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Chris Prinz

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities
We don’t have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!’ ” This tenant was saying what moralists have said for thousands of years: Handsome is as handsome does. All that glitters is not gold.
Howard set spinning powerful and city-destroying ideas: He conceived that the way to deal with the city’s functions was to sort and sift out of the whole certain simple uses, and to arrange each of these in relative self-containment.
However they were arranged, the important point was that the monuments had been sorted out from the rest of the city, and assembled into the grandest effect thought possible, the whole being treated as a complete unit, in a separate and well-defined way.
They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.
To build city districts that are custom made for easy crime is idiotic. Yet that is what we do.
The first thing to understand is that the public peace—the sidewalk and street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.
Los Angeles’ crime figures are flabbergasting. Among the seventeen standard metropolitan areas with populations over a million, Los Angeles stands so pre-eminent in crime that it is in a category by itself. And this is markedly true of crimes associated with personal attack, the crimes that make people fear the streets.
First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.
Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.
The basic requisite for such surveillance is a substantial quantity of stores and other public places sprinkled along the sidewalks of a district; enterprises and public places that are used by evening and night must be among them especially. Stores, bars and restaurants, as the chief examples, work in several different and complex ways to abet sidewalk safety.
A city neighborhood can absorb and protect a substantial number of these birds of passage, as our neighborhood does. But if and when the neighborhood finally becomes them, they will gradually find the streets less secure, they will be vaguely mystified about it, and if things get bad enough they will drift away to another neighborhood which is mysteriously safer.
What happens at Blenheim Houses is somewhat the same as what happens in dull gray areas of cities. The gray areas’ pitifully few and thinly spaced patches of brightness and life are like the visible corridors at Blenheim Houses. They do attract strangers. But the relatively deserted, dull, blind streets leading from these places are like the fire stairs at Blenheim Houses. These are not equipped to handle strangers and the presence of strangers in them is an automatic menace.
In 1956, the New York City Youth Board, fairly desperate because of gang warfare, arranged through its gang youth workers a series of truces among fighting gangs. The truces were reported to stipulate, among other provisions, a mutual understanding of Turf boundaries among the gangs concerned and agreement not to trespass.
“Togetherness” is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared. “Togetherness,” apparently a spiritual resource of the new suburbs, works destructively in cities. The requirement that much shall be shared drives city people apart.
The park lacks benches purposely; the “togetherness” people ruled them out because they might be interpreted as an invitation to people who cannot fit in.
To protect themselves, they make few, if any, friends. Some are afraid that friends will become angry or envious and make up a story to report to management, causing them great trouble. If the husband gets a bonus (which he decides not to report) and the wife buys new curtains, the visiting friends will see and might tell the management, who, in turn, investigates and issues a rent increase.
“They contain people with real ability, wonderful people many of them, but the typical sequence is that in the course of organization leaders have found each other, gotten all involved in each others’ social lives, and have ended up talking to nobody but each other. They have not found their followers. Everything tends to degenerate into ineffective cliques, as a natural course.
A store like this would fail economically if it had competition. Meantime, although monopoly insures the financial success planned for it, it fails the city socially.
Where did these three battles occur? In a park and at the parklike grounds of the project. After outbreaks of this kind, one of the remedies invariably called for is more parks and playgrounds. We are bemused by the sound of symbols.
In most cases (not all, fortunately), the most significant change is this: The children have moved from under the eyes of a high numerical ratio of adults, into a place where the ratio of adults is low or even nil. To think this represents an improvement in city child rearing is pure daydreaming.
Poor, generalized play use eats up substance that could instead be used for good specialized play.
The myth that playgrounds and grass and hired guards or supervisors are innately wholesome for children and that city streets, filled with ordinary people, are innately evil for children, boils down to a deep contempt for ordinary people.
Most city architectural designers and planners are men. Curiously, they design and plan to exclude men as part of normal, daytime life wherever people live. In planning residential life, they aim at filling the presumed daily needs of impossibly vacuous housewives and preschool tots. They plan, in short, strictly for matriarchal societies.
