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'Authenticity' and 'grit' versus 'sterile' and 'overplanned'

Maister

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Many of you looked at the thread about the Villages. Comments by fellow planners about this Disney community in Florida included terms like "sterile", "Stepford Wives" and "over-planned." Looking at the photos it's clear the place is very clean, then again, it's also brand spanking new. Something tells me, though, it will continue to look new and feel new for many years to come. And I will concede I too find the place has a certain artificiality about it.....it's missing grit. It's not authentic.

We talked about grit several years ago and while we never settled on a definition, think it would be fair to say it refers to a certain quality of wear in the built environment that comes with repair/disrepair resulting from use and re-use. Do you think terms like sterile and over-planned are justified in describing the Villages? Are my (and others) rust belt biases judging unfairly here?

What do you think is the difference between grit and sterility in the built environment?

 
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MacheteJames

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I think grit is dependent as much on location and climate as it is on the age of the built environment. Grit in the Sunbelt and grit in the Rust Belt will never look the same. Even when there is an older building stock, palm trees are difficult to reconcile with what I think of as grit. Gritty areas in the Sunbelt (take South Florida, for instance) tend to have an almost third world feel to them and are typically home to the working poor, whereas gritty places in the urban northeast can very often house a middle class or even quite affluent population. Take Park Slope, for example.

I guess grit is a bit like the definition of porn that is often used - you know it when you see it.
 

mendelman

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I think age and not keeping a place scrubbed clean get to "grit". I'm with Machete on this - know when I see it and depends on geographical context.

Actually, I know the "grit" well in the second photo since I took it. It's a collector corridor in the southern half of the Village of Oak Park, IL (first ring Chicago suburb).

It is also an example of Machete's idea that grit and household income aren't necessarily tied.

The Villages picture is simply a newly constructed place mirroring the scale, building style and pedestrian oriented urban design of many existing old city/town centers. But it looks fake and sterile because it was all built at "once" as opposed to the construction and development of many existing original centers.
 

Maister

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I hear what both of you are saying with regard to regional differences in 'grit' and that one can instinctively identify it when they see it or are around it. In defense of homers everywhere I would submit it's no accident that many may subconsciously favor a gritty built environment to a sterile one. An authentic town is a place where people actually live, and in order to collect the patina of wear necessary to qualify as grit it pretty much takes a few generations. At some level we must recognize this and tend to trust a community that's managed to change, grow, and transform over the span of many years - there's a reason for its continuity.
 

DVD

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I hear what both of you are saying with regard to regional differences in 'grit' and that one can instinctively identify it when they see it or are around it. In defense of homers everywhere I would submit it's no accident that many may subconsciously favor a gritty built environment to a sterile one. An authentic town is a place where people actually live, and in order to collect the patina of wear necessary to qualify as grit it pretty much takes a few generations. At some level we must recognize this and tend to trust a community that's managed to change, grow, and transform over the span of many years - there's a reason for its continuity.
I agree that a community needs to take over a place for it to have that lived in feel. Just my perception, but when you build a place like the villages it has the necessary physical elements, but it still looks sterile until locals start to customize it in their own way which takes longer in a commercial development. If you think of tract housing, people will alter the homes and landscaping so that after say 50 years it's harder to recognize similar homes (harder - not impossible). You also need to build those local connections like the things Jane Jacobs was talking about. Everyone in the place is new so they have no personal connection and people going to the stores are often from outside the community because you don't get enough personal services like barbers, grocery stores, and my favorite cigar store.
 

Dan

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A thread after my own heart. I've posted before about how residents of my Rust Belt hometown are obsessed with the concept of "authenticity" in local culture and the built environment. On the surface, it seems like "authentic" is a term used to put a positive spin on cultural stasis or backwardness, grit, and a shopworn built environment, making those traits good. The thinking seems to go that the past was a simpler time, where things "just were" with little thought given to polish, intentional appeal to specific demographic groups, self-referential meta, and the like. Products were sold, not marketed. People participated in a certain activity because they enjoyed it, not because they thought it was hip or cool. The more of those traits of the past that are found in local culture and the built environment, the more "authentic" a certain segment of the population will perceive it.

