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Thread: The Retro City

  1. #1

    Default The Retro City

    January 4, 2004

    The Retro City


    Bishop-crook streetlamps light up the sky over Hudson River Park along West Street.

    WHAT'S new in cities today isn't really new. Everything in our urban revival, from architectural styles and ornamentation to the very idea of neighborhood living itself - all of it is self-consciously and unapologetically derived from the past.

    But now something stranger and even more disheartening to the lover of city life is becoming clear: the new in cities not only isn't new, it isn't very urban. Although we've resurrected the forms of our cities, we've animated them with a culture straight from the suburbs.

    Today's cities copy those of 50 or more years ago because the 1950's was the last time cities had busy downtowns and strong neighborhoods. Their buildings were made almost entirely of brick, stone, wood and terra cotta. Factory, rail and waterfront districts still produced and moved goods. City residents displayed a certain sophistication, as movies of that era remind us. And cities played a dominant role - economic, cultural and political - in the life of the nation. All that came to an end in the late 50's, when cities fell into a long period of physical and cultural decay.

    American cities will never again be as vital as they were during the first half of the 20th century. That is why cities are prime objects of nostalgia in our very nostalgic age. And what better way to modernize the objects of our nostalgia than by recreating old cities to attract large numbers of young professionals? Cities suffered for decades, after all, and lost middle- and upper-class residents. Renewal projects failed to improve them. They are shrinking parts of an expanding and increasingly dominant suburban society. And a growing number of affluent people now find suburbs boring or homogeneous. No wonder cities seem fresh, even exotic, and thus ripe for a nostalgic comeback.

    I first noticed this comeback 15 years ago while living in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Since then I've made yearly trips to New York and watched those early and scattered examples of retro urbanism multiply and coalesce into what is now the city's dominant style.

    Visit Chicago and San Francisco, even Denver, Oakland and Baltimore, and you'll see that they too are trying to rejuvenate themselves by recreating the look of the urban past. But because New York is so big, and perhaps because it was so clearly at its peak around 1950, its retro comeback seems especially conspicuous.

    This comeback can be impressive. Shoppers go downtown again. Local retail streets are lively. New skyscrapers look better than those built 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Industrial districts that were once decrepit and dangerous are now home to people with money to spend. For the first time in half a century, cities are in vogue.

    They've become fashionable by adopting the fashions of earlier times. Skyscrapers built between the late 80's and the late 90's feature cornices, balconies and Art Nouveau lamps. In the last few years we've seen eclectic versions of glass curtain walls. A neo-ziggurat structure housing the Austrian Cultural Forum just went up on 52nd Street near Fifth Avenue.

    Sometimes the past is built right into the present. In downtown Chicago, 4,000 stone panels were saved from an Art Deco skyscraper to clad its replacement, while in Manhattan the Ford Center for the Performing Arts replaced the Lyric and Apollo theaters but kept the Lyric's 43rd Street facade and the Apollo's 42nd Street lobby.

    City planners try to reinstate the past on a larger scale. The Redevelopment Agency of San Jose, Calif., claims to be fashioning its entire "downtown program after the San Jose of 1900-1950." Chicago completed what The Tribune calls a "turn-back-the-clock, retro remake" of its major downtown shopping street.

    Cities everywhere restore dilapidated facades and store fronts. They renovate train stations and ferry terminals. They design subway stops to look old: Astor Place station, for example, is made of cast iron, and a new kiosk on Broadway and 72nd Street looks as if it's from the 30's. They lay old-style paving blocks, too, near Wall Street in Manhattan and in downtown San Francisco. Cities are especially fond of old-fashioned streetlamps like the retro bishop crooks - so named because they look like a bishop's hooked staff - that now illuminate parts of Lower Manhattan.

    San Francisco has even returned vintage trolleys to Market Street, with a sign on each car telling where it last served: 50's Boston, 40's Kansas City, 30's Philadelphia. It doesn't matter that those trolleys never ran in San Francisco. The goal is to make downtown look old, not to reproduce it accurately.

    Wholesaling and manufacturing districts are similarly prized for their historical charm. Cities like to turn such districts into residential and office zones where, according to one planning agency, "historic structures have been preserved, providing glimpses into the area's past."

    To that end, old factories and warehouses are restored and converted to other uses, while new buildings allude to the industrial past. They do this by using architectural motifs such as glass bricks, exposed I-beams, sheet-metal facades, galvanized steel railings and, in the case of a new loft building at Hudson and Houston Streets, "bold, horizontal bands of multipane windows that," according to a critic, "create an industrial scene."

