College football and American regions

I recently published a blog on the way that the lure of BCS dollars has undermined the historic connection between college athletic conferences and traditional American regions.

See it at http://hnn.us/articles/why-penn-state-playing-football-midwest-anyway.

The Best Thing about Portland

The Best Thing about Portland

What’s in common among East Burnside Street, Lombard ,Sandy, Belmont, Hawthorne, NW Twenty-First, SE Milwaukie? The answer: neighborhood movie theaters that have survived suburbanization, television, and Netflix.

When I arrived in 1978, neighborhood theaters were the second distinctive thing I noticed about Portland distinctive (all those bridges were the first, of course). Neighborhood theaters are signs of a vibrant city. They’re the spotted owls of urban life, an indicator species for a rich ecology of neighborhood oriented businesses and services. Local theaters that still showed family films were already extraordinary for most cities by the 1970s, but not in Portland. Many of the theaters are still here, admittedly improved by beer and pizza and augmented by cool conversions by McMenanins.

The neighborhood business districts are still here as well. They’ve changed—no surprise—starting with Southeast Hawthorne. Twenty-five years ago I told students that Portland would be “fixed” when Alberta Street was thriving. North Mississippi as a hip hotspot didn’t occur to me. Neighborhood business strips are such a strong component of the Portland economy that we’re not only recycling the streetcar era districts but creating new ones from whole cloth—North Williams, go figure.

I’ve been able to watch the transformation at NE Fifteenth and Fremont, a five minute walk from my house. This corner was up for grabs a quarter century ago–where the working class Sabin neighborhood bumped up against middle class Irvington, where African American Albina met the white world of Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby.

The corner’s retail history dates to the 1920s, when new drugstores, groceries, and barber shops served the growing streetcar neighborhoods.

Forty years later, as suburbs boomed and city leaders worried, the city helped developers clear two blocks for a suburban style strip mall. This was supposed to be a Good Thing, like a micro version of the half-assed Renaissance Center in Detroit, but the main tenant was a ghetto grocery where lettuce went to die under the watchful eyes of security guards.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the ghetto grocery is now Whole Foods. The Albina Branch Library does a thriving business. The very basic dry cleaner and Laundromat have given way to a bird seed shop, veterinarian, and computer repair. Police officers hang out at Starbucks (so much for doughnut jokes). The storefront church and the African American barber shop have been replaced by restaurants, gift stores, and a holistic counselor.

So what’s happening? Gentrification? For sure. There was a tipping point about a dozen years ago when we began to see more white people than black people along Fremont east from Fifteenth. Then there were as many white guys as black guys playing basketball at Irving Park. And a resale store aimed at 20ish people trying to furnish their apartments replaced Mrs. C’s Wig Shop at Fremont and Seventh. There’s only one black-oriented business remaining.

But commercial gentrification is also neighborhood recycling. The 1920s storefronts have different businesses, but they have also survived, and the blocks are a walking destination for two neighborhoods—a model of sorts for the post-petroleum city.

Oregon Transportation and Land use Tales

Oregon’s Transportation and Land Use Tales

To look at how buses, light rail, street cars, and bicycling have all become prominent modes in Portland, you need to trace back to important land use decisions made three decades ago. In 1974, Oregon adopted statewide land use planning goals. These goals shifted planning efforts away from freeway-building, toward investment in alternative forms of transportation. Since then, Oregon has been a leader in pushing back against car-centric landscapes and lifestyles. In this OTREC project, Professor Carl Abbott and Sam Lowry of Portland State University traced the history of land use and transportation planning in Oregon from 1890-1974. One of the project’s aims is to make transportation planning relevant and compelling to a broad audience. To do so, Abbott and Lowry gathered stories and information from a wide range of sources who enthusiastically shared their knowledge of transportation history. You can download the report to read more: Final Report: http://otrec.us/project/138.

Local comment on a controversial highway project

The Oregonian, September 27, 2011

One More Columbia River Crossing Idiocy

Portland’s leaders have rejected an opportunity to save hundreds of millions of public dollars to protect a speculative private investment of $30 million.

