A LAMENT FOR MY NEW YORK; READ AND WEEP

Sam Hall Kaplan commiserates with Jeremiah Moss, author of “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul.”
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WHITHER THE HOME AND ARCHITECTURE

My latest for L.A.’s intellectual oasis.
 
https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/stuff-of-dreams/
 
The Stuff of Dreams: Bernard Friedman’s The American Idea of Home: Conversations About Architecture and Design (University of Texas Press, 2017)
 
By Sam Hall Kaplan
 
Bernard Friedman’s The American Idea of Home: Conversations About Architecture and Design was recently presented to me by an enduring friend, in deference to a haunting academic interest of mine. The hope was for a review, but given the escalating world housing crisis, and with all due respects to the earnest author, it was like a piece of meat thrown into the cage of an angry tiger.
 
Whither architecture when homelessness mounts? It is frankly hard to get excited about the aesthetics of design, let alone accept an invitation to sit on an architectural jury or review a book, in this age of obscene disparity and social fragmentation.
 
Nevertheless, the book is compelling, if only to those curious about the current drift of the design profession. Featured are 30 interviews with architects, educators, and writers, all of whom, according Friedman, “aspire to improve the quality of our lives through thoughtful design.” No doubt they do, but, with a few exceptions, most expose the profession’s self-absorption and the sorry lack of its social responsibilities. One imagines the interviews to have been conducted in the upper floors of the latest needle-like luxury residential tower, out of sight and sound of the hoi polloi below.
 
There is a lot of huffing and puffing in the book — and in today’s world — about residential design. But it should be noted that less than 2 percent of housing in America is designed by architects. Yet unquestionably it is the profession’s true love; as Friedman explains, homes are closer to architects’ hearts than the more richly rewarding commercial and institutional commissions. That stands to reason. After all, the dream of a home of one’s own has to be one of humanity’s more primordial fantasies — a manifestation of our deepest desires and anxieties, exceeding political prejudices, social pretensions, and personal finances.
 
According to therapists, this is very much a calming dream — no heart palpitations or reactive tossing and turning, just a fluttering of eyes in the REM stage of sleep. The dream is of an idealized shelter, secured in perpetuity by ownership, an iron-bound lease, or stringent rent control. And it isn’t just any shelter, either; rather, it’s one with a distinctive style — historic, modern, or futuristic, traditional or faddist — in a congenial community of escalating values where the dreamers bought or built last year, before the real estate bubbles inflated.
 
Call it an edifice complex; the dream persists, though it appears increasingly quixotic in the reality of spiraling inequality to which one awakes.
 
The fact is that fewer and fewer persons these Trumpian days have the resources to retain individual architects to create the singular homes of their dreams or to fashion interiors. Most are happy to have a roof over their heads. But don’t tell that to the design and development community luminaries and their institutional acolytes, to the aspiring star architects and billionaire builders. These include the closeted ego-maniacal Howard Roark clones as well as the Donald Trump types, eager to catch a trend and milk it for as much publicity and income as they can.
 
Still, the profession likes to pretend it is thoughtfully considerate of the potential occupant, the so-called user, be that a buyer or renter, wealthy or not. Progressive, affordable housing advocates, along with the few architects among them, may be exalted and even presented a plaque by their professional peers. But their programs and pleas are at best given lip service and occasional publicity at yet another self-aggrandizing Urban Land Institute seminar, or an academic think tank workshop.
 
To be sure, Friedman does his part, interviewing, among others, Andrew Freear, Marianne Cusato, Hadley Arnold, and Cameron Sinclair, all of whom are nobly promoting a range of socially and environmentally conscious designs in the far corners of the country. Sinclair, a former director of Architects for Humanity and now head of a design and development company that focuses on post-conflict reconstruction, lends a chilling perspective. In answer to Friedman’s question about whether residential architecture can be socially transformative, he declares: “If you really want to effect change in the world, you have to understand that utopia is dead. And the reason for that is that there is no silver bullet for the housing crisis, and we are closing in on what will be a global housing crisis.”
 
But as the book reveals, ego-driven celebrities still dominate the profession, typically not answering Friedman’s diligent questions, but talking about themselves or going off subject. We have architect Charles Gwathmey immodestly declaring, “the house I did for my parents, which I now occupy, was a groundbreaking moment in modern residential architecture in America. In particular, I think it changed the whole idea of American vernacular to a more European-based reference.”
 
