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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Suburbs: Blight Without Beauty

Posted by on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 9:31 AM

The relocation of the poor to the suburbs not only increases the portion devoted to transportation on their small incomes but, unlike the urban poor of the second half of the 20th century, they are also doomed to live in neighborhoods whose ruins have no charm, whose decay is just ugly, whose decline will never inspire nostalgic feelings. There is nothing more miserable than an abandoned mall, nothing more frightful than a crumbling McMansion. Sarah Kendzior in Al Jazeera:

Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it "cleaned up the neighbourhood". This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood - poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services - did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout - and accompanying racial privilege - to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is "cleaned up" through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in "urban life" - the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit - while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

Because thriving suburbs are already ugly, there will be no beauty in their form of decay.
  • CM

The urban form of decay will always be much more aesthetically moving than that of even the most New Urbanist suburb. The way to distinguish the two forms of ruins can be borrowed from the way Lord Kames distinguishes Gothic and Grecian ruins in his Elements of Criticism:

Whether should a ruin be in the Gothic or Grecian form? In the former, I think; because it exhibits the triumph of time over strength; a melancholy but not unpleasant thought: A Grecian ruin suggests rather the triumph of barbarity over taste; a gloomy and discouraging thought.


Comments (30) RSS

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Fnarf 30
@27, that's a building. I'm not talking about buildings, I'm talking about clusters of buildings -- cities, in fact. Horton Plaza was dropped in an already-existing downtown. And, as is typical, it destroys the street grid in order to save it. It's a simulacrum of urbanity, creating the kind of space that is enticing to people only at the expense of privatizing and corporatizing it. And the people it entices all drive there and park, I'll bet. Look at the scale of the surrounding area.

Maybe it's a semi-valuable stopgap measure, but it's not real urbanism by any stretch of the imagination.

@29, the point I'm trying to make isn't that "the burbs will be fine", it's that they contain what little energy we have left. They're still impossible to move around in. What we really need those immigrants to be doing is taking over downtowns, not strip malls. To some extent, they are, but that won't last as hordes of pod people push them further and further out. I mean, they'll make godawful places more interesting than they would be otherwise, but not GOOD places like 19th-century (and earlier) cities.
Posted by Fnarf on June 4, 2014 at 9:59 AM · Report this
gigantic skateparks and housing

we need many more immigrants, anyway, and if they're as good at souping up strip malls as Fnarf claims, the burbs will b fine. build, build, build!
Posted by alfresco on June 4, 2014 at 12:56 AM · Report this
DOUG. 28
Speaking of "urban form of decay," you seen Bill's Off Broadway lately?
Posted by DOUG. on June 3, 2014 at 11:59 PM · Report this
rob! 27
@24, Westfield Horton Plaza in San Diego, as a multi-level diagonal gash across a city block, has been a successful and visually interesting take on the Victorian arcade for going on thirty years. Same boring national chains for the most part, plus Westfield management, though. A small one-off upscale grocery on the ground floor serving nearby condo dwellers was nice in the way that Whole Foods or Dean & DeLuca are, but I doubt if they survived the opening of an urban Ralph's supermarket (underground parking) nearby about a decade ago.……
Posted by rob! on June 3, 2014 at 5:01 PM · Report this
Fnarf 26
@25, I think the city centers in Europe are often museums, while the real economic life of the city takes place elsewhere, in horrific places like La Defense outside of Paris, Canary Wharf in London, etc.

But European cities have another advantage, which is that even the rich maintain very traditional shopping patterns -- they still visit the cheese shop, the boulangerie, the butcher and so forth. That keeps the city alive, because every storefront that's open keeps its neighbors alive as well, through the miracle of cross traffic. Like a spider's web.

That's one of the horrendous design flaws of current US cities: one or two shops per block, wide but shallow. European central cities, being built centuries ago, aren't like that, can't be like that. Even the ones that were bombed out by war or urban planning have to fit the old street layouts at least (the places where they ignored this are as dead as anything in Phoenix or Houston).