At first, one might think authenticity comes with age. However, many Rust Belters I know who have visited Denver, a city where I lived for several years, tell me they thought it was "fake", "plastic", "not real", and the like. Yet, many Denver's urban neighborhoods are just as old as anything found in the Rust Belt. Why? I think it comes down to polish, Denver is an old city, but it's a very polished city. Municipal branding is slick, contemporary, and standardized, as is wayfinding signage. Medians are landscaped. Curbs and gutters are free of weeds and litter. Business signage tends to be professional and well-designed, even for local mom-and-pop operations. Indie restaurants put a lot of attention into slick decor, menus, meal presentation, and the like. Indie businesses often feel like they're a part of a larger chain. Many buildings may be old, but they appear fresh and well-scrubbed, as if they were built just a few years ago. There's a lot more about Denver and its suburbs that seems contrived and deliberate, for lack of better words. That kind of deliberateness and attention to detail is far less common in Rust Belt cities and suburbs.

An example: here's a scene from the West Highlands neighborhood in Denver, where I used to live. This is more-or-less the norm for the city.





Here's a couple of scenes from Hertel Avenue, in Buffalo's up-and-coming, bidding war-happy North Park neighborhood. There's some parts of Buffalo that might resemble the Denver scenes above, but for the most part this is representative of Buffalo's commercial streetscape.





Let's say I was going to open a typical restaurant in Denver. To get anyone through the door, I'd need an hip name, appealing decor, and a unique menu. It's not just the food that would matter, but the complete dining experience - atmosphere, presentation, and background music among other things. I'd have to hire a consultant to help with the name and marketing, a graphic designer for signage and printed materials, an interior designer for the decor, a professionally trained/educated chef for the menu, and a sommelier for the wine list. The place would have a name like "Flow", "heat", or "Cucina 212". It's all very deliberate and carefully thought out, and in the eyes of someone from the Rust Belt, the result can seem fake and plastic.



Now, let's say I want to open a typical restaurant in Buffalo. My name is ... oh, Rocco Marino. The location is on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore. There's the name - "Rocco's Del-Mor Restaurant" if you want to go old school, or just "Marino's" if you want to keep it simple. I'm going to buy a bunch of tables, stacking chairs, and tablecloths from Buffalo Hotel Supply, and throw some old family photos and Bills paraphenalia on the wall. The menu is going to be the same as the hundreds of other Italian restaurants in the area, because it's a proven formula; after all, there's a good reason why there's hundreds of Italian restaurants in Buffalo. The recipes are from mom, grandmothers, and aunts. The wine list includes mostly familiar brands and varietals. Your buddy made the sign out of a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood, and used Brush Script because his wife Joanne thought the font was "classy", Here's the result:



What restaurant looks more "authentic" to you? Where do you think you'd enjoy a better meal? Why? A typical Rust Belter and non-Rust Belter would probably offer up much different answers to these questions.
 

wahday

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Another word I think describes the feeling we are discussing is “patina.” I am a big fan of Christopher Alexander and his “Pattern Language” model of building places. I think his work also dovetails nicely with Kevin Lynch, and particularly his book “What Time is this Place?”

Lynch’s premise is that great places reveal and layer evidence of the past rather than erase it or gloss it over. People like to feel connected to history and the passage of time. It roots us in place. And it doesn’t matter if you or your family are directly linked to that history. Being able to engage with it through elements of the built environment is enough to give people that gratifying feeling of living somewhere of significance. So, he advocates marking time evident within the built environment in numerous ways.

When I see a house converted to a restaurant, I think about the house, who lived there in the past, how it came to be converted to a commercial use. I look at the evidence in the space for this conversion and evidence of its past. Strangely, bathrooms are some of the most revealing spaces for this kind of history. Pipes running in weird directions, commercial restroom requirements jammed into a space that was originally designed for residential use, all reveal this layered history. Its also a great way to pass the time while you wait for your food to arrive...

Alexander talks a lot about the accretion of patterns that replicate themselves or have some kind of internal consistency at all scales. From the windowsill to the neighborhood layout. This can be a conscious strategy, but just as often it happens independent of conscious intention. These patterns tend to replicate themselves more intensely over time as a built place is worked over by generations of users.

The other side of this is that things have to be built new at some point. But are the mechanisms in place to allow these places to acquire patina over time? Will The Villages ever become gritty? That’s kind of a key question to creating this rich, varied and textured environment that seems to appeal to people. There has to be some allowance for changing uses and demands of people over time or it will remain sterile.

Dan, I don’t think your perspective is uniquely Buffalo or Rust Belt. I think a lot of people share those feelings and a lot of the photos you have posted of funky areas there look to me like Austin, for example. That is a place that has seen a LOT of new development but still embraces grit. But as a native of Philadelphia, I do loves me some industrial city grit and grime. Would I feel different if I had grown up in Irvine CA or Plano, TX? I don’t know…
 

mendelman

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Bringing up Lynch and Alexander are great for this discussion, wahday.

