Interview with Bettina Drew

An Interview with Bettina Drew

Bettina Drew, the author of a biography of Nelson Algren, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, recently published Crossing the Expendable Landscape, a collection of essays on the development, or re-development, of American cities over the past twenty years. In the book, Drew examines the consequences of built environments that fail to recognize regional, historic, aesthetic, and social values. In many cases, the cities seem to have been custom-built to suit the needs of corporations who can provide a tax base, while ignoring the needs of the people who live and work within the municipalities. Drew advocates the work of the New Urbanists, a group of architects and planners who focus on the human use of urban environments in planning development.

Drew was recently in Chicago to give several readings from her new book. I sat down with her for lunch at a small restaurant off the Polish Triangle in Chicago’s Near-West side. We had the following conversation over plates of cheese blintzes and cabbage pirogues.

Scott: After working on your Algren biography, what in particular drew you to writing this book, about development in American cities?

BETTINA DREW: Two things. After writing a biography and spending a lot of time in archives with books and so forth, I found that I really wanted to look. I like the orientation of just going out and looking, and seeing what I could discover just by looking.

Also, because of my experience publishing the Nelson Algren biography: before that, I had basically been a teacher, an adjunct, so I never really had contact with the for-profit world. I was pretty stunned by my treatment by the big conglomerate that published my first book. Because of my experience, I became aware of how literature has become seen as just a product. It made me aware of how the corporate egos have invaded American culture. I wanted to write about this, but I didn’t want to write about my own experience, because people might think “Oh, that’s just sour grapes.”

So I wanted to take something that could not be denied. Physical buildings are there. No one can say that they’re not.

Scott: Speaking of corporate treatment in the publishing world, is your Algren biography out of print?

Bettina: It was in paperback from University of Texas Press, but the last I checked, it was out out print there as well. But I’m going to place it with the Authors Guild, they have a new service for selling out of print books. I know that there are still copies extant for both the hardcover and the paperback.

Scott: I was kind of surprised when I went to look for it online and it popped up out of print. As the only substantial biography of a major American author, it is exactly the kind of thing that publishers should be keeping in print, especially now that the big publishers have access to print-on-demand systems, which could keep their backlists available for short runs.

Bettina: Tell your readers to be sure and look it up with the Authors Guild.

Scott: The “New City” chapter of the book, focuses on Stamford, Connecticut, which, at least from your description, seems like an example of developer just tearing down the heart of a city, its downtown area.

Bettina: Well, he didn’t tear it down, the Urban Renewal Commission tore the buildings down, and then sold it to a single developer. The head of the Urban Renewal Commission was a wife and mother who had been active in civic issues, and not someone who had a background in civic planning. She went to HUD in New York, and they said, “Well the easiest way to do it is just to get a single developer.” So they did that, and in fact they’re the only city that ever did that. I don’t want to speculate, but it may have been some sexism on the part of the HUD guy in New York, who saw that this woman didn’t really know anything about urban development.

In that way, it was really the government’s fault. Usually I’m on the side of government. But as I write in the last line of the essay, “The government of Stamford reduced its citizens to the bottom line.” It was all for a tax base. It was a completely rational, unsympathetic treatment of both the buildings and the people in Stamford. It was all just about money. They thought that that was what civic duty entailed. This is something that I see at work in the United States on a large scale.

Scott: Where there’s not much of a sense that a city should have a city center, a civic center?

Bettina: Right, where downtowns are being sacrificed but more, just places for the public good, places where people can come together as a community. Certainly, people can come together in a mall. But there used to be places like village greens, parks with promenades, community oriented spaces, that a city might build.

Scott: And as you note, the mall is now the only place for that in Stamford.

Bettina: Well, it is downtown retail now. All the little businesses were forced out. It is a bald, upwards concentration of capital.

This is another one of my pet peeves. I live in a rural community in upstate New York, and our town can support only a small shopping area with a drug store, liquor store, and laundromat. The drug store owner retired and was bought out by a chain, Rite Aid. Did Rite-Aid use the existing drug store? No. They built a brand-new structure which we really didn’t need, and now we have an empty structure in the shopping center. And the same thing has happened, only with a different chain, in a neighboring town, Cairo. These decisions are being made in corporate headquarters, and they have very little to do with the locality into which they are coming. They just buy the land, and most localities, especially in rural areas, are not used to considering their property as worth something, so they don’t have effective zoning, or a land-use plan.

I think that we need to think of land as a resource, as a communal resource, and that we have the right to decide whether our cities are going to be ringed by strip commercial roads, or by green belts.

The American way of life, it seems to me, is increasingly less and less not only about learning from the past, but also less and less about preparing for the future. There isn’t a coherent vision that we’re striving for.

