Ruins Reborn

RuinsRebornBy: Hugh Bailey ’99 (CLAS)

In 2013, UConn alum Hugh Bailey ’99 (CLAS) of theConnecticut Post was named the recipient of the prestigious Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship for Editorial Writing, awarded annually to an American journalist researching an in-depth topic of national or global significance. Bailey, who also has a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, spent the better part of his fellowship year traveling to Germany and across the U.S. to research how cities here as well as abroad are transforming toxic brownfields into vibrant, multi-use communities.

The brick labyrinth along the highway is a post-apocalyptic vision of broken glass, block-letter graffiti, and boarded windows. Charred roof beams are fresh evidence of repeated fires, and a crumbling smokestack pushes out from a sea of twisted metal. This square block of interconnected factory buildings constructed roughly between 1870 and 1920 on Railroad Avenue in Bridgeport, Conn., presents as stark a tableau of blight and abandonment as a city can offer. It signifies an era that has long vanished. Manufacturing built this city and dozens of others like it, powering an economy that made America the richest nation on Earth.

When industry left, it took the city’s lifeblood with it. The Germans, who know well the loss that comes with the decline of industry, have a name for a place like this – “a city of holes.” When a city built around industry sees its factories and foundries close, it loses more than jobs. It loses its reason for being. And it gains something in its place: brownfields, swaths of polluted land, and contaminated buildings that today do as much to hold back a city’s recovery as any other factor.

Manufacturing made America rich, but it also made us dirty. The remnants are everywhere. The federal Government Accountability Office estimates there are some 425,000 brownfields nationwide spread across 5 million acres. The official list of contaminated sites in Connecticut runs more than 1,000 pages.

In the past decade, the country has started to face the massive scope of its industrial wasteland. But there’s good reason to think we’re understating the problem, and little question that current policies are not up to the task of fixing it. Still, according to most experts, an owner of a brownfield with a viable plan for redevelopment stands a good chance of getting some form of public help and then leveraging that aid into private funding to assess the site, clean it up, and get it back into use.

But viability is the key. Most polluted properties in America aren’t the ideal location for a new shopping center or apartment complex. Most of them won’t be turned into parks. There is no natural second act for the majority of brownfields. The money isn’t there. At the most basic level, a brownfield is a piece of real estate. And like anything involving real estate, there is one factor that takes precedence over all others: A brownfield in a desirable location stands a good chance of seeing redevelopment, while the same brownfield elsewhere will likely stay as it is for years.

Programs inevitably work in favor of places that are already better off. In many cities, the gap between what someone might be willing to spend and what a cleanup would cost is simply too high. So those polluted sites sit, waiting for the market to decide they have a promising outlook. For most of them, it’s a day that will never arrive.

The heavy machinery, once deafening, is silent. Today, it serves a purpose few could have foreseen a generation ago – as a gathering place and tourist attraction. Children now climb on the gears that powered Europe’s largest economy. Wildflowers and greenery have taken over gray concrete bunkers used for coal storage. Vast halls for power generators play host to glamorous corporate dinners.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 1.54.30 PMHere in the Ruhr Valley, which for decades was defined by heavy industry, its collapse could have brought the region’s downfall. Instead, a decades-long plan has seen the valley transform its ruins into a vibrant future. The centerpiece of the Ruhr today is Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord. Translated as Landscape Park, it’s on the site of an ironworks that operated for almost a century before closing in 1985. The blast furnaces, cooling tanks, and water pipes were left to rust, dragging the surrounding towns and cities into decline. In the early 1990s, the local government organized a design competition to turn the site into a park. Most of the ideas called for razing the ironworks, but the winning design was far more radical – it prioritized preservation, holding onto as much of the hulking, tangled machinery as was practical.

Acres of iron and steel offer little of what is traditionally associated with a park. It would have cost the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to demolish. Preserving it makes for something unique – a postindustrial engine of economic growth. A few miles up the valley, the city of Bochum last year faced a modern version of industrial collapse when the Opel car factory closed. Along with the coal mines that were about to be shuttered after centuries of excavation, an entire way of life based on heavy industry looked to be disappearing. But the city had a message for the rest of the world. It was a message of defiance, spelled out in the name of a 2014 festival designed to find a new way forward. They called it “This Is Not Detroit.” Detroit, the international symbol of postindustrial decay, which saw its population fall from a high of 1.8 million to barely 700,000 today, will not be Bochum’s fate, the residents proclaimed. Factories may close and the economy will change, but it will not be a death knell for the region.

But it takes more than defiance. Detroit never wanted to be Detroit, either. Deciding they didn’t want to be left behind did not put Ruhr Valley residents on a radical footing. What’s different in Germany is the ability to do something about it. Managing a postindustrial future takes time, money, and manpower. It takes a plan, one that has had years to work and earned the support of the people. Redevelopment requires resources. It’s money the state and federal governments in Germany have been willing to spend.

A New Answer

An hour after leaving picturesque Port Jefferson, N.Y., the ferry across Long Island Sound begins its approach to the postindustrial wasteland of Bridgeport Harbor. To one side are the empty lots and abandoned piers of the city’s forgotten shipping industry. On the other is a coal-fired power plant, a relic that’s the last of its kind in Connecticut, its signature red-and-white smokestack reaching high into the skyline.

From every direction, by train, car, or boat, this symbol of industrial days gone by is the first sign that Bridgeport is on the horizon. Protesters over the years have called for Harbor Station’s closure, and its useful days are likely limited. The future is bleak for coal plants. But symbols are powerful things. It might not be what Bridgeport would choose, but the candy-striped smokestack is as close as the city has to an Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower. It’s an image of industry, but also one of pollution and retrograde solutions.

It could be a symbol of a brighter future. The Route 8 corridor in Connecticut, with Bridgeport at its base, is defined by its industrial past. Waterbury and Torrington, Ansonia and Thomaston, Derby and Winsted: These are towns and cities largely left out of the wealth that now characterizes Connecticut. Their history is in manufacturing – copper, brass, munitions, textiles, rubber, and dozens of other products that Americans still need, but are now largely produced abroad. The industrial leftovers remain, hulking on the banks of rivers and crumbling on roadsides.

The plan, such as one exists, has always been to push out the old in hopes for something new – housing, offices or anything other than the dilapidated eyesores. Barring expensive demolition, the hope is to reconfigure the buildings for something needed today, maybe loft apartments or small-business incubators. The cities that surround the factories have faded. Suburbs have dominated American development for a half-century – spread out and inefficient, with overlapping services and wasted money. Postindustrial cities like Bridgeport and those up the Naugatuck Valley have acres of underutilized land that would be ideal for the kind of urban living people are increasingly seeking out, but it needs to be cleaned up.

Brownfields, contaminated properties left over from the height of manufacturing, are the key to increasing density and dealing with some of our most pressing issues. Germany’s Ruhr Valley, among the most industry-scarred regions in Europe, provides the model to not only remember the past, but capitalize on it and grow from it. A project to turn the Route 8 corridor from Bridgeport into the Naugatuck Valley into a mini-Emscher River Park, one that could bring similar economic and community benefits, sounds outlandish. But the seeds are already there. A network of greenways up and down the state’s rivers could highlight our industrial past and invite development. It’s working in Germany. The end of heavy industry drove our cities into decline. Its legacy could bring them new life.

Story courtesy of UConn Magazine

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