An Open Letter to Charles Hathaway

[This is in response to a letter to the editor in the most recent Villager, pictured at right.]

Dear Charles:

We've never met, but I read with a mix of interest and anxiety your recent letter in the Highland Villager. In it, you castigate a "small group" of younger people who "jeered" at "what these old people built" during a recent meeting on the Ford site.

As a obsessive student of Saint Paul history, I was initially put off by your condescending tone. As I have done many times during the Ford site debate, I rolled my eyes and looked away.

Yet later I realized we might have something in common. Despite the fact that we disagree on the merit of the city's plans for the Ford Site  -- I have called them "the best thing I've ever seen Saint Paul propose, anywhere" -- I see common ground.

In your letter, you describe the rich social connections that people have built over the years. You list things like PTA meetings, coaching baseball, gardening, attending funerals, and donating used clothing to frame what you see as a lack respect for older folks living in Saint Paul.

I, too, value of these kinds of social connections. When I think of the word "community", it is precisely these sorts of relationships that spring to mind. I love the weak ties of recognition that come from knowing one's neighbor, and I value the strong ties of kinship that come from sharing institutions like schools, churches, libraries, or even the neighborhood bar. (There are too few of these in Highland, by the way, but that's another story!)

However, I think there's something important that you might not yet recognize. I'm guessing you're in my parents' generation, born sometime in the mid-1950s, give or take a few years. That was right in the midst of the post-war baby boom generation when Saint Paul, and indeed all US cities, experienced rapid change.

Memories are a fickle thing, but in my research over the years, I am always amazed when I'm reminded how much denser and more populated Saint Paul used to be. In the 50s and 60s, our city was much more full of people. Streets were narrower. Higher percentages of folks took transit every day. People walked a lot more! And on average, every house in Highland -- and all through the city -- housed more people than they do today. Instead of 1, 2, or 3 people living in a single-family home, when you were born, there might have been 2, 4, or 6 people sharing the same space.

Just like you, I look back on those times (weirdly, before I was born) and think fond thoughts. I like to imagine Cleveland Avenue, Saint Clair Avenue, or a dozen other streets when there were a hundred local shops, foot traffic all day, and a rich world of street life. That seems wonderful to me!

The problem is that, since the 60s, public space in our cities has eroded. Instead of homes and shops, we have parking lots. Instead of big families, we have houses with only one or two people (and their pets, of course). Much of the time, instead of connecting, people watch TV, or stare at their phones. (See? I sound like an old crank!) The point is that the social propinquity that we both value has been changing for a long time.

What do we do?

On this we likely won't agree, but for me, a big culprit of this change is urban design.

I've talked about this before, but when we're swallowed up by private homes or driving around in our private cars, stuck in traffic or speeding past, we become the least common denominator of our social selves. In our cars, we have little way of communicating apart from a honking horn, a revved engine, or a turn signal. In our disconnected homes, with their quiet front yards, we have little way to engage apart from lawn signs. (Witness Highland these days!)

Instead, we spend our time inside private bubbles, driving or holed up in dens. We listen to private soundtracks or (worse) some idiot ranting about "garage logic." Meanwhile, Saint Paul's sidewalks, shops, and public spaces are frayed by vast parking lots, speeding cars, and the march of privatization. Meanwhile, Saint Paul continues to lose the density and social connection that made it a vital place.

If you don't believe me on this last point, I'd urge you to check out the sociologist Robert Putnam's book "Bowling Alone", about the what he calls "the decline of social capital."  Putnam's social capital is precisely the kinds of relationships you describe in your letter. He shows that, since the World War Two generation (your parents), it's been disappearing. And one of the main culprits is our driving habit.

Putnam summarizes the causes for the decline like this [emphasis mine]:
First, pressures of time and money, including the special pressures on two-career families, contributed measurably to the diminution of our social and community involvement... Second, suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl also played a supporting role... Third, the effect of electronic entertainment - above all, television - in privatizing our leisure time has been substantial... Fourth and most important, generational change - the slow steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren - has been a very powerful factor.
I encourage you to read the whole thing, or at least skim through the charts about picnics and Shriners' clubs. And by the way, it might surprise you to read some of the data on the Millennial generation. They are more interested in civic engagement and social connection than anyone has been in a long time.

The point is that I believe the city's plan for the Ford site matches our future needs and will strengthen the social fabric in Saint Paul. If Putnam is right, we need less "privatized space" and more everyday public space in which people can connect. If we want to keep the kinds of social ties and connections that you and I both value, we need less orientation toward cars and more social forms of transit and transportation. We need opportunities to walk around and encounter the diversity that Saint Paul has to offer. And most importantly, we need better housing accommodation for smaller households. Only then will we welcome the people who will become the next generation of PTO members, community gardeners, soccer coaches, and urban stewards.

In short, Saint Paul needs density. Building a neighborhood for the future can help Highland return to to the rich and dynamic social fabric that it had back when you were growing up.

