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The Teachable Urban Past

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Loss of the Local

I made a presentation the other day entitled “Teachable Cities.” I looked at 10 cities from around the world that had lessons for us as we shape our own urban places, lessons about water and waterfronts, about cars and traffic, about alternate forms of urban mobility, and about constructing or reconstructing a public realm meant for us to inhabit rather than to whiz through, and past.

During the conversation that followed the presentation, someone asked me this: “In the cities you have visited, what is the single biggest problem you have discovered?” I think they thought I would say cars. I said this:

Saigon Street Scene 02

Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon – Vietnam

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Lima, Peru

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Mumbai, India (yes, that’s a temple folks are lined up to enter)

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

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Near Bangkok, Thailand

No city is unscathed. Perhaps a better word is uncompromised. Some cities have fared better than others (often for complex reasons mixing intent with serendipity), and perhaps a top ten list would make an interesting post sometime. But the loss of the local, or the supplanting of the local with the not-local has done enormous damage to our places of human habitation. And I am not talking here about locally grown free-range chicken. Well, not about chicken alone.

Our own American version of this phenomenon looks like this:

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Or if we’re feeling particularly cranky, like this:

urban_sprawl

Increasingly, from Lima to Louisville, everywhere is more and more like everywhere else. By design. In fact we have devised whole building types that assure that we have no idea where we are. A good example: airports.

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You might not believe me if I told you where these places are, but they are on four different continents, and yet they are completely indistinguishable. From the top: Toronto, Warsaw, Sao Paolo and Singapore. No local chickens to be seen here….

In futureworld, those places that are most resilient, most able to withstand the vagaries of change in whatever form it may come, those places that are most rooted in their local soil, most like themselves, least tempted to appear in any way to be like somewhere else, are those places that will thrive most gracefully, most successfully.

Or to say this in a different way, if you can choose to be anywhere (thanks to technology and global economics) won’t you choose to be somewhere unique? Won’t you choose to be somewhere that is not like everywhere else? Current analysis says yes, you will.

Take a look at this listing of the value of local character, compiled by the Ministry of Environment in New Zealand:

“Key findings (of our study include):

Urban design that respects and supports local character can:

•attract highly-skilled workers and high-tech businesses

•help in the promotion and branding of cities and regions

•potentially add a premium to the value of housing

•reinforce a sense of identity among residents, and encourage them to help actively manage their neighbourhood

•offer people meaningful choices between very distinctive places, whose differences they value

•encourage the conservation and responsible use of non-renewable resources.”

Readers: the local is nice, and homey, and makes us feel good. AND – don’t miss this – the local is worth real dollars.

At the heart of any place – Rochester, for example – are a host of specific details that are of enormous importance to any real place, any place that values its local character. Geography – eight miles from a Great Lake on a river flowing north, with a waterfall in its midst. History – a canal makes a hamlet into a city thanks to the relentless lobbying of the guy the place is named after. Climate – 120 inches of snow in the winter, a relatively short growing season, and a great place for grapes, apples, peaches. People – one particularly successful businessman caused the establishment of countless institutions of culture and education. Neighbors – in 1975, the Swillburg neighbors succeeded in assassinating an expressway that would have leveled their quarter of the city, and truly wrecked the place beyond the mid-century car debris that was already everywhere. We have a lot of local that we can foreground – certainly better than we do now – as we build our local “brand.”

It is increasingly important that we resist any force for homogeneity exerted on our home places.

TOKYO - DECEMBER 25, 2012: A Taxi at Ginza District December 25, 2012 in Tokyo, JP. Ginza etends for 2.4 km and is one of the world's best known shopping districts.

While it is perhaps true that the Ginza in Tokyo (above), or Times Square, or Piccadilly in London derive their characters from the presence of non-local schlock (Ricoh is a Japanese company we admit), and interestingly they are oddly quite similar, study after study underscores that we want to live a local life, and a local life has substantial economic value.

And now it’s time to find our way home.

 

The City Disappears

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

 

As the city disappears around us, it is easy to feel lost.

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This is what I saw today, above, on one of my very regular routes.

main-and-laura

This is what that place used to look like.

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Lost. I mean literally. Where am I, now that that place I knew is gone? That place was how my memory recalled my latitude and longitude.

I mean figuratively. How can we live in a city that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar, when so many physical places, and so many of our memories and narratives, are being deleted.

But Howard, I am told, these places are derelict, they are falling down, they house bad people doing bad things, and they are ugly.

