are victims of police misconduct, too, but the majority-minority face of my neighborhood is unquestionably a factor in my hesitance to call the cops. I don’t want the next police brutality video to be filmed on my block because I wasn’t willing to put in earplugs, pick up someone else’s trash, or talk to my neighbor myself. As Emily Bazelon wrote at Slate while musing on the same topic after Ferguson, “once the wheels of the bureaucratic state start to turn, they can grind people up … I would rather stay away from bringing its weight to bear on someone else, especially when I know that person is likelier to get an unfair shake” because of their race.

To be sure, this is not to say there are no circumstances under which I’d dial 911. For instance, some friends of ours recently bought a home nearby, and one night, after an hour of loud domestic bickering in an adjacent house, they distinctly heard a woman scream, “Somebody call the cops!” And so, though our friends share our wariness of unnecessary police involvement, they promptly did.

Nor is this to say the nuisances I’ve described should simply be left to fester. That the cops might well make a bad situation worse does not negate the fact that it is bad. Now, I must confess I am something of a novice in this regard, but I’m learning that the single best way to address these problems is time. Rootedness. Settling in and staying put and earning the right to speak up.

Our next-door neighbors have owned their home for more than 20 years, the longest of anyone on the block. They’ve stuck it out through the crime of the 1990s and the devastation of the 2008 housing bust, when more than half the homes in Frogtown foreclosed. They’ve won the authority to ask people to quiet down, to intervene if there’s a fight. Their long-term investment produces a power of de-escalation I so far only envy.

It’s inherently a slow process, but I’ve had one small win of my own: My garden’s solar lights regularly proved too great a temptation to the gaggle of elementary schoolers a few houses over, so I’ve repeatedly walked down to recollect my lights and receive promises of future forbearance. (They always blame the toddler among them who can’t defend his honor.) But last time, one of their mothers—whom I’d not yet managed to meet—came out to investigate. We talked for a minute and she took things from there. “You apologize to this lady right now,” she said, turning to me and adding, “If I catch them again I will make them return those lights. They can’t be doing this.”

That was about a month ago, and so far my lights remain intact. Given some more time, maybe my post-Fourth of July sleep will, too.

Bonnie Kristian is a writer who lives in the Twin Cities. She is weekend editor at The Week, a columnist at Rare, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. Her writing has also appeared at Time, Relevant, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. Find her at bonniekristian.com and @bonniekristian.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Where Do the Parties Stand on Housing?

This analysis was originally posted at City Observatory.

Urban policy conversations are largely focused on local policy, though we at City Observatory have occasionally argued that more attention ought to be paid to state and federal policy.

We haven’t had much to say about the presidential candidates themselves this year, but one exercise that’s worth paying a bit of attention to is the writing of each major party’s official policy platforms. These are documents without any legislative power, of course—but they do indicate the state of the public debate within each of the major parties. Moreover, as FiveThirtyEight argues, there’s evidence that what gets put in the platform predicts real policy tomorrow.

So today, we’ll look at what the platforms say about housing. Later, we’ll focus on transportation.

Both the Republican and Democratic platforms focus on homeownership in their (brief) forays into housing. “Homeownership expands personal liberty, builds communities, and helps Americans create wealth,” says the Republican platform; the Democratic one has no such paean but makes increasing access to homeownership the subject of one of its four paragraphs on housing. (Regular readers will know we are skeptical.)

Perhaps predictably, the Republican platform calls for “scal[ing] back the federal role in the housing market,” although there are few details about exactly what this means. It appears to be targeted mainly at programs meant to expand credit to low-income households to buy homes, which the platform blames for the housing crisis of the 2000s. (Many economists do not agree.) They also mention ending Federal Housing Administration mortgage support for “high-income individuals” and ending requirements for federally-insured banks to “satisfy lending quotas to specific groups,” presumably a reference to the Community Reinvestment Act, which is meant to counteract the effects of years of “redlining” by guaranteeing credit access to communities with large numbers of black, Latino, and low-income residents.

The Democratic platform’s section on housing is much shorter even than the Republicans’. About half of it is dedicated to improving housing affordability; it promises to “substantially increase funding” for the National Housing Trust Fund, and “provide more federal resources to the people struggling most with affordable housing,” though the mechanism is vague. (In case you guys are looking for one, you could try our automatic tax credit idea!) Vouchers, public housing, and anti-homelessness programs are mentioned in the most perfunctory possible way, with promises of more funding.

Perhaps the most interesting, and surprising, issue is zoning. The Republican platform is the only one to explicitly use the word—a change from 2012, when it did not appear. “The current Administration is trying to seize control of the zoning process through its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation,” it says. “It threatens to undermine zoning laws in order to socially engineer every community in the country.” This is disappointing inasmuch as some conservatives have argued that the generally anti-regulation party might be an ally in the fight against sprawl-inducing, segregation-promoting local development rules. But it’s also unsurprising inasmuch as many local Republican officials and writers have been enthusiastic defenders of the hyper-regulation of property rights when it comes to urban space.

Meanwhile, the Democratic platform doesn’t include the word “zoning,” but it does say that the party will attempt to “eas[e] local barriers to building new affordable rental housing developments in areas of economic opportunity.” Given the Democratic administration’s ongoing fight with Westchester County, New York, that seems like a clear reference to battling low-density zoning regulations that make below-market housing difficult or impossible to construct in certain areas—and a recognition of the importance of economic integration to opportunity. But it appears to leave out the growing consensus among researchers from across the political spectrum that building market-rate housing is also a key part of any affordability strategy.

Platforms are ultimately political documents, and this year, that’s especially the case as it relates to housing policies. While we’d like to believe that the platforms would clearly spell out the differences between the two parties, and give voters a clear choice of direction. The 2008 campaign, in part, hinged on different approaches to health care reform and helped provide President Obama with a mandate that led to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. The smaller bore and more muted discussions presented here don’t suggest that either party has much interest in making the election hinge on housing issues, or in building a strong public consensus for bold policy action in this area.

Daniel Kay Hertz is a columnist at City Observatory, and writes from Chicago. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


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Philadelphia Scales Up Civic Engagement

In Philadelphia last month, the Gehl Institute convened Act Urban—a global group of leaders and practitioners in the field of the civic commons. After three days of fieldwork and observation, expert presentations and intense discussion, I was asked, along with other panelists to sum up what we’d heard and what the challenges are for this emerging field going forward. Here’s an abbreviated summary of what I had to say.

Like most of the attendees I spoke with, I found it hopeful and encouraging to see the breadth and impact of the projects underway in Philadelphia. As a regular visitor to the city over the past couple of decades, it’s evident that change is very much in the air, and that in important respects, the fabric of the city is beginning to be re-woven in ways that promises to bring Philadelphians closer together. Over the course of three days we saw numerous examples of a range of institutions re-thinking their roles and facilities to promote greater civic involvement and to cross, if not erase, long-established boundaries that divided the community.

