Monday, August 17, 2009
A few years ago I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania. I often sent dispatches home from my time there, and will occasionally post some of those dispatches which I think are still timely and will hopefully be of interest to our readers...
People newly arrived in Albania often remark on two things, which those of us who live here often over look; the fact that cafes are always filled, regardless of work hours, and the constant state of construction. Buildings are raised continuously throughout this country, little one or two story buildings in the country side, and massive apartment buildings, colloquially known as ‘pallati’s or “palaces.” These buildings sprout in cramped quarters and in fields, and around them ripples the not so faint signs of their construction, mounds of trash, and an ever present haze of dust and dirt. In a country with no other means of investment real estate is the preferred depository of choice for the nation’s capital. In Vlore especially, they are convinced that there is a market for these apartments, the usual suspects of people in other cities, Kosovar and Macedonian Albanians. They would rather not consider the possibility that a good portion of that money comes from people laundering dirty cash (though to be fair, I doubt that the new generation of buildings are built for that purpose).
All of this is background to one of the more unusual aspects of the politics of infrastructure which pervades Albanian life, which is the constant tearing down of illegal buildings. Such buildings are everywhere in this country, cropping up in the middle and at the outskirts of major cities. There is an entire police force devoted to monitoring and destroying illegal buildings (not that this is saying that much, there are far too many police forces in this country, Water police, Electricity Police, Building Police, Road Police, and City Hall Police, to say nothing of the normal police). The problem, in many ways, is what constitutes legal or illegal. This is not to dispute the fact that people here do build completely with out permit, its just that often there are so many jurisdictions that they got one permit, and didn’t bother with the rest, assuming they were ok. That or they pay off the right person. After all they never destroy the veritable fleet of hotels which illegally occupy, like large colorful blocky concrete meek-rats all staring out, row upon row, out to see, stretching along a good a good kilometer of beach front around Durres, and down the coast from Vlore. All too many buildings are legal, stamped and approved, despite large gaps between their existence and what is called for in the zoning code.
TV news stations, national and local, salaciously cover the destruction of illegal buildings, sometimes prior to the actual tearing down. In many ways this destruction is the only way that the government, on any level, can prove that it is enforcing the rule of law. Max Weber calls government “a monopoly of violence” and here where the country is governed by a politics of infrastructure, the destruction of buildings has not so much to do with the maintaining of any specific building code, but of the validation of governmental authority.
Monday, August 10, 2009
One morning in early June, neighbors around 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue awoke to find the Gold Standard Restaurant defaced. Paint-filled balloons had been thrown at the restaurant, and the word “Gentrifier” (or some more vulgar derivation thereof) was sprayed onto the new façade. In early July the anti-gentrification vandals struck again, pasting signs onto the bases of the lamp poles, newly installed by University City District. The vandals’ signs encouraged passersby to deface the banners hanging from the poles. In the coming weeks a number of the banners were, in fact, torn down.
For at least a half century there has been tension between West Philadelphia communities and institutions accused of trying to change the neighborhood. However, gentrification is a complex topic – a set of mysterious forces, often misunderstood. Cedar Park resident Ray Murphy wrote a post pointing out the irony of the Gold Standard vandalism. The restaurant is the latest iteration of a business run by 30-plus-year residents. Similarly, just a week before the vandals posted their signs, dozens of long-time residents and community leaders gathered with Mayor Nutter in Cedar Park to applaud the unveiling of the lamp poles and banners.
In the coming weeks I heard a number of views on the lamps and banners from neighbors. Most people I spoke with felt that they were a positive addition to the community, but some had suspicions about the motives of University City District. In addition, there was plenty of speculation about the profile of the vandals – how long they had been in the neighborhood, and whether they really represented the community’s voice. Their naiveté regarding the Gold Standard’s ownership seemed to indicate that they did not.
Still, in Cedar Park and elsewhere in Philadelphia, I have seen plenty of wariness from older residents about new community investments. Concerns about gentrification are being felt all across the city. As such, it would serve us well to look deeper into what this mysterious force is, and what it really means. Ultimately the underlying concerns have nothing to do with lamp poles and new restaurants; people are afraid of losing control of their communities. They worry that upgrading a community leads to residents being priced out, and cultural shifts that make old timers feel unwelcome in their own neighborhood – legitimate concerns.
However, what has evolved in many communities is a state of affairs where some residents feel the need to choose between improving their neighborhood, and being able to afford their home or feel comfortable in the communities they helped shape. A letter in the University City Review a few years ago voiced this opinion, that the community should say no to the then-proposed new lamp poles, because they would lead to gentrification.
However, it seems to me that this cannot be an either/or equation. It simply does not make good sense that the only way to maintain a community is by halting any new projects. We have to find a way to make it possible to improve our communities while also avoiding the negative impacts of gentrification. Gentrification is a real issue. It has to do with people’s ability to afford to stay in their homes, maintain their businesses, and enjoy the culture of their community. However, often what gentrification foes attack are the cosmetic elements that have nothing to do with these concerns.
The fact is that communities are not powerless. Far from it. There are effective policies, programs, and strategies that can be employed to combat the negative impacts of gentrification, while allowing new investment to improve the quality of life in our communities. However, community members need to know that these policies and programs exist, and they need to push their elected officials to put them into place. I have written extensively about some of these policies. Here are a few:
- Incentives for developing affordable housing in transitional communities.
- Linking community-created plans to real implementation tools.
- A targeted community reinvestment strategy. Here’s another article about this.
- A tax freeze or deferment for low-income homeowners, to allow residents to stay in their homes when taxes rise. Here’s a blog post on that strategy. And here’s another one.
