Looking through Google maps I spotted this section of downtown Detroit, almost completely erased for a highway and parking lots:
Looking through Google maps I spotted this section of downtown Detroit, almost completely erased for a highway and parking lots:
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.↬ 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
If Jane Jacobs is famous for describing “the sidewalk ballet” outside her window in Greenwich Village, I would like to be the first to say Tyler is in a “sidewalk intermission.” There was a time when our downtown was full of people “dancing” around each other to get to the stores and offices, but I believe we are now experiencing the intermission that happens before a renaissance. Rather than hold on with nostalgia to a proud past, we have to look to the future and imagine how downtown will once again be great in a completely new way.
But when did we begin to neglect our downtown? Petula Clark’s famous ballad, “Downtown,” offers some insight into the process. “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely,” she sings, “you can always go downtown” … “everything’s waiting for you, downtown.” This song is such a incredible artifact of the 60s zeitgeist and a common reference point for urban historians. The paradigm shift is that in the twentieth century (many say after WWII), the dense urban spaces in America became places to visit rather than places to inhabit and as a result they became neither. The problem is that downtown will not always be “waiting for you” if there are not people living there and sustaining it while you’re gone. Like many cities with oil and money, Tyler followed the trend of outward growth and the commuter lifestyle. Fueled by our cheap, local oil we basically packed our cars and left downtown in the dust.
The result of this growth mentality is that we do not have the money to “care about what we already have.” For every new development in Tyler, the public sector is expected to provide roads, sewage, fire departments, police departments, schools, street lights, signs and other various forms of public services and infrastructure. This cost is significant and it is somewhat needless considering there are vast sums of land in the city where services already exist. As the city continues to cater to new developments, we do so rather than reinvesting the money into older, existing spaces elsewhere in the city. These images of Tyler’s downtown (below) are images of a city waiting to be reborn.
|Downtown Tyler, TX|
So here’s the basic dilemma: How does our local government incentivize businessmen to build on parking lots rather than horse ranches? I suppose it starts with a vision.
Empty lots, parking lots and vacant buildings are waiting for a renaissance. Young people, artisans, and creatives are looking for a place to find community. Some churches desire to feel more connected to the city. Our government deserves to reside in a place of prominence. This is my vision for downtown Tyler as a dense node of city life connected to the rest of the city by transportation and urban design. A great example of this sort of development is Mockingbird Station in Dallas. The place is an incredible example of the potential of a repurposed factory building that is now connected to the DART light rail. It’s attractive, interesting and it has created a significant draw for itself even in its relatively short lifetime. This is the vision I would like to cast for every empty lot in downtown Tyler. Could we do it?
First, I suppose we need a zoning code that allows for a variety of living options such as row houses and lofts next door to hole-in-the wall cafes and shops. A place for people to live. One popular concept promoted by Duany Plater-Zyberk (pictured below) is called the Transect.
The transect is basically a zoning plan that allows for a wide variety of urban forms and gives the city a gradual progression from the urban core all the way out to nature. In addition to new zoning, I am (of course) confident that we need to “connect the dots” of high-density developments with a street car loop along beautiful avenues, bike lanes and sidewalks. All I want is one loop of public investment and long-term commitment to our existing city. The private-sector investments would be astounding. We have already begun to see developers look to the downtown with businesses such as Don Juan’s, Rick’s, Jake’s, the Downtown Coffee Lounge, Balance, and others. What these all need is to be more connected to the city and they will not simply exist as moments of brilliance. Instead, they will reside in an area inhabited by people that have pride in their business and share this pride throughout the city. These people also sustain the economy while visitors increasingly come enjoy the city life.
So there are economic arguments, community arguments, and even valid entertainment arguments for downtowns. To me, the argument for downtowns and urban spaces is more simple: Let’s turn this city (the whole city) into a source of pride. It’s not too late. I don’t want us to look back and wish we had taken our city a little more seriously. We need to allow for a little urban chaos, promote design oddities and find some way to discourage this endless leapfrog development to the next new loop. We need significant places and I believe we need to collectively begin to care about what we already have.
Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.
So we all know that our downtowns aren’t what they used to be. They’re cleaner, taller and most importantly (in most places) they’re quieter. There’s just no people. But we Americans also all seem to carry this strange collective memory of a heyday when our cities and our downtowns were bustling, busy, smelly and successful.
In that era, downtown was a source of pride and a symbol of ambition and progress. In her book Downtown America, Alison Isenberg describes downtown as the cite of transformation, protest, destruction and renewal. Most importantly, she argues, the history of downtown America teaches us about ourselves as Americans and specifically what we value. She writes,
“It has been the people — their crusades, their financial stake, their ideals, and their changing priorities — that have given meaning, hopes, and limitations to the material condition of downtown and that ultimately have given Main Street its form. This interplay puts buildings up and takes them down (Insnberg, 316).
It was people who cast a vision for a space and called it downtown. They called it special — worth taking a risk and worth making bold statements. But today downtown America is mostly just a few lines on a historical marker, “This place was once great because ___.” There are very few people who live downtown, there is little diversity, and most of the buildings are relics of a once-proud past. We have lost downtown and the institutions that resided there. All we have now is a memory of a space and an incredible longing for the heyday of our cities.
In the past few months I have visited two small towns that perfectly encapsulated this nostalgia. The first is Houma, Louisiana and the second is Ilwaco, Washington. In Houma, I experienced the mélange of Louisiana cultures: Country music bars, party busses blaring rap music (it was Mardi Gras weekend), old southern mansions, a beautiful old courthouse and food carts serving Mexican food. As I walked through the city I noticed a mural of an old “Main St.” scene (above). “A look in to the past …” the mural reads, “Historic Downtown Houma.” The larger image is of “Main Street looking west” and the smaller image to the right is of the old Houma Courthouse ca. 1906. I suppose this mural, sponsored by the Downtown Business Association, was an attempt to remind people in the region of the proud history of Houma. Hopefully visitors will enjoy a stroll “into the past,” spend their money, and come again.
