I haven’t lived in Montreal for twenty years, but it’s the city where I passed my twenties, thirties, and forties, so it is a place full of memories. But like all North American cities, it is in constant flux; the city of today is not the one I left in 1993. The view of Mount Royal outside my hotel window is comfortingly familiar, but the downtown is undeniably different. It appears oddly both more prosperous and more provincial than I remember. The Ritz Carleton, the first Ritz hotel in North America and the grande dame of Sherbrooke Street, is now two-thirds condominiums, and Daniel Bouloud has opened his thirteenth–or is it his fourteenth?–restaurant on the ground floor. In fact condominiums are springing up everywhere in the city. Are there so many Quebecers that suddenly want to live downtown? Unlikely. Montreal is succumbing to the phenomenon of the globe-trotting homeowner, who owns pieds-à-terre in London, New York, and Paris. If terrorism, or global warming, or civil unrest threatens where you live, what better place to park some of your wealth than placid Canada. Toronto and Vancouver are still the first choices based on urban amenities in Toronto and climate and natural setting in Vancouver, but Montreal is a cheaper, though colder, alternative. Of course, there is simmering Quebecois separatism whose latest manifestation has been dubbed “pastagate”–an Italian restaurant received a government warning for using “pasta” and “calamari” on its menu, instead of their French equivalents. And students occasionally demonstrate in the streets in proper Gallic fashion. But if you are a Russian oligarch these are small irritations. That, at least, was my impression as we walked down Sherbrooke last evening, glancing up at all those darkened apartment windows.
An editor with a national monthly magazine contacted me recently. He had read my Bloomberg View op-ed on shrinking Detroit, and had a proposal for an article. “Let’s say it is stipulated that Detroit has downsized, the economy is booming, and the tech world has moved in with a vengeance,” he wrote. “How should the city reimagine itself and how would it look and feel in 25 years. Who would live and work there? Are postwar Dresden, Warsaw, Pittsburgh, Montreal, or London valid precedents? Anything to be learned from the way the modern Rome is layered over the ancient Rome? Is post-Katrina New Orleans a model?”
It can be stipulated that Detroit will become a high-tech hotbed, but I can’t believe it. The work force just isn’t there. Henry Ford’s great invention was the assembly line, which allowed him to produce inexpensive automobiles. Unfortunately, simple, repetitive tasks also had the effect of reducing work skills. Very different from what was required to build a Boeing airplane for example, which is why Seattle attracted such industries as Cray and Microsoft, which did fuel a tech boom. But why would tech companies relocate to Detroit? It’s not very attractive, it’s cold, and it’s bankrupt.
Bombed cities like London, Berlin, even Warsaw, don’t offer useful lessons since their physical damage was sudden and had nothing to do with their urban viability. So they bounced back. As did Chicago after its Great Fire. You can’t keep a good city down. In any case, many of the European cities damaged in the war were national capitals–they were going to be rebuilt no matter what. The Montreal economy took a hit in the 1980s thanks to the excesses of Quebecois separatism, and if it has partially recovered (it has been far outstripped by Toronto as the prime Canadian city), that is because it is the metropole of a French-speaking province, and like Paris it is buoyed by its cultural hegemony. Pittsburgh has succeeded in remaking itself because of strong civic leadership. I don’t see that in Detroit. Also, Pittsburgh is a much smaller city, whose problems are more manageable. A large city like Detroit is another matter altogether. Scale counts.
As for post-Katrina New Orleans, the struggle that the Crescent City has had to recover after the hurricane has most to do with the poor situation before the hurricane. New Orleans has been declining for years; during the economic boom of the 1990s, metropolitan New Orleans was the only metro area in the US to actually lose population.
Much of the damage to Detroit is the result of how the city was unable to react to the changing economy after 1950. Some of this had to do with its deplorable administrations, especially that of Coleman Young, which lasted two decades. As James Q. Wilson wrote, “Mayor Coleman Young rejected the integrationist goal in favor of a flamboyant, black-power style that won him loyal followers, but he left the city a fiscal and social wreck.” Much of Detroit’s problems rests on its troubled racially-charged history.
I am convinced that downsizing is a prerequisite for a city like Detroit, but it will not solve the problem of economic stagnation, the lack of a skilled work-force, and decaying urban infrastructure. “Blow it up and start over” as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recently suggested? Much too drastic. Tottering on is the most likely scenario. (PS I didn’t write the article.)
