Thursday, February 10, 2011

On kitchen renovations, messiness, and economic development

About ten years ago, I received a call from a woman in the midst of a home renovation project. She and her husband were tearing down interior walls in their new house in Boston. "We're not sure how to lay things out or which walls are structural. Can you take a look?"

I knew it would be a mistake to get involved in designing a project already under construction. A successful home renovation typically requires a year of design effort before it is safe for anyone to go near a hammer. A lot of aimless "what if?" explorations have to be engaged without the pressure of making final decisions. There's a lot of practical stuff to figure out, too: budgets and building codes and building permits and which walls are holding up the roof. Homeowners who begin construction without first doing these things are digging a bigger hole than any expert will be able to dig them out of once construction has started. An architect foolish enough to step into this breach is likely making a grave professional error.
The late, great Jane Jacobs, who
understood the good kind of messiness
Naturally, I agreed to take a look. Perhaps I found it hard to decline because I knew the voice on the other end of the line. Elaine cut my hair every month, and I probably didn't know how to say no to someone who regularly stood over me with a sharp pair of scissors. 

I arrived at the house to meet Elaine's dust-covered husband. Except for being a little less rectangular, Tim was indistinguishable from the rest of the dust-covered house interior. He had already removed every wall except those he suspected guilty of holding up the house. They needed to go, too, and the sooner the better.

"No walls, anywhere," Tim said. "We hate clutter. We want a big open interior with lots of light and no junk."

"Where are you going to put things?" I asked. "Where will you put the mail and your coat when you come in the door? Where will your closets be?"

"No closets," he insisted. "No storage. No junk. Just open space."

"I hate junk too," I said. "But even the neatest person has some junk. Everyone needs places to put coats and boots and ski poles and the litter box and the dishes that get used twice a year. You need to figure out where those things are going to go so you can have other spaces that aren't messy. Otherwise, every piece of junk you own will be on constant display. Everywhere you look you will see clutter. That pristine dining room table you're envisioning is going to be covered with magazines and mail. You are on a course to realizing the exact opposite of your goal."

If it's difficult to say no to a woman holding a pair of scissors, it's impossible to reason with a man holding a sledgehammer. Tim would hear none of it, and he was looking ever more longingly at the wall dividing the dining room from the kitchen. I realized that the more emphatically I argued, the less likely I was to convince him of his error, and the greater the chance that the second floor would crash down on my head. I wished Tim well and left, and shortly thereafter I began looking for someone else to cut my hair.

I tell this story because of a larger lesson: A viable vision for any physical place, whether a kitchen, home, neighborhood, or city, has to incorporate and even celebrate the reality that life is inherently messy. Not all of life perhaps, but certainly some or even most parts of it. Life is full of change, invention, reinvention, false starts, unrealized what-ifs, dead ends, failures, losses, misunderstandings, and occasional successes, many of which do not last.

Here in Hudson, where so many are engaged in the arts, it is generally understood that creativity requires a willingness to indulge messiness. Even a modest blog post requires a writer to write down, sort through, and rework a lot of random thoughts, go-nowhere sentences, ugly irrelevancies, and rough drafts before there is any chance of a reasonably polished piece emerging. It is a foolish, self-destructive writer or artist who shuns the mess and attempts to deal only with fully formed ideas.

Likewise, the city planning process has to indulge a lot messiness before any clarity starts to emerge. But there is a crucial difference, and this does not seem to be well understood: the process of creating a city, unlike a literary or visual work, is never finished. The messiness of the creative process is always present in the urban realm, because the urban realm is a living artifact of life itself. People grow, change, get married, have kids, invent things, encounter rising and declining fortunes, and die. They move away and others arrive with different ideas. New products and technologies are invented to replace old ones. Government administrators and highway builders and others enact new visions before the old visions can be realized. Meanwhile, weather, fires, accidents, and other forces erode the built environment.

Interesting, truly alive cities and city districts are always messy in at least some regard. Something is always changing. No district is ever physically perfect or wholly restored or orderly twenty-four hours a day. It is a wise urban vision that allows, accommodates, and even celebrates messiness.

