Thursday, June 23, 2005

Mixed use urbanity

A friend asks me to think about town planning, knowing my enthusiasm for the villages and provincial cities in Holland, where we plan to spend two or three weeks again this fall, walking from one to the next. He lives in Healdsburg, and like us is concerned about the changes there.

He suggested I blog about town planning, and that I use last week’s trip to Chicago and Wisconsin as a sort of trial run. It didn’t work out quite that way, as you’ll have seen. Chicago and Milwaukee have little in common with Healdsburg. They may have things to teach San Francisco and San Jose, but the problems and opportunities of a town of 9,000 are a very different matter.

Still there were urban impressions on this trip that may be worth passing along, especially today, in the wake of what seems to me a truly horrendous decision by the Supreme Court in the New London decision. It’s painful to find Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas on my side, for a change, but there it is: the “liberals” on the Court ruled that the city of New London may seize houses that have been occupied by a family for generations, pay the occupants market value, and turn the property over to private developers, because the resulting hotels, shops, and offices will contribute to “the public good.”

Milwaukee has been busy turning its Third Ward — sixteen or twenty blocks of crumbling brick warehouses, often of strikingly handsome design, built as much as 120 years ago — into a gentrified area of restaurants, art galleries, offices, and upscale shops. We had dinner at Coquette Cafe there Tuesday night, and while the sauce espagnole on my steak was a tad burned, I wouldn’t mind eating there again. After dinner we strolled a few blocks in the balmy romantic urban night, and the ambiance was delightful, though there were few other strollers to be seen.

The development here is much like that in Portland (Oregon)’s Pearl District, if smaller and so far lacking the residential component that would make it much livelier at night. And I suppose it’s much like what New London has in mind. I’m glad to see the old buildings saved and turned to good use, and I’m glad to see residential use folded into what was formerly a blight on the margin of the urban center.

This is Mixed Use at its best, and Mixed Use has become a mantra of contemporary urban planning. Mixed Use is in the air here in Healdsburg, even, and well it might be. I have nothing but good things to say about it.

But salutary as it is in its efficient and conservational address to the city, or the village — I find I can no longer use the word “conservative” in its true sense — Mixed Use does not address a fundamental problem in towns and cities of every size: the accelerating polarization of American society between the poor and the prosperous. There seems to be no place, any longer, for the materially poor. We don’t want to see them.

We don’t want to recognize their existence, perhaps because they remind us of a terrible failure of the last fifty years of relative national prosperity — bought at the price of caring for those who haven’t been able, for one or another of a million reasons, to participate in that prosperity.

In Milwaukee we were fascinated to see a block of pre-fabricated duplexes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1916 and ’17. They’re in pretty sad shape at the moment, and a couple have succumbed to misguided re-sheathing since — shiplap siding over previous asbestos shingle in one case. But one, at least, is slowly being restored to its previous appearance, and even improved, I suppose, by being turned into a single-use residence.

We struck up a conversation with a young couple who lived downstairs in one of these duplexes. I asked about their history, and was told that in 1916 this area had been truck farms: a celery garden had given way to this series of apartments.

Wright designed units for low-income families at the same time that he built the impressive Bogk House, across town in an elite neighborhood, for a prominent local politician. Who is doing that today?

And why can’t New London’s developers build their malls and office complexes around the eight or ten houses whose owners simply want to finish out their days in the homes they’ve known all their lives? Surely they could be put in good shape, landscaped if necessary, and allowed to stand as a bit of history, an example of the kind of comfort and domesticity that can be achieved without needing three thousand square feet and a quarter acre of lawn.

It wouldn’t be a bad example, seems to me.

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