BERNARD J. FRIEDEN, 2/92
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
What accounts for the fact that, after fifteen or twenty years of hard work, the attempts to rebuild the centers of American cities in the 1950s and '60s were almost at a dead end, and yet, in the following ten to fifteen years there was an unparalleled construction boom, downtown, and the movement suddenly caught fire? Why did it turn around? How come, after all the projects that didn't work, all the cleared land that nobody wanted, suddenly, cities came to life again?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Bernard Frieden, professor of urban studies and planning at MIT, coauthor of Downtown, Inc. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Frieden. Where did the urban development of the 1950s begin? In what concept of the city?
BERNARD FRIEDEN: In the post-war period, people who cared about cities were taken aback because downtown especially was coming close to deserted. The middle classes were moving to the suburbs, department stores were closing, transit systems couldn't attract passengers any more, and it was a real question as to whether cities needed downtowns any more, whether downtowns could survive in any form. But to some people, they were still important. There were certain kinds of activities that were anchored there and couldn't leave. The large metropolitan newspapers, some of the financial institutions, professional groups like lawyers and other specialists who had to meet face to face with their clients, still preferred downtown. And downtown was still a mainstay of public finance in American cities, maybe 25% or more of the tax money that cities received then were property taxes from downtown. This was all before the era of any substantial federal aid to cities. And so you had a coalition that cared a great deal about saving downtown for a mix of business reasons, fiscal reasons, and just attachments to downtown institutionsóclubs and museums, for example. This group became the formation of a campaign that was gonna last for thirty years or more in most cities to try to find a way to restore downtown. The way they tried in the 1950s, however, turned out to be largely a dead end. The people who planned what to do in the '50s were impressed with the fact that the public at large seemed to have very little use for downtown, and they bought a little too much into that view I think and began to advocate tearing down what was left of downtown, starting with a clean slate. When they talked about downtown, the word they used most often was "obsolete." Another word they used, too, "cancerous blight," the blight of downtown was going to spread like a cancer, and that metaphor became a kind of guide to policy. You have a cancer, you cut it out. The solution to downtown as seen in the 1950s was to sanitize it and clear it out with a bulldozer, start all over, build on a different plan, don't build small streets and small blocks, but large avenues, superblocks, very large projects. There was a real question as to who might use this new downtown, and I think the answer for those people who were involved in the campaign then was, the elite would use it. Downtown would be for people in specialized office and business occupations, a certain upper-income group whose tastes matched the institutions that were still left downtown, like the museums and galleries. Luxury housing would be built and offices for specialized firms and some of the museums and educational institutions would be allowed to expand. That was the way things were seen then. There was also a kind of city-planning ideology, at that time, of what form cities ought to take. And they were to take the form of large projects for single purposes. The idea was that you ought to separate activities from each other. Don't let them get mixed together. Cities were considered a mess partly because they were a jumble of different activities, and people were reacting against the jumble. That is, the experts were reacting against the jumble. And so the idea was, you might take one section of a city and it would just be housing, you'd have no stores in there, just apartment towers. Another section would be office buildings. Nothing in and among those office buildings that might attract people. No parks, no benches, very few public spaces. Just places for people to work. New York even went so far as to isolate its cultural facilities by building Lincoln Center. And it was something of a debate at that time as to whether the concert halls and theaters ought to scattered around neighborhoods of Manhattan, or pulled out and segregated in one place. The segregators won that battle. That was the way architecture and planning professions thought about downtown, at that time. And many of their projects never got built, many of them were paper plans and were attacked as paper plans. They tried to build a great many, but often there wasn't commercial interest in carrying out these projects. But those that did get built were predictably pretty unpopular. They never evoked much enthusiasm. Many of the buildings were really something that only the architects could like. Sometimes even the architects didn't like 'em. Maybe they were projects that only the architects' mothers could like. By about the mid-'60s, that movement to rebuild the cities appeared to be hitting a dead end, they weren't making much progress, what was built was unpopular, and there was a search for new ideas. In the course of knocking things down to try to rebuild the cities, the planners and the public officials were also very careless about other people's interests. They tore down a tremendous amount of housing, booted out hundreds of thousands of families around the country, evicted at least tens of thousands of small businesses, many of which never recovered from the move, and, in an effort to cure the city, many of these programs really made cities worse. They kicked out the people who would have stayed longer and the businesses that might have stayed longer, in order to create the makings of that clean slate. That's the way it was in the '50s.
