Black Urbanism Revisited — Creators Vs. Fixers

Jane Addams and Daniel Burnham.  The Fixer and The Creator.  Source: burnhamplan100.lib.uchicago.edu

One of the most viewed pieces on this blog was first published nearly two years ago, a scant three months into this blog’s existence.  It was called Regarding Black Urbanism, and in it, I questioned the “whiteness” of the current urbanist movement and the lack of members from the African-American community, despite the fact that African-Americans are among the most urban groups in the nation.  Here’s a quick sample:

About three years ago the website Planetizen developed a list of the top 100 urban thinkers.  All the names were nominated and voted on by website visitors. Unsurprisingly, there is not a single African American on the list (from my recollection there are only about five that are under the age of 50, but that’s for another discussion).  Surely there is some insight that some blacks have gained through our urban experience that would get us considered for this list.  Why has that not happened?  Is there a black Jane Jacobs?  Is there a black Andres Duany?  Lewis Mumford?  Edmund Bacon?  William Whyte?  Richard Florida?  James Howard Kunstler?  If not, why not?

I put forth a few reasons for why this might be the case, but all were rationales that come out of developments in the post-WWII urban landscape.  Basically, urban = bad, the devastation of black neighborhoods, the impact of white flight, the notion that new urban = good, and a FUBU (for us, by us) mentality among neighborhood activists that may lock out key actors needed for revitalization (An aside: if anyone was uncertain of the FUBU mentality I mentioned, check out this piece that links to a video about East Cleveland, OH).   All these points are outcomes of the substantial changes undertaken in our cities since World War II, and acceptable reasons for the lack of a prominent African-American leader on urbanist issues.

I came back to this after coming across Daniel Hertz’s take on the same issue, and he offers some salient points as well.  In retrospect, however, I think there are historical reasons that go back far deeper, and touch at the core of the American psyche.  As with many things related to the study of urbanism in America, you could look to Chicago as the point of origin.

There are Creators and there are Fixers.  There are bold, visionary thinkers who wish to craft the built environment in the image du jour, and there are pragmatic tinkerers who wish to improve the lives and conditions those living in substandard environments.  Daniel Burnham is the patron saint of the Creators, and Jane Addams is the patron saint of the Fixers.  Both conducted their greatest work in Chicago, at the same time, yet their work never intersected.  That divide still exists today.

Look at Burnham and the legacy of the Creators.  Starting with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and culminating withe the 1909 Plan of Chicago, Burnham sought to address the city’s physical and social ills by expressing a vision of an entirely new city.  There was little redeemable about the dirty, disjointed city; it needed to be reorganized and redeveloped with a new manner of thinking, led by Great Men.  This legacy is seductive.  But it will always be subject to the Next Big Thing as the savior of cities: Garden Cities, Modernist planning/urban renewal, conventional suburbia, New Urbanism/Smart Growth, and the Return to Cities movement.

Meanwhile, look at Addams and the legacy of the Fixers.  Her Hull House pioneered methods of indoctrination and assimilation of immigrant groups in America.  She was a staunch advocate of improved public health, housing conditions, and education.  Her vision of a new city did not include wiping out what currently exists, but making what currently exists better.  Her legacy lacks the seduction of the creator’s world vision, and perhaps more importantly, is more reliant on advocacy, volunteerism and collaboration than the Great Men approach of the creators.  Fixers have continued to lead the way on public housing, affordable housing and community and economic development, often in the most distressed urban areas.

Today’s Creators are supporters of walkable, pedestrian-oriented places; biking, ride-sharing and car-sharing; mixed-use development and new types of public transportation.  Today’s Fixers are supporters of affordable housing and access to housing finance; anti-poverty policies and workforce development; , business attraction and retention; improved public services.

There are many black urbanists, but they are much more often Fixers, not Creators.  Fixers rarely if ever ascend to lofty heights as grand thinkers on the urban environment; they’re too busy working at the grassroots level fixing things.  Creators rarely if ever descend from the ivory tower to see how things are done at the grassroots level; it could conflict with their rather abstract view of the city’s Next Big Thing.  Sadly, Creators and Fixers rarely interact, and when they do, misunderstandings are common.

Creators and Fixers need each other.  They need to realize they’re working toward similar goals, need to find a common language, and need to respect each other’s approach.  In my career I’ve been privileged to switch between both sides of this divide, and I consider myself to be unique in this regard.  We will always need big ideas, but we also need the will to address the problems the old ideas left behind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s