Sunday, October 15, 2006

New Mood Downtown

A really really old one, spunoff some from our very first assignment when I decided to begin a second bachelor's degree. The course was introductory sociology; we got to go to the university library and choose an article from journals the professor had on reserve. Of course I had to choose something very urban: Society, v. 16 no. 6 pp. 4,6-7, September-October 1979

New Mood Downtown: internet link
• Wolf Von Eckardt, New Mood Downtown
• Society: v. 16 no. 6 pages 4, 6-7 September-October 1979

This article is concentrated and conclusive regarding positive aspects of the current migration back into the cities as a place to live. Von Eckardt shows a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for city living. Reflecting on contemporary trends, he cites everything now [1979 for the article's date] happening in a most positive light, taking negatives exclusively from the 30 to 40 years preceding the back-to-city-living trend. Although the article is only three pages long and therefore limited in scope and depth, the author seems almost obsessively intent on proving his point and extending his own enthusiasm to the reader.

The essential thesis appears to be that use – or misuse – of architectural space is the prime humanizing or dehumanizing factor. Beginning with the fact of the physical return of people from suburbia to cities, and ending with the observation that it is people who are beginning to make their environment livable and workable, the writer lists a series of factors that contribute to the neglect and decay of the city:

  • residential exodus/flight to suburbs
  • suburban shopping centers
  • freeways
  • exit of industry
  • poorer people remaining in the city
  • suburbs receiving a lot of tax money
  • "urban renewal" attacking the apparent, visible problem of substandard housing rather than the real problem of limited employment skills and opportunities

Von Eckardt sees the extensive implementation of housing modeled after Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse as the worst mistake, observing that the concept of stark concrete slabs surrounded by air and light in reality was unable to provide the casual, routine social interaction needed for development of a healthy community. Again, in negative terms, he indicates that unique architectural style not so much reinforced and perpetuated whatever sense of alienation already may have been present, but was a major contributory factor in its emergence, as the style allowed for no functional neighborhoods.

Among positive forces now at work – presented both as a response or reaction to Corbu's style of architecture and as an awareness that possibly we were in danger of losing the "good old" things about the city – the author mentions particularly the rediscovery of the neighborhood as a social setting and the multitude of creatively revived downtown shopping centers. His only reservation seems to be the suggestion of a need to find a solution for the problem of gentrification of lower-class housing and the subsequent displacement of people already living there.

The limitations of a short article better serve the purpose of either a general, broad overview or of a concise unilateral view as presented in this article than that of a thorough presentation of multiple aspects of a situation. Although Von Eckardt's bias comes through forcefully, he also succeeds well in portraying the renewed cities as most attractive and as definitely the place to live.

Because of the relative terseness of Von Eckardt's exposition of the urban revival phenomenon, and because it is well documented by specific examples of decay, demolition, revival and rebuilding, the article is both informative and convincing. Written in easily readable non-technical language, it incorporates virtually all of the observations I've read in popular literature over the past two or three years.

Though never stated overtly, overlaying the focus on architecture as the apparent major factor in the city's crisis/rebirth is an implied awareness that life happens and can be lived only in community. The architectural accidentals that at first seem to be Von Eckardt's central concern thereby can be seen as enabling and facilitating community.

© Leah Chang

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