Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.
The one constant about World’s Fairs and Expositions—from Chicago’s White City to the several Expositions Universelles in Paris to the New York World’s Fair of 1939—is that you cannot in any meaningful sense go to see them. It’s not merely that the midways are empty, Buffalo Bill dead, the dancing girls clothed, and “Forbidden Tibet” forbidden. The physical imprint of almost every single exposition of the golden age from the 1870s to the 1930s has been almost completely effaced, with remnants typically constituting one or two relics and some landscaping.
There are very few exceptions. But your best bet for immersion today is in Dallas’s Fair Park, a stunning time capsule from 1936 with 26 buildings remaining from the Texas Centennial Exhibition. Fair Park has been and remains the host of the Texas State Fair since 1886, so a spectacle persists every fall for three weeks. Many decades later, the difficult problem is what to do with these stellar grounds the other 11 months of the year. And the question is how Dallas can enliven this huge urban monument today—even as there is no question that the 1936 legacy of Texas should be both celebrated and preserved.
Though Fair Park’s landmark exhibition was not technically a “World” exposition, it drew on a very considerable range of national and international talent, and lived up to Texas’s reputation for gigantism in all of the best ways. As Jim Parsons and David Bush write in their book, Fair Park Deco: “In 1936, most of the United States knew little about Texas. If Americans thought of the state at all, they probably imagined it as a vast frontier filled with cowboys and oil wells. Centennial publicists, armed with a $500,000 allocation from Austin, were perfectly happy to use those misconceptions to their advantage, spinning them into decidedly sentimental symbols of the Lone Star State.”
You can no longer see Cab Calloway or Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Base Camp recreation, Judge Roy Bean’s Courtroom, “Midget City” (featuring “the miniature Mae West”), a crime prevention exhibit (with mock electric chair executions), or Orson Welles’s Macbeth, but yesterday’s dreams of tomorrow are available in this magnificent art deco ensemble.
The espanalade is a dazzling sight: a Beaux-Arts vista executed in art deco form, with murals and statues lining the whole of the fair’s ensemble around the reflecting pool. The overall design was done by Texas architect George Dahl, with input from notable Philadelphian Paul Cret. The exhibit drew on talents of Texas and far beyond. Carlo Ciampaglia’s murals at the 1939 World’s Fair are gone but are plentiful here. Raoul Josset’s sculptures at the same are gone but present here. Donald Barthelme Senior (father of the novelists Donald and Frederick) designed the ensemble’s crowning Hall of State.
The trouble is what you do with a fair when it’s over. E.L. Doctorow’s youthful alter ego goes to the New York World’s Fair twice in his novel of that name. Most don’t attend even that regularly. A fair is intrinsically an occasional thing.
The question of Fair Park’s future came to the fore in a recent decision by the city of Dallas to transfer management of the property to a non-profit group. Fair Park First, which has arranged with Spectra, an entertainment management group, will run daily operations of the park in a 20-year contract.
Fair Park is home to several museums and institutions that fill original buildings, and a few constructed later. These include the African American Museum of Dallas, a Children’s Aquarium, the Texas Discovery Gardens (descended from the Centennial Exhibition’s horticulture garden), and a variety of performance spaces, including Cotton Bowl Stadium, a bandshell, a coliseum, and a music hall.
Fair Park is host in some form or another to 11 of the 20 biggest events in North Texas.
The main trouble has been filling the park when events are not occurring, which speaks to problems typical of spaces oriented around large events whenever those events have shuttered as well as some problems very specific to a priceless cultural ensemble.
Some have argued that this is due to the grip of the State Fair, demanding that much of the soil lie fallow for all of the year save when their crops are planted.
A 2017 report by the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a local non-profit, argued this at length, and if their conclusion seems overstated, elements of their argument nonetheless resonate: “For most of the year, Fair Park is a tragedy of vast underused or deteriorating space. It certainly does not reflect the original vision as a ‘park for the whole people, for the whole time.’” It notes that almost 75 percent of the space is occupied by asphalt, with an additional 70 adjacent acres owned by the State Fair used overwhelmingly for parking. It asks: “How did this happen? How did a 277-acre park near downtown, in South and East Dallas, once the high ground of city culture, become a decaying relic?”
Ken Smith, president of the Revitalize South Dallas Coalition, points to a decades-long flight of core institutions from the park as a source of general etiolation. The Dallas Museum of Art relocated in 1984, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the Dallas Opera in 2009, and, most recently, the Museum of Science in 2012, which made occasional use of its former Fair Park facilities but has gradually been phasing out their use. All of these relocated to precisely the same neighborhood, Dallas’s Arts District.
As Smith observes, “We made a conscious political decision to take those institutions that were keeping Fair Park vibrant and we started putting all of our money into the Arts District. Then we say why aren’t you doing better, Fair Park? Is it their fault that our city chose to take the arts and leave it as a carcass?”
One restaurant, the Old Mill Inn, which previously operated seven days a week, shifted to a limited schedule after the Science Museum’s departure. The African American Museum and the Texas Hall of State, containing a tremendous selection of murals, are open every day. The Aquarium and Texas Discovery Gardens are popular destinations. Other museums have opened and closed: the Dallas Women’s Museum shuttered in 2011.
Some of these issues have related to the Fair’s requirements for space. Willis Winters, director of the Dallas Parks Department and author of a book on Fair Park, points out that “a lot of the large exhibition halls that the State Fair uses can’t have permanent tenants because the city’s contract to the State Fair gives them full rights during the fair.” He notes, “We had an automobile museum of classic cars that had to move out. They gave up because it didn’t work for them.”
The State Fair has been one attraction that hasn’t left Fair Park and remains a valuable source of revenue. Mitchell Glieber, president of the State Fair of Texas, notes that the fair has contributed $18.5 million in revenue to Fair Park over the last four years, and has conducted other improvements of benefit to Fair Park when it is not in operation.
There have been varied suggestions about achieving a better balance of uses or somewhat shifting the Fair’s footprint or altering its set-up and tear-down time, but the fair is a vital part of the park to most observers. Glieber noted that preparation and removal of fair facilities are complicated undertakings, pointing out that “there are literally dozens and dozens of events that take place during fair setup.”
Most of the institutions in the park experience their largest attendances during the fair.
The struggles of Fair Park are not unfamiliar to other American fairgrounds, many of which are empty almost all of the year, or sporting or concert facilities. It’s a problem not far removed from Olympic facilities, which Matt Wood, head of the non-profit group Friends of Fair Park, appreciates, given his prior involvement with Dallas Olympic bids.
“You have to look at not what just happens for an event,” he says. “What’s its five-year, 10-year, 50-year impact? What’s its impact on the community?”
Wood noted that there are limits to the recreational aspect: “It was designed to be a festival space. It wasn’t designed to be central park.”
If the park was undeniably more active with more cultural institutions and could benefit from more, then museums alone are inadequate, he suggests: “Museums don’t make great primary draws; they’re great secondary activities, which is why many of the museums moved downtown because there’s Monday through Friday activity nearby.”
A majority of the great fairs of yesteryear were intrinsically evanescent, built to be destroyed, with many of the most seemingly opulent sharing a material foundation of staff, a compound containing some cement, but much larger amounts of plaster of Paris, often strengthened by fibers or literal sackcloth. It wouldn’t last, and was torn down before it would decay in Paris in 1878 and 1889, Chicago in 1893, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, and elsewhere. This was relative material luxury; later fairs such as Chicago’s Century of Progress were built largely out of plywood—possibly not much progress!
Fair Park was an exception, building structures out of more durable materials. Some were subsequently demolished and many decayed greatly. Much of the art adorning these buildings was painted over. Despite a number of much larger threats over time, the considerable majority survived and restoration efforts beginning in the early 1980s have restored many of their original 1936 features.
Part of the trouble is that, for all of the varied urban sobriquets applied to large expositions and fairs, from Chicago’s White City to Buffalo’s Rainbow City (a common nickname for The Pan-American Exposition of 1901) and onwards, they’ve more often been a vision of fantasy urbanism than the real thing, even beyond their temporary construction. Sometimes their sites are highly central, such as Paris’s Champ de Mars, but more often they are located in fairgrounds or used as schemes to improve or create parkland on the urban periphery. Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is not exactly well connected to its surroundings. Balboa Park in San Diego, host of the California-Pacific International Exhibition (and the most substantial surviving complex in the U.S. beyond Fair Park), consisted of a simulacrum of a dense urban core in the middle of a park.
Even better connected events, such as the World’s Columbian Exhibition, share a highly anti-urban feature: ticket gates. Walkable and visually appealing urban landscapes behind gates, poorly connected to any street grid, is the story of, well, Disneyland: it’s no surprise that Walt’s father, Elias Disney, worked as a carpenter on the World’s Columbian Exposition. Walt visited others and constructed attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
The situation in Dallas, in terms of the Fair’s connection to the city surrounding it, began poor and became very deliberately worse over time. Ken Smith notes that in the past, “Fair Park was trying to keep the nearby community out.” The Fairgrounds pursued a purposeful strategy of acquiring and demolishing land in nearby largely African-American neighborhoods, not for expansion of facilities but for expansion of parking. One 1966 report on the Fairgrounds cited “intense emotional discomfort in middle-class white residents” concerning the area around the park.
There seems to be no one who isn’t intent on trying to change this at present. All concerned want to forge a better connection with surrounding neighborhoods, with a park (or more than one park) on its periphery a declared aim of Fair Park First. In earlier plans, the full south side of the site was to be converted to a large park. This may not happen, but something will. As Wood explains, “There’s a misconception that the neighborhoods aren’t welcome. We’re trying to create corridors. Come over here; this is your park; come in here!” Smith notes that “the fence needs to come down.”
Willis Winters, who agreed with the necessity of better connections to the surrounding community, noted that there are still some practical constraints: “We’re interested in taking that barrier down as much as we can but we still need to maintain control for events in the park.”
The park is free every day that events are not occurring, but this may not be easily perceived. A recent Saturday visit saw mainly empty grounds.
Culture and recreation may not be adequate to populate Fair Park. Wood mentions a former proposal for the Dallas Community College to locate their culinary school in the former Women’s Museum as the sort of solution that could guarantee regular circulation: “Rather than a museum which has to attract a new visitor every day there are 500 students coming in every weekday.” He brings up other prospects for filling the buildings, spaces for dance and theater that “would literally just involve putting in a stage” or other arts and arts education events. He suggests that it would prove an ideal site for the Dallas International Film Festival or for other film shoots.
