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  #1  
Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 9:52 PM
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Why Did America Destroy Its Great Cities? (Commentary)

Why Did America Destroy Its Great Cities?


8/2/11

By Frank Gruber



Read More: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-..._b_916438.html

Quote:
.....

What I'm asking is why, not how. There is a vast literature about urban renewal, suburban sprawl, the building of the freeways, the relocation of jobs out of cities into suburbs and exurbs (and out of the country), etc., but that work is about how the cities were destroyed. Little has been written about the causes of the destruction, yet I suspect that in 50 years that will be the question that attracts the interest of historians.

- They will want to know why Americans allowed their cities to become replicas of bombed-out cities in Europe or Japan, why they bulldozed good housing stock or let it burn, why they tore down substantial downtown buildings and replaced them with parking lots, why they ran freeways across and through stable neighborhoods and valuable real estate, why they bankrupted municipal governments and allowed great school systems to fall into disarray, why they drove middle-class residents out and enticed them to leave.

- I don't purport to have definitive answers, but in considering the question, I've identified certain "suspects," certain factors that could have contributed. In no particular order, and without claiming this list is exhaustive or definitive:

Cultural bias against the city.

In Europe during the same period of economic and technological change cities largely retained their primacy for the middle and upper classes, while the suburbs became the home of the working-class and poor. In the U.S., the single-family house in a faux rural setting became the norm for the middle-class, and even in metropolitan areas that remained relatively prosperous the middle-class largely abandoned central cities. To say that suburban sprawl happened because of favorable governmental policies only begs the question why those were the policies. Did they reflect a bias against cities, rooted in Jeffersonian rural populism?

Changing demographics and racial dynamics.

Can urban destruction be separated from the rural revolutions (and federal agricultural policies and practices) that sent black farmers to the cities? Or the changes south of the border that sent Mexican peasants to American cities? Many destructive policies were a direct response to these migrations. Prior to World War II, American cities had absorbed wave after wave of immigrants, going back to the Irish in the early 19th century. Each wave was discriminated against, but the cities, and ultimately the immigrants, flourished. Were our cities destroyed because of racism?

Changes in transportation or other technologies, in particular the impact of the automobile.

Many of the more obvious physical manifestations of the destruction of cities are the freeways and the parking lots that replaced so much of the productive urban fabric. Equally dramatic was the relocation of jobs away from ports and railheads to freeways and airports. Yet although America led the way in "automobilization," there are by now many societies around the world that have accommodated mass ownership of cars without destroying their old cities.

Capitalism.

As argued in the anti-gentrification writings of Neil Smith (The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City), urban decline through disinvestment should be seen as an expected outcome of capitalism. But then the question is why America, unlike other capitalist societies, did not choose to allocate, or failed in allocating, resources to counteract urban disinvestment.

A failure in politics, ideology or management.

..... The long-term lure of the frontier. Instead of particular causes that arose in the 20th century, might the destruction of the cities be the result of the acceleration and culmination of the long-term movement in the U.S. of capital -- in search of cheaper labor and land -- from the East and North to the South and West (and now overseas)? (This would still beg the question why the U.S. has had a "throwaway" economy.) I am sure there are other possible causes worth consideration and study. Whatever the causes, there are more than historical reasons to understand why America destroyed its cities. Many cities have mounted counter-attacks over the past three decades against urban destruction and at times these have been at least somewhat successful. Hopefully these trends are accelerating. But I suspect that it would help understand what needs to be done to revive cities if we understand better the causes of their destruction.

.....
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  #2  
Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 10:02 PM
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in general, americans are really, really bad at sharing. human beings in general are bad at sharing, but americans take it to a whole other level. then throw racial paranoia into the mix, and the desire to share plummets even further. cities cannot be healthy, functioning places unless the citizenry buys into the notion of a public sphere and the idea that on some level "we're all in this together". once those foundational elements began to crumble, american cities were fucked.
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Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 10:08 PM
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there is absolutely a cultural and racial element to that that can't be ignored... but perhaps that's also just the fate of a new world country once it hits a certain population.
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Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 10:21 PM
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[QUOTE=Steely Dan;5367983]in general, americans are really, really bad at sharing. QUOTE]

+1

The U.S. is probably the most individualistic major society the earth has ever known, and as soon as cars & expressways allowed us to flee to the burbs and not have to share walls, fled we did. And I agree that racial politics accelerated this trend, no doubt.
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Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 10:22 PM
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Places just get "used up" and the US has always had plenty of room to build new places to "use up".

