Thursday, February 19, 2015

Urban film series at CUNY

The first film in the Rights to the City Film Series at City University of New York's Center for Place, Culture and Politics was screened on Tuesday February 17. It was followed by a discussion with the filmmaker, and the entire event was sobering and illuminating. I will post a follow-up as soon as I can.

The series examines inequitable development patterns in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newark, Detroit and Istanbul. It will continue on March 5 at 7:00PM with a presentation of "Rezoning Harlem." Like the rest of films in the series, it will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and CUNY faculty and students.

All films are free and open to the public. They will be shown in the Doctoral Students’ Council Lounge (365 Fifth Avenue, Room 5414 ) unless noted otherwise.

Table Header
My Brooklyn
February 17, 7:00 PM

Skylight Room, Graduate Center, CUNY.

Panel: Kelly Anderson, filmmaker; Sharon Zukin (Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places; Professor at CUNY); CUNY Doctoral Candidate Sara Martucci.
A documentary about Director Kelly Anderson’s personal journey, as a Brooklyn gentrifier, to understand the forces reshaping her neighborhood along lines of race and class. The story begins when Anderson moves to Brooklyn in 1988, lured by cheap rents and bohemian culture. By Michael Bloomberg’s election as mayor in 2001, a massive speculative real estate boom is rapidly altering the neighborhoods she has come to call home. She watches as an explosion of luxury housing and chain store development spurs bitter conflict over who has a right to live in the city and to determine its future. While some people view these development patterns as ultimately revitalizing the city, to others, they are erasing the eclectic urban fabric, economic and racial diversity, creative alternative culture, and unique local economies that drew them to Brooklyn in the first place. It seems that no less than the city’s soul is at stake.

Rezoning Harlem
March 5, 7:00PM

Panel: Tamara Gubernat, Tom Agnotti, a member of the Harlem community, and moderator Pilar Ortiz.

Follows longtime members of the Harlem community as they fight a 2008 rezoning that threatens to erase the history and culture of their legendary neighborhood and replace it with luxury housing, offices, and big-box retail. A shocking expose of how a group of ordinary citizens, who are passionate about the future of one of the city’s most treasured neighborhoods, are systematically shut out of the city’s decision-making process, revealing New York City’s broken public review system and provoking discussion on what we can do about it.

The Rink
March 26, 7:00PM

Panel: Sarah Friedland, Ryan Joseph, and CalvinJohn Smiley. Moderator: Brenden Beck
Branch Brook Park Roller Rink, located in Newark, NJ, is one of the few remaining urban rinks of its kind. This concrete structure is nestled in a public park bordered by public housing and a highway. Upon first glance, the exterior resembles a fallout shelter; however, the streamers and lights of the interior are reminiscent of 1970s roller discos. This 55 minute documentary depicts a space cherished by skaters and a city struggling to move beyond its past and forge a new narrative amidst contemporary social issues.

Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits
April 16, 7:00PM

Panel: Imre Azam, Duygu Parmaksizoglu, Josh Scannell.

Tells the story of Istanbul on a neo-liberal course to destruction. It follows the story of a migrant family from the demolition of their neighborhood to their on-going struggle for housing rights. The film takes a look at the city on a macro level and through the eyes of experts, going from the tops of mushrooming skyscrapers to the depths of the railway tunnel under the Bosphorous strait; from the historic neighborhoods in the south to the forests in the north. It’s an Istanbul going from 15 million to 30 million. It’s an Istanbul going from 2 million cars to 8 million. It’s the Istanbul of the future that will soon engulf the entire region. It’s an Istanbul you have never seen before.

Rerooting the Motor City: Notes on a City in Transformation
May 7, 7:00PM

Panel: Filmmakers Adrienne Silverman and Nadia Mohamed; CUNY scholars Cindi Katz, Amanda Matles, and Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land.
How are Detroiters responding to the localized failures of post-industrial global capitalism? How are they re-mediating the frontier mythologies perpetuated by the mainstream media that complement “creative class” policy promotion? With a critical lens on race and class dynamics, this documentary weaves together segments on Detroit’s labor history, the budding urban agriculture movement, a critical look at philanthro-capitalism and its relationship to redevelopment as well as media (mis)representations of a city in transformation.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The overlooked truth of the mixed-use neighborhood

The electronic age has helped me manage the paper overload on my desk, but only a little. Yesterday, at the bottom of a long neglected stack of newspaper and magazine clippings, I came across an article in the Albany Times Union from a few years ago. Entitled "Long walk home," it cited a poll that found that 58 percent of Americans would like to live in neighborhoods with stores. "So why haven't they been built?" asks the article by the always dependable Chris Churchill.

