Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Back To The Future

Seattle Transit Blog added a new contributor recently, with Steve Thornton demanding more slums and fewer parks. It's tempting to dismiss this as just more of the park-bashing that defeated the Commons in the 90s, but, I think, important to look at what's actually being said.

The basic framework today is rote learning from Jane Jacobs, gone wrong. They remember that Jacobs championed a lively streetlife, but they never understood where or how this arises in the Jacobsean sphere, so they favor end results and tend to demand that somebody else make it happen.

Thornton, for example, goes on at great length about how the 9 acres proposed for a park on the waterfront should, instead, be used to make the kind of city he likes, with cotton candy sellers and clowns in each block, and great numbers of little 'shoppes', but not once does he say how this should be done, or why this should be done, considering the area is bounded on the north by the Pike Place Market and on the south by Pioneer Square. The Market and Pioneer Square are both just such lively streetlife areas as he claims to favor, and both are suffering from lack of trade. Apparently we have no shortage of actual area in which this could happen.

Thornton's argument fails wherever probed, but he, and the commenters, offer a self-portrait of the would-be artist as an angry young person. First, they claim to be acting on behalf of God to save the environment from development- as unlikely as their path may appear to be. Because they're acting for God, they don't need to worry about the details, but because they themselves are weak, they limit their attacks to public parks or other social amenities. This gives them a double bonus of publicity value as wacky contradictorians, willing to stand up against the suffocating blanket of good taste in order to honor their principles.

And their principles are made pretty plain by reading what they write and read. They like new restaurants and food carts, confuse small bookstores with literacy, think a thriving trade in jewelry and clothing is the beating commercial heart of Seattle, and think transit can be much improved by electronic systems that tell you when you have enough time to get another cup of coffee before your bus arrives. Oh, and they think the viaduct looks really cool.

So, a bunch of lovers of Stalinist architecture who think Seattle should close the parks, provide more slum housing, and encourage small businesses- where have I heard that before?

Oh, that's right, that was the Seattle of the 50s, the Seattle of the Public Library and Municipal Building that have subsequently been torn down because they were too ugly to live. That was the Seattle that zoned the Regrade to prevent high-rise development and keep space for manufacturing close to downtown. That was the Seattle that 'couldn't afford' parks because of the sweetheart deals with businesses that kept city revenues down. That Seattle let developers built the Edgewater and other buildings on stilts over the water.

And that was wrong. It turned out that if we valued and protected our parks, Seattle became a more attractive place to live. It turned out that when the Building Department was forced to obey the law, most notably in the Roanoke Reef case, business flourished and Seattle became more prosperous. It turned out that First Avenue became more prosperous, not less, when the myriad of tattoo shops and pawn shops finally closed their doors.

So, thanks, but no thanks. You can take your Stalinist yearnings for architecture and your confused muttering about environmentalism and peddle it elsewhere. I've heard a duck fart underwater before.

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