President Trump’s much-derided threat to destroy Iranian “cultural sites” as tensions between Iran and the U.S. increased earlier this week reminded me that economic progress often drives the destruction of such sites.
We know how to build, and we know how to tear down — and sometimes we do a good job of rebuilding.
Take the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. The magnificent John Gaw Meem-designed structure that has housed the FAC since 1936 replaced a splendid 19th century Victorian mansion, which was unceremoniously demolished.
The parking lot across Dale Street was in 1891 the site of a sunny little cottage occupied by Mrs. Harriet P. Farnsworth, the long-widowed spouse of a valiant Union soldier. Harriet had moved to Colorado Springs with her tubercular son who then married Edith Winslow, a comely Bostonian who had come here to care for her tubercular younger brother. They had four children, one of whom was my Mom.
I wish that my great-grandmother’s cottage was still there, just as I wish that the Burns Theater, the second Antlers Hotel, the First National Bank building and so many other long-vanished structures were still standing. Yet cities, if they endure, are built upon the ruins of the past. And like it or not, we’re all complicit in the destruction, because we’re all part of an unsentimental fast-moving economy that prizes the efficient use of real estate.
As a New York City real estate guy, the president didn’t care much about historic preservation. In the late 1970s, Trump acquired the 1929 Bonwit Teller building at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, planning to tear it down and build something new.
Trump was ready to go in 1980, and had even promised to carefully remove the 15-foot-tall stone relief sculptures depicting nearly nude women dancing at the top of the building’s Fifth Avenue façade and donate them to Metropolitan Museum. Instead, he promptly demolished them, falsely claiming they were artistically valueless and the Met really didn’t want them.
So up went Trump Tower, which will almost certainly outlast its 1929 predecessor. Ever dynamic, ever changing — that’s how successful cities survive and thrive.
Yet how do you maintain a livable city in the midst of constant flux? How do you defend stable working-class residential neighborhoods from commercial intrusion? How do you deal with traffic congestion, soaring rents, unaffordable home prices, intractable homelessness and relentless growth?
I don’t know. But I do know that the endgame of success may be pretty awful.
Consider the cities and regions that we once envied, and tried to emulate. Back in the ’80s, we sought to be Silicon Mountain, a techy utopia of good jobs, clean manufacturing and a highly educated workforce. We’d have homegrown companies with national scope and become a magnet for young professionals, entrepreneurs and creatives — just like San Jose and the Valley!
And then there was Seattle, a beautiful city reinventing itself as Boeing stagnated, and began to move operations away from its longtime headquarters. Politicians and businesspeople came together to ensure the city’s future, and an online bookseller called Amazon began its swift ascent.
Two decades later, Seattle and Silicon Valley are the bright shiny toys of the tech elite, and places of misery for many of those left behind. If you owned your house, you could sell high and get out — if you didn’t, you were S.O.L. You either left, or commuted for hours, or lived in a broken-down RV, or just became homeless.
In 1983, mayoral candidate Federico Peña asked Denver voters to “imagine a great city.” He trounced 74-year-old incumbent Bill McNichols, and began the transformation of Colorado’s sleepy capital into a national metropolis — Seattle on the plains, with many of the same problems.
We’re about 10 or 15 years behind San Jose, Seattle or Denver. Do we want to slow down, stop subsidizing new companies (hello, Amazon!) and rely upon organic growth? Or do we want to become bigger, wealthier and worse?
I think I know. I ask myself a simple question: WWDTD — What Would Donald Trump Do? And since our city voted overwhelmingly for the Donald in 2016, the answer’s clear: Rock on!
And if things get too crazy, we’ll just sell the house and move to Argentina, where we’ll never again have to worry about the perils of a strong, vibrant economy…