The Difficulties of Reviving a Ghost Town: Best #Cityreads of the Week

A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

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A kite-captured aerial view of Connecticut's Pleasure Beach (Wikimedia Commons)

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"Bringing Pleasure Back to New England's Detroit: Can a Ghost Town in Long Island Sound Be Revived From the Dead?," Andrea Powell, Salon

On a windy, damp morning in early April, Steve Hladun  stands in front of the gate that protects the tiny island of Pleasure Beach, Connecticut, from unwanted trespassers. His neon yellow raincoat stands out against the grey of the sea and sky around him. Pausing mid-sentence, the city official pats his pockets looking for the keys to the gate. Not finding them, he pulls out a credit card and swiftly picks the lock. Behind him, the city’s harbormaster looks on curiously from the dock. Steve flashes him a nervous smile and pushes the gate open, having successfully broken into the place he is supposed to protect.

Unfazed by the first hiccup of the morning, he makes his way across the center of the island—a once beloved but now desolate 71-acre spit of sand in Long Island Sound. At 33, Steve is surprisingly young to be in charge of a place like this, and his friendly demeanor and laid-back attitude suggest his is a new approach to how the nearby city of Bridgeport, which controls Pleasure Beach, does things. His green eyes scan the surrounding area for anything unexpected; since the only bridge to this island burned down 18 years ago it has been deserted, and nowadays you never know what you might find. Walking down its only road, Steve passes remnants of the island’s former life. A pay phone stands defiantly, nearly hidden in overgrown weeds. The rusted wire fencing of a baseball backstop sticks out of the trees. A large concrete bathhouse stands in the center of the island, graffiti covering its every surface. Finally, he spots what he’s come here for. On the south side of the island, less than half a mile from the gate Steve broke into, seven police divers are standing in the sand, dressed head to toe in protective dry suits and oxygen tanks. For the seriousness of their appearance, the policeman joke around childishly. They have left their guns behind but carry knives, unsure of what they might find once they enter the water.

Postcard from Pleasure Beach from approximately 1930-1945. (Boston Public Library on Flickr/CC License)

"Living in a Fool's Paradise," Mark Hogan, Boom: A Journal of California

When I moved to San Francisco in 2003, I found a place to live in one weekend. A property manager had three or four apartments for rent within a five-minute walk of each other in Lower Nob Hill, a dense neighborhood uphill from the Tenderloin and Union Square that was still rough around the edges at the time. It was exactly the type of neighborhood I was looking for, as my budget didn’t stretch to dining at fancy restaurants and I wanted to be within walking distance of a BART station.

Ten years later I went back to look at apartments in the same neighborhood. So many people showed up to look at one miniscule $1,700-a-month studio that half of the crowd was asked to wait on the street because the grand old lobby of the post-quake apartment building wasn’t big enough to hold them. Now, a year later, prices on 350-square-foot apartments have topped $2,000 in some buildings. At another open house in 2013, in a relatively unhip western neighborhood, the realtor showing the unit asked the crowd in attendance to make offers higher than the price shown on Craigslist if they were serious about signing a lease.

The lack of housing availability and affordability during the late nineties dot-com boom is legendary. No-fault evictions soared as the population of San Francisco grew and higher-paid workers in new industries moved into formerly low-cost parts of the city. After the boom ended, many people left and rental prices dropped significantly. While San Francisco was still not affordable for a lot of people, it seemed possible to live here without dot-com money. Once I accounted for the savings of not owning a car, my cost of living wasn’t much different than it had been during the previous year I’d spent living in Ohio.

Yet in the second tech boom, things are even worse than they were in the late 1990s. San Francisco is now the most-expensive large city in the United States. Protests in front of tech company shuttle buses have made front-page news around the country, housing costs dominate casual conversations, and San Francisco’s already strong antidevelopment sentiment is growing angrier. Yet, common sense and a basic understanding of economics suggests that building more housing is probably the only way out of staggeringly high housing prices in the long term. In the short term, though, we’re stuck right where we are in an increasingly untenable position.

"When You've Had Detroit," Rollo Romig, The New Yorker

We grew up in Detroit—yes, the city itself. It’s not as if we spent two decades cowering in fear. Our neighborhood was North Rosedale Park, on the northwest side, and for nearly two decades the beautiful things about living there easily eclipsed the crimes that finally drove us away. But the crimes and the beautiful things were never easy to disentangle.

