State of the Union

Church Bells and Gospel Choirs Under Gentrification

This story begins with the mundane, the bureaucratic even: a local noise ordinance complaint.

Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. recently received a notice from their city’s administration, noting the filing of a complaint claiming that the church’s evening gospel choir practice violated the local nuisance ordinances. The city’s letter indicated that fines of up to $3500, with $500 more accruing each day, could be imposed upon the church should it prove noncompliant.

Oakland church leaders were outraged, and Pleasant Grove Baptist pastor Thomas A. Harris III said, “Kind of hard to believe because we’ve been here about 65 years in the community and all of a sudden we get some concerns about the noise.” Harris and his fellow pastors see this challenge from the Oakland administrative state as just one more intrusion by gentrification. Lawrence Van Hook, the senior pastor at nearby Community Church, said, “We’re being bought out. We’re being moved out. We are being priced out of our own neighborhood” by the influx of well-off tech workers from across the bay in San Francisco.

While West Oakland has indeed seen a surge in home values in recent years, the small case of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church noise complaint may point to a much bigger force at work alongside the raw economics.

In his epic work A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor posited that a central difference between contemporary Westerners and those of centuries past is the rise of the disenchanted “buffered self.” Taylor summarized this a few years ago:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. [Emphasis added] We have changed.

A church’s bells—or the carried amplification of an energetic gospel choir—are not respectful of our selves’ “buffers.” Their enchanted sounds penetrate the neighboring air, and the neighbors. When a church is the heart of a community, the center around which the built environment is ordered, such penetration can serve to strengthen a place. When those neighbors start to be displaced, however, perhaps especially by the super-buffered moderns of the tech industry, the “joyful noise” may pierce the new neighbors unbidden, and unwelcomed.

This would not be a problem in a typical suburban neighborhood, of the sort that populated Silicon Valley in its earliest days. Take St. Raphael the Archangel in Raleigh, NC, for instance:

St. Raphael, nestled in a thoroughly suburban neighborhood in North Raleigh, is surrounded on all sides by woods, and fields, and parking lots. Almost all of the homes in the area were built after World War II, and are well-insulated single-family lots. Were St. Raphael to conduct a late-night choir practice at full volume, the only ones possibly disturbed would be the Jesuit priests living on-site.

Now take a look at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, in West Oakland:

Pleasant Grove Baptist is embedded in its neighborhood, surrounded by residences on all sides. A strong plurality of area homes were built before World War II, and many are multifamily dwellings. It is precisely that urban building pattern, populated by turn of the century Victorian homes, that is drawing the Bay Area’s tech population away from Raleigh-style suburbanism, and into possible conflict with still-enchanted neighborhood institutions.

Conflicts between existing (especially black) urban churches and the new generation of millennials moving into city centers can especially be found in those areas where churches spill out of their buildings’ bounds into the public space. As Taylor continued in his summary, “the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” And so the reshaping of city centers along the lines of best practices urbanism can serve as a very physicalized manifestation of the buffered self’s reordering of its world in a way that conflicts with that outspilling nature of urban churches.

Here in Washington, D.C., that can be seen in a conflict between an attempt to expand the city’s network of protected bike lanes and the surge-parking capacity of streets surrounding the city’s (again predominately black) churches. As Eric Jaffe relates, significant D.C. churches like Metropolitan AME and United House of Prayer sought for new bike lanes crossing in front of their churches to have a gap in protection (plastic barriers that shield bikers from car traffic), so that on Sundays those churches could have diagonal parking available to their parishioners. Metropolitan AME received an accommodation, which the United House of Prayer is seeking.

Jaffe calls such a compromise an “example of appeasement will encourage many more attempts to subvert public interests for private gain.” To Jaffe, it appears the (disproportionately young, white, and relatively well-off) cyclists that the bike lanes protect are the public, in whose interest the regulations and built environment of a city should be constructed, while a church is a private institution invading the community’s space.

Bike lanes may put the conflict into the starkest relief, as there is competition for the physical space of the street, but the regulation of a church’s auditory emanations may be the strongest test case of the struggle for a city’s soul between the returning, buffered moderns and indigenous urban church-goers.

When Princeton historian Emily Thompson cataloged the advent of city noise regulation in New York about a hundred years ago, she collected six years of complaints from 1926 to 1932 on a dedicated multimedia website. Several complaints centered around newly installed church bells (public religious melody has never found unanimous favor), but Thompson notes that “Like all who wrote to complain about the noise of church bells, Mr. Wolf received a form letter indicating that, since the ringing of church bells was protected as a religious freedom under the Constitution of the United States, no action could be taken to alleviate this noise.” A Health Department inspector continued with one citizen, explaining “it is not and never has been the policy of the Health Department to do anything that might be construed as interfering with ones [sic] religious liberties in the slightest degree.”

The question to monitor closely in the coming years is whether that official deference to the place of religion in the public ear is maintained, or whether the penetration of public space by churches begins to be seen as the subversion of “public interests for private gain.” As city neighborhoods are filled with an influx of young new nones giving “autonomous order” to their lives, will the tools of urban regulation rest with a city’s traditional residents, or be seized to defend the buffers of modernity from enchanted invasion?

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.


Criminal Justice Reform Steps Out of the Shadows

Aspen Photo /

Rolling back the reach of America’s “tough on crime” laws was, for many years, a subject that most politicians could at best discuss at a whisper, off the record, in a dark and obscure corner. The crime waves that peaked in the 1990s made the careers of many politicians (especially on the right) who swept into Washington on promises of more jails and longer sentences, and they scarred the remaining Democrats too deeply for them to easily open a potential “soft on crime” flank again. Even as crime collapsed and the mounting toll of mass incarceration came into view in the 20 years that followed, Americans’ continued to believe in an increasingly mythical rise in crime, and political campaigns saw little reason to disabuse them of that notion.

Yet on Thursday, a significant bill reducing mandatory minimum sentences along with other substantial reforms was announced in the Senate. The bill’s press conference was attended by members of the Democratic leadership, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, the Republican leadership, John Cornyn, the conservative insurgency, Mike Lee and Tim Scott, and the next generation of Senate liberals, Cory Booker and Sheldon Whitehouse. Perhaps most importantly the press conference included both the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (long a reformer), and the committee’s present, Republican, legendarily resistant chairman, Chuck Grassley.

2015 has seen the culmination of years of work in forging a bipartisan coalition around rolling back the worst excesses of mass incarceration and drug war overreach, as the right learned from evangelicals led by Chuck Colson and his successor, Pat Nolan, and Right on Crime’s Mark Levin. Conferences have been held at swanky Washington hotels trumpeting the political progress, and politicians from such opposite ends of the spectrum as Mike Lee of Utah and Dick Durbin of Illinois co-authored reform bills. All the while, however, the specter of Senator Grassley hung over the optimism. Grassley is not part of the new wave of Tea Party Republicans decrying the government’s cruel excesses in the explosion of the carceral state; he is an old-school tough-on-crimer. And Grassley holds the keys to the Senate’s consideration of any crime bill. Without him, more sweeping reforms were doomed to fail; with him, the first real rollback of the mass incarceration era has a real chance at becoming law.

Russell Berman at The Atlantic summarized the resulting compromise well:

The bipartisan proposal would reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences, and limit them to serious drug felonies and violent crimes. It would ban solitary confinement for juveniles and allow them to apply for parole after a maximum of 20 years, and it would grant judges more flexibility in doling out sentences for a range of crimes. The bill would also bolster re-entry programs in federal prisons aimed at reducing recidivism.

The CORRECTIONS Act is the synthesis of Lee and Durbin’s extensive sentencing reform bill, Cornyn and Whitehouse’s more modest recidivism prevention bill, and Cory Booker’s committment to end solitary confinement for minors, with compromises between all. Grassley’s support came conditioned on the addition of two new mandatory minimum sentences, but they are for comparatively rare federal cases of arms trafficking and interstate domestic violence.

While reformist critics may fear that this bill sweeps up most of the politically attractive low-hanging fruit of helping nonviolent drug offenders that could have been needed to pass more controversial reforms around violent crime, it can also be seen as the signifier of a new era. The vast majority of American prisoners are in state institutions, not federal ones, so most of the work will still have to be done at more local levels. Encouragingly, red-state Republican governors have often been at the forefront of pushing for such reforms, including Rick Perry of Texas and Nathan Deal of Georgia.

A potentially more devastating blow to the encouraging trend criminal justice reforms could be lurking in a few statistical upticks in violent crime in major cities. Most of those are not statistically significant, and nationally any uptick would be following the lowest levels of violent crime in decades. Jesse Walker did a helpful dive into the numbers after a widely-reported New York Times story, and gave ample reason for caution. If a combination of potential reality and political persuasion does spark fears of a return to the bad old days, however, the politics of law and order could threaten to eclipse the decades-in-the-making coalition of compassionate (and conservative) criminal justice reformers. For the present, however, that coalition is moving forward in Congress, and in the states.

The best and most famous study of America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, was the result of a trip ostensibly taken to study the prisons in the New World in hopes of bringing more humane reforms to the French. Today, one of America’s foremost exceptionalisms can be found in that same prison system: the United States contains 5 percent of the world’s population—and 25 percent of its prisoners.

If Mike Lee and Tim Scott represent the future of conservative thinking on justice, then perhaps the United States can still recover its original exceptionalism, which drew and inspired a young French aristocrat and made the young nation a “shining city on a hill” to be admired, rather than a trap of mass institutionalization to be feared.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor of The American Conservative.


Volkswagen’s Failed American Gamble

Volkswagen has always been the German “people’s car,” not just by being affordable for the volk but also by being the Deutschland’s largest employer, representing almost 300,000 jobs in a country of 80 million. The automotive titan’s sudden and surprising fall from grace into scandal over the past week, then, is an economic event potentially on par with or even greater than the Greek debt crisis.

