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French suburbs & Le Corb

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  • Richard Risemberg
    Note especially the comments on the Netherlands: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/27/magazine/27wwln_essay.html?hp ... -- Richard Risemberg
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 27, 2005
      Note especially the comments on the Netherlands:


      > Revolting High Rises
      > There is a somewhat comic lining around the cloud of France's
      > suburban riots. Suddenly the word banlieue has been embraced by
      > people not known for peppering their conversation with French words
      > - callers to right-wing talk shows, for instance. Obviously, they
      > want to stress how different those suburbs (burning cars and hip-
      > hop hand gestures) are from our own (swing sets and Weber grills).
      > European politicians, anxious lest their countries be perceived as
      > "the next France," have made a similar point. Wolfgang Schäuble, a
      > prominent German Christian Democrat, said recently, "We do not have
      > these gigantic high-rise projects that they have on the edge of
      > French cities."
      > Meanwhile, people in Marseille, which has one of the heaviest
      > concentrations of immigrants' children in France, were relieved
      > that their city was left mostly unscathed when those children
      > staged a nationwide uprising. What is different about Marseille,
      > residents say, is that it is too hemmed in by mountains and sea to
      > ship its poor to the outskirts. Executives, entrepreneurs and
      > others who don't have to punch the clock are the ones who live
      > farther out - in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, which is reachable
      > by fast trains. Marseille is not like most French cities, where the
      > urban core is made up of neatly tended architectural treasures and
      > the disorder is pushed to the periphery. It is turned inside out,
      > so that "inner city" and "suburbia" retain their American
      > connotations. That may have spared Marseille a lot of problems.
      > La crise des banlieues turns out to be an ambiguous phrase. Is
      > there a problem in France's suburbs or with France's suburbs? For
      > Schäuble, it's the buildings. For the boosters of Marseille, it's
      > where you put them.
      > The Swiss architect Le Corbusier, as Francophobes have been more
      > than ready to explain, bears some of the blame for both. His
      > designs inspired many of the suburbs where the riots of October and
      > November began. In fact, he inspired the very practice of housing
      > the urban poor by building up instead of out. Soaring apartments,
      > he thought, would finally give sunlight and fresh air to city
      > laborers, who had been trapped in narrow and fetid back streets
      > since the dawn of urbanization. But high-rise apartments mixed
      > badly with something poor communities generate in profusion: groups
      > of young, armed, desperate males. Anyone who could control the
      > elevator bank (and, when that became too terrifying to use, the
      > graffiti-covered stairwells) could hold hundreds of families ransom.
      > Le Corbusier called houses "machines for living." France's housing
      > projects, as we now know, became machines for alienation. In
      > theory, the cause of this alienation is some mix of the buildings
      > themselves and the way they're joined to the city. But in practice,
      > the most effective urban renewal has tended to focus on the
      > buildings. It focuses on the buildings by razing them.
      > The Netherlands provides the best example of how this works.
      > Amsterdam and Rotterdam stand in the same urban-planning
      > relationship as Paris and Marseille. The core of golden-age
      > buildings along Amsterdam's canals are surrounded by industrial-age
      > apartments and then by a fan of housing projects. Rotterdam,
      > because it was rebuilt after heavy bombing in World War II, has big
      > concentrations of poor and working-class people, many of them
      > immigrants and their children, living in the bull's-eye of the
      > metropolitan area.
      > So the two cities are urban-planning opposites. And since the
      > murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch Islamist last
      > year, it has become common to speak of them as political opposites.
      > Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, represents the Labor Party, which has
      > controlled the city for decades and is often accused of excessive
      > multicultural sensitivity. Rotterdam's housing policy is in the
      > hands of Leefbaar Rotterdam, the party of the populist Pim Fortuyn,
      > who was assassinated in 2002. Until recently, the housing boss was
      > Marco Pastors, a charismatic and controversial leader known for
      > tough talk on immigration.
      > Yet the cities' redevelopment policies are virtually identical.
      > Both are well into a headlong retreat from gigantism and
      > uniformity. The notorious high rises of De Bijlmer in southeastern
      > Amsterdam were completed only in 1975 but were soon generating the
      > kind of pathology on display in the banlieues. A succession of
      > Labor mayors have presided over their dismantling to make way for
      > smaller "garden houses." When the city determined that 11,000 units
      > of housing were needed in the Nieuw West area, it decided to
      > demolish 13,000 units and build 24,000 on a more neighborly scale,
      > to avoid what Cohen calls "huge, stretched-out deprived areas."
      > In right-wing Rotterdam, meanwhile, Pastors has done almost exactly
      > the same thing. He poured resources into mixed-income projects
      > started by the Labor Party in the once-dismal neighborhood of
      > Bospolder-Tussendijken and added others of his own. His reasoning
      > is the same as Cohen's. Both argue for maximum residential
      > diversity on the grounds that people now have "housing careers."
      > In the old days, the argument runs, a person with a working-class
      > identity could live in "working-class housing." But today people
      > have housing careers that vary as much as their professional ones.
      > When they are young and not terribly bothered by noise, they might
      > choose small, functional places close to cultural attractions and
      > nightlife. They can move to larger, quieter ones when they have
      > families and then trade space for comfort when their children leave
      > home. Corbusier-style city planning shows no evidence of having
      > considered this. If you don't vary the housing units in a given
      > neighborhood - if you fill entire quarters of the city with
      > standard-issue monoliths - you condemn upwardly mobile people to
      > constant movement. The only people who develop any sense of place
      > are those trapped in the poverty they started in.
      > In the course of the October uprising, French observers called this
      > slum-based sense of place a "nationalisme de quartier." It is a
      > problem. Residents of some of the most dismal projects have often
      > proved unwilling to relocate, even when the government has promised
      > to move them into much nicer places. Perhaps they have grown
      > attached to their dangerous homes and neighbors. It is more likely
      > that they're leery about accepting the promises of any government
      > that once stuck them in such a depressing spot to begin with.
      > Christopher Caldwell, a contributing writer, has recently written
      > about Turkey for the magazine.

      Richard Risemberg
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