From the presentations and discussions, we know that what’s happening in Philadelphia is starting to happen in other cities as well, both in the U.S. and in other countries. All of this is exciting and encouraging.

But, in my view, three big challenges stand directly ahead.

They are the three “M’s”: Moving from micro to macro; Markets; and Metrics. I’ll address each of them in turn.

Micro to macro

Economists routinely make a distinction between micro-economics and macro-economics. Micro is the observation of a single facet of the economy. It’s about learning from and describing the nature of a small, bounded and usually partial segment of the economy. Macroeconomics is the converse—it is the economy of the globe and nations, about how all kinds of small actions and activities add up at a large scale.

The field of civic engagement is strongly grounded in its “micro” phase. It’s about learning how to craft individual pieces of the public realm so that they function better, whether that’s parks, streets, libraries, swimming pools, or other public spaces. This is a logical starting place; it’s easier to mobilize, secure resources, make progress, learn from mistakes and move forward with small scale investment. And the success stories—many of which we heard described in Philadelphia—help inform practice and spread the message about the opportunities and merits of civic engagement.

But at some point, the civic commons has to explicitly aim to achieve scale. Instead of being exceptional and innovative, changing and challenging the status quo, it has to come to define the regular way of doing things. This is the challenge of moving from micro to macro, of moving from projects to policies and institutions, and moving from tactical urbanism to a broader strategy.

Philadelphia’s decision to impose a tax on soda and to use the proceeds to help fund a multi-year bond to pay for capital improvements to parks, libraries and public spaces is an example of how to transition from micro to macro. Not only does this measure provide the resources to greatly increase the scale of activities, the funding mechanism—which is visible and broad-based—means that every citizen will know that they’re making a contribution, and that they have a stake in these investments.

Markets

The second “M” is markets. It may seem odd to invoke markets in the context of public space, but they matter a lot, and they’re telling us something important. When we speak of the civic commons and public realm, we tend to frame it as a largely government-led or public sector function. Municipal governments are primarily responsible for building, financing, operating and regulating public spaces. But viewed more closely, there’s an ambiguity and an interdependence between the public and private sectors on the ground in cities.

At the street level, great urban spaces are formed by mutually reinforcing public and private investments. Great streets, squares, and public spaces attract people, and the flow of people stimulates commerce. And the nearby presence of businesses—shops, bars, cafes, restaurants—reinforces the activity in the public realm. As we showed with our recent Storefront Index (which measures the number and concentration of customer-facing retail and service businesses in cities), the difference between an under-utilized park and an activated one is substantially explained by the presence and density of adjacent storefronts.

At a larger scale, it’s readily apparent that there’s a growing demand of great urban environments. Somewhat paradoxically, just as technology has, at least in theory, freed us from the need to be physically present in a particular place to work, or access information, or have easy access to a wide range of goods, people seem to be craving the opportunity to live in places that afford a wide range of opportunities for easy personal interaction. The rows of people in coffee shops, independently working at their laptop computers, signals a strong desire to be in the public realm, at the same time they are connected to the Internet.

Just as technology is freeing us from place, there’s a growing demand to live and work in cities. Well-educated young adults are disproportionately moving to cities. Companies that hire these workers are moving to cities as well. The rent premium for central locations relative to suburbs has increased sharply in the past decade. All of these trends are a sign that there’s strong market demand for urbanity. At City Observatory, we’ve called this “the shortage of cities” because the demand for urban space and urban living is increasing far faster than we’ve been able to increase the supply. And a key element of the supply of cities is the public realm that makes city living and city neighborhoods so appealing. So as we think about how to expand the civic commons and activate public spaces, we should do so with a clear recognition that this is something that the market demands.

Metrics

My third “M” is metrics: how we measure the extent and activation of the public realm. The ability to measure the health and extent of public spaces and the activity that occurs within them is important both to designing great spaces, to moving from “micro” to “macro” and harnessing the growing market demand for the civic commons.

Many of the obstacles we face in promoting the public realm are due to the fact that we face a severe disparity in the kinds of things we measure. Some disciplines and some sets of investments have well-developed sets of metrics and copious statistics that make the strong case for their interests. This is very clear in the case of automobile transportation: every city has detailed measures of traffic volumes, vehicle speeds, vehicle delay times and the like. Almost no city has good data on the number of pedestrians, their convenience or comfort, or even good data on the use of parks or public spaces.

In public policy, it’s often the case that what counts is what gets counted. And the effect in the public realm is that great emphasis gets put on what we can count (the number and speed of vehicles moving through a place) and very little emphasis gets put on how many people actually use or inhabit spaces. In essence we often prioritize “traveling through” rather than “being in” urban environments.

The way to change this is to develop a range of metrics of the quality and use of public spaces. New data and new technology make possible a range of new metrics. In the past few years, Walk Score has emerged as a convenient, ubiquitous and easily understood tool for measuring the walkability of urban spaces. At City Observatory, we’ve developed the Storefront Index, which measure the number and concentration of customer-facing retail and service businesses that help frame walkable commercial neighborhoods. New technology lets us count the number of people walking in or using public spaces. We’re just in the infancy of these measures, but they can be useful tools for planning, and for elevating the health and use of the public realm in policy discussions.

Moving from exceptional innovation to commonplace adoption

One of the exciting things about visiting projects that are transforming neighborhoods and urban spaces is seeing the insight and creativity that designers, community groups and enlightened leaders have brought to bear on improving the public realm. Part of the sense of accomplishment from this kind of innovation comes from challenging the accepted norms, bending or negotiating the rules and doing something that hasn’t been done—or that people thought was impossible. While we should always continue to be innovative, the next big challenge for those with an interest in building cities by strengthening the public realm is to transform innovative breakthroughs into accepted, even commonplace practice. The keys to doing this will be to build on the visible evidence of success in particular projects, and use that to leverage institutional change: not breaking the rules for one project, but re-writing the rules for all projects. That’s why the three “M’s” are important: moving to system level change will require thinking about the “macro” rather than just the micro, harnessing the growing market demand for great urban places, and developing metrics that build a strong case for policy and investment.

