Good intentions, and planners, can sap a city’s soul

The following article by Kansas City writer Jack Cashill, courtesy of Ingram’s Magazine, explains some of the problems with city planning of the type Wichita is undertaking at this time.

There are two connections to Wichita in this article. The first connection is the Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City, a meticulously planned — and heavily subsidized — redevelopment that has been mentioned by Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer as a model for Wichita. It’s also been featured heavily on the city’s television channel.

The second connection to Wichita is Cashill’s description of Louisville. That city is the hometown of Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President Jeff Fluhr, not that this fact means anything substantive regarding public policy. But Louisville was one of four cities praised in a case study that is part of a Wichita-produced document that makes the case for downtown revitalization. Also, Visioneering Wichita has a trip to Louisville planned for October.

I recently spent some back-to-back time in two cities, one run by merchants and one run by planners. The difference between the two is that the planners’ city, a veritable clone of Kansas City, does not work. The merchants’ city does.

Since 1955, my family has been spending a chunk of every summer in and around the wonderfully vulgar New Jersey burg called Seaside Heights.

“Vulgar” has several basic meanings. In this case, all of them are apt, and none is necessarily bad. One is “deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement,” and that certainly fits. So too, in spades, does “offensively excessive in self-display.” It is the third and original definition — “associated with the great masses of people” — that makes the other two come to life in so fruitful a way. Yes, at Seaside, great masses of indelicate people wander about in excessive self-display, but, writ large, it is all glorious to behold.

If the natives are excessive, it is because they can be. An ethnic hotbed since its inception, Seaside Heights educates international visitors in one visual sweep on the difference between their working classes and ours. If theirs shuffle, heads down, ours strut, swagger even, heads up, plumage on full display. Ours believe in themselves and their futures.

It was not without calculation that MTV chose Seaside Heights as the locale for its improbable hit, “Jersey Shore,” a show that captures the larger gaudiness of the place and distills it to its truly vulgar essence. Vulgar or not, when my brother-in-law and I spotted two cast members on the beach, we were the envy of every female in our 50-member family compound, almost all of whom have college degrees. Vulgarity sells.

Seaside Heights works in ways that most cities don’t. Each summer evening, its main thoroughfare, the boardwalk, is jammed from end to end with throngs of people of all ages and stripes spending goo-gobs of money at miscellaneous shops, many of which have no parallel in the free world.

On the mile-long commercial stretch of the boardwalk, there is not a single vacancy. I don’t remember there ever being one. The Seaside chamber boasts, only a little bit grandly, of thrill rides, a water park, fun-filled amusements, action-packed arcades, Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, an overhead chair lift, ski-ball, frog bog, squirt-gun games, balloon darts, ring toss, mini golf, go-karts, old-time photo shops, tattoo parlors, trendy boutiques, massage parlors, bars, discos, numerous Italian restaurants, pizza shops, Philly cheesesteak restaurants, a Mexican Cantina, an Irish Pub, frozen custard and soft-serve ice cream shops, saltwater taffy and fudge shops, a new bakery, and, of course, shops that serve “Seaside Heights staples like the Fried Oreo.”

Of the above services, how many can you find in the Power & Light District? City planners would hock their first-born to create this kind of pedestrian traffic, but they don’t know how. They can no more plan “fun” than they could anticipate a popular demand for a fried Oreo. This hodgepodge of stuff was driven by the consumers as gauged and tweaked by savvy, on-site merchants over decades.

Seaside represents America’s money culture at work. There is no public transportation anywhere near the town. There is not a single sign on the boardwalk in any language other than English. There is nothing even resembling a dress code. There is no convention center, no hotels, no buildings higher than three or four stories, no parking garages, no subsidies, no strip clubs, no “adult” book stores. Nothing is free, including the beach. And yet each weekend, 100,000 or so people speaking a dozen or so different languages find their way to the boardwalk.

After a week at Seaside, I flew out of Newark to Louisville, a city I had not yet visited. To round out my New Jersey experience, I sat across from Dominic Chianese, a.k.a. Junior Soprano, on the little express jet. I struck up a conversation, never letting on that I knew who he was. I am sure I had him fooled.

