Imagining the Urban Wilderness: The Rhetoric of Resettling the 21st-Century City
This week Indianapolis Monthly sounded a familiar celebration of downtown living when it nostalgically remembered the city’s first “urban pioneers” who settled historic homes in the wake of postwar urban renewal. The enthusiasm for new urbanites, rehabilitating historic properties, and fresh development are typical threads of 21st-century city boosterism. Such rhetoric fancies that young well-educated bourgeois will reclaim the city from ruins, optimistically envisioning a future urban landscape of “apartment dog parks and rooftop pools.” Indianapolis Monthly’s enthusiasm for a radically transformed urban core is not at all unique and not necessarily completely misplaced. Nevertheless, its celebration of “urban pioneers” and development ignores the heritage of postwar urban displacement and evades the structural inequality that makes gentrification possible.
Indianapolis Monthly’s unvarnished celebration of development extends postwar urban renewal rhetoric and has its roots in late-19th century nationalist ideologies. The metaphor of new urbanites as “pioneers” evokes an imagination of America most clearly articulated at the end of the 19th century by historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner argued that American history and our very national personality are rooted in our experience of the American frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Pioneers stood at the boundary of the frontier, where they appropriated “free land” based on a distinctively American individualism, self-reliance, ambition, and egalitarianism rooted in our presumed right to secure land and entertain the potential for prosperity.
When contemporary urban champions invoke the metaphors of frontier, pioneer, and wilderness they are participating in a longstanding discourse that assumes that transformations in the city and the nation’s broader spatial and social fabric are wrought in the interests of America. Observers have long described and rationalized urban renewal and transformation using that same language. In 1957, for instance, Baltimore’s The Sun indicated that “urban renewal has been described as the new American frontier.” The Sun invoked concepts that would have been familiar to Turner when it referred to the residents of one Baltimore block as “urban pioneers” who are “an example of the pioneering spirit, in the old sense of men and women working for themselves to create a better, brighter life though in a new-style wilderness of blight, an asphalt jungle. Without that spirit of self-help and individual initiative, the whole expensive machinery of urban renewal may grind away for years without changing more than the external appearances of slum housing.” The Sun’s analysis circumspectly approved urban renewal projects while it celebrated the residents who it presumed had sufficient initiative, ambition, and commitment to revive the dying city.
Most of the popular discourse on the transformation of urban communities came after the earliest postwar wave of urban displacement, highway construction, and city planning scattered long-term residential communities and accelerated the decline of historic homes. A 1978 article on the urban “housing frontier” proclaimed that the “mayhem the urban pioneer finds in most loft buildings is as difficult to clear as the wilderness tackled 200 years ago by less urban-minded pilgrims.” Some of those challenges were practical (e.g., aging structures), but the popular press focused much of its attention on criminality and slum stereotypes. A 1975 article repeated a theme common to many accounts of urban pioneers when it described the challenge of rehabilitating present-day slums, detailing a Dallas neighborhood that “is no longer the fashionable part of the city that it was at the turn of the century. There are more bars there than in most residential areas. Robberies often go unreported. City codes enforcement is lax, mainly because violations are not reported by its inhabitants–the aging, the minorities, and poor whites.” In 1989 an Indianapolis Star columnist repeated these themes when it headlined an article on urban neighborhoods as “Urban pioneers live in fear of crossfire.” The column concluded that a “massive two-story frame dwelling” settled by a family of “urban pioneers … seems like a mirage in a neighborhood of broken windows and vacant lots and scruffy cars full of idle young dudes.”
Many of these urban resettlement narratives cast the urban pioneer as a zealous defender of the nation’s historic fabric. In 2002 the President Emerita of Northern Arizona University wrote a column in the Arizona Republic describing herself as “an explorer by birth” who began to explore Phoenix neighborhoods after “a visit to Northern Arizona University’s leased offices” made her question “what the older residential neighborhoods of Phoenix were like before suburban sprawl.” She romanticized that she had since been “exploring central Phoenix’s residential streets through the eyes of a seasoned `urban pioneer.’ In the 1970s, when I worked in Manhattan, I participated in the rebirth of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, Brooklyn’s historic and majestic brownstone neighborhoods. A decade later, I witnessed a similar rebirth of residential neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., such as Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle.” Her excitement for the historic homes that had survived urban renewal around her University’s offices did not illuminate the University’s role in that displacement, but her theme of “rebirth” fueled by new residents is common in “urban revitalization” discourses painting new residents as selflessly resurrecting historic neighborhoods.
Indianapolis Monthly’s assessment of downtown living in the Circle City sounds many of these same notes. The magazine describes a city that was not necessarily in ruins as much as it suffered from decline and banality, suggesting “downtown Indianapolis was a drowsy concrete hamlet that sleepwalked during the day and hit the snooze button at night.” In Indianapolis Monthly’s history of the city, in the early 1980s Mayor William Hudnut spearheaded the construction of Circle Centre Mall (which opened in September 1995) and championed a series of projects like securing the Colts in 1984 that “gave downtown a pulse, but he couldn’t give it a heart.” That “heart” came from the stream of new urbanites who moved into the city and “evangelized about the opportunity downtown.” Indianapolis Monthly acknowledges that most of these new “residents are Millennials and empty nesters, either affluent or disciplined enough to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.” It is not entirely clear how “discipline” functions in urban transformation, but the magazine inventories a host of likely attractions like professional sports, motorized scooters, and microbreweries (which the magazine describes as “America’s barometer of urban hipness”).
Indianapolis Monthly’s effort to celebrate the people who have moved downtown is perhaps heartfelt, but like nearly all gentrification discourses it strategically evades the structural forces that gutted the postwar city and ignores the working-class and African-American residents who continue to be displaced after an uninterrupted half-century of urban renewal. A host of “placemaking” projects and re-imaginations of the city share an aversion to acknowledging the ways urban renewal displaced a broad range of working-class and African-American communities, and like much of the urban design that followed postwar displacement the discussion about heritage, materiality, and place has often ignored descendant communities as well as contemporary stakeholders. Rather than imagine the city as a “frontier” to be colonized by affluent millennials seeking luxury rentals where they can live the experience economy, perhaps many of these new urbanites are seeking a place rooted in concrete heritage and contemporary equity.