Children with missing teeth are cute. Six-year olds are supposed to have missing teeth. The toothless smile is charming, besides there is the promise of a new tooth in the not to distant future. Adults with missing teeth are a different story. They are not so attractive.
Cities can have missing teeth too, and we are usually repulsed by the sight just like like we are upon seeing adults with less than a full collection of teeth. Missing teeth in cities come in the form of streets that present a gap-toothed appearance as buildings are torn down for parking, or just plain empty lots, or even worse ‘green space’.
The most attractive and vibrant cities in America have very few gap-toothed streets. They present beautifully composed streets that are defined by unified rows of buildings, working together to create urban outdoor rooms. The human psyche is designed to be attracted to enclosure. We also like continuity and visual stimulation. Great urban streets provide for these human desires. It is no coincidence that the first thing you see upon entering Disney World is the ultimate depiction of the perfect urban street room. Imagine Disney tearing down a few of those wonderful Victorian storefronts for some closer parking.
When a street is chopped up by emptiness, it loses its sense of place, and visually dead parking lots suck activity and life away. The continuity of buildings uninterrupted by empty lots is extremely critical in forming great commercial retail streets. There is not a single commercial street in Buffalo that has not been severely damaged by gap-toothed development of parking lots.
The most successful sections of buffalo’s walkable retail streets are those with the greatest concentration of contiguous buildings and storefronts. Grant Street may be Buffalo’s most complete street of contiguous commercial buildings. It has great scale and a sense of enclosure too. Unfortunately, its success is hampered by the crushing poverty that surrounds it. However, even in its degraded state, its potential as a great street is evident. Hopefully, recent successes and positive trends win out on Grant before the forces of neglect and car storage can damage this street irrevocably.
I wrote this post as an introduction to one of my favorite KunstlerCast episodes. The KunstlerCast is a weekly online discussion of urban and social issues. In this episode titled, “KunstlerCast # 43: Missing Teeth in the Urban Fabric,” author and social thinker James Howard Kunstler and his colleague Duncan Crary talk about the gapped tooth landscape that has overtaken so many American cities.
Duncan lives in Troy New York, a small Albany area city with a degraded but still very charming historic city center. The most interesting part of the conversation comes at the end of the podcast where Crary and Kunstler challenge the mayor of Troy on plans to create a new ‘green space’ adjacent to the main city square. At first he is very defensive and protective of the proposed green space, believing that anything called “green space” has to be better than buildings. A few generations of brainwashing has America believing that buildings are an evil necessity. All of this is very relevant to Buffalo, and I hope you give it a listen.