Manifest Destiny, my friends... in all its different forms. Once we all got cars and highways after WWII, Manifest Destiny was made that much easier.
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  #6  
Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 10:30 PM
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Trains first connected the country for transport and commerce, but it didn't prompt suburbs at the time.
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Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 10:37 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by M II A II R II K View Post
Trains first connected the country for transport and commerce, but it didn't prompt suburbs at the time.
nonsense. chicagoland is dotted with dozens upon dozens of prewar commuter rail suburbs that sprang-up in the late 19th/early 20th centuries along the many rail road lines that radiated outwards from the city. post-war "automobilization" merely exacerbated and accelerated a process that was already in full-swing.
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Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 11:13 PM
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The fact that we constantly preach about how American's are pessimistic and will never buy into city-living is the exact problem.

If you tell yourself that you're all these bad things, after a while, you'll come to believe them.

Why not talk about the advances toward making city-living more fun, exciting, and healthy? That's the kind of stuff that gets people excited and interested in living in cities.
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  #9  
Old Posted Aug 3, 2011, 11:22 PM
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^It isn't that we tell ourselves that, it is that the entire marketing machine relating to housing, transportation, and our centers of job creation have centered life around a suburban model. No urban center seriously grows in an urban direction these days in America. Even "urban growth" darlings like Portland are intensely suburban on the whole. The difference is, in Portland, the entire metro region has transit that reaches the more walkable, planned single family homes that reside out in Hillsboro or Gresham, whereas most cities could care less about transit investments in those outer suburbs... Single family homes are just the thing to have in American society. To admire living in condos or flats is a foreign concept here, or for the less well off.

The 'problem' with America and urbanity is that Americans have identified living in an urban setting without your detached single family home to be of a lesser class of people, to be less established, to be less of a human being. American identity at it's core is not going to change, it is how our society has functioned since the beginning. If you want an urban lifestyle, there are a few choices. We have New York and Chicago and San Francisco (and these are truly grand, world class cities), but the costs are very prohibitive generally speaking.

There are no real "second tier" urban centers in America. I love Portland to death, I even lived there from 2007-2008 before I moved back east to Pittsburgh that fall. But even cities like Portland are largely a sea of suburban single family homes with a small village in the center and a few new urbanist dots along the outside. It isn't what I'd call truly urban, so America really doesn't have many second tier cities that offer the same urban experience you could get even in a city of 300,000 in Europe. We are forced to move to the most expensive cities to get that real, genuine active urban lifestyle.

America is what it is... It isn't pessimism to call a spade a spade, especially when most Americans enjoy this suburban and exurban lifestyle. There is nothing more cool for *most* Americans than buying a hot new car and a new house. We're the misfits in a nation of suburbia on SSP, keep that in mind.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 12:44 AM
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Add another variable: mobility. Due to historical circumstances (e.g., immigration, migration, "go West", etc.), and relative lack of stickiness, American society is perhaps the most mobile on earth, ever. 1 in 5 Americans move each year. Many people do not expect to stay rooted very long in a single place. It is extremely easy to move. So why would they want to invest in long-term solutions? Just haul stakes and move to...California. Vegas. North Carolina. Texas.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 1:15 AM
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I highly doubt its that easy to move. I've been trying to leave Arizona for years to no avail.
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  #12  
Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 1:33 AM
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Sadly
Quote:
We're the misfits in a nation of suburbia on SSP, keep that in mind.
Truth

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Originally Posted by Buckeye Native 001 View Post
I highly doubt its that easy to move. I've been trying to leave Arizona for years to no avail.
We are a highly mobile culture compared to most societies. This is actually I believe one of the largest reasons why we let our grand urban cities decay, the younger generations left the cities of the rust belt where most likely their families resided for generations and after this mass exodus, there was a general lack of care for these cities just due to the fact that people didn't have multi-generational ties to their homes anymore.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 1:40 AM
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I think to a large degree it just snuck up on us. It sounded and looked nice. That first ring of new development around the city wasn't so bad at all. Not too many new roads and you could still easily get to the city and enjoy what it had to offer. But then with a bit more, the city started to struggle, the trendy strip malls and suburban homes started looking nicer. And by then we had created a very enticing new dream that led us ever outward with a vengance.