Andrés Duany takes issue in Architectural Record with Michael Sorkin’s review of Landscape Urbanism and Its Discontents. But the problem with a compilation of 20 essays by many different authors is that it rarely presents a coherent argument, so almost anything you say about such a book is (sort of) true. Although this is a sanctioned new urbanist collection, the contributors present a variety of–sometimes contradictory–views. Some admire the High Line, some don’t; some are still fighting a rear-guard action against the modern movement, some aren’t; some see landscape urbanism as the enemy, some don’t. Doug Kelbaugh and Dan Solomon take the sensible position that there is room enough for everyone; Jim Kunstler, spirited as usual, calls landscape urbanism a “lame defense of the bankrupt old mandarin ideology,” which is almost as good as Leon Krier’s blurb: “old modernist wine presented in new greenwashed bottles.” Michael Dennis makes a more telling criticism. “I have not seen, or heard of, any urbanism from so-called Landscape Urbanists . . . I have seen some (occasionally) good urban landscape designs, but mostly they are on the edge of urban contexts–waterfronts, etc.” Duany, who is co-editor of this collection, also makes a valid point that Sorkin does not address. All those swales, water gardens, and native plantings, that are a staple of landscape urbanism–and “green” landscapes in general–are invariably off limits to the public, which is forbidden to walk on them. This is in sharp contrast to the Olmstedian tradition, where absolutely no part of a park is inaccessible. That is the great weakness of landscape urbanism; so much of it seems designed to be photographed rather than used.
An interesting recent article in Slate asked the question, “Which U.S. City has the Worst Drivers?” The authors studied the 200 largest cities in the country, and using a complicated matrix of measures (which is explained in a useful spreadsheet) they compiled the list of shame. Miami was the worst by a wide margin, followed by Philadelphia, Hialeah, Tampa, and Baltimore. I see two possible patterns here. Obviously, three of the five cities are in Florida so either: a) the heat makes people drive badly (unlikely); the larger number of elderly drivers makes for a dangerous environment (possible); or Latinos are reckless drivers (Hialeah and Miami are overwhelmingly Latino, but then so are many cities in Texas and California, which were generally rated as much safer). As for Baltimore and Philadelphia, both have high poverty rates (Philadelphia has the highest percentage living in poverty of any major U.S. city). Are poorer people less law-abiding drivers, or is it simply that a poorer city has less ability to enforce traffic laws? My guess is the latter. For example, Philadelphia is a city where cars regularly park on downtown sidewalks. Speed limits are rarely enforced. Laws are flouted as a matter of course, and nobody, but nobody, actually stops at STOP signs. I remember that one year in my district, the police started ticketing cars that were parked “on the wrong side of the street,” i.e. facing traffic. There was an immediate outcry–it was unfair, we’ve always done it this way, it’s our neighborhood we can do what we want, etc. The police stopped issuing tickets.
Beachtown is a New Urbanism second-home village in Galveston. Construction began in 2005, after a protracted planning and permitting period. The projected size is about 2,000 houses. Progress has been slow, but then Galveston is hardly a hot development area. Although only fifty miles from Houston, the city never really recovered from a devastating 1900 hurricane. The hurricane, and the Houston Ship Canal, ensured that Houston prospered while Galveston languished. So building a Texas version of Seaside, even when it is planned by Duany & Plater-Zyberk, is a real estate challenge (I saw only a single house under construction). Equally challenging is the requirement that since Beachtown is immediately adjacent to the beach, all habitable space must be raised above the base flood elevation (BFE). Since Hurricane Ike (2008) had a 15-20 foot storm surge, the BFE is high, and the houses are raised about twelve feet above grade on closely spaced timber piles. The effect is unusual. While the project has all the features one would expect in a DPZ design—interesting plan, sidewalks, thoughtful planting, pathways—the scale is distinctly different. Instead of cottages, the houses resemble Victorian mansions, in part because this is Texas after all and they are very large, and in part because they are in some cases four-stories tall, thanks to the BFE. As you walk down the street you don’t see friendly porches, only driveways and parking bays. Next to Beachtown is a rather incongruous 14-story condominium tower. Or perhaps it’s not so incongruous. If one insists on living next to the water in such a dangerous location—a dubious proposition—one would want to be in a concrete structure high, high above the flood surge.