Monday, May 30, 2005

Baltimore, City of Angels

Foolishly leaving the Orioles-Tigers game at Camden Yard yesterday with the Tigers down 6-1 (they came back), I found my car's battery to be dead because of another error earlier in the day -- I had left my lights on (it doesn't "ding.") The streets of the Mt. Vernon neighborhood (Paca and Saratoga), about a mile away from the stadium, were nearly deserted because there seemed to be very little housing in the area -- it seemed to be all Monday to Friday retail. I stumbled upon a gas station and asked if they could help me in some fashion.

The clerk there was initially brusque but called over his "aide," Stanley, who turned out to be not an employee but rather a homeless person who cleaned windshields and ran errands for change. They pledged their help and, despite the sinking feeling I had, in less than half an hour I had gotten a jump and was happily on my way back to the DC area. It turns out that this gas station (I think it was open 24-7) was pretty much the social center of the neighborhood. Both the clerk and Stanley the helper knew about every other person who came to fill up. They scared up some jumper cables from a guy who just left them because he was on his way to work (he would pick them up later) and talked another Samaritan into giving me a jump. All this for five bucks so Stanley could buy a chicken box for dinner. In this whole episode, several people let me know that this was a much better solution than calling a towing service for a jump, which I would probably have to pay a hundred or more dollars for weekend help. Stanley also suggested I pour some Pepsi on my battery terminals and give them a going over with a wire brush to combat corrosion, sage advice affirmed by another local who helped in the process. Two other people who were sitting on the sidelines asked me if someone was helping me and if Stanley was having any success tracking down some cables.

There were some signs that this somewhat derelict area was getting some redevelopment money, but I really hope they don't just wipe the slate clean. Maybe it's cliche to echo Jane Jacobs' lessons from Boston's North End, but this turned out to be a really great place and a rewarding experience for someone still working to overcome the lingering suburbanite's fear of "slums" in the city.

If anybody tries to tell you Baltimore isn't a great place, you punch them in the mouth.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Making the Second Ghetto

The Washington City Paper, the city's weekly alternative paper, has a touching story about the depopulation and destruction of one of the city's projects in favor of a HOPE VI development. Yes, you read that right. The Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg Dwellings (no photo available) are coming down and, contrary to our received wisdom about modernist housing projects, the tenants were reluctant to go: it was their home.

The Hope VI program is based on new urbanist principles and a mixed income arrangement. The theory goes, having a lower concentration of poverty in an area; a more street-friendly, walkable urban form; and a combination of renting and ownership will promote a greater sense of community and will help alleviate the problems associated with large-scale housing projects.

This is interesting to me on a number of levels. First, because the architects, Torti Gallas, are a successor to Cohen Haft and Associates, the group I am studying for my research assignment in Greenbelt. There, Cohen Haft produced 2900 units (of 5000 planned) of modernist, garden apartment buildings. As I noted, they are going to be phased out and demolished in favor of a DPZ new urbanist community. I'm currently reading David Rusk's Cities Without Suburbs, a book on both annexation and alleviating the concentration of urban poverty and racial segregation. I think this Hope VI project will do the neighborhood wonders and it will aid the city as a whole, but it is only a finger in the dike of the city's real problems (and there are new ones coming).

This article demonstrates the often unseen costs of redevelopment and relocation of housing projects. Hope VI projects always result in a net loss of affordable units, so while everyone is displaced temporarily, some (most?) are displaced permanently. That this project will decrease the concentration of poverty is certainly a goal we are aiming for. However, DC must be INCREASING total units in order to keep the city affordable (and we are approaching the point of no return, as I have discussed earlier). DC is so expensive, several of my colleagues at work and a notable portion of DC workers actually LIVE in Baltimore (an hour or so away by commuter train), where it is still affordable. This is great for Baltimore (on one level), but simply shuffling people around from wealthy to gentrifying to formerly destitute areas is no solution for the future of a city or a region. I have the same complaint here as I did about attempts at reinvigoration of Benton Harbor (site of summer 2003 race riots) -- if it's just guilty white suburbanites moving in, NOTHING is achieved for the poor blacks and Latinos who get moved around. Jimmy Carter came and gave a lecture some time over the winter of 2003-04 in Benton Harbor (in advance of his Habitat for Humanity blitz) in which he basically said "Hey, Benton Harbor, clean up your garbage." His message, I think, was a softer version of Bill Cosby's recent rap -- if you want to be mainstream, you've got to act mainstream and act like you don't want to be poor. I think this could more effectively be achieved by bringing some jobs to black Benton Harbor (retail, industrial, and professional) instead of toughlove speeches.

