State of the Union

Detroit Never Died

Andrey Bayda / Shutterstock.com
Andrey Bayda / Shutterstock.com

In the 1950s, on a per capita basis, Detroit was the richest city in America. The Broadway-Capitol Theatre offered showings of Casablanca in palatial Renaissance décor. The Detroit Institute of Arts Museum boasted one of the world’s greatest collections, including works by Picasso, van Gogh, and Matisse. The city’s vibrant downtown was populated by soaring Art Deco skyscrapers, burnished with sculpted ornamentation.

With a city plan derived from L’Enfant’s master plan for Washington, DC—which in turn was modeled on France’s capital city—Detroit truly was America’s Paris. And with its array of factories adapted into the “arsenal of democracy” supplying Eisenhower and Patton’s efforts to liberate the Continent from Nazi occupation, the “Motor City” repaid its symbolic debt with interest.

Seventy years later, Detroit was already decades into its identity as the American City That Failed, which culminated in its declaration of bankruptcy on July 18, 2013. Michigan governor Rick Snyder then appointed an emergency manager who would usurp the power of Detroit’s elected officials in an effort to do for the city what it had apparently been unable to do for itself. The image-blogging service Tumblr made its name, in part, through a cottage industry of Detroit “ruin porn”: an unending series of artistically taken photographs of the fields of empty former neighborhoods, the factories rusted out, the homes decades since stripped from the inside out for any precious metals in their wiring and pipes. A small number of artists started to head into Detroit, drawn by low property values and the prospect of a “blank slate” onto which they could project their creativity, and the New York Times took notice in breathless profiles of hipster-creative colonialism.

This year, though, a different sort of immigrant gathered in Detroit, albeit only for a week: the 24th Congress for the New Urbanism brought together 1,500 city planners, real estate developers, architects, and journalists to learn from Motown’s tantalizing efforts to rebuild itself.

Literally the biggest part of Detroit’s rebuilding, the restoration of its downtown, is the best known, as it has its own press office. Detroit native and home-mortgage billionaire Dan Gilbert returned to his home city to invest in it and has been leading efforts to resurrect the once-proud downtown into a compelling place to do business. Gilbert poured money into buying the Art Deco and Beaux Arts skyscrapers that Detroit could never afford to tear down when the rest of the country’s great cities were replacing their ornamented skylines with sheer glass geometries. He has moved his Quicken Loans company into that same area, putting his business where his philanthropy is. He provides private security that patrols downtown Detroit around the clock to give a sense of order, and he continues to invest in downtown place-making in areas like the Campus Martius plaza, bordering the Detroit Institute of Arts.

At a time when the city itself is in bankruptcy court, large private investors like Gilbert are providing the public services that government stopped supplying. They are even helping to build a streetcar line on Detroit’s main boulevard, Woodward Avenue. Gilbert and his peers—such as Mike Ilitch, the Little Caesar’s pizza magnate and owner of Detroit’s Red Wings and Tigers; and Manuel Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario—have been controversial figures, given the natural suspicions of Detroiters toward outsiders with big plans for their city. But almost all of the Motor City’s residents acknowledge that even if Gilbert is looking to make a profit, he is also adding value to the place where they live.

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Far from Gilbert’s newly built-up downtown, though, on the northwestern edge of the city, is a set of neighborhoods known collectively as Grandmont Rosedale. Originally streetcar suburbs, Grandmont Rosedale was among the last areas incorporated into Detroit proper before a change in Michigan law effectively prohibited annexation. Built by GM and Ford as model neighborhoods with which they could lure executives from New York, the neighborhoods are a model of 100-year-old Tudor and colonial single-family homes, in a walkable neighborhood structured around parks, schools, and other civic centers. The area is proof positive that sound neighborhood design doesn’t require towering apartment buildings: effectively planned low neighborhoods can meet all the requirements of a humane place on their own.

Grandmont Rosedale doesn’t have Dan Gilbert, however. All its residents have is each other.

In 1989, those residents formed the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, a nonprofit designed to restore the decaying homes of their neighborhood to their once proud condition. Since then, the GRDC has renovated and resold 100 vacant properties in its neighborhood, while also organizing security volunteers, neighborhood beautification projects, a community garden, and a weekly farmer’s market. The GRDC’s latest project has been to engage in the commercial redevelopment of the area, for while the neighborhood is very walkable along residential streets and through the collectively managed parks, Grand River Avenue, the major roadway cutting through the neighborhood, has been less idyllic.

The GRDC bought and renovated a retail space on the main thoroughfare and sold it to local resident Susan Murphy at an affordable price so that their neighborhood could have a locally owned bookstore. Murphy has had to hustle to stay afloat, doing half her business out of the trunk of her car as she does pop-up book sales at events around the city, but she is committed to Grandmont Rosedale and to making it her home. A local coffee shop called Always Brewing developed along the same lines, with proprietor Amanda Brewington telling the City Living Detroit website, “I was looking for a place for my business but also a place where I could be an actual resident. I was attracted to Grandmont Rosedale because of how much people work together to really get things done.” In fact, Murphy’s Pages bookstore was born as a pop-up inside Always Brewing.

The GRDC recently recruited what it calls the area’s first sit-down restaurant, a franchise of Detroit Vegan Soul, an African-American-owned, award-winning eatery started in the West Village. They also run one of Detroit’s few incubator spaces for start-up companies—outside of Gilbert’s bustling downtown—which rents a place at a table for $75 a month and offers six-month “springboard” leases on a 300-square-foot storefront area: small enough for local entrepreneurs to afford so they can launch themselves into regular business.

