Friday, April 15, 2011

Skee-Lo Says

"...if I was just a little bit taller.
I wish I was a baller.
I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat
and a '64 Impala."
Or something like that. Forgive me for either remembering or not quite accurately remembering lyrics from a long lost Skee-Lo song from my youth. You choose whichever makes you happy.

Dallas too wishes it was something else. A little taller. That'll do the trick. A little more recognizable. Gotta stand out in the crowd.

And to do so, Dallas this week has been a cavalcade from the preposterous (the I-30 bridge) to the absurd (the Ross Underpass), each making me spin in circles wondering whether a more democratic urban development process is in fact ideal. The primary purpose of this blog is to 1) explore issues that haven't been fully explored or explained, and 2) try to make sense of urban development so that the city is empowered and informed as to the what, why, and how of urbanism.

History has shown that progress comes through the democratization of power and knowledge, stripped from the hands of the gatekeepers. Occasionally, I have weak moments where I hear somebody/anybody blither on about fundamentally incorrect perceptions of cities and how the might/should/could be and think to myself, that maybe, just maybe, this thing should remain in the hands of the few.

Of course, then you wonder exactly who are those few and who (or what) empowers them. Are they appointed? Are the elected? Do they really know a damn about cities? Or do they pretend to? Many an architect acts the expert on cities, but really they are no more than expert polemicists and rhetoricians, often choosing to confuse and confound in order to position themselves as, gatekeepers of the incomprehensible. You can't understand what they're saying so that must make them smart.

Coincidentally, James Corner was in town lecturing last night...lecturing. You plebeians.

But, the fact of the matter is, they don't make sense. They really don't. And the result is things like this, when those who realize the BS begin to make fun of not so much the curtain, but those fooled by the curtain. While some of them believe their own nonsense, others clearly have a seed of doubt.

Especially the architects working in the Arts District who use their commission to poke fun of Dallas for hiring them, by designing a raccoon trap. Trapped in the mess of anti-city we've created for ourselves. They don't care about our city. By hiring them and judging what we've done for ourselves, we clearly don't care much about our city either. The result. Raccoon Trap.

This week we've outdone ourselves on two fronts: our inadequacies which are then only multiplied by our lack of comprehension about what and why we do anything to and for the city. Councilwoman Angela Hunt gets it and the joke that "world class" aspirations are:

But most residents I talk with aren’t really interested in being a “world-class city.” They just want a great city to call home. Unfortunately, as we heard today, many city leaders dismiss that as too prosaic. They figure even if we could fix all the potholes, mow all the parks, address all the code complaints, pick up all the stray animals — all of those things will just be forgotten in time. But an ornamental bridge, a convention center hotel, a big toll road — those are lasting monuments.

That perspective misses the point. The choice isn’t “either, or” — either we clink our champagne glasses as one unnecessary boondoggle after another drains our city coffers while our basic infrastructure falls apart or we myopically fill every pothole but live in a city bereft of beauty and grandeur.

We can have the best of both. We should do big projects. But not because they might finally be big enough to be seen from space or because they may (hopefully!) pique the interest of a writer at some obscure architecture journal. We should do big projects because they enhance the everyday lives of our residents.We should do big projects that are useful.

She gets that there is spending, spending for return on investment, and then there is lighting money on fire.

Your tax money is cheap. And spending other people's money is easy. Especially when the other 13 elected officials represent a generation where cars really did mean freedom in the James Dean sense and that new roads and construction really were forms of economic development.

I'm all for some measure of Keynesianism, whether as a form of R&D to direct the market or in the public's interest. Clean air, clean water, education, healthcare, cities that actually allow for choice in housing, transportation, access to and participation in the local economy, ya know, opportunity. Often bridges too are a public interest.

They meant new connections. New possibilities. Bridges often do deserve celebratory architectural treatments. There was a purpose to their symbolism. Bridges represented, quite literally, a barrier crossed. We also once celebrated public buildings, not because they were "socialist" or some nonsense that anybody who suggests as such could even explain, but because government buildings of, by, and for the people represented the barrier bested of keyholders and gatekeepers, aristocracy and monarchy.

We once built schools that we could be proud of because our public schools were the key to the American Dream, which was about choice and opportunity and upward mobility. Or we fought the revolution for picket fences and two-car garages. You decide. I know I recently saw George Washington driving a Dodge Charger, so it must be true.

As a Fort Worth Mayoral candidate recently suggested, "Texans love their cars and freedom," as if the two were so entwined as to be inextricable. You tell me how "free" you are at the gas pump, or at a red light, or stuck in traffic, or paying a toll, or paying for parking. All of which is less than the real price of those things, which is the fundamental reason none of it will last. All big lies come to an end.

The I-30 bridge and its replacement, which we're planning to spend $10 million just in re-design fees, is already there. There is NO NEW BRIDGE. No new connection. It doesn't fundamentally reposition any of the property in or near it. We might think it does, since it's pretty (or is it?) This is the problem when the subjective makes its way into the debate of urbanism. We can all be right! Isn't that fun!? It's like kindergarten.

