In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
Less than a week ago I was part of a group planning the next national preservation conference and we were brainstorming what programs and indeed what formats should be employed to reflect our world in the COVID-19 crisis. One of the big concerns was whether “historic preservation” would be considered a luxury that we no longer could afford.
Man that’s dumb. The only business happening on my street besides mail delivery and garbage pickup is “historic preservation.” They are repairing the lovely bungalow on the corner, restoring the clapboard siding after leveling. Work is also going on next door in another bungalow that just sold, and there is a ton of interest in the one just fixed up on the other side of our house. There are at least 5 rehab projects on this one block, two for sale and another for lease.
You could quibble about some of the choices the owner/contractors made, but the bottom line is that century-old buildings are being rehabilitated and reused. Conserving well-made older buildings is a wise reuse of resources, a more affordable approach to housing, and a benefit for the community.
I live in a conservation district, not an historic district, but every building on my block is old and ninety percent of the work being done would be consistent with a historic district. Preserving building is not only environmentally friendlier than new construction, it is also an economic engine. Right now it is providing more than its share of jobs in an otherwise stalled economy.
It has been over two weeks since The Conservation Society of San Antonio joined the bulk of the world in lockdown (here in San Antonio and Bexar County it is called Stay Home/Work Safe). There are certain things we can do remotely, and fortunately the world of preserving the built environment is still available – all those historic buildings are outside for you to view as you take your essential exercise, walk the dog, or make a rare dash to the store.
Indeed, we are taking the opportunity to share architectural quizzes – each day we show a building detail and people guess which landmark it is from. This has been a fun way to engage our members and supporters.
Emily Morgan hotel, originally Medical Arts Building, Ralph Cameron, 1926.
While it is great we can still appreciate our historic environment, there is also a concern. While many businesses are shut down, one area that is not is construction and contracting. And given that about half of the items we see each month on the Historic and Design Review agenda are for work done without permits, you can expect a significant caseload of “ask forgiveness, not permission” projects going on under quarantine.
It’s usually the windows
Now, there are still city inspectors out there, but if HALF of the permit cases going before the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) are violations, and the city is unable to hold an HDRC meeting for a month, there will definitely be a bunch in the coming months. There are some brazen violators who have even been instructed to do one thing and just willfully ignore the stipulations and do what they originally intended. I think our UDC needs a significant daily fine until the owner follows the law.
Skirting the issue….
Media. Not Medea, although Media can also enthrall countless screaming Argonauts. And while we like to think NOW is always so very different from THEN, it rarely is. The voyage of the Argo was captured in an early, oral form of media. In 1898 a newspaper started an international war. David Crockett and James Bowie were media stars in the era of illustrated weeklies, making their last stand at the Alamo all the more newsworthy. Napoleon was a master of memes and gaslighting existed in Ancient Rome long before gas lights.
We are now well into the era of “fake news” but in some sense all news is fake the same way all maps are fake because they are not full size. They are representations of reality. Things have to be edited out to fit the media. Facts must be mediated to be conveyed – that’s why it is called media. And once the internet came along, things need not be reported or written or even edited – they could simply go viral.
Viral. Should have seen that one coming.
I wrote about media two and a half years ago in this post, inspired by the prescience of Marshall McLuhan, who famously said the medium is the message. Filibustering Fauntleroys are flummoxed by the profusion of fake facts but forget that foundational facts are no match for the media that must carry them to their host.
Another irony – thanks to a REAL virus we are all sitting at home fully reliant on our several media to communicate and commiserate. Think about that next time you wonder why people can be so stupid. We created the infrastructure to spread stupidity at synapse speed.
I remember when the Daily Show came out in 1996 – it was the first comic news media reaction to the age of the internet and it played with both TV news and internet formats. I can remember bits in the first three years before Jon Stewart where they would report on some organization making its opinion known on the internet or national news media and then reveal that the organization was no more than some guy living in his Mom’s basement. We laughed at him then but he is still in the basement and now he gets taken seriously.
We are practicing social distancing and protecting others from our nanodroplets but we are still sharing media-borne diseases from self-proclaimed religious wackjobs, Russian bots, and flailing incompetents.
Practice media distancing. If it isn’t a verifiable source, don’t click, comment or share.
We were in the checkout line at the grocery store and my Millennial daughter saw a tabloid with a headline to the effect of “Harry and Meghan become King and Queen” and she asked if it was real. Those of us of a certain age know that the headlines in the grocery checkout line are NOT REAL. They are the analog version of clickbait. The original fake news.
There are layers of irony here. We live in a world of viral media and somehow we got caught with our pants down by a real, biological virus. Many of us working from home still have our pants down. The world won’t be the same again, but you can help it be sane.
