Saturday, July 26

The Centers of Sheridan and Gillette, Wyoming

The "Where is the center?" project is a series of posts based on my visits to various towns across the country. My goals are to determine where local residents consider the heart of their own town to be and make some outsider's observations about it. Do you live in this place? Please weigh in on your answer to the question.

Everyone in Sheridan unanimously agreed that Main Street was the heart of their community. Our hotel receptionist quickly circled the downtown on our map. Our waitress told us this was the place to be to see friends. The trolley driver concurred, downtown is for residents and tourists alike. Even the satellite picture gives little doubt about where the concentration of development is.

Main Street

Of any town I've ever visited, Sheridan fits the bill as the prototypical western town. Most of the original two-story mix of storefronts are preserved, giving an eclectic and colorful backdrop to the street. There are multiple shops dedicated to nothing but boots and hats, and they are not merely peddling tourist kitsch. One person told us that the upper-floors are mostly being used as "really cool condos" for those who prefer urban living. Clearly, the citizens take pride in the particularity of their heritage. The fast-food joints and Walmart were tucked safely away on Coffeen street by the interstate, not to be confused with Sheridan proper.

All of this contrasts sharply with the numerous faux-western towns out there. Deadwood, South Dakota, for example, may look similar at first, but a closer examination reveals that casinos had bought out entire blocks and gutted the interiors. The second-floors were abandoned and used to store junk. Sheridan, on the other hand, is no Potemkin village.

A downtown shopkeeper told us the story of how a mall on the outskirts of town was fought off in the 70's. She said it was mostly the old-timers who rallied together to preserve the Sheridan they knew. The downtown coffee shop sells "friends don't let friends go to starbucks" stickers. Unlike most other communities around the country, Sheridan had the wherewithal and civic pride to keep their downtown alive. They actually won the battle.

An impressive collection of public art is sporadically placed along Main Street, some of it western-based and others fairly whimsical. The historic Sheridan Inn, along the train tracks, is in the final stages of renovation, and Kendrick park, right in the residential core, holds regular concerts and events. There is plenty of evidence that new developments are being concentrated in the Main Street area, keeping the same compact and walkable boundaries around the town. The urban sprawl is fairly limited, and really only extends to the south of town.

Gillette, Wyoming

The next town to the east of Sheridan with a comparable population is Gillette. The contrast between Sheridan and Gilette is immediately apparent. When I asked at a gas station for directions to the center of town, the clerk just looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. She turned to her co-worker, "He wants to know where the center of town is." Her co-worker just shrugged and told me to get off at the next exit.

The next exit led me to South Douglas Highway, a typical wide street of parking lots and chain stores. A strip mall named "central square" on the other side of the interstate would seem to function as the practical center of town, although I couldn't tell if said square actually exists.

I might be a little unfair. There is a small downtown along Gillette Street, and it looks as if there has been some effort to draw people in. But it only extends for a couple of blocks and seems very limited in scope. We didn't spend enough time in Gillette to get a clear picture of how this downtown functions in the community.

So what could have caused these two towns to shape themselves in very different ways? Perhaps Sheridan, being closer to the Big Horn mountains, draws more tourists and thus has an incentive to maintain a quaint and unique environment. Maybe the types of industry in each town led to different development patterns. Maybe Sheridan developed earlier, before the era of the automobile, while Gilette had its growth spurt when different development patterns were in fashion. It could simply be that the concerted effort of a small group of citizens in Sheridan had a lasting impact on the built environment, and Gilette may have lacked this movement. I'm not sure, but it certain is an interesting question.

Friday, July 25

NIMBYs and status

I just came across an article by Benjamin Ross from a 2001 issue of Dissent that explains the NIMBY dilemma cities face better than I've heard it explained before. NIMBYs (not-in-my-back-yard) are homeowners who oppose development in their own neighborhoods even at the expense of the larger community. Here's a few key points from the article:

1. NIMBYs are motivated by status, even more so than by maintaining property values. Neighborhoods that brand themselves will fight to preserve the brand identity.