We moved to North Rosedale in December, 1975, just after I turned one and my sister turned three. My mom thought that she’d gone to heaven. The day we moved in, our neighbor Mrs. Halsted stopped by to make sure we knew about Community Christmas—which turned out to be a beautifully organized arts-and-crafts assembly line for local kids and kaffeeklatsch for their parents, free of charge. Then our next-door neighbors the Youngs invited us to their annual Christmas party for everyone on the block. One night it snowed, and my parents woke up the next morning to find their sidewalk already plowed by emissaries from the neighborhood civic association. On our first Christmas at our previous house in Detroit, burglars stole our winter coats and all the presents from under the tree, leaving a stampede of muddy footprints on the living room carpet.

My parents had no idea what a paradise North Rosedale could be until they moved in. All they knew was that they could buy a gorgeous house there for only thirty thousand dollars, and that was good enough. It was a big yellow-brick colonial, built solid in 1928 and clearly designed for a family with means: a wood-burning fireplace in the living room, a leaded-glass window on the stair. Down the center of the house, a two-story laundry chute. (I desperately wanted to throw my sisters down it, but the doors were too small.) In the walls, a network of talking pipes—a primitive yet magically effective form of intercom. Best of all, in the basement, not one but two secret rooms. The sheer marvellousness of the place coupled with my father’s modest publishing-company salary made for some ridiculous juxtapositions of luxury and frugality, like we were rebel forces who’d just captured the palace of a dictator newly fled: we’d sit in the dining room under our crystal chandelier eating store-brand cereal with powdered milk.

"The Architecture of Abortion: How Providers Build Their Own Buffer Zones," Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, FastCoDesign

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law allowing for a 35-foot buffer zone outside clinics offering abortions. The law, which builds off of a similar one in Colorado, went into effect in 2007 and provided a fixed, no-go zone around women’s reproductive health clinics. The buffer zone, which was supported by local law enforcement, limited the proximity of pro-life protestors to the women and the staff entering the facility, thus diminishing public safety concerns.

And public safety is a serious concern. While Roe v. Wade remains legally intact and secures the right to an abortion in the United States, clinic violence represents one of the greatest deterrents to women and to providers. The National Abortion Federation (NAF) has tracked reported cases of violence against clinics since 1977, and the long list of incidents includes eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 arsons, as well as thousands of cases of criminal activity like kidnapping, stalking, and a rash of attacks using butyric acid. Add to that the daily affronts of picketing, obstruction, and intimidation, and you can understand why Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of NAF, said in a statement last week that “buffer zones work" in protecting people.

The SCOTUS ruling serves yet another blow to those hoping to provide safe and accessible reproductive health services to women. While other building types have benefited from the expertise of architects when addressing public safety issues--think, for instance, of the architectural interventions around safety, wayfinding, and crowd control at hospitals, federal buildings, courthouses, and stadiums--reproductive health care clinics rarely see that kind of design support. Clinics are left to fend for themselves and, as a result, are forced to create ad hoc buffer zones where architectural and legislative options have failed to deliver.

A buffer zone around Planned Parenthood in Burlington, VT. (Adam Fagen on Flickr/CC License)

"Welcome to the Traffic Capital of the World," Michael Hobbes, The New Republic

I am in a tiny steel cage attached to a motorcycle, stuttering through traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the last ten minutes, we have moved forward maybe three feet, inch by inch, the driver wrenching the wheel left and right, wriggling deeper into the wedge between a delivery truck and a rickshaw in front of us.

Up ahead, the traffic is jammed so close together that pedestrians are climbing over pickup trucks and through empty rickshaws to cross the street. Two rows to my left is an ambulance, blue light spinning uselessly. The driver is in the road, smoking a cigarette, standing on his tiptoes, looking ahead for where the traffic clears. Every once in awhile he reaches into the open door to honk his horn.

This is what the streets here look like from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. If you’re rich, you experience it from the back seat of a car, the percussion muffled behind glass. If you’re poor, you’re in a rickshaw, breathing in the exhaust.

Me, I’m sitting in the back of a CNG, a three-wheeled motorcycle shaped like a slice of pie and covered with scrap metal. I’m here working on a human rights project related (inevitably) to the garment factories, but whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organizations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic.

It might not be as sexy as building schools or curing malaria, but alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time. Half the world’s population already lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that proportion will rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050.

A view of a traffic jam in a street in Dhaka. (Reuters/Rafiqur Rahman RR/AT)

 

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