Joe Cortright presented these remarks to the closing session of the Act Urban convening in Philadelphia on June 17, 2016. For more information about the Act Urban project, visit its website. This post was originally published at City Observatory. “New Urbs” is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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How Brandcentric Architecture Is Destroying Our Sense of Place

Best Western "GLo" via Best Western
Best Western "GLo" via Best Western

In 2013, an online game called Geoguessr caught fire across the social media landscape. The user is placed in a randomly-selected Google street view—anywhere from a desolate stretch of highway in Alaska to the downtown streets of Monaco—and then asked to pinpoint on a map where in the world they have been dropped. It’s a Sherlock-Holmes-meets-Carmen-San-Diego style challenge that puts the regional identities of the world on digital display. The game has now received sponsorships from the likes of Lufthansa and the Intercontinental Hotels Group, which means I wasn’t the only person who experienced an extreme wanderlust while playing it. After a few minutes (or hours, if I’m being honest) playing Geoguessr, it became clear that the most difficult landscapes to pinpoint are, in fact, the landscapes that many of us experience daily: modern American commercial development.

National companies (think hotel chains, dollar stores, fast food restaurants) spreading their brands to every corner of the country have brought a mix of outcomes in terms of job creation, quality of life, and national identity. But what are the consequences to our physical environment, our “sense of place?” Recently, a Best Western Glo hotel has been proposed for a site on the edge of downtown Providence and sparked some reflection about the effects of brand-centric design. While most architectural critics have focused on prestige commissions—museums, tall towers—these chains have become the new, de facto “International Style” of the 21st century. It may already be too late for some places, but as this type of development continues to march ahead, we have a responsibility to ask whether the buildings that we encounter daily have a positive impact on our community, and if they don’t, how we might improve them.

To begin, it’s worthwhile to ask what “regional identity” is and why (or even if) it’s important. Regions are commonly defined by political boundaries at a variety of scales from counties to nations. Our lived experience of a region might be better defined by the elements that provide a feeling of commonality within it, and demarcate a contrast from neighboring regions. These elements usually emerge organically from the climate, natural geological features, and the culture of the inhabitants, and may not follow political boundaries. The built environment can reinforce these regional characteristics as, for example, a Rhode Island farmhouse looks different from a North Carolina farmhouse because of the different weather conditions, building traditions, and crop types that each building serves.

Much of the history, culture, and even some of the “je ne sais quoi” of a place can be gleaned from the edifices and urban form of a place. It’s in the details: roof pitches tell us about the climate, while ornament and iconography (including graffiti and street art) tell us about the shared cultural values, and public spaces tell us about how people interact and collaborate (or not). Consider how the indigenous peoples of North America created regionally-based structures around the country—the tee-pee, the igloo, the pueblo, etc. These were brilliant combinations of form, function, and local materials.

Today a whole host of factors are chipping away at the impact of regional identity. Exhibit A: the ever-expanding connective tissue of technology, allowing us rapid digital (and soon physical) connections with other people, expanding our community beyond physical neighbors. Exhibit B: the demise of traditional brick-and-mortar establishments as online retail and in-home entertainment become standard, and fewer daily necessities (or luxuries) force us to venture into public space. Exhibit C: developments that are scaled and built for the automobile rather than the human body. Exhibit D: the trend for Americans to rent rather than own their residence. Although technically we’re moving less than ever before, renters are more likely to move, and more transient residents could mean less personal investment in the idea of regional identity. Yet humans have long taken comfort in belonging to recognizable groups; as the factors above alter our understanding of communal identity, perhaps they increase our desire to seek out regionally authentic environments for some primordial reassurance.

Distinctive regional identities are also critical for the economic bottom-line of a place, from tourism revenue to housing valuations to (most importantly) getting people to care about and invest their time and treasure in a community. As Edward McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute puts it, “when it comes to 21st century economic development…if you can’t differentiate your community from any other, you have no competitive advantage.” Some argue that regional identity only matters to urban city centers, but that unfairly shortchanges the vibrant, treasured towns and villages across the country, and small town America is already facing an uphill battle.

Like most subjective concepts, there are valid concerns that surround our understanding and defense of “regional identity.” The first, and perhaps most threatening to architectural critics, is that of “kitsch.” Kitsch does not contribute to authentically distinctive places. It reduces the definition of “local context” to a small cadre of details that, while not problematic in and of themselves, are used indiscriminately and in a resolutely stagnant manner, creating a copy of a copy of a copy. In-so-doing, the designer (and by extension the public) misses the “why” that underlies these design ideas. For example, wood brackets are placed under every eave of a home to make it “Craftsman,” without regard for their original purpose of supporting deep overhangs and creating tectonic ornament. It’s akin to a poet who, instead of studying the form of a sonnet and then writing a new poem in that form, simply cuts up lines of famous sonnets and pastes them together at will.

A second concern is that preserving regional identity necessitates the rejection of any and all architectural forms that are “new” or “foreign.” On the contrary, the most vibrant regional traditions allow for a balanced integration of new ideas to accommodate new functions and respond to the traditions of new inhabitants. Consider the way that Irving Gill’s architecture in southern California took the Spanish Mission style and infused it with contemporary ideas, or the way that Lake Flato’s work feels undeniably Texan but undeniably contemporary and inventive. Regional identity should be like an overarching theme that can tie together a number of variations, including contemporary design ideas and forms.

For me, the allure of travel is linked to experiencing places that are markedly different from where I live. Returning home, all of the myriad awakenings induced by foreign surroundings heighten the awareness of my own familiar environment. Sadly, the domino effect of brand proliferation may be making this experience steadily more rare, at least among cities in the U.S. I’m convinced that part of the rapid rise of AirBnB is that people like staying in places that feel true to the local spirit of a place, unlike a Best Western.

And this brings us back to the proposed hotel and its effect on Providence. Like many hotel corporations, Best Western has a stock series of standard designs that they provide to developers. These designs are focused on the type of market they aim to attract and their “place guidelines” are location driven: “ideal for secondary downtown and urban markets, business parks and highway locations.” Unsurprisingly, a regional built environment is not acknowledged. And instead of referencing New England, the city is treated to a big blue fin that will cast its identical glow on countless other streets across the U.S. I recognize that economics are in the driver’s seat here: in order for a developer to invest in a building, it has to make a profit, and it’s likely that many potential hotel sites can’t demand high enough room rates to justify a custom building. It’s also true that a functioning hotel can bring people, jobs, and meaningful life to the street (unlike the parking lot currently occupying the Providence Glo’s site).

Yet there are national hotel developers who do “local” particularly well: the ACE hotel group for one, or the ASH NYC hotels for another. Their model is to start with existing buildings rather than building new, and to be active partners in community events. I’d note that there are quite a few abandoned buildings in the world looking for love and willing to contribute all of their embodied energy to ‘new’ hotels.