There are real problems of deferred maintenance, which is estimated to hover in the realm of $250 million. Some buildings lack a certificate of occupancy.
Smith recounts some realities of lengthy neglect: “If you go into the Hall of State when it’s raining there are literally buckets catching the water. In the springtime the auditorium can’t be used because it floods.
Smith argues that a prime trouble has been the “variety of fiefdoms” that constitutes Fair Park. “We think that bringing in new management is the answer but the new management is still in the same bureaucratic convoluted straightjacket that the old one was. We have not eliminated the straightjacket.”
He remains hopeful that Fair Park First might devise a solution, suggesting that coordination between the Park’s constituent elements was essential and that “each resident institution needs to operate on all cylinders as a standalone entity.”
Other examples of this type of built environment are relatively rare. Balboa Park in San Diego has a more robust set of tenant institutions, including the city’s main art museum, natural history museum, and science center (with a total of 16 museums) but struggles with some similar issues. Exposition Park in Los Angeles, which is a somewhat smaller version of the same with stronger resident institutions, houses Los Angeles’s major league soccer team, their principal Natural History Museum and Science Center, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and will soon be host to George Lucas’s Museum of Narrative Art.
More recent exposition grounds suffer from fewer preservation burdens but similar difficulties just staying tenanted and busy. Hemisfair Park in San Antonio has a number of unused pavilions and has built a hotel and is adding apartments and commercial space. At the site of the 1962 World’s Fair of Space Needle fame, the Seattle Center grounds are relatively vibrant, but some spaces sit empty and unused.
Many of these spaces are of a scale that echoes Jane Jacobs’s criticism of another megaproject, Lincoln Center, as an unnatural isolation of culture from ordinary activity of the city—though the scale of these fairgrounds can make Lincoln Center look positively modest. In any case, when cultural facilities are spread across the urban fabric, they are obviously more easily integrated with their surroundings or repurposed. There is no arguing with a fundamentally unique treasure such as Fair Park, however, and we can only hope that it devises a formula for success.
Fair Park draws widespread plaudits as an institution not merely academically but personally important to the citizens of North Texas. As Willis Winters observes, the place is “so central to our city. My first college football game, my first professional football game, my first opera, my first symphony visit, my first fair—all were at Fair Park. It’s been so important to my life and so important to many residents of this city.”
Anthony Paletta has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Few are immune to the architectural charms of Eastern Europe. Prague’s winding streets and medieval towers are a testament to the city’s enduring commercial vitality. The gothic imprint of German settlement can be seen as far east as Romania, where a distinctly Teutonic cathedral looms over the Brasov town square. The architectural signature of the Habsburgs—pastel colors and baroque ornamentation—remains from Krakow and Lviv in the north, to the Adriatic port of Trieste, to Budapest and Bratislava, even as languages change and national borders interpose themselves. In Sarajevo, the baroque style gives way to the minarets and narrow streets of the Islamic old town, reminding visitors that Bosnia was once part of the Ottoman Turkish heartland.
Not all of the region’s architecture is charming. Belgrade and Warsaw were flattened during the Second World War. Ugly apartment blocks and squat concrete buildings are grim reminders of the Soviet era. Newer glass-and-steel hotels jostle uneasily with older structures. Lacking in resources, many historic buildings have gone from charmingly ramshackle to completely run-down.
Still, the variegated architecture of Eastern Europe puts lie to the notion that in matters of taste, anything goes. Residents and tourists alike flock to old squares and charming historic districts. Newer buildings are functional but unloved. In the wake of the tragic Notre Dame de Paris fire, debates about design in the public square have re-emerged along political fault lines. Instead of turning architecture into another front in the culture war, we should ask ourselves a simple question: Where have all the beautiful buildings gone?
In the United States, the major flashpoint is brutalism, a post-war style that marries imposing concrete-and-steel design with stripped-down functionalism. Left-wingers darkly warn of the alt-right “infiltrating” architecture twitter under the guise of criticizing brutalist buildings. Others defend brutalism as a symbol of our lapsed commitment to public housing and economic justice.
Though brutalism is defended on both aesthetic and political grounds, the two arguments are difficult to reconcile. To a certain type of critic, brutalism represents “heroic architecture,” the realization of an individual designer’s vision in concrete and steel. Mid-century pioneers of brutalism like Le Corbusier and Ernő Goldfinger were minor celebrities. Le Corbusier’s architectural vision was uncompromisingly individualistic, unmoored from tradition or conventional ideas about form and beauty. It is no accident that Howard Roark, the fictional protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, was also an iconoclastic architect. (Roark’s aesthetic sensibilities were closer to Frank Lloyd Wright than Le Corbusier, and the Swiss architect probably would have bridled at Roark’s politics, but the parallels between the two are unmissable.)
To a few intellectuals, brutalist buildings are heroic achievements, but the public has never warmed to them. When Naples’ notorious Gomorrah housing project was recently torn down, the loudest naysayers were professional architects. Actual residents had long complained about the buildings’ conditions. But if you’re not willing to defend the aesthetics of brutalism, ideology will suffice. So says today’s leftist journal Jacobin, trumpeting “Save Our Brutalism,” and lauding the great mid-century brutalist buildings as potent symbols of our now-forgotten commitment to equality.
Defending brutalist buildings on ideological grounds only highlights the divide between design and the lived experience of a building’s residents. As James C. Scott points out in Seeing Like a State, there is a profound gulf between the God’s-eye view of architects and policy-makers and the ground-level view of actual inhabitants, who have to live with brutalism’s unforgiving sterility. From the air or from a distance, Oscar Niemeyer’s vision of Brasilia is a striking achievement. To the city’s inhabitants, however, the Le Corbusier-inspired design is artificial and alienating. Brutalism proposed to strip buildings down to their barest functions, yet it fails at the basic task of providing a welcoming, visually-appealing space for residents and passers-by.
Ascribing a single ideological message to a diffuse architectural movement is also mistaken. Perhaps Jacobin subscribers equate brutalism with public housing, but the meaning is more sinister in Eastern Europe. The tiered design of the Gomorrah housing projects bears a marked resemblance to the resorts built for Communist apparatchiks on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Your average Latvian is more likely to associate these buildings with Soviet-era repression and mismanagement than left-wing nostrums about equality. Enver Hoxha’s Albania produced some striking examples of brutalist architecture. Hoxha, not coincidentally, was a notorious tyrant.
Design fads come and go and political sensibilities change, but the technocratic, top-down worldview that undergirds brutalism persists. In 2011, the Dutch celebrity architect Rem Koolhass was quite open about his preference for “the generic city” over architecture rooted in local culture or history:
The traditional city is very much occupied by rules and codes of behavior. But the generic city is free of established patterns and expectations. These are cities that make no demands and, consequently, create freedom. Some 80 percent of the population of a city like Dubai consists of immigrants, while in Amsterdam it is 40 percent. I believe that it’s easier for these demographic groups to walk through Dubai, Singapore or HafenCity than through beautiful medieval city centers. For these people, (the latter) exude nothing but exclusion and rejection. In an age of mass immigration, a mass similarity of cities might just be inevitable. These cities function like airports in which the same shops are always in the same places. Everything is defined by function, and nothing by history. This can also be liberating.
Technocrats once spoke the language of socialism and central planning; Koolhass and his ilk are more likely invoke markets, openness, and globalization. But the underlying impulse is the same: Society can be cataloged, organized, and ultimately shaped from the top down through the design of its cities and buildings. Beauty, tradition, and culture are secondary considerations.
Even if we dismiss brutalism as a fad perpetrated by blinkered technocrats and egotistical architects, ugly buildings expose ugly truths. Pervasive ugliness seems to impose an unconscious psychic tax on the great mass of people, even if most have no interest in the finer points of architecture or design. So why have we lost the ability to construct beautiful buildings? There are no easy ideological answers. Socialism may have birthed brutalism, but capitalism has given us barren strip malls, cookie-cutter exurbs, and Koolhaas’s “generic city.”
By contrast, Notre Dame de Paris was a communal undertaking, built by generations of craftsmen and artisans. The names of several of its earliest architects are lost to history. Crude historical revivalism is also unsatisfying. Warsaw’s ersatz Old Town, rebuilt in the wake of World War II, is an impressive testament to Polish national will, but it lacks the authentic charm of Krakow’s beautifully-preserved historic district. Budapest’s Fisherman’s Bastion, a restored medieval structure, pales in comparison to the city’s old baroque neighborhoods. And Huawei’s “European” campus, plopped down in the middle of Southern China, is the architectural equivalent of the uncanny valley: The closer it hews to historic European buildings, the faker it looks and feels.
Blackened and diminished by fire, Notre Dame de Paris still inspires awe. Even among non-Catholics, the cathedral’s beauty resonates because it can be appreciated by everyone, from tourists to locals to architects. Despite decades of calamity and neglect, many of Eastern Europe’s old buildings evoke similar feeling. Such structures have always been rare, but we seem to have lost the ability, or the ambition, to even attempt them. Brutalist architecture is a historical footnote. The disappearance of beauty in our public spaces will be with us for far longer.
EUCLID, Ohio—Before so many bedroom communities were created after World War II, this Cleveland suburb was once a summertime vacation spot. With four miles of Lake Erie shoreline, it neighbored an amusement park and well-to-do holiday cottages. And if you were driving from Cleveland out to Geneva-on-the-Lake for putt-putt golf, skee-ball arcades, and big band music halls, you might have stopped in Euclid to pick up burgers and beer at Stevenson’s.
In these earlier years, Euclid was more of a sleepy travel crossroads than a bustling factory town. In 1920, the population was only 3,300, but by 1970 it had grown to an astounding 70,000. Since then, Euclid has contracted and now counts around 47,000.
Euclid was also very different racially in the old days. As late as the 1970s, African Americans represented only one half of one percent of Euclid’s population. It now numbers about 60 percent African American.
Today, Euclid is a classic inner-ring suburb, and is stuck in a tough place. Much of the original housing stock was poor quality construction then—and is only decaying. The economy in the Midwest has stalled, and Euclid’s current residents are more likely to be poorer and renters. Politically, the suburb is caught in a no man’s land: it’s not urban enough to be hip and cool and Democratic, not exurban enough to be rich and powerful and Republican.
