October 27, 2014

New Urbanism hijacked for leisure-class contests, and the plague of cars turning suburban streets into one-way roads

Not for the first time, I wrote what started as comments but soon morphed into an entire post on another site (this post at Uncouth Reflections reviewing a documentary on New Urbanism). This seems more likely when I've had a drink and am only focused on the now. You've heard of drunk texting -- this is drunk comment-spamming.

I'll just copy & paste the comments, rather than edit and fill them out into full posts. There's plenty more to say, so just riff on them in the comments, and I'll chime in again. (Like how I forgot to mention how much worse the parked car plague is where spics live. Six cars lining the curb in front of a "one-family" suburban house -- that's a sign of the Mexican invasion for sure. But I digress...)

The first is about how New Urbanism has turned out in reality, all these years after being an unheard-of movement, and being so widely adopted by the right kinds of people living in the right kinds of places. It promised a return to Main Street, but has built only playgrounds for the leisure class to publicly indulge in their status contests.

The second is more focused, on the topic of how clogged with parked cars the typical residential street is nowadays in suburban America, how recent of a change that has been, and what this example shows about the power of design and public planning to shape behavior when attitudes of individuals are pushing in the opposite direction.

* * *

The lack of reflection this far into the craze for New Urbanism is unsettling. Y’know, it’s not 1992 anymore, and the movement isn’t some underdog vanguard but the Next Big Thing that every SWPL enclave has been pushing through for at least the past 5, and more like 10 or 15 years.

That photo of the public square in New York sums up what’s gone wrong (or has revealed what had always been wrong from the start): New Urbanism has become (always was?) a brainstorming session / policy bandwagon for how to make the wealthiest neighborhoods in the wealthiest cities even more insanely epic playgrounds for the sponges who dwell nearby. That could either be loafer / hipster sponges, or finance / Big Law / PR / other bullshit sector sponges making a ton of money from parasitic professions.

There’s absolutely nothing civic, communal, cohesive, or enriching about these large playground oases in the urban jungle. Just a bunch of sponges sitting around indulging in some conspicuous consumption (where’s you coffee from? where’s your panini from?) and conspicuous leisure (1pm and I’m lounging in public, with designer clothes and perfect hair — jealous much?). There’s never any connection or awareness of the other people in these places. They’re all drones vibrating in their own little cell within the larger hive.

Don’t be fooled by the pairs of people who appear to be interacting with another person. The other person is just a social image prop, and gets no attention, which is instead directed at the hive in general.

You ever notice how loud and over-sharing their conversations are, and how their eyes are always darting around to see how many other drones are giving unpsoken “likes” to the speaker? When they aren’t talking, they are dead silent for hours at a stretch, never looking up toward the other, glued to their private glowing screen. No affection or closeness — they only “interact” when their speech and mannerisms can suck in attention from the hive.

Apart from the psychological segregation, contra the intimacy the New Urbanist cheerleaders promised we’d have, there’s the naked leisure-class nature of all the surrounding “small shops,” invariably 90% quirky foodie joints, and 10% quirky yoga, quirky doggie spas, and quirky clothing. Somehow that’s not what my grandfather would have imagined when New Urbanists spoke of a return to Main Street. These preening useless faggots would have gotten food thrown at them from passing cars back in those days.

Where do they buy their household tools? From a mom & pop hardware store? No — by ordering some Chinese piece of shit from Home Depot’s website. Where do they buy their music and movies? From iTunes (if they’re old) or more likely from some online streaming service. Consumer electronics? Amazon, or once a year a trip to the Apple Store where they actually buy something.

It’s pathetic how little variety there is in areas struck by the New Urbanist craze, and how much all of that stuff has migrated online due to airheaded consumer choice. I could have sampled a wider variety of stuff from a mall back in the ’80s — and they had professionals’ offices there too.

Defenders of New Urbanism will say that it wasn’t intended, that this is a hijacking or adulteration by wealthy interests, that the originators were more populist. Maybe — maybe not. The point is: this is what the mania has produced in reality, and it’s time to start taking stock of that, and coming up with ways to wipe out all of this airheaded elitist shit and return city and town life to more populist and enriching ways. Not by continuing to cheerlead for the craze like these designers and architects do.

It’ll be better if the new movement doesn’t have the words “new” or “urbanism,” to avoid confusion and tainting.

