Tag Archives: downtown

Underperforming Asphalt

Looking through Google maps I spotted this section of downtown Detroit, almost completely erased for a highway and parking lots:

Detroit

Movement and Moment

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been writing my way through a bunch of different thoughts and ideas and the result has basically become the entirety of this blog. At the same time, I’ve also been gradually trying to connect the dots with one underlying theme: that life is all about circulation and significance, the movement as well as the moment.

Since my words don’t always make a lot of sense, I’m constantly trying to find new ways to explain myself and share what I think is interesting about the world: examples of circulation and significance in our daily lives. Most of these places are either what I consider Highways (circulation) or Hallowed Halls (significance). Today, I get to write about a place that embodies both of these characteristics and the tension that exists between the two.

I recently visited the Negro Burial Ground just east of downtown Richmond in Shockoe Valley. My approach to this site was across a VCU parking lot and through a tunnel under Broad St. As you walk through the tunnel, you emerge onto a huge empty field of beautiful grass that was once yet another parking lot in downtown Richmond. In recent years, the asphalt was removed and this area was designated “A Place of Contemplation and Reflection.” I appreciate this area mostly because it’s a complicated place. There aren’t physical buildings that most people would consider “historic,” but what happened on this one piece of ground (the public execution and careless burial of enslaved and free people) is considered enough to make the place significant today. Once a place of fear and violence, it has been restored to the people of Richmond as a place of silence and careful thought.

While I think the site itself is certainly worth visiting, what I really care about is a place located just above the actual burial grounds. From this vantage, you can see that less than 50 yards away from this place of contemplation is Interstate 95 in all of its glory. The cars and tractor trailers fly by on this crazy asphalt slingshot that shoots cars straight through the heart of my city. Like all highways, it’s a totally anonymous no man’s land where you don’t walk, you don’t slow down, and you don’t typically notice the historic burial grounds nearby. When you’re on a highway like this, you don’t care much for where you are because you’re more focussed on where you’re going. That’s essentially the nature of movement.

To get the photo above, I climbed up a little hill to the foot of the Broad St. bridge I had previously walked underneath. For a while, I just sat up on the hill and watched the disinterested movement of the highway next to the contemplative stillness of the old burial ground. I realized that we need both the movement and the moment, but I think sometimes we feel like we have to make a choice: You have to be either ambitious or thoughtful, motivated or lazy. When I experience a place like this, it reminds me that we should be aware of both aspects of life. It also makes me a little more hopeful that my writing is still relevant. What I have learned through writing this blog is still teaching me and making the world a more interesting place.

While I was looking out on the scene, I realized that photos and words are limited media for describing ideas such as movement and moment. So I filmed a brief and simple video (below) that might help to further explain this relationship. It’s much more about the idea than the video itself … and I recommend muting the video sound and listening to Lisbon, OH by Bon Iver while you watch it.

As always, more to come.

P.S.  to Gwarlingo for the movement/moment pairing … it used to be found in their explanation of the meaning of the word Guarlingo which is Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes before it strikes on the hour, “the movement before the moment.” Of course, my blog is about the movement and the moment, but I thought it was an interesting side note.

Weekend Graphic: The Lady and the Car (1950)

On May 31, 1950, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a cartoon titled “They’ll Do It Every Time.” I guess the “bad driver” trope was the 1950s alternative to the “captive wife.” It’s pretty self explanatory:

Lost Treasure: Stone Drainage Tunnel

They don’t build ’em like they used to … so why don’t we take care of the old stuff? My “Lost Treasure” category is for structures and spaces that have been forgotten. The first entry is my favorite bit of public infrastructure in Tyler. The tunnel is a stone arch made of stone with a capstone that reads, “1880.” You might not have noticed it just east of the intersection of Elm St. and Fannin Ave. Here’s a link to the Google map aerial shot for reference. This is something worth restoring:

Buy this Brownfield: Tyler Ice House

The coolest building in Tyler has trees growing in it. If you’re like me, you’ve seen it before. If you’ve lived in or visited the Salvation Army, you might have stumbled upon it. Otherwise the area is probably one big blank spot on your mental map of Tyler.

