A hundred years later

[Oh, wow, I’ve been seriously delinquent about blogging. I have dozens of links for a link dump, but in the past few months my life has gone topsy-turvy in quite a few ways. I apologize. Here was one neglected but substantially complete post that I’d saved as a draft.]

[A follow-on to Twenty Years]

Philip Nobel, writing in Metropolis in March 2007, banishes “all arguments based on ‘authenticity’… to the postmodern echo chamber” based on a comparison between two widely known examples of “fake places” and one of the world’s most-visited “authentic” places:

There’s really nothing wrong with Santana Row. There should be, of course: we’ve all been bred to hate malls, and what could be more hateful than a mall masquerading as a chic, vaguely European town? […]

It was visiting [Santana Row and Easton Town Center,] those two sprawl-patching hot spots within a few months last year that began to erode my knee-jerk aversion to malls: fake places, captive minds, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah… in San Jose and exurban Ohio, there is scarcely a center to mourn, and the “malliers” should be credited for responding to a human urge that looks as if it will easily survive the decentralizing effects of multiuser gaming and Netflix[:] people like to gather and not just to shop…

Walking around the center of Munich for several days last winter, I found it increasingly untenable to prefer one form of regulated commercial experience to another, to damn the American solution and reflexively embrace the European.

This echoes, of course, the way elite Manhattanites nostalgically whine about the “Suburbanization of New York.” It’s only fitting, of course, that the city which rose as the United States coalesced from regional to a national economy — and which has long economically colonized the rest of the U.S. — should now feel threatened as the tide runs the other way. (Of course, it always has, as [for instance] regional food brands were replaced with national ones; it’s just that retail brands are that much more visible in everyday life. And don’t New Yorkers see Macy’s or Subway whenever they leave NYC? Oh yes, I forgot: they don’t.)

New Urbanists are often criticized for creating places which look “realistically urban” but feel antiseptically suburban. This criticism misunderstands the new urbanist intent: the intent is not to create an instantly authentic city, an impossible task since layers of human history and diverse interpretations thereof need to be laid down to create a city. (Honestly, think about it: creating instant authenticity would necessarily require exponentially more frightful social engineering.) What New Urbanists seek to do is to create places that will be able to ride the tides of history, to age well and to adapt to the necessarily shifting sands of urban history. Indeed, quite a few of today’s shining examples of urban authenticity were once themselves Planned Communities of a sort, relics of an earlier era of town planning which, at the time, must have seen more than a little contrived but which have grown into their roles with age.

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