Arthur Capper was a Kansas governor and US Senator at the turn of the twentieth century, who established a foundation to promote the care of disabled children, by the way.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Here Comes the Rain Again

Destruction of Detroit's Madison-Lenox hotel has begun. This is tragic in so many ways, but is also appropriate for Detroit. For years -- decades even -- municipal and regional mismanagement (among other things) has been destroying the city that Detroit once was; now they are destroying the evidence that Detroit ever was an important and vibrant city. The building will be demolished for a parking lot.

The 1998 implosion of the downtown Hudson building was a similarly foolish demolition (causing millions of dollars of damage to the People Mover) and the Book-Cadillac is another goner. These were certainly the best buildings in the state, and some of the best buildings in the country when built. Hell, even now. Take a look at the fortunately extant, contemporaneous Union Guardian Building and disagree. [BTW, the Guardian Building figures into the annexation story below, which I will share some time]. As Murph has mused, perhaps it's time we scaled back our ambitions for a full-fledged Detroit renaissance. Perhaps Detroit would be more likely to make a comeback as a city of 500,000 and 80 square miles, rather than its 950,000 and 138 miles of area. Perhaps the demolition of these historic -- not merely historic, but uplifting, LANDMARK -- structures is just the first phase of jettisoning the ballast of Old Detroit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Accustomed to the concrete curbs of Michigan and the Midwest, I was surprised and dismayed to realize that Washington DC curbs are, in fact, of the old-timey, granite variety. Dismayed not so much by the choice of materials as the shape of the curb, which is not rounded, because I was flying over my bike's handlebars after foolishly trying to pop the front wheel over the "curbstone" yesterday. Granite curbstones and brick gutters predominate in the District of Columbia, in stark contrast to the poured concrete I have known for most of my life. Curbstones are long, rectangular blocks of granite basically adorning the edge of the poured concrete sidewalks of the District. I would wager that they are more durable than concrete (they don't seem to crumble), but they much more frequently heave or otherwise separate from the sidewalk than do concrete curbs. There is evidently a robust granite curbstone industry on the East Coast that deals in cutting and finishing curbstones for refitting cities on the seaboard.

As it turns out, the curbstone figures in business lore much like the 18th century coffee shop Lloyd's of London: the American Stock Exchange, now part of the NASDAQ-AMEX, was originally an outdoor organization known as the Curbstone Brokers. This was a group of men who traded stocks on one of the corners of Wall Street; it was one of several competing stock exchanges. While the largest then and now was the New York Stock Exchange, it required a minimum number of shares to be traded in each transaction. The Curbstone Brokers would sometimes auction off single shares at a time. In addition, the smaller exchange had less stringent rules for the value of companies to be traded through their exchange (these general traditions continue to this day, with the NYSE being for larger, more established companies and higher volume and the NASDAQ-AMEX generally for smaller, newer companies). In 1919 the exchange moved indoors (several decades after the NYSE) and was known until 1953 as the New York Curb Exchange.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Next stop, Coopersville!

Thinking I had been too harsh on DC, I set about looking for some DC blogs. You will note my new favorite blog on the blogroll on the right-hand side of the screen, "Why I Hate DC." First up on the reading list is this post on transit-oriented development from several weeks back, "Sm*rt Gr*wth."