That’s what The Oregonian reported in its front-page story on Sept. 25. A massive new Hayden Island interchange will wipe out dozens of existing businesses for the potential benefit of a long-marginal Jantzen Beach shopping district. Meanwhile, the far more economical option of zapping the new interchange and building a separate, smaller bridge for Hayden Island access is off the table because of pressure from the Jantzen Beach investor.

There are many, many things wrong with the Columbia River Crossing project (it doesn’t exactly fix Marquam Bridge congestion or Rose Quarter congestion, for example), but this latest report is one of the stupidest decisions in a long time. The region does not need Jantzen Beach shopping, as evidenced by the struggles of its stores. Washingtonians who want to duck sales taxes can easily drive to the Delta Park big-box center, where Walmart may soon appear, and to what I call the Ikea Corridor, where big-box stores have been sprouting like mushrooms (check it out if you haven’t been there in a couple of years).

I fear that City Council may not get a basic fact about retailing that even Henry Ford understood: Retail space does not create retail jobs; customer demand creates retail jobs.

When Walmart opens in a small town, it does not create new jobs — it relocates them by forcing the downsizing or closure of smaller existing stores. Business consultants have simple formulas that translate disposable income into support for retail floor space category by category (100 families can support more grocery store space than bagel shop space). I’ve been teaching about this at Portland State University for three decades in a class on “Downtown Revitalization.”

The way to get more retail jobs is to get more basic jobs. Increase employment in basic industries like manufacturing or even university graduate programs that attract students from out of the region (just to put in a plug) and there will be more consumer dollars to spend on microbrews, bicycles, food carts … and Walmart and Target and Ikea and on and on.

The Greatest Hits in Urban Theory

A couple years back, the somewhat opinionated website Planetizen asked its readers to nominate “top urban thinkers” and compiled the resulting list of votes from Jane Jacobs at Number 1 (no surprise here) to Henry Ford at Number 100 (his “thought,” presumably, being to sell Model-T’s cheaply).

There’s nothing scientific about the poll. It was subject to the peculiar tastes of the respondents and, possibly, to vote packing like the old system for choosing the baseball All-Star team. In retrospect, were fans paying attention in 1955 when they picked Don Mueller and Del Ennis to start in the outfield ahead of Willie Mays and Henry Aaron (I’m fine with Duke Snider in center)?

There are plenty of curious omissions to complain about—Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Christopher Wren, Jean Gottmann, Catherine Bauer, Jane Addams, and Saul Alinsky to name a few. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. got votes but not his brother John Charles Olmsted. For my own taste as a historian, the list is excessively present-minded. There are too many transportation planners and urban morphologists and not enough activists of the Addams or Alinsky sort, almost no historians of cities, and curious omissions from the social sciences such as Louis Wirth.

It is also tempting to rant about the rankings. Should Clifford Alexander’s neo-Platonic ideas about idealized and abstracted design principles really outpoint the practical wisdom of Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, with their rich experience of actually making urban spaces? Should polemicist James Howard Kunstler, who is stronger on sound bites than analysis, or parking specialist Donald Shoup, whose excellent ideas have yet to be implemented, come in above the hugely influential Ebenezer Howard?

It’s more instructive, however, and much more fun, to use the juxtapositions in the list as thought experiments.

My own Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an effective advocate for rail transit and compact cities, comes in one notch above Thomas Jefferson. I personally prefer Earl’s pro-urban ideas to Tom’s anti-urban bias, but the ex-president has surely been the more influential over the centuries—there is not yet a Mount Blumenauer or Blumenauer County in Oregon or a Blumenauer High School in Portland. Maybe we need to run Earl for President so he can catch up.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant comes in just above George-Eugene Haussmann. Well, they were both French, and both helped to shape national capitals, but we have to admit that Haussmann got more done and almost certainly influenced more city planning and reconstruction than L’Enfant. If Haussmann, moreover, perhaps the list also needs Albert Speer.

