If you’ve never had the chance to tour the famous home of our third president (and architect), I’ll certainly recommend it to you. It is a fascinating compendium of experimentation and tradition, and a required stop (along with the nearby University of Virginia) for fans of early American architecture. But be sure to visit in the warm months, so you can devote some attention to the garden: the subject of today’s post.
Originally tended by the slaves of Thomas Jefferson, today the garden has been restored and is beautifully stocked with heirloom flowers and vegetables (seeds are available for purchase nearby). Monticello’s vegetable garden is a production space, really a miniature farm, and separate from the more formal landscaped garden directly adjacent to the main house. The annual produce yield is divided among the various employees of Monticello, which sounds like a great benefit in our current times. Of course in no way can Monticello be considered an urban location; when it was built, it was on the very western frontier of America. Today it is still resolutely rural. But it certainly got me thinking about the joys of gardening in even the smallest plots.
Detroit, as some readers might know, was once an urban anomaly for the large proportion of single-family homes in comparison to its working population. While laborers in New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore dreamed of escaping dense urban districts, their cousins in Detroit were able to buy their own homes on small lots. This means that for those lucky enough to live in Detroit today, there is a fair chance you’ll have room for a garden in your own yard.
But hope is not lost for those apartment dwellers in denser areas with scant access to private, sun-splashed yards. As cities suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, spawning vacant lots in the wake of demolished buildings, a few hardy souls dared to pull out weeds and plant seeds on the newly open land. Soon the concept of a community garden emerged out of this urban context; a space owned by none but shared by all. In many cities these gardens were started without permission on land owned by the city or absentee landlords; as a result there has been confrontation and even legal action when the land’s value suddenly recovers. But in other cases cities have recognized the community value of these impromptu plots, and “legalized” their status by accepting them into the municipal park system. There’s one right by my place in Santa Monica…
Typically the lots are divided into dozens of small plots, often with long waiting lists among community members. You can grow vegetables, or flowers, or both; you can even install a bench or two and simply create a pleasant social space without getting your hands dirty. In almost all cases the gardens are open to the general public for viewing, conversation, and picnics.
New York City residents have been, and continue to be, pioneers in the development and operation of community gardens. Initially envisioned as a short-term use of abandoned spaces, many community gardens have become legalized and absorbed into the city’s park system, thereby allowing them to resist intense demands for land in Manhattan’s densest and most desirable districts. The 6th and B Garden in the heart of New York’s East Village is well known to me from my years of roaming that neighborhood, and provides a significant community benefit in terms of light, air, open space and greenery. It even hosts small events on a stage in the corner. Its apparent proximity to Tompkins Square Park does not limit its necessity.
With summer not quite here, there is still time to plant. If you’re interested in getting involved in Detroit gardening, check out Detroit’s own Garden Resources Program Collaborative, which is a resource for urban gardeners. Trees can be gotten from these folks, who are helping green the city. There are some rumors about a community garden under development at MoCAD. And here’s a link to the American Community Garden Association, which has an excellent list of hints for starting a garden on a vacant lot near you.
A lot of people hate this building. This is Boston City Hall, a famous (some might say notorious) brutalist concrete structure finished in 1968 by Kallman, McKinnell and Knowles. To students and admirers of 20th century architecture–including your blogger–it is a landmark building in every sense, important for architectural, historical, and civic reasons. For others it is a gloomy horror, a thumb in the eye of an historic American city. As such, it is a perfect lens through which we can examine the various tensions between modern architecture, sustainability, and historic preservation.
The building has always had its haters, and continues to be reviled by some today. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, heretofore a strong ally of historic preservation, has proposed selling the building and its site and building a “green” city hall elsewhere. Opponents of the sale cite an almost certain demolition if the property is sold, and additionally note that the construction of a new building, even a green building, always uses much more energy than the reuse of an already existing building.
When New York City’s Penn Station fell in 1963, says author Lorraine Diehl, its architectural character had been abused and neglected by its owner. Its architectural style was judged archaic and hopelessly inappropriate. Cleaning and maintenance had lapsed, advertising signage obscured architectural features, and unsympathetic modifications and renovations had disturbed the original design intent.
