I’m not an absolutist. I may come across as strident, extreme, and (I hope) very passionate, but I am not an absolutist. As I mentioned in the podcast on race and class, I don’t live in a city specifically because of its diversity. I have always wanted to live in the center of my hometown, and as fortune would have it that means living in what code speak forces us to call a “diverse” neighborhood. It really doesn’t matter to me what the racial and ethnic background of my neighbors is: I want to live in a vibrant urban community whatever its makeup. All of the remarkable cities I’ve lived in in Spain are monolithic examples of cultural homogeneity, but given the fact that the center of my city is majority minority, I will celebrate diversity.
As the casino process moves forward in the city I’m afraid that I need to come forth as a non purist on historic preservation as well. Historic preservation is a means to an end and has value when it benefits the city. Having said that I do believe that preservation is usually the best policy in a city where its days of greatest affluence were at a time when American architecture was also at its zenith. Its architectural quality gives the city a competitive advantage.
The city’s central library, for example, is as beautiful a building as I have ever seen. Inspired by the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century it replaced an older library of significant architectural quality and of worthy character; but I’m glad that it was replaced by the current one.
I’m glad there were no “preservationists” who were successfully able to interfere with progress. On the other hand the HH Richardson train station certainly appears to have been superior architecturally to the current Union Station, if only the preservationists had been around for that one. On the whole I think photographs from before WWII show pretty clearly that Springfield has lost much much more than it has gained in the last 60 years.
But my position is obviously not an absolute one. Above all I want to live in a satisfying urban environment in my hometown. I judge developments, proposals, plans, and strategies based on how I think their outcomes will impact the livability, as I define it, of my neighborhood. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds? My brain must be enormous then.
I’ve looked at the MGM proposal for downtown and I’ve read comments about what it will mean for some of the historic buildings and I am unmoved. First of all, the MGM people clearly have an eye for which buildings are the most important both architecturally and historically. The Mass Mutual building, the Armory building, and it appears, even the First Spiritualist Church will all be spared and, more importantly, given new life and a new purpose under this plan.
The single greatest danger to the historic buildings of Springfield is the slow metronomic destruction of continual economic decline along with the continued oblivion of irrelevance. The long term health of the city’s greatest landmarks will, in the long run, mirror the city’s vibrancy. I look across the street at one of the most beautiful and historic structures in the entire city and every day I watch it crumble, brick by brick. It is a stunning example of 19th century residential architecture: Corinthian columns, applied pilasters, brownstone, brick, wrought iron, a portico. No one is tearing it down. No malicious corporate developer is trying to replace it with a CVS. There simply has not been enough demand of any type for anyone in the private sector to put any money into this structure. The only hope for it, and dozens of other structures like it in Springfield, is a rebirth of economic vitality in the community. Even if this one structure can be saved, if the city continues to decline our historic buildings will eventually follow.
Anyone with an eye for what a city needs to move forward can see the superiority of the MGM plan to the Penn National plan. Penn National’s plan is a pod; they’re even considering a “ring road” to totally isolate it from pedestrians. It has no retail or entertainment component beyond more bars and restaurants, and no residential component whatsoever. The artist’s rendering gives it the appearance of every other Hollywood Casino: An awful anti urban megastructure. The MGM plan not only includes EXACTLY what I as a resident of the downtown have wanted for decades in my neighborhood (I live about a block away in an historic home I’m busy restoring), but conforms to every conceivable element of good urbanism: Permeable design at the street level, maintenance of a street grid, unifying and combining uses, isolating parking, enhancing walkability.
The argument over whether or not to have casinos in the region is over, they’re coming. Avoiding the downside of casinos is impossible in the sense that, as Mayor Morse of Holyoke rightly observed, 10 minutes up or down the interstate will not significantly alter their impact on a community economically. It appears right now that the decision will come down to having either a casino in Springfield or a casino in Palmer. The question is whether hosting the casino will bring an upside to their regional presence. It seems to me that the answer to that question is a resounding YES in the case of the MGM plan. This is exactly the kind of plan that could re-situate Springfield at the undisputed center of entertainment in the region and be a major piece in restoring some significant presence in retail as well.
Guaranteeing some level of preservation of four of the city’s most beautiful and historic buildings, seeing new significant high-quality structures built along Main Street, and potentially seeing Springfield once again becoming a regional center for entertainment and shopping could be the spark the city needs to experience a general rebirth. Playing it safe and close to the vest when you are slipping further and further into irrelevance is irrational. If it is inevitable for center cities to regain primacy, then this development certainly won’t present any more of an obstacle than the last 60 years of decline. If the realities of energy and the environment don’t presage a re-centralization and re-densification of American life then this MGM proposal may be the city’s best hope for rebirth.