I see some battles shaping up if we were to think of the list as a queue of experts waiting to get into an urbanology convention. The patrician top-down designer Edmund Bacon would find himself standing next to radical rabble-rouser and critic Mike Davis. It would be fun to listen in on their argument. Equity planner Norman Krumholz would be sandwiched between global theoretician Saskia Sassen and Frank Lloyd Wright. Could Norm’s arguments for equity penetrate Wright’s enormous armor of ego?

And what about numbers 58 through 63. Think about gathering Walter Benjamin, Walt Disney, Buckminster Fuller, James Rouse, Henry George, and Wendell Berry (how is he an urban thinker???) around the same table. Would Disney and Fuller strike up an alliance of the technocratic utopians? Jim Rouse and Henry George both shared the goal of social justice, but what would the real estate developer have to say about a single tax on land? And wouldn’t it be fun to hear what Benjamin might have to say about Euro Disney. S.C.A. and the possibilities for the flaneur at Disneyland Paris?

We haven’t exhausted the possibilities. In fact, I’m thinking about a new way to organize my class on the “History and Theory of Urban Studies” around the debates implicit in the next-door neighbors on the list: Jacob Riis versus Prince Charles, Henri Lefebvre versus Richard Florida, Paolo Soleri versus Anthony Downs, Robert Moses versus Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio versus Ernest Burgess. Let them have at it, in English or in Latin.

Edward Glaeser channels George Tucker

In his new book The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, the crackerjack economist Edward Glaeser makes an eloquent case for cities as the keys to creativity. They are the intersection points where the intensity of communication unlocks innovation. “Cities enable the collaboration that makes humanity shine most brightly,” he writes. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. . . . Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

Glaeser is an extremely successful academic, who’s University of Chicago Ph.D. has led him to a job at Harvard and plenty of side projects. The Triumph of the City draws on hundreds of recent of scholarly books and articles that have probed cities as economic and social systems. It is a new synthesis, but it also channels the work of another academic superstar who wrote nearly seventeen decades earlier.

That scholar was George Tucker, who penned a very Glaeseresque phrase in 1843, writing that “The growth of cities commonly marks the progress of intelligence and the arts.”

A Virginia politician and intellectual who appreciated cities as engines of progress, Tucker was one of those public intellectuals who act as a commentator and synthesizer for a generation, well known in their lifetimes but rapidly fading from memory as issues change and their contributions look broad rather than deep. If he were working in the twenty-first century, he’d be an op-ed columnist and blogger. In his own time, he was an essayist and pamphleteer.

He spent his career in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the two states that were the center of gravity of the early republic. Born in Bermuda, educated at William and Mary, and resident of Richmond and Lynchburg, Tucker served three undistinguished terms in Congress and then had a stroke of fortune when Thomas Jefferson asked him to be professor of moral philosophy at the brand new University of Virginia. He lectured there from 1825 to 1845 and ended his career in Philadelphia, writing and publishing a four volume history of the United States.

Before and after Charlottesville, Tucker kept his pen busy with ten books plus scads of articles and pamphlets. The Valley of Shenandoah (1824) unsuccessfully imitated the novels of Walter Scott. A Voyage to the Moon (1827) used the premise of a fantastic voyage to satirize contemporary society (calling it science fiction is too big a stretch). The rest of his output was nonfiction—philosophical essays, political and economic commentary, history, a laudatory biography of Jefferson, and, relevant for this book, Progress of the United States in Population and Wealth for Fifty Years, as Exhibited by the Decennial Census (1843).

As his title indicated, Tucker believed in progress, as scientific discovery fueled economic development and allowed the fuller development of human capacities. The United States, with its natural resources and open politics, was more progressive than Europe, as shown by its extraordinary growth since the adoption of federal government. His 1822 essay “On Density of Population” argues that people in concentrated numbers, not isolated Jeffersonian farmers, are necessary to generate progress in science, literature, and the arts and stimulate the economy through competition. Two decades later he expanded his analysis, acknowledging urban problems but celebrating urban potential.

If these congregations of men diminish some of the comforts of life, they augment others; if they are less favourable to health than the country, they also provide better defenses against disease, and better means of cure. . . . . [t]hey are more prone to innovation, whether for good or evil. . . ..Whatever may be the good or evil tendencies of populous cities, they are the result to which all countries, that are at once fertile, free and intelligent tend.