It would greatly help matters to identify designers, architects, and policy makers by one of three types, so we know who we’re dealing with and how to treat them.

1) Kool-Aid drinkers. These people truly get an endorphin rush from turning entire neighborhoods into leisure-class playgrounds. Crazy, not worth trying to talk some common sense into.

2) Sell-outs. These individuals started off with the populist Main Street ideal as their model, but quickly figured out that egalitarian small-town ecosystems are not exactly gonna fly off the shelves in a climate of such intense status-striving and inequality. A fella’s gotta eat and pay rent, so whaddayagonnado? Not worth trying to convert, since they only worship the almighty dollar, and they will not fall for the lie / clueless naive suggestion that somehow, someway the Main Street model could be made to be as profitable, or more, than the leisure-class playground model.

3) Frustrated idealists. Bitter, overlooked, unappreciated, disgusted by what the formerly idealistic movement has devolved into (or again, how the hidden variation among the originators has made itself manifest). They feel sick for being a part of a movement that has swept aside the variety of stores that used to be found in suburban strip centers as recently as 25 years ago, all in the name of converting the place into a “lifestyle center” with food, drink, food, drink, food, food, food, spa, salon, crappy cell phone outlet, food, and food. All chains, all oriented toward leisure-class strivers.

Naturally only the last group is worth the time for ordinary people to talk to. But if they won’t identify themselves, and their distaste for where the New Urbanist craze has gone, it will be hard to start cleaning house.

* * *

The designer in the documentary is Danish, so I don’t expect him to be in touch with American trends. But New Urbanists have overlooked the most pedestrian-unfriendly car phenomenon of the 21st century — suburban streets that are narrowed into de facto one-lane paths because residents park their cars all along the curb, at every house.

This is not a design / planning problem, since just 25 years ago, roughly the same number of cars belonging to roughly the same number of residents on a suburban street, were parked in the driveway, carport, or garage. It was normal for two-car houses to have both parked one behind the other in the driveway, and for someone to have to get out and move the back one if someone wanted to take the front one out. I remember doing that in the ’90s, though it was also starting to become common to park one in the driveway and one on the street.

What changed were attitudes toward private vs. public welfare. Individual convenience is maximized by parking one in the driveway and one or more on the street. Say goodbye to those unbearable 30 seconds of car-shuffling. But when everyone feels and acts that way, suddenly the whole street is clogged with parked cars. The two-way street is now one-way, and pedestrians who could have walked along the side of the road (the way we all used to) have nowhere to walk, unless there’s a sidewalk.

(Sidewalks are not the most common thing in suburbs, sadly, and even if there is one — how drone-like to have to follow a sidewalk in a quiet residential neighborhood, when you’re supposed to be walking through the streets because you own them, and only moving aside when you see a car approaching.)

This state of affairs points to the larger problem that is rarely discussed in New Urbanist forums — how easy does design change attitudes, and can a change in attitudes over-turn the utopian design plan? (Answer: yes.) Driveways, carports, and garages were a design solution to the problem of streets clogged with parked cars — provided that folks who lived in multi-car houses put the good of the community above their own stingy quest for maximum convenience. You don’t see cars parked in driveways in the city — it was supposed to be a way that suburbanites could lick one of the city’s worst problems.

In the end, though, attitudes trumped design plans.

10 comments:

  1. Interesting. I've also noticed that some neighborhoods don't even have sidewalks anymore. I always thought that this was a way to keep people out.

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  2. In addition to cars in the street and absent sidewalks, there's also huge no visibility fences (more like walls in the worst offenders).

    Another thing that's turned neighborhoods less social is snout house style designs(which appeared around the mid 90's) where the the front of the house has a garage which juts out far beyond the rest of the house. That design almost demands that people drive into the garage, exit the car and enter the house without being seen. On top of that they also are tough to see into since they have just a few small windows. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snout_house, these "neighborhoods" look pathetic.

    Compare these FU modern designs to detached garage mid century homes in which taking a short walk out in the open was mandatory (god forbid lazy fat ass people have to take a few extra steps in the sweaty heat or shivery cold. Even inhabitants who didn't spend much time outside could at least be seen a bit more easily because of the garage design and also because of more high vis windows, so they didn't seem so aloof.

    Also, homes are trending towards greater size in spite of sometimes small lots. The fact that modern consumers are willing to sacrifice a better yard for a bigger house is indicative of how people have retreated from the outside, natural world.