As North Rosedale native and New Yorker writer Rollo Romig wrote in 2014, none of this energy is new to the area. North Rosedale has always been a holdout against the rest of the city’s decline, thanks to a tight civic fabric that attracts new residents with a similar mindset to the old: an investment in this damn place. Romig’s family stayed and shook off the crime that crept into their neighborhood over the course of the 1980s; eventually they stopped replacing the bicycles that were stolen as soon as they were brought home. They went to Mass, as did most of the neighborhood, and they invested in the panoply of community associations centered around the Community House in central North Rosedale. While Detroit burned, North Rosedale hung on.

“What North Rosedale really gave us was an occasion to rise to,” Romig reflected—and an instinct to gather and join forces against civic unraveling. “Community is a reflex that’s sharpened by necessity,” he wrote. And while crime in the ’90s eventually got bad enough that his family moved out, their efforts along the way were part of what sustained the Rosedale neighborhood through the hardest years and provided the foundation upon which the GRDC continues to build.

Hearing stories like these, you realize why Detroit natives react so viscerally against well-meaning outsiders wandering into their city and marveling at its potential as “a blank slate.” There are a lot of empty lots in Detroit, perhaps even more vacant buildings, but there’s nothing “blank” about the Motor City’s slate. Much of the city is still as bad as its reputation, but there’s always one grandma keeping her house up at the end of the block, preventing that street from being consumed by the emptiness.

And in neighborhoods like Grandmont Rosedale and many more areas even less financially stable, there have been residents fighting every day to keep their city. When Rolling Stone writer Mark Binelli moved back to Detroit, he had a neighbor instruct him, “This is where we live. … If you see someone pissing on that wall over there or trying to break into a car, you need to chase them down.”

To a degree its reputation belies, Detroit has kept its civic spirit intact, even through the 1980s, when Devil’s Night arson would light the city in every direction on Halloween eve. It was the residents who put out those fires, and starting in 1995, 50,000 citizens walked the streets to protect their neighborhoods from being burned by vandals.

thisarticleappearsThe residents who stuck it out, who walked those Angel’s Night patrols, are finally seeing the decline start to lift. Even as their city proceeds through bankruptcy and an emergency manager overrules their elected officials, 2016 is expected to be the first year in over 60 years that the city of Detroit will increase in population. Wayne County, where Detroit and some of its suburbs are located, has now experienced five straight years of job growth.

Detroit’s official motto is, incredibly, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus—“We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”—written by Catholic priest Gabriel Richard in the wake of the 1805 fire that nearly destroyed the city. Detroit has burned at least four times, in fact, but each time it has arisen.

In neighborhoods like Grandmont Rosedale, Detroit’s post-industrial wasteland is once again starting to show green shoots of hope pushing up in concentrated communities that maintain themselves. They preserved the built inheritance of America’s Paris. They hoped for better things, and now they are starting to see them.

Jonathan Coppage is visiting senior fellow at the R Street Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. This article was supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Words on the Street

Each week, New Urbs will be regularly collecting the best content we’ve read each week that we didn’t publish—but would have. Read something you think should make the cut? E-mail Jon Coppage or tag @NewUrbs with the link on Twitter.

“Appreciating Small-Scale New Urbanism” via Public Square

Philadelphia is a study of how revitalization is taking place on a 19th Century street grid, shaped by regulations that, while imperfect, at least recognize the importance of walkability and the public realm. With its rowhouse and warehouse neighborhoods, Philadelphia may be particularly friendly to small urbanism and mid-range densities. Yet this kind of mix is happening in cities and towns, to a lesser or greater degree, all across America. While we write about the larger projects, let’s appreciate how much small-scale, infill development is helping to transform our cities.

“As Cars Return to Main Street, ‘Difference is like night and day’” via Buffalo News 

In the early 1980s, the downtown stretch of Main became a pedestrian mall and a free-fare zone for the new Metro Rail system, which arrived two years later. But instead of reversing downtown’s fortunes, the removal of cars may have hastened the decline. The long construction period doomed many of the street’s businesses, and the restricted access to Main Street contributed to diminished occupancy and development, especially for first-floor storefronts.

“Learning Virtue Through Public Transit” via Strong Towns

Sharing bus seats with strangers thrusts me into a form of the public square, which can be uncomfortable and ripe for opportunity all at the same time as I encounter a diversity of people. It strips me of my (perceived) independence. It forces me to rely on and trust other people and others’ schedules in order to get to my destination. It is humbling. Virtue is not usually one of the benefits touted by supporters of public transit, yet it can be a valuable outcome of the system.

The urbanism of Trump the Father in “The Tudor Plain” via Urban Omnibus

[Fred] Trump’s houses were cozy, well made, and — more than anything — affordable even to working-class families. He reduced construction costs by using the same economies of scale that made the Model T automobile so inexpensive. Known in the industry as “the Henry Ford of housing,” he applied techniques of mass production to home construction a full decade before William Levitt became famous for doing so at Levittown. Levitt’s subdivisions were studiously suburban and designed for motorists. Trump’s row house developments accommodated cars — most had garages tucked below grade in front or rear — but not at the expense of a picturesque, pedestrian-friendly streetscape. Trump was a city builder first and foremost, and his largest works were always close to rapid transit.

