Tearing Down the Streets
A year ago I read the book “Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy” by former Denver resident Jeff Ferrell. I was reminded of his book while biking past the Flour Mill Lofts recently. In his book Jeff rails against the “Disneyfication” of American Streets, as well as the privatization of public spaces in order to establish control over them. This is an issue I agree with Jeff on, and something that needs to be closely watched.
I agree with most of Jeff’s views, even if some are taken to an extreme. Responsible development is necessary to create a vibrant economic climate. But I concur in that handing over parcels of city land to private companies we share in the common the loss of “free spaces”. Also this tends to drive away the small independent entrepreneurs via large corporations buying up parcels of city blocks to create THEIR vision and ideals. Through this they control who shops and lives near their properties, and discourage less than preferrered clientele from being there through arcane codes and quasi legal laws.
One urban project detailed in Jeff’s book is the “Flour Mill Lofts” on the west side of downtown Denver. During the 1990s this area was transformed from a transient “off the grid” area on the fringe of downtown to a healthy area of condos, modern high rises, light retail, and parks. I don’t feel this is all bad. The Platte Park area along Little Raven Street is a beautiful and green part of the city. Bikers and runners along the two rivers and sitting on the hills drinking over just people watching with the skyline in the background makes for a wonderful way to spend a weekend. In 15 years this area has been transformed from the urban blight to one of the most inhabitable areas of the city.
However In Jeff’s book he almost goes so far as to say the squatters and the homeless had a RIGHT to occupy the Flour Mill Lofts, and even fantasizes about them taking over the multi-million dollar condos at Flour Mill and reclaiming it for themselves. Strange concept. But, when you think about the difference between homeless and squatters versus those on fixed income occupying a piece of land that developers are salivating over, the difference really isn’t that great. Especially when developers are wooing city leaders for eminent domain rights in order to TAKE their land.
The Cherry Creek retail area near my home in Congress Park started with a population of World War Two bungalows and eclectic artist establishments. Following the Cherry Creek Mall’s inception in the 80s the area has continued to cater to a higher and higher dollar. Even the famous Tattered Cover Bookstore moved out last year to a less expensive location a few miles away. Now the area is furriers and jewelry stores, save for a few decent food joints like Cherry Cricket and Java Creek.
Another scary concept is the propagation of privately owned streets and city blocks. Again in Cherry Creek – there’s a block on Clayton between 1st and 2nd Street where you’ll find a Marriot and a steakhouse. This entire block is OWNED by the development company. Meaning if I wanted to hand out political flyers, fly a kite, or just be a bum I could legally be asked to leave. Having public streets run by private companies is a bad bad thing. I agree with Jeff on this entirely.
Back to “pushing out the little guy:” On a larger scale has anyone planned a Las Vegas trip lately? In the late 90s when I lived in California I’d frequently drive up on the weekends with friends. We’d get a cheap room, play some cards, consume $6 steaks and free drinks and have a great time. Now it’s difficult to find a weekend room for under $200. I don’t share any special bond with tacky old casinos, but watching 70 year old former cocktail waitresses tear up over a casino implosion is the same feeling I get when I see a “tear down” or “scrape off” every few weeks while biking to work – pictured left. (See my articles here about teardowns.)
Close to my home in Denver – the area of Colfax Avenue between York and Colorado is undergoing major transformations. High rises are going up near City Park, home prices are rising, and more money is coming in. That’s a wonderful thing for me, my home value, and ultimately my financial security. But if it’s at the expense of losing the “red headed stepchild” businesses such as tattoo parlors, dusty used bookstores, and independent food joints, I’d think I’d give up some of the glamour in order to keep the original fabric of my neighborhood.
Should cities, retail districts, and economic plans include ALL levels of income? I’m a person that promotes “infill”, meaning that instead of building and sprawling OUT to the exurbs, we take existing city blocks and parcels that can be utilized in rejuvenated as vibrant new places to live, work, and shop. But where do the people go that sparsely occupy these places go? The homeless may be an easy group to relocate, but others surviving on low means, without political clout, have a legal right to their space. THEY are a complex issue when it comes to redevelopment issues – as well they should be.
You can check out Jeff Ferrel’s book Tearing Down the Streets here.
Left: Flour Mill Lofts detailed in Jeff Ferral’s book. Right: Platte Park Area of Denver.