    There was a post on here before (http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2013/12/history-of-home-prices-and-conspicuous.html) that pointed out how design reflects various trends.

    There's also been a trend towards street layouts that feature more twists, bends and dead ends since the 80's. Is this because greater inequality leads to greater efforts at making in area inaccessible to outsiders?

    I wonder if I should put late 80's/early 90's pictures of my outer ring Minneapolis suburb/near exurb (with houses built mainly in the 80's) up online. Things did look more welcoming back then. More color/contrast, less in your face fencing (or no fencing at all), no narcissists parking in the street. Plus, cars that don't look lame & forgettable.

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  3. Those aforementioned big ass fences also make homes harder to see into. Bigger fences ostensibly promote security and privacy, but they mainly reflect a neurosis about dealing with the outside world.

    The reality is that a bad guy can easily enter almost any residential yard he wants to with relatively little effort. In the high crime 80's people didn't need big fences, opaque blinds and didn't hide behind monstrous garages in front of houses swatting unwelcome onlookers away.

    I'm also reminded of prior talk on this blog about how taking shortcuts through people's yards was less frowned upon in the 80's and to lesser extant, the 90's. Obviously the growth of fencing has made this less possible, even if modern kids wanted to go off script and explore and ramble it would be a lot tougher nowadays.

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  4. I don't get all this talk about "the high crime '80s." In the '80s, while you heard about serial killers in the woods or at the beach or on the ho' stro' you never heard about home invasions. Incidentally, about 5 yrs. ago I dashed through a backyard to escape a country club security posse that wanted to wring my neck. About a week later I passed the house on the sidewalk and the owner was out talking to a neighbor. He blithely goes, "oh, this guy comes through my yard once in a while," like no big deal. We shook hands, and I went away amazed at the guy's equanimity.

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  5. "I don't get all this talk about "the high crime '80s." In the '80s, while you heard about serial killers in the woods or at the beach or on the ho' stro' you never heard about home invasions."

    People have become more paranoid because they are more socially isolated. Furthermore, a high crime rate isn't that hard on the average person.

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  6. Ironically, the criminals themselves can use high opaque fences for their own privacy.

    I read a book about the original Night Stalker who, in the late 70's-80's, would prowl and even rape amid homes and yards of varying degrees of would be security measures. Dogs, wallish fences, you name it.

    They never caught him, though some witnesses could have done more faster to help catch him and several enraged residents confronted or chased him on several occasions ( one was killed, 1 had their lower bowels destroyed by his gun, another was an off duty cop who was shot at.

    DNA from his crime scenes has never been matched to any DNA in California's vast database. The cops in the case generally did a competent, earnest job but it didn't matter. They never developed a single adequate suspect.

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  7. "I don't get all this talk about "the high crime '80s.""

    Violent and property crime rates rose from roughly 1960 to 1990, including home invasions.

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  8. Earlier post on privacy fences:

    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2012/04/cocooning-home-and-yard-design-1.html

    Fences also sprang into popularity during the cocooning Midcentury, though they weren't totally opaque. They were high and not very transparent, though. Some examples:

    https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4081/4739245355_75e6b6597d_z.jpg
    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_U7N6CH5mIhQ/TUOVMiTdFiI/AAAAAAAAHSo/ibwsdFT-1i4/s1600/mid_century_modern_wall.jpg
    http://veryvintagevegas.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/img-7508.jpg

    Back then, The House Beautiful (the mainstream magazine for domestic design / architecture) had an ongoing series about how to build fences for privacy, and another source (I'd have to look it up) said that for the first time in several decades, fences were coming back into fashion.

    You have to go back to the early 20th C, another outgoing / rising-crime period, to find suburban houses with little to no fencing.

    Related: a post about car exteriors looking more like four walls of privacy fences:

    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2013/08/cars-designed-for-limited-visibility-in.html

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  9. Feryl - The Night Stalker was a fellow named Richard Ramirez who was captured, convicted and died in prison last year. You can read about him here .

    You may be thinking about a different killer who was never caught, such as the Zodiac killer.

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  10. No I'm not wrong. The Original Night Stalker/ East Area Rapist was never identified let alone caught. He started in Northern California in the 70's before moving to So Cal. Ramirez went on a spree in the mid 80's before being caught.

    http://ear-ons.com/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_Night_Stalker

    Substantiated voice of the killer from message:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdElYnd-xMo

    ReplyDelete

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