Monday, June 15, 2009

Razed in the U.S.A.

Being middle-aged in the place where you grew up and went to college has its pros and cons. On the one hand, you know all the good short-cuts during rush hour. On the other hand, when you run into people who look familiar, you have to run through a long litany of possibilities before you determine where you met them -- high school, college, work, neighborhoods, volunteer work -- pick one. Also, if you live in a place where fifty years is considered old, and buildings are considered to have the same disposability as a Kleenex, it can be highly disconcerting.

Here in Silicon Valley, I can drive down streets no more than a few miles from the neighborhood I grew up in and not recognize a single structure. Even the house I grew up in, which was new when my parents bought it during the 1950s, has already been razed and replaced by a McMansion (in stark contrast, the house in which my late mother grew up in Albany, New York, still stands).

This is why I have developed a simple rule for navigation. When you're giving me directions, don't tell me what to look for today. Tell me what was there 20 years ago, and I'll find it just fine.

But even this is becoming harder and harder to do. Some thirty years ago, in the city where I now live, the city fathers saw downtowns losing business to suburban malls. To avoid that, they simply razed most of the downtown, except for one historic block, and replaced it with a shopping mall. Problem solved, except that other nearby cities had built bigger and better-designed shopping malls. A few years ago, the mall went bankrupt, and now it’s been mostly torn down.

It's supposed to be replaced by the latest trend, a faux urban village with retail on the ground floor and housing and office space on the upper floors. And this has to be melded not only to the remaining historic block, but also to the anchor stores of the mall, which were not torn down because they represented too much tax revenue. It's unclear what this mélange is going to look like because the downturn has wreaked havoc with the downtown project. The project is way behind schedule and may already be doomed because, yes, San Jose has already done something like this much better with its Santana Row development.

And even while this project stumbles along, civic leaders in Santa Clara and San Francisco are arguing about who's going to build a new stadium for the 49ers. This would be to replace Candlestick Park, which is younger than I am. No word about what will happen to Candlestick, which was built for $15 million and has undergone two cycles of renovations, once for the same amount and then again for twice that amount. Even so, we're ahead of Seattle, which spent $67 million on the Kingdome, which it used for all of 24 years before imploding it.

This is not a paean to personal nostalgia. It's a rant against the disposability of structures. I am not suggesting that the world stay the same for my navigational benefit. I just wish we could more frequently apply the concept of "reduce, reuse, and recycle" to big things as much as we do to little things.


  1. I see a seat on a planning commission in your future.

    In the meantime, turn left where the House of Pies used to be, then right at the Palo Alto Times building.

  2. ah yes its the Calif, create, exploit, destroy...