|Chicago’s Navy Pier, one of many urban entertainment destinations remade in the 1990’s in American cities. Source: aboutparking.com|
There are times when I think most people, from general observers to keen onlookers, don’t realize how far we’ve come as a nation in our regard for cities in just the last 25 years. Sometimes it boggles my mind that issues that were hardly worth focusing on in 1990 are top-drawer topics today. Indeed, when I started my career 25 years ago, I felt like an urban renegade in a suburban/Sun Belt world. Today I find the world moving much closer to my understanding of the urban environment, struggling to find workable solutions to things I thought about two decades ago.
Let me explain.
When I started in my first planning job with the City of Chicago in 1990, one could argue that the perception of urban America was at, or very near, its nadir. Some cities had already hit bottom and had begun their rebound; New York’s brush with insolvency in the late ’70s was followed by its Manhattan turnaround in the ’80s and ’90s; Boston followed up its image-crushing battles with school busing in the ’70s with eds-and-meds focused growth in subsequent decades, supplemented by the high-tech boom. But aside from those and a few other select cities, times were generally not good for cities. Crime was rampant, schools were bad, poverty was concentrated, infrastructure was crumbling. People were leaving.
There was a sense of defeatism among older planners that I started with. Many had come from the War on Poverty/Model Cities era, when federal funds to address urban issues were flush. They endured the Reagan/Bush I eras, when those funds were cut or eliminated and nothing replaced them. Simply maintaining the status quo for planning department budgets and priorities were viewed as victories.
The defeatism extended into the perceived future of cities as well. Suburbs and the Sun Belt were ascendant and had been for 30-40 years; there was no reason to assume anything would change. Older northeastern and Midwestern cities were wasting away, and there was no reason to think that would change, either. Most planners I knew of at the time believed their job was defined by one of two dogmas — managed urban decline or “if you can’t beat them (suburbs/Sun Belt), join them.” so many cities went about their jobs like street sweepers following parade elephants, and attempting to make their old neighborhoods attractive to suburban buyers and renters. There was always a minority group that believed in cities, and I put myself in that group even then. But we were the exception.
But things began to change in the ’90s. Cities like New York and Boston began to show that eds and meds, finance, technology and business services could serve as a leading edge for urban revitalization. Cities began investing in downtown destinations as tourist and recreational draws. Perhaps most importantly, cities began playing up their urbanity as strengths instead of weaknesses.
A perfect example of this is Chicago’s State Street in the Loop. State Street had for generations been the top retail and entertainment destination for Chicagoans. However, as suburbanization took off in the ’60s and ’70s, State Street fell into rapid decline. To counter that, city officials elected in 1979 to turn State Street into a pedestrian mall, with the thinking that eliminating street traffic would allow it to compete with suburban shopping malls. It didn’t take long for State Street’s decline to accelerate; by the mid-’80s retailers were quickly withdrawing. In the early ’90s planners began studying the idea of re-introducing street traffic to revitalize the corridor, and in 1996 it was opened up to street traffic once again — but with new streetscape features that also emphasized a stronger pedestrian character. State Street has rebounded strongly ever since.
Cities also began to find a new type of resident interested in cities in the ’90s. Perhaps attracted to city neighborhoods by low rents and short commutes, or by edgy entertainment and recreation, young people began settling in select urban neighborhoods. Today we know the rest. Cities around the country benefited from the influx of young, former suburbanites into cities, and they have been the foundation for American urban revitalization.
That is, until the Great Recession hit, exposed flaws, and set us on the course we’re on now.
To me, the average American’s awareness of what’s happening in our cities seems to have grown exponentially since 2009. It goes something like this:
Expand suburbia > totally ignore urban poverty > insulate from urban poverty > recognize “there’s urban poverty over there!” > recognize value, move in next to urban poverty > transform a neighborhood > feel guilt about neighborhood transformation > wonder why other neighborhoods aren’t transforming > identify income and wealth inequality as the problem > identify concentrated poverty as the problem.
My point is, the conditions that people recognize today as the ones that imperil our cities are the same ones we were dealing with 25 years ago, 50 years ago. They are the issues I wanted to deal with as I started in this career, and only now have the attention of a critical mass of the American public.
I welcome the pivot that the nation has made to look critically at our cities. But I hope people recognize that the problems aren’t new, nor are the people most interested in solving them.
And if we want to solve the problems, we can start by looking at the proposed solutions from earlier times.