Friday, January 13, 2012

The Way It Was

We continually dream of the good old day days. When the sky was blue and the spare the air days were few (I do love the smell of wood smoke in the evening, it’s the smell of history), traffic jams, Twinkies, and no head rests and seat belts (yes Virginia, even no air bags). Our cities had lower profiles, but the politicians had bigger egos – think Mayor Daley (the first) and Robert Moses (New Yorker planner and builder). But in the 1960s things began to radically change. The Great Society was now in full throat, HUD was now a political force – not just a Paul Newman movie, redevelopment was crushing and grinding its way through cities, saving us from ourselves. Freeways were beginning to slice up the urban cores, trolley cars were disappearing and the streets turned over to the more flexible bus. And jet travel now allowed us to get to Paris from New York in less than six hours – a trip, not eighty years earlier, that might have taken six weeks. Change, don’t you love it.

A great friend, knowing my proclivity for all things urban, sent me a URL of a half-hour color newsreel he came upon. It is San Francisco in 1955 as it might be approached as both a tourist and resident. All the high points are here (and even more surprising they are all still here). This was the City before the 1960s, the Embarcadero Freeway was yet to be built (then knocked down by the 1989 earthquake), Playland at the Beach was still spinning (now housing and a Safeway), the cable cars were still climbing to the stars, and the same signs that today hang over Alitio’s at Fisherman’s Wharf were there then. Please click or post the URL in your browser (finish this piece first then pour a Irish coffee, sit back, and watch).
Alcatraz and Aquatic Park

Our cities are giant petri dishes where everything is thrown into the agar and heated up. We wait for the results, not sure what will really happen. High rises and skyscrapers, HUD (again), low income housing, transit, neo-traditional planning, vertical retail complexes, sustainability, LGBT issues, bicycle coalitions, the environment, the homeless, crime, poverty, immigration, marinas, high-speed rail, parks, the Occupy Movement, politicians and Donald Trump. Where to start, where to stop.

The history of cities is a story of piling on, like at the end of a football play (it is the playoffs, like the metaphor?) that continues long centuries on after the whistle blows. America is young; our piles are not that interesting . . . yet. But in Europe and China the piles are thick; in the Middle East they are legendary. James Michener’s The Source is a delightful and revealing saga of an Israeli tell, or pile of an urban football game. Layer after layer is peeled back revealing not just history but the character of a people, our ancestors, us.

In the left column I have posted a shot of Ephesus in the current country of Turkey. It was at one time Greek then Roman then forgotten. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, Mary the mother of Jesus had a home there (it is said), but during an earlier bout of global something, this seaport town was left high and dry some three miles inland. No port, no jobs, no way. For all intents it disappeared, it is now left to history and tourists (but I do have to say for an urbanist, as I walked those streets, I can still hear the sounds of the marketplace, the great theater, and I still see boats moored to the long stone quay).

I ask what will San Francisco and Chicago and Des Moines leave to our ancestors in two thousand years? What will grow in their dish of urban agar?

Stay Tuned . . . .

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