The Recycled City

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



McLuhan’s
influential gift was to unite a theoretical literary imagination about
the impact of different kinds of communication with the practical ongoing pattern
of North American life. He sustained an open nonelitist mind about different
media. No intello-snob, he was a critic who was, however, never meanly critical.
Like a Mobius strip he moved in an unbroken line from exploring a deeply Catholic
commitment to high-meaning symbols to puckish description of banal daily life.
He became both a fad guru, especially in advertising, as well as a consistently
thoughtful and idiosyncratic public intellectual.


Another
of his provocative ideas has much to do with the regeneration of inner cities
throughout the industrial world: “One Generation’s Technology Is The
Next Generation’s Art Form.” This has a surprisingly direct connection
with the cultural and economic success of lofts as a primary residential form
and merchants’ choice for style of store at the end of the century. Large
bare spaces in which underwear used to be sewn or silver ingots turned into
fish forks or furniture legs hammered into place are now the preferred home
bases of adequately affluent artistic and commercial busybodies. Players of
poignant rock guitar and skinny models with extra teeth pay millions to live
in old egg factories, chickens not included. Perhaps their parents or accountants
think their brains are fragile. The story is true in London and Paris and New
York and Chicago and Boston, nearly anywhere there are factories made of brick
nestled in cities with the hum of busy life.


I encountered
it afresh when I landed in San Francisco. My plane was a late one and there
were no cabs. But a shuttle co-op taxi was just outside the door, so I took
it. On its way into downtown it released several passengers in parts of the
city I hardly knew. These were once the factory, automotive, plumbing and warehouse
areas–clanky places like that. They were nowhere near the cable car lines
and congenially interesting tourist distractions that lure people from all over
the world. Among its more general advantages, this indirect tour offered an
unexpectedly delightful sighting of the old headquarters building of Levi Strauss–tawny
tan paint and low-slung mission style. Here was the symbolic source of the great
American contribution to the world’s butts; the Vatican of durable, low-key,
sexy clothes nearly everyone can afford; one of the authentic folk shrines of
our century; country clothes created in the middle of a city; rather like the
lab where Edison developed the lightbulb.


But the
most interesting and significant feature of this unexpected tour of San Francisco
was the demonstration once again of the importance of McLuhan’s notion
that the technology by which one generation earns a living is how the next generation
lives its life esthetically. The messy sites of noisy, bustling machines become
the status dwellings of the taut new elite. Subtle restaurants with long forehead
fronts and semidark plate glass exteriors cosset the consumers of arugula and
monkfish laced with capers. Coffeehouses pay the rent where once illegals patched
up tires on their last leg; $400 sweaters-Milanese are arrayed like jewels in
a former warehouse for hoisin, soy and bean curd.


It would
have been a rare theorist of art who would have predicted during the early days
of burgeoning industry that the descendants of the barons who built French chateaux
in Pacific Heights in San Francisco (and in Newport and Scarsdale) and Euro-townhouses
in other major cities would seek out bare, spare, industrial spaces in city
after city. Areas such as Soho and Long Island City in New York, and South of
Market Street in San Francisco, have seen that, literally, the workplaces of
industry have become the studios and homes of first artists and then affluent
civilians. They find the spaces once created for machines especially agreeable
and invigorating. The landmarks movement, in which New York City was a leader,
not only certified the historical value of old buildings but also drew attention
to the often-irreplaceable luxury of their scale, their arrogant domination
of space, their potent and unyielding connection to the inner fabric of city
life.


Despite
the leafy suburban stage sets made possible by highly subsidized highways, there
remained through the lens of landmarks a strong sense of the esthetic vitality
of central-urban structures once thought merely old and dispensable. It remained
clear that cities were compact for a reason–because they made sense economically.
They provided a lot for residents to do easily and with considerable elegant
variety. And for historically fortunate urban areas like New York City, with
its vast public transport system (evidently, some 40 percent of all mass-transit
rides in the U.S. are taken in the greater NYC region), the culture of cars
has not overwhelmed the culture of people, at least not as completely as in
towns like Houston and Los Angeles.


And, years
later than smart people should have, major developers have realized that it’s
economically senseless and esthetically barren to build yet more suburban shopping
malls and tract housing when, for example, the underused or moribund rail yards
that large cities almost invariably have can become features of renewed and
vivacious urban landscapes. Hence the 300-acre Central Platte Valley of Denver,
once mainly a rail yard, has spurred renewed interest in the central city. Ditto
in Sacramento on 37 acres, Salt Lake City on 40, on 36 acres in Portland, OR,
and there are similar plans afoot in Omaha, Las Vegas and Dallas. Should New
York City ever overcome its foolish adolescent confusion about the disastrous
project of shoehorning a major stadium into the West Side rail yards, there
too a major contribution to urban vitality could continue to revivify the fortunes
of this already architecturally fortunate city.


It’s
clear there’s an energetic urban revival in a number of significant cities,
as the tide of people flowing to the suburbs appears to be reversing or slowing.
The economic and emotional cost of the increasingly cloacal and seemingly hopeless
traffic in edge cities, combined with their low sensual intensity, appears to
be generating real estate activity in the centers of cities like Philadelphia,
Chicago, Denver, Memphis and Seattle. People are fleeing from where people used
to flee from cities to. Cities are where urbanity’s at. Elderly people
have second thoughts about living in gated Florida or Arizona cities, where
acquiring a quart of milk involves a car ride or consultation of the schedule
of the shuttle bus. Instead, they are returning to central cities, where entrepreneurs
and hoteliers like Marriott are a decade late in beginning to respond to their
spending power and needs. The nationally declining crime rate has boosted the
movement firmly–Milwaukee has not had a single downtown homicide over the
last seven years. And in a kind of immense symbolic transformation, Raymond
Hood’s American Radiator Bldg. at Bryant Park, with its redolent black
and gold facade, will change from the headquarters of an industrial company
to a super-scale hotel sharpened by the luxurious minimalism of design. The
latest, almost comical version of futurist nostalgia is evidently the concrete
flooring much prized by urgent movers who wish to make a statement with every
step they take.


The overall
point is Marshall McLuhan’s. The old architectural technology pleases the
eye and appears to calm the spirit. It becomes its own esthetic form. Powerhouses
and textile mills become art galleries, and people collect small shiny machines
because their innards are beautiful and intriguing. It is all a cheerful surprise.


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