Monday, November 09, 2009

The Urban West: Bad, Better, Best

"Resistance to urbanism goes back to the very beginnings of American identity," argues Wilfred McClay. And yet, Lewis Mumford's realization that the city is in fact the "the form and symbol of an integrated social relationship" has crept its way into North American life as well, most slowly perhaps to the tireless horizons of the West, which have not been naturally conducive to urbanist principle. Having grown in my urban enthusiasms from reading Plumb Lines and conversing with its Princeton area contributors, I took the opportunity on a recent trip out West to do some investigative reporting on the state of urbanism. It didn't start well. I will not soon forget flying into "America's friendliest airport" (Phoenix), and seeing just how big this "city" - or megalopolis - actually is. If there is a discernible center somewhere in the Phoenix area, it was not visible from the sky.

BAD: Tucson was an even sorrier sight. In the town center I noticed some fresh vegetable and bread stands along with local jewelry merchants attempting to create a public market, but there were up against a town plan that merchants could do little to counter. Some local Goth kids tried to build around themselves a scene, but the architecture worked against them. One horrifically inhospitable modern building (a bit of which is seen here) effectively ripped the urban fabric, destroying 50 % of the view towards the one notable piece of architecture, the Pima County Courthouse.  What may have once been a town square had been literally stabbed to death.  There were several notable attempts at downtown revitalization, but all in all I felt little hope. A challenged business environment seemed best expressed by a decaying Wig-O-Rama. I mentioned to one jewelry maker that her town seemed to be up against a challenge. Here response was a sarcastic, "D'ya think?"

BETTER: Driving back to Phoenix, I expected something similar. I braced myself for a strip mall meal at best, but after driving for a bit I spotted a pedestrian complex through some highrises. There was a convenient parking lot nearby (the top of the image to the left), and I dispensed with my vehicle for a time. What I found was a rather successful two story urban promenade with restaurants on the bottom and offices on top, as well as a grove of trees and an impressive fountain complex with an inordinate amount of birds. Police patrolled on horseback, and there were attractive stores, a movie theatre, and - not to be taken for granted - people. Best of all, the Catholic Basilica and a park were in sight, so one could conceivably spend an entirely car-less Sunday in downtown Phoenix. Granted, the Sheraton does not exactly qualify as mixed-use, habitable urbanism, but at least it's a start.  There was something of Victor Gruen's original hope for the American mall reflected here, and due to the cathedral, maybe even something of the medieval town square.

BEST: Then came Vancouver, which I've already discussed. Oh, the neighborhoods. The onetime loading docks of Yaletown are now a raised promenade of restaurants and shops. The nearly suburban feel of Commercial Drive is nevertheless well served by public transport and is as urban on the main drag as the downtown core. Best of all, the onetime no-man's land of Granville Island, tucked under an overpass, is a bustling market packed with craft stores and eateries. Healthy neighborhoods can, to an extent, be judged by the guitar factor: Can the street life of a given neighborhood sustain a street musician? Granville Island passes so successfully that there were several guitar-players and a violinist in the Granville Island grocery store - nay - market, with delicious food, and a variety of attractive postmodern apartments (no doubt expensive ones) nearby. One local boasted to me that one can bike a loop around the entire city without encountering a car. And while the city is effectively planned, Stanley Park, in contrast to Central Park, is intentionally unplanned and downright jungly.

Good urbanism, however, is not just a Canadian thing. Americans have reason to be proud as well. Vancouver and Seattle, like Venice and Genoa before them, seemed to spur one another on to more effective urban realizations. On layover in Seattle, I visited the new Olympic Sculpture Garden. Like Granville Island, this was once no-man's land but is now an attractive public playground overlooking Elliott Bay. There were some very successful outdoor sculptures, like Louise Bourgeois' odd benches. However, it was a disappointment that the same sculptures one sees in, say, Princeton (Richard Serra) or Chicago (Alexander Calder), now decorate Seattle as well. More local artists - if such a thing is even possible anymore - would have been preferred. If contemporary art prides itself in originality, why do all sculpture parks have to look the same?

Starbucks Addendum:
The last moment of my urbanist tour in Seattle was a revelation. As I tried to argue back in 2004, Seattle has a way of imparting economic sense. There I visited one of the oldest continually operating urban farm markets in the U.S., Pike Place, up and running since 1907. It is no secret that this famous market gave us the first Starbucks. How silly of me to forget that this supposedly heartless multinational corporation, whose original building remains unchanged, began as a best-case urbanist scenario: A coffee-stop in a walkable, thriving urban produce and fish market. Furthermore, by pushing their original logo (which I've exegeted before) and the Pike Place blend, Starbucks seemed intent on reminding the world of this encouraging reality. Accordingly, perhaps Starbucks is less as an attack on good urbanist principles as it is a chief propagator of such ideals. Of course, the same critique could be made of that statement as I made of sculpture gardens - why should urbanism always look the same? Yet, I've noticed much more variety to Starbucks storefronts than to Serra and Calder designs.

Visitors should keep in mind Emerson's dictum (the citation of which I owe to R.R. Reno) that "Travel is a fool's paradise." I have no illusion that mine was a complete engagement of these various urban scenarios. There is a strip club right around the corner from Pike Place, a major drug problem in Vancouver, and perhaps some excellent urbanism in Tucson that I may have missed. Still, my brief trip imparted an important reminder: Yes, the vast expanse of North America has much (retrofittable) sprawl to answer for, but it also boasts some of the finest contemporary urban solutions as well. To return to Mumford, if the city is "the place where the diffused rays of many separate beams of life fall into focus," then we have our share of homegrown North American resources with which to combat the blur.