In downtown Las Vegas Nevada recently I visited a small business that is the opposite of everything we normally associate with Sin City. The small business made me think about the role of both visionary billionaires and geography to city revitalization.
The small, serious, bookstore The Writer’s Block opened last year as part of The Downtown Project, entrepreneur Tony Hsieh’s plan for bringing tech startups, small businesses, and a sense of community back to Las Vegas’s downtown.
How does this even exist?
The Writer’s Block is the type of business that is hard to believe even exists in 2015. Not to mention, it exists within shouting distance of the Las Vegas casino monoculture madness. While Amazon.com swallows up entire multiverses of retail shops – slaying Barnes and Noble and every other bricks-and-mortar shop in its path – how does an independent anachronism like The Writer’s Block dare to open?
The free market alone would never support this.
I’m just spitballing here but I suspect not enough Las Vegas residents live close enough to The Fremont Experience to need a quickie Dom Delillo White Noise discussion in person, while picking up their Kierkegaard paperback.
The crazy irony is that a precious, almost twee, bookstore like The Writer’s Block only exists because Hsieh, who sold Zappos for $1.2 Billion to Amazon, makes it exist.
Without Hsieh’s vision and investment, the free market does not, could not, create a bookstore like this. The free market in Las Vegas supports the casino monoculture.
Just like the “free market” in downtown San Antonio supports more tourism and hotels.
So places like The Writer’s Block need a financial thumb on the scale to overcome what the pure “free market” would produce all on its own.
So who provides the thumb on the scale?
It seems to take a big money capitalist like Hsieh to defend the small money capitalist growth of businesses like The Writer’s Block against the city monoculture. It’s all very strange and ironic, but I feel like it’s important for San Antonians to consider.
On the role of the well-heeled visionary in making this happen
In my hometown San Antonio, we count one very successful urban infill development – called The Pearl – which originally depended greatly on the vision and investment of a single investor. It wouldn’t have happened without his purchase of real estate and investment in curating the businesses to fill The Pearl development.
Subsequent entrepreneurial investment and development has followed up this lead. The result is the rebirth of an entire section of the formerly neglected area just north of downtown.
With very few exceptions (only the occasional ‘The Rent Is Too Damned High’ complaint) The Pearl has garnered huge praise and very little criticism. It works. It also appears to have enough momentum to succeed far beyond the scope of the original investor’s investment in The Pearl.
It’s too soon to say the same for Las Vegas’ downtown.
Shake It Off
As you might expect for an ambitious project funded by a singular visionary multi-millionaire, not everyone is happy with Tony Hsieh. As my good friend Taylor Swift so rightly sings, “Haters gonna hate (hatehatehatehate.)”
I would sum up this shade as suspicion about a wealthy person pushing their vision on a city, backed by his own funds to enact that vision, and the natural schadenfreude that whole hot mess engenders. Personally, I disagree with the haters, as I don’t see this as nightmare dressed like a daydream.
Yet the haters have a point, because taken as a whole, the Las Vegas Downtown Project does not feel, yet, like a real downtown city. Huge gaps remain.
For this to work, I assume Hsieh’s catalytic investments have to be followed up in the next ten years by many more times the volume of independent investments, by other entrepreneurs, to actually make downtown Las Vegas come alive as a real place, for real people who live there. But you can see the outlines of a real place there, and that feels exciting.
Geography in Downtown San Antonio
Another well-heeled visionary in San Antonio has taken on downtown proper as his canvas for urban renewal, tech startups, and a sense of community. Like the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, the rebirth of downtown San Antonio shows promising signs from a low starting point, but has a very long way to go to feel like a real, live, urban downtown attractive to residents rather than tourists.
One challenge is that the geography of downtown San Antonio is bigger than The Pearl. Also unlike the Pearl – which started out in a pretty empty section of town – any new construction in downtown San Antonio has to compete geographically with the still-thriving tourist monoculture already in place.
Real Estate in downtown San Antonio isn’t actually that cheap. Real estate owners by reputation have a habit of holding on until the next hotel chain offers top dollar, so we get more hotels to replace the emptiness rather than something new.
Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas has the advantage of focusing on relatively empty, dilapidated areas a few blocks removed from the casino monoculture of the Fremont Experience, which keeps it from competing directly with the awfully repetitive, but financially viable, casinos.
Folks focused on downtown San Antonio do not have the same luxury of empty space enjoyed by the Downtown Project, but must work with and around the existing tourist infrastructure.
We’re years away from knowing whether these experiments will succeed.
I enjoyed visiting the nascent Las Vegas Downtown Project because it made me reflect on my original questions: How do cities die? And how do cities renew themselves?
I’m a ‘market-based capitalism’ guy most of the time, but I’m convinced that cities can die through the natural ‘market-based capitalism’ process when a single industry or economic monoculture sucks all of the interesting real life out of a place, as casinos have done in downtown Las Vegas, and tourism has done for downtown San Antonio. When I say ‘die’ I don’t mean the death of all profit or even a scarcity of jobs, but rather the harder-to-define but nevertheless deeply felt way in which a city ceases to be a place we would enjoy spending more than one day in.
But if economic monoculture is the cause of certain type of blight, how do we solve that? It’s quite a problem.
As a ‘market-based capitalism’ guy, I see little evidence that municipal governments are good at spurring city turn-arounds. Few local political leaders would ever block the addition of another casino in Las Vegas, or the founding of another hotel in San Antonio, and who could blame them? When you’ve got a financially successful industry in an area, municipal entities and political leaders can’t be in the habit of squelching additions to that industry.
But despite being filled with good people and good intentions, city governments rarely create beauty, or delight. They don’t generally have a singular vision for a human-scaled rebirth. Governments can do a good job of removing “the bad,” but are more hamstrung at trying to add “the good.”
That’s where the first-to-act civic-minded billionaire seems to come in.
To renew themselves, Las Vegas and San Antonio needed someone with both a vision and the resources to enact that vision. And then that vision and early investment needs to inspire many multiples of follow-up investment from others who can build on the catalytic actions of the first-to-act. The Pearl in San Antonio seems to have achieved that.
The Downtown Project in Las Vegas and the San Antonio Downtown by contrast are happening in parts of the city very much in the earliest stages of rebirth. Downtown boosters and haters alike can each point to evidence of the success or failure of the experiments up until this point, and neither would be completely right or wrong. To the pedestrian visitor, the monocultures still dominate, almost completely.
The few pockets of human-scale renovation in both places seem disconnected, fragile, nascent. They all need massive follow-up investments by other entrepreneurs to make it connected and viable. But hey, I see reasons for hope, despite the odds. I’m an optimist. I mean, you have to be willing to forget the odds in order to take a trip to Las Vegas in the first place.
First, how does part of a city die?
Second, how do you revitalize a city downtown?
I’m no urban revitalization expert. I learned the little bit I know about the subject from a fifty year-old book by an author obsessed with Greenwich Village. Jane Jacobs answered the ‘how does a city die’ question by arguing that cities can become victims of their own economic successes. This happens when a profitable industry continues to grow until it metastasizes and wipes out other economic activities in the city. The result is an economic monoculture. And monoculture cities die.
In modern America, Las Vegas represents the archetype of a death-by-monoculture city. Las Vegas offers about 36 hours of tourist gambling fun, then turns sour. Monocultures are not attractive to live in for locals either. Monocultures tend to spread economic death, as residents move away or stay away.
So you can see why I was thinking about this when I visited Las Vegas. The attempt to catalyze an alternative to monoculture is what makes Las Vegas’ Downtown Project, inspired by an entrepreneur named Tony Hsieh, so interesting.
Hsieh funds startups with a view to creating an inter-connected urban area for Las Vegas locals, an antidote of economic diversity for the city’s downtown area.
How SA is like LV
In a related story, I live within walking distance of downtown San Antonio, TX which, while an economically successful tourist draw, offers almost nothing of interest for locals. I know this sounds overly harsh to the few exceptional excellent restaurants and cultural centers there, but those can be counted on one hand as isolated islands, basically unconnected, in a sea of emptiness and tourism. I’ve lived thisclose to downtown for about six years, yet rarely go there. When friends and relatives visit, and they insist on seeing the Alamo and the Riverwalk, I try to warn them. Inevitably they find it as underwhelming as I do.
