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Retro City


Cyburbian Emeritus


From today’s New York Times, this article has been condensed.

January 4, 2004

The Retro City


What’s new in cities today isn't really new. Everything in our urban revival, from architectural styles and ornamentation to the very idea of neighborhood living itself - all of it is self-consciously and unapologetically derived from the past.

Today's cities copy those of 50 or more years ago because the 1950's was the last time cities had busy downtowns and strong neighborhoods. Their buildings were made almost entirely of brick, stone, wood and terra cotta. City residents displayed a certain sophistication, as movies of that era remind us. And cities played a dominant role - economic, cultural and political - in the life of the nation. All that came to an end in the late 50's, when cities fell into a long period of physical and cultural decay.

American cities will never again be as vital as they were during the first half of the 20th century. That is why cities are prime objects of nostalgia in our very nostalgic age. And what better way to modernize the objects of our nostalgia than by recreating old cities to attract large numbers of young professionals? Cities suffered for decades, after all, and lost middle- and upper-class residents. Renewal projects failed to improve them. They are shrinking parts of an expanding and increasingly dominant suburban society. And a growing number of affluent people now find suburbs boring or homogeneous. No wonder cities seem fresh, even exotic, and thus ripe for a nostalgic comeback.

This comeback can be impressive. Shoppers go downtown again. Local retail streets are lively. New skyscrapers look better than those built 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Industrial districts that were once decrepit and dangerous are now home to people with money to spend. For the first time in half a century, cities are in vogue.

They've become fashionable by adopting the fashions of earlier times.

City planners try to reinstate the past on a larger scale. The Redevelopment Agency of San Jose, Calif., claims to be fashioning its entire "downtown program after the San Jose of 1900-1950." Chicago completed what The Tribune calls a "turn-back-the-clock, retro remake" of its major downtown shopping street.

Cities everywhere restore dilapidated facades and store fronts. They renovate train stations and ferry terminals. San Francisco has even returned vintage trolleys to Market Street. It doesn't matter that those trolleys never ran in San Francisco. The goal is to make downtown look old, not to reproduce it accurately.

Wholesaling and manufacturing districts are similarly prized for their historical charm. Cities like to turn such districts into residential and office zones where, according to one planning agency, "historic structures have been preserved, providing glimpses into the area's past."

To that end, old factories and warehouses are restored and converted to other uses, while new buildings allude to the industrial past. They do this by using architectural motifs such as glass bricks, exposed I-beams, sheet-metal facades and galvanized steel railings.

RETRO skyscrapers, remodeled downtowns, old-fashioned baseball parks, new loft buildings that mimic old factories - all belong to an architectural school whose philosophy seems to be that copying something good beats inventing something bad. But if architects once used historical motifs to grace new architectural forms or express the sentiment of their times, as Cass Gilbert used Gothic to make the Woolworth Building into a modern cathedral of commerce, they now borrow older styles merely to conjure up an abstract sense of "history."

The result is an architectural plagiarism that's eclectic and imprecise, a hodgepodge of form and decoration that typically remains at the level of mere gesture: it lacks detail and seems to be saying, "Here is a symbol of a cornice" or "This is meant to indicate the setback style."

The few buildings that try to copy an older style exactly or mimic a neighbor precisely do so with modern materials. Instead of terra cotta, they use hard foam. Panels of brick substitute for brick walls. Otherwise faithful copies thereby betray themselves for what they are.

It may be strange to plagiarize old architecture, but it's stranger still to try to reproduce what one condo developer calls the art of city living. By this he means the urbanity we associate with American cities from the 20's to the 50's. He's selling a strong sense of neighborhood community, a short walk between your residence and a retail street, and the old-fashioned rapport between shoppers and shopkeepers.

He's also thinking of things like a neon martini glass hanging outside a chic club, a remodeled lounge in a boutique hotel that advertises itself as "a genuinely retro bar," and a "supper club" that, according to a San Francisco magazine, promises to "transport us to a time past when food, drink, and music was all enjoyed under one roof in a dimly lit, lounge-like atmosphere."

The self-conscious "art of city living" is what you find in gentrified neighborhoods and converted industrial districts. In keeping with the retro style, these areas preserve old things and make new things look old. Gentrifiers restore brick and stone, hang carriage lamps, refinish wood, and install new kitchens and bathrooms while retaining original molding, light fixtures and door knobs.

The ideal loft district or gentrified neighborhood centers on a pedestrian retail street that looks something like an old-time shopping avenue. Residents say they like small stores. A typical street has the retro bar and perhaps a new restaurant with an Art Nouveau interior. It will certainly have at least one eclectic club or lunch place that combines old wooden booths, new Deco-like lamps, and the inevitable film noir posters.

