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Sprawl Critic's Walking Tour of Bay City

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Sunday, September 26, 2010

Last week, both candidates for governor spoke to the Michigan Municipal League in Dearborn. They said they wanted to fix the state’s cities. A more fierce advocate for cities also spoke to the crowd. That was Jim Kunstler. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus heard him in Dearborn and the week before in Bay City where they took a walking tour.

The Downtowns Conference was held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Bay City. Keynote speaker James Howard Kunstler walked out a couple hundred feet toward the Saginaw River. He approached five men spreading dirt around newly planted trees.

“Are you guys planting these trees according to any particular scheme or are you just planting them here and there”

“We just want to get the grass growing again. When the construction company come in they didn’t finish it up. That’s our project.”

The man spreading dirt didn’t impress Kunstler who walked a few paces and said:

“If you were in a culture where people really knew how to do this kind of thing, if they had any skill, you’d say oh, we’re gonna plant a row of trees on the esplanade so that when people walk here on a hot summer day they can walk in the shade.”

Kunstler is a leader in the tiny movement called new urbanism. He says most of the roads and buildings made after World War 2 have destroyed peoples’ lives. He continues along the riverwalk the city recently built. This fountain is ok, he says. But they built it with cheap materials that will fall apart.

“This building’s a doozy. This I guess is the planetarium that I heard so much about. What they managed to put it in is a building that is so stupifyingly intrusive and hideous. In front of it is a big red cone made of some kind of metal sheething about 4 stories high. It literally looks like a saturn rocket booster. So the architectural profession has been much more interested in mystifying the public in the last 50 years than in making them feel comfortable.”

Michigan State University did a study of Michigan metro areas in 2002. It showed Saginaw-Bay City-Midland sprawled out the fastest. Land was developed 27 times faster than the population did. The Lansing area, by contrast, grew by just 3 to 1. Kunstler is a New Yorker. He laments the shopping malls off the exits of I-75. He likes what Bay City’s lumber barons built in the late 1800′s.

“Here’s an interesting thing. We’ve got one intact block of urban fabric of buildings that are between 2 and 4 stories. And the one in the center, the windows have been covered up. There’s a weird mural on the facie above the storefronts. No idea what it is but next to it are three traditional buildings that retain their original ornaments and proportions. You can see how graceful the buildings and their elements are. These beautiful swags and ornaments and palasters in that bay window with that little copper roof on it and the little moldings that produce shadows to give form to the outside of the building. These are things that we understood how to do before the second world war that we just abandoned.”

McCarus interrupts.

“One second. Sir do you know where the old train station is that was recently redone? It’s over here about two blocks. Down the corner to the left and you’ll find it.”

The two men walk and enter the restored train station. However, it’s in the middle of a parking lot. The train tracks are gone. Kunstler says:

“This is a map of the Pere Marquette railway which was apparently a very important railway system through Michigan. You can see that it was not very difficult for people to take a train from Saginaw, Detroit or Flint or Traverse City and be in Chicago in a few hours. You can’t do that anymore.”

They walk back outside. They get to a stop light and have to raise their voices over a motorcycle’s exhaust pipes.

McCarus says:

“We’re at the corner of Washington and Center Street in downtown Bay City.”

“And Washington seems to be their main street,” Kunstler says.

“Is this worth revitalizing?” McCarus asks.

“Oh yeah. It’s worth revitalizing,” Kunstler says. “Michigan has certain virtues of geography. It’s surrounded by this great inland sea of fresh water. It has a lot of scenic value. It used to have a lot of really beautiful towns but like so many places in the Midwest they mostly committed suicide in order to accommodate cars to the max.”

James Howard Kunstler is best known for his book ‘Geography of Nowhere.’ His latest is ‘The Witch of Hebron.’

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