MP: The term "sanitize" you used, you also portray an image of this downtown as grand, open esplanades with grass, wide streets, enormous bulky, modern, by those standard, buildings. And mostly work with a little bit of culture isolated in some of the peripheries of this design. Is there an obvious source for that, for those images?
BERNARD FRIEDEN: In architectural circles, these were probably based in part on LeÝCorbusier's ideas for building tall towers surrounded by gardens. And that was the pattern that many cities tried. A superblock that is the size of maybe five or six conventional city blocks, with towers in the middle and grass around the edges. It also suited a certain conception of the city at that time, and that is that what was left of downtown was considered dangerous and unpleasant and therefore you wanted to isolate anything new for the rest of the city. And the way it isolated is to put this green belt around the buildings that you cared about, keep everybody else at a distance. If it wasn't a green belt, you'd lay out the project so that the parking garages are some sort of wall that goes around the outside, and the usable part was in the middle, not made very inviting to the casual passerby, but if you had business there you'd go inside.
MP: At the end of the '50s, we were pretty well on the way to creating bombed-out centers in major American cities. Did one city, or any one city, suffer the most? have the largest bombed-out area? I call bombed-out to mean the renewal area.
BERNARD FRIEDEN: I'm not sure that one city stood out. Perhaps St.ÝLouis more than others, because St.ÝLouis was trying hard and therefore clearing land and having a great deal of trouble rebuilding it. But really that was true of cities like New York, also. It took a long time to rebuild the land that was cleared. Eventually, of course, it was rebuilt in Manhattan, but in some other parts of the city there still are leftover sites from the urban-renewal era.
MP: Even today, thirty years later, there are many undeveloped sites. In order to understand what did get developed, how did that happen?
BERNARD FRIEDEN: It really happened in stages. The first thing that happened was that cities tried to promote the development of office buildings. In the early '50s, New York dominated the whole scene in terms of office buildings around the country, but that began to change and other cities began to get an increasing share of new office space. Many of them were cities that did promote it deliberately as part of urban-renewal projects. Cities like Pittsburgh, for example, which were among the earliest, went for urban renewal and managed to attract office development or expand existing office districts. So the offices came first. What really sparked it was not so much the planning efforts of cities, but a change in the national economy. As we shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy, there was a great demand for additional office space. And the demand wasn't limited to two or three of the biggest centers, but it was felt in maybe the twenty-five or thirty largest cities of the country, and to a lesser extent in smaller places. So we have the spread of offices and the growth of office activity downtown. And that was the nucleus for what happened afterwards. Once downtown began to get back on its feet as a center for office buildings, the office executives wanted hotels so that people who came to visit them would have a decent place to stay downtown, and so you had a wave of city action to promote hotel building. Then they wanted convention centers, so they could have trade shows, to help beef up that downtown economy. And they were also interested in housing for some executives who might like to live close to work, and having walk-to-work housing was an asset when it came to attracting people to work in these downtown places. As more people began to live in and around downtown, there was then a greater demand for theaters and restaurants and one thing built on another. And the cities that did well at it sort of rolled with the waves of offices to hotels, to housing, to restaurants and entertainment, theaters. And the idea that also spread at this time was that the city ought to be a place to attract visitors, that tourism was potentially important economically, but beyond that, people just preferred cities that had lots of folks in the streets to empty cities. And now the search was on for what would draw the crowds. Now, there is a certain amount of faddism in this. Cities also are constantly competing with other cities, want to have what others have, and they're also competing against their own suburbs to attract a share of development. The crowd pleasers included things like the new-style museums with their blockbuster shows that draw very large numbers of people, downtown shopping malls which draw incredible numbers of people, on the order of twenty million or more visitors a year in these successful downtown shopping malls. That must make it among the great crowd drawers of our time. Stadiums ............... near downtown that drew large numbers of people. Just neighborhoods that people enjoyed being in, places that were fun to visit. Historic places, in many cases. Places where people felt comfortable and where there was something interesting to see and do. The search was on for these socalled people places. People places became any kind of special environment offering something that people couldn't find, easily, in the suburbs. One interesting dimension of that, as the country's bicentennial approached in 1976, we began to take a renewed interest in history. Historic preservation, which used to be a hobby of Mayflower descendants in New England and some very rarefied groups in other parts of the country, became a big movement nationally. People really enjoyed visiting historic places and historic buildings, and they began to be treasured and preserved, and now they were marketable. Nostalgia was really in by 1976, and there was potential income to be made by saving these old buildings. And those cities that hadn't totally used the bulldozer were thrilled to discover that they had left a few neighborhoods alone, with old buildings that could be renovated, and that there a few historic sites still untouched. The long-predicted revival of interest in housing in and around downtown took an unexpected form. It wasn't an interest so much in new housing as it was in renovated brownstones and historic buildings brought back to life. The recycling of history became a big factor in adding to the appeal of downtown and stimulating the development of it.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Bernard Frieden, professor of urban studies and planning at MIT, coauthor of Downtown, Inc. We're talking about that book and we are already looking at revitalization forces of the city, as we see it today. One of the key areas that's covered in the book, one of the people drawers, is shopping. The question is, How did we move from shopping in the suburbs in malls to the recognition that it existed as a downtown enterprise?
