Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
CAPE MAY, N.J.—New Jersey is the punchline of many jokes, with opinion polls confirming that the Garden State has the most negative reputation of any state in the nation. This ranking is deserved in some respects, at least when assessing the dismal condition of the built environment in many parts of the state. Much of the metropolitan landscape of New Jersey, particularly in the northern suburbs of New York City, is marred by a combination of industrial blight, suburban sprawl, and traffic-choked highways—the gritty scenery seen in the opening titles of the hit HBO series The Sopranos. But there is another part of the state with many towns that are models for good urban form, and perhaps for long-term conservation efforts as well.
For years, the New Jersey coastline has had an undeserved reputation for being a somewhat downmarket series of beach towns past their prime. The hedonism of the MTV reality TV series Jersey Shore, which only ran from 2009 to 2013, undoubtedly did much to reinforce this stereotype, and the last few decades of boom-and-bust casino development in Atlantic City hasn’t helped the region’s image, either. Yet along the 100-plus miles of coastline, stretching from the Lower New York Bay and Sandy Hook to the mouth of the Delaware River, there are many places that realize the central ideals of great urbanism—including walkability, vernacular architecture, preservation, and authentic sustainability.
The area’s prospects for success were secured by a combination of fortunate historical timing and favorable geography. The shore towns were some of the first resort destinations designed for the masses, in this case the burgeoning populations of nearby Philadelphia and New York. Passenger rail service from the big cities, which began as early as the 1850s and expanded for the rest of the 19th century, made rapid development possible all along the Jersey coastline. Ever faster trains allowed daytrippers of more modest means to visit the seashore, making the beach towns a playground for more than the wealthy classes who could afford upmarket hotels or second homes. At the same time, many religious leaders established summer encampments for their congregations, with at least one of these communities, Ocean Grove, still maintaining its explicitly Christian identity.
When tourists or pilgrims arrived, whether they were staying overnight or not, they found themselves in relatively compact, walkable settlements. Most hotels and beachfront amenities were an easy walk from the station, and in some cases, such as in Cape May, local interurban rail routes enabled travelers to reach smaller adjacent towns and villages. Further, the sites of many of the settlements, which were built on narrow barrier islands, limited development to a fixed area. This geography created an incentive, even in a pre-automobile area, to use the available land carefully. This physical reality holds today—near the shore, there is far less of the strip-mall sprawl that now litters the mainland along the Garden State Parkway.
The 1950s-era turnpike that now brings both vacationers and residents “down the shore” does not enter the historic districts, which means that unlike so many other pre-war urban neighborhoods torn apart by freeways, the original human scale of old shore towns remains largely intact. The dawn of the jet age and expansion of the interstate highway system in the 1960s also meant that many Philadelphians and New Yorkers were able to travel much further afield than the Jersey shore for their holidays. This initially resulted in some decline, but the slowed growth also indirectly contributed to preserving the late 19th and early 20th-century streetscape, now celebrated for its beauty and practicality. Cape May, for example, boasts the largest concentration of intact Victorian homes outside of San Francisco.
In most of these shore towns, there are relatively few superblocks, with small lots and alleys still dominant. Cape May has the abundance of restaurants and touristy boutiques one expects to find, but a practical supermarket sits almost at the center of town, and national-chain businesses are rare, at least downtown. Driving the narrow streets to find parking is difficult enough that many people seem to abandon their cars while they are here, walking between their accommodations, the beach, and shops. A three-block pedestrian mall, an idea tried and discredited in many other American downtowns, survives and appears to be prospering, at least in the summer.
This seasonal ebb and flow of residents has caused some to suggest these shore towns are not real places, and that any of the admirable characteristics of the townscape here are a kind of “dollhouse urbanism”—a series of charming facades where most the time nobody is actually home. While most of these places have always been summer resort towns, it’s true that the portion of full-time residents in many of them is lower than ever before. With renewed prosperity, there is also the rising sense that gentrification will make some shore towns accessible to only the rich. One former regular in the small hamlet of Avalon recently complained in the New York Times that a beloved deli had recently been replaced by seasonal outlets of high-end national fashion chains.
The solution to this demand is of course is to build more walkable urban places near the Jersey Shore, creating additional opportunities for the small-scale Main Street businesses that have long had a place on the streets here. Regional authorities should also aim to improve transportation options between shore towns and the major metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia. New Jersey Transit trains still serve some of the northern portion of the shoreline, and another regional train departs Philadelphia for Atlantic City about a dozen times a day. The trains are relatively slow, though, mostly running over very old infrastructure. New investment and restoration of service along the shore could spur development and the return of full-time residents as these cities are better connected to major job centers.
Revitalizing infrastructure would also once again make a car-free vacation or even day trip to the beach a more appealing prospect for the tens of millions who live nearby. If governments are serious about trying to reduce private vehicle and aircraft emissions, creating alternative transportation options to reach local resorts should be a priority. Notwithstanding sea-level rise, perhaps a low-carbon future can still include an occasional day at the beach.
With its settlement driven by a strange combination of Robber Baron-era capitalism and Great Awakening-style religious revivalism, the Jersey Shore was birthed by strange bedfellows. Yet these forces created communities that still are remarkably functional, enjoyable, and beautiful places to reside and play. Urbanists, preservationists, and real-estate developers often focus on places such as New York and Philadelphia. They may also have a lot to learn from the nearby Jersey Shore.
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.
Editor’s Note: New Urbs occasionally reviews classics of urbanism and architecture, showing how these great books remain relevant to the public discourse about the future of our built environment.
First published in 1991, Nature’s Metropolis is a fantastic book that well deserves its reputation as a classic. Part history, part sociological study, part economic analysis, and part ecological survey, William Cronon examines the growth of Chicago by studying the city’s 19th-century relationship to the larger “Great West” (more or less the once-sparsely settled regions between the Ohio River Valley and the Pacific). He does this by analyzing, in fascinating detail, the city and its surrounding territory in three areas: transportation (water and rail), physical commodities (grain, lumber, and meat), and capital. For each topic, he focuses both narrowly on how each developed and changed over time, and more broadly on how each affected the city and the larger Great West. I suppose to some this sounds boring—but as far as I’m concerned, Cronon nearly magically retains the reader’s interest throughout.
If Cronon has an overriding theme, it is that a sharp distinction between city and country, or between humans and nature, is an illusion, and a damaging one. Rather, they are all an interdependent whole, each continuously changing the other. This sounds like a cliché, but it is not one in Cronon’s hands. As he takes pains to make clear, Nature’s Metropolis is not a comprehensive history of the city or the Great West. Rather, it is a story about how the city shaped the Great West, while being shaped itself by the Great West. This shaping is primarily viewed through commodity flows, including the commodities themselves and how they were transported. Famous people are not the focus; culture and politics are only addressed in passing and where actually relevant; and, fortunately, ideology and political correctness make no appearance at all.
Cronon repeatedly refers to, and reacts to, “central place theory”—attempts to systematize and base in mathematics the growth of urban-rural systems such as Chicago. Cronon clearly thinks that while the theory has value, central-place theorists make claims of systematization that are inaccurate at best; the real world is a messier place than a mathematical theory allows for. And much of his book is an attempt to remove an artificial sharp distinction between rural and urban areas. Still, Cronon relies heavily on Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s concentric circle analysis, from 1826, of the zones that surround a city, from intensive agriculture closest to the city to wilderness at the farthest extent. Von Thünen, an economist, was focused on the economic viability of production, particularly as dictated by the cost of transport of different types of goods produced in different areas. Chronologically, Cronon demonstrates how over time the zones around Chicago developed and changed, from covering only a few miles from the city center to stretching, by the end of the 19th century, all the way to the cities of the Pacific coast.
Cronon begins at the very beginning, when Chicago was merely a minor gathering place for American Indians and European traders, distinguished mostly by abundant wild garlic. (The name “Chicago” is a corruption of a Miami Indian word for garlic—just the first of many things I learned about Chicago from this book, even though I lived there for 12 years.) The Chicago River existed, but was short, silted and access to it was blocked by a large sandbar (and, famously, it flowed the other way from where it does now). Commerce via large-scale transport was therefore minimal. But once the Indians “sold” the local land to the white man in the 1830s, speculators and their closely allied teammates, “boosters,” swept in. Boosters appear again and again in Cronon’s work, both in Chicago and in other cities—men who preached the gospel of the inevitability of a city’s rise, and thus the opportunities available both for commerce and land speculation. Without boosters, Chicago would not necessarily have grown as it did, or ultimately occupied the position it does. Advertising, in other words, was a crucial feature of the city’s growth.
