May 4 would have marked the 100th birthday of revolutionary author and urbanist Jane Jacobs. Milwaukee rang in that anniversary on Tuesday with its first Jane's Walk, a free, citizen-led walking tour inspired by Jacobs.
Hours before then, however, the Rotary Club paid tribute to the writer and activist at its weekly luncheon by bringing in former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. An influential part of Milwaukee's own urban planning in the past, present and future, thanks to his decision to tear down the Park East freeway, Norquist chatted about Jane's work and ideas, the trends both good and bad in city planning and, of course, that new arena going into the space he once helped open up.
After a brief introduction, Norquist took the stage at the Milwaukee War Memorial, first talking about the value of cities and urban life – something that was often taken for granted or doubted in the past.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, I think there was a feeling that somehow cities were basically a pile of pathologies that had to, first of all, be acknowledged and say how terrible it was, and any even hint of optimism was condemned as being somehow insensitive to the problems," Norquist said. "But actually, cities are now showing themselves to be very successful in real estate, in job creation and in lots of ways – just by their very nature – and the idea that somehow the city was obsolete and not something valuable has now diminished."
Jacobs was also an ardent defender of urban life and planning, writing several books – including the landmark "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" and "Dark Age Ahead," which Norquist assured the Rotary Club audience, "isn't quite as depressing as the title" – over the course of her career.
Norquist described her most famous fight to the luncheon crowd, a victorious battle against New York City planner Robert Moses over the building of an expressway through Greenwich Village that "would've turned the (Washington Square) park into a decoration for the road instead of a real park.
"She wasn't a radical; she was trying to protect what she saw as traditional urban life, and she saw what Moses was trying to do as radical," Norquist said.
The former Milwaukee mayor joined in the argument that Moses was actually the radical. He first pulled up sketches and plans – often featuring old buildings with tall steel and glass buildings, and big streets and road systems separating traffic and people – by modernist architects Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, whose work, along with others, would go on to influence many of these divided layouts from Moses and other city planners across the country. He followed those with before-and-after photo comparisons in cities across the U.S., showing city life dampened and deadened, and people forced to walk in gutter areas, by the roads and freeways found in modernist-inspired city plans.
For contrast, he then showed a photo of Brady Street, which "violates all of the standards of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials" – but for the better.
"(Brady Street) is a lively street, but it is congested," Norquist told the crowd. "But it's not just congested with traffic. It's congested with people and with money and with real estate value and with jobs. It's a good place, but this isn't what the manual says to do."
Norquist displayed several other major cities, such as New Orleans' Treme district, Detroit, San Francisco and Seoul in South Korea, negatively impacted and deadened – economically, socially, even just aesthetically – by invasive freeway systems and city planning. In some of those places, like San Francisco, they've begun tearing down sections of freeways and replacing them with boulevards, resulting in success for the city.
"We were ahead of our time," Norquist said. "It was a very controversial thing with the Park East."
Norquist's discussion then brought up other misguided city-planning fads going out of style – such as draining wetlands, paving creek systems and eliminating terminated vistas (aka a street that ends in a building or monument, similar to the view of the Milwaukee Art Museum from Wisconsin Avenue) – and finding "what adds the most value" for a city.
Realizing he'd gone over his allotted time, the former mayor quickly wrapped up his discussion on the topic of federal financing rules concerning mixed-use urban housing that often leave the apartments above stores vacant. He noted to the crowd that "it ought to be the cities or the market (making the decisions), not the federal government pushing separate use development."
Before he left the stage, however, Norquist was able to take two questions, one of which asked about his thoughts on the new Bucks arena and entertainment district. Norquist didn't particularly come off as a fan.
"Arenas are kind of a bad place for architecture, unfortunately. They always feel they have to make it iconic," he answered. "In my opinion, one of the best arenas in the country is in Washington D.C., the Verizon Center. You can't really tell it's an arena until you get close to it; it has well-articulated doorways and all of that. It looks like just another building. And that's the best you can get, and I wish the Bucks had figured that out, but they didn't, so you're going to get something that looks weird. But maybe it'll be OK.
"What I really don't like about it was closing the street. I think that's a mistake for them. For them to get deep into the restaurant and bar business, I think they'll find out that's not a good idea. Kansas City experimented with that; they had an entertainment district which lost them a lot of money and ticked off other retail people that didn't have help from the government. Just generally, I think public-private partnerships are way overrated; people talk about them all the time, but usually it just means some insider with a lot of power has got their hands in the taxpayers' pocket."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.