Euclid is not dominated by crime and poverty. But neither is it any longer a bedroom community of comfortable, middle-class homes. That picture started to unravel with the foreclosure crisis, which began to appear in the early 2000s. Jobs left and the houses aged—and the people became older, too.
“In some ways our housing is outdated by today’s standards, and it is something we work on continually,” says Euclid Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail. “We are sort of stuck in the middle. We work hard to maintain what we have, but the sprawl mentality of housing development makes it harder for us, and it will be a huge issue down the road if the country doesn’t figure out what us and other suburbs are dealing with these days.”
The plight of these inner-ring suburbs has been misinterpreted by politicians and some urban planners for decades. Some blame white flight and the lower income levels of those new residents; others point to the lack of fiscal responsibility by local governments. Still others think the market will take care of the decay if you just leave things alone.
Unlike central cities, inner-ring suburbs are neither poor enough to qualify for many federal and state reinvestment programs nor large enough to receive direct federal or state grants. To add to those problems, the housing industry in most urban areas is constantly looking to build at the far edges of exurbs, even as some inner suburbs hurt existing home values. The lack of economic growth in the region compounds the issue, including in the Cleveland area.
“Politically, these inner-ring suburbs are in no-man’s land, not big enough to get attention and not small enough to handle their problems themselves,” says Tom Bier, an urban planning professor at Cleveland State University. “And no one in state or federal government really asks the question, ‘Well, what is supposed to happen to a community once it starts to get old?’ Instead, they seem to be intent on figuring out how to build new homes further out.”
Last December, Bier testified before the Ohio General Assembly on the problems facing these older suburbs: “The state has a constitutional responsibility to ensure ‘equal protection and benefit’ of its citizens. It readily promotes the development of new communities, which is fine. But that promotion fuels movement from, and weakening of, established communities. The state then holds the weakened places solely responsible, or nearly so, for their condition by providing scant support for renewal and redevelopment.”
Bier explains how Euclid and other municipalities are left alone. The mentality is: “‘You have home rule; it’s your problem, you fix it,’ even though the state greatly exacerbates the problem.”
Federal and state governments can’t merely claim they are bystanders that have nothing to do with this decline, as Bier and others emphasize. These inner-ring suburbs, and all the attendant issues, were originally created by the state and federal governments themselves, a reaction to the post-World War II baby boom and the need for new housing.
From 1929 until 1946, the United States built very little housing. Of course, the Great Depression and the war left little money for new homes, and in the 1940s there was no material left to do it. For almost 20 years, the U.S. economy—especially the housing industry—was put on hold.
The data shows this very clearly. In the 1920s, the U.S. built about 800,000 new homes every year before the bottom dropped out in 1929. In 1933, there were only 93,000 new homes built, and in 1944, just 142,000. When the war ended, the soldiers came back home and found their new families stacked on top of each other in old, central cities. Immediately after the war, Cleveland’s housing occupancy rate was 95 percent.
So the federal and state government knew that they had to bust open the long-neglected homebuilding sector of the economy. They found smaller towns like Euclid, built interstate freeways to connect them, and gave the soldiers home-loan guarantees. Then they got out of the way.
New housing construction jumped through the roof in the postwar years. Between 1946 and 1970, new homes averaged about 1.5 million a year nationally—10 times higher than in 1944. Homes were being built largely in these inner-ring suburbs, creating a vast new suburban market. At the same time, urban policymakers promoted large swaths of teardowns of inner-city housing, the “urban renewal” projects of the 1960s and 1970s.
Yes, white flight was part of suburban growth. But a big part of the demand came from families that now had cars and wanted a backyard. New houses in new suburbs fulfilled those postwar yearnings.
In Euclid, 11,747 new homes were built from 1946 to 1969. In 1949, Cleveland’s region surrounding Cuyahoga County saw $130 million in new building construction, $100 million of which was in the suburbs. Seventy-three percent of Euclid’s homes were built in that critical period of 1946 to 1969. The big suburban buildout all over the Midwest happened when local governments were trying to make up for the lack of building in the 1930s and 1940s. And it’s not hard to find them in the Midwest similar to Euclid: Calumet City, Illinois; Norwood, Ohio; Hamtramck, Michigan; McKees Rock, Pennsylvania; Ferguson, Missouri; to name a few.
But even by 1954, Euclid could tell it was adding too many homes, too fast. “Homes are very desirable, but they cause additional demands for service by the city and for additional schools,” the Euclid Sun Journal wrote. “No home pays enough in taxes to cover the services required. At the rate homes are being added, the balance is slipping.”
By today’s standards, these houses are small, averaging about 1,300 square feet, and on small lots, too. Real estate experts have long said that most homes need a big tune-up after about 70 years—that means new plumbing, heating and air conditioning, kitchen, and bathrooms. Most of the housing in Euclid—and by extension, in most inner-ring suburbs around the country—is either in need of serious rehabilitation, or close to being there.
“What has happened in these inner-ring suburbs is a challenge,” says Aaron M. Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. “I don’t believe these suburbs are intrinsically doomed to decline, but it all depends on the housing market they’re in. Cleveland is now a low-demand market. But at the same time it has low demand for housing, it is still building new housing in the outlying suburbs. That’s the real issue.”
Metro areas across the country face unique problems—and “inner-ring” is defined differently across the country. For example, the metropolitan Los Angeles suburb, Lakewood, has been designated an inner suburb with all the problems that entails. But Lakewood’s city’s home values average $445,000, along with a median household income of $82,000. In contrast, Euclid’s average home value is $81,000 and median household income is $37,000.
With profound disparities between the Midwest and the big coastal cities, inner-ring suburban decline is even more pronounced in parts of the Rust Belt such as Cleveland.
Every inner-ring suburban mayor TAC interviewed for this story talked about the same problem. What incentives do potential homebuyers have to fix up these houses?
For example, if the value of the house has declined to $30,000, then it will likely need about $50,000 of upgrades to make it livable for a family buying a home. A lot of low-value homes are on the market in inner-ring suburbs. But banks aren’t offering this type of loan, since the renovated home won’t be worth $80,000 afterwards.
The experts call this a “credit gap.” Some have suggested that inner-ring suburbs should be designated as “special districts,” where homeowners might qualify for an income tax break or the suburb can dispense state or federal grants. Or perhaps regional or state funding might need to support declining municipal services.
“Redlining in some communities still exists, and we are finding very few mortgage loans are written for homes under $70,000,” says Georgine Welo, mayor of South Euclid, an adjacent city of 21,000. “That is always a financial issue with us. It can be solved by having some state or federal government programs or regional planning groups to monitor the banks and see how many loans they issue in certain areas. But we’re seeing that there is little political will to do that right now.”
About 88 percent of the homes in South Euclid were built in the critical 1946-1969 period, and their average value in 2017 ($85,000) was only 66 percent of what it was in 2005 ($128,500).
Continued racial issues cannot be avoided, either. As William H. Frey, a demographer who specializes in urban planning wrote, “The classic image of an American metropolis was that of a polyglot city surrounded by mostly white suburbs—the ‘chocolate city/vanilla suburbs’ of the 1950s and 1960s, when white-dominated suburbanization left largely black minority populations stranded in many of the nation’s largest cities. That paradigm has almost entirely broken down.”
Maple Heights, another inner-ring suburb near a major interchange just south of Euclid, faces the same problem—a lack of funding for fixing up old housing. The city is near some healthcare institutions and nursing homes, and many healthcare workers have salaries in the range of $25,000 to $35,000. About 40 percent of them are single mothers, says Mayor Annette Blackwell.
“These are people that need affordable housing, and we have that type for them, but they are very leveraged in their finances, and often they can’t get banks to back them so they go into renting in other cities,” Blackwell says.
“This housing was needed after World War II, and we found ways publicly to pay for the loans and the construction…. But they still need that same type of help as when they were created, and I find it very frustrating the country is avoiding the issue.”
Some have suggested merging these older suburbs with central cities (such as Cleveland), or regional property taxes that share programs between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” “Governments have tried to do this, and when they have done it—like in Minneapolis/St. Paul—it does work, but getting regional cooperation between the big cities and the troubled suburbs has always been tough to do,” says Cleveland State’s Bier.
And then there is the national perception issue. “The problems that the inner-ring suburbs have in these old industrial parts of the country are very different from housing issues in New York and Boston and even Chicago,” says Bier. “The economies in places like Cleveland and Detroit are limping along, and we aren’t paying attention because what happens in Brooklyn, New York gets attention, but what happens in Euclid, Ohio doesn’t.”
It comes down to money, explains Bier. In Cuyahoga County, the home of Cleveland and the smaller communities mentioned in this story, the 18 inner-ring suburbs that shared a border with Cleveland lost a combined $4.8 billion worth of property taxes between 1994 and 2017. The remaining suburbs that don’t border Cleveland gained $2.9 billion in property taxes.
And if that’s not enough of a disparity, the six adjacent counties to Cuyahoga County—the outer suburbs—added $16.6 billion in revenue from new housing built in that time period.
“At the end of the day,” Bier says, “the local government officials don’t understand this is a serious financial issue if left alone. The inner-ring suburbs aren’t going away, but they will cost their neighbor cities a lot of money if we don’t come up with solutions to what has happened to them. Building expensive housing further out doesn’t solve it.”
“We are good at dealing with big cities that get old,” says Bier. “But we need to learn how to come up with plans that alleviate suburbs getting old. Lots of options to consider, but to avoid it is going to make it a lot worse.”
Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio.
Just over a month ago, my hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania, was briefly in the national spotlight in the New York Times. Describing the tenth largest city in Pennsylvania as a place with “deep working-class roots, conservative social values and nearly all-white population,” the Times correctly characterized the city as an example of where Donald Trump received over 70 percent of its votes. But it did not go far enough in describing why he received those votes.
Altoona is an illustration of the industrial heartland’s decay; what President Trump referred to in his inauguration speech as “American carnage.” A city once envied for possessing one of the largest railroad repair and construction facilities in the world, its biggest claim to fame these days is being the corporate home of Sheetz, the convenience store.
The city of Altoona has a poverty rate of over 23 percent, with surrounding Blair County experiencing an overdose death every week due to drugs like fentanyl. Its people feel undervalued, and shut out by the growing, diverse metropolitan progressives in the Eastern cities. As Pat Buchanan requested of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, “Let him go to Altoona and Johnstown, and ask the white kids in Catholic schools how many were visited by Ivy League recruiters handing out scholarships for ‘deserving’ white kids.”