Not that the boosters were all that good at predictions—they mostly adjusted their hucksterism to fit what was happening around them, just projecting it into the future and giving it a hyper-optimistic gloss. Thus, they praised the inevitable rise of Chicago due to its proximity to water routes (the Great Lakes and, at first indirectly, and then directly through canals, the Mississippi)—but failed to predict the supersession of water by rail. Nonetheless, when rail arrived, and with it the increased dominance of Chicago over other contenders such as St. Louis, boosters quickly switched their tune and simply sang harder the praises of Chicago.
As water gave way to rail, more goods could be produced in more locations and shipped more quickly to the city for sale. And, in reverse, the city could ship to its hinterland more goods, both those produced in the city and those made farther east by the much more developed regions of the United States. Chicago’s role, and therefore its growth, was further enhanced by the Eastern rail systems terminating at Chicago and the Western rail systems originating at Chicago, requiring (at least initially) break-bulk trans-shipment through the city, which created all sorts of economic opportunities for local merchants and service providers, such as operators of grain elevators.
After covering transport, Cronon turns to physical commodities, beginning with grain (primarily wheat). Much of his focus is on the diminishing costs of transport, but even more is on the fascinating development of standardization in grain grading and the consequent ability to create a liquid market in a truly fungible good. This, together with mass centralized storage through the new technology of grain elevators, which allowed vastly lower holding costs, meant that fungible grain was traded easily and quickly, rather than trade necessitating the use of sacks of grain identified with a specific farmer until their final sale to the end user. The Chicago Board of Trade was intimately involved with these developments, which further resulted in the creation of the allied futures market, with its ability to reduce risks for farmers and provide additional liquidity for the market—and, not incidentally, to make huge fortunes for speculators and those willing to risk trying to corner the market.
The result was a backlash by farmers, most notably the Grange movement, who were incensed by what they saw as unproductive parasites profiting off the farmer’s labor. This ultimately resulted in state regulation of grain storage, transport, and sale to curb the worst abuses. Cronon has sympathy for the Grange, but, as he points out, in any market governed by abstractions such as grain grades, opportunities for profit exist in the ambiguities contained in the boundaries—and middlemen, whether exploiting ambiguities or “merely” brokering, experience profit as well as loss. This is shown by the failure of the Grangers in their attempts to eliminate the middleman—they were not efficient or good at it, and mostly simply absorbed “the middleman’s loss,” rather than his gain.
With grain, too, Cronon talks much about how the changing demand and structure of the grain market changed nature—this book is, after all, titled Nature’s Metropolis. What was once limitless prairie soon enough was plowed for grain, permanently changing, though always in shifting ways, the face of the land. This conversion from “first nature” to “second nature,” the latter often incorrectly viewed by city dwellers as “real nature,” is a theme Cronon returns to throughout his book.
After grain, Cronon turns to two other commodities that are nearly as equally fascinating—lumber and meat. Who knew that vast areas of what constitute Chicago’s modern near west side were once covered with square miles of stacked lumber, or that Chicago took in billions of board feet of logs, turned them into lumber, and sold them throughout the states of the Great West? Not me, at least. Unlike grain, though, lumber never developed the same type of ultra-efficient market, in part because it was never possible to fully standardize and turn fungible. And soon enough, the wood near to Chicago (which mostly arrived cheaply by water, at least at the beginning) ran out, and the lumber trade was ceded to other regions of the country. When lumber ran out, it left behind vast despoiled regions in Wisconsin and Michigan, the “Cutover,” which contributed to vast forest fires, further destroying first nature—and killing lots of people, including (amazingly) around 2,000 people at one time in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871. The regeneration of the area into what it is today, for recreation and wood pulp, only took place decades later.
The history of meat in Chicago is better known than that of lumber, perhaps because meatpacking lasted much longer, into living memory, if only as a shadow of its former glory. Cronon covers how Chicago began with pork in competition with Cincinnati; moved into cattle as refrigeration technology, combined with the slaughter of the bison and the changing of western grazing land into range land, permitted greater trade in cattle; and ended, for a while, as meatpacker to the world. (Nearby Hammond, Indiana, was named for a man who moved there to harvest vast quantities of ice, to refrigerate meat, from the Calumet River.) The business was predatory, in the sense that the giant meatpackers like Armour deliberately destroyed the local butchers throughout the Great West, but they offered the best prices and quality, so that destruction was functionally inevitable.
All these trades, especially railroads and meatpacking, required massive amounts of capital, so Cronon wisely covers capital separately and in detail, basically as another type of commodity. I found this section of the book less fascinating, since tangible goods are more interesting to me than abstract money. (I am very interested in tangible money, however.) Not that this section is uninteresting—in particular, Cronon did extensive original research into bankruptcy filings, to analyze who owed money to whom at various points during Chicago’s rise, and in particular who provided financing to Chicago merchants and manufacturers, and how. Here he shows how Chicago’s capital net, the area from which it received financing, was much wider than cities that thought they were competing with Chicago, such as Milwaukee or Minneapolis, or even those that really were competing but ultimately came in second place, such as Cincinnati and St. Louis (the cause of whose ultimate second-place finish Cronon assign to the railroads, as well as the Civil War). In this section on capital, Cronon also examines the spread of the capital-intensive market for farm machinery, which relied heavily on the development of efficient credit markets.
Finally, Cronon evaluates Chicago when it had clawed its way to the top, through the lens of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Cronon’s focus is less on the famous individual exhibitions and more on how the World’s Fair concealed the dependence of the city on second nature, and furthermore broadly concealed the web of relationships between the city and the Great West. In a similar vein, new suburbs were designed to offer a polished, sanitized version of the nature whose modification and production made the city possible. Cronon’s point is, again, that a sharp division between “urban” and “rural” is a fiction—any city is a dynamic system of constant interplay and exchange between the two, and Chicago is a particularly dramatic exemplar of that principle. Even less are they opposed to each other, whatever city slickers or the Grangers may think—they instead need each other, often in ways that are totally invisible to both.
Charles Haywood writes from Indianapolis, Indiana. This article originally appeared at his blog, The Worthy House.
There are few national solutions that can help all cities. There are, however, two federal policies holding back widespread business creation and concentrating economic power in fewer hands—overly restrictive intellectual-property law and housing regulation that promotes unsustainable sprawl.
Patents used to be difficult and expensive to enforce. One of the main reasons the film industry set up shop in Los Angeles (on the other side of the country from New York City with its legions of actors, producers, set designers, costume makers and all the various and sundry people needed for a major stage production or a film) is because easterner Thomas Edison owned many of the patents on filmmaking and he didn’t want to license the technology. So the moviemakers went to California, where they could skedaddle to Mexico in case Edison wanted to make trouble.
The Industrial Revolution came to the United States because Samuel Slater copied British weaving machinery. It came to Japan because Japanese entrepreneurs were able to copy American and British technology. Now the Chinese are copying American and Japanese technology. Many innovations also resulted from tinkering. Early automobile pioneers experimented with internal combustion engines they made themselves and a number of important figures in Silicon Valley were members of a group called the Homebrew Computer Club that built their own computers and shared skills and ideas.
But such tinkering is all but impossible now. According to Modern Farmer, intellectual-property law has been used to make it illegal for farmers to fix their tractors. Similarly, Barry Lynn has written in Washington Monthly about how Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began applying antitrust law to businesses holding large numbers of patents. This allowed competitors to imitate and innovate. Since the policy was reversed in the 1980s, large companies have once again used patent control to suppress competition or patent troll small firms for millions of dollars.
Related rollbacks of antitrust enforcement across all sectors, according to Brian Feldman, have resulted in smaller, regional firms being absorbed by national and international ones. “While some new out-of-town owners kept large operations in St Louis, the city lost entire layers of expertise,” Feldman wrote. “Applying that lesson more broadly, when the citizens of St Louis . . . look at the decline of their local economies . . . their fates may be the result of decisions in Washington . . . to overturn antitrust laws passed by elected officials of both parties over the course of the twentieth century.”
So Ross Douthat’s recent call to “Break Up the Liberal City” is partially right. There are monopolistic combinations at work in America, based in large cities, but they exist because of government policy. Another such concentration of power exists among homeowners. A few years ago the French economist Thomas Piketty argued that capitalism was in the midst of a crisis because of a lack of regulation resulting in increasing amounts of economic concentration in the hands of the one percent. Shortly afterwards Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Matthew Rognlie analyzed the data and found that virtually all of the increased returns on capital have gone to owners of housing.