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When University Architecture Aims Nowhere

The David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago. (Diller Scofidio + Renfro)
The David M. Rubenstein Forum at the University of Chicago. (Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

The University of Chicago was founded in 1896 with the support of John D. Rockefeller in order to give the Baptists a worthy rival to the Ivy League’s prestigious East Coast universities like Harvard and Yale, not to mention England’s ancient Cambridge and Oxford. It was fitting, then, that the school was built in an ivy-strewn neo-Gothic style, using a special limestone that Rockefeller himself picked out to age in appearance much more quickly than normal rock. Today those original main campus buildings sport a weather-hewn visage comparable to those of schools centuries its elder, paying homage to a university that became known for its dedication to the Great Books tradition and curriculum.

Mr. Rockefeller’s aesthetic choices have not exercised terribly strong sway over the school’s more recent additions, however, and the newest addition provides a perfect symbol of why. Established deviations from the plan stretch from the brutalism of the main Regenstein Library (appropriately used for a dystopian prison in the YA blockbuster Divergent), to the multicolored Lego blockland of Max Palevsky dormitory, to the concrete blight of the central administrative building, which sits squarely on Rockefeller’s original quad. (The university website notes that “Gothic designs for the building were floated, but progressive critics were quick to deride the medieval template as obsolete.”)

Now the university’s latest building project has been announced, and the “post-post-modern” architectural firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro has unveiled its design (see above). It is, in short, clutter.

While the Gothic architecture of the original campus was expressly developed over centuries to communicate order, beauty, and orientation to the divine, and even the midcentury modernism that followed had a certain appreciation of symmetry, the David M. Rubenstein Forum is a disordered stack of boxes jutting out, one over another, in order to provide a vaguely defined collection of meeting spaces.

While, as mentioned, the Rubenstein Forum is not unique to the campus in garishness and departure from the Gothic core, it does serve as an apt culminating symbol of how universities abandoned education for buildings.

As I recalled in a fall piece, last winter Patrick Deneen delivered a lecture on how university architecture had gone “From Sacred Space to the Bunker and the Spaceship,” in which he detailed how the change in university purpose over the past century had been reflected in its buildings. When universities were first and foremost places of learning in which the accumulated wisdom of the ages was to be transmitted to a new generation, they followed classical forms. Gothic architecture pointed to heaven, the source of ultimate wisdom to Christians and Platonists alike. Libraries facilitated serendipitous encounter with books, students, and scholars alike, bringing the various sciences into dialogue with each other on the shelf and in the halls.

As John Dewey’s ideas took hold in the classroom (fittingly at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School), and Le Corbusier’s in the architectural journals, the orientation turned away from learning as it had classically been understood and toward a fusion of personal development for students and research accumulation for professors. Libraries were built to store “publish or perish” books that would never be read, and classrooms to become plastic spaces of generic creativity. In time, classrooms would fade from focus altogether.

So appears to be the case with the Rubenstein Forum. The university is replete with lecture halls and auditoriums of all sizes, several in the same Gothic buildings and lending a sense of excitement and authority to visiting guest lecturers. The university administrators, however, called “for a flexible space for intellectual and educational exchange” that “can be devoted to a small, intimate academic symposia [sic] or combined for larger conferences or meetings.”

The Rubenstein Forum stands across the park from Rockefeller Chapel, John D.’s final bequest to the university. The Chapel is a stunning Gothic achievement, built entirely out of stone with no reinforcing steel, sporting the second-largest bell carillon in the world. Kriston Capps finds the Rubenstein’s cantilevered upper levels to echo the Chapel’s transept tower, which emerges out of the Chapel’s foundational cruciform footprint; this echo was so clever as to have been duplicated in an early draft by a rival New York firm for a performance venue built down the street. Crucially, as Deneen noted, the Chapel tower points upwards, while the Forum caps itself with a horizontal deck that provides a nice view of Lake Michigan.

Towering above the university’s campus, the Chapel serves as a convening venue for each incoming class of undergraduate students, who gather before a faculty member to receive an address on “The Aims of Education,” an address which will then be discussed and debated with their new residential house community. The full pews and grand chamber summon hushed attention, while the stone statues around the entrances orient one to education, faith, and philosophy.

If the Rubenstein Forum were to one day host an Aims of Education address, what would its hodgepodge of boxes orient its students towards? Likely nothing. There is no coherence, no direction towards ideas either noble or base. But Mr. Rubenstein got his starchitect, and the university administrators kept the capital rolling in.

How post-post-modern.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Words on the Street

Each week, New Urbs will be regularly collecting the best content we’ve read each week that we didn’t publish—but would have. Read something you think should make the cut? E-mail Jon Coppage or tag @NewUrbs with the link on Twitter.

“A very bad sign for all but America’s biggest cities” via Washington Post

The changes also reflect a fundamental shift over the past two decades in which workers and industries power the country’s economic growth. That shift advantages highly educated urbanites at the expense of everyone else. Polling suggests it is one of the driving forces in the political unrest among working-class Americans — particularly rural white men — who have flocked to Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign this year.

“High Population Turnover in Neighborhoods Undermines Parent-Child Relationships” via Child & Family Blog (h/t Eve Tushnet)

Research shows that unstable residential neighborhoods tend to have weaker communities, with less mutual support. Parents miss out on the trust, cohesion and sense of social control that develop when local populations are less transient. They can’t draw as much on help with day-to-day needs

“The Duck-Billed Platypus of American Cities” via City Journal

Most important, as an interior city, Chicago has a heartland state of mind. It draws even its upscale population base heavily from other Midwestern cities and towns. For the most part, Chicagoans hold degrees from Big Ten schools, not the Ivy League, and the city’s civic mindset reflects that. Its culture is more conservative than that of the coastal cities, and less cosmopolitan and ambitious.