Let us turn this thought around, and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred on them.
In short, Rittenhouse Square is busy fairly continuously for the same basic reasons that a lively sidewalk is used continuously: because of functional physical diversity among adjacent uses, and hence diversity among users and their schedules.
Parks intensely used in generalized public-yard fashion tend to have four elements in their design which I shall call intricacy, centering, sun and enclosure.
Union Square in downtown San Francisco has a plan that looks deadly dull on paper or from a high building; but it is bent onto such changes in ground level, like Dali’s painting of the wet watches, that it appears remarkably various. (This is, of course, exactly the transformation that happens, on a larger scale, to San Francisco’s straight, regular gridiron street patterns as they tumble up and down the hills.)
Paper plans of squares and parks are deceptive—sometimes they are crammed full of apparent differences that mean almost nothing because they are all below eye level, or are discounted by the eye because they are too often repeated.
San Francisco is good at this. A tiny triangular street intersection leftover, which in most cities would either be flattened into asphalt or else have a hedge, a few benches and be a dusty nonentity, in San Francisco is a fenced miniature world of its own, a deep, cool world of water and exotic forest, populated by the birds that have been attracted. You cannot go in yourself. You do not need to, because your eyes go in and take you farther into this world than feet could ever go.
First, a negative generalization: Magnificent views and handsome landscaping fail to operate as demand goods; maybe these “should,” but demonstrably they do not. They can work as adjuncts only.
On the other hand, swimming operates as demand goods. So does fishing, especially if there is bait buying and boating along with it. Sports fields do. So do carnivals, or carnival-like activities.
All this takes money. But American cities today, under the illusions that open land is an automatic good and that quantity is equivalent to quality, are instead frittering away money on parks, playgrounds and project land-oozes too large, too frequent, too perfunctory, too ill-located, and hence too dull or too inconvenient to be used.
When we try to justify good shelter instead on the pretentious grounds that it will work social or family miracles we fool ourselves. Reinhold Niebuhr has called this particular self-deception, “The doctrine of salvation by bricks.”
This “ideal” of the city neighborhood as an island, turned inward on itself, is an important factor in our lives nowadays. To see why it is a silly and even harmful “ideal” for cities, we must recognize a basic difference between these concoctions grafted into cities, and town life. In a town of 5,000 or 10,000 population, if you go to Main Street (analogous to the consolidated commercial facilities or community center for a planned neighborhood), you run into people you also know at work, or went to school with, or see at church, or people who are your children’s teachers, or who have sold or given you professional or artisan’s services, or whom you know to be friends of your casual acquaintances, or whom you know by reputation. Within the limits of a town or village, the connections among its people keep crossing and recrossing and this can make workable and essentially cohesive communities out of even larger towns than those of 7,000 population, and to some extent out of little cities. But a population of 5,000 or 10,000 residents in a big city has no such innate degree of natural cross-connections within itself, except under the most extraordinary circumstances.
As it is, the price of trying, and not even succeeding at a misguided aim is conversion of a city into a parcel of mutually suspicious and hostile Turfs. There are many other flaws in this “ideal” of the planned neighborhood and its various adaptations.
Looking at city neighborhoods as organs of self-government, I can see evidence that only three kinds of neighborhoods are useful: (1) the city as a whole; (2) street neighborhoods; (and 3) districts of large, subcity size, composed of 100,000 people or more in the case of the largest cities. Each of these kinds of neighborhoods has different functions, but the three supplement each other in complex fashion. It is impossible to say that one is more important than the others. For success with staying power at any spot, all three are necessary. But I think that other neighborhoods than these three kinds just get in the way, and make successful self-government difficult or impossible.
To accomplish these functions, an effective district has to be large enough to count as a force in the life of the city as a whole. The “ideal” neighborhood of planning theory is useless for such a role. A district has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall. Nothing less is to any purpose. To be sure, fighting city hall is not a district’s only function, or necessarily the most important. Nevertheless, this is a good definition of size, in functional terms, because sometimes a district has to do exactly this, and also because a district lacking the power and will to fight city hall—and to win—when its people feel deeply threatened, is unlikely to possess the power and will to contend with other serious problems.