The ironic thing about this, obviously, is that the San Antonio Riverwalk was originally a stroke of urban-planning genius.
Also, I’m not denying downtown’s financial viability for the hotels, restaurants and Ripleys-style funhouses catering to tourists and conventioneers. I’m just saying that that economic success – the monoculture – has made it by and large an unappealing place to visit, as a San Antonio resident.
Since Las Vegas represents the ultimate monoculture problem, a problem many times bigger than San Antonio’s, I was intrigued to see what Tony Hsieh’s vision and money has wrought, despite the odds.
The Las Vegas Downtown Project
My quick answer: This is freaking awesome.
Further, I hope the myriad folks dedicating their vision and passion and money to downtown San Antonio are paying close attention to Hsieh’s Downtown Project experiment.
The problems of revitalizing San Antonio and Las Vegas are (among others): Is there housing for residents? Are there non tourist-oriented jobs? Are there attractive public spaces? Are they walkable? Are they connected?
Frankly the Downtown Project in Las Vegas doesn’t have these things yet either, but each of their parts hold strong promise.
Most importantly – and this is what the Downtown Project gets right: Are there locally-oriented sources of urban excellence that would continually draw residents into an urban core? In Las Vegas, I found to my delight, yes.
So far, in San Antonio, not really.
Next I’ll write about the role of the visionary billionaire, haters, geography, and government.
Please see related posts:
Teen romance novels for girls are not exactly the bread-and-butter of Bankers Anonymous book reviews, but stick with me for a little while, I’ve got my reasons.
Going Going by San Antonio poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye is not your typical teen romance novel, although it does follow the arc of a sixteen year-old downtown girl, Florrie, falling for an uptown boy.
Our heroine Florriedoes not shy away from political stances, nor does the novel Going Going. The political stance dominates the novel more than the romance.
Sixteen year-old Florrie asks us, the reader, one of life’s big questions: “What makes for a good city? Indeed her question is just another way of asking: “What makes for a good life?”
In real life, I live about 6 blocks away from the author of Going Going, so it turns out I know and love many of Florrie’s places too. Her protagonist bikes with arms outstretched down her favorite street, just as I have done, on that same street.
I picked up Nye’s Going Going (at San Antonio’s homegrown The Twig Book Shop) because the City of San Antonio – just like Florrie – is currently in a deep conversation with itself over “What makes for a good city?”
And Florrie has the answer, at least for her: The old mom-and-pop stores, the place-specific homegrown businesses, make for a good city. Chain businesses, by contrast, hurt the city and make life worse.
Florrie pores over old black-and-white postcards, which she collects avidly. She thrills to memories of her Lebanese immigrant grandfather, who founded the family’s Mexican restaurant. In Florrie’s statement of purpose, written for a school project, she writes about herself:
She loved Old Ladies, Elderly Men, Old Houses, Old Spoons, Old Books, Old Bowls, old Maps, Lace Curtains, Antique Bedspreads, Recipes, Remedies, Stories (but not the dumb stories about knights and battles, which did not interest her in the least), Vintage Postcards and Tintype Photographs, Doilies, Velvet Pillows, Black-and-White Movies, Rocking Chairs, and Vintage Toys, and best of all, she loved Old Buildings and Businesses run by Real People. She loved things that were Fading and Disappearing. How could she protect them in the World?
The enemy of all that she loves, Florrie writes, are “Big Business Corporations, Urban Development, and basically People with Too Many Dollar Bills.”
Florrie’s plan, which drives the story, is to organize a teenage, guerrilla-protest movement against chain stores. She enlists her family-and-friends circle in a boycott of the Wal-Marts, the Gaps, the Home Depots of San Antonio – any store not locally-owned. She then hosts a series of rallies against chain-store corporations in the city’s historic Main Plaza, later in front of a Wal-Mart, and finally on the touristic San Antonio River Walk, with mixed success.