Ed Glaeser, as far as I know, has yet to try his hand at science fiction or to author another Ivanhoe, but his agreement with George Tucker in the realm of moral philosophy is deep and lasting. Cities, they both understand, are where ideas happen.

Oregon’s Transportation and land use Takes

Oregon’s Transportation and Land Use Tales

To look at how buses, light rail, street cars, and bicycling have all become prominent modes in Portland, you need to trace back to important land use decisions made three decades ago. In 1974, Oregon adopted statewide land use planning goals. These goals shifted planning efforts away from freeway-building, toward investment in alternative forms of transportation. Since then, Oregon has been a leader in pushing back against car-centric landscapes and lifestyles. In this OTREC project, Professor Carl Abbott and Sam Lowry of Portland State University traced the history of land use and transportation planning in Oregon from 1890-1974. One of the project’s aims is to make transportation planning relevant and compelling to a broad audience. To do so, Abbott and Lowry gathered stories and information from a wide range of sources who enthusiastically shared their knowledge of transportation history. You can download the report to read more: Final Report: http://otrec.us/project/138.

Talking about Portland

Here is a link to a video interview in which I talk about Portland planning. it was made by a delegation of Australian planning academics. The link is http://liveplanning.net/?s=portland.

Oregon Encyclopedia

The Oregon Encyclopedia

I am an advisory board member for the Oregon Encyclopedia of History and Culture, a project that aims to place several thousand peer-reviewed entries in a searchable on-line website hosted by Portland State University. We have 700 entries up so far, with another 500 or so in the pipeline. Access the project at www.oregonencyclopedia.org to check out the range of topics. Authors include both academics and community members, and one of the project’s innovative efforts has been to hold dozens of community meetings in every corner of the around the state to solicit ideas for entries and authors. Each entry is read by four or five members of the editorial board, by the editors in chief, and by an experienced copy editor before it is posted.

As an introduction, I list here a selection from the entries I’ve prepared.

One is a quick introduction to the first comprehensive world’s fair on the West Coast.

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/lewis_clark_exposition/

There are several entries dealing with aspects of regional planning and land use planning in Oregon.

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/senate_bill_100/

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/land_use_planning/

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/metro/

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/port_of_portland/

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/columbia_gorge_national_scenic_act/

Two entries deal with the very distinct and possibly “utopian” communities of Vanport, a World War II housing project, and Rajneeshpuram, a 1980s religious and lifestyle commune.

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/rajneeshees/

http://oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/vanport/

Seattle Public Library

The Koolhaas Kage

I recently characterized the new Seattle public library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, as a “disasterous” structure. Is the adjective over the top? Perhaps, but I want to counter what was the initial response among architectural critics, from the New York Times to my home paper the Oregonian, which I would describe as over the top adulation.

I think it is great that Seattle invested in a new downtown library that is more striking than the uninspiring box it replaced, and also great that the library is well used. I’ve observed people lining up by the dozens waiting for it to open, as well as packing its banks of computer terminals. I suggest as a thought experiment, however, that any well equipped central library would get the same use in our current economy and information ecology. Certainly Portland’s central library does, in a renovated building from the 1910s.

The Koolhaas exterior is a matter of taste. It doesn’t excite me, but it is interesting in a relatively bland downtown, and it does have to cope with one of Seattle’s steeply sloping blocks.

It is interior arrangements that I fault. The lower level entrance spaces and reading room spaces are strike me as poorly arranged for efficient circulation and ease of finding the standard library components (checkout, reference services, and the like). From the entrance spaces to the stacks you ride an escalator up past an isolated, mysteriously color-coded middle floor whose access and purpose are hard to read. Get to the top of the building (nice views, of course) and it is difficult to get from one level of the stacks to another without convoluted maneuvers. The stacks themselves were built to show off an architectural conceit rather than designed to be easy to understand. Elevators and stairs are hard to find. I’m sure that regular users figure out the tricks, but a building of this sort should be easy to use, not a puzzle box.

I’m told that the librarians who work there are some of the most critical of the building’s users.