Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why won't those damn kids just obey the will of our Grecian columns?

The most hilarious part of the otherwise troubling piece about street culture downtown by Austin Jenkins was this passage:
On Washington’s Capitol campus in Olympia, sandstone buildings stand as monuments to the rule of law. But just a few blocks away you can find a street culture where young adults and teenagers live by their own rules—sometimes with tragic consequences. 
I mean, for Pete's sake! This is the state capital! While you're within site of our capitol building, please remind yourself not to fall into criminality!

Jenkins eventually reminds us that "It isn't just Olympia," that many other Cascadian cities have the same problems. But, the implication from his lede is that somehow, because of our sandstone buildings, Olympia should have less crime.

As silly as that sounds, it is actually true. Or, at least true from the point of view of the people that originally designed the campus. It is practically impossible to utter a phrase in Olympia about the campus without being reminded of its city beautiful origins.

The city beautiful movement in architecture began in the 1890s as a reaction to the quick and messy growth of American cities during the industrial revolution. When the city beautiful movement came to Olympia in the 1910s, it was hardly a booming metropolis. It was still a fairly common timber town just being carved away from the forest. It wasn't until the 1950s that Olympia would reach its industrial peak, and the campus was well settled by then.

The thinking behind the city beautiful movement was that it would not only literally reform cities themselves, but it would change citizens.

From an essay by architect Pierre De Angelis:
The Cities Beautiful movement exists as an insignificant footnote in the current discourse on urban planning. It stands as a relatively short lived movement which flourished in the 1890’s; a genuine attempt to reform the wretched conditions of inner city poverty. 

However the upper and middle classes continued to travel into the city, to attend to their businesses and participate in leisure activities. Whether out of genuine concern or simply fear for their own safety and the continued viability of their businesses, middle and upper class reformers attempted to relieve the malaise of the city and lower classes. They did so by embracing the concept of beauty as an “effective social control device”... Reformers had no interest in beauty for its own sake but in its ameliorative power which could inspire civic pride and moral rectitude amongst the impoverished and poverty stricken. It is on these principals that the cities beautiful movement was born and on which much of our contemporary thinking on urbanity finds its ancestry.
There are some interesting parallels here between this description and the city beautiful and the Olympia downtown discussion. "(S)imply a fear for their own safety and the continued viability of their businesses..." is attached to the present time with people scared too come downtown. "(I)nspire civic pride and moral rectitude amongst the impoverished and poverty stricken" attached to ending homelessness and getting people off the streets.

We're still having the urban discussions now that we had at the dawn of the "architecture will convince the poor to be good people" ideas behind city beautiful. We're obviously moved beyond the point that we think nice looking buildings will make people better citizen. What Jenkins did was a device to put his particular story in the place he was writing about.

So, if we do end up getting around the corner on how bad downtown really has gotten, it won't be with building nice looking buildings.

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