The second example of a nostalgic mural (left) is a little more complex. It is titled a “Main Street” mural in Ilwaco, WA located on, not Main St., but Spruce St. at the intersection of First Ave. This mural depicts the same nostalgia for a bustling past with cars! trains! A/C grid! and a man with a hat! walking through the street. This is clearly a mural of past progress and innovation. When I looked closer, however, I realized that it’s actually a mural of a mural of progress. On the left side of the mural, there’s a boy walking with a skateboard toward the mural of the old Main St. The boy seems to represent a newer sort of progress, but is placed in context of the historical legacy of the city.
So what are these murals trying to say?
Greg Dickenson writes extensively about the connection between memory and place and the significance of both on personal identity. He considers the new spaces that we inhabit (e.g. McDonalds and strip malls) which seem devoid of historical context. They are clean and new, but what do these spaces lack? Dickenson’s perspective states,
“In a post-traditional period, a time of deepening memory crisis, secured place becomes harder and harder to maintain, giving rise to nostalgia to cover the discomforts of the present.”
This nostalgia is often revealed in murals such as the two above as well as in old photographs, old marquees, historical markers and similar references to the past. It is sort of a cheap nostalgia because it really doesn’t help us to understand the complexities of the past. I think that a more complex history would defeat the purpose of increasing tourism because it wouldn’t make people feel “comfortable” in these nostalgic places. The problem with that simple message is that when downtown was bustling it was a complex place. As long as we continue to sanitize (“suburbanize”) our cities for the sake of visitors and tourism we fail to revitalize (“urbanize”) our downtowns.
I would love to start drawing a map for downtown Tyler. I’ve already written extensively about an imaginary place I call the Urban Valley, but right now I have this burning question in my mind, “Do we want a downtown in Tyler?” If yes, then for what purpose?
You see, there is this crime that occurs when people try to “bring the suburbs in to the city.” I’m worried we don’t quite realize that the two concepts are completely antithetical. Suburban settlements usually have large parking lots, small wooded areas and one-story detached buildings. These should have very little relevance in a downtown. Take a look at the photo of the parking lot. Does this photo look like a city? (Side note: The city of Tyler has looked into building a parking garage here, but most likely won’t put floorspace on the first floor) The real tragedy is that there were likely beautiful buildings here that served a whole variety of purposes. Now, this entire city block serves one purpose: The storage of cars (idea cite: Douglass Rae). Urban space should be considered so valuable that buildings are next to each other, green space is a planned park or garden and cars cannot be given ultimate precedence. In all sincerity, we have enough suburbs in Tyler … please, first and foremost, let downtown be urban.
I believe that the potential of every space is limited by real and imagined barriers. If there are real, perhaps topographical, barriers to building a higher density downtown than I’ll be content to give up this dream. I just don’t think that’s the case. Most barriers I would consider “real” are primarily economic, but as long as people continue to build farther south I’ll contend that they might as well build downtown. To me, it’s the imagined barriers that I can’t stand. If it’s a zoning issue, some regulation, or a city of small dreams then I won’t be satisfied. Cities do not become great with small dreams. Cities become great when people do bold things that the mainstream calls crazy. Take, for instance, the Seattle Public Library (pictured). This building is a strikingly beautiful and completely functional structure that could theoretically be built anywhere on any square piece of land. In Seattle, they love it. Could we love this library? I should add, there are people in Tyler doing great work to revitalize our downtown, but I’m just not sure whether the public will appreciate it.
Another possible impediment to Tylerites embracing urban life is a lack of urbanity. It seems like Tylerites like to live in wooded neighborhoods rather than urban spaces. Most of Tyler is so spread out that we don’t always have to interact with people who are different from us on a regular basis. I fear we’re missing the beauty and diversity of urban life. But could it be that there is simply not a viable urban option? I say yes. I bet there are thousands of people in East Texas that are tired of mowing their lawns, driving everywhere and living far away from “the action.” I bet if we promote city life in Tyler and remove P&Z red tape then people will come from all over to create and inhabit a thriving downtown.
The other day, my friend Dustin asked me what my ideal downtown would look like if I could design it. I said that there really isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an ideal downtown. As long as there are people there at every hour of the day and night; as long as there are public spaces that welcome every citizen of the city; as long as people claim it rather than exploit it; as long as it’s traditional, deviant, creative and ultimately “Tyler,” then that will be perfect no matter what it looks like.
Look at the arial photo of Tyler to the left. These nine city blocks should not look like everywhere else in the city because if they do then they will be no longer be significant. Downtowns are places where you can live to not only experience the diversity of other people’s lives, but most importantly you can personally add to the diversity of self expression, culture, perspective, race, ethnicity, etc. When we begin to add to this multi-cultural society and invest in the community we become a part of organizations and we learn what it means to be citizens instead of consumers. I don’t want us to “consume” downtown as entertainment the same way we sometimes consume church, media and everything else. Rather, we must commit to downtown as an idea and be unified on our goal at the outset. This idea is that, in many ways, downtown is what we look to as the zenith of our city’s development. I believe there is an inherent value to dense urban downtowns as the site of culture creation, political debate and financial stability. Our downtown is a vital element of the future of our city as the capitol of East Texas. We need a viable downtown option, but we have to want it. And we have to know what it is.
Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page.