The Minneapolitan Urban Studies Nerd, Now In New York City
No doubt you’ve seen them jutting out from the Cedar/Riverside neighborhood - Riverside Plaza, the little cluster of high rises with those infamous colored exterior panels. When I first moved to Minneapolis people called them the “Crack Stacks” and the “Ghetto in the Sky”. Those nicknames may have been somewhat applicable years ago, but having visited them several times, I would say they are currently anything but.
After years of “urban renewal” in the 1960’s Minneapolis was left with blocks and blocks of vacant land, especially downtown. During those years Minneapolis lost many beautiful buildings that historic preservationists like Larry Millett have lamented, first through his books and later television series called Lost Twin Cities.
I cannot really wrap my mind around demolishing the heart of an entire city, but I think that the idea was that if the buildings filled with trouble were gone, the urban poverty, people and behaviors would also disappear. Sadly for those displaced people, we now know this theory to be untrue. This series of events gives way to the discussion of public housing policy which is seems to be in a perpetual process of trial and error. But that is a whole new post altogether.
The dilapidated housing that was home to a large immigrant population in the Cedar/Riverside area would not be salvaged by the City of Minneapolis and much of it was torn down to make way for the ever expanding University of Minnesota and other institutions. (A great detailed history of this can be found here if you’d like to know more.)
Some saw blocks of vacant space as an opportunity to start over just as t hey had downtown. New buildings, new neighborhoods, vitality, people co-existing in diverse socioeconomic harmony in the sky. The HUD pilot project, “New Towns-In-Town” was supposed to create 100 acres of futuristic high rises that would become home to a wide variety of people including everyone from Cedar/Riverside’s low income residents to more wealthy 9 to 5 office types. Modern and chic, it was to embody a new way of life where once stood poverty.
Designed by Ralph Rapson, a Bauhaus schooled architect, he desired to emulate the work of Le Corbusier , specifically his Unité d’Habitation (translates in French as “habitation unit”) in Berlin.
In a marketing brochure called Cedar Riverside: Alive and Aware, life in the new development was described as such: “Cedar-Riverside has awakened to a new day. A new dream. A new meaning. In its midst a new kind of urban life is emerging. A life filled with involvement. Filled with a vitality that can only be measured by the breadth and depth of experience. Cedar-Riverside is Colleges and the University. It’s shops and theaters and cafes. And downtown just twelve blocks away. Cedar-Riverside is lofty, new apartments. And a marvelous potpourri of people. In a casual, unpretentious neighborhood. Cedar-Riverside is a delightful blend of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Come, let it touch you. It’s alive and aware. So you can be, too.”
Sadly, the modernist utopia lost funding for the last few phases of construction and building management gave up on the market-rate and subsidized mixture of tenants in favor of acquiring more funding for low income housing from the government. Years later in the Murderapolis days crime went through the neighborhood as it did many others. The building deteriorated inside and most famously on the outside as the once bright facade panels faded to a strange pastel. But in 2010, Riverside Plaza was added to the National Register of Historic Places and began to receive major renovations . In addition to improving its structure and facade, the renovations seemed to bring attention and curiosity to the quality of life and current residents of Riverside Plaza.
This area of Minneapolis has historically been an ethnic enclave, beginning with Scandinavians in the 1800’s, Vietnamese in the 1960’s and most recently many immigrants and refugees from East Africa and Somalia. On one of my many visits to Riverside Plaza in college I was able to see the thriving Riverside Community School and meet people who lived in the building. Some of my classmates lived there, taught English there and made many valuable connections there. From what I could see, there was a close knit community.
Ironically, Riverside Plaza seems to have reverted into a modern version of its previous identity, leaving behind the dreams of a working class utopia as it’s engineers had hoped.The story of this building and neighborhood raises innumerable questions and conversations. How do we build healthy communities? How do we use architecture in a way that benefits everyone? How do we undo the damage done to communities in the past? How do we constructively learn from mistakes? Better understanding our urban history sheds more light on the feeling of a neighborhood. I know that as I learned more and more about the Cedar/Riverside, I saw it less as ‘the neighborhood with those ugly buildings’ and more as ‘the really interesting neighborhood where exists some strange examples of vintage utopia’.