“WWJJD: What Would Jane Jacobs Do About Zoning?” via Strong Towns

Density-and-use zoning is the metaphorical hammer of urban land use: every potential problem ends up looking like a nail, and gets hammered to smithereens. It doesn’t matter if the problem has nothing to do with density or land use, and it doesn’t matter that density and land use are (as the Kings show) pretty darn incidental to the grand scheme of things. The only tool that we have is the wrong one, but we’re going to use it anyways.

“The Storefront Index” via City Observatory

Clusters of these quasi-private spaces, which are usually neighborhood businesses, activate a streetscape, both drawing life from and adding to a steady flow of people outside. In an effort to begin to quantify this key aspect of neighborhood vitality, we’ve developed a new statistical indicator—the Storefront Index (click to see the full report)—that measures the number and concentration of customer-facing businesses in the nation’s large metropolitan areas.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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The Boarding Houses that Built America

During America’s century-long ascent from sleepy colonial backwater to great industrial giant, the urbanization of the country was funneled through a consistent apparatus: the boarding house.

As Alexis de Tocqueville stepped off his boat onto Manhattan Island in 1831, he made his first stop a boarding house on Wall Street, where he found even New York’s governor would take up residence alongside men of considerably lesser influence. America’s democratic character immediately impressed itself upon him, as the French aristocrat marveled at the American, a person “constantly in agitation, as he was continually changing his abode.” A decade later, Walt Whitman would declare Americans to be “a boarding people.”

At one point, as many as half of all urban Americans would have either boarded themselves or taken boarders into their own homes. For citizens of an agrarian republic moving into the new urban landscape, the boarding house provided an intermediate step of community. Shared meals and common areas facilitated the feeling of home in a large family, and proprietors often were charged with maintaining a certain standard of morality for those coming under their care (though, as Ruth Graham noted, “with varied levels of success”).

The population density also allowed nearby businesses to flourish, as people poured out of their buildings and used the sidewalks and adjacent bars and services, all easily within walking distance. Professor Paul Groth, a scholar of the boarding house, found that “the surrounding sidewalks and stores functioned as parts of each resident’s home.” Such constant jostling with those who lived nearby contrasts sharply with today’s civic environment, as a third of Americans currently report that they have never interacted with their neighbors.

The boarding house, and a series of complementary institutions like the Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) temporary hotel, carried Jacksonian America into the Age of Wilson. Ruth Graham recalls that Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s novel Little Women revolves centrally around a young woman’s escape from home into Bostonian boarding house life.

Eventually the (as ever, ostensibly well-meaning) regulatory grip descended onto the boarding house and SRO. Once zoning was ruled to be constitutional in the 1920s, planners stopped the well-heeled housing form in its tracks, instead creating new residential areas that were kept free of the poor and working class who might seek more temporary lodgings.

After World War II, further escalations in regulation combined with the great centrifugal force of suburbanization, as returning GI’s sought to settle the crabgrass frontier with every household in charge of its own single-family manor. Its extraordinary wealth (and concurrent devastation of the rest of the world) allowed America to rent the illusion of universal aristocracy for a time, under the impression that the towns were paid for and could easily be passed down.

Now that the bills for upkeep are coming due, many residential towns are finding that they lack the resources to maintain their structure for more than a generation or two.

Cities, meanwhile, are finding the young flooding back, especially in a few hotly-desired metro areas. The accumulated restrictions of the affordable housing-hostile, however, have precluded the sorts of structures that once existed to take them in. And the received ideal of independence has shunted young people into automatically seeking at best an apartment, what Ruth Graham described as “effectively its own miniature house, complete with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living room,” one stacked upon the other in appropriate, self-sufficient isolation.

“Co-living spaces” are cropping up to serve the Internet anomie of the young and fashionably located (“I’m surrounded by people and things to do, and yet I’m so f—ing bored and lonely,” as The New Yorker relates), but their structures and lessons should not be restricted to the yuppie.

Cities should move to relax their rules against boarding and SROs, so that the transient might again have grounding stepping stones, and the insolvent might once more be able to obtain footholds. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood was once, not coincidentally, home to both the lowest homeless population and highest SRO concentration in the area.

Structures that served so well Hawthorne and his companions should not be barred to America’s current generation.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor at The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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How to Build Housing From the Middle Out

Durango, Colorado is synonymous with the rugged American West for many, as the border town of 16,000 advertises its historic trails and cowboy classes, while Dodge continues to summon its name in countless rough-voiced commercials for the eponymous sport-utility vehicle.

The District of Columbia, on the other hand, could easily be seen as Durango’s cultural opposite—an entirely urban area of 670,000 centered around the federal government, with a long history of messy racial politics and tensions currently flaring up against the influx of millennials seeking craft cocktail bars.

When it came to solving affordable housing crunches, however, the District and Durango came to the same conclusion: they needed more units of housing, with minimal neighborhood disruption. They needed accessory dwelling units (ADUs), more popularly understood as “renting out your basement or garage.”

While the subject of a popular HGTV show set in Canada, these “income properties” are much more difficult to come by in the United States, as decades of tightening zoning codes have usually squeezed homeowners’ options for renting part of their house. As Anthony Flint reports, Durango itself encountered stiff resistance when loosening its own codes, as pilot neighborhoods fought bitterly against the prospect of an extra couple people being squeezed onto a single-family residence’s plot of land.

That famed Western libertarianism apparently did not extend to what neighbors did with their own homes.

Flint notes that Massachusetts was much the same when he tried to leverage ADUs to open up ready-made affordable housing in that state while serving under Gov. Mitt Romney: “Fueled by NIMBYism and concerns about density and school enrollment and parking and congestion, cities and towns wrote reams of codes requiring that property owners prove any occupants of ADUs were actually related.”