How did the economic face of such a famously rule-following people slide into one of the most brazen corporate cheating scandals of recent memory? The answer appears to be an unhealthy mixture of bad bets, worse timing, and an ill-fated attempt to export Germany’s favorite car onto American roads.

On September 18, the EPA announced that Volkswagen had been employing a “defeat device” to cheat its emission tests on the widely admired 2.0L four-cylinder TurboDiesel engines deployed in many of its smaller cars. This was the culmination of a year-long investigation after a few curious academics attempting to use VW’s cars as models for what clean diesel can achieve inadvertently found their real-world emissions to be astronomically higher than what the cars put out in the testing facility. VW’s explanations for this discrepancy gradually unraveled until the company revealed, under threat, that their cars had been cheating the entire time. The devices used to reduce emissions were turned off at all times except when the cars detected they were being tested.

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned yesterday even as he insisted that he had no knowledge of the cheating. VW’s board promises that many more heads may roll, but that has not kept the company’s share prices from plummeting as regulators and criminal investigators around the world are just beginning to put the company’s practices under the microscope.

While Volkswagens have always been a significant presence in German markets, and have enjoyed relative success around the world, for decades the company has been unable to make strong inroads into the biggest, most car-mad auto market in the world: the United States of America. The now-departed CEO Winterkorn aimed to turn that trend around with a European solution to skyrocketing gas prices: clean diesel.

As demand for economical vehicles surged along with the price at the pump in the 2000s, Japanese and, to a lesser extent, American automakers were investing in hybrid technologies that allowed traditionally-fueled gasoline engines to burn less gas per mile by supplementing with electric power. The Toyota Prius became the face of hybrid automobiles and quickly spurred imitators.

VW, on the other hand, already had decades of experience making fuel-sipping diesel engines for expensive European markets, even if they hadn’t caught on in cheap-gas America. And their engineers had been hard at work on a new engine that would be coming online just in time. An apparent new era of $100-a-barrel oil and $4.00-a-gallon gasoline seemed the perfect disruptive opportunity to finally get Americans on board with diesel. The only hitch was emissions.

Diesel is a dirty fuel, which doesn’t have to be as refined as gasoline in order to compress and combust. The upside is a strong advantage in torque and fuel economy. The downside is that the burned gas contains much more particulate pollution that tends to settle near the earth, causing air pollution and asthma. European particulate emission standards are much laxer and more diesel-friendly than those in the United States, resulting in more air pollution, higher fuel economy, and lower carbon dioxide emissions. While the diesels of a decade ago were much cleaner than the black smoke-belching engines of yesteryear, the EPA imposed (possibly unreasonably) stringent new air-pollution standards in 2007, just as VW was hoping to make its diesel engines the centerpiece of its American push.

Most manufacturers responded to the new standards by equipping their vehicles with a tank of a urea solution that could be sprayed on the exhaust in order to clean it. That system took up too much space and was too expensive for the smaller, cheaper cars like the Golf and Jetta that VW was hoping to popularize, however. So they turned to a much less complicated, less expensive system: a loudly publicized NOx trap combined with exhaust gas recirculation. The first uses unburned fuel to clean its filter, worsening fuel economy, and the latter degrades engine performance, worsening power. VW’s TDI engines have been cherished for providing ample amounts of both economy and power, and now it appears we know why.

When it came time to hit the U.S. market with its new engines, VW seemed to have trouble delivering, announcing instead that the Jetta TDI would be delayed six months after encountering what was widely rumored and reported to be emissions issues. They soon hit the market, however, and for several years the company enjoyed surging success selling VW’s as a hip Euro alternative car that was clean-diesel green to boot. Until it wasn’t.

It appears that Volkswagen took a gamble on its ability to produce an economical, powerful, clean diesel engine via technology that just couldn’t deliver by the time the EPA’s deadline arrived. Too much money, publicity, and planning had been invested in the “blue” diesel engines to abandon them, but rolling out a fleet of new diesel cars with the mediocre fuel economy and/or the exhaust-choked engines it would take to meet the EPA’s demands could have been even more embarrassing for proud German engineering.

And so, under the pressure to produce an engine that could be all things to all people without compromises, someone along the highly centralized Volkswagen production line cracked. Maybe VW’s engineers were just buying time to rush a urea-based system and were hoping no one would notice their hack-job in the interim. Perhaps significantly, in retrospect, VW had already begun implementing the more common urea-based system when the cheating scandal came to light. But whether it was one engineer taking a shortcut with programming, or, what seems more likely, an entire team out of answers and desperate to meet their goals, Volkswagen’s fleet of nimble TDI’s were programmed to monitor themselves and detect an emissions testing-like situation; only then were the cars to switch on their “clean diesel” facade.

With the few lines of engine management software coding that it took to program the Volkswagen EPA “defeat device,” then, Germany’s iconic national brand, the largest company of its largest industry, a company whose largest shareholder is still the regional government of Lower Saxony, has now been laid low. What’s more, when Martin Winterkorn looks back on the scandal that felled him as CEO mere weeks after he had beaten back an internal coup attempt from the chairman of the board, he will see the bitter truth that, even if VW had never been caught, their U.S. gambit was already failing.

A few years ago the strategy was seemingly peaking in success, as “[b]rand-wide volume in 2012 improved to the highest level since 1973, when Type 1 Beetles filled the driveways of America.” VW’s growth almost immediately hit the skids, however, and hobbled for years with outdated models, the company saw double-digit declines quarter after quarter.

What’s more, the seeming new normal of $4.00 gas as far as the eye could see that was so evident as 2012 set American gas price records, proved to be a high-water mark. Global oil prices have been falling thanks to booms in domestic American production via shale gas extraction and fracking techniques. The shifts in American sentiment towards small, fuel-efficient cars to which VW offered a new lease on diesel life soon tracked back to the bigger cars, trucks, and SUVs the country famously preferred. Belatedly, Winterkorn announced this year that VW would be trying to play catch-up and aggressively enter the SUV and crossover market.

Ironically, diesels are a natural fit for SUVs, where their “torquiness” and fuel-economy can both be put to good use. Volkswagen’s reputation will presumably be shot for years to come, however, especially if they start “fixing” people’s cars by turning the emissions traps on all the time, draining the vehicles of fuel economy and power. And the slowly recovering reputation of diesel fuel in the U.S. may have been set back by another 10 to 20 years.

Volkswagen itself will be beset by criminal investigations, angry regulators, and opportunistic class-action lawsuits the world over. The company has already set aside $7.3 billion to address those claims. Only time will tell if it will be enough. Already there is sweeping fear in Germany of potential layoffs as the industrial icon of Europe’s steadiest and strongest economy suddenly finds itself under peril.

Angela Merkel presides over a country that has girded itself against the Greek economic crisis, promised that it could absorb vast numbers of refugees from that current crisis, withstood the economic disruptions resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and prepared to weather the presumed depressed demand to result from China’s stock collapse. Yet for all the world has thrown at it, Germany finds itself economically rocked by a few lines of car software code thrown in by panicked engineers trying to satisfy the EPA and California Air Resources Board.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.


When Universities Abandon Education for Buildings

University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center, Thom Mayne, $110 million Paul Schmizer/Flickr
University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center, Thom Mayne, $110 million Paul Schmizer/Flickr

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine featured the University of Cincinnati’s ambitious building boom, a budget-busting architectural bender that has employed “a murderers’ row of architects—Frank Gehry, of course, along with Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Thom Mayne” to further the school’s “decades-long bid to turn a quiet commuter school into one with a global reputation.”

Cincinnati is merely one the most prominent examples of a national explosion in debt-fueled collegiate building binges ushered in along with the new millennium. A 2012 New York Times report asked for the numbers and found that, “Overall debt levels more than doubled from 2000 to 2011 at the more than 500 institutions rated by Moody’s, according to inflation-adjusted data compiled for The New York Times by the credit rating agency.” What’s more, “In the same time, the amount of cash, pledged gifts and investments that colleges maintain declined more than 40 percent relative to the amount they owe.”

In total, Moody’s found those institutions to have amassed over $200 billion in debt, $122 billion being held by public universities, $83 billion by private institutions. The University of Cincinnati, with its lavish gambit for international prominence, now holds over $1.1 billion of debt, approximately $200 million of which was spent on construction in the past 10 years.

Cincinnati administrators are happy to defend this spending, as they told the Times in 2012 that “The institution has profited mightily from the changes that we have made,” for “We have gone from a second-choice institution to a first-choice.” And indeed, university enrollment increased approximately 30 percent over the past decade.

However defensible individual capital investments may be when deployed to expand a university’s enrollment or periodically maintain its facilities, though, University of Cincinnati’s reliance on the star architect model left its campus as a hodgepodge of slants and odd angles, along with the all-too-common signature of experimental architecture, imminent decay:

Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the university had cheap cladding slapped on during its construction from 1989 to 1996, and over time it began to rot and peel away. Repairs and renovations on the $35 million building cost $20 million, and the university borrowed $19.25 million to help pay for them.

On a snowy evening this past March Patrick Deneen lectured on the architecture of university libraries, highlighting how,  over the past century, they had too frequently gone from (in the title of the lecture) “Sacred Space to the Bunker and the Spaceship.” Deneen’s argument, as summarized by JuicyEcumenism’s Matthew Maule, was that universities abandoned building libraries in keeping with classical forms and understandings of how to organize knowledge, light, and people, and instead exchanged that wisdom for concrete brutalism and glass-and-steel sci-fi modernism. What’s more, “the shift in form parallels the change in function from a focus on educating students to assisting the university’s research faculty whose output is often only read by a few of their peers.” A research library organized merely to contain faculty work that would never be read was necessarily built differently than a teaching library aiming to bring knowledge, students, and scholars together in serendipitous encounter and reverent transmission of wisdom.

