That Shining City
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.
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:
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.
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.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.
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.