In the past decade, however, Altoona began efforts to curb its general decline and find homegrown solutions to the problems plaguing so many cities like it in the Rust Belt. Sometimes old rot can provide the best soil for growth. In January, Mayor Matt Pacifico sat down for an interview with The American Conservative about the situation in Altoona and its revitalization efforts.
Matt is the scion of a well-known local family who has operated the Pacifico Bakery (where my dad buys fresh bread every week) since 1947. Before becoming mayor in 2013, Matt worked as the bakery’s operations manager alongside his brother and cousin. “I was never interested in politics prior to becoming mayor. Somebody came to me that year and said, ‘Hey there’s no Republicans on the ballot for mayor, you should consider running.’ And I kind of laughed and said, ‘I don’t know anything about politics or government.’” But weeks later when someone else made the same proposal, Matt decided they couldn’t both be wrong, and submitted his paperwork and ballot signatures the day before the cutoff.
What followed was a crash course in local administration. “I started googling what a mayor does because I literally had no idea. I did a lot of reading, after I got elected I started reaching out to other elected officials across the state,” recalled Pacifico. “I spent some time down in Harrisburg, at the capitol, picking legislators’ brains to come up with some ideas. And just building friendships and connections with those legislators. So I kind of found my way when it comes to that, but I still continue to learn and find new ideas so that we can be a better city.”
“Altoona was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad because of its location and the resources that were around the city. Everybody who lived in Altoona, after it was built up, were employees of the railroad,” explained Pacifico. While once one of the busiest transportation hubs in the Northeast, as technology changed, so did the city it was built on. “After the decline in the railroad, like most other cities that heavily relied on one industry, the population declined and Altoona, probably for a few decades, was stuck trying to find its new identity.”
That new identity included diversifying the local economy and moving away from the idea that the industrial base, like the age of the locomotive, was coming back. “I would say, while we’re still proud of the strong railroad heritage we have here and it being a major part of our history, I think now with UPMC [University of Pittsburgh Medical Center]’s presence here and Penn State growing that our identity is now an Eds & Meds type city.” Between sixty and eighty trains still run through Altoona’s tracks every day.
The first problem to solve was the city’s finances. In May 2012, just before Pacifico’s election, the city was designated under the Municipalities Financial Recovery Act of 1987, known colloquially as Act 47, where localities experiencing severe financial difficulty come under the coordination of the state government. “The employees of the city made sacrifices for the good of the city, trying to find new ways to cut costs and find new sources of revenue,” said Pacifico, who emphasized that small fixes add up. For instance, they saved $500,000 just by changing the city’s insurance plan. By September 2017, Altoona had eliminated its annual operating deficits, reduced or refinanced its debt obligations, and its projected revenues are sufficient to fund its pension obligations. “There’s a lot of good things happening here and we’re really kind of blessed to be able to get out of Act 47 when we did. We were the fastest city to ever do that.”
* * *
Once the city was no longer sinking into the pits of financial default, it could start moving towards sustainable growth. Downtown Altoona is doing that based on concepts familiar to readers of New Urbs: livability on a human scale, appropriate economic incentives, utilization of natural resources, and perception management.
Altoona is only a 45-minute drive southwest of Pennsylvania State University, one of the largest colleges in the country, and is the location of one of its branch campuses. “I think making sure that you have amenities in place for young people is key,” said Pacifico, who has an idea to make travel easier and affordable for this group. “One of the things I’m looking to do with Penn State is a bikeshare program. Like they have in the big cities where you can go up on the street corner, there’s a bike there, you scan it with your phone, go out and ride it. I thought that would be a good feature to bridge the gap between the campus and the downtown campus, to have students be able to ride back and forth. But not just for students, it’d be for anybody that wanted to use it.”
“We’re looking to incorporate some more multi-modal features in the planning we’re doing for roads,” continued Pacifico, “adding some bike lanes, bike paths, etcetera. People want to live in an area where they can walk, they can ride their bike.”
Wanting more small businesses, human services, and affordable housing to move downtown, Altoona used its tax code to reflect that desire. “A few years ago we worked with the school district and the county to make downtown a LERTA [Local Economic Revitalization Tax Act] zone,” explained Pacifico.
“How that works is the taxes that would be paid on new construction and improvements on a building that you buy, the first year would be zero percent. You wouldn’t pay anything on that. The second year would be twenty percent. Forty percent the next year. And so on, until the sixth year where you’re at one hundred percent taxable. I know a couple projects that did happen downtown…[where] people took advantage of the location because they had access to that LERTA.”
The mayor recounted one man who converted an older building into higher end, market-rate apartments. The project would not have been possible without the tax relief provided by the city.
Pacifico encourages other communities to take advantage of their surroundings, whether that’s to promote tourism, recreation, or beautification. “We experience all four seasons here in Altoona. We have access to mountains, and rivers, and lakes, and you kind of get a combination of all of it when you’re living here…You can live in the city and a quick fifteen-minute drive and you’re in the mountains and you can go hiking or biking on trails or whatnot,” he says. “They’re there and they’re free, so you might as well take advantage of them and promote what you already have and what’s already there.”
The mayor said that besides being a cheerleader for the local renaissance, Altoona was responsible for helping itself. “I would like to be able to take credit for everything that’s happening,” laughed Pacifico, “but I think a lot of it is happening organically…[T]here’s a lot of people who work in downtown, but after five o’clock most of those people go home and downtown is not as busy. But what we’re seeing though is after business hours there’s still an increase in foot traffic on the sidewalks and on the streets…That’s really awesome to see. There’s no reason for people to be here after five, but people are still finding a reason and wanting to be here after the business day.”
This new breath of life isn’t just affecting pedestrians, but the local business community as well. “We don’t have a lot of people living in the downtown area yet, so there’s really no reason for the businesses to want to be here other than being in downtown is cool again. And we’re seeing a lot more businesses that maybe would have looked out in the boulevard area…looking for buildings in downtown to relocate.”
When asked what advice he’d give to other middle American towns suffering the same consequences of deindustrialization experienced by Altoona, Mayor Pacifico was straightforward: keep it simple and don’t be afraid to look in a new direction. “I would encourage them to reach out to other mayors, look at what other cities are doing. Sit down and see if that’s something that would work there. A lot of times there’s no point in trying to reinvent the wheel. If something is working somewhere, try to figure out how you can make it work in your town or city.”
“Also keep an open mind about things and don’t be afraid of change,” said Pacifico. “A lot of people are scared of change happening, but it’s good not to get locked into one thing for life.”
“Those aren’t the end-all-be-all that will solve all problems and make young people want to live here. But I think if you keep putting key pieces like that in place it starts to add up and you have a more livable city that people will want to come to.”
Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.
Resilience is a hot topic in urbanism today—and understandably so, given the increasing prevalence of storms, floods, fires, heat waves, and other potential disruptions to urban well-being. But we might consider another level of organization beyond resilience—what has been termed “antifragility.”
The term was coined by the Lebanese-American author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a rather colorful, sometimes controversial theorist and author who became prominent for his 2007 book The Black Swan. Taleb is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University. No mere academic, Taleb made a fortune as a derivatives trader, applying his own theories to profitable results.
In his 2007 book, Taleb argued that our lives are deeply shaped by relatively rare, mostly unpredictable events: financial crises, natural disasters, and other chaotic disruptions. (And some rare positive events too.) By definition, these events are not predictable as specific occurrences—but they are predictable as general phenomena, for which we can prepare and even benefit. Specifically, we can prepare for the inevitable occurrence of such unpredictable events by developing structures that, when these events occur, tend to “have more upside than downside.”
For Taleb, the essence of “robustness” (or resilience) is that we have structures that can withstand these “Black Swan” events when they are damaging. For example, the 2011 Japanese tsunami revealed that the Fukushima nuclear reactors were not robust; they were in fact “fragile.”
By contrast, Taleb uses the term “antifragile” to describe structures that not only withstand such events, but gains benefit from them. Taleb points out (in his 2012 book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder) that this characteristic is everywhere in nature, and especially in biological systems. Muscles endure the strain and damage of exercise, and actually become stronger. The body gets infected with a small dose of an infectious agent and develops immunity. Indeed, evolution itself, as a cumulative process, relies on this “antifragility.” By contrast, insulating these systems from shocks actually makes them weaker over time—lack of exercise, or lack of exposure to immunity-generating pathogens.
Key to this antifragility is the ability to fail in small doses, and to use that failure to “gain from disorder” over time—paradoxically producing a greater order. Muscles get very small tears and strains, resulting in strengthening; a few cells get infections and die, but not before sending out markers that identify the invaders to many other cells. So keeping things “small enough to fail” (as opposed to “too big to fail”) is key. So is the ability to transmit lessons from these small failures, so that the structure can develop new strengths.
But getting “too big to fail” is precisely what’s going on in too many places today. The 2008 financial crisis, and its “too big to fail” banks, was a case in point. Modernity, Taleb says, is dominated by a culture of specialists who are rewarded for excessive intervention, and for predictions that are routinely inaccurate. The big reward for them is not in creating antifragility or even resilience, but stability—or rather, the temporary appearance of stability. Then, when disaster strikes, these specialists, who have very little “skin in the game,” pay a very small price, if any.
The result of this dynamic is that there is very little learning within the system, and we go right back to making structures that are more unstable over time. In evolutionary terms, we are not advancing into greater resilience, but lesser resilience.
Thus, instead of creating a world in which the most destructive Black Swans are more survivable, all the emphasis is on preventing such Black Swans, and creating an unsustainable state of normality. The inevitable result is that these Black Swans come anyway—with ever more catastrophic results.
A forest ecosystem provides a good illustration of Taleb’s point. Often there are numerous small fires that play key roles in the health of the ecosystem, taking out undergrowth, allowing new species to thrive, and consuming fuel before it accumulates to dangerous levels. But the “modern” practice up until recent times has been to suppress the fires—and of course, the result has been that the fires come eventually anyway, and then they’re much bigger and more catastrophic.
