Jane Jacobs’ famous tome, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, has long been required reading for students of urban planning, sociology, and many related fields. It’s also a fantastic read, and has remained a staple on the urbanite’s bookshelf for the fifty years since its publication in 1961 (happy birthday!). While Jacobs wrote in a very different urban context than we live in today, her observations on the timeless ingredients found in thriving urban neighborhoods remain fascinating and instructive.
In the book, Jacobs focuses a great deal on four primary generators of diversity — diversity being one of the defining features of cities, and the key to safety, economic vitality, and fulfillment for a city’s inhabitants, workers, and visitors. She describes these four generators as:
- Primary mixed land uses.
- Small blocks.
- Mix of old and new buildings.
- Concentration of people.
Today, let’s consider #3. The most elementary reason cities need old buildings is an economic one: building stuff costs money. A lot of money. Jacobs (far more eloquently) elaborates on this and other points, highlighting just how useful older buildings are to entrepreneurs, artists, the old, the young– frankly, to the diversity of society. And while she offers sharp critiques of meddlers’ grand visions for “Utopian dream [cities],” Jacobs’ illustrative writing puts urban complexity into simple observations (p. 188):
If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do…
Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.
A more local example might be the Bryant Building, currently occupied by Magers & Quinn Booksellers and the Mono ad agency. Built in 1922, the structure first housed a major national tenant: Chevrolet. As the building has aged, it has seen many other users, from the State of Minnesota to a thrift shop, and of course, a bookstore. After all, as Jacobs wrote, “Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation . . . One century’s building commonplace is another century’s useful aberration.” While some buildings are demolished and replaced, many remain standing, playing an essential economic role.
So on the whole, how does the Uptown area fare? Analyzing Hennepin County property records shows pretty much what you would expect: a fairly good balance of old and new commercial buildings (residential and other uses have been excluded for simplicity’s sake). While the data aren’t perfect–some properties, like Calhoun Square and Lund’s, have been almost entirely reconstructed in recent years but retain their original year-built figure–the map at left offers a glimpse into the diverse commercial building stock in the area.
What do you think? Has the Uptown area retained enough of its older structures? Or have we offered too many sacrificial lambs at the altar of development and “progress”? More importantly, how do we proceed in a way that encourages growth and investment while maintaining, and indeed broadening the diversity found in our community?