Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities whupped the ass of the architectural and planning establishment, has died. Jacobs wrote until the end of her life, just a week before her 90th birthday, but that first book was the barn-burner. “A city cannot be a work of art.” She said, and italicized it to make sure we got the point. The city is organic, said Jacobs. You can’t plan it.
Jacobs emerged as a community activist who took down (an already wounded) Robert Moses and launched the concept that neighbors had a right to say how their neighborhood looked and what should go in it. A fifty-year history of urban planning as an elite, expert enterprise ended on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village when Jacobs systematically disemboweled the “Radiant Garden City” of Howard, Burnham, LeCorbusier and Moses.
A housewife and mother who pulled apart the metalogic of urban planning. She wasn’t just against urban renewal – she understood it better than its proponents. My favorite part of Death and Life –which I assigned in my seminar this semester – is near the end when she exposes the pseudo-science of urban planning. Twenty years earlier Sigfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture had trumpeted modern architecture and planning as an expression of the new Einsteinian understanding of space and time. Jacobs exposed this as a rank falsehood. Continue Reading
In the last month I have read two articles both titled “Home Economics” and both might be said to be profiles of anti-landmarks persons. The first was in Chicago magazine and profiled a local lawyer who helped quash landmark designation in the Sheffield/De Paul neighborhood. Her argument was that designation would hurt property values and cause all sorts of expenses for homeowners.
The other “Home Economics” profile was of economist Ed Glaeser in the New York Times, and he said just the opposite.
On Thursday the Wall Street Journal published an article about the proliferation of local historic districts driven by residents’ desire to raise their property values. That counters our Chicago attorney-cum-economist, but it supports Glaeser. Continue Reading
Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois released its 10 Most list last Wednesday in Springfield. That is, Ten Most Endangered Buildings in the state. The ones in Chicago are particularly evocative because of what they share: deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods. In the west side’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the “most endangered” was not a building but a bunch of buildings stretching along Douglas Boulevard, massive former synagogues and schools. The threat is basically the weight of poverty and disinvestment multiplied by years.
North Lawndale was featured in a 1987 Chicago Tribune series as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. My wife Felicity Rich photographed the buildings for the AIA Guide to Chicago in 1992 because most of the photographers didn’t want to go there. Continue Reading
My student Dorothy Bobco wrote me a marvelous note the other day about “lazy money”. Here is a quote:
“I think I have figured out why people get so upset when they think their property values are going down. They are losing free money, lazy money. You can buy a house and do nothing and the value will probably go up. If anything happens that changes that, they lose money that they did not have to work for. That is what makes them mad, losing money they did not have to work for. It is laziness and greed that drives the real estate market. ” Continue Reading
We are starting a class on Historic Districts tomorrow – looking at how they evolved and what motivates people to designate their community as an historic district. Historic districts are a fascinating combination of two postwar movements – the broadened historic preservation movement, which was inching beyond associative and architectural history to start looking at the state of cities, towns and rural places in a bigger way; and the community planning movement, which was trying to wrest control over development decision-making from the urban experts who began to radically refashion cities after World War II.
We will be looking at a lot of different cities and districts and I hope that the students help me to understand the whys of the historic district, especially why people choose it – or fight it. For those ideological free market types, historic districts are a bit more fair than traditional individual landmarks, because they put a whole area – or “market” – under the same set of rules, as opposed to individual landmarks, which are seen to be at a development disadvantage from their neighbors. Yet historic districts are also mechanisms for community empowerment, allowing a group to control the form of its environment in a manner more precise – and perhaps less predictable – than zoning, which regulates use and density. Continue Reading
UIC Professor Robert Bruegmann’s new book: Sprawl: A Compact History (U of C Press) is out, and it is a stunner. Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago alerted me to its imminent appearance, although having worked with Bruegmann as my dissertation advisor over the last few years I knew it was on the way.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has made sprawl a celebrated cause for preservationists for the last decade. Sprawl hurts historic communities and must be stopped. It is something everyone seems to agree on.
Bruegmann’s new book has his typically contrarian take on popular progressive issues: He seems to like sprawl and believes that most people like it in practice, even if they dislike the idea of it.
Heresy! How can I read such filth! Continue Reading
Historic Preservation advocates are always banging heads with “property rights” advocates who shun all landmark regulation as a “taking” or private property. The more principled and ideological of these opponents not only oppose landmarking, they also oppose zoning and almost any form of environmental regulation. Indeed, it is environmental laws that really chafe the drawers of property rights types.
Preservation gets thrown into this stew, even though preservation laws are remarkably more flexible than most other types of land use regulation. But most people don’t know that and think preservation is an arcane design police led by pointy-headed architectural historians who don’t know that plastic windows save you thousands in heating bills. Continue Reading