Posts Tagged ‘Chicago’

World Heritage City Chicago

March 24, 2012

ImageLast Saturday, Irena Bakova, Director-General of UNESCO, was in Chicago for a meet-and-greet with local heritage conservation professionals, and last night ICOMOS Director Gustavo Araoz spoke as part of the Chicago Modern: More Than Mies series, presented by the Save Prentice Coalition of AIA Chicago, docomomo Midwest, Landmarks Illinois, The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Chicago.  Both talked about Chicago’s singular architectural legacy and suggested that Chicago would be an ideal World Heritage city.

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Let that sink in for a second while we review World Heritage.  It started back in 1972 as the first international heritage conservation list, one incorporating both natural and cultural heritage.   The U.S. jumped in early, inscribing the world’s first national park (Yellowstone) along with several other parks and a number of sites like Taos Pueblo and Mesa Verde as witness to our PreColumbian history.  We kind of treated World Heritage like we treated our first landmarks law, the 1906 Antiquities Act, which was largely limited to natural and archaeological sites.   Illinois has more National Historic Landmarks than any other state, thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe and atomic bombs and other things that helped our region rock the socks off the 20th century.  But our only World Heritage site is Cahokia Mounds.

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pyramids.  in Illinois.  Metropolis 1010..

Not only that, but the U.S. World Heritage program went into hibernation through the 1990s while the rest of the world was inscribing sites and turning them into tourist attractions while validating and underscoring their own cultural achievements.  

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count the lights – Mexico OWNS us.

To be on the list a site must establish universal cultural value, and we have seen the list reflect the expanding diversity of the heritage conservation movement over the years.  Europe has added significant sites reflecting industry (Falun, one of my favorites) and modern architecture, like the Dessau Bauhaus and Rietveld’s Shroeder House in Utrecht.

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yes, it is a strip mine.

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NIIICE!!

China has listed several whole cities, including of course Lijiang in Yunnan, my favorite touristic monoculture admonition, and Pingyao, the walled city in Shanxi I have written about before.  These become tourist magnets following inscription, which has both its good and bad points.  I am just back from Angkor, where World Heritage status and a functional government has watched tourism jump from 1 million to almost 3 million visitors a year over the last decade, causing many to wonder if the famously flawed Khmer engineering can handle the stress.

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On the other side, we have our work in the World Heritage Cercado of Lima, where the depredations of poverty, disinvestment and even termites still threaten a heritage city where only a portion is considered safe for tourism. 

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So what does all this portend for Gustavo’s suggestion that Chicago become a World Heritage city?  Of course, you have the huge World Heritage problem that such status requires full owner consent, and Chicagoans are Americans who are loathe to lose even a toothpick from their bundled property rights.  But Chicago easily meets the criteria.

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We invented a new kind of architecture in the 1880s with the skeletal frame highrise and that technology and type traveled the entire world and is still how we build high today.  We hosted the brightest talents of modernism and gave the world the 20th century discipline of city planning.  The contributions have outstanding universal value, to be sure.

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No one doubts this, and it would be a brilliant move by the Mayor since the city is trying to build its international tourist appeal.  Do you know that Newark, N.J. gets half a million MORE foreign tourists each year than Chicago?  Can you explain that in an objective way?  Would Newark qualify for World Heritage status?

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In the meantime, we are finally playing a bit of catch up, proposing a list of 10 great Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings, including Unity Temple and Robie House (it is a good list) and slavery sites and a few others that will bring the U.S. in to the 20th century in terms of cultural conservation and World Heritage.  Chicago’s city inscription may have to wait until we join the 21st century.

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Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

September 13, 2011

“Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

I finally read Edward Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City and I liked it. I will assign it in my “A City Cannot Be A Work of Art” class next Spring. In some ways Glaeser is a standard issue neoliberal economist, decrying government regulations, especially landmarks laws. At the same time, he is a champion of Jane Jacobs and of cities in general. He recognizes the concentration of creativity – human capital – that can happen only in cities and he decries the massive government subsidies for roads and mortgages that fueled the abandonment of cities for sprawl in the second half of the 20th century.