I see. But it’s not the buildings. It’s us.

Before today, it was this:

main-and-laura-2

And today it is big, green, and gone.

 

 

 

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Site of Rochester Parking Day, 09.16.16 – Franklin and (ahem) Pleasant Streets. Scorched earth.

Sic transit gloria mundi. Change is inevitable. Change is a law of nature. We know that the landscapes of our cities and towns will change, although we are never certain what that change will look like, or how it will touch our lives.

But much of the change in the landscapes of our communities happens suddenly, and erases most of the preceding and precious narratives without leaving a trace of those older tales about our lives in a place. Gone, lost, forgotten.

I believe that the best cities – or towns, villages, hamlets – are those that sustain the greatest number of stories of us –  our families, who we were, who we are, what we did, what we do, what made sense, what makes sense – intact and legible for the longest time, available to the greatest number of citizens or occupants, visitors or migrants, whether we are coming or going, returning or escaping.

I think about this all the time. Our chronicles, our histories, are lodged in real places. When architect Otto Block made our house the first house on our side of our street, and lived here only yards away from the Eastern Widewaters of the Erie Canal, what was life like? What was he thinking? How were he and his neighbors getting along in that particular lost Rochester?

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Our house, or Otto Block’s house, in 1906.

I find myself reflecting on lost places and lost memories this evening for two reasons. First, on Friday we”celebrated” Parking Day here in Rochester by occupying one of the infinite number of our downtown surface parking lots. As part of the day’s events I made a brief talk about the very nearby Franklin Square. I opened a plat book from 1875 to show what the Square once looked like – it was spectacular:

franklin-square-1875-plat-2

Our Parking Day site was the surface lot where those homes were just to the left of “Amity Street.”

Today, this part of our city looks like the image below, and in a distressing irony, Amity Street has become Pleasant Street.

parking-day-091616-aerial-02

Franklin Square, at the upper red arrow below, was destroyed in the 1950s as the Inner Loop was built. As you can see, plenty of room for parking, and on any day….

parking-day-aerial-ppt

But the house at the lower red arrow, above, is visible on the 1875 plat map. Somehow that building, and the carriage house behind it, evaded the last 150 years of massive destruction. Once, that house belonged to Mary Fitch. It’s visible here, in 1919, after Franklin Square had been remade by Olmsted and was truly glorious.

franklin-squareTo orient yourself, rotate your computer about 45 degrees to the right.

So Mary Fitch, and her house, are still with us. Mary Leffingwell Fitch. We can open books, and trace her with ease. In 1875 she was a widow, and had been living there since 1866. Her late husband was Ahira Fitch (1799-1865), and before he died they lived at 84 Clinton. Their house on Clinton is now a parking garage. Ahira was a leather dealer, a tanner, and a currier. He had his gold watch stolen in the spring of 1847. I could go on….

So their narrative survives in our city. We can find them, touch them, and in a tiny way know them. For what we see in most of downtown though, it’s pretty hopeless:

parking-4

The second reason I am reflecting on the nature of place and remembrance this evening is that on our recent trip to Chicago, we discovered that the house where my father was born in 1916, 1038 Diversey Parkway, is now gone. My brother Doug has written quite wonderfully and touchingly about our loss here:

https://alamedahistory.org/2016/09/18/the-end-of-history/.

I really would like you to read his thoughts – he is an insightful historian and writer, he is enormously articulate, and he truly understands what it means to treasure our stories.

Our Dad’s house looked like this, in 1918. He was 2. (He was delivered by the doctor who lived next door).

Taken about 1918.

The life there was like this:

1038 Diversey Parkway, Chicago. Taken about 1918.

There he is with his big sister, Vivian.

And today? This:

1038-after-copy

Our time is so short. Our stories are so brief, and then they are gone. But how things got to be the way they are is important, and what happens next is too. When we are gone away, will anyone be able to find the slightest glimmer of what we knew, what we thought, what we loved? Maybe yes, mostly no.

We could change much of this: it would only require us to rearrange our priorities. But we have not, and we will not.

Once upon a time, in the now-distant 1890s, and after a long and arduous fund raising campaign notable for the $1,000 donation of the President of Haiti, a sculpture to honor and remember Frederick Douglass was begun. Sidney Wells Edwards was the sculptor. The completed monument was dedicated on June 9th, 1899, five years after Douglass died. 10,000 people attended the ceremony. Teddy Roosevelt, then New York’s Governor, was here.

