Putting shine back in cities

May 26, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

A GLORIOUSLY whimsical carousel, the first all-wooden hand-carved specimen to be built in America since the 1930s, has become a symbol for the rebirth of Mansfield, Ohio -- an old manufacturing town seeking to find a new lease on life.

Visit this carousel, opened in 1991, and you'll find strutting ostriches, roaring tigers, strolling zebras, assorted horses, even a giraffe with a monkey hanging on its back. The moving festival of fun and color is accompanied by military waltzes from a Stinson organ.

The carousel sits on a corner of Mansfield's North Main Street that had become a seedy, largely abandoned area frequented by prostitutes. Today, the carousel is a grand success, receiving a constant flow of school children from far and near, parents and grandparents, teen-age couples seeking romance, anyone loving whimsy.

The carousel is a prime example of how fresh life can be brought to yesteryear's cities, cited by Roberta Brandes Gratz in her new book (written with Norman Mintz), "Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown" (Wiley & Sons).

Urban guru

Ms. Gratz is a longtime friend and articulate disciple of Jane Jacobs, the famed author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." There could hardly be a richer, 1990s-style exposition of the ideas of urban density, variety, neighborhood individuality, which Ms. Jacobs first made popular in the '60s.

Ms. Gratz shares Ms. Jacobs' impatience with big and simplistic projects that stomp on the urban fabric. What's the sum total of the mega-projects sold to cities as recovery strategies -- gigantic stadiums and convention centers, enclosed malls, gambling casinos, massive highways?

Simple, writes Ms. Gratz: "No Place. No economic diversification and growth. No excitement. No sidewalk bustle. No serendipity. No intermingling. No street theater. No people contact. No added residential population. No complexity that should distinguish a downtown."

Maybe, you'll say, that's a bit rough. Even sports stadiums can help renewal in legitimate ways -- look at the new ballparks in Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver, designed with care to fit into the urban fabric.

Still, there's lots of truth in Ms. Gratz's broadside attack on the retail consultants, planners, architects, engineers, who champion the cookie-cutter projects for big fees and big profits, ignoring often simpler, kinder and potentially far more effective solutions.

Their major projects, Ms. Gratz asserts, are "big, visible, simplistic and wrong." Plus, almost invariably, they demand big subsidies.

What's most delightful about this book, though, is not so much its righteous indignation (though Ms. Gratz is very good at it) as the description of a right way to go -- "urban husbandry." It's an approach that assumes the city already has assets in place; we simply must rely on the expertise of citizens, the accumulated wisdom of the community.

Indeed, Ms. Gratz says urban husbanders view a downtown or neighborhood like the husbander of a garden -- respecting the history of organic growth over time, replacing existing plants only reluctantly, and thinking of how the whole fits together.

Travel America and the examples of such husbandry are hard to miss: the Gaslight District of San Diego, Denver's Lower Downtown, New York's SoHo, Granby Street in Norfolk, Riverwalk in San Antonio, Boston's Newberry Street, Pasadena's Colorado Avenue.

Each has been lovingly nurtured, fostered, coaxed along. None is automobile-oriented: Indeed, almost any effort to make NTC downtowns more welcoming and aesthetically pleasing involves taming autos, not turning urban streets into speedways.

It's urban husbandry that's begun to turn Mansfield around. The city's recovery from gradual desertion of its grand old downtown began with John Fernyak, a local businessman, who insistently bought and restored one historic building after another. Katherine Glover, an ingenious young urban planner, combined common sense with her retailing experience to cultivate a new colony of locally owned businesses.

The restored historic area has been named the Carousel District. Older firms such as the Coney Island Diner and City News were counseled on how to attract today's customers. An Italian bakery was attracted, and after a failure, a successful farmer's market. Restoration is continuing, fear of neighborhood crime is declining. Mansfield's acclaimed yearly soapbox derby returned from the suburbs and now runs on North Main Street's hill.

Inexpensive make over

Net public cost: very little. The recovery matches Ms. Gratz's formula for urban husbandry -- "cost-effective and generous, liberating and empowering, liberal and conservative all at the same time."

She sees across America a growing army of community advocates, younger city planners, historic preservationists, environmentalists, innovative architects bringing fresh perspective to American city renewal:

"Nibble by nibble, they are reversing the mistakes of the past, dispelling myths, repairing the 'hacked-up' landscape, reweaving torn districts, reconnecting people and places, rebuilding the public realms and repairing democracy itself."

Call her view romantic, if you will. But isn't it the kind of community you want to live in?

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

! Pub Date: 5/26/98

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