Let’s Take a Stroll Down Memory Lane: Victor Gruen and the Central Business District

Mall of America

Mall of America

City versus suburbs used to be a very big issue in economic development. It still is–but currently it rests silently below the surface. Instead concepts like metro areas, mega cities, knowledge-based economics, clusters, innovation, and millennial central city gentrification dominated our headlines. There was a brief revival of the city-suburb thing when Detroit went bankrupt, but now that Detroit has revitalized commentary has fallen off. For the moment, we assume central cities are back to stay.

But good feelings about the future of central cities were not always the consensus. Back in the 1950’s things looked pretty bleak indeed. So humor the Curmudgeon, and let’s take a stroll down economic development’s “memory lane”–to the 1950’s when almost everybody believed the CBD’s collapse was imminent. In fact, let’s discuss the reformer that wanted to save the central city, the “father of suburban malls”, Victor Gruen.

Why take a walk down memory lane? Why should the reader care about Victor Gruen? The city/suburb thing has not gone away; rather it is simply lost, buried, within metropolitan databases, regional economies, and clusters. But suburbs are still out there; most Americans are suburbanites. Lot’s of people are uncomfortable with suburbs; they see them in some sort of zero-sum conflict with central cities (legacy cities). Are they? This article goes back to yesteryear in search of how cities, their central business districts and suburbs tried to figure out just how they related to each other.

Gruen is a good place to start in any discussion of the modern city/suburb relationship. Gruen dominated the middle phase (1956-1975) of present-day suburbanization. This article, an off-shoot from my soon to be published tome on the History of American Economic Development, “As Two Ships Passing in the Night” (Edward Elgar Publishing), examines how Gruen perceived the city/suburb relationship. His ideas, their success and failures,  probably more than anyone else in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, shaped the path that was taken.

Who is Victor Gruen–and why should I care?

In a post World War II era of giants such as Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, Lewis Mumford, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Victor Gruen is a big deal. An Austrian by  birth, Gruen is known today as the “father of malls“. Our present-day institutional memory ties him to suburbs (and retail). Victor Gruen, however, loved the central city–and he spent a great deal of his time and emotion in trying to save it. His problem was simple–he could not convince the Big central Cities to embrace the car, the shopper, and, believe it or not, walking. If the central city could not adapt to the car it was doomed. That is what the suburbs did–they accommodated the car.  So more than anything Gruen wanted to rebuild the central business districts (CBD) so that it could compete with the suburb’s access to the auto. His image for downtown was opposite that of Robert Moses and his skyscraper office buildings. Instead, he tried to make the CBD the king of the metropolitan retail and commercial geography.

Gruen studied architecture at the same school, Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, that turned Hitler down a generation previous. He escaped from Austria in 1938, the same week as Freud, by dressing up a friend as a Nazi storm trooper (Gruen was Jewish), having the friend drive him and his wife to the airport, where,  believing he was a Nazi official, gate attendants allowed him on the plane without proper documentation. Eventually, He made his way to England, then to America–arriving in New York City with “an architect’s degree, $8 dollars, and no English”. He joined with other German-Jewish emigres  formed a band, played on Broadway, and attracted a thirties version of crowdfunding from the likes of Richard Rogers (and Hammerstein), and Al Jolson; Irving Berlin wrote their music. By 1939, Gruen had a letter of recommendation from Albert Einstein. Given an opportunity to design a Fifth Avenue leather goods boutique. Gruen developed a revolutionary storefront. Critics loved it and Gruen was on his way.

Victor_Gruen_-_Image_from_the_American_Heritage_Center

Victor Gruen __Image_from_the_American_Heritage_Center

His link with suburbs seemingly came first. A decade and a half off the boat (1956), he designed an outdoor shopping center, “Northland”–just outside of Detroit– around its hometown department store, Hudson. One hundred and sixty-three acres and ten thousand parking spaces, “Northland” was allegedly the nation’s first outdoor regional shopping mall. He quickly followed up with “Southdale” in Edina Minnesota, an unknown suburb of Minneapolis. Southdale, proved to be the model that revolutionized suburban shopping centers–and that model spread across the nation during that decade and the next. Over the next two decades he designed over fifty malls himself.