    RETRO skyscrapers, remodeled downtowns, old-fashioned baseball parks, new loft buildings that mimic old factories - all belong to an architectural school whose philosophy seems to be that copying something good beats inventing something bad. But if architects once used historical motifs to grace new architectural forms or express the sentiment of their times, as Cass Gilbert used Gothic to make the Woolworth Building into a modern cathedral of commerce, they now borrow older styles merely to conjure up an abstract sense of "history."

    The result is an architectural plagiarism that's eclectic and imprecise, a hodgepodge of form and decoration that typically remains at the level of mere gesture: it lacks detail and seems to be saying, "Here is a symbol of a cornice" or "This is meant to indicate the setback style."

    The few buildings that try to copy an older style exactly or mimic a neighbor precisely do so with modern materials. Instead of terra cotta, they use hard foam. Panels of brick substitute for brick walls. Deco-like lamps are made of flimsy sheet metal. Otherwise faithful copies thereby betray themselves for what they are. Even renovators of landmark properties in New York can get permission from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to use synthetic slate instead of real slate, baked aluminum for oxidized copper and fiberglass in place of terra cotta.

    It may be strange to plagiarize old architecture, but it's stranger still to try to reproduce what one condo developer calls the art of city living. By this he means the urbanity we associate with American cities from the 20's to the 50's. He's selling a strong sense of neighborhood community, a short walk between your residence and a retail street, and the old-fashioned rapport between shoppers and shopkeepers.

    He's also thinking of things like a neon martini glass hanging outside a chic club, a remodeled lounge in a boutique hotel that advertises itself as "a genuinely retro bar," and a "supper club" that, according to a San Francisco magazine, promises to "transport us to a time past when food, drink, and music was all enjoyed under one roof in a dimly lit, lounge-like atmosphere."

    The self-conscious "art of city living" is what you find in gentrified neighborhoods and converted industrial districts. In keeping with the retro style, these areas preserve old things and make new things look old. Gentrifiers restore brick and stone, hang carriage lamps, refinish wood, and install new kitchens and bathrooms while retaining original molding, light fixtures and door knobs.

    The ideal loft district or gentrified neighborhood centers on a pedestrian retail street that looks something like an old-time shopping avenue. Residents say they like small stores. So shopkeepers hang a sign that proclaims the traditional nature of the store and informs you, in an attempt to suggest tradition, when the store was "established."

    A typical street has the retro bar and perhaps a new restaurant with an Art Nouveau interior. It probably has a version of E. J.'s Luncheonette, which the Zagat guide describes as "faux 50's." It will certainly have at least one eclectic club or lunch place that combines old wooden booths, new Deco-like lamps, and the inevitable film noir posters.

    The bathroom door in one such place (in San Francisco) has a mail slot. Originally it might have been a door to an apartment building, or maybe it was just made to look as if it was; who can tell? Historical veracity, as is so often the case in the current revival, is not only ambiguous, it's unimportant.

    Ads for new lofts and newspaper articles about converted warehouses play up the "tradition" and "authenticity" of their "historic" districts. Loft residents clearly appreciate that history - but precisely as history: they like to see remnant rail spurs or, even better, the remains of an elevated freight rail like the one that runs through Manhattan's once grungy but now fashionable meatpacking district. They also like to see fading but legible names of old wholesalers still painted on the sides of their buildings.

    If there aren't any old advertisements, developers now paint them on so they look old - Phipps's Cutlery or Maggione's Dry Goods. It's a rather audacious bit of nostalgic overkill, but as with the mail slot in the bathroom door and the Philadelphia streetcar in San Francisco, whether it's real or not has become irrelevant.

    DESPITE all these retro forms, the culture of loft districts and gentrified neighborhoods resembles that of a suburban subdivision much more than an old city block. Newcomers to such areas want the look of the old city but the peace and quiet, and purely residential character, of a suburb. So they immediately encourage local officials to squelch the sounds, smells and movements of any manufacturers or wholesalers still in the neighborhood.

    Sometimes they're even willing to ruin historical architecture for the sake of a suburban convenience. Think of the metal balconies that developers tack onto converted warehouses so residents can partake in the suburban pastime of grilling. Backyard grilling may well be the greatest invention of our suburban culture, but is it worth defacing beautiful brick facades for grilled salmon?

    What lies behind all this residential development, of course, is the idea of "the neighborhood." A New York real estate broker described gentrifying blocks above 96th Street along Broadway as "just so 'neighborhood.' " Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles depict an "old neighborhood feeling" in gentrifying districts everywhere. Or they discover, as one recently did in the area around Madison Square Park, "a sense of community and shopkeepers who provide old-fashioned courtesies."

    Merchants sometimes fly pennants on renovated retail streets to announce the neighborhood's name. Whether they've resurrected the old name or invented a new one like NoLIta, it's a self-conscious attempt to create a sense of neighborhood identity, something old neighborhoods never did.