The monument was located at what is now St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. In 1910 the site, in the upper left portion of this map, looked like this:

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The Frederick Douglass Monument, in front of the train station and not far from Franklin Square.

Just a block from the train station, the site was selected because of its prominence. As Mayor George E. Warner observed at the dedication, “It is fitting that it should stand near a great portal of our city where the thousands who enter it may see that she is willing to acknowledge to the world that her most illustrious citizen was not a white man.”

As a side note one potential site, in the Olmsted designed Plymouth Park (now Lunsford Circle), perhaps the oldest neighborhood in the city, was rejected by the neighbors.

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Plymouth Park, in the Corn Hill neighborhood, 1931.

For years after the dedication the monument was the site of celebrations and gatherings.

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1906.

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1911 – the Grand Army of the Republic convention.

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Celesta Foster of New Orleans about to lay a wreath, 1911. Denis Washington holds the umbrella.

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A celebration at the monument, 1924.

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1924.

After 42 years at St. Paul Street and Central Avenue, and mostly because of the endless railroad traffic nearby, the monument had become “grimy and sooty.” And so a committee was formed, and a decision was made to move the monument to Highland Park. The place in the park for the statue was within a few hundred yards of where Douglass had once lived, on South Avenue. Not exactly the apex of city life, but away from the grime of the trains.

And so today the statue stands, as it has for 75 years, in the park. It was rededicated on September 4th, 1941.

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Not exactly a compelling location, but there it stands.

In reflecting on this story, I have found myself longing for a new home for Mr. Douglass, a place that is again a great portal of our city. Maybe where the Inner Loop used to be, because he once lived at 297 Alexander – don’t bother looking it up, it’s a parking lot – just a few feet away. Or perhaps at the entrance to our new train station, soon to become a fitting, and central, urban threshold.

Any significant city is measured in some way by its monuments and memorials. These comprise the most important chapters in the narrative of any place. I sense that we are not properly serving a critical moment in our urban story with Mr. Douglass off in Highland Park. He seems so forlorn and abandoned there. We all need to see him, and reflect on his life, every day. And we need his wisdom, now more than ever.

“Men do not live by bread alone. So with nations. They are not saved by art, but by honesty, not by the gilded splendors of wealth but by the hidden treasures of manly virtue; not by the multitudinous gratification of the flesh, but by the celestial guidance of the spirt.”

Frederick Douglass, 1857.

“I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.”

Frederick Douglass, 1869.

 

 

 

 

 

Alphabet Soup

Other things are percolating here, but while they brew, here are some peeks at something I’ve had some fun doing: my urban infrastructure lexicon. The project began during a visit to Cutler City, Oregon, to have an art weekend with my dearest and ever-inspiring artist sister.  With her egging me on, I started by sketching the alphabet, like this:

028 (2)

029 (2)

Here are a few of the results. In order, we have “H,”

h

And then “M,”

m

And then “N,”

n

And “O,” (maybe this is “Q”)

o

And finally, “U.”

u

Four bridges and a subway.

I have picked this up again and the ones I am puzzling about at the moment are “G” and “R.” Hmm. We’ll see what happens.

 

 

012 Stitch

The intersection of South Clinton and Bly, in Rochester. The green and tan building on the right of Bly is early – from before 1890. The red building on the left of Bly dates from around 1915.

Recognizable? It should be – it is almost certainly present in your city – perhaps right around the corner. Even now this configuration can be found in every neighborhood in our city. Most often, two two-story buildings to the left and to the right at intersections of busier and less busy city streets. Storefronts on the ground floor, apartments upstairs. Beyond them, houses to the left and right, and down the side streets. A familiar tune, but can you make out the lyrics?

Sometimes the houses adjacent to the storefronts are replaced by other two story mixed-use buildings, if the intersection is of two busy streets. In extreme cases there may be a few three story buildings. There are almost always ground floor storefronts. What is the story this tune is telling us? This.

Electric streetcars began here in 1890. The population of the city was about 135,000, and growing fast. Really fast – about 25% to 35% each decade until 1940, when for the first time the population decreased. So let’s focus on that half-century: 1890 to 1940.

(To add a bit more context, in 1920, when the population of Rochester had reached 296,000, a 35% increase over 1910, there were 45,000 cars in the city, but still less than 15% of the population owned one.)

During those fifty years, mobility for most in this city was on foot, by bicycle, or by streetcar. And the two and three story buildings? They marked the streetcar stops. In mornings or evenings, as you hopped on or off the local streetcar, you could do a bit of shopping, or nibbling, at these places: cafes, bars, shoe shops, cleaners and launderers, bakeries, green grocers, and much more. Then you could walk a block or two and be home.

