Democratic Planning in the Age of Urban Freeways and Today

I finished reading two very different, but equally interesting and informative, recent urbanist-y books over Shabbat. The first is Akum Norder’s The History of Here, a fun and talented Albany writer’s look into the history of her family’s house, the people who have inhabited it, and the life of the neighborhood around it. The second is Karilyn Crockett’s People Before Highways, an ethnographic and historical look of the anti-freeway movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both books are worthy of a full-scale review that I may or may not be able to undertake at some point, but I wanted to pull out a common element that I think makes for an interesting, and very relevant, point of discussion: the question of how democratic planning should be, and how that should look.

Let’s start with People Before Highways. Crockett’s work is essentially an ode to the grassroots anti-highway backlash that transformed transportation policy in Massachusetts and led to the end of freeway building inside the Route 128 beltway and the ability to “flex” federal transportation spending from highways to transit. Boston’s anti-freeway coalition was a broad–and varying at different times–group of institutions, scholars, “radical” planners like future Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, and community members. The last element is perhaps the most interesting; participants ranged from tenant activists in public housing to Black Panthers to patricians in Brookline and Cambridge to people we would now identify as first-wave gentrifiers in the South End and my own neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. This coalition demanded not just an end to highway building, but also to the heavy-handed way in which the freeways had been planned, and significant amounts of land taken, with virtually no opportunity for public input. Crockett wastes no opportunity to remind the reader that the demands of the Boston anti-highway movement were not just specifically anti-highway, but processually radical and progressive in their insistence on the distribution of power.

Certainly, the righteousness of the Boston anti-highway, pro-public participation cause is not in dispute; it’s a difficult book to read for a professional planner. One thing that strikes me about Crockett’s work, though–and it’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere in leftist planning thinking and writing–is that her narrative is shaped by a powerful nostalgia for the kind of grassroots planning and localist democracy that her subjects believed in, but doesn’t engage with some of the potential challenges of a highly democratic process. Indeed, some of the potential challenges with such a process show up even within her own research. In the sixth chapter of the book, Crockett profiles the planning process around the creation of the Southwest Corridor linear park, by all accounts pretty much a triumph of democratic planning that created a valuable community amenity and showpiece to this day. The cracks in the process of democratic planning, though, show through this account. Crockett shows how the South End community was able to demand that the Southwest Corridor trench through their area be roofed over to reduce noise, pollution, and vibration. This is, of course, not an unreasonable ask–but Crockett’s account makes it clear that the presence of educated, middle class people in the neighborhood, including some who we would clearly call gentrifiers today, was what got the deck built in that section, but not elsewhere in the Southwest Corridor. Why, one thinks today, is the trench not decked through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain? I lived a block from the trench for my first 10 months in Boston, and one can feel the vibrations and hear the roar from passing trains. A purely “democratic” planning process is already one that gives greater voice to those able to shout loudest–and Crockett’s account of the decking of the South End trench shows how this can lead to opportunities being available inequitably.

Crockett also narrates the process for planning the park that went on top of the South End trench, and if anything it reveals more of the cracks in the facade of democratic-planning-as-magical-cure. She writes:

By removing the railroad’s stone embankment and inserting decking along segments of each section of the Corridor, the Southwest Corridor planners knit together neighborhoods that had been physically separated for more than a century. Not every resident viewed this as social progress…The existing railroad right-of-way created a dividing line between the South End and St. Botolph neighborhoods. Though these two areas held only slightly different economic profiles, their racial and ethnic compositions could not have been more different. St. Botolph residents constituted a largely homogeneous block of white families and some professionals working in the city. Though they themselves were city dwellers, many St. Botolph residents looked askance at the idea that deck cover would allow other urban neighbors easy access to parts of their neighborhood previously blocked by the railroad. These residents used the Corridor’s public meetings to voice their opposition. (p. 187)

In other words, the residents of St. Botolph engaged in fairly standard-issue urban racism, classism, and (one would imagine, given the increasing gay population of the South End at the time) not a small amount of homophobia–and saw in the democratic Southwest Corridor planning process an opportunity to (very democratically!) write their oppressive agenda in concrete. Unfortunately, Crockett’s handling of this rather obvious challenge to the viability of democratic planning is less than inspiring. 

By listening and respecting the concerns of residents, [Southwest Corridor planners] were able to identify an architectural strategy that was responsive to the demands of St. Botolph’s residents but did not subvert the overall public planning agenda for the Corridor…[they developed] designs for a removable fence that could be unbolted at a later date should the neighborhood change its mind. Unfortunately, the design was compromised by another decision to lay granite at the base of the fencing, and when St. Botolph’s residents did, in fact, reverse their decision and requested direct access to the Corridor Park, it was no longer possible. (p. 188)

One must, I suppose, applaud the Corridor planners for their commitment to democracy, inasmuch as they were committed to listening to, to the point of acting to some extent on, an obviously bigoted agenda. To this day, many streets on the western side of the Southwest Corridor in this area dead-end at the Corridor Park with a wall or fence of some considerable height rising to prevent what should be an obvious pedestrian connection.

