Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
The advent of big data, in the form of massive databases augmented with crowd-sourced information, adds a new dimension to our ability to track and measure local economies. One of the most exciting sources is Yelp, which tracks and publishes user reviews of millions of businesses. Yelp has just introduced its new “local economic outlook” which rates cities and neighborhoods based on their “economic opportunity.” The rankings are based on Yelp’s extensive data, and are summarized in the form of national rankings of cities (and a parallel rankings of the top 50 neighborhoods). [Read more…]
—Joe Cortright, City Observatory
Those in the land-use planning and development business know the stories of urban renewal damage, the failure of modern urban projects like Pruitt-Igoe, and the consequences of suburban sprawl. Most are are familiar with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, both of which have been influential in urban planning, architecture, and other fields.
But something was going on at a deeper level that underlay the dysfunction Jacobs and Alexander fought from the 1960s onward. Cities Alive by Michael Mehaffy examines Jacobs and Alexander together to get at the root philosophical problems that created erroneous thinking in city building in the 20th Century, continuing to the present day. [Read more…]
—Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square
A couple of months ago, silver bikes with bright orange wheel rims began appearing around Washington, D.C. One here and one there, like someone had left their new toy unattended while they ran inside to grab a cup of coffee. These are Mobikes, one of four companies (two of which are Chinese) that are pushing the dockless bikesharing phenomenon in the nation’s capital. Unlike the traditional systems that require users to pick up a bike at a fixed station and drop it off at another station at their destination, dockless bikes have a rear-wheel horseshoe locking system allows riders to park the bikes anywhere they want, essentially a car2go for bikes. The GPS-enabled bikes are usually unlocked with two taps on a smart phone app. [Read more…]
—T.R. Goldman, Politico Magazine
Here are some things you should know about the smart city Bill Gates is building in Phoenix. It’s not a city, nor is it “smart,” nor does the Microsoft founder appear to be involved in any meaningful way. And when outlets like CNBC say it’s in Phoenix, well … the plot of land in question is some 40 miles west of Phoenix, on the western edge of the metropolis’s westernmost suburb…. What’s happening in Buckeye looks much more like the foolish past of the American city than its future. The state of Arizona is working on a long-deferred dream to build a new highway, Interstate 11, to connect Phoenix to Las Vegas. It would run right through this arid valley, putting those parcels along a big transportation corridor. The project was singled out as a “boondoggle” by public interest groups, who noted that ridership predictions for highways are routinely inflated. [Read more…]
—Henry Grabar, Slate
Vital Little Plans collects for the first time Jacobs’s interviews, speeches, talks and short pieces of journalism – and there is much in this lucid and persuasive anthology that resonates today. In her essay “Downtown Is for People”, from 1958, she criticises the lack of variety in cities: “Notice that when a new building goes up, the kind of ground-floor tenants it gets are usually the chain store and the chain restaurant.” Later, bemoaning the primacy of buildings over people, she writes: “The logic of the projects is the logic of egocentric children, playing with pretty blocks and shouting ‘See what I made!’” This could well apply to London’s current skyline, with its Walkie Talkie building, Cheesegrater and Gherkin – a VIP cocktail party guarded by corporate bouncers. [Read more…]
—Chris Hall, The Guardian
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
The results are in, and Planetizen readers have chosen the “Most Influential Urbanists” of all time. And, yes, we mean all time. Names on the list date back as far as 498 BCE, but there’s also no shortage of contemporary thinkers, activists, planners, and designers in the final list of 100. It probably won’t surprise anyone that Jane Jacobs won this vote by a long shot, basically lapping the competition. [Read more…]
The (so far) the unbreachable chasm between New Urbanism and what now passes for architectural culture consists of opposite conceptions of the relationships of place, time and objects–not small matters. For architects, the culture of objects, their history and the discipline of making them are infinitely rich subjects. For urbanists, objects, especially buildings, have meaning only as the constituent elements of places. This is not just a matter of I’m more interested in this and you’re more interested in that—like say botany and astronomy. Botanists and astronomers have nothing against one another—unless they happen to be competing for faculty resources or parking. By contrast, there is real animus between the object people and the place people. Each subject has its own historiography, one focused on canonical buildings, the other on the history of the city. They not only see each other as a threat to what they hold most dear, they regard each other as uncouth, uncultured philistines. [Read more…]
—Daniel Solomon, CNU Public Square
From an urban design standpoint, “instant neighborhoods” rarely have the visual or social diversity that many people enjoy about urban places. Great neighborhoods evolve as a mixed collage of uses, buildings, activities, and people over time – resulting not just in a more interesting place, but also a more enduring one…. A diverse building stock also accommodates a fuller diversity of human activities, which ultimately turns out to be a significant economic strength, according to research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In its “Older Smaller Better” report, since expanded into an “Atlas of Reurbanism,” the Trust found that older neighborhoods had better economic performance across a range of factors: “The higher performance of areas containing small-scale buildings of mixed vintage suggests that successful districts evolve over time, adding and subtracting buildings incrementally, rather than comprehensively and all at once.” [Read more…]
—Payton Chung, Greater Greater Washington
It’s not a coincidence that Olive Gardens tend to spring up near highways and shopping malls, within the orbit of mid-range hotels. Chain begets chain, or maybe chains are more comfortable among other chains — and in sufficient concentration they cause a little hiccup in the psychospace of reality, erasing any locality or sense of place, replacing it with a sanitized, brand-driven commercial hospitality. In downtown Salt Lake City or western Massachusetts or on the southern edge of the Chicago suburbs, wherever you see an Olive Garden, you’ll find something like a Quality Inn & Suites nearby. These accretions of commercial activity, stripped from geographic or historical identity, are what the French anthropologist Marc Augé talks about as “non-places.” … What it means to be a non-place is the same thing it means to be a chain: A plural nothingness, a physical space without an anchor to any actual location on Earth, or in time, or in any kind of spiritual arc. In its void, it simply is. [Read more…]
—Helen Rosner, Eater
To walk to the river from any number of urban neighborhoods today is to encounter an elevated highway structure that is completely out of scale with the surrounding environment. In some places it feels dangerous to walk through the dark underpasses. And even in places where I-95 is already buried, it feels dangerous to cross over Christopher Columbus Boulevard, the at-grade arterial thoroughfare that runs parallel to the interstate along the Central Delaware. These things aren’t natural. “The highways are only roughly fifty years old,” says Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. “In the scheme of things, that’s pretty new. We don’t know what new technologies are coming down the road, no pun intended. So we should seriously question whether we should rebuild these interstates in kind, as we are doing, for an outdated technology that is essentially anti-urban.” [Read more…]
—Jared Brey, Curbed
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
If there is one truth about the second half of the 20th Century it is that, by all accounts, we started moving out rather than up; horizontal rather than vertical. Not only through the process of suburbanization, the building of massive highways, and the rapid capital flight from cities, but also in how we designed everything from our homes to our workplaces. It could be said that, since the development of major highways, America has flattened—much in the same way that the invention of both the elevator and air conditioning brought skyscrapers to every major city in the first half of the 20th century. [Read more… ]
—Kate Wagner, McMansion Hell
Nobody would say that health is a luxury. To the extent that walkable neighborhoods contribute to health, it follows they are not a luxury good. Similar cases can be made for walkability and safety (fewer automobile deaths and injuries), pollution (reduced tailpipe emissions), and time (fewer hours spent commuting). Walkable neighborhoods add value and utility to lives of people of all classes. They are willing to pay for that value. Walkable neighborhoods also enable a lifestyle that has the potential to reduce overall costs while providing health and welfare benefits. [Read more…]
—Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square
A lot of the focus in Rust Belt and rural communities is on the economy, and rightly so. There are economic challenges that do need to be addressed. But in many cases the real problems are more than economic. They are social and perhaps even spiritual in a broad sense, a despair that has destroyed so many lives…. The America of the 1970s and 1980s is dead and gone. It can’t be recreated. But America must find a way to rebuild its social capital if it hopes to change the trajectory of so many struggling people and places. Economic development is not enough. [Read more…]
—Aaron Renn, Governing
Vacant buildings can attract criminal activity like drug use. They sometimes pose safety hazards. Getting rid of them is overwhelmingly framed as positive by local governments that often leverage hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to do demolition work (often through state or federal grants). And yet, there’s something darker that lurks beneath the surface when we talk about “blight.” The word completely disregards the past of a place. When you label something blight, you utterly negate any purpose it may have had and any hope of saving it. It is mere garbage to be discarded. And it’s not just individual buildings that are labeled as such. Whole blocks and neighborhoods can receive this designation, either officially or by association. Once the label has been applied, it can be a natural progression to start thinking that the people, businesses and institutions that are still alive in these neighborhoods are also blight. [ Read more… ]
—Rachel Quednau, Strong Towns
At a time when states and cities are often at odds over hotly contested social and economic issues, land use reform to expand housing choice and opportunity can constitute common ground. State and local collaboration on housing can create a lower cost of doing business, a more efficient real estate market, and a wider array of options for buyers and renters across the income spectrum. [Read more…]
—Stockton Williams, Lisa Sturtevant, and Rosemarie Hepner, Urban Land Institute
CAPE MAY, N.J.—New Jersey is the punchline of many jokes, with opinion polls confirming that the Garden State has the most negative reputation of any state in the nation. This ranking is deserved in some respects, at least when assessing the dismal condition of the built environment in many parts of the state. Much of the metropolitan landscape of New Jersey, particularly in the northern suburbs of New York City, is marred by a combination of industrial blight, suburban sprawl, and traffic-choked highways—the gritty scenery seen in the opening titles of the hit HBO series The Sopranos. But there is another part of the state with many towns that are models for good urban form, and perhaps for long-term conservation efforts as well.