I finished the book while in the massively overscaled environs of Beijing, which I initially disliked but have found oddly comforting with each visit. I actually enjoyed being crushed on the subway until my lungs hurt. Excitement beats comfort.

The vitality of city life is palpable in Beijing as it is in New York. Glaeser grooves on this vitality and actually PROVES the increased value derived from face-to-face contact in cities: a Michigan study showed that a group meeting for 10 minutes face-to-face cooperated better and made more money than a group with 30 minutes of electronic interaction.

There are reasons people want to live in crowded places and Glaeser counts among them the “intellectual explosions” that happen in concentration; the power of proximity; even health: Manhattanites aged 25-34 have a lower death rate than the rest of the country. Why? The biggest killers in that age group are suicide and automobile accidents: Manhattanites are in cars a lot less and they must have enough fun that they aren’t tempted by the overly abundant skyscraper window ledges.

Glaeser also breaks the old moldy mold of the standard U of C laissez-faire economist by acknowledging climate change and recognizing that adding gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans is not a positive thing. How to reduce carbon emissions? More cities. The denser the city, the less fossil fuels are needed for living (the largest user) and transportation (next largest). As density doubles, Glaeser shows, the percentage of the population that takes a car to work drops by almost 7 percent. Cities are more efficient and “greener” than suburbs, and crowded cities are super-green: “Household emissions in Daqing, China’s oil capital and brownest city, are one-fifth of emissions in San Diego, America’s greenest city.” Part of that is also standard of living, but Glaeser decries Americans who think they have a constitutional right to drive their car everywhere. He loves “Red Ken’s” driving tax in Central London, for example.


“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their life.” Glaeser is in more familiar neolib territory here, but he is right, despite the familiar economist’s elision of the threshold distinction between consumer choice and financial exigency. He is more right of course for the Sao Paolos and Guangzhous of the world than the Detroits or Clevelands with their “legacy” underclass that did not move there.

I actually like this book despite its attacks on preservation, most of which were witheringly familiar to those of us who have watched the Chicago Boyz economic juggernaut for the last 35 years. “The enemies of change essentially want to control someone else’s property” he says. Well, no. Real preservation/conservation does not oppose change but in fact promotes change within the context of existing buildings. As to whose property, in historic districts they are simply preserving those externalities (other people’s buildings) that provide the lion’s share of their property value.

In “The Perils of Preservation” he harps on the costs of restricting development and how historic districts become high-value areas that exclude the poor. The former is a bear to quantify and the latter is a bit of a red herring: People want to save their neighborhoods and their own property values and historic districts do that. They can become “owner’s clubs” that exclude the new poor along with new buildings.

He talks about the “web of regulation” that includes zoning and how we need to incentivize rebuilding cities for the good of the species. Glaeser’s view here is heavily inflected by his native Manhattan, which he says has preserved15 percent of the land south of Harlem. He sees Chicago as relatively free to develop, an argument I will be pleased to use for the next several years against our U of C-enamored zoning attorneys.

But he also doesn’t really know what preservationists are up to. Every preservation group in town commented on the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes by CHA this year. And they all bought into Glaeser’s basic concept of more density on part of the site IN ORDER to preserve more of the original low-rise homes. Contrary to his stereotype, they were not being NIMBY but looking at the larger urban system.

He argues that cities are not equivalent to their buildings, implying that preservation is a misguided place-based attempt to retain or foment the truly valuable human capital that happens to exist within and around those buildings. This is an academic distinction. The young professional who loves Cuban food and the Chrysler Building and MOMA isn’t going to parse out which elements of the environment she is buying into. In historic districts especially, architecture and place are extremely valuable externalities driven not simply by regulation but amenity and cachet as well.

He jumps on NIMBYism for basically pushing problems elsewhere, which is often true: his analysis of Silicon Valley (basically a City of Ideas set in semi-sprawl and the world’s nicest climate and landscape) drives the point home, but I would rephrase it. Yes, regulations limit affordability and admittance but my own research identifies regulatory bodies – especially landmarks agencies – as places where community members attempt to affect a democracy of the built environment.

Sure, this excludes poverty and even density in some cases, and you can call it NIMBYism, but the desire to control your immediate environment is a middle-class value and landmarks agencies – unlike zoning boards – allow a venue for community input that is qualitative as well as quantitative and which can be more surgical and less blunt as an instrument.