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A democratically erected barrier preventing easy pedestrian access to the Southwest Corridor Park, Blackwood Street, Boston.

Crockett calls this “The seeming contradiction of a connective landscape needing to reconcile itself with existing race and class divisions and residents’ divergent opinions about what to do about them,” (p. 188) but–especially as one of the direct inheritors of the conflict around transportation planning in Boston–this feels like an unsatisfying resolution to me. Many of Crockett’s interviewees for the book talk about how they saw themselves as “advocacy planners,” adherents of a mid-’60s theory that planners should not be impartial experts, but advocates for the oppressed in society. It seems to me that there’s an obvious tension between this identification and engaging in a planning process that encodes racial and class injustice (literally building fences!) in the built environment in the name of “democracy.” While incredibly valuable for its documentation of the Boston anti-highway movement, and its repetition of the lesson that megalomaniacal centralized planning is generally abusive, People Before Highways would be more useful and convincing if it grappled honestly and openly with some of the shortcomings of the democratic, grassroots visions of planning that it advocates.

Akum Norder’s book, too, offers a lesson on this topic–and perhaps the juxtaposition of the two narratives can allow us to draw some conclusions about the intellectual and social milieu of participatory planning and its challenges. Norder’s book is an ode to her Pine Hills neighborhood, an absolutely lovely streetcar suburb-era area that reminds me strongly of the Westville section of New Haven where I grew up. Pine Hills originally and today is a strongly middle-class area with a strong communal identity; but it’s had its ups and downs, borders the “student ghetto,” and generally has some reasonable fear of tipping into neighborhood decline in the same way that most middle-class areas in cities that aren’t part of the overheated coastal housing markets do. As such (and seeing that many of the residents are educated, have money, or both), these neighborhoods are ripe for democratic, grassroots organizing around the issue of perceived problems–and using a democratic planning process to deal with them in a way that may work well for the neighborhood but not always for those pushed out as a result.

Norder profiles one such case (though without the slightly negative valence I’m attaching to it). She writes, on pages 204-205, of a property on the corner of North Allen and Lancaster that, at 5,921 square feet, held by the early 2000s twenty-six units. That is, of course, far more than current zoning would allow, but most of the neighborhood is nonconforming and grandfathered anyhow. Normally, such properties can continue unmolested unless the owner requests a change of use or makes major modifications; but city code allows for the property to be forced into conformance if it’s declared a nuisance property. And since the building in question does appear to have genuinely been a nuisance property, generating fights, noise, and an astonishing number of police calls, the local neighborhood association took the opportunity to force a zoning board hearing. They won, and the landlord had to empty the building to cut its units down to the allowed two.

So, on the one hand, this is a victory for a democratic planning process and for community concerns. The area residents took on a nuisance landlord, used the objective rule of law, and made their neighborhood a better place. Bully for them–we should encourage everyone to care about their neighborhoods like that. On the other hand, we’re talking about a process–a very democratic process–that led directly to the eviction of at least twenty-four people, with those who provoked it presumably taking no financial responsibility for their relocation. This being Albany, where rents are generally cheap, I think it’s reasonable to assume that few of those people were displaced from the area entirely; most were probably able to find housing relatively close, and quite possibly at not much increased rent. So the result isn’t necessarily the worst. But what if it weren’t Albany? What if this were a property in Boston, where rents are triple or quadruple what they are in Albany? Would we tolerate a neighborhood group getting together to democratically destroy what’s effectively an SRO, a vanishing resource for the very poor? How should a progressive advocacy planner react to this scenario?

I don’t have a coherent set of answers to these questions yet. But I think they’re crucially important to ask. And I think it’s important to recognize that the historical and socioeconomic context in which calls for grassroots, democratic planning came around has in many cases vanished. The type of democratic planning Kaitlyn Crockett profiles so well was a product of a city under siege, under threat of imminent literal physical destruction. Places like Albany may well still feel a lessened version of that threat. But in Boston, today, it’s gone. There is still a threat of displacement and destructive change, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from a hyperactive real estate market and the desire of many more people than the city has been willing to build housing for wanting to live here. Already in the time period that Crockett narrates privileged voices were figuring out how to use the democratic planning process to subvert planning aims of social justice and integration. We can’t, and we won’t, throw out the baby of democratic planning and extensive public outreach with the bathwater of urban renewal and highway building.  But we can, and must, recognize that there are tensions between promising all comers a democratic process and achieving egalitarian, democratic outcomes. Just this past week the Globe wrote about how Boston’s input-based sidewalk-repair system is failing poorer neighborhoods that are less likely to call in for repairs. Is it possible, one must ask, that planners again need to start putting our thumbs on the scales of justice–this time, to tip them back toward the right?

