My first memories of cityspace as such were of Kansas City. Not exactly an iconic American city, I know, but perhaps like its denuded sister city, Saint Louis, it deserves to be. Neither fully Midwestern nor fully Southern, industrial but distinctly agro-industrial, it perhaps embodies American urbanity, in its essentially sprawling, at times near Sunbeltish character, in its transition between McMansion'd Trumpiste suburbia and poor, black inner city, in its attempts at “revitalization” of the urban core.
It was where a lot of my family were, some in suburbia, some in the high-security white holdout zones along Ward Parkway and Wornall Road, akin to Park Slope in Brooklyn around the same time, or to those other areas of DC, Atlanta, Cleveland that remained steadfast in their thin-lipped whiteness in the face of mid-century “urban crisis.”
We crossed into Kansas City each time over the Paseo Bridge, named for the road that it connected to, some Babbittian idea of a Catalan rambla in a Middle American factory town, now the artery of Tech N9ne territory. The exit signs flickered past, “Oak – Grand – Walnut – Downtown,” the image of the city at sunset, which, for a kid from rural America, was an Oz of golden light.
Although what struck me as a child was not so much the normal signifiers of the American city – the skyscrapers, the wide expressways, the cultural institutions of the zoo and the museum – but the other figureheads of urbanity as sheer decay.
But before we reached it, we had to cross the marginal zone. The smell of grain milling permeated the air, and the whole area seemed broken, with its railyard, its smoke, the greasy, flat Missouri River, and the gaudy “riverboat” casino that had more in common with the outfit of a Brazilian transsexual at Carnival than anything Mark Twain ever sailed.
This was a mysterious landscape, which held a simultaneous terror at the brokenness of it all and a thrill of the unknown. I somehow came to love the antique brick warehouses, the glimmer of prairie light through broken orange panes of industrial glass, the old hand-painted signs on the side advertising long-dead shipping and storage concerns, manufactures of bakelite radios, manual typewriters, men's haberdashery, cars with names like Hupmobile and Pierce-Arrow. And dug deep into the chalky limestone bluffs, mines and quarries had been turend into storage units, or else left to collapse underneath fall foliage, barely visible from the car window.
On one trip – just me and my father, as I remember, when I was about seven or eight – we took the wrong exit, Bonfire of the Vanities-style. I saw the name of the exit, “Prospect Avenue,” which seemed innocuous enough. “Lock your doors,” he muttered between his teeth.
I hadn't really seen anything like it before, the billboards covered in obscure graffiti, the old men with bottles in paper bags, the check-cashing joints. And the people on the street were all black, a concept I could barely imagine coming from a lily-white Iowa town. Black women in suits, black men in leather jackets, black kids walking in groups, people who were doing the exact sorts of things people did back in my hometown, except with added melanin, which, embarrassingly, was something that I'd really only encountered before on Family Matters and The Cosby Show. I suppose I was old enough to know about Martin Luther King and slavery, but the narrative being told at Roosevelt Elementary School was that things were all better now, because life in America is good and just keeps getting better. And I couldn't for the life of me figure out why these people were living in this place. Which looking back, might be the most fucking naively white thought one could imagine.
But that memory was 20 years ago, and I wonder whether the city of my memory exists anymore.
I click on Google Street View, slowly go into town. There it is, on a highway sign, the gnomic little poem of my vacation days, “Oak – Grand – Walnut – Downtown.”
But the warehouses are all gone, the art-deco bridge replaced with something colorless and characterless, the setbacks from the highway wider, greener, planted with dwarfish Austrian pines.
I suppose that this was city council's half-baked attempt at “beautification.” Replace the aesthetics of a previous era with something that only looks good in an artist's rendering. Never mind that the broad, suburban-style lawns are completely incongruous with dense urban space, or with the lonely wood-frame houses and brick commercial buildings pushed to the fringe, their neighbors long since knocked down to make way. Never mind that the cheap, isolated conifers they've planted are ugly even in an exurban office park, let alone in an inner city. And never mind that this space is completely unusable, a park for nobody, a vista for primarily non-local passengers that only lasts in their eyes for a few seconds, if they bother to even glance up.
And those warehouses that have survived on the fringe, a great many have been turned into lofts, the sort you imagine with exposed brick walls and fittings one step up from Ikea, or bar-and-grills that seem suspiciously of the sort that serve “Kobe” burgers that have little connection to Japan, and “truffle fries” made with oil from the New Jersey perfumery plants.
I recognize that I view my beloved abandoned older forms as objects, entities separate from the economic processes that brought them into being. Like an oxbow lake cut off from a river, they become placid, isolated end results of the torrent of capital. And furthermore, it's all too easy to imagine one's own memories to be the most “natural” forms of things.
Yet I truly believe the empty space has become symbolic of the new urban decay. Unlike the old ruins, which left a nasty, corporeal reminder of failure and iteration, the new decay is conversely characterized by emptiness, lack of density, osteoporosis. Sometimes it is insignificant, a vacant lot. Sometimes it is intentional “greening,” the eight-laner that tries to emulate something more verdant, rather than a gray barrier akin to New York's infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway. In an era of demolished public housing, of the repurposing and re-whitening of the urban center, the phony parkland is the new signature of neoliberal displacement.
Consider the blank spots of Detroit. You've seen them all on the news – vast, unused green lawns and tracts of scrub separating houses like farmsteads, both inhabited and not, empty auto plants, smokestacks. Repeat for St. Louis, Buffalo, Youngstown, New Orleans.
And so the zones that are not deemed worthy of growth and replenishment are simply erased, until all that is left are cracked foundations and crabgrass.