Given how poisonous the debate has been over the Ford site plans so far -- I had to walk out of the recent church meeting because I could not tolerate the hostility coming from many of the "Say No" people -- I don't expect you to agree. I only hope others might read this with open minds and hearts. I hope Saint Paul might see a possible future for people of all backgrounds. I hope we can value what walkable streets, fewer cars, and more diverse kinds of homes might offer for our community.

I want to see our cities change, but I'm not trying to erase the past. On the contrary, in many ways, I want to return to it. I want those relationships we both value to thrive. I want a city where gardening, volunteerism, civic involvement, and small businesses flourish. I want a city where traditions are both honored and created anew, transformed for a future that includes the full diversity of Saint Paul's children. In the city to come, they will accomplish things greater than either of us can imagine.



Shirley Erstad said...

You say you place strong value on social connection and lament privatization. Yet by overbuilding along the river, in our National Park, we promote the exact opposite of what you value. Who will be living in the luxury apartments with river views? The rich. Who will be looking at the forever-changed skyline that now is a tree canopy when on the river? All the rest of us suckers.

I’ve been on the river since the 75’ building was built at Victoria Park. It has forever changed the experience of being on the river. What once looked like a nature preserve, thanks to that one building, is no longer. Imagine what the only gorge on the Mighty Mississippi will look like after we’ve lined the bluff with buildings above the tree canopy.

Rent for those penthouse views? I personally do not know but I was told $4,500 a month in a public meeting. If that’s affordable housing then our leadership has a very different view of the income level of their constituents than I do.

What did St. Paul do with the riverfront in the heyday you mention? They turned it into a National Park.

If downtown St. Paul were bursting at the seams, if the other Wards in our city were overflowing, then there might be a case for vertical building. But if this plan is approved, there will be a giant sucking sound in those Wards and badly-needed investment in other parts of our city will be delayed, again. Do you argue that the immigrant communities that already live here do not deserve the same kind of passion and fervor that you pour into the future citizens of our community? Do you argue that the recreation centers that were closed and that contribute to the lack of our current young residents having a place to go should be put aside in favor of future citizens that may or may not show up?

Parks are a vital part of the community fabric you so passionately believe in. Yet, this plan allows building in a National Park, “America’s Best Idea”, according to documentarian Ken Burns. The city does not have the tools to guarantee that parks will be part of this development.

If you are as committed as you say to community space, then fight for a zoning designation that, literally, puts parks on these zoning maps.

If you truly believe in public space and not privatization, then fight for a stronger parkland dedication ordinance that doesn’t allow the option to pay a fee instead of give land.

Mayor Coleman, city planners, Council Member Tolbert, and your fellow Planning Commissioner, Kyle Makarios, went to five European countries to learn from them on what makes a world-class city. I attended the Planning Commission meeting when Ms. Clapp-Smith and Mr. Makarios reported on their trip.

They unequivocally described the premise of those great developments in those great cities, "When you build buildings higher than five stories, an interesting thing happens. People no longer come out of their ‘towers’ and the community feeling is lost.”

Yet, those same folks on that European Tour came back to St. Paul, heard from developers about the need for tall buildings in our National Park, and somehow “unlearned” that lesson.

Staff has told me that buildings need to be high for development to be marketable. “Lobby ceilings need to be 13’ high”. Developers may WANT 13’ lobby ceilings but we don’t NEED them. People aren’t that tall! Lob off 3’ and we have a shorter building in our National Park, the same number of people in the building, and the only difference is a shorter lobby chandelier.

Developers are driving the zoning in this plan. Zoning (the tool courts have given the city to implement our vision for our community) is not driving the development. That’s not how leadership is supposed to work. That’s not caring for a National Park. That’s selling to the highest bidder.

The Mayor has said, “frankly, developers are salivating” and “this will be a world-class development”. I believe him on the first part but the second will not come to pass with this plan.

Put your energy where your mouth is. Fight for public space.

Bill Lindeke said...

I agree that the Mississippi is a pretty nice river. Europe is nice too. Also developers are business people, it's true. I'm pretty familiar with the concept of zoning, as well. Sort of interesting history to it.

I don't agree about this:

"But if this plan is approved, there will be a giant sucking sound in those Wards and badly-needed investment in other parts of our city will be delayed, again."

Investment in Saint Paul is not a zero-sum game. In fact, the more you have, the more you have, in general.

Neither do I really agree about this:

"I’ve been on the river since the 75’ building was built at Victoria Park. It has forever changed the experience of being on the river. What once looked like a nature preserve, thanks to that one building, is no longer."

Some quick points.

1. That particular building would be much more visible than anything at Ford.
2. I don't understand the idea that the Mississippi is an immutable "natural" thing. It's been extremely engineered, through dams and a lock / shipping system that keep it deep all year long, very unlike what it looked like in the 19th century.
3. Having some buildings in Saint Paul visible from the river is not the worst thing IMO. That said, the Victoria Park one isn't my favorite. Instead of views, though, I wish we could worry about actual environmental impacts like CO2, stormwater runoff, nitrates, or particulate pollution. From an environmental perspective, the Ford neighborhood will be one of the most sustainable places to live in the entire city.