Wednesday, September 23, 2009

For my example of the “open city” theory in Baltimore I decided to contrast two specific blocks in Mount Vernon on Charles Street between Biddle St. and Mount Royal Ave. What I am focusing on here is the recent condominium redevelopment “Twelve 09 North Charles” on the corner of Charles and Preston, and the old brownstone development directly opposite as the pictures illustrate. I find this area interesting because of this high contrast of contemporary modernist design of about 2006 and European influenced architecture of the late 1890’s that the old brownstones evoke. What makes them most interesting to compare is each block intends to function basically the same - street level commercially zoned spaces with residential apartment/condos on top.

It isn’t hard to walk past this area, as I do almost every day, without noticing some very I subtle exclusionary tactics. It is easy however see that what I will call the old brownstone development to be more vibrant and active than the new Twelve 09 redevelopment across the street. The most obvious open city characteristic of the old brownstone development is the amount of businesses and restaurants located in that single block. I counted eleven. These restaurants offer a wide variety of price ranges and hours of operation. For example, at XS you can get a gourmet waffle at 7am while right around the corner, at 3am, you can get a slice of greasy pizza for $2.75 at Nino’s. Almost all day there are businesses open which means people are on the street. Many of them have outdoor seating as well. Jane Jacobs would be pleased; “The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in the building along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers” (Jane Jacobs). You will often notice people simply hanging around, eating, reading the newspaper, or employees on break etc.

On the Twelve 09 side it is a different story, certain planning techniques may be a fault. Here there are only two restaurants. Starbucks is the main attraction on the corner and Subway relocated from the original brownstone side to the middle of the block on the Twelve 09 side. There are about two retail spaces for rent and I don’t think is wrong to assume high lease prices are at fault due to the “higher end” mentality these condos evoke. A billboard on the sidewalk advertising the amenities of the new condos reveals more. The advertisement boasts private balconies, private courtyards, a private parking garage and an overall elegant lifestyle that is obviously marketed towards people earning a substantial salary. Exclusiveness becomes one of the overall attractions, one that makes sense given people’s apprehensiveness towards Baltimore’s crime stereotypes, especially if you are moving in from out of town (probably commuters from DC). There are not as many people as the original brownstone side for these obvious reasons and for me it does not seem as welcoming.

The Preston side of the block sums up this comparison quite well. Basically, on the Twelve 09 side, you will find an impermeable wall, literally. While directly across the street on the original brownstone side there are five businesses all in a row with diverse attractions - Jerome’s liquor, Nino’s pizza, Stop and Shop convince store, and Dionysus bar. Together they attract both homeless people and yuppies spending 8 bucks on a drink. When I walk on the brownstone side I usually pass many groups of people simply hanging out and talking with each other. There is a sense of leisure where people seem to be taking in their surroundings rather than concealing themselves. There have been times when my simple spatial relationship to others has prompted casual conversation and interaction. Iris Marion Young sums up this sense of personal use in her essay Justice and the Politics of Difference, “Both business people and residents tend to have more commitment to and care for such neighborhoods and are also much safer than single use functionalized spaces…” I find this to be true on the old brownstone side, the opposite on the Twelve 09 side.

Out of curiosity I visited the website that appeared in tiny font on the advertising billboard outside of the Twelve 09 development. I learned that the planners of this development specialized in the redevelopment old industrial properties. Their mission statement reads a follows: “leading smart growth developments, we always focus on our ultimate vision: creating a place that will be part of many people's lives, a place that will draw people, a place that people feel good about, a place that people will want to visit, a place where people will want to live.” This statement seems to consider the open city. Although the final product is not the worst example of a closed city, it does illustrate how certain building tactics have become commonplace over time to attract residents. At the end of his The Right To the Open City, Henri Lefebvre stakes the claim that the “bourgeois aristocracy no longer inhabit [the city]”, that they “transcend everyday life”. Although this is better applied to other scenarios (for instance the may higher-end condos downtown) I believe it holds true to some extent to Twelve 09 where exclusionary architecture is a product of class politics.

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