Featured image source: https://www.jphs.org/transportation/people-before-highways.html

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Refocusing the Urban Renewal Conversation

Urban renewal remains a rhetorical and contextual constant in today’s discussions about planning and policy, even though 60 years have passed since the apex of the idea’s power in American life. The term is invoked by a wide variety of people to make a wide variety of points carrying a wide variety of intellectual consistency and honesty; indeed, at times it seems near-ubiquitous in urbanist or planning discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, talk about urban renewal and its legacy often focuses on the Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs paradigm and the lessons about community control and out-of-control bureaucracy. With perhaps somewhat less frequency, renewal is used as a weapon in the never-ending online wars about whether capitalism or socialism is worse (it is perhaps testament to how uniquely terrible an idea urban renewal was that it allows both sides of that debate to use it with a truly straight face). And of course, discussion of renewal often veers off in a hyperbolic and/or totally non-factual direction. This, then, represents my attempt to reset the urban renewal discourse a little and re-focus it on what renewal was really, consistently about: cars and autocentricity.

It’s worth taking a moment to define our terms. Strictly applied, the term “urban renewal” originated with the  Housing Act of 1954, but the concept of “slum clearance” became popular  with Title I of the Housing Act of 1949. In general discourse, it has become customary–and I think useful–to bundle these federal housing programs with the mass demolition of urban neighborhoods for freeways, most associated with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. While these federal programs mostly wound down in the face of opposition and lack of success by the 1970s, in some cities the robust powers granted to government to facilitate them still exist, even if they now receive less frequent usage.  I use the term to refer to the entire assemblage of programs at all levels of government that pushed hard for the destruction and redevelopment of neighborhoods through a philosophy of built-environment determinism and a conception of determinedly auto-centric mobility.

Many on the left (but not just those on the left!) understand renewal  as a joint conspiracy of capital and government. An example: this quotation from former Cleveland planning director Norman Krumholz, the originator of the “equity” or “advocacy” school of planning, in this NextCity article about Boston’s recent fights over whether to extend the city’s renewal powers:

“You know the story of urban renewal: low-income people driven away from choice locations that developers selected for redevelopment.”

And although there’s certainly truth in the idea that capital and corporations drove renewal , this analysis is at best incomplete. For one thing, the massive reshaping of cities to accommodate megablock development and autocentricity was a worldwide phenomenon at the time, hardly limited to capitalist economies (indeed, if anything it was notoriously worse in socialist or Communist countries).

The narrative that renewal happened because “developers” or “capital” demanded it  exists in some tension with the idea that it was the fault of authoritarian planners and bureaucrats. It also happens to elide the fact that the physical effects of renewal were popular with large swaths of the growing white upper and middle classes in the postwar period; indeed, of all people Robert Moses saw himself as responding to the demands and interests of this powerful class (while of course also being an egomaniac). Douglas Rae’s City: Urbanism and its End gives a glimpse into this process in the city that took more federal urban renewal money per capita than any other; while New Haven’s business and institutional communities provided substantial support to urban renewal, renewal was also a downright popular policy with the suburbanizing middle classes (which benefited from easy auto access to downtown) and with urban liberals (who saw it as a positive government intervention). I grew up in New Haven in a community that frequently discussed the trauma of urban renewal–but many of the same people who mourned the loss of the old Jewish Oak Street neighborhood are perfectly capable of complaining in the same breath about the (perceived) difficulty of parking downtown. I’m sure many people who think critically about land use and transportation issues have similar stories: it’s a useful reminder that at least some of the tenets of urban renewal remain popular to this day.    

Reminding the public of the centrality of auto dependency to renewal has become necessary in large part because of the emergence of a particular dynamic where certain people (in good faith or bad) claim the mantle of fighting urban renewal specifically to preserve faux-populist autocentric practices in planning. Their narrative typically adopts aspects of the leftist story about renewal, whereby the core legacy of the fundamental trauma associated with renewal  is the lesson that community control of planning processes is an absolute obligation and an inherently positive way of doing policy. The result is an inherently contradictory, and often toxic, dynamic that instead of striving to discuss the potential conflicts in the legacy of urban renewal instead clouds history and obstructs any attempts to undo renewal’s physical legacy in the present day.