Washington, D.C. made significant strides on the issue earlier this year when it passed reforms to its zoning code that greatly liberalized the rights of homeowners to bring in supplemental income from their property. In a city whose housing prices have been skyrocketing, that is a non-negligible change for homeowners trying to stay in their neighborhoods.

As Emily Brown reported for Greater Greater Washington, the classic “English basements” below rowhouses are changing from requiring a special exemption to being available “by right” of the homeowner. Likewise, building an accessory unit in an external building (like a garage or carriage house) that already exists will also be considered possible “by right”, and building new structures has moved from requiring strenuous variances to mere special exemptions. All-in-all, the famously frozen District found a way to open up significant potential affordable housing opportunities without so much as grazing any height limits.

And as Flint relates, Durango offers hope to housing markets in less extreme circumstances than Washington, too. For after all the protests and resistance from locals, the planners were able to see their proposal through to completion, under a few restraints. The power of the neighborhood to block such changes is so widely recognized that when the Durango planners gave a briefing on their success at a national conference, the room was packed, and questioners lined up behind the microphone to seek advice.

Restoring homeowners’ right to rent part of their property is one of the small, incremental changes that communities can make to expand their housing markets even if they are wary of massive apartment complexes. Indeed, it is a fine example of how increases in “density” can frequently mean anything but the oft-feared “Manhattanization” of an area.

Accessory apartments are part of the “Missing Middle” between strict single-family homes and tall urban apartment towers. So towns and cities looking to accommodate growing populations without aesthetic disruption need only to start in the middle.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


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Is ‘Queen Bey’ a Front Porch Republican?

Beyonce's "Lemonade" (WB Music Corp)
Beyonce’s “Lemonade” (WB Music Corp)

When Beyoncé Knowles-Carter dropped her surprise Lemonade record on HBO last Sunday night, the Internet, well, it lost its mind. Perhaps moreso than any other artist recording today, Mrs. Knowles-Carter commands the power to reduce adult human beings into automata programmed for the typing of assorted punctuation.

As the online world exulted in the opening baseball bat pyrotechnics of Beyoncé’s seeming record of recovery from her husband’s infidelity, however, Brentin Mock at The Atlantic‘s CityLab was captured by a moment of quiet and stillness:

About 53 minutes into the visual album, LemonadeBeyonce sits barefoot and barefaced on a wooden porch surrounded by a squad of women of various skin complexions and hair textures. Nobody’s smiling. The facial expressions range from stone-serious to Can we help you?

As Mock explains, “the front porch scene signals defiance, if for no other reason than the fact that this kind of black woman assembly is seen as threatening, even today.” When the projects of New Orleans were replaced by mixed-income developments in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, the new housing could come with restrictions on who could gather on porches, and when. One developer suggested “that tenants should instead sit on their back porches. But that policy was quickly rejected by the tenants,” because “congregating on the front porch or stoop of folks’ homes is an inveterate cultural element of black communities across America, especially in the South.”

The significance and symbolism of the porch should not be allowed to pass without sufficient attention, for as Patrick Deneen unpacked in his essay “A Republic of Front Porches,” “the transition from porch to patio was one of the clearest and significant manifestations [of] the physical change from a society concerned with the relationship of private and public things – in the Latin, res publica – to one of increasing privacy.” The porch is the battleground of the ‘space between’.

Deneen is channeling the wisdom of an obscure essay by Richard Thomas, “From Porch to Patio,” which explains that before suburbanization prioritized the back yard, the front porch was a place where a family member could invite passerbys up to talk. “The person on the porch was very much in control of this interaction” as it was an extension of their home, but because the front porch was public-facing it was in dialogue with the resolutely public space of the street. The porch was particularly a space for easy association among women, who could congregate without hosting, discuss without scheduling.

One of the most discussed features of Beyoncé’s new album is the seeming peek it provides into the inner sanctum of her marriage to legendary rapper Jay-Z, a union that makes for one of the most powerful power couples in entertainment history. Unlike some other celebrity couples who parade their entire relationship on magazine covers and self-branded reality shows, Beyoncé has demanded privacy, and has taken unprecedented steps to control her image. The New York Times reported last year that “at some imperceptible point around 2013 to 2014, she appears to have stopped giving face-to-face interviews.”

In a rare interview given to Essence in late 2008, Beyoncé explains this reticence in terms of maintaining the mystery necessary to superstardom, for “not being accessible is really important.” The inaccessible superstar of the age of instant access, the aura around the pop star grew into a mythos approaching the monarchical, granting her the sobriquet “Queen Bey.” She told GQ in 2013 that “I’m more powerful than my mind can even digest and understand.” Her personal life, however, was kept as resolutely private as was possible in this celebrity age.

In one of Lemonade’s earliest tracks, Beyoncé’s rage literally spills into the public place from a classical courthouse, as she marches down a traditional New Orleans main street seeking justice with baseball bat in hand, taking aim at the automobile, the surveillance state, and the storefront alike. Her husband’s violation of their marital vows seemingly tears the very fabric of society for Mrs. Knowles-Carter, and the album progresses through her processing of that violation.

By the time Beyoncé “finds her chill,” as Mock characterizes the front-porch scene, the album is explicitly drawing on the positive traditions of black women, binding attention across the generations. Women in common endeavor are shown harvesting gardens in the shots leading up to the porch. Beyoncé’s family’s marriages and pregnancies and relationships are shown through home videos. Religious language suffuses the entirety of the album, but it becomes particularly acute late, when an older woman’s voiceover explains the necessity of falling back on Jesus. The title of the album derives from the simple wisdom of ‘I was served lemons, but I made lemonade,’ in the words of Beyoncé’s husband’s grandmother on the occasion of her 90th birthday.

