Friday, December 24, 2010

The Urbanophile is the Blog that Keeps on Giving

Post by the Hawthorne Hawkman, photo and image from the Urbanophile blog.

Since deciding to look at ways to expand the scope of this blog, I was sent several links to various revitalization/redevelopment blogs from across the country.  The one that I'm most currently enamored with is called the Urbanophile.  It is (almost) everything I had hoped this blog would become, except, if you can imagine it, perhaps even too dry for my tastes.

The Urbanophile is a treasure trove of information from across the country, with over 600 posts since its 2006 inception and countless links to other blogs and redevelopment efforts from across the country.  There's so much valuable history here that it's hard to figure out how to take it all in - chronological order, by topic, or by geographic region.  The writing is balanced, thoughtful, and based on actual evidence.  I could spend days looking at the content it provides, and probably will.

Currently, what has captured my attention is...

...a series of posts on preservation vs. demolition.  First up is a post about preserving mid-century heritage.  In it, the author shares thoughts about what will happen when first-ring suburbs begin to experience what future generations will consider obsolete building stock.  Will they value their history?  Will what has been built even be considered historic in any sense of that word?  Or will they continue a pattern of "destructive redevelopment"?

"Today all of these same things are true of mid-century modern homes and buildings. I’m not talking about the great signature buildings of the era...Thankfully, I doubt well see many truly landmark structures destroyed... We’ve learned that lesson. No, I’m talking about the average structure: those homes in our aging suburbs, the bank buildings, the small offices. All that infill development that forms the core of the mid-century inventory in many places. These are often production buildings, of little note individually, but of great significance collectively.

"Like the 19th century downtown before them, these buildings are obsolete. The homes are too small and require major upgrades. The commercial structures aren’t sexy and are out of fashion. They look dowdy and rundown even when well maintained because they seem dated. They’re expensive to operate, lacking, for example, energy efficient or green features."

"It’s not difficult to see how any development, even destructive redevelopment, would be viewed as positive, and that these neighborhoods could fall prey to the next failed utopia designed by 'experts'."

"It is easy to see how, in almost every individual case, the mid-century building in question will be considered expendable due to its lack of individual significance. And then one day we’ll wake up to find they are largely gone or mauled beyond recognition. "

The author finishes the post balancing demolition vs. preservation quite nicely.  He states that we should not necessarily be bound by the decisions of those who came before us (especially if they made poor decisions), but at the same time acts of demolition, when done improperly, will bind those who come after us to our mistakes.  And that's precisely why such actions must be taken carefully.

That careful planning is precisely what didn't happen in the "Cult of Destruction" in St. Louis.  Where large segments of neighborhoods were demolished in the '50s and '60s, those areas are still struggling economically.  Contrast that with New Orleans, where as of 2009, as much as 33% of the housing stock was considered blighted.  The Urbanophile describes how New Orleans dealt with their blight differently:

"The answer, however, is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant. No New Orleans neighborhood–not even the most-storm damaged–is as empty as St. Louis Place. New Orleans did replace old neighborhoods with a series of low-rise public housing complexes, but their surroundings did not become the urban blank slates witnessed in St. Louis.

"We must look to our peer cities and realize that our history and heritage, but moreover our urban built environment are our greatest assets. We need a comprehensive plan, backed by the force of law, to protect our remaining assets and to encourage the growth of new ones bound for their own protection one day."

For now, that's enough to digest.  But I encourage NoMi folks to check out that blog, contribute to its discussions, and share what you've found here as well.

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