For years, the New Jersey coastline has had an undeserved reputation for being a somewhat downmarket series of beach towns past their prime. The hedonism of the MTV reality TV series Jersey Shore, which only ran from 2009 to 2013, undoubtedly did much to reinforce this stereotype, and the last few decades of boom-and-bust casino development in Atlantic City hasn’t helped the region’s image, either. Yet along the 100-plus miles of coastline, stretching from the Lower New York Bay and Sandy Hook to the mouth of the Delaware River, there are many places that realize the central ideals of great urbanism—including walkability, vernacular architecture, preservation, and authentic sustainability.
The area’s prospects for success were secured by a combination of fortunate historical timing and favorable geography. The shore towns were some of the first resort destinations designed for the masses, in this case the burgeoning populations of nearby Philadelphia and New York. Passenger rail service from the big cities, which began as early as the 1850s and expanded for the rest of the 19th century, made rapid development possible all along the Jersey coastline. Ever faster trains allowed daytrippers of more modest means to visit the seashore, making the beach towns a playground for more than the wealthy classes who could afford upmarket hotels or second homes. At the same time, many religious leaders established summer encampments for their congregations, with at least one of these communities, Ocean Grove, still maintaining its explicitly Christian identity.
When tourists or pilgrims arrived, whether they were staying overnight or not, they found themselves in relatively compact, walkable settlements. Most hotels and beachfront amenities were an easy walk from the station, and in some cases, such as in Cape May, local interurban rail routes enabled travelers to reach smaller adjacent towns and villages. Further, the sites of many of the settlements, which were built on narrow barrier islands, limited development to a fixed area. This geography created an incentive, even in a pre-automobile area, to use the available land carefully. This physical reality holds today—near the shore, there is far less of the strip-mall sprawl that now litters the mainland along the Garden State Parkway.
The 1950s-era turnpike that now brings both vacationers and residents “down the shore” does not enter the historic districts, which means that unlike so many other pre-war urban neighborhoods torn apart by freeways, the original human scale of old shore towns remains largely intact. The dawn of the jet age and expansion of the interstate highway system in the 1960s also meant that many Philadelphians and New Yorkers were able to travel much further afield than the Jersey shore for their holidays. This initially resulted in some decline, but the slowed growth also indirectly contributed to preserving the late 19th and early 20th-century streetscape, now celebrated for its beauty and practicality. Cape May, for example, boasts the largest concentration of intact Victorian homes outside of San Francisco.
In most of these shore towns, there are relatively few superblocks, with small lots and alleys still dominant. Cape May has the abundance of restaurants and touristy boutiques one expects to find, but a practical supermarket sits almost at the center of town, and national-chain businesses are rare, at least downtown. Driving the narrow streets to find parking is difficult enough that many people seem to abandon their cars while they are here, walking between their accommodations, the beach, and shops. A three-block pedestrian mall, an idea tried and discredited in many other American downtowns, survives and appears to be prospering, at least in the summer.
This seasonal ebb and flow of residents has caused some to suggest these shore towns are not real places, and that any of the admirable characteristics of the townscape here are a kind of “dollhouse urbanism”—a series of charming facades where most the time nobody is actually home. While most of these places have always been summer resort towns, it’s true that the portion of full-time residents in many of them is lower than ever before. With renewed prosperity, there is also the rising sense that gentrification will make some shore towns accessible to only the rich. One former regular in the small hamlet of Avalon recently complained in the New York Times that a beloved deli had recently been replaced by seasonal outlets of high-end national fashion chains.
The solution to this demand is of course is to build more walkable urban places near the Jersey Shore, creating additional opportunities for the small-scale Main Street businesses that have long had a place on the streets here. Regional authorities should also aim to improve transportation options between shore towns and the major metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia. New Jersey Transit trains still serve some of the northern portion of the shoreline, and another regional train departs Philadelphia for Atlantic City about a dozen times a day. The trains are relatively slow, though, mostly running over very old infrastructure. New investment and restoration of service along the shore could spur development and the return of full-time residents as these cities are better connected to major job centers.
Revitalizing infrastructure would also once again make a car-free vacation or even day trip to the beach a more appealing prospect for the tens of millions who live nearby. If governments are serious about trying to reduce private vehicle and aircraft emissions, creating alternative transportation options to reach local resorts should be a priority. Notwithstanding sea-level rise, perhaps a low-carbon future can still include an occasional day at the beach.
With its settlement driven by a strange combination of Robber Baron-era capitalism and Great Awakening-style religious revivalism, the Jersey Shore was birthed by strange bedfellows. Yet these forces created communities that still are remarkably functional, enjoyable, and beautiful places to reside and play. Urbanists, preservationists, and real-estate developers often focus on places such as New York and Philadelphia. They may also have a lot to learn from the nearby Jersey Shore.
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—A year and a half hence, about the time the leafy Notre Dame campus begins to display brilliant autumn hues, budding architects and their mentors will move into a new building near the ceremonial entrance to the sprawling university. Though it will be the newest addition to this 175-year-old institution, built atop a former parking lot, the classically inspired edifice will appear to passersby as if it has been there for generations. Its physical form will symbolize what this unique school aims to bring to our built environment—classical tradition, respect for cultural heritage, and authentically sustainable and beautiful places.
To be dedicated as the Walsh Family Hall, the building will be a living monument to a movement in architecture and urban planning that was planted here almost three decades ago. Presented as a series of interconnected buildings arranged around a central plaza, the small campus within a campus designed by British architect John Simpson would look right at home in the Old World splendor of Oxford or Cambridge. There’s a chapel-like Hall of Casts that will be used to present student designs, as well as Notre Dame’s extensive collection of architectural ornament and statuary. Outside, a tower presides over what is less an Anglo-American quadrangle than a continental piazza, a feature that will no doubt console students returning to the Midwest from the school’s required year abroad in Rome.
From the standpoint of architectural critics—at least those fancying themselves in the avant garde—this wasn’t the way things were supposed to turn out. The last time Notre Dame dedicated new classrooms for architecture, in the 1960s, Pietro Belluschi, one of the inventors of the glass-box office tower, had been on hand to offer his blessing at a school that once welcomed the most progressive architect of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright. But then in 1989, that fateful year when some erroneously declared an “end of history,” the university hired the relatively untested Thomas Gordon Smith to be the new chair of its architecture program. Once described by the New York Times as a “young old fogey,” Smith was a committed classicist, and immediately began to shake up what had heretofore been a place that—like most contemporary schools of architecture—had little room for traditional building design. Architectural history had reasserted itself at Notre Dame.
