Monday, Jul 25, 2016
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Keith Burris

COMMENTARY

Lessons from the borough that sleeps

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My wife and I recently returned from New York City, where, along with our eldest son and our daughter, we attended the college graduation of our youngest son. The “ceremony” was the showing of eight short films, beginning with our son’s, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Our daughter teaches special-needs children at a public school in Brooklyn.

So, for several days, we were encamped in Brooklyn, and it got me thinking about cities and what makes them thrive.

Brooklyn, at the moment, is booming. Skyscrapers are replacing shops, homes, whole neighborhoods. Cranes and construction crews seem to be on every street corner. Two-bedroom, high-rise apartments sell for $1.5 million. The borough is now a haven for foodies and hipsters who look like refugees from SNL’s “Sprockets.”

When I wandered into Brooklyn about 15 years ago to see a stage version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at BAM, it seemed there were few places to eat, and fewer to stay. Our daughter once told me: “Brooklyn is not the city that never sleeps. Brooklyn sleeps.” She much prefers Brooklyn to Manhattan. I prefer Manhattan, but mostly because I know it. And it is beautiful.

Brooklyn was a tougher sell for me. It’s hard to get around and there is a lot of industrial ugliness. Still, it has heart — great, great heart. And it is still a place of neighborhoods and hardscrabble people.

Brooklyn sleeps less these days. There are hotels aplenty — at $350 a night. When the capitalistic fever rises, new wealth is created. But income inequality also increases. And community is sometimes destroyed.

But I think Brooklyn holds two lessons for us:

■ If you build on the water, they will come.

Water is a tremendous asset, and we have it. People like to live on, play on, and look at water. We (almost) can’t screw this up.

■ When a place develops a vibe, people want to live there.

Brooklyn’s vibe comes from the conversion of industrial space to creative space, and grime to grit. It comes from restaurants and clubs, social diversity, youth, and — this might seem odd — bikes. There are bike lanes everywhere.

We have all these elements in Toledo. We simply have to nurture them.

The two great urbanists of the past century were Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford. Both were renaissance people. Both had essentially literary minds, which they applied to the culture of cities. They agreed on the problem — sprawl. Mr. Mumford said suburbs are not only for children, but they are childish. But the two thinkers disagreed on the primary response. Miss Jacobs thought it should be freeing people and cities to their natural impulses. Mr. Mumford thought cities needed planning, preservation, and green spaces.

After her death, a eulogist wrote: “Ms. Jacobs’s prescription [for cities] was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.”

That’s Brooklyn today.

It could be Toledo.

Lewis Mumford wrote: “The physical design of cities and their economic functions are secondary to their relationship to the natural environment and to the spiritual values of human community.”

He wasn’t wrong either.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.

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