Spain’s history after the fall of the Roman Empire is so different from the rest of Europe that as I introduce students to the Renaissance or the Enlightenment I have to point out how those differences are manifest in its art and architecture. When I read articles, books, and blogposts on post war America I realize that, even taking into account the anomalies that make any place unique, Springfield has experienced if not a different trajectory then at least some very different demographic shifts which make its situation an interesting hybrid.
Only in the mid 1970’s, as the Greatest Generation’s grip on power began to slip, did the city’s leaders, born in the 1945-64 era, begin to believe that the death spiral the city had sunk into after World War II could be reversed. I’ve documented here numerous times just how easy it is to pick out the moment when that transition took place. I think that the narrative of Boomers moving to the suburbs still holds for Springfield and for the region, but as the Boomers who remained took the reins of the school department, the park department, the libraries, and even began to become significant players in the business community we began to see actual stewardship begin within and on behalf of the city itself.
Before the 70’s and into the 80’s the attitude of leadership was to suck as much value as possible out of whatever it was that stood in need of maintenance and then to demolish it, close it off, or just ignore it: Teachers at my high school literally planted flowers IN the floors of their rooms and watered them, broken pipes leaked water in a constant stream down a stairwell, and windows in light wells had bird guano build-up easily measured in inches. Parks and ball fields were maintained in ways which gave no indication that anything beyond minimal functionality was a concern. Raw concrete, piles of scrap wood, chain link fencing, and industrial trash cans were used interchangeably to mark off territory, close down roads and pathways, or for any other purpose and were stored wherever it was most convenient for them to be stored.
It’s not difficult to understand why this occurred; large swaths of America were growing into the vast drive through dystopia we see today, and Baby Boomers were the ones overseeing that process in much of the country. These were regions which were expanding because virgin territories provided more opportunities for those just entering the work force, whereas here it was the Greatest Generation which was observing the growth elsewhere and the decline here and had no belief that collapse could be avoided unless it was by mimesis of the sprawl which was showing so much promise elsewhere.
Perhaps it was in the necessarily quixotic nature of the types of younger people who would choose to stay and take on the challenges of apparently irreversible decline that they would do the innovative and resourceful things which they did to arrest this decadence at the very least in terms of all things related to public infrastructure; all things that is apart from rethinking the city’s streets and roads: the DPW remains the primary roadblock to progress.
Despite the possibility that knowledge may very well have been gained from these early, proto-urbanist efforts, none of the younger urbanists I have worked with have ever asked me about the massive redesign and restructuring of the downtown in my earliest years in Springfield and all of the design ideas, the focus on the pedestrian, the coffee shops and bookstores, the creation of new housing through the adaptive reuse of industrial, retail, and institutional buildings. Improvements were made to public parks, smaller entertainment venues were created, local establishments were highlighted in contrast to the cookie cutter national chains which dominated the shopping malls even then.
I think the woo woo core of Millennial urbanists can’t tell the difference between pragmatism and pessimism in the attitudinal sense and they don’t believe that anyone living who was involved in any prior struggles to salvage the core of the city has anything to offer them because those efforts didn’t completely halt the decline. My worry regarding this lack of articulation is that in the long run hope will do more harm than good if it isn’t tempered with the knowledge that history shows that good ideas can “lose” to bad ones in many significant ways and yet still be beneficial.
Investors made a whole lot more money betting on suburban sprawl than the “losers” did who bet on urban infill in most of the country for most of the last 75 years. The amazing work of Springfield Central, to give a local example, from 1976-1990 shouldn’t be judged by the economic, social, and political basket case the city was at the dawn of the last decade of the 20th century, but by the dozens and dozens of buildings, streetscapes, parks, and plazas which their efforts created and preserved to be rediscovered today.
I listened to an interview with Paul Stewart of the Oswego Renaissance Association and I think his ideas for block by block re-energizing of struggling urban areas sound great; but any look at population numbers demonstrate that Oswego is still dying, and many of the places building all the wrong stuff in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways are thriving. Paul, Chuck, and I might not outlast that process, despite all our efforts. In much the same way that markets can remain irrational longer than investors can remain solvent, we seem capable as a society of perpetuating auto oriented sprawl development for much longer than many of us who see its folly will be able to remain alive.
Chris Hedges says he doesn’t fight fascists because he will win, but because they are fascists. I fight for traditional, walkable urbanism not because, in my lifetime, it will be universally understood as being the only sustainable infrastructure for civilization, but because car centered culture is harmful and needs to be resisted.
I don’t see a general shift in the zeitgeist away from what I think is the false promise and the allure of suburban and exurban living. People will do it for as long as they can. I view my role as tugging at the margins in hopes of preserving a rump of viable physical community in my region that civilization can utilize once the fantasy that we can all live lives of splendid isolation in an infrastructure that can’t be paid for comes to an end.