Smith quickly brought in several new faculty to help him transform the curriculum. Having no living model for such a school, and trained in the reigning modernist orthodoxy, Smith and his new deputies created something entirely new by recovering a lost world. While the centuries-old classical approach of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts had once been the gold standard, by the late 20th century the tradition was essentially extinct.
“All the people here are autodidacts,” architects variously “disenchanted with the modern world’s built environment,” explains Dean Michael Lykoudis, an early Smith recruit who now heads the school. The new classicists were initially regarded by their academic peers as at best interesting curiosities, at worst annoying cranks. Shortly after Smith’s changes to the curriculum, a visiting accreditation board remarked in its report that “it remains to be seen whether the classical experiment in the school of architecture will blossom into a full-blown branch or remain a quirky twig.”
Lykoudis recalls that he and other new faculty of the early 1990s faced resistance from students as well. They quickly realized that “teaching classicism by teaching columns first was not the way to do it.” They had to understand the traditional building blocks as parts of a whole—the city—and recognize that good architecture and good urbanism go hand in hand.
Making the case to new disciples required going beyond slideshows, maps, and textbooks. It meant bringing students—most of whom had grown up in dull postwar suburbs—to an example of a vibrant urban place. The faculty naturally preferred to find one with classical bones. “Urbanism, until very recently, has not always been seen in America as a good thing,” explains Lykoudis. “But Rome is such a positive place … The sensory experience of space—noise, taste, smell—turns students on to cities.”
Thanks to the foresight and gumption of a previous department chair, who in the 1960s purchased a building near the Pantheon—and according to legend only told university officials about it after signing the papers—Notre Dame architecture students had been studying in Rome for decades. But the new classical regime made the Italian capital a mandatory destination for third-year students in what is already an intensive five-year undergraduate program.
In the eternal city, students are encouraged to put down their cameras and smartphones, get out their sketchbooks, and through direct observation focus on understanding the qualities of the city that are difficult to quantify. So much “decision making in the modern world is about tabulation,” laments Lykoudis, while understanding what creates really timeless, beautiful places like the piazzas of Rome requires something more—what he sums up as “becoming cultured” or, less snobbishly, “knowing stuff.”
Thus what is perceived by some outsiders as an anti-technological posture—students don’t touch computer-aided drafting software until at least their fourth year, after they return from Europe—is ultimately aimed at creating a sense of humility in people who will be shaping our built environment for decades to come. Cultivating this sense of virtue and care for place requires more than technical skills and training in the use of particular tools. It is about contemplation. “Classicism is an architecture which is built on the idea of rest … it’s not in tension” with the environment around it, argues Lykoudis. “Some people might argue that’s why it has this sense of tranquility.”
Its underlying humility imbues the school with a posture that is neither ideologically progressive nor reactionary. Rather it is formed by something resembling practical wisdom as defined by Aristotle—a capacity for human action that is ordered toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. The relationship between classical architecture and this Aristotelian but ultimately Catholic tradition has been articulated by Notre Dame professor Philip Bess in his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem. As Rod Dreher explained in a 2014 American Conservative profile of Bess, he “concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. But they are ‘implicitly Aristotelian,’ because they affirm that there are certain design forms consonant with human nature.”
This classical but prudent approach, it turns out, is remarkably well-suited to addressing the challenges of the contemporary world. “There’s an ecological perspective in why we pursue our craft….Classicism is about conservation and investment rather than consumption and waste,” says Lykoudis. The prevailing approach to environmentally sensitive architecture and urban design relies heavily on technology-driven and often expensive solutions, with the LEED certification of the U.S. Green Building Council seal of approval sought by most of today’s most high-profile building projects. But Notre Dame professors argue that authentic sustainability comes primarily from paying attention to the form of the building and materials used. Today’s standard-issue office buildings with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, for example, may perform well in computer models. But often these sleek structures have a shorter lifespan and thus are ultimately more costly than traditional buildings, which have operable windows that allow for natural ventilation in milder weather.
Despite the reluctance to let students rely too much on technology during their initial formation, there is an emphasis among faculty on using advanced research methods to make the case for a classical and human-scaled approach to architecture. Some are creating databases offering performance information about a greater variety of traditional building materials than are typically used by modern buildings. Others systematically study the deleterious effect on human health wrought by inhumane architecture and neighborhood design. Another project uses digital 3D mapping to measure World Heritage Sites, enhancing historic preservation efforts. Dennis Doordan, associate dean for research, describes this nod to the scientific method as “expanding our arsenal to be able to engage in the discourse….We live in a world where some of the decision makers are not swayed by eloquence, but they are swayed by numbers.”
The most important number for many is the bottom line cost, and Notre Dame professors aren’t shy about confronting this issue head on. After the 2008 housing crash, much of the large-scale New Urbanist development was put on hold, but of course some individuals still wanted to build new homes of the kind often found in neotraditional communities. The 6,000-square-foot McMansion on a one-acre parcel was decidedly out of fashion. Professor Marianne Cusato saw the collapse of the market as an opportunity to adapt traditional design principles to the emerging demand for smaller, more flexible living spaces.
Cusato’s “New Economy Home” made plans available for a two-story, 1,771 square foot, four-bedroom house that can fit on a compact lot compatible with a walkable cityscape. Its simple but attractive style is reminiscent of the Cape Cod and American Foursquare traditions, and features front and back porches. By using standard-sized lumber and other materials, Cusato estimates that these homes can be built for around $200,000, excluding land costs. But beyond their affordability and traditional design, the home’s primary appeal is the adaptability of its floor plan. The rear of the house contains a small suite with its own outside entrance that can be used as a rental unit, in-law apartment, first-floor bedroom for a senior or disabled family member, or simply extra living space.
“We used to build this way,” says Cusato, arguing that her plan is less a new innovation than a restoration of an older way of thinking. She reports that there are already streets with several of these homes in the same block, each featuring different living arrangements, ranging from young families to single retired people. The home is thus designed so that its owners can remain in it throughout the various stages of life, avoiding the need to “trade up” or “downsize” in response to changing family and financial circumstances over the years.
Responding to the critique that repeating such a plan in a new development is “cookie-cutter,” Cusato suggests that such variations on a theme often create really vibrant, high-value neighborhoods. “There’s nothing wrong with repeating a house….All of the great cities … Georgetown, the West Village, San Francisco [have] the same house down the whole street.” Cusato is quick to point out that she is not advocating outlawing sprawling postwar subdivisions. “I’m not saying don’t live in a McMansion—if it fits your lifestyle and is where you want to be, go for it. But so many people are forced into that.” She and other New Urbanists simply argue that developers—and their architects—would benefit from opening up new markets by catering to many people who want to live in places guided by traditional, authentically sustainable patterns of building.
Amidst all the distinctly American rhetoric about choice and technological advancement, there remains a sense that Notre Dame promotes a set of values that stands in opposition to the still dominant postwar pattern of development. Behind the beautiful drawings of arches and architraves that line the halls here, the principle that seems to animate everyone—faculty and alumni alike—is that place matters. It might first sound to some like an easy cliché, a truism, but this pithy formulation is what guides and brings together new classicists and New Urbanists.
As Dean Lykoudis explains, faculty try to emphasize to students “how important being committed to a place is. The idea of the individual searching for his or her perfect happiness outside of community is kind of a red herring.” For architects, this means designing buildings that respect their surroundings and community, including their future inhabitants. In contrast, near-celebrity “starchitects,” with their abstract forms that seem the epitome of self-expression, appear to disregard this imperative.
At a school such as Notre Dame, it helps that the emphasis on place is reinforced by Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity, the idea that political decisions should be made at the lowest practical level of association. This principle is built into the way that architects trained here tend to practice, often holding workshops known as charrettes, in which community members are invited to take part in the planning of a new development. (The term fittingly comes out of French Beaux-Arts tradition, in which a “little cart” was wheeled around a drafting room to collect ideas.)
