10 Unbelievable Urban Prairies

Shocking Urban Prairies

1. What to do About the Expanding Urban Prairie

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For anyone wanting a real-life lesson in supply and demand, and the impacts of disinvestment and population loss, a visit to the East Side is a must.  Buffalo’s expanding ‘urban prairie’ is an everyday reality for residents of Masten, Broadway/Fillmore, Cold Springs and other neighborhoods.

The US Census counted 23,000 vacant housing units in 2000.  There are thousands more vacant lots, many of them City-owned.  It’s enough to keep a blogger busy.  David Torke has been documenting Buffalo’s expanding urban prairie on his blog Fix Buffalo since 2004.  His photos and blog posts are enlightening.

One has to wonder if political leaders are willing to accept the reality of a smaller Buffalo.   It is uncomfortable to face a shrinking community.  That requires vision and leadership.  Instead, we look for magic bullets that will help bring back our former grandeur.  Never mind pesky socio-economic and New York State realities.

To date, the City’s approach has been demolition of dilapidated structures, a sprinkling of rehab loans, and scattershot, mostly subsidized infill construction to rebuild neighborhoods and replace an aging housing stock.  Mayor Brown’s 5-in-5 demolition plan aims to remove 5,000 vacant structures over five years at an estimated cost of $100 million.  Which begs the question, at what point does a smaller tax base and fewer residents make it necessary to reduce nonessential infrastructure?

Few politicians talk about the population decline and its fundamental causes such as job loss, poverty, poorly performing schools, crime, and high taxes.  They’re better at throwing money at the symptoms, but not nearly enough to deal with the problem or stop the exodus.

There have been plenty of studies, but little implementation.  That was one of the findings of Blueprint Buffalo – Regional Strategies and Local Tools for Reclaiming Vacant Properties, released in 2006.  It said the “shifting fortunes of the Buffalo-Niagara region have made it one of the most-studied urban areas in the nation.”

MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning is using Buffalo’s epidemic of abandoned property as a learning lab.  Perhaps the students can suggest a new way of thinking that will catch on.


2. Outlines Emerge for a Shaken New Orleans

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At one edge of this city’s future are the extravagant visions of its boosters. Awash in federal cash, the New Orleans they dream of will be an arts-infused mecca for youthful risk-takers, a boomtown where entrepreneurs can repair to cool French Quarter bars in ancient buildings after a hard day of deal making.

At the other extreme are the gloomy predictions of the pessimists. New Orleans will be Detroit, they say, a sickly urban wasteland abandoned by the middle class. A moldering core will be surrounded by miles of vacant houses, with wide-open neighborhoods roamed by drug dealers and other criminals. The new New Orleans will be merely a grim amplification of its present unpromising self, the pessimists say.

Somewhere between these unrealistic visions lies a glimpse of the city’s real future a year after Hurricane Katrina, say many planners, demographers and others here who have been deeply involved in rebuilding. Like a half-completed drawing in a child’s coloring book, the picture is starting to fill in. There are shadows and firmer outlines, a few promising, some of them menacing.

New Orleans will almost certainly be smaller than it was. Repopulation has slowed to a trickle, leaving the city with well under half its prestorm population of 460,000. It will probably have fewer poor people; its housing projects remain essentially closed, and many poorer neighborhoods are still devastated. With inexpensive housing scarce and not being built, partly because of the paralysis in recovery planning, it is easier for the middle class than the poor to return.

New Orleans, the demographers think, has begun to shrink back to its historic dimensions, the ones that existed before a post-World War II expansion through the back swamps, and the ones that visitors know best. Life in the smaller city will be concentrated in the mostly middle-class districts closer to the Mississippi River that bounced back after the storm. Some of these districts were unaffected by flooding; already they bustle with commerce.

No area is officially off the table for redevelopment. But the silence and emptiness of outlying neighborhoods near Lake Pontchartrain and in east New Orleans appear to be harbingers of the future.

“I think people will get discouraged, and some of those areas will not be rebuilt,” said Pres Kabacoff, a leading developer here.

Within these more concentrated neighborhoods, it will be somewhat whiter, though still mostly black over all. The electorate was 57 percent black in last spring’s mayoral runoff; before the storm it was typically in the low 60’s.