"The orientation toward status shows most clearly in the intensity with which single-family zoning is protected in prestige neighborhoods near suburban transit stations. In some cases, homeowners would reap an enormous financial windfall if their neighborhoods were rezoned to allow greater density. Yet it is in just these situations that resistance to development is most intense. In Washington, D.C.’s suburban Montgomery County, where I live, the wealthy single-family neighborhoods of Chevy Chase have waged a twenty-year battle to limit the growth of offices, upscale stores, and high-rise apartments around the Friendship Heights subway station."

2. Local anti-growth activists can be found on both the right and the left.

"Ideology varies to match the local style: opponents of development in Chevy Chase led a successful campaign to pass county-wide tax limits, while the most strongly anti-development member of the Takoma Park City Council is a leftist who advocates massive increases in school spending. But these differences are labels pasted on similar goals of governance. Chevy Chase Republicans favor intrusive government regulation of land use, while many Takoma Park leftists support a high-priced country club’s efforts to obstruct construction of mass transit through its golf course. And, ignoring labels altogether, the NIMBY politicians of Takoma Park and Chevy Chase are close allies at election time."

3. NIMBYism is one of the major obstacles to New Urbanist development, and it helps explain why many well-intended New Urbanists sometimes end up building only high-end neighborhoods on greenfields.

"New Urbanist ideas have reached real estate developers who, perceiving a market demand for a less automobile-dependent life, have begun to redevelop older suburbs into denser, more urban neighborhoods of stores, offices, and homes. But frequent homeowner opposition has made redevelopment of existing suburbs difficult and costly. The added expenses reinforce the normal tendency of the real estate market to concentrate on upper-income sectors, limiting most neo-traditional developments to the high end of the market."

"When they fail to convince, the New Urbanists are inclined to appease their opponents, often yielding to the NIMBYs by locating their projects in outer suburbs far away from mass transit."

4. Environmentalists, who are virtually all opposed to sprawl, have created a double-edged sword by allying with Homeowners associations.

"In outer suburbs, where the task is to stop sprawl development, this philosophy expresses itself very logically in alliances with homeowner groups whose social bases are quite similar to their own. But the same alliance becomes more problematic in cities and older suburbs, where density must increase if the sprawl problem is to be addressed."

5. The characterization of all developers as "greedy" is a red herring.

"Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avarice—if anything, more hostility is directed at nonprofit builders of low-income housing than at the truly greedy. The adjective functions not to convey meaning but to disguise it, allowing one to criticize the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses when the real target is the ordinary people who will live in them."

the insightful conclusion,

"The automobile-centered model of metropolitan growth is collapsing under the weight of traffic congestion. Market forces are now sending a belated signal that change is needed. Yet sprawl marches on. The suburban pattern of land use was created by governmental action through zoning rules and transportation policies, and without a conscious political choice there can be no reversal of course. The decision to build livable communities in place of sprawl will not be made until we understand and confront the status-seeking that lies behind the suburban status quo."

This article is a reminder that real decisions are often made in light of the particulars ("we don't want this development here") rather than the generals ("sprawl is unsustainable"). This makes NIMBYism such an intractable and important problem. How can local communities be fully engaged in participatory democracy while also allowing for the common interest of the wider community to emerge?

Wednesday, July 23

The Center of Helena, Montana

The "Where is the center?" project is a series of posts based on my visits to various towns across the country. My goal is to determine where local residents consider the heart of their own town to be and make some outsider's observations about it. Do you live in this place? Please weigh in on your answer to the question.

When I asked Irene, an insurance company receptionist from Helena, where the center of town is, she paused for a while to think. This is the reaction I would get from almost everyone I asked. There didn't seem to be any obvious answer.

"I don't think I can answer that question. Helena is really growing up around the edges," she eventually told me. Pressed a little further, she did say that the historical center was around Last Chance Gulch. As a tourist I may be more interested in visiting this part of town, but I never got the impression that this was the same answer for local residents.

Based on several people's responses, I've identified four possible locations for the center of Helena, none of them an indisputable answer to the question.