Deneen pointed out that the classical architectural forms had been tested by hundreds of years of cold, rain, heat, and all kinds of inclement weather, and had survived the stress test of the centuries. Likewise, the classical educational model relying on great texts had been tested by the millennia of Western civilization, and had that civilization to testify to their passing grade.

What does the starchitectural building boom of University of Cincinnati indicate about the aims of contemporary education? It would seem to be a debt-fueled consumerism, a highly leveraged sensationalism, where institutions of higher education represent not institutional transmitters of wisdom, nor even organized laboratories seeking to let knowledge grow from more to more, but rather marketplace actors competing to attract student-customers by way of lazy rivers and gigantic gymnasiums. As Nikil Saval worried in the Times, “the university will turn into a luxury brand, its image unmoored from its educational mission—a campus that could be anywhere and nowhere”

Those students will then be saddled with the bills for the building booms through soaring tuition or swelling student loans. And the university administrators will take home the salaries and the credit due to those running such a successful scheme.

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The Optimism of the Cross in the Face of Genocide

Mar Mattai monastery outside Mosul, continually inhabited by monks since the 4th century A.D. Chris De Bruyn / cc
Mar Mattai monastery outside Mosul, continually inhabited by monks since the 4th century A.D. Chris De Bruyn / cc

A year and three months ago, the militant group then calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the vital Iraqi city of Mosul as government forces melted away. The sudden loss of such an important city seized the world’s attention, and the brutality with which ISIS then purged Mosul of its Christian and other religious minorities shocked those newly focused eyes.

A year ago this past Friday, the newly founded organization In Defense of Christians (IDC) reached the culmination of a three-day summit bringing a historic collection of the heads of the oldest churches in Christianity to Washington in order to raise awareness of the plight of Christians and plead for assistance. The solidarity gala dinner closing the summit was keynoted and summarily crashed by Senator Ted Cruz, who threatened to overshadow the calls for unity with a provocative speech that ended with the senator storming off stage.

While Cruz’s cynical performance was roundly and harshly criticized in many conservative circles, there was no denying that the spectacle was a distraction that threatened to overshadow the progress made. Many feared that the potential opening for rallying broad support to the defense of persecuted Christians was closed as Senator Cruz walked off the stage.

Last week IDC returned to Washington, however, and opened its convention with a bang: the announcement of bipartisan legislation introduced in the House to officially recognize the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians as a genocide, as Kelley Vlahos reports. The bill picked up dozens of cosponsors within days.

This year’s solidarity dinner did not culminate with angry denunciations, but with a sobering, powerful presentation. As Georgetown professor Thomas Farr was honored with a lifetime achievement recognition of his career fighting for religious liberty, IDC senior advisor Andrew Doran announced that Dr. Farr would be entrusted with a crucifix.

When ISIS troops rolled into Mosul, St. Joseph’s Chaldean church soon joined the rest of the 45 Christian institutions in Mosul in being destroyed, shuttered, or converted into mosques. As Doran related, the church bells fell silent in Mosul for the first time in nearly 2,000 years. The guardians of St. Joseph’s were able to seize a crucifix from the church as they fled before the oncoming militants, and they carried that crucifix across the Atlantic where it was placed in the hands of Dr. Farr “not to keep but for safeguarding and its eventual return.” The presentation looked forward to a day when Farr and his team would be able to travel to a Mosul liberated, and return the crucifix to its rightful home within St. Joseph’s: a day when the bells would once again be able to be heard tolling above the ancient city.

There were strong speeches given that evening by Ambassadors and Beatitudes, Canons and Supreme Knights, but the entrance of that small cross and chain, fastened behind the glass of the frame, brought the audience to its feet in a hushed reverence. Where cynicism had sparked shouts from the seated a year before, the reckless optimism of the cross summoned the whole hall to stand and witness a promise that genocide would not have the last word in the cradle of Christianity.


Brad Pitt’s Rotting Post-Katrina Modernism—and Ours

Ten years ago this past weekend, Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, destroying over 300,000 homes, over 100,000 of which were in the long-beleaguered but even-longer proud city of New Orleans. The images of an iconic American city under water, which many of us revisited over the past week, still haunt. The rebuilding of New Orleans, it was apparent even then, would be more than a disaster-relief project; it would tell us how much we still understood of our traditions.

That’s when Brad Pitt decided that the birthplace of jazz needed a Hollywood soul infusion. As Peter Whorlskey recounted at the Washington Post Friday, Mr. Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to import the world’s greatest architects into New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward and bestow the hardest-hit victims of Katrina with world-class branded houses that incorporated LEED-platinum environmental consciousness. Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Shigeru Ban were all brought in to offer Lower Ninth Ward residents their visions for post-Katrina residential life. The only hitch? According to Whorlskey, “the designs proved to be too clever to be built on a budget—that is, in reality.”

Mayne proposed a house that could float, in case the levees gave way again. A useful contingency plan, but prohibitively expensive to implement. Ban required too-costly carpentry. The famed Gehry did manage to technically approach the budget by building a $350,000 duplex—but could not tempt any natives into actually wanting to live in it.

What’s more, the unbuilt budget-busting houses may have been some of the modernists’ best contributions to the recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward. For the houses that were built by other high-flying architectural artists relied on experimental materials that have proven very prone to molding and even severe rotting in the muggy New Orleans climate—less than 10 years after they were built. Many of the others showed off their sleek, flat rooves—to which the natives reportedly responded, “you know it rains a lot here, right?” Several of the architects seemed more taken with the hurricane than the residents, Justin Shubow recounts, as they designed one home with an aesthetically “damaged” roof, another “that looked like a trailer broken in two, and another one that looked like a house piled on top of a house.”

Responding to these modernist failures, “one of the 21st century’s architectural power brokers” Aaron Betsky wrote, “The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline.”

Michael Mehaffy captured the modernist Make It Right ethos well in his recent, excellent essay, “What We Didn’t Learn From Katrina”:

Let us not learn from the successes and delights of New Orleans itself, they suggest. Let us not empower local people with local solutions. Instead, let us bring international architects to craft novelty inventions, and bestow them upon these lucky denizens. If these novelties happen to perform poorly—if they rot quickly, or have other problems—well, who knew?

Mehaffy goes on to note that “New Orleans has the embodied knowledge of how to make an exquisite street, a delightful house, a durable and enduring piece of the city. But we are in the bad habit of ignoring it.” New Orleans in fact has one of the most distinctive architectural identities of any city in the country, and a large part of that is due to it being specifically adapted to its environment. What’s more, the people of New Orleans are famously attached to their identity. You don’t stick around through “the hurricane before the hurricane” of urban dysfunction and decay because the climate is nice. You stay because the city has a soul, as Rod learned helping Crescent City native Wendell Pierce with his memoir.

Thankfully, Pitt included at least one local firm in his project, and the Billes Partners prototype is sure enough the most popular design ordered by the actual residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Elevated and LEED-certified, the house still draws on New Orleans style. What’s more, Billes himself notes, “We did actually listen to what the neighborhoods folks might like in a house… They were looking for a porch, and they were were looking for a protected area to drive their car into. And they wanted something that looked familiar.” Steven Bingler of Concordia, another involved local firm, notes that “A lot of features of our design come from our knowledge of the New Orleans community—for example, an eight-foot-deep front porch. The community has commented that four-foot-deep front porches aren’t big enough for their rocking chairs.”

The modernist marvels of Gehry and co., with their clean absence of context and experiments in high-speed housing decay unfortunately reflect the state of architecture more widely. As Bingler noted in a New York Times op-ed, “we’re trying to sell the public buildings they don’t want, in a language they don’t understand,” because “we’ve taught generation of architects to speak out as artists, but we haven’t taught them to listen.”

As Mehaffy reflects,

New Orleans is a marvel of informal order. Its older neighborhoods are loose jazzy improvisations of buildings and details and quirky outdoor spaces, all exquisitely human scale and aimed at pedestrian delight. A walk down one of its streets reveals the layers of human activity and change that have grown up there, re-organizing, and transforming neighborhoods bit by bit. It is a marvel of durable livability.

As New Orleans begins another decade of post-Katrina life, this massive project of reclamation and rebuilding is a strong lesson in localism. Watching his city come back to life around him, Bingler noted that “it was the citizens of New Orleans who saved New Orleans. If you ask around, there is no shortage of politicians and businesspeople who will take the credit. It’s interesting that, for the most part, those people tanked and failed. Some of them are in federal prison as we speak.”

New Orleans is still struggling to retain its character amid the hurricane-imposed population changes, but the city’s strength is built into its streets, into its buildings, and into its people. Where one of those components falters, the others can reinforce, but context-less modernism would cut another of the supports out from under the community.

We can hope that New Orleans has a clear enough sense of its own identity to fend off those threats. We might need to be more worried, however, about the creeping decay of our own neighborhoods and cities under the gradual pressure of an architecture without a soul.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative.


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Donald Trump Isn’t Herman Cain

When an oft-bankrupted reality-show billionaire declared for the GOP presidential nomination two months ago, I resolved to do my best to shield my vision, guard my pen, and strive in all things to avoid acknowledging a sure-to-be soon-passing (if depressing) storm. Two months and three days later, though, The Donald is still among us, and riding higher than ever.

There are many good and sound reasons to expect that Trump’s summer surge will soon enough pass away, and few good or sound reasons to expect that he will ever get within shouting distance of actual nomination. But there is one comparison often being made to dismiss Trump’s candidacy that doesn’t quite hold, and which perhaps obscures full understanding of the Trump phenomenon more than it illuminates: Herman Cain.