- Transition counseling to link communities with knowledge and resources to understand and benefit from new investment.
- Strategies for making historic preservation a positive tool for low- and moderate-income communities.
There are plenty of other strategies that I have not written about for allowing communities to benefit from redevelopment, and allowing new investment to create jobs, equity, and opportunity for existing residents and business owners. Change can come, but it is critical that residents and business owners feel control over that change, rather than being swept up in it.
Reaching this goal is more challenging than pasting signs to lamp poles. It requires honest dialogue about what various members of the community want to see, followed by a proactive approach to linking those ideas to policy and practice. This means residents, business owners, institutions, and elected officials working together. If we take on gentrification the right way, everyone will win, and it will be worth the effort.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
In a recent article in the New York Times the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, discussed his vision for the agency. Insisting that “Art Works” this former mutual fund manager and theatre producer will pursue an agenda that not only invests in high quality art, but the arts economic development potential. This is a commendable approach. As the NYTimes reports, Rocco wants to invest in a program “called “Our Town,” which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas.
“When you bring artists into a town, it changes the character, attracts economic development, makes it more attractive to live in and renews the economics of that town,” he said. “There are ways to draw artists into the center of things that will attract other people.” The program would also help finance public art projects and performances and promote architectural preservation in downtown areas, Mr. Landesman added. “Every town has a public square or landmark buildings or places that have a special emotional significance,” he said. “The extent that art can address that pride will be great.”
It is wonderful to see an NEA director not only understand the economic development potential of the arts, but the role it can play in revitalizing neighborhoods. More impressive however is his understanding of the role of NEA funding; not simply to pay for art exhibits or programs but to provide developers a stable rent stream, one that dramatically reduces operating risk. That kind of investment not only increases the likelihood that a developer can get funding, but it also reduces the artists' risk as well. As Philadelphia arts entrepreneur Matty Hart noted in a Young Involved Philadelphia forum about North Broad street’s revitalization a year ago, “artists are entrepreneurs, small businessmen.”
However I was concerned when Mr. Landesman suggested, in contrast to “Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, [who] made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district… [that] he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.” I would argue that by doing so the NEA misses out on an important opportunity to do something federal agencies often have a problem doing, which is think regionally. Artists chose to live based not so much on political boundaries, but on proximity to transit and cheap rent. Moreover I suspect that, arts and their impact grow not on the basis of the quality of the art but on their proximity to other artists and more importantly, the art market.
A regional focus on arts funding, one that prioritizes access to arts markets and institutions would seed artists up and down the Philadelphia / New York corridor and help Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. Hitting many states is actually very important for the very health of the NEA itself. Any institution that wants to grow a paltry (on the federal scale) $155 million budget needs to create as many allies as possible, in as many states as possible.
Finally, Mr. Landesman did not mention education. I am not about to digress into a discussion that is being seen more and more these days, about how the nature of our education system and larger society makes it harder and harder for young people to be creative problem solvers, that over programming of children’s lives and a focus on test scores destroys creativity. That is the focus of books, and another blog entry.
However I would argue that there is, for the health of our society, an ever greater need for arts to be creatively integrated into education, and that the NEA and the Department of Education should, like the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in their Sustainable Communities initiative, combine forces and deliver arts programming that are good for schools, students, the arts and the economic development of communities.
Be it loan forgiveness for Art teachers or apprenticeship programs, there are critical links that must be filled between areas and between regions.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Philadelphia is no stranger to the phenomenon of community groups opposing developers who are trying to build tall buildings. I have seen numerous community groups and civic associations hold up or kill projects in the entitlement process, on the grounds that they are too tall – out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.
Many Philadelphia neighborhoods do not have very tall buildings, and in some cases proposed buildings would introduce a new typology to low, residential communities. Whether or not that is a bad thing can be (and often is) debated. However, even in Center City Philadelphia, where tall buildings abound, community groups often oppose proposed tall developments.
This phenomenon is being played out on a whole different level in New York right now. Hines, the Houston-based mega-developer, is proposing an 82-story tower (shown above) designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Jean Nouvel, for 53rd Street next to the Museum of Modern Art. The new tower would include condos, a hotel, and substantial new gallery space for MOMA. Despite great reviews from the critics, some neighbors have come out strongly against the project, due to… you guessed it: the height.
Granted this would be one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. And also granted there are some reasons why tall buildings could create undesirable impacts for communities. Depending on the siting and massing they can create shadows and contribute to a wind tunnel effect. They alter the skyline, and can block people’s views. On the flip side of the coin, tall buildings also have the power to create stunning works of beauty that define a city and capture the imagination.
However, is height really the biggest worry for communities? Has height just become the standard offensive element selected by neighborhood groups wanting to protect the status quo? Or is there something about a developer coming into a neighborhood with a tall building that seems naturally imposing, offensive.
The problem comes when this opposition to height ends up killing projects that are actually quite good – especially ones that succeed at the ground level, or that provide important community assets (like the Nouvel tower that incorporates 50,000 square feet of art museum floor space).
Even more problematic is the issue of community groups focusing on height, while ignoring more important aspects of the project – such as gaping parking garage entrances, dead ground-floors, lack of pedestrian accessibility, and few neighborhood amenities. I have seen a number of contentious projects in Philadelphia end up with developers compromising on the height, while leaving much more offensive elements intact.
The bottom line is that in cities across America, from Philadelphia's rowhouse neighborhoods to sky-scraping Manhattan, community groups and developers alike exhibit the trend of looking toward the sky – though with very different intentions and outcomes. More complex are the questions of why, and how this trend will shape our urban landscapes.