The help we got puts some individuals on our street under obligation, of course, to help other streets or aid more general district causes when help is wanted. If we neglect this, we may not get help next time we need it.
Sometimes, to be sure, a neighborhood too small to function as a district gets the benefit of power through possessing an exceptionally influential citizen or an important institution. But the citizens of such a neighborhood pay for their “free” gift of power when the day comes that their interests run counter to those of Papa Bigwheel or Papa Institution. They are helpless to defeat Papa in the government offices, up where the decisions are made, and therefore they are helpless also to teach him or influence him. Citizens of neighborhoods that include a university, for example, are often in this helpless fix.
effective neighborhood physical planning for cities should aim at these purposes: First, to foster lively and interesting streets. Second, to make the fabric of these streets as continuous a network as possible throughout a district of potential subcity size and power. Third, to use parks and squares and public buildings as part of this street fabric; use them to intensify and knit together the fabric’s complexity and multiple use. They should not be used to island off different uses from each other, or to island off subdistrict neighborhoods. Fourth, to emphasize the functional identity of areas large enough to work as districts.
There are only two ultimate public powers in shaping and running American cities: votes and control of the money. To sound nicer, we may call these “public opinion” and “disbursement of funds,” but they are still votes and money.
“I have often amused myself,” wrote James Boswell in 1791, “with thinking how different a place London is to different people. They, whose narrow minds are contracted to the consideration of some one particular pursuit, view it only through that medium…But the intellectual man is struck with it, as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.”
To understand cities, we have to deal outright with combinations or mixtures of uses, not separate uses, as the essential phenomena.
Indeed, one reason, among many others, why the much-heralded postwar exodus of big offices from cities turned out to be mostly talk is that the differentials in cost of suburban land and space are typically canceled by the greater amount of space per worker required for facilities that in cities no single employer need provide, nor any one corps of workers or customers support.
To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable: 1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common. 2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent. 3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained. 4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.
Today, typically, they still do fulfill three of the conditions. But they have become (for reasons that will be discussed in Chapter Thirteen) too predominately devoted to work and contain too few people after working hours. This condition has been more or less formalized in planning jargon, which no longer speaks of “downtowns” but instead of “CBD’s”—standing for Central Business Districts. A Central Business District that lives up to its name and is truly described by it, is a dud.
This movement has been well described by Richard Ratcliff, professor of land economics at the University of Wisconsin. “Decentralization is a symptom of degeneration and decay,” says Ratcliff, “only if it leaves a vacuum behind. Where decentralization is the product of centripetal forces, it is healthy. Much of the outward movement of certain urban functions occurs as they are pushed out of the center, rather than as they respond to a pull toward outlying locations.”
We might call this the case of the courts and the opera. Forty-five years ago, San Francisco began building a civic center, which has given trouble ever since. This particular center, placed near the downtown and intended to pull the downtown toward it, has of course repelled vitality and gathered around itself instead the blight that typically surrounds these dead and artificial places. The center includes, among the other arbitrary objects in its parks, the opera house, the city hall, the public library and various municipal offices. Now, considering the opera house and the library as chessmen, how could they have best helped the city? Each would have been used, separately, in close conjunction with high-intensity downtown offices and shops. This, and the secondary diversity they would help anchor, would also have been a more congenial environment for either of these two buildings themselves.
From the Chicago Fair of 1893 came the architectural ideology that sees a city as a monumental court of honor sharply set off from a profane and jumbled area of “concessions.”…There is no evidence, in this procedure, of feeling for the city as an organism, a matrix that is worthy of its monuments and friendly with them…The loss is social, as well as esthetic…
Furthermore, a city matrix needs its own less spectacular internal minglings (“jumbles” to the simple-minded). Else it is not a matrix but, like housing projects, it is “profane” monotony, working no more sensibly than the “sacred” monotony of civic centers like San Francisco’s.
