Category Archives: Food

Pruitt Igoe Miscellany

Image courtesy google maps.

Image courtesy google maps.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time.  2012 was the 40th anniversary of the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis, Missouri – one of the most iconic public housing ventures of all time; March 2013 marks the 41st anniversary.  The land where the buildings stood is still vacant, with a fence around it; 57 acres of urban wilderness in the most literal sense.

In recent years, the site has received a lot of attention – most notably, in the form of Pruitt Igoe Now, a documentary released in 2011.  A design competition, soliciting suggestions for what to do with the site, was conducted in 2012 – the winning submissions are viewable on the website; predictably, many focused on urban ag or forestry, though the diversity achieved within the theme is pretty impressive. And the mostly-excellent design podcast 99% Invisible did a piece on Pruitt Igoe for their 44th episode, though most of their content was derived from the film.

Image courtesy Pruitt Igoe Now design competition - from 'Connections,' a finalist in the competition

Image courtesy Pruitt Igoe Now design competition – from ‘Connections,’ a finalist in the competition

There are obviously all sorts of reasons why the housing project failed, and architecture is part of it – similar towers have failed elsewhere; Pruitt Igoe is simply the most iconic. But the film works hard to couch the development’s demise in the larger context of post-war St. Louis, and if you look at the image above, you can get a sense of the devastation experienced by adjacent areas that weren’t leveled. By my count, the twenty blocks north of the development have twenty houses on them.  It is easy to fetishize Pruitt Igoe, but doing so completely ignores the huge swathes of adjacent land that are almost as devastated – and they didn’t have a huge, iconic explosion to help them get that way.

What is to be done with cities like St. Louis, where large chunks of the urban area are essentially ghost towns? Suggestions that the area be allowed to return to nature, that the remaining citizens be relocated, is typically not politically achievable.  On the other hand, neither is it economically feasible to provide urban services to places that have one home per city block, usually with diminishing tax revenue. In New Orleans, the post-Katrina ‘green dot’ map of unviable neighbourhoods provoked a shitstorm of protest from local residents, who in many cases rebuilt with a vengeance in places that should never have been built on in the first place – but that’s a rant for another time.  I’ve written before about neighbourhoods on the cusp, like the Near North Side of Pittsburgh, and I won’t rehash that post anymore here.  Whatever solutions we do come up with for shrinking cities, the testing grounds shouldn’t be limited to the Pruitt Igoe site; while it is absolutely a good idea to invest in the large scale ecological regeneration of  St. Louis, and there is symbolic value to starting with the Pruitt Igoe site, it’s now a 40 year old urban forest and it has value unto itself.  Its not like there’s no other land to work with; maybe just leave well enough alone until such time, if ever, when there’s a reason to redevelop.

And in the meantime, check out the film, podcast, Economist article, MIT studio, and book chapter on St Louis in particular and shrinking cities in general. If you have resources or thoughts on Pruitt Igoe, St. Louis or shrinking cities, please let me know.

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I’d eat there.

This is a departure from our occasional Friday feature, “I’d live there,” but the spirit is the same.  If you’re a regular reader (just kidding! We don’t have any!) you may have read my review of other components of the Barbican arts complex. But the thing that I absolutely, unequivocally loved was the Barbican Foodhall, an award-winning space that has impressively made the most of an ugly, 60s-era space and turned it into something modern and beautiful.

My favoritest favorite thing was the lighting:

Image courtesy eat&travel.  Whoever writes that blog is clearly someone I should be friends with.

I loved the sleek lines and open feel:

And I was totally impressed by the way they used the original Brutalist architecture and made it an asset.

While I only had a pre-made egg sandwich and a lemonade, I would happily eat there again. It was an amazing space.

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“Plenty” Book Review, Three Years Late

“Plenty” is a book I’ve been meaning to read since I was too cheap to buy the hardcover.  Its about a couple who decide that, for one year, they will only consume food grown (GROWN.  Not processed.) within 100 miles of their Vancouver apartment.  I read the book on my recent sojourn through Ithaca, NY, one of the most wonderful hippie-dippie food towns in the world.  Every weekend through summer and fall there is a bustling food market wherein all of the vendors have to come from 30 miles or less.

I really enjoyed Plenty, and I think the most potent argument in favor of local eating is the community that the couple (Alyssa and James) discover in their year of local eating.  I also agree with the critique of the food system that spurred their year of eating locally: they argued the people have become divorced from the means of production (which is pretty inalienable, if you ask me, since I can buy mangoes 12 months out of the year and they don’t exactly thrive in my climate).  They argue that eating locally reinforces communities and helps even the most hardened urbanite reconnect with the surroundings – which is inalienably true, given the hoops the two of them have to go through to secure local wheat and other products.  And they argue that eating locally helps retain the diversity of foods available, rather than hasten the constriction of the food supply of recent decades (there are 500 varieties of apple, but how many different types have you eaten?). But they also do the 100 mile diet as a critique of a food system that is carbon-hungry and unsustainanble (the Vancouver couple buys apples from New Zealand, while apples from Washington state are shipped to Albany, New York).  I agree with their critique in theory, but as they point out in the book, the global food exchange isn’t all that carbon-intensive.  So much food is produced so unsustainably (carbon-based fertilizer, inefficient tractors and other farm machinery, and monoculture that exhausts soil and allows erosion, for starters) that the act of shipping a tomato halfway around the world still only accounts for 6% of its carbon footprint.

In 2008 I read an article from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (ra ra alma mater!) that corroborated this statistic, and concluded that there is really no ecological reason for eating locally, although there are certainly social and economic reasons to do so.  This is something that the authors never address, which I thought was kind of a cop-out.  They clearly establish many good reasons for eating locally, but they never pause to consider why it is that anyone bothers to ship apples across the world in the first place.  Clearly, for most people, the cost isn’t as high as they think it is.  The thing that really got me, though, is that the authors never consider how their carbon footprint, and their foodprint, changed under the 100 mile regime.  I would argue that it was probably more carbon-intensive to drive forty or fifty miles to get nuts and cheese as it was to go to the local mega mart, which have the benefit of supply chain analysis and logistics and whatever else.  I had a similar critique of Michael Pollan’s book “Omnivore’ Dilemma” when he writes about Joel Salatin’s farm, and the customers who drive hours to pick up a chicken.  Just FedEx it, for christ’s sake.

There is plenty about the pattern of Western food consumption to be alarmed by, and certainly a greater focus on eating healthy, local food (no sugar, chocolate, or coffee to be had in Vancouver) is ultimately better for you and for your community.  But is it better for the planet?   Some acknowledgment that it is probably not would have been nice.

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