Thursday, November 27, 2014

Changing the air

The complexity of the urban problem can be overwhelming. In a given neighborhood, a hundred buildings may be falling down in a thousand ways for a million different reasons. Beneath the loose bricks and rotting eaves lies more complexity: people from countless walks of life with innumerable problems and an infinite number of obstacles to solving them. Where does one begin to improve an urban community mired in poverty, despair, and dysfunction?

A version of this question was posed to me recently by an official of a city in upstate New York. Our conversation, having reached a point of exhaustion, had settled upon a mutual realization: there never will be enough government programs operating with sufficient nuance to solve the problems of the people, buildings, and neighborhoods of our cities in all their particularities. We’ve tried top-down solutions for decades, and rarely have they begotten true improvement. Top-down urbanism focuses on buildings, not on lives. It might bring about physical improvement, but it doesn’t make the residents of a neighborhood wealthier. Instead, it most often displaces them in favor of a different group of people who already are wealthier. The displaced have the same problems they had before, with the added burden of having to solve them in a different neighborhood or in an altogether different city. Third tier cities—Troy, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and others in the upstate come to mind—end up as depots for those dispossessed from “successful” cities. But if North Central Troy is struggling, don't worry, we tell ourselves; hang in there a while longer, until we find the money to do the same great things we did in Brooklyn.

It was in acknowledgment of such foolishness that my interlocutor asked, “What would you do in these places? How would you change things?”

It’s tricky to answer such a question. A too ambitious response suggests more top-downism, and urbanism properly works from the bottom up. So I narrowed the question further. “Let me suggest something small that might get things pointed in the right direction,” I offered. “Let me suggest something practical, that isn’t top-down or outside-in but that builds on what is already in a neighborhood. Something that will give the people there a tangible sense of hope…that might fundamentally change the air.”

My very modest suggestion is: signage. In even the most troubled neighborhoods, at least some people are engaged in useful, paying work. They babysit, cut hair, give manicures, sew clothes, make candles, plan parties, pack brown bag lunches, fabricate sheet metal, perform day labor, and engage in dozens of other activities that wouldn’t occur to someone like me trying to make a list of them. Most such activities, if not all, have no street visibility, as they take place in private homes and apartments. Proprietors earn a bit of pocket money and some carve out a subsistence income. But they rarely earn enough to fully flower. Clients are limited to those that can be found through word of mouth, or perhaps craigslist. Anyone not already in the know will pass these places of commerce without realizing they are there.

But imagine if someone making a few dollars under the radar on River Street in North Central Troy, North Miller Street in Newburgh, or even State Street in Hudson were granted the freedom to install a sign over his or her front door to advertise his or her goods or services. Imagine the opportunities for income, improvement, and self-actualization that would be created at very little expense. The changes would be modest at first. But imagine the sense of self-agency some citizens would acquire. Imagine, over time, the neighborhood sprouting a plethora of signs for independent businesses. Imagine the neighborhood becoming a place to live, instead of a place where people can only hope for something better to come along. Imagine the children growing up in the neighborhood seeing the elders be productive and self-driven. Imagine them realizing that their own future could be realized right there, instead of a far-off place somewhere on the other side of a college degree. Imagine the residents acquiring enough wealth to repair the broken stoops and rotted eaves, and to build new storefronts, and—

Oops…I forgot. Historic preservation. Pure architectural style must be preserved. Sorry about that. And so, let us give thanks on this day for those who remind us again and again that cities are places of buildings, not places of people, and that the former is more important than the latter. Not sure how I got that on wrong.

Apologies for the digression. Carry on.

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