His regional shopping mall plans were long-term multi use visions, intended to evolve over decades. But Gruen always left to others the execution of the plan–and that proved to be a weak point. His plans were upset by unanticipated change–the inevitable black swans that created an unrecognized new world (more on that below). Southdale, for example, never completed his plan–it stopped midway.

The Gruen’s black swan was  Congressional approval of something called “accelerated depreciation” (ironically intended to encourage manufacturing investment to counter the first pangs of deindustrialization). Accelerated depreciation unintentionally encouraged prolific mall construction, based not on market demand or mall profitability, but the opposite. Malls were built to produce tax losses, and then sold. This had the effect of building plenty of malls on the edges of the metro periphery (pushing it out still further) with the supposed intention of letting the market demand come to them. In the meantime, while waiting for future suburban development, they went bankrupt in droves. Other developers like the famous Alfred Taubman (who earlier had copied Southdale in Hayward California) would purchase these distressed properties and maximize their potential by applying Gruen’s principles, taking them to higher levels and more sophistication. In later years, these new developers built power centers anchored by big box retailers and eventually, supermalls. In short, malls begat malls. Southdale, the pioneer, is about fifteen minutes from the Mall of America. (the largest mall in the nation with over 500 stores and twelve thousand parking spaces).

The sprawl of malls was not in Gruen’s plan–and he wasn’t happy or proud. In 1978, despairing of what malls had become, he proclaimed that developers had “bastardized his ideas” and he refused “to pay alimony for those bastard developments“. The father of malls had disinherited his children.

Still, To Gruen, Southdale was the mall the CBD ought to have been, but was not.

The Fort Worth Plan

While he developed Northland and Southdale (1956-58) Gruen also prepared Fort Worth’s  CBD redevelopment plan  (1956). The goal behind that plan was to counter decentralization, i.e. suburbanization, that was depopulating the Big Cities of America. Gruen’s hope was to recreate a Vienna experience in America’s downtowns. The beautiful and vibrant Vienna, with its famous Ringstrasse, was the product of such a plan–and a massive urban renewal project equal to that of Paris in the 1870’s. That was his prescription for a new revitalized central city. He proposed to recast/redesign and re-purpose the CBD to compete with his regional shopping center and therefore preserving its metropolitan primacy, and the dominance of the central city over its hinterland.

By the time, Gruen wrote his book (1964), the Heart of Our Cities, it was evident that the first major urban renewal of the era, Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle (inspired by Moses), had not abated suburbanization.  However successful in transforming Pittsburgh’s downtown into a major corporate office center, Gruen’s CBD needed to fit into the modern world–not the world of the 1920’s; it needed to create a modern shopping/retail district accessible to the car. Fort Worth, and seventy other CBDs he developed plans for,  was his, almost desperate attempt to rejigger American CBDs to fit into the car-dominated modern world.

More than anything, Gruen was a planner. Personally, an intense socialist who hated cars, he believed in walking. His modern CBD would, like the regional shopping mall, emphasize walking. But, putting aside walking, Gruen knew  Americans loved cars, and that future America had better understand that reality. Downtowns and central cities had better appreciate that cars were here to stay and they had better adapt quickly to that reality. He firmly believed that central city’s arrogance, inflexibility and rigid planning guidelines were  kicking retailers and population out to the suburbs. A change of attitude and character could stop the flow, and revitalize the CBD. To understand his thinking of how that could happen, he wrote The Heart of Our Cities.

Let’s take a look at his model.