In other news, my tepid, uninformed enthusiasm for Mies van der Rohe has taken a tumble after visiting the MLK library in DC Friday.

Someone at the fringe of my memory asserted Mies was so successful because he tried to solve so few problems. By this they mean that his designs didn't address normal architectural concerns like reconciling pedestrian circulation with the need for, say, seating in a lobby. In avoiding so many issues, he avoided doing the wrong things and risking bad designs. I had only a foggy inkling about what this meant until I visited the library: there's nothing going on. It's like a building of four pavilions, just the ceiling and the walls. There's no program to speak of in the lobby and the Washingtoniana room, where I was reading microfilm, is like a big warehouse. I feel nothing for this building except when looking at it from the outside. The building is evidently being neglected and there's a rumor going around that the city would like to demolish it and sell the land to a developer, as it's very near the new MCI Center where the Wizards play. So goes architecture in DC.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Towards a New Architecture

Since making a trip up to Sault Ste Marie in March, I have been thinking a lot about wind power. Wind, our friends at AWEA (American Wind Energy Association or something like it) tell us, is caused by air being heated in different ways by the sun heating flat land, or water, or varying terrain. The Soo has all three in spades, and Portage Rd. was a veritable wind tunnel while I was staying at the Ojibway Hotel.

Portage Rd., I should explain, is the main tourist street that runs by the Soo Locks. The Locks are the US Army Corps of Engineers' solution to the rapids on the body of water between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, the St. Mary's River. The locks are necessary for freighter traffic on the Great Lakes, bringing iron ore from Minnesota and the UP down to Gary, Indiana, among other things.

Wind power comes about when wind propels a blade that turns a turbine; in the past this energy has been used to mill things or to pump water (like Frank Lloyd Wright's famed windmill "Romeo and Juliet.") Now it can serve as an adjunct -- if not an alternative -- to coal or to nuclear fuel.

Driving home from the Soo, I was thinking what a boon it would be if the city could start producing much of its own energy. There is certainly enough wind there to make it worth their while. Additionally, I had been thinking about why nearly every modern windmill looks just like any other. There doesn't seem to be any reason to except perhaps economy. It is my thought that architects have not been involved in designing windmills, only engineers, leaving us with a very plain product. If an architect could get involved in such a project, I am sure he or she would come up with a more creative design for the 'mill (pedantic though it may be). I would wager that the Soo, in this hypothetical situation of mine, would benefit both from the self-sufficiency of sustainable power AND from the attraction of creatively designed windmills that were both functional and aesthetically appealing. Being in DC as I am, I am going to have to convince someone at the AIA to give this a thought. Architecture is a draw for big cities; why not the double attraction of sustainability and architecture?

EDIT: The slogan I should copyright immediately: Wind: isn't it clear?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Souls of Black Folk

The racial situation here in DC is an odd thing. It's not exactly like Detroit, though both are quite segregated. In the D, whites are sprawled about the metro area where the jobs are. The city is mostly black and the suburbs are mostly white, by far (and the farther out you get, the truer it is). Whites don't have much need to go into Detroit, so they don't. However, in DC EVERYONE comes into the city every weekday; ALL the jobs are in DC. The city is no less segregated, though, as census information indicates. Black and white work side-by-side, but the DC twist is that blacks are largely in unskilled and low-level positions. Basically, whites are in jobs that require college or advanced degrees; blacks are in those that don't. This is a generalization, but based on my observations, a legitimate conclusion to draw. Look at this map and think about the above again.