In the 1970s, policies were designed to restrict housing construction and increase home values. This change correlates very well with the beginnings of wage stagnation, widening inequality, the hollowing out of the middle class, and a million other factors. To put it bluntly, restrictive housing policies in places like Boston, New York, San Jose, and San Francisco cost the country about $1.6 trillion a year, according to economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti. The result, as Matt Yglesias puts it, is that “People go where land is cheap, not where their labor is valuable.”
Another major impact is from the policies that guide small towns. As Charles Marohn has shown, towns across the country have favored automobile-dependent development that relies on massive infrastructure investment. They go deeply into debt to build the infrastructure in order to attract big-box-store development, which doesn’t generate enough in taxes to pay for the costs of that infrastructure—and then they have to go deeper into debt to build more infrastructure to attract more sprawling development that still doesn’t pay for itself. This also applies to residential construction: According to a 2007 paper by Mark Obrinsky and Debra Stein of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, compact walkable neighborhoods produce more tax revenue while having lower infrastructure costs.
It is perhaps not surprising that, even within Boston’s orbit, Massachusetts cities and towns allow development that is dependent upon car usage, has made compact and walkable development illegal, and are increasingly reliant upon the state for funding to maintain roads and schools. In Iowa, a small city called Mount Union recently dissolved because it couldn’t pay its bills for a new sewer system and several cities and towns around the country have begun replacing paved roads with gravel or dirt ones to save on repair costs.
This is especially prevalent in places where local governments rely on sales taxes for revenue. The worst excesses of consumerism, viewed through such a lens, are a matter of life and death for such communities: Municipalities need people to buy disposable goods in vast quantities from retailers with poorly-paid workforces. Without enough sales or when labor costs get too high, City Hall will be bankrupt when WalMart moves to greener pastures. But City Hall will still go bankrupt sooner or later.
The policies adopted throughout this country to protect big, well-connected businesses from competition, to keep existing home values rising, and to promote economic development have destroyed local economies and the hard-earned wealth built up over decades. Revitalizing rural places and “interior” cities is not simply a question of jobs and infrastructure, but one of whether or not public policy allows for the creation of wealth and economic diversification.
Some aspects of the urban-rural divide will never be closed. Cities and small towns have different cultures because they are different places. More seriously, as cheap money dries up, businesses with good political connections will continue to evade antitrust laws. As deferred maintenance starts to show up, real trade-offs will have to be made. Some rural places may have to be abandoned, both because making them productive would consume too many resources and because the political pressure exerted by suburbs will result in their debts being subsidized by city production.
It’s not pretty, but recovery can only begin when we admit that we can’t borrow, build, or steal our way to prosperity.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
With his rock-star looks and positions as senior editor of The Atlantic, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, and visiting professor at New York University, Richard Florida is the highest-profile urbanist in the country—and has been for over a decade. In all my travels, he and his creative-class theory are nigh universally cited. To the extent that civic leaders across America understand the criticality of human capital and talent in the 21st-century economy, it’s because of him.
In his 2002 bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida described how the world economy was being transformed by high-performing workers who specialize in innovation. Though he originally distinguished this creative class from white-collar knowledge workers generally, today the two terms are largely synonymous in the public mind and Florida’s analyses. In effect, he developed a sexy way to talk about the increasing criticality of talent to economic success—and it catapulted him to superstardom.
The problem for Florida is that the economic transformation he once celebrated has a dark side that he failed to predict. His newest book, The New Urban Crisis, is Florida’s attempt to grapple with the downsides of the trends he popularized. Among the negative aspects of these changes are an economy that disproportionately rewards “superstar” cities like New York and San Francisco (something he calls “winner-take-all urbanism”), rising income inequality, persistent racial segregation, increasing suburban poverty, and the decline of urban middle-class neighborhoods, resulting in a barbell-shaped economy of rich and poor.
Florida was jolted into addressing these issues by two developments. One was the 2012 election of the cocaine-snorting Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto, whom Florida labels “the most anti-urban mayor in human history.” Ford’s election in Florida’s adopted hometown may have been more a result of the amalgamation of Toronto and its suburbs into a single municipality than it was about Florida’s “new urban crisis.” But the problems in the central city itself were put on relief in the second incident, in which activists from the left launched high-profile attacks on Florida shortly after his arrival in the Canadian metropolis.
One group of Florida’s opponents cleverly adopted the name “Creative Class Struggle.” They saw his theory as an apology for exploitative neoliberalism. Florida, who today takes care to explicitly note that he himself is also a good leftist trained in Marxist analysis—rather like making the sign of the cross to ward off a hex—was deeply pained by this attack from the left, whereas previous attacks from the right had not bothered him. He looked at the data and accepted the reality that Toronto’s middle class was in serious decline: once two-thirds of the city’s population, now only 30 percent of neighborhoods are middle class.
But to tar Florida with the ills of the knowledge economy is like blaming Thomas Friedman for the problems of globalization just because he wrote The World Is Flat. Both men clearly celebrated, profited from, and are in agreement with the values of people who benefit from the phenomena they described—but are certainly not the architects or creators of these trends. It is perhaps fair to critique Florida for some of the failed projects and civic turnaround efforts that cities undertook at his recommendation or inspiration. But then the critics would have to give credit to Florida for the positive stories and results, something they never do. Florida didn’t cause Detroit to go bankrupt even if former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s “cool cities” initiative he inspired is now widely mocked.
Still, having received such outsized fame for describing the creative class, Florida perhaps realizes he’s not in a position to complain when fortune’s wheel deals him out some blowback for its downside. Hence his attempt to identify possible solutions for it in this book.
Florida’s provides a short and readable synopsis of today’s economic challenges. But because they are already widely known and discussed, that will probably likely be the least interesting part to many readers. For those who are less familiar, Florida surveys the realm in his usual highly readable style, reviewing everything from the geography of venture-capital investment to the levels of displacement from gentrification. The book’s most distinctive contribution to this may be Florida’s extensive mapping of the class geography of major urban areas into creative, working, and service classes, and his attempts at creating a typology of these.
More salient are the book’s proposed solutions.
One of the implicit assumptions of The New Urban Crisis, and most other writings on America’s economic malaise, is that the economic success of the current winners—the creative class in the urban centers of superstar and other cities—is sacrosanct. Taxing them more to fund greater redistribution and calling on them to pay more for services is as far as Florida would go. As he writes, “For all the challenges and tensions they generate, cities are still the most powerful economic engines the world has ever seen. The way out of the new urban crisis is more, not less, urbanism.” He continues, arguing, “The way to help [the poor and working classes] is not to turn off the spigot of wealth creation.” He says, for example, it “makes little economic sense” to discourage increased migration of tech companies into the urban center. His prescription for fixing the problem is instead more such migration, attempting to create an “urbanism for all.”
This is an assumption I would question. It’s true that urban-creative industries have been major economic drivers for global cities and in part for the overall economy. But manufacturing was king once too, and Washington didn’t hesitate to adopt economic policies that harmed it, on the rationale that doing so would improve overall GDP and economic efficiency. Imagine if the first implicit assumption of all U.S. economic policy in the 1990s had been that nothing could negatively affect the Detroit auto industry and its workers because manufacturing was creating wealth.
Gratuitously attacking Silicon Valley techies out of some desire to punish the successful would be bad, but policies that reduce the urban creative class’ outsized share of success—while raising GDP and median income curves—should not be ruled out. Barack Obama was the first president since Herbert Hoover to never once hit 3 percent annual GDP growth. President Bush’s economic record was likewise dismal. Job growth in the U.S. since 2000 has averaged 0.5 percent per year, compared to 1.9 percent during the 1980s and 1.9 percent during the 1990s. (Recent years have seen better growth rates than this anemic average.) And real median incomes are lower today than in 2000.
Since Florida’s original Rise of the Creative Class was published, aggregate economic results have not been good by postwar standards. He says, “Our ability to innovate and grow the economy is literally powered by the clustering of talent, companies, and other economic assets in cities.” But the new urban crisis is precisely that there hasn’t been much economic growth at a time in which that type of clustering has increased.
It’s not obvious that the rise of the creative class in major urban centers has been good for America as a whole. Florida himself notes, “The back to the city movement…conferred a disproportionate share of its benefits on a small group of people and places.” This doesn’t mean that urbanization and the rise of the creative-class economy are to blame for this malaise. But economic policy derives its political legitimacy from delivering results. When policies fail to be accompanied by good results, they lose credibility in the public mind and merit reconsideration. The real challenge is to expand GDP, median income, and job growth. Options that would, for example, reduce the size or change the character of creative-class industries should not be ruled out of bounds if they would be beneficial overall in achieving those goals.