As a case in point, Tulsa was originally modeled after the European ideal. At the turn of the century the rich Oil Barons wanted to show off and create a classic, world class city that they could be proud of with grand theater palaces, majestic skyscrapers, Iitalianate Villas, Ballet, Opera, fountains, Cathedrals, etc. They even had plans for a Ponti Vecchio style bridge crossing the river. We had some of the highest population densities in the US, more buildings of 10 stories or more than any other city our size, we were called the most beautiful city in the US. You would have thought that would have been a nice model to keep and build up.

BUT...looking back at Tulsa in the 50s you could see there was this great exuberance and energy for the modern. We could rip it all down and rebuild shiny and new. And why not? Money was no problem and that shiny new, clean lined future we saw in the magazines and on TV was so fun and enticing looking "The World of Tomorrow!". We need to be a part of that and not fall behind. So with exciting fanfair we ripped out our core left and right building the future. We couldn't see, and didn't care to ponder, the real consequences of continuing in that direction over a long period of time. It was only afterwards, when the shiny dream turned middle age, that many began to realize that things weren't all they were cracked up to be. There was indeed something good that we had left behind, and eternal sprawl had some serious headaches.

Now we are faced with looking at both models, urban and suburban and trying to work out a new paradigm. We are trying to create a new dream, or set of dreams, both of which contain some difficult new realities and challenges. We can't only continue the usual sprawl, but its a model we know oh so well, and will keep plying it, for its "the devil we know". And the city core now has the added difficuty of having to take into account the automobile and a different set of lifestyle expectations and habits.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 3:21 AM
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^It isn't that we tell ourselves that, it is that the entire marketing machine relating to housing, transportation, and our centers of job creation have centered life around a suburban model. No urban center seriously grows in an urban direction these days in America. Even "urban growth" darlings like Portland are intensely suburban on the whole. The difference is, in Portland, the entire metro region has transit that reaches the more walkable, planned single family homes that reside out in Hillsboro or Gresham, whereas most cities could care less about transit investments in those outer suburbs... Single family homes are just the thing to have in American society. To admire living in condos or flats is a foreign concept here, or for the less well off.

The 'problem' with America and urbanity is that Americans have identified living in an urban setting without your detached single family home to be of a lesser class of people, to be less established, to be less of a human being. American identity at it's core is not going to change, it is how our society has functioned since the beginning. If you want an urban lifestyle, there are a few choices. We have New York and Chicago and San Francisco (and these are truly grand, world class cities), but the costs are very prohibitive generally speaking.

There are no real "second tier" urban centers in America. I love Portland to death, I even lived there from 2007-2008 before I moved back east to Pittsburgh that fall. But even cities like Portland are largely a sea of suburban single family homes with a small village in the center and a few new urbanist dots along the outside. It isn't what I'd call truly urban, so America really doesn't have many second tier cities that offer the same urban experience you could get even in a city of 300,000 in Europe. We are forced to move to the most expensive cities to get that real, genuine active urban lifestyle.

America is what it is... It isn't pessimism to call a spade a spade, especially when most Americans enjoy this suburban and exurban lifestyle. There is nothing more cool for *most* Americans than buying a hot new car and a new house. We're the misfits in a nation of suburbia on SSP, keep that in mind.
I dunno, most people I know are getting tired of commuting 20 miles to their workplaces and looking to move to locations closer to cities. While I agree that generally Americans are in love with suburbs, having a yard, and being able to drive around, I simply don't see this overwhelming number of people that are bogged down in their love of the typical commute.

Maybe it's just that Alabama is so far behind on the urban timeline that there's no where to go but up.

Either way, I still don't think it helps the situation to tell Americans that they're urban haters. I mean, I think we all know how gullible Americans are when it comes to what is said on TV or the internet. The average American just wants to be like the average American. So, when they see that "the average American" is a "suburb loving, city hating, gasoline fiend," they're probably gonna end up being the same way.

Other people's opinions have more to do with the average persons beliefs than you think. Even though crime rates are dropping in my area, people are constantly online, commenting on news stories, about how the crime rate is skyrocketing. Saying, "I would never go into downtown, it's so dangerous!" even though downtown is one of the safest parts of town.

Bottom line is people are stupid. If they read online about the virtues of the suburb, cars, and sprawl, they're probably going to think that's the way to go. The best way to counteract that is preach the virtues of city living, not to around, arms flailing in the air say, "Bahhhh! America hates cities, bahhh!" Not that anyone's doing that, it's just a comical image in my head.

