I love big cities, but I often find small cities more compelling. The dispiriting and encouraging aspects of urbanism are more immediately juxtaposed, often heart-rendingly so, but the disparity between them seems bridgeable. Surely, this place can be made to work, if only. Hudson, N.Y., a settlement of 8,000 residents two hours north of Manhattan, is a two-square-mile snapshot of America’s urban disparity. Its main avenue, Warren Street, is a stunner; it looks as if eight very charming blocks of Brooklyn left the big city a century ago and moved to Columbia County. It has its rough spots, but Warren Street has been experiencing a revival, thanks to gentrification, historic preservation, an influx of antique dealers and tourists, and the helping hand of government.
In the blocks immediately to either side of Warren Street, one finds the other Hudson: comparatively poor, nonwhite, disconnected, and underemployed. The crime rate is higher, and the rough spots in the urban fabric are rougher. The industrial base is nearly gone, as are innumerable mom-and-pop shoe stores, food marts, and repair services that once made Hudson, Hudson.
What has happened in Hudson, as elsewhere, is that the middle has dropped out. But before blaming its vanishing middle class on the global economy, look closer to home. In fact, look in the home, for this is where American businesses—and American urbanism—used to get started. Before we became enamored of top-down urbanism—funded by government, propped up by feasibility studies, packaged by city hall, guarded by aesthetic review boards, and delivered by developers—urbanism arose through an organic process of small entrepreneurs opening home-based businesses to the sidewalk. Their one-of-a-kind shops and industries were the starting point for innumerable mixed-use streets, districts, and downtowns that we love today.
In the late 1800s, modern zoning, building, and health codes sought to mitigate the problems inherent in this model by removing the slaughterhouse and the smelting plant from the residential neighborhood. These were good ideas at the time. But these codes have since become problematic themselves, for they effectively forbid a poor person from making a living serving muffins and coffee in her dining room, or selling and repairing shoes out of a living room.
The unavoidable outcome, many decades later, is fewer one-of-a-kind businesses in Hudson and the rest of America, suffocating dominance by chain stores, a dearth of new industries to replace what America has lost, and a lot of poor city residents in residential-only neighborhoods sitting on their hands, waiting for city administrations to attract a major employer.
It’s no wonder such disparity mars our cities: Warren Street became a fully urban street when urbanism was allowed to occur naturally and spontaneously. But the poor residential neighborhoods of Hudson are forbidden from attaining that same level of urban fullness today. And meanwhile, Warren Street increasingly becomes the province of a class of people who can afford to buy into urbanism in a near-fully formed state.
If there is one thing we know well as architects, it is that all ideas have a shelf life. An idea for one building rarely works in the next; in fact, most of the ideas we come up with only serve to get us to the idea after that. This is where America now stands in regard to the urban problem. The ideas that once made our cities more livable are now the biggest obstacles to their betterment. I include among them that most sacred of cows, the historic preservation movement. Unquestionably, historic preservationists kept many buildings and neighborhoods standing for years until others reawakened to their value. But today, historic preservation strictures stultify the imaginative, entrepreneurial spirit—the urban spirit. This is why Warren and streets like it are becoming museums of themselves: what was once put in place to safeguard urbanism now prevents real urbanism from happening.
We’ve accomplished some good in our cities with some once-good ideas. It’s time to find a different set of ideas that will span the disparity.