But European cities are being overtaken by the virus of wealth as well. London's worse off than San Francisco or New York -- the only areas that haven't been suffocated by insufferable hipster-bankers or techies are ghost towns, all the houses owned by Russian or Arab billionaires who live in them a week a year. London's like a different country than the rest of England now. In large part the recent wave of victories by the racist right wing across Europe are really cries for help from the left behind in those places.
Posted by Fnarf on June 3, 2014 at 3:56 PM · Report this
treacle 25
I've often thought it an interesting historical curiosity that European cities seem to have the rich in the city center, and the poor in the banlieues; Whereas in America the rich lived in the suburbs and the poor in the center (particularly Detroit).

Now the American city tendency appears to be following the European urban pattern.

The major difference is that European cities have kick ass & affordable transportation systems; whereas America's infrastructure forces everyone to own their own damn car. Which is stupid and expensive, both monetarily and environmentally.

God this country has made some terrible decisions...
Posted by treacle on June 3, 2014 at 3:27 PM · Report this
Fnarf 24
@21, I love Victorian arcades. They were among the highlights of our trips to London, Paris, and Melbourne. There's a cool one in Providence, RI as well. A restored one can be successful, but no one will ever build another one from scratch, or if they do it will suck donkey balls. Other examples of past perfection in civic i.e. retail environment include New York storefronts of the 1920s-1960s and Mexico City's jumble of shops, from 16th-century buildings, 19th-century iron palaces, and blue-tarp tianguis (a tradition that goes back to pre-Columbian times). What unites all of these examples is the urban built environment, a layout that was ubiquitous for millennia but which we have no longer any clue how to create.

The malls I have in mind are the modern American ones, surrounded by acres of parking lot. The success story there is Crossroads, which is a pretty great place to spend a few hours. I don't see a lot of people emulating that, though.

The real future of America is in the crumbling strip malls and repurposed fast-food restaurants, I'm afraid.
Posted by Fnarf on June 3, 2014 at 3:24 PM · Report this
@20 again- although... An entire old strip mall repurposed by artists could build a courtyard for performances and the like and or have a food truck court such as they have all over PDx . Then it might become something of a cultural center.
Posted by Pol Pot on June 3, 2014 at 2:54 PM · Report this
@20- I'm not talking about a garden being a community center, I'm just imagining a way to repurpose an old strip mall.
Posted by Pol Pot on June 3, 2014 at 2:50 PM · Report this
rob! 21
@18 ("I swear to God, I think it's going to be the malls. If a mall can be kept alive, it can maybe survive the zombie influx..."):…

Cleveland Arcade, 1966
Posted by rob! on June 3, 2014 at 2:46 PM · Report this
Fnarf 20
@19, the problem is that gardening, while nice, will never be the core of a community. That role is always performed by a commercial district. Even farm communities have commercial districts in town where the commingling takes place -- not in the fields.
Posted by Fnarf on June 3, 2014 at 2:37 PM · Report this
@16- I wasn't joking. One could construct raised beds for straw bale gardening, for instance. No need to rip up the asphalt at all. Or it could just be an ornamental garden with no edibles.
I was just throwing out an idea. All things are possible unless you start from "no".
Posted by Pol Pot on June 3, 2014 at 2:26 PM · Report this
Fnarf 18
@9, the problem is, of course, that there is a limited supply of these older prewar suburban downtowns, so when they too are gentrified out of reach, there's nothing left but the really shitty places.

And, of course, modern planners have no earthly idea how to build new ones. I'm pretty sure there isn't a successful small walkable commercial district anywhere in the country built after WWII or thereabouts. In most places, such a thing would be illegal.

Just one of the many failures of modern architecture and urban planning. We're good at tightly delimited rules-based stuff; we build excellent freeways and even bike lanes. But every time the built world touches the human world, sheer horror results. It's got nothing to do with "architectural significance"; the best development has never been architecturally significant.

