Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"The Death and Life of Great American Cities"

I've been saying for many months that I've been intending to read - then was reading, Jane Jacob's famous 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  I've finally finished it!  While looking up some facts that would be hard to track down in the book, I ran upon a kind of Cliff's Notes for the book here, but I'll give mine, too.  I'm going to try to keep this short (for me) as I don't have much to add and I'd just recommend you read the book.

While the cover quotes the New York Times saying "Perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning...a work of literature," Jacobs herself begins the book, simply enough, "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding."  For the next 450 pages across 22 chapters in four parts, she does just that.  More importantly, she offers insight into what was - and often still is - wrong with American thought on urbanism, and what can be done about it.  She is remarkably astute at seeing things how they really were, or are, and what the city planners of the day completely failed to see as the real solution.

However, as a "work of literature", we need to mentally transport ourselves back to 1961 to understand why she was so worked up.  Here was a time in city planning that "urban renewal" was in full swing - neighborhood after neighborhood from coast to coast was being demolished for monolithic housing projects, which, even in 1961, were turning failing neighborhoods into perpetual slums.  Interstates were being driven through well-established neighborhoods, doing irreversible damage.  Suburban malls and subdivisions were springing up everywhere, draining cities of their middle class, along with their income, vibrancy, and later, their jobs.

Here in Lowell, which by her definition is far from a Great American City (more on that later), the Connector had just been constructed and plans for its extension were being contemplated.  The Merrimack Manufacturing Company millyard had just been demolished, and the clearing of Little Canada was in full-swing.  Lowell's economy was crumbling, and places like Chelmsford, spurred by the construction of I-495 and the continued movement of US-3 onto a slowly-constructed freeway, were rapidly turning pre-Revolution farmland into middle-class suburbia.  Jacobs stood up and simply said "Stop!  This is all a counterproductive, false solution to a very real problem!"  As a street-level resident of New York City's now much-loved Greenwich Village, she was in a fantastic position to tell us why the greatest of America's Great Cities succeeds where it does, and fails where it does.  Her research on other major American cities confirms what she had largely learnt from walking her own streets.

Her ultimate complaint was that scientific methods unsuited for, as the last chapter of the book is titled, "The kind of problem a city is" had been applied to city planning since the late 19th century.  Throughout movements like the Garden City Movement, the Radiant City concepts, and the City Beautiful Movement, attempts had been made by those who were "trained," and as she puts it having an "Olympian" viewpoint on a city, had converged on a plan she calls Radiant Garden City Beautiful.

Radiant Garden City Beautiful tells us that urban street life is bad.  It's dirty, it's congested, it's full of strangers and traffic.  It keeps people of means near people without, leading to crime.  It would be much better for a City of the Future to be a series of towers in a park, surrounded by wide boulevards for high-speed car traffic.  The towers would sort like people with like people, and they may feature schools and continuing ed centers, carefully planned civic centers, and controlled shopping centers.  The residents would love their spacious, well-lit apartments, they'd love their campus-like setting for living, they'd love knowing their neighbors so well.  Outside the city, connected by massive expressways, we'd have houses on sizable lots, again, set out for like people, where a life not entirely unlike village life before the Industrial Revolution would exist.

However, as I said, even by 1961, this was proving to not be the case.  I had written about Cabrini-Greene in the past:  this poster-child of failed projects dates to the 1940s, being completed in 1962.  Why don't they work?  People don't use the parks around projects because they are uninteresting.  Often people don't use city parks in general because they are uninteresting, underused, and therefore, dangerous.  The lack of decent stores - if any - is boring.  The lack of "eyes on the street" as she discusses makes the halls and elevators of these projects dangerous.  The same lack of eyes on the street makes grey areas, old semi-suburban neighborhoods like we have plenty of in Lowell, dangerous (back to this later a bit as well).  The huge boulevards around the projects makes crossing them unattractive to people inside and outside the projects.  People likewise don't like to cross through the projects, leading to what she calls in a late chapter "border vacuums" which, much like interstates or civic centers, people will not cross without great reason.

Ultimately, while looking for a Utopian way of dealing with city problems, a solution had been settled on that attempted to simplify cities into discrete blocks of "Retail", "Low Income Residential", "Civic Center", etc.  In essence, they worked to destroy city diversity to make it easier to conceptualize and plan.  They try to bring order to chaos, to make art out of the city at a macro level*.  It ultimately doesn't add up.  She repeatedly goes back to the planner that wanted the North End of Boston to meet the fate of the former West End: conversion to dull high-rises (If you lived here, you'd be home by now!)  His argument to destroy the vibrant, stable, but then unwealthy ethnic neighborhood people from all over America come to see?  On paper, it's a slum.  It's too dense, and too poor.  Then, she argues, why do people stay?  She also draws a line between too dense (too many housing units per acre) and too crowded (too many people in one housing unit.  Guess which one is likely really the problem here in Lowell as well?)