Like Trump, Cain was a successful businessman who threw his hat into the presidential race as an anti-politician. He also at one point claimed the lead in the polls, reaching the mid-20 percent range Trump now occupies. That is where most of the similarities end, however, for while Cain was a mostly unknown former executive who was elevated in the course of 2012’s pursuit of an anti-Romney, any anti-Romney, Donald Trump is a force in his own right.

As has been frequently noted by now, Donald Trump is a bona fide media celebrity, with a long-running network reality TV show and a well-established career commanding tabloid covers before that. A real-estate mogul who accumulated vast wealth by, in his words, taking “advantage of the laws of this country,” Trump bankrupted and bullied his way into cronyism-begotten gains. He has specialized in courting public spats in order to keep his name in circulation, and has built his brand on a brash design aesthetic that one of my Parisian friends would only describe as “very American.”

Cain was a mostly honest broker who got in over his head due to structural politics beyond his control, and he bowed out when charges of scandal emerged. Trump is a degraded capitalism’s high aristocrat, and shows no sign of being shamed by scandal. Indeed, he courts it.

Trump’s celebrity status and experience do not mean that he definitely has staying power, but they do mean that his candidacy is sufficiently different from Cain, or any other of the 2012 attempted anti-Romneys for that matter, to merit separate analysis. I wouldn’t be shocked if Trump eventually pulled into the mid-30 percent range many of the 2012 alternatives reached, but I would be very surprised if reports of a sexual harassment accusations gave Trump a moment’s hesitation about jumping on the plane for his next campaign event.

We shall eventually be rid of Trump, but the mechanism of his removal is far from clear. In related news of our democracy, apparently the Independent candidate “Deez Nuts” is polling near double-digits in my home state of North Carolina.

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‘Game of Thrones’ Between Two Battles

HBO; a White Walker
HBO; a White Walker

After two of the most apparently subpar episodes of the series occupied the middle of this current “Game of Thrones” season, many watchers were starting to wonder if the “double-D” showrunners extraordinaire, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, were starting to run out of material to write well.

Though the show is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, this season has for the first time begun to forge well past the confines of the books, not just taking liberties with its adaptation, but spinning storylines of its own anew, setting the new canon. And the past two weeks’ episodes prior to this past Sunday boded poorly for the success of “Game of Thrones” without A Song of Ice and Fire.

Then “Hardhome” happened.

This past Sunday’s episode opened by uniting the storylines of two of the most compelling characters in the series, the drunken, witty, apparent political genius dwarf Tyrion Lannister and the fierce, charismatic, apparently fireproof Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, and closed by confronting humans led by the youthful Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow, with the very visage of death itself, unstoppable hordes of newly raised undead and their commanding White Walkers.

The grand battle scene between Snow’s Night’s Watch men and the tens of thousands of Wildlings they had come to persuade to flee to relative safety south of the Wall, and the White Walker-led zombie hordes, immediately drew comparisons, most favorable, to “Blackwater,” the full-episode siege of the capital city of King’s Landing. Yet if the appearance of the armies of the dead marks the turning point in the series that it does seem to indicate, then the contrasts between the battles may be the more relevant point.

“Blackwater” was about relationships. What felt like a grand, cinematic battle scene unprecented on the small screen on the first watch now reads as a series of close, intimate set pieces upon rewatching. There is very little actual fighting, relatively speaking, as the camera moves around to documenting the intersection of most of the series’ storylines at one moment of peak stress.

With Stannis Baratheon’s troops laying siege to Kings’ Landing to claim the throne from the illegitimate Lannister children, the yellow-haired Worst Family in Westeros (up to that point) all understand acutely that the stern Stannis will give them no quarter. Queen Cersei prepares drastic measures of euthanasic mercy to spare her children Baratheon blades. Her hated brother and temporary Hand of the King, Tyrion, nervously commands the city’s defense, as the titular King and psychopath Joffrey betrays the full teenage petulance that his mother’s shielding has allowed to flourish when he is not torturing and maiming. The Hound personally abandons the battle and his post, while Stannis mounts the walls essentially unaided.

The battle of Blackwater Bay is much more a series of two-person set shots revolving around a central moment of stress than it is a war film. And regardless of who prevails, one of the sides we have been following will in fact win, and continue their story.

Of “Hardhome,” however, showrunner David Benioff in the perfunctory post-show filmed discussion says, “This isn’t a battle, really, it’s a massacre.” When the White Walkers appear with their hordes of zombie “wights,” it is immediately known that there is no hope of victory. A partial sea evacuation was already underway, so time could be bought for it to get a few more boats off. But the deaths of tens of thousands could only be forestalled. And while episode director Miguel Sapochnik has rightly received much praise for narrowing the battle and the shots to the last defense of the bay, there are no relationships or storylines at stake in Hardhome: there is only death.

And with the reanimated corpses of about 50,000 freshly slaughtered Wildlings newly drafted into the apparent Night’s King’s White Walker and zombie army, death is now officially on the march.

As GOT returns for its second-to-last episode of the season tomorrow night, “The Dance of Dragons,” we will begin to look in earnest for resources and leaders who can save the race of men from the creep of eternal winter. And few seem more naturally suited to that task than Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons. Carried by Emilia Clark’s commanding performance, Queen Daenerys’s strength has poured through the screen, even as she has often let her youth and idealism run ahead of her potential better wisdom. She commands armies, frees slave cities, and she rose from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre with dragons reborn upon the earth.

And it only stands to reason that if dragonglass can kill White Walkers, and Valyrian/dragon steel can as well, then dragon fire should be a powerful weapon against the wintry death. The “song of ice and fire” appears to be approaching full volume.

Ultimately, though, one queen, even a queen with dragons, will not be able to defeat Death. It would seem likely that a coalition will have to be marshaled among many if not all the forces of Westeros. And that will require more than force of will, more than Unsullied and Second Sons and dragons. Obtaining the resources to defeat the march of the dead will require politics. And, as Tyrion so helpfully instructed Daenerys this last Sunday, “killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.

Last week we saw the icy White Walkers in their full fearsome display. Hopefully this Sunday we will see the fiery dragons fully grown. Most of all, we hope to see Tyrion’s political genius channel Daenerys’s epic presence and power. The fate of life itself may depend on the show’s unity in that balance.


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New Urbs Returns from Dallas

newurbslogo small

Welcome back.

A couple weeks ago, we were privileged to attend the 23rd Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas, as the first year of our New Urbanism Initiative reached its culmination. TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz and I were in attendance for the full week of festivities, attending panels and events around Dallas. Now that video for most of the sessions are available, commentary and reflection will be forthcoming.

We were also very fortunate to have the opportunity to host a panel on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives,” in which the TAC crew was joined by New Urbanism icon and founding father Andrés Duany and Strong Towns president and New Urbs regular Charles Marohn for a fascinating discussion about the intersection of conservatives and new urbanist thinking. That video is now available below:

Just before going on stage, we had a dynamic discussion with Chuck Marohn on his podcast (which I linked to previously), describing the arc of the New Urbs project and our hopes for the future of conservatives and cities (or in Schwarz’s case, his natural conservative pessimism).

And after our panel wrapped up, we moved to D Magazine’s offices, where Wick Allison held court on the devastation Dallas wreaked upon its own downtown by building highways straight through them, as well as the work that he and the Coalition for a New Dallas are doing to reverse that damage and recover their city from the well-meaning follies of corporate titans and central planners. We are still waiting for the pictures to come back, but expect a post on that soon.

Yesterday, Robert Steuteville of the essential New Urbanist publication Better Cities & Towns (which I understand will transform into a new CNU publication this year), was kind enough to profile our panel, and the work that we have been doing here, in a post titled, “A New Right Hook for New Urbanism.”

Steuteville relates,

For nearly a year, The American Conservative, a right-leaning national magazine, has been running well-written, informed, and positive online articles on the New Urbanism. Two of its editors joined a panel discussion at CNU in Dallas titled “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives.”

This is newsworthy for two reasons:

1) No national magazine that covers general political topics has ever devoted this much coverage to New Urbanism.

2) Coming from a mainstream conservative source, such writing has been as scarce as hen’s teeth. For close to two decades, conservative pundits like Wendall Cox, Randal O’Toole, and Joel Kotkin have relentlessly bashed this trend. The Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party, and the American Dream Coalition are among the institutions of the right that have attacked new urban planning and development. Goaded by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party equates density and mixed-use with an anti-American, world-government agenda.

We will continue to hear from Kotkin, Cox, O’Toole, the Tea Party, and other critics from the conservative side. Now we also have a new generation of conservative intellectuals making cogent, well-informed arguments for human-scale design and development. Right field is no longer owned by the pro-sprawl folks.

One thing I am very confident about is that there is indeed a new generation of conservatives moving into the urbanism discussion, and that the right’s future includes a strong population of city dwellers and walkable neighborhood lovers.

Stay tuned for the next year of New Urbs, as we have a lot of exciting plans underway. And keep coming back.


The New Urbs-Strong Towns Conversation

Greetings, all. New Urbs is now back from Dallas after the Congress for the New Urbanism, and we have a lot of exciting things that will be coming out of it, both in the next week and hopefully over the next year. While I gather the rest of our coverage, I wanted to thank Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, a name that should be familiar to New Urbs regulars, for having myself and Ben Schwarz on his podcast.

I listened to the episode on my flight home, and think it turned out great. We talk about The American Conservative, what makes us such a unique publication, New Urbs and the New Urbanism, as well as really digging into the connections between conservatives and urbanism. I hope you listen to it, and then go on to subscribe to the podcast, it really is one of my favorites.