One genre of attempts to twist renewal’s admittedly highly undemocratic processual legacy into preserving its physical legacy is the preservation of open space at the expense of the potential to restore the dense development that in many northeastern cities existed before the era of renewal. One of my favorite hangouts in Albany was Hudson-Jay Park, a small green space carved out of the junction of the dense brownstones of Center Square and the Modernist marble wall of the Empire State Plaza, and a legacy of land cleared for a never-built planned freeway tunnel entrance.

hudson jay

Hudson-Jay Park in Albany, looking east toward the Empire State Plaza. Author’s photo.

Or take the example of Meriden, Connecticut, which I wrote about in 2014. In the core of downtown, right across the street from the railroad station, a giant, autocentric mall had torn down several square blocks of dense urban development decades ago. With the coming initiation of more frequent rail service on the Hartford Line, Meriden engaged in a generally positive community process designed to revitalize downtown with TOD….but instead of restoring dense development on the former mall site, built a giant transit-oriented park.

meriden

Meriden is, though, an economically depressed city where the demand side of the development equation is unclear and where community members may be less conscious of exactly how they’re handling the legacy of urban renewal, so let’s take a look at an example closer to my current home.  Last year MassDOT sold off a number of small plots of land along the Southwest Corridor in Jamaica Plain (JP). The plots are a direct legacy of the era of urban renewal and freeway construction; the state had seized them decades earlier in order to build a freeway on what’s now, after a civic revolt, the Amtrak/MBTA line known as the Southwest Corridor. Since rail lines, even with an accompanying greenway, take up much less room than a freeway, the state was left with a number of leftover lots, some of them of irregular size or shape, but many of them potentially suited to restoration of the dense pattern of development that existed before the massive use of eminent domain and land clearance in the area. Since the construction of the Southwest Corridor, some of these lots have become open space or part of the greenway; others serve as community gardens. Indeed, one of the lots was taken off the auction block in order to formalize its use as a garden. An anonymous Twitter user took the time to argue with me, contending that my desire to see public land used for a purpose higher than community gardening was, in fact, insensitive to the memory of the struggle against urban renewal:

Similar thoughts appeared elsewhere during the discussion. I think it’s worth diving into that a little bit. In the mind of this Twitterer–and numerous other JPers–fighting urban renewal has nothing to do with restoring the dense development that characterized pre-renewal JP, or fighting autocentricity per se, but relates exclusively to honoring the wishes of the self-defined “community” that once fought renewal–and no one else. Fighting to preserve open space–open space that had not always been that way!–in an area truly rich in it when Boston is suffering from a housing crisis induced in large part by the era of urban renewal seems, in contextual reality, not only quite far from honoring the fight against renewal but indeed supportive of the very ideas that drove renewal in the first place. What better honors the JP that existed before renewal: a community garden or moving toward rebuilding, for example, the vibrant commercial area that once existed around what is now Green Street station on the Orange Line?

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Jamaica Plain railroad station, on the current site of Green Street MBTA station, around 1910. Note the significant commercial and industrial development around the station. Source: By Unknown – Scanned postcard from eBay auction: “JAMAICA PLAIN MASSACHUSETTS MASS. RAILROAD DEPOT TRAIN STATION VINTAGE POSTCARD”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45952810

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Jamaica Plain station in the middle of disinvestment and urban renewal, in 1951. Source: City of Boston on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/cityofbostonarchives/31931813192/in/photostream/

green street today

Green Street station today, looking south from the corner of Green and Amory. Note removal of all commercial buildings (although there is one behind the camera) and empty lot at the southeast corner of Green and Amory; I’m told local residents have opposed new construction on this lot.

It’s worth thinking about the implications of an ideology (although it’s hardly theorized enough to be called that, the feeling seems common enough) of open space-as-antidote-to-renewal. I would, bluntly, posit that this ideology is in no way an antidote to renewal and in fact in many ways accepts and cements the Corbusian principles underlying the entire concept of urban renewal. It’s towers in the park, minus the towers, but with some (but not too many) handy restorable brownstones or triple-deckers.

This ideology of garden-as-preservation-from-renewal is, whether consciously in the minds of its proponents or not, inseparable from the same kinds of (mainly white) middle-class consumer desires that actually drove renewal as an ideology. In his highly original and significant The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman lays out how 1960s South Brooklyn gentrifiers created narratives of saving their “middle ground” (that is, between Manhattan and suburbia) areas from the twin threats of Robert Moses-style Modernist renewal and the uncaring natives who were allowing the area to decline. These narratives, obviously, were self serving, and in them we can see the seeds of some of the more obnoxious aspects of gentrification today. But we see arguably the same logic at play in JP and elsewhere today, as some defend de-densifying the neighborhood and preventing the restoration of transit-oriented development as fighting renewal. Like Osman’s South Brooklyn gentrifiers, the people who fought fiercely for their neighborhood in the face of the assault of Corbusian, autocentric renewal deserve credit for preserving an ideology of urbanism of sorts in decades past–and critique when they end up doing the work of autocentrism.  

