Attention Houston-based readers of Quarter Mile Smile. You are in for a real treat. Professor Philip Bess from the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture will be in Houston to give a lecture at the University of Saint Thomas at 7:00pm this Thursday, April 23rd. You may recognize his name from a few articles posted in the Quarter Mile Smile Reading Room. Of note, he authored a very good two-part article in Public Discourse that makes an excellent case for urbanism and discloses some of the issues with sprawl. If you can find time in your schedule to attend this lecture, you will enjoy it. It is free and open to the public.
Month: April 2015
All You Need is Love: Why Love is the Secret Ingredient in Marinara and Place Making – Part 2
If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. – G.K. Chesterton
In my previous post, I spoke about how the prerequisite for creating any place worth dwelling in is love. I suggested that money without love will lead at the very least to mediocrity and at the worse to design atrocities that are often a violation of the spirit of a place and the people who live there.
South Bend, Indiana, is Pimlico
You have to love to see. When I arrived in South Bend, Indiana, in 2009, its citizens were the worst detractors of the place. The downtown had yet to shake a reputation it had earned a couple of decades prior for being a crime-ridden, unsafe place with little to do. A once glorious downtown had, through terrible urban planning mistakes, been reduced to pawn shops and low-end bars that emptied drunks onto the streets nightly.
And yet, a dedicated group had started loving the downtown years before I arrived, and happily, the city had put resources and money behind them. When I arrived, the old reputation was simply a bad myth waiting to be dispelled. Gone were the pawn shops, the wig shops, and the drunk bars. There were retail shops, restaurants, a pleasant streetscape with newly installed benches and flower beds. Many building facades had been restored through a very successful grant program. There were several popular festivals that brought thousands into the downtown regularly. But South Bend’s transformation was still in its early stages. Many storefronts were still vacant, many facades still needed rehabilitation, and the mega-mall in the next municipality, the one with all the stores that used to be in downtown South Bend, still proved to be a more powerful pull than the collection of stores the downtown had to offer.
Before long, I found myself falling in love with little South Bend, a place that had seen better days. And because I loved her, I could see the city’s potential, the better days ahead. And this seeing inspired my actions. When I walked down the street, the empty storefronts were not merely “empty,” they were an unrealized possibility. It was as though the empty shops were calling out to me to fill them the way a child calls out to a mother to fill her empty stomach.
I was not alone. The as-yet unrealized possibility of South Bend called out to a dedicated core of volunteers, business owners, and city employees. South Bend is turning itself around because people began to love her and continue to love her in spite of her unrealized potential. The historic and once abandoned State Theater in downtown South Bend has become home to a wonderful little brewery, a monthly market, and a series of interesting performances because people loved her and saw the potential. Downtown South Bend is abuzz with people every first Friday of the month because people joined together to create a fun monthly event that has grown in popularity since its bumpy inception. New residences are being built, the empty shops are filling up, and historic buildings are finally being rehabbed. The one-way streets that once directed traffic around the city like a raceway are finally being converted into two-way streets again, all because people loved South Bend and did not “move to Chelsea” — or in South Bend’s case, to the nearby town of Granger. In fact, people are finally moving to South Bend, not merely moving away or visiting during an occasional Notre Dame football game.
Note: South Bend is celebrating 150 years in 2015. The community has banded together to create a year-long slate of activities, celebrations, and projects. The concentration of activity will occur on the anniversary weekend, May 22nd. Find out more at: http://www.sb150.com/.
Galena Park in Texas is also Pimilco
I was recently in Galena Park, Texas, for a meeting. Now Galena Park is not the prime example that would come to mind when the subject is walkability. Galena Park is a small industrial city of just over 10,000 people located on the north bank of the Houston Ship Channel, a highly industrial area given over mostly to rusty ocean-going ships and the facilities to load and unload them. The most common way to enter Galena Park is via Clinton Avenue, a road which the industry in the area backs up onto as if it were a wide alley and not the main thoroughfare though the city. There is little landscape or streetscape to speak of, and the street must be constantly swept to keep it free of the debris common to any area that sees as much truck traffic as Galena Park. There are no restaurants of note in Galena Park — certainly no little gem just on the verge of being discovered by Houston foodies—no cute little clusters of shops or a neighborhood full of pristine expertly preserved historic period homes. And yet I would argue that Galena Park is not only loveable, but loved. And that because she is loved, she is changing.
After my arrival, I stood on the front lawn of Galena Park’s city government building in front of a metal torch mounted on a brick pedestal in the center of the lawn. The torch, a gift from the local American Legion over 50 years ago, used to house an “eternal flame” at its top, which long ago burned out and was never repaired, resulting in a very dead “eternal” flame. With the group that had assembled on the lawn to contemplate the location and design of a new monument to serve as a gateway to the city was a gentleman from the public works department. He spoke of the American Legion with pride. He pointed to a small out-of-the-way historic marker and began to share the history of the city and the important role its citizens had played leading up to the Battle of San Jacinto, those famous 18 minutes during which Texas was born with the defeat of General Santa Anna. This public works official became excited about the idea of incorporating the historic marker into the area by the new monument. Others spoke of incorporating benches by the monument for the frequent visit by the city’s senior citizens, and of wider beautification efforts planned along Clinton Drive which included fencing for industry and an ambitious landscaping plan. The group shared aspirations for a new city hall that would be worthy of the monument they were planning.