In recent years, Notre Dame has attempted to live out this commitment to localism by engaging with the citizens of South Bend, home to the university but long disconnected from its civic life. Like many other small Rust Belt cities caught in postindustrial decline, South Bend’s downtown had become hollowed out, a place where, with all the growth happening in neighboring towns, nobody wanted to be anymore. “It was tearing itself down,” says Dean Lykoudis. The school of architecture brought students to work downtown, while encouraging the city to draw on its heritage to reimagine its core as a vibrant place. South Bend, Lykoudis argues, should not try to be “world class,” seeking along with many other struggling places its own starchitect-designed signature concert hall or museum, but should instead focus on preserving and sometimes re-creating buildings that showcase its unique Midwestern identity.
Another manifestation of this turn away from the universal zeitgeist and toward an approach that allows communities to be themselves is found in the school’s role in restoring churches to their traditional form. After the Vatican II council in the 1960s upended millennia of liturgical tradition, newly constructed Catholic churches lost most of the classical design elements that served to reinforce their place in Western civilization. Some thought it impossible to ever again build sacred spaces with the kind of symmetry and ornament that had defined them for centuries. Then came architects such as Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik, who has shown that classically-proportioned churches can still be built in places as diverse as New York City, southern California, and South Carolina.
Of course such restorative work might be less necessary today if more of the past hadn’t been destroyed by bulldozers, most notably by misguided 1950s and 1960s city planners driven by “urban renewal.” Professor Steven Semes, who leads the school’s historic-preservation program, argues that unless we respect heritage, communities can lose their sense of identity. When altering or adding to historic fabric, he argues, architects must ask “What does the place want you to do … so that it stays that place?” Catholic social thought not only demands solidarity with the wider world but also a respect for the past and the future, especially when the next generation yet to be born cannot advocate for preserving its patrimony. In addition to saving buildings themselves, says Semes, there also is the overlooked “intangible heritage”—the skills and craftsmanship that go into traditional building, what the school seeks to preserve by educating students in the classical tradition.
For almost three decades, the architects of Notre Dame have toiled away at their mission of giving new life to an intellectual tradition that was once dismissed as sentimental nostalgia. It has surely grown beyond that predicted “quirky twig,” with classicism reinvigorating what Lykoudis says was formerly considered “a kind of backwater program.” But it remains to be seen whether this movement can affect a full paradigm shift in the world of architecture and urbanism—or whether it will remain merely a monastic endeavor, maintaining ancient knowledge and bringing light to dark ages.
Certainly there are hopeful signs, perhaps most notably in the fact that most Notre Dame architecture graduates find employment relatively easily. And new scientific research is making it hard for progressives to deny that traditional design promotes human flourishing. Other academic outposts of classicism are emerging in places such as the College of Charleston, South Carolina; the University of Colorado at Denver; and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Some fellow travelers in this movement, notably the provocative intellectual James Howard Kunstler, predict that a future societal cataclysm, possibly environmental in nature, will jolt us back toward classicism and away from the dominant development patterns of sprawl and the formlessness of techno-optimistic modernism. Others, seemingly anticipating an emperor-has-no-clothes moment, argue that modernism is intellectually bankrupt, with even most modern architects eschewing cutting-edge buildings to live in traditional townhouses and apartments.
But a few are convinced the moment is already here. Professor Douglas Duany avers that Notre Dame has entered a “golden age,” although the most prominent evangelists of classicism and New Urbanism may not realize it yet. Some of his long-embattled colleagues may demur on that point, but the institution built by the visionary Thomas Gordon Smith and his colleagues seems to gain confidence with each passing year. As Duany argues, “Why should architecture shut down the past? … The ‘future’ keeps on failing.”
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative. This article was made possible with support of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
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
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
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
Descending into the depths of the fluorescent-lit underground warren that is the country’s busiest passenger transit hub, Richard Cameron looked up and was shocked. An architectural drawing of New York’s formerly grand, neo-Roman Penn Station had been reproduced on a bulkhead above a stairway, accompanied by the caption “YOU ARE HERE.”
“I almost crashed the escalator,” recounts Cameron, a Brooklyn architect who is the leading advocate for rebuilding the 1910 Beaux Arts terminal. “You are emphatically not there.”
The original Penn Station was discarded in 1963 by a Pennsylvania Railroad struggling to compete with interstate highways and jet airliners. The railroad executives desperately needed cash and sold their two blocks of Midtown Manhattan real estate to developers who built the fourth incarnation of Madison Square Garden. The remains of the station were crammed into the basement under the arena. Since then, the hundreds of thousands of travelers and commuters who arrive in New York City by train each day have been forced to navigate a series of cramped, overcrowded, and confusing tunnels. As the scholar Vincent Scully wrote, once “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
The demolition of the old station, which even many modernist architects considered a masterpiece, was a catalyst for the historic-preservation movement that has saved other landmarks such as Grand Central, New York’s other great train terminal. Cameron wants more than preservation, however: he argues for restoring the old Penn. “The fact that it was taken away was almost a kind of war crime,” he says, “a kind of commercial crime that deprived everyone of this great public good.”
In recreating the old station, Cameron says New York would follow the example of Dresden, where bombing by the allies during World War II reduced medieval squares in the German city to rubble. Today much of the baroque splendor has been restored, once again creating inviting urban places that are the envy of cities across the globe. Cameron also cites the imperial palace of Berlin and Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior—the latter once leveled by Stalin and replaced with a large swimming pool—as examples of how rebuilding a landmark can correct a mistake while improving public spaces and increasing tourism.
The movement to bring classical grandeur back to Penn Station is in at least its third decade. In the 1990s, longtime New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the most high-profile advocate for a plan to move the ticketing hall and passenger waiting areas to the 1919 Farley Post Office building across the street, a classical edifice designed by the same architects as the original Penn Station. The proposal for the modified terminal—now to be known as Moynihan Station, following the senator’s death in 2003—has inched along in fits and starts. It has found a champion in New York’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo, who recently unveiled renderings showing a large shopping mall and waiting room with a modern glass canopy inside the post office’s traditional facade. But the plan is a kind of stopgap: it would move Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers into the post office, while leaving a substantial number of New Jersey regional train riders in the old rat tunnels across the street.
Cameron argues that New Yorkers should accept no substitute for the old flagship terminal, whose classic design is still capable of meeting today’s demands. Moreover, he says, the post office plans do not address how the behemoth Penn Station complex can interact more harmoniously with the neighborhood, a problem that has beset planners and developers for over a century, ever since Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt sought to bring his Philadelphia-based trains into the heart of Manhattan.
For decades, passengers on “the Pennsy” had been forced to alight on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River and complete their journey to New York by ferry. Bridges were proposed but rejected by the authorities. So Cassatt tunneled under the river, digging what was once the longest underwater passage in the world. That engineering marvel needed a monument that would signal to the New Yorkers that a wonder of the world was just beyond the station, below the depths of the Hudson.
Thus Cassatt hired McKim, Mead, and White, architects for Columbia University, the Boston Public Library, and the iconic Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village. At a time when New York was reaching skyward, Charles McKim designed a classically proportioned temple to the modern railroad that evoked the most impressive civic buildings he had studied in Europe. Greeted by long doric colonnades running for two blocks along Seventh Avenue, travelers walked through a wide arcade of shops and restaurants before descending not into today’s underground labyrinth but to a magnificent General Waiting Room with a ceiling 15 stories high. Bathed in natural light, that coffered ceiling was held aloft by eight massive corinthian columns. The entire space was dressed in the same Roman travertine used in the Coliseum and the Vatican.
G.K. Chesterton compared the space to a cathedral, and indeed the massive, ornate waiting room was even larger than the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thomas Wolfe, in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again, described “the mighty room” as “vast enough to hold the sound of time … here, in a single instant, one got the entire picture of human destiny.” From the moment it opened, Penn Station was a timeless public space unrivaled in scale or emotional resonance.
The precincts outside the great temple, however, were never uplifted as the station’s original developers had hoped. Cameron maintains that this was partly due to the neglect of the outdoor public realm and streetscape. “No one wants to be here. There’s no here here.” Thus his plan situates a new plaza adjacent to the reconstructed station. It would sit mid-block between two new towers, away from the noise of the wide avenues but directly across from an entrance to McKim’s General Waiting Room. It is a vision that unabashedly draws on the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th century—at the center of which was McKim—and would thus be a kind of fulfillment of Penn Station’s original promise.