In the end, the teenage activist achieves some media notice and notoriety through her protest, but not necessarily lasting change in the city.
Sympathy with Florrie
The author Naomi Nye clearly has tremendous sympathy with Florrie’s aesthetic and moral view of what makes for a good city. So do I.
Florrie is right to decry the homogenization of urban life.
Ever since the 20th Century combination of automobiles and air-conditioning made vast swaths of the American Southwest newly attractive, the cities of Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona have boomed in population.
What we’ve built – efficiently and affordably – to service these new populations are indistinguishable commercial strips filled with chain stores. Drive down any commercial-zoned highway in these Southwest cities and you’re assaulted with the same exact signage as any other highway – because it’s lined by the same exact chain stores. Their buildings look exactly like buildings in other places, their menu and service offerings fine-tuned to repeat the menu and service offerings of Anywhere, USA.
Where is the sense of place? Where is the sense of a local community?
You need to exit the main highways and turn onto the smaller streets to feel the interesting heterogeneity of locally-owned businesses. From these one-off buildings – with their store owners greeting you from behind the counter – neighborhoods and communities emerge.
San Antonio, TX – Florrie’s city, Nye’s city, my city – exploded upward in population in the past 50 years but imploded in terms of interesting cultural offerings. The blocks around the Alamo, to take the most high-profile and obvious example, are blighted with the same chain-owned Ripley’s fun-house and Rainforest Café offerings you can find in any place in the nation where tourists congregate in bored, hungry numbers.
As I’ve written before, I deeply admire Jane Jacobs’ view of successful cities, which is that a mix of the new and the old – even old shabby outdated buildings – help urban areas remain flexible and innovative.
Change in the last 10 years
Written 10 years ago and published in 2005, the interesting – maybe ironic – thing about reading Going Going in 2014 is that San Antonio has already changed quite a bit since then. The Mission Drive-In, identified in the novel as one of the last operating outdoor theatres, has since been converted to merely a visual – albeit attractive – simulacrum of itself. No more outdoor movies there.
Thousands of housing units have sprouted around Florrie’s neighborhood, utterly altering traffic flow and density in the near-downtown neighborhoods of San Antonio, and this looks to continue apace in the foreseeable future.
Going Going, among other things, is a love poem to San Antonio. I thrilled to recognize many of Nye’s favorite places as my favorite places, from Liberty Bar to El Mirador, from San Fernando Cathedral, to the Rose Window at Mission San Jose.
She profiles real-live personages of Florrie’s neighborhood, like bow-tied Mike Casey on his bike, or movie rental Planet of the Tapes owner Angela pushing her baby, Wiley Francisco, in a stroller.
The dangers of a museum mindset
Although I’m simpatico with Nye’s Florrie, I also found myself arguing quietly against a version of Florrie’s view in real-life San Antonio, which I’ve come to call the ‘museum mindset.’
Nye depicts Florrie as a zealot – albeit a sympathetic, spunky zealot – pushing the limits of the patience of her family and friends in the furtherance of her cause to save old buildings and locally-owned businesses.
Despite the fact that Florrie is only sixteen, she represents a deeply conservative strain of thought.
Because she values old things and old ways and old technologies, her frame of reference naturally resists change. New developments, even beautiful or thoughtful or desperately needed ones, spark in her an instant nostalgia for a soon-to-be lost better age.
This deeply conservative attitude – the museum mindset – surrounds us in San Antonio, and has a big voice in the debate about the future of the city.
For every new development – and there are quite a few going on right now – there is an equal and opposite reaction of “Well there goes the uniqueness of my city,” “gentrification will naturally push out diversity,” “new businesses threaten residential life,” or “here come the Yuppies.”
I’m not in the real estate development business nor do I applaud every new change, but I’ve seen enough opposition-for-opposition’s-sake fights in the name of historic preservation to see the museum mindset as a threat to the city as well.