Galena Park is loved, of this I have no doubt. How many places can you think of where a town’s retired citizens show up at city hall just to visit, not because they need something, but because they like to go to city hall? We can say about Galena Park what G. K. Chesteron said about Pimlico: that, “If men loved Galena Park as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Galena Park in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.” People right now, this moment, are loving Galena Park into beauty. I have no doubt, given what I know of the people I met there that, given half a chance, they will succeed. Unless, of course, someone who doesn’t love the place, who only wants to use it as a means to some other end, comes in and overrules them in a manner akin to a government bureaucrat taking possession of your child on the pretense that he or she knows better than you do how to plan for their future.
Photo Credit for top of post: Peter Ringenberg, South Bend, IN.
All You Need is Love: Why Love is the Secret Ingredient in Marinara and Place Making – Part 1
I promise you, there will be no guitars, no hand-holding, and absolutely no refrains from Kumba Ya in this post. I realize that love is not the most common word used in business or economic development. We speak of return on investment (ROI), leveraging resources, planning, and many other cerebral, grown-up type words I’m going to suggest in what follows that, although these words capture something important, perhaps they do not capture everything that is important, or perhaps even the most important thing about neighborhood development. Because I promise you, without love, it will be impossible to make your neighborhood, downtown, or city a place you will long to spend time in, let alone walk around,– which after all is the purpose of this blog: to facilitate the creation and maintenance of walkable places.
Like food, places are more than merely the sum of their parts. A good marinara is more than the proper ingredients added in the proper order at the proper time with the proper heat (or sunlight) applied. Ask any Italian cook standing over a stove adding seasoning to a simmering pot of marinara sauce, the recipe for which has no doubt been handed down for generations: he or she will tell you that the secret ingredient is love.
Places Actually Look Different When You Love Them
Imagine for a moment that you are in your mother’s attic, and you stumble across a dusty chest in the very back covered with cobwebs. You open the chest, and inside you find your grandmother’s tea tray, a tray you fondly remember from childhood. The tray would likely be tarnished, but what you are present to is not the tarnish, but the fond memories associated with that tray. You take the tray out of the attic, take it home, spend considerable time and elbow grease to clean it up, and then, not being much of a tea drinker, or much for formality, you mount the tray on your dining room wall. Absent love, you might have overlooked the tray or deemed the work necessary to bring it back to life too much trouble.
Often when we speak of buildings and other objects, we say that there is something worthy in that building or thing that makes it admirable. And yet, when it comes to a place, especially one that needs renewal, it is the love that must come first. Love allows you to see the bones of a place, the shining silver lining waiting to be uncovered.
G.K. Chesterton famously pointed this out in a comment he made about a small area in central London named Pimlico, quite fashionable now, which had fallen into decay in his day:
“Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”
Now go back, and read that passage again, but every time you see the word Pimilco, substitute the name of an area in the city or town in which you currently live that has fallen into decline and disrepair, or perhaps has never been anything but.
Love is easy when a place has already realized its potential. Perhaps at that point, what people mean when they say they love, say, New York, Paris, or Rome is that they enjoy it. Theirs is a passive love, a love based on consumption, not creation. This is quite different from the active love of a long-time civic volunteer or servant.
To Love is to See What is Right About a Place
Angela Blanchard, the CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Inc., a very successful community development corporation in Houston, Texas, often says: “You can’t build on broken.” She espouses an asset-based approach to community development. Her members do not walk into communities searching for what is wrong so they can fix it, they seek out what is right so they can build on it. They listen to the hopes and aspirations of the people who live there. Then her group seeks to help a community realize those aspirations by bringing the needed resources to the table. But the aspirations must come first, not the brokenness. You can’t build on brokenness. Love opens up possibilities that would not be visible to others.
Sure, Money Helps
While it would be naive to suggest that money is not necessary for such projects, and that love alone would be enough to create places worthy of our time, yet we have seen what unloved places look like even with a ton of money dumped into them. Think, in this regard, of the brutalist architecture of the 1960s or of the expensive housing projects launched with great fanfare that decayed and had to be dynamited within a generation because they had been built without love and were not lovely places.
The Absence of Love Leads to an Absence of Design
The 45 minute drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Santa Fe is overall an enchanting experience. A driver will be treated to wide blue skies filled with white clouds so perfect they look as though they were painted on, stretches of terra cotta earth mounded into high plateaus, and traditional adobe structures set into the landscape that look as natural as the tall rocks and scrub trees. Then, here and there, thrown up on the side of the road in an offensive waste of finite materials will be unimaginative strip center after unimaginative strip center: low-slung, flat, faceless, and run-down structures selling conveniences, gas, electronic devices, etc. They are the architectural equivalent of litter in the park —a mar upon the landscape. Who but someone without love for anything other than money would build such structures so contrary to the spirit of the place in “The Land of Enchantment.”
Love and Marinara
Love is what animates the grandmother who carefully dotes over a pot of marinara, ensuring the necessary hours on the stove are set aside for flavors to blend, stopping by to taste, and add a dash of oregano, a splash of pepper, or an extra clove of garlic. So too it is love that animates the architect who spends time creating ornamentation to articulate, even celebrate, a doorframe, window, or a ceiling. It is these little details that provide the visual interest to the pedestrian, that odd, anachronistic creature this blog is in service to.