Many conservative economists see government agencies as beasts that grow ever larger and more powerful and consumptive, restricting more and more growth. This ignores how these regulations actually play out in the real world. In Chicago, the Landmarks Commission spends most of its professional staff time dealing with those historic districts where community members are active and use the commission as a venue for getting their way: the quantity of regulation is actually measured not in landmarked buildings and districts but the current rate of activism in each community. Yes, professional staff may make some decisions (predictable ones, actually) but there is definitely more regulation in more activist neighborhoods. Moreover, that activity will shift to zoning or other venues in the absence of landmarking, a fact that a student of Jane Jacobs should know. Removing the regulation won’t make it go away, because the true source is community activism, not government.

The book is very well-written and like Bob Bruegmann’s book on sprawl, I agreed with about 90 percent of it. It ends with a call for the elimination of those massive government subsidies that have pushed people out of cities; roads and home mortgage interest deductions. The latter has become increasingly untenable in the wake of “flat world” globalization: permanent homes don’t make intrinsic sense in the 21st century economy. Industrial cities existed to concentrate labor (and management and innovation) for efficient production. In the consumer economy cities compete for workers by being great places to live. The 21st century economy is not, like the 19th century economy, driven by production, but rather by consumption.

Cities are the ultimate consumer product, with all of the status and amenity that that implies and an innovative core of human creativity and action that Glaeser understands and communicates in a powerful way.

photos from top: Chicago; Los Angeles; Beijing; New York; New York; Lima; Shanghai; Lima; Vienna; New York; New York; Chicago; San Francisco; Silicon Valley; Chicago; Chicago; Amsterdam; Chicago.

Chicago’s Old Town

February 27, 2010

Chicago’s Old Town was one of the city’s first historic districts, designated in the 1970s along with its neighbors Mid-North and Astor Street and Kenwood on the south side. Unlike its landmarked contemporaries, Old Town’s history and architecture were more modest. The landmark plaques on the streets describe a working-class German neighborhood and even today the enduring image of Old Town is a simple worker’s cottage, 1-2 stories high in frame or brick, perhaps with some decorative window hoods and brackets at the eave.

Architecturally, then, Old Town remains among the most modest of historic districts, and in a town that celebrated the modernist architectural narrative of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Old Town offered little beyond a five-house row of early Adler & Sullivan townhouses. Daniel Bluestone reports the famous quote by Chicago’s first preservationist, Earl Reed, and Old Town resident who lamented that his neighborhood “exhibited not even a hint of the International Style in Architecture.” It was like Greenwich Village in New York, a bit of an architectural mongrel, but still a place with a strong “sense of place.”

Old Town also shared with Greenwich Village a passion for community activism that more than made up for what it lacked in architectural elitism. Community groups arose immediately after World War II in an effort to create a stable, family-friendly community a short distance from downtown and only steps from the Lincoln Park lakefront. Old Town also shared a community narrative about artists and freethinkers. The Old Town Art Fair – the first in Chicago – began in 1949 and cultivated the artistic image of the community Greenwich Village had pursued even earlier in the century. Both Greenwich Village and Old Town traded on their bohemian nature but became uncomfortable with that status during the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s.

Old Town actually supported urban renewal in an effort to improve their neighborhood, although public sentiment turned sharply against it once the bulldozers started rolling. In the 1970s they turned to Chicago Landmark status – and downzoning – in an effort to limit the highrises that were walling off Chicago’s lakefront. Their success in stopping highrises was limited, another parallel to Greenwich Village, where those godawful white brick behemoths soared in the 1960s during the four years it took for the neighborhood to become a designated New York Landmark.

Community activisim took the shape of an historic district and Old Town has always been one of the most active communities, participating in permit review meetings at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The uninitiated think of landmarks review as some form of “architectural police” but in reality it is quite simply a forum for the community to make their feelings known – an attempted democracy of the built environment. The historic district gives the community a place to voice their opinions – and they have done so in Old Town – markedly – for over 30 years.

