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Politicsby Doug Birch11:34 amOct 5, 20120

The City Beautiful

Above: So, what does a better city look like? And why haven’t we gotten there yet? Some books to fuel the discussion.

Some American cities have never had it so good.

New York, written off in the late 1960s as a basket case, is thriving as an urban paradise for hedge fund managers and real estate moguls. Some of the city’s grittiest neighborhoods have been claimed by the artsy, the hip and the chic. Likewise, for various reasons, Boston, Washington and San Francisco have become the preferred addresses of the winners in America’s winner-take-all economy.

“The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited,” by Richard Florida, Basic Books, 2012, $28.99.
“The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1961, $16.00.
“Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” by Antero Pietila, Ivan R. Dee, 2010, $28.95.

All of these books are available at THE IVY BOOKSHOP, 6080 Falls Road, Baltimore.

While much of America has struggled with downsizing and outsourcing and offshoring, these lucky zip codes zoomed ahead.

So what separates the haves from the have-nots among America’s great cities? And of urgent interest to Brew readers, what’s the best way for a metropolis like Baltimore to reclaim some its lost greatness?

Richard Florida, best-selling author and columnist for The Atlantic, has become famous as the man with the plan for urban development in second tier cities, a way to compete with the big boys for the fastest-growing new industries and the young, hip and affluent professionals they employ.

In “The Rise of the Creative Class,” published in 2002, as well as this year’s “The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited,” Florida argues that the most vibrant cities are those that attract bohemians, gays and ethnic minorities.

Developer Bryan Liles at Civic Hack Day in Baltimore.

Web developer Bryan Liles at Civic Hack Day in Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

That’s because the best educated, most creative members of the workforce are thought to want to live in diverse, culturally rich places that provide them the freedom to be quirky. This “Creative Class,” includes IT professionals, college professors, engineers, artists, writers and actors, so-called “knowledge workers” of every stripe.

The idea has become enshrined in popular culture and Florida’s books are best sellers, inspiring cities to build bike paths, skateboarding parks and hiking trails. (Including Baltimore: in 2003, then-mayor Martin O’Malley brought Florida to town to talk about his ideas.) Cities are trying to figure out how to edgify their nightlife and cultural attractions, lure artists and their fellow travelers, encourage ethnic and cultural diversity and embrace “authenticity” – like boutique shops, farmers’ markets and locally-brewed beers.

So far, so feel-good. But Florida ventures a little further, challenging some of the canonical doctrines of redevelopment, including efforts to lure outside businesses using tax breaks and zoning concessions.

“It makes no sense to use precious public funds to lure companies from state to state or even across national borders: research shows those efforts typically cost more than they are worth,” Florida writes in “Rise…Revisited.”

Cities should find something that they do better than anyone else, not waste time and money striving to become the next Silicon Valley, Route 128, Research Triangle Park or Las Vegas. Cities, he argues, need to find a unique economic niche that they can export. And to do that, they need people with brains, energy and vision. Hence, the creative class.

The Baltimore Rock Opera Society describes its nordic-themed, metal-infused performances as

The Baltimore Rock Opera Society says its Nordic-themed, metal-infused performances are “face-meltingly-fun.”

The soft spots in the argument are easy to find. Conservatives complain that Florida encouraged cities to squander money on amenities when they could be cutting taxes. Critics on the left point  out that the creative class is just another name for white yuppie gentrifiers. But the biggest challenge to Florida’s ideas may be the Great Recession, which reversed the dynamic at the heart of his theory. Instead of jobs chasing young talent, even hipsters are chasing jobs.

Ten years ago, Florida predicted that the workplace would become less rigid, hierarchical and intolerant. But for many wage earners, the opposite is happening. People are working harder under more inflexible conditions, as their employers strive to maintain profit margins in the face of globalization and the IT revolution.

While some of Florida’s ideas are intriguing, they too often come padded with platitudes and buzzwords, so many that reading one of his books can feel like sitting through a six-hour infomercial.

The Pope of Trash and the Governor of Maryland (aka director John Waters and Martin O'Malley) at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Station North Arts District. (Photo by Jay Baker for MDGovpics, Flickr)

The Pope of Trash and the Governor of Maryland (aka director John Waters and Martin O’Malley) at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Station North Arts District. (Photo credit MDGovpics)

Cut to the chase and look at the last chapter of “Creative Class…Revisited.” Everyone, we learn, is a member of the creative class – the way that all children are above average. He challenges readers to recognize they are “the leaders of twenty-first century society” – apparently there are no followers — and proposes a “Creative Compact” committing society to “invest in developing the full human potential and creative capabilities of every single human being.”

