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My brother Doug and I got into a discussion of blocks and alleys and urbanism on this Thanksgiving Day. He writes quite wonderfully about his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon: Alameda. You can find his work here: www.alamedahistory.org.

He said: “‘I am also working on something about alleys here in northeast Portland. The earlier neighborhoods (before 1911) have alleys. South of Prescott, we don’t have any. What changed, I wonder, to move away from alleys? Was this a national movement that coincided with the car? Hmm. Insights?”

Well, of course he is exactly correct. As the incidence of car ownership rose – and it did so really fast – the alley disappeared, developers platted lots back-to-back, and the American city block became just a bit poorer for the change. Here in Rochester we had 4,000 cars in about 1912, and 40,000 cars less than 10 years later. Simultaneously as the 19 teens unfolded, we had 250′ deep blocks, some of which ran/run on for over 1,500′ as the nascent city took shape.. A real urban mess.

Why a mess? Well long thin blocks means less access, of course less walkability and permeability, eventually less security, and certainly a crimp in urban mobility, whatever your means of locomotion.

Interestingly, it is not that hard to find developers saying, in the early years of the century of the car, that automobiles belonged in front of the house, not at the rear, like horses and carriages. Harrumph.

The gold standard for the American city block form, in my view, is the Chicago block (okay, I am a Chicagoan, but still….). 660′ long, and 350′ deep, from the center of the rights-of-way. This gives you 125’ deep lots, a nice alley, and useable streets.

Decker Typical Block (3).jpg

But similar conventional urban forms can be found in other cities. Even where the urban block form is very large – Salt Lake City comes to mind – there are internal means of movement, which if not alleys, are at least byways that promote some kind of porosity.

salt-lake-block

Salt Lake City block.

All of this left me wondering. I know that there are comparative typologies that examine the city block in American cities. One looks like this:

American_Grid_Comparison

By Isomorphism3000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23516392

Not sure what they were looking at when they did Chicago (it was probably the Loop, where the block form is anomalous), but this is a pretty good summary. In the end though, the sketches, and this entire conversation, beg a few really simple questions: where did the alley come from anyway, how did it work in various urban morphologies, when did it go away (always in the 1910s?), and what were the consequences?

I would have thought that someone would have written a history of the American city block, and the alley. Not so, that I can find.

Maybe you can suggest sources. Any ideas?

 

 

 

 

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The Village

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Once upon a time, North Water was a district that featured garment manufacturers, technology innovators, shoe makers, brewers and distillers, warehousers, and more than a few squatters.

From Main Street, North Water proceeded to Central Avenue and the railroads.

 

Most, though not all, of the buildings on the river side of the street were large masonry loft buildings, housing manufacture and warehousing for retail. In April of 1924, the Lawless Paper Company had a huge fire, and crowds gathered to gawk.

 

Lawless Paper burns, April of 1924. Note the house on the left side of the street, behind the crowds. That’s Marie Lappitano’s.

The small buildings, above, were destined for demolition to make way for an enlarged Chamber of Commerce, thanks to the largesse of George Eastman

And many of the buildings on the east side of the street – opposite the river side – were small, older, residential, and mostly removed, like the Marie Lappitano house at 88 North Water above, built in 1865 and about to vanish, in this view from 1922. The house disappeared by 1926 or so.

Here’s a map from 1962 that shows what Water Street and Front Street were like just moments before they disappeared into the jaws of urban renewal. (Thanks to M. Denker for this plan).

The idea was to replace all of the run-down, old fashioned and dilapidated urban fabric on both sides of the river with this:

Above, the Tishman proposal, and below, the I.M. Pei proposal.

And today:

Photo from Panoramio by Soxrule 19181.

In another city, Chicago, their riverfront revival looks like this:

Our work lies before us. If we can keep images of the rich and historic life that was Water and Front Streets in our imaginations, and if we can be cheered by what’s possible, we can make a better city.

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Look.

Front Street interior, 1956, photo by Kenneth Josephson.

Hall Brothers Lunch, Main and Front, RPL.

Front and Central, now the Inner Loop, RPL.

Market Cottage, a hotel/boarding house, RPL.

Front Street denizens, 1960s, W.C. Roemer Collection.

Otmen’s (or Ottman’s) for jazz, down on the right at 45 Front (a former meat market), W. C. Roemer Collection.

