Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Second Empire

Of all the things I enjoyed in Budapest, I enjoyed Nagykörút the most. This grand boulevard is joy, it's what city should be: Uninterrupted architectural grace and grandour, happy crowds at nighttime, bustling fin de siecle cafes at daytime. At 5 kilometers, Nagykörút is longer than any of its other Second-Empire influenced counterparts in Paris, Madrid and Buenos Aires.

Today, on return, I received my invitation to vote in the coming Tel-Aviv municipal elections. currently the main issue is the massive investment in the city by real estate moguls, who are building residential skyscrapers. Those skyscrapers, at press time, are aimed exclusively at financially powerful buyers. The fondness shown towards such projects by the current regime is sharply criticised by its challengers. They claim that greed blinds our current mayor to environemntal perils and causes him to neglect weaker populations.

While seeing their point, I have two diffiulties with such criticism. One is that towers have merits. They prevent sprawl and add drama to the skyline. One such tower replaces a massive neighborhood of villas that would have otherwise devoured an orange grove on the city's outskirts. Of course the city should invest in its less well to do and younger residents, for their sake and also in order to keep itself vibrant. It must legistale appropriatly, encourage relevant investors and invest wisely and fairly of its own budget, but that should be done beside, not instead of, the current developments.

When Baron Housmann destroyed old Paris and invented the Nagykörút-style boulevard, he couldn't care less about the poor. Many families were evicted, and the spirit that later led to the formation of the Paris commune was born. Paris retained a stiff, mostly-for-the-rich heart but it's Paris, for God's sake, which isn't a bad thing. Other european cities that followed in its tracks are now similarly affluent and yes, vibrant.

Anyone who knows America's decaying cities, has to appreciate such a heart. Outside of New York, Boston and San Fransisco, the heart of the American city has decayed badly in the decades of suburbanization. The middle classes left for green pastures and the cities remained struggling, neglected, dodgy. America's Nagykörúts, imposing downtown avenues from Indianapolis to Salt Lake City, fell into dour disrepair that urban renewal projects can only partially undo, especially in downtowns that have become purely non-residential or inhabited only by populations that are socioeconomically weak. Take a walk around downtown Atlanta, even today, and you'll simply want to die. Atlanta is the Anti-Paris. What kind of a city does Tel-Aviv wish be?

Bad policy is bad policy, but the towers policy isn't nessecarily bad. It's flawed, it's disgustingly housmanian, but it may also be Housmanian in the good sense of the word. No new regime in city hall will be able to reverse this policy (building permissions have been awarded for the next decade, so any claim to "fight the towers" made by the current contenders is propaganda nonesense). let's hope whoever gets there will know how to work wisely with the current reality and make this city as grand and lovely as it can be.

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