Friday, January 29, 2010

How Neighborhoods Change and Why People are Often Left Behind

"Neighborhoods change," said Lyle Bicknell. Like the people who create them, "communities are continually evolving. They get richer. They get poorer. They change in complection. That's just the human condition."

Lyle is the big man at Neighborhood Planning. His job is to lead a team of skilled city planners in aiding Seattle neighborhoods along to realizing their inner ideal. Yeah. Its pretty holy stuff.

The ideal neighborhood is self contained and sustainable, said Lyle. Of course, it hasn't always been this way. What was ideal in the 1950s might not be ideal in the post-global warming, post-housing crisis American landscape.

At the turn of the century, for example, cities like Seattle and San Francisco relied on the street car system to keep their neighborhoods connected. A good trolly line could connect urban families from the apartment to the grocery market to the public park. At the end of the day, workers could follow a trolly line from the office to the bar back home.

After World War II, America was able to resume its love affair with the automobile and families shifted from urban living, out to the suburbs. This shift was made possible, I imagine, due to low gas prices and low interest housing loans. But if the low prices of the strong economy paved the roads to the suburbs, family values and desire to own land fueled the transition.

Let us refer back to our Platonian understanding of the relationship between things and ideas. Ideas, such as the perfect neighborhood, are the models by which city planners and developers shape things such as real neighborhoods.

The Pike / Pine Corridor for example, is a beautiful manifestation of neighborhoods. Ideals in the flesh. God came down to Earth and said, 'let there be a neighborhood' and God saw that it was good. In this case, God was a team of urban developers like Liz Dunn, urban planners like Lyle Bicknell and small business like Cupcake Royal. No single person can take credit for the success of the Pike / Pine Corridor.

What happened between the beginning of the 20th century and end of World War II was not a rebuilding of cities but a metamorphosis in American values. Specifically what changed is, the values of people who had money.

Suburban life was the ideal maybe in the 50s, said Lyle. But we are beginning to see things differently. People want more options.

Wait. What happened?

Global warming, unstable gas prices, the internet and evolving family values are among the factors to be considered but return to urban life, like the sprawl of the 50s, was ultimately determined by the values of people with money.

Through the 20th century, the ideal lifestyle was to live in the suburbs with Sloan Wilson and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Somewhere along the way, people became sick of life in the suburbs and decided to move back to the city. The age of Ricky Ricardo gave away to the age ofJerry Seinfeld.

When money leaves the suburbs and returns to the city, urban neighborhoods experience growth.

Neighborhood growth is a beautiful thing, said Lyle. When a light rail line is introduced to a community, for example, everyone benefits. Local businesses benefit from the extra foot traffic, streets are relieved of congestion, property values go up and everybody prospers.

Of course, as one thing is gained another is lost. Such as with the transition from the street car to the personal automobile, there is a story of triumph and tragedy to be told behind the mass yuppie congregation in areas like Ballard.

The problems arise when we look to preserve what is already there, said Lyle. People notice when local icons such as when Mr. Spot's Chai House was forced out its formative Market and Leary location and sent looking for a home elsewhere.

Short sighted is the narrative about Ballard small businesses closing up shop when you consider the small business owners who have taken their place. Still relatively new to Ballard are Delancey, Bastille and Blackbird's Field House.

Also short sighted is the narrative that tells how condo developers are kicking out the artists when you consider how Nicole, and artist in her own right, has been experimenting with her nationally recognized Blackbird brand. Blackbird's Candy Shoppe could be compared to such bold career changes as Dylan goes electric.

I sincerely doubt anybody will long for another rendition of Knocking On Heaven's Door at Mr. Spot's Chai House.

And yet, we can't help but to reflect upon what we have lost.

As cost of retail space goes up, businesses that cater to low-income communities are expected to either grow with the neighborhood or move out. The customer base of endangered retail stores, such as Mr. Spot's then must decide if they are going to start hanging out at Bastille or follow their retail stores out of town.

There is a story in here about what it means to grow together with your neighborhood. It is also a story about what is so attractive about city living in the first place. That is, you need to duck dodge and weave everything they throw at you or else, the city is going to wash you away with the rain.

Ballard developers may be setting themselves up for failure if they do not plan to serve a diversity of cultures. And "there is a notion," Lyle explains, "that neighborhoods are like forests and tend to thrive better with a diversity of cultures. The monoculture forest is most vulnerable because if anything happens, everything dies."


Anonymous said...

The real story of the Chai House has not been told. Look into the owners, how and why they bought the business one year ago, their daily involvement in the business, when the landlord bought the building and the type of lease the Chai House had. From there, you will find a completely different story that is far more interesting.

platypusrex256 said...

i plan on following up with your questions.

my theory is,

chai house landlord was forced to raise rent as irs and city property value assessors valued the land at twice the value.

if the owners turn up to be speculators, i applaud them on their move.

however, i would not be surprised if they were as taken by surprise as you or i.

storefronts are not closing in ballard. as i pointed out without trying, for every store that closes there are three new ones to take its place.

thank you for your comment. hope to see you around more often.