Sometimes teachable cities can emerge from the mists of history – old urban places can often teach us just as powerfully as new and emerging places sometimes (rarely perhaps, but sometimes) do.
We found ourselves reflecting on this notion of older-urban-fabric-with-lessons during a recent visit to San Francisco. We had the great good fortune of visiting friends Lynnie and Steve in North Beach, and we shared a lovely evening that included a most informative walk along Grant Avenue. Many of you will know this place much better than we do – home to the ‘beats,’ Café Trieste, City Lights books nearby, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. Today, a vibrant neighborhood, very urban, with Coit Tower nearby to the northeast and Chinatown down the hill to the south. A truly great urban place.
But here’s the thing about this neighborhood: just over 100 years ago, it vanished. First there was the earthquake, and then there was the fire. Though Grant was still there – it’s an old, old San Francisco street (maybe the oldest)– it was totally decimated in 1906.
Near Grant Avenue, 1906
With all the former residents living in tents in the park, and nowhere to work, shop, or gather, a new neighborhood had to be constructed, and urgently. And here begins the lesson.
As they rushed to rebuild their city, San Franciscans chose to construct what they knew to construct: low-rise mixed-use urban fabric, mostly made of wood and enfronting existing streets, a result of a wide understanding of how cities should look and work. They built this stuff really fast, and really inexpensively. Whatever the latest in urban architecture looked like in 1906, this wasn’t it. This was the city that was lodged in every San Franciscan’s memory and log book: simple, direct, no-bullshit.
And guess what? It worked. In fact it worked so well that it survived, and today it is the precious fabric of a wonderful urban place.
Lesson: when rebuilding your city, go for the simple and the direct. Try not to innovate. Try not to be too creative, since your neighbors are waiting. Feel free to do what you have seen before, and what you know has worked before. Try not to do anything unfamiliar. Serve needs. And have faith that the narrative of what you did will survive, and be treasured.