Understanding the fetishization of open space in the wake of renewal as a middle-class consumer ideology largely invented by gentrifiers makes the second, and far more challenging, common genre of slightly-off references to urban renewal somewhat jarring. This is the tendency of leftist anti-gentrification activists and some within communities of color to refer to densification and transit-oriented development efforts as a variation on urban renewal. On the one hand, where community consultation is lacking–or even where it is done well, but displacement is accelerating because of strong market demand–it’s reasonable for fearful people to interpret pretty much any action policymakers take as not reflecting the wishes of the community and therefore bringing up the spectre of renewal (and in a situation with limited good options, policymakers should be ready to be accused of not being consultative enough no matter their choices). On the other hand, this accusation completely erases the aspects of urban renewal that had to do with autocentricity and the consumer desires of the white middle class for easy car access throughout the city and easily available parking–which is to say, most of the core of the renewal ideology.

A typical example is this from  Erick Trickey’s reasonably good article on the Green Line light rail project connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul in Politico:

And many poorer communities along the route simply didn’t believe the Green Line would benefit them. They saw light rail as a threat that would disrupt their neighborhoods and bring gentrification—a sequel to the urban-renewal projects of the mid-20th-century that bulldozed poor communities for the sake of suburban commuters…Another reason for opposition—which surprised transit planners and city leaders—was the long memory of St. Paul’s older African-American residents, who’d been victimized by racist highway policy a half-century before. Rondo Avenue, the main business strip in St. Paul’s largest black neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for the I-94 freeway in 1960. That destruction of more than 600 black families’ homes and dozens of black businesses—a tragedy the federal government replicated in black neighborhoods across the country—ripped apart the city’s African-American middle-class economy, inflicting lasting damage to black families’ wealth and homeownership. (A play about Rondo, The Highwaymen, played this February at St. Paul’s History Theatre.) So for some black residents south of University Avenue, another transportation project in their neighborhood felt like war….Nathaniel Khaliq, who was president of the St. Paul NAACP at the time, lost his childhood home on Rondo Avenue to I-94. To avoid any repeat of the disruption the freeway had caused, he preferred an earlier proposal to place the train tracks down the center of I-94. When transit planners chose University Avenue as the route instead, the NAACP sued.

There’s a lot to unpack here. There should be no doubt that community concerns about displacement and racist policy were, as they often are in other cities, valid; while the vulnerability of poor people of color to displacement is a symptom not of transportation policy but of much larger structural forces in American life, it is in many ways felt most acutely in areas with new high-quality transit, given the overall scarcity of such systems in this country. But there’s no escaping the contradiction inherent in the rhetoric and suggestions here. Put simply, the way to protect the black community from a second wave of urban renewal was to replicate the physical planning practices of the original urban renewal programs. Putting rail transit in a freeway right-of-way was for decades, and in some places remains, a common practice, but it’s a really crappy idea that exposes passengers to pollution and minimizes walking access to stations–and cements (literally) the autocentricity of the built environment.

Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition provides a somewhat more hyperbolic example of this train of thought in last week’s post in response to Scott Wiener’s ambitious attempt to solve California’s housing crisis by taking the revolutionary step of … building housing.  In response to the idea that dense development should accompany transit, Goodmon declares,

Not since the “Urban Renewal” projects of the 1960s (most appropriately characterized as “Negro removal” by James Baldwin) has something so radical and detrimental to the stability of urban communities of color in California been proposed.

Certainly, Wiener’s bill as proposed would markedly transform many California communities. But Goodmon’s attitude points to a tension in the concept of what’s “good for” disadvantaged communities. It is, in today’s immediate context, somewhat reasonable for communities of color and poorer communities to understand some transit projects and the project of restoring transit-centric urbanity as not being primarily “for” them. In many cities, transit lines generally run radially, connecting outlying neighborhoods to downtowns; as downtown employment has in many cities become increasingly white-collar, low-wage/low-skill employment has fled to the suburbs–often to areas impossible to serve well with transit because of terribly hostile land use. In polycentric Los Angeles, jobs and other trip attractions are spread widely across the metropolis, a development pattern that can be equally hard to serve with transit. Car usage, then, becomes an apparent necessity for low-wage workers, even as it represents a massive financial burden.

