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Monday, April 6, 2009

The Dynamic American City (or..."Old Buildings Stand in the Way of Progress")

(Updated: Now with comments and minute marks)

These videos, obtained from, are a wonderful look into the mindset of circa 1956 modern planners and "city builders". They're also painful to watch. Dozens of cities' historic building stocks crumble, tumble, and fall before your eyes. Why? Because their lots are small and they're not new. Simple as that.

While a lot of what the narrator observes is "true", little attention is paid to the force of American public policy in shaping these realities. What is most striking, though, is the sheer confidence that starting over and building anew was naturally superior. There is almost a point in this video where you hear the crisis of modernism in the context of the city: the narrator must defend density as a part of urban life while simultaneously arguing that the previous way of urban life was deficient, outmoded, obsolete. Yet cities were more dense with their scores of small- and mid-scale architecture than they became, in so many American downtowns, when office towers and parking lots replaced whole blocks.

These must be watched to be believed.


0:00 - 3:49 - Introduction (rambling about how there are proven ways "to make your city better".

3:50 - The "Dynamic American City" documentary begins.

5:04 - "The American city is dense with a narrow lot pattern". Here there is an unbelievable row of homes, all identical, probably in Baltimore (?)

5:46 - "A question of importance therefore is: why did all city dwellers adjust their lives to narrow lots?"

6:25 - ..."Throughout most of the history of civilization, man has been dependent upon animals for transportation...Man built densely because of his reliance on horses. Having built densely, on narrow lots, we created many interesting and peculiar properties..."

7:55 - "We see a typical horse and buggy lot still remaining on one of the busy Radio City corners. Thus we see that the narrow lot pattern tends to endure and can exert its influence on the mightiest of our commercial developments. Indeed, the density of all real estate, wherever it exists, stems from the primitive horse and buggy plan..."

8:48 - "What a revolutionary power the Steam Engine brought! The Steam Engine made possible for the first time in history a release from the bondage of density."

9:45 - "We still have, and urgently need, rapid transit. But the old time trolley has all but passed with the horse."

11:08 - The automobile and electricity have thrust the nation into a state of competitive change.

12:20 - Shopping Centers taking over farms is great!

13:40 - The most powerful competitive force of all is the new shopping center with its landscaped mall...surely the most competitive force of new shopping centers is abundant space for free parking at the very door of outlying stores.


0:10 - "The problems of our cities are real, however, because of the heavy hand of old-fashioned design."

0:45 - There is a twofold problem: architectural obsolescence and narrow lot patterns.

1:06 - Compete with the suburbs by demolishing all of these obsolete structures on small lots and merge them!

1:17 - "Often the substance of our urban structures is such as to resist the power of the demolition hammer. As a people however we are steadfast as we tackle problems, and the hammer of demolition will be sure to swing with determination. In this jet age, events move fast...our progress is certain to be steady as we clear away the structures that block progress..."

1:20-8:00 - Cities are innovating by building parking garages, new office buildings, beautifying and modernizing commercial buildings, etc.

8:30 - St. Louis!

12:15 - The tallest building in America to be demolished for progress ("to start over")...

13:00 - We'll be seeing lots of demolition now. The continent has not yet reached its manifest destiny because cities will, and have to, be rebuilt.


Vanishing STL said...

Ironic and sad how it took only one generation to screw up our cities, yet it will take many to undo the damage that was done.

I love how the film completely contradicts itself by saying that the narrow lot developments are obsolete, yet they praise the construction of a new coop hi-rise on a 30' x 60' site and similarly praise the construction of the Ford Apartments here in STL, again a tall building on a fairly narrow lot with no setback.

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