Tag Archive for 'noteworthy'

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Basketcase City

Here is an inter­est­ing item in the Buf­fa­lo News… it seems for­mer may­or James D. “Jim­my” Grif­fin is start­ing a “grass-roots” cam­paign to recall his suc­ces­sor, May­or Masiel­lo. Just as Buf­fa­lo is start­ing to do the right things it needs to do to get out of finan­cial chaos, past specters respon­si­ble for the mess the city finds itself in are in are resur­fac­ing to reassert their influ­ence.

There is no mon­ey in the city cof­fers, and NY State is occu­pied with rebuild­ing NY City… yet Grif­fin finds it nec­es­sary to stir up pop­ulist anger at the mayor’s insis­tence that a city of 290,000 can­not afford 2-man police cars.

Now, I’m sup­port­ive of unions, and labor in gen­er­al. But, they’ve got the city hijacked—it’s just not the city of half-mil­lion that it was in 1905. My sub­ur­ban child­hood town, Amherst, prob­a­bly has more class-A office space that 10 Buf­fa­los… the reign­ing cul­ture there is one of the auto­mo­bile.

If You Build it, They Will Come
The State built the new cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty at Buf­fa­lo—on unde­vel­oped land in Amherst in the 60s—in such a way as to con­fuse pedes­tri­ans. The park­ing lots and mega-steel-and-glass-box build­ings are on a scale unfath­omable to the pedes­tri­an. It could take you thir­ty min­utes to walk from the dor­mi­to­ries to class, and the only thing that sep­a­rates you are vast park­ing lots and curv­ing 8-lane roads. This sort of destruc­tive and unprece­dent­ed plan­ning will make an ago­ra­phobe out of any­one that isn’t high on some­thing… There is no urban fabric—you can’t com­fort­ably walk down a block and buy a coke at the news stand on the way to sta­tis­tics. The street isn’t lined with a buffer of parked cars or trees to insu­late the pedes­tri­an from the street. No. This would be the tra­di­tion­al way of plan­ning. Are the streets planned at all?

The fact is, the only way the Uni­ver­si­ty at Buf­fa­lo makes any coher­ent sense is from 75 mph out your car win­dow on Inter­state-990, (inci­den­tal­ly a use­less, sprawl-induc­ing high­way built to link yet-to-be-built shod­dy cul-de-sacs north of the city, to the new cam­pus). And from a reac­tionary admin­is­tra­tive point of view, this kind of build­ing assures total con­trol over the “streets”, a wor­ry of these types in the tur­bu­lent 1960s.

A Cul­ture of Dash­boards
Where was I? Oh yes. The auto­mo­bile. The Cul­ture in Buf­fa­lo. It must be changed. Or at least mod­i­fied, and we’ve got to for once put an end to peo­ple like Jim­my Grif­fin. Irish politi­cians, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, have a par­tic­u­lar knack for killing cities for their own per­son­al gain. In my mind, James D. Grif­fin was the most cor­rupt city may­or of the past 25 years, eclipsed recent­ly only by Bud­dy Cian­ci in Prov­i­dence. His neigh­bor­hood cronies ran the city into the ground, going so far as to poi­son the man-made lake in Delaware Park, by dump­ing chem­i­cals such that it wouldn’t freeze for ice-skaters. No, Grif­fin is only inter­est­ed in tak­ing care of his clan in South Buf­fa­lo, and the whole damn rest of you can go fuck your­selves.

Speak­ing of his Irish clan, always mind­ful to under­line their white, and there­fore priv­i­leged sta­tus, the Irish politi­cians iden­ti­fy sta­tus sym­bols that might hide the oth­er­wise sad state of the city. The car, and sub­ur­ban devel­op­ment in gen­er­al, are pre­cise­ly their cho­sen sym­bols. They can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly move into a 4 bed-room McMan­sion in Amherst, how­ev­er they can afford a five-year old Chevy or Ford—and avoid tak­ing the sub­way or, god-for­bid, the bus sys­tem (which are pri­mar­i­ly employed by the African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion). They envy the new sub­ur­ban, car-ori­ent­ed devel­op­ment of strip malls and park­ing lots, and politi­cian like Grif­fin decid­ed that this was pre­cise­ly the kind of con­struc­tion need­ed in the city. What result­ed, was a mess. Dri­ve down main street from the 198 to down­town to see what i mean. You can lit­er­al­ly dri­ve through there with­out see­ing peo­ple on the street for blocks—and this is a 4-lane road

Cities should be orga­nized to facil­i­tate sub­ur­ban­ite com­muters. Right? Well, this kind of thing isn’t going to be sus­tain­able in Mia­mi, Las Vegas, Philadel­phia or Detroit—much less Buf­fa­lo. In fact, the finan­cial real­i­ties that are start­ing to sur­face in less-off places like Buf­fa­lo should be a kind of warn­ing. We won’t always have cheap oil, and it should be evi­dent that cities actu­al­ly offer a healthy way of life. Walk to work. Ride a sub­way car with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent clans than you. Pre­serve our his­tor­i­cal build­ings, because they were built bet­ter than any build­ing in the past 50 years.