Gruen’s Urban Crisis and His Cure

When Gruen published The Heart of Our Cities, Northeastern and Midwestern central cities were clearly, visibly, in serious trouble. They had, in fact, been in trouble for almost two decades, but matters had taken a turn for the worse at the end of World War II. Suburbanization was the most visible symptom–and in late 1950’s folks were nervously waiting for the upcoming 1960 census–fearing a dramatic depopulation. That was the backdrop behind his book.

Gruen compared the metropolitan area to a living organism–with the CBD as its heart. The CBD “works as a pump supplying the cells and tissues located throughout the metropolitan area with life-giving energy. Most of all, it supplies the brain of the city” (p. 49). Central city decline results from the CBD’s inability to grow and serve as the principal source of its economic growth. Circulatory problems, congestion in particular, was the chief culprit; congestion inhibited the flow of energy and impeded the brain’s ability to lead the metro area. The arteries and veins (transportation system) had clogged: “the urban heart has to absorb … large numbers of vehicles” which it could not do given its 1920 design. Planners and downtown elites made things worse by rigidly requiring obsolete and dysfunctional building, design, and zoning codes. (p. 52). The planning requirements made it impossible for the car to function and the consumer to shop. Gruen’s message was that CBDs and central cities, if they were to avoid a fatal heart attack, had to adjust to the car. His cure as to how that could be done was expressed in Southdale’s design principles.

Gruen’s goal was to preserve, protect and defend the mono-nuclear city. His preferred urban hierarchy was large central cities, each dominating their suburban hinterland, competing with the other Big Cities for people/trade and prosperity. That was the only form of metro area Northern and Midwestern cities had ever known; that traditional hierarchy was what Gruen wanted to protect. The CBD, was not only the heart, but the visible symbol of the mono-nuclear city’s ability to not only tap into its hinterland. A strong and vibrant CBD was required if the central city were to capture hinterland outputs to serve larger purposes of metropolitan economic, social and political growth. Gruen’s fear was the development of a polycentric metro area due to central city congestion that forced out population and commerce to peripheries. Unplanned growth in the hinterland, a vast sprawl, so diffused the metro area that it threatened a Hobbesian “war of all against all”, a war that would result in overall metropolitan decline.

Empire Plaza Albany is based on Le Corbu's Design

Empire Plaza Albany is based on Le Corbu’s Design

Le Corbusier: UN Building

Le Corbusier: UN Building

Up to that time, the city gloried in its “density”; building up, clustering population, and separating economic activities into discrete compact areas–integrating green spaces, parks and recreation between these dense uses. The image of the old mono-nuclear urban area was based, in Gruen’s view, on Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. That was Moses’s image and the dominant thrust urban renewal had taken to that point.

Planners and developers, since the 1939 Moses-built New York City’s World Fair, had faithfully followed in the Radiant City and, if anything, density and skyscrapers had gathered momentum into the fifties–after all, it was Le Corbusier who led the design team for the United Nations, the first major postwar non-housing  neighborhood slum clearance in the the nation. Robert Moses’ Pittsburgh’s Plan, grounded in the Radiant City, had guided that city’s Golden Triangle revitalization. The problem, as Gruen saw it, Le Corbu’s  build-to-the-sky density had destroyed any hope of accommodating the car (p. 178). Density fostered congestion. Congrested fueled the growth of the the suburb.

Oiginally a disciple of Le Corbusier, Gruen searched for an alternative–and he found it in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. Wright’s Broadacre City the exact opposite Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. Gruen labels Broadacre as the “Anti-City”-a central city which served as as an employment center, surrounded by rings of (mostly) residential garden cities linked to the central employment center through highways (and other modes of transportation). Gruen’s dilemma, obviously, was to incorporate Wright’s polycentric metro landscape in such a way as so to preserve the mono-nuclear metropolitan area. The key was to refunction the central city’ “pump”. Restore the life-giving vitality, energy and power of its heart–the CBD–by making it  into a “garden city of commerce, entertainment, culture and above all shopping“.