This isn’t thinking, its sloganeering.

Still, there is a lesson here somewhere for Baltimore. And maybe it’s this. When it comes to the eccentric and the outrageous, the city has been a market leader for at least two centuries. From Edgar Allan Poe to Henry Louis Mencken to John Waters, Baltimore has produced some of America’s most original artists and thinkers. Now all we need to do is figure out how to turn the city’s bohemian street cred and eccentricity into a post-industrial economy. And there’s no doubt that will take a lot of creative thinking.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs

Reading Jane Jacobs’ classic 1961 critique of 20th century American urban planning is bracing, intoxicating even, 51 years after it was first published. After her death in 2006, her New York Times obituary says she “changed the way people view cities,” and that is certainly so. For Jacobs saw that the successful city, like a coral reef, provides the habitat for life in all its bewildering diversity, complexity and energy. It requires neighborhoods filled with a mix of homes, shops and offices, of interests and incomes, religions and backgrounds, of old buildings and new.

Many mid-century American planners and architects, who were busy building steel and glass towers surrounded by lawns, despised the city’s jumble, juxtapositions and diversity. Jacobs argued that this was what distinguished the exciting big city from the boring suburbs, where most of the country’s growth was concentrated.

Howard Street shoppers, 1966. (Maryland State Archives)

Shoppers at Howard and Lexington streets, 1966. (Maryland State Archives)

Her views may seem like common sense today, because they have become the conventional wisdom. But at the time, when cities were busy building high-rise low-income housing projects and bulldozing downtowns to accommodate heroic-scale projects like Baltimore’s Charles Center, it was revolutionary stuff and helped inspire the revolt that canceled plans for a freeway through Fells Point.

In a way, it remains revolutionary. Cities, like other governments, are run by politicians who are too often beholden to big money. And big money likes big projects.

A scene from this year's Baltimore Book Festival. (Photo by Fern Shen)

A scene from this year’s Baltimore Book Festival. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Charles Center, approved in 1958, before Jacob’s book appeared, was a classic urban renewal disappointment. It razed a huge swath of downtown and replaced it with sterile towers facing sterile plazas. Not only did it not become a magnet for growth, the areas around it promptly declined.

The solution? City fathers – and most were men – decided to raze the old waterfront and build Harbor Place as a tourist destination. Harbor Place was successful, for a while. But Jacobs warns that places built mainly for tourists eventually lose their appeal. Harbor East, another large-scale property redevelopment scheme with a more sophisticated mix of retail and residential, has also been weakening the Inner Harbor.

The latest attraction meant to create excitement at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a Ripley's Believe it or Not. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The latest attraction meant to create excitement at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“The economic rationale of current city rebuilding is a hoax,” Jacobs wrote. “…And the increased tax returns from such sites, accruing to the cities as a result of this ‘investment,’ are a mirage, a pitiful gesture against the ever increasing sums of public money needed to combat disintegration and instability that flow from a cruelly shaken-up city.”

Most of the lasting growth in the city has come in the micro-scale rebuilding of older areas spared wholesale demolition and redevelopment. Yesterday’s slums, in some cases, at least, have become today’s historic districts.
While she was writing the book, Jacobs and her family lived in a three-story row home at 555 Hudson Street in New York’s West Village, then on the fringe of a declining area. Click on Google maps and take a look at one of the most famous streets in American architecture – the 500-block of Hudson Street in Manhattan the.

Memorial left at Jane Jacobs' house, 555 Hudson Street, in New York.

Memorial left at Jane Jacobs’ house, 555 Hudson Street, in New York. (Credit: Streetsblog.org)

Stand, virtually, in front of Jacobs’ three-story red brick townhouse at 555 and note the mix of buildings, the street life, and in particular the generous width of the sidewalk – Jacobs recommended building generous, 35-foot-wide ones, the better to accommodate pedestrians, gossiping neighbors and children at play.

This was the stage for Jacob’s famous ballet of school kids, shoppers, merchants, commuters and once, at least, a guy in a kilt with a bagpipe, who played out in front of her home every day. The place should be a national shrine.


“Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” by Antero Pietila,

Antero Pietila, a shrewd and tireless journalist who irritated Baltimore mayors and Soviet leaders during his long career as a reporter for The Sun, reminds us in his carefully-reported 2010 book, “Not in My Neighborhood,” that America’s cities are not just victims of bad design and ill-advised real estate development schemes. They have been warped by America’s largely-ignored history of racial bigotry and anti-semitism.

Greenmount Avenue which, as you go north, becomes York Road, one of Baltimore's starkest racial dividing lines. (Photo by Doug Birch)

Westward view off Greenmount Avenue which, as you go north, becomes York Road, one of Baltimore’s starkest racial dividing lines. (Photo by Doug Birch)

Pietila’s book describes how restrictive covenants, redlining, blockbusting and predatory lending were used between the 1880s and World War II to keep blacks and Jews out of many communities. This crusade was aided and abetted by the city’s most powerful politicians as well as its most important newspaper, The Sun. Before World War I, Pietila describes how The Sun waged a nasty and at times hysterical campaign in favor of segregation, at one point running a headline warning “Negroes Encroaching” in an article about black families moving into the white side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Other cities had segregated neighborhoods, Pietila notes, but in 1910 Baltimore became the first to use government legislation to achieve systematic, citywide racial separation.

After Baltimore’s segregation law was invalidated in 1917, segregation became part of the standard real estate contract. (Maryland ACLU)

After Baltimore’s segregation law was invalidated in 1917, segregation became part of the standard real estate contract.

At the time the New York Times said the Baltimore law “may be said to mark a new era in social legislation.” That turned out to be a gross understatement. Cities across the country followed suit. Baltimore, home to the country’s largest population of free blacks before the Civil War, became a leader in ostracizing and marginalizing its African Americans.

For 34 years, Baltimore’s trend-setting segregation laws held. Then during the Christmas holidays of 1944, Pietila writes, a black resident somehow moved from east of Fulton Avenue to the west side, the racial dividing line for west Baltimore’s black district. This single event –  an American citizen moving from one part of a city to another — marked the beginning of the end of the city’s racist housing practices. But it also led to three decades of social upheaval, block busting and white flight. “Neighborhoods would be devastated and the entire metropolitan area redefined,” Pietila writes.

Jacobs discusses race, briefly, but in parts of “Death and Life” appears to take racially segregated neighborhoods for granted. For the most part, she focuses on improving life for urban middle class whites rather than blacks. Florida sees racial diversity as an important factor in attracting creative young people, and points out that Americans are increasingly of mixed racial background. He sometimes seems to take America’s evolution toward a multi-racial society for granted.

By the 1940s, the rise of Hitler’s Germany had helped make theories of racial superiority repugnant to most Americans. Segregation’s grip in America was weakening. Pietila quotes the Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal who, in 1944, wrote: “Not since Reconstruction has there been more reason to anticipate fundamental changes in American race relations, changes which will involve a development toward the American ideals.”

But it’s probably too early to claim that the U.S. has entered a “post-racial” era in urban geography, even after the election of Barack Obama. No one talks much about segregation anymore, but it has never gone away.

Baltimore Artscape crowd 2011. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Baltimore Artscape crowd 2011. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Pietila points out that in 2008, the year of Obama’s election, more than half of blacks lived in areas that were more than 50 percent African American, while more than two-thirds of whites lived in places where blacks made up less than five percent of the population.

There is no doubt the American city is becoming more diverse, both through immigration and intermarriage. But can we rely on demographics alone to heal the country’s centuries-old racial divisions? In the struggle for equality, there are still battles to be fought even if the old dividing lines have been erased from the maps.

These books, and many more on related topics, are available at
6080 Falls Road
Baltimore, MD.


Meanwhile, here are some of the events The Ivy is hosting in October.

Tuesday, Oct. 9, 6 p.m.: An evening with Dr. Kevin Manning, president of Stevenson University. Manning kicks off the 2012-2013 season of Stevenson’s Baltimore Speaker Series. This year’s speakers will include President Bill Clinton, Jeannette Walls, Erskine Bowles and Vicente Fox.

Tuesday, Oct 16, 6:30 p.m.: Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County will discuss his new book “Curious Behavior,” a guide to the origins to the baffling quirks of Homo sapiens, including hiccups, coughs, yawns, sneezes and other undignified non-verbal outbursts.

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