The question of what makes a good city is as old as cities themselves, yet definitive answers are perpetually elusive. The shimmering promise of one generation's utopian building reaches completion, only to reveal significant shortcomings at a human level.
If it's PPG Place, then the late addition of fountains and ice-skating can help ameliorate the eerie corporate desolation. If it's the Hill District, though, a much larger spectrum of inflicted damage comes into play, along with an incomplete but admirable collection of small-scale victories.
Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D., engages the slowly revitalizing Hill as one of several examples in "Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America's Sorted-Out Cities."
"Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America's Sorted-Out Cities"
By Mindy Thompson Fullilove, M.D.
New Village Press ($19.95).
Dr. Fullilove, a clinical psychiatrist at Columbia University who has lectured, organized and consulted internationally, has worked in the Hill and other Pittsburgh neighborhoods regularly since 1997. One of her fundamental ideas -- that the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods is psychologically damaging to the residents of such areas -- undergirds her 2004 book "Root Shock," in which the Hill also figures prominently.
Dr. Fullilove's writing invariably synthesizes the personal and professional. Her own experience as an African-American child navigating segregated schools and observing the work of her father, Ernie Thompson, a successful labor organizer, informs her approach and provides raw material for her scholarship.
Her baseline concern with the dignity and wisdom of individuals, as well as the absolute necessity of broad-based consensus building, puts her approach on a clear moral high ground to which every urban planner and builder ought to give greater commitment, because it's right and because it works.
"Urban Alchemy" emerges as a book because years of working to counteract the ills of urban destruction have yielded significant successes in the form of insights, relationships, spaces and even, with the help of collaborators, some buildings.
Yet Dr. Fullilove's grounding in disciplines outside urban design results in a complex and multivalent work. To some degree, it is a handbook, with a nine-point instruction list for how to improve cities, starting with "Keep the Whole City in Mind," continuing through "Unpuzzle the Fractured Space" and ending with "Celebrate Your Accomplishments."
From Pittsburgh, to East Orange, N.J., to Harlem to Paris, examples emerge of successful approaches to rebuilding neighborhoods on a variety of scales.
To another degree, Dr. Fullilove is at least as eager to share relationships, journeys and discoveries as she is to instruct.
In Pittsburgh, she highlights the work of architects Ken Doyno and Dan Rothschild, whose genuine engagement of neighborhood constituencies undergirds their work. In every project they collect input from community members and list it as "What we heard" in widely circulated project sketchbooks. Their Legacy apartments in the Hill District demonstrate how such dialogues can result in building consensus, not just bricks and mortar.
One anecdote of neighborhood interconnectedness is her mother, Maggie, rushing to her East Orange home after work to encourage a group of young musicians in her home, but quiet them ever so slightly.
Another is Martin, a later neighbor in Washington Heights in Manhattan, who opens a successful coffee cart on a previously forbidding corner. These are indications or beginnings of larger successes.
Accordingly, the reader doesn't simply get a summary of texts from engaging French urbanist Michel Cantal-Dupart, one of Dr. Fullilove's most influential collaborators. Rather, we meet him as a kindred spirit at an urbanism convention and travel with him, learning lessons in urbanism, through a succession of visits to lesser-known French cities.
If "Urban Alchemy" has a weakness, it lies in occasional unevenness. The text has great anecdotes, but it sometimes dallies in them, only to gloss over complex conclusions too swiftly. The explanation of Pittsburgh's "red-lining" map of the 1930s is crucially under analyzed, for example. Yet elsewhere the text is scholarly and rigorous.
Admittedly, though, this book is a didactic effort to vary types of information gathering, analysis and hands-on practice. It says, both on and between the lines, to try many approaches from the modest to the expert approaches. When you listen to everyone, the results may be uneven.
The ambitions of the title aside, the author acknowledges that no single urbanist will ever have a recipe for complete success.
"Urban Alchemy" is not so much a guaranteed process for creating urban gold as it is a collection of a few absolutely requisite, all-too-frequently ignored ingredients -- and an exhortation to keep trying them.
Charles Rosenblum is a historian, critic and educator who writes about architecture (thisisCLR@gmail.com).