Yet few analysts seem capable of even imagining a future where economic growth is not driven by the same creative-class industries and the same cities as today, even though they champion disruption and creative destruction at every turn. We need a broader possible space of solutions. For example, in a recent New York Times column entitled “Break Up the Liberal City,” Ross Douthat suggested we should pursue urban disagglomeration. We need, as it were, more creative thinking on the topic. As we’ll see, Florida actually does have some interesting ideas, and ones that can be implemented independently of his call for more urbanization and clustering.
Florida’s policy recommendations fall into two main buckets. The first defines the contours of the creative-class economy and attempts to expand access to it or success within it. The second involves a more fundamental economic transformation.
In the first area, Florida wants to double down on global city-style urbanization featuring high density and transit-oriented development of the type that caters to creative-class industries. His recommendations for closing the economic gap here mostly entail reducing costs, especially housing costs, for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. This includes a much more pro-development policy in cities, which would lower housing prices and allow for densification in new areas. Florida smartly cautions against high-rise development here. He realizes from cities such as Paris and Barcelona that high density and high rise are not the same thing, even though in the United States these concepts are often conflated. And he understands people are more attracted to living in human-scaled places.
The tremendous difficulty developers encounter when trying to build new housing in areas such as coastal California, New York City, and Boston, is one of the biggest factors driving prices through the roof. Yes, the demand curve has shifted. But increasing prices should be signaling the marketplace to add new supply. That response has been muted in cities where regulation and not-in-my-backyard resistance (sometimes called NIMBYism) make it hard to build. This helps explain persistently high housing prices on the coasts. Florida wants to make it easier to build in these places.
He also wants to eliminate market-distorting tax policies. He advocates a land value tax, first proposed by 19th-century social reformer Henry George. In a land-value tax only the value of the land, but not any improvements, is taxed. Today’s system of property taxation, which taxes both buildings and land together, punishes people who develop property with a high tax bill, while rewarding land-banking speculators who keep property vacant with lower bills. The land-value tax levels the playing field. Florida also wants to eliminate the deductibility of home-mortgage interest, which he sees as encouraging suburban home ownership at the expense of urban renting.
All of these ideas—fewer development restrictions, land value taxes, and eliminating mortgage interest deductibility—have much to commend. But they would create losers as well as winners, making them politically challenging to implement, to say the least.
Perhaps the most important point in The New Urban Crisis is Florida’s call to turn low-pay, low-status service jobs into middle class jobs. Proposals to upgrade the productivity level, status, and pay of what are currently undesirable service jobs—in foodservice, retail, janitorial, personal services, etc.—get far less attention than they deserve. Virtually all of the discussion about the shrinking middle class revolves around the decline of industry and how to restore the fortunes of American manufacturing with calls to “bring back the jobs.”
To be sure, manufacturing is more critical to American prosperity than some believe. For example, one reason service jobs are low paying is that the quantity and pay of manufacturing jobs have been in decline. To see this effect in action, during the blue-collar oil boom in North Dakota the Wal-Mart in Williston was offering $17.20 per hour in starting wages. But even a newly robust manufacturing sector isn’t going to produce jobs in the quantities our country needs. Manufacturing is simply too efficient today, and is becoming increasingly roboticized.
That leaves the service economy. Americans seem to believe that service-class jobs are doomed to perpetually being bad jobs. But Florida reminds us that manufacturing used to be considered a pretty bad job too. A world of sweatshops and child-factory labor was not exactly the world of the American middle class as we know it. America turned its bad jobs in manufacturing into good ones—through legislation, union organizing, productivity improvements, and new corporate management practices. This raised pay, improved safety and general working conditions, and also raised the status of those jobs. Florida believes it is imperative to do the same for at least a broad swath of service jobs.
Doing that is a challenge, and the mechanisms aren’t obvious. Jobs can’t just be upgraded by fiat. Every potential solution appears to have downsides, at least in the short term. For example, the rise of occupational licensing, which restricts access to even service-industry positions like hair styling, has been cited as a contributor to economic sclerosis. But curtailing licensing requirements, as good a policy as that may be, would likely reduce wages in the short term by busting up a de facto cartel. Florida’s major suggestion for upgrading jobs is raising the minimum wage. This would benefit some workers, but also cause job losses and suppress future hiring. Urbanists who rightly see the threat posed to small businesses by rising rents should clearly understand that rising labor costs have the same effect.
This is the conundrum of any means of upgrading service jobs. If the pay and working conditions of service jobs improve, and they become more productive positions, this will mean fewer jobs, all other factors being equal. Florida deserves great credit for being willing to state some of these tradeoffs. For example, he says that the creative class needs to be willing to pay more for services—and by implication consume less.
Of course all things are not equal. Economies are dynamic and complex, which is another reason why attempting to intentionally create change is difficult. It’s generally easier to screw things up than make things better. But we have few good options other than attempting to improve the productivity, pay, and status of these service-class positions. It’s not possible to turn everyone into a high-end knowledge worker. By definition half the workforce has below average intelligence. A quarter of the population has an IQ below 90. The genius of the industrial age is that it gave the broad majority of the population, not just the cognitive elite, the ability to build a middle-class life. We have to find a way to do something similar for service-class jobs, or else resign ourselves to indefinitely providing government life support to a large number of Americans.
Though he supports raising the minimum wage, Florida understands the limits of the government’s ability to simply force this to happen. He points out, “Upgrading service jobs is not necessarily an area that calls for direct government intervention. It could be done through the private sector and its drive to become more efficient and profitable.” If they don’t want to end up hoisted on populist pitchforks, private-sector leaders would be wise to step up to the plate on this.
One area where the government could help is in reducing low-skill immigration as part of an immigration reform package that favors higher-skill immigrants that power the creative-class economy. If the problem is low wages for American service-class workers, then clearly there is no warrant to continue deliberately increasing the supply of labor for these positions through more low-skill immigration.
By highlighting the need to upgrade service jobs, Florida gets at what economic policy needs to focus on more broadly: those outside the urban creative class. This relatively small group of creative class fortunates has received immense civic attention and love in the last fifteen years. It seems the top priority of every mayor in the country is attracting creative-class talent, which has been aggressively catered to and has frequently benefited from large government subsidies. Yes, high-income earners and businesses are needed to pay any city’s bills. But attracting a critical mass of creative talent is no longer a problem in many places—quite the opposite in fact.
The challenge now is to reinvigorate America’s flagging middle class. Whatever people think of Florida’s ideas in this regard, something needs to be done. Without a change in metropolitan policy, the American Dream as we know it may be over, at least for broad segments of the country.
Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of The Urban State of Mind and blogs at www.urbanophile.com. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America’s Communities, Stephanie Meeks, Island Press, 352 pages.
In the mid-1960s, San Francisco enjoyed a blue-collar existence. It remained a city where Sicilian fishermen caught salmon, painted boats, and repaired nets along the pier. Middle-class families contentedly resided in ethnic neighborhoods that could easily blend in any East Coast city. Joe DiMaggio, long retired from the New York Yankees, carried out an enigmatic existence running a restaurant along Fisherman’s Wharf.
DiMaggio’s retreat to San Francisco inspired legendary journalist Gay Talese to visit the baseball legend and his home terrain in 1966. When Esquire published Talese’s classic piece, “The Silent Season of a Hero,” San Francisco was already distinguishing itself as a tourist attraction and haven for the hippie counterculture. But the city had yet to experience the shifting socio-economic fault lines that now make his portrayal seem more like a time capsule than a timeless cinematic presentation.
In today’s San Francisco, the idea of enjoying a reasonable financial existence is foreign to the descendants of immigrants who flocked to the Bay Area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Google’s private buses shuttle tech bros down to Silicon Valley in a city where the unrepentant pace of gentrification and technology are erasing any sense of historical identity. To live a middle-class life in San Francisco is now a form of augmented reality. The city’s transformation, and the economic maladies that inevitably arose, is one of the subjects of Stephanie Meeks’ The Past and Future City, a manual describing the role of historic preservation in America’s cities.
Meeks explores how gentrifying neighborhoods imperil heritage businesses and displace middle-class and immigrant families—disregarding the prescriptions of diversity from Jane Jacobs’ influential 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. According to Meeks, commercial rents in San Francisco have risen 250 percent since 1999. In 2014 alone, an estimated 13,000 businesses closed, including 4,000 that had operated for over five years. While San Francisco has responded by creating a Legacy Business Preservation Fund, which provides grants to businesses and nonprofits that have a historical impact on local neighborhoods, the city has yet to resolve the problem of balancing gentrification with making the city financially habitable for all residents.
