Thursday, June 28, 2018

Where are your people, Baltimore? Part 1

Buildings are used as a people stage. Everybody uses them for a myriad of simultaneously animated play areas. Balcony, forecourt, window, gateway, stairs, roof are the stage and box seat at the same time. Even the most miserable existence is proud to be, in spite of all the depravity, a participant in one of the never repeating images of the Neapolitan street, and to enjoy being able to leisurely follow the great panorama. Walter Benjamin: "Naples", 1924
Holiday shopping at Howard and Lexington Streets
( Photo SUN, Robert Mottar)
Where are all your people, Baltimore? Anyone coming back from travel to cities such as Boston, New York, Seattle, San Diego, Zurich or Naples will ask this question. Public spaces in this city seem mostly deserted except for cars, even in downtown. In the few places where people routinely assemble, such as near the Lexington Market, police see them as "loiterers" and are doing everything to make their life of  miserable. Benjamin had admired the "porosity" of Naples which he saw then  of not having hard borders of confrontation and separation.

Its hard to see such porosity in Baltimore. In more affluent neighborhoods, such as Mount Vernon, special security details canvas the streets. In poor neighborhoods, such as on Pennsylvania Avenue near North Avenue, the sidewalks are busy but most city residents wouldn't  dare to go there. Parks, one of the classic urban commons,  such as Leakin or Druid Hill are beautiful, but remain devoid of people most of the time. All this stands in stark contrast to familiar photos of Baltimore's history depicting downtown streets bustling with life.

The urban park as a commons: New York Bryant Park
(photo: Philipsen)
Even refurbished urban spaces such a Center Plaza, remain mostly deserted, no matter the inviting public chairs and tables the Downtown Partnership placed there. How different things could be, becomes manifest during Baltimore's many festivals and events, such Light City or Pride Parade, but the day after the city goes dormant again.

Not even Harborplace with its peculiar semi-private status is always lively. In spite of its managed status and limited public rights it has recently lost its status as a perceived "safe space" (as seen by suburban whites) due to some small skirmishes with black youth which were quickly blown out of proportion by certain media. The "safe space", like much of the city's vitality, has moved east. For now "Sandlot"at HarborPoint, an artificial beach with volleyball, food, drinks and a fantastic view of the water, accessed via the promenade easement, is the most convivial space in town, legally not entirely public but busy and popular across class and race.
Sandlot, HarborPoint (Photo: Philipsen)

Public spaces in any city are subject to a thick set of rules. Ideally they strike a balance between rights and obligations. Many would say that the increasingly popular private-public security arrangements infringe on public rights such as free speech.
The city itself should arguably be treated as a common: a collective physical and cultural creation by and for its inhabitants. However the range of activities permitted in urban spaces is becoming increasingly narrow. Many streets and squares are now managed by private owners and those held by the state are too often sanitised by public space designs that serve to enhance local property values and business rates. This leaves little possibility for the urban public to be used productively by its communities to sustain themselves materially or culturally. (Theatrum Mundi, London)
Others would say that in spite of all the management, there is also a pervasive sense of anarchy in Baltimore's streets, even in the downtown area:  Delivery vans or pizza services stop in travel lanes or in a bike lane for extended periods, cars speed up like on a race-course, run red lights or block intersections. The rare pedestrians amble aimlessly into traffic any time they feel like it. Dirt bikers pop wheelies in the middle of all the cars. Traffic management by lime vested "officers" employed by City DOT who aren't allowed to give out citations is noisy with whistles but ineffective.

Outside of downtown and the waterfront where the Downtown and Waterfront Partnerships patrol  keep streets and walks clean, trash piles up on sidewalks and along the curb supplemented by the banned plastic bags put out on any day even if it isn't collection day. Hawkers offer legal or illegal items in plain view, loudspeakers blare the sermons of self appointed preachers, carcasses of spindly trees planted with an aspiration for a greener city live out their last days, squeegee boys or beggars harass motorists on all major arteries day and night.
Midtown patrol vehicle (Photo: Philipsen)

All this may seem petty in light of capital crime and police corruption roiling Baltimore. Yet, this particular combination of emptiness and unruliness is a curious state of affairs in a time when cities compete over being walkable, exciting and attractive places in which to move around on foot, by bike or transit.  When the vitality of the public space has been recognized as a symbol for the viability of a city and its functionality as a community and as a litmus test of democratic expression it matters that a large number of the 2 million residents of  the greater Baltimore Metro area don't seem to consider the streets and plazas of their largest city as a place where they want to go.

The pulse of public spaces is like a canary in the mine-shaft: Deserted public spaces, whether abandoned for fear or by exclusion,  are indicative of a larger problem, they signal a rift in the social compact which makes a city work.

Empty public spaces aren't a good thing, whether ones look at it from the prevailing single-lenses of economic development or healthy retail, from the idealized architect-planner perspective of the "public roam" and the urban commons, from the perspective of those policing it, or from the standpoint of the community itself seeking to increase their quality of life.
Pennsylvania Avenue: Where many don't dare to go (Photo: Philipsen)

History informs about how public spaces were produced, perceived and experienced. In the post-war suburbanization of America, privatization of public space contributed to emptying out the central cities not only by robbing them of residents who could afford to move but also by taking away importance and meaning of mingling in public. The park loses meaning when green space is atomized by single family homes with private front and backyards. The urban plaza loses its attraction as a space of gaining information (knowledge) when each living room has a TV. The outdoor space loses importance of escaping the heat when everyone has air conditioning. Walter Benjamin and Jane Jacobs pointed to the essential human function of mingling, observing and producing.

Historic Pennsylvania Avenue in the so called hey-days 
Planners, designers and developers have long reverted those car-centric destructive sprawl trends in favor of principles straight form Jacob's book. What's up, then, with Baltimore?

In part 2 of this article (published next) we will look at exclusions and rights in the public space, see why Baltimore feels so often empty and what Jane Jacobs and the French philosopher Henry Lefebvre (the "Production of Space") may have to offer not only for a deeper understanding of the problem but also for developing multidimensional solutions.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Lexington Street at Liberty Street, now and then (Internet Commons)

Center Plaza while a daycare center makes use of it (Photo: Philipsen)

Harbor Promenade: Pretty but often empty (Photo: Philipsen)

North Charles Street at afternoon rush hour: Empty (Photo: Philipsen)

Aliceanna Street at Harbor East: Zumba on Saturday morning (Photo: Philipsen)

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