Ads for new lofts and newspaper articles about converted warehouses play up the "tradition" and "authenticity" of their "historic" districts. Loft residents clearly appreciate that history - but precisely as history: they like to see remnant rail spurs or, even better, the remains of an elevated freight rail like the one that runs through Manhattan's once grungy but now fashionable meatpacking district. They also like to see fading but legible names of old wholesalers still painted on the sides of their buildings.

If there aren't any old advertisements, developers now paint them on so they look old. It's a rather audacious bit of nostalgic overkill, but as with the Philadelphia streetcar in San Francisco, whether it's real or not has become irrelevant.

DESPITE all these retro forms, the culture of loft districts and gentrified neighborhoods resembles that of a suburban subdivision much more than an old city block. Newcomers to such areas want the look of the old city but the peace and quiet, and purely residential character, of a suburb. So they immediately encourage local officials to squelch the sounds, smells and movements of any manufacturers or wholesalers still in the neighborhood.

Sometimes they're even willing to ruin historical architecture for the sake of a suburban convenience. Think of the metal balconies that developers tack onto converted warehouses so residents can partake in the suburban pastime of grilling. Backyard grilling may well be the greatest invention of our suburban culture, but is it worth defacing beautiful brick facades for grilled salmon?

What lies behind all this residential development, of course, is the idea of "the neighborhood." A New York real estate broker described gentrifying blocks above 96th Street along Broadway as "just so 'neighborhood.' " Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles depict an "old neighborhood feeling" in gentrifying districts everywhere. Or they discover, as one recently did in the area around Madison Square Park, "a sense of community and shopkeepers who provide old-fashioned courtesies."

Merchants sometimes fly pennants on renovated retail streets to announce the neighborhood's name. Whether they've resurrected the old name or invented a new one like NoLIta, it's a self-conscious attempt to create a sense of neighborhood identity, something old neighborhoods never did.

But today's neighborhood is different from the older one that's supposed to inspire it. For one thing, gentrifiers and loft-dwellers live much less of their lives in their neighborhoods than those who lived there 50 years ago. Today, few mothers and children are around during the day. Many of those children go to schools outside their neighborhoods and, like their parents, tend to have most of their friends and most of their activities in other parts of the city.

Like a postwar subdivision, today's retro neighborhoods lack ethnic clubs, nearby in-laws or grandparents, and merchants who have watched a generation of youngsters grow up. They lack the culture that once provided city neighborhoods with a sense of continuity and identity, and forced people to develop ties over time, across generations, even across ethnic differences.

Loft districts and gentrified neighborhoods have been transformed so quickly, and by such similar kinds of people, that they are often as homogeneous, with respect to age, race, income and education, as a 50's suburb. Gentrifiers acknowledge this lack of diversity, and it's a painful admission because "diversity," after all, is what they say they like about the city.

A few will even tell you, as one told The San Francisco Chronicle, that they wish their neighborhoods had kept some of their "working-class charm." The phrase is telling, as if this charm were just another feature of the real estate, like water towers or exposed brick work, that might be preserved for the benefit of yuppies and their property values.

FOR real diversity in these neighborhoods, you have to look to the dogs. These neighborhoods tend to have more types of dogs than classes of people. It's true that people have always had dogs in cities. But the explosion in the number of dogs, the rise in the number of big dogs, the conviction of many owners that their dogs are entitled to "off-leash experiences" in city parks - all that expresses the suburban ideal of a dog in the yard.

The car in itself is not suburban. But it is suburban to expect your very own parking space in the city. Such an expectation means new and converted residential buildings must include a built-in parking space for each apartment, a requirement that turns the first floor or two of a building into a parking lot.

Parking is so scarce in some gentrified neighborhoods that people regularly park on sidewalks. As a member of a San Francisco neighborhood council put it: "There is a substantial age and experience divide on this issue. Those people who see nothing wrong with it are younger and more recent residents of the neighborhood, who bring a suburban sensibility to the city."

Bringing a suburban sensibility to the city: that's a good description of our urban revival.

It may be sad to see today's fashionable districts looking like 50's street scenes with the sleekest cars ever made replaced by S.U.V.'s, ethnic clubs taken over by retro bars, family pharmacies and hardware stores supplanted by national chains, children and parents who once sat on stoops displaced by dog-walking couples, and fedoras and New Look dresses traded in for sneakers, baseball caps and spandex running outfits. But perhaps the incongruity of suburban culture in city streets is simply the price you have to pay for preserving and re-creating the old forms of our cities.

And it's inevitable, anyway. Karl Marx said his times were about "the urbanization of the countryside." Cities were then starting to spread their machines, markets, money and modern culture across the land. By the 1950's, however, American cities were losing the vitality that had made them such forceful and creative places for nearly a century. American society today, Marx might say, is about "the suburbanization of everything" - including our retro cities.

Michael Johns, who lives in San Francisco, is the author of "Moment of Grace: The American City in the 1950's" (University of California Press).

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

* * *

The contention of the above article is that while we might be rebuilding the old city, we are using the old city as a kind of fashion statement to cover an ongoing infatuation with the suburban lifestyle, which we are importing into the city..