The question has become a well-worn one in urban planning circles. Ditto for the answers commonly proffered: zoning laws need to be relaxed, planners and developers need to be more sensitive to the needs of citizens, yada yada yada. The first answer is true enough: we're never going to attain walkability as long as zoning codes require segregated uses, large lots, and other pedestrian-hostile features.
Credit: Philip Kamrass, Times Union
But the second answer is mostly untrue, as unintentionally demonstrated by the photographs accompanying the article. They show an older mixed-use neighborhood in Schenectady that clearly didn't come about through a formal planning and development process. The neighborhood was birthed organically, through an ad hoc process initiated and controlled by neighborhood residents themselves. The commercial uses were not planned; they came about as the citizens made their neighborhood into what they thought it needed to be. They didn't wait for developers; they did it themselves.

A formal planning and development process can give us mixed uses, but it can't give us the kind of neighborhoods we most need. It can give us contrived architecture, chain stores, and predictability, but it can't give us authenticity. Nor, I would argue, is it likely to impart local economic benefit. Formal development doesn't generate wealth for the people already living in a neighborhood; instead, it replaces them with a different group of people who acquired their wealth elsewhere. The residents who remain may have a newfound convenience of walking to a chain store, but that store sends wealth out of the community every day.

What will it take for more mixed-use neighborhoods to be built? Less zoning, fewer developers, and more mom and pop.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Changing the air

The complexity of the urban problem can be overwhelming. In a given neighborhood, a hundred buildings may be falling down in a thousand ways for a million different reasons. Beneath the loose bricks and rotting eaves lies more complexity: people from countless walks of life with innumerable problems and an infinite number of obstacles to solving them. Where does one begin to improve an urban community mired in poverty, despair, and dysfunction?

A version of this question was posed to me recently by an official of a city in upstate New York. Our conversation, having reached a point of exhaustion, had settled upon a mutual realization: there never will be enough government programs operating with sufficient nuance to solve the problems of the people, buildings, and neighborhoods of our cities in all their particularities. We’ve tried top-down solutions for decades, and rarely have they begotten true improvement. Top-down urbanism focuses on buildings, not on lives. It might bring about physical improvement, but it doesn’t make the residents of a neighborhood wealthier. Instead, it most often displaces them in favor of a different group of people who already are wealthier. The displaced have the same problems they had before, with the added burden of having to solve them in a different neighborhood or in an altogether different city. Third tier cities—Troy, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and others in the upstate come to mind—end up as depots for those dispossessed from “successful” cities. But if North Central Troy is struggling, don't worry, we tell ourselves; hang in there a while longer, until we find the money to do the same great things we did in Brooklyn.

It was in acknowledgment of such foolishness that my interlocutor asked, “What would you do in these places? How would you change things?”

It’s tricky to answer such a question. A too ambitious response suggests more top-downism, and urbanism properly works from the bottom up. So I narrowed the question further. “Let me suggest something small that might get things pointed in the right direction,” I offered. “Let me suggest something practical, that isn’t top-down or outside-in but that builds on what is already in a neighborhood. Something that will give the people there a tangible sense of hope…that might fundamentally change the air.”

My very modest suggestion is: signage. In even the most troubled neighborhoods, at least some people are engaged in useful, paying work. They babysit, cut hair, give manicures, sew clothes, make candles, plan parties, pack brown bag lunches, fabricate sheet metal, perform day labor, and engage in dozens of other activities that wouldn’t occur to someone like me trying to make a list of them. Most such activities, if not all, have no street visibility, as they take place in private homes and apartments. Proprietors earn a bit of pocket money and some carve out a subsistence income. But they rarely earn enough to fully flower. Clients are limited to those that can be found through word of mouth, or perhaps craigslist. Anyone not already in the know will pass these places of commerce without realizing they are there.

