When Small Towns Wanted Tall Buildings
A simple picture, a dispatch from another era
Recently in my hometown of Flemington, New Jersey, I spotted these buildings on Main Street. I’ve already suggested the significance of this in the headline, but just take a look at the pictures.
I’ve seen many façades like this in small towns throughout my explorations, but it never struck me until this recent visit that this was not just another little bit of ornamentation, but something quite significant.
It isn’t architecturally significant, really; it’s kind of tacky. But it’s culturally significant, because it points to a time when small-town residents and builders actually embraced size and tallness in buildings. So much so, they wanted them to look taller than they actually were.
This contrasts almost directly with the prevailing attitude in many of these same places today, where the size and scale of buildings ends up subject to all kinds of silly bargaining: five floors? That’s too tall, it doesn’t fit, it will block out the sun, could you do three or four? (200 apartments? That’s too many! Could you do 150? 170 parking spots? That’s not enough! Could you do 200?)
This is the fate of virtually every proposal for a new project, ironically, often, in the exact places that have classic urban forms and once built false façades to exaggerate the height of buildings. This is a window into how dramatically American attitudes towards cities and urban form have changed from those days to the present.
Once, in one of my grad school classes on international trade, I remember the professor noting that in Chinese villages, people wanted factories. It meant jobs, and it meant progress. Even then, before I knew much about urbanism, it occurred to me that this was the opposite of NIMBYism. Perhaps this has something to do with the level of economic development at which a country finds itself.
Perhaps there’s something about affluence that dulls the sense of competition and upward striving that led to these attitudes back then. We value stability and order more, and we have less of an ability to identify with the entrepreneurial rough-and-tumble that actually built the places we love today, but wish to freeze in time as lifestyle accouterments rather than as organic human habitats.
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