Monday, May 1, 2017

Do We Secretly Want Ugly Cities and Dangerous Streets?

Fountain, Three Logan Square.
Roger Starr was a man of many opinions and several careers. Born in Manhattan, educated at Yale, Starr served in the OSS in World War II, then spent quite a few years running the family's barge business, developed an interest in housing, served New York City's Wagner, Lindsay, and Beame administrations in various housing roles, and eventually wound up writing editorials for the New York Times.

I hadn't thought about Starr for years. But then I was reading an old book by Bernard Rudofsky called Streets for People: A Primer for Americans (it was published in 1969), and I was almost at the end (page 340, to be exact), and there Roger was talking about a pedestrian street in Rotterdam called the Lijnbaan.

Starr finds that the Lijnbaan "is attractive, colorful, cheerful; I had looked forward to shopping there, but discovered that for me, something was missing; after a while, I concluded that I missed the tempo of traffic, the variety of shapes and colors of automobiles, trucks, taxicabs, motor cycles; instead of relief of having escaped from them, I found myself thinking that I was not in a city, but at a summer resort, a place in which, for all its charms I would not want to transact serious matters." (P. 340.)

I was sufficiently appalled by this quote that I decided to check the original source, just to be sure there was no mistake. I asked the Free Library to get its copy of The Living End (1966) out of storage - the process only took a couple of days - and when I got the book in hand I went straight to page 194. And there was the quote. No mistake.

(By the way, it appears that the paperback edition of this book travels under the title Urban Choices. The two titles share the subtitle The City and Its Critics.)

An Influential Gadfly
Starr was something of a gadfly in New York City planning circles. An occasional sparring partner for Jane Jacobs, his most famous comment was a 1976 proposal - at a time the city was confronting monumental problems - in which he suggested "planned shrinkage" for troubled areas like the South Bronx.

I see him as basically a defender of the status quo circa 1956. This status quo involved clearcutting of densely populated poor city neighborhoods for new housing and highways, something similar to what was going on in suburban areas, but there most of the population being displaced was cows.

This was a status quo which had only recently evolved, and for which the various downsides were only beginning to emerge. Key drivers were the federal housing acts of 1949 and 1954 and the interstate highway act of 1956.

Of course, if you want to knock a lot of stuff down, it helps to claim that what you're knocking down has no value. Pennsylvania Station in New York had been designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1910. The above-ground portions of the station were demolished starting in October 1963.

So here goes Roger: "Whether or not one admired its style (I did not), it was one of the city's most impressive structures. But what does one do with an impressive railroad station which has ceased to be of value as a railroad station? In a dying city one boards it up, and watches it become ruins; ultimately shepherds sit on its eroded columns and goats graze between the tracks. In a living city one first prostitutes it into a more efficient machine selling commuter and race track tickets, and then into an architectural billboard, hanging signs, kiosks, and booths from its Roman vaults. Finally, the day is reached when someone decides it is worth more as land than as structure, and down it comes to be replaced by an office building or a sports arena, or both." (P. 142.)

Why would you hang a kiosk or a booth from a ceiling? Sorry. Maybe they did. The real issue here is looking at an important public structure simply as a real-estate investment. And I think that's a significant subtext in Roger's story. He's a businessman, after all. And so he thinks, as so many businessmen do, that his method is the only method. And the only real question is, Does it pencil? How much money can we make on this deal?

And so an admittedly very tired structure got pulled down, and with it went not only a grand entrance to the city, but a space that allowed people to feel like people, instead of rats scurrying in a maze, which is what the current station feels like.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your Wharton MBA.

And it is widely accepted that the historical preservation movement began at Penn Station. Paris lost Les Halles in 1971, but by then people had started taking the past seriously; the Gare D'Orsay, slated for demolition in 1970, became instead the Musee d'Orsay, and Grand Central Terminal in New York was protected by a 1965 landmarks law. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of New York's landmark law in 1978. And in general, historic preservation in New York City has been aided by progressive expansion of the concept of air rights transfer.

Wrong side of history, Roger. Also a bit too much in love with your own prose.

Meanwhile, on the Street
As things go with buildings, so things go on the street. Starr just loves the way things are right now (that is 1956). He thinks a monomodal transportation system focused on the private automobile is just dandy (and I think that is probably one of the reasons why he had no interest in preserving a monument to the railroad age).

There are three primary flaws in car culture. They can be ameliorated, but they cannot be fixed. They are congestion, crashes, and air pollution.

Starr is actually pretty good on air pollution: "We do know, of course, that the automobiles may ultimately kill us all, unless a way is found to control the poisonous gases that come from their exhaust pipes." (P. 203.)

As for crashes, and the attendant death and injury, he simply doesn't mention them. It's not like traffic safety wasn't in the news. In 1966, the year The Living End was published, the U.S. Department of Transportation was created, and 50,000 people died in crashes. In 2015 the death toll was 35,000, and people didn't think that was very good.

And here's what he has to say about traffic jams. "I am not primarily troubled about the time wasted by drivers and passengers in private automobiles during rush hours; the decision to use their cars at rush hours, rather than public transit, is their own." (P. 200.)