Look again at the map and see how the NW part of DC is so white. Georgetown is at the western extreme of the city -- the older city that was here before George W. laid out his idea for the nation's capital. As I mentioned, Georgetown is very upscale and was probably always white. The last 10 years, though, a wave of gentrification has been bleaching the city, block by block, from west to east. I wonder if, in two decades, we will have a white urban core and a black set of suburbs. In the area I work, west of the new convention center, there are several condo buildings going up, starting in the 300s. While I look forward to the reintroduction of residential activity to the area, how is this supposed to address the clear equity problem? It seems to me there is a structural education problem -- primary and secondary schools need to be getting their black (and Latino and Chinese, etc.) students into 2-year and 4-year colleges, and those colleges need to be partnering with the federal government to diversify the skilled positions in DC. Or maybe DC already has a sizable black middle class and they just live out in suburbs like the white middle class.

Either way, I've got to walk 10 blocks or more from work to get a good cup of coffee from a place that isn't Starbucks or Cosi. In fact, there's a coffee shop closer to my apartment (a Starbucks) just inside the sprawlway than there is to my office in the middle of downtown DC (the Cosi). What gives?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Tomorrow a New World

Finally -- a neighborhood in Washington DC that doesn't suck: Dupont Circle. Metro center, where I work (near the new convention center), barely even caters to the business/office crowd. My coworkers are actively praying for a Starbucks to move into the neighborhood. Georgetown, which I thought was going to be cool, turns out to be the city that Ann Arbor wishes it was: a main drag (M St) of 2 and 3-story buildings that house the crappiest mix of gift shops, upscale clothing stores, and hair-and-nail salons since...ever, I guess. I'd say it was worse than Main St. in Ann Arbor, but at least Main St. has Espresso Royale. It took me a good hour of wandering to find a cafe with free wireless internet access. Jesus. I've since found this guide, along with this one, but it seems like nearly ever frigging corner should have a coffee shop and that coffee shop should have wireless internet, if my experience in Portland and Ann Arbor is any guide.

Larry Kestenbaum's enthusiasm for DC density is way off the mark. While it has some great housing stock (literally every house here is about $50,000 of renovation away from being the most beautiful row house since...the one next door), the modest heights are contributing to sprawl in the surrounding counties. As soon as you cross the Key Bridge into Virginia, the buildings shoot up from the 2-story jobs of Georgetown to 15 or 20-story buildings that economics dictates. Nearly everyone I work with is priced out of the city and lives in Maryland or Virginia -- and these are professionals making 80-100k a year, frequently with spouses doing the same. Throw in the need for federal approval of the city's budget and you have a good old fashioned clusterf**k.

So anyway, I'm living in some hellhole in Alexandria Virginia, but only temporarily. The hour-each-way commute isn't doing it for me, so I'm looking for a place in the city starting June 1 or thereabouts. God, I hate the suburbs.

This summer I'm working on a study of a huge apartment complex in Greenbelt, Maryland. Greenbelt, you might recall, was the brainchild of Rexford Tugwell, an econ professor at Columbia who became part of FDR's Brains Trust. Tugwell conceived of the Resettlement Administration, part of the Farm Security Administration, as a means of moving farmers off of unproductive land and moving low income urbanites into planned suburban communities. Tugwell was really a visionary of the value of planning (favoring Garden City ideas) and also strongly espoused cooperation as a means of helping the poor help themselves.

Greenbelt was originally about an 880 unit community of modernist row houses, opened in 1937. It was a make-work program to give people construction jobs during the Depression, as well. After the Lanham Act was passed in 1940, another 1000 units of row houses were built by the Federal Works Agency and housed war workers. The term "Old Greenbelt" refers either to the original 880 homes or the combination of the Depression homes and the war homes as distinct from everything that came afterwards (it's a decent-sized community, its own city east of DC and College Park, MD). The original development was purchased by a cooperative formed for that purchase and continues today as Greenbelt Homes, Inc. I'm studying Springhill Lake apartments, a private garden apartment development of 5000 units. It's slated for demolition in favor of a community designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk. The demolition is unnecessary, as the buildings are in good shape and home to a surprisingly diverse population that will be displaced -- first by the demolition and construction; second by the exclusion of the poor inherent in a name-brand development.

