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New ideas like buildings people don’t want

There is a very common story that plays out in cities. It starts with an area that has seen disinvestment and is probably a little seedy and/or dangerous . This creates an environment where rents and real estate as a whole are relatively inexpensive. New, cool and creative businesses start to move in (attracted by said inexpensiveness) and the area begins to turn around. Eventually it becomes suitable for institutional-type investors, and this ultimately leads to everything becoming expensive as a result of demand outstripping supply. Gentrification complete.

The great irony of this story is that you sometimes, or oftentimes, lose the very things that made the area cool and interesting in the first place. Here is an example from Miami:

The result has been a property speculation boom that, when combined with the city’s relatively low wages, put many businesses and residents on the street. Asking rents for industrial space, for instance, went up by 53 percent in the last year alone. Nobody can afford to buy, let alone rent, adequate space for a music venue because so much land has been snapped up by outside investors with a predilection for grand, “world-class urban” designs

And for some areas, it is arguably the result of a careful and deliberate plan that was put in place nearly two decades ago:

Teele’s commissioner district in the early 2000s included both Park West and the historically Black neighborhood of Overtown. At the turn of the millennium the area was blighted and crime-ridden thanks to years of racist, regressive policy decisions from segregation to redlining. His plan was simple but incredibly effective. He spearheaded a campaign to revitalize the area by granting a limited number of 24-hour liquor licenses to clubs like Space. Dozens of venues rose up on and around 11th Street, including vast, multi-room clubs like Metropolis, live venues like Studio A and Grand Central, and more intimate spots like Vagabond. Sporadic police raids also gave the area a druggy, dangerous reputation, inadvertently raising its allure. 

This reoccurring arc has led some people to conclude that cities and/or areas seem to want to follow a kind of binary outcome: they’re either dying or they’re too successful. Why can’t we just have urban homeostasis? I don’t think this is necessarily always the case. Cities go through cycles just like any other market. I also know that it’s complicated. But I do feel strongly that we need to be mindful that part of what makes cities such wonderful places is that they are factories for new ideas and creativity.

I can’t remember when or exactly how he said it, but YouTuber Casey Neistat once described New York City as an incredible island (Manhattan?) where misfits from all over the world come to do whatever the hell they want. And that part of the reason for this is that nobody cares what you do, because everyone is just so damn busy. You could certainly argue that New York isn’t what it used to be. But the lesson here remains the same: Cities are at their best when they allow humans to create, build, experiment, and express themselves.

And oftentimes a great place for that is in a space that nobody else wants.

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