Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Lesson of Revolutionary Road

Several of us went and saw Revolutionary Road last night, and I was pondering the meaning of the movie for our project.  Some may point to moral, familial, or religious failure as the source of the hopelessness and meaninglessness in which Frank and April Wheeler find themselves.  Not to deny that these points have validity but only to add another angle to the discussion, I would like to also consider the existential failure of the Wheeler's as a result of the loss of the city. Religious leaders, talking heads, pundits, radio commentators, and others all decry the failure of families and morals today, but the failure of publicness and cities is often overlooked.

The idea of a city, particularly somewhere like New York, is predicated on diversity - on heterogeneity.  April Wheeler had a dream of her and Frank being different, of being "shining stars" in the world.  The collapse of these dreams was not the result of her having kids or the family's lack of money, it was the existential crisis of homogeneity.  Suburban living has the potential to create a situation that lacks the tension of difference between the people that surround us and the people with whom we come in contact.  The Wheeler's moved to the suburbs "because of kids," but it is also because of their fear to "difference," which I use in reference not only to phrases like "dare to be different" but also in reference to the difference of non-likeminded people that you can't help but encounter on the subways and railways of major metropolises.  Once they were in the suburbs, there was no chance of getting out because their imaginations and dreams faded until April eventually becomes an empty shell.

The crisis of homogeneity does not only happen in the suburbs, it can happen anywhere, but the ideas of defensible space (between the city, between people) and spatial privacy, and the proliferation of private transportation and the internet as public space, are all attempts to push tension out of our lives.  Voting blocs get drawn very distinctly the more we territorialize into homogenous groups (ex. gated communities) and let the public sphere fail.  On this blog, I've already pointed to suburban shopping malls and privately owned new-urbanist developments as examples of responses to the terror of urbanism, but suppose that all of this is also a result of a fear of difference. 

The implication here is not that difference isn't sometimes painful or annoying (Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have proven that it is a comedy goldmine), but maybe it is really necessary for the feeling of being alive for which the Wheelers were searching. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Private City

Ridgeland has recently created a new masterplan as part of their campaign to RAMPup Ridgeland. The preliminary masterplan has two points of interest for us:

1) (page 7/16) AVOID NEGATIVE TRENDS.  
The neighboring town of Jackson has influenced Ridgeland's growth patterns in many ways, but one that should not be repeated is the development along the highway.  Service roads with too many turnoffs to street side parking and feeder roads can create bottlenecks and unsightly development.  Limiting curb cuts along the new I-55 service road system will be difficult but necessary in promoting development facing the roadway, not backing up to it.
Areas that are the reason that interstate architecture exists -  suburban conditions - are realizing the problems interstate architecture can create, but instead of returning to the density of the city, the goal has been set to create pockets of density with in the suburbs that turn away from their life force - the interstate.

2) (page 12/16)  MORPHING THE MALL.  
Indoor malls were once the standard in American shopping.  Due to a variety of influences, they seem to be losing favor with today's shoppers.  In order to protect and utilize the enormous investment of property, infrastructure and architecture, developers are initiating innovative ways to transform properties into more attractice veneus by blending mixed-use office, residential, entertainment, and outdoor retail.
A mix of offices, residential, entertainment, and outdoor shopping in a walkable area that turns in to itself . . . isn't that just the city?  The development trend seems to have recognized many the important aspects of the city, but without calling it what it is.  In the final irony, the suburbs, which have become a symbol of getting away from the urban, are now trying to recreate that from which they ran.  The immediate difference is that these "cities" are private developments on private land with largely privately controlled infrastructure.  This may leave us one day asking what happened to democracy in the city?

The shear number of core areas that this masterplan identifies that should be built up into walkable, new urbanist type communities leaves one wondering how many people it would really take to create this many small towns within Ridgeland.  Why are so many different small communities necessary?  I imagine this is the mixing of suburban and urban ideologies - of wanting the spread out and get close together at the same time.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Isolation: Concepts. Pt. 2

As a note, all of these concepts are very rough initial sketches...

iso·late 2: to select from among others ; especially : to separate from another substance so as to obtain pure or in a free state 


The fabric of the city is cut by an unplanned event: the isolation of the city from the interstate.  The routes in and out of the city (Pearl and Pascaguoula Streets and High Street) have become expressways offering a taste of suburban culture to the suburban invaders who flood the city every day from 8 till 5 pm (and flee at night):  a gas station here (how else am I going to get home?), a drive-thru fast food joint there (dinner?).  It seems there are several forces that have contributed to this condition.
1) The Gulf, Mobile, and Northern railroad (which later joined the M&O to form the Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio) came through Jackson in 1927. The station was constructed just east of the Old Capitol, halfway down the hill towards the fairgrounds.

It stopped running in 1954.  The bed of the tracks remains, as well as some of the actual tracks, but one of the major spatial effects of the route is the remaining zoning lines and buildings that responded to it.  In particular, take a look at the upper right corner of the current map below.
The temporal residue of past functions remains on this site.

Several other forces combine with the train tracks to allow this area to act like a pair of scissors that isolates the city from the interstate.  

2) This area behind the Old Capitol is also the location of a major topo change.  Train tracks sit halfway on the ridge between the upper and lower plane.  on the east side of the topo, the city disappears except for the tops of the highrises.

3) Pearl and Pascagoula avoid these areas at all costs.   The Pearl St. bridge avoids the lower topo and goes over the tracks.  Pascaguola runs under the ground and avoids the tracks.