Layering as a physical manifestation of a place's history is something I love to see and get saddened when it's wiped away in the name of progress or "restoration".

Here is a picture from Buffalo, NY that exemplifies this concept (as Dan shows upthread):



Dan's photos of Buffalo really capture this well. It seems Buffalo is prolific with this type of layering.
 
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Cardinal

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I prefer something between Buffalo and Denver. While Denver is clean and restored, it is also significantly altered. Preservation is a term used loosely. That two story commercial building from 1890 now has a penthouse condo on top, or a new facade not much like the original. The house that was next door? Maybe in Buffalo it would be converted to a restaurant, but in Denver it was torn down and a new building put in its place. And what is with that awful California modern architecture everywhere? On the other hand, Buffalo, gritty is not always good. Sure, it becomes part of the charm if you have a real gem of a restaurant or shop, but for the everyday variety, it is simply dirty, unmaintained, and cheap looking.
 
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Zoning Goddess

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Actually, I know the "grit" well in the second photo since I took it. It's a collector corridor in the southern half of the Village of Oak Park, IL (first ring Chicago suburb).
And it looks like every single episode of HGTV in Toronto. You guys decry"cookie cutter" subdivisions in the South, but your cities all look the same! And they're ugly and have no yards. But that makes you feel superior? Yet we post pics of first ring suburbs "in the south" that are much more attractive and we get dissed.

Many of you looked at the thread about the Villages. Comments by fellow planners about this Disney community in Florida
Disney had nothing to do with the Villages. You guys have no clue or what????
 

mendelman

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Moderator note:

And it looks like every single episode of HGTV in Toronto. You guys decry"cookie cutter" subdivisions in the South, but your cities all look the same! And they're ugly and have no yards. But that makes you feel superior? Yet we post pics of first ring suburbs "in the south" that are much more attractive and we get dissed.


Disney had nothing to do with the Villages. You guys have no clue or what????
Alright....this is enough. You need to calm down!

I was not bashing the South with my post and neither was anyone else.
 
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Richmond Jake

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Moderator note:

I was not bashing the South with my post and neither was anyone else.
I don't see any "bashing" of the South. However, one can acknowledge the stage was set for a (maybe not so) subtle criticism of the South, Florida in particular, with Maister's selection of the picture from The Villages that we posted.

BTW, I have no objection with the use of our pictures for compare and contrast discussions.

Care on. :wine:
 

dw914er

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But as a native of Philadelphia, I do loves me some industrial city grit and grime. Would I feel different if I had grown up in Irvine CA or Plano, TX? I don’t know…
Perhaps. Since I grew up in southern California, where many cities just do not have the kind of grit you see in rust-belt areas, the Florida and Denver examples seems more appealing to me. I think the gritty areas are cool, but the sterile and clean environments seem more like home.
 

Richmond Jake

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Perhaps. Since I grew up in southern California, where many cities just do not have the kind of grit you see in rust-belt areas, the Florida and Denver examples seems more appealing to me. I think the gritty areas are cool, but the sterile and clean environments seem more like home.
Thank you for your comment. I guess we're anti-planners. :r:
 

Rygor

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Some might say that what is called "grit" is also a synonym for "old and dirty". Someone mentioned "patina", and I do think that age changes a place and make it feel more "real" to others perceptions. Older cities are going to have a lot more of this, and especially places with harsher climates where decades of snow, salt, and freeze-thaw cycles take their toll. There ARE parts of Denver that are like this, such as parts of Colfax Ave, up-and-coming Park Hill, and neighborhoods that are certainly less trendy than the Highlands neighborhood that was shown as an example. Maybe not quite to the sense of an old, quaint Buffalo neighborhood, but there nonetheless. In a city in the South or the Southwest (like Phoenix where I live currently) that feeling is not going to be there as much. You don't have the cold, or the big old mature deciduous trees, and the generations of families that have lived in the same neighborhood for decades and made it their own. You also have a very different feel overall because most of those cities are less dense as they didn't really grow in a time before automobiles. Density has a major part to play in the feel of those "gritty" places, and it just so happens that most of those denser, older neighborhoods are in the Northeast and Midwest.
 

DetroitPlanner

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Perhaps. Since I grew up in southern California, where many cities just do not have the kind of grit you see in rust-belt areas, the Florida and Denver examples seems more appealing to me. I think the gritty areas are cool, but the sterile and clean environments seem more like home.
In SoCal all of the grit is in the air... err marine layer!
 