However, if new construction prototypes are the modus operandi of (economic) necessity, there are ways they could be done better. Consider a standard plan type with variable features (cladding, windows, roof forms) that could acknowledge the indigenous architecture of a place. Even places that seem to lack pre-existing regional identity (I’m looking at you roadside rest stops and business parks) can “zoom out” and draw from a larger regional character. Let this regional character read louder than your brand identity; you can use signage for that. Second, consider the climate of where you’re building and take some leadership in holistic sustainability. This doesn’t mean tacking on a few solar panels, it means following lessons from local building forms and using local materials (hint: EIFS panels are not native to any climate). Third, involve the local residents by paying more than mere lip-service to public engagement throughout the development process. While this absolutely won’t guarantee that all sides will be happy, a transparent process stands a better chance of producing a more respected final product. This public engagement might even extend beyond the groundbreaking—imagine the effect on regional identity if a hotel hosted a community garden or provided low-cost event space for local non-profits.

It is a sad irony that as the diversity of the American population is increasing, the diversity of our built environment is decreasing. In answer to legitimate neighborhood concerns about the Glo hotel, it was disheartening to read that the Providence city planning commission chair simply called on the community to be more open to “new” architecture “that reflects the time we live in.” While I understand that review commissions often don’t wield much power, I have a sinking fear that if our communities (and their planning boards) don’t start demanding design that takes our distinctive places seriously, the architecture that “reflects the time we live in” will be reduced to a relentless monotony of cheap, brand-centric structures, none of which will be worth preserving for the future. It is a tremendous challenge to slow the momentum, and there are plenty of losing battles ahead—but for the long game of humanity, recognizing the place you’re standing when you stand somewhere doesn’t seem like an unreasonable goal.

Ben Willis is an architect at Union Studio Architecture & Community Design, a firm in Providence, RI working to save the world from sprawl. He serves as an ACE mentor and is an avid a cappella singer. This article was first posted on Common\Edge.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


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Pokémon Go Re-enchants the City

NEPA Scene / Flickr A Pokemon Go player in downtown Scranton, PA
brar_j / Flickr Life seen through the Pokemon Go lens

Teenagers are exposing themselves to sunlight, and walking in parks. Young people are congregating in public, instead of communicating solely by text message. Citizens of all ages are filling parks, sidewalks, and local landmarks, with their smartphones held high. What is the cause of this sudden explosion of circumambulation?

Pokémon Go, the latest video game in the 20-year-old uber-popular Nintendo franchise, is a mobile phone application that uses smartphone cameras and augmented reality (AR) to overlay cute, catch-able digital creatures called Pokémon (the electric yellow rodent Pikachu is the most famous of these and the mascot of the franchise) onto the real geography surrounding players. In the quest to “catch ‘em all,” players collect the creatures and spar them against each other in dedicated “gyms.”

Released only just over a week ago, the game became instantly massively popular, with an estimated 7.5 million downloads and counting. It is currently surging ahead of dating app Tindr and giving Twitter a run for its money in app markets. So what does this runaway popularity mean? And what is it uncovering in New York City?

Pokémon Go is reshaping pedestrianism in Manhattan. Unlike many video games, it is not played by someone indoors and stationary, but by people walking around and interacting with landmarks and with other people—players will greet strangers in the streets to share tips about where to find specific Pokémon. Pokémon Go transforms urban environments into arenas of communal play and discovery, by turning points-of-interest like public art and monuments into hubs where players converge, united by their shared project. In this way, it renews the original purpose of civic space by drawing strangers into a community. This Pokémon game is the best proof-of-concept for a reinvigorated public sphere in the digital age that I have seen.

As in most Pokémon games, players control a customized Pokémon trainer who walks the earth in search of creatures to catch and train—only instead of exploring a virtual map on a console, players are physically exploring the real world with an AR garnish (the app uses cell phone cameras to overlay creatures onto the world seen through the screen). Young people in Manhattan are navigating a cityscape re-enchanted by the monsters of their childhood—there are suddenly magical rules and significance to every architectural detail, historic plaque, or house of worship. The game is like a strange booster shot of civic connectivity. I can walk into Union Square Park, spot someone staring at his phone by an equestrian statue, and confidently strike up a conversation with him about our respective Pokémon quests. Like the chessboards present in that same park, Pokémon Go invites us into a public space to play a game together—but it casts its net even wider, and engenders not only friendly competition but also cooperation. The potential of this reality-reshaping technology is astonishing.

In practice, the game is very buggy, with servers frequently down and a confusing battle system. Nonetheless, the basic gameplay of walking around outside, collecting resources from landmarks, and catching Pokémon when they appear is quite addictive—the fact the game uses the original set of 150 Pokémon from the first games in the franchise increases the nostalgia factor for millennials. The game’s millions of players are generating stories both heartwarming and horrifying. Pokémon Go certainly contributes to our milieu of constant technological distraction, as people traverse the city with their phones out, tracking imaginary creatures. But at least, unlike most video games, it requires one to spend time outdoors and in motion (which has, anecdotally, been good for players’ mental health), and it motivates one to look up often from one’s phone. This game can’t be consumed by someone ensconced inside. The experience requires you to take to the streets and get to know the city.

In the game, you control an avatar traveling on a simplified GPS-generated map by walking around yourself. The map is littered with PokéStops, where you collect vital resources like the Pokéballs that allow you to catch Pokémon. PokéStops are tied to real-world points of interest, which you must approach to reap their bounty: players are on a journey collecting not only Pokémon but also knowledge about the public spaces that surround them. Larger sites of interest, like the Flatiron Building in midtown, serve as Pokémon gyms where trainers battle for supremacy. The game helped me discover Nikola Tesla’s plaque at the Radio Wave Building, as well as a Lutheran Church just around the corner from my apartment that I had never previously seen.

brar_j / Flickr Life seen through the Pokemon Go lens

brar_j / Flickr Life seen through the Pokemon Go lens

This aspect of the game raises the most exciting questions: will AR apps like this help people in cities all over discover the local treasures of their neighborhood? Would city designers cater to gamers interested in spots like public fountains and parks that are conducive to AR gameplay? And the community-building! Players of Pokémon Go can use special items to turn PokéStops into beacons that attract Pokémon and, therefore, other players. Parks often become hubs of game activity when multiple PokéStops are activated this way. Players also choose one of three teams to sign onto, and the teams jockey back-and-forth to “control” gyms: essentially a family-friendly gang war. I was excited to run into my teammates on the Red team while out and about. Could using Pokémon to occupy local landmarks help foster neighborly camaraderie? The game is seeding the city with points where spontaneous interactions can occur—or rather, it is highlighting the focal landmarks that were already there, waiting for their potential to be activated.

PokéStops fight back against the flattening of the cityscape. Players of the game are being trained to orient themselves towards the sort of monuments and “decorations” that ennoble our habitat. The AR makes more literal the idea (advanced by luminaries like Henry Hope Reed) that luxurious decoration of a public square enriches the city and its people. Perhaps it is a touch absurd to re-learn a communal love of these repositories of art and history because they provide us with virtual goods. But it is better than passing by them heedlessly, as if the city were as bleakly characterless as a modernist’s daydream. Better to be searching the nooks and crannies for monsters, and find civic flourishing along the way.

