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Beauty Begets Business

June 14, 2012 by Carl J. Schramm

Every year the Pritzker Foundation awards a prize for the best new building of the year. This recognition is surely one of the better uses of foundation money, since it spurs considering new buildings in terms of their artistic contribution to place. Sadly, most of our once prosperous and beautiful cities are now in decline. The conventional explanation is that their economies went away and then the cities began to look worse. But this explanation is too simple and quick. I believe there is an unrecognized tie between a city’s economy and its aesthetics. How a city looks, how it appeals to the eye of its citizens and to those who visit it, has a major role in determining its economic success. The very traditions that descend from Greece and Rome have made beauty one of the principal aspects of many of our best commercial offices, university buildings, and public edifices. Anyone who has seen a medieval village in Europe or has a sense of what American towns once looked like knows that builders, not architects, and the simplest of householders once looked to make their buildings and homes statements of both usefulness and beauty. I spent my youth in central New York State. To drive through the countryside in towns called Pompeii, Ilion, Tully, Cicero, Marcellus, and Sempronius, one might be forgiven for thinking the area’s yeomen had all grown up in ancient Athens or the Roman Empire. More astonishing was that the common model for farmhouses was the Greek temple with its Doric-columned porch. The region’s cities, with other classical names like Ithaca, Rome, Syracuse, Troy, and Utica, were, like most cities, also once beautiful. The photographic record does not lie! Nor do the occasional archeological hints that echo along East Avenue in Rochester, James Street in Syracuse, or Second Street in Troy. The “cities beautiful” movement — a nationally shared vision at the turn of the 20th century — conceived of the city as a vessel of virtue and morality. It was believed that as towns became more beautiful, their citizens would become better people. Sadly, this era is now a quaint memory, almost forgotten. Imagine this vision being advanced in a university program in urban planning or inside a governmental agency today. No one feels comfortable any more saying what is beautiful in a building or a streetscape. Beauty, in an age of moral relativism, is no longer seen as an absolute. Of course we build many magnificent buildings, but the city as a unified composition striving for beauty is long gone as a civic goal. It can still be found in little villages, which, in some cases, are tended by enlightened citizens and business people whose vision continues to include pleasure to the eye for those who walk its streets. Cooperstown, Cazenovia, Hamilton, and Skaneateles in upstate New York serve as examples. But urban beauty once was a universal goal of industrializing America. Showing the entire world what beautiful new cities could look like was once a national aspiration, a pillar of the American experiment. Obviously the extraordinary parks of our cities, from Central Park in New York to Golden Gate Park in Seattle, suggest this. No one can see Grant Park in Chicago and not remark upon its magnificent lakeside design. Commonly we credit municipal government with the foresight to reserve and beautify these spaces. Indeed, the very existence of city parks is often used to justify the discipline of urban planning. Yet many of our major urban parks exist because of the vision of prideful and benevolent private citizens. Not only did these citizens champion the concept in New York and Boston, but also in many cases they donated the land and led political campaigns to preserve public land in the face of opposition by politicians and land speculators. Parks were deliberately envisioned as a way to enrich the lives of working people as well as to function as “necklaces” for the cities. Grant Park exists because of Aaron Montgomery Ward’s beneficence, not because of Daniel Burnham’s plan. Beautiful parks were but an adjunct to the efforts that were being made by wealthy industrialists to make their offices, homes, neighborhoods, and cities as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Even many factories are beautiful to look upon: The American Thread factory in Willimantic, Connecticut, the Ponemah Mill in Taftville, Rhode Island, and the Londontowne factory in Baltimore, Maryland, come to mind. Indeed, the new American cities reflected the same impulses of the rich and powerful that so benefited the cities of the Renaissance that we regard as models of beauty. Americans wanted their cities to be models of what civilization could achieve. City halls, courthouses, and museums served as the civic cathedrals — trophies of the city’s achievements. It surely was a strong sense of responsibility to their shared civic space that caused a committee of Buffalo business leaders to hire Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of Central Park, and, under his direction, execute