Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That Shining City

Of all the human constructs, it seems to me that none is as perfect a metaphor for democracy as the city. Forced to share limited space and resources, bound to bump into each other eventually if only within rigid class structures, the citizens of a city are exposed willingly or not to the tell-tale realities of each others' lives in ways that those in suburban settings often are not. This familiarity breeds contempt at times, no doubt, but it also breeds a bond the likes of which we witnessed in New York after 9/11 when for a few weeks at least it was immediately clear to us all how much we depended on each other. How much we were alike.

Related to this notion for me is the fact of all the cities I've visited in the world, my favorites tend to be those with dense, organically grown centers, like London, Istanbul, Venice, and Porto. Rabbit warrens of winding streets and layer upon human-built layer of structures, the evidence of history and its very, very messy path forward. Among my least favorite cities in this regards are those designed by a visionary architect and beholden to certain aesthetic standards (think DC or Chicago). They have individual gems of buildings and their own charms, for sure, but getting lost in their labyrinthine streets and feeling yourself traveling back through time isn't among them. And while they undoubtedly capture the essence of democracy in certain parts (like the Mall or Millennium Park), overall they feel too new to me, like a wine that needed a little more time aging before you uncorked it.

Halfway around the world, but not that far from where Bambino's family owns a farm, China is currently hellbent on destroying one of the world's most authentic city-as-history centers in Kashgar. In what is a blatant effort to assimilate the Uighur minority of Western China, the government is bulldozing over ancient mud brick, courtyard homes that have defined this amazing culture for hundreds of years, removing thousands from their family home into soulless apartment buildings.
"They want us to live like Chinese people but we will never agree," said a 48-year-old woman in a red jacket and brown head scarf, who declined to give her name. "If we move into the government apartments, there are no courtyards and no sun. Women will need to cover up to go outside and we will have to spend money to finish decorating our rooms. This is our land. We have not bought it from the government."
I know, of course, all the arguments about safety and supposedly better services, but I find it amazing to watch the innovative way in which dense city centers are built out, with the population struggling to find creative ways to update and modernize within the constraints of preserving their heritage. Blending the two as best they can, rather than flattening it all for economic or political expediency. The latter is clearly not something the people who built such centers want...it's generally the solution by government officials who live elsewhere or developers. In that way, it's wholly undemocratic. [To learn more about the Uighur's fight to preserve their heritage read here.]

Much of this stems from the luxury of being able to be romantic about places I don't live, I know, and so it was that I found myself reluctantly agreeing with much that Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in his recent article Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now.

With their crowded neighborhoods and web of public services, cities are not only invaluable cultural incubators; they are also vastly more efficient than suburbs. But for years they have been neglected, and in many cases forcibly harmed, by policies that favored sprawl over density and conformity over difference.

Such policies have caused many of our urban centers to devolve into generic theme parks and others, like Detroit, to decay into ghost towns. They have also sparked the rise of ecologically unsustainable gated communities and reinforced economic disparities by building walls between racial, ethnic and class groups.

Correcting this imbalance will require a radical adjustment in how we think of cities and government’s role in them. At times it will mean destruction rather than repair. And it demands listening to people who have spent the last decade imagining and in many cases planning for more sustainable, livable and socially just cities.
Reviewing some of the best ideas for restructuring and revitalizing New Orleans, Los Angeles, the Bronx, and Buffalo, Ouroussoff notes how "half-century ago American engineering was the envy of the rest of the world" but increasingly we're seen by the rest of the world as aging and decadent. (Personally, I'm kind of comfortable in aging and decadent places, but I do see that our infrastructure in the US was permitted to lapse into nearly criminal disrepair during the Bush years [a real outrage, in my opinion, because if any President had the opportunity to turn a crisis into a bold new vision for rebuilding America it was Bush].) Obama's stimulus plan provides plenty of opportunity to revitalize, but I am less gun-ho about just sticking shovels in the ground than Mr. Ouroussoff seems to be:
President Obama has a rare opportunity to build a new, more enlightened version of this country, one rooted in his own egalitarian ideals. It is an opportunity that may not come around again.
I don't want to miss the opportunity either, but I'd like some guiding principles to be in place first. Egalitarian ideals can't override heritage or history. Not without at least discussing it. Mr. Ouroussoff points to a plan in Buffalo that preservationists are resisting for example:
The Homeland Security Department is planning to expand an area at the entry to the Peace Bridge to make room for new inspection facilities and parking. That plan would require the demolition of five and a half blocks in a diverse working-class neighborhood with a rich architectural history, from late-19th-century Italianate mansions to modest two-family homes built in the 1920s.

Local preservationists argue that protecting the city’s historic neighborhoods is fundamental to the city’s survival. Pointing out that bridge traffic is steadily shrinking, they are pressing the government to upgrade the train system and dismantle parts of the elevated freeway to allow better access to the riverfront. Not only would they like to see Olmsted’s late-19th-century vision restored; they would also like to see it joined to a more comprehensive vision for the city’s future.

At this point there is no concrete plan to counter the government’s, but the potential is great. The city’s architectural fabric is rich. It has an active grass-roots preservation movement. And few sites better sum up the challenges of trying to save a shrinking city. I for one would love to see what a talented architect could accomplish if his imagination were given free rein over such a promising site.
A talented architect given free rein is fine in a vaccuum, but I'm sure the Chinese retained a talented architect in Kashgar as well. Grass-roots preservation movements shouldn't be the only counter-balance to the ambitions of the all-powerful Homeland Security Department.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you. As my husband and I finalize our plans to move to the amazing city of Buffalo, these issues are of great importance to us.

3/31/2009 11:56:00 AM  
Blogger C. L. DeMedeiros said...

Your post make me remind something about my own hometown: Arraial do Cabo, a cape town in Rio de Janeiro state-Brazil. When I was 12 y.o. I took a picture of my sister seating on a window of a ruins of an old house, really very old. Later on I found out it was the first "feitoria", kind like
custom house, where the first products produce in Brazil was ship to Portugal to the King, including monkeys, macaws, exotic flowers and some Aborigines. Everything to please the Kings court.
That ruins stand still when I was 12y.o. was the last wall of what was part of the history of my home town. It was destroyed to build a bad and breakfast...
I learn also that my home town was the oldest populated city in Brazil, one of the ones you until this very day can be reach in old maps.
Without conscious people that rule the city hall over the centuries this is totally out of question, some documents can prove about how old and yada yada yada. But the memory was destroyed too.
Seams like all over the old the same spirit to not save places and memories... Sad, very sad.


3/31/2009 04:59:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

So sad (and infuriating) that this goes on.

During Mussolini's reign in Italy, he had the tufic caves of Matera (no relation) covered over with asphalt. These caves, carved into the volcanic rock in the mountain wall of the town, had been inhabited since paleolithic times. Over the eons, systems evolved for bringing in fresh air and draining water. They were an ecologic (if cramped) marvel, to say nothing of living history.

In recent years, people have been restoring them. And now, wouldn't you know, they're turning into boutiques and hotels. Not the revival one might hope for, but at least a revival.

Google "sassi" ("stones," which is how these caves are known) or Matera for more info. Pretty amazing.

Let's hope the Uigur-ians end up with more.

3/31/2009 05:40:00 PM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I was in Beijing a year or two before the olympics - and on the last day of a business trip went to the Forbidden City - and saw the neighborhood around it - beautiful courtyard homes, cool breezes (it was summer and Beijing was HOT) and interesting masonry contruction. Slated for destruction and reconstructions as high rise apartments & condos.

I think the Chinese culture is obsessed with growth and NEW right now. Some day they will miss the physical heritage they are destroying. Just like we did and created the Historic Preservation movement.

Hope the Uigurs end up with what they want. I am sure their mindfulness of their physical heritage has a lot to do with their status in China.

3/31/2009 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger Leah Sandals said...

This only responds to part of the discussion raised, but I'm reminded of Canadian photographer Greg Girard's ongoing documentation of old-building abandonment and destruction in Shanghai:


Beautiful images of quite vast losses--even if the buildings are "ugly" in some cases, they hold so much lived experience.

3/31/2009 11:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NY under Bloomberg has been just as bad as China, development here has been all about progress at the expense of many NY institutions, the worst its been since Robert Moses ravaged many neighborhoods in the name of progress until he was stopped at SOHO, and nothing was learned from the destruction of the original Penn Station, the same kind of ego maniacs have once again risen to power and want to force their Utopian vision on us no matter the cost. I have yet to understand the logic behind building a new Yankee Stadium, every rookie from other teams always rave in interviews about how when they were a kid they dreamed of playing in Yankee Stadium, because it is where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle.. etc. etc. played, It was the house that Ruth built, Now there is an atrocity that Giuliani built, and A-Rod will play there?

4/01/2009 06:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Rebeca said...

Touting resilience in a part of New York particularly hard hit by recession, President Barack Obama said Monday that better economic days are coming thanks to innovation and some help from the government. "As we emerge from this current economic crisis, our great challenge will be to ensure that we do not just drift into the future," Obama said at Hudson Valley Community College. "Instead, we must choose to do what past generations have done: shape a brighter future through hard work and innovation."

9/21/2009 04:39:00 PM  

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