Strong Towns Podcast – Jonathan Coppage and Benjamin Schwarz at CNU 23


New Urbs Goes to Dallas

newurbslogo small

The American Conservative and our modest project here at New Urbs are hitting the road next week, and will be joining the Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas for its 23rd annual convention of panels, events, and good urbanism appreciation.

I’ll be bringing you coverage and highlights of CNU23 throughout the week (so stay tuned), but for now I’d like to highlight events that The American Conservative itself is very pleased to be holding.

Friday will be official New Urbs day down in Dallas, as we will be hosting a panel from 3:45-5:00 on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives”:

Community building, placemaking, traditional neighborhood design. Good urbanism should hold a deep appeal across the political spectrum, but too often gets roadblocked by unproductive stereotypes. The American Conservative magazine joins CNU co-founder Andres Duany and Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn in a discussion on how to bridge the urbanism divide and how to engage community-oriented conservatives at the local and national levels.

If you will be attending CNU, please come and join our discussion. TAC national editor Benjamin Schwarz and I will be joined by frequent New Urbs contributor (read his new article from the print magazine here) and StrongTowns president Chuck Marohn, along with one of New Urbanism’s true icons, architect and NU pioneer Andres Duany, for a fast-paced, free-flowing conversation about overcoming the conservatism-good urbanism divide.

Each panelist has a unique background working at the intersection of politics and placemaking, and I, personally, am extremely excited to learn from Andres and Chuck’s wisdom and experiences.
After the panel, for any readers in the Dallas area who won’t be attending the Congress (and for those who are!), New Urbs will be hosting an evening reception from 5:00 to 7:00 at D Magazine’s gorgeous downtown offices, overlooking the cityscape from the 21st floor as the sun starts to set.

Amid the Texas BBQ appetizers and beer and wine from Dallas’s own Sonny Bunch’s Smokehouse, Benjamin Schwarz will sit down for a brief conversation with a man who should be very familiar to long-time TAC readers, Wick Allison. In addition to being the chairman of our board now, formerly our president, Allison is the chairman and publisher of D Magazine and a driving force between the Coalition for a New Dallas, a PAC formed to champion the revitalization of Dallas’s downtown neighborhoods and the necessary tear-out of I-395.

Ben will ask Wick about how he has sold Dallas conservatives on Jane Jacobs, and how a former publisher of National Review came to see the essential connections between conservatism and good urbanism.

If you are anywhere near the area, please come out and join us, for the food, drink, and conversation. TAC‘s editorial and leadership team will be out in force, so it’s a great opportunity to get to meet the people behind the scenes of this peculiar project of a magazine. 

And please, please, register at this page to tell us that you are coming, so we will be sure to have enough food and drink for all.

Finally, if you are around CNU, look for Ben Schwarz and I the rest of the week as well (rumor has it that TAC executive editor Maisie Allison may even grace the Congress with her presence on Wednesday); we hope to meet as many people as possible at CNU. My e-mail is jcoppage[at], feel free to reach out.

I hope to see many New Urbs and TAC readers soon!

Register for the Friday reception here.

Reception2 Invitation

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Rand Gets Abortion Politics Right

Gage Skidmore / cc

In the 24 hours after Rand Paul officially announced his presidential campaign, the Kentucky doctor has shown off both edges of his trademark combative political style.

On the “Today Show” yesterday morning, Paul went after NBC reporter Savannah Guthrie when she pressed him on his frequent attempts to split the foreign-policy baby. For a candidate with unconventional politics that will necessarily not fit into the easy categories relied on by 24-hour news, Paul has often displayed thin skin and a paucity of patience that could bode poorly for his ability to weather an 18-month campaign that will only get more confrontational.

Before the day was out, however, Paul performed the abortion-politics reversal so many pro-life conservatives have been anxiously waiting for in the years following the Obama campaign’s “war on women” meme. In doing so, he reminded us that he first truly broke out as a national figure by picking a filibuster fight no other Republican would touch.

As Dave Weigel reports, the Associated Press pressed Paul on the issue of abortion exceptions, and he responded by noting his votes for bills that included exceptions and those that didn’t. When Paul was again questioned by a local reporter citing a DNC e-mail blast that referenced his previous answer, however, he turned it back around, asking,

Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts … Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.

As the earnest people at Vox have been documenting, the ideological uniformity that distinguishes activists on both sides of the abortion issue is far rarer in the American public at large. Yet for reasons that readers can supply for themselves, pro-life politicians and positions are far more likely to receive widespread critical media coverage, examining their answers on questions about fringe cases. The fringe cases of very late-term abortions, and whether they should be legal or not, are rarely given the same intensity of mainstream media examination.

Wasserman Schultz’s response revealed her lack of practice:

Here’s an answer … I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.

While she may not get raked over the coals the same way an RNC chair would for an equivalent categorical statement, Wasserman Schultz immediately concedes the abortion ballgame, declaring legal abortion apparently up to the moment of delivery to be the official Democratic party position.

What stands out in Rand’s reversal is that he did not go after the media for a perceived unfairness. He went right after the DNC. As much as many conservatives may enjoy sticking it to their perceived media enemy, even in our disintermediated age it doesn’t do a candidate any favors to constantly be showing up the ref.

Launching attacks at Democrats cuts out the middleman, and may be one of Paul’s best rhetorical tactics to win enough of the traditional Republican base to have a chance at the primary nod. Paul’s libertarian streak will always keep him from being the candidate to reassuringly confirm the base’s priors, and his attempts to shroud foreign policy restraint in hawkish rhetoric can at times appear ungainly. Distinguishing himself as the most skilled assailant of Hillary Clinton, then, could give Paul an appealing in with the base.

In a GOP primary field that will likely eventually turn into a circular firing squad, Rand’s ability to rise above the intraparty fray, while still appealing to untraditional constituencies, may be his best political path to success. To pull it off, however, he’ll have to display more skilled reversals, and fewer thin-skinned retorts.

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Why Shared Space Scares

Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad
Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad

Can shared space work in the United States?

Surely not, was the response of many to my recent article describing the movement seeking to de-engineer and re-design our streets. For some reason this is the objection that immediately emerges everywhere the idea of shared space is raised: the British think ‘that may work for those upstanding Dutch, but not for us,’ Americans think ‘that may work for those nice Brits, but not us.’ Even in-country, you will often hear, ‘that may work in a small town, but not Jersey,’ ‘not Boston,’ ‘not where I’m from, have you seen these crazy people?’

I’m still sufficiently traumatized from my past experiences on Boston’s roads that I’ll bracket Beantown for the time being, but this is a very understandable, even desirable reaction. For shared space, the idea that pedestrians, bikes, cars all have equal claim to the street and should navigate the common space socially rather than hewing to the dictates of century-old traffic engineering, is intentionally scary.

Hans Monderman, the father of the shared space movement, made his name with the 2001 redesign of the Dutch town of Drachten’s town square. A town of 45,000, Monderman saw accidents fall from eight annually to one, yet was pleased to hear “that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he ‘would have changed it immediately.'”

The rapidly growing English town of Ashford recently implemented a shared space design, so that “Without street signs, pavements, road markings or traffic lights, Ashford’s Elwick Square is confusing. Pedestrians cross from all angles, and some cars stop at the sides, while others make U-turns even though there is no roundabout.” The Financial Times reported, “In the three years before the scheme opened in November 2008, there were 17 accidents involving injury on this stretch of ring road. Since its creation, there have been just four.”

The FT also interviewed “Rebecca Skinner, a cleaner who crosses the road every day,” who said, “‘It looks nice, but I don’t feel safe at all. What makes drivers stop is making eye contact, but they might not be looking at you.'”

Ms. Skinner’s reaction is what every Monderman acolyte dreams of hearing. Under the influence of Prof. John Adams of University College, London, shared space designers recognize the influence of a “risk compensation effect,” whereby the comfort provided by a network of signs and lights relaxes the natural alertness one would carry into an environment shared with 2,000 pound steel machines. The discomfort induced by the alien shared space environment helps keep a pedestrian’s head on a swivel, and encourages active negotiation of the space, with eye contact and hand waving.

Now a few scattered projects are bringing shared space back to American shores. Chicago is implementing a near-shared space design on a four-block stretch in Uptown, with no sidewalks, stoplights, or crosswalks, and minimal signage, and FastCoExist notes that “shared streets exist in Seattle, Washington and Buffalo, New York.” It quotes Seattle Parks and Rec project manager Patrick Donoue as declaring, “Naysayers said, ‘People are going to get hit’ … Well, it just hasn’t happened.” Bombastic British car presenter Jeremy Clarkson declared about the Ashford scheme before it was built, “Someone is going to die, you idiots.”

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, Hans Monderman’s shared space heir, told me in an interview that he sees shared spaces working across the world, extending to Latin America, because the principles involved deal in human nature, not the particular hospitality customs of a few bike-happy Euro cultures. Such a claim can be overstated, but it is important to recognize that “shared spaces” were not a branded innovation but the almost unanimous state of the street across the world until the engineering interventions that accompanied the ascendancy of the car.

If we have been sharing spaces from the beginning of organized human settlements, then we may very well find latent hard-wiring ready to ease our transition in ways deeper and more complex than a traffic engineer could imagine. As Prof. John Adams says, “Road safety is not rocket science—it is much more complicated!”

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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New Article on Shared Space & American Streets

From the newest print edition of the magazine, my look at the history of American street engineering, and why Hans Monderman’s shared space movement is a reform that conservatives should be able to embrace.

The removal of signs, signals, and markings from a street inverts the logic that has governed our roadways for almost as long as automobiles have been mass produced, as doing so moves decision-making from the engineer who designs the street back to the people who use it. The absence of speed-limit signs means a driver must read his environment and modulate his speed appropriately. The absence of stop signs and stoplights means neither driver nor pedestrian is told when to go or when to stop; each must instead make those decisions spontaneously in response to conditions on and around the road.