There is a relation to resilience theorist C.S. Holling’s distinction between “engineered resilience” and “ecological resilience.” The Fukushima reactor did indeed have resilience, but only up to a specific engineered point that was able to be anticipated by its designers. But a rare “black swan” event (the 2011 tsunami) exceeded those specifications, and the result was a catastrophe. By comparison, a forest ecosystem has a more robust form of “ecological resilience” that emerges and in effect “learns” from stresses to its ecological system—but only if those stresses are allowed to do their work.
For Taleb, there is an obvious corollary in economics. The more we suppress economic volatility, and the more we inject cheap credit (and debt) into the system to prop things up—and especially, the more we let institutions get “too big to fail,” effectively socializing risk and privatizing profit—then the more we are setting ourselves up for a kind of global Ponzi scheme that is bound to collapse, even more disastrously than before. Taleb thinks 2008 was such a collapse—in fact he made millions anticipating it—and he thinks we are now headed to an even bigger global collapse.
More broadly, Taleb sees a potential collapse of a range of human systems, under the management of their tunnel-visioned specialist-planners. They are not trained by failure, have no “skin in the game,” think reductively from the wrong models, and are biased toward intervention to prevent black swans rather than prepare systemically for them. The examples he cites take up much of the book, including medicine, economics and politics.
There are obvious lessons for planning and architecture too. The promoters of this kind of planning are what he calls “fragilistas,” making strategic plans to avoid Black Swans instead of assuring that the Black Swans are smaller and more survivable—and even beneficial, as the result of their evolutionary process. The dominance of fragilistas across many disciplines is symptomatic of modernity, a problematic era of “humans’ large-scale domination of the environment, the systematic smoothing of the world’s jaggedness, and the stifling of volatility and stressors.”
There is a short but entertaining section on architecture specifically. “We are punished with the results of neophilia” in cities, he says. “The problem with modernistic and functional architecture is that it is not fragile enough to break physically, so these buildings stick out just to torture our consciousness.” By contrast, the “improved caverns” of traditional environments offer “fractal richness” that he finds makes him feel at home.
I would take that line of reasoning farther, and consider traditional cities and buildings as embodiments of “ecological resilience”—or of antifragility—with a remarkable complexity and durability. By comparison, our large-scale engineered and artistically packaged buildings are remarkably fragile, and in effect “throwaway” structures. Yet we have the hubris to suppose that these stripped-down bits of packaged engineering are somehow more “modern” than the more complex, more fine-grained, more beautiful and more sustainable buildings—the ones that have in fact sustained—to which we fragilistas are encouraged to turn up our noses.
Taleb points out, as Jane Jacobs did throughout her career, that our “modern” model of planning and design is fundamentally broken, and worse, demonstrably incapable of learning from its mistakes. We try to “plan” in a rational, linear, predictive sense, and the inevitable result is spectacular failure. Indeed, most of what passes for such planning today is pseudo-science, bureaucratic turf-building, and fragile clutter. The result is that it makes our entire civilization more fragile.
What we can do, Taleb says, is to learn from nature, and develop structures and processes that can evolve and get smarter. Intelligence is not just in the individual, or in the individual’s planning or design, but in the overall evolutionary processes that we adopt. (And in the historic patterns that they embody.) That’s why real-world experience is much more valuable than theory: it can evolve, whereas theory is mostly a static rational process of deduction, translated into rigid enforcement of policies. It is fragile, and it breaks too often. When it does break, there is very little learning, and the system often goes back to the same prone-to-fail modes. When it doesn’t break, it only forestalls an even larger kind of collapse. This is where humanity is headed, he thinks, if we don’t adopt major systemic reforms.
To be sure, Taleb says, theory is important—IF it’s philosophical theory about useful decision-making. “Wisdom in decision-making is vastly more important — not just practically, but philosophically — than knowledge.” That’s essentially what Taleb is sharing in his books—a theory of how nature works, and how we had better work too, if we want to survive.
Some will note the similarity to Jane Jacobs’ last book Dark Age Ahead, and to the idea that we need another kind of planning entirely, and another kind of design. We need a design for the process more than the product, and a “design for self-organization.”
Again, there are implications for the embodied wisdom of traditional patterns and practices, which now appear as evolutionary processes that confer antifragility. His description appears remarkably close to what Andres and Douglas Duany call the “vernacular mind”—the collective skill in producing beautiful and well-adapted habitat, which is evident throughout human history.
We need to embrace and empower such a capacity, surely—instead of regarding its genetic treasury as a modern design taboo. Moreover, we need to embrace a different kind of design, and a different kind of planning—less about designing or planning the product, and more about designing the best, most antifragile possible process, incorporating the best genetic material, and getting the obstacles out of the way.
This is the best way—perhaps the only way—to assure that the result is stronger, smarter, better.
Michael Mehaffy, Ph.D. is an urban designer, consultant, and senior researcher at the Ax:son Johnson Foundation in Stockholm. He is also director of the Portland-based think tank Sustasis Foundation.
This piece originally appeared at CNU Public Square, and was republished with permission.
There are more than a few ghosts left behind by Johns Hopkins, the 19th-century Baltimore businessman; the man himself remains a generally benevolent apparition, others veritable poltergeists. Johns Hopkins is the ghost of a better Christmas Past and his institutional legacy the best hope for Christmas Future but there haven’t been many lessons learned in the interim and Ignorance and Want attend constantly to the story of that great and unfortunate city.
As for Hopkins’ biographer, Antero Pietila’s own story is a fascinating later piece of the churn of immigration to Baltimore: a Finn who arrived in the United States at 20, he was employed by The Baltimore Sun a mere four years later in 1969 and wrote for them for 35 years, with stints spent at the Sun’s bureaus in Johannesburg and Moscow (just that fact is tangible evidence of Baltimore’s institutional decline).
The Baltimore Sun didn’t mismanage itself into the closure of all of its foreign bureaus; it was the casualty of broader disastrous systemic trends in journalism, just as Baltimore at large is the grievous victim of broader deindustrialization. It boasts problems of corruption and historical racism which were its own devising to be sure. These were easier to handle or ignore when the city was relatively successful, impossible to avoid when it began to decline.
It rose on the back of a variety of industries, many of which Johns Hopkins had an early hand in or were linked to his principal asset, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The city reached a peak in the postwar era with a population over 900,000. Long one of the largest of American cities its population declined beginning in the 1960s; enterprises fled or atrophied.
As you know, “Eds-and-Meds” is the revitalization strategy for every single down-at-heels American city, and not unreasonably so, but in few are these hooks hung so dramatically on a single educational and medical institution. Johns Hopkins University is the largest private sector employer in Baltimore and its Health System the third. Pietila writes:
The Hopkins legacy straddles two realities. His pathfinding First World institutions are islands of excellence in a city that rewards mediocrity and increasingly exhibits Third World dysfunctions. Killing and drug addiction are out of control, bureaucracies are faltering amid corruption and falling tax revenues, and kids drop out of school, or are graduated without being able to read or write.
Hopkins was a teetotaling Quaker who achieved an early start bartering his products for whiskey which he sold as “Hopkins’ Best.” He was a strikingly successful businessman whose investments soon grew to involve railroads, steamships, banking, insurance, and more. He was also an Abolitionist in a city with unambiguous southern sympathies. He was a forward-thinking man, and many ensured that his legacy would be foiled in varied ways.
His 1870 bequest of $7 million to establish a university and hospital was the largest to educational institutions in American history to that date. His specifications for a hospital that treated patients regardless of color (and a university that allowed them similarly) were briefly observed—and then entirely ignored. In 1887 the first African-American student was admitted to the University; the second was admitted after World War II. The first African-American MD graduated in 1967. There were initially integrated wards at the Hopkins Hospital: these were subsequently segregated.
The trouble in Baltimore is that its intensive segregation was often implemented decades after the Civil War. Downtown featured a diverse set of businesses and institutions as late as 1900, which were steadily purged. An African-American school opened in 1889 and was evicted 13 years later. In 1903, a mob attached a black Masonic temple. The Baltimore fire of 1904 encouraged mass relocation elsewhere. By the 1950s, the only establishments black diners could patronize in downtown Baltimore were the Greyhound bus terminal, railroad stations, and the YMCA. The first black police officer was hired only in 1937. Maryland belatedly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1973 (which had granted equal rights with three-quarters of the states in 1870).
Attempts to ferret out racial mixing took on almost farcical aspects. The mainly African-American business district on Pennsylvania Avenue had plenty of bars with a “black” liquor license patronized by whites. The city cracked down on this abomination in the early 1950s. In whiplash fashion, this was only a few years before Baltimore’s sweeping school desegregation in 1954.
New Deal redlining, a kind of nonsensical sociological scientism courtesy of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, exacerbated these problems. It’s at times framed inaccurately as entirely a racial classification: older white neighborhoods were also redlined, with their age regarded as an inevitable source of decay, but there’s no question that African Americans suffered worst as they literally couldn’t leave. Pietila quotes a 1943 New York Times report that “in 1943 that Baltimore’s estimated two hundred thousand blacks, are about 20 percent of the total population, were compressed to neighborhoods comprising less than four square miles of the city’s total 78.6.”
Every time something looked better in Baltimore some fresh problem seemed to bedevil it. The end of segregation was chased closely by widespread blockbusting and land-installment contract swindles, large-scale public housing construction and frequent demolition for misbegotten urban renewal.
One understated consequence of the end of segregation was growing black flight to the suburbs: those who could get out of troubled neighborhoods did, generally leaving behind the poorest of residents.
* * *
One of these neighborhoods was the troubled location of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Originally a “semirural nuisance district” it was host to a shifting variety of populations, Irish, German, Eastern European Jewish and then African-American. One nearby pocket, Little Bohemia, was studded by breweries. The hospital was marooned amidst slums by the 1970s.
It was a potent symbol of inequality. Pietila writes, “The ten census tracks surrounding one of the world’s premier hospitals had one doctor serving six thousand people—or fifteen serving a population of a hundred thousand—whereas national average was one doctor for 750 patients.”
The hospital’s location was in trouble in an age of medical specialization that was increasingly marketable on a national scale:
If Hopkins—and Baltimore—did not provide the desired services and amenities, rival hospitals in other cities were eager to step in. In any case, why would any important person want to come to Hopkins? True, the citadel of hope was a bastion of breakthroughs and excellence. But nothing can erase the stigma of its location smack in the midst of squalor and abandoned buildings, surrounded by poor blacks of all ages whose mere presence and demeanor some visitors viewed as threatening.