In Boston, the City Hall public plaza, designed for the gathering of people, is now used to park city vehicles. Defenders of City Hall note that maintenance has been poor, with light bulbs not replaced. When I visited last week, the windows were dirty, and visible rust was present on the window mullions. A close look at the above photograph will reveal a weed tree, 24 inches high, growing unmolested from the small roof projecting at the building’s corner (look for its shadow). Shall Boston have its own version of Penn Station, a modern monument lost to disinterest and cynicism? Take a trip this summer and decide for yourself.
The 1990 Eindhoven Statement is a statement of principles concerning the preservation of notable modern structures. Docomomo continues this advocacy work internationally today. It is a truism (if not a cliche) of preservation that buildings between 30-60 years old are typically the most endangered and least protected (Penn Station was demolished in its 53rd year). While most cities have made significant progress in protecting pre-war buildings and neighborhoods, post-war buildings are felled almost without protest.
Detroit has plenty enough to worry about regarding all of its historic buildings, but all the same preservationists cannot afford to ignore the importance of its rich collection of auto-age structures.
As you may have inferred, last week I was at the AIA convention in Boston, an annual event bringing together thousands of architects and designers. The convention was held in the recently completed Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) by Rafael Vinoly Architects. Although a bit obstreperous for the waterfront Boston context, as civic architecture the new convention center far exceeds other timid efforts closer to home.
Displayed within the BCEC is a scale model of Boston’s downtown, commissioned and maintained by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. City Hall can be located very near the center of the image below.
If you look carefully at the above image, you will note the strange disconnect in the fabric of the built environment between the North End (foreground) and downtown Boston. Between the two is a path of trees and greenery from left to right in the photograph, which traces the route of a former elevated interstate highway, the “Central Artery” of I-93. This is the famous “Big Dig“.
Today the elevated freeway is gone, replaced by the automotive tunnel underneath and a budding linear park at street level. Although the project was difficult, the results are heartening. There is one column of steel remaining, perhaps as a remembrance of the vicious things we have done to our cities, and furthermore the hope that there is always a way to reconstitute the civic beauty we have lost.
Today I’d like to highlight this NYT piece about urban infrastructure funding. In it, the financial role of Yale University in keeping up parts of New Haven is discussed.
On Sunday, the Free Press reported that street names in Pleasant Ridge are being considered for sale, which is not an altogether unrelated issue.
And in New York, there continues to be concern about the riches showered on Central Park while other public recreation areas in the city are neglected.
Boston has tried this, and a New York preservationist supports the idea. Of course there is more than a hint of political theory wound up in this private/public funding debate; but to my eyes advocates of private funding for public infrastructure are neglecting the long term implications of this trend. Specifically, private donors are able to ’support’ infrastructure of their own choosing, while bureaucracies (love ‘em or hate ‘em) at least have to pay lip service to the idea that tax revenue is being distributed equitably among different needs: needs that have presumably been analyzed and studied by professionals like yours truly. It is hard to imagine donors fighting for the naming rights of subway stations in struggling East New York, or corporations underwriting the renovation of obscure playgrounds in south Los Angeles. Are they just left behind in this new financing calculus?
Cortelyou Road subway station, Brooklyn.
There’s a lot to think about here, but I’ll be touching on many of these issues in the months ahead. As a thought for today, and as a launching point for bringing this discussion into our Detroit-centric world, it is sobering to consider the prospects for desperately-needed infrastructure funding in cities largely devoid of magnificently rich institutions and peopled by residents not in certain target-marketing demographics.
Know of any?
Another aim of this blog will be to give Detroit-area residents a better idea of how the city is seen nationally, or internationally.
Today's article on selling Detroit's parks is our first example.
There is certainly a great deal of open space in the city in the form of vacant lots, but surely there is value to keeping these municipal parcels intact. Los Angeles, for one, is a city that is famously short of public space; and at this juncture it is far too late to do anything about it. New York, on the other hand, has for more than a century built up its collection of parks and playgrounds both great and small.
And a concluding thought from our erstwhile arch-rival: "Parks are the outward visible symbol of democracy" --NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, 1956.