BERNARD FRIEDEN: Well, shopping really had been a mainstay of downtown for a long time. The modern downtown had its origins with the rise of department stores in the late nineteenth century. It was the crowds that came to department stores and the streetcars and the subways that brought them down that created the center of public activity downtown. When department stores got into big trouble, that is, when the downtown stores got into trouble after World War Two, that made everybody nervous because so many other activities were linked to the department stores. That is, people who would come to shop would also stop at restaurants would also go to theaters, would also visit museums. If you're gonna take away that big magnet, the department store, that began to threaten the whole structure of downtown. So cities never lost their interest in shopping. They were anxious to revive it all during the '50s and '60s, but they couldn't find a way to do it. Because at that time, that was the era of the suburban shopping mall, a new invention, as of about the early 1950s, and it spread like wildfire across the country, within ten or fifteen years most Americans doing most of their shopping in the suburbs and primarily in these large regional shopping malls. Well, you couldn't build those malls downtown. They took up too much space and they would eat up seventy or eighty acres of open land in the suburbs, and even the downtowns that had been bulldozed didn't have that kind of space to spare, and the cost would have been astronomical. Cities continued to want to do something, but couldn't figure out what. Then, an interesting thing happened. A few of the companies that were building suburban malls realized that the suburbs were getting crowded with regional shopping malls, that they couldn't go on building them in the suburbs forever. There was still some life in that movement, but a few mavericks decided that it would be interesting and possibly lucrative if they opened up a specialty, a sideline, and that is, building modern shopping facilities in the heart of the city. Then, by the late '60s, when cities began to look around for developers who might build some downtown retail centers, they did start to find a few takers, and that made a big difference. The people who made the transition from the suburbs to downtown were largely experienced in building shopping malls. They knew how to draw the public, they had ideas about the kind of mixes, the mix of stores that would work, they knew how to handle these very large crowds, and they began to work out adaptations of the suburban idea that would fit downtown. They were good marketers, too. One of the interesting and ingenious things was that they sensed this changing attitude toward history and historic places. Some of the first successes in downtown retail centers were in historic buildings. In San Francisco, it was Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery. Soon after, in Boston, it was Quincy Market or Faneuil Hall Marketplace. These are all examples of historic buildings, renovated and adapted to new activities. The first few in San Francisco were done by local developers. Faneuil Hall Marketplace was done by a national organization, the ?Rouse Company, which had a good suburban track record. Well, these downtown places broke all the suburban rules. They didn't have parking, or at least they didn't have very much of it. Faneuil Hall Marketplace didn't have air-conditioning in the main part of the market. There were no department stores in there. In the typical suburban mall, department stores are the magnet and when people visit the department stores, they also shop in the little stores in between. But, if you're recycling old buildings, like Ghirardelli Square or Quincy Market, you can't fit a department store into those places. And something else that was interesting about these, the developers realized that they couldn't compete headon with suburbia, yet they also couldn't make it just by drawing people who lived in or near downtown. There just weren't enough people living there. So they had to get suburbanites to come into these places, and that meant they had to get suburbanites to drive right past those new suburban shopping malls and come downtown. Now, they wouldn't do that unless there was a special reason to do it, and the reason had to be something different from what suburbia offered. So they began to think of what could be different. Well, one thing that could be different was the environment, the setting. You could have historic buildings that people would react to differently, comfortable, familiar materials like old brick and cobblestone paving, weathered copper, and wooden beams, instead of the hard, shiny modern surfaces of a suburban mall. The developers also began to figure that they might offer some alternative to the chain stores that dominated suburban malls, that if they could get independent local businesses, that would be a refreshing novelty. That's what happened in these early downtown malls. They went after local businesses more than the chains, particularly by trying novel businesses, as, for example, many food places at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, they could find very good food operations in the city of Boston, persuade the owners to move or to set up a branch in Faneuil Hall Marketplace. People reacted, and reacted favorably. Suddenly, there was great interest in going to something that was different enough from the suburban malls to be interesting. Not headon competitive, because it sold somewhat different things. And that was a kind of fun experience. They could arrange for entertainers to be there, mimes and music groups, and that created a festive atmosphere. That was one important way of building a downtown mall.
