Searching for Good Urbanism, as Gatsby Intended
In order to reckon with today's urbanism, I suggest challenging your dreams and, like The Great Gatsby, the American Dream itself.
Recently, I went into a restaurant in a trendy urban neighborhood, excited by the prospect of something new in a former light industrial space. At first glance, I assumed a dream fulfilled, featuring more of what's needed in a changing, post-recessionary city: Awnings with street appeal, a hybrid French-Italian name, an angular entry off of the sidewalk with diminutive, curbside seating and an implied European, old-world charm.
After sitting down, I found a diverse, fusion menu, at odds with the exterior. Then, I focused on discordant building materials, lighting fixtures, doors, tables and chairs, and the sense of place became both nowhere and anywhere. While one wall displayed some photos of the former building use, in total, the ambiance became vintage antique and consignment store, all in one. The place was well-appointed, and the food and service very good, but the experience communicated to me an incompatible melange of urban adornment.
I left, reminded of one of my favorite quotations from American literature about American Dream, in the form of the "green light", the enduring symbol of hope with which F. Scott Fitzgerald closed The Great Gatsby:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
I may suffer from too much concern for the naturally occurring, qualitative aspect of urban places and surrounding neighborhoods, but my story is hardly about chasing overly conventional dreams. I agree with Edwin Heathcoate's January 11 reminder in The Financial Times, that a "beautiful" city may demand no more than modest, spontaneous moments of experience.
I have also championed the composite, evolving city that is in formation, where spaces—whether residential or commercial—are shared, morphed or recombined in ways different from before. And I will celebrate with everyone when the clearly novel and chic succeed, such as couches on the beach in Tel Aviv, or the ice cream laundromat that I have described in my neighborhood.
But in this case, an eclectic hodgepodge—without a more real relation to its context and surroundings—brought me an uneasy pause. Without a more authentic tie to place, I perceived an unrealized vision, one that could easily disappear if the economic recovery cannot sustain.
Is the search for good urbanism in American cities the latest manifestation of the American Dream, a quest so aptly perceived and critiqued by Fitzgerald in 1925?
If places are not implemented with care, and if they leave a sense of the overly artificial and concocted, we may collectively and forever chase The Great Gatsby's symbolic green light at the end of Daisy's pier.
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