March 19, 2008
Changes in Harlem …
Meanwhile, about 1300 miles up Route 1 from Key West, Manhattan’s Harlem is coming to grips with a variant of a change in “character.” The famous African American section, which has had its ups and downs over the years, is facing a huge new redevelopment. Last week the New York City Planning Commission approved a significant new zoning plan that will facilitate new businesses, apartments, and bigger buildings. Once shunned by the business community south of central park, Harlem is now a magnet for new commercial and residential development, especially on its 125th Street (where, among the Apollo Theater and other famous landmarks, Bill Clinton located his office a few years back). Some fear the loss of what has made Harlem a unique Manhattan neighborhood. Will it become an uptown version of Times Square, which now sometimes looks like an overgrown suburban mall? But according to this story, many stakeholders believe that the plan is good compromise of encouraging new business while preserving Harlem’s identity.
March 18, 2008
Render unto tourists …
Historic places that have turned into tourist towns inevitably face the dilemma of trying to preserve charm while at the same time facilitating the modern amenities desired by the lumpen tourist. Such a challenge is facing Key West, Florida, which offers fascinating history, lovely architecture, unique communities, and a growing reputation as a party-hardy tropical destination. All of this merges on Duval Street, Key West’s main drag, where some local politicians and businessmen want to discourage the strip joints and t-shirt shops that have filled much of Duval in recent years.
The problem that faces such “clean up” efforts is that, for Key West and similar tourist magnets, there are probably ten visitors who come only for beer and a t-shirt that says “I got drunk in Key West” for every more sophisticated visitor who wants to stroll among the charming old Florida bungalows (available for a song 40 years, and for a million dollars today), see the homes of Hemingway and Bishop, and visit the fascinating historical African American neighborhood of Bahama Village.
One solution is to allow the more base entertainment but to cluster and strictly contain it. Most partiers don’t care that they have been segregated; they simply want easy access from their hotels to the beer and t-shirts. Historic buildings and neighborhoods can be kept party-free, as long as the demand is pushed elsewhere by land use law. Many tourists to New Orleans, for example, visit only crowded Canal and Bourbon Streets, and the nearby charms of Royal and Magazine Streets are thereby preserved. Zoning! What a great idea …
March 17, 2008
The end of the auto culture? … and a time for glee?
Last week I wrote about the creep of auto-based residential land use into Europe. This week I give time to the opposite viewpoint –- in particular, to one of the latest manifestos of James Howard Kunstler, Scourge of the Suburbs. In an excerpt from his new book, “Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation,” Kunstler predicts that the death of the auto-based culture is at hand, and calls for rethinking our policies and our lifestyles to handle the change.
Of the most remarkable features of the opinions of Kunstler and his ilk is the almost palpable glee with which the end of the dominant American land use culture is predicted. You do not hear this sort of emotion from more polished critics of suburbia, who call for changes in land use laws as much out of necessity as out of a desire to protect the environment and improve society. But not Kunstler, who misses no opportunity to pummel the motor-propelled objects of his derision.
Among other things, he blames the auto-obsessed culture –- as reflected in NASCAR –- in large part on the insecurity of the U.S. South over its poor sister status in the early 20th century, and the opportunities that cars gave southerners to improve their status in the later half of that century.
I might have gone further with the sociological argument and extended it to the SUV boom of the 1990s, which was not a southern-driven phenomenon. As the United States became more crowded, and as lifestyles became more sedentary in the late 20th century, the once-alluring ideal of the sports car appealed less and less to young men (who had fewer palaces to speed and feel the adrenaline rush); its place was taken by an obsession with sheer size and comfort (as reflected in McMansions as well) and gadgets –- features offered by the SUV, which looks very impressive indeed stuck at the light on the way to Home Depot.
Is Kunstler correct in predicting the imminent decline of this culture and a revival of pre-auto small-town values? Only time… and perhaps the chemists feverishly at work trying to fashion petroleum alternatives … will tell …