But imagine if someone making a few dollars under the radar on River Street in North Central Troy, North Miller Street in Newburgh, or even State Street in Hudson were granted the freedom to install a sign over his or her front door to advertise his or her goods or services. Imagine the opportunities for income, improvement, and self-actualization that would be created at very little expense. The changes would be modest at first. But imagine the sense of self-agency some citizens would acquire. Imagine, over time, the neighborhood sprouting a plethora of signs for independent businesses. Imagine the neighborhood becoming a place to live, instead of a place where people can only hope for something better to come along. Imagine the children growing up in the neighborhood seeing the elders be productive and self-driven. Imagine them realizing that their own future could be realized right there, instead of a far-off place somewhere on the other side of a college degree. Imagine the residents acquiring enough wealth to repair the broken stoops and rotted eaves, and to build new storefronts, and—

Oops…I forgot. Historic preservation. Pure architectural style must be preserved. Sorry about that. And so, let us give thanks on this day for those who remind us again and again that cities are places of buildings, not places of people, and that the former is more important than the latter. Not sure how I got that on wrong.

Apologies for the digression. Carry on.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bringing urbanism home

I wrote the following essay for Architect magazine in September 2009.

Firefighters parade through Hudson, N.Y.
Macduff Everton/Corbis via Architect magazine

I love big cities, but I often find small cities more compelling. The dispiriting and encouraging aspects of urbanism are more immediately juxtaposed, often heart-rendingly so, but the disparity between them seems bridgeable. Surely, this place can be made to work, if only.

Hudson, N.Y., a settlement of 8,000 residents two hours north of Manhattan, is a two-square-mile snapshot of America’s urban disparity. Its main avenue, Warren Street, is a stunner; it looks as if eight very charming blocks of Brooklyn left the big city a century ago and moved to Columbia County. It has its rough spots, but Warren Street has been experiencing a revival, thanks to gentrification, historic preservation, an influx of antique dealers and tourists, and the helping hand of government.

In the blocks immediately to either side of Warren Street, one finds the other Hudson: comparatively poor, nonwhite, disconnected, and underemployed. The crime rate is higher, and the rough spots in the urban fabric are rougher. The industrial base is nearly gone, as are innumerable mom-and-pop shoe stores, food marts, and repair services that once made Hudson, Hudson.
What has happened in Hudson, as elsewhere, is that the middle has dropped out. But before blaming its vanishing middle class on the global economy, look closer to home. In fact, look in the home, for this is where American businesses—and American urbanism—used to get started. Before we became enamored of top-down urbanism—funded by government, propped up by feasibility studies, packaged by city hall, guarded by aesthetic review boards, and delivered by developers—urbanism arose through an organic process of small entrepreneurs opening home-based businesses to the sidewalk. Their one-of-a-kind shops and industries were the starting point for innumerable mixed-use streets, districts, and downtowns that we love today. Read more...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What is urbanism?

From Hudson Urbanism  
Yesterday I found myself wondering if I should have called this blog "Hudson Urbanist" instead of "Hudson Urbanism." The former might have granted me the freedom to occasionally write about things not directly concerned with the urban condition—baseball, politics, life minutia, and whatever interests me on a given day. I might take such license anyway; in any event, my internal dialogue got me thinking about the word "urban" and the extent to which America's urban problem—or is it our suburban problem?—is exacerbated by misuse of the term.

Consider the U.S. Census Bureau's report that 81 percent of Americans now live in urban areas. This important example of who-America-is data places the cul-de-sac-dwelling, automobile-dependent suburbanite in the same category as the sidewalk pounding Brooklynite. I can't help but think this makes the fight against the environmental and social ravages of suburban sprawl ever more difficult and diffuse. Similar conflations are found among geographers, sociologists, historians, and others concerned with broad trends in human development. In their comparisons of modern societies to ancient or tribal societies, they typically place the "urban" label on those with water and sewer infrastructures, formal governments, advanced methods of goods production and distribution, and so on. Again, they lump the suburb with the "urb." 

Further poking prompts more questions than answers: is "urban" a proper adjective for "city" even though many city districts are as suburban in their physical makeup as those outside the city boundary? Is it appropriate for a mayor to proclaim his city's "urban renaissance" as he cuts a ribbon for a new strip mall? Is it fair to blame the excessive consumption of land and resources on "urban sprawl" when by definition it is suburbs, not urbs, that sprawl? How should we categorize Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston that is politically a city, that is physically predominated by single-family houses and strip malls, but that also has within it thirteen quasi-urban villages? And what can we conclude of a person living in Boston's Back Bay—an urban neighborhood by probably everyone's definition—who drives thirty miles every day to a job in suburban Westborough? Is she an urbanite or a suburbanite? If she took a new job in downtown Worcester, would that change anything? Wouldn't she, despite structuring her life around two urban places, be living a life that is dynamically suburban?