“Urban Renewal Demands This Building.” W. C. Roemer Collection.

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With as little commentary as possible, here are two views of our city. First, a view from the 1950s or 1960s.

Downtown Rochester. Main Street at the bottom of the image, the Genesee River, and Front and Water Streets on either side of the waterfront, running north and south.

And the same view in 2016.

The street running parallel to the river on the west bank was Front Street. On the ground, Front Street used to look like this:

I am old enough to remember when cities thought that tearing themselves down in the name of renewal was a good idea. I remember thinking then – I was in Chicago at the time, a city certainly not immune to defective thoughts about what it meant to renew a place – that the whole mental framework beneath the notion of “urban renewal” was defective. My classmates and I could see the failures everywhere around us, but there was no turning back for most places. Too late.

If we still had the city in the first image, and in the last images, we would be rich beyond words.

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19-23 Cambridge Street.

I have tried and tried and I simply cannot figure out this urban mystery. It all started with a simple proposition: in the city of the horse, where did neighbors go for the occasional rental, or to house their beasts between uses? Did every neighborhood have a stable or livery of some kind? Only the really wealthy ones (but didn’t the wealthy usually have their own stables)? Did it cost a lot to gain use of a horse for an important junket to, say, Batavia?

Years ago, I asked a colleague, a historian of American cities and technology, to explain the city of the horse to me.

What was it like? I asked. She told me via a reading list she proffered. And not surprisingly, the story is not too terrific. Mountains of manure, sick animals, noisy, smelly – it became easy to imagine that urbanites were very grateful when Frank Sprague finally invented the electric streetcar (in 1888).

But in our neighborhood, or in other city locales here, I have searched and searched for the local liveries. No luck. I still can’t figure out how this worked. I have looked at plat maps for our neighborhood all the way back and – nothing. Where the heck were all those horses when they weren’t on the street?

(Note here that Cambridge Street is literally just around the corner from Park Avenue. Park Avenue was where the streetcar ran, starting in around 1890. The streetcar was aligned on Park because the wealthiest Rochesterians, who lived a block away on East Avenue, did not want the trolley in front of their homes).

What I have found, which is pretty interesting and worth relating, are local garages, and the story of how the automobile bedded down in our lives in its infancy, quickly supplanting its four-legged predecessor. Let’s pursue that, since the horse mystery remains unsolved.

In a wonderful article in the Automobile Trade Journal of December, 1918, we learn the story of a man called J. Lawrence Hill, and his Cambridge Street Garage, at 19-23 Cambridge Street.

He rented Cambridge Street in September of 1912, announced in The Carriage Monthly of that year.

 

We might call Mr. Hill a visionary: in 1912, there were 900,000 cars in the entire U.S., and just 4,000 cars here in Rochester. By 1922, there were 40,500 cars here, and 10,700,000 cars in the U.S. His crystal ball was completely dialed in.

In fact, in 1916 Mr. Hill created a second garage, on Plymouth Avenue, allowing him to service 250 cars there, in addition to the 225 cars he could care for on Cambridge.

One of the things that Mr. Hill clearly understood was that the car was, at that time and for the next decade or so, the province of the wealthy, and as we have learned, the wealthiest of the Rochester wealthy were only a block away.

Mr. Hill’s garages were all about service. You could “store” your car – his word – for the evening for 25 cents, or for 50 cents for the day. He had five departments: electrical (there were a lot of electric cars in those days) accessory, repair, garage, and battery. He had two “service units,” trucks used for emergency repair and service, available 24 hours a day. He invented all manner of record keeping methods to keep track of his customers and their needs, he built a giant facility for “freshening” the batteries of electric cars, and his “Well-lighted Wash-Rack” was staffed solely by women. And he allowed NO TIPPING of any kind – compromises the fair and excellent service he said.

Mr. Hill stayed on at Cambridge Street until 1919. In 1920, the place was taken over by George Leader – The Leader Garage – and he stayed with it until at least 1935, as you can see from the plat map below.

Much more recently – in 2000 to be exact – the Pardi Partnership took over the property, opened up the roofed parking area, restored the building enfronting Cambridge, and created office and commercial space. So the narrative is still all here.

19 – 23 Cambridge today. Image from the Pardi Partnership.

Inside the renovated garage, above and below.

Except for one small detail: in the city of the horse, where were the neighborhood stables? One of you will tell me, I am sure.

 

 

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