Neighborhoods ruined now will probably shrivel further, planning experts say.

The Lower Ninth Ward, still a barren wasteland, is unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon, if at all. Gentilly, a classic 1920’s and 30’s New Orleans neighborhood of Arts and Crafts-style stucco houses with wide overhanging eaves, is coming back only fitfully, with a few trailers visible in front yards of once-flooded houses. Tremé, with its 19th-century Creole cottages and shotgun houses, across Rampart Street from the French Quarter, is being reclaimed, but abandonment alternates with revival, as is the case throughout the city.

These uncertain indicators yield to a more hopeful one: a wave of citizen activism in the wake of the storm that is chipping away at some of this city’s unhealthy institutions. It has already toppled some of the old structures that helped cement prestorm New Orleans in poverty and despair.

The schools, a dysfunctional catastrophe before the storm, have been removed from the control of a corrupt district office; just under two-thirds are now in the hands of parents and community activists as charter schools. (Students not admitted to charters, however, will have to attend a state-run school district rife with problems.)

The City Council is under the influence of impatient newcomers pledging reform and pushing for tighter ethics. They are threatening to dismantle a feudal means of resolving everyday planning disputes, long discarded elsewhere. The crippling fiscal structure, long a hurdle to raising adequate revenue in this impoverished city, is under assault. Voters will soon decide whether to throw out the balkanized system of seven district property assessors.

‘There’s a Lot of Uncertainty’

With government a light or invisible presence since the storm, citizens have taken matters into their own hands, whether to overhaul institutions, clean streets or resurrect the city’s parks. If there is to be a new New Orleans, its seeds are to be found in this low-intensity citizens’ revolution that has some people here credibly claiming to find promise among the ruins.

“There was a wall against ideas in New Orleans for years,” said William Borah, a veteran civic activist who helped defeat a proposed riverfront expressway here in the mid-1960’s. “That wall has been broken down.”

Still, under present conditions, hope requires faith. “Over all, it’s scary,” said Tim Williamson of the Idea Village, a local nonprofit organization that supports small business. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Oppressed by the midsummer heat, this city is now traversing a bleak trough: the planners are still squabbling a year after the storm, forests of uncut weeds grow in the medians, and measurable progress is difficult to detect. St. Charles Avenue on a summer evening has an eerily empty feel; one plausible recent population count, based on Postal Service data, put the figure at 171,000, well below City Hall’s claim of 250,000. The population is thought to be roughly what it was around 1880.

From the living zone near the river, a trip north of any distance is sobering: blocks of sagging houses not so much empty as dead, and heaps of rubble and garbage with dogs and rats among them. At odd intervals, the occasional householder can be spotted on a porch, looking out with a furrowed brow, trying to make a go of it in the ruins.

New Orleans now, often rudderless, filthy and still deeply scarred by the storm, is hemorrhaging some of the people it can least afford to lose. In the professional classes, nearly half the doctors and three-fourths of the psychiatrists have left, the largest synagogue says its congregation is down by more than 10 percent, and a big local moving company reports a “mass evacuation.”

Tens of thousands in the African-American working-class backbone remain unable to return. They have been replaced by hundreds of Hispanic workers who have done much of the heavy lifting in the reconstruction, and live in rough conditions. In the meantime, the only thriving industry is the back-street drug trade, pessimists note.

The outside world is scared by New Orleans. Banks, for instance, are insisting on unusually high collateral in real estate deals, and for good reason, given a homicide rate that is double its prehurricane level and no guarantee that neighborhoods will return to life. Basic services — water, electricity, garbage pickup — are intermittent.

“Look at what we’re getting in terms of services,” said Janet Howard, of the Bureau of Governmental Research, an independent nonprofit group in New Orleans. “It’s basically a nonfunctioning city.”

City Hall, meanwhile, has settled back into its habitual easygoing rhythms; a well-placed insider there reported, with alarm, no sense of urgency among its officials. Mayor C. Ray Nagin was recently set to attend an opening at a French Quarter gallery of an exhibit of photographs — of himself, taken by his personal photographer. A public outcry this month forced him to cancel plans for a fireworks display and a “comedy show” to commemorate Hurricane Katrina’s first anniversary tomorrow.

