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A Vision for the Humble District
Posted March 10th, 2013 in Blog by Rick Hill

Industrial DistrictThe remnants of the industrial economy surround the downtowns of numerous major cities.  Tattered urban fabrics consisting of semi-industrial districts and modest housing often form a zone between first ring gentrified neighborhoods and the city core, producing an in-between waste land, lost economies and failed communities. Ironically, while urban revitalization efforts are directed to the showcase blocks of downtowns and hip new restaurants and specialty retail thrive in the historic suburban neighborhood, it is the in between zone that actually has the most potential for true economic development.
 
In recent years many of these quasi industrial and residential zones have been absorbed by hospital and university expansions as well as new arenas, stadiums, exposition centers, and the next half baked version of No Dough.  However, seldom are these industrial zones re-energized with significant investments in cultural facilities which are more typically reserved for the showcase locations of the downtown.  One of several major exceptions is the Frank Gerry designed Guggenheim Museum located in an aging industrial district in Bilbao Spain.  It is here that a new model of urban gentrification can be recognized where art becomes the engine of the urban renaissance. This model involves the use of public art and cultural facilities as a promoter of community regeneration. In particular, unpopular and stigmatized urban neighborhoods can now be revitalized more than ever in the current economy when underutilized land and aging and often functionally obsolete buildings are reclaimed.
 
City mayors almost always claim they lead a world class city and point to their monuments of success while depressed industrial districts and declining neighborhoods are located nearby.  These link or stepping stone districts require a new approach.
 
This is not a simple rejection of all that has been achieved in our urban cores, far from it.  It is a pragmatic view of the way things are, and not as propagated by downtown civic groups.  This is a discussion about how downtowns have bought all of the civic amenities that the tax payers can afford and more, yet still have block after block of surrounding disinvestment.  So this is a call for a practical approach to a more meaningful restoration of the functionally obsolete buildings of low rise manufacturing districts that are often embedded into lower income residential neighborhoods that surround many downtowns.  While these buildings and their surrounding neighborhoods have a roughness, they should be recognized as authentic places with authentic aesthetic that provide an openness required by industries of imagination and creativeness.
 
It is the robust fabric of diverse neighborhoods, including those with a though material quality and a grit in their complexity that are greatly underutilized especially in the alley ways, the former loading docks and storage yards.  These throw away zones present the greatest economic opportunity of all because they were sized for industrial activities no longer required or their locations.  An example of a throwaway zone which has been revitalized is Neal’s Yard in the West End of London.  Located between in between Covent Garden and the theater district is a discreet alley which leads to the back of high street shops.  It is here that cafes, coffee shops, hair stylists and other small shops flourish.
 
Likewise, almost every city in the US has their in-between zones that get little planning attention. Yet, once these areas are brought back to life with a seamless integration of old and new, a narrative of strategic sites and a historic texture evolve to create a quality of place that could never be created in a new suburban location or in the urban core because of economic constraints that are going to remain for decades.
 
More than ever, those who are in positions to re-imagine a city fail to see the strength of their more humble urban districts in a different context, or as the most likely place to create an emerging community for on-going creativity.  Nevertheless, it is the former places of commercial production that are most readily available to become the new places of cultural production.  However, these forgotten or avoided districts are sufficiently wedded in the history and the culture of the community with an authenticity and spirit of the place unique to a city.  Consequently, they provide a concentrated fabric with a potential for a theatrical energy which can never be created in an urban mall or a new constructed convention center, downtown arena and performing arts district.  Conversely almost all new suburban developments lack a positive familiarity with any real local character.  Sure some attempt to demonstrate a historic perspective with faux main street facades but in the end they are all manmade artifice.
 
So, this is a call to protect, preserve and restore all that is important in the purpose built districts that evolved between the 1930s and early 1950s because the full revitalization of community requires a rich mixture of architectural styles and a variety of approaches, formal languages and material qualities that are found in the older fabric of these districts.  It is the complexity of old and new along with a well worn grain that defines a real district of substance.
 
The most significant ingredient in the making of true community is a vibrant creative and entrepreneurial base.  Stated in other words, nothing can replace the continuing experimental flair expressed through the sensibilities of independent shops and cafes operating adjacent to working artists and other creative industries. True community requires a built legacy and cultural context including architecturally compelling buildings with more humble buildings fully restored containing vital activities.  On the other hand in a post café society – downtowns must be more than a government center, office park and convention center.  The all too prosaic downtown must move past tired and worn out economic development hucksterism to become a city of creative innovation.  While many planners and elected officials have read the required writings of Richard Florida concerning the creative class they fail to resolve the differences between their manufacturing, transportation, distribution past and brain drains with the real future.
 
Downtowns districts must be much more emotive than just another catchy name drummed up by a merchants group upon their return from a field trip to some hipster district in a true world class city. We must welcome the grittiness, a harsh chippiness, and a proletarian culture that can be empowered through education and engagement of the human imagination where extempore exchanges can occur between diverse groups.
 
But at this point, the suburban reader may rightfully ask why the urban neighborhoods are relevant in the first place, other than as central places for medical centers and public housing? The answers are simple but seldom articulated by even the most avid of downtown promoters.  The answers lie in communication and social interaction, and most importantly humanism.
 
Over the past couple of decades we have truly moved from a post industrial to a knowledge economy which is based on the research, communication and development of ideas with creative talent as its raw material.  As such, cities are central to this economy as the creative laboratories where social interaction is vital to the development of ideas and the communication of the same. This is the type of communication that evolves better in the cafes, art galleries and the ticket line of the foreign film theater.  But it is more crucial in the actual development of creative and cultural products where a large variety of creatives businesses must work side by side in close collaboration.
 
Think of an independent content studio broadcasting live reports about the cultural and economic activities of a district on video screens in the street with edited versions posted on a district’s website and YouTube.  Think of an art park with video installations, a meandering art walk tracing the back alleys filled with studios, cafes, and the shops of craftsmen.  Think of a tweeter connected community that stays informed up to the minute on the next pop-up shop, a moveable market coming to the district for the weekend, or the chef special in the gourmet café trailer adjacent to the film studio.  Think about a chef’s school next to a chef’s market.  Think about an urban studies school or a master of fine arts school seeding the district.  Why not a Midwestern branch of the Guggenheim?  Think of restored urban schools, communal urban gardens, and bike paths connecting the district to downtown in one direction and the first ring neighborhoods in the other.  But most of all think as opposed to promotion an obsolete model of economic development in our downtowns.

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