The untouchable “Sasha Fierce,” the ineffable queen of the stadium showcase and monarchical pageantry, has established herself in the associational territory of the porch community, where access is guarded but available, and self-governance is the activity of the everyday. And yet, as Mock details throughout his essay, that front porch community, that essence of civil society, is not always a safe space, especially among the poor and the black. Whether commercial developers or public housing directors, regulators seek to push people back to the patio, or to confine their society within their living room. Middle-class atomization is enforced downward with bureaucratic cudgel.

Poor communities, and especially black communities, have long been subject to regulations that seek to force them away, or to push them out of sight. Charlie Gardner excerpts one description of how Cleveland-area suburbs would raise the regulatory barriers to self-built homes in order to make it too expensive for black communities to develop in their midst. The tragic story of 20th-century urban renewal is replete with stories of tightly knit working-class neighborhoods being demolished to make room for highways, while their residents were relocated to anonymous, deracinated tower blocks.

Those disruptions and dislocations often came at the high cost of strong social structures. Nolan Gray’s recent essay on “Reclaiming Redneck Urbanism” notes that “compared to many low-income neighborhoods,” trailer parks communities “are often fairly clean and relatively safe” due to their strong emergent traditions of private governance. He concludes his essay with the advice that “where policymakers deem top-down regulation necessary, it should be designed to support rather than replace emergent orders that low-income communities have developed over time.”

The black community in particular has a long tradition of black nationalism and self-sufficiency that grew out of resistance to bureaucratic erasure, a tradition extending from Booker T. Washington to the iconography of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, both of whom Beyoncé explicitly draws on in her new album. Before and beyond those national figures, however, there have always been the local sources of leadership in the churches and in the neighborhood.

A friend in New Orleans, coincidentally the locus and identifying core of much of Lemonade, once told me the story of a local neighborhood he had been introduced to, where crime and hooliganism had nearly destroyed the social fabric. Until, that is, the grandmothers and the mothers, the matriarchs of the community, decided to seize back their front porches. They emerged from their homes to sit on their front porches, and congregate, and associate. They monitored their streets and the younger members of their neighborhood. When young men stepped out of line, they would be called out; if they didn’t step back into line, the police would be called to restore the community’s order. The crime rate fell, and the porches once again ruled the street.

Deneen closed his essay with the following challenge:

For those who would stand and defend the future of the Republic, a good place to start would be to revive our tradition of building and owning homes with front porches, and to be upon them where we can both see our neighbors and be seen by them, speak and listen to one another, and, above all, be in a place between, but firmly in place.

Now that Queen Bey has descended from her stage, perhaps we can follow her lead into the rediscovery of our own traditions of community reliance and self-governance.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


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Words on the Street

Starting this week, New Urbs will be regularly collecting the best content we’ve read each week that we didn’t publish—but would have. Read something you think should make the cut? E-mail Jon Coppage or tag @NewUrbs with the link on Twitter.

“Reclaiming Redneck Urbanism” via MarketUrbanism

By combining these liberal land-use regulations with narrow streets shared by all users, we ironically find in many trailer parks a kind of traditional urban design more common in European and Japanese cities.

“Trains in Space” via London Review of Books

The peculiarity of the railways in the country that invented them is that everyone involved can claim to be playing a heritage role, whatever they do. Modernity at its most destructive and ruthless was as essential a characteristic of the railways in the 1830s as engineering flair and craftsmanship, and capitalism at its most exploitative and greedy was a greater driver of the initial rapid growth of the network than abstract concern for progress or the good of society.

“The Rowhome Is Us” via Philadelphia

And anyway, regardless of the specifics of the individual architecture­ — no matter how traditional or trendy, how stunning or schlocky — living in a rowhouse isn’t only about the individual. It’s about the whole. And where the two meet. It is, as my wise neighbor Cece commented, “about feeling like you’re a part of something.”

“In Praise of the Library of Congress” via The Week

Quality government requires, on some level, that bureaucrats overcome their self-interest and do a good job simply because it is virtuous. I suggest that beauty for its own sake is an important part of this process. Under the dome of the Main Reading Room — as with the Capitol Rotunda — the demand to live up to the national ancestors is almost palpable. … A dignified nation does not conduct its business from ugly concrete boxes.

“Beyonce’s Simple But Radical Front Porch Politics” via CityLab

Congregating on the front porch or stoop of folks’ homes is an inveterate cultural element of black communities across America, especially in the South. For New Orleans, one need look no further than the early music videos of No Limit and Cash Money Records artists to see how much of a cultural staple front porch convening is—or was—to the urban fabric.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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‘Smart Growth’ and the Sidewalk Ballet

“All you urbanists look the same to me.”

That, in essence, is the challenge that many advocates of alternative models of development encounter when advocating for our ideas outside of the already converted. That is particularly true on the rightward side of the political spectrum, when talk of walkable communities, mixed-use development, and increasing density is suspected to be soon followed by condescension towards the suburban, hostility towards the car, and a lurking inclination to tear up places that people like well enough already, thank you very much.

And frankly, when built, a lot of our ideas do look the same. We here at New Urbs may prefer some classical touches on our buildings, but the bones of new urbanist neighborhoods will usually look a lot more like Brooklyn than Levittown. How you get there is the worthier part, however, and it is in the thinking behind our living patterns that important distinctions should be firmly drawn. That’s why I was happy to read Chuck Marohn’s recent post, “Please, I’m Not a Smart Growth Advocate“.

