Turning Downtowns from Ratholes to Artists' Lofts

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Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist and urban critic. Her most recent book is The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Nation Books, 2010)

Today, cities and their downtowns are so popular that it is difficult to remember back only three or four decades when this was anything but the case.  The 1976 opening of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston’s 1825 granite Quincy Hall was the opening gun of a dramatic turn-around.  Faneuil Hall was an inspiration for the adaptation of abandoned and abused theaters, hotels, public buildings, farmers’ markets or Main Street stores.  They served as the catalyst for a similar turn-around in each place.

Baltimore’s James Rouse was the first major developer or retailer to understand that the old patterns of downtown activity did not die because they outlived their usefulness and validity.  Rouse absorbed the vision for Quincy of Boston’s architect Ben Thompson and his wife and partner, Jane Thompson, of a diversity of small, locally-owned stores anchored by an expansive food market. The rest is history.

What made the Faneuil Hall Marketplace so genuinely special was the basic framework of historic preservation, of building new within the context of old, of recognizing the potential of what exists no matter how shabby it might be, of celebrating the character of place, craft, human scale and pedestrian pleasures.  Similar successes on a smaller scale had been achieved in San Francisco’s Ghiradelli Square (a former chocolate factory) and Seattle’s Pike Place Market (a farmers’ market threatened in the 1960s by urban renewal and saved and strengthened by citizen resistance), each of them an ad-hoc innovation.  Part adaptation, part improvisation, the Faneuil Hall Marketplace was the essence of innovation accomplished on a grand scale opening in the year of the Bicentennial, when heritage was suddenly rediscovered.  The whole country noticed.

Sadly, the Faneuil Hall model was badly imitated and compromised in many other places resulting in just better but still homogenous mall.  But the genie was out of the bottle and countless local innovators were inspired to start something unique to their own community.  The process was widespread, organic and very locally-based, all leading to the extraordinary condition today where few people remember or even knew how things slowly turned around.

Even before the Boston story, Corning, New York, was in the process of a remarkable restoration of its main shopping street, Market, that would inspire the establishment of the Main Street Project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the locally-organized rebirth of Main Streets in countless downtowns large and small.   What Faneuil Hall did on a grand scale, Corning did on a small scale to kick-start a gradual rebirth process.

Corning had suffered greatly in a 1972 flood in which 60 percent of the town was under water.  Corning could have followed the conventional route of communities ravaged by natural disasters.  It could have leveled everything and rebuilt itself in good urban renewal fashion.  Instead, the town invested its one-shot federal disaster relief funds into new brick sidewalks and honey-locust trees for the four retail blocks of Market Street, the town’s commercial spine.

At the same time, the enlightened leadership of the town’s major employer, Corning Glass Works, recognized that the revitalization of Market Street was as much in the company’s best interest as the town’s.  With Corning’s funds, the Market Street Restoration Agency was founded with Norman Mintz, a young preservation planner and designer, as its first director.  With great skill, Mintz combined a large dose of diplomacy with an equally impressive design talent to set about providing free design services to Market Street merchants and owners.

Over 20 percent of the 125 storefronts were vacant when the agency began in 1974 and from one end of the street to the other, there were unsightly remains of decades of misguided “improvements”—aluminum siding, garish signs and all manner of cover-ups on architectural detail dating from the late 1800s through the 1930s.  Mintz encouraged the uncovering of all these architectural treasures and building by building, owner by owner, the storefronts were restored, the merchant offerings upgraded, the vacant buildings rented until the rebirth process was solidly underway and unstoppable.

A third phenomenon started unfolding even earlier than Faneuil Hall and Corning that would change the face of industrial urban America, also growing out of a new appreciation of historic architecture:  It is what I labeled the SoHo Syndrome in my latest book.  After a long fight in the 1960s, led primarily by author/activist Jane Jacobs, the Lower Manhattan Expressway, conceived and vigorously promoted by building czar Robert Moses, was defeated.  The highway would have wiped out what is now known as SoHo in addition Chinatown and Little Italy.  That defeat—probably the most significant one in the country—enabled the rebirth of the neighborhood.  In the 1960s, artists had started moving into the lofts, emptied out because of the expectation of demolition for the highway.  With the highway’s official defeat in 1968, the trickle turned into a groundswell.  The appeal of the cast iron front industrial buildings is now widespread but was slow to emerge.  City by city, historic industrial buildings were reclaimed first by artists and then by all manner of residential and commercial tenants.  SoHo was such an icon for this movement that dozens of neighborhoods in other cities took on—and still do—a similar name—LoDo in Denver, SoDo in Seattle, SoMa in San Francisco, and more.  In every city and town that has any underutilized industrial buildings, this process is still occurring.

Buildings from earlier eras were built to fill a specific need, often by the occupying business, corporation or retailer.  Speculative builders are a mid-twentieth century phenomenon.  Buildings constructed to be owned long-term or to be occupied by the builder were built with a more caring mindset, more caring about solidity, endurance and appearance; they were, in effect, built to last more than the term of a twenty-year mortgage.  Most pre-World War II buildings, even in a deteriorated condition, have more quality than anything new built today.  The materials and inherent environmental assets that compensated for lack of air conditioning give added value to even the most ordinary “no-design” buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Today, the lessons of urban rebirth dating back to the 1970s until now are as relevant as ever.  Many places still have a long road ahead for the urban rebirth that produces the economically vibrant, socially diverse, physically appealing and environmentally sustainable places that are the foremost goals of downtowns across the country.  The vacant, rundown or underutilized historic building remains a good place to begin or boost the rebirth process.

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