When the only growth on offer is metastatic in nature, perhaps growth is not a good thing. As a resident of Springfield, Hartford seems a world away. I’m almost completely unfamiliar with its streets and neighborhoods, and have visited the city’s cultural institutions no more than a handful of times. Springfield is a more populous city and, as hard as it may be to believe, has actually outperformed Connecticut’s Capitol city in terms of the health of its populous: a series in the Springfield newspaper from years ago comparing Springfield, Hartford, and Worcester showed quite clearly that my City of Homes was the middling of the three struggling northeastern cities. Springfield has done slightly better in terms of retaining its total population and in keeping a larger rump of the middle class.
Where Hartford has outperformed Springfield is in the acquisition of public funds for “revitalization”. Everything Springfield gets Hartford gets “bigger and better”; a sports arena, a science museum, a downtown mall, convention center…but walk around the downtown of the two and what you see is that the original traditional character of the city is more intact overall in Springfield: fewer massive parking structures, fewer blank concrete walls, fewer vapid reflective glass skyscrapers, less odious airwalks, more integrated historic buildings, more human scaled architecture and, more pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.
Everywhere, almost every step taken over the last 70 years, from an urban design standpoint, has been backwards. What hasn’t been horribly flawed by its auto-centric design has been deficient in its understanding of how, or at least its willingness to, integrate with the community surrounding it. Look at the part of the city of Springfield which DID get the most thoroughgoing renovation in the last 70 years and what you see is the single worst part of the city in terms of the human scale of its design and in terms of the economic return the city gets from it: The New North. This gateway to the North End was, I’ve heard, as fine grained and walkable a mixed use neighborhood as the South End only with even more impressive architecture. It was replaced by a cityscape only Le Corbusier could love. A hodgepodge of late twentieth century mid rise buildings and parking lots partially circumscribed by elevated highways which I’m sure through the blurry lens of an “artist’s conception” (always with imagined recreating pedestrians) looked like yesterday’s tomorrow.
The only comparably bad part of the city, lest we only inculpate the public sector, is Boston Road: an equally horrific if linear manifestation of the horizontal sprawl which now embodies the American automobile slum that is most of suburbia. It is a line of fast food shacks, older and newer “big box” retail stores, parking lagoons, and insipid residential structures. If “big gubmint” gave us the New North, big corporations and laissez faire gave us Boston Road.
The good news, I suppose, is that there was no escaping bad design from 1945-1975 at least and so no one in particular is to blame(Well, perhaps the entirety of the “Greatest Generation”). We do know better now, and I can point to things which were done either more right, or at least “less wrong”, since 1975 in the core city, meanwhile Boston Road is irretrievably unsalvageable. The reason for the dichotomy is that a traditional style existed in the downtown, so rejiggering and repairing what was new to conform to the earlier paradigm was relatively easy to both envision and implement, Boston Road on the other hand had no such foundation to cling to and as such can only continue to be what it has always been only more so.
The message is that nearly all growth that has taken place since World War II, especially if it has occurred outside the perimeter of a prewar community, will be something to be overcome in the future.
The more neglected your community by the public and the private sectors over the last 70 years (provided something is still standing) the better off you’ll be in accommodating and conforming to the “Long Emergency” paradigm. The only real prosperity which can exist in a more energy starved future will be in communities designed in a more energy starved past. Be grateful for benign neglect. It will make you the focus in the future.
The New North
Now compare this(The very first thing you see upon entering the New North):
To this(The last thing you see leaving the traditional Main Street, only a few feet away):