Check it out on  Google maps. I first found this building years ago while exploring North Tyler. When I found it, I couldn’t believe I was in the same city. It was one of those”WHAT IS THIS” moments that I have on occasion. From the road, the building is impossible to understand. The first think you notice is that it’s huge, old and derelict. The outside of the building is this weird cross between a Tex-Mex Restaurant stucco façade and a 1900s industrial frame. The primary door (right) is relatively ornate for an old ice house and a reminder that there was a time when people cared about details.  From what I can tell, besides the materials there is also nothing really uniform about the design. Which is perfect. Buy this brownfield. It could be literally be the coolest “whatever you want” in Tyler.

Because the space has the potential for such a wide variety of uses, I decided to choose my five favorite options. Four are long-term options and the fifth one is my “Hail Mary” option that would at least create some temporary attraction and breathe new life into the space.

Option #1: Concert Venue. You could do this tomorrow! All you would have to do is secure the area, hang a light canopy from the walls, spray some Roundup, and get an electricity hookup. The actual venue would be housed in the cavernous great room (left). It is reminiscent of an industrial cathedral with rusting machinery, an I-beam frame, and a large floor space. Recently, I walked into the space and got that sense of wonder I get when I see something that was once great. When you first walk into the space (beware of the three dogs that chased us out … seriously), you feel a sense of grandeur that can only come from an old factory brownfield. Instead of supporting the ceiling, the old steel beams rise into the air to the sky itself. There is some leftover from the industrial era, but otherwise most of this great room has been cleared away making it a perfect place to set up chairs and blankets for a life concert under the stars.

Option #2: Artist Collective and Gallery. This idea incorporates the mission of “creative placemaking” which seeks to attract creative people to improve a building or neighborhood. This plan would incorporate two parts: A retrofit of the great hall into a gallery and a renovation into the rest of the building into studios and apartments. For the great hall, imagine The Tate Modern on a significantly smaller scale. It would be industrial, expansive and equally stunning. With a glass dome spanning the distance between the walls and a canopy of lights it would be the coolest art space in Tyler. The great hall was made to showcase art. The two-story southern half of the building (pictured below) is large enough to fit 20 or so studios for local artists who desire an inspirational setting for their projects. I’ll admit this section needs a lot of work, but someone with a vision and some money could invite the right people to make it an incredible success.

Option #3: Urban Farm and Fresh Produce Market. This project could be a particularly good fit because the entire lot includes both a large amount of land and a large building on the street. The land surrounding the building could be an excellent urban farm and garden. There’s enough room to grow crops as well as concept gardens for visitors. This vacant land  is currently being used for auto repair, but I don’t think there much physical infrastructure associated with the shop. The owner of the business (and the dogs) would probably be able to find another vacant lot in N. Tyler … I can think of a few. If the land were converted into a farm and garden, the building itself would be converted into greenhouses, market space and apartments for the farming community. In contrast to the current farmer’s markets in Tyler, this would be a permanent space completely devoted to the growing, sharing, and selling of good food. In addition, the location of this farm would be strategic in connecting the surrounding neighborhoods with fresh vegetables and weekly workshops on nutrition, agriculture and entrepreneurship.

Option #4: Offices for an Urban Development Firm. Usually, it takes a very creative and ambitious firm with a lot of money and confidence to retrofit something like this building. As such, it would be the perfect flagship for a pioneering architectural firm in Tyler. Is there one? I’m not sure, but if there is one I would consider applying for their first entry-level job in this new space. As a flagship, it would highlight the firms ability to critically analyze the historical significance and current condition of a space and produce successful adaptive reuse solutions. There are already people doing this sort or work in Tyler, but I think they need to join forces, gather investors and convert this building. With representatives from real estate, landscape architecture, architecture, engineering and planning, this new firm could be a regional presence.

Hail Mary Option: Host a Regional Mural Conference! My last-ditch effort to start using this space is simply this: Invite artists from all over Tyler and East Texas to come for a weekend of live music, street food and live mural paintings on the property. What is now old and grey could find new life with creative people and for a moment everyone would catch a glimpse of the buildings full potential.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page!

p.s. I’ve heard the building is overpriced, but if you’re up for a challenge call Five-Star Reality at 903-561-2200. I’m sure they’d be happy to show you around.

Weekend Graphic: Why are freeways built in cities? (1951)

On Nov. 2, 1951, Citizens for Traffic Relief ran a political ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Why Are Freeways Built in Cities?” This ad was purchased in anticipation of the second public referendum related to the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (which failed). It reads,

This as was especially interesting to me as a child of Texas. Looking back 60 years it’s amazing that it seemed like a good idea to pattern Richmond’s regional development after a city like Houston.