Anyways, I say combat all their stupidity with talk about what's good about cities. They're safer, more efficient, less stressful, culturally rich, and offer more recreational opportunities. Most people don't know those things, and it's because most people are senselessly convinced that cities are awful, dirty places.
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  #15  
Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 4:15 AM
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I think race played the largest role. Whites and blacks did not mix and when they were finally forced to during the desegregation era those with the means (the whites) went to a place without blacks (the suburbs). New expressways, the destruction of inner city transit systems by GM, crumbling infrastructure, the post WWII era ideal for the new and modern, ample land outside American cities, etc. all played supporting roles...
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 6:14 AM
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In many cities, people pay a large premium to live close-in, particularly on a square foot basis. Also, much of suburbia is people trying to find their preferred square footage for less money than closer in. I realize that doesn't mean the average person loves cities, or prefers to be central or be in denser neighborhoods for anything other than convenience...but it doesn't argue the other way either.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 6:52 AM
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Culture, race and, especially, (corrupt) politicians. Just look at the violent teen flash mobs in Philadelphia. They don't care about their city, which is typical about their attitude towards life. They just don't care, along with the one-party city council and mayor's office who are in it for lifelong employment and back room deals.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 4:56 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steely Dan View Post
nonsense. chicagoland is dotted with dozens upon dozens of prewar commuter rail suburbs that sprang-up in the late 19th/early 20th centuries along the many rail road lines that radiated outwards from the city. post-war "automobilization" merely exacerbated and accelerated a process that was already in full-swing.

The time period can also be critical. London used to have many outlying towns that have since been encroached upon and made part of the city and the outlying areas as well. Although that would have mainly taken place during pre-war times so the infill in between them would be mostly a pre-war setup.

I guess NYC metropolitan area would serve as a good comparison when it comes to it's outlying areas but then there was the tendency to decimate city centres with highways like what happened in Hartford, CT.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 6:21 PM
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I dunno, most people I know are getting tired of commuting 20 miles to their workplaces and looking to move to locations closer to cities. While I agree that generally Americans are in love with suburbs, having a yard, and being able to drive around, I simply don't see this overwhelming number of people that are bogged down in their love of the typical commute.

Maybe it's just that Alabama is so far behind on the urban timeline that there's no where to go but up.

Either way, I still don't think it helps the situation to tell Americans that they're urban haters. I mean, I think we all know how gullible Americans are when it comes to what is said on TV or the internet. The average American just wants to be like the average American. So, when they see that "the average American" is a "suburb loving, city hating, gasoline fiend," they're probably gonna end up being the same way.

Other people's opinions have more to do with the average persons beliefs than you think. Even though crime rates are dropping in my area, people are constantly online, commenting on news stories, about how the crime rate is skyrocketing. Saying, "I would never go into downtown, it's so dangerous!" even though downtown is one of the safest parts of town.

Bottom line is people are stupid. If they read online about the virtues of the suburb, cars, and sprawl, they're probably going to think that's the way to go. The best way to counteract that is preach the virtues of city living, not to around, arms flailing in the air say, "Bahhhh! America hates cities, bahhh!" Not that anyone's doing that, it's just a comical image in my head.

Anyways, I say combat all their stupidity with talk about what's good about cities. They're safer, more efficient, less stressful, culturally rich, and offer more recreational opportunities. Most people don't know those things, and it's because most people are senselessly convinced that cities are awful, dirty places.
I think you are actually hinting at what I've already said: the American public is hit with a massive multi-industry marketing message that the only real honorable lifestyle is the suburban or exurban lifestyle. Both urban and rural lifestyles are lambasted. Truly rural lifestyles come from making a life off of the land, not buying a far-out ranch and driving 50+ miles to a job every day and using your ranch as a symbol or image to project.

We are in a society that basically says that you are crap and less of a human being for not owning a home and owning a nice car. As much as the car is a utility, in America it is a status symbol. We Americans do this more than any other society. Drive a Prius or Insight like me? You're instantly characterized as a certain type of person. Drive a huge SUV? You're stereotyped as something else. Drive a shitty car? You're less of a person...

We judge people in our society by our cars more than any other on the Earth. I see a strong difference just between Canada and the US, Canadians largely look at car ownership the same way (who isn't impressed if you can afford a brand new, $30k car?), but there isn't nearly as much disdain for someone who uses transit and lives without a car. Right across the board, even down to smaller towns, transit use is many times more acceptable (mid-sized cities like London, Ontario have transit use many times above American metros of well over a million people). And Canada isn't even a "transit nation" in my view, it is largely a car culture just like us.