However, as I’ve written about New Haven, we should understand this dynamic as being a product only of today’s immediate context, not as inevitable but as a consequence of a series of autocentric policy choices beginning with the era of urban renewal and pushed over the course of decades by the car- and parking-obsessed white and white-collar classes. Thinking of restoring transit-centric development patterns as a follow-on to urban renewal, rather than a refutation of it, only makes sense if one cannot envision a future where disadvantaged people gaine equal access to the world of mobility by transit–a world that should logically be far more hospitable to them than the literally poisonous world of autocentrism. It is possible that if Scott Wiener’s SB 827 were to be enacted as written, it would lead to a traumatic change in specific black and Hispanic communities in LA (though smarter people than I have expressed doubts about that, expecting most new construction to occur on LA’s rich, NIMBY Westside). Yet it is virtually inevitable that in the long run life for the poor and vulnerable in California would be greatly improved by greater housing availability, more transit, and the restoration of the ability to live a life without car ownership, now effectively government-mandated in much of the state.

There’s a lesson there for policymakers, and it doesn’t consist exclusively of “consultative planning is the way to make up for urban renewal.” Rather, it’s that undoing the damage wrought by renewal is a long-term process that we must consistently center on strong principles relating to  mobility, design, safety, and equality. Taking once more  the example of New Haven, which has hollowed out its downtown for parking at the demand of white-collar professionals, only to see increasing numbers of  jobs taken up not by city residents but by suburban commuters. It is those demands for parking, and those worries about the speed of traffic that lead to widening of streets, marginalization of transit, and increasing hostility to pedestrians, that represent the true core of the anti-humane and inegalitarian legacy of urban renewal.

To some extent, I think urban renewal discourse has become so toxic and counterproductive precisely because we find ourselves at a moment of transition and crisis. Urban renewal and freeways destroyed the spatial/economic logic of transportation and land use that had prevailed since the beginning of urbanity, a logic that values physical access and proximity. With the end of construction of new urban freeways (with some horrific exceptions) and growing congestion strangling suburban highways, that logic–one that rewards compactness and punishes spawliness–is reasserting itself rather strongly. It is, perhaps, a testament to the lasting autocentric effects of urban renewal that many people, including advocates from the very communities that have suffered most from renewal, are struggling so hard to adapt to the new/old reality.

Fighting autocentrism remains an uphill battle in the US. As I hope I have made clear here, despite the reassertion of basic spatial logic in recent decades, the principles of autocentricity, car mobility, and easy parking introduced by the era of urban renewal have proven extremely durable and remain in practice remarkably popular, no matter the consensus on Urbanist Twitter. It’s important to keep in mind, then, that those principles ultimately reflect a spatial, economic, and social ethic not of equality and egalitarianism, but of segregation and geographic injustice–an ethic that has done enormous damage to vulnerable communities across 60 years of car-centric American living. The lesson here is, to say the least, not to liberate vulnerable communities, or preserve “authentic” urban neighborhoods like JP, by cementing autocentricity, but to smash the wheel entirely, taking our inspiration from a renewed understanding of the core meaning of renewal–and from aspects of the neighborhoods and networks that existed before it, modified with the lessons we have learned about democracy, privilege, racism, and egalitarianism in the meantime. Onwards.

A Walk in the Neighborhood and Urban Albany

It’s drop-dead gorgeous out today, and Wednesday is my day off of classes, so it was time for a walk around the neighborhood. Since the sun is out (finally) I figured now would be a good time to showcase Albany a little bit and comment on some of the (positive and negative) aspects of urban design, planning, and urbanism in the downtown area. All pictures are taken within a mile of my apartment.

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

One of the the surprising things about Albany is that some of the monumental architecture can make it feel like a much bigger city than it really is (~97,000 people, down from a high of 135,000). Here the towers of the Empire State Plaza–the larger one, the Corning Tower, is 42 stories, and the Agency Buildings are about 20 stories shorter–pop up over the mid-rise apartment buildings occupying the valuable real estate adjacent to Washington Park as we look east down Hudson Avenue. The towers are cleverly tucked into the slope down to the Hudson so that their full height isn’t apparent, but they do put the low-rise Center Square neighborhood into perspective.

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Olmstedian (though not designed by Olmsted himself) Washington Park is one of the true joys of living in downtown Albany. Here, the sun shines over the lake that is one of the park’s central features, and over the odd-duck Lake House (now mainly used as a theater), one of a very few Spanish Revival-styled buildings in the area.