Creative Placemaking in Big D

Right now, all I can think about is Creative Placemaking.

My friend Anne Tyler just told me about the term which she first encountered this summer during an internship in DC. She’s working at the National Endowment for the Arts (don’t throw stones) as a part of their newly created “Our Town” grant program.  On July 12, 2011, the NEA posted a Press Release announcing the first round of grants totalling $6.5M. Through this program, the NEA will fund 51 communities that have a desire to reinvision neglected spaces for the purpose of encouraging creative people and collaborative culture. According to the Web site,

“Through Our Town … the National Endowment for the Arts will provide a limited number of grants, ranging from $25,000 to $250,000, for creative placemaking projects that contribute toward the livability of communities and help transform them into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core.”

The idea is basically this: If you are a city, you want to be “creating” rather than “consuming.” In other words, you want to be the place that people look to for the next big idea rather than simply using old ideas from elsewhere. In order to be a city that creates, you must have a creative culture and places that attract and encourage creative people. If you do not have these places in your city, you will find yourself buying rather than producing ideas. Creative people who do not feel engaged will move to another place where they feel welcome. The creativity brain drain.

So how do you keep and attract young, creative talent?

I drove to Dallas to find an example: The Knox-Henderson neighborhood. Many Texas would consider Knox-Henderson a gayborhood (rightly so), but as my friend Price always says, “Hey, they make nice things!” Indeed. The image to the right is of a sign on Henderson Ave. that lists the local businesses that support the arts in the neighborhood. When I saw this sign, I realized I had arrived. The Pearl Cup, my coffee destination, was one of the businesses listed that had contributed  to the Henderson Art Project, a collaboration between local businesses and a larger property company. On the same wall, there is a huge flame/dragon/snake installation (pictured left) that takes up about half of the entire length. You can’t miss it … it’s huge. This and several other examples of public art (Included in the Picasa album at the end) are an example of what can happen when businesses realize the economic and cultural value of Creative Placemaking. The public art is a message to creative people: You will thrive here.

My second example of Creative Placemaking is slightly more dramatic and significantly more cool. I first visited Deep Ellum  for a concert when I was a junior in high school. It wasn’t until last week that I went back. Ladies and gentlemen, Deep Ellum is the coolest neighborhood around. It kicks Uptown in the butt and gives Victory Park the finger while doing a wheelie down Main St. The reason why I had to include it as an example in this post is for two reasons: The artisan culture in Deep Ellum feels significantly more organic than in Knox-Henderson and the art itself is displayed on a far grander scale. The murals are the length of entire city blocks (see banner photo), the sculptures are often ten times the size of human scale and the art in general is prolific.

You can’t walk anywhere without seeing something that someone has improved with their imagination. The place feels very engaged. One of the best examples of public art in this neighborhood are the robot sculptures (pictured right) scattered around. They are huge, shiny and very unassuming. There’s no sign that says, “Look at what we did! We’re creative people!” They’re just there … waiting for people to stroll beside them or for an urbanist to take photos and blog about them. Of course, like all cool places, there are people that say Deep Ellum is DANGEROUS. According to the Dallas interactive crime statistics, there are more crimes here then in some places, but not significantly more. Regardless, my conviction is that crime does not get better when upstanding citizens move out of these neighborhoods. Cool places need cool people. In turn, cities need these cool places to thrive and attract new ideas. Many cities would be lucky to have one.

Hopefully, through the Our Town program, many cities will have neighborhoods like these two examples in Dallas. With these grants, the NEA is going beyond simply promoting art. The NEA is promoting the very places that inspire and cultivate art. The Our Town grants can be used for many different reasons, but their primary function is to energize cities to find ways to invite and invest in creative people. I feel like suddenly I have a term that describes a process that I have wanted to promote for a long time.

Creative Placemaking

If you find the concept Creative Placemaking at all interesting, you must watch this video of three remarkable case studies: “Creative Placemaking in Shreveport, Milwaukee and Madison.”

The NEA also funded a journal research that resulted in the publication of a journal article titled Creative Placemaking. This article is a must-read for anyone that wants to add lasting value to their city or real estate development.