Of the four generators of diversity, two represent easy problems to deal with in curing the troubles of gray areas—aged buildings are usually already present to do their potential share; and additional streets where they are needed are not innately difficult to acquire. (They are a minor problem compared with the large-scale land clearance we have been taught to waste our money on.) The two other necessary conditions, however—mixtures of primary diversity and sufficient concentration of dwellings—are more difficult to create if they are lacking. The sensible thing is to begin where at least one of these two conditions already exists or can be fostered relatively easily.
If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction.
We are dealing here again, as we were in the case of mixed primary uses, with the economic effects of time. But in this case we are dealing with the economics of time not hour by hour through the day, but with the economics of time by decades and generations. Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation. Time pays off original capital costs, and this depreciation can be reflected in the yields required from a building.
This is an advantage they can get with many old buildings but not with new apartments, whether they are public housing at $14 a room per month or luxury housing at $95 a room per month. Some people would rather pay for improvements in their living conditions partly in labor and ingenuity, and by selecting which improvements are most important to them, instead of being indiscriminately improved, and all at a cost of money.
Brooklyn, like most of our city areas in decline, has more old buildings than it needs. To put it another way, many of its neighborhoods have for a long time lacked gradual increments of new buildings. Yet if Brooklyn is ever to build upon its inherent assets and advantages—which is the only way successful city building can be done—many of those old buildings, well distributed, will be essential to the process. Improvement must come by supplying the conditions for generating diversity that are missing, not by wiping out old buildings in great swathes.
Neighborhoods built up all at once change little physically over the years as a rule. The little physical change that does occur is for the worse—gradual dilapidation, a few random, shabby new uses here and there. People look at these few, random differences and regard them as evidence, and perhaps as cause, of drastic change. Fight blight! They regret that the neighborhood has changed. Yet the fact is, physically it has changed remarkably little. People’s feelings about it, rather, have changed. The neighborhood shows a strange inability to update itself, enliven itself, repair itself, or to be sought after, out of choice, by a new generation.
The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.
“He based his findings,” reported the New York Times, “on the lack of a sufficient density of population to support cultural facilities. Mr. Denton…said that decentralization produced such a thin population spread that the only effective economic demand that could exist in suburbs was that of the majority. The only goods and cultural activities available will be those that the majority requires, he observed,” and so on.
One reason why low city densities conventionally have a good name, unjustified by the facts, and why high city densities have a bad name, equally unjustified, is that high densities of dwellings and overcrowding of dwellings are often confused. High densities mean large numbers of dwellings per acre of land. Overcrowding means too many people in a dwelling for the number of rooms it contains. The census definition of overcrowding is 1.5 persons per room or more.
The Garden City planners and their disciples looked at slums which had both many dwelling units on the land (high densities) and too many people within individual dwellings (overcrowding), and failed to make any distinction between the fact of overcrowded rooms and the entirely different fact of densely built up land. They hated both equally, in any case, and coupled them like ham and eggs, so that to this day housers and planners pop out the phrase as if it were one word, “highdensityandovercrowding.”
Homogeneity of uses poses an unavoidable esthetic dilemma: Shall the homogeneity look as homogeneous as it is, and be frankly monotonous? Or shall it try not to look as homogeneous as it is and go in for eye-catching, but meaningless and chaotic differences? This, in city guise, is the old, familiar esthetic zoning problem of homogeneous suburbs: Shall they zone to require conformity in appearance, or shall they zone to prohibit sameness? If to prohibit sameness, where must the line be drawn against what is too nonconforming in design?
Raskin, in his essay on variety, suggested that the greatest flaw in city zoning is that it permits monotony. I think this is correct. Perhaps the next greatest flaw is that it ignores scale of use, where this is an important consideration, or confuses it with kind of use, and this leads, on the one hand, to visual (and sometimes functional) disintegration of streets, or on the other hand to indiscriminate attempts to sort out and segregate kinds of uses no matter what their size or empiric effect. Diversity itself is thus unnecessarily suppressed, rather than one limited manifestation of it, unfortunate in certain places.
