Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall. Photo by Sean_Marshall on Flickr.
Why does a proposal for a sidewalk cafe generally draw widespread praise, but a suggestion to use public space for skateboarding engender scorn? Is there really something better about dining versus skating, or is it simply that younger, poorer, and/or more minority residents skateboard, whereas eating at an outdoor cafe is beloved by wealthier, whiter, and older people?
Both are activities that take up some public space, generate some noise, and provide enjoyment to those participating. Yet most sidewalk cafes are uncontroversial and even eagerly welcomed by nearly all, yet when Dan Reed mentioned yesterday how skaters were starting to use the new Silver Spring plaza, several commenters advocated banning all skaters from the face of the earth.
An interesting analogue is Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall. This is a pedestrian-only street lined with retail and atop a number of transit lines. Yet when I first went there, my first reaction was that it seemed run down or blighted. But it turns out that Fulton Mall is “by some measures the third most financially successful commercial street in the country, with ground floor rents commanding over $200 a square foot,” Daniel Nairn notes in his review of a new book on Fulton Mall.
Why the disconnect? How can an extremely high-value retail corridor look so poor? To a large extent, it’s because black people shop there, and people with a wide variety of income levels. As a result, the stores resemble those we’re used to seeing on commercial streets in poor neighborhoods.
The authors suggest that the perpetual calls to “revitalize” Fulton may be more situated in particular cultural values than anchored to actual numbers.
“Fulton Mall continued to be judged not by the literal value of the goods sold but by the cultural value that the mainstream applied to them, thus trapping its public image as a failure. Given these terms, what could success look like?”
Rosten Woo surmises that the real motivation behind the various revitalization schemes has not been to create a more successful retail environment, but rather to create a public amenity attractive to the new affluent white residents moving in to the brownstones and condos around it.
There are other aspects of Fulton Mall that everyone agrees are problematic. For example, there are no benches, and many of the upper floors of the buildings are entirely vacant. Historic buildings have garish facades covering up their beautiful detailing. However, the street has many small, independent shops, good ground floor permeability, some street trees, and excellent transit.
We need to avoid the tendency to assume that good urbanism only looks like whatever we like. Good urbanism is about creating places that many people want to go, where they are safe, where there are activities, and where they don’t have to travel long distances or be forced to use automobiles to satisfy life’s everyday needs.
If those people are black teenagers and they want to roll around on little boards, they should be accommodated just as much as if they’re 30-something white couples with strollers who want to pop into a baby boutique. That assumes that the people in question aren’t committing crimes, but as Dan has noted, skateboarding gives many teens something to do that doesn’t involve mischief.
We see a similar dynamic in the debates about bars or dog parks. Bars generally appeal to younger people, and some older residents share their fists at the proliferation of bars. There needs to be a balance between accommodating social gathering and not creating too much noise too late at night or creating magnets for crime. Dog parks appeal to dog owners, of course, and likewise there needs to be a balance between letting dogs get exercise and not having too much barking too late at night, or poop that doesn’t get cleaned up, or other side effects.
Cafes and skating likewise create some side effects (trash that can attract rodents for cafes, for example), but bars, dog parks, summer outdoor movies, playgrounds, cafes, and skate areas are all ways groups of people can and should utilize our public spaces. And all, whether skating kids of any color, seniors, parents, recent college grads who like to drink, dog owners, or anyone else, are entitled to have some public space for their enjoyment.
Update: To clarify, I’m not arguing that skateboarding should be encouraged or even allowed in every public space, just like dog exercise or picnicking or softball should not be accommodated in every public space. However, some of yesterday’s comments leaned more toward “skateboarding is an evil that should be stamped out,” instead of “skateboarders should get their own skate park in Silver Spring so they don’t need to use the plaza.” Each public space can accommodate a different set of activities, but communities should design their mix of public spaces to provide opportunities for the full range of uses residents would like to make of their spaces.