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The Art of City Building

What cities of the future can learn from the past

If I were able to transport you to Boston’s West End neighborhood you would see a rather typical scene for a modern American city. You would see organized four-lane streets filled with cars and trucks connecting a number of large buildings. There are highrise apartments, a few hospitals and even a Whole Foods. But if I were able to also transport you back in time, you would see something very different. You would see rows of squat brick buildings, barely separated by a tangle of narrow, crooked streets. You would see a mass of humanity occupying those streets, kids chasing balls, merchants hawking their wares, and grandmothers watching the whole thing from their second-story windows. You might also see a man, a rocket scientist none-the-less, walking around with a large camera slung around his neck, capturing shot after quotidian shot, depicting dynamic lives in this vibrant immigrant community.

That man was a Boston University professor and self-proclaimed “space scientist” Jules Aarons. While his vocation was science his pastime and passion lay in his street portrait photography. His art led him into the chaos and beauty that was the West End. “I always was interested in unguarded moments,” Aarons once told the Boston University Bridge newspaper. “I think that spirit is in my photos.” He was one of the few lucky people able to capture the essence of the original West End neighborhood before it became the center of one of the worst cases of misguided urban renewal in modern American history. For as lively as the West End neighborhood was, the community was not able to prevent its destruction at the hands of what the local government perceived as progress. 

Photo of a Jewish meat market on Boston’s West End taken by Jules Aarons.

The area since the 19th Century had existed as a magnet for all types of immigrants leaving various parts of Europe primarily looking for work and a better life in Boston. The West End particularly became a hub for the Eastern European Jewish community. These immigrants would have been familiar to Jules as he grew up in a comparable immigrant Jewish community in the West Bronx. Historically, much like today, immigrants were unfortunately met with fear, skepticism and derision by many residents of the city’s more elite group of Boston Brahmins. The American Housing Act of 1949 paved the way for the massive “slum clearance” in the West End toward the end of the 1950’s. Acres and acres of row houses were razed and replaced with soulless highrise apartment complexes, eviscerating the physical heart of the community. While poor urban planning destroyed much of this neighborhood, the residents live on through the photographs of Jules Aarons. Images depicting two friends laughing or a group of kids playing ball on the street serve as powerful testaments to the connective tissue of cities. 

The before and after of the total destruction of a neighborhood that was referred to time and time again in interviews as “like a family.”

Jules was able to pass on his love for the daily lives of people within urban fabrics to his son Philip E. Aarons. Philip, however, did not express this passion through the lens of a Rolleiflex camera. Instead, he decided to attempt to reshape cities through real estate. When he entered the real estate industry in 1979, he became the president of New York City’s Public Development Corporation, now known as the Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). Philip faced a daunting task: how can development in the 1980’s attempt to rejuvenate areas within cities that had faced decades of decimation under the guise of urban renewal? After years at the helm of the Public Development Corporation, spearheading public/private partnerships that would revive pedestrian culture in places like the South Street Seaport, Philip went into the private sector, ultimately founding large-scale mixed use developer Millennium Partners in 1991.

Millennium Partners has always believed that people wanted to live in urban centers, and craved the connectivity and dynamism these environments provided. Based on this thesis, Millennium gradually built project after project within specific neighborhoods, helping to shape activity on the ground level by selecting complementary mixes of retail, hospitality, offices, and residences. “Cities are most successful when the sum total of their buildings, public spaces and infrastructure allow two parallel activities to work effectively,  and additively, side by side,” Philip told me. “Successful cities bring people together by creating places and reasons for engagement and interaction that are not predetermined in advance. Millennium’s focus, its goal is to use its projects to simultaneously create opportunity and community by knitting the fabric of the city back together.”

One of the ways that Philip knew how to do this, thanks to his upbringing and his father, was with art. In the 1990s, Philip and his partners began to experiment with placing fine art within their developments. Instead of showing up at auction and purchasing blue chip work painted by deceased artists, Millennium hired a professional curator to spend significant amounts of time with local artists from cities where the company was developing a new building project. The artwork within a Millennium Partners project is emblematic of the local community. A few years ago, Philip beamed with excitement as he selected the work of a local Boston artist, street portrait photographer Jules Aarons, his father to adorn the walls of the common areas of the latest Millennium Partners project in Boston. Doing so paid homage to both the roots of his artistic passion and the neighborhood that cultivated it.

Similar photographs of street life in Boston’s old West End decorate the walls of PropTech Place, an office space in New York City’s Garment District. Zach Aarons, son of Philip and grandson of Jules, works alongside these images as a partner at MetaProp, a PropTech focused venture capital firm co-founded by Zach. Over a century ago, a dress cutter named Joseph Aarons, Zach’s great-grandfather, potentially walked these same halls. The transformation of the building from a place for menial labor to one of innovation and the transformation of the Aarons family from poor Jewish immigrants to modern day city-builders are both as American of a story as have ever been told.

MetaProp’s mission is to invest in technology that ensures the long-term survivability of the built environment. For Zach, the potential solution to this goal lies at the intersection of art, technology and community. “One thing that art and technology have in common is empathy,” Zach told me. “In order to do my job well, I have to be able to put myself in someone else’s shoes, be it the entrepreneur I am investing in or the business owner they are selling to.” He sees the way people connect with their surroundings and each other as one of the most valuable things in the real estate business. 

Having grown up in a real estate family, Zach understands the business imperative that has to go with every new solution. But, having grown up in a world where art and science both have equal places at the table, he knows that profit and empathy are not mutually exclusive. MetaProp continues to invest in technologies that attempt to make housing costs more affordable, improve the quality of life for occupiers of real estate, and imbue physical real estate with community events and the arts. In essence, through technology investment, Zach is attempting to capture some of the magic that densely packed immigrant communities within cities can create. I guess you can say it runs in the family…

Editor and Co-Founder

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