Competition based on retail profitability is most apt to affect streets. Competition based on working- or living-space attraction is most apt to affect whole groupings of streets, or even whole districts. Thus, from this process, one or few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant. But the triumph is hollow. A most intricate and successful organism of economic mutual support and social mutual support has been destroyed by the process.
This narrows down the possibilities—even purely commercial possibilities. Eighth Street’s worst potential threat to its diversity and its long-term success is, in short, the force let loose by outstanding success.
These banks were making the same mistake as a family I know who bought an acre in the country on which to build a house. For many years, while they lacked the money to build, they visited the site regularly and picnicked on a knoll, the site’s most attractive feature. They liked so much to visualize themselves as always there, that when they finally built they put the house on the knoll. But then the knoll was gone. Somehow they had not realized they would destroy it and lose it by supplanting it with themselves.
Diversity is crowded out by the duplication of success. Unless they are handsomely financed to start with, or instantly successful (which is seldom the case), new ideas tumble into second-best locations; thereby second-best becomes first-rate, flourishes for a time, and eventually it too is destroyed by the duplication of its own greatest successes.
Conservatism, applied to the choice of city locations, means investing where success is already a well-established fact. To see that investment may destroy success requires looking too far ahead for those who value most what is already achieved—and are perhaps mystified by localities with a potential for success, or are insecure about them, because of not understanding why some places in cities should be successful, and others not.
Zoning for diversity must be thought of differently from the usual zoning for conformity, but like all zoning it is suppressive. One form of zoning for diversity is already familiar in certain city districts: controls against demolition of historically valuable buildings.
Indeed, raising the assessments on city property because of increased profitability of the neighbors, is a powerful means today of forcing excess duplications. This pressure would continue to force them, even in the face of controls overtly intended to hamper duplications. The way to raise the tax base of a city is not at all to exploit to the limit the short-term tax potential of every site. This undermines the long-term tax potential of whole neighborhoods. The way to raise a city’s tax base is to expand the city’s territorial quantity of successful areas. A strong city tax base is a by-product of strong city magnetism, and one of its necessary ingredients—once the object is to sustain success—is a certain amount of close-grained, deliberate, calculated variation in localized tax yields to anchor diversity and forestall its self-destruction.
Universities could make portions, at least, of their campuses more like seams and less like barriers if they placed their uses intended for the public at strategic points on their perimeters, and if they also put at their perimeters, and opened up as scenes, their elements congenial to public view and interest—instead of hiding them.
Our present urban renewal laws are an attempt to break this particular linkage in the vicious circles by forthrightly wiping away slums and their populations, and replacing them with projects intended to produce higher tax yields, or to lure back easier populations with less expensive public requirements.
The key link in a perpetual slum is that too many people move out of it too fast—and in the meantime dream of getting out. This is the link that has to be broken if any other efforts at overcoming slums or slum life are to be of the least avail.
The first sign of an incipient slum, long before visible blight can be seen, is stagnation and dullness. Dull neighborhoods are inevitably deserted by their more energetic, ambitious or affluent citizens, and also by their young people who can get away. They inevitably fail to draw newcomers by choice. Furthermore, aside from these selective desertions and the selective lack of vigorous new blood, such neighborhoods eventually are apt to undergo rather sudden wholesale desertions by their nonslum populations. The reasons why this is so have already been stated; there is no need to reiterate the sheer impracticality of the Great Blight of Dullness for city life.
Sometimes, to be sure, a deliberate conspiracy to turn over the population of a neighborhood does exist—on the part of real estate operators who make a racket of buying houses cheaply from panicked white people and selling them at exorbitant prices to the chronically housing-starved and pushed-around colored population.
City officials today prate about “bringing back the middle class,” as if nobody were in the middle class until he had left the city and acquired a ranch house and a barbecue and thereby become precious. To be sure, cities are losing their middle class populations. However, cities need not “bring back” a middle class, and carefully protect it like an artificial growth. Cities grow the middle class. But to keep it as it grows, to keep it as a stabilizing force in the form of a self-diversified population, means considering the city’s people valuable and worth retaining, right where they are, before they become middle class.