Lacking a Master Plan

With little direction from the top, long-term planning for the city’s future remains incoherent. A year after the storm, there are no plans for large-scale infrastructure and redevelopment in the city. One group of official planners took the step of attacking a second group in a full-page advertisement in The Times-Picayune this month, even warning citizens to stay away from its rivals.

The absence of a plan has forced developers, who might otherwise be building housing for the displaced, to the sidelines. “The developers, they want to know what the plan is,” said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

The latest notion, after earlier false or incomplete starts, is to turn planning over to the citizens, allowing neighborhoods to choose from a list of planners, with the hope that at the end it can all be folded into one giant framework. It was pushed by state officials holding the redevelopment purse strings who grew impatient this summer with the city’s abortive planning efforts.

In the neighborhoods, New Orleanians are skeptical. “Why does it seem that every time someone swoops in to help us, it winds up being a mess?” asked Jenel Hazlett, of the Northwest Carrollton Civic Association, a neighborhood group. “They keep moving the players around, and we as citizens keep getting jerked around.”

Like others, Ms. Hazlett professes bewilderment at a planning process, now stretching out for nearly a year, that involves an ever-shifting cast of characters, embraces and then swiftly rejects differing visions, and calls for repeated consultations with the citizens — and still produces no plan.

The longer the city is without a master plan, the shakier the fate of the ruined neighborhoods, some planners say. The need will become even greater in a few days, when $7.5 billion in federal housing aid begins putting up to $150,000 in the hands of thousands of homeowners hoping to rebuild.

“It is highly probable that there would be many neighborhoods, with block after block of one or two houses restored, surrounded by vacant abandoned houses, no police stations, no services, low water pressure, an unsafe and unhealthy environment,” said John McIlwain, a senior planner at the Urban Land Institute, the Washington research group whose early plan for a shrunken city was rejected by the politicians here.

Publicly, Mr. Nagin insists the city will come back stronger than ever, saying its repopulation is ahead of schedule even while more cautious demographers suggest it is lagging. Rejecting the idea that New Orleans must shrink, he says City Hall will not dictate where citizens can live.

“You can’t wait on government,” Mr. Nagin said at a news conference here this week. “You have to figure out a way to partner with your neighbors.”

Mr. Nagin has endorsed the current version of the planning process, in which neighborhoods map out their own future — so far only a tiny handful of the city’s 73 districts have done so — and the individual plans eventually merge into a larger one. This week the mayor blamed unnamed “powers that be” for a flow of recovery dollars he deemed “painfully slow.”

A Fervor for Change

The one constant is the determination of people to rebuild. For good and ill, it has been demonstrated over and over since the earliest days after the catastrophe. It was present last month at a meeting of citizens in Broadmoor, packed into a church for the unveiling of the neighborhood’s reconstruction plan.

“Nobody is going to tell Broadmoor what to do except the people who live and work in Broadmoor!” one organizer, Harold Roark, said to great applause. Yet the citizens had to walk past piles of fly-covered garbage bags spilling out their contents just to enter the building.

The mix of reaching and realism was typical of present-day New Orleans. Crime, blight, abandonment: none of it was ignored. At the same time there was a call for “an educational and cultural corridor” in the neighborhood’s heart, a scene about as easy to imagine in that battered district as Versailles in the middle of the grimy 4200 block of South Galvez Street in the Broadmoor neighborhood.

Yet reaching high is critical to the collective survival strategy being worked out here. It is a way of pushing beyond the often grim quotidian reality. The psychology was evident in the grass-roots-driven insurgency that put a handful of self-proclaimed reformers on the seven-member City Council in last spring’s elections. Three incumbents were defeated.

Two newcomers, in particular, have already stirred things up, asking probing questions during sleepy Council meetings where rhetoric has traditionally predominated over substance. Shelley Midura, a former Foreign Service officer, has pushed for an inspector general and a board of ethics in City Hall, to combat endemic corruption. A majority appears to be in favor.

Stacy Head, a youthful lawyer also elected this spring, has been as high-profile in her central New Orleans district as the woman she defeated was invisible. (The incumbent she defeated, a protégé of the scandal-plagued Representative William J. Jefferson, is herself under federal investigation.) Ms. Head is now a ubiquitous presence in the city, asking questions of citizens and, unusually for a New Orleans politician, appearing at crime scenes, fires and community meetings.