With auto industry support, modernist planners’ fantastical ideas for remaking the American city were suddenly given the financial muscle to become possible and even mandatory. Highways would be brought into the heart of the city, people would be cordoned from the streets, and everything would be separated into its own gleaming sphere. Cronyist central planning bent well-meaning engineers to its ambitions and shut out ordinary citizens.

When European countries began encountering significant traffic congestion five to 10 years after the United States, they sent their own engineers to learn from the Americans and implemented similar standards, including the now ubiquitous traffic light and stop sign. “By 1938,” Norton relates, “the sociologist Louis Wirth could name ‘the clock and the traffic signal’ as the two symbols ‘of the basis of our social order in the urban world.’”

This stands in stark contrast to the standardization of roads according to the rules of conventional traffic engineering. When a road is totally divorced from its context, when an identical stretch of asphalt runs through a hundred towns across the country, “when you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world … then you have to explain things,” Monderman argued. A clutter of signs and directional arrows is an attempt at technocratic compensation for the destruction of place.

Read the full article here:

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Put a Stop to Stoplights

In 1982, two small children were fatally struck by cars passing through the small Dutch village of Oudehaske. Concerned about the safety of their roads, the townspeople requested a traffic evaluation from their regional safety inspector, a man by the name of Hans Monderman, who would later be described by Wired as “the sort of stout, reliable fellow you’d see on a package of pipe tobacco.”

Monderman faced a quandary. The road cutting through the village brought drivers accustomed to the speeds of empty highways into the heart of the town center. But he did not have the budget to install any of the traditional traffic engineer’s solutions to speeding, such as warning signs and speed bumps. So instead Monderman recommended that the village, which was also undergoing an aesthetic consultation at the time, try to look more “village-like.”

Rather than installing humps and bumps, warning signs and stoplights, instead of building guardrails around sidewalks or elevating the curbs, Monderman tore out the curbs altogether. He uprooted as many signs as he could legally get away with and replaced the standardized asphalt with red brick and slightly curved gray “gutters” that produced a road that looked five meters wide “but had all the possibilities of six.” Thus instead of traveling down a roadway that passed through a village, incoming drivers were thrust into a village, full stop.

Under conventional traffic-engineering guidelines, this was madness. Without signs, markings, and separations telling cars and villagers alike where to go and how to behave, people would be thrown into chaos that practically invited reckless driving and more accidents. Yet instead, Monderman was pleased to see, drivers recognized that their environment was different and ambiguous, and they slowed down to navigate with care, subtly negotiating their way through the space with eye contact and hand signals exchanged with those around them, whether in cars, on bikes, or on foot. Car speeds dropped by 40 percent, four times what conventional traffic control could promise, and the village was undeniably safer.

This was the birth of what would come to be called “shared space,” a traffic and urban design movement that seeks to remove street barriers, markings, and signs in order to create environments where pedestrians, cars, and bikes all have equal claim to the street and navigate the space socially and spontaneously rather than relying on timed lights or instructional signs. Since Monderman’s work in Dutch villages like Oudehaske, shared space principles have been implemented in experiments across Europe. And they’re worth Americans’ attention as well.


The removal of signs, signals, and markings from a street inverts the logic that has governed our roadways for almost as long as automobiles have been mass produced, as doing so moves decision-making from the engineer who designs the street back to the people who use it. The absence of speed-limit signs means a driver must read his environment and modulate his speed appropriately. The absence of stop signs and stoplights means neither driver nor pedestrian is told when to go or when to stop; each must instead make those decisions spontaneously in response to conditions on and around the road.

But the engineer has held the reins of decision-making tightly for the past century, for reasons both technological and ideological. After Henry Ford’s 1908 introduction of the Model T, automobiles suddenly became not just the playthings of the very wealthy but an affordable means of transportation for millions. As historian Clay McShane writes, “For the first time, cars were cheap and reliable enough for mass commuting,” flooding cities and suburbs alike with a new species of citizen of the road. Significantly larger than pedestrians, less predictable than streetcars, and ultimately much faster than either, automobiles were soon seen as reckless endangerments of society.

With this potent new technology being introduced to necessarily inexperienced users, accidents were commonplace and fatalities, especially of children, quickly accumulated. University of Virginia historian Peter Norton estimates that “more than 210,000 were killed in traffic accidents in the period 1920-1929, a figure “three or four times the death toll of the previous decade.”

Early 20th-century cities already had a trusted source to turn to for answers to their problems, however: engineers. As Norton describes in Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the 1910s and 1920s were a time of tremendous optimism in the power of scientific and technical solutions. The integration of mass waterworks and sewer systems had bought engineers particular favor in densely populated cities, while the business communities that paid for some of the first traffic engineers were enamored of Frederick Taylor’s ideas about “scientific management” in the workplace. As early traffic engineer A.G. Straetz wrote, “Traffic conditions on our streets and highways today greatly resemble the confusion and disorder which prevailed in the industrial production field twenty years ago.”

Newly minted traffic engineers saw city streets as simply one more public utility in need of expert regulation, like the water systems civil engineers had just installed. Instead of negotiating the complex social environment of the street, traffic engineers sought to optimize the flows of traffic through the urban “pipes.” Common-law tradition had long dictated that all users were to have an equal claim to the street, but as Northeastern University’s Clay McShane explains, “at the urging of traffic engineers … city councils replaced this ancient rule with new ordinances that gave cars the right of way, except at intersections.”

The auto industry and organizations like AAA assisted the engineers’ efforts by launching national campaigns to shift the blame for accidents away from the popular perception of reckless drivers and onto country-bumpkin pedestrians instead. Thus “jaywalking” was coined in advertisements and codified in law to brand pedestrians who dared step into the street as backwoods rubes, or “jays,” neither familiar with nor fit for life in the big city. And so the street was gradually surrendered to the car.

McShane notes one of the peculiar features of traffic engineering in the U.S. and indeed worldwide: its remarkable uniformity. The American system of governance is famously fragmented, after all, and nearly every municipality in every county in every state is empowered to make of its streets what it will. How, then, did their approaches all turn out almost exactly the same? McShane finds an answer in the nature of the traffic-engineering profession: “A unified, national profession with common education, professional journals, conferences, and shared consultants would push American cities toward traffic uniformity, the local autonomy inherent in the federal system notwithstanding. A network of professionals controlled the network of traffic control.”

According to Peter Norton, however, even the engineers were not destined to be entirely their own masters. The engineers’ greatest good is efficiency, which led them to a sympathy for streetcars and other modes of transit that could help alleviate pressure on the roads by more efficiently conducting people in and out of town. By 1923, however, the auto industry was seeing its formerly explosive sales growth start to slump, and fears arose that the market was “saturated.” To keep their market growing, automakers threw their weight behind a campaign to decry a shortage in urban “floor space” and urged reshaping and rebuilding streets to accommodate a greater supply of cars. “Induced demand” is a traffic-engineering phenomenon whereby the creation of more road space simply encourages more road use. Norton suggests that America’s highways and wide roads were originally the product of Detroit inducing its own demand.

With auto industry support, modernist planners’ fantastical ideas for remaking the American city were suddenly given the financial muscle to become possible and even mandatory. Highways would be brought into the heart of the city, people would be cordoned from the streets, and everything would be separated into its own gleaming sphere. Cronyist central planning bent well-meaning engineers to its ambitions and shut out ordinary citizens.

When European countries began encountering significant traffic congestion five to 10 years after the United States, they sent their own engineers to learn from the Americans and implemented similar standards, including the now ubiquitous traffic light and stop sign. “By 1938,” Norton relates, “the sociologist Louis Wirth could name ‘the clock and the traffic signal’ as the two symbols ‘of the basis of our social order in the urban world.’”


On the night of the Academy Awards in 2006, journalist Tom Vanderbilt watched as Los Angeles Automatic Traffic Surveillance and Control engineer Kartik Patel attended to the city’s traffic system, conducting celebrity-packed limousines through the oppressive Los Angeles congestion even as he also coordinated the movements of some of his fellow municipal engineers who were picketing in the limos’ paths as part of a labor dispute. Vanderbilt writes in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, “As Patel furiously taps on his keyboard, lengthening cycle times here, cancelling a left-turn phase there, it becomes hard to resist the idea that being a traffic engineer is a little like playing God. One man pushing one button affects not just one group of people but literally the whole city…”

From the beginning, Peter Norton notes, “engineers seldom looked at traffic from the auto driver’s point of view,” no more than they did from that of a pedestrian or a streetcar passenger. Theirs was the “God-view,” surveying the entire system to maximize efficient flows. Hans Monderman was unusual, even for Europe, as a traffic engineer who saw through human eyes. A car enthusiast with a professed love of the Autobahn’s high speeds, Monderman ran his own driving school, which helped imbue him with an abiding understanding that cars are people, and people respond to the contexts they are given.

“When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots,” he was fond of saying. And there were few parts of the received wisdom among traffic engineers that Monderman did not see as treating people like idiots: a sign warning of nearby cows posted on a road cutting through pastures, for example, or the panoply of barriers, safeguards, and redundancies built into roadways to accommodate the perceived inattentiveness of drivers.

The Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek described one of the fatal flaws of centralized planning as the “knowledge problem,” whereby the planner could never have as much information as the sum of each actor on the ground. Even an engineer with all the real-time data that Kartik Patel had at his fingertips on the night of the 2006 Academy Awards is information impoverished compared to the pedestrians and drivers who encounter each other at an intersection. A standard unsignaled roundabout can move traffic up to 65 percent faster than a stoplighted intersection because drivers do not waste time idling at the light, waiting for the computers to grant them permission to move. In shared-space designs, traffic is always flowing, even if at cautious speeds, as people negotiate their way among themselves, using eye contact and hand signals to accomplish any needed coordination.