Embracing Wright’s garden city motif, Gruen proposed to convert the CBD into a shopping/consumer nexus that enhanced sales, pedestrian traffic and profitability.  CBD redesign meant not only adapting to the car, but, injecting more uses into a compact area (block) to inspire consumption as well as enliven the human spirit through entertainment and beauty. Directly challenging planner single-use zoning, Gruen built fountains and food courts, movie theaters, museums and monuments, landscaping and park benches, intermixed with offices, government buildings, museums, boutiques–and above all retail. His designs maximized “impulse shopping” and were much criticized, even in his day. Wright himself, on a tour of Southdale asked “what is this, a railroad station or a bus station?”. You’ve got a garden court that has all the evils of a village street and none of its charm“. Critics, notwithstanding, Gruen’s ideas caught captured the headlines, and by the late 1950’s more and more central cities bought into Gruen’s message, and in varying degrees they followed its themes. The most important of these themes was access by car to the CBD from all points in the metropolitan area. Highways and freeways were the key to a revitalized CBD.

Many wonder today why urban reformers and economic developers of those years allowed highways, freeways and expressways to decentralize the metropolitan landscape? It is because, following Gruen (and others), highways had created the suburbanization problem, ao logically highways, properly integrated to the CBD, became the solution. The solution, however, involved several moving parts–and a redefinition of the metropolitan landscape.

Gruen’s Solution

Gruen does not want sprawl, uncontrolled suburbs and the like–just the opposite. He believes that unless the central city learns from the Anti-City (Wright’s Broadacre), the central city will, in the end fail–and that would be disastrous. His insight was that looking at these suburbs, he discovered they managed density differently from Le Corbusier. Metropolitan decentralization, Gruen argued did not mean abandoning density; rather it meant that central cities must learn how suburbs adapted it to the car/truck and turned it to their advantage. The heart of the Broadacre suburb is its regional shopping center, which integrated the car and yet was a dense concentration of retail–in fact the regional shopping center was the CBD of the suburb . “The reason for the emergence of the regional shopping center is identical to that which created many a great city in the past: commercialism (p.186). Regional centers. just like suburban commercial strips, were built by “fugitives from the center of the city” (p. 187). A ring of suburbs could support a strong, revitalized commercial CBD.

Wright's Broadacre City Sketches

Wright’s Broadacre City Sketches

Suburban regional shopping centers had been around since J.C. Nichol’s Country Club outside of Kansas City (1920). The post-1950 regional shopping center, however, was built around the car, the truck, and consumer/user preferences. The underlying principles behind the regional shopping center were compactness (density), variety, and diversity. From Gruen, I distilled eight design characteristics suburban centers possessed: (1) constructed on large tracts of land; (2) adjacent to highways; (3) with market area of 300,000 to 500,000; (4) driving time of about twenty minutes; (5)  commercial area is located in the center of the project, surrounded by large expanses of parking (four to five times the acreage of commercial center) and is pedestrian only, sometimes weather-protected; (6) equipped with amenities including fountains, park benches, art works, park-garden-like landscaping; (7) the “car storage areas (i.e. parking) are ringed by an internal distribution road connected at various points to the highways, the public road network, and public transit, with special roads for service delivery to the center, sometimes to underground loading docks; and (8) a willingness to add other uses (gas station, food courts, medical offices, office buildings, hotels,  grocery store, stand alone retail, movies/theaters, auditorium, children’s play areas, bicycle paths–and high-rise apartments and middle class housing–whatever the market and consumer desires. The last characteristic describes how Gruen anticipated his regional shopping center to evolve over time.

To remake the CBD in this image required a pedestrian only CBD. This could happen if highways and freeways from all parts of the metro area led to the CBD and terminated in the parking garage at the edge of the CBD. Accordingly, his plan called for the CBD to be embedded in a ring of parking garages linked to highways by ramps. The traveler must park, get out and then walk into the CBD to shop–just like he/she did for the suburban shopping center. The shopper would willingly park and walk because the CBD would provide the experience and pleasure that they expected.