In the city where I grew up, Chicago, these streetcar stops were tied to the grid, were very regularly spaced at 1/4 miles apart, and exerted enormous force in this same half-century in shaping the city and its neighborhoods.

Block end with trolley cc'ed (4)

Interestingly, the streetcar stops here in Rochester tend to be spaced about 1/4 mile apart also, even though our grid of streets is anything but regular. Even then, we understood that a five minute walk – a 1/4 mile walk – was something almost all of us could manage, even in terrible North Coast weather.

1394716916000-CO-Storm-031214-C-Metro

In 1925, our streetcar map looked like this:

Rochester Streetcar map - 1920s

All the streetcars went downtown because that’s where we all needed to be: for work, to do our major shopping, for our most important entertainment, to participate in our city’s critical institutions. Automobiles wrecked this later, but that’s not a part of this particular melody.

And so in neighborhood after neighborhood, on all the city streets that had them, we can find a similar formal expression borne out of the presence of the streetcar. Even though the streetcar vanished here in 1941 – 75 years ago – it is compellingly clear that the city took its shape and form from streetcars, ideas of walkability, the 1/4 mile walk, and the presence of locally based retail and markets. Here are a few more views.

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Parsells

Webster and Grand

Webster and Grand

Rochester Foresters of America 1922

Webster and Grand, The Rochester Foresters of America, June 1922

Goodman and Garson

Goodman and Garson

Genesee and Sawyer

Genesee and Sawyer

This melody, which most can’t hear anymore, is everywhere around us. And the song is actually more resonant than some may suspect. Listen a bit more.

The development community saw the streetcar and its rails plopped down across the city, and they were happy to follow. We can examine plat map after plat map, and we find that as the streetcar developed, so did the form of our city. At first there may only have been one or two buildings at a streetcar stop. But later, as the car stop became more important or the neighborhood density increased, developers were happy to put up more 2 and 3 story mixed use buildings adjacent to the stops.

By the time of the 1926 plat maps, the streetcar routes were well established, and nearly every streetcar stop was built up. Here’s Clinton and Bly in 1918. The blue checks mark the mixed use buildings at the streetcar stop.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

And though these buildings, and many, many more like them, are either gone now or are becalmed in the idling breezes of our cities, they nonetheless constitute the narrative of how Rochester, or Anytown, got to look and feel the way it does. Even today the truth of this tune is well known – urban development follows the rails.

As with any story in any city, musical or otherwise, somebody always comes up with a revised version – some new take on the old standard tune. Rochester is no different. Here we go.

colby e

This is the intersection of Park and Colby, only a few blocks from us. Yes, it was a streetcar stop. Colby, which runs perpendicular to the plane of this picture, once upon a time dead-ended at the Erie Canal. Here’s a plat of the intersection in 1918.

The two-story masonry building in the photograph is shown here in pink. You can see the streetcar tracks, and at the bottom right you can see the pale blue indicating the Erie Canal.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Now it gets even more interesting. Here is the plat from 1926.

IMG_0002Now the large apartment building shown in the photo is present – it’s the big pink building opposite the little two story pink guy.

But wait. Colby doesn’t dead-end at the canal anymore. Well, the Erie Canal got moved from here in 1918. Where it once was became a fairly large ditch. And what did we put in that ditch? The Rochester Subway. It began operation in 1927, and ran until 1956. Colby Station, shown in this 1926 plat, picked up passengers from both sides of the former Canal, and a pedestrian overpass with stairs gave access down to the platform. Today this exact same place looks like this:

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The Colby Station access, now I490, looking east.

After 1940 here we ripped out the streetcar and moved to the suburbs. Population here peaked in 1950, and then plummeted as quickly as it had risen between 1890 and 1940. New mobility caused a fundamental shift in how and where we lived and shopped and worked, just as it had before. Nonetheless, the force of the streetcar was slow to fade, and as we have seen, many of us live in the streetcar city even today. It’s just that there are no streetcars….

How we move defines our urban places. How we move is  powerful, even seductive music. The city of walking and density and mixed-use and localness is a city whose song has ended here in Rochester. But if we can remember that melody, if we can relearn that song, then we can have that place again.

“The moon descended
and I found with the break of dawn
you and the song had gone
but the melody lingers on”

Irving Berlin, of course

Thanks to Jason and Jane.