Examples of the museum mindset in San Antonio today
Five doors down from where I live, a “house-museum” somehow manages to preserve its 501c3 tax-exempt status, despite the fact that it opens to the public a mere 10 days out of the year. Except for those ten days, the building is totally empty all year, forming a hole in the neighborhood structure. It will not even open this year.
The building would make a lovely residential home, but for the past forty years it has been a C-grade museum instead. My best guess is this happens because of the incumbency of the museum mindset.
In downtown San Antonio, this museum mindset favors preserving an old building, however decrepit, unused, or blighted, owned by the local school district, from demolition, removal, or renovation to make way for its current highest and best use. Preservationists have successfully check-mated the neighborhood school – a leading light in a struggling inner-city urban district – into eliminating green space for its kids. In order to preserve this haunted house in the school’s backyard – and ‘haunted house’ is literally how school administrators refer to this building privately – next year the kids will have zero yard space. Will teachers plan on encouraging jumping jacks next to desks in their classroom, or in between the cafeteria tables? I don’t know. I do know that blighted house will keep my kid indoors all next year, while bringing down property values all along its street.
So in my opinion the museum mindset, though helpful in fighting homogenization and strip malls, also hinders progress.
This debate in San Antonio will continue as the city figures out what makes for a good city, and what makes for a good life.
Nye’s spunky character Florrie provides a useful answer as a starting point to the conversation, although Florrie and I would not agree on everything.
To my pleasant surprise, Going Going does not resolve happily. The teenage Florrie does not keep the boy and live a mythical teenage romance. The relationship ends uneasily, with Florrie a little bit hurt, and a little bit wiser for the experience. Kind of like a real teenage romance.
I suppose the romance reflects unease with what Florrie’s boyfriend represents. He comes from the recognizably wealthier, sophisticated, more corporate part of town. Despite the kissing and their bike-riding adventures together, Florrie returns ultimately to the comfort of her parents, her brother, and a humble-but-more-loyal boy from her own neighborhood.
San Antonio’s debate
In growing into its adolescence over the past 50 years, San Antonio lost much of its unique character, a process so traumatic to its earlier roots that I don’t blame preservationists for seeking the comfort of the familiar and the loyal.
The older areas of town will struggle with this pull to a wealthier, sophisticated, and possibly more corporate future, and the conversation will not be easy. My guide in these things, Jane Jacobs, would say we need to keep some of the old buildings, but we also need to build some new. The best places, and a good life, consist of preserving a sense of history and place, while not stagnating or fetishizing the old ways. Resisting all change means stagnating and ultimately being left behind, and left out of the transforming process for urban landscapes.
I salute my neighbor Naomi Shihab Nye for adding to this conversation with Going Going.
 If you’d ever been inside this house museum you’d know this is no big loss to the public. I’d link to their website to give you a virtual tour, but of course, they don’t have one. That alone tells you what you need to know about their mission to serve the public. But hey! 501c3 status!
 From the Wikipedia entry on the Hudson Valley house owned by the same “preservationist” group that owns the house-museum five doors down from me: “Robert Perry, a Texas lawyer and friend of the family, named the trust the Perry-Gething Foundation. Local preservationists have filed complaints against Perry with the state and the Internal Revenue Service, angry that he keeps the house closed most of the year and resides in it himself for several weeks in the spring and fall. Perry responds that when he is present, the house is open by appointment. The tax code, he says, requires only that the foundation maintain the property and says nothing about it making the museum open to the public.”
 And possibly, Texans are more polite to their neighbors than New Yorkers.
 In this analogy, the creation of Hemisfair Park in 1968 kicked off the city’s adolescence with an horrific bulldozing of an historic neighborhood, to make way for the unapproachable, awkward, sullen park it is today. Here’s hoping the H-Park group will turn this ugly duckling into a swan. The presence of immovable, unused, empty, historic buildings in the park hinders rather than helps this process.
I’m way outside of my intellectual comfort zone when it comes to commenting on urban planning policy, but reading Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities this summer has armed me with enough thoughts to be dangerous.1
Jacobs published this over fifty years ago, but her observations and arguments seem right on target.