a transformation of Buffalo on the scale of Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris under Napoleon II. Buffalo’s street plan represents a full-scale tear down! Contemporary sophisticates, raised in the school that only government can think up good cities, find it hard to imagine that non-elected civic leaders in every town pursued this dream, and as the record shows, rather effectively. College students have been taught since the days of Sinclair Lewis to suspect such motives; no altruism, no striving for beauty, here — just “boosterism,” an overdeveloped pride of place to be mocked for its naiveté and silly ethnocentrism. But we need only look at the photographic record to discover why people were eager to see Cleveland or visit downtown Detroit or explore St. Louis. The railroad stations in towns like Minneapolis and Philadelphia were nothing short of temples for transport. Indeed, Union Station in Washington was fashioned on the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian. The aesthetic contributions are not confined to large cities either. Even though the wealthy in Racine, Duluth, Moline, and Atlanta had to live near their factories, they still wanted their hometowns to be as much like Paris or New York as possible. The homes of the Mayo brothers in Rochester, Minnesota, present an undisputable record of such aspirations. So does George Eastman’s house in Rochester, New York. They devoted enormous time and treasure to making beautiful places and creating beautiful buildings. Eastman financed and influenced the design of the University of Rochester, the Strong Memorial Hospital, as well as the main building of MIT. How does this concern for civic beauty relate to a city’s economy? In a previous essay, “Urban Dynamics and the ‘Adjacent Possible,’” I observed that the nation’s economy is really just the composite of the economies of cities and towns. While the national economy has a huge impact on any city’s prosperity, critical decisions are made locally. Tax rates, infrastructure, political corruption, proper education in appropriate subjects, government regulation, and appearance, though the last of these is seldom recognized, are all matters that are determined locally. Policies that create an environment friendly to enterprise result in beautiful cities much more successfully than do government efforts to dictate beauty through city planners. Consider the contrast between New York City and Detroit. By attending to broken windows and small infractions of the law, New York City saw a reversal in its economic life. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was ready to challenge received wisdom and try “community policing” knowing that businesses would continue to flee until New York was seen as having safe streets. Urban and social policy experts dismissed and mocked his efforts until it was clear they were working. New York is now regarded as not only a safe place to live and work, but as a beautiful city as well. Detroit was once a beautiful city too. It was an emblem of the cities beautiful movement. Because of the sense of high fashion that has always characterized the auto industry, Detroit was America’s most design-conscious city. It also fronted on water, the river that separates America from Canada. Its wealth provided grand civic enterprises such as its once-renown symphony and Art Institute, housed in especially beautiful buildings. Its Grand Circus certainly rivaled Piccadilly — knowingly constructed as a great urban hub with such a comparison in mind. The city’s fathers knew that Detroit represented America to all of Canada and in a way to the British Empire, and they were rightly proud of their city. But anything physically beautiful about Detroit had disappeared by the 1970s. This downturn long preceded the time when American cars were being made in the non-union South and overseas. In 1977 Detroit built an icon that would come to symbolize its self-destruction. Ironically named Renaissance Center, it was a brutal structure, huge, on the waterfront, and visible in its entirety from Canada. “RenCen” was the “built environment fallacy” demonstrated for all to see; structures house economies — they do not, and indeed cannot, make them! Detroit was a ruin by 1980, and the Renaissance Center was a failure. Ford sold it to GM. Worse, the perpetually ugly building remains a visual blight on Detroit. Like a tattoo on a beautiful person — a self-inflicted scar that will never be undone, wrongly conceived as being additive to one’s good looks in an ill-considered moment, and growing more ghastly as the years go by. Perhaps the most difficult question in urban planning is how our cities became so ugly. This question is seldom asked by urban planners because it is their discipline that claims to be the beautifying motor for American cities. Indeed, the planning profession often controls the now ubiquitous architectural approval committees that exist in nearly every city and town. Zoning has been expanded under the planning culture to include judgment on the artfulness and beauty of structures. It is precisely the nexus of