A big test will come soon when the Council considers overhauling the day-to-day planning process, taking most decisions out of political hands — their own — and putting them under the purview of professional planners. That change was accomplished a century ago in most other places. But the old system has held on in New Orleans, with serious implications for orderly reconstruction of the ruined neighborhoods and equitable preservation of those that are not.

“I don’t want this power,” Ms. Head said. “This is horrible. I don’t like that responsibility. I think it should lie with the planners.”

Ms. Midura said she intended to champion the proposal, made by the Bureau of Governmental Research, and so far had not heard opposition to it.

Mr. Borah, the citizen activist, said, “Unless you get that right, nothing else is going to work.”

For years, a similar argument has been made about the disastrous public schools here, the worst performing in a state of underachievers, relentlessly preyed on by a corrupt district office. Hurricane Katrina upended the school landscape. Of 56 schools set to open this summer — there were 128 before the storm — 34 will be self-governing charter schools, a development that has given hope to parents and principals for the first time in years.

Parents and teachers throughout New Orleans worked feverishly to get a handful of schools up and running earlier this year; at the charters, parents control the money, taking charge of contracts, an area ripe for abuse when they were under school district control. Beneath the stagnant surface of daily life here, so discouraging to residents and astonishing to visitors, there is unmistakable pressure for change.

“I see more movement in a positive direction than I had seen for many years before Katrina,” said Una Anderson, executive director of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, which is focused on housing, and long a reform member of the school board.

Whether this movement will be enough to stave off the pessimists’ grim perspective is uncertain. Repeatedly, observers in and out of the city said the present juncture was critical to the city’s future. If the ferment stops, if the hopes of citizens dry up, the outlook for New Orleans could be dire indeed.


3. Landscape Absurdism: An Urban Prairie in St. Louis

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As with many industrial cities in America at the time, post-war St. Louis experienced a rapid decline of its inner city. Desperately seeking solutions before the decay could absorb downtown, local planners and politicians saw slum clearance as the best option.

Decades later, the results are nothing to celebrate. An aggressive demolition policy failed to create a better neighborhood. Instead, it led to a different kind of stigmatized inner city. The chaotic, dirty and declining urban condition of the mid-20th century gave way to the urban prairie of the 21st.

This section of St. Louis, just northeast of downtown, is an extreme but far from exclusive example of the impacts from public policy that heavily favors demolition in neglected areas.

During the 1950s, politicians, planners and architects consistently preached neighborhood clearance. A 1951 article from Architectural Forum titled "Slum Surgery in St. Louis" (pictured left) is accompanied by a map that categorizes almost all of St. Louis' downtown and inner city as "blighted" or "obsolete."

The city had two agencies to clear its slums. The St. Louis Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority demolished targeted areas and sold them back to the private sector for less than market value. The St. Louis Housing Authority cleared land as well and constructed new public housing complexes for displaced residents.

The Housing Authority constructed the infamous Pruitt-Igoe complex, but it also built more successful housing projects on smaller scales nearby.Those projects however, were still not enough to stabilize the neighborhood or slow down the clearance of this part of the city. For the Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority, much of the land remained undeveloped, and in many cases, stuck in the city's hands.

The physical legacy of that era is a neighborhood that hardly qualifies as such. Aided by demolition, nature has slowly taken over the grid with disappearing sidewalks, blocks with nary a building in sight and six-lane streets that drive through green space. Below are a series of aerial images from today that showcase some extreme examples of what comprises this section of inner city St. Louis.


4. In Englewood, railroad presses on with freight yard project


The neighborhood around Steven Rogers' house in Englewood has been transformed. The few houses that were on his block have been demolished and much of the community looks like a construction zone. Piles of dirt rise on fenced-off vacant lots and many of the street signs are gone.

But even as Norfolk Southern Railway Co. has filed a lawsuit to take Rogers' property and the properties of the remaining homeowners to build an 84-acre freight yard, Rogers is vowing to continue to fight. Now, he's one of only five residents who have not sold and are pressing against construction of the freight yard.