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Who says modern builders can’t imitate historic styles? I don’t usually walk on the block of Madison between New Scotland and Robin, so while scooting by on the bus I’ve never actually noticed that this townhouse is a relatively recent fake:

wpid-20150429_135638.jpg

Albany has several other infill projects that are well-done imitations of historic styles; it’s something that the city does well. If that offers hope, turning the corner offers despair:

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This was really the point of my walk today. The Park South Urban Renewal Plan–yes, we still use that phrase here in Albany–driven by Albany Medical Center has (just since I moved here less than two years ago!) wiped out two whole blocks of homes to put up a new mixed-use development (but mainly just parking). Just months ago, this view would have looked like this:

robin dana

The plans certainly aren’t the worst, but they’re certainly not the most urban-feeling plans either. What makes the project–the beneficiary of state tax credits–particularly outrageous is that the enormous, 800-1000 car garage (the exact size seems to keep changing) you can see under construction in the picture above is completely unnecessary.

More garage, in case you weren't convinced enough of the scale.

More garage, in case you weren’t convinced enough of the scale.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that's been left out. It's almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that’s been left out. It’s almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

 

No seriously, it's really huge.

No seriously, it’s really huge.

What was here before clearance? Nothing particularly special, a few low-rise middle-class homes:

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

The Park South neighborhood has been in a rut for a while; many of the houses, including the ones that have survived the renewal project, are in poor shape, and this was never an upper-class neighborhood to begin with. That being said, AMC owns much of the real estate in the area and has been patiently awaiting its opportunity at redevelopment. And major institutions, for-profit or not, that hold on to large swaths of land for a promise of future development over long periods of time are virtually never good stewards; if you haven’t read my early post on Chicago’s The Valley neighborhood, go do so. Granted, it’s an extreme example, but it’s illustrative of the dangers of long-term planning for megablock development.

We’ll close the tour with a picture of something more hopeful, a new mixed-use building (retail on the first floor and apartments above) on the corner of Lark, Delaware, and Madison.

wpid-20150429_141420.jpg

I could’ve gone with two or three more stories of apartments on top, but it’s certainly nothing to sniff at…and there’s no added parking! (the building will share with the condoized historic police station next door on Madison)

Amazing how many issues come up on a brief (1.5 miles total) stroll around the neighborhood sometimes.

The Valley: Anatomy of the Decline of a Chicago Neighborhood

I have a habit of poking around on Google Maps for intriguing things in my spare time. Last night, I spent some time looking through a part of Chicago that I have noticed before, but never really researched. Scrolling around Chicago, it’s near-impossible not to notice the virtually empty blocks roughly bounded by Damen on the west, Roosevelt on the north, and the Pink Line L tracks and Paulina on the east, with the BNSF tracks marking the southern boundary:

Image

Zoomed in a little, the area looks like this:

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I decided to take the time to examine the area at street level, through Streetview. At street level, it’s impossible not to notice one thing about the area:

A little bit of playing around made it clear that all of the streets in the empty area have either old-style meters or the newfangled boxes:

What the actual #^%&? Who in their right mind would park here, especially when almost all of the institutions in the area provide their own, free parking? Why do completely empty streets have parking meters? And why the hell is this (former) neighborhood so devastated, when it’s adjacent to the L, two blocks from the city’s newest Costco, a potent symbol of gentrification, and only three blocks from the booming UIC Medical Center? (I have my frequent Twitter interlocutor @VamonosLA to thank for helping me develop these questions)

I took a dual approach to figuring out what happened to the area. The first step was to determine when the area’s decline set in. Aerial images from historicaerials tell a somewhat surprising story. What had been a typical-looking Chicago neighborhood–dense, and apparently full of two-and three-flats and a few single-family homes, had only declined sharply beginning in the 1970s. There were still a decent number of houses remaining in 1988, though it was clear that the neighborhood had been largely decimated:

historic aerials 1988

 

There were even a few houses remaining in 1998:

historic aerials 1998

My working hypothesis had been that the land was cleared at the same time as much of Little Italy and Maxwell Street, when the university was developed in the 1960s. The aerial images told a different story; this neighborhood had been abandoned only gradually, and later than your typical urban renewal scenario.

The second obvious place to start in diagnosing what ails the area is to attempt to figure out the ownership of the land. This proved to be more of a task than I had anticipated. I started from the premise that the most likely; unlike Albany, whose city plan contains a handy-dandy institutional land ownership map, Chicago is far too large to have a comprehensive land-ownership map. I figured from the beginning of my research that the most likely culprit for the land lying fallow (so to speak) was that it is being held for comprehensive redevelopment by UIC or one of its affiliates; this turned out to be not too far off from the truth. UIC’s (HINT: 90 MB PDF. DON’T OPEN UNLESS YOU WANT TO WAIT A WHILE FOR A DOWNLOAD) master plan provided a hint that the university at least has plans for part of the space:

DDA_UIC plan

So, we know that the vacant land is slated for expansion of the medical complex sometime in the next 50 years (yes, that’s the time scope of the UIC master plan). An appendix to the UIC plan, however, told me that the land south of Roosevelt Road was currently the property of something called the Illinois Medical District. And with that clue, we start to unravel the mystery of what could destroy a neighborhood so thoroughly.

