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3403Book Review: Cities Back From The Edge, by Roberta Gratz

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  • Randall Hunt
    Feb 1, 2006
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      I found this book review at http://www.civictourism.org/

      I didn't write the review.


      Gratz, Roberta B. Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown. New
      York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998 (361 pp.).

      Roberta Gratz, Cities Back from the Edge Gratz¹s well-known book is
      somewhat of a modern rendition of Jane Jacob¹s 1961 classic The Death and
      Life of Great American Cities, in that she examines the best practices for
      making cities livable. She may be a little too black-and-white for some,
      but her voice is an important one.

      The disappointing aspect of this book is that Gratz really never addresses
      culture, heritage, art, history, museums, and their role in helping cities
      establish, preserve, and present a sense of place ­ even though that¹s what
      many would argue they do. Her comments about cultural facilities are either
      platitudinous ("Cultural and leisure amenities . . . add immeasurably to
      the local¹s importance and quality of life") or downright dismissive
      ("Convention centers, stadiums, aquariums, cultural centers, enclosed malls
      ­ these are about politics and development profitable for a few, not about
      developing local economies, enlivening downtown, or stimulating
      revitalization"). On the other hand, she is referring in that last comment
      to "big city projects," not the local museum or historical society, which,
      given the tone of her argument, one might think she would support as a
      product that does enliven communities. Still, it would have been helpful
      for her to address this topic more thoroughly. There is so much repetition
      of other topics, such as the negative effects of our car culture, that she
      might have edited that and focused more on organizations (not just
      businesses) whose function is the preservation of the sense of place she
      believes has disappeared from many cities (but is coming back, thus the
      title). That aside, there is much here to think about, even if one doesn¹t
      agree with her conclusions. Gratz tends to present issues in black and
      white (urban=good, suburb=bad / small=good, big=bad / old=good, new=bad),
      and doesn¹t allow much room for a "both/and" approach. Another problem for
      westerners is that so many examples are from the East, most notably her
      hometown of New York (SoHo in particular), and some of the principles she
      endorses are almost impossible to replicate in many western towns, which,
      like it or not, were created around the car. Still, her thesis is not that
      we can or should recreate mini-SoHo¹s across America, but that engaged and
      caring citizens (not city planners) will bring life back to downtowns in
      their own way. Gratz provides many good and not-so-good examples of how to
      do that ­ mostly from the New Urbanist perspective and that of social
      observers like Jane Jacobs, although she is clear that there is no
      one-size-fits-all template. Reading Gratz¹s book, one is struck by the fact
      that just about everything she says not to do to foster a healthy downtown
      is the path many western cities followed: wide, pedestrian-unfriendly
      streets; demolition of historical buildings; sprawling, anonymous suburbs;
      more and wider freeways; inadequate mass transit for the poor, but ample
      free or inexpensive parking for commuters; a manicured downtown intended
      for tourists, not residents or workers; boxy, homogenous super-centers
      consisting of the typical national franchises; indoor malls instead of
      street shopping; and a focus on "big, important" downtown projects
      (stadiums, conventions centers, indoor malls, mega-parking structures,
      office towers) at the expense of housing and small business, which, Gratz
      claims, are what gives a city character and life. We don¹t agree with
      everything Gratz presents, but we hope more city planners are at least
      considering the principles that underpin this book. For the most part, what
      "experts" have been designing since the ¹50s hasn¹t worked. We just need to
      remember to advocate for history and heritage as a part of the mix.