"I don't believe it is the American way for someone to come and take your property at their price because they want to build a freight yard," Rogers said. "Our coalition has fought this for four years. They thought the people of Englewood were powerless. They thought they were dealing with people nobody cared about. We won't let them take advantage of us."

Norfolk Southern's lawsuits were filed last month in Cook County Circuit Court seeking the titles for five parcels of property it needs to complete the $285 million project. Two of those eminent domain lawsuits name Rogers as a defendant.

"We're still hoping to reach a resolution with the remaining homeowners," said Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern. For its freight yard project, Norfolk Southern targeted property bounded on the north and south by Garfield Boulevard and on the east and west by Steward Avenue and Wallace Street. Terpay said Norfolk began construction south of Garfield Boulevard in February and plans to finish that phase of development by the end of the year.

Rogers is an unlikely holdout; he's a Harvard Business School lecturer who splits his time between Chicago and Cambridge, Mass. The house he owns was first bought by his grandparents and he was raised there. Although the house is now in a troubled neighborhood, it has sentimental value and represents his family's legacy.

Still, when Rogers started the Englewood Railway Coalition to push against the freight yard, there were more than 60 members. Most of them are gone.

Rogers believes other owners wanted to stay but were financially vulnerable and had personal circumstances that made them sell and leave. As more families packed up to go, the community came to resemble an urban prairie.

"If someone came to take your house, what would you do? How would you feel?" Rogers asked. "It's no different just because it's Englewood."


5. Cleveland, Ohio

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Cleveland experienced many of the same economic circumstances that befell other cities in the Midwest. After years of economic downturn, the razing of homes, businesses, and abandoned factories left about 3300 acres of empty lots in the city. Now, urban farmers have been busy developing some of the largest farms in the US from the unused land, raising hopes for a revival of the blighted areas. As one of the agriculturalists noted, "You don't need a ton of infrastructure to produce food. You need access to land, water, sun and know-how."


6. Detroit, Michigan

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After suffering through the nation’s worst and most concentrated examples of racial violence, industrial collapse, serial arson, crack war, and municipal bankruptcy following years of municipal kleptocracy, Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters. If you live on a block near one of the city’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, you can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.

The interest in coverage is legitimate—if you search places like Digg or Reddit for Detroit stories, even totally boring news items like a hiring jump at the local wind-energy plant number in the thousands. And God help you if the piece has anything to do with urban decay. When Vice UK ran a little series of photos by James Griffioen of the demolished interior of an abandoned Detroit public school, it tripled our website’s traffic for nearly a week.

The problem is it’s reached the point where the potential for popularity or “stickiness” or whatever you’re supposed to call it now is driving the coverage more than any sort of newsworthiness of the subject. There’s a total gold-rush mentality about the D right now, and all the excitement has led to some real lapses in basic journalistic ethics and judgment. Like the French filmmaker who came to Detroit to shoot a documentary about all the deer and pheasants and other wildlife that have been returning to the city. After several days without seeing a wild one he had to be talked out of renting a trained fox to run through the streets for the camera. Or the Dutch crew who decided to go explore the old project tower where Smokey Robinson grew up and promptly got jacked for their thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.

The flip side is a simultaneous influx of reporters who don’t want anything to do with the city but feel compelled by the times to get a Detroit story under their belts, like it’s the journalistic version of cutting a grunge record.

“Time magazine sent a 24-year-old guy to Detroit,” James Griffioen told me. “They wouldn’t let him rent a car, so he was dropped off in a cab downtown. He’s there for six hours and he’s supposed to write a feature article on Detroit. For Time. He had a meeting with the mayor in the morning, the mayor stood him up, then he had a meeting with me, and that was it.”

For a while James was getting four to five calls a week from outside journalists looking for someone to sherpa them to the city’s best shitholes, but they’ve finally begun leaving him alone since he started telling them to fuck off.

“At first, you’re really flattered by it, like, ‘Whoa, these professional guys are interested in what I have to say and show them.’ But you get worn down trying to show them all the different sides of the city, then watching them go back and write the same story as everyone else. The photographers are the worst. Basically the only thing they’re interested in shooting is ruin porn."