At least Gwathmey is declarative. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately for the reader — other architects are more obtuse. These include two of L.A.’s own stars, Thom Mayne and Eric Owns Moss. In antithesis to an architectural maxim, they somehow take the simple and make it complicated. Some perspective or critical comments by Friedman could have helped, for it has been my experience that architects tend to say one thing to appear to be enlightened, or au courant, but design another. Illustrations of the projects discussed , instead of stock historic photographs, would also have been helpful; a little more show than tell, given the tendency of architects to obfuscate. And maybe there could have been a chapter entitled “Schadenfreude,” exposing the true nature of architecture’s competitive atmosphere.
 
But the central problem is this: With the price of renting modest apartments to buying humble housing in most major American cities and their sprawling suburbs going up and up, I feel it is simply intellectually indulgent to talk about the design and architecture of homes.
 
Think about the Millennials scrounging a life in increasingly popular Los Angeles, forever seductive San Francisco, and even an outlander outpost like Portland. (Of course, is some cases, deep-pocketed parents may buy houses for their struggling offspring — house which, of course, serve as a family investment and tax benefit. Welcome to the world of gentrification.) As for New York, “fugettaboutit.” If you hadn’t noticed, the highly polished Big Apple has become a senior assisted living facility for the one-percenters and their immodestly moneyed foreign relatives. I wasborn and ill-bred in Brooklyn, lived and worked in “the city” for several decades, and even co-wrote best-sellers about surviving there (The New York City Handbook) and in its suburbs (The Dream Deferred), but the sight of its current real estate excesses leaves me dazed.
 
As for my welcoming and pliant Los Angeles, its housing prices are more and more daunting. The homeless problem downtown is particularly disturbing — and shameful for any city government that pretends to be humane. Social and income inequality are the pressing concerns. In this environment, trying to find, much less to fashion, a home of one’s choice is like trying to catch a greased pig.
 
But Friedman tries to make the subject of his book relevant, and some interesting points are made. The august Richard Meier, the designer of the Getty and a contemporary of mine, declares in a burst of candor: “residential buildings are getting better because people realize they can make more money if they do a good building than if they do a mediocre building. “
 
And the respected architect and author Sarah Susanka states bluntly that if somebody wants a better house it will require an architect, and money: “That fact automatically puts it into what we might say is an elitist bucket, which is not what I think a lot of us who are architects would wish.”
 
The essay by columnist Meghan Daum might have been more appropriate as an epilogue rather than as an introduction. It is a somewhat indulgent ramble, describing well-designed houses as having an “almost aphrodisiacal quality,” enslaving us by putting us in debt and forever demanding our attention. But she concludes that they are also “the stuff of dreams.” Or, I might add, nightmares.

CITIZEN, SAINT JANE REVIEWED AND REMEMBERED

The Citizen Saint: Jane Jacobs on the Screen, the Page, and the Streets
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The Citizen Saint: Jane Jacobs on the Screen, the Page, and the Streets

By Sam Hall Kaplan

Nearly 60 years after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and a decade after the passing of its author, Jane Jacobs, her street-smart homilies echo louder than ever. The latest of these echoes is the recently released documentary film, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

First, the quick take, in keeping with our twittering, capsulated, commercialized present, and with deference to friend Jane, who loved a critical quip: the widely publicized and reviewed documentary by Matt Tyrnauer is unfortunately flawed and superficial.

But it is also recommended — and no doubt the Jane I knew would have appreciated it — for regardless of flaws, it does raise public consciousness about urban design and an appreciation for the potential of grass roots advocacy. And that is what she sought to do in her classic, written against all odds and the powers-that-were. The documentary celebrates her spirit and effort, and should be praised on that basis alone.

This public consciousness is becoming ever more urgent. The future of the world is urbanization, intensifying and voracious, frustrating and challenging. And so Jane’s thoughts are ever more relevant for those who must somehow survive it, there being little alternative.

Be she labeled Citizen Jane or Saint Jane, her pitched public battle against the prevailing planning and development dogma of a half-century ago represented a rare victory of the common citizenry over the unholy alliance of builders, bureaucrats, and politicians. It offers a faint ray of hope in similar battles to come, involving property rights, political power, and the promise of profit.

I remember when Jane first laid out her prescriptions for a more livable city in the late ’50s and early ’60s, over cheap beers in a haze of carcinogenic smoke at a local bar with friends and a few fawning journalists (at the time I was both). That was in the heyday of New York City’s then modest and affordable West Village, where “truth to power” was preached to whomever would listen, and buy a round for the gathered ensemble. The Scranton-born, middle class-bred Jane conveniently lived a few short blocks away from the bar, in a disordered apartment above a vacant store, with her staunchly supportive husband Bob and three children — early urban pioneers bucking the suburban tide of the times.

