In the big-city hubs of innovation, the streets got cleaner and safer, and decent supermarkets opened in 2013. In New York City the gentrifiers cleared tenants (many low and middle-income) from blocks of brownstones in order to create multi-million dollar, 10,000-square-foot single-family homes.
Though Occupy Wall Street has faded from memory, the income inequality it highlighted became a club wielded by Bill de Blasio in his successful bid to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor. Inequality is a term that unfortunately obscures as much as it reveals. The inrush of wealth to New York City is due to many factors, some of which may prove temporary, (like the need to park wealth from unstable parts of the world). Other issues that affect affordability include heavily lawyered hyperNIMBYism (certainly linked to growing wealth) and lack of expansion in the city’s mobility infrastructure, which makes accessible locations much more expensive.
2014 may well be the year when housing affordability receives major attention. The first “micro” apartments may hit the market.
Don’t expect miracles. There’s no solution on the horizon nationally to deal with the nation’s horrifying lack of commitment to below-market housing — and that substantially ties the city’s hands. Nationally, Congress gives massive handouts to affluent buyers through the tax code, which provides a substantial windfall to wealthy metropolitan regions like New York. But older cities also become victims, because they have traditionally had large populations that struggle. Officials have the unappetizing choice of trying to provide housing for all of those who need it (which would require heavy taxes, which will make the city less competitive and may do too little to increase supply) or kicking out the non-affluent through high housing costs (which is pretty much what’s going on now, if never admitted to).
Detroit’s tragic struggle put long-term poverty and urban decline in the headlines after a long absence. Ironically, it is at the same time that urban aficionados are positively giddy over the bikeways, parks, plazas, and artisanal economies that have sprung up as many cities have become innovation magnets and prospered.
For the professional class, the chief Detroit horror was the possible sale of the Detroit Institute of the Art’s extraordinary collection. For Detroit pensioners it was the potentially catastrophic loss of their retirement. For the rest of the people of Detroit (and of the many other cities and suburbs where poverty festers) it was the lack of interest in turning the city around. It’s easy to say Detroit is beyond hope, but that’s a lazy explanation. America has made no substantial anti-poverty effort since the 1970s.
From the triumph of pedestrians over cars in New York’s Times Square (below) to transformative parks like Atlanta’s Beltline, public space seems to be enjoying a renaissance.
But the trend, like so many involving architecture these days, is thin. The pop-up “parklets” in San Francisco and elsewhere, and bike lanes created only with paint just remind us that the DIY infrastructure ethos has tried to do something — anything — against a backdrop of national disinvestment in the infrastructure we actually need. Downtowns without transit don’t work, and high-cost cities drive people who most rely on transit to locations where it is least provided.
This is a lose-lose created by government obtuseness.
For several decades, as almost every forum for architecture as a public art has withered (public buildings, schools, infrastructure, commercial structures with civic intent . . . ), museum buildings became the venue for esthetic experimentation, for ideas of civic engagement, and as icons of urban status.
But for several years self-consciously spectacular architecture has been attacked as a vulgar indulgence and the celebrity architects that create it are deemed to coerce gullible clients to underwrite overwrought fantasies. While a few projects must stand guilty as charged, the refusal of such critics to paint in any but the broadest brush means we’ve trashed theatricality for a moralistic austerity that too often begets mediocrity or worse. Spectacle is as much a component of human urban life as parks and monuments devoted to civic uplift. It can create a sense of place where none exists and reveal context in a new way, as Steven Holl’s Campbell Fitness Center for Columbia University does at the northern tip of Manhattan.
Architects can only build what clients are willing to pay for. America has decided that private capital is wiser than government at making investments, whether for social or commercial purposes, and so no one should be surprised that private money is sometimes donated to institutions capable of aggrandizing the donor (as in naming rights on a new museum wing) rather than spread anonymously to do the most good for the least well off.
And America has also decided that it is not a primary government function to pay for culture, and so most such institutions in America thrive only when private donors foot almost all the bill. When it works, the result can be extraordinary, as in the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, by Morphosis (actually completed at the end of 2012).
For the final installment on architecture 2013 -2014
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