I visited New York City last week – my home for 13 years but now just a vacation spot for me – and I heard Jacobs whispering in my ear about the whys and hows this continues to be a dynamic, innovative, prosperous place. It’s the most exciting place on planet Earth to walk around, stone cold sober, on any given Thursday at 2pm.
A serious homer
If there’s any obvious critique of Jane Jacobs, she’s what the sports fan world calls a serious homer. She loves her Greenwich Village circa 1960 (The Death and Life was first published in 1961), and she returns again and again to the ways in which her diverse neighborhood outshines anywhere else.
She considers and praises certain other successfully rejuvenated neighborhoods within great American cities, such as Boston’s North End, Chicago’s Back-of-the-Yards, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and Georgetown, in the District of Columbia.
But virtually all other cities she ignores or – like Los Angeles – actively denigrates. The rest of urban and suburban America she refers to sweepingly as “The Great Blight of Dullness.”
So, we may acknowledge upfront that she’s a teensy bit narrow in her praise and appreciation for large parts of urban America.
And yet, when I think about the Leave It To Beaver America of 1960 to which she’s comparing Greenwich Village, can you blame her? And when I think about the monstrosities of city planning that has led to unbounded suburban sprawl from 1960 to the present day, she’s far more right than wrong.
As to the keys to successfully rejuvenating cities and the common errors of urban planning, as far as I can see, she was absolutely Capital R Right about it all then and even more so today.
The key to a vital city – Diversity
Here Jacobs does not simply advocate “Diversity” in the post-1990s sense – code for a preponderance of non-Northern European ethnic influences – although we can infer from her book that she’s a proponent of that type of diversity as well.
She really means by diversity to advocate against one overly dominant mode of living. She means the absence of monotony on a very broad scale.
Vibrant cities encompass a wide variety of ages – for people and buildings. Living cities encourage a plurality of mixed uses, an ever-changing mix of commercial and residential activity. The best city blocks and neighborhoods, she argues, may hear the shouts of school children in the morning, the swish of retirees rubbing shoulders with tourists at mid-day, and the clink of post-work bar hoppers at night.
Growing and vital cities depend on an ever-changing series of industries and specialists, and do not become overly dependent on a single industry, like Detroit did, or Atlantic City does. Cities dependent on a limited number of employers or a small number of industries tend to fail.
But if diversity is so important, how do you get it?
Four generators of diversity
Jacobs lays down four essential features of successful, revitalizing cities. Each of the four tends to produce urban diversity, although each on its own is insufficient to guaranty it. The interaction between the four factors gives a neighborhood or a city the greatest chance of fostering diversity, which in turn gives a city renewed life.
Mixed Primary Uses – Jacobs has in mind here the healthy effect of city blocks used for more than one purpose, at different times of the day.
A business plaza surrounded solely by office buildings for example, emptied out after 5pm, will tend to stultify in the evening emptiness. A few luncheon places can survive, but little else.
A residential area full of students only, without the salutary effect of salaried workers, families with young children, and retirees, each using the sidewalks and byways at different times of the day, will tend to stagnate.
A park frequented only by parents, nannies, and perambulators between 9am and 11am will, over time, cease to attract any other lively activity during any other hours.
Mixed primary uses, however, of business, residential, and park spaces, with different functions for different groups at different times of the day, encourages healthy city blocks.
I find myself looking anew at city blocks, mentally counting the hours during which different people will share the same space. In New York City’s most interesting neighborhoods, the answer is all day, in different ways, by every different kind of person. 2
Small blocks – I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for nearly a decade and never realized just how long some of the East/West blocks are, compared to the Jacobs ideal.
It turns out, according to Jacobs, these long blocks discourage diversity and probably served to hold back the Upper West Side from revitalization for a long time.
A section of Manhattan like Rockefeller Center with smaller blocks, or the irregular small blocks of Greenwich Village, tends, in contrast, to increase the safety, diversity, and cohesiveness of city blocks. Pedestrians on an errand from point A to point B in a neighborhood of small blocks will vary their route in a way which tends to increase a diversity of uses.
City planners, break up your long blocks!