This frightens some Hudsonians. Some envision a future Hudson that is very clean and genteel, and they seem unwilling to make room for the messier aspects of a fully alive urban place. I touched on this point in a blog post a month ago, when I addressed what I and some other Hudsonians perceive to be an anti-industry sentiment among some members of our community. One or two commenters said my claim could not possibly be true; certainly all Hudsonians would be pleased to have industrial activity filling our empty industrial buildings. Surely, I was told, the widespread pleasure over the arrival of Etsy to the Cannonball Factory was evidence of this.

This is precisely where the problem lies: in the mistaken notion that a viable economic development model is mess-free, and that an economy can be built upon a clean-hands practice of having businesses that originated elsewhere fill Hudson's empty buildings. According to this model, Hudson does not need to make conceptual or physical space for the ad-hoc, root-level, messy creative processes that bring fledgling enterprises into the world in the first place. We don't have to allow homely little business endeavors to be tried out in the buildings on our back alleys. We don't have to consider a model of zoning that would allow a State Street resident of limited means to sell dresses or peddle calzones or run a repair service out of her house. No indeed, one city alderman recently explained to me. "We can't have that! Someone might complain!"

Hudsonianseven those who disagree about almost everything elseseem to almost universally agree that it would be best for Hudson if the majority of our businesses were created, owned, and run by Hudsonians. So why do we have in place a development model whose essential structure is built upon the attracting of businesses? Why does this model essentially insist that the people who are already already here create little to nothing? Why do we define economic growth as something that arrives from beyond?

Let me be clear: I am not saying Etsy shouldn't be here. That is not my point or my belief. What I am saying is that the model that brought Etsy here is not a sustainable one. It is not in any way a creative model, although some mistake the fact of Etsy's dealings in creative wares for the underlying fact that the economic development model behind its arrival is non-creative. Frankly, I wonder how it can be considered a development model at all, when it amounts to cherrypicking the fruits of a development process that took place somewhere else.

The great, unrecognized poison of American economic development today is the ubiquitous notion that localities need to "attract businesses." At some level, the notion is absurd. As E. F. Schumacher once noted, "We did not start development by obtaining foreign exchange from Mars or from the moon. Mankind is a closed society." [Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered] Yet the belief that economic growth necessarily comes from without drives the mission statement of the nonprofit Hudson Development Corporation: "[We] promote and assist current businesses and provide opportunities and assistance to attract new businesses." Note that there is no acknowledgment of the genesis of new businesses. Ditto for the Columbia-Hudson Partnership: "We act as a facilitator... for businesses seeking to expand their current operations in the county, or locate new facilities here." Both mission statements allow only for the growth and attraction of existing businesses. To wander a bit farther afield for a moment, New York City's Director of Planning, in the first paragraph of her website statement, writes, "I welcome the opportunity to plan and develop places in which people will love to live and workthe vibrant places that will attract and hold creative talent." How poisoned our development well must be when the planner for a city of more than 8 million people thinks it essential to attract anyone at all. But this is the default economic development mentality in America today.

Like every city, Hudson has talents and ideas and manpower within its borders, but we are forbidding them to flourish. "Cities," the late Jane Jacobs wrote in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." Why are we unwilling to build from within, allowing everybody to create? Why are we not willing to develop our own resources? Why aren't we encouraging the messy stab at new businesses instead of outlawing them? To seek economic development by attracting fully formed businesses is to sell your own people short. It is to tell themeven if you say otherwisethat you don't want them to be productive, involved members of the local culture. It is to tell them you don't want the mess that comes from seeing them live creatively. It is, in essence, to order the twenty-somethings out of your community until their ideas are fully formed. Then, and only then, are they welcome to come back.