A - Last Chance Gulch

Pattie at an Albertsons grocery store quickly pointed me to Last Chance Gulch, the historic downtown. A gas station attendant whom I later questioned hesitated for a while but did tell me that the historic downtown was the most interesting place to see.

Originally founded as a mining town, the historic center of Helena is unique in that it directly abuts the hills where the mines were located. As the city expanded, most of the developable land was to the north of town in the valley. Eventually, the old downtown found itself on the geographical margins of the city. Blessed with a number of fine buildings left over from the mining boom of its earlier days, the Last Chance Gulch and surrounding area is sitting on a gold mine (no pun intended) of architectural resources.

Urban renewal did hit this spot pretty hard. In the 1970's a number of beautiful historic buildings were razed in an attempt to usher the downtown into the modern age (this website provides an impressive collection of pictures and information from this era). The hotel pictured is a perfect example of this hubris. Turning away from the street and placing a solid brick wall against the public space, it doesn't even attempt to blend with its surroundings and is devoid of context and character. During the same time, the main street was converted into a pedestrian mall, and it still remains as one of America's few surviving examples of this popular trend. The pedestrian mall is very well landscaped and adorned with interesting sculptures that recount its mining history.

At the time of our visit, city officials were considering uprooting many of the trees on the mall to open up the view, but the consensus at the Firetower Coffee shop was that this was an awful idea. For a Tuesday in the middle of the day, I would hardly call the Last Chance Gulch bustling. Everything was clean and the businesses were well-kept, but there was a conspicuous lack of vitality. This empty store was not the only one on the block. In the last few years, Helena citizens have narrowly voted to prevent the pedestrian mall from being opened up to automobile traffic.

Blaire and Bill see new life for the Last Chance Gulch coming. They have purchased the tallest building in the city, an historic residential building named the Placer, and are renovating it into condos. Their vision is motivated by Smart Growth and New Urbanism, and they are banking on a downtown with a symbiotic relationship between the existing commercial establishments on the ground floor and new residential condos above. Blaire even envisions the renovation of a jazz club and artisan bakery in the building.

B - Women's Park

This was the answer our friend Caitlin gave us. She felt that this was the social center of Helena. It's the location of the farmers market as well as numerous summer concerts and community events.

C - Great Northern Town Center

Ok. I'm cheating here. Nobody I talked to gave me this as an anwser, but the developer of this new pedestrian-oriented district with an entertainment focus is clearly positioning itself for this title. It's anchored by a large hotel, a multiplex theater, and a carousel that is obviously well-used. It has the advantage of being located adjacent to Caroll College. The only trouble is that it is not yet very well integrated with other streets.

D - Shopko Parking lot

Our friend Larson is an economist, so he gave his opinion of strictly what the geographical center of business activity is: the Shopko parking lot. All of the standard box stores have opened up in the last couple of years around the intersection of North Montana and Custer Avenues. Since the main area of growth is exurban sprawl in valley to the north of town, it may not be long before these businesses also find themselves in the geographical center. I didn't take any photos, but the character of the location is fairly evident.

Thursday, July 17

The new Broadway

One thing I’ve noticed from traveling through towns in the West and Midwest is that almost every single one of them has a Broadway. Typically, Main street is the narrower urban road that passes through the heart of downtown and Broadway is the wider thoroughfare that extends outward from downtown into other parts of the city. The choice of this name must have been a conscious decision by the original founders to link their fledgling settlements to the distant cosmopolitan New York city. Minot, North Dakota, where I’m writing this post, along with a Broadway also has an old faded advertisement for a New York Merchentile Co. plastered on the side of a downtown brick building. New York city was clearly a model for frontier cites, or at least that’s the perception the pioneers wanted to convey.

These towns were engaged in an intense competition for survival. Perhaps if railroad companies could be convinced they had another potential New York on their hands they would put in a station. Motivated Easterners with their capital would pour in and the town would thrive. While it may not fit our contemporary romantic notions of the old west, at least the aspirations of many pioneers in the 19th century were urban, and Broadway stood for the height of urbanity in America.