Aged Buildings – Here Jacobs describes the most counter-intuitive part of city revitalization, and strikes a blow against typical “Tear down the Old, build the New” urban planning.
She argues that revitalized city neighborhoods need – against conventional wisdom -the presence of older buildings to kick-start growth.
The best part about her argument, for this ex-banker, is that she employs a financial argument to make her case, which goes as follows.
New construction, most often facilitated by investment capital and market-based loans, typically leads to high rents and low-risk leases. For investors and their bankers, filling their brand new buildings, only the safest tenants will do.
A chain restaurant, or bank, or insurance company, or any established national franchise, will always be preferred to a mom-and-pop proprietor. The key to repaying borrowed money, or to returning investment capital, is to achieve the highest return on capital up front. Starbucks, Subway, H&R Block, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, let me introduce you to my new construction real estate broker. Unfortunately, new construction areas are dreadfully sterile.
Older buildings, by contrast, may often be owned by the landlord free and clear of a mortgage. The building’s original use may have disappeared, so the building needs to be retrofitted, or used despite its imperfect fit for a new business. Thus the owners, mortgage free, may offer their unusual or slightly rundown space at a lower rent than the new construction building next door.
This lowered rent, or retrofitted space, or building owner not seeking her maximum return on capital, is the key to offering diverse commercial and residential spaces. How does that new gluten-free bakery start-up in the old shoe store storefront, or the app development company in an old fire station, or the artist’s loft in the empty factory come about? They could never afford the new rent in the new office building. But they have a chance to get started in the retrofitted space owned outright by a landlord who is just happy to not own an empty building.
From such humble old buildings, mixed alongside newer development, spring interesting and diverse neighborhoods.
Jacobs does not wish for blocks upon blocks of all dilapidated or empty buildings, but rather a mixture of ages to offer a diverse mixture of uses and opportunities. In the neighborhood open to urban renewal, today’s new construction buildings become, in 30 years, aged buildings with less debt, and the opportunity for a new lease on life.
Concentration – A key to diversity, says Jacobs, is urban density. Suburban sprawl, which seems to promise refreshing air and a modicum of the pastoral ideal, instead tends to lead to homogeneity. Concentrated residential and commercial life, by contrast, encourages specialization through the satisfaction of diverse needs. A city with density offers greater opportunities for supporting any business the residents can dream of. Without the concentration of population and businesses, fewer diverse enterprises can survive.
Residents of the revitalizing downtown where I live now frequently complain about the absence of a full-service grocery store. The reason there’s no grocery store nearby is there’s not enough population density. Only when density happens can urban amenities like a grocery store survive.
The enemy of vital cities
If Jacobs is the declared supporter of four keys to success – mixed uses, short blocks, old buildings, and population concentration – she also declares herself the enemy of a set of popular ideas that still live on in a certain strain of city planning. She names the enemy in various guises as the ‘The Garden City,” “The City Beautiful” movement and “The Radiant City.”
You will know these enemies, she argues, by their aesthetic preference for symmetry, homogeneity, pastoral ideals, green but ultimately useless spaces, idealized compartmentalization of functions, and the separation of residential from commercial activity.
My adopted neighborhood
I think about my downtown neighborhood in San Antonio, TX, which I’m hesitant to say – but also proud to say – captures some of the magic that Jacobs celebrates in Greenwich Village of 1960. We live among an interesting mix of uses by a wide range of ages – from retired historic preservationists to 20-something bartenders – and an eclectic set of art galleries, renowned restaurants, small museums, professional offices, outdoor bars and a linear riverbank park. We enjoy our short blocks, and preponderance of old buildings, with only a smattering of new construction.
The only missing element is density, although the number of housing units in the area – due to some newly built apartment buildings – has probably doubled in the past five years and may double again in the next five. There will be grumbling from some in the old guard about this new density when it finally arrives, but I’m confident Jacobs had it right – we will need the population concentration if our neighborhood is to continue to diversify.