The processes that occur in unslumming depend on the fact that a metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled (or even educated) people, many greenhorns into competent citizens.
The first, and most important, of the three kinds of money is the credit extended by conventional, nongovernmental lending institutions. In order of size of their mortgage holdings, the most important of these institutions are: savings and loan associations, life insurance companies, commercial banks and mutual savings banks.
The third kind of money comes from a shadow world of investment, an underworld of cash and credit, so to speak. Where this money comes from ultimately, and by what avenues it finds its way, is concealed and devious. This money is lent at interest rates starting at about 20 percent and ranging as high as the market will bear, apparently in some cases up to 80 percent in combinations of interest rates and arrangers’ fees and cuts. It does many jobs—a few of which are actually constructive and useful—but it is most notable for financing exploitative conversions of humdrum buildings to slum buildings at exorbitant profits. This money is to the mortgage market what loan-shark money is to personal finance.
The Council, and people within the district, refer to the banks’ interest and cooperation in their improvement with gratitude. And the banks, in their turn, speak admiringly of the area as a location for sound investment. Nobody was thrown out of the district and “relocated.” No businesses were destroyed. Unslumming, in short, has proceeded, even though the process reached a point—as it eventually does everywhere—when the need for credit becomes crucial.
The worst cases are neighborhoods that are already stagnant, with much that is inherently wrong. These localities, which are losing their former residents anyway, often undergo a special form of investment cataclysm. Within a short interval after they are blacklisted for conventional credit, there may come into the vacuum money from the shadow world of investment. It pours in, buying up property for which there are no other purchasers now, and presumably will not be, and to which their current owners or users have no great, effective attachment.
First the withdrawal of all conventional money; then ruination financed by shadow-world money; then selection of the area by the Planning Commission as a candidate for cataclysmic use of government money to finance renewal clearance. This last stage makes possible cataclysmic re-entry of conventional money for financing renewal-project construction and rehabilitation. So well do these three different kinds of money prepare the way for each other’s cataclysms that one would be impelled to admire the process, as a highly developed form of order in its own right, were it not so destructive to every other form of city order. It does not represent a “conspiracy.” It is a logical outcome of logical men guided by nonsensical but conventional city planning beliefs.
The immense new suburban sprawls of American cities have not come about by accident—and still less by the myth of free choice between cities and suburbs. Endless suburban sprawl was made practical (and for many families was made actually mandatory) through the creation of something the United States lacked until the mid-1930’s: a national mortgage market specifically calculated to encourage suburban home building.
Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image. The financial machinery has been adjusted to create anti-city images because, and only because, we as a society thought this would be good for us. If and when we think that lively, diversified city, capable of continual, close-grained improvement and change, is desirable, then we will adjust the financial machinery to get that.
The more exploited a building, the higher its earning power, and the more the owner is given. So profitable are such condemnation sales for slum landlords that some of them make a business of buying up buildings in areas already condemned, overcrowding them, and raising rents, less for the profits to be made in the interim than for the profits to be made by the building’s sale to the public.
No amount of code enforcement or tax abated housing rehabilitation by the New York City Housing Authority will be able to keep pace with slum formation, until and unless the profit is taken out of slums by taxation. [Taxation on the basis of profits is necessary] to overcome the effect of the Federal Income Tax structure, the depreciation and capital gains provisions of which make slum ownership a highly profitable speculation for slumlords…. A slum owner in a congested area, where need for shelter is desperate and where the rents are what the traffic will bear, need not maintain the property. He pockets his annual depreciation allowance year after year, and after he has written down the book value of his slum property to zero, he then sells it at a price that capitalizes his high rent roll. Having made the sale, he pays a 25% capital gains tax on the difference between the book value and the sales price. He then acquires another slum property and goes through the same process again. [Saturation inspection by the Bureau of Internal Revenue of the income returns of owners of slum properties would] determine the amount of back taxes and penalties due as a result of their pocketing any improperly claimed depreciation allowance.