Hopkins considered relocating but one obvious spot, the land around the university in more stable North Baltimore was already built up. A move to Columbia, Maryland, was mulled but didn’t happen. Redevelopment schemes came and went, leaving mainly empty lots. A Sheraton was built in 1960 which acquired a reputation as Baltimore’s worst hotel. Some homes were demolished to build nurse-and-doctor dormitories. Redevelopment only accelerated recently, with a Residence Inn constructed nearby.
There is an unfortunate and invidious pattern in Baltimore, starved for any development, of endemic giveaways for any scraps of investment, generally benefitting wealthy institutions or developers. Property tax forgiveness for decades is often the carrot inducing development. Grants intended to foster organic development flow to those with no need of them.
The Residence Inn project received the largest 2018 grant from a state-established Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, whose funds have generally been awarded to much smaller increments for neighborhood improvements. These funds were disbursed by the Board of Estimate lead by Baltimore’s mayor Catherine Pugh.
Pugh, who resigned, in early May, was the focus of a scandal cartoonish even by Baltimore’s very low standards, which has developed even since this book’s quite recent publication. While serving on the Board of Directors of the University of Maryland Medical system, she arranged the sale of 100,000 copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to the system for $500,000. This would make her one of the most successful children’s authors in the country, with the bill footed not by a publisher but a medical system. There were no competitive processes anywhere near this arrangement and several members of the board made substantial donations and loans to Pugh’s election campaign. It required months and the seeming unanimity of every elected official in Maryland to induce Pugh to resign.
Pugh won election in 2015 running against a disgraced former mayor, Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2007 as part of a plea bargain after a guilty verdict at trial for a variety of unreported gifts while in office.
Corruption is heavily entrenched at multiple levels and institutions in the city, from schools to community development programs. We are well familiar with considerable problems of corruption in the Baltimore Police. Then-U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein prosecuted the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force’s shocking record of organized theft. He commented. “This is not about aggressive policing, it is about a criminal conspiracy. These are really simply robberies by people wearing police uniforms.”
The unquestionable and dire problems of the Baltimore police, from corruption to excess violence have lead to dangerous pendulum swings in other directions. Alex McGIllis recently wrote an excellent profile of the consequences of hands-off policing after the Freddie Grey death, with spiking crime rates the reward to those convinced that the problem is entirely the police or “root causes” of poverty, and not lawbreakers that increasingly are not intercepted.
* * *
It’s not all terrible in Baltimore now or throughout this past. Pietila encapsulates Baltimore’s appeal well, writing about the city in the troublesome 1970s:
Despite a steady exodus to nearby counties, many Baltimoreans found the city as comfortable as a pair of worn-out slippers. It was a nickel city, big enough, cheap, and unpretentious. Washington down the road was a dime city. Each year Straw Hat Day on May 15 marked the return of straw boaters and seersucker attires to be worn until Labor Day. Summertime fun included snoballs, cheap bleacher seats at Memorial Stadium where the Orioles played, ad visits to neighborhood crab houses where waitresses called everyone “hon” and where families hammered steaming crustaceans at long newspaper-covered tables groaning under pitchers of beer.
Baltimore has been home to a striking set of personalities: Poe (dead likely of excess drink amidst a political scam), Mencken, Fitzgerald, Eubie Blake, Billie Holliday, John Waters, Philip Glass, John Barth.
The university plays a somewhat smaller role in this narrative than the hospital does, but it yields many nuggets of interest, from Woodrow Wilson to William Sloane Coffin to Alger Hiss to Chester Wickwire, the William Sloane Coffin of Baltimore. The university was not a draw for revelry for much of its history, or my own attendance. Barth wrote, semi-autobiographically in The Floating Opera: “One thing more, which perhaps distinguished my crowd from similarly exuberant groups of undergraduates at other colleges at the time: those of us who didn’t flunk out got an education—it is difficult to remain long at Hopkins and escape education.”
Baltimore remains a city with an extraordinarily excellent and walkable housing stock, full of historic neighborhoods that have seen good use and many more that have not.
The largely anonymous Inner Harbor district did launch a pattern of development that radiated south and eastward. It’s a city that has attracted gentrification agonies but one according closely to Jason Segedy’s observations about the forgotten problems of urban America—where more neighborhoods are threatened by collapse and extreme concentrated poverty than by an influx of the affluent. A few neighborhoods have changed visibly in the last 15 years, but many more seem frozen in time.
There are no easy solutions to Baltimore’s many intense problems, but Pietila’s account will ensure you don’t stop caring.
Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.
I recently read and reviewed Tim Carney’s excellent book Alienated America, a sort of combination of the “how we got Trump” genre with the sociological works of researchers like Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. Carney’s exploration of the Trump phenomenon, and his grappling with the timeless question of economic security versus personal responsibility in regard to the formation of virtue, family, and community, are among the best you’ll find. There is a deeper subtext in his book, however, that is not excavated. But first, a quick recap.
As in most treatments of inequality, geographic immobility, deindustrialization, and related issues, Alienated America features the requisite visits to faded old towns with ghostly main streets, and paeans to the blue-collar jobs that once allowed men with high school educations to comfortably own homes, raise families, and retire with pensions.
Through a long analysis, including a fascinating visit to a fracking camp in North Dakota—awash in money but utterly lacking in neighborliness and community—Carney concludes that wealth alone does not produce human flourishing. It is rather community and what social researchers call “civil society” that makes the American Dream possible. Obviously, money helps, but it is not sufficient, nor, in Carney’s telling, even necessary. For much of America, especially less affluent places, the primary institution of community and civil society is the church. While acknowledging that there is a chicken-and-egg problem here, and a problem of reinforcing cycles and virtuous circles, Carney nonetheless deems an economic, or “materialist,” explanation of American civic and family decline insufficient. The revival of the American Dream requires the re-churching of America.
This may well be largely true for places that are struggling; struggling to keep family and community intact in the face of deteriorating economic opportunity and the withering of old community institutions and social norms. But here’s the rub: some of the places Carney visits and alludes to are not exactly “struggling.” This is euphemism; these places are destroyed, ruined, vast swaths of their built environments far beyond the hope of revitalization.
The surfeit of Detroit “ruin porn” and the counterexamples of hipster homesteaders and craft businesses have recently been steering the Rust Belt narrative from one of terminal decline to one of scrappy, unlikely renewal. But the growth of a few Detroit or Youngstown neighborhoods, or the eds-and-meds reinvention of a few towns or inner-ring suburbs, is more like the growing of moss on a dead log than the sprouting of a new shoot. It does not presage comprehensive renewal, and it is not likely to bring the old community back, much less the old way of life.
Carney’s juxtaposition of old industrial towns, once overflowing with family and community life, to fracking camps is fascinating for a different reason than the one he gives: one can argue that many of these places where the American Dream is dead are, essentially, fracking camps writ large. The fact that they once possessed vibrant civil society—ethnic and social clubs, Little Leagues, union halls, tightly-knit public schools—is deceiving. In reality, they were often glorified company towns, with funding or tax revenue from the dominant employer flowing to and propping up these institutions of civil society. In some cases, even housing was built, cheaply, by employers. Gary, Indiana, famous once for steel and now for spectacular urban decline, was in fact founded by a steel company.
— Jason Segedy 🇺🇸 🇭🇺🇮🇹 (@JasonSzegedi) April 4, 2019
While to the passing eye, Gary or Carney’s example of Fayette City, Pennsylvania (in his words, it’s “not a city; It’s barely even a town. It’s a former town”) look like cities, they may be closer to simulacra of cities—unlike New York City or Old Town Alexandria, for example, they never managed to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them. Indeed, large numbers of human settlements never do, and never have. A one-dimensional, economically undiversified city is essentially a housing tract for a factory or a wharf or whatever industry drives its economy. What is left when that economic engine breaks down? A company town without a company. This is the fate that has befallen many of America’s declining places, and it is hard to argue that this economic reality doesn’t play a direct role in the decline of the family and of civil society. Is this a “materialist” explanation? Perhaps. But it may also be true.
There are those who admirably hope and work for revival, for restoration in places like Gary, Detroit, or any number of gutted small towns. But many of the buildings in these ghostly, empty blocks, even with their mighty and almost pleasantly timeworn facades, are far beyond the point where renovation is economical. For now, poverty is a sort of preservative. More money, for many hollowed-out cities, would simply mean more demolition.
To urbanist and declinist James Howard Kunstler, it may simply be the case that the national gold rush of petroleum-fueled industrial growth is over. If this is the case, the crisis of declining America is a structural, inexorable economic reality on the order of the Industrial Revolution itself.
It is true that countless dying cities and towns across America were and are “home”—and there is “a non-material aspect to home…that a purely materialist worldview can’t adequately express.” But Gary or Fayette City would never have been home had there not been a purely material reason for their existence. Perhaps cities—like people, like organisms—can die, and should be allowed to. Perhaps, counterintuitively, allowing them to die will also allow us to feel sadness and loss and humility, to acknowledge that technocratic tinkering is not a cure-all for the afflictions of being human in a broken world.
Urban blight along Broadway, Gary’s main commercial boulevard.
It would take a monster not to feel empathy or even vicarious loss surveying the ruins. It is almost necessary to remind oneself that Google Maps’ Street View is not an open-world apocalyptic video game. Perusing Gary’s blighted Broadway, you will find many buildings sporting glass blocks and lightbulb-lined marquees, which must once have given the strip quite a modern and glamorous feel. Occasionally, in neighborhoods like this, one happens upon a stray building that is still clearly inhabited and maintained, surrounded by desolation. Within living memory, these were new, sparkling places, with a beguiling appearance of permanence. No doubt there are people who intended to comfortably retire here, and other people who intended to sell and move and are now underwater.
Can the American Dream be resurrected in such an environment, in a settlement that is essentially a housing tract with no attendant need for workers? Money alone may not translate into community, but we also may have a need for at least a base level of economic and psychological security. Or at least hope for such security. Perhaps the difference between the hardship of the pre-industrial era, and the decaying remnants of the industrial era, is hope. No amount of municipal reform or insightful urban policy or federal funding or urban farming or homesteading is going to turn back the clock on all of America’s gutted main streets, vanishing rural communities, or Rust Belt company towns. And most people know it.
