Thursday, December 23, 2004

Where's the spark?



If you're hunting for US towns that kept much of their pre-WWII structure, look no further than Albany, Oregon. Blocks and blocks of buildings begun in the 19th century. Including the beauty above, the Flinn Block, on sale now for $350,000. The wonder of downtown Albany is that you can still see the pedestrian network, between a dense downtown and pre-WWII small-town suburbs.

Unfortunately, there's nobody downtown.

That's not completely true, and you can see many purposeful people, who obviously are struggling to revive interest in downtown, day in, and day out. They haven't made much of a dent yet, but they may very well succeed.

Their problem is obvious. The townspeople are oblivious to their beautiful downtown. Most of the small business in the city is outside of downtown, and in franchises, from roast beef to auto parts. And these franchises are housed in franchise architecture, a modern extension of the billboard. Also, most of the housing in town is post-WWII suburban. But the problem is deeper. And, in a very important sense, it is deeper than structure. Which brings us to the Nature of Order.

The understanding of living structure had declined precipitously in the late 19th century, but nothing like it did after WWII, when all connection was lost, when the inside of anyone's bathroom reflected more living structure than the exterior hull of most buildings.

When you look at downtown Eugene, Oregon, you see a large city with a concrete, urban-renewal-damaged structure at its core. It takes quite a lot of imagination, and will take a great deal of effort, to make this a living center.

But if you look at downtown Albany, you have a hard time understanding why every owner of a suburban shop doesn't jump out of their jeans at the opportunity to relocate to the fantastic buildings of their forefathers.

But the situations are the same, nonetheless. Structure matters, of course. But the important thing is the spark, or what's inside the buildings.

I don't want to lecture small-buisness holders. Life doesn't seem easy, even in the US, and creating a franchise or even an independant business is hard enough without trying to fit it into an old building. But, that's just the problem. The middle investment class may be more comfortable than their workers, but not by much. They are squeezed for profit by "the system" too. Who is making those auto parts? Skilled Chinese laborers. They are paid 1% of the sales price of that part. The creators of the franchise, the part factories, and the auto companies, are making profit while the local auto service workers run around a warehouse in a parking lot, and the Chinese worker pulls levers and positions jigs in a soul-wrenching factory. This isn't right. Solving this is the heart of the problem. Making a nice building isn't possible when capital is squeezing people into the suburbs.

The alternative? Near the Flinn Block are about a half dozen independent movie theatres and playhouses. They're trying to steal thunder from the mass-media multiplexes on the outside of town. The same can be done in manufacturing, retail, agriculture, etc. When Albany and similar towns had populations of only 3,000, they made everything for themselves and for each other. And that's when they made these lovely structures.

I'm not calling for a return to a time, but an understanding that the spark, the freedom, which is missing in our buildings, our work and our lives, was part of local self-sufficiency. The tools for creating the organizations to fill the spaces, and make a new economy, are prerequisites to building living structure.

8 Comments:

Blogger Rob Asumendi said...

Does anyone live downtown? Perhaps in the second story with the tall windows?

Here in Bellingham, WA we have Historic Fairhaven, a neighborhood that's all 100 year old buildings with outlying bungalows. Once you've shopped Fairhaven, though, you have to return to wherever you live (unless you pay a hefty rent to live in a bungalow). They're building an apartment building "in an historic motif", about which I have my doubts. Last night, I missed a hair appointment in Fairhaven, and was disappointed that I wouldn't have an "excuse" to hang out in Fairhaven. I might go today, but without something to do besides window-browsing and consumption, the notion loses some of its appeal.

They've been 'rejuvinating' downtown Tacoma as well (my company is building a hotel there), but it seems like a lot of banks and offices without a lot to actually do.

I've been exploring Portland a lot lately, and whenever I find a spot I like, I look up to see if there are any apartments to rent.

Thanks for the tip, I'll put Albany on the list. Nice to see the new blog as well!

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