    But today's neighborhood is different from the older one that's supposed to inspire it. For one thing, gentrifiers and loft-dwellers live much less of their lives in their neighborhoods than those who lived there 50 years ago. Today, few mothers and children are around during the day. Many of those children go to schools outside their neighborhoods and, like their parents, tend to have most of their friends and most of their activities in other parts of the city.

    Like a postwar subdivision, today's retro neighborhoods lack ethnic clubs, nearby in-laws or grandparents, and merchants who have watched a generation of youngsters grow up. They lack the culture that once provided city neighborhoods with a sense of continuity and identity, and forced people to develop ties over time, across generations, even across ethnic differences.

    Loft districts and gentrified neighborhoods have been transformed so quickly, and by such similar kinds of people, that they are often as homogeneous, with respect to age, race, income and education, as a 50's suburb. Gentrifiers acknowledge this lack of diversity, and it's a painful admission because "diversity," after all, is what they say they like about the city.

    A few will even tell you, as one told The San Francisco Chronicle, that they wish their neighborhoods had kept some of their "working-class charm." The phrase is telling, as if this charm were just another feature of the real estate, like water towers or exposed brick work, that might be preserved for the benefit of yuppies and their property values.

    FOR real diversity in these neighborhoods, you have to look to the dogs. These neighborhoods tend to have more types of dogs than classes of people. It's true that people have always had dogs in cities. But the explosion in the number of dogs, the rise in the number of big dogs, the conviction of many owners that their dogs are entitled to "off-leash experiences" in city parks - all that expresses the suburban ideal of a dog in the yard.

    The car in itself is not suburban. But it is suburban to expect your very own parking space in the city. Such an expectation means new and converted residential buildings must include a built-in parking space for each apartment, a requirement that turns the first floor or two of a building into a parking lot.

    Parking is so scarce in some gentrified neighborhoods that people regularly park on sidewalks. As a member of a San Francisco neighborhood council put it: "There is a substantial age and experience divide on this issue. Those people who see nothing wrong with it are younger and more recent residents of the neighborhood, who bring a suburban sensibility to the city."

    Bringing a suburban sensibility to the city: that's a good description of our urban revival.

    It may be sad to see today's fashionable districts looking like 50's street scenes with the sleekest cars ever made replaced by S.U.V.'s, ethnic clubs taken over by retro bars, family pharmacies and hardware stores supplanted by national chains, children and parents who once sat on stoops displaced by dog-walking couples, and fedoras and New Look dresses traded in for sneakers, baseball caps and spandex running outfits. But perhaps the incongruity of suburban culture in city streets is simply the price you have to pay for preserving and re-creating the old forms of our cities.

    And it's inevitable, anyway. Karl Marx said his times were about "the urbanization of the countryside." Cities were then starting to spread their machines, markets, money and modern culture across the land. By the 1950's, however, American cities were losing the vitality that had made them such forceful and creative places for nearly a century. American society today, Marx might say, is about "the suburbanization of everything" - including our retro cities.

    Michael Johns, who lives in San Francisco, is the author of "Moment of Grace: The American City in the 1950's" (University of California Press).

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2
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    Nov 2002
    New York City


    Such is the price to be paid.

  3. #3
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    Jan 2002
    West Harlem


    No kidding.

    Go look at Gateway Center in Spring Creek especially, or take a look at the people walking around Park Slope.

  4. #4
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    Nov 2002
    New York City


    My dad was born in Cincinnati but raised across the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky. If Cincinnati is the self-styled Mini New York, then Newport is its Mini Hoboken; once an stagnating, industrial river town, it's reinvented itself as a gentrifying edge city with she-she restaurants and a fast-redeveloping downtown. Many of the streets would not look out of place in Williamburgh or Red Hook. The sidewalks of the downtown area, however, are paved with bricks, there are the same "bishop's crook" streetlights as mentioned in the article, and you see girls walking around in Juicy sweatsuits and guys in ENYCE.

    The anchor for the waterfront's redevelopment, which has several condominium towers on the boards, is "Newport on the Levee," a retro shopping-entertainment center which is essentially a pedestrian-friendly mall in industrial drag. It's a sprawling redbrick structure with plenty of underground parking space, warehouse-height ceilings with exposed air ducts and waterpipes, and lots of retail, restaurants, nightclubs and movie theaters. It's much better than the average mall, however, because it's in a central location, people can just walk up to it without trudging through a giant parking lot, and the design encourages people to leave one part of the complex and walk outside to get to another.

  5. #5


    Is Gateway Center that shopping mall? I refuse to acknowledge it's existence.

  6. #6
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    Jan 2002
    West Harlem


    I try to as well. My parents like it. They think I'm foolish when I refuse to go there with them. I was there once because it was on the way and we needed a fan. Never again.

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