This is not a reality anyone should like—or even accept without struggle. It is particularly difficult for a person of faith to believe that faith, community, and other genuine human goods can be mere epiphenomena of passing economic conditions. Yet that may simply be the case. After all, the Gospel makes no promises of worldly affluence, and “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” is not a Bible verse.
The unwinding of rural and post-industrial America is a human tragedy, not to be written off, much less tacitly celebrated. Yet the facts of the post-industrial landscape may not care about remaining working-class feelings. This does not mean that any of these places “deserve to die.” But it may well mean that their collapse is beyond the ability of policy—or church—to alter.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
There’s a pretty wide divide between the Fairfaxes.
That’s one thing I’ve learned when my mother moved, quite unintentionally, from our hometown in Virginia across the country to a small town north of San Francisco that just happens to bear the same name: Fairfax. Having recently visiting my mother’s new home for the second time in less than a year, I’m getting pretty well-acquainted with this Bay Area community. Though there’s much for this conservative child of the Commonwealth to find, well, peculiar about this oasis of the Left, I’ve also been impressed by how much the California Fairfax seems to get right.
The two cities, perhaps unsurprisingly, share a common ancestor: the old English noble family of Lord Fairfax. The Virginia city is named after Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, whom King Charles awarded 5,000,000 acres of land in northern Virginia in the seventeenth century. Her California counterpart is named after a descendant of Thomas Fairfax, Charles Snowden Fairfax, who moved to Marin County from Virginia in the 1850s. He maintained a famous, widely-visited residence and became active in county and later state politics.
Both Fairfaxes are firmly in the pocket of the Democratic Party, though my hometown still possesses a sizeable conservative minority—it voted for a Republican presidential candidate as recently as 2000 (voters in Virginia don’t register with a party), and Trump received 31 percent of the vote in 2016. Compare that to Fairfax, California, where Trump received less than eight percent of the vote, and where only about 27 percent of the population are registered Republicans. Both towns are lauded as ideal locations—Forbes in 2009 named the Virginia city, located in the second wealthiest county in America, as No. 3 in the “Top 25 Places to Live Well.” The California Fairfax, in turn, is considered one of the best places to live in Marin County, which in 2010 had the fifth highest income per capita in the United States.
After these historical, political and economic similarities, things start to diverge pretty quickly. Fairfax, Virginia is increasingly diverse—though still predominantly white, there are sizeable minority communities of Asians (15 percent), Hispanics (15 percent), and Blacks/African-Americans (5 percent). Her California cousin is 85 percent non-Hispanic white. In the Virginia municipality, one may find more than fifty churches, encompassing just about every major Christian denomination, “conservative” or “liberal,” as well as two synagogues. In the California town, there are only three churches. To be fair, it is much smaller town, with only 7,500 residents, compared to 25,000 people residing in Virginia. Even so, it is obviously a much less religious place. This may in part be explained by the influence of hippie culture—many flower-children moved out to Marin County, and one of Fairfax’s claims to fame is that members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead played a pickup softball game on a local field.
Yet despite its more liberal, less religious identity, Fairfax, California, has many laudable traits. The town maintains ordinances against chain stores, meaning that most everything shop and vendor is unique and locally-owned, with perhaps the exception of a single 7-11. Settled in the 1800s and incorporated in 1893, it retains a commendable historical charm, with many old, well-maintained buildings. California Fairfax residents are also unparalleled in their environmental-consciousness, promoting eco-friendly policies that seek to preserve the majestic natural beauty of the hills and forests that surround the town. There is a notable lack of cell phone towers in town—there’s no reception at my mom’s house, and one can’t pick up a signal until one is practically out of town. Cycling is very popular here, and there are many cafes and bars that cater to bicyclists. The bumper sticker “I heart Fairfax” is ubiquitous, evincing the locality’s loyalty to community identity. Unlike the common perception of nearby Oakland, of which Gertrude Stein remarked, “there is no there there,” Fairfax has a very hearty “there.”
This, unfortunately, is less and less the case in my hometown in the Old Dominion. There is certainly a small but strong party of proud Fairfaxians—we still put on one of the best Fourth of July parades and fireworks shows in the country, I’d wager. We have a beautiful, several-block “Old Town Fairfax,” which has been around since around 1805, and was the site of multiple Civil War battles. But there are few people in Fairfax, Virginia, who, like my children, are fourth-generation residents (my mother’s father came to Virginia in the 1940s, and arrived in Fairfax County in the 1960s). Northern Virginia is largely a land of transplants, people from across the country who come for either federal jobs or occupations that directly support the federal government. Many of them are only here for a few years before moving onto another destination, either domestically or internationally. Children from these families have little sense of local identity, and many leave for other parts of the country after high school or college.
The distinction between the Fairfaxes is perhaps most palpable in the family of the man who married my mother last year (my father died in 2013 from cancer). My step-father originally hails from Fairfax, California, which explains why my mother sold her home in Virginia and moved to the Bay area. The two live on several acres of land with two homes, one for my mom and step-father, and one for his brother. Their father, a Danish immigrant who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, purchased the land in the 1950s. The two brothers—who exude a strong blue-collar, working-class ethic—both served in the military. My step-father now works in construction, while his brother, a retired machinist with incredible gifts as a handy-man, is in a never-ending cycle of repairing and refurbishing their shared property.
Neither have any intention of leaving, despite the fact that they are sitting on millions of dollars of land. When my wife asked my step-father if he had ever considered selling the property and moving somewhere less expensive, he looked at her like she had two heads. “We’re not leaving, the family will always live here,” he asserted. The brothers, whose conservativism on many things makes them a bit of an outlier, identify too strongly with this stronghold of blue California to ever leave. My step-father speaks proudly of the many homes in the town that he’s worked on, of local board meetings he’s petitioned going back to the 1970s, of his constant battles with the invasive, foreign weed scotch broom that covers much of Fairfax’s hills.
Perhaps part of the reason two working-class conservative guys can live in an unabashedly-liberal place like Fairfax, California, is because some things about the town overlap so seamlessly with the ethos of “main-street” conservatism. Here people know one another, many sharing histories going back generations. After Easter Mass, my wife asked a random passerby if he would take a picture of our family in front of the church—my step-father casually noted that the man had been one of his old neighbors, and that the man’s brother owned a popular, old Italian restaurant in town. People are proud to live here and uncompromisingly protective of preserving its identity and beauty. Ultimately, they recognize their community as something good that should be protected from radical societal or technological change. While there are plenty of things about this California township that make a conservative uneasy, perhaps there are more than a few things we can learn from it. Indeed, safeguarding an America for our children and grandchildren that is worth living in might depend on it.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.
Two days after the horrific fire at the most beloved Gothic cathedral in the world Prime Minister Philippe announced a competition to replace the spire. Why would we replace the historic cathedral spire unless it was ugly, poorly constructed, or incongruous with the cathedral? A few days later, we saw the first of many designs exhibiting a greenhouse and a glass and steel spire denuded of all reference to the masterpiece. What should be done with Notre Dame’s spire?
First we need to understand the history of the spire. An earlier spire in danger of falling was dismantled in 1786 and the French revolution assured that it was not rebuilt. Only when the cathedral was restored seventy years later was a new spire added. That second spire is the one that was destroyed during Holy Week.
The spire — in architectural terms, the flèche or arrow — is typically a metal tower with a conical roof placed at a crossing or on top of another tower. New Yorkers can see them on various churches throughout the city. At Notre Dame the flèche marked the crossing, where the nave and transept meet. It pointed up to the heavens like an arrow for which it is named.
The architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, created something new but in the original style. After a study of historic towers, he determined that Notre Dame required a flèche equal to the height of the main church body which is 150 feet tall. At 305 feet above the ground, its only rival in Paris until recently was the great spire by Eiffel. Thanks to the wonderful Parisian height limit the flèche can seen from around the city, most romantically from the banks of the Seine. A gray metallic pinnacle, the flèche seemed to grow organically out of the roof, while its design was in perfect keeping with the stained-glass windows and the flying buttresses below.
In the 1850s, the new spire was beautifully hand-crafted out of 50 tons of lead over a wooden armature weighing 180 tons. This hidden oak structure was part of the attic structure, which helps explain why the fire brought down the spire so quickly. The octagonal base of the spire was surrounded by larger than life statues of the apostles and evangelists, fortuitously removed before the fire. Above them, two levels of pointed arches were crowned by gables and gargoyles. Tall pinnacles at the corners ring the pièce de résistance, the tall conical roof covered with croqs or crockets, inspired by the “crook” of a bishop. On top of the croq covered roof is a large cross topped by a coq (rooster).
The spire’s delicate and open tracery contrasted with the massive stone of the nave while the spire’s height and location balanced out the front two towers. Artists throughout the centuries have captured the elegance and picturesque quality of Viollet’s spire from around the city. Not all Gothic cathedrals have a spire at the crossing, and this is one of the many elements that sets Notre Dame and Viollet-le-Duc’s design masterfully apart.
One does not have to be a Gothicist to appreciate Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of Notre Dame. One of the most influential architects of the 19th century, he is best known for his restorations and harmonious additions to Gothic structures. He has also been criticized by historians and purists for taking liberties with historic buildings and “improving” them rather than merely rebuilding them. In this, Viollet did what most talented architects in the Gothic period would have done. Perhaps his great sin was to call a sympathetic addition a “restoration.” However, one does not have to agree with his theories of restoration to see that Viollet’s flèche at Notre Dame was an original yet seamless addition to a magnificent cathedral. Up until its fiery destruction, no sane person was calling for its removal.
Now what shall be done, with the flèche and indeed with much of the whole building needing to be restored? Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the architectural community want to build something new, something that looks 21st century. Why not a glass and steel tower, an asymmetrical shard, a diamond-tipped laser going up to the sky? Is that not what Viollet-le-Duc and the great Gothic architects before him would have done if they could have? Wouldn’t they have built in the spirit of the times?
Yes and no. Viollet and his forbears certainly sought to develop contemporary solutions for Gothic architecture such as missing spires. Sometimes this resulted in new designs, as it did in Viollet’s flèche, or modifications to the original, as it did in much of the rest of the cathedral. But they did so in humility towards the construction methods and artistry of the original. Yes, Viollet felt that he could make a better spire than the one that had been pulled down in 1786, but then he also knew how to speak the language of Gothic architecture fluently.