7. Why Houston Needs Another AstroWorld

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Ask any Houston parent and they’ll tell you that keeping kids entertained (and hydrated and safe from sunstroke) over the course of a hot Houston summer is no easy chore. Austin and San Antonio parents have easy access to Hill Country swimming holes, unspoiled bodies of water that aren’t littered with discarded tires and bodies. DFW has lakes right in the city. As for Houston, well, Houston is reasonably close to the beach, but Galveston’s tarry sands and chocolate surf is about all there is in the way of a natural amenities in the area.

What of Houston’s vaunted museums? Well, as the father of two Houston-raised children, I can tell you that most kids don’t care much for art galleries, and that they age out of the Children’s Museum at around eight or nine.

Other options are among the most expensive on the entire planet. The Museum of Natural Science will set a family of four back a minimum of $80.  In my lifetime, zoo admission has gone from free to $17 per “adult” (age twelve and up). And at Space Center Houston, even four-year-olds pay $20.

Fine. Take them to the Galleria, where you can at least walk around for free. That was once a decent option for the whole family every now and then, but nowadays Houston’s foremost gargantuan air-conditioned temple to Mammon holds little interest for kids. Video game arcades are a thing of the past. The movie theaters have long since decamped for cheaper pastures. The bungee-cord jumps near the ice skating rink disappeared, as have most of the toy and candy stores.

Even public pools are being replaced by cheaper “spraygrounds.

So, aside from its restaurant scene, Texas’s biggest city is all business and little pleasure, especially for kids. According to WalletHub, Houston was ranked 137 of 150 American cities in places to hang around for a staycation; 110 out of 112 in Texas cities for families, and 88 out of 100 cities for recreation overall.

Yes, these rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, but when one place consistently scores near the bottom in several similar tallies, it’s time to consider that there might be a legitimate point: Houston is No Fun City. Especially since Houston lost Six Flags AstroWorld.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner acknowledged that point at a recent informal confab with local media members. Turner believes that Houston needs another AstroWorld, and if its splendors cannot sprawl where they used to on the South Loop, then it needs to be somewhere within the Bayou City’s vast municipal limits. (And not some place like New Caney, where a planned theme park has been met with numerous delays.)

“If we want to be that destination city in terms of conferences and tourism, we have to have that component in this city,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the rodeo, that’s once a year for three weeks. The Super Bowl will be here and gone. The America Cup COPA, came, gone. NCAA (Final Four), come and gone. We need a major amusement center in this city, especially to focus on our families and young population that’s every day in this city.”

And he’s right. There has been an AstroWorld-sized hole in the city’s heart since the park closed in fall 2005. According to the official explanation from former owners, Six Flags America—which was then $2 billion in the hole—the land on which AstroWorld once stood was too valuable to remain as one of the city’s primary tourist attractions, so it had to go. What that site really needed, it was believed at the time, was “a mixed-use development, including multifamily housing, retail and office.” The property was supposed to fetch somewhere in the range of $95 million to $145 million.

Some sources also said the park was pushed over the brink by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp, an interest affiliated with the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Six Flags and the HCSC got into a wrangle over parking in the Reliant Stadium lot that wound up in expensive litigation, and though officials said that the dispute did not directly cause AstroWorld’s demise, it did dissuade them from upgrading the park to contemporary standards. As a result, AstroWorld began to seem dated. A death spiral ensued.

The sale has been a terrible disaster for all parties. Generations of adults lost a place of memory, and a half-generation of kids never got to the chance to make them. Local teens lost a goldmine of job opportunities. Former Six Flags CEO Kieran Burke, the guy who presided over the closure, was ousted before 2005 was out.

The property sold for a mere $77 million, a fraction of what Six Flags had hoped. Today, it is no more than a vacant lot occasionally used as Rodeo overflow parking.  No mixed-use development materialized, even during one of Houston’s most feverish economic booms. All those dozens of acres of empty space went undeveloped, and the property seems likely to remain vacant for years to come now that the oil economy has gone bust again.

And yeah, if Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio, Tampa, Cincinnati, and Kansas City have them, it’s safe to say that Houston needs a theme park. But what would that theme be?

Houston. The theme should just be Houston. The city itself is like a giant theme park, but the trouble is, it’s spread out over an area the size of Connecticut, the interesting parts hidden between miles of bland strip malls and sun-baked parking lots. Having a Houston theme park could condense the city’s crazed and wonderful diversity in a compact couple of hundred acres.