Our World Monument Watch Day Event took place this past Saturday at the double-height courtroom of the Bexar County Courthouse, and it was stupendous. We had five excellent speakers who offered new insights into the role of Alamo Plaza and specifically the Woolworth Building in the story of Civil Rights in Bexar County.
You can see a full video of the event here. It began with a welcome from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Conservation Society President Patti Zaiontz. Then, 16-year old Taylor Andrews, grandniece of Mary Lilian Andrews, read the letter that Mary wrote – at age 17 – in March, 1960 asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate.
Her letter, as Youth President of the NAACP San Antonio branch, led to a mass meeting on March 13, 1960. The meeting of 1500 persons agreed that a sit-in demonstration should begin on March 17. Business and religious leaders gathered on Tuesday and convinced seven downtown lunch counters to peacefully and voluntarily integrate on Wednesday, March 16, 1960, a first for the South. Jackie Robinson was in town Friday and said – in a Page 1 New York Times article – that it was “a story that should be told around the world.”
I gave a background of the issue – how the Conservation Society got the building listed on the state’s Most Endangered List in 2016, shortly after the state purchased it. Then the 2017 Alamo master plan and the 2018 Alamo interpretive plan. It was that 2018 plan that illustrated the Woolworth replaced with a new building. They have always wanted to reclaim the “footprint” of the original mission and battlefield, even though there are no archaeological remains (the buildings have basements)
The Conservation Society has consistently argued FOR a new Alamo museum WITHIN the Woolworth and Crockett Building facades. We even released a plan this May illustrating exactly that.
In May Woolworth’s was designated a State Antiquities Landmark and in October it was listed on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, one of 25 sites in the world. You can read all about that here. Thanks to that designation, we have hosted a series of events, including the symposium, held on February 1, the 60th anniversary of the very first sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Our first speaker was Everett Fly, who traced a series of Civil Rights events on Alamo Plaza, beginning back in the 1880s when an African-American group successfully sued the Mayor for denying their right to assemble there. Everett passionately defended the character of the Alamo city, where diverse groups were more likely than other places to mingle, and Alamo Plaza was the premier place they did so.
Next was Dr. Tara Dudley of University of Texas – Austin, an expert on the National Register. African-Americans are nearly 13% of Texas’ population but are represented in less than 5% of our National Register properties. Indeed, the Woolworth Building National Register listing from 40 years ago is only about its excellent architecture and the Civil Rights story was not told until it was listed as a State Antiquities Landmark in 2019.
Dr. Bruce Winders, who was Alamo historian and curator for 23 years until last July, voiced his support for keeping the buildings on Alamo Plaza and not destroying them to recreate a space that became a city more than a century and a half ago. You don’t tear down a real historic building to reveal the site of a long-lost wall.
Dr. Todd Moye of the University of North Texas shared some videos from his Civil Rights in Black and Brown project, which has collected more than 500 oral histories from veterans of the Civil Rights movement in Texas. He described in vivid and unpleasant detail what the sit-in activists faced in other cities, further underscoring the unique response of San Antonio.
Finally, Dr. Kathryn O’Rourke gave a rousing presentation on how plazas have defined the power relationships in a society from the Renaissance forward. She passionately related how Alamo Plaza is a civic space made richer by its layered history and legacy of freedom of expression over the last century and a half. She received a standing ovation.
Everyone agreed that the Symposium was a roaring success, with five excellent speakers and nearly 100 engaged participants. It proved that the story of Woolworth’s and the other lunch counters resonates with people and can be a force for preservation.
Many thanks to sponsors Bexar County Commissioner’s Court, World Monuments Fund, H-E-B and the San Antonio Public Library. You can view the full symposium here.
Join us for these upcoming events celebrating the inclusion of the San Antonio Woolworth Building on the 2020 World Monuments Watch List!
🍩Friday January 17, 2020 🍩
10:30 to Noon – Talk, tour and donuts outside the Woolworth Building, 518 E. Houston Street. Gather next door at Moses Rose’s, 516 E. Houston Street to hear first-person recollections of the early Civil Rights era, the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and its famous potato donuts! Everett Fly will offer a tour of the civil rights sites in Alamo Plaza. We will distribute flyers regarding our official World Monuments Watch Day event January 31-February 1 and pass out free donuts!
🚶♂️Monday, January 20, 2020🚶♂️
10:00 AM – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March. Join the Coalition for the Woolworth Building as we participate in the nation’s largest Martin Luther King march. Information about the campaign to Save the Woolworth!, an important African-American landmark, will be available in the park following the march.
👀Friday, January 31, 2020👀
3:00 PM – Press Conference featuring World Monuments Fund President Benedicte de Montlaur regarding the San Antonio Woolworth Building’s inclusion on the World Monuments Fund 2020 Watch List for the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history on Alamo Plaza.
