Huffpost Arts
Milton Curry Headshot

Nixon in China and the American City: Radical Urban Revitalization Needed

Posted: Updated:
Print

The Metropolitan Opera's production of Nixon in China recalls a fervent period in American history when the ideals of one nation were placed in parallel with those of another nation: Maoist ideals versus American democracy and market capitalism. Scroll forward nearly 40 years and what is most contested now is how cities and metropolitan regions across the globe will efficiently and imaginatively serve their respective populations. As Nixon articulated a policy of urban renewal in speeches in 1960, 1969, and 1973 -- the period bracketing his 1972 excursion to China -- the Americas and the discipline of architecture are desperately in need of an urban agenda for metropolitan regions in the United States and South and Latin America.

The America of 2011 is similar to the America that Richard Nixon painted in speeches as vice president in 1960 and as president in 1969 and 1973 -- one in which the dominant ideology of suburban living has consumed the nation's political and economic imagination. Look no further than the mortgage crisis and the various appetites that it fulfilled -- the capital markets' disproportionate targeting of low income minorities for increased profitability, a nation hooked on the drug of ever-expanding square footage for home life that encapsulates its inhabitants, and the post-critical stance of the architectural discipline towards the problems of the contemporary city.

In his 1960 remarks at Forest Hills, President Nixon lamented the massive redistribution of purchasing power through the transfer of wealth to the suburbs, and the problems of multi-jurisdictional governance given the proliferation of new political districts. He also described the difficulty of city housing and the need for holistic policies to address large-scale urban development. Most importantly, even then in 1960, he emphasized the "metropolitan" region as the focus of innovative solutions. This is something echoed today by Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution as key to leveraging the economic dynamism of the United States' most dominant metropolitan areas anchored by cities.

In 1969 President Nixon, in the wake of numerous riots in 1968 and 1969, announced programs for the rehabilitation of urban areas damaged by riots. In 1973 President Nixon devoted his entire State of the Union speech (Part Message on Quality of Life in Cities and Towns) to the city. In it, he pronounced the American city largely on a comeback from rampant crime and substandard living conditions. More importantly, he supported residential diversity in suburban, urban and rural areas -- something quite distinct from his critique of suburban expansion in his speech of 1960.

The American City
As I enjoyed the quasi-fictional depiction of President Nixon's trip to China at the Metropolitan Opera, my mind wandered as to whether his excursion to foreign territory and his interest in accelerating America's ties with Asia also catalyzed his passivity towards the tumultuous transformations in his own country; just as President Clinton's premature overtures to China for expansive trade catalyzed income inequality at home in hopes of futural prosperity fueled by the prospects of global demand for American products from a growing and wealthier global consumer. In Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Newark, and many major cities the tide of suburbanization and the spigot of government-enhanced incentives for seemingly unstoppable expansion of suburban development could have been reversed and it wasn't. Instead, suburban growth continued and the residential expansion and subsequent population booms heralded a golden age of retail expansion and the invention of the shopping mall.

Now all of this may seem self-evident, except for the fact that we seem to be doomed to repeat our history. With suburban expansion finally stalling -- in part due to demographic shifts in baby boomers interest in moving back to the city and the financial meltdown affecting housing value -- the next frontier seems to include "new urbanist' communities that are marginally more compact than conventional suburban ones, a lack of variety in types of housing available to consumers, and continuing residential segregation by class and race.

Crisis of Architecture / Urbanism
The problem with architecture and urbanism today is its interest in a new autonomy garnered from quasi-scientific processes including but not limited to digital and data-driven design and urban analyses. Let me make a pitch for the re-integration of the humanities as a worthy partner for synthesis with design thinking -- particularly the disciplines of social theory, anthropology, cultural geography, area studies and philosophy. No, these don't have the allure of cutting-edge science, but what they do possess is a sustained engagement with human behavior. If we as architects are ever going to escape the trope that modernism was a failed social project we are going to have to re-engage these disciplines and address issues such as raciality, income inequality and residential segregation by class and race.

We have exported American-style capitalism, the American suburb, and many other virtues and values. Prior to exporting the latest American version of new urbanism or our answer to informal urbanization of the Global South (Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Mumbai), we should pause to understand the inherent inequalities and the embedded logics of race and class. By raising the discipline of architecture's capacity to negotiate these successfully at home, and allow a new consciousness of the intersections between race and class to inflect design with social science and social theory, than we can realize an enlightened sense of what is possible in South America and Latin America as they face many of the same challenges that our cities faced in the early twentieth century.

Modest Proposals
Presidential Council on Urban Development
As President Nixon tried to do, and as successive presidents have attempted through poverty tours, urban renewal, HOPE VI/public housing redevelopment, etc. the president needs to appoint a blue-ribbon commission or a permanent advisory body to the Department of Urban Development that examines best practices for radically increasing population density in America's top 15 metropolitan regions with an integrated purpose of achieving greater access to affordable housing, jobs and creative networks for the lower and middle class. The group should be comprised of architects, urbanists, academics, anthropoligists, engineers, philosophers and others -- anyone who can add value to the conversation. Research in social science on how to expand the black middle class could sit alongside architectural research on how to create housing typologies that could serve single mothers or the temporarily unemployed as well as the elderly couple who desire to engage in service learning.

Realignment of Capital Markets
The capital markets have produced financial securities that confound even their inventors. I have a simple idea -- invent a more direct way for taxpayers and individuals to participate in the value appreciation of properties and urban developments that benefit from tax incentives and other government-based incentives. As municipalities and states provided taxpayer funding for sports stadiums and other urban-scale projects, they gave away significant capital that is now sorely needed. Just as the Obama administration loaned and invested in capital markets and the automotive industries, why can't government incentives be translated into passive equity positions that allow this "patient capital" to achieve returns for taxpayers that get reinvested in public and social services.

Moratorium on Single-Family and Tract Housing Configurations
By singling out the single family home as a conveyor of individual wealth we have inflated its value as a social connector when in fact it is a social disconnector - separating the physical distance between strangers, alienating the wealth class from the poor, and creating "neighborhoods" that enforce stereotypes and social clichés. There are numerous examples from American architect Stanley Saitowitz, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and others of dense multi-family mixed-use developments with attention to creating varying degrees of privacy. Eliminating the government incentives for sprawl development, new urbanist developments that don't meet density thresholds would force the building industry and the political class to get serious about very dense compact urban living across cultural demographics and class demographics.

Incremental Achievements
Detroit, Newark, Mumbai, São Paulo and Mexico City are all at a crossroads as they deal with depopulation on the one hand and rampant population on the other. Seen as a starting point, the initiatives above would force us to deal with the real issues. Finding solutions to Detroit's and Newark's urban problems -- through design thinking -- can help in identifying the needs of informal urban communities in other contexts. Systematic commitment to new production logics for new housing prototypes and large-scale urban developments allow us to think anew about sunsetting the decades-long foray into suburban ways of life.