A few years ago, my wife and I hosted a friend of hers, a former Houstonian who had transplanted to Portland long ago. In one long day, we treated her to Gulf Coast Creole culture (a zydeco brunch at Cafe 4212 on the edge of Third Ward), one of the biggest Mexican mercados this side of Monterrey at Sunny Flea Market on Airline Drive, and then toured Houston’s sprawling Southwest Chinatown, especially Hong Kong City Mall, one of America’s largest Asian-themed shopping centers.

That entailed about 90 minutes in the car and 60 miles of freeway driving, but it made for one of those days when Houston seemed worth it. So let’s cram as much of that as we can—even a theme park version of that diversity would suffice—amid rides as thrilling as Greezed Lightning, the Texas Cyclone, and the Dungeon Drop.  Meanwhile the ‘rents can have a bowl of gumbo at the Bayou Zone; savor pho in Saigon, Texas; and tipple on micheladas in La Cantina Mexicana while the kids raise hell on the rides and slides. The time has come for a Planet Houston Theme Park.


8. Niagara Falls, New York

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Not all of the prairies are a product of counter-urbanization—in the case of the Love Canal neighborhood in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, it was a matter of contamination and corruption.

The area had been a massive toxic waste dumping ground for the Hooker Chemical (now Occidental) plant, and sits oddly juxtaposed beside one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Hooker had knowingly sold the polluted plot to the city school district, who built an elementary school over a portion of the landfill, and had the rest developed for low income housing.

After a cleanup of the toxic dumpsite was performed in the late 70's, all the buildings were razed, and the uninhabited, fenced off 36-square block area now sits as an eerie reminder of one of America's most ignominious environmental pollution cover-ups.


9. 'Bad neighbor': Phoenix struggles to manage its vacant city-owned lots

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Alongside historic bungalows, apartments and manicured lawns that line Fifth Avenue in downtown Phoenix sits an empty dirt lot surrounded by a chain-link fence and a “No Trespassing” sign.

Jonathan Pring, owner of the Teapot coffee shop next door, fumes about the sight as he tends to the morning’s rush of customers. He says the vacant property is blight that detracts from the curb appeal of the surrounding Roosevelt Historic District.

“It’s not in keeping with the neighborhood,” Pring says, glaring at the open lot through a window. “It looks ugly. It attracts homeless people to it. People throw their trash over the fence. And it’s just a lose-lose-lose.”

Last year, Pring and his wife, Raelynn, bought and renovated a 1906 bungalow to open their business. The empty lot next door quickly became a concern.

Pring said he’s emailed the property’s owner several times, asking what they plan to do with the dirt parcel. He was told it will eventually be sold for someone to build a home. When that will happen, the owner couldn’t say.

The owner of the "eyesore" next door isn't a deadbeat developer or out-of-state land speculator waiting for its value to increase.

It's the city of Phoenix.

Pring’s frustration is shared by many throughout the city as Phoenix for decades has bought and acquired land, setting aside parcels for future municipal facilities or to help shape development.

The city’s real-estate portfolio is massive, with more than 5,530 parcels, or roughly 90 square miles of city-owned land. That’s more land area than the entire cities of Baltimore, Seattle or Pittsburgh. Of that, about 2.3 square miles sits vacant and likely could be developed.

Neighbors, elected leaders and private developers say Phoenix often is not a good steward of land. They say the city’s approach to managing its properties is overly bureaucratic and can stifle opportunity.

Selling property could help the city bring in millions of dollars in one-time revenue and partially ease chronic budget problems.

But critics say the real cost of Phoenix's real-estate strategy is lost opportunity. For every lot the city owns, someone isn't paying property taxes to support local governments. And every vacant lot means zero productive use or economic activity.


10. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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The California-Kirkbride neighborhood in the North Side of Pittsburgh is a Historic District, that has been thinning out since the Great Depression. With many of the buildings owned by absentee landlords, neglected properties have led to an acceleration of demolitions in the last two decades, and have edged some of the 130-year-old neighborhood into a prairie. Despite conflicts in interest between many of the residents and landowners, some are encouraged that the changes will motivate new residents to preserve what remains of the neighborhood.

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