So vibrant communities are forming in wastelands, by necessity. What happens when Burien -- currently an absolutely delightful little village, caught on the cusp of both 50s homeyness and 21st-century immigrant vibrancy -- has the life vacuumed out of it by the Pod People too?

I swear to God, I think it's going to be the malls. If a mall can be kept alive, it can maybe survive the zombie influx, because a mall can never be hip, and nothing destroys a modern neighborhood quicker than being hip.
Posted by Fnarf on June 3, 2014 at 2:06 PM · Report this
Fnarf 17
The thing is, the richness and variety of city neighborhoods usually drains away after the gentrifiers come, too. Small neighborhood shops are replaced by cupcake shops and a seemingly endless stream of themed bars. Everybody in the new city centers has a degree in graphic design but no color or personality.

But if you actually go out into the cruddier suburbs, what you see is a thriving economic culture in those strip malls. Check-cashing places, to be sure, but also small restaurants and other immigrant businesses that end up making these places far more lively and interesting than the shiny new formerly hip cities with their rivulets of piss and vomit running past the overpriced bars.

I think it's the internet, myself. Immigrant communities are more interesting because they mostly don't order stuff online, so the community is still centered around small stores.

Artists? Who cares? Artists don't make cities interesting; they infiltrate places that have been made interesting by others. The most deadly spaces in the world are made by artists.

Cities need to figure this out and soon, or the system will upend itself again. If all city commercial districts have to offer is puking frat douches and fifteen-dollar cocktails, which is the direction in which they are headed, they're going to become very unpleasant places to be. Look at Capitol Hill.
Posted by Fnarf on June 3, 2014 at 12:40 PM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 16
@6 I assume you're joking? Removing asphalt paving isn't too hard, but the toxins in asphalt make the first layer of dirt under it pretty plant-resistant. Removing concrete paving is more laborious, and you're still unlikely to find any fertile topsoil under it, since that usually gets scraped away before paving. Either way, plan on trucking in a huge amount of real topsoil or spending years composting your shit and trying to grow cover crops to build up the soil.
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on June 3, 2014 at 12:09 PM · Report this
@5 +1 - Ive lived in Seattle, owned in Renton and now in Shoreline, both of the latter would be considered "Suburbs" should I feel dirty for choosing to live in neighborhoods that are 15 minutes from downtown without all of the BS that Seattle residents have to put up with? I got a yard, good schools, a growing sense of community (contrary to what SLOG thinks) and great schools, yet it seems like SLOG thinks the location of where one lives determines there creativity/civic pride/and overall contribution to the greater good of society. Not buying it Charles
Posted by g2000 on June 3, 2014 at 11:51 AM · Report this
lark 14
Good Morning Charles,
Good posting. Especially enjoyed the last missive from Lord Kames.

Dunno, urban vs. suburban decay? Which is worse? I find Both are unfortunate. I find Detroit in decay quite disturbing. Something about majestic theatre palaces, old mansions and infrastructure in ruins is just awful. Relics of a once thriving economy and culture. On the other hand, while I may not find decaying suburbs as equally disturbing, they remain disturbing nonetheless.

It's a question of degree and "taste" I reckon. I don't like to see any of it. Suburban decay just happens to be a more recent phenomenon as it would appear, suburbs aren't as old as cities.

Yes, I believe gentrification drives out the poor from cities. But, I think it inevitable in almost any American city that desparately wants some restoration of a city's grandeur. Detroit might be a rare exception. It would be great for it to come back. But, I'm dubious.
Posted by lark on June 3, 2014 at 11:51 AM · Report this
tabletop_joe 13
@4 Beautifully put. Yes, my mom lived near Wonderland Mall in Livonia for a time after the building was abandoned. The worst thing about it was the eyesore of a parking lot and the kind of things abandoned parking lots tend to facilitate.