Just as likely, what the author calls the suburban lifestyle is actually today’s only lifestyle, except perhaps among the destitute working class of the Rustbelt. After all, times do change, as we are endlessly reminded on this Forum.

So, lest we forget, here is how it used to be (and can never be again), by someone who was there, together with all the rest who were living in a Film Noir world.

Some aspects of the pysical appearance of this world are being recreated all over this land by developers who have discovered pay dirt in it.

In some places it just vanished and needs to be made from scratch. In some places it survived, such as San Francisco’s Tenderloin (but there it really is pretty noir).

Its denizens include Sam Spade and Barbara Stanwyck.

It’s a place where you can find solitude and the meaning of life, in a cup of coffee. Especially at three in the morning.

Sunday morning, solitude follows you out into the street. What are all those people doing?


Circle Theatre

You can watch the world without being any part of it.


Room in New York


Sunday Morning

Glass had big panes in those days. It didn’t have to be insulated.


Chop Suey

Windows actually opened back then. There wasn’t any A/C.
Wonder if I should get dressed.


Eleven A.M.

Sometimes it seems so still that even the sun doesn’t move.


Morning Sun

Lots of people sitting in windows. That’s why there was a witness for every crime.


Room in Brooklyn

If you look out the window at night, mainly you see yourself.



Sometimes it seems like you can wait forever.


Hotel Lobby

The night had oases of light. Sodium vapor had not been invented. This made it easy to identify your mugger; you could see him when he stepped into the light. But there weren’t that many muggers. All those open windows…



You could travel for up to a block on the rooftops; many places, all the buildings were the same height.


City Roofs

Sometimes you think the evening will never end. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a movie.



If you arrive early, you can take a little snooze.


Two on the Aisle

Interesting letter.


New York Office

How come he never notices me?


Office at Night

If I wait long enough, maybe my prince’ll come. Or somebody will come.




The City

Is he going to ask?


New York Restaurant

One man’s view of the city, by the Mickey Spillane of oil painters.


Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Hopper appears every day on the trailers of Turner Classic Movies. He was one of the ones who taught us to see the city. I bet you can think of some others.

I don’t think you could sell anyone on the idea of living a 1940’s life in the full flower of its authenticity. Things change.
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An arresting, thought-provoking set of pictures, as usual.

So much sadness and dissonance in Hopper's paintings. Why are these people so serious? Its interesting to contrast this work with the Paris of Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Everyone seemed to be having such a great time in those cafes and nightspots.

See Photographer Robert Frank's book, "The Americans" first released in the 50's, I believe, for a similar view on that time in American urban life.

The kind of development that the article talks about I see as evidence of the Disneyfication and theming of America. Going for the "look" of an urban experience w/o the real experience. Its analogous to the many developers going for the Neo-traditionalist look w/o the planning sense behind it.


Great photoessay! You have certainly brought some new images to this board.

May I also suggest: www.urbanphoto.net. Another site that may appreciate your images, ablarc.

O/T (inspired by the Hopper paintings): Did anyone see the movie "Dark City" a few years back? Weird, somewhat silly at times sci-fi set in a great retro-gotham cityscape.


Mod Note: In the future, please summarize the article....don't cut and paste the entire article or even a "moderately" condensed version of it. Refer to the Cyburbia Rules regarding that. Thanks.


re: dark city

BKM said:
O/T (inspired by the Hopper paintings): Did anyone see the movie "Dark City" a few years back? Weird, somewhat silly at times sci-fi set in a great retro-gotham cityscape.

yes, i know exactly what you are talking about regarding dark city.

However, I can't remember what the movie was all about.


Unfrozen Caveman Planner
Staff member
I know exactly what the article's author was saying when the city revivial has one result of bringing the "suburban lifestyle to the city"

In the Lincoln Park neighborhood (think Boston Back Bay density) in Chicago there a ton of the 20 somethings demanding that they must have a car and drive for most things.

I agree about the all too common balconies on the converted factory building. I really dislike it and many times it simply becomes a collector of unused bikes and dirty plastic furniture.

I went from living in small town to urban city, but work in and for 'suburbia'. I am glad I have never lived in auto-dependent suburbia.


Cyburbian Emeritus
Planderella said:
Mod Note: In the future, please summarize the article....don't cut and paste the entire article or even a "moderately" condensed version of it. Refer to the Cyburbia Rules regarding that. Thanks.


I'll condense a whole lot more in the future.


Hopper is one of my favorite artists (I've got a mount of nighthawk in my bedroom) and I agree with much of what the article has to say.

I disagree about the balconies on warehouses complaint. One of my favorite things about comming into downtown Chicago is seeing all of the redevelopment projects, warehouses springing balconies among them. Balconies are great additions to these places, both for convenience of the person living there and the athetics of the building. Let's face it, a big, brick cube is hardly a historical architectual gem worth saving. It's a smart use of the building.