That meant the CBD had to be redesigned to provide that experience. Multiple uses within a single block created excitement, variety, and diversity. So Gruen’s pedestrian-accessed downtown was itself jumbled into blocks containing all sorts of use (office, commerce, retail, entertainment, culture, and recreation). Street-level design encouraged retail and entertainment, but included “inspirational” uses  (waterfalls or viewing vistas, for example) as well. Landmarks that users could identify with dotted its key intersections. Extensive landscaping and beautification were intended to raise spirits and provide pleasure. And it was compact so to be walkable from one end to the other and then back to the car. Downtowns should take advantage of topographical features, including waterways and hills and background vistas.

Gruen’s Fort Worth plan’s timing  “was perfect”. Spreading across the nation, Gruen’s new downtown grabbed the attention of those who rejected Le Corbusier’s rigid segregation of uses, sterile and austere skyscraper density and functional modernist designs–which built impressively up, but ignored the street level. They also rejected blocks with uniform setbacks, a sameness of spartan architecture that segregated office, from retail, from entertainment. Rejected also were fountains, traffic circles and monuments that could not absorb the traffic flooding off Le Corbusier’s wide boulevards and freeways. All these traditional planning designs were exposed for what many regarded them to be–postcards for suburban living. Planners might love efficiency and density–most people didn’t. Because the CBD embraced these Le Corbusier principles, shoppers and retailers and everybody else fled from the CBD. Gruen’s secret was to abandon this form of density and substitute that of the regional shopping centered.

Whatever the reader might think of them, Gruen’s ideas became cutting edge prescriptions for CBD change. In 1958, Fortune presented a series of high-powered articles, based on Gruen’s image, intended to foster thought, encourage discussion that hopefully would  change how CBD’s conduced their affairs. So successful was the articles, Fortune published them in book form–“the Exploding Metropolis”.

Gruen’s Impact–“The Exploding Metropolis”

Fortune’s articles  included William H. Whyte’s “Are Cities Un-American?” and “Urban Sprawl”, Bello’s “the City and the Car, Freedgood’s “New Strength in City Hall “and Seligman’s, “The Enduring Slums“, but the one that really got people going was Jane Jacobs’ “Downtown is for People“.

Jane Jacobs (145-146) praised Gruen’s downtown, calling it an “animated alley” with  “diversity of uses and design“, a Wright-like garden city theme, that “enlivens the street with variety and detail“. She commented that 80 cities were already seriously considering Gruen’s ideas for their CBD, so revolutionary was their impact. BUT, she argued “there is no magic in simply removing cars from downtown, and certainly none in stressing peace, quiet and dead space“. The removal of cars permits, however, the “streets to work harder and to keep downtown activities compact and concentrated“. Thus she lauds as “excellent (p. 146) Gruen plan [which] includes … sidewalk arcades, poster columns, flags, vendor kiosks, display stands, outdoor cafes, band stands, flower beds, and special lighting effects”  “The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated, and busier than before“. The plan’s beauty is that it mixes old buildings which are not destroyed with new. “Downtown streets should play up their mixture of buildings, with all its unspoken, but well understood implications of choice” [i.e. capitalism, innovation and failure]. She later offers an observation that a downtown center “comes across to people as a center by virtue of its enormous collection of small elements, and where people can see collection of small elements, where people can see them at street level”. Also (p.155) streets should be narrow, short, and not choked by cars, offering continual choice to the pedestrian “on this side of the street or that“–a feature she believes is included in the Gruen plan (p.156), “as an excellent drama to exploit the contrast between the street’s small elements and its big banks, big lobbies, or solid walls“.

Southdale Mall

Southdale Mall

1280px-2009-0611-003-Southdale

Southdale Mall

Jacobs sees in Gruen a fundamental critique of what had been the standard for CBD redevelopment. To her planners focused on a single block, or a collection of blocks–at the expense of the entire stroll and the aggregate personal experience. The downtown was chopped up into undigestible blocks which did not relate to each other. This is because standard Moses-style CBD redevelopment focused on “the project” which was usually collapsed into a superblock that conformed to planner’s codes and configurations.[pp.162]. Each “project” was designed in isolation from the blocks around it.

