Yeah, I got nothing

(Note: This will likely only be of interest to my local friends and social network buddies. It’s a response to Concerning The Suburbs, Their Raison D’etre, And How It Is Reflected In Their Planned Public Spaces, prompted by a discussion on Twitter earlier today. If you’re curious, or want the context, go read that first.

So, I’ve been staring at that essay for a good 30 minutes trying to figure out what my thesis is here. So far, I got nothing. I’m struggling because there are two separate arguments being made, intertwined in ways that make them difficult to separate. Here goes my attempt to understand, then respond.)

My impression walking away from the conversation this morning was that Josh had set an unattainable standard by which to evaluate the impact of Blue Back Square on the town of West Hartford. The essay reinforces that impression.

In particular, this rankles:

Compare it to, say, Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass.: It would not do in BBS to have buses passing right through and stopping right in front of the Cheesecake Factory, if those buses ran a route that included, say, the local district court and jail, and nearby housing projects. Nor would it do to have upscale boutiques interspersed with dollar stores and appliance repair stores and bodegas, the way you might see in a secondary commercial center in Brooklyn, like 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, or even on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

I’d quibble on the details here. I consider Blue Back to be part of West Hartford’s town center. In that scope, most of the objections of how Blue Back fosters economic exclusivity fall apart. Major bus lines run right through WH center and they go right into Hartford, past the court, even – take the 60-66. It’s not like that bus stop is prohibitively far, it’s two mini blocks east of BBS.

Businesses are not corner bodegas, but they’re mid-tier chains & indy businesses at the low end: CVS, Harry’s Pizza, Cosi, Gyro Palace, Moe’s, Subway, Ben & Jerry’s, etc. Sure, there are more upscale places, but there’s more variety than you’re allowing for.

But this is all debating the details.

If you’re arguing Blue Back could have a more economically diverse customer and visitor base, I don’t disagree with that. But I also think it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t brought in more economic diversity and created more unpredictable interaction than what was there before it. In that light, and measured against any development project in the state, I think it’s done a net positive for the area and for the town on the diversity front.

Held up to the ideal of something like Inman Square or Brooklyn, the products of organic and centuries long growth of two major American cities and their environs… well, sure, it’s not going to measure up in terms of economic diversity and retail/residential integration. But what does?

It would help to have an example of a development plan or project that provided the kind of new urbanism or whatever you’re calling this that you’re describing. I don’t know of any, especially any that have done a better job than BBS that didn’t already start in already dense construction.

And it would be nice to talk about what urban means, and what counts as “authentic urban” — I don’t agree with the narrow definition because I don’t think it’s historically valid (I also am not well educated on this topic to make the argument here… so, worthy of a conversation, I think, perhaps with others).

  • kvonhard

    I feel you responded with about everything I wanted to say. I’d corroborate with the following:

    Buses are on Farmington which is half a block away. In front of a building, First Church, that neighbors the library which is a part of BBS. I feel that’s not prohibitively distant.

    The library itself allows for much integrated class meeting. I’ve been wholly informed by the children’s department librarians that they are one of the most requested from and used children. In the library, I’ve met a lot of people from various towns and economic backgrounds.

    Also, the other post discussed being on the way to courts and jail – the police station is the other anchor.

    It appears to me that the biggest issue is not whether BBS/Center engages people in a way that is unpredictable (because in many ways it does provide that) but that a sense of socio-economic class creates a lack of authenticity to some regarding what can be considered “urban.”

    Dictionary.com defines “metropolitan” as 1″. of, noting, or characteristic of a metropolis or its inhabitants, especially in culture, sophistication, or in accepting and combining a wide variety of people, ideas, etc..” I would argue that BBS/Center based on what is far more diverse regarding private/public spaces as was originally discussed, is “metropolitan” in this sense as opposed to being specifically “urban.”

    In fact, there has been a distinct uptick in new residents who have moved to the town from larger cities who said they did so because this was the best combination of former urban living and New England suburb they could find.

    Karen

  • Josh Michtom
  • Josh Michtom

    I don’t disagree with most of what you’re saying, Karen – more thoughts are in another blog post, linked in a separate comment. I would only take issue with your saying the presence of the police department is equivalent to the proximity of courts and jails (and god, I’m really quibbling here, so take it with a grain of salt): The courts and the jails are where ordinary people, usually lower class, come and go. The police station is really just where the police come and go. It would be a totally different feel for BBS to have a court and a jail across the street than a police station.