Cameron has been promoting this vision for a long time. In 1994, he used the founding editorial of a new journal, The Classicist, to call for no half measures in restoring Penn Station. Whether it’s a Farley Post Office that is no more than a historic shell around a shopping mall or contemporary glass stations that resemble every new airport terminal, such modern plans “blindly assume ourselves to be the cultural as well as technical superiors of our ancestors, and so to refuse to emulate them at any cost.”
Now the classicists may finally have an opening. Though Governor Cuomo claims that the Moynihan Station project will go forward, there is increasing pressure on the owners of the aging Madison Square Garden to move the arena elsewhere, and their lease expires in 2023. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has repeatedly called the post office expansion inadequate and wants the arena to relocate. He is not entirely Cameron’s ally, however. Kimmelman has proposed a new station that reuses the superstructure of Madison Square Garden, creating a giant glass cylinder that would be partially open to the outside and, like the old station, provide natural light for train platforms.
“What is the value of another glass envelope in a city being overrun with them?” asks Cameron. “We are fast becoming another generic international city of faceless, characterless glass structures as it is.” He is confident that if a vote were held among the passengers actually using Penn Station, most would choose his rebuilding proposal over contemporary plans like Kimmelman’s. “I think it would win in a landslide.”
Cameron acknowledges that resurrecting the old station will cost a significant sum, around $2.5 billion, but notes that the modernist World Trade Center Transportation Hub just completed near Ground Zero serves far fewer passengers and cost a staggering $4 billion. What the project needs is a political or celebrity advocate—or both, he says, half-joking that if Donald Trump loses in November, perhaps he can turn his energies to Penn Station.
Rebuilding this landmark should appeal to more than political conservatives and aesthetic traditionalists. Cameron argues that it could be a winning issue even for left-leaning mayor Bill de Blasio—should he care to take the side of the people over modernist ideologues. Once the public becomes aware that bringing back this lost piece of monumental civic art is a realistic option, he is convinced that it will enjoy widespread support. When that day comes, Penn Station, which even the radical poet Langston Hughes honored as a “vast basilica of old,” may once again tower “above the terror of the dark / As bulwark and protection to the soul.”
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative. This article was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
With only about a month until Election Day, it’s time to start preparing for the important foreign-policy battles that will take place in the new White House. Whether it’s the administration of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the country will still face an array of challenges abroad—not least a potential conflict with Russia in Syria—and the usual calls for military intervention.
For the past two years, The American Conservative has gathered some of the country’s most important foreign-policy thinkers to discuss new ways forward for U.S. foreign policy. This year, however, our third annual conference will take place at a critical juncture—exactly one week after the election.
On the morning of Tuesday, November 15 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., we will convene to discuss “Foreign Policy in America’s Interest: Realism, Nationalism, and the Next President.” Confirmed speakers include:
- Jim Webb, former U.S. senator and Secretary of the Navy
- Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East
- James Pinkerton, Fox News contributor
- Robert W. Merry, author of books on American history and foreign policy
- Dimitri Simes, Center for the National Interest
- William Ruger, Charles Koch Institute
- Christopher Layne, Texas A&M University
- Scott McConnell, The American Conservative
I hope you’ll reserve your seat today. There is no admission fee and the conference is open to the public. But there are many costs we must bear to organize this event—and so whether or not you can attend, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to help us cover the expenses of this essential and timely program.
There may be little you can do to influence the course of the election at this late stage, but your donation will help us shape the conversation afterward.
Even on a warm late summer evening, many streets of Midtown Manhattan’s east side feel oddly desolate. A few blocks south of Central Park, along what has been called “corporate row,” the modernist office towers lining Sixth Avenue enter a slumber, most of their workers having gone home. Yet as the wide artery reaches the corner of 53rd Street, there is life on the wide sidewalks, as dozens line up at food carts. One portable kitchen in particular, The Halal Guys, has become a destination rather than a mere convenience for those who happen to be passing through.
The vendors take orders briskly, trying to keep the sidewalk line moving. But then patrons realize that despite the expansive open space surrounding the 45-story tower at the southwest corner of this intersection, there is no good place to sit and eat their lamb gyros and chicken platters—at least nowhere ideal. A few overcrowded benches seem far down the block, and the plaza fronting the former J.C. Penney headquarters is dominated by two large statues surrounded by square reflecting pools. Situated below the low walls of these water features there is a drain about a foot wide that from a distance is easily mistaken for a bench.
And so, seeing no other option, many diners sit on the drain, crouching forward in a rather perilous position: should they forget they are not in fact on a park bench, and inadvertently lean backwards, they will leave with appetites sated, but clothing soaked.
No one dares complain about this unfortunate design flaw. After all, it would seem that the plaza and fountain are not a public park, but on property owned by the building. Street diners are made to feel like squatters. But in fact, they have every right to enjoy the place—the ad-hoc dining room for the food carts is in the odd category of “privately owned public space.” In New York City, these hybrid spaces began appearing when a 1961 zoning resolution allowed developers to build larger and taller towers on the site than normal rules would otherwise have permitted—in exchange for creating more public space.
The 1960s coincided with the heyday of modernist architecture. As the boxy glass towers of the Mad Men era rose along the corridor Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had earlier ambitiously renamed the Avenue of the Americas, they invariably incorporated large public plazas that followed the modernist handbook, featuring clean lines and a utilitarian aesthetic. That didn’t mean these places were actually pleasant for the people they were intended to serve.
As William H. Whyte found in his landmark 1979 study The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, too often the modernist architect saw the space surrounding their buildings as a mere “plinth” on which to display their tower. As such, they treated outdoor furniture like benches as “artifacts,” “the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs,” not offer comfort to the public; the dimensions and design are often awkward and uncomfortable.
In a documentary film and book produced for the Municipal Art Society of New York, Whyte uses time-lapse films of plazas and close-up observation (including of the former J.C. Penney building) to provide basic but important observations such as “people tend to sit where there are places to sit.” His conclusions “might not strike you as an intellectual bombshell,” he admits, but by just watching these places for a few days, one can infer that a few simple elements often make an urban public space successful: street-level visibility, sittable space, exposure to sun, food, water features, and clusters of trees are the primary ingredients in Whyte’s recipe.
The former J.C. Penney plaza, where The Halal Guys cart has enlivened a place that otherwise might be underutilized, would seem to fail primarily in the area of sittable space—though trees would bring some life to what is generally a cold, hard, and forbidding landscape. By providing such popular street food, the vendors have already helped the plaza’s current owners create a space that at least meets one of Whyte’s criteria—access to food. But The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces has now been available for over a generation, so why haven’t such prominent plazas learned a lesson about comfortable seating by now?
Still, there are reasons for advocates for quality public space to be optimistic. The original J.C. Penney plaza, as constructed in 1964, was even worse, “sunk 21 steps below the sidewalk … a narrow, rectangular pit with fixed benches, planters, and a metal fish sculpture.” It was “dark, dreary, and, understandably, rarely used … occasionally closed off by metal chain, as if to keep out the hordes seeking entry.” In 1991, the pit was filled in and the current water features installed, at least making the area more accessible at street level.
For additional inspiration, those trying to retrofit the modernist plazas of Sixth Avenue need only take a walk down to 42nd Street. Bryant Park was once a haven for drug deals and muggings because of reduced visibility and access, as well as a lack of amenities. But after a multiyear renovation explicitly guided by Whyte’s study, the former no-go zone reopened in the 1990s and is now one of the most popular public gathering places in the city. Besides a critical lowering of the park’s terrain to make activities inside less opaque, the renovation also introduced an element that remains key to its popularity: movable chairs and tables. Back in 1979, Whyte explained that allowing plaza users to drag furniture about as it suited their needs was key to them feeling a sense of independence and collective ownership. The proliferation of this practice today has solidified his status as a prophet of good urban design.
In an era when elite planners and architects assumed they knew better than average city dwellers what makes a good public space, Whyte’s study also suggested that when provided with the basic elements needed for success, ordinary people do a good job of bringing both lively interaction and orderliness to urban life. As befits an era that was obsessed with overpopulation, many 1960s designers of urban plazas were concerned about “carrying capacity,” fearing that providing too many amenities would render public spaces chaotic and overcrowded. But as Whyte’s time-lapse photography shows, even the most popular sidewalk spots benefit from a kind of spontaneous order that keeps pedestrian traffic moving with a reasonable number of users.