Like kids and under-8 soccer, we too like shiny objects. The new, the different, the wild. The supposed intelligentsia, or at least the plutocracy (which means they must know, right?) looks to outsiders to tell us what our city needs. They don't give a shit, nor do they actually know.

When I read the comments in the Observer reacting to the bridge and other cornpone ideas, I'm reminding that we can crowdsource our cities. We are experts in our neighborhoods and that is precisely what we've forgotten. Our neighborhoods, when we'd rather focus on concocting new postcards.

We live in a cartoon world, of simulation and simulacra, so far removed from reality we can no longer tell truth from fiction. Right from wrong. Reality from fantasy.

Which brings me to the Ross Avenue underpass.

mural and stix-thumb.jpg

Do I really need to say more? I will anyway.

One of my favorite lines is, "give a fool a microphone...," which I suppose is adapted from Mark Twain's, "best to be thought stupid and remain quiet than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." I really don't blame the artists for these proposals. Only those that might allow them to get built.

The designs only serve to highlight (no pun) how much trouble the city is in (yet we don't realize it). The Rust Belt collapsed because of a homogeny of industry and economies in a post-industrial world. Place is what matters now. The Sun Belt is defined by a homogeny of place. To overcome the generic, we reactively put a spectrum of lights on it and call it different, completely forgetting that authentic places are a direct outgrowth of the self-organized clustering of the people within the neighborhoods.

In said cartoon world, it is cheaper and easier to stick an air freshener in a rotting pig carcass and hold our collective nose than get rid of the pig carcass, or apparently even acknowledge that the real problem is that the pig carcass is even there. It is cheaper to apply adornment to the highway than to get rid of the highway, even though it is a taxpayer liability as long as it exists. To get rid of it is just too expensive, even though it would open up acres and acres of new property while improving the property value all around.

There is no math in cartoon world. Just rainbows and bright lights.

I must admit, when I first saw these finalists (?!), I assumed it was a competition for elementary art students. Who else would think, "arts district....hmmm...get me the rainbow lights!"

I don't even care what the artists said in defense of their designs or that we have to be convinced that "these are internationally practicing artists. Not just local." As who-cares-and-doesn't-matter, suggested. As backhanded a comment about Dallas as one could script. Nothing here is good enough. You know who else is an internationally practicing artist? Justin Bieber.

Apparently this person didn't see Exit Through the Gift Shop, the theatrical version of Banksy's still work:

Since popular opinion realizes these proposals are absurd, but what we might not realize is that prettying up underpasses does not and will never make pedestrians happily skip between divided districts. Even the most cross-connected highways still act as edges (see Portland's I-5 or even Boston's big dig, which after 20 billion, is still an edge condition). No amount of decorating, lighting, or redesigning changes this.

The only way to activate them is to fundamentally repurpose them. Change the use from void space to something possibly useful that needs cheap land, close to the city, and typically has trouble finding other acceptable locations. Things that have worked (depending on your definition of "worked") include: dog park (as between Deep Ellum and downtown), skate parks (which often can't find suitable locations because "those dang kids" be congregatin'), actually building under them such as many Parisian viaducts/aqueducts (immediately below), and similarly, as squatter towns (I'm still waiting on Wilonsky to track down some old news articles on the underpass squatter villages that existed pre-world cup.).

I can't emphasize enough that none of these solutions vastly improve the value of the land in or around them. More likely, they merely make do with leftover land. Therefore, even though we are downtown, we think all of the land near these over-passes must be worth downtown prices. The market disagrees as the majority of land around the downtown loop is parking, vacant, or subsidized as a non-tax generating facility. Then nothing happens because our idea of the land's potential is so distorted from the real value that the market will bear.

The market, I should add, is dictated by people. Density is directly related to desirability. Living or being near highways is roundly agreed to be undesirable. That isn't my opinion. That is the opinion of the market since all highway adjacent land is so overvalued and in the process of down-grading to its true value, gas stations, drive-thrus, and parking lots.

If we really wanted to bring this land up to the value it wants to be (and we need it to be, to be a "world class city"), we'd get rid of the highway entirely. But, we're not ready to be honest with ourselves yet are we?

What are world class cities anyway? San Francisco, New York, Paris...maybe...I don't know. Who knows what world class even means, but those cities are removing freeways. Vancouver? Never allowed freeways into their city. Instead, the "cities of aspirations," those claiming "world class" doo-dads and accoutrement have vicious class disparity. What might be world class, is only accessible to the very few. Is Dubai world class? It has the tallest building in the world so it must be. Who cares that it is empty.

Kind of like our city. But we don't build our city for our citizens do we? You'd think the City Council's constituents were all in cities outside of Dallas proper, including the Park Cities. Dallas is the engine that everyone else leaches off and the City Council is unwittingly complicit. You'd think we would take care of the region's economic engine. We are such car lovers aren't we?

So I'm left this city, and are other cities in general, better off in the hands of the people? After all, as stated in a line from the British comedy Peep Show, "people voted for the Nazis and listen to Coldplay. You can't trust people." Or, is it better off in the hands of the few, who sneer if you don't like something, "you just don't get it."

When city building is defined solely by the subjective, we are at the mercy of those in charge. Be kind.