I arrived on a Sunday evening for a conference at the convention center. Had I not known any better, I would have thought the plane had been diverted to KC’s Power & Light District. Other than the occasional horse statue, there was nothing remotely indigenous about Louisville’s downtown. It had all the stultifying cookie-cutter charm of a place that had been planned and heavily subsidized precisely for the benefit of ungrateful visitors like me.

My hotel was nice enough, but aren’t all hotels? On Sunday eve, my little group and I wandered up Fourth Street to the city’s entertainment district. I passed a Border’s, a Panera’s, an Einstein Brothers, and a Hard Rock Café. The street was blocked off, and a rock band was playing loudly and badly in the created space. The only problem was that there was little foot traffic and even less audience.

We ducked into an elaborately fake British pub. To say the least, there was no wait. Our waitress was tarted up to look like Twiggie, but happily, her inner cracker showed through. She was delightful even when botching our order. “Y’all wanted a shepherd’s pie?” My younger comrades wanted to hit the Hard Rock Café next, but I ducked out to watch the season premiere of Mad Men. I had watched not a minute of TV at Seaside.

There was a time, not that many years ago, when Kansas City competed against the likes of Chicago and Denver and Atlanta. Today, we compete — often unsuccessfully — with Louisville. The reason Louisville can compete with us is because we have become Louisville and Louisville has become us.

We have taxed our distinctive merchant-driven centers like the Country Club Plaza and Westport — and cannibalized their customer base — to subsidize a soulless, planner-driven Downtown.

Only four years after its creation, city officials now project that the allegedly self-sustaining Power & Light District will require long-term life support to the tune of $10 million to $15 million in an annual cash subsidy.

It may be time to scrap all plans, exile all the planners and embrace the fried Oreo.

The link to the original article is Good Intentions, and Planners, Can Sap a City’s Soul.

11 Comments

  • Larry Weber -

    Bob,
    Thank you for a great overview of your trip. But using it to compare a planned and unplanned city is quite a stretch. Your comparing a resort destination city on the ocean with an average home value of $270,140 a population of 3355 which is 83.3% white (according to Citydata.com) to a landlocked city (with a river) that is not a resort town and an average home value of $121,469 a population of 262,764 and a much more diverse population (38.1% minority). In addition you comparing you walk through downtown in Louisville on a SUNDAY night to your time in Seaside.
    Seaside has a Redevelopment District that grants 5 year tax abatements for all new and remodeling within the district. Let’s try to keep the comparisons “Apples to Apples”.
    THANKS

  • Anonymous -

    Larry, how dare you let facts get in the way of Mr. Week’s preconceived narrative?

  • Anonymous -

    With some amusement we must note that Larry Weber didn’t realize that Bob isn’t the author of the article. It says so right after the title.

    Aside from that, I don’t see how any of the facts Weber cites are relevant.

  • Anonymous -

    I will add that I (the anonymous, above) enjoyed a similarly vulgar experience in Istanbul, Turkey.

    While I agree that planning can often go very wrong, I think unplanned development can also go very wrong–unless you’re a fan of the inefficiency created by donut cities in which all the people live around the edges and therefore have to waste a lot more time and money driving 30 minutes to an hour. Also, I believe that it is highly dubious to claim “public transportation” is one of the chief indicators of a city on the decline (ignoring the heavy burdens that our economy has suffered in the past five years due to high fuel prices–another result of a country going just with what feels right, e.g., the market-driven popularity of Hummers in the early part of this decade). I’m just not sure how public transportation in London, New York, San Francisco, and many other cities has done anything other than contribute to and sustain their urban development over the decades.

    Granted, public transportation does force you to sit across from some that is truly working class (no one on “Jersey Shore” is actually working class) and think about how inequalities still exist in our nation and how they aren’t all due to misguided development projects, but often, to the prejudiced and selfish actions of private persons, corporations, and political and religious groups.