If they (the planners) bother to indicate the surrounding streets, the airbrush has soften them into an innocuous blur” (p. 156) “the cultural superblock (Lincoln Center) is intended to be very grand and the focus of the whole music and dance world … but its streets will be able to give it no support whatever. (p. 157), “People have very concrete reasons for where they walk downtown and whoever would beguile them had better provide reasons (p.158).

No matter how interesting , raffish, or elegant downtown’s streets may be something else is needed: focal points. A focal point can be a fountain, a square, or a building–whatever its form the focal point is a landmark–and if it is surprising (that does not stale) and delightful, a whole district will get a magic spillover” (p. 160). In particular, she rejected ponderous collections of government architecture known as civic centers” which were doomed to failure (p. 160) “Big open spaces are not functional for this type of civic activity” (p. 161) which promotes pedestrian traffic and use [Has anyone ever walked Boston’s Government Center Plaza on a winter day, or Buffalo’s Marine Midland Center? [These are examples of Le Corbusier CBD redevelopment.]

This is why Jacobs believed CBD urban renewal would fail–because of the project approach which concentrates on blocks and superblocks. “Government officials, planners and developers and architects–first envisioned the spectacular project, and little else, as the solution to rebuilding the city. Redevelopment legislation and the economics resulting from it were born of this thinking and tailored for prototype project designs … the image was built into the machinery …[and] the machinery reproduces the image. The project approach thus adds nothing to the individuality of a city; quite the opposite–most of the projects reflect a positive mania for obliterating a city’s individuality“. (p. 163) “Waterfronts are a great asset, but few cities are doing anything with them” (p. 163). She cites San Antonio positively.

For her the Moses-paradigm urban renewal project approach “assumes that it is desirable to single out activities and redistribute them in an orderly fashion … But this notion of order is irreconcilably opposed to the way in which downtown actually works; what makes it lively is the way so many different kinds of activity tend to support each other. We are accustomed to thinking of downtowns as divided into functional districts–financial, shopping, theater–and so they are, but only to a degree. As soon as an area gets too exclusively tied to one type of activity … it gets into trouble; it loses its appeal to the users of downtown (pp 164-165). … Where you find the liveliest downtown you will find one with the basic activities to support two shifts of foot traffic.

Gruen’s Weakness Appears: Half-Hearted Herds Implement his Plans

Teaford’s (the Metropolitan Revolution) reaction to Gruen’s Fort Worth plan (p.49) was that it was the “culmination of twenty years of thought by American urban leaders and planners about how to thwart commercial decentralization and reinforce the existing single-focus city (mono-nuclear)(49) “In the plan centripetal expressways carried traffic to a highway that looped around downtown Fort Worth. At each exit of the loop ample parking garages accommodated incoming drivers who then could (must) walk the remaining few blocks to work or shopping in the compact pedestrian business district”.  Most cities only partially implemented his plans–the few that opened downtown pedestrian malls regretted the decision. Gruen’s new downtown intrigued city elites, but some hard realities confronted its effective implementation.

Who was going to pay for all this–after all much of the city’s tax base (the CBD) would have to be rebuilt. Revenue bonds and TIF would help, but future use and profits were not guaranteed. In those days, the federal government drove much of the urban agenda–by grants and such. There is no evidence the feds embraced Gruen’s concepts–and no evidence they opposed them. On this issue, there was no rush to federal leadership in prescribing the form urban renewal should take. So that well was dry. Federal involvement in CBD urban renewal did not pick up until after 1957. Almost all of the famous urban renewal projects of the 1950’s were totally privately financed and consisted of major corporations building, or rebuilding office headquarters. Post 1956 federal urban renewal legislation opened the door for big nonprofit institutions, the famous “eds and meds” and middle/upper income residential projects; they would assume an early 1960’s prominence. None of these users thought in terms of a holistic CBD–they required financeable phased construction built on superblocks, designed to achieve their own purposes. There was a reason why Moses-style urban renewal had been so popular; it fit the realities of the downtown