The English town of Poynton recently provided one of the most successful demonstrations of this principle. With a population of just 13,000, Poynton was bisected by a busy road that transported 26,000 cars a day on their way to and from London. The intersection in the heart of the town was heavily engineered with conventional lights, signals, signs, and markings in an effort to coordinate the dense traffic. Yet the area surrounding the intersection was dying, as fully 16 of 32 nearby business locations closed. Poynton commissioned urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baille to turn the intersection into a shared space, where cars were guided around subtly suggested roundabouts and pedestrians were free to cross. The returns to the town of Poynton were felt immediately, and today 15 of those 16 storefronts are now occupied and open for business. Despite the high traffic volumes, car speeds dropped and accidents fell, yet congestion did not increase because vehicles were able to continue moving at a constant, if slower, pace.

By contrast, Tom Vanderbilt describes Los Angeles as “essentially a noncooperative network,” and says, “What traffic engineers do is to try to simulate, through technology and signs and laws, a cooperative system.” “Shared space” allows for a Hayekian solution to a century of problems arising from centralized traffic planning.


The planning enthusiasm of the 1960s that produced urban renewal and the Great Society also introduced the concept of “forgiving highways.” Understanding that some accidents may be inevitable, safety engineers in the United States and elsewhere designed enormous buffer zones to reduce the severity of the consequences of running off the road. They built highways to anticipate the dumb driver and protect him from himself.  Monderman did not mind that. But what irked him was when the forgiving highways treatment was extended into town—as it was in the U.S. to an extreme degree.

The very features that make a street feel safe to drive down—wide, straight lanes with comfortable run-off zones—encourage drivers to speed up and zone out, raising the risk of accidents due to a phenomenon called the “risk compensation effect.” As the famed Dutch engineer Joost Vahl once said, and Monderman eagerly repeated, “to make a street safe, you must first make it dangerous.” To demonstrate to visitors the safety brought about by his dangerous streets, Monderman was fond of walking into his redesigned intersections, backwards, with his eyes closed, allowing his visitor to observe the alert, civil drivers negotiating their paths around him. marapr-issuethumb

Monderman drew a distinction between the traffic world and the social world. The traffic world is the domain of the car, where people should speed along quickly and comfortably and unexpected surprises are best kept to a minimum. The social world, on the other hand, is the world of places, of people, where a driver is not expected to speed up and tune out but rather must negotiate his way through a place in conversation with both his environment and his fellow citizens.

This distinction is what separated Monderman from the rest of his profession, according to Ben Hamilton-Baille, the current standard bearer of the shared-space movement since Monderman’s death in 2008. Monderman was engaged in place-making more than traffic engineering, and Hamilton-Baille observes that in place-making there must be a clear conversation between the street and the buildings. The history of a place, the sorts of people that come out of its shops, whether a particular street is lined with retail stores or restaurants, all of these factors should be reflected in the street, and each street must be customized in accordance with its place.

This stands in stark contrast to the standardization of roads according to the rules of conventional traffic engineering. When a road is totally divorced from its context, when an identical stretch of asphalt runs through a hundred towns across the country, “when you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world … then you have to explain things,” Monderman argued. A clutter of signs and directional arrows is an attempt at technocratic compensation for the destruction of place.

Hamilton-Baille notes that American roads and suburbs present particular challenges for efforts to share space, as most of them were built after the advent of the automobile age and thus have few historical or structural signifiers of place to begin with. The development of more humane traffic patterns in America is therefore a project requiring good buildings as well as good streets, so that both can participate in the conversation of place. Here the shared space movement intersects with the work of other urban-design reformers: just as Hans Monderman sought to make village streets more “village-like,” so the New Urbanist movement, for example, has spent the past 20 years pursuing the reintegration of American neighborhoods into the traditional models of development that preceded the great planning boom of the 20th century.

“In the face of the countless technological and social disruptions accompanying mature industrialism,” Peter Norton writes, “Progressives substituted expert control for imperiled traditional or natural restraints.” The seeming collapse of the traditional street’s safety under the pressure of the automobile empowered traffic engineers in much the same way as the dissolution of traditional social safety nets rationalized the creation of the welfare state. A century later, however, conservatives have brought nearly every other component of the planning culture under scrutiny, as they press to reform and devolve our institutions to accommodate greater individual responsibility and restore traditional communities. Our streets and built environment are no less in need of such attention and reform. Hans Monderman and the shared space movement suggest the way—without making us wait for the planners’ lights to change.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Scott Walker Is Quick to Retreat

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is proud to preen before a CPAC audience, and affirm that his experience weathering a crowd of protesters in Madison proves that he has the mettle to stare down ISIS and the Russians. The power brokers of Des Moines, however, are one adversary that will apparently send him running for the hard-to-find Midwestern hills.

For those blessed with lives that do not involve keeping up with political staffing intrigue, Scott Walker’s PAC announced on Monday that it was hiring the political consultant Liz Mair to advise on social media and online outreach. Mair is a young, talented, rather libertarian consultant who is widely respected for being damn good at her job. Congratulations were quickly in order, and the Walker organization seemed to headed in a very smart direction.

Then the powers-that-be in Iowa noticed that Mair, like many intelligent observers of politics, had criticized their death grip on the presidential nomination process.

Mair also took shots at the grossly market-distorting ethanol mandates that the corn industry has paid handsomely to maintain, and which has been additionally protected by Iowa’s favored status.

Mair was not hired as a policy adviser on energy policy, nor as an adviser on social issues or immigration, where her libertarian streak likely runs counter to Walker’s views, or at least those he has an interest in being viewed as holding. She was hired as a consultant, a sign that Walker was willing to surround himself with the best people. It was a move born out of confidence.

And it has now become an embarrassing display of cowardice.

Late last night, one day after Mair was hired, it was announced that she had resigned, saying, “The tone of some of my tweets concerning Iowa was at odds with that which Gov. Walker has always encouraged in political discourse.”

As Philip Klein wrote when Walker first reversed himself to kowtow to the ethanol mandate earlier this month: “If Walker can’t stand up to Iowans, how will he stand up to the Islamic State?”

Walker has enjoyed rock-star status among the conservative grassroots and many insiders alike, precisely because of his cultivated image as a principled fighter who could take a punch and still come up victorious. His battles with Wisconsin public sector unions are his calling card, and chief credential, to the aforementioned point that he tries to stretch them into the foreign policy credential he sorely lacks.

Walkers’s rapid capitulation to an Iowa and Breitbart backlash to a smart staff hire is more than a misstep on his way to building a campaign, then. It undermines his entire rationale for being a candidate.

Being president requires saying no to allies expecting a yes even more than refusing adversaries who never had any other expectations. If Scott Walker is happy to get conservative kudos for fighting unions, but unable to resist the slightest bit of pressure on his right (with even Erick Erickson providing cover), he won’t look like the man needed to clean up the right, much less the country.

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When Fascists Tried to Remake Ethiopia

Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.
Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.

When Mussolini’s army invaded and ultimately occupied Ethiopia, the Italian fascists did more than expand Italy’s African empire; in their eyes, they obtained an opportunity to build a capital from scratch.

As Rixt Woudstra details at Failed Architecture,

The idea of Ethiopia as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—was omnipresent in the writings of architects and urban planners occupied with the designs of the colonial capital between 1936 and 1939, who considered the country devoid of any structures of architectural significance. Contrary to the fascination of Libyan whitewashed courtyard house – their simplicity, colours and volumes perfectly in tune with modern taste – the round houses of the Ethiopians were regarded by Italian architects as irrational and unhygienic.

Modernist architecture’s obsession with rationality and supreme planning looked askance at a city even as relatively new as Addis Ababa for not proceeding out of the geometries and ideals en vogue in Europe. Within months of the Ethiopian capital’s conquest, no less an architect than Le Corbusier, one of the icons and pioneers of modernism, composed a sketch to accompany a letter he sent to Mussolini instructing “how a city for the modern times is born,” and offering his services as a midwife.

Woudstra writes,

Le Corbusier’s sketch shows Addis Ababa literally as a tabula rasa: the rigorously superimposed plan cleared the land of all signs of humanity and centuries of urban culture. In his letter, Le Corbusier described his drawing perfectly by writing that he was attracted by ‘…models so severe, that one might think the colony was a space without time, and therefore, without history, and without any particular geographical meaning.’ Further in his letter he added: ‘…the city is direct dominion; the city becomes the city of government, in which the Palace of the Governor must stand overall…’

Not for nothing, as Matthew Robare recently noted here, did Theodore Dalrymple compare Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, saying “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.” Le Corbusier had found himself frustrated by the long-standing architectural patterns of Europe, whose age and complexity resisted his cutting pen. As Woudstra notes, the Addis Ababa proposal was completely in line with Corbusier’s ideal city, theorized independently of tradition or conditions. Corbusier’s plan for Paris, for example, razed the city of its low complexities in order to produce this:

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

As Robare explained the other week, these grand rational plannings have not died with their blackshirted allies. China’s construction of cities out of whole cloth may sometimes be painted with green sustainability, but they neither have the human appeal nor the natural sustainability of an incrementally grown, walkable city.

Addis Ababa was spared a Corbusier-inspired revamp by a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging and rapid British troop movements that eventually freed the capital from fascist control. The grand colonialism would proceed apace, however, back in the very Western countries that had previously so frustrated Corbusier and his followers.