Such questions point to two things we need to do if we are to attain more sustainable, and necessarily more urban, ways of building and living. One, we need to define urban and suburban in a way that clearly and concisely identifies and differentiates their physical characters. To this end I offer this: Urbanism is high-density mixed uses, and suburbanism is low-density segregated uses. While there remains a finer grain to explore, this distinction covers more ground more effectively than anything I have come across in more than twenty years of study.

Two, we need to go beyond physical definitions and begin working to reinstill the dynamic realities that underlie the physical form of urban places. As our Back Bay friend demonstrates, one can "live suburban" in an urban place, which negates the point of urbanism. And not to push this point too far or paint too broadly, but I often think that the primary, unrecognized goal of the urban planning establishment over the past several decades has been to accommodate large numbers of such individuals—to support a suburban social order within a physical facsimile of urbanism, rather than to promote urbanism as a way of living.

This will not do. It is not enough for citizens to establish residence in an urban place while continuing to chase around the region to fill their life needs. It is not acceptable for residents of an urban neighborhood to oppose their neighbors opening new businesses if those businesses would make that place more urban. It is not enough to fight for the preservation of existing urban environments in their current state; one must support those policies and practices that will lead to greater density and more mixed uses, and thereby more local living.

Because this is what urbanism is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is Radical Urbanism?

This blog advocates an alternative model of urban development. Radical Urbanism promotes organic, root-level methods of economic and community development akin to those that built our most beloved mixed-use urban districts decades and centuries ago. Such districts evolved through an ad hoc process of ordinary citizens opening businesses in their homes. Dining rooms were turned into cafes, living rooms became hair salons, garages were made into machine shops, spare bedrooms became second-hand stores, and basements were adapted into repair facilities. As these various efforts gradually cohered, new mixed-use streets, central business districts, and even downtowns emerged. The resulting urbanism was uniquely attuned to and intertwined with local culture. It was an urbanism in which citizens were personally invested, businesses were owned by familiar faces, and buildings were authentically, not cosmetically, human-scaled.

Since around the late 1800s, government regulations (building codes, zoning codes, health codes, and others), NIMBYism, and other factors have made it increasingly illegal to open most types of street-visible businesses in the home. The organic, bottom-up growth of our economy and our urbanism has been hampered, leading us to depend excessively on top-down development. Sadly, mainstream urban planning embraces and expedites this top-downism. It bypasses the historical genesis of successful urbanism and deploys top-down, professionalized expedients---comprehensive master plans, formal feasibility studies, developer friendly tax incentives, taxpayer-funded government grants, stultifying aesthetic codes, and cumbersome community review procedures. These methods neither produce a genuinely fine-grained urbanism nor foster the improvement of culture. Almost invariably, new buildings are multiples larger than their predecessors, the architecture is contrived, commercial tenants are national chains instead of indies, and an air of artifice pervades. Citizens are turned into strangers of their own neighborhoods. New business startups are hampered, our nation's economy is weakened, and our wealth gap widens.

Radical Urbanism works by promoting human-scaled cultural and business enterprise, out of which fine-grained urbanism naturally grows. Its essential tool is to allow a wide variety of home-based businesses, including retail stores, restaurants, service industries, and light industry. Radical Urbanism respects the need for government to regulate large commercial enterprise, but balances this need against the benefits of largely deregulating Mom and Pop. It is in doing so that America may once again build upon the many points of support that once made it great: its citizens.

radical = based in root-level processes 
urbanism = the dense arrangement of mixed uses (residences, retail, services, etc.) 
Radical Urbanism = densely built environments in which mixed uses are created through elemental processes, in particular the proliferation of home-based businesses 

Characteristics of Radical Urbanism:
allowance of a wide range of home enterprise start-ups, including retail, restaurant, services, assembly, and light industry
development by Mom and Pop, not just “developers” 
sustainable, bottom-up economic growth created by and for all, from the skilled to the unskilled 
cityscapes that change incrementally through the building of numerous small projects, not cataclysmically through large, developer-driven projects  
localized culture and democratic investment 
freedom of architectural expression
human-scaled buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and districts that arise as natural expressions of human-scaled culture, not because of formal mandate or cosmetic trickery

Radical Urbanism is not:
a free-for-all that allows, for example, a slaughterhouse next to a school 
New Urbanism 
"just like that mixed-use thing we're already doing" 
contrived to look old-fashioned 
subject to the feast and famine cycles of developer-based urbanism 
reliant on government programs, tax breaks, or other unnecessary complexities