Of all the planning and architectural movements I have studied, none gets more criticism than New Urbanism. How could it be so that a movement centered on the idea of a walkable city with vibrant public spaces and inclusive architecture can be met with so much ridicule?
Here is my take, but first a brief (not really) history of new urbanism:
In opposition to traditional sprawling car-centric designs, a group of architects came together to form the Congress for New Urbanism in 1993. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybek, Peter Calthrope, Elizabeth Moule, Daniel Solomon, Michael Corbett and Stefanos Polyzoides drafted a document solidifying the elements of what they envisioned new urbanism to be. Modeled after pre-car European cities, the core elements of new urbanism were walkability with a diverse selection of public transportation modes, community centric neighborhoods with easily accessible institutions, a variety of housing options and plentiful public spaces where neighbors could gather. Since then, the CNU has taken off and the principles of new urbanism can be seen creeping back into our cities and even suburbs like St. Louis Park, Minnesota’s Excelsior and Grand which showcases a mixed use development of retail and housing, hidden parking and access to a park and amphitheater.
After World War II, suburbs as we know them today began to develop on the outskirts of metropolitan areas that were once serviced by streetcars. People sought to escape the noise and commotion of city life as well as to participate in FHA and VA mortgage programs that enabled Veterans to easily these plentiful new homes. The formation of the national highway system and government support of large-scale home builders who provided singe family homes on large plots, separated from their neighbor’s helped set the design standard for suburban development. New urbanism sought to bring neighbors closer together and strike a balance between “noisy city life” and “sprawling suburban isolation”.
So what’s wrong with that? Critics of new urbanism cite a few things:
This leads us to where the most popular critiques of new urbanism frequently congregate: Celebration, Florida. Unveiled in 1996 and technically owned by the Disney Corporation, many see this “new small town” outside of Orlando as just another suburb contributing to sprawl. But in its defense, Celebration helped build the path towards different styles of design, which at the time, were not commonplace. In true new urbanist form, the pastel houses sit closer to each other and the street than in a typical car-centric suburb and it is also quite easy to browse the shops and walk where you need to.
Critics will also mention Seaside, Florida. Made famous in the movie The Truman Show it was built by Andres Duany as the first new urbanist town in 1981. Set on the Panhandle coast, homes in Seaside now sell for millions. Economically diverse? Not really. Walkable and community oriented? Yes.
New Urbanism Now
But that was old new urbanism, the new urbanism of the 1990’s. Even this year’s Congress held in May will include “critical evaluation of New Urbanism’s first two decades” and will “define an agenda to confront the challenges we face.”
The new urbanism of 2012 focuses on planning for public health, which places the new urbansim design guidelines in a context that may be easier for people to accept. As described in Andres Duany’s formative book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, our health is greatly impacted by our environment and the ways in which we interact with it. A 2003 publication from Smart Growth America’s Surface Transportation Policy Project tackles that very notion. This study finds that people in areas of high sprawl also have higher body mass indexes: and says, “People living in the most sprawling areas are likely to weigh six pounds more than people in the most compact county.”
Anyone who has lived in a suburb knows how difficult it can be to get around without a car. Any alternative to driving can be dangerous, making a bike ride to the store or park stressful, ultimately impacting the longevity of our lives by decreasing our activity levels over a long period of time.Featured in this New York Times article, Dr. Richard J Jackson from UCLA highlights many of the same themes from the Smart Growth study and is even giving the CNU 20 Closing Plenary.
The Beginning of the End of Sprawl?
Though the new urbanism of the 1990’s was not perfect, we cannot overlook what good it has brought in the urban planning and design field. Suburbs are retrofitting and infilling, making spaces more pedestrian friendly and sending rail lines out to the exurbs. These enhancements will promote healthier lifestyles and strengthen communities by getting people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks. We may not love everything Andres Duany has ever done (watch some videos of him on YouTube and you’ll understand) but we wouldn’t be able to quickly address the widespread public health crisis we find ourselves in without him. New urbanism is not what it used to be and I think our opinions need to catch up with where it is now or we may begin to stifle urban innovation.
For further investigation: