More Retro and Cities

More stuff. An essay in search of a thesis. Stop me if you've heard this one before. I write more often than the world changes.

Simon reacts to the "Schema" post here.

The city is, I think, always a subconcious preoccupation for me. Both of my parents were city planners and I think I thought I might follow them in that direction at some point in my life. In fact, I think what dissuaded me most from going that direction, besides personal stuff, is that the same issues that are now being discussed in music were already becoming problems in that field*. While most authors that I recall reading back then were still obsessed with the twin "evils" of late Modernist architecture and suburbanization, I was already sensing issues, not with gentrification, but with the more sanitized version, New Urbanism.

New Urbanism sought to recreate some of the main virtues of city life, for instance, the focus on walking and public transportation as opposed to the use of the car, mixed-use development, and a preponderance of public space. From what I can tell, the most talked-about works of the movement from outside of the sphere focus on new developments like Celebration in Florida. But there was certainly an interest in redeveloping existing urban sites and urbanizing denser suburban areas. Between the house subscription to the ULI magazine, and all of the development in perpetually cash-rich Washington, DC, and, especially, Bethesda, MD and Arlington, VA (both just outside DC's formal limits but very integrated into the metropolitan area), I got to see a lot of the ideas play out fairly quickly after they were conceptualized.

What struck me immediately about New Urbanism is the comfortable relationship it maintains with capital. Whereas in Jane Jacobs' utopian vision of urban life, the city is anarchic and thrives on the uncoerced cooperation of its residents, New Urbanism's democratic vision, supposedly derived from Jacobs, had no compunction in integrating large corporations into the process of (re)development. 

Partially, this is, of course, due to pragmatic necessity. Cities, for the most part, don't buy land, don't develop it, and don't build the buildings themselves. Hence private developers. But even developers need help. Hence banks. But, as my mother said years ago, banks don't loan money unless there is a good promise of return and that possibility of return can only be ensured by securing large retailers as tenants in the buildings to be constructed.

Whether due to the nature of how projects are financed or not, New Urbanist developments tend to reflect the values of those who construct them, specifically a consumerist vision of democracy, instead of a radical one. The difference between the two is the difference between choosing amongst choices or choosing the choices themselves. Zygmunt Bauman, in his book Postmodernity and Its Discontents, and speaking specifically of the arts, likened the situation to a stage, access to which is now more universal than before, with the catch being that nobody can throw anyone else off. As in a New Urbanist mall, we can choose anything we want, even to not shop, but there are no options that dis-include shopping or not shopping.

There is a New Urbanist development in Arlington called Pentagon Row (some pictures here). I  used to visit it quite often, partially because of a compulsion towards new spaces, regardless of whether I like them or not, and partially because one of the local businesses added to the project to add flavor (both literally and metaphorically) happened to be the most convenient location to me of a DC-area chain of Lebanese restaurants that I enjoy. Like many developments in the style, there is a public space there, a square, meant to be a place of gathering. But the private nature of the whole development overshadows the ostensibly public purpose of the space. For all the allusions to Italian piazzas, it's almost impossible to imagine anything ever happening there. All of the stores and restaurants have big windows; the distinction between public space and shopping space is collapsed.

My parents, especially my father, were fairly enthralled with New Urbanism. Products of the 1960s, participants in the backlash against anonymous public housing and the suburbs, they still invested in urban planning the hope of their times: that the way urban environments were constructed could truly influence on a fundamental level, the lives and societies that inhabited them. But their focus was purely on form, not content. Any development which promised walkable, tree-filled streets, mixed-use development with street-level retail, and buildings that integrated with each other in harmonious ways was, de facto, a good project. I feel like this focus on form has interesting parallels with music, whereby  the tension of how music actually functions socially, and who it serves, is completely glossed over in favor of the formal concerns of recreation. In fact, the "lame"-ness of it all, of retro culture, has a lot less to do with aesthetics, than with what is at stake, the content, which is nothing.

I've been uneasy with the word gentrification for a while now (way before I read Lloyd's Neo-Bohemia - minuscule pat on the back). What I'll continue to reiterate is that the mere shuffling of the racial, cultural and economic constituencies of various neighborhoods pales in comparison to the ontological shifts that happen in these places as they become part of the "mapped", or mediated, post-industrial landscape. The post-industrial hipster migration to urban centers is an echo of earlier industrial migrations and will have the same transformative effect of those earlier migrations. The people will come and go, the purpose will remain the same. That the racial, cultural and economic backgrounds of those migrating are much more coherent than those of the people being pushed out is incidental to the process of gentrification itself. The sites of exclusion and discrimination exist elsewhere, not physically, but socially, in terms of how cultural knowledge is disseminated. The cultural knowledge of the worker class of the new economy is the resource to be exploited, replacing the physical labor of the older economy.

What both bottom-up gentrification and top-down New Urbanist schemes share (as well as the critiques of both Modernism and suburbanization), besides their preoccupation with "livability", is that they install white, middle class people as the foundational class of urban narrative. In some ways, it's true, because the height of American cultural production, the Post-WWII period, happens to be circumscribed within the period between their flight and return to urban space. But that narrative also inscribes a certain deviancy within culture produced outside of it. That deviancy, that "energy, frustration (and) need for temporary transcendence" is what needs to be removed in order to make the music function.

(so i'm no closer to necessity here - but now maybe the question is - why do us "crackers" have to do this? from where does the bourgeois desire come for "predictability and control"? I feel like there is answer somewhere in the process of the depolicitization of what I have called biological antagonisms. difference as a revolutionary political strategy that makes impossible the empathy necessary for revolutionary change... is the idea of "difference" a bourgeois idea? did it precede it's use as part of the vocabulary of multiculturalism? did it undermine structural critique? is it now, this bloodless tolerance, undermining the disciplining process of culture? is "difference" its own disciplining process against culture? Badiou wrote in Ethics that tolerance can't tolerate intolerance... but intolerance is the lifeblood of politics and culture! how to even recover "bad" taste from so many years of listening?)

One more thing...
There's a tension. On the one hand (and yes, I have started to read Retromania now) between what Simon describes as the omnivorousness of the ideal consumer, and the fact that, now that all tastes can be catered to, there's no need to change anymore, either externally or internally. You can stay with your tribe forever.

I meant a long, long time ago, to respond to this post and the idea that retro could be a strategy for the "radical rejection of the consumer capitalist need for constant novelty". I disagree. Actual novelty can be a really awesome, valuable thing. The problem with capitalism is that it sells you the same shit over and over again with slight improvements. As an act of pure creation, outside of the social ramifications, the iPhone is big development. That Apple has to sell you a new one with slight changes every year is where the real waste of consumer capitalism lies. Likewise with music. Basic Channel/Chain Reaction  was novel. The ten thousand records that sound like those records are what creates a perpetual market, in the worst sense of the word, for the initial style. That market takes the initial music out of the narrative of history, outside of itself as a specific even. And since, as I mention here, most consumers are not that educated, the market persists because of/enables historical amnesia. The amnesia that prevents radical desire.

Novelty was a way of opening up space ahead of capital, the thing that created the utopian moment of culture as something that could belong to someone before being sold. The fumbling attempts by capital to catch up with and integrate new ideas actually solidified and dramatized the cultures it tried to exploit, and helped them to form their moral vocabularies.

*Ironically, given that the barriers to getting things done are much higher, architecture and urban development have been way ahead now. One example: Autobahn, the harbringer of sleek Modernism in popular music, hadn't even been released when Pruitt-Igoe, a model Modernist housing project, was demolished. While your down here distracted from narrative, I should also mention that the architect who designed Pruitt-Igoe, Minoru Yamasaki, was also responsible for the design of the World Trade Center. Freaky, huh?


Anonymous said...

Jane Jacobs IS New Urbanism. You miss the thread in the plot where Planning is the Hero, because People Need To Be Told What To Do.

Jane Jacobs wasn't anarchic in the least. No Planner is anarchic; planning is the antithesis of anarchic formation and practice. Planning is Statism Par Excellence, the Valhalla of Statecraft, the apogee of intellectuals dictating life's events for the poor dumb schmucks who eat dirt and watch NASCAR in their underwear while the 65 Fairlane sits wheel-free on cinder blocks out front.

Planning is designed to fancify, prettify, and put New Robes on the Same Old Emperor.

Planning is where the Planner assumes (s)he knows more than you, and thus will tell you how to do. And where to do it.

The "anarchic" part is that sometimes, you get to choose the WHEN.

Hoo boy.


Planning: how striving children of blue collar households who Made Good with a college degree get to tell other blue collar households how they, too, can climb up to the vaunted middle and hopefully upper-middle strata.

I was an enviro planner for MWCOG 1991-1994. A planner doesn't get to change history. A planner gets to be the knife that is shoved silently into the lower back, puncturing a kidney, of those who wish to be left alone to live as they please, so that Real Estate Interests may continue raping and pillaging the landscape along with their pals in the lending sector.

:-p said...

You didn't like your job, huh?

My parents got sick of it too. My father worked in the public sector for a very long time and became disillusioned as public review went by the wayside and his office became a big rubber stamp for private developers. Of course, the citizens could suck too. Perhaps the nadir of his experience was the years he put (not exclusively) trying to get a bench put in at a bus stop near our house. Once it was installed, a homeless person slept on it. The citizenry complained. It was removed.

As for Jacobs, yeah, the latent NIMBYism, etc. But regardless of what she would have done, regardless of what has been done in her name, I think the New York she describes in Death and Life, the one that existed before both Moses and her own impact as a writer, is much more compelling that what exists now or any attempts to recapture the magic she describes. Her community was much more mixed at the time in terms of socio-economic background than any community that now holds her as a totem.

Jacobs was aware of some of these ironies. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the National Building Museum around a decade ago, around a week after Andres Duany. She complained about NIMBYism and the subversion of her vision into trite, upper-middle class shopping enclaves. She also railed against New Urbanism and the foolishness of trying to create community out of thin air. She called it all "projectitis", the seeming obstinacy of new, commercially-oriented development, the way it couldn't quite integrate into the existing social fabric. Think of Rouse's projects, the way they bring in loads of tourists and money but don't seem to actually make any major improvements in the economic health of the people in the cities themselves. It's just people from outside spending money that goes right back outside.

"Projecitis" is actually a great word for some issues in music, too. All the side projects, all the collaborations, even the sense of objectivity with which so many artists seem to make their music.

Anonymous said...

What was Jane Jacobs' motive for being a planner in the first instance?

A book by a planner is a sales tool, not a true recounting of the sincerest motives of the author.

I've heard some convincing speakers myself, but always have listened to them with detachment and curiosity about what they're really trying to sell with their words.

The slickest statist salesman/-woman sells the state as if criticizing it.

see, e.g.,

Noam Chomsky
Glenn Greenwald

or any of a hundred other "leftist" heroes who give with one hand (words) and take back with the other (their actions).

The citizens DO suck, because they get gulled by these slick salespeople, because they aren't taught from a young age to doubt and be skeptical, and when they raise doubt and skepticism independent of parental non-instruction, they're told that they are too young to understand -- if they're told anything at all.

(see Alice Miller)

While serving as a planner I believed in my job and what it was supposed to achieve, but when I saw the practical results of my work getting shoved into "politically inconvenient" categories time and again, in favor of Same Old Same Old (real estate/financial profit) I was forced to conclude my beliefs were naive and contrary to reality.

Most "planners" push that conclusion aside in favor of Incrementalism, Meliorism, and aspiring to greatness through emulation of what collectively is agreed to be "great."

When I was a planner, that revolved around admiring Portland Oregon, and we can see how 25-30 years later that has played out in the media's admiration of Portland. Hell, even shitbird Armisen and unfunny Brownstein admire Portland's urbane nature while only half-heartedly mocking its strange McHipsters who are just as McHipster as Armisen and Brownstein themselves!

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