There's more. He suggests that the car is America's last refuge for the rugged individualist. "The satisfaction is that each man at the wheel is master of his own destiny, captain of his own soul. On an objective scale it may be ridiculous that anyone should be reduced to inflating his amour propre by sitting at the wheel of an automobile wedged into a mass of other stalled machines. At the wheel of each sits another man feeling equally self-determined. But the absurdity makes the feeling no less real; on the contrary, the absurdity merely emphasizes how few are the occasions in modern life when one has the opportunity to exercise that individual control and individual choice which the philosophers of democracy and the sellers of soap agree are the most import attributes of free men." (Pp. 189-190.) (See also Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama.)

But that's not my favorite quote. Here he is making a rather odd comparison between modern architecture and automobiles: "From a distance, the modern commercial office structural machine, its glass sparkling in the sunlight, provides something of the artistic splendor of a new automobile. Yet the automobile, poised to conquer and control the world, is more magnetic." (P. 155.)

In case you were wondering, yes, Roger Starr is a car groupie.

How Do You Begin to Fight This?
Roger Starr's defense of the status quo is so broad that it puts me in mind of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, who thought that everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds. To which Bernard Rudofsky replies, Well, there are other possible worlds, and it's just possible that they're better.

Rudofsky's Streets for People: A Primer for Americans, is a lovely palette cleanser. It starts with the two ideas that streets should be clean and well made, then takes us on a bracing tour of Italian hills towns, North African souks, Greek islands, Rome for its fountains, Milan for its Galleria, bridges in London and Paris that aren't there anymore. Porticoes, canopies - imagine walking outside and being protected from the rain.

Perhaps this book is not as important as Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) or Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974). But still it's a valuable addition to the bookshelf, and it came at an opportune time, in the late sixties, when people were beginning to be more open to new approaches in many aspects of American life.

Yes, our streets don't have to look the way they do. What is here is neither inevitable nor irremediable. There are options - good options.

Rudofsky's book is obviously very different from Starr's. They do, however, have one thing in common. I read them both pretty carefully, and as far as I can tell, neither one ever uses the word bicycle. I think it's a sign of how far we've come.

Fountains and Pools
Rudofsky is a great fan of the fountains of Rome, and speaks lovingly of the Piazza Navona, regaling us with tales of how, in the days before air conditioning, the whole piazza would be flooded to a depth of several feet, and the gentry would ride around splashily in their carriages to combat the summer heat (p. 296).

He basically accuses Americans of not doing water features, and this may have been a valid criticism of New York City, where he lived after emigrating from Europe. But I wish he had come to Philadelphia, where in certain sections of town I think we do water very well.

There's the Ben Franklin Parkway of course, with the statue of George Washington at Eakins Oval standing in a pool of water; the Swann Memorial Fountain at Logan Circle by Alexander Stirling Calder; and the new water feature in Love Park, which will replace the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Fountain. In the parkway's neighborhood you have the water feature at Dilworth Park, the fountain and the children's water park at Sister Cities Park; reflecting pools at the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation. There are also water features at One Logan and Three Logan Square. Then there are the water features in Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square, the fountain in Fitler Square. Even in South Philly there is the Singing Fountain on the triangle formed by East Passyunk and 11th, just north of Tasker. I'll stop here.

No I won't. There's another triangle further up East Passyunk, where it crosses 6th and also Christian. It's currently vacant; I've heard there are plans to build on it. I can envision, because of the shape of the site, that a creative architect might have fun designing a pizza shop for the space, but I really think it should be a neighborhood fountain.

The Schuylkill Banks
I think the very best of our recently created water features is the Schuylkill Banks. Getting it built was a long process, and, having read Starr, I think I have a better understanding of why. It has to do with what President George H.W. Bush referred to as "the vision thing." It's just possible that important people couldn't wrap their minds around the idea that you actually could build a park in a disused industrial area cut off from the inland by a working railway line. The best they could imagine was replacing an urban wasteland with a traffic sewer, which of course is what happened across the river with the Schuylkill Expressway.

I have to go back to Roger Starr on this: "I can hardly think of a large city whose cargo-handling waterfront is laid out so that its pedestrians can visit it with impunity. If automobile highways do not cut them off, then railways do, carrying freight to and from the piers. If, unfortunately, there are no railways, heavy trucking performs the same office." (P. 187.)

Having a little trouble envisioning a post-industrial city. And yet it got done, here in Philadelphia.

Fifty Years On
It's roughly fifty years since the Starr and Rudofsky books were published. So how are we doing? Cars still dominate the streets, and landmarks still get the wrecking ball. But there is no longer unanimous consent, and the objectors are often quite vocal, if not always effective, and it seems that the constituency for reimagining the streets, at least, is growing.

Some developers are starting to see that you can make good money by reworking old buildings instead of knocking them down. And it appears that the highway lobby is weakening, at least partially because all those people who were lured to the suburbs report that the daily drive into work, and back home again, is easily the least pleasant part of their day.

There are still plenty of developers whose reflex is to create a brickyard and move on from there. And there are still plenty of powerful streets engineers who insist on having a lane or two beyond what current or foreseen traffic requires, "just in case."

But I think the real problem lies not with the lobbyists or the bureaucrats, but with our political leadership. And that leads me to my final question. What do the members of the Philadelphia City Council actually think about the future of cars and moldy old buildings? Are they still mired back in 1956, with Roger Starr, or has their thinking evolved?

I have no idea how to extract candid answers to this question. But I think it's an important question.

And here's the plaza at Three Logan.
See also Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor, Richardson Dilworth, an Urbanist for the Ages, This Isn't Just Any Alley.


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