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Gratz, Roberta B. Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998 (361 pp.). The disappointing aspect of this book is that Gratz really never addresses culture, heritage, art, history, museums, and their role in helping cities establish, preserve, and present a sense of place – even though that’s what many would argue they do. Her comments about cultural facilities are either platitudinous ("Cultural and leisure amenities . . . add immeasurably to the local’s importance and quality of life") or downright dismissive ("Convention centers, stadiums, aquariums, cultural centers, enclosed malls – these are about politics and development profitable for a few, not about developing local economies, enlivening downtown, or stimulating revitalization"). On the other hand, she is referring in that last comment to "big city projects," not the local museum or historical society, which, given the tone of her argument, one might think she would support as a product that does enliven communities. Still, it would have been helpful (for CHG, anyway) for her to address this topic more thoroughly. There is so much repetition of other topics, such as the negative effects of our car culture, that she might have edited that and focused more on organizations (not just businesses) whose function is the preservation of the sense of place she believes has disappeared from many cities (but is coming back, thus the title). That aside, there is much here to think about, even if one doesn’t agree with her conclusions. Gratz tends to present issues in black and white (urban=good, suburb=bad / small=good, big=bad / old=good, new=bad), and doesn’t allow much room for a "both/and" approach. Another problem for westerners is that so many examples are from the East, most notably her hometown of New York (SoHo in particular), and some of the principles she endorses are almost impossible to replicate in many western towns, which, like it or not, were created around the car. Still, her thesis is not that we can or should recreate mini-SoHo’s across America, but that engaged and caring citizens (not city planners) will bring life back to downtowns in their own way. Gratz provides many good and not-so-good examples of how to do that – mostly from the New Urbanist perspective and that of social observers like Jane Jacobs, although she is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all template. Reading Gratz’s book, one is struck by the fact that just about everything she says not to do to foster a healthy downtown is the path many western cities followed: wide, pedestrian-unfriendly streets; demolition of historical buildings; sprawling, anonymous suburbs; more and wider freeways; inadequate mass transit for the poor, but ample free or inexpensive parking for commuters; a manicured downtown intended for tourists, not residents or workers; boxy, homogenous super-centers consisting of the typical national franchises; indoor malls instead of street shopping; and a focus on "big, important" downtown projects (stadiums, conventions centers, indoor malls, mega-parking structures, office towers) at the expense of housing and small business, which, Gratz claims, are what gives a city character and life. CHG doesn’t agree with everything Gratz presents, but we hope more city planners in our region are at least considering the principles that underpin this book. For the most part, what our "experts" have been designing here since the ’50s hasn’t worked. We just need to remember to advocate for history and heritage as a part of the mix.


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