planning and government that creates the problem. Planning cannot exist outside of the governmental context. Government supplies the power and the legitimacy of planning. But why government plans is the real question. Does government serve the cause of economic advancement for a city and see to it that beauty counts in its commercial success? Or is planning really a vehicle used to build a social utopia in which it designs an environment that aims to advance a vision of how people are supposed to live, without regard to the city’s economic life? When the latter triumphs, as it has, beauty is always the victim. Consider Soviet city planning. To visit the suburbs of Moscow, Warsaw, or Prague is to appreciate the designs of socialist planners making the most life-draining housing one could imagine. Dreary does not serve as a sufficient description. Heartless, grey, and crowded are the right descriptors. And, above all things, exacting sameness governs. No one was to have one meter more space than his or her next-door comrade. But even democracies, when driven by the ideal of perfect equity, stoop to the brutal designs of socialism. The banlieues of Paris, the fascist rebuilding of Rome, England’s dreadful Council Flats, and the public housing of the 1960s in the United States all tell the same story. Indeed, in the U.S. the fact that we had to literally blow up the vertical government-built ghettos of West Baltimore, St. Louis’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe, and Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes should resonate forever as a fear-inspiring story of government gone wild in the pursuit of utopia for the underclass. As our cities have become populated by a rising percentage of public buildings, particularly public housing structures, the aesthetic culture of our cities has changed. Beauty, or what passes for it in the modern aesthetic, has decamped to the suburbs. What remains are older commercial and civic structures whose appeal is largely gone due to neglect. The profound cultural shift when a city’s buildings grow ugly and more public in nature is that civic environments inevitably decay. In many of our older cities, several generations have grown up with dirty streets and politicians who, burdened with public union work rules, have come to see debris on streets and accumulating trash in public spaces as some kind of intractable social problem rather than as garbage just needing to be picked up. They give up on even trying to keep the city clean. One need only walk up the steps from the train platforms into Baltimore’s Penn Station to see what I mean — stairs that appear not to have been swept in months. Inevitably a question comes to mind. Why would one start a business in such an environment? This is a critical question because without the formation of new businesses no place can survive as a vibrant economic hub. Growth only happens at the hands of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, particularly those who hold promise for starting high-growth businesses, seek out supportive environments. Entrepreneurs work extremely hard — every aspect of life is challenging. Trying to make one’s way with a new business in a place that is dirty and where no one appears to care what things look like is a no starter. Thirty years ago San Jose was among the nation’s worst-looking places. Today, however, the civic culture is geared to bringing smart new people to town to start businesses. Its downtown is populated by handsome new corporate buildings. Its streets are clean. Its airport looks like a garden. Many would say the city is beautiful. If the past is prologue, its economy will flourish. So, maybe to make the point and to stir a little discomfort among the planning community, we should have a prize for the worst public building built every year, or the worst urban planning “make-over,” or the worst plan for a public-housing project. This might be a good use of philanthropic resources if it causes planners to take a second look at each of their ideas through the lens of aesthetics. Beauty begets business — clean streets bring commerce — orderly environments produce more entrepreneurs.


Author

Carl J. Schramm
Carl J. Schramm

2012 Economic Growth Fellow

Carl J. Schramm is recognized internationally as a leading authority on entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth. Currently he is university professor at Syracuse University. For 10 years he served as president of the Kauffman Foundation, making it into the world’s premier organization dedicated to the development of high-growth firms and understanding the role they play in economic growth. He serves as a visiting scientist at MIT and as a fellow of the Bush Institute. He is a Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Schramm's most recent book, "Better Capitalism" (co-authored with Robert Litan) was published by the Yale University Press in September 2012. He has written several other books, including “Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism” and “The Entrepreneurial Imperative.”

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