Antidote to gentrification

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Beacon Hill, in Boston. (Otis and Ahearn)

The other day, in “Mehaffy on ‘gentrification,” I posted on that sensitive subject, directing readers’ attention to a post by urbanist Michael Mehaffy, “Beware of Voodoo Urbanism,” on the blog Livable Portland. In a comment on my post, Steven Semes, the author of The Future of the Past and a leading architectural historian and preservationist at Notre Dame, described a solution to problems raised by gentrification. He wrote:

David, I have a contrarian theory that gentrification and mass tourism are predictable effects of modernist architecture. Gentrification doesn’t happen because historic preservation [limits] the supply of new housing. Rather it happens because modernist architecture and urbanism limit the supply of the kinds of environments people actually want. … If people everywhere could live in beautiful walkable neighborhoods, they wouldn’t have to displace poor people to find them, or spend millions of dollars going to Europe to find them.

This, in a nutshell, is the argument for new traditional architecture. Historic cities that have maintained their beauty through preservation are expensive because people want to live there. In too many historic cities, especially in America, preservation has limited itself to protecting a building here or there, with few if any historic neighborhoods able to thwart the invasion of modern architecture. Other cities are too recent to have much in the way of beautiful historic neighborhoods. What few they have are either way out of reach or so sunk in poverty that gentrification dare not try to take hold. (Remember that many of the people who benefit from gentrification are poor who happen to own and thus can sell old, dilapidated houses.)

Build more – and eventually many more – neighborhoods people like and the pressure on old houses in poor neighborhoods would decrease, while the prices of housing would not rise so fast in historic districts gentrified long before that word became a pejorative for change in cities.

Semes adds that historic cities around the world suffer from mass tourism because so many people seek to vacation in places that protect the beauty lost – or banned – in their own neighborhoods here in America. Venice is a good example. In my 2016 review of If Venice Dies, by Salvatore Settis, I wrote:

Historic cities are at risk because in the middle of the last century it became unfashionable to build beautiful cities that people can love. In many places, it became illegal. To the extent that more cities, towns and communities that people can love are built, to that extent the pressure on old historic cities – the surviving preserves of such admirable civic qualities – would be lifted.

Unfortunately, like many professional preservationists, Settis does not seem to agree. He understands that modern architecture threatens the “soul” of any historic city, but refrains from proposing new infill, neighborhoods or entire cities designed in traditional styles. Don’t assume that requires cities “step backwards” or become “museums.” New old styles can evolve into the future as if their interruption by modern architecture never happened. Lift the many legal and regulatory obstacles to new traditional architecture and – voila! – the problems of gentrification and of mass tourism will evaporate in relatively short order.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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