Meeks, who co-authored the book with Kevin Murphy, oversees the National Trust for Historic Preservation. During her tenure, the organization has worked to revitalize communities and create programs like National Treasures, which identifies threatened historic places and aggressively works to save them. Meeks admirably reminds readers that preservation is an issue far more complex than just rescuing old buildings. Instead, saving places is about “defin[ing] a community so that future generations can know their past, feel a connection to those who came before, and build a foundation for the future.”
The book is frequently a lamentation of the casualties of gentrification. As major cities celebrate a renaissance of new commercial and residential development, long-time residents mourn the loss of storied bars, diners, and stores. To express grief over a closed coffee shop or record store is understandable, but it is now fashionable to grow nostalgic over the squalor that once defined today’s thriving neighborhoods. Many baby boomers, harkening back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, habitually romanticize the stomach-churning sense of apprehension one once felt walking to a row-home apartment or passing seedy bars and theaters. In hindsight, this atmosphere allegedly sparked creativity.
Publishers have embraced a literary niche of memoirs mourning how gentrification sterilized the grime and extinguished the last vestiges of baby boomer youth. Mayor Abe Beame’s New York is usually the stage for these autobiographical expressions of sorrow. Whether it’s Patti Smith’s Just Kids or James Wolcott’s Lucking Out, we’re told that art, love, and happiness thrived in a downtown Manhattan that featured crumbling tenement buildings, lurking muggers, and drug addicts, along with a municipal balance sheet full of red ink.
None of these books would exist if that metropolitan Dark Age had endured. The luxuries of safety, stability, and success allow these writers to regret whatever blight and decay wasn’t preserved. What stands out among this canon is Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage, a reminiscence of New York just before the nadir of the 1970s. Broyard, who wrote for the New York Times, movingly described Greenwich Village as it existed immediately following World War II, when returning soldiers—armed with the G.I. Bill—flocked to the neighborhood to learn, create, and debate in a bohemian ecosystem.
“Though much of the Village was shabby, I didn’t mind,” recounted Broyard. “I thought all character was a form of shabbiness, a wearing away of surfaces. I saw this shabbiness as our version of ruins, the relic of a short history. The sadness of the buildings was literature. I was twenty-six, and sadness was a stimulant, even an aphrodisiac.”
Of course, to be young and comfortably enjoy artistic pursuits in today’s Village is a fantasy. But should we condemn the unforeseen consequences of gentrification? Concerns about its impact on city neighborhoods date back to the 1960s. Losing a small business or facing an apartment eviction are tragic outcomes, but do native, poorer residents really lament cleaner and safer streets?
Meeks cites studies from the University of Washington and Columbia University that found poorer residents less inclined to flee a neighborhood undergoing gentrification or experiencing higher rents. “The most plausible interpretation,” wrote Columbia’s Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi, “may be the simplest: As neighborhoods gentrify, they also improve in many ways that may be appreciated by their disadvantaged residents as by their more affluent ones.”
Arguably, it’s through gentrification that preservation prevails in city neighborhoods. An investor is more inclined to restore an aging corner store into a microbrewery if the neighborhood sheds its unpleasant past. In American cities lucky enough to experience gentrification, the survival of historic buildings often depends on a neighborhood’s transformation.
Unfortunately, a healthy city doesn’t always translate into municipal leaders protecting historic buildings and neighborhoods. Instead, the mutually dependent forces of globalization and technology threaten our traditional concept of cultural or architectural heritage. In San Francisco or New York, the explosion of private global wealth since the 1990s created a demand for premium housing. For Manhattan, this radical development resulted in the construction of narrow high rises that puncture the island’s elegant skyline. But this dramatic change also expanded the boundaries of New York’s prosperity. Without gentrification, the blocks of structurally unique housing in Harlem, Park Slope, or Fort Greene would have fallen into disrepair.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a generous tax abatement program—combined with flawed preservation policies—changed the landscape of Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods. During the past decade, the city experienced a demolition bonanza. In neighborhoods of historic housing like Powelton Village, developers “have discovered they can make a tidy sum simply by replacing one of these old houses with a stucco-clad apartment building and then cramming it with students,” observed the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron.
Preservationists have protested how Philadelphia’s demolition permits are approved. In the past year, two historic structures were razed for projects that never materialized. Currently, the preservation fight is focused on Center City’s Jeweler’s Row, a charming set of commercial properties on a block laid out in 1799. The historic storefronts, slated for demolition, would be replaced by a massive condo tower. Ill-advised demolition projects continue throughout Philadelphia, its future depending on an influx, however temporary, of millennials and students.
Cities like Philadelphia risk losing what shaped their identities, but their economic perseverance and favorable location at least provide prospects for preservation-minded investment projects. In The Past and Future City, Meeks’ greatest shortcoming is her failure to address how preservation can succeed in smaller Rust Belt cities confronting economic decline, urban blight, and rapid demographic and cultural change. After all, any of these post-industrial hubs would welcome the fruits of gentrification.
In recent months, field producers for cable news networks have flocked to these cities, attempting to document how Donald Trump triumphed in this so-called “flyover country.” Arriving like colonial administrators, they snap photos of dilapidated buildings and shuttered factories before heading to the nearest bar or fast-food restaurant to interview natives about how they endure in places overcome by urban decline.
Revitalization and reinvestment shouldn’t be confined to coastal cities. At a time when New York and Philadelphia regret what gentrification wrought, smaller urban pockets aggressively search for ways to make such blessings occur. Unfortunately, these communities do not enjoy the socio-economic advantages that allowed larger cities to overcome urban decay.
In countless smaller cities, multi-generational families reside in neighborhoods overwhelmed by blight and dysfunction. In 1984, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson famously attributed urban decay to modern mobility patterns and the retreat of police authority through vagrancy laws. They noted that before World War II, “City dwellers—because of money costs, transportation difficulties, familial and church connections—could rarely move away from neighborhood problems.” This forced residents to reclaim normalcy on their city streets.
We have returned to that pre-World War II trend, but without the institutions that once held these communities together. Stagnant wages leave many no alternative but to live in neighborhoods overwhelmed by drugs, gangs, and blight. Rapid demographic and economic change—accompanied by a fragmenting civic culture—make it difficult to apply the lessons of historic preservation in these cities. Magnificent old churches are shuttered or demolished. Stunning commercial or industrial buildings—the legacy of architects trained in New York or Paris—fall into disrepair. The fading vitality of a city’s physical surroundings becomes emotionally paralyzing. As Pete Hamill reminds us: “Nostalgia is genuine—you mourn things that actually happened.”
If applied properly, practical attempts at preservation could protect architectural treasures, build community morale, and improve overall neighborhood-level sociability. But gentrification may never arrive in these communities. While Meeks discusses the challenges of gentrification in major cities, she does not explain how post-industrial regions can embrace preservation without economic development as part of the cycle of urban revitalization.
For Meeks, a critical preservation tool is flexible or mixed-use zoning, which permits historic structures to be readily converted through adaptive reuse. But this could easily backfire in smaller cities. As Nicole Stelle Garnett wrote in her brilliant work on land use policy, Ordering the City, mixed-use zoning “might lead some low-income entrepreneurs to establish the types of businesses equated with urban decay.” In other words, a city may develop a comprehensive plan that encourages mixed-use zoning, but the resulting pawn shops, used-car lots, and check-cashing stores would destroy the character of whichever neighborhood was targeted for preservation.
Smaller cities and towns boast architectural, cultural, or industrial legacies that could unite communities, encourage preservation, and, if properly marketed, spur revitalization. But preservation transcends saving an old office building, factory, or church. It’s no longer decay that risks deconstructing our urban landscapes. Empty pews, folded newspapers, and defunct social clubs remind us that the foundation of America’s civic culture is collapsing.
As we retreat to a parallel existence through pixelated screens, our society becomes disengaged from the pillars of heritage that created communities, sustained neighborhoods, and brought families together. A steeple, marquee, or bank entrance tells a story. How we preserve that story remains to be seen. At the very least, repairing our civic culture could save many struggling cities and towns that still nurse an acute sense of culture and history. But gentrification is an unavoidable step in embracing the neighborhoods of our forefathers. It’s only then that we can come to love these cities as William Faulkner loved his native Mississippi—in spite of, not because.
Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania. This article was made possible with support from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—A year and a half hence, about the time the leafy Notre Dame campus begins to display brilliant autumn hues, budding architects and their mentors will move into a new building near the ceremonial entrance to the sprawling university. Though it will be the newest addition to this 175-year-old institution, built atop a former parking lot, the classically inspired edifice will appear to passersby as if it has been there for generations. Its physical form will symbolize what this unique school aims to bring to our built environment—classical tradition, respect for cultural heritage, and authentically sustainable and beautiful places.