Scott: I guess that given the way that capital flows, maybe it’s inescapable. For instance, in Chicago, the mayor’s been big on beautification. Here on Ashland, for instance, the street has been boulevarded, blown out, and there’s a median with flowerpots in the center. Which is great, it’s nice to see, but on the other hand, the beautification always seems to come either right before, or right after, some major action by developers, which is usually to buy the old buildings, often to tear them down and put up new constructions, which are often quite hideous. And then of course, the people living in the previously low-rent neighborhood get shifted out. So it has the effect of pushing poverty west. So it’s okay if that part of the city has poor services and look like crap, as long as the downtown area is secured for the middle and upper class.

Bettina: The poor are always the first hurt and the last helped.

Scott: It always flows down to money somehow or another–and usually not money for the community as a whole.

Bettina: Right. Bribery.

Scott: It seems like Real Estate’s loaded with it.

Bettina: A developer says “Here’s seven thousand dollars,” and a public official is thinking, “My god, my kid needs braces . . .”

Scott: Graft’s a powerful thing. In the “Privatopia” and “The Coastal Empire” sections of the book, you make a pretty alarming, and accurate observation that, in redeveloping Hilton Head Island into gated communities and resorts, the developers are doing a pretty good job, at least from an economic standpoint, or recreating the Plantation culture (the slave-based culture) of the Old South. What do you think this kind of nostalgia represents?

Bettina: In the gated community I describe in the book, the term “plantation” was used without the slightest bit of self-consciousness. It is particularly offensive to the African Americans living there. I chose Hilton Head because it has been entirely developed into these gated guarded communities, though I don’t think that the issue I was talking about there is so much confined to the South, but is relevant all over the United States, where gated communities are being erected. In this case, the poor happen to be Black, but they are of other ethnicities in other areas.

Scott: I know that in the suburbs of Chicago, particularly the ones with gated communities, the police force per capita is something like three or four times as much as it is here in the city. So basically you have these communities where there’s no bones about it, if you look like you’re not from the community, they’ll use that alone as a grounds to stop you.

Bettina: It’s hard to separate out issues of race and class in the United States. Slavery had such an unbelievable impact that is not given its full credit. There is an historian in England who is doing a comparative study of slave cultures to find how long it takes for a former slave population to become part of the mainstream, to overcome the lack of inherited wealth, the psycho-social wounds and so forth. The answer is about ten generations. Here we are at about the seventh generation of emancipation of slaves. So we’re not there yet.

Scott: Definitely not. A friend of mine, an African American, was just downsized from her position at a Real Estate management concern. After that conversation, and being given virtually no justification for their decision, she went down on the street to hail a taxicab. She had four drivers, with their available lights on, turn off those lights and drive by, as soon as they saw she was African American.

Bettina: Horrible.

Scott: Ignorance prevails all over the land.

Bettina: An interesting thing about Hilton Head is that a lot of its problems could have been anticipated or alleviated by looking at their history. The whole development of the island discourages this, and encourages the people who live on the island to pick out a little bit of history, as if history is a box out of which you can pull little pieces, and enjoy them on their own, with no connecting narrative.

Scott: You bring out that whole element of nostalgia in the Simi Valley section of your book as well, where they adopt this Western ethos.

Bettina: Simi Valley is the place where the Rodney King verdict came down. It’s a place that is physically set off from Los Angeles by a ring of mountains. There was a real frontier mentality there. On the first night I was visiting there, there was a city council meeting. They were up in arms over a variance, the local police chief was going to put a few restrictions on their right to carry handguns. Of course, they could already carry a gun at the hip, ankle, and shoulder. Anyway, the NRA stacked the meeting to fight any restrictions whatsoever.

I found this a lot of places: people referring to “them,” i.e. the savages in Los Angeles, versus “us.” It is basically a mentality of conflict, that presupposes not the similarities between people, but the differences. This ideology of domestic conflict is something that I think came out of the struggles in the West with Native Americans, and with Mexicans to a lesser degree. It was, philosophically, a reactionary way to approach life, that other people are different from you, as opposed to a more positive way of looking at things, where you would start with the similarities between groups of people.

Scott: It seems similar to what goes on in Stamford, where the people who live in a place before the frontiersman, or the developer, come in to make it habitable for American business, are perceived only as obstacles to development.

Bettina: When the dreams died in the West, where land was plentiful, people just moved somewhere else and started again. Hence you now see this movement in the West to states that had previously been less populated: Idaho, Montana, Nevada, places like that. But in the East, where land is scarcer, and more highly developed, the impulse is to tear it down, and start again.

Scott: When I was living in Normal, Illinois, occasionally we’d drive out to smaller towns in central Illinois, and we’d see these deserted old town squares from the twenties and thirties. You’d get a sense that there was once a community there, the memory of which is now reflected only in the architecture.

