Friday, May 28, 2010
What Makes a City Great?
~~ a description of street life in 1788 Paris, France ~~
“Summer arrived, and in Paris the life of the boulevards went on as pleasantly as ever. Pleasure seekers gathered in the warm evenings to stroll along the broad walks under the huge trees, the roads were filled with carriages, the tables crowded at the outdoor cafes and gardens, where musicians played and people paused to rest and refresh themselves. A visitor from England admired the ‘cheerfulness and whimsical variety of the spectacle, the confusion of riches and poverty, hotels and hovels, pure air and stinks, people of all sorts and conditions, from the Prince of the blood to the porter.’ Ordinary Parisians put on their best silk breeches and ruffled shirts and came in groups to stroll or dine, dandies paraded on horseback, fashionably dressed women sat at the little tables surrounded by their admirers. Footmen, enjoying an evening’s liberty, sat and drank beer, old soldiers lounged and smoked, and talked of long-ago campaigns, shopwomen in their chintz gowns flirted with hairdresser’s assistants who courted them, hat in hand.”
“The buildings are very good,” the English traveler went on, “the walks delightful…” There were amusements in abundance, from plays and acrobats… magicians and rope-dancers… There were puppet shows and concerts… and dancing dogs. And there were many things to buy, cakes and fruit and flowers, prints and fans and lapdogs. Peddlers ran along the roads… jumping up on the steps of the fine painted carriages to offer their wares to the elegant ladies and gentlemen inside…. There was much political talk, and the street orators held forth on the evils of the tax burden… but for the most part the worries of the day were forgotten.”
~~ To the Scaffold, The Life of Marie Antoinette, by Carolly Erickson, p. 198
The description of 1788 Paris above reminds me very much of Paris today in terms of its lively culture, and of why I love it. It’s exhilarating and beautiful — architecturally stunning, but fascinating in its diversity as well. The thrilling, dizzying mix of all sorts of people — on the streets, in the crowded cafes, rushing into the Metro, old men and kids bowling in the parks, people reading, walking, cycling — make it a vigorous, animated city, and I fell for it the first time I was driven through it’s environs by my future son-in-law about a decade ago.
When I’ve been fortunate enough to go there, I like most to walk in the evening to the Champ de Mars, the park in front of the Eiffel Tower, in order to watch the activities there: families picnicking, dogs chasing Frisbees, people of every description playing games or music, or even juggling fire! It is LIFE — vibrant, diverse, thrilling. The people gathered at day’s end out in the large open space are poor, rich, dressed down, dressed up. And — imagine this — no one is arresting homeless folks for lying on the grass of the park because everybody lies or sits on the grass — talking, laughing, singing, sleeping. No ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances being enforced, yet, somehow — voila! — a spectacular quality of life!
One night at 1 A.M., the police blocked off the city streets to make way for over a thousand roller bladers who whizzed past the Eiffel Tower as those of us on the sidewalk whooped and yelled and clapped, cheering them on. It was a night I’ll remember always.
Begging (panhandling in our terms) is a way of life for some in Paris, and even a profession for a few. I remember my first ride on the Metro (subway). To my surprise, a father and son came through the train car asking for money. They were polite, low-key, almost matter-of-fact about begging. Many people ignored them, some people contributed, they moved on, and that was it. Not everyone likes begging, not everyone gives, but one can ignore it if one chooses.
What makes a city great?
These are the sorts of things which make a city fantastic and which draw people to it from around the world. Successful downtowns are not hothouses designed only for the rich and well-heeled. A great city is a place where all kinds of people can live, as well as just ‘be’, in open, green spaces — not just people who look or dress a certain way — EVERYONE.
The question of what makes a great city is a topic of heated debate in Dallas right now, particularly in terms of the question of where within the city to place affordable and permanent supportive housing. Generally, in downtown and in outlying neighborhoods, the attitude towards permanent supportive housing and formerly homeless individuals who might be housed there can be tagged by the acronym NIMBY (not in my backyard.)
Cities across American continue to develop and implement strategies to ‘get the homeless out of sight’, both on a daily basis and in particular for special tourist events like The Olympic Games [see a recent article on Vancouver in The Street Zine, May, 2010.] These include passing ‘special’ laws that target them — ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘criminal trespass,’ ‘blocking the sidewalk,’ as mentioned above — so-called ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances for which a person in business clothing would not be ticketed but which allow police to pinpoint those who ‘look homeless’ and try to hustle them from view.