So why not allow contemporary architects to try their own hand at building a spire on top of the most important house of God in France? First, because Viollet’s spire is a great work of architecture on a world heritage site, and secondly because most contemporary architects couldn’t design Gothic to save their life. Those architects who have tried to design using the Gothic or Classical languages today will humbly admit the brilliance and timelessness of Viollet’s work. If you don’t agree, please name ten Gothic spires, from anywhere and anytime, that are considered more beautiful than Notre Dame’s spire.
This returns us to the original question of what to do with Notre Dame and all of the contemporary architects who cannot wait to get their hands on it? Notre Dame deserves a harmonious spire worthy of this great cathedral not an ugly, incongruous spike. As for the architects, they should have the freedom to experiment somewhere else.
Duncan Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, in the U.S., and an architect who focuses on church architecture.
Imagine you’re out for dinner with your friends. You order a large pizza. After fifteen minutes of eager anticipation, you are served bare pizza crust on a platter. In a bowl next to it is the mozzarella cheese; in another bowl the green peppers; in another bowl the diced tomatoes; in still another bowl, the mushrooms. You are rightly disappointed. Don’t they understand what a pizza is? All the toppings are supposed to be mixed together on the crust. That’s what makes a pizza so good: the mix.
Urban theorist Leon Krier once compared the city to a pizza. Just as you expect a pizza to have all the toppings in each slice, so you should expect to find all the basic elements that make for a good city in each of its neighborhoods. You should expect to enjoy a convenient, interesting, and lively mix of housing, office, retail, civic buildings, parks, and squares. Instead, in functional zoning it was decided that these elements were somehow incompatible and should therefore be physically separated from each other. Hence the housing subdivision in one place, the shopping mall in another place, and the office park in still another. The city hall cast at random on the side of an arterial. The park way out on the edge, on left-over land. How strange.
The idea that different land uses within a city should be physically separated came from the modernist movement of the early twentieth century. Modernism, generally speaking, was the attempt to do away with the old and, starting from scratch, reconstruct society along strictly rational lines. Modernist architects, as a rule, had no use for traditional cities. Those cities appeared too messy, too irrational, a “picture of chaos,” as one of them famously put it. Not fit for the modern age of the car and machine production, of science and efficiency. Best to analytically separate out the distinct functions of a city, siting each in its most advantageous location as determined by the relevant sciences, and reconnect them all by the high-speed transit now afforded by the automobile. Generally speaking, cities are built to provide access—access to work, school, home, cultural amenities, goods, and services. The traditional city provides access on the basis of proximity; the modern city was to provide access through mobility. The “means of transport are the basis of all modern activity,” according to a modernist manifesto of 1922. And those cities that do not adapt to the means of transport afforded by the motor-car “will be stifled and will perish.”
In the summer of 1933, a prominent group of modernist architects met on a boat sailing from Marseilles to Athens. On board they discussed a number of principles for city planning that would later be codified in the Charter of Athens, a new vision for cities of the future. They distinguished just four functions within the city: housing, work, recreation, and traffic. Each function would have its own exclusive location, assigned to it after a careful study of climate and topography. “Land will be measured and assigned to various activities,” (Charter of Athens, section 85) thus “bringing order to urban territory” (section 81). Space for recreational activity and broad highways would be created by building vertically, sweeping all development up into high towers in a park. The planning of what they called the “Functional City” would be under the control of specialists and technicians invested with public authority. No longer would it be left to “vulgar private interest” (section 95). Private interest must be entirely subordinated to the collective interest. If this program is to work, we must of course have “an enlightened population that will understand, desire, and demand what the specialists have envisaged for it” (section 91).
This sentiment is typical of the modernist program for the top-down, theory-driven reconstruction of society according to a singular logic of machine-like efficiency. It thrives on elite culture; it has little use for participatory democracy.
In a later work, The Radiant City (1935), the lead author of the Charter of Athens, Swiss architect Le Corbusier, envisioned his urban ideal: “The cities will be part of the country. I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work . . . enough for all.” Corbusier’s dream of full employment based on dispersed, auto-dependent development has become in large part a reality in North America—and the nightmare of later generations who find themselves bound to a car and stuck in traffic. Adults between the ages of twenty-four and fifty-four now spend on average over an hour a day in their cars. If the earth could dream, Corbusier’s ideal would be the earth’s nightmare as well. Cars account for roughly one third of our greenhouse gas emissions, putting out twenty pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of gas.
We can readily see the widespread influence of functional zoning across post-war development in America. Practically all land uses are now separated. And the car is the only way to get around. On average, 87 percent of the trips we make are by car. The idea of towers in a park took hold in the downtown areas of our cities that underwent urban renewal in the 1960s—another modernist intervention. Four years after the close of World War II, President Harry S. Truman signed the Housing Act of 1949. In this act, Congress set aside federal funds to support cities in the “clearance of slums and blighted areas” (section 2). And cities were given the power of eminent domain to get the job done. Local authorities were encouraged to identify blighted areas, condemn them, acquire them through eminent domain if necessary, and tear them down. They could then turn around and sell or lease those areas for private or public development. The act made one billion dollars available in loans and another five hundred million available in capital grants.
The focus of the 1949 act was on the creation of low-rent housing. In 1954, the act was amended to make federal money available for the redevelopment of civic centers as well. It was bolstered by a Supreme Court decision in that same year (Berman v. Parker) that allowed the government to take private land not only for public use but also for more broadly defined public purposes. In both cases, the new, federally supported development followed the planning ideas of the Functional City together with Le Corbusier’s vision of towers in a park—and his vision of what had to be done to create those towers. It is my “settled opinion,” Corbusier wrote in 1925, “that the centers of our great cities must be pulled down and rebuilt.” Wherever urban renewal went, the fine texture of the city was erased. Existing buildings were demolished to establish a clean slate. Many streets were eliminated to create superblocks. The redeveloped areas were typically restricted to a single use: residential or office. Towers went up in park-like settings for housing and on vast concrete plazas for civic centers.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, was one of the first cities to go in for the complete redevelopment of its downtown area using Title III money from the 1949 Housing Act as amended in 1954. In 1959, Grand Rapids invited to town John Paul Jones, a planning consultant from the New York firm of Ebasco. He blew in with lots of energy and big ideas for the complete reconstruction of downtowns using federal funds to cover two thirds of the cost. In July of that year, he proposed more than a million square feet of government office space and 13,500 new parking ramp spaces. Retail and residential uses were no longer part of the picture. They were separated out. In August of 1960, the citizens of Grand Rapid were sold on the plan to revitalize the downtown. They approved a 1.75 mill property tax hike to the pay the city’s share of the redevelopment costs. In September of that year, Jones was appointed the new planning director of Grand Rapids, and soon the wrecking balls and bulldozers went to work, taking down all the buildings in a forty-acre, twenty- two-block area. The Richardsonian Romanesque city hall andKent County buildings were reduced to rubble. Sleek office towers were built on huge superblocks, creating a sterile urban environment that few would visit unless they worked for a bank, were called for jury duty, or wanted to contest a utility bill. The promised revitalization of the downtown did not happen. After 6 pm, the place is a ghost town.
The towers in a park idea was also used in the creation of federally sponsored public housing, known as “the projects.” Between 1949 and 1973, the heyday of urban renewal, over 2,000 urban communities were plowed under and 4,000,000 individuals displaced. Most of the communities affected were African-American, leading novelist James Baldwin to claim that “urban renewal” was actually about “negro removal.” Many claimed with good reason that the new public housing towers were an attempt to isolate, concentrate, and contain the urban African-American population, keeping it from spreading to white neighborhoods. For the most part the projects only created dead urban spaces and social disasters. On July 15, 1972, at 3:32 in the afternoon, someone pushed a button, and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis were demolished. Built in early 1950s in keeping with the ideas of the Functional City, they were, in the end, judged to be completely dysfunctional. Some take that event as the official death of modernism in the realm of architecture. Not long after, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which focused on the redevelopment of existing neighborhoods rather than their demolition. Since then other public housing towers have been taken down, most notably Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. They were replaced by, of all things, traditional urbanism—mid-rise mixed-use buildings on re-established street networks with a combination of market rate and affordable housing.
Perhaps a lesson should be drawn from the modernist experiments of the mid-twentieth century. Traditional urbanism represents the cumulative wisdom of building the human habitat over some 6,000 years of experience. It developed slowly over time by incremental acts of innovation and much trial and error as it adjusted to standing human needs and physical constants as well as technical advances and differences in local climate, custom, and materials. Modernism was a revolutionary program, born of a theory sprung from a few heads. But reality is wondrously complex and notoriously difficult to capture in a theory. Theories are inevitably abstract and often one-sided. Applying them on a large scale regularly leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.
Catherine Bauer, who was deeply involved in the formulation of federal housing policy in the 1930s and 40s, came to realize this point in retrospect. The modernist architects and planners, she wrote in 1955, “too frequently assume that there must be a single rational, logical solution . . . which results in vast housing projects that are apparently viewed by their designers mainly as huge pieces of technocratic sculpture, abstract forms that have little to do with satisfying, pleasing or delighting the occupants, as places to live in.” Later, in 1971, David Rockefeller, then CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank, rightly put his finger on the problem of abstraction, of focusing on one element of the urban ecology in isolation from others. The federal urban renewal program, he pointed out, “concentrated almost exclusively on housing and not on other related community activities The funds were not used to build a rounded community; they merely built houses.” Troubled urban neighborhoods were bulldozed; but what replaced them was only one element of the rounded community.
Tradition is certainly not infallible. And on some points—such as longstanding practices of slave labor or racial segregation— it is rightly opposed. But surely tradition deserves some respect, especially in areas of craft and practical endeavor. Why start with the idea that it needs to be entirely overthrown? What reason do we have to think that our big untested ideas will not just make things worse? Michael Pollan recently argued in his book In Defense of Food that our scientific/industrial approach to food has in fact diminished our diets and damaged our health. He suggests that we turn an appreciative eye to time-tested traditional diets, note the strong correlation between them and the health of their populations, and return to “real food”—unprocessed, without all the additives invented by people with chemistry degrees. Why not try something similar with respect to our built environment? Why not start with something like appreciative inquiry, where we identify, observe, and learn from what actually works, figure out why it works, and then critically and creatively appropriate it in our own times?
Lee Hardy is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. His latest book is The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods, from which this article is adapted.
Copyright 2017 Lee Hardy.