My job for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS, a New Deal make-work program for architects) is to document the history of this community over the next 12 weeks and write a series of reports that will eventually be accessioned to the Library of Congress. For more background, check out the Greenbelt Museum, ably curated by Jill St. John, a fellow Michigander.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The hazards of new fortune

A front-page story in the Detroit News today addressed the growing ridership of mass transit in Detroit.

While only 2 percent of Metro Detroiters commute by bus, officials say a variety of factors, including newer buses with easier access for wheelchair users and bicyclists, is boosting the numbers.

They also acknowledge the system is attracting more people like Alger.

"Surely gas prices are a part of it," Dirks said.>>

This, along with the recent hemorrhaging of cash by Ford and GM (along with their bond issues being downgraded to junk status) are all related, more or less demonstrating what pessimistic prognosticators of varying stripes have claimed for some time: the era of cheap oil and the lifestyle it enabled is over. As I said during one of my lengthy and pedantic comments during Fishman's suburbia course, we will begin to see a new model of "haves" and "have-nots" based upon which cities have most aggressively prepared for the end of sprawl. That some of Detroit's suburbs have begun this process is a hopeful sign--though, as I discussed yesterday, Detroit's got a longer road back than most.

Anyone who has bought an SUV in the last 5 years is going to start feeling it, if they haven't already, and the utterly myopic auto companies that thought it was a wise business model to cater to the most indulgent and capricious whims of the last two generations (25 to 50 year-olds) are reaping what they sow.

The question for Michigan and SE Michigan in particular is, are we ready for a post-Big 3 future? The answer, for the most part, is "no."

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Nature's Metropolis

Detroit. Robert Fishman gave a lecture on the city this semester during which he showed a slide of a residential street in the Motor City that was indistinguishable from an image of a 75 year-old rural road. A two-story house, slightly overgrown shrubs, somewhat sagging porch roof, and unimproved land behind and to either side of the house. But this was in what used to be the country's fourth largest city (now 9th or so). It is almost as if nature is reclaiming the city of Detroit.

(UPDATE: Detroit has now fallen to the 11th largest city and 5th largest metro area.)

As people discuss city government (too big and bloated, they say), so it is with the geography of Detroit. The city has about 950,000 residents (and falling) and about 138 square miles within its boundaries. There is nary a walkable neighborhood in what used to be called the "City of Homes." The myriad problems of the city are compounded by its sprawling urban form. The city itself is sprawling.

In an article I am writing, I argue that the problem of urban space in Detroit -- and more specifically, the division that Eight Mile Rd. represents -- goes back to the era of annexation. From 1916 to 1926, Detroit nearly tripled its size (to more or less its current boundaries) chiefly due to real estate speculation.

The city, you will recall, was in an unprecedented economic boom due to growth in industrial production, number one being automobiles. Many people were moving to the city from elsewhere for jobs and even more were moving from inside the city to the city's fringe to escape the chaos of the urban core. This demand for detached single family houses was anticipated by real estate developers who bought up farmland and subdivided it for resale. In Detroit's case, they would provide improvements such as graded roads, sidewalks, and even a water system to attract people.

When residents moved, they would call for annexation into the city, at times being prompted by the developers. They wanted more city services like better water, sewer, and paved roads, not just gravel. Developers wanted to rid themselves of responsibility for upkeep and to move the ring of demand farther out. The residents would vote to annex, and the city of Detroit would have to pick up the tab for more services. In 1923 the city got into a serious financial bind because they did not have enough revenue to cover their expenses and they had borrowed to their limit through bond issues. John C. Lodge and the city controller called for an end to annexations, but the outward movement kept apace.

In 1926 there was a state legislative amendment (which I'm still researching) making more annexation almost impossible for Detroit. From then on there were no more annexations, though the city's population continued to grow for another 30 years. Now that the city is under a million residents, it has become a major obstacle to revitalize neighborhoods because they are so desolate and spread out. Detroit has never been a dense city in the 20th century and that lack of density will continue to stifle recovery.

But I'll still go there for baseball games.