When I take my students to Old Town today – as I did last week – I ask them to look not just at the architecture, but also at the sense of place. There is a scale to Old Town, a closeness of building to street and street to cross street and curb to curb that you simply don’t find anywhere else in the city. It is not so much about the rope mouldings above the windows or the paired brackets and dentils at the eave or even those Furnessian ornaments on Adler & Sullivan’s Halstead Houses. It is about a premodern relationship of buildings and streets and narrow alleyways – something not unusual in Rome or the old part of Edinburgh but exceedingly rare in Chicago.

And when I walk through the streets of Old Town I also see the narrative of community activism – an activism that continues more than three decades later as Chicago Landmark status becomes a forum for community groups to provide input into the disposition of their built environment. How will buildings look after they are rehabilitated? What kinds of new construction or additions are acceptable to the community?

I researched Greenwich Village and Old Town for my dissertation and one of the things that struck me was how both communities lacked traditional architectural distinction but planned to use district designation in order to make the community more architecturally coherent over time. And it has happened. Old Town has seen more of its cottages and brick flat buildings brought back to their original design. Areas around Old Town have also “improved” but with new construction at a new scale and style that diminishes the sense of place.

Thirty years ago you would see the same kind of neighborhood north and west of Old Town and today you don’t. The historic district retains layers of history, a rootedness, a sense of unique, distinct and coherent place. Those areas outside are nice enough, but they are like a lot of other places. Their sense of place is every place. Old Town may not have the fanciest architecture, but at least you know where you are when you are there.

Place Identity

October 11, 2005

This weekend I led the Chicago Fire tour for the Chicago Historical Society as I have for the last four or five years. We follow the 4-mile long path of the fire, hearing eyewitness accounts and describing how it spread and what it destroyed.

The Fire is a central event to the civic identity of Chicago – it is one of the four stars on the city’s flag. When my Michelin editors came here a dozen years ago to begin work on the first Green Guide to Chicago, they commented on how Chicago people talked about the Fire as if it happened yesterday. That means the historic event has a central piece of the city’s identity.

This happens everywhere. Go to Ireland and the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was yesterday. Go to Atlanta and Sherman’s march ended last week. Parts of Paris are forever 1890 or 1850 and the 1770s trail through the streets of Boston. The Thais are still celebrating 200-year old victories over Burma and the Dai Viet recall a millennia-gone general who began a millennia of resistance against the Chinese.

Place identity is forged in these events – or years after them – but the process usually involves the debasing and freebasing of the actual history into that potent and toxic distillate known as heritage. Heritage is history reworked to support a particular political (and/or religious) agenda.

Destructive historic events – wars and disasters – are especially useful as instruments of heritage. That’s because heritage carries the instrumentality forward, allowing later and unrelated depredations to be blamed on the same identity-forging event. Preservationists from Atlanta- seeing Chicago – would always tell me they couldn’t preserve anything because of Sherman’s destruction. Horsefeathers. Sherman burned Atlanta 6 and 1/2 years before Chicago burned to the ground. How many 1950s urban renewal projects can be blamed on an 1860s general? There are towns and bridges and plantations that the Confederates destroyed (to prevent Sherman from getting them) that are now blamed on Sherman in official historical markers installed two generations later.

Similar things happen worldwide. Anything destroyed in Ireland was destroyed by Cromwell, the most rapacious of the Anglo invaders. It’s even true here. Everyone knows the Water Tower was the only building that survived the great fire. Wrong. On our Chicago Fire tour I note that a large 5-story brick building survived the Fire in the Loop – Lind’s Block near the river, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s house (the fire burned north from her barn, sparing the house) survived into the 1960s, only to be razed during the manic progress frenzy of urban renewal. Urban renewal also took aim at the Water Tower itself in 1948.

Marseilles (France) wiped out most of its old quarter after the Second World War, but thanks to a plaque put up to commemorate the destruction of a couple dozen buildings by the Nazis in 1943, we can blame the whole thing on the bad guys, even if their efforts paled in comparison to 1950s French city planners.

Identity is a crutch and heritage is a part of all identity – whether communal or personal. But heritage is always a reduction – a simplification – of history. Real history is too messy and contradictory for a project that needs as much reassurance as identity.