This was the time of Interstates and interstate access to our Big central Cities–but the maps had long since been drawn and the highway system Gruen wanted was, again expensive, and it cut large swatches through areas immediately adjacent to the downtown. Moreover state and federal transportation planners/engineers did not think like Gruen. They chose routes to connect existing locations, not to support development of a new location.

In hindsight Gruen’s approach was fundamentally flawed from the get-go. His regional shopping center was “greenfield new development”–built for one owner, who pursued one goal, profit. The suburban regional shopping center could be creative and imaginative so long as the owner of the property was convinced profits would result. Site control was not an issue. A comprehensive all encompassing approach where the parts served the whole could not only be visualized, it could be implemented–built.

Downtowns were just the opposite. The CBD wasn’t “greenfields development”–it was “redevelopment”. The CBD, too large for its own good, and had to be made more compact. There would be winners and losers in that. Within the new CBD there would literally be hundreds of owners, including governments and major nonprofits. Site control was a figment of somebody’s imagination. As to unity of purpose, the owners were literally, and figuratively, all over the place–absentee landlords, city hall, state office buildings, restaurants, county libraries, utilities–you name it. Moreover, some new trends like drive up banking, ATMs and McDonald’s fast food-like drive ups meant lots of car drivers didn’t want to park and walk–they would wait in cars to be served. No one mentioned what was required below the surface–pipes and all that. None of that was relevant to the greenfield location. Did I mention cost of all this? And Time? Politics?

So–no surprise–cities wanted to redevelop the CBD using Gruen’s ideas and concepts, but they wound up picking and choosing what they could reach consensus on–and find the funds for. “A bit of this–and a bit of that”. Pedestrian Main Street Mall, sometimes with public transportation was the initiative that many turned to–with mixed results at best. That might have worked if time was on their side–but it wasn’t.

So a flurry of plans (there’s always plans) and some construction and halfway CBD Gruen-style urban renewal–lots of shrubbery and graffiti art–and then the swans came. The Great Society disrupted city politics, and the urban riots of the mid and late 1960’s did the rest. The CBD world was in an entirely different “space” by the middle of the decade, and literally was on fire by its end. The shift of retail and population to the suburbs, if anything, picked up momentum–and northern school desegregation and busing sucked the air out of CBD redevelopment schemes. Until James Rouse knocked on city hall doors–but that is another story.

The stroll down memory lane is meant to begin a discussion on cities and suburbs. I wanted that discussion to rest on the real-life complexity of how things evolved as they did. If my analysis, brief through it may be (or not) is correct, there is no great neo-liberal conspiracy going on in; suburbanization was not a spatial fix of the capitalist system. Central cities understood what was going on at the time–and were trying to deal with it. Over the following years many solutions have been advocated, and some attempted: regionalism, waterfront, stadiums and festival marketing, community development and neighborhood revitalization. Until we hit upon millennial gentrification as a revitalization strategy, city/suburb relations were heading toward legacy cities-based regionalism (a dead end in my opinion). But sooner or later folks will realize that city/suburb problem-solving requires much more than a few young affluent white households moving into selected Big Cities. When that happens a sound appreciation of how things went wrong in postwar city/suburban evolution is a good start.

Fort_Worth_Skyline1

Fort Worth Downtown

Gruen’s “Southdale” model is outlined in his book, the Heart of the City on which our issue is based. We have also borrowed heavily from Malcolm Gladwell’s, “the Terrazzo Jungle”, the New Yorker (March 15, 2004) and Fortune Magazine’s famous “The Exploding Metropolis” (1958)

 

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