(For the real estate obsessed, the Jacobs bought the three-story building in the early ’50s for, as I recall, a measly $7,000, which, I noticed recently, is now a month’s rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the gentrified neighborhood. As for the bar, it is now an enlarged, teeming tavern catering to tourists and Wall Street types.)

So much for the documentary’s absent back story of a once garrulous social scene that included renowned political and urban theorists Michael Harrington and W.H. (Holly) Whyte, authors, respectively, of the seminal tract on poverty, The Other America, and The Organization Man, which exposed the insidious rise of the conformist corporate world.

These and a clamorous chorus of other opinionated ladies and gentleman informed the then aspiring, decidedly left-leaning journalist Jane, as well as me. And though we didn’t realize it then, the scene was a harbinger of the anti-war, feminist, counter-cultural movement that would explode into the national consciousness a few years later.

It was primarily Whyte, a respected senior editor at Fortune magazine, and Douglas Haskell, of Architectural Forum, who mentored the indefatigable Jacobs, feeding her heady assignment on the then struggling center cities. Much to their pleasure, expressed in retrospect to me, the work she brought back revealed a refreshingly contrarian take on the lock-step city planning theory of the period, raising eyebrows in the Times Inc. board room and among the catty academic and self-anointed design and urban planning authorities of the day.

And with Whyte’s assistance, despite her lack of architecture and planning schooling, or maybe because of it, she snared a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation grant. This validation came at a time of strained family finances, and was critical to her being able to write her heartfelt, perceptive, neighborly Greenwich Village-inspired tome.

Impressed by her enterprise and bottom-up urban perspective, Whyte and Haskell further helped her find an interested publisher, the august Random House, and an esteemed editor, Jason Epstein, one of the founders of the New York Review of Books. A devotee of his adopted city, Epstein took a particularly patient interest in the self-described “plain Jane,” whose thick glasses and rumpled house dresses belied her raw intellect, sharp wit, and deadline-driven writing.

To be sure, Jane was not an Ivy League grad with a degree in English lit, which made her a breath of fresh air in publishing circles. She had fire in her gut, for which those who knew her loved her.

Though Citizen Jane is devoid of what I feel is a most relevant and engaging political context and personal drama of Jane as a dedicated activist author, it has nevertheless been enjoying a relatively successful run in art houses, and will likely end up on civics lesson plans in classrooms. The documentary may even reverberate the sycophantic gaggle of community activists, city savants, planning professionals, and apparatchik academics who have held the torch for Jacobs book over the past 50 years. Maybe the book will now be read, as Jane had originally hoped, by neighborhood activists all across the country, who can use it as a guide in their confrontations with avaricious developers and toady local bureaucrats.

Doing what marketable biopics do, Citizen Jane simplifies Jacob’s thesis and presents a classic story of the battle between good and evil, with Jacobs as Saint Jane, and the all powerful, condescending, bombastic bureaucrat Robert Moses as the devil. The battle culminates in Moses’s defeat and demise, and an all victorious and acclaimed Jacobs riding off into the sunset, to Toronto. (And thus taking her two boys out of the draft and harm’s way in the Vietnam War, which she and Bob were vociferously protesting.)

The film gives only a cursory glimpse of how cities are shaped and misshaped, coached in clichés for which the filmmaker could be excused, having been born and bred in suburban Los Angles. But I have to take personal exception to his misreading of East Harlem, where I lived during the tumultuous ’60s and, not incidentally, was Vice Chairman of its Planning Board.

Yet the documentary does provide evocative visuals. Much credit should be given to editor Daniel Morfesis, the archival producers Susan Ricketts and Samantha Kerzner, and the archival researcher, Amilca Palmer. The latter have mined wonderful clips from the morgues of television news stations, which capture the mood of the times and the flavor of the swarming streets. I particularly loved the elderly woman who spoke from the guts against a proposed lower Manhattan expressway that would have devastated her neighborhood and impacted Jane’s beloved West Village; she embodied the salt needed for Jane’s chicken soup.

More of that saltiness and fewer self-conscious talking heads in studio settings would have helped reflect Jane’s passion and commitment. We need advocates rather than apologists. And in updating Jane’s theories, perhaps scenes from the Zuccotti Park protests in lower Manhattan of a few years ago would have been more on topic than stock clips of the high rises of China and the Mideast. We need people not projects.

Ironically, it was the focus on projects rather than people that, in the final analysis, led to Moses’s fall and Jane’s victory, which should be a lesson for neighborhood activists, as well as documentary filmmakers.