To be dedicated as the Walsh Family Hall, the building will be a living monument to a movement in architecture and urban planning that was planted here almost three decades ago. Presented as a series of interconnected buildings arranged around a central plaza, the small campus within a campus designed by British architect John Simpson would look right at home in the Old World splendor of Oxford or Cambridge. There’s a chapel-like Hall of Casts that will be used to present student designs, as well as Notre Dame’s extensive collection of architectural ornament and statuary. Outside, a tower presides over what is less an Anglo-American quadrangle than a continental piazza, a feature that will no doubt console students returning to the Midwest from the school’s required year abroad in Rome.
From the standpoint of architectural critics—at least those fancying themselves in the avant garde—this wasn’t the way things were supposed to turn out. The last time Notre Dame dedicated new classrooms for architecture, in the 1960s, Pietro Belluschi, one of the inventors of the glass-box office tower, had been on hand to offer his blessing at a school that once welcomed the most progressive architect of his time, Frank Lloyd Wright. But then in 1989, that fateful year when some erroneously declared an “end of history,” the university hired the relatively untested Thomas Gordon Smith to be the new chair of its architecture program. Once described by the New York Times as a “young old fogey,” Smith was a committed classicist, and immediately began to shake up what had heretofore been a place that—like most contemporary schools of architecture—had little room for traditional building design. Architectural history had reasserted itself at Notre Dame.
Smith quickly brought in several new faculty to help him transform the curriculum. Having no living model for such a school, and trained in the reigning modernist orthodoxy, Smith and his new deputies created something entirely new by recovering a lost world. While the centuries-old classical approach of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts had once been the gold standard, by the late 20th century the tradition was essentially extinct.
“All the people here are autodidacts,” architects variously “disenchanted with the modern world’s built environment,” explains Dean Michael Lykoudis, an early Smith recruit who now heads the school. The new classicists were initially regarded by their academic peers as at best interesting curiosities, at worst annoying cranks. Shortly after Smith’s changes to the curriculum, a visiting accreditation board remarked in its report that “it remains to be seen whether the classical experiment in the school of architecture will blossom into a full-blown branch or remain a quirky twig.”
Lykoudis recalls that he and other new faculty of the early 1990s faced resistance from students as well. They quickly realized that “teaching classicism by teaching columns first was not the way to do it.” They had to understand the traditional building blocks as parts of a whole—the city—and recognize that good architecture and good urbanism go hand in hand.
Making the case to new disciples required going beyond slideshows, maps, and textbooks. It meant bringing students—most of whom had grown up in dull postwar suburbs—to an example of a vibrant urban place. The faculty naturally preferred to find one with classical bones. “Urbanism, until very recently, has not always been seen in America as a good thing,” explains Lykoudis. “But Rome is such a positive place … The sensory experience of space—noise, taste, smell—turns students on to cities.”
Thanks to the foresight and gumption of a previous department chair, who in the 1960s purchased a building near the Pantheon—and according to legend only told university officials about it after signing the papers—Notre Dame architecture students had been studying in Rome for decades. But the new classical regime made the Italian capital a mandatory destination for third-year students in what is already an intensive five-year undergraduate program.
In the eternal city, students are encouraged to put down their cameras and smartphones, get out their sketchbooks, and through direct observation focus on understanding the qualities of the city that are difficult to quantify. So much “decision making in the modern world is about tabulation,” laments Lykoudis, while understanding what creates really timeless, beautiful places like the piazzas of Rome requires something more—what he sums up as “becoming cultured” or, less snobbishly, “knowing stuff.”
Thus what is perceived by some outsiders as an anti-technological posture—students don’t touch computer-aided drafting software until at least their fourth year, after they return from Europe—is ultimately aimed at creating a sense of humility in people who will be shaping our built environment for decades to come. Cultivating this sense of virtue and care for place requires more than technical skills and training in the use of particular tools. It is about contemplation. “Classicism is an architecture which is built on the idea of rest … it’s not in tension” with the environment around it, argues Lykoudis. “Some people might argue that’s why it has this sense of tranquility.”
Its underlying humility imbues the school with a posture that is neither ideologically progressive nor reactionary. Rather it is formed by something resembling practical wisdom as defined by Aristotle—a capacity for human action that is ordered toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. The relationship between classical architecture and this Aristotelian but ultimately Catholic tradition has been articulated by Notre Dame professor Philip Bess in his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem. As Rod Dreher explained in a 2014 American Conservative profile of Bess, he “concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. But they are ‘implicitly Aristotelian,’ because they affirm that there are certain design forms consonant with human nature.”
This classical but prudent approach, it turns out, is remarkably well-suited to addressing the challenges of the contemporary world. “There’s an ecological perspective in why we pursue our craft….Classicism is about conservation and investment rather than consumption and waste,” says Lykoudis. The prevailing approach to environmentally sensitive architecture and urban design relies heavily on technology-driven and often expensive solutions, with the LEED certification of the U.S. Green Building Council seal of approval sought by most of today’s most high-profile building projects. But Notre Dame professors argue that authentic sustainability comes primarily from paying attention to the form of the building and materials used. Today’s standard-issue office buildings with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, for example, may perform well in computer models. But often these sleek structures have a shorter lifespan and thus are ultimately more costly than traditional buildings, which have operable windows that allow for natural ventilation in milder weather.
Despite the reluctance to let students rely too much on technology during their initial formation, there is an emphasis among faculty on using advanced research methods to make the case for a classical and human-scaled approach to architecture. Some are creating databases offering performance information about a greater variety of traditional building materials than are typically used by modern buildings. Others systematically study the deleterious effect on human health wrought by inhumane architecture and neighborhood design. Another project uses digital 3D mapping to measure World Heritage Sites, enhancing historic preservation efforts. Dennis Doordan, associate dean for research, describes this nod to the scientific method as “expanding our arsenal to be able to engage in the discourse….We live in a world where some of the decision makers are not swayed by eloquence, but they are swayed by numbers.”
The most important number for many is the bottom line cost, and Notre Dame professors aren’t shy about confronting this issue head on. After the 2008 housing crash, much of the large-scale New Urbanist development was put on hold, but of course some individuals still wanted to build new homes of the kind often found in neotraditional communities. The 6,000-square-foot McMansion on a one-acre parcel was decidedly out of fashion. Professor Marianne Cusato saw the collapse of the market as an opportunity to adapt traditional design principles to the emerging demand for smaller, more flexible living spaces.
Cusato’s “New Economy Home” made plans available for a two-story, 1,771 square foot, four-bedroom house that can fit on a compact lot compatible with a walkable cityscape. Its simple but attractive style is reminiscent of the Cape Cod and American Foursquare traditions, and features front and back porches. By using standard-sized lumber and other materials, Cusato estimates that these homes can be built for around $200,000, excluding land costs. But beyond their affordability and traditional design, the home’s primary appeal is the adaptability of its floor plan. The rear of the house contains a small suite with its own outside entrance that can be used as a rental unit, in-law apartment, first-floor bedroom for a senior or disabled family member, or simply extra living space.
“We used to build this way,” says Cusato, arguing that her plan is less a new innovation than a restoration of an older way of thinking. She reports that there are already streets with several of these homes in the same block, each featuring different living arrangements, ranging from young families to single retired people. The home is thus designed so that its owners can remain in it throughout the various stages of life, avoiding the need to “trade up” or “downsize” in response to changing family and financial circumstances over the years.
Responding to the critique that repeating such a plan in a new development is “cookie-cutter,” Cusato suggests that such variations on a theme often create really vibrant, high-value neighborhoods. “There’s nothing wrong with repeating a house….All of the great cities … Georgetown, the West Village, San Francisco [have] the same house down the whole street.” Cusato is quick to point out that she is not advocating outlawing sprawling postwar subdivisions. “I’m not saying don’t live in a McMansion—if it fits your lifestyle and is where you want to be, go for it. But so many people are forced into that.” She and other New Urbanists simply argue that developers—and their architects—would benefit from opening up new markets by catering to many people who want to live in places guided by traditional, authentically sustainable patterns of building.
Amidst all the distinctly American rhetoric about choice and technological advancement, there remains a sense that Notre Dame promotes a set of values that stands in opposition to the still dominant postwar pattern of development. Behind the beautiful drawings of arches and architraves that line the halls here, the principle that seems to animate everyone—faculty and alumni alike—is that place matters. It might first sound to some like an easy cliché, a truism, but this pithy formulation is what guides and brings together new classicists and New Urbanists.