4) The buildings facing Jefferson in this area are unable to robustly respond to the height of the bridge, or the realities of traffic routed away from Jefferson.  The visual focus entering the city on Pearl st. becomes the back of the buildings facing State st.

The buildings facing Jefferson feel like they are facing the wrong way, they address largely undeveloped space. In a way, their function becomes very similar to interstate architecture - architecture that is seen from a distance.  To get to these buildings you must exit Pearl st. before the bridge, or loop around once you cross it - just like trying to exit the hard edges of the interstate.

Also, the recent renovation of the Old Capitol seems to play up this distinction.  The backside of the capitol in its original scheme, to which it has been restored, was not plastered.  Of course in the original plan of Jackson the back side of the Capitol did not face the most heavily trafficed entrance into Jackson.  By restoring the Old Capitol, the alien nature of the pearl st. bridge is exposed even more...

5) The fairgrounds and the old pearl river flood plane occupy most of the space between the interstate and the city.  These two conditions act as "desert" conditions.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Survey Results - Part 1

That BIG EAR has been an evolutionary tool to provide public outreach and involvement in our efforts of reviving the Jackson Community Design Center. Just as with any scientifically, philosophically, or socially induced endeavor; one must begin at the beginning. First, we established that the degeneration of State Street as a vital artery to the city was an issue to be addressed. As a balance to the objective quantitative data we were collecting, some qualitative subjective data from the inhabitants of the city was deemed useful and important.

For our first attempt of extracting public opinion, we conducted a very general survey.
The most important aspect of developing theories about existing issues is to identify what these are and their hierarchy. Jacksonians were asked to do so in the survey.
We had 360 respondents and the results are as followed:

A grad student from Jackson State University who lives in South Jackson elaborated for us. When asked for any other comments or concerns he or she listed:

1. Poor Leadership 2. Poor Management 3. Poor Goal Setting / Planning 4. Lack of Unity from stakeholders 5. Lack of High Paying Jobs 6. Lack of Night Life for a major city 7. Poor Business Assistance / Development Programs 8. Lack of attention to the arts/ tourism - (no movie theater) 9. Poor Housing Stock 10. Lack of Infrastructural Investment i.e. water, sewer, pipe lines, power lines and street lights 11. Lack of youth investment - i.e. youth training, cultural center, recreation parks & youth outreach.

The elaboration of this particular Jacksonian is not too dissimilar from the others. Also, the responses to this question are not exactly unexpected, but this information allows us to isolate general concerns and the areas where people have them. This allows us not to solely rely on assumptions and it helps establish where our efforts can be most effective. But the question really is...what to do with this information? To what extent can the JCDC fit into this equation? What should our role in the continuing growth of the city be?

We wish to establish the differentiation between fact and perception. As we continue to compile and illustrate the rest of our data, perception versus truth will be exposed. We are currently mapping years of crime statistics and maps, property values, population density, traffic counts, and studying plans for future development. This will be the quantitative backing to our qualitative initiatives. Please stay with us and check in from time to time to monitor our progress.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Glacierization: Concepts Pt. 1

That BIG EAR is coming back to life this semester under the auspices of the Jackson Community Design Center based out of the 5th year MSU architecture school.  By the end of this term, the JCDC will be publishing a book of 4-6 conceptual suggestions about the current conditions of State Street.  

Our theories are conceived in the larger frame work of the relationship of I-55 and State Street.  The basic supposition that unites our work is that the interstate is one of the most important variables in the evolution of Jackson and many other similar cities.  This relationship is what we will call the effects of a superpath on a path.

This post is the first in a series of initial concepts.

GLACIERIZATION

gla·cier: a large body of ice moving slowly down a slope or valley or spreading outward on a land surface

Annexation Map of North State Street – annexation of the final territory happens around the time of the completion of the interstate

The speed of growth of State Street slowed to a crawl in the 1970’s as the interstate began to dominate.  Zoning annexation finished up the north end to the edge of Ridgeland , but the area was already marked with the stench of death. 

Development has continued in Ridgeland, just across the interstate—just across the divide between the suburban and urban.  At the divide, a suburban phenomena, Target turns its back to State Street and opens onto the interstate.  Just north of Meadowbrook Drive traffic drops on State Street and increases on I-55.  There are very few reason to come to State Street along this stretch, and, additionally, there are also very few reasons to use this stretch as a path from one destination to another.

Why does glacierization occur and why at the north end of State Street?  We may initially respond that it is simply a result of economic pressures, the interstate drove State Street out of business, but this answer misses the larger question, a question of ideology.  The north end of State Street acts as defensible space—distance that is used to separate the safety of the suburban from the terror of the urban.  This distance is a physical and psychological barrier—a constructed empty space made possible by the technology of the interstate and the state of mind of a fearful demographic.  Is this not the reason so many residents in Ridgeland put up a fight over the height of an office building at The Renaissance?  They moved to Ridgeland to get away from the city.  Tall buildings, vertical growth, is equated with the city, a truly unruly place.  Suburbanism is a politics of fear.

How could urbanism, a doctrine of compactness, over come the distance?  How could Jackson possibly reach out to its suburban neighbors?  The north end of State Street will forever be a glacier, a silent limping body.  In fact, the glacier seems to be spreading as development continues to move north and county line road begins to die.  The only hope is global warming...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

That BIG EAR

That BIG EAR on Farish St.

Interview 1

video