MP: In Downtown, Inc., I don't get the sense that ?Rouse planned the mini-market, the enormous scale of the mini-market, nor does it look like anyone planned Pike Market, or recognized its potence for drawing the community. Was this indeed simply alert developers?
BERNARD FRIEDEN: In Boston, it was actually the architect of the project, Ben Thompson, who had the original conception for how to do this project, how to take the old market buildings and convert them into an interesting modern food market. I think it was Thompson's vision and Rouse's business skill that put the ideas together and made them into something that worked well economically. I can't say that it was fully planned by anybody, I mean there was a lot of spontaneity in what happened also, and a lot of evolution of things. For example, at the beginning, the old market used to sell food to take home, it wasn't a place where you'd buy a lot of food to eat on the spot. And the new Faneuil Hall Marketplace also mostly emphasized food to take home. But then on some slow days, the merchants discovered that if the fruit people cut up their fruit and put it out on little paper plates that people would buy it, and the butchers began to realize that if they sold sandwiches instead of just selling steaks to take home, there was a market for that. So, some of this was a kind of unplanned evolution and in fact broke the rules that the Rouse Company had written into the leases for these people, but the company realized that this might work very well indeed, better than what they originally had in mind, and so they made the change. In Pike Place Market, that was different. That wasn't really built as a money-making proposition. It was a result of a popular movement to save the old market that people loved. There had been a plan to tear it down and replace with some modern office buildings, and it was a very broad based coalition, a real grass-roots movement, in Seattle to save the market. The mandate that the city got was, Save that Old Market. So they did. And that meant encouraging the farmers to keep bringing in the produce and encouraging the fish stands to keep selling fish. Now, the whole thing is very carefully controlled, it's by no means spontaneous, inside the marketplace building, but the control is used to preserve these old businesses and to encourage more businesses like them to come in, saving this popular place that the people liked in Seattle, and they did it so well that it became a big tourist draw. Contrary to everybody's expectations, it turned out to have major economic significance for the city. It drew tourists, it attracted other development, because developers wanted to be near that marketplace. And when you check into a hotel in Seattle these days and you pick up your booklet of sites to see, the Pike Place Market is usually near the top of the list. That also was true in a way of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The city never really expected it to be highly profitable. They mainly just wanted to save those historic buildings, and if they couldn't find some economic activity in there, they were afraid the buildings would be vandalized or burned down or would simply crumble. They were pleasantly surprised that this marketplace made a lot of money. But they had had the foresight to write a lease, the buildings are publicly owned in both case, to write a lease that in lieu of taxes had the developer pay a certain percentage of the sales, so the more that was sold, the more the city took in, and the city has done very well with that project. The cities have done very well with both projects as a matter of fact.
MP: The powerful story is still to be summarized, which is that, after sanitizing the city, there was a coalition of multiple forces, virtually none of them totally encouraged by the city nor recognized by the city, that gave us our modern downtown.
BERNARD FRIEDEN: Well, the city is a lot of different things and a lot of different people. I'd say what happened in the successful wave of rebuilding cities starting around the early '70s was that new ideas took hold' as I mentioned, history and nostalgia were in, people got more interested in food than they used to be, and there were maverick developers who sensed possibilities in downtown, but there were also maverick public officials that sensed these possibilities. It wouldn't have worked if it had been just one or the other. Usually, it was the maverick public officials that set the lead in all the marketplaces that ?Lynn ?Sigalla and I studied for our book. The first moves were made by the city. It wasn't that a developer came to town and said "I'd like to build a marketplace." It was a city saying "we'd like to save this or that area, we'd like to build a project here, a retail project." They then invited developers to come in and make proposals. So, it had to be the city taking the first steps. One of the many reasons why developers couldn't have done it on their own is that these are very expensive projects to build and to maintain, yet they had to compete against suburban shopping malls that were built much more cheaply on open land. The only way they could do that was if the city would plug in enough help to cover some of that cost differential between building and operating downtown and building and operating in the suburbs. So there's a lot of public money in these places.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Frieden. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, and our guest was Bernard Frieden, professor of urban studies and planning at MIT. He's coauthor with Professor ?Sigalin of Downtown, Inc., which was MIT Press in 1989.