The Restora­tion
Walk to work? These sort of ideas belong to elites, and that explains why the Irish politi­cians (and oth­ers like James Pitts, the African-Amer­i­can Com­mon Coun­cil Pres­i­dent), resist efforts in this direc­tion. They’re too caught up in what they per­ceive to be sta­tus sym­bols, i.e., cars, krispy kremes, that they don’t real­ize that the health of the city and region depends on the health of its neigh­bor­hoods. And, yes Mr. Pitts, we will have to invest in the minor­i­ty neigh­bor­hoods. But until we put some mon­ey in the cof­fers, and work on erod­ing the per­cep­tion that cities are for non-car dri­ving pub­lic-hous­ing types. It’s a mania that can­not sus­tain itself.

Biography of an Architectural Icon

coverI start­ed read­ing this book, Divid­ed We Stand, a biog­ra­phy of the build­ing of the World Trade Cen­ter.

Writ­ten before the col­lapse on Sep­tem­ber 11, though informed by the ear­li­er bomb­ing in 1993, the author offers con­text and cul­tur­al com­ment on what was arguably the world’s most famous build­ing (were they one or two build­ings?). What is espe­cial­ly shock­ing is that not only was it one of the last cat­a­clysmic ‘urban-renew­al’ mega-schemes held over from the 60s, (it was com­plet­ed in 1972), that elim­i­nat­ed 16 blocks of low-income (though thriv­ing) com­mer­cial space, but also it was the largest gov­ern­ment-spon­sored real estate spec­u­la­tion in the his­to­ry of the world.

Man­aged by the Port Author­i­ty of NY & NJ, a dubi­ous orga­ni­za­tion, it was pitched as a ‘ver­ti­cal-port’, to replace the decay­ing ship­yards below, (which were trad­ed quid pro quo to NJ for their ‘ok’ to build the WTC). What it became, was a state-spon­sored play­thing for the Rock­e­feller broth­ers, (both Gov­er­nor Nel­son, and Chase Man­hat­tan CEO David). With mas­sive tax breaks for ten­ants, the city of New York lost mil­lions of dol­lars in tax rev­enue, and by the mid-1970s was bank­rupt.

Pres­i­dent Ford, at first, decid­ed to let NY wal­low, but polit­i­cal pres­sure forced him to orga­nize a bailout. Fun­ny. How could you con­sid­er let­ting America’s first city implode, and expect to get elect­ed as America’s first cit­i­zen?

Trains are better than Cars

buff-central-term-2.jpg
Cen­tral Sta­tion, Buf­fa­lo, NY, cir­ca 1930.

Presley’s sis­ter Kel­ly was in town this past week­end, and she left yes­ter­day on the Amtrak train from Back Bay Sta­tion, which got me think­ing about train sta­tions and trains in gen­er­al. Every­one in these New Urban­ist books that I read can’t fath­om how Amer­i­ca end­ed up wed­ded to the auto­mo­bile, while the Euro­peans remain con­tent­ed with trains.

I think it’s a sim­ple answer: after the war, we just could. It was the thing to do, and we had the resources. But, isn’t there some­thing won­der­ful about trains? And more impor­tant­ly, big city train sta­tions? Grand Cen­tral in Man­hat­tan is gor­geous. Mod­erin­ists moan on about how style should be down-played because it is the taste of eco­nom­ic elites, but I don’t care if putting a build­ing like that up was a cap­i­tal­ist show of wealth and power—it had beau­ty, craft­man­ship and it was a place where peo­ple of all races and incomes passed through. They destroyed Penn Sta­tion in the six­ties to put up Madi­son Square Gar­den. big whoop. If any­thing, MSG is more cap­i­tal­ist-mind­ed than the build­ing it replaced.

