Earlier this year, I shared a photo with my friends at Strong Towns showing how drastically my hometown of Port Arthur, Texas had changed over the past hundred years. The scene above isn’t all that newsworthy given the same process is taking place across US cities that reached their apex during the 20th Century. What is newsworthy, though, is a recent urban renewal plan not to build new public housing or encourage small businesses, but to invite the movie industry to blow up one of the remaining buildings from the original postcard above.
You can hear Texas Standard talk with Port Arthur Mayor Pro Tem Derrick Freeman about his plan to blow up what’s left of Downtown Port Arthur here:
Obviously this plan is a horrible idea that will only lead to Downtown Port Arthur’s further decline. By going through with this plan, generations of incremental wealth will be destroyed for a fairly small, one-time transaction. What tax base will be left when the film crews leave? Where will residents meet, share ideas, and innovate when there are no longer any affordable old buildings in Downtown Port Arthur to do so?
The proposal to blow up one of Port Arthur’s few remaining landmarks is a symptom of much larger social and economic issues at play. It will not have any significant impact on economic stagnation, blight, and crime, despite that being the stated goal. By moving forward with this proposal, the City of Port Arthur is passing up a chance to rebuild their tax base through adaptive reuse of the Hotel Sabine building. Galveston, Texas has done a fairly good job at reusing their historic buildings to facilitate new businesses and additional residential units.
As Jane Jacobs said:
“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…. for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”
That said, after hearing Mayor Pro Tem Freeman explain his idea in his own words over the phone, I can’t help but think he is just a well-intentioned guy trying to do his best to turn around a city that has experienced 50 years of steady decline. In many ways, I too would be desperate to find ways to fight what seems to be economic and social forces outside of anyone’s control. In fact, I have quite a bit of respect for Mayor Pro Tem Freeman. After all, he moved from Los Angeles to Port Arthur to make it a better place while many others—myself included—left for better opportunities in other Texas cities.
In the end, demolition is not a serious solution to Port Arthur’s economic development problems. Port Arthur residents are some of the most creative, hard working people that I have ever met. Surely, they know what is best for their city. We should be empowering them to determine their own fate, which is, in turn, reflected in their buildings.
“I’m flippin’ through PA
I’m tryin’ to see some good
But everythang is still the same
up in my neighborhood”
— Pimp C, UGK