Unfortunately, like a rare Pokémon, the blessings of AR are sometimes as elusive as they are attractive. Niantic, developers of the app, relied on largely-unfiltered user-submitted content from their previous AR game, Ingress, to designate PokéStops and gyms. So some in-game sites are wildly inappropriate, while others are simply out-of-date. Madison Square Park is full of PokéStops representing public sculptures that have been replaced, so it is haunted not only by digital creatures but also by ghosts of its old artworks. The game motivates us to be receptive to our surroundings, except, sometimes, they’re not really our surroundings at all. This AR’s reach exceeds its grasp—and perhaps we wouldn’t be looking to augmented reality for salvation in the first place if we weren’t infected by the techno-futurist idea that plain-old reality is boring and requires augmentation.

Pokémon Go asks players to stretch their freedom of movement and explore their world, but (sadly) the ability to do this without fear is not evenly distributed. And the game’s use of monuments as PokéStops also raises some troubling questions—cemeteries and memorials to historic tragedies are designed for reflection rather than play. Perhaps the creators of this game are not quite ready for the responsibility of remolding our socio-spatial reality—but they have given us a taste of how it can be done.

Pokémon Go’s players are eager for their city to be a place again, somewhere dense with meaning and conducive to shared delight. Perhaps the greatest service of the game’s augmented reality is pointing us back towards the things in real reality that can foster that place.

Alexi Sargeant is an assistant editor at First Things. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


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Words on the Street

Peter French / cc

Each week, New Urbs collects the best content we’ve read each week that we didn’t publish—but would have. Read something you think should make the cut? E-mail Jon Coppage or tag @NewUrbs with the link on Twitter.

“Promoting Opportunity by Making Housing More Affordable” by Reihan Salam via Room to Grow

Conservatives have good reason to focus on housing. Reforming our housing policies is crucial to helping low- and middle-income families climb the economic ladder. America’s housing market is shaped by public policy in countless ways, at the federal, state, and local levels. If our goal is to lift artificial burdens from the backs of American families, housing policy is an excellent place to start.

“What Your Local Parish and the New Hipster Bar Have in Common” via CNA

However, new residents don’t always give credit to the vital role the parishes have historically played in the communities – and still do to this day.

“You all just really need to move your church, you’re getting in the way of what we’re doing here,” new residents have told Fr. Kelley and other Bloomingdale pastors. The priest recalled one interaction with a new homeowner who criticized the churches’ presence in the area. “I remember saying to someone, ‘How long have you been here?’”

“Oh I moved in about six months ago,” the man responded.

“I’ve been here for 24 years,” Fr. Kelley told the new resident.

“The Local and the Global Lessons From Detroit” via The New Localization

The funny thing about the local economy is that it doesn’t seem important, until it is. In good times, everyone is your friend, and similarly in financial good times your options seem unlimited and buying local is not as competitive. But in tough times, when financially it makes no sense for anyone to stick with you, because you are more of a burden – will those friends still be there? This is the economic resilience that can only be home grown.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Cleveland Rising?

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” So wrote LeBron James in a Sports Illustrated homecoming announcement in 2014, providing an apt description of Cleveland’s mythology of rust-belt grind. It’s a story you know: over many decades, factories shuttered, and union jobs became harder to find. White flight hollowed out urban neighborhoods, and the nationwide rise in crime piled on. Companies set up in the suburbs, leaving the city to wither, as its population declined from a high of over 900,000 in 1950 to under 400,000 today.

Two years later, when 1.2 million people joyously flooded downtown Cleveland for the Cavs’ NBA championship victory parade, it felt like a real city again, full of people walking, laughing, and drinking in a place once built for that size population. Today downtown is booming, relatively speaking, and the city is firmly committed to harnessing supposedly economically essential millennials within its borders. But you’ve heard about Cleveland more than usual lately because it’s hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Cleveland has a long history of hinging its future on megaprojects like the GOP convention. Daniel R. Kerr’s Derelict Paradise details the various schemes put forth by the city and its business class to build large-scale attractions for out-of-towners, which would simultaneously impart order upon the brothel- and casino-occupied downtown core. Cleveland’s Group Plan of 1903 destroyed the established residential areas, resulting “in the reorientation of the entire central business district eastward as companies located their retail stores along Public Square, and banks, real estate agencies, and insurance companies moved into the former Hamilton Avenue district,” the old home of the red-light corridor. Not satisfied with the Group Plan, the Chamber of Commerce weaseled a convention center into it in 1909, arguing, “If Cleveland can attract twenty conventions or expositions a year to this city, the present standard of our hotels, our retail stores, and other institutions will naturally, necessarily, and with profit to themselves, be elevated.”

Public Square, the locus of the Group Plan’s attention, has been a continually contested space, the site at which Cleveland’s desire to appeal to outsiders has clashed with the whims of its residents. Throughout the 1930s, out-of-work citizens camped and protested there, and mayors and city managers repeatedly attempted to remove the homeless—a megaproject in itself. The Cleveland Press pushed back against the sole accommodation of the aesthetic pleasure of tourists, writing in 1931, “In good times it may be desirable to have Public Square spick and span and clear of loiterers in the silent hours of the night just on principles. But in harsh times, common humanity makes a claim that it is more important than appearances.”

The Press was onto something: Megaprojects may be good for a minute, especially when the going is good. But they’re a one-time shot in a city’s economic arm, not ongoing revenue generators—and they often cost more than planners and politicians budget.

The Republican convention may be Cleveland’s most notable megaproject of all. The city and Cuyahoga County have used the event as the cattle prod for a whole cluster of endeavors—most notably, a facelift for Public Square, a new Hilton Hotel, and $19 million in repairs to an attendant parking garage, which connect to the discomfortingly empty Global Center for Health Innovation and Cleveland Convention Center. (Disclosure: I work for Turner Construction Company, which was contracted to build the Hilton, Huntington Park Garage, GCHI, and Convention Center). Smaller projects have felt the deadline pressure, too: Huntington Bank hustled to get its naming rights locked down on the convention center before the event, while the city’s new bikeshare system is slated to launch just in time. Visitors aren’t likely to give a whit about the title sponsor of the convention center, or use bikeshare in droves, but the visibility is too good to pass up.

Cleveland is surely benefitting from these improvements, and from the hard deadline that has guaranteed their existence. The $50 million, 15-month Public Square renovation in particular is a stunner, executed by the landscape architect responsible for New York’s High Line. It’s a befitting upgrade of the long-embattled park and gives downtown a much-needed green space. And the Hilton, while perhaps not the best use of excess cash from a quarter-cent sales tax, did result in 370 permanent employees, 150 contracts, and 2,106 construction workers. But there’s no way to tell if it will generate its $1 million in expected revenue except to check back in a few years. It is quickly becoming evident, however, that the $200 million in trickle-down revenue that the city has clutched onto as justification for hosting the convention is not likely to materialize.