We all know how the story concludes: tickets that cannot be paid by the homeless individual, warrants for their arrest, jail terms which make their complicated life situation even more challenging, the filling of jails with people who are in fact generally not a social threat. This much-written-about practice of shifting the homeless from emergency services to prison to back on the street is not only the costliest way of doing business, it’s utterly inhumane, because so many of the homeless are mentally ill and do not belong in jail. So the people authorities want to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere, only now they have more obstacles to overcome in order to get their lives together. It makes no sense at all.
Rethinking: Let’s Have A Productive ‘Identity Crisis’ in Dallas!
It would be wonderful if this discussion precipitated an identity crisis for us as a city and led us to look at ourselves both deeply and objectively [but I’m trying not to get my hopes up.] What if we took several steps back and reinvisioned the Dallas of tomorrow with new eyes? Does our vision really need to include having our streets free of everyone who doesn’t ‘look like us?’
The desire for homogeneity in communities used to manifest itself primarily in terms of skin color: Jim Crow laws, segregation. While racism is still a significant problem in our country, now it seems that we at least pay lip service to the desirability of racial diversity, and civil rights laws are in place to enforce equal rights and give access to the judicial system when they are violated. Whether you believe that racism has gone underground or has actually decreased to some extent (I think it’s both), it’s still apparently acceptable to shun people in terms of their economic situation, especially when it comes to individuals who ‘look homeless.’ What is wrong with having people on the streets of our cities who may be dressed in clothing and groomed in a manner that is not ‘up to’ our middle class standards?
Take a look at the debate over where the EVERgreen Residences, a beautifully-designed permanent supportive housing project put forward by First Presbyterian Church Dallas and The Stewpot, will/ will not be built and the at-times rabid opposition by the Expo Park / Deep Ellum business owners and residents. When providing people access to safe, clean, well-designed permanent supportive housing is supposed give way to the ‘artistic ecosystem’ that is said by residents to be developing in an area where bars and entertainment are a large part of the social scene, maybe it’s time to seriously reconsider our priorities and the power that affluent neighborhood associations have to scuttle much-needed projects in Dallas.
Small groups with large opinions should be a part of policy making, but they should not be allowed to dominate it. When they do, nobody wins — except the influential neighborhood groups in the short run, and perhaps the particular council person in the area in the next election. What is lost is the greater good of the city, its moral fiber, its wholeness, its ability to address and solve hard problems such as homelessness. So far in Dallas, in terms of housing, we have valiant efforts being undercut for the most part by powerful, affluent localized forces — a stalemate.
Where is bold, morally courageous, visionary leadership at the city government level? If it’s going to show up, this would be a good time. We have a lot of homeless and working people to house. And housing is the only way we’re ever really going to get them off the street.
A recommended read by Jim Schutze in The Dallas Observer: “City Hall’s Desire For A Fancy Downtown (Without Too Many Poor People) Costs Developers $30 Million”
This from the comments: * JimS 05/08/2010 9:53:44 AM • There is an important element in this story which I neglected to get into my column or the subsequent blog item. The decision by Lockey and Mackenzie to obey the HUD rules and provide the amount of affordable housing called for in HUD’s national guideline was in good part a market decision. They told me they looked at what had been built already downtown and saw way more high-end capacity than the market wanted to absorb. They were well aware of the weaknesses in several of the completed projects and could see, for example, that Prudential would foreclose on the Mosaic, as in fact it did this week. They said to me, Why provide more chocolate cake when the market already has more chocolate cake than it can eat? So they saw a project that was more than half affordable as a good market play – something that would rent up quickly instead of going belly up. I get the impression both of them also are people who think working people and young people are good for downtowns. And think about it. If you went to the quarter in New Orleans and all of a sudden it looked like Snyder Plaza in Highland Park, would you go back? Downtown Dallas is frozen and sterile because the people running it are afraid of anybody who isn’t rich. It would help if they were white, too. But that’s a suburb. Actually even our suburbs are more diverse than what has been created downtown. What we really see is an attempt at a replication of the Park Cities, where most of the decision-makers probably live. It’s their idea of cool. But they’re not cool. And they’re also not moving into it. To work for them, downtown Dallas would have to be Carmel. Which would suck. Anyway, I see a lot of comment here about listening to market forces. I think MacKenzie and Lockey would agree. They listened. The market forces said, More affordable. And City hall said, You’re toast.