Friday, December 21, 2007

Murdered Cities

At least in Britain, you can blame it on the Luftwaffe, in part. In Germany, you can blame the American and British air forces. The French can blame everyone. But Americans have no one but themselves, and the need to make everything new, to blame for the destruction of old, solid city cores.

Not everything old is worth preserving. But the convergence of wealth, architecture, craftsmanship, and civic pride in the period 1870-1914 made Western cities into coherent works of art. Sometimes it seems we've been doing our best ever since to erase them.

A new book in Britain chronicles the losses.

I lost count of the number of pictures of smart, historic, charming streets captioned: “Every building in this photograph has since disappeared.”

In Bradford, it is often hard to find a reference point for many of the pictures. Step out of the Interchange station (“tawdry” in Stamp's opinion) and you are overwhelmed by an urban motorway, sending pedestrians trudging over bridges or through underpasses smelling of urine.

A city centre once packed with handsomely heavyweight buildings has had its Victorian integrity gradually picked apart, as though in a death wish or out of the “self-hatred for their industrial past” shared by many Northern cities.

The frontispiece of Stamp's book shows Darley Street, Bradford, where the Kirkgate Market, with its welcoming human scale, was demolished in 1973, despite protests by Priestley and his fellow-Bradfordian David Hockney. Its replacement is a shopping mall of awesome brutalism.

The city where I now live, Lancaster, Pa., is wonderfully preserved on the whole. That, in part, is an accidental result of orneriness. "Conservative" around here is not an ideology or a philosophy. It's an ingrained, literal behavior. People like things the way they've always been. So things tend to stay.

They're also cheap, the people around here. They are serious about not taking government money, because they understand it's the flip side of being taxed, which they hate. There's a lot to not like about folks here; they tend to mistake regular attendance at the approved churches for genuine, hard-earned morality, for instance. But there's a lot to admire, too.

They also don't like federal money because it comes with strings attached and rules on how it can be spent. Inevitably, talk about such things includes the word "boondoggle."

So in the 1960s and '70s, when the federal government was actively promoting "urban renewal," Lancaster stayed away from it, except for some really wretched slums, which were torn down and replaced with really wretched public housing blocks.

And except for this block:

Which it bought up, tore down, and replaced with the biggest, ugliest, most useless concrete white elephant this side of Atlantic City. It's a Dead Zone in the middle of a thriving district. It reminds me of the no-man's land that used to stand on either side of the Berlin Wall.

The story of the loss of this block is well documented here. The unofficial version of why the people around here broke with their wise tradition and admitted urban renewal is that the block was full of classic old movie houses that were falling on hard times, and the good city fathers feared they'd turn to showing porn.