Meanwhile, megaprojects past—the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center, anchors of the grossly underused Waterfront Line light rail—sit on the dystopian-feeling North Coast Harbor. The expanse feels dated, impenetrable, and overwhelming. It’s a long, lonely walk back to downtown from those relics.

Still, there are bright spots. Cleveland has a growing number of downtown residents (even in the face of citywide population decline), and hip neighborhoods whose institutions are written up in the New York Times and Bon Appetit. I ride my bike to work here, and take the bus when there’s precipitation. I work out at a gleaming new YMCA, buy groceries at the lovingly restored downtown Heinen’s, and eat and drink at any number of close-by restaurants and bars. It’s much like my former lives in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., only here, I was able to buy a house on my decidedly middle-class salary. I’m the mythical millennial who the city of Cleveland wishes to attract. I didn’t grow up in northeast Ohio, and I moved to Cleveland because of its merits, not because I knew the area.

The things that I, and many other people, enjoy about Cleveland were not made possible by megaprojects. If they can be credited to anything, it’s the city’s unprecedented network of community development corporations, which blanket nearly every neighborhood. The CDCs are mostly funded by Community Development Block Grants grants and drive small-scale nonprofit housing and economic development. Some, of course, work better than others, but my neighborhood alone has seen 80 new businesses in 10 years, with more than half a billion dollars in development underway. The total amount of funding derived from block grants and historic tax credits in that time isn’t clear, but it’s a safe bet that it’s less than the $290 million and complicated composite of public subsidies spent on the Hilton.

And for all its attractive aspects, the Cleveland that I live in is not the rosiest of pictures. Decentralization has plagued Cleveland since the 1940s, and is alive and well today. Kerr writes in Derelict Paradise that factories were located near where people lived for easy, on-foot access. Cars rendered this spatial relationship moot, and are still ruling the day. Per a Cleveland Fed study, “Jobs are the least accessible for workers with only a high school degree and for positions that pay less than $1,250/month. Workers in Cuyahoga County have the highest levels of job access, but also experience the largest differences in access across skill levels.” The employment sprawl isn’t stopping.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority recently cut service and raised fares to compensate for a $7 million budget shortfall; thanks to the state’s double-dipping on Medicaid sales tax revenue, it is likely to lose $18 million annually beginning next year. Public transit in Cleveland is rarely reliable and is now inching toward anemic, though a quarter of residents don’t own cars. In spite of this, the Ohio Department of Transportation recently announced that it would be paying $281 million to build a third span of the Valley View bridge in order to re-deck the existing two bridges and expand the overpass’ capacity. Though messes like this one lay at the feet of Gov. John Kasich, the city is largely responsible for pushing the Opportunity Corridor, a new $331 million, 3.5-mile boulevard through its east side that flies in the face of all accumulated conventional knowledge about the destructive consequences of urban freeway construction. Businesses affected by the Opportunity Corridor are already closing. Given the phenomenon of induced demand, it is not likely that either project will actually add roadway capacity for generations, as its leaders claim.

The city and region’s deep inequities aren’t just illustrated by their transportation woes. Lead paint poisoning disproportionately affects poor children, whose dilapidated homes disadvantage them as early as kindergarten. The city would admit no wrong in the killing of Tamir Rice while settling with his family, destabilizing community and police relations. The foreclosure crisis completely shattered neighborhoods already on the brink, and their recovery is a continually slow process with few moments for ribbon-cuttings and the attendant glory.

Still, there is remarkable potential here. For all the handwringing over a nationwide affordability crisis, only a few American cities face true housing shortages. Cleveland is much more representative of the country than San Francisco, Boston, Austin, or Seattle: It’s shrinking, but its in-demand neighborhoods are so few and far between that they are, to a small degree, pricing some people out. Still, there’s great swaths of underused, affordable housing across Cleveland. If businesses could be convinced to make their homes here, it could depressurize the coasts and reverse some of the regional job sprawl. That would require a stronger commitment from the state to funding public transit, which is attractive to employers, and a dual focus on balancing downtown and the city’s neighborhoods.

Or Cleveland can carry on as it has. The suburbs will nibble away its population and jobs will continue to spiral out from its center. Press coverage may continue to proclaim that Cleveland’s on the up, but business and resident retention will be shaky at best. Civic leaders will continue to fund splashy, prominent projects with big visual impacts, but hazy returns on investment.

I love Cleveland, and I’m proud to have made it my home. But there are no quick fixes to our ills. The best thing that the convention can do is to convince our county and city leaders that downtown-focused megaprojects are a false hope in a town that needs careful, block-by-block attention.

No city can be easily encapsulated in one storyline. But if northeast Ohio and Cleveland has one, it’s LeBron’s adage. Nothing is given here. We earned the Republican convention, even if it came alongside questionable planning priorities.

Alex Baca lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and has written for Washington City Paper, CityLab, and Slate“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Words on the Street

“Words on the Street” highlights the best New Urbs content we’ve encountered this week:

The City That Embraced Its Decline | Alexia Fernández Campbell, The Atlantic

Youngstown, Ohio, created quite a stir a decade ago when it unveiled a novel plan for the city: It would stop trying to return to its glory days as a city of 170,000 people and instead embrace the idea that maybe smaller is better. The Youngstown 2010 plan reoriented the former steel-mill town toward providing services to the neighborhoods with the most people, converting abandoned land into green space, and supporting the burgeoning healthcare industry. In doing so, it hoped to keep the remaining 66,000 people from leaving. Since unveiling the plan in 2005, the city has lost only about 1,000 people.

How a Century-Old Zoning Law Shaped the Manhattan Skyline | Stephen Eide, Next City

This month marks the 100th anniversary of New York’s 1916 zoning law, a landmark event in the history of American urbanism and architecture. The law imposed regulations on the use and height of buildings, responding to widespread concern that early 20th-century New York was becoming too dense too quickly. During the preceding decades, skyscrapers had proliferated, creating “canyons” of darkness in lower Manhattan. The solution was the setback: After a skyscraper rose to a certain point, its façade had to be pushed back, to let in the sun and keep height in a certain proportion with street width.

True-ish Grit | David A. Banks, Real Life

Then something happened that was both strange and strangely predictable: Trojan Hardware went from being a moribund seller of commodities to a fetishized commodity itself, a design motif for the new businesses that opened in its former storefronts: a microbrewery, an exotic-plants retailer, and a hardware-store-themed cocktail bar called The Shop, with chair rails made of salvaged Trojan Hardware yardsticks and many other Trojan Hardware relics adorning the walls. Each of these new businesses trades on the air of rootedness that Trojan Hardware still supplies, the aura of organic street life that the ghost of a longstanding neighborhood establishment affords.

Books in the Basement | Nicole Gelinas, City Journal

I am writing this essay from the basement of the Baccarat Hotel, the awkward 605-foot crystal-and-marble confection on West 53rd Street that opened last year. The Baccarat, which is owned by a Chinese insurance company, made news in December when two prostitutes allegedly stole a $600,000 watch from a drunken john. Why am I here? In one of the worst decisions made by a local public institution in decades, the New York Public Library has squirreled away its newest branch in the basement of this luxury tower.

Amazon Has Swallowed Downtown Seattle | Spencer Soper & Peter Robison, Bloomberg

Over the years, founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos has made clear his disdain for the free lunches, massages and other perks commonplace in the suburban enclaves of Google, Apple and Facebook. His big advantage in the amenities arms race is a commitment to preserving an urban campus, no matter how big his company gets.

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City of Good Intentions

City of Good Intentions
A soldier stands guard on the corner of 7th & N Street NW in Washington D.C. with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr/Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes it seems like the nation’s capital is really two cities: dateline Washington and hometown DC. The current show at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, “Twelve Years that Shook and Shaped Washington: 1963 – 1975,” is an attempt to bridge the gap–or at least to give official Washington’s view of unofficial DC.

The show is one of those “social history” grab-bags: a display about public colleges here, a selection of dashikis there. We get morsels of a lot of things but few full dishes. Why isn’t there any video in the section on black dance and theater? Why not let us hear some go-go, the native form of funk born toward the tail end of the show’s timeline? Why are all the photos printed onto deeply-colored backgrounds, making them blurry and inartistic?

But as you move through the meandering exhibit, a few arguments do emerge.

The timeline is itself an argument. Why twelve years, and why these twelve? 1963 is an especially odd starting year, which is one reason the show doesn’t really start there–it opens with JFK’s inauguration, Marian Anderson singing the national anthem on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the timeline basically covers the early years of the District’s limited home rule: In 1961 the 23rd Amendment gave DC residents the right to vote for President, and by 1975 we were allowed the privilege of electing our own personal mayor.

I grew up hearing a different timeline for the city: 1968 through roughly 1994. In this story, the city I knew was born the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out in the District and large swathes of the city’s black middle-class neighborhoods burned for days. Tanks rolled through the streets and the National Guard patrolled; an exodus to the suburbs left large portions of the riot zone burnt out for the next 25 years.

By contrast, this show downplays the riots. There are a couple photos of burnt-out storefronts and National Guardsmen, but you don’t get any sense of the scope of the destruction in either space or time. A more powerful–and more honest–exhibit would include a map showing everywhere the fires burned. Even more powerful would be photos of the same street corners in late April 1968 and late April 1995: Many of them would look almost the same except for the hemlines.

But the Anacostia Museum makes a strong case for not allowing the spectacle of the riots to control the narrative. “Twelve Years” gets a lot of mileage out of starting earlier. Its most powerful sections, unexpectedly, concern urban renewal, aka displacement of the poor. These early section depicts the razing of Southwest amid promises that the displaced black residents would be given better, modern housing elsewhere, and the “fight against the freeways.” A poster proclaims, “White Man’s Road… Thru Black Man’s Home!”

A 1948 chart–the “1963” starting point is ephemeral–argues that urban renewal is “How Negroes became displaced persons.” Black neighborhoods were uprooted and recreated in Northeast and Anacostia–without the institutions and relationships which had sustained people during the bad old days. A wistful photograph by Garnet Wolesley Jex shows a lone black girl in the middle distance with her back to the camera, her dress blown sideways in the wind, amid the storefronts of a vanished DC. A phenomenal short film called “No Time for Ugliness” gives the argument against “urban sprawl, the careless misuse of land, unregulated and unrestrained,” in scolding white voice-over. Once, there was ugliness. Now there are white children!

“Will we have disorder or design? Ugliness or beauty?” “Twelve Years” gives a subtle and compelling argument that attempts to impose order provoke multiple forms of disorder–and that terms like “disorder” and “disruption” should be applied to the actions of lawmakers at least as often as they’re applied to lawbreakers.

This Smithsonian-vetted history sometimes reveals more than it intends–either about the historical events it records, or about the perspectives and blind spots of the curators. In the first camp is the section on feminism. What leaps out at a conservative viewer is the centrality of abortion in the photos chosen to depict the ’70s women’s movement.

The most notable lacuna to me was the near-absence of religion. Churches appear only in their role as seedbeds of political organization. Judaism appears in a photo of the Adas Israel Synagogue being moved in its entirety out of the path of construction. The specifically religious stories of the ’60s and ’70s are absent.

There are other absences: criminal DC, the world of speakeasies and sex work and our enduring drug economy; Southern-transplant DC, both black and white. Basically what you won’t find here is the District you’ll encounter on your local city bus: where one rider tries to lead a kind of rolling tent revival, another reminisces about the good old days when you could run into Marvin Gaye at the after-hours club, and another says kids don’t respect their elders now that they’ve banned paddling in the schools.

“Twelve Years” presents a nuanced view of an era in which it seemed like nuance was being rationed for the war effort. It’s well-meaning, like so many governmental and philanthropical interventions in the District. If it fails to take seriously the less-liberal and less-secular longings of hometown DC, well, that is informative in its own way.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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How Cinema Returned to the City

The Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX, a John Eberson design from 1915. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX, a John Eberson design from 1915. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1940s America, you could walk down any main street in any city and before long you would run into a movie theater. Today, downtown tends to be the last place we think of going to the movies: multiplexes demand real estate on a suburban scale, and the convenience of Netflix all but takes the “going” out of moviegoing. Yet despite their long decline, the former staples of American cityscapes may be undergoing a renaissance. Downtown boosters have realized that the big screens are more than places to see movies. They can also serve as community gathering spaces that respond to a demand for more than the latest blockbusters, enriching both the streetscape and cultural life of the city.

In fact, movie theaters and the spaces they inhabit have long adapted to changing times. In 1900, film was still a young invention with an uncertain future, but Americans were clamoring for a taste of motion pictures. So the first movie theaters, called nickelodeons—so named for the cost of admission to these ad hoc spaces—were usually housed in the rear of retail stores and numbered about 8,000 by 1908.

As movies matured and an industry developed around them, theater architecture came into its own. Nickelodeons moved to their own designated buildings, usually vaudeville theaters converted into movie-screening spaces, and the folding chair and white curtain aesthetic of their early incarnations gave way to the permanent seating and screens we’re familiar with today. Theaters became more elaborate as architects crafted spaces that were as immersive as the movies they exhibited. Architect John Eberson designed close to 500 theaters, many of them in cities throughout the Midwest, in varying degrees of art deco style; Thomas Lamb’s theaters brought exotic locales to the inner city with themed designs based ancient cultures near and far.