I am going to deal with several subjects that, in themselves, are already well recognized as within the province of city planning: subsidized dwellings, traffic, city visual design, analytical methods. These are all matters for which conventional modern planning does have objectives and therefore does possess tactics—so many tactics, so well entrenched, that when their purposes are questioned they are generally justified in terms of the conditions laid down by still other tactics (e.g., We must do this for the purpose of getting the federal loan guarantees). We become the prisoners of our tactics, seldom looking behind them at the strategies.
The answer we long ago accepted went like this: The reason we need dwelling subsidies is to provide for that part of the population which cannot be housed by private enterprise. And, the answer went on, so long as this is necessary anyway, the subsidized dwellings should embody and demonstrate the principles of good housing and planning. This is a terrible answer, with terrible consequences. A twist of semantics suddenly presents us with people who cannot be housed by private enterprise, and hence must presumably be housed by someone else.
The notion that the fact of a subsidy required that these people be housed by someone other than private enterprise and normal landlords was an aberration in itself. The government does not take over the landlordship or ownership or management of subsidized farms or of subsidized airlines.
The more successfully such guaranteed-rent buildings were able to hold tenants as their financial condition improved, the more rent subsidy would be available for more buildings, and for other households.
Expansion would represent no threat to private builders and landlords (as the expansion of public housing does), because private builders and landlords would be the direct proprietors of the expansion. Nor need it represent any threat to private lending institutions, for the functions of these institutions would be supplanted only insofar as they themselves did not wish to participate in the capital cost financing.
The physical standards and regulations applying should be those embodied in a city’s own codes and body of regulations, and should therefore be the same for guaranteed-rent dwellings as they would be for any unsubsidized building at the same place. If it is public policy to improve or to change dwelling standards for safety, sanitation, amenity or street design, then this public policy must be expressed for the public—not for an arbitrarily selected, guinea-pig part of the public.
To combat both stultification and corruption, we ought, every eight or ten years at least, to try out new methods of subsidizing dwellings or add variations to old ones that are working well enough for us to retain.
The next step will require great humility, since we are now so prone to confuse big building projects with big social achievements. We will have to admit that it is beyond the scope of anyone’s imagination to create a community. We must learn to cherish the communities we have; they are hard to come by. “Fix the buildings but leave the people.” “No relocation outside the neighborhood.”—These must be the slogans if public housing is to be popular.
We went awry by replacing, in effect, each horse on the crowded city streets with half a dozen or so mechanized vehicles, instead of using each mechanized vehicle to replace half a dozen or so horses.
In real life, we do not suddenly jump five million square feet of city roadbed to sixteen million square feet, and so the implications of accommodating a few more cars and a few more cars and a few more cars are a little harder to see. But swiftly or slowly, the positive feedback is at work. Swiftly or slowly, greater accessibility by car is inexorably accompanied both by less convenience and efficiency of public transportation, and by thinning-down and smearing-out of uses, and hence by more need for cars.
In that case we Americans will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us, the answer will be clear, established and for all practical purposes indisputable: The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles.
Like the housers who face a blank if they try to think what to do besides income-sorting projects, or the highwaymen who face a blank if they try to think what to do besides accommodate more cars, just so, architects who venture into city design often face a blank in trying to create visual order in cities except by substituting the order of art for the very different order of life. They cannot do anything else much. They cannot develop alternate tactics, for they lack a strategy for design that will help cities.
It is the easiest thing in the world to seize hold of a few forms, give them a regimented regularity, and try to palm this off in the name of order. However, simple regimented regularity and significant systems of functional order are seldom coincident in this world.
Only intricacy and vitality of use give, to the parts of a city, appropriate structure and shape. Kevin Lynch, in his book The Image of the City, mentions the phenomenon of “lost” areas, places that the people he interviewed completely ignored and were actually unaware of unless reminded, although it would seem the locations of these “lost” places by no means merited this oblivion, and sometimes his observers had just traversed them in actuality or in imagination.*1 Wherever the fires of use and vitality fail to extend in a city is a place in the murk, a place essentially without city form and structure. Without that vital light, no seeking for “skeletons” or “frameworks” or “cells” on which to hang the place can bring it into a city form.