🏛️Saturday, February 1, 2020 🏛️
10:00 AM to 3:00 PM – Symposium: “Integrating History: The Role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights Legacy.” Bexar County Courthouse, double-height courtroom. Scholars of African-American history, architecture and preservation discuss the important legacy of civil rights in the Woolworth Building and throughout Alamo Plaza.
VOLUNTEER: RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 210-224-6163
2019 was a big year for the San Antonio Woolworth Building. In May, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building released a study showing how the historic Crockett and Woolworth Buildings could be incorporated into the new Alamo Museum.
Also in May, the Woolworth Building was named a State Antiquities Landmark. Then in October, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building constructed an ofrenda in honor of Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old NAACP youth branch leader who initiated the sit-in movement’s first peaceful and voluntary lunch counter integration in the south on Wednesday, March 16, 1960.
Also in October, the San Antonio Woolworth Building was named to the 2020 World Monuments Fund Watch List, one of only 3 sites in the U.S. This led to a rash of publicity in favor of saving the building. So the question is – where are we today?
If you want to know the plan for the Woolworth Building, just look at my blog from August, 2018. It’s all there.
It’s 2019. You don’t change your plans just because the public doesn’t like them. The lack of public influence on the plan was one of the reasons that historian Bruce Winders left the Alamo in 2019 after 23 years.
In an effort to regain the PR momentum, the Alamo announced that it had studied the lunch counter integration and would fund a 5,000 square foot institute on Civil Rights history at the Kress Building, two blocks to the west on Houston Street. The institute – led by Dr. Carey Latimore of Trinity University – is a good thing.
But why can’t they interpret that history at the Alamo Museum? The museum is supposed to be 130,000 square feet. They can’t spare 5,000?
Follow The Money
Besides dealing with the Woolworth publicity, the Alamo is getting sued by Native American groups concerned about burials as well as Defender descendants concerned about the Cenotaph. To regain PR momentum, they announced that the Cenotaph restoration and relocation would begin in early 2020. The interesting fact about this announcement is that it is achieved not through the long-promised $300 million in private donations, but with $38 million in previously secured city bond money.
The new Alamo Museum design is not yet revealed, and you usually need that – plus half the money during the “silent phase” – in order to generate your centimillionaire donations. Here we are five years and well over $100 million of taxpayer money into the project and it is still being directed by private donors who haven’t chipped in yet.
Civil Rights History
Dr. Latimore was hired to prepare a study on the social history of the Alamo Plaza and nearby buildings for the Alamo. He has argued that the Kress was the first lunch counter integrated, not the Woolworth. Hence the institute there.
The whole point of the negotiated, voluntary, peaceful integration in San Antonio was that no one had to go first. And, as Dr, Gregory Hudspeth, President of the San Antonio branch of the NAACP said to Dr. Latimore – Woolworth’s was the most important site to San Antonians. It was where you grabbed a donut as you changed buses to the south, east or west sides of the city. It was where the sit-in movement started in Greensboro, N.C. As I noted four months ago, Woolworth’s was lamented when it closed – Kress was not.
The Express-News sent out photographers and reporters to Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960. The photographer’s log clearly states F.W. Woolworth and says 12 photo negatives were used. The photo of the young man looking into the window (reproduced in the mural) is clearly Woolworth’s, but the interior shots look like Kress. It would not be normal procedure for the photographer to visit another location without making a correction, but we do know that the San Antonio Light called out Kress. The conclusion would be that photographers and reporters went to Woolworth’s, found no photo ops, and continued to Kress where they found black and white customers. You can see the photos here. Another photo appeared in the Greensboro, N.C. paper on the 17th.
The event was covered by the local papers on March 16 and 17, followed by positive editorials celebrating how San Antonio was setting an example of peace in an era of conflict. “San Antonio can set the example for the whole nation” said the San Antonio News on March 17, 1960. The day before it quoted Fr. Erwin Juraschek, one of the religious leaders who negotiated the agreement stating “This city can make a fine name for itself throughout the country and the world.” and of course there is Jackie Robinson’s quote in The New York Times on March 20: “This is a story that should be told around the world.”
Thanks to the World Monuments Fund, that story is finally being told around the world.
Recently the City Council passed a resolution that would require that any amendments proposed to the Uniform Development Code be subject to an economic impact analysis to see how much cost they would add to new developments. Many community activists are concerned that this would stifle public input, although the intention was to identify what extra costs would be passed on to consumers.
I don’t think it will limit public input, but the opponents raised a really interesting question. Why is the question of economic impact always one-sided, namely the side of the developer?
