Sunday, May 9, 2021

Bulldozers and the failure – or success – of imagination

   The 1930s Masonic Temple in downtown Scranton, Pa., is now the city's Cultural Center. Apologies that  the photo doesn’t do the building justice (thank you, electric wires).

SCRANTON, Pa. – I’ll get to why I'm in Scranton a bit later. I went for a Saturday morning stroll around downtown Scranton on a cloudy, temps-in-the-’40s day. Headline for those unfamiliar with northeast Pennsylvania: Scranton is not a booming Sun Belt city. One clue among many: There is an Anthracite Heritage Museum here. The city’s population is about 77,000, down from a peak of 143,000 in 1930. The surrounding Lackawanna County has also lost population, from 310,000 in 1930 to about 210,000.

Probably not coincidentally, 1930 was the year the Masonic Temple and Scottish Rite Cathedral was built a couple of blocks from the large courthouse square in downtown Scranton. (More history here. The architect Raymond Hood, was one of the Rockefeller Center architects.) I spotted it as I walked past and was struck by the different fates of Scranton’s Masonic Temple versus Charlotte’s. Today, Scranton's Masonic Temple is a well-used Cultural Center.


Charlottes Masonic Temple was built in 1913 – designed by architect  C.C. Hook, whose works, while nowhere near as famous as Rockefeller Center, were well known and admired locally, including the old City Hall on East Trade Street and the Duke Mansion in the heart of Myers Park. But even though it was a local historic landmark, the temple was not preserved and turned into a valuable community space.


Charlotte's Masonic Temple met the fate of so many of the older buildings filled with memory and character in uptown Charlotte. It was demolished for a development project. To be specific, the bank known then as First Union (subsequently known as Wachovia and now Wells Fargo) and its real estate division decided it needed a fancy plaza in front of a vast, shopping mall-esque atrium on South Tryon Street. So they tore down the Masonic Temple and built a green metal kiosk in its place. For a time it held a sort of Chick-Fil-A outpost. It's an appropriate metaphor for the imagination skills of a bank partnering with an office tower developer in the 1980s: thinking a national franchise fast-food joint is a better use of uptown space than a building that could have another century or so of useful community life. For instance, a cultural center. Or maybe, as the town of Shelby did with its Masonic Temple, renovate the building to become residences overlooking their uptown square.


Of course the demolition proposal drew protests from many, but local protests are no match when millions of dollars in development profit are on the table. In hindsight, the loss of that preservation battle pretty much told office tower developers they had carte blanche to demolish any old building in the way of mega-developments. So they did. The columns were hauled off to the neaaarby small city of Rock Hill to become welcoming totems to the city. (Not my faavorite idea but still a bit of aa thumb in the eye to its larger neighbor to the north.


Like the temple, the Chick-Fil-A is gone and now you see just a sort of small, useless green structure. To the right is a postcard photo of the old temple, courtesy of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s website. Below is a Google Street View image (2018) of what replaced it. The larger lesson – to my observation barely half-learned (and that’s generous estimate) by Charlotte’s development and regulatory powers – is that when haste to build whatever is the architect-planner-developer fad of the moment means demolishing of older buildings, opportunities are lost. 


A kiosk, typically unused, sits on the site of the Masonic Temple.

Observe how the local economy’s entrepreneurship scene is strengthened by the new enterprises that flock to the spaces in Optimist Hall and Camp North End, both of them restored former industrial sites. Observe the brewery scene in South End, made possible by the unused old industrial buildings that once languished there. Observe the fledgling artsy area north of NoDa – itself possibly the most lauded example of how old buildings nurture both the arts and new businesses – as old buildings become home to new projects. 

Scranton Cultural Center

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 So ... why Scranton? I’m here for a festival to celebrate the city where urbanist thinker and writer Jane Jacobs grew up and learned her keen powers of observation. It was her intellect and ability to notice that led her to recognize the chasm between the theories and proposals from architects, planners, developers and traffic engineers and how their projects worked in the real world: what was lost, what if anything was gained, and what cities and city economies really need to thrive.


The festival, Observe Scranton, was organized by a nonprofit whose board I chair, the Center for the Living City, and whose executive director, Maria MacDonald, grew up and still lives in Scranton. It’s been several days of events, starting with the book launch on May 4 (the late Jane Jacobs’s birthday) of Jane Jacobss First City: Learning From Scranton, Pennsylvania by Glenna Lang. The idea is to encourage residents to look at their own city, observe what's working, see its possibilities, and get engaged. Next up is to help other cities that might want their own Observe event.