As Dean Lykoudis explains, faculty try to emphasize to students “how important being committed to a place is. The idea of the individual searching for his or her perfect happiness outside of community is kind of a red herring.” For architects, this means designing buildings that respect their surroundings and community, including their future inhabitants. In contrast, near-celebrity “starchitects,” with their abstract forms that seem the epitome of self-expression, appear to disregard this imperative.
At a school such as Notre Dame, it helps that the emphasis on place is reinforced by Catholic social teaching on subsidiarity, the idea that political decisions should be made at the lowest practical level of association. This principle is built into the way that architects trained here tend to practice, often holding workshops known as charrettes, in which community members are invited to take part in the planning of a new development. (The term fittingly comes out of French Beaux-Arts tradition, in which a “little cart” was wheeled around a drafting room to collect ideas.)
In recent years, Notre Dame has attempted to live out this commitment to localism by engaging with the citizens of South Bend, home to the university but long disconnected from its civic life. Like many other small Rust Belt cities caught in postindustrial decline, South Bend’s downtown had become hollowed out, a place where, with all the growth happening in neighboring towns, nobody wanted to be anymore. “It was tearing itself down,” says Dean Lykoudis. The school of architecture brought students to work downtown, while encouraging the city to draw on its heritage to reimagine its core as a vibrant place. South Bend, Lykoudis argues, should not try to be “world class,” seeking along with many other struggling places its own starchitect-designed signature concert hall or museum, but should instead focus on preserving and sometimes re-creating buildings that showcase its unique Midwestern identity.
Another manifestation of this turn away from the universal zeitgeist and toward an approach that allows communities to be themselves is found in the school’s role in restoring churches to their traditional form. After the Vatican II council in the 1960s upended millennia of liturgical tradition, newly constructed Catholic churches lost most of the classical design elements that served to reinforce their place in Western civilization. Some thought it impossible to ever again build sacred spaces with the kind of symmetry and ornament that had defined them for centuries. Then came architects such as Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik, who has shown that classically-proportioned churches can still be built in places as diverse as New York City, southern California, and South Carolina.
Of course such restorative work might be less necessary today if more of the past hadn’t been destroyed by bulldozers, most notably by misguided 1950s and 1960s city planners driven by “urban renewal.” Professor Steven Semes, who leads the school’s historic-preservation program, argues that unless we respect heritage, communities can lose their sense of identity. When altering or adding to historic fabric, he argues, architects must ask “What does the place want you to do … so that it stays that place?” Catholic social thought not only demands solidarity with the wider world but also a respect for the past and the future, especially when the next generation yet to be born cannot advocate for preserving its patrimony. In addition to saving buildings themselves, says Semes, there also is the overlooked “intangible heritage”—the skills and craftsmanship that go into traditional building, what the school seeks to preserve by educating students in the classical tradition.
For almost three decades, the architects of Notre Dame have toiled away at their mission of giving new life to an intellectual tradition that was once dismissed as sentimental nostalgia. It has surely grown beyond that predicted “quirky twig,” with classicism reinvigorating what Lykoudis says was formerly considered “a kind of backwater program.” But it remains to be seen whether this movement can affect a full paradigm shift in the world of architecture and urbanism—or whether it will remain merely a monastic endeavor, maintaining ancient knowledge and bringing light to dark ages.
Certainly there are hopeful signs, perhaps most notably in the fact that most Notre Dame architecture graduates find employment relatively easily. And new scientific research is making it hard for progressives to deny that traditional design promotes human flourishing. Other academic outposts of classicism are emerging in places such as the College of Charleston, South Carolina; the University of Colorado at Denver; and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Some fellow travelers in this movement, notably the provocative intellectual James Howard Kunstler, predict that a future societal cataclysm, possibly environmental in nature, will jolt us back toward classicism and away from the dominant development patterns of sprawl and the formlessness of techno-optimistic modernism. Others, seemingly anticipating an emperor-has-no-clothes moment, argue that modernism is intellectually bankrupt, with even most modern architects eschewing cutting-edge buildings to live in traditional townhouses and apartments.
But a few are convinced the moment is already here. Professor Douglas Duany avers that Notre Dame has entered a “golden age,” although the most prominent evangelists of classicism and New Urbanism may not realize it yet. Some of his long-embattled colleagues may demur on that point, but the institution built by the visionary Thomas Gordon Smith and his colleagues seems to gain confidence with each passing year. As Duany argues, “Why should architecture shut down the past? … The ‘future’ keeps on failing.”
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative. This article was made possible with support of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The urban-rural divide in this country is real and growing. The economic recovery from the Great Recession has been largely limited to a handful of metropolitan areas, especially the Boston-Washington corridor and the Pacific Coast. Cities like San Francisco, New York, and Boston continue to set records for housing costs, according to The Economist, while Riverside, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, among others, still haven’t recovered from the crash. Moreover, according to Scott Beyer of Forbes, rural parts of the country are losing population and jobs. As Vishaan Chakrabarti pointed out in his book A Country of Cities, in 2012, 90 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product came from the three percent of the country inside metropolitan areas.
Moreover, according to Robert Leonard, resources within states are increasingly being directed to cities and state services are being centralized in them. This was certainly my experience growing up in Rutland, Vt., where it seemed like all the state’s money was spent on the Interstate 89 corridor between Burlington and Montpelier—to say nothing of now living in Boston, with the same spending complaints from rural Massachusetts. (Of course, I now appreciate that it may be a better use of state resources to spent $20 million rehabilitating a bridge between Boston and Cambridge that sees millions of trips a year as opposed to a bridge in Zoar, Mass., that sees a few hundred trips a year.)
Much worse for these places is the ongoing economic centralization of this country. Local businesses are absorbed by regional ones, which get bought by national ones, which get taken over by global ones. While supposedly delivering benefits from economic efficiency, this process limits innovation and competition while depriving communities of the benefits of ownership and exacerbating regional inequality.
Yet a glance at the writing on the rural-urban divide suggests that most of the people thinking about these things haven’t read their Santayana or even looked out the window recently. In Commonwealth magazine, Larry DiCara and Matt Waskiewicz suggested buying more food from Massachusetts’ farms, sending more urbanites to western Massachusetts as tourists, and establishing regular rail service between Boston and Springfield so people from the former can go live in the latter but continue to commute.
There’s nothing particularly bad about any of these ideas in and of themselves, but they have a glaring flaw as a solution to rural economic woes: They wouldn’t work. Vermont, upstate New York, northern New Hampshire, and Maine have been promoting themselves as tourism, agriculture, and bedroom communities for decades, to no avail (except coastal southern Maine, which is close enough to Boston to serve as a suburban bedroom community). The fact is, increases in agricultural productivity would mean that more purchases from in-state farms wouldn’t necessarily result in more jobs. Tourism-related jobs are seasonal, low paying and dead end.
Becoming a suburb is a similar dead-end economic strategy: The impact of comparatively wealthy Boston renters and buyers on the Springfield market would likely be catastrophic for Springfield natives. According to Governing, in 2012, 61.2 percent of renting households paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent and are considered cost burdened. According to Zillow (and it must be remembered that their data comes from people using their service), the median home price in Springfield is $139,900 and the median rent is $1,325. In Boston, the median home price is around $670,000 and the rent is $2,800—and fewer households are considered cost burdened, according to Governing. Springfield becoming a suburb of Boston would just move Boston’s gentrification and displacement issues west.
Another idea was recently offered by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column, arguing that “We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies—not as growth enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good.” Douthat advocates redistributing federal agencies, universities, non-profits and businesses to the “poorer states and smaller cities that need revitalization” using a combination of confiscatory taxes with business credits. Unlike DiCara and Waskiewicz’s ideas, which were not bad in and of themselves, but would not produce the effect desired, Douthat’s could inadvertently lead to an economic death spiral.
If simply redistributing wealth and factories could make poor states wealthy and revive declining cities, one would expect it to have happened already. Poor, rural states have been heavily subsidized for decades, through agricultural-price supports, pork-barrel projects, military bases and other federal-works projects. But an economy is not simply a collection of discrete elements that can be rearranged at will, like furniture in a house. If that was the way things worked, the Soviet Union would still be around.
In Britain, central planners in the years after World War II thought along the same lines as Douthat. The Midlands city of Birmingham was a major industrial center, but it was more like Silicon Valley than Detroit. An ecosystem of small-industrial enterprises developed where new ones were constantly being started. Successful ones would, it is true, transplant themselves outside the city.
But after the war the planners looked at Birmingham’s 200-odd years of small business creation and forced businesses and people to move to poorer places and cities in need of revitalization. But all those small firms needed each other to survive. Birmingham was left dependent upon the automotive industry, which then collapsed in the 1970s.