If this kind of freedom is a key part of urban vibrancy, planners should also ensure that food trucks such as The Halal Guys feel at home. In some cities, these sidewalk carts have been under attack from regulators and brick-and-mortar restaurant lobbies, but such fast food entrepreneurs undoubtedly make better public spaces, and ought to be encouraged, not hindered.
As for the plaza that plays host to The Halal Guys at 1301 Avenue of the Americas, owner the Paramount Group would do well to watch William Whyte’s film. With just a bit of retrofitting, their sidewalk space could be transformed. It’s now a popular place in spite of itself, where people are forced to adapt to marginal conditions. But it can become a space that brings life to the street, providing more customers for the building’s retail tenants and an amenity to all those who work there.
As the great urbanist of the 20th century Jane Jacobs wrote, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Walking through Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood one afternoon a few years ago, I remarked to a friend that the streets surely must represent the epitome of good urban design. A neighborhood of mostly two- and three-story handsome brick townhouses, punctuated by the occasional mid-rise apartment building, it was dense enough to support convenient corner stores; my apartment there was a short walk from drugstores, restaurants, supermarkets, parks, and transportation downtown. Yet abundant trees, porches, and room for private gardens cast a sylvan glow over the place, such that despite a degree of density, one never felt trapped in a concrete jungle.
Still my friend wasn’t ready to glorify Capitol Hill in the planning textbooks. “Well, I don’t know, it’s a bit sprawly,” he replied. At first I was taken aback. The compact district was a far cry from any postwar American suburb, places that are the very definition of sprawl. Then I remembered that my friend was visiting from England; compared to the narrow lanes of Old World towns, the 19th-century neighborhood is indeed almost suburban. It is bisected by broad avenues and most lots even have room for small front yards. Though it was created before cars, the extra room has meant that it can accommodate them, albeit at a lower level than the average American suburb, where households often host more vehicles than persons.
I was reminded of this Atlantic cultural gap recently, when The Economist, a mainstay of elite opinion produced in Britain, declared that “The world is becoming ever more suburban, and the better for it.” The 5,000 word essay takes one on a whirlwind tour, providing a few case studies of suburban life across the broader Anglosphere: booming South India, the ever-expanding American Sunbelt, and postindustrial London belt towns. All of these places, the magazine reports, conform to data that shows the preponderance of urban growth taking place outside the old urban cores. But in its sweeping claim of a “great suburbanization,” the report seems to sidestep a central question: What is a suburb, anyway?
First we arrive in the new outskirts of Chennai, where The Economist reports that a new development could stand in as a Bollywood set for Southern California. After all, it is named “Lakewood Enclave,” a glib tribute to the postwar Los Angeles suburb where so many Baby Boomers, including my mother, were raised by their GI Bill parents.
The new Indian Lakewood is also home to a rising middle class, but in physical form would appear to be a much different place. Where the American Lakewood consisted mostly of detached, single-story homes, pictures of the Chennai suburb show homes more densely packed, all with at least a second floor, and far less outdoor space on each lot. Some of the houses abut five-story apartment blocks. While it may not have brownstone elegance and close proximity to downtown, Lakewood Enclave’s footprint seems closer to Capitol Hill than its Southern California ancestor. It may currently lack the scale and infrastructure of a more established community, but its relatively dense layout would seem to allow for at least one characteristic that is a fundamental part of the urban experience: walkability.
So it is somewhat surprising when The Economist puts the sprawl of Phoenix, Arizona, in the same category. Yes, both Lakewoods and the residential quarters of the desert city follow fundamental suburban patterns, excluding any noisy commerce or polluting industry and building in a uniform manner that enables quick, cheap construction. Yet Maryvale, a once prosperous Phoenix neighborhood that the report extols as a place where poorer families can afford to buy homes on relatively large lots, is part of a metro area that consistently ranks among the nation’s least walkable cities. Everyone needs a car, and many spend several hours a day commuting behind the wheel.
Maryvale is also an example of the economic rollercoaster of boom and bust often engendered by such speculative developments. Families seem to abandon them as quickly as they came, finding little to care about once the new suburb loses its original sheen or better prospects appear elsewhere. Perhaps this is simply the American way, or the result of market forces, but the abandoned infrastructure creates drawbacks—consider the waste and environmental disaster created by abandoned cities like Detroit—that planning officials could mitigate.
The problem with the suburb is not its location outside the urban core or primarily residential character. Instead, a lack of attention to form and aesthetic considerations has resulted in throwaway places that are not adaptable for future generations. In this vein, it is surprising that there is no reference in The Economist’s report to New Urbanism, a movement that in the wake of the failures of postwar Urban Renewal programs, is drawing on traditional forms to create or retrofit existing places that will serve multiple generations, accommodate a diverse swath of income levels, and not require a car for every errand or outing. (This last feature is particularly important for the developed world’s growing elderly population. My 95-year-old grandmother, not content to live among only older people in a retirement home, is now marooned in a California suburb.)
My own current neighborhood fits this definition of a suburb that lacks the negative aspects of postwar sprawl. A 20-minute train ride from the center of Philadelphia, it boasts a retail and small office district within a short walk of most homes. Built before the car displaced the railroad, it now offers multiple modes of transport—including one’s own two feet—and while our family has only one car, there are some residents with children who choose not to have even one. The Economist contends that “as suburbs come to seem more urban, the distinction between central cities and their suburbs is blurring…” But in the case of the prewar suburb, the blurring began long ago.
Lewis McCrary is Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at The Fund for American Studies.
This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Despite his recognition as one of the great modernists of the 20th century, postwar architect Louis Kahn claimed to be inspired by the crumbling edifices of the ancients. After trips to Italy, Greece, and Egypt, he developed his signature style: “I thought of the beauty of ruins … of things which nothing lives behind … and so I thought of wrapping ruins round buildings.” Fittingly for an architect influenced by the remains of temples and other sacred spaces, Kahn’s final commission was a public monument.
New York City’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, designed by Kahn shortly before his death in 1974, finally opened last fall, four decades after it was first conceived and several generations after the 32nd president’s 1941 speech setting out the moral case for the coming war in terms of “freedom of speech,” “freedom of worship,” “freedom from want,” and “freedom from fear.” The Four Freedoms rhetoric would outlive Roosevelt and become a cornerstone of the American-led postwar international order, what was hoped to be a new era of perpetual peace and universal human rights.
The new tribute to this grand vision occupies a dramatic space at the southern tip of a narrow island in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. Around the same time the memorial was commissioned, the city renamed the 147 acres after FDR, and today Roosevelt Island is an increasingly upscale urban neighborhood, its thousands of residents connected to midtown Manhattan by an aerial tramway.
But it wasn’t always so idyllic. Before the FDR rebranding, it was known for decades as Welfare Island, a legacy of its history as the place where the city sent all its undesirables. From the early 19th century, the sick, insane, and destitute—and until the 1930s, most of the city’s convicts—were housed in this purgatory in the East River.
Most of the infrastructure of prisons and asylums has been demolished or repurposed, and today high-rises dominate the island. Yet one prominent reminder of the past, the 1856 Smallpox Hospital, sits abandoned and in advanced decay. Executed in the Gothic Revival style by James Renwick Jr.—who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the original Smithsonian Institution—it is a genuine ruin just steps from Kahn’s newly constructed one.
Given the island’s slender profile, under 800 feet wide in most places, a visitor en route to Four Freedoms Park cannot avoid encountering the former hospital, which officials plan to stabilize but leave in its current romantic condition. Dark stone walls, embattled parapets, and pointed-arch windows provide the illusion of medieval origin, and it is hard to imagine a more striking contrast to the FDR memorial and the new era it represents. The age of the charity hospital, imperfect but ornate, gives way to the abstract yet shining promise of the new world order and the welfare state, a place where diseases like smallpox are eradicated.
Approaching Kahn’s park—a series of outdoor spaces surrounded by bright white granite—one is nearly blinded. The entrance, a wide series of shallow steps, is set into a 12-foot slab that rises at an angle, like some ancient Aztec or Egyptian structure, and stands high enough to obscure what waits above and beyond.