America just takes this to the extreme on the car thing, then we can get into the single family housing issue. Americans are hyper obsessed and many think it is a God-given right to own a single family house. It is the ideal of most citizens in America. Marketing tells us you're supposed to own a home, from the day we're born to the day we die. You aren't told that it is healthy and good to own a condo or to rent a flat in a city that isn't in a detached environment.

This isn't about being negative, it is about pointing out that the corporate interests for home ownership are huge, the corporate interests for selling cars is huge. They trump the urban lifestyle we on SSP like to promote.

We haven't even began to discuss how corporate America has largely started building office construction in suburban environments, refusing to locate centers of work around transit hubs and urban centers that actually allow you to live car-free. Lots of office space in America is built to avoid the urban lifestyle - not embrace it - so that you're required to drive to lunch or drive to the office and back.

The entire system is against urban living. It is very hard to find employment in an urban setting and live in rental or condo construction along transit lines.
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Old Posted Aug 4, 2011, 6:35 PM
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To extrapolate on where I currently live, I moved to Buffalo two years ago after spending a year in Pittsburgh, and after spending a year in Portland before that. I used to absolutely hate this city, and treated it like a dump on my commutes to Toronto. While I think Buffalo has obvious challenges to economic growth (although right now its doing better than the national average and only has 7.5% unemployment, with a metro net increase of 3,000 jobs since last year according to the last stats I read), the truth is Buffalo has a very nice old core.

The downtown has a lot of work to do, the main street transit mall is a strip of shut down businesses and largely void of people unless the workers are heading home from the office or a few of the bars downtown, or during sports events... But the entire north end of the city has a true vernacular, cohesive homes and a real urban environment. It is served by a good transit system for an American city. There is the Buffalo Metro that runs for 7 miles through the core of the city, and bus services are frequent, and despite it's rustbelt image, all the homes in the north end are far from boarded up. Most are *very* nice and well kept, and many are mansions from the early 1900's, along with more middle class style living.

But people won't move to Buffalo for it's genuine vernacular, and the fact that a real city still exists here. Everything seems to get compared to Detroit in the "rust belt" but the truth is, you can go from downtown Buffalo along Delaware Avenue all the way out here to Tonawanda in the north towns where I live, and not a single block is a "ghetto" or bad in any way. Buffalo has an entirely cohesive, middle class, livable environment. The only 'ghetto' is the East Side, some western communities along the river (aka Riverside, Black Rock), and some of the old irish communities in south Buffalo and the Lackawanna area is a little rough as well. The entire rest of the metro area (save for Niagara Falls, which can be rough) is middle class, well off, and filled with cohesive neighborhoods. Yet people think of Buffalo with some akward nastiness, as if it is some town with nothing to offer. Yet it is more urban with better transit than 90% of American cities. You can catch a bus literally in any neighborhood and be downtown within a reasonable time, or use Metro Rail if you're in the city proper.

All these things we talk about on here mean nothing to the vast majority of people. They buy what is sold to them. Suburban office parks, suburban shopping centers, and suburban single family housing is what they buy.

Until this marketing machine changes, we'll forever be in a suburban nation. Even with fuel at $6/gallon... Americans will gladly embrace a huge race to natural gas powered vehicles and electric plug in technology before they leave the automobile.

So the moral of the story is this: don't expect high gasoline prices to push people back into cities either, Americans will gladly invest in natural gas and electric plug-in technology if they have to. They will continue the car culture, come hell or high water. It is here to stay.

Cities like Buffalo, with a true urban vernacular, aren't high up on the list for people to move to...

Speaking to Buffalo's vernacular:
Video Link


Architectural tour (my favorite building is at 8:45, which is an old bank building downtown):
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Waterfront video:
Video Link


'This Place Matters' video:
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^Americans largely don't care about urban character, they care about rubbing on some tanning lotion so they can sit on some Florida beach for a few hours and then go eat at Applebees. The proof is in the movement of people, and it is clear we aren't even remotely headed into some new urban era. Although I give props to the new urbanists who have tried to make urban living look cool in America since the 1990's. The movement hasn't really effected much change, just a few communities here and there. At least a small drop in a sea of suburbanism...

Last edited by Dr Nevergold; Aug 4, 2011 at 7:00 PM.
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