“Smart Growth” is one of the catchphrases that often gets thrown in with New Urbanism, traditional neighborhoods, Strong Towns, and the like to refer to a broad swath of urbanist priorities. Indeed, even the venerable James Bacon was willing to claim the mantle of “Smart Growth for Conservatives” at the 2012 Congress for the New Urbanism, in an effort to reclaim those priorities from a uniform liberalism.

Marohn, however, wants no part of the tag. To him, Smart Growth smacks too much of the aforementioned condescension “because, of course, the opposite of smart is dumb. We’ve gone to great lengths here to demonstrate that auto-oriented development, at it’s essence, is anything but dumb and that the people who promote it are rational, and often quite thoughtful. The problem is in the long term trade offs.”

To Marohn and the Strong Towns crew, “we are obsessed by the insolvency of our cities” and “too often I see people and organizations advocating for Smart Growth principles promoting, for example, financially insolvent transit systems as an alternative to financially insolvent highway building. … Or building patterns that meet superficial density metrics even though they do so miles out of town and completely out of context.”

Here at New Urbs, we are obsessed with the unraveling of our communities as they are stretched over frames that cannot support them, much less help nurture them back to health. And too often I’ve seen people and organizations advocating for Smart Growth principles that are satisfied if the density of a development is on-target, and the uses are mixed, that is, if the bones look like they should even if the soul of a place is missing. It does little good to live above a Chipotle if you can never quite get to learning the name of the person on the other side of the counter.

Most of all, Marohn remarks that “way too often I see Smart Growth organizations and advocates distrusting people, natural systems and organic growth in favor of approaches that are centralized and ordered around the ‘right’ set of policies.” That is where the strongest rub lies, what he coins “Robert Moses means to achieve Jane Jacobs ends.”

As hard as it can sometimes seem, given the century of accumulated obstacles from zoning codes and highway construction and more, getting the bones right is the easy part. Given sufficient power, like that New York City master planner Robert Moses wielded, any of us could plant a development in a green field, or infill a decaying neighborhood, and model it in any shape we so desired. We might even be able to sell some people on living there, for a time.

But “Jane Jacobs ends” are intimately wrapped up with democratic, associational means. As important as a properly sized sidewalk is to fostering a walkable neighborhood, Jacobs’ “sidewalk ballet” is comprised of characters living out a neighborly life—the sidewalk is only the stage.

That makes our job a lot harder than if it were merely a matter of construction and coordination. But it makes it more vital as well. As Marohn insists, “I’m not convinced we are any smarter or have any better intentions than the people who used top down interventions to bring us urban renewal, empty pedestrian malls and highways through our neighborhoods.” One of the smartest architects of the 20th century thought this was a good look for Paris, and he sought the power that would let him implement his vision free of local resistance.

Planning has its place. But first we must know ours.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American Conservative. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Affordable Housing Starts From the Bottom Up

Midtown Manhattan's "Dutch Hill" circa 1863. New York Public Library (PR 020 Geographic File)
Midtown Manhattan’s “Dutch Hill” circa 1863. New York Public Library (PR 020 Geographic File)

Does affordable urban housing require socialized costs? That’s where I left off a month ago, discussing San Francisco’s tortured housing market and its desperate need for a pressure relief valve of greater density.

Affordable housing is a vast and thorny policy issue, and will be the subject of much discussion here at New Urbs over the next year. A great place to start orienting yourself is the discussion that Emily Badger just collected at the Washington Post, “How to Make Expensive Cities Affordable Again,” and Daniel Hertz’s follow-up thoughts at City Observatory. The Post discussion centers around the displacement of longtime residents in hyper-expensive housing markets like San Francisco, and debates whether new development aimed at the high-end makes housing markets more expensive or less. Market-oriented writers note that high-end construction reduces competition for lower level buildings by the wealthy, whereas others are concerned that the new construction just turns a neighborhood into a magnet for the well-to-do.

I’d like to approach the issue from the other direction, however, by borrowing from Charlie Gardner’s discussion at “Old Urbanist” of the time “When the Market Built Housing for the Low Income.”

Gardner is responding to the idea that “very little private housing in the United States was originally built for low-income people,” meaning that affordable housing almost entirely comes from once-expensive homes that have aged and filtered down the market. And when you survey the current American housing stock, it may well be true that most affordable housing was once premium supply.

But, Gardner takes care to note, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence:

Although this may be somewhat accurate so far as it only applies to formal housing developers, throughout the history of American cities and indeed most other cities in the world, a large portion of the housing stock came from the informal economy, most of it purpose-built for indigent migrants or very poor laborers. This was the case even in some of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Western world until fairly recently.

Prior to the 1920s, the lower end of the housing market was supplied by a combination of pop-up shantys and self-built shacks on low-value land, temporary single resident rentals, small multi-family construction like the proverbial “apartment over the garage,” self-built quality housing like Sears kits, and company-provided housing, among others.

Rather than requiring a wait for upper-class housing to “filter down,” the self-built shacks in particular had a tendency to “filter up,” Gardner says, as people invested in and expanded their homes as they moved up the economic ladder. Even better quality self-built construction was not typically fixed in form upon move-in, but was often subject to a continual, incremental improvement. A small shotgun starter home could be added onto as families and resources grew. But, crucially, people just starting out did not have to pony up all the capital for their final product up front.

What happened to all these components of originally affordable American housing? Simply put, it was often banned, and the evidence torn down. 20th-century reformers seeking to save the poor and working classes from their squalor endeavored to provide safe and sanitary housing while razing the blight of their neighborhood “slums.” It must be acknowledged that the conditions of such neighborhoods were not comfortable or clean, and were often decidedly lacking in plumbing and wiring amenities.