*An aside: To fellow SimCity players, this all makes sense.  The best SimCities are those that are meticulously laid out, mathematically, in particular ratios of megablocks.  A chaotic, organic city often breaks the game's cellular automata engine, causing massive waves of change in established neighborhoods, and senseless commuting patterns.  The city never settles into equilibrium because the number of variables on a given building (or cell) never evens out.  The query tools become useless, and the "real" city never works out in the game.  Therefore, the best way to play SimCity is just like a mid-century urban planner - with very well separated out areas for commercial, residential, and industrial uses.  And for this reason, I've gotten tired of the game.

More after the jump

Monday, January 24, 2011

Parks and Recreation Programs

A reader asked me to spread the word about some city programs for kids going on:

I saw the city is starting to offer some great and needed programs thru Parks and Recreation. My daughter plays in the "free" indoor hockey league and loves it. The staff is awesome with the kids too!

http://www.lowellma.gov/depts/parks-recreation/parks-and-recreation

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tony Sampas

Readers of richardhowe.com are familiar with Tony Sampas' photography.  He has done a great job capturing Lowell,including architectural detail work and night shots.  Check out his flickr photostream  here

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Albany paper's blog on urbanism

I'm on a roll, so don't miss the other two posts I put up tonight below!

I mentioned back in October that a staff writer for the Albany Times-Union, Chris Churchill, was writing some interesting articles about the Capital District, which includes Troy and Schenectady as well as Albany.  His blog is very interesting if you're into urban stuff at all (and I'd hope you were if you bother reading me ;-) ).  Recent highlights include a new redevelopment project for downtown Troy that will feature grad student housing for RPI, and the demolition of Troy City Hall: an atrocious concrete building that was a mere 35 years old and made the JFK Civic Center look like a baroque palace:

http://blog.timesunion.com/realestate/author/chrischurchill/

As sort of an aside, I mentioned James Kunstler in my post on his book The Long Emergency.  Living in upstate New York, he does a webcast with a Troy resident, Duncan Crary, who was transcribed on Churchill's blog here.  I want people to pay attention to the level of discourse in the comments section on this blog:  New City Hall Doesn't Need Parking.  Why can't Lowell's "official" media do this!?

Judge Doom

Don't miss my new post below this one about redevelopment projects through the years in Lowell, but I love this clip from 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, taking a stab at the alleged GM Streetcar Conspiracy and the thought-processes of postwar America:

A history of redevelopment in central Lowell

While the discussion at leftinlowell around Dharma Buns and Downtown Lowell in general is still going on, I wanted to take a step back to look at the history of some larger redevelopment projects in Lowell, going back 80 years:

(Click map for big!)

Pink: North Common, 1930s.  One of the first public redevelopment projects in the history of America, The Greek Acre was cleared for housing .  The dilapidated and crowded neighborhood and the residents and businesses in it were replaced with low to mid-rise apartments - and no new storefronts.  Some streets in the area were removed as well, generally replaced with pedestrian ways.

Green: Bishop Markham, etc, 1950s.  There are a few different projects included here.  The cross-shaped buildings along South Common and Gorham Street replaced a neighborhood and de-mapped quite a few streets.  The end of the Connector demolished even more homes and streets.  What little was left of the neighborhood beginning at the intersection of Gorham and Thorndike (Gallagher Square) and continuing up to the northern border of South Common at South Summer Street is often blamed for the death of Saint Peter's parish.  I can't say for sure, but I've heard South Street was closed to traffic for years.

Other projects around this time (or a little later, I'm doing this from memory!) were the Lord Overpass, which split Middlesex Street in half and took the old train station and hotel, and the clearing of the old Middlesex Mills on Warren Street for a parking lot that became the Lower Locks garage and hotel, now the ICC, decades later.  The VFW highway was built this decade, but aside from destroying a few buildings along Bridge Street at Lakeview Ave, this seems like it was fairly unobtrusive, like most of the Lowell Connector was (which was built along River Meadow / Hale's Brook).  I also included the construction of Veteran's Way and the Central Plaza in with this project, but I'm not sure when those happened.  I think Central Plaza was the 1950s, but I believe Veteran's way was decades later.

Yellow: North Canal / Little Canada / Merrimack Manufacturing Company, 1960s.  Apparently intended to be redeveloped along a Lowell Connector that was never completed through and around the downtown, the clearing of the Little Canada neighborhood between the North Canal and the river was done in the 1960s.  This neighborhood was replaced with Father Morissette Boulevard, low-rise industrial concerns with large parking lots like Notini's and a supermarket which was where Lelacheur park stands today.  One business which survived was today's Lowell Provision Company, which moved across the Aiken Street Bridge to West Centralville.  Moody Street was cut off at both ends, disconnecting Merrimack Street from the then Moody Street, now University Ave Bridge (and in my opinion, causing the current plans for a realignment of that bridge to surviving Merrimack Street), and removed a few cross streets that used to connect Merrimack Street to what is now Father Morissette Boulevard.  For example, Suffolk Street, which I didn't color all of.  Somehow, in the middle of all of this, the Wannalancit Mill remains.