Still another possibility is to build some of the street-side edifices in cheap and makeshift fashion (which does not necessarily mean they must be ugly), with the intention of making overhead low at the most economically difficult stage, and their replacement practical in future when economic success warrants it. This is not as promising as the other methods, however, because buildings built well enough to stand five years or ten years have to be built well enough to stand a great deal longer. It is hard to give buildings a calculated built-in obsolescence and make really appreciable savings.
holding people by choice when they develop choice (which means they must become gladly attached before they have choice), and for this the kinds of salvage already suggested, outside and inside, are necessary. However, in addition, people must of course be permitted to stay by choice, which means that maximum income limits must be abandoned. It is not enough to raise limits; the tie of residency to income price tags must be abandoned altogether.
No one, or even two, of the suggestions I have made will be effective as an all-purpose salvager in itself. All three—grounds reconverted and woven back into surrounding city; safety inside buildings; removal of maximum income limits—are necessary.
When human affairs reach, in truth and in fact, new levels of complication, the only thing that can be done is to devise means of maintaining things well at the new level. The alternative is what Lewis Mumford has aptly called “unbuilding,” the fate of a society which cannot maintain the complexity on which it is built and on which it depends.
Big-city government is today nothing more than little-city government which has been stretched and adapted in quite conservative fashion to handle bigger jobs. This has had strange results, and ultimately destructive results, because big cities pose operational problems that are innately different from those posed by little cities.
Citizens of big cities are forever being berated for not taking sufficiently active interest in government. It is amazing, rather, that they keep trying.
Planners like to think they deal in grand terms with the city as a whole, and that their value is great because they “grasp the whole picture.” But the notion that they are needed to deal with their city “as a whole” is principally a delusion.
In short, great cities must be divided into administrative districts. These would be horizontal divisions of city government but, unlike random horizontality, they would be common to the municipal government as a whole.
Because these real and important problems exist, and because we have, administratively, no very good ways of getting at them, a concept called “Metropolitan Government” has been developed. Under Metropolitan Government, politically separate localities would continue to have a political identity and autonomy in purely local concerns, but they would be federated into a super-area government which would have extensive planning powers and administrative organs for carrying the plans into action. Part of the taxes from each locality would go to the Metropolitan Government, thus helping also to relieve great cities of part of the financial burden they carry, unrecompensed, for major central city facilities used by the hinterland.
This conception of the city as a collection of separate file drawers, in effect, was suited very well by the Radiant City vision of Le Corbusier, that vertical and more centralized version of the two-variable Garden City. Although Le Corbusier himself made no more than a gesture toward statistical analysis, his scheme assumed the statistical reordering of a system of disorganized complexity, solvable mathematically; his towers in the park were a celebration, in art, of the potency of statistics and the triumph of the mathematical average.
City dwellings—either existing or potential—are specific and particularized buildings always involved in differing, specific processes such as unslumming, slumming, generation of diversity, self-destruction of diversity.
Why reason inductively? Because to reason, instead, from generalizations ultimately drives us into absurdities—as in the case of the Boston planner who knew (against all the real-life evidence he had) that the North End had to be a slum because the generalizations that make him an expert say it is.
The advertisement tells us that Brooklyn’s downtown is too dead by 8 P.M., as indeed it is. No surveys (and certainly no mindless, mechanical predictions projected forward in time from statistical surveys, a boondoggle that today frequently passes for “planning”) can tell us anything so relevant to the composition and to the need of Brooklyn’s downtown as this small, but specific and precisely accurate, clue to the workings of that downtown.
Ordinary people in cities have an awareness of “unaverage” quantities which is quite consonant with the importance of these relatively small quantities. And again, planners are the ones at the disadvantage. They have inevitably come to regard “unaverage” quantities as relatively inconsequential, because these are statistically inconsequential. They have been trained to discount what is most vital.
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