@8 Yeah, it's totally a sensationalist lede, but it seems to be a reference to Spike Lee's statement cited in the body of the article. And he's not wrong. The creative class moves into a place, opportunistic developers take notice, and they end up fancying up the neighborhood right out from underneath themselves. After they've been displaced, it becomes apparent that they've been used to shoulder out the previous residents and up the property value for the next wave of wealthier inhabitants. This is observable in many cities, including our own. So while they're not in themselves a problem, they are a precursor to an unfortunate turn of events. I'll always welcome their appearance in whatever neighborhood I live with secret dismay.

@10 I love what you had to say, but have an issue with your first paragraph. There's a problem, I think, when we value a city of restored, architecturally significant mini-museums over the people who could be inhabiting them. Yes, we need to preserve the past--partly because the stuff we tend to build today is hideous, disposable garbage--but also for the sake of historical preservation. But we also need to keep in mind that a city lives through those who live in it and we can't allow the richest among us to dictate who's valuable enough to keep around and who is not. We need to strike a balance.
Posted by tabletop_joe on June 3, 2014 at 11:47 AM · Report this
McJulie 12
@9 "And, since in our area, many suburbs were originally small towns that got engulfed, rather than purpose built sprawl, there are cute urban centers in some of them, with interesting former downtowns"

You bring up an interesting point. Some of the vocabulary we use to talk about "urban" vs "suburban" is less than clear. We know that the endless meandering housing developments that orbit the downtowns of Kent and Renton are suburbs, but what about the little downtown areas themselves?

Of course, usually, when these downtowns get revived, it's through gentrification, so we're right back where we started. Poor people end up in the land of ugly one-story strip malls rotting in the damp, because nobody else wants to be there.
Posted by McJulie on June 3, 2014 at 11:20 AM · Report this
the most dreadful, drab and dead eyed sub-urban wasteland is often fertile ground for a life of the mind. not to say it mightn't be preferable to be brought up in a place of natural beauty OR cultural riches; only to say that these seemingly horrible and homogeneous landscapes have a tendency to bring on certain abilities in the right persons. Also; there is not much to be nostalgic about in a Cabrini Green or Robert Taylor Homes childhood unless one is equally predisposed top be imaginative and very good natured
Posted by ham-a-bow on June 3, 2014 at 11:11 AM · Report this
McJulie 10
It's true, but what can be done? We have two choices: allow beautiful historic buildings/neighborhoods to fall into ruin because the people who live there don't have the money to maintain and repair them, or move in the people with money who will restore and preserve them, after displacing the poor residents.

If you are poor and don't have any power, you will ALWAYS get displaced whenever rich people decide they want something you've got. My husband's aunt used to live in Yesler Terrace. It was considered a place for poor people to live, back when "above the freeway" seemed undesirable and rich people didn't want to do it. Now "views" are desirable, so it's no longer a place for poor people to live, and they're getting displaced.

Or, look at what happened to the Native Americans over and over again. Let's move you over here where there's nothing we want. Oops! Turns out there's oil there and we do want it. Here, let's move you again.

The problem isn't gentrification. The problem is poverty.

And also lousy, ugly, cheap modern development.
Posted by McJulie on June 3, 2014 at 11:01 AM · Report this
Artists have been moving to the suburbs in Seattle for a good five years now-- I know artists who have moved to Renton, Shoreline, Burien, White Center, Bothell, and so on, years ago.

It is true that there are architecturally significant single family homes in Seattle suburbs.

