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The Desperate and the Disparate.
As I was leaving Detroit very early Sunday morning to catch a plane, I saw the breaking story about a “shooting incident” in an Orlando nightclub, but the first reports did not detail any fatalities. Only after we landed was the shocking news of 50 dead and as many wounded revealed on the concourse TV screens.
Just in the past six months: December, 137 dead at the Paris Bataclan Theater (and two other sites); March, 35 dead at the Brussels airport; now the massacre at the Orlando Pulse Club. Before that, San Bernardino, The Madrid train bombing, the London Subway bombings… not to mention the videotaped beheadings of sundry Western journalists and other non-combatants… or the foundational outrage of 9/11. It gets more difficult for the democracies of the West to evade the recognition that a state of war exists between us and Islamic theocracy.
No one knows what to do about it , including, of course, the blowhard Trump. The perp in the Orlando slaughter, Omar Mateen, killed at the scene, was born in New York City, and many of the various European massacre perps were homegrown as well. Good luck trying to deport new wannabes like them. The mood for the moment, as in so many of these tragedies, is the awful combination of rage and impotence.
After many past atrocities, people of the Western nations under attack just sucked it up and moved on with daily life. These recent massacres, though, have stirred up the sleeping demons of Western politics. No sentient observer can fail to notice the extremities of feeling aroused in America’s 2016 election spectacle, which have overtaken dark trends underway for years already around Europe. One can only imagine that the sentiments will only get more extreme, as may the actions that follow.
I was in Detroit last week for the annual congress of the New Urbanists, who hold their meet-up in a different city each year, more or less to keep up with developments around the country. The org was formed in 1993 to challenge the fiasco of suburban sprawl, which was defacing the national geography like some landscape-eating leprosy. The org has been most successful at changing the DNA of property development in hundreds of cities and towns: the laws and zoning codes that for decades made it illegal to build so much as a popsicle stand in America without supplying ten parking spaces. The New Urbanists are responsible in large part for the urban renaissance — not so evenly distributed around the country.
Detroit, of course, is the most extreme case of civic implosion in the USA. In 1950, it was the seventh-richest city in the world. By the turn of this century, it was left for dead and bankrupt. It’s creeping back now by small increments, which may seem like not quite enough, but is actually exactly the scale required for what is coming. The residue of the city’s skyscraper center still stands on Augustus Woodward’s disorienting semi-circular street grid. There’s a grand wish to bring it all back to life, but personally I think that giant office and apartment towers are not on the menu for The Long Emergency. Practically everyone I talked to about this issue thinks my view of the matter is nuts. But I reiterate: skyscrapers and mega-structures are already obsolete (we just don’t know it yet).
Our cities will come back as cities, just not at the scale of comic book gigantism they achieved at the height of the oil age, when Superman was leaping over The Daily Planet headquarters. And remember that most of our cities occupy very important sites, most particularly Detroit on its stretch of river between Great Lakes, on the border of Canada. It’s coming back now by small entrepreneurial gestures, hipster and hippie business start-ups, the “risk oblivious” art shock troops, a cadre of fearless homegrown architects, and some visionary urban designers. The ballparks and casinos have landed downtown, too, like UFOs from a planet of bygone utopian redevelopment fantasies, all crammed into the same sports ghetto where wild drinking and structured parking overwhelms anything like normal city life a few hours a week.
The geographically huge city offers plenty of forsaken small-to-medium buildings, some of them very beautiful and built to last for the ages, that can be bought for almost nothing. There’s an awful lot of empty space between them, and for the moment enterprising gardeners are putting it to use while time bides itself waiting to find out where fate wants to take it. [More here.
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