But among the early pioneers of movie theater design, no other architect influenced the theater’s developing relation to the city more than S. Charles Lee. Though his designs were no less luxurious than those of Eberson and Lamb, Lee rooted his work in human psychology. Recognizing that movie theaters would thrive in urban environments on the promise of selling an experience more so than a product, Lee saved the flashiest features for the outside: marquees, canopies, and tiled sidewalks drew eyes and interest. Lee is said to have thought that “the show starts on the sidewalk,” an approach to design that proved to be a boon to smaller cities. Though humble in comparison to their big-city counterparts, the no less modest architecture of small-town theaters gave local audiences the thrill of a big-city experience.

By 1946, annual movie ticket sales in America peaked at 90 million. The numbers were driven by the swelling numbers of theaters in cities and towns nationwide, although civic engagement also played a substantial role. With the television not yet a household staple, movie theaters in the 1940s would show newsreels alongside their regularly scheduled films; thus the theater became a center of intellectual engagement as much as one of entertainment. And in the case of Lee’s theaters, going to the movies could easily be a family affair: many of his 300 or so theaters included restaurants and nurseries that made the cinema a downtown destination for everyone.

The tides of urban moviegoing reversed in the second half of the century. Due in part to a 1948 ruling against the monopolistic theater-building practices of movie studios, but exacerbated by the preponderance of television, movie theaters had seen their heyday. With the rise of suburbs and the advent of the summer blockbuster in the 1970s, theaters rapidly moved away from urban centers to make way for sprawling multiplexes whose cookie-cutter architecture paled in comparison to the grandeur of the early movie palaces. If Lee’s psychological theory of movie theater design posited that architecture must reinforce the excitement of moviegoing, the blandness of the modern multiplex demonstrates how moviegoing today has been reduced to a consumer transaction like any other.

The old movie palaces that were once a mainstay of most town centers have been in many cases demolished (or converted to drugstores, the architectural discrepancy between storefront and tenant continuing to beguile pedestrians). But in recent years urban renewal has been saving many of these historic theaters from the brink.

The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center of Montgomery County, Maryland was one of the first such beneficiaries of urban redevelopment. A single-screen, art deco movie house designed by Eberson in 1938, the Silver Theatre was a major draw in the area, then a relative backwater relative to nearby DC, through the ’50s and ’60s. With the rise of multiplexes and mega malls in the ’80s, the Silver Theatre and adjacent commercial properties shuttered. Yet because of an unusually strong community life, residential decay did not follow.

In the late ’90s, the county approached the American Film Institute, then housed at the Kennedy Center, with the prospect of reopening the Silver Theatre as part of a downtown revival to serve the neighborhood’s persistently vibrant and well-connected populace. The county had hired a team of consultants and determined that iconic buildings, such as the Silver, were important factors in urban renewal. AFI handled the suggestion astutely: as theater director Ray Barry explains, AFI was “not interested in building a thing just to look at it; it actually has to be built to function.”

AFI went to great pains in restoring the original theater, tracking down the same carpeting and curtain fabrics used in the thirties design to make the restoration authentic and complete. Rather than modify the existing architecture to meet the needs of a 21st century audience, AFI opted to preserve the Silver’s historic character in its entirety by building 32,000 square feet of adjacent new construction to house additional screens, office space, and concessions. Five years after development and construction began, the theater reopened as the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in 2003. Audiences responded passionately, and Barry recalls seeing patrons cry at the sight of the beloved 1938 edifice looking as good as new. “The American movie theater was a central institution,” he remarks; for locals with childhood memories of the Silver, “it was a big, big deal.”

Today the AFI Silver screens everything from contemporary independent films to American classics to international film festivals. According to Barry, the theater’s unique programming owes less to an arrogant sense of curatorial expertise than to “an engagement with the community,” and a desire to represent and respond to the interests of the neighborhood.

This kind of community engagement seems to be the key to survival for many historic theaters across the nation. Cinemas like the Avalon Theatre in Washington, DC and the Coolidge Corner Theatre of Brookline, Massachusetts both occupy vintage buildings and thrive as nonprofit film centers thanks to the involvement of neighborhood fundraising. Both theaters tailor their programming to the interests of the neighborhood: the Avalon regularly partners with the nearby French Embassy and local film scholars to program unique screenings for the area, while the Coolidge screens cult and Hollywood classics catering to movie lovers young and old in Boston and beyond.

Today even for-profit independents have more resources than ever before at their disposal to grow and thrive. Art House Convergence, an annual conference started by the Sundance Institute in 2006, brings together art house cinema owners from around the country to share stories and advice about confronting the challenges of running an independent theater in the 21st century. Last year’s presenters represented theaters old and new, from Portland, Oregon’s Hollywood Theatre, a 1926 former Vaudeville house in Spanish colonial revival style, to Winston-Salem’s a/perture cinema, a fledgling fixture of the city’s burgeoning downtown arts scene since 2010.

All of these new theater owners stress the importance of community building and civic engagement to their growth and survival. “We have to find our audience where they want to be found,” said Lawren Desai of a/perture, voicing a sentiment that complements her theater’s mission statement of “bring[ing] back the intimate movie-going experience while showcasing films that enrich, educate and challenge us all.”

Though a/perture occupies a 1920s storefront, the building had not historically functioned as a cinema. What a/perture lacks in glamorous architecture, the owners have made up for in a community-based approach to design. The theater eschews a traditional street-front box office in favor of a spacious lobby showcasing movie posters by local artists. A crowdfunded expansion in 2012 added a third screening room and a glass atrium that gives the lobby more room to function as a community gathering space. And in a throwback to Lee’s “show starts on the sidewalk” mantra, a/perture has remixed the old storefront of its building with a modern yet elegant facade to attract pedestrians along the Winston-Salem thoroughfare.

a/perture isn’t the only instance of small theaters moving into the big city. The booming development of downtown Washington, DC is a case in point. Though many of the city’s theaters closed in the late 2000s, three new theaters—two operated by the Landmark chain, a favorite of art house and foreign film lovers, one by New York’s famous Angelika Film Center—have opened in the District in the last decade.

This new generation of urban theaters is moving away from the grandeur of the past while sticking to a tradition of community-influenced design. From the hobnob nickelodeons of the early twentieth century to the palatial theaters of the 1930s and 40s, to the cookie-cutter multiplexes of the 1970s and onward, movie theaters in America have evolved to match the expectations audiences brought to the movies. The rebirth of the urban indie theater as a cultural hotspot inspires hope that, even after the rise of the suburban multiplex, there’s still a place for cinema in the city after all.

Tim Markatos is editorial fellow at The American Conservative.

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