Bettina: The twenties and thirties were a real heyday of American town planning, where you’d have a small town with a discernable center of the town with civic buildings, a school, and you could easily walk to the outlying perimeter of the town, usually only a quarter of a mile away. Those are some of the ideas that the New Urbanism is trying to bring back into the planning of communities.

Scott: Dallas sounded really frightening from your description in the book. Is it this kind of vast, spread-out city?

Bettina: Downtown Dallas is pretty pretty depopulated. First of all, they’ve made all these underground and aboveground walkways, so there’s no street-life. Coming from the East, I was so stupid, I booked a room at the downtown Holiday Inn, figuring I’d be centrally located. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. There is no real center to Dallas.

I did find Dallas kind of frightening. The talk there was all about money, constantly “develop, develop, develop.” They’re constantly talking about teardowns, and the houses that are sold are of far better quality than the rental houses. When African Americans or Hispanics move into a certain neighborhood, the other people move out and then the people who live in the neighborhood have a hard time getting the property values back up. So there are a lot of old Southern ideas hanging around in there that aren’t that great.

I felt like Texas was another country. They’d never heard of recycling; it was just consumer waste wherever you’d look: waste of land, waste of infrastructure, waste of architecture, building these buildings that noone would occupy.

Scott: And not much of a civic culture, outside of the Cowboys? You write about the JFK assassination museum, which left me with this image of downtown Dallas as a place where the only thing going on is the tourists lining up to see where JFK got shot.

Bettina: Well, that was an important moment in American history. I was glad I got to see where it happened. It was a good museum, it was a moment of enlightenment.

Scott: Celebration was an interesting chapter of the book. At first I expected another Disney-bashing, which is always fun and valid, but I was surprised at your take on it. Were you surprised?

Bettina: I thought it was very pleasant, very pretty. So yes. Architecturally, and design-wise, I really had no quarrels with Celebration. My quarrel was that Disney was trying to make it look like a real town, but in fact it was just a community interest development with a homeowner’s association. They even went so far as to build a town hall, when there is no democratic structure in place. And of course Disney is all about image, about conveying an image. They work very hard to do that.

Scott: Disney seems to have some good ideas at work in Celebration, but ideas that you’d like to see in a different context. Could you elaborate on what you saw as “the good things” going on there?

Bettina: Celebration is roughly based on the ideas of the New Urbanism, in that it’s a walkable town, the school is within walking distance, so the children can walk to school. It’s a public school, although it’s different from other public schools; it’s mostly Celebration people, only 20% of its population can come from outside. It has a downtown that can also be walked to, that has little shops and nice little restaurants. So for little daily needs, you don’t have to go to a commercial strip, though those are not that far away, you don’t have to have them right in your face. There’s a lovely little lake there. The whole town was designed by many very talented architects; Ceaser Pele did an art-deco style movie theater, Philip Johnson did the town hall, Michael Graves did a building there, and then Robert Stern, who is now the Dean of Architecture at Yale, directed the project, along with Jacquelin Robert. So they assembled quite a talented crew. It’s a mixture of traditional homes, Colonial homes, Victorian homes, Low Country houses, and townhouses, and there are some rental units there too, in the downtown. They took a lot of ideas from Charleston, Savannah, and other historical Southern cities. There are little walkways, and courtyards, things like that. Very pleasant, very pleasant little town. And of course the weather is beautiful.

Scott: Do you think any of the positive aspects of Celebration, that the community was at least planned for civic life, do you think that kind of approach is being or could be applied in major American cities?

Bettina: There are New Urbanist developments in cities all over the place. Some of them are in new towns, with some shops in the downtown, but this can also been done in subdivisions. You build a little village, with a subdivision around it. But the houses are more closely spaced and so forth. But New Urbanist ideas can also be used in redevelopment and infill sites. By infill, I mean you have a building that is rundown, and either you build a new building there, or your renovate it, so instead of leaving that a blank space, a city could encourage building in that spot, increase the density, making it less sprawling, and then you can do sidewalk amenities and so forth. You can do this without calling in the New Urbanist planners. Charleston, for instance, has a mayor is pro-preservationist. He’ll do some arm twisting to see that historic buildings are not unnecessarily torn down. For instance, one building was owned by a bank, and the mayor could arrange to have some deposits shifted to that bank, or out of that bank, to encourage the bank not to tear the building down. So some arm-twisting did go on, but one good thing about Charleston is its historic nature. They developed the waterfront there in a way that allowed all the people of Charleston, rich and poor, to use it and enjoy it. The mayor is very committed to that kind of thing, and the city has a direction. There is a conscious effort, he believes that things can be made to work. A lot of it is being committed to a vision, and believing that you can make a difference. So rather than what is now the old style of thinking–“oh, let’s put a shopping center there.” Like in New Haven, they’re building a huge mall. New Haven is one of the oldest cities in the state, it still has a common green. It has lovely buildings on the green, and churches and so forth. But the owners of the city want to put a mall in there. It’s absurd.

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