Ascending this staircase suddenly reveals the memorial’s largest space, a triangular plaza. Sparingly landscaped, it features a lawn flanked by two symmetrical rows of linden trees, under which cobblestone paths meet at the same point several hundred feet away. The converging walkways are an impressive visual trick, making the space appear larger than it is.
The clean lines first evoke a Parisian green, but the lack of furniture reminds one that despite its designation as a park, this is not a place for leisure. Indeed the memorial’s posted rules require that visitors leave picnics and pets at home in order to “preserve its sanctity.” The lawn space instead acts as the nave of a cathedral, a place that points to more hallowed precincts beyond.
At the terminus of both arboreal colonnades—the formal tone suggests walking on the grass is scorned—one is deposited in front of a Goliath-sized bust of FDR. Suspended in a large, recessed niche, it appears to float like the giant head in the Wizard of Oz.
But beyond this portrayal of Roosevelt as the Oracle of Hyde Park lies Kahn’s most dramatic feature. On either side of the small forecourt containing the bust, one enters a space that widens slightly to form an outdoor room, open to the sky but surrounded on three sides by 12-foot-high slabs of gleaming white granite. Upon crossing the threshold to this tomb-like space, one directly faces the fourth side, completely open to the river and the Manhattan skyline, prominently framing the United Nations complex.
Here anyone who has been to presidential memorials in Washington expects to see the words of the great man chiseled into the tablets for the ages. On one central panel the visitor is not disappointed. Ninety-seven words that form the key passage of the 1941 State of the Union address are faithfully reproduced, ensuring one doesn’t leave without actually encountering Roosevelt’s formulation of the Four Freedoms:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want … everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear … anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
A score of additional slabs line the 60-foot-square space, all unadorned. The overall effect is more unsettling than inspiring—a feeling that the tabernacle is empty. Gazing a short distance across the water at Turtle Bay, the UN complex, perhaps the most lasting legacy of FDR’s vision, appears as a sad relic of another era, when the victorious Allies were confident that a permanent international order would rise from the ashes of World War II.
In choosing Kahn, Roosevelt Island’s planners may have simply been deferring to a man considered one of the most cutting-edge architects of the 1970s. But their choice has inadvertently resulted in a monument that presents the Four Freedoms as a cold, technical formula. Both Kahn’s monument and FDR’s doctrine overemphasize form at the expense of narrative.
Other attempts to canonize the Four Freedoms were more successful. Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings on them helped the U.S. Treasury raise $132 million in war bonds. Another monument commissioned by FDR himself used four angels to represent the freedoms—once revealed to great fanfare in Madison Square Garden, it now resides in obscurity in a small town in the Florida panhandle, hometown of an early war hero who died in combat at Pearl Harbor.
One of the most famous depictions of political freedom lies downstream from Roosevelt Island in New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty provides an allegory that enables many potent narratives, including the celebrated lines from the sonnet inscribed at its base: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” It is an image that endures because it tells a powerful story.
Whether the lack of similar energy in the new FDR memorial is due to the shortfalls of Kahn’s method or the eclipse of the Four Freedoms internationalist vision, the park is a missed opportunity—it was a place positioned to be an American analog to Paris’s Île de la Cité, the site of Notre Dame. But visitors to Roosevelt Island can instead take a page from the Victorians and picnic under the ruins of Renwick’s hospital, remembering a time when monuments drew on the full range of human passions, displaying those elusive qualities that lie between form and function but make all the difference.
Lewis McCrary is managing editor of The National Interest.
In the December issue of First Things, editor R.R. Reno discusses his recent visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Though he went in part to see the panels that commemorate friends who died there, he is uncomfortable with the memorial’s emphasis on individual — rather than corporate — mourning. Reno finds that in eschewing any kind of collective experience, the memorial becomes little more than a cold reminder of death as a nihilistic end devoid of any collective meaning.
Men do not erect public monuments and memorials to serve as objective, dispassionate records of historical events. At their best they shape our consciousness of the past for the sake of our common life in the future. Therein lies the failure of the 9/11 Memorial. A quiet, peaceful place of repose amidst a busy city — it will be cherished by future Wall Street workers as a nice place for lunch on a sunny day. But its design serves no future, conjuring instead the blank, perpetual, unchanging power of death, and encouraging the atomizing particularity of personal memory.
Reno claims that he isn’t against the simple modernist aesthetic in some cases, particularly as used in the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington. Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam wall, was on the 9/11 Memorial jury, and the influence shows: the long subterranean wall of nearly 60,000 names, with little ornament or room for decorative shrines or imagery, echoes the sunken pools and engraved name plates recently installed in Lower Manhattan.
But Reno finds that because of the Vietnam wall’s geographical context — on the National Mall in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and numerous other monuments to a great American story — it “purifies patriotism rather than undermining it.” In contrast, the postmodern 9/11 Memorial lacks a counterbalancing context, but also fails in part because it doesn’t remember soliders called by duty to their country, but rather ordinary civilians going about their daily lives. This misses the point of collective mourning, says Reno, who contends that these “atomized” individuals must instead stand for a moment of much larger significance, in which
[They] died because Osama bin Laden planned a terrorist attack, not on them as individuals, but on us as Americans. They died as citizens and residents of a global superpower. It is dishonest to suppress this fact, as the 9/11 Memorial does. Read More…
Evangelical churches have made use of technology like PowerPoint for years, but now some Catholic priests think the stodgy environment of older parishes might be enhanced by installing LCD screens in the pews. The New Yorker reports:
Monsignor Donald Sakano, of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in Little Italy … has long since stopped feeling embarrassed when people ask him tricky theological questions and he has to Google the answers. “Before, I would just have to look smart and try to respond to them,” he says. Now he never gets it wrong. Sakano sees tremendous potential in the Catholic Church’s embrace of the digital. He is currently working on a project to outfit Old St. Pat’s sanctuary with flat-panel monitors in a way that won’t disrupt the vertical sight lines of the Gothic design. “Ideally,” he told me, “we’d have tiny screens on the back of the pews, like at the Metropolitan opera. Can you imagine? We’d be able to send parishioners personalized messages.” He wonders if a digital offertory could be incorporated into the mass somehow, so that the moment of giving would be preserved, but people wouldn’t have to carry cash. And he thinks that digitizing all the books in the church would help with the clutter problem: the Catholic Church is currently making changes to the mass (a version “more faithful to the original Latin” goes into effect on November 27th), he told me, and new books and hymnals have been pouring in. Wouldn’t it be better without “these big, fat books?”
Msgr. Sakano is probably also excited about the iPhone app for confessions, which is billed as the “the perfect aid for every penitent” — until the penitent gets a notification about the latest sports scores or Facebook updates while receiving the sacrament.
Catholic mass is one of the few public places where people still look askance at smart phone usage. The individual screens would seem a detriment to a central goal of the mass: bringing a parish community together to celebrate the mystery of the real presence that takes place up on the altar — not on some pocket or seat-back LCD screen.
There’s also an argument for tithing via old-fashioned cash or check, so Visa or Mastercard won’t be taking a cut from the church.
So no, it wouldn’t be better without those “big, fat books.”
NPR’s Tom Ashbrook interviewed Israeli novelist Amos Oz this week. Besides Oz’s outspoken calls for a two-state solution, it was intriguing to hear about Oz’s new book Scenes From a Village Life, and how he was influenced by the American writer Sherwood Anderson, author of the Winesburg, Ohio series.
Oz eschews the “world of CNN,” writing that the way to understand the human condition is to examine the very local, simple things:
When I was 16 and hoping to become a writer, I felt I was trapped in a Catch-22 situation. I thought that in order to become a famous writer I had to first live in a big city like London, or New York, or Paris — but in order to afford to live in a big city, I had to be a famous writer first. … Then I read the Hebrew translation of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and he taught me that for a writer, the place that you are is the center of the universe. This is anti-Copernican. … This liberated my writing hand and set me going.