As San Antonio more than doubled in population between 1970 (650,000) and 2010 (1.3 million) most of the growth occurred not in the downtown area but rather in wider and wider rings of newer suburban development. As in many American cities during this time, the downtown and near-downtown actually lost density and headcount over the decades, even as the total city population soared.
Growth continues at the outer suburban edges, but has also returned, on a small scale, to the inner core. Not every one of my downtown neighbors will welcome the changes, but I believe Jacobs that we need the influx of population to keep this area diverse.
Seeds of decline, sown in success
Looking ahead, as Jacobs did in 1961 in Greenwich Village and as I do in my own neighborhood, we realize diversity is hard to maintain.
The problem, Jacobs points out, is that success in some particular area leads to more of the same success. Too much success in a narrow number of ways crowds out the diversity that led to success in the first place.
We know that yesterday’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, of course, becomes tomorrow’s unaffordable and exclusive community. As landscaping improves, the range of conversation topics narrows.
A successful bar on a funky street attracts thirsty crowds, which encourage copycat bars all up and down the street, which indelibly alters the original funky feel. I’m sure Bourbon Street is great, just as long as I don’t have to live right next to it.
A successfully historically preserved house museum draws a healthy group of tourists, encouraging historic preservationists to start a movement to lock an entire neighborhood in the sticky amber of an idealized historic era. Fossilization follows.
Whenever the success of today crowds out the possibility of diversity and change, a city neighborhood loses its ability to renew itself.
Seeds of success, sown in decline
But all is not lost. The lessons of Jacobs are optimistic. The old buildings which some associate with decline instead provide the opportunity for diversity and therefore new growth. If real estate prices decline enough in downtowns – hollowed out by the previous generation’s preference for suburban life – the affordable retrofit buildings can welcome a whole experimental group of businesses and activities at a lower price point.
While in New York last week I had lunch with a friend who, for business reasons, had visited 20 cities around the country in the last three months. His meetings were in the tertiary cities of America; not Chicago or San Francisco but rather less well-known areas – areas that Jane Jacobs probably never bothered to visit.
He noted that in almost every single one he saw there were signs of a revitalizing urban core, a growing and experimental re-urbanization of previously abandoned areas.
The farmer’s market on Saturdays next to the Episcopal church, the brick riverside manufacturing building converted to a glass-blowing operation, the social-media marketing company next to couture cupcakes,3 all of these indicated a new generation of folks in these cities, all over the country, independently and purposefully choosing urban living over the suburban ideal of spending one’s weekends tending to a kelly-green patch of lawn.
The revitalization of American cities he described over lunch last week sounded modest in these places, but the fact that it’s happening all over indicates an unstoppable and healthy trend.
I read one book and suddenly I’m an expert on urban planning. You should have seen my confidence with all things medical after I took a 2-week First Responder course. I’m pretty sure I could be a country doctor if it wasn’t for those pesky malpractice laws. ↩
As Shawn Corey Carter, America’s Poet Laureate of 2023, once proclaimed “MDMA got you feeling like a champion; The city never sleeps, better slip you an Ambien.” ↩
I understand, I get it, you hate couture cupcakes. I do too. I mean, I love to eat them, obviously, it’s just the idea of them all that’s just SO 2009. But still, a couture cupcake store indicates a certain kind of BoBo population living nearby. I’m sorry, who are the Bohemian Bourgeoisie, you ask? They’re the people fueling this re-urbanization that Jane Jacobs foresaw in 1961. ↩
In the meantime I was struck by a short passage in the book in which she foretells the death of Detroit.
On the recently bankrupted Detroit, we could call Jacobs fantastically prescient, or we could just as accurately acknowledge that Detroit has been dying for over half a century.
Detroit’s Chapter 9 Bankruptcy is just reaping what was sowed in the 1950s.
At one point in her argument about the need for diversity in cities, Jacobs deplores the Bronx, but notes that Detroit is even worse:
And if the Bronx is a sorry waste of city potentialities, as it is, consider the even more deplorable fact that it is possible for whole cities to exist, whole metropolitan areas, with pitifully little city diversity and choice. Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx. It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts. Even Detroit’s downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity. It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o’clock of an evening.