The Medical District, it turns out, is a little-known special zoning district intended to promote and develop the medical industry that has developed in the area over the past century, and develop the land in the area (ah, now we’re getting somewhere).  Governed by a board of seven commissioners, the IMD was established by the state legislature in 1941 as a gift to long-ago West Side congressman Vito Marzullo; according to a 1996 Chicago Reader article, the IMD “by state mandate has eminent domain within its boundaries; at any time it can buy as much land as it needs for ‘medical purposes.'” The IMD’s official history mentions one of these land purchases: “The 1960′s experienced the growth of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Campus, including a new University College of Pharmacy. During that period, the boundaries of the District were expanded to 14th/15th Street South of Roosevelt Road creating the “District Development Area” as an area of continued land acquisition and assemblage for future growth.” Ignoring the poor grammar of the previous quote, we now have an idea of what had happened to the area: acquired for “future growth” by the Medical District in the 1960s, it seems to have more or less languished and gradually slipped into nothingness since then, with the residents presumably being “encouraged” to leave.

The IMD’s map confirms that the vacant lots in the area belong to what it calls the District Development Area (an interesting note to this map: it appears that the IMD is in the process of applying for vacationing, or selling to private landowners, of the streets on most of these blocks):

DDA_ownership

What, though, is the communal history of what had once been a real neighborhood? What existed there before IMD took possession of the land? I uncovered a very useful Forgotten Chicago thread on the topic, which, in addition to the aforementioned Reader article, helps to flesh out some of the history. Once known as The Valley, this area was once, as late at the early 20th century, an enclave of Dutch settlement in Chicago. The area became heavily African-American starting in the 1950s, and IMD took possession of much of the land not long thereafter (according to their own account; the Reader article seems to imply that the term “District Development Area” is a creature of the mid-90s attempts to rid the area of its last inhabitants). The area gradually emptied of residents once IMD owned most of the land; IMD attorney Kenneth Schiewe told the Reader in 1996 that the District’s interest was in consolidating lots to create superblocks that would be attractive to developers, the idea being to compete with suburban greenfield development:

“We’ve torn down a lot of buildings,” said Scheiwe. “Every time you get rid of an abandoned building it basically improves the neighborhood.” The district argues that if it doesn’t acquire all the land that belongs to it by state law, it cannot attract developers to come in and start big-ticket projects. “Basically, having the assembled property is the inducement for the developer,” said Scheiwe. “When the developer comes and sees buildings sitting there, he knows the time factor involved, especially if those buildings are inhabited. He knows it will be a long time before he can begin construction. If we have an assembled site that is vacant he will know that we can begin almost immediately. Any steps where we can improve our position over the suburbs, we’re going to take. They can go out to Naperville and find a five-acre site, completely leveled. Knock down the corn.”

We can let the state of the area today speak to the wisdom of IMD’s approach.

There is also a very useful set of photographs of The Valley before it disappeared, taken by UIC grad student Lou Fourcher in the early ’70s and put online by his son Mike. I can’t figure out how to embed the whole slideshow here, but I might try later; in the meantime, click on the links. It’s worth it. And read the entire Reader article, too.

So what can we learn from the sad story of The Valley? First and foremost, probably, that urban renewal projects shouldn’t evict tenants from land until they have a definite buyer for the land, with financing in place and everything set. This may seem like a “no shit” kind of deal, but it hasn’t always been universal practice (far from it!) and the IMD clearly made the mistake of destroying an entire neighborhood without having a clear succession plan in place (that is, if you don’t consider destroying the neighborhood in the first place a mistake). Second, giving public powers–eminent domain and zoning, in particular–to a semi-private commission not accountable through the electoral process is probably a really bad idea. This, sadly, is rampant in Chicago.  Thirdly, closing local streets to create superblocks? Still a bad idea. Finally, the fact that this land is still sitting vacant after 40 years says something about the demand for land use in Chicago, as compared to the booming coastal cities. This land is transit-adjacent, near one of the city’s top employment centers and only a couple of miles from the Loop. And yet, there has been little to no demand fr it in recent decades. Chicago’s on the comeback trail, but (for better or for worse) the demand for land isn’t nearly as nuts as in New York or LA or Boston or San Francisco. On second thought, that’s definitely a good thing.

Oh, and what about those parking meters? No, I didn’t forget about them. As seasoned Chicagoans probably guessed immediately, they’re a legacy of that incredibly dumb parking deal the last mayor struck. I suppose we should give the city credit for stiffing the parking company like this?