On why “place” in literature matters:
Almost all my favorite writers, my mentors, were provincial writers, who wrote about small-time people in small places, in villages or small towns. Chekhov, Garcia Marquez, Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, and many others. I strongly believe that a novel — the more provincial it is, the universal it may become; the more local it is, the more universal it may become; even the more parochial it is, the more universal it may become. This is in the nature of good literature. It tells the story of small-time people in a small place, in a remote place, and somehow it hits a chord of solidarity in the hearts of many, many readers.
On different kinds of readers:
Unhappy readers are my best readers. … The Israelis are not like the Americans. The Americans read a novel to enjoy it. The Israelis read in order to get worked up. They read to disagree; they read to differ.
You can listen to the whole interview here.
On the day when all the headlines are about the UN’s official world headcount hitting 7 billion, it’s worth noting that a former cornerstone of American protestantism also hit another ominous milestone. The Episcopal Church — by some counts, the religious home of more American presidents than any other denomination — reported last week that its membership has declined below the 2 million mark. For some perspective, note that the Mormon Church claims at least three times this number of adherents in the U.S., with independent surveys showing closer to 5 million Americans who self-identify as Mormon.
By most accounts, the Episcopal Church set itself on a steep downward glide when it embraced more liberal theology:
At their peak, Episcopalians in the United States numbered 3.6 million members, which was in 1966. Along with other mainline Protestant denominations, the church declined from the 1960s to the present.
Many exited the denomination following the 2003 consecration of openly gay bishop the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson and later the decision in 2009 by The Episcopal Church’s highest legislative body to open the ordination process to all baptized members, which many saw as giving the green light to practicing homosexuals.
Some 100,000 conservative members left and formed their own body, called the Anglican Church in North America, that year (2009). Read More…
A veteran of Washington journalism takes on The National Interest
Every politico knows K Street, the avenue that is the symbolic center of the Washington lobbying industry. But how many have heard of a small patch north of that broad avenue, the center of the capital’s think tanks and intellectual life? To the northeast of Farragut Square, in a triangle roughly defined by L Street, Massachusetts Avenue, and 17th St.—Washington’s idea alleys—sit a majority of the engines of public policy.
The old guard resides on stately Massachusetts Avenue, a showcase of the postwar optimism for elite central planning: Brookings, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Johns Hopkins’ Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, at various times home to foreign-policy heavyweights like Francis Fukuyama, Paul Wolfowitz, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Turn south and you encounter the fruit of a neoconservative reaction against the postwar establishment that began in the 1960s, flowered in the Reagan years, and continues to provide the blueprint for Republican administrations: the American Enterprise Institute and The Weekly Standard both occupy one nondescript building at the corner of 17th and M, directly across from that home of benign imperialism via photojournalism, National Geographic.
L Street, one block further south, is home to the relative newcomers to DC’s idea alleys—the centrist New America Foundation, the libertarian Cato Institute, and the Pew Research Center. A few floors above Pew are the offices of The Center for the National Interest, formerly known as the Nixon Center. The center may not have the impressive edifice of Brookings or the sumptuous lunches of AEI, but it is here that realists—international relations experts who reject the dominant discourse of liberal interventionism—have some skin in the game. And they’ve just signed a new heavyweight to lead their flagship journal, The National Interest (TNI).
Robert Merry, who became editor of TNI in September, is not widely known outside the Beltway. But he is a veteran of Washington journalism, having covered Congress and the Reagan White House for the Wall Street Journal before leaving day-to-day reporting for Congressional Quarterly (CQ), which he later led as CEO for a dozen years. Along the way he found time to write three books in fields as varied as 20th-century journalism, antebellum presidential history, and foreign policy.
Merry had long considered moving closer to policy advocacy. “I always contemplated perhaps getting into polemical journalism,” he admits. “I was recruited twice by Bob Bartley to join the Wall Street Journal editorial page.” He wasn’t ready to leave reporting then—he had also “become beguiled by the entrepreneurial spirit of the early Reagan years”—and the rigorously non-partisan CQ precluded any editorializing. Yet it was the need to publicly critique the principles behind the second Bush administration’s interventionism that motivated his 2005 book, Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition.
“Does America want to become a Crusader State promoting a universal culture and extolling presumed universal values that must be spread throughout the world in the righteous cause of peace?” Merry asked. “Or will any such missionary zeal inevitably collide with other world cultures and thus spread conflict and turmoil?”
The book caught the eye of realists, including Center for the National Interest president Dimitri Simes. When the editorship of TNI became vacant, Simes called Merry and a new era at The National Interest began.
Merry’s appointment marks a significant moment for the journal that began as a project of Irving Kristol, father of neoconservatism—a school today known for advocating a thoroughgoing interventionist foreign policy. TNI first came to prominence in 1989 after publishing a provocative essay by a 37-year-old political scientist named Francis Fukuyama. In “The End of History?” Fukuyama posited that “we may be witnessing … not just the end of the Cold War … but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
“I consider that to be one of the really truly dubious theses that has never been appropriately killed off,” says Merry. He points out in Sands of Empire that even Kristol eventually dismissed Fukuyama’s narrative of progress, saying, “I don’t believe a word of it.”
In the pacific 1990s, The National Interest was a forum for both realists and neoconservatives, the latter seeing the “end of history” as a call to Wilsonian idealism and democracy promotion. The two camps had been allies in the Cold War, but with that era over, they became uneasy bedfellows. The fissures began in 2001, when the Nixon Center took ownership of TNI from Irving Kristol and James Schlesinger became publisher. Even after that reorganization, divides were still apparent. Adam Garfinkle, then TNI’s editor, wrote that in an “age of New-Economy Wilsonianism” America should pursue a strategy “that expands the deep peace, preserves American primacy, and spreads Wilsonian institutions worldwide.” Then came 9/11 and Iraq, and the tension between the two camps rose to a head. In 2005, Fukuyama left to form The American Interest, and Garfinkle became editor of the new spinoff. After 20 years, realists had taken full control of the TNI masthead.
Merry makes no bones about the journal’s philosophical commitments, questioning “whether its identity in the realm of foreign policy realism is as coherent and consistent as it could be.” He wants to make clear that TNI’s editors “stand for realism in foreign policy,” not only through big theory pieces on the scale of “The End of History?—though Merry admits that they “are important” and “can get you attention if they’re provocative and if they say something really serious that people can’t ignore”—but also by finding a balance with coverage of unfolding events, both from academics and journalists.
“We need to give our readers a thorough understanding of what’s really happening in some of these regions and potential hotspots around the world. If you believe that Wilsonian dreamy idealism is not really the prism to look at these events, then we have something to offer.” Merry is also confident that TNI’s website can find a niche as the place to turn for serious analysis to supplement breaking international stories. “The mainstream media is usually about a week behind” in producing these kinds of backgrounders, he observes.
TNI remains committed to serious debate, Merry insists, an approach that may evoke the spirit of Irving Kristol, who in the 1980s left the academy and New York for what he saw as Washington’s more lively and tolerant intellectual culture. The realist identity of TNI, says Merry, “has to balance off our interest in stirring debate and discussion—sometimes heated discussion. And you can’t have that unless you have multiple sides of an argument presented.”
He agrees with Kristol that the 1980s marked a flowering of intellectual life in the idea alleys of Washington, but he laments the result, with interventionists dominating both parties. His long view of history—which, following Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, sees civilizations as caught up in great cycles of rise and decline—lends hope to his realist colleagues. America may indeed be in decline, he says, and someone has to speak to that reality. In the 1950s, he points out, William F. Buckley and National Review were a “voice in the wilderness,” out of which emerged a movement of then unimaginable scale.
But the intellectuals in the alleys can’t achieve much without political support, particularly presidential leadership—the subject of his forthcoming book—and that leadership has to acknowledge the crossroads at which America stands. “We’re still living in the world created by FDR,” he says. And when the right “political manifestation” of a paradigm shift comes along, realists need to be ready.
Merry has the measured demeanor of a man used to observing things from the press box—not throwing food fights on cable TV. But the idea alleys shouldn’t underestimate his determination to lead the realist camp to a new prominence. Under his leadership, The National Interest is sure to cause anxiety among interventionists of all stripes, reminding them that their current cycle of dominance may be coming to an end. Merry is fond of saying that while there are no certain ends, history still moves with a “crushing force”—and no one can escape it, not even the advocates of progress.
Lewis McCrary is a TAC senior editor.