The same decade saw the demolition of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and its boardinghouses, and the construction of Arcand Drive.  The Boardinghouses were replaced in the 1970s with the Lowell High addition, and the rest of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company properties were replaced with a small professional building (behind Cobblestones), a small office building which is now the headquarters for Lowell Five, the much-unloved JFK Civic Center, and Riverplace Towers.  The low industrial buildings which were built at the end of Arcand Drive on land just beyond the Merrimack Manufacturing Company yard were replaced in the 1990s with the Tsongas Arena.

Red: Hale-Howard, 1970s.  This project running along Chelmsford Street and de-mapping large parts of Hale and Howard streets replaced a tenement neighborhood with a few large industrial buildings, the new train station, and its garages.  Part of Hale Street became known as YMCA drive when the new YMCA was built and the bridge over the railroad tracks was removed, making it a dead-end street.  The bridge I believe was re-built in the 1990s.  Howard Street only remains as a small section from Chelmsford to (almost) Middlesex Street, that end being lost to the ramps of the Lord Overpass.  The other end remains where Tanner Street makes a sharp turn at the power plant.  Hale Street's original termination at Lincoln Square where Lincoln, Liberty, Hale, and Chelmsford Streets all meet, was removed at the same time I think.

In the 1980s, all I can think of was the construction of the Sampson Connector, which redirected Thorndike Street to Dutton Street instead of Fletcher Street, and removed parking along Dutton.  We also built many of the garages, although I'm sure some date to the late 1970s.  I think they were all built on already vacant or nearly vacant land, which signifies a positive trend.  Similarly, we built the hotel and the Wang building that is now Middlesex Community College on what used to be surface parking lots.  Also, the later Gateway Center buildings on Warren Street I know used to be empty railyards, but I don't know what was there in between, if anything.  By the 1990s and into the 2000s, we built the ballpark and the arena, and the mill re-purposing instead of demolition that had begun with the creation of the National Park at the end of the 1970s and gaining steam in the 1980s continued.

So, looking at our history, the massive clearance projects that destroyed just about every neighborhood bordering downtown Lowell but not too much of downtown itself (thank God, that was in the works in the 1960s with the Connector extension plans!) have not been any better to Lowell than they were to most other cities.  We've done much better through very careful spot clearing and adaptive re-use.

I'm currently reading Jane Jacob's famous Death and Life of Great American Cities, which, though written in the 1960s as the Renewal Movement in Lowell was in full swing, argued that these projects were supremely misguided, and would make matters far worse.  I plan to write a post about this 400-plus page book as soon as I finish it.

That brings us to a plan that is hopefully going to function as showing we've learnt our lessons and people like Jacobs have been right all along:

Blue: Hamilton Canal District, 2000s-  So far, a few empty warehouses and old industrial buildings that can't be repurposed have been demolished, and the rebuild of what remains is in progress.  This time, what is going in instead of the old buildings includes more, not fewer, streets and an urban-style neighborhood instead of a suburban one.

Fingers crossed.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Recession and the State of the Blogosphere in the 978

Lynne over at Left In Lowell has a good post with good follow-up discussion going reporting on me reporting via Facebook reporting on Bistro Broad via Facebook reporting on her blog that Dharma Buns went under.  It wasn't too long ago that Ms. Pierce had interesting restaurant news in Lowell seemingly weekly.  It's really slowed along with the economy, often going to the 'burbs or to vacation spots for new places to eat.  But it's not just restaurant news downtown that's slowing, things look pretty precarious all around right now.  But how bad is it and what is to be done?  Carry on the discussion over there.

Meanwhile, Dich Howe has an article by Mike Luciano criticizing a particular Sun editorial that seems pretty typically far-right and off base.  Bob Forrant muses in the comment section on how The Sun's editorials continue to hate the government while failing to realize (except when Wallace sort of points it out in The Column with a positive spin "we win! our politicians are the best!") that Lowell depends extremely heavily on outside money to survive.  I asked about this inconsistency here a few weeks ago as an aside.  But where does this money come from and what's the end-game?

Over at The New Englander, a very thoughtful discussion about racism in the context of the shootings over New Years and the response it has generated is going on.  It specifically calls out Topix, the comment engine The Sun uses, and how poorly moderated and full of hate the people who still use it are.  When I'm feeling like I deserve a good mental beating, I post there too.  I know that there is maybe a 10% chance something serious and meaningful will come out of what I have to say.

Finally, Paul Marion posted a backlink to my pics of the development at Appleton Mills.  While I agree with him and Maxine Farkas from Western Avenue Studios that this is exciting that the reconstruction is coming along so well, I still am uncomfortable with the funding and the income-eligibility rules.  I'm not sure an overreaching government was acting for the common good here - maybe the long-silent Lowell Shallot was right - this Trinity development is a shady inside deal.  So far, a tenant for the old Freudenburg office building is yet to surface as well.

Well, the economy sucks and we're having a rash of violence (related?), but I guess I can say that the Lowell blogosphere is healthy at least.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Appleton Mill, September 2010 - December 2010

No comment really, but this is the latest batch of photos (snapshots at best sadly) of the construction at the old Appleton Millyard.  Resident selection is apparently underway; hard-hat tours have been given.  It's really starting to shape up over there, and the Revolving Museum is now across the street on Jackson St.

Appleton Mill, September 2010 - December 2010