I don’t know if Broadway carries the same weight it used to, but it’s worth noting that the iconic avenue is about to change significantly. Could this indicate a new direction for American towns and cities? Or is New York a unique case, long since displaced by other models for city building?

Jan Gehl, the celebrated Danish planner who loves pedestrians, was commissioned to redesign half of Broadway along a stretch to midtown into a multi-modal transportation route and public space. There will be a prominent removed bike lane, as well as plenty of accommodations for people to gather and sit in the pedestrian area. Mayor Bloomberg, set back a little from his congestion pricing defeat, is still moving forward in making Manhattan more livable. This should be done by mid-August. With heightened environmental awareness (as well as heighten gas prices) this is the new Broadway we need.

I'm looking out the window right now on Minot's own Broadway from the Book Nook coffee shop. There's a strip mall across the street with a Hollywood video, an Arby's, and an abandoned building. There are big changes happening here too. Some parts of Broadway are being widened but a stretch of a few blocks is being narrowed from four to two lanes. New sidewalks will be installed with some nice lighting.

Broadway is clearly changing in America.

Friday, July 11

"There goes the neighborhood!"

On my last day in Missoula, while sipping a coffee at Bernice's, I skimmed a letter to the editor in the Missoulian. Apparently, a resident of the Rattlesnake neighborhood felt that the "huge" expansion (actually not so big) of the Clark Fork school rendered his neighborhood utterly uninhabitable, due to the increased traffic and "screaming kids." The school offered him help in moving expenses, but he would have none of it. It made me chuckle, but the fact that these reactions happen every day in every town across our hyper-privatized nation is much less funny.

Sometimes the concerns are a little more thorny. Concurrently, Missoula had also been engaging in its latest installment of homeless services squabbles. Predictably, residents of the North Side objected to the placement of a day-center that could jeopardize the health and safety of their neighborhood. Jay at 4 & 20 kicked off a highly fruitful conversation about this last week. The indigent have to be served somewhere, most of us agree. The dilemma over how to distribute the burden justly across a city is a very difficult one.

I was thinking about these local debates as I read a very insightful series of posts by Kaid Benfield, a seasoned environmental activist out of D.C. (I found him through Smart Growth Around America). He wonders why he sees so much more defensiveness among neighbors now than he did when he was younger. Institutions such as schools, churches, and charitable organizations used to be considered community assets, but now they are almost always perceived as threats to the neighborhood.

He speculates on some reasons for this reason:

First, air conditioning.

"I’m serious. It makes more people spend more time indoors than we did, say, 50 years ago, which means less interaction. How many people sit on their front porches in the evenings now, if they even have them, in wealthy neighborhoods?"

Second, our addiction to automobiles cuts our life experience up into privatized pieces.

"Some people, particularly in low-density suburbs, “tend to interact with their neighbors mainly through their windshields.”

I would add that automobiles, by virtue of their very size, do present a zero-sum game that pits people against each other. Every car on the road is less room for another one. Traffic really does become more of a viable concern than it would if people were content to sometime walk places.

Third, a decline in localized social organizations.

"In my youth, neighbors were more accepting, I believe, because they were usually among those who attended the nearby churches and schools, or were friends with people who did. Today, given the decline in identification with these institutions, and decline in neighborhood social ties, neighbors see the local churches and schools not as part of their own kind but as other people, at best representative of a minority in the neighborhood. They are much less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt."

The fourth point is a bit touchy, but I think accurate.

"We in the environmental movement have played a role. For good reasons, beginning in the 1970s we created a system of laws and procedures, and a culture, that over time has made it relatively easy to challenge proposed development of all types, and to defeat proposals or delay them until proponents give up. People now consider it their right to fight proposed development wherever and whenever it occurs, and it has become an expectation in many places."

The fact of the matter is that environmental stewardship should be as much about saying "yes" to good development as it is about saying "no" to bad development. I think many people are realizing this.

Whatever the cause, Benfield sees this phenomenon as more than a simple annoyance.

"This bothers me because, if we are experiencing hostility between neighbors and even our most basic community institutions, the viability of multi-functional, sustainable neighborhoods and cities is called into question."

I would have to agree.