To close with a somewhat finer point: not all messiness is of equal value. Not all messiness is constructive. The point is not that messiness is inherently good, but that messiness in life and in cities cannot be escaped. One can choose either the good messiness that is part and parcel to the creative process, or the bad messiness that comes from prohibiting creative endeavor. In other words, we can have either a messy Columbia Street or State Street that results from its residents becoming creative, self-directed entrepreneurs, or we can have the kind of messiness that blights a neighborhood and destroys its buildings when its residents aren't able to generate wealth for themselves. Wouldn't you rather have the good kind of mess than the bad kind we now have?


  1. Thank you Matthew, for another very well thought-out, thought-provoking post. Messiness... it's an inner demon I battle. I've always felt I can't function when things are messy, but I am coming to a realization that in fact I CAN function in a mess, only when I stop focusing on the mess itself, and start focusing on what is happening in the midst of the mess (i.e. what is being created; who is being fed or entertained; what garden is beginning to grow, etc.)

    In my 20's I lived in Europe. I took public transportation or walked everywhere I went, and I remember being surprised to come upon little bodegas or taverns, tailors or scissor sharpeners etc. in residential neighborhoods. Things seemed out of place; it was so different from what I was used to in the States. I now realize it made perfect sense for the business owners who likely lived above or near their shops, and for the residents, who didn't have to go far for the basic things they needed and wanted. As I saw this "model" in action, it didn't seem messy... it was practical and gave neighborhoods a feeling of cohesion and purpose.

    I used to wonder what cities would look like if there was no scaffolding anywhere. I lamented that I would never be able to find out. You are helping me realize that such a sight might actually be a loss instead of a gain. If everything is finished and repaired and perfect, is "new life" able to take hold? Maybe not.

  2. To echo a point that Peter made elsewhere on this blog, I have to ask -- who are all these people who supposedly want Hudson to be perfectly pristine?

    And why would anyone who feels that way move to (or remain in) Hudson, rather than moving to Sharon or Greenwich or Stockbridge?

    Here's a small historical note to consider:

    It was those who are too commonly labeled as "newcomers" or "arty types" who fought (unsuccessfully) to keep Gold's Junk Yard, which had been here for 100 years, from being seized and razed by the City to build a generic office complex.

    Gold's was a gathering place and resource for both artists and laborers (and some laborer-artists, too), where one could buy and sell scrap metal and other salvaged materials. There's a private space on Warren Street whose walls are entirely clad in metal from Gold's. Gold's was not just part of Hudson's history and fabric (not to mention a location in Ironweed), it was a gritty, living business that served a diverse clientele and social function.

    So who was in favor of the forced demolition of this local institution? Why, it was those politicians whose claimed to be in favor of "industry," whatever that overly-broad term means.

    Such readymade categories as "pro-industry" or "pro-environment" aren't so easy to delineate in the real world of real people, with their complex opinions and uncategorizable attitudes. For example, I don't know anyone who considers themselves what you've characterized elsewhere as "environmentalists" who don't also seek to have a coherent, realistic strategy for development and economic prosperity.

    The purpose of this comment, though, is to expres the hope that this blog doesn't degenerate into a more high-tech and refined gloss on the (fortunately-defunct) HVEEC rhetoric. For those who don't recognize the reference, HVEEC was a corporate-funded astroturf group which existed to encourage stereotyping and to divide neighbor from neighbor.

    No doubt that isn't your intention, Matt. But maybe there could be a little less labeling and generalizing about social groups here.

    --Sam P.

  3. Hudson has lost 16% of its population since 1990 (source: US Census).

    Columbia County's population is essentially flat in the same period: +114 persons, +0.2% 1990-2010. (source: US Census)

    By contrast, the population of the US has increased by +23% from 1990-2010 (source: US Census).

    This is why economic growth for the City of Hudson and Columbia County requires new activity coming in from the outside.

    -- Jock Spivy

  4. To be clearer about my last post, what I'm meaning to say is that there is no natural economic growth in Hudson or in Columbia County because there is no population growth.

    Therefore, to improve the local economy in a meaningful way, there has to be new economic activity that arrives from the outside (e.g., Local Ocean, who came to Columbia County from Israel and who have invested $12 million in their new business in the last couple of years.)

    It is not possible to grow the local economy organically because there is no internal, organic growth.