My overdue library books this month are The New Urban Crisis by Richard Florida and The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History by Dolores Hayden. These are two very different books in many ways: Hayden’s book is a plea to rethink history-making itself and center it instead on people of color, women, working class people, and the memory of the vernacular and commonplace in cities.
While Hayden is focused on the past, Richard Florida’s concern is the future: innovation and progress in the urban environment, an idealistic “urbanism for all.”
Hayden fittingly opens The Power of Place with James Baldwin on the untouchable, rich, white places in New York City:
“People walk about as though they owned where they are— and indeed they do… You know—you know instinctively—that none of this is for you. You know this before you are told. And who is it for and who is paying for it? And why isn’t it for you?” [Baldwin as quoted by Hayden p. 2]
In The New Urban Crisis, Richard Florida makes the argument that gentrification is not as bad as we think it is:
"The worst consequences for the less advantaged occur not in gentrifying neighborhoods per se but in the far more disadvantaged neighborhoods where the great majority of the poor actually live." And: "The big takeaway from this research is that the direct displacement of people by gentrification is not as big of an issue as it is made out to be, and that it is the wrong lens from which to view the effects of gentrification on poor and disadvantaged urbanites." [Florida, p. 73]
Apart from Florida’s somewhat lengthy case for gentrification as a force that is not as bad as the media has made it out to be— an argument that seems almost besides the point, like noting that a pre-diabetic person doesn’t need as much attention as a person living with full-fledged diabetes — the book is filled with some hopeful theoretical premises for the future of American places, post-suburban sprawl:
"Now, for the first time in American history, outward expansion is no longer a reliable path to sustained economic growth. Restoring our economy today will turn on our ability to generate more clustered and dense growth in our cities and suburbs. Making this re-urbanization shift will be expensive, certainly when compared with the previous eras of cheap outward growth. Creating the density required for urban clustering, building the transit and other infrastructure that can undergird such urban development, rebuilding our suburbs in denser fashion, and providing affordable housing at the scale that is needed will cost a good deal more than laying down roads and highways and throwing up single-family homes in the suburbs." [Florida, p. 190.]
It's a vision of the future that won't be as easy to implement as that reckless rush to plaster our vistas with pavement. This is because, of course, the practical logistics and cost of infilling our sprawling places, but also because "such re-urbanization runs counter to America's deeply ingrained anti-urban bias, which harkens all the way back to Thomas Jefferson's pastoralist vision. That bias remains deeply institutionalized in the structures of our state legislatures and Congress, which give disproportionate power to suburban and rural areas and their residents." [Florida, p. 190]
In some ways, Florida’s vision for a more inclusive urbanism echoes Hayden’s work from decades before. Our policies have been centered around this pastoral (i.e. suburban ideal), says Hayden:
"In the past half-century three federal programs — urban renewal, interstate highway building, and home ownership supported by mortgage subsidies — have obscured large sections of the natural landscape and blotted out the cultural landscape of varied human activities in many American urban places." ... “Behind these urban policies lies some mistaken notion about the desirability of assimilation to a suburban world." [Hayden, p. 99]
Somewhere in the middle of The Power of Place, Hayden takes her readers to Los Angeles, referencing the cultural critic Reyner Banham. I didn’t know Banham, but I looked him up after reading this:
"Like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original." [Banham in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies]
Our obsession with cars — with a private, insulated space that can be left and locked (parked) in public places and the massive transformation of land meant to accommodate such a luxury — is as integral to America’s story as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and football.
And that's where Banham misses out, says Hayden:
"...many influential writers [she's directly referencing Banham, here] have been unable to perceive the importance of the city's nonwhite population, unable to recognize that people of color occupy any significant part of the urban landscape. Such writers may go downtown, but never or rarely to East LA or South Central. The focus of their landscape analysis becomes houses, swimming pools, cars, and pop culture." [p. 86]
As it turns out, Hayden's urbanism is for everyone, too — and arguably more inclusive than Florida’s — as she encourages us not only to create places with the people right next to us (the ones who have been here all along) but with the people who came before us, too.
An urbanism for all, rooted both in the then and now.