Sunday, April 2, 2017

The people know what’s best for the people

This weekend is the fourth Freep Film Festival. Freep is the local nickname for the Detroit Free Press – the paper uses it for its web domain. This festival is over five days and features two dozen feature length films and four programs of short films. All are documentaries, most having some sort of connection to Detroit or Michigan.

I saw two of the films and had hoped to see a third, though it had sold out. The one that sold out is about the 1967 riots in Detroit. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary so there are lots of commemorations around the city in the next few months, many saying we have to understand our past to guide our future. Since this film sold out one of the local art theaters will likely pick it up.

First up: Last Men Standing was a project of the San Francisco Chronicle. It tells the stories of eight gay men who became HIV-positive in the 1980s before effective treatment was available and who did not die. What is life like when you are told for several years you’re going to die in a couple years – you even see your friends die – and now it is 30 years later? There is loneliness because partners and friends are gone. There are financial difficulties. One went on disability, which is now running out. One struggles to fill his days because the terms of his disability is that he not work. One lost his home of 30 years. What do old gay guys do in a culture that celebrates youth?

There are a few bright spots. One continues to march in the Pride Parade. Another is a part of a support group of similar men. Two of the men are surprised by love.

That film was shown in Cinema Detroit in the Midtown area of Detroit. After the film was a session with the filmmakers, alas over quickly. After that I had over three hours until the next film.

So I enjoyed the sunshine and walked around Midtown for a while. I started with the block of Canfield between Second and Third. It is a historical district with sixteen houses built between 1870 and 1890. I’ve driven down the street a few times, but in a car I’m going to fast to get a good look. On foot I could linger. They’re all made of brick and several have Victorian or similar decorations.

I walked up and down various other streets in the area. Most are lined with renovated apartment buildings from small to large. This is one of the hot areas of Detroit. Many of these residents attend Wayne State University a few blocks to the north. These buildings are likely from before 1930, so their architecture has character.

Supper was at the Traffic Jam and Snug on Canfield. The block it is on now has several upscale stores.

The second film was in the lecture hall of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a place that might hold 500 people (in contrast to the 1500 or more of the Film Theater auditorium). The film was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. The Jane in the title is Jane Jacobs and she battled Robert Moses over redevelopment in New York City in the years after the Great Depression and WWII.

In the early part of the 20th Century and into the Great Depression the living conditions of most poor people in New York were pretty bad. The need to do something was real.

Robert Moses was a city planner (an unelected job) and was charge of public housing. Through this position he wielded a great deal of power. He and his team would designate an area of a few blocks to be blighted. The crews would tear everything down and build high-rise apartments in a park-like setting. Beautiful, yes?

No. They were a disaster, becoming profoundly unsafe and eyesores within a decade. The poor people who lived in them were ripped out of their community and isolated from other classes of people.

The buildings were inexpensive to build. And a lot of them were built, making a lot of money for the building companies, and they were good at making sure Moses stayed in his job.

Jane Jacobs, a writer and journalist, was a keen observer of life in a city. She began to take on Moses and hone her activist skills. In 1961 she published the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, calling into question every premise that Moses espoused. I’ve seen a copy of this book at my friend and debate partner’s home. I didn’t borrow it to read it.

Moses had said the streets are unsafe, let’s replace them with a park. Jacobs responded the streets, though they are chaotic, are where life happens. And the more people on the street the safer they are.

Moses essentially said I know what is best for people. If they don’t use the buildings and parks the way I intended it’s because they are stupid. Jacobs responded, no, the people know what’s best for the people, they know what makes up their community, their interconnectedness, their values, the things that are important to them.

Moses said we must embrace the car and provide ways for it to get around quickly. He built the Cross Bronx Expressway, which ripped up neighborhoods and separated northern Bronx from southern Bronx. The Bronx still hasn’t recovered.

Jacobs responded there are things of higher priority than the car.

Tying this to my recent theme, Moses was very much into ranking. Though the reason for his efforts is sound – the plight of the poor really was wretched – it was his solution, not theirs. He had no regard for their community. His solution made their plight worse.

Jacobs was very much into resisting ranking. She recognized bad solutions but insisted the community, not herself, held the good solutions.

Moses and Jacobs tangled on three projects. Jacobs won all three.

The first was Washington Square Park. Moses pushed to have 5th Avenue continue through the park. One reason was so that a street south of the park could be named 5th Avenue, expanding the addresses for pricey homes and businesses.

Jacobs said that Washington Square Park was fully used by the neighborhood. It was an integral part of the community. Running a street through it would destroy its usefulness to the community. The community aspects should be much more important than the traffic up and down 5th Avenue.

A few years later several blocks in the area around Greenwich Village and West Village were designated as blighted and to be torn down and replaced. These few blocks included the building where Jacobs lived. The film did not say or imply that Moses chose those blocks because included her home. He decided they were blighted and he and his pals were ready to make money from them.

This time Jacobs knew what had happened to previous urban renewal projects. She would not let that happen to her own neighborhood. She organized and resisted.

The third project was the Lower Manhattan Expressway, something similar to the Cross Bronx Expressway, though this time it looked like the highway would be somewhat enclosed within buildings for residences and offices.

Jacobs attacked it based on how it would divide neighborhoods and disrupt community. She got citizens before city council and urban planning meetings. She showed how you can fight city hall.

After this battle Jacobs moved to Toronto – where she led a fight to halt a freeway.

Moses was not doing too well politically at this point. He tried a frequent tactic on newly elected Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Moses said if I don’t get what I want I’ll quit. Rockefeller called his bluff and said, go ahead and quit.

Many other cities in America and around the world tried the highrise in the park model for housing. There were the Brewster-Douglas projects in Detroit and Cabrini-Green in Chicago, among others in many cities. The idea didn’t fare any better across the country and world than it did in New York. The Brewster-Douglas complex was demolished between 2003 and 2014. The land remains vacant.

Cabrini-Green was demolished between 1995 and 2011. Wikipedia has a bit more about what happened to this one. A big reason for its decline was the city trying to save maintenance costs on cheaply made buildings. Instead of renovating an apartment after a fire it was boarded up. Lawns were paved over. Trash chutes became clogged and not cleared. Balconies were covered in mesh to keep residents from throwing trash from them. The residents felt like they were in prison.

So the Moses model of government housing lost out to the Jacobs vision of the city. Urban planners study her book, which has been translated into several languages. Except the battle still rages.

The film expanded its view to international concerns. It said about a million people a week move to cities around the world. That’s like a new Los Angeles metropolitan area every three months. If we’re going to get cities right, we have to do it now.

But… Beijing, with its authoritarian government, is following the Moses model of large highrise apartment buildings. India is also following that model in its big cities. Will these be the slums of this century?

After the film John Gallagher of the Free Press led a panel discussion of three neighborhood planners of the area. They took many questions from the audience and the whole discussion lasted 45 minutes. In Detroit city hall has incorporated many of the ideas of Jacobs – walkable and busy city streets being one I hear about. These ideas seem to be taking root in Downtown and Midtown.

But in the neighborhoods there is still a battle – do decisions come from city hall or from residents? These community planners are trying to make sure the discussions happen, though they say they’ve had limited and mixed results. Sometimes discussions with residents happen. Sometimes they don’t. Even so, there are hopeful signs: One audience member said she teaches architecture at Lawrence Tech University in the northern suburbs. Her big initiative is trying to teach her students how to meet, talk to, and listen to the people in the community.

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