For centuries there has been debate over the issue of “takings.” “Takings” is when the government takes your property and has to pay you for it. About a century ago some clever lawyers came up with the idea of “regulatory takings” – whereby you put so many regulations on a property you stripped it of all its value. As with most clever concepts, it hit a hard stop in reality when even the prohibition of all development on a beach site in the Carolinas did not zero out property value (Lucas, 1989)
Here’s what gets me: Why doesn’t anyone talk about “givings?” Like when New York City doubled the zoning envelope in 1961, effectively giving every landowner a massive boost in asset value. Chicago did the same in 1957 – we were all going to be living on Mars by 2000 anyway, so it didn’t matter. Every bit of IDZ spot-zoning is a public “giving” to a private property owner. That’s what needs to be quantified.
“Givings” are in fact central to the entire history of real estate. In the 19th century canals and railroads were financed by the sale of public land along their routes. Kind of like TIRZ (TIF). In the 20th century it was hard roads and then interstate highways. Today it is tax increment financing, bonds and incentive packages.
The entire history of real estate development is a history of chasing public subsidies, primarily transportation. You hear “Location, location, location” and what that means is “transportation, markets, infrastructure.” Two-thirds of that recipe is public.
I’m not saying public support is bad. I have supported public subsidies of private developments that really made a difference. I’m just saying you need to count on both sides.
Back in the 1980s, there were so-called “impact fees” that municipalities would assess new residential developments that required new sewers, schools, streets, sidewalks, security, etc. That led to whining, which led to the era of “property rights” and by the 90s there were attempts in Congress to compensate owners for the reduction in the property value caused by regulations.
That silliness aside, the question has always been formulated on only one side of the equation: What are they taking from the property owner?
I would like to see a strict accounting of what we are GIVING.
Notre Dame. Machu Picchu. Easter Island. San Antonio Woolworth. We are in good company.
The Woolworth Building was the heart of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of lunch counters in the South achieved a place on the World Monuments Fund Watch List 2020. #WorldMonumentsWatch
The list includes 25 sites around the world, from more than 20 countries. The San Antonio Woolworth is one of three in the U. S., and one of only seven featured in the World Monuments Fund video of the Watch List.
Why? Because the Woolworth Building in San Antonio tells the story of unique moment during the Sit-In movement when a community decided to integrate before any demonstrations were held. It is a story that Jackie Robinson, in town two days later, said should be told around the world. Today the story is finally being told around the world.
It was another big week for the Woolworth Building, with our prize winning ofrenda to NAACP Youth leader Mary Andrews, who spurred the integration over the weekend and the World Monuments Watch announcement on Tuesday. It was like May when we announced our compromise plan for Alamo Plaza one day and secured State Antiquities Landmark Status a few days later!
Kudos to the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes the local branch of the NAACP, The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, the Westside Preservation Alliance, and many more. You can read about the Coalition here.
November 7 UPDATE: Great coverage from the Toronto Star this week!
Also a nice local TV spot from Kens5.
NOVEMBER 23 UPDATE: San Antonio Express-News editorial endorses preservation of the Woolworth Building!
NOVEMBER 26 UPDATE: Elaine Ayala writes an open letter to Phil Collins!
This weekend there is an ofrenda honoring the life of Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old Our Lady of the Lake student and youth NAACP President who spurred the integration of lunch counters in San Antonio. Just a month after the first sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, she wrote to seven downtown lunch counters urging integration.
A mass meeting was held a week later and demonstrations planned for Thursday, March 17. City, business and religious leaders got together on Tuesday and the lunch counters were integrated Wednesday without incident. Two days later Jackie Robinson spoke at La Villita and compared San Antonio’s achievement to his integration of Major League Baseball.
In a Page 1 New York Times article on March 20, 1960, Robinson said what San Antonio did was a “story that should be told around the world.” For her part, Mary Andrews was photographed getting a Coke at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in the March 31, 1960 issue of Jet magazine.
Mary Andrews sadly passed away 20 years ago but the Coalition for the Woolworth Building worked with her family to develop the ofrenda, aided by artist Chris King and spearheaded by Beth Standifird of the Conservation Society of San Antonio. Even her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority contributed.
The top of the ofrenda is designed to mimic the cornice of the famed 1921 Woolworth Building, which became a State Antiquities Landmark in May.
Papel picado banners down the side spell out “Civil Rights”.
The front of the ofrenda is designed like the Woolworth lunch counter, complete with salt and pepper shakers, Woolworth’s menu and representations of the legendary Woolworth’s donuts. The “Woolworth’s” legend on the sidewalk at the entrance (still visible on Houston Street) forms a floor in front of the altar.
Mary’s other passions, from piano to Ford Mustangs, are also represented, along with a multitude of flowers and lights.
Placemats with calaveras quote the letter Mary wrote to the lunch counters nearly 60 years ago.
Members of the Coalition and the local branch of the NAACP will be on hand today to answer questions about Mary. We are located right on Alamo Street south of Nueva right at the entrance to the Muertos Fest.
Please come visit during the free festival this weekend and vote for our ofrenda!
For more about the Woolworth Building effort, see The Conservation Society website here!
SUNDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Our ofrenda won second place!