After World War II, both the United States and Britain turned over much of their own cities to the hands of experts and engineers who, channeling the Corbusierian vision, would level working-class neighborhoods in order to build large, modern towers in the name of urban renewal. The social devastation that process wreaked upon the already economically disadvantaged is explored in painstaking detail in TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz’s cover story in our latest issue. The organic neighborhoods, slums though they often were, were dynamic social environments. The tower blocks atomized and individualized the families and communities they replaced.

The ugly philosophies of central planning and Corbusierian modernism have not been defeated, but as Justin Shubow explained at Forbes, the architectural profession it has been fueling is now nearly exhausted. When an architect’s response to a Katrina rebuilding contract is to assemble experiments with artistically “damaged” roofs, one would hope that the absurdity of the architectural profession has brought it close to the bursting point.

Unlike Addis Ababa, however, we will not have British tanks to save us from Corbusier. We will have to demand buildings at a human scale, and refuse to let the professional guilds defend 50 years of failure.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


A Beginner’s Guide to ISIS

Day Donaldson / Flickr / CC

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic has just published one of the most serious, searching profiles of the ideology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that you will encounter. In it, Wood travels the globe in order to interview ISIS’s intellectual champions and allies, asking them to articulate why they find Baghdadi’s claims to authority to be rigorous, authoritative, and binding (though they each skirt the issue of their own professions of allegiance in order to stay out of jail). Wood goes on  to interview the foremost scholars on the organization’s ideology, who heap scorn on those who seek to dismiss ISIS as simply “un-Islamic.” Wood writes,

Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Wood explains just how damaging some of that misguided miscategorization has been, when he details how the U.S.’s attempt to use a senior jihadist cleric, and ISIS critic, to persuade ISIS to free U.S. citizen Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig may have guaranteed his demise:

It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaeda grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. …

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and al‑Qaeda is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations.

He also details ISIS’s obsession with the town of Dabiq, where they believe a final millenarian battle with Rome will take place, bringing about the Day of Judgment.

If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.

Wood finally offers “quietist Salafism” as a possible ideological off-ramp that could channel those seeking extremist faith into pursuing their own purification, instead the purification of the world of an ever-growing list of apostates: “The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here.”

The entire essay is very worthwhile, and a serious engagement with ISIS’s ideology in order to try and understand how to use ISIS’s commitments against it. He writes, “It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism,” and that its authority will wane should it not be able to continue expanding as it is ideologically committed to continually attempt. How best to starve the Caliphate is a difficult and fraught question, however. I recommend reading the whole thing.


Conservatives, Grab Your Pitchforks!

Illustration by Miguel Davilla

Could Republicans get around the Democratic populist flank? Heavens, let’s hope so.

Thomas Edsall, the New York Times online columnist and veteran WaPo political reporter, fretted this week that a surging group of young conservative reformers might have learned the GOP’s lessons after 2012 well enough to steal the Democrats’ traditional economic thunder, and that Hillary could be too tied up in Wall Street to stop them. For those of us on the reformist right that may seem rather too rosy a scenario to hope for, but the column did bring out several noteworthy political developments. (Ramesh and Yuval offer the official reformocon corrections at NRO, justly pushing back against Tea Party firebrand Mike Lee being part of a lurch to the center.)

Edsell worries that “The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues of stagnation, opportunity, and fairness.” Most of the elected Republican rhetoric on wage stagnation and income inequality that we’ve heard in recent months, coming as it is from Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, rings pretty hollow. Haranguing Obama for the fact that the post-recession economic recovery has overwhelmingly benefited the 1 percent smacks more of partisan opportunism than a reformed platform when it is unaccompanied by any serious effort to grapple with the deep structural forces that have been driving that economic polarization for several decades now. Occupy rhetoric in Republican mouths often sounds even more jarring than Congressmen who decry the cronyism of Solyndra in the same breath that swears fealty to the farm bill. Jeb may be the only major politician currently alluding to the wave of work deskilling and automation.

Opportunity is much more comfortable territory for conventionally conservative politicians, but as for fairness, Wick Allison wrote here immediately following the 2012 election,

A capital gains tax rate (making money off money) that is lower than the earned income rate (making money off work) is just not fair. Bestowing that rate on hedge-fund managers through a specially designed loophole is just not fair. Allowing the rich to take mortgage deductions for second and third homes, or for homes worth over $1 million, is just not fair. Allowing business owners like me to take myriad deductions that our employees cannot take is just not fair. But, most of all, allowing the wealthy to pay very low tax rates while interest on the war debt accumulates, deficits continue, and middle-class incomes deteriorate is just not fair.

The times are indeed changing, as the reform conservative™ Lee-Rubio tax plan offers expanded child tax credits that are—very significantly—refundable against the payroll tax, and which are paid for, in part, by capping the home mortgage interest deduction for the first more-than-modest $300,000 of a home. While that may sting relatively middle-class homeowners in expensive markets like Washington, D.C., it seems a reasonable trade-off to keep from continuing to subsidize holiday homes in the Hamptons with an intended middle-class tax break.

The most humorous part of Edsell’s column comes as analysis of what reform economics could do to the GOP coalition:

If Republicans compromise on taxes, conservative Christians are going to worry that compromise on abortion will be next. Anti-immigrant forces are already convinced that Republican leaders will cave in to pressure to enact liberal immigration reform. Many of the party’s most loyal constituencies fear that if this leftward turn continues, the entire conservative edifice could implode.

Conservative Christians need not worry that abortion abandonment is next; it’s already past. Likewise, comprehensive immigration reform has long ranked just behind expanded free trade agreements on the Congressional GOP list of priorities. If there’s one constituency the GOP has not dared disappoint, it is the donorists.

Conservative reform ideas are certainly still under heavy attack from the conventionally minded right, but what Edsell gets very right is that there is currently an dynamic open policy debate on the right, where the Democratic party, as I have heard echoed by frustrated friends on the left, mostly seems economically exhausted.

It has been over 25 years since the Clinton family was engaged in any similar sort of policy entrepreneurship, and their past 15 years have been spent overwhelmingly in the donorist circles that run the gamut from simply self-interested to the disturbing and predatory. One great unknown is whether Hillary has the political wherewithal to upset the coterie of plutocrats who have been funding the Clinton Foundation and placing advance down payments for influence in the form of her lucrative speaking fees.

The question is: is there anyone other than a Bush to pass out the conservative pitchforks and torches?

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Bike Highways Aren’t Any Better for City Streets

Original proposal for Blackfriars junction
Original proposal for Blackfriars junction

It is perhaps the most iconic moment in urbanism: Robert Moses, the greatest power broker and central planner the American city had ever seen, squaring off against Jane Jacobs, the champion of the city’s community and author of the greatest book on urbanism ever written, over whether Jacobs’s beloved neighborhood of Greenwich Village would have one of Moses’s favored highways carved through it.

Jacobs eventually prevailed, protecting her community and signaling a shift against the city central planners who had dug up or flattened large swaths of American cities in the name of progress, urban renewal, and the automobile age. Jacobs’s victory against the urban highway is still spoken of in almost reverential tones by many committed to healthy cities and strong communities.

Until, that is, they were offered a highway for bikes.

The notion of a bicycle-only superhighway has been revived in places like Copenhagen and the Netherlands in recent years, but Mayor Boris Johnson has just announced plans to build bring a record-breaking bike highway right through central London. Johnson has proposed nearly 20 miles of segregated bike lanes that, instead of being guarded by loosely spaced networks of thin plastic poles, would have their own dedicated curbs.

Bicyclists are generally strongly in favor of dedicated lanes, with the more protection the better, as they the ones who fare by far the worst in collisions with cars. However, the effusive praise heaped on these cycle superhighways is strangely reminiscent of the rhetoric of 50 years ago used to coax cities into building the original highways urbanists so lament today.

One of the original designers of Los Angeles’s traffic and street patterns, Miller McClintock, instructed the public in the 1920s that “The old common law rule that every person,, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation.” The traffic engineers who constructed city streets, particularly after the advent of “forgiving highways” thinking in the 1960s, believed firmly in segregating out every mode of travel that they could, protecting pedestrians from cars, and cars from pedestrians. The old, dynamic, civic street that had survived in one form or another in every city in the world from the time of the Sumerians would be largely snuffed out.

Urbanists rightly, and often, decry this auto-centric legacy that yielded the streets to one mode of traffic alone. But many are also fond of their bicycle, and can’t help but be tempted by the idea of cruising along smoothly, with no cars, no pedestrians, no dangers to worry about on their commute. That is exactly what is wrong with putting highways in cities in the first place.

City streets should be in a continual conversation with the buildings surrounding them, with the people flowing in and out. Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous. As I wrote a few months back,

For wide, straight roads with large buffers, any visual obstacles swept aside, naturally signal safety and the absence of surprises to a driver. It’s why highways function so well in transporting vehicles large distances at great speed: drivers don’t have to worry about children chasing a ball out from behind a tree, or parked car. They are roads for dumb drivers, which is why roadtrips are particularly well suited to listening to books on tape, or the radio, or just pondering in peace. Dumb roads let us divert our attention productively while almost unconsciously following the cues of the road.

City and suburban streets are so radically different in use and purpose from highways as to deserve their very different names. Children just might run out into the street, because they live around the corner. A shopper just might walk out from behind a parked car, because there’s a storefront by the sidewalk. … To design a peopled street like a dumb road is to tell drivers to speed up and space out.

City streets are not safe, they are dynamic. To design streets that tell their users a different story can lull them into a false, dangerous sense of complacency. Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest. It is why cars driving down streets with unmarked bike lanes tend to give cyclists a wider berth than those with painted lines.

London already has powerful examples of the power of “shared space” on its busy Kensington High Street, which ripped out many of the protective barriers and warning signs as an aesthetic renovation that was subsequently followed by a drop in accidents. To give bicyclists their own carve-out would be a step backwards in the revitalization of the city, not forwards.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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