So, it brings me around to Buf­fa­lo and Kelly’s depar­ture… Ear­li­er in this cen­tu­ry, Buf­fa­lo actu­al­ly was in the top 5 for most rail­road track—Buffalo had indus­try, and it was locat­ed on the impor­tant route between new york and chica­go. The city built some beau­ti­ful train sta­tions (sub­se­quent­ly demol­ished), who’s archi­tec­ture seems won­der­ful­ly as grand as Grand Cen­tral itself. The last remain­ing sta­tion, Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal, still stands on the East Side, though it’s falling apart. I wish to God the city could find some new use for the facility—problem is, it is locat­ed in the most eco­nom­i­cal­ly depressed area of the city.

What Buffalo Was, and What it Should Be


If you’ve talked with me in the last few months, you know that I’ve tak­en an inter­est in Urban Plan­ning, and more specif­i­cal­ly those char­ac­ter­is­tics that make a good neigh­bor­hood and city. I don’t know why this sub­ject has peaked my inter­est, con­sid­er­ing I used to be in awe of places like Epcot and I grew up not far from strip-malls. But, I am deeply con­cerned about that place where I grew up, because the city of Buf­fa­lo is rot­ting at it’s core, while the end­less devel­op­ment of phar­ma­cy mini-malls, park­ing lots, and cul-de-sacs push­es far­ther out into the coun­try­side.

It used to be that Tran­sit Road was a mark­er or sorts—suburban devel­op­ment fell off notably in the town of Clarence. But now, Clarence and Lan­cast­er are becom­ing the newest sprawl sub­urbs. Hous­ing devel­op­ment is get­ting less and less dense, tak­ing up more and more land, and as a result, weak­en­ing com­mu­ni­ty ties. The goal in the Buf­fa­lo area these days, is to earn enough to “get yours”—which means a big house in the mid­dle of nowhere, with lousy archi­tec­ture, a big front yard, and curv­ing streets that don’t con­nect to oth­er devel­op­ments. You can’t walk to a cor­ner store, much less to work or school.

This, of course, means that cars must be used for any­thing and every­thing in Buffalo’s sub­urbs, and increas­ing­ly so in these new sub­urbs. Grow­ing up, I could walk or ride my bike to a cor­ner store, a super­mar­ket, a pizze­ria, a k-mart and a bagel shop. For kids grow­ing up in Loch Lea and oth­er devel­op­ments fur­ther out, this is sim­ply not an option—a ride from mom or dad is required, and an (unhealthy) depen­dence is born. Also, you spend much of your ear­ly teenage years look­ing for old­er friends, or pin­ing for that 16th birth­day, when mom and dad will pro­vide you with a car. There is a sense of enti­tle­ment that comes in such a place.

Buf­fa­lo, how­ev­er, wasn’t always so bleak. The Buf­fa­lo of my Grandmother’s youth was a vibrant and busy city. Look at some of these pho­tographs… Street­cars zipped up and down major avenues, auto­mo­biles co-exist­ed with pedes­tri­ans, com­mer­cial streets had first-floor store­fronts with apart­ments above, and you knew your neigh­bor, butch­er and neigh­bor­hood cop. I don’t want to sen­ti­men­tal­ize what was, but I think peo­ple under­stood that there was an art to build­ing neighborhoods—an art that seems to have been lost in post-war, post-indus­tri­al Buf­fa­lo. The pow­er­ful sub­ur­ban devel­op­ers like Ciminel­li, don’t build per­ma­nent places to live. They think that there is no mon­ey to be made in tra­di­tion­al (that is to say, mixed-use) neigh­bor­hoods. Every­thing is this set-back-from-the-street, bas­tardized mod­ernist, flat-roof, sin­gle-floor, hor­i­zon­tal mon­stros­i­ty, with 5 park­ing spots out front for every 1 cus­tomer.

I know I’m tak­ing hyper­bol­ic license here, but I do it only because the pre­vail­ing assump­tions are so ingrained and accept­ed that you almost need to shock peo­ple to wake them up.

We’ve been liv­ing in the age of the auto­mo­bile. Traf­fic engi­neers say we need to widen roads and inter­sec­tions to decrease traf­fic and increase traf­fic vol­ume. Every major study of road­way “improve­ments” shows that more lanes = more cars. By widen­ing a road like Tran­sit, you are actu­al­ly cre­at­ing more traf­fic in the long-run. Even Robert Moses real­ized this in 1939, when traf­fic con­ges­tion cropped up on his high­ways where there was pre­vi­ous­ly no prob­lem. You induce traf­fic, by build­ing more lanes. And, these wide inter­sec­tions you see on Tran­sit and oth­er roads, are less safe than nar­row­er, more tra­di­tion­al inter­sec­tions. Here in Boston, despite our rep­u­ta­tion for crazy dri­ving, there are rarely any acci­dents at all, due to our small blocks, odd inter­sec­tions and lack of sprawl.