Commercial buildings- less so, but still a few.
And, since in our area, many suburbs were originally small towns that got engulfed, rather than purpose built sprawl, there are cute urban centers in some of them, with interesting former downtowns.
Posted by CATSPAW666 on June 3, 2014 at 10:48 AM · Report this
schmacky 8
My only issue with the piece is the lede, which focuses on an art project as a means to communicate hipsterism, as if those two things are synonymous. Using an art project as a way to illuminate the problems of north Philadelphia is a perfectly legitimate and admirable impulse. Does the author expect artists to be economic policy wonks and/or urban engineers as well?
Posted by schmacky on June 3, 2014 at 10:48 AM · Report this
While I don't disagree with the conclusion that the poor mostly get pushed around by gentrification, I think it is wrong to assume that the suburbs will never have any gentrification value, because they are somehow "lesser" than the urban core.

Hipsters/Artists tend to find beauty in what they can afford. In 1992, few people wanted mid-century modern homes. But once younger folks got priced out of pre-ww II old world charm homes, all of a sudden, in the late 1990s, more and more people in Seattle "discovered" the virtues of mid-century modern.

I have friends who, after overcoming their disappointment at not finding an old world charm house, then moved on to a mid-century modern home that it the envy of most people. That they should have bought this house is obvious now. But it was not an obvious or easy decision for them 15 years ago, because they had to let go of a whole set of expectations first.

If Seattle continues to get more expensive inside the city limits, the same thing will happen in the first ring suburbs like Burien, Renton, and Shoreline.

Artists will gravitate to these places, because many artists tend to be introverts, who value cheap workspace over social amenities. They also tend to be the people who see beauty in places that other people don't see it, and little by little, these people start to make this beauty more obvious to other folks. Then, these less adventurous/visionary folks are drawn into these "underappreciated" spaces as well.

Is this a fundamentally unfair system for the poor people who are constantly getting pushed around and forced to wear the hand me downs of more affluent people? Yes. But within the parameters of the existing system, this is how things decay and regenerate.

Yes, the suburbs seem horrible to me, doubly so, because I grew up in one. But "beauty" is very much a historically contingent concept. So it seems foolish to grant the urban core some sort of aesthetic privilege, particularly when history shows that at the height of suburban dominance many suburb dwellers felt that the urban core of their city was an irredeemable aesthetic wasteland, much like many of us see the suburbs today.
Posted by j-lon on June 3, 2014 at 10:43 AM · Report this
I don't know. Old strip malls could become the artist lofts of today. If a group of artists took over an old mall, turned the parking lot into a communal garden and filled it with found object sculptures it could be pretty cool
Posted by Pol Pot on June 3, 2014 at 10:42 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 5
The urbanist pretends that all suburbs are just acres of Wal-Mart parking lots.

The non-urbanist pretends that all cities are decaying urban cores like Detroit.

Rinse, repeat.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on June 3, 2014 at 10:41 AM · Report this
rob! 4
@1 & 2, it's interesting that many of the "temporary" buildings of early-20th-century expositions in California (Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco; the museums of the Prado in San Diego's Balboa Park), made of lath and plaster, rotted and languished for the better part of a century before being demolished and rebuilt one-by-one to their original splendor, but with permanent construction (steel and concrete, painstakingly re-created decoration).

They share some stylistic elements with typical suburban shopping centers such as monumental scale, deep arcades, etc., but the major contributors to the ugliness of the latter, when vacant and neglected, are the automotive amenities—acres of cracked asphalt sprouting weeds and the occasional dead sapling. The exposition sites at least had the pedestrian-centric layout and landscaping to sustain them and make their period of ruin somewhat picturesque.
Posted by rob! on June 3, 2014 at 10:36 AM · Report this

The problem with old coastal cities is they didn't decay.

Now they cause traffic problems.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on June 3, 2014 at 10:34 AM · Report this
tabletop_joe 2
That's the most concise article I've read on the topic. Thanks for sharing.

@1 Most of those buildings are built out of the worst possible materials. They're little more than compressed sawdust and cheap concrete--they'll molder and fall apart like wet newspaper before they even stand a chance of being romantic.
Posted by tabletop_joe on June 3, 2014 at 10:12 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 1
Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
Posted by Matt from Denver on June 3, 2014 at 9:58 AM · Report this

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