A newsflash: building better looking, marginally denser suburbs on greenfield sites outside of declining central-cities and older, inner-ring suburbs will not return those declining central-cities and older, inner-ring suburbs to their former glory. Neither will it do much to undermine the fantastically uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity that plagues almost all of our metropolitan regions, and neither will it reverse what decades of openly racist federal policies did to our nation’s African-American communities. It seems odd that Interboro should have to say such a thing, but after it watched “Inner City Blues” at the suggestion of a friend, it is reminded that it does. “Inner City Blues,” a documentary about how sprawl destroyed Detroit, is guilty of employing what we’ll call the “New Urbanism to the Rescue” narrative. Though it’s certainly (and unfortunately) not the only offender, “Inner City Blues” is one of the worst.
What is the “New Urbanism to the Rescue” narrative? As if to lure us in, it begins truthfully, noting, as “Inner City Blues” does, that though American cities once worked well, working as centers of business and commerce, after World War II, the implementation of the Veterans Administration, the Federal Housing Administration, and the Interstate Highway System split cities apart by abetting the flight of whites to suburbs, and put into motion a systematic cycle of disinvestment from cities. In the second half of the narrative, however, which will have a name like “Hope on the Horizon,” or “Turning the Tide,” strange things start to happen. What was five minutes ago a conversation about race, poverty, and the incredible bias of our federal government is suddenly a discussion about . . . granny flats! Are viewers supposed to let that pass?
NARRATOR: But there is [hope on the horizon] [evidene that the tides are turning]. A growing group of architects and urban planners, led by the husband and wife team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are remaking American cities in the name of New Urbanism, a movement . . .
DUANY: . . . why do you think Americans spend so much money at Disney World . . .
LOCAL PLANNER: The idea is to create smaller turning radii . . .
ARCHITECTURE DEAN: . . . and return [Detroit] [Cleveland] [Pittsburgh] to its former glory . . .
Of course, by this point in the narrative, all the black scholars (in “Inner City Blues” this includes June Manning-Thomas) disappear, as do the black people in the B-roll, which is of people rollerblading around places like Kentlands, MD, or Celebration, FL, where no black people live anyway.
This is really silly, and a little embarrassing, and Interboro isn’t necessarily even a New Urbanism basher. On the contrary, Interboro would be the first to acknowledge how sharp and persuasive Duany can be. In “Inner City Blues,” he makes a great point about the Disabilities Act, which insures “equal access” to buildings that 50% of Americans can’t access because they don’t have a car. Interboro’s point is that maybe even Duany, the biggest idealogue since Le Corbusier, wouldn’t go as far as some of his followers go.