Seabishop

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Think about how silly it would look if the developers of a new village scale development like The Villages tried to make it look "gritty." For decades planners have been complaining that developers don't build mixed use, village scale developement but then when they do we decry that they're not as authentic as historic urban areas. These are not really historic areas and shouldn't be expected to look like them.

Maybe as a lifelong northeasterner, I've had enough grit in my life. In my opinion, many of the purists who love grit also don't live in its midst. They live in suburbs or swankier urban neighborhoods where grit can be appreciated at appropiate levels. In so many urban neighborhoods "grit" has crossed the line into "blight" and neglect.

Where the sterility comes in to me is the single corporate ownership. The "village as shopping mall" model doesn't allow for quirky changes and uses in individual buildings as does a real village and also includes no truly public spaces.
 
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DVD

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Think about how silly it would look if the developers of a new village scale development like The Villages tried to make it look "gritty." For decades planners have been complaining that developers don't build mixed use, village scale developement but then when they do we decry that they're not as authentic as historic urban areas. These are not really historic areas and shouldn't be expected to look like them.

Where the sterility comes in to me is the single corporate ownership. The "village as shopping mall" model doesn't allow for quirky changes and uses in individual buildings as does a real village and also includes no truly public spaces.
I have to agree, individual ownership is what makes a place special. It's the guy who adds to his building or paints it different that gives the area some character.
 

ColoGI

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I have to agree, individual ownership is what makes a place special. It's the guy who adds to his building or paints it different that gives the area some character.
As long as the designs are varied, the area is walkable, and there is adequate vegetation, the place will be OK. Not much you can do beyond that IMHO.
 

H

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Perhaps the more important visual in the two pictures to start the thread are blue skies and palm trees versus grey skies and snow.

...I like authentic as much as the next urban planner, but will take the nice day any day. Life is short. Shoveling snow is terrible.
 

mendelman

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Perhaps the more important visual in the two pictures to start the thread are blue skies and palm trees versus grey skies and snow.

...I like authentic as much as the next urban planner, but will take the nice day any day. Life is short. Shoveling snow is terrible.
Shoveling snow is rough, but hurricanes and sinkholes aren't great either.

Every place has environmental weather pluses and minuses.
 

ajdavis

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Shoveling snow is rough, but hurricanes and sinkholes aren't great either.

Every place has environmental weather pluses and minuses.

Not to mention unbearable heat and horrific humidity....Tampa native....I'm ready too leave 300 days of scorching summer a year.
 

Linda_D

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Think about how silly it would look if the developers of a new village scale development like The Villages tried to make it look "gritty." For decades planners have been complaining that developers don't build mixed use, village scale developement but then when they do we decry that they're not as authentic as historic urban areas. These are not really historic areas and shouldn't be expected to look like them.

Maybe as a lifelong northeasterner, I've had enough grit in my life. In my opinion, many of the purists who love grit also don't live in its midst. They live in suburbs or swankier urban neighborhoods where grit can be appreciated at appropiate levels. In so many urban neighborhoods "grit" has crossed the line into "blight" and neglect.

Where the sterility comes in to me is the single corporate ownership. The "village as shopping mall" model doesn't allow for quirky changes and uses in individual buildings as does a real village and also includes no truly public spaces.
Pretty much. Twenty years of living in dense, mixed use areas of Buffalo, NY and Troy, NY, cured me of wanting to live in that kind of area. I would never ever consider living in an apartment/condo in a mixed use neighborhood again. Give me a quiet residential neighborhood of single family homes on 50-80 foot lots with driveways, street lights, and sidewalks in a small town to middle sized city or in a suburb any day.
 

ColoGI

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Pretty much. Twenty years of living in dense, mixed use areas of Buffalo, NY and Troy, NY, cured me of wanting to live in that kind of area. I would never ever consider living in an apartment/condo in a mixed use neighborhood again. Give me a quiet residential neighborhood of single family homes on 50-80 foot lots with driveways, street lights, and sidewalks in a small town to middle sized city or in a suburb any day.
I think I've lived in every kind of housing type there is, somewhere in the world. Except for a high-rise but I had a GF in Manhattan who did, so maybe that counts.

Anyway, I'm with you. My favorite was a SFD on 1/4 acre where I could garden and have BBQs and yard parties. This lot now is 8000 sf and I'm about out of projects to do.
 
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