    No, government isn’t perfect, but neither are private citizens and businesses who are subject to corruption just as much as any human bureaucrat. Considering that government doesn’t get a pass in the press like businesses do (how often do you see FoxNews investigate private companies who have caused great harm?), the government can’t run surreptitious, skewed propaganda ads (like private businesses and organizations often do), and even when something is not the government’s fault (BP), the government is still held responsible (by conservatives and liberals alike), government may make an easy target, but blaming the institution that is of our own creation just seems like a clever trick to pass the blame on to the party in power (rather than acknowledge how the other party’s actions over the first eight years of the decade were also complicit in our country’s current malaise).

    And how many of the following disasters of the last eight years were due to too high taxes?
    9/11
    Worldcom and Enron
    the jobless recovery(ies)
    Katrina
    the financial crisis
    the BP oil spill

  • Larry Weber -

    Bob,
    My apologies for not seeing that you were not the author. A major mistake on my part.
    However to Anonymous, you don’t see how any of the facts are relevant? maybe you should take another read of them as well.
    Larry Weber

  • Anonymous Mike -

    Lets just ask a different question. How many of the following disasters of the last eight years were due to (or in part due to) US Government intervention?

    “9/11” Nope unless you count the fact that George Bush personally paid the Israelis to blown them up…
    “Worldcom and Enron” Not that I’m aware of.
    “the jobless recovery” Yep, Obama care would make me scared to hire someone. You may NEVER be able to get rid of them.
    “Katrina” Yep, We the taxpayers forked over money to build levies etc, and the Louisiana Politicians blew the money on other stuff. No plans were made by those who lived there, and the Feds weren’t asked for help until late.
    “the financial crisis” Yep in part, the Feds forced banks to make loans that were highly unlikely to be repaid. In turn, the banks made up the new, creative, and entirely slimy idea of packaging bad loans for sale on the stock market.
    “The BP oil spill.” Yep again in part. BP and their subcontractors didn’t follow the construction rules for a good oil well, and guess what, it burned up. They did it, no real question there. Now, who LET them do it, yep your federal government. They probably thought they’d get more votes.

    Anonymous Mike (maybe?)

  • Anonymous -

    Don’t confuse Bob with facts. He might actually have to think instead of just regurgitating his mindless ideology. Of course, you’re just being an elitist if you try to educate him.

  • Republican Mom -

    OMG! Anonymous Mike actually believes George Bush paid the Israelis to blow up the World Trade Center buildings!

    Please go to your nearest Emergency Room, Mike, and tell them all about it! Or at least tell your doctor! You do trust your doctor don’t you Mike?

    Gee you shouldn’t be hiding that sort of “important” information.

  • Anonymous Mike -

    Hi Repub Mom, sorry about the ““9/11? Nope unless you count the fact that George Bush personally paid the Israelis to blown them up…” sarcasm. I personally wasn’t counting that, but wanted to get it out there before the anti-George crowd reared their heads..

    Mike
    Wichita KS

  • Jack Cashill is one of the best – if not THE best writer in Kansas today. A big THANK YOU to Bob Weeks for including his thoughtful article here.

    In many ways, Jack is re-discovering what the Scottish author, Adam Smith, the author of THE WEALTH OF NATIONS discovered in 1776. The best economic policy for any government to have – national, state, or local, is a “hands-off” policy. Adam Smith called it “the invisible hand” where the individual literally votes with each dollar he or she spends, and thereby, the consumer, not the government, picks the economic winners and losers! Allowing bad ideas to fail, is just as important as allowing good ideas to succeed, and one cannot do that in a government-controlled environment.

    Fortunately, Smith’s invisible hand works just as well today, as it did 250 years ago… if we can just get government out of the way, to let it work!

  • Anonymous Mike -

    Hi

    I took the day off to do yard work today, and late this afternoon, I went to the Nifty Nuthouse to buy a bunch of Dark Chocolate and Toffee covered nuts. I don’t recall them getting their own TIF district, CID district, or demanding that the city of Wichita pay them to be their friend. I can’t imagine HOW they can stay in business. Oh, they sell something that people want to buy at a low enough price that everyone wants it, and a high enough price and volume that they make money. Damn them anyway!!

    Sarcasm mode off Repub mom :^}

    Might be Mike

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