But as Gardner remarks, “the ‘eradication of slums’ element of this strategy was more faithfully carried out than the provision of dwellings.” Gardner summarizes the results:

The elimination of the self-built home as an affordable option in much of the country, in conjunction with zoning regulations limiting small multifamily housing, setting minimum lot sizes and imposing other similar restrictions, completed the elimination of the lower rung of prior housing options.

A few decades after the low-end of the market was cut off with a floor of zoning and code regulations, the upper end of the market, that source of eventual filtered affordable housing, was capped by even further zoning tightening, preventing new development. And so markets like San Francisco and New York have been impossibly squeezed from both directions for generations, leaving a housing supply that is hopelessly inadequate to meet demand. In situations like that, extreme unaffordability isn’t the product of gentrifiers and condo developers; it’s built into the bones of the city.

As the Washington Post discussion demonstrates, there’s a lot of interesting thinking to be done about how the high end of the housing market affects urban affordability. That should not come at the expense of close examination of how the market came to its current state in the first place, however.

When affordable housing structures have been regulated out of existence, affordable housing will necessarily require subsidized provision, as the difference between the market cost of legal housing and the price understood to be affordable are bridged by government. That may come from direct subsidy, housing voucher, or an in-kind exchange with developers, granting permission to build luxury apartments as long a few units are set aside as “affordable.” Acknowledging this situation is a far cry from acquiescing to the inadequacy of unconstrained urban housing production, however.

What is required, then, is a close examination of the state of the American built environment, looking at which rules and regulations are well-considered protections against unsafe corner-cutting, and which are unnecessary barriers to housing access. It will also require a thoughtful consideration of what controls local communities should put in place to shape their city in their own preferred image, and what freedom new residents or developers should have to provide for the underserved or unwelcome.

We’ll look forward to digging into those questions in the coming year, but one guiding principle will be the value of small-scale decision-making and incrementalism. By the time problems are big enough to warrant top-line consideration, they are often too wicked to resolve satisfactorily with the blunt tools large institutions have available. Enabling local responsiveness and relatively low-risk course correction can allow environments to rescue themselves.

Jonathan Coppage is senior staff editor of The American ConservativeNew Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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Why San Francisco Has to Build Up

Shotgun house Jon Keegan/Flickr
Shotgun house Jon Keegan/Flickr

Is the shotgun starter home the answer to San Francisco’s famously desperate housing crisis?

Joel Kotkin suggests just that in a recent report and follow-up interview with SF Weekly. In so doing, he makes the classic suburbanist mistake of ignoring what lies below the building.

First, the context. San Francisco has long found favor as a short city on the bay, squeezed into a peninsula between the waters of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Home to the hippie haven of Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties, the city prided itself on a progressive resistance to trends that might spoil its cherished character. Some of the most restrictive land-use regulations in the country were imposed in order to keep towers of density out, and the seaside charm of low rooflines ubiquitous. Thanks to the temperate climate and the culture, the homeless found both accommodating weather and welcoming residents.

The rise of Silicon Valley in the nearby suburbs attracted a different kind of immigrant to the bayside city, though, and the maturation of the tech industry began drawing new residents to San Francisco at an enormous scale. As the city’s regulations prevented housing supply from growing apace with the exploding demand, rents and home prices followed the predictable course into the stratosphere. There has been a growing chorus from the right to center-left for greater housing density to be allowed in order to release the pressure that has turned San Francisco into one of the most distorted housing markets in the world, but it is resisted by long-time residents and anti-gentrification activists alike out of fear that the wealthy would run amok with their city.

Now, Kotkin argues, he has uncovered evidence that high-density building must in fact cater to the wealthy, and the resistance is justified. Tall downtown apartment buildings use more expensive materials than cheap starter homes, and have to clear severe regulatory hurdles to be completed. Ergo, San Francisco would be better off building cheap, flat single-family starter homes than higher-density multifamily structures.

The problem, of course, is that San Francisco looks like this:

San Francisco 1915 - Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco 1915 – Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco’s population may have doubled since 1915, but the city itself remains exactly as bounded by its aquatic borders as it was then, when it hosted the World’s Fair to celebrate the newly opened Panama Canal. The only direction left to build is up.

That may be a banal conclusion in urbanism circles by now, of course, but it is worth keeping up with Kotkin’s always-creative arguments in order to underline the oft-missing variable: the land.

City Observatory‘s Daniel Hertz effectively unpacks this point, pointing out that Kotkin’s construction materials argument would hold quite effectively in a vacuum: “if we constructed buildings floating out in space, that might make condos more expensive. But down here on Earth, buildings are built on land. And land costs money.” Moreover,

in high-demand housing markets, it’s land costs that make single-family homes so expensive. That’s because single-family homes have to absorb all of the price of the land they sit on in their own prices. If you build multiple homes on the same piece of land, then each of the homes only has to absorb a fraction of the land’s price.

In a city like San Francisco, with extremely limited land subject to extremely high (and still rising) demand, the only way to give housing a hope of affordability is to split the land cost among more people. The market likely could have long cleared that hurdle if it weren’t hopelessly shackled by the city’s land-use regulations.

Of course, you could also socialize the cost by building subsidized affordable housing, if you so desired, layering further market distortions upon San Francisco’s already tortured peninsula. Many urbanists believe that is the only way affordable housing can be built to provide for the lower end of the market at this point. I’ll be picking up that argument in my next post.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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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.

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Criminal Justice Reform Steps Out of the Shadows

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 accusation 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.


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