To address the problem of the rural-urban divide, we have to understand what drives it. Why can some coastal cities seemingly do no wrong, while interior cities can’t seem to do anything right? Why do people and businesses pay huge amounts of money and endure massive tax bills, long commutes, a high cost of living, and the Yankees to crowd into the New York City area when they could move to places like Kansas—where land, taxes, food. and labor costs are cheap and the freeways empty?
Every New Urbanist has read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but few have read the books she wrote afterwards: The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations. In these two books she argued that the first cities did not simply grow out of early farming villages, but have unique economic characteristics of their own. According to Jacobs, the driving forces of a city economy are trade and a process she called import replacement, where goods imported into the city are first copied and then improved upon by entrepreneurs, who proceed to export to other cities and settlements in order to acquire more imports. The process also helps develop the symbiotic ecosystem of flexible small producers that makes starting entirely new enterprises possible. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations she explored the implications of city economies for national economies, concluding that cities and the regions they generate are the drivers of all national development.
(It’s important to note that import replacement is different from the mercantilist notion of import substitution. Import replacement is a process of a city economy that applies to all goods, even ones imported domestically, while import substitution is a policy imposed by national governments.)
Even if one is skeptical of the import-replacement theory, economists like Ed Glaeser have demonstrated that clustering and startup rates play a huge role in economic growth. Or just remember Chakrabarti’s statistic: 90 percent of U.S. GDP comes from the three percent of land in metros. According to the American Enterprise Institute, in 2015 New York had a larger economy than Canada and the 20 largest metros produced twice the GDP of Japan.
What this means, according to Jacobs, is that rural places and regions experience real economic growth only insofar as they are connected to city economies. The distance doesn’t matter—farmers in Massachusetts can send their produce to restaurants in Boston or supermarkets in China. Cut off from city economies, a rural place will eventually decline into subsistence agriculture, losing the memory of many technologies. Then comes near hunter-gatherer status as subsistence exhausts the soil and results in bringing marginal land into production.
Even when connected to city economies, rural places can become economically unbalanced if they are outside city regions. Jacobs wrote that import replacement in cities “unleashes five great economic forces of expansion: city markets for new and different imports; abruptly increased city jobs; technology for increasing rural production and productivity; transplanted city work; city-generated capital.” But these can affect rural places separately and with catastrophic results. Changes in city markets can leave rural communities producing commodities no one wants; increases in city jobs can just depopulate rural places; increased productivity can result in massive unemployment; the arrival of transplanted businesses from cities can make rural places overly dependent upon one type of work; and city capital transferred to rural areas can subsidize them, but only for as long as the subsidies can be maintained.
All these forces are at work across the country today. Young people able to go to college leave because they can’t get jobs at home. Often there are just one or two factories left and people anxiously watch the news for signs of the future while local farmers meet with their member of Congress about price supports for their crops. To make matters worse, cities already are not producing enough work for their own residents, much less enough companies that can transplant their work. More worryingly, new business creation is at a 40-year low, according to CNN, which could indicate that time is running short, even for currently successful cities.
The best way to save rural places is to reactivate our cities, not destroy them.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
In October of 1976, a massive hundred-year flood hit Frederick, Maryland, causing upwards of $25 million in damages overnight. Ron Young, then mayor, took to a helicopter to survey the extent of the damage to the small city about 45 miles north of Washington, DC. He feared that he was looking at a devastating setback to the work he started two years earlier to revive the economically-depressed downtown area.
As he flew above the 20 acres of flooded nineteenth-century buildings that comprised his historic hometown, he could not have imagined that these same waters would eventually help more than hinder the recovery.
At first, Young just wanted to rein in Carroll Creek, the little stream that provided waterpower to the mills and tanneries that formed the center of town in the eighteenth century. The creek had always flooded periodically, but suburban sprawl developing on the west side of town was making matters worse. In addition to draining the downtown of economic vitality, new shopping centers with their expansive parking lots had reduced ground permeability. Heavy rains were resulting in heavy runoff flowing directly into the creek from all the newly paved surfaces.
In a Frederick Post article dated April 24, 1974, an engineer warned that without a plan to control the creek, the city could face severe flooding every five years. But even as that doomsday prediction became reality two years later when a storm brought 7.5 inches of rain in a single night, the will to solve the problem was overcome by a lack of reasonable options.
“We commissioned a study that came back with several solutions,” Young said in a recent interview. “The first goal would have been to hold the water to the west so it didn’t flood downtown, but there was no place to hold it. The second alternative was to remove everything from the floodplain, which would have eliminated downtown. A third alternative … would have been a 150-foot-wide concrete ditch, which would have divided the town in half and been as ugly as all get out.”
Facing the possible end of their downtown, the city introduced an ambitious and expensive proposition. They wanted to build four concrete tunnels, each large enough to accommodate a Greyhound bus, that would carry the bulk of the creek water underground from Baker Park in the west through the center of town out to an undeveloped area in the east. Above and between the tunnels would sit a false creek, a concrete canal about thirty feet wide and four to five feet deep that would always maintain the same water level no matter the severity of weather.
Initial estimates for the plan came in around $45 million, about four times the city’s annual operating budget at that time. To make the project work, the city would need a buy-in from the state.
“The big thing we sold [to the state] was economic development,” Young said. “There was money for economic development. There wasn’t money for flood control.”
The economic boost was to come from a planned linear park built along the canal with a mix of retail and office space next to public walkways, fountains, picnic areas and event spaces on both sides of the canal, connected by new pedestrian and car bridges. Not only would the new park area generate revenue, it would clean up the eyesores and pollution left along the creek by the town’s collapsed and abandoned industrial infrastructure, which had been out of commission since World War I.
While not included in the initial estimate, the promise of economic development enabled a deal to start building the flood-control project with joint funding from the city, county, and state. After traversing environmental impact studies and the federal and state bureaucratic morass, the project broke ground in October of 1985, but there was a long way to go.
The proposed park was met with loud objections from the start. Long-time residents worried that it was designed to benefit tourists and investors more than locals, and that the entire thing was already too expensive and full of unforeseen costs. The term “white elephant” was thrown around in regard to planned parking garages near the creek area.
Young’s original plans for the park were nearly as elaborate as the San Antonio River Walk that served as his inspiration, and they relied heavily on proposed but uncertain private/public partnerships. A quick perusal of local news headlines from the first 20 years of the project shows private investors becoming hot and cold on development plans as they gauged changes in the market.
The mayor’s case with critics wasn’t helped when the negotiating rights to build a major commercial complex on the creek were granted to a private firm whose principal partner chaired the city commission formed by Young to guide the development of the linear park.
In June of 1989, the state prosecutor’s office released a report of their investigation into the matter that concluded without criminal charges, but Young lost the mayoral election later that year, ending his 16-year tenure and leaving the fate of the heavily-criticized park project in doubt.
The flood control aspect was completed shortly after Young’s departure, but the development of the park overlay was put on hold, leaving the area along the new canal almost as aesthetically offensive as the rotting industrial district it had replaced.
Kara Norman, the president of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, which formed in 1990, said the pathways along the canal looked like “airplane landing strips, just these big, vast strips of concrete.”
It was unclear what role, if any, this desolate area would play in the economic rejuvenation of downtown, especially since more traditional urban regeneration efforts had already led to great improvements from the low point of mass retail abandonment in the late 1960s.
Young maintains that the downtown was always safe, but was widely perceived as a high-crime area—and he worked hard to change that perception. He ordered over 1,000 trees to be planted along the sidewalks, added street lamps, buried the power lines underground, and stepped up building-code enforcement.
He also successfully campaigned to keep county government offices from moving out to the suburbs and oversaw the construction of a new courthouse, bringing with it a cadre of private law offices and a resulting lunch crowd for local sandwich shops.
Slowly, people from the suburbs felt more comfortable spending time downtown. By the early 1990s, the seedy bars and greasy spoons had been replaced by sit-down restaurants, clothing shops, antique stores, coffee shops, and art studios. It wasn’t the same town anchored by big department stores that old-timers remembered, but it was a town again.
Young feels that because the linear park plans were halted following his ouster, the creek project didn’t have much to do with town improvements beyond removing Frederick from the floodplain. He said it didn’t begin contributing to the city economy until the mid-2000s when his original plans for the park were implemented on a reduced scale, and even now he believes that the creek’s contribution will remain modest until it is further developed.
But the Downtown Partnership began to see fruit from the creek area in the mid-to-late 1990s. Even ugly public space was still public space, something that the business district had never had in its tightly built eighteenth-century street grid, which didn’t even