Still, there is hope. I think the eco­nom­ic pres­sures that 50 years of this kind of devel­op­ment has wrought on Buf­fa­lo is start­ing to change people’s minds about liv­ing and work­ing in close prox­im­i­ty. I hope envi­ron­men­tal, and eco­nom­ic real­i­ties force the city and it’s coun­ty of sub­urbs to draw a line in the sand (and the geog­ra­phy), and say enough is enough. It’s not about Growth vs. anti-Growth. It’s about Smart Growth. Banks, devel­op­ers and city & town offi­cials need to be shown that it is prefer­able to ditch this fast-decay­ing sub­ur­ban strip-mall way of doing things. If we are going to do this, the state needs to step in and set up stronger region­al gov­ern­ment. Many peo­ple fear this, as being ‘more gov­ern­ment’, when in actu­al­i­ty it could save mon­ey by elim­i­nat­ing redun­dant ser­vices.

But there is pow­er­ful resis­tance to any kind of region­al plan­ning.

Jane Jacobs Changed My Life… or, Modernists Should Die

What makes a good neigh­bor­hood? I’ve start­ed read­ing every­thing I can get my hands on regard­ing urban plan­ning and issues sur­round­ing sprawl, and I think it’s so inspir­ing that Jane Jacobs had it all fig­ured out in 1961. I think it would not be mag­nan­i­mous to say that she saved Green­wich Vil­lage from becom­ing anoth­er Robert Moses high­way. Check out this dis­cus­sion about Jane’s life and the state of urban plan­ning. (Real Audio)

As a design­er, I’ve always loved mod­ernist design — it’s big, it’s human­ist in the sense that it is utopi­an and egal­i­tar­i­an, and it shows off our won­der­ful tech­nol­o­gy. Look at Empire Plaza in Albany, NY, and you can’t help but think that we are capa­ble of amaz­ing things. How­ev­er, this HUGE plaza is most­ly use­less, except on sun­ny days dur­ing noon and 1pm, when work­ers might stroll out­side for fresh air. Nev­er­mind that there aren’t any delis or con­ve­nience stores with­in a 5 minute walk. Also, think of a place like this in the evening, or at night. Dead. I’ve been there! Prob­a­bly unsafe. But the 19th cen­tu­ry State Capi­tol is won­der­ful, and human-scaled. One might imag­ine shops or restau­rants on the sur­round­ing streets. It’s dig­ni­fied, and wor­thy of a civic build­ing. I think our post-60s mis­trust of gov­ern­ment makes us think that spend­ing the mon­ey and time to build last­ing mon­u­ments to pub­lic life is some­how waste­ful or bad. Albany Dan’s own neigh­bor­hood (not far from Empire Plaza) is a tes­ta­ment to How We Used to Do Things. It’s a mish­mash of income lev­els and uses. It’s won­der­ful too.

Urban renew­al is a fuck­ing sham. No news there. Look at Boston’s own place of civic activ­i­ty, city hall. Mod­ernist archi­tects can argue all they want about the ‘great­ness’ of build­ings and plazas like this, but I doubt any­one but a few intel­lec­tu­als actu­al­ly appre­ci­ate it as such. (Myself includ­ed) It flies in the face of hun­dreds of years of prece­dent and exper­tise, and yet we call it ‘bril­liant’. Lis­ten to the architect’s own words:

Kall­mann: ‘We dis­trust and have react­ed against an archi­tec­ture that is absolute, unin­volved and abstract. We have moved towards an archi­tec­ture that is spe­cif­ic and con­crete, involv­ing itself with the social and geo­graph­ic con­text, the pro­gram, and meth­ods of con­struc­tion, in order to pro­duce a build­ing that exists strong­ly and irrev­o­ca­bly, rather than an uncom­mit­ted abstract struc­ture that could be any place and, there­fore, like mod­ern man’ with­out iden­ti­ty or pres­ence.”

Does the build­ing and plaza cre­ate a good urban space? nope. The lan­guage itself is specif­i­cal­ly craft­ed to sound unin­tel­li­gi­ble, and to ele­vate the archi­tect to the sta­tus of some Ayn Ran­di­an demi-God. Even the weird geom­e­try of the plaza is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly unset­tling, not to men­tion what I feel from the build­ing itself. There is some­thing pro­found­ly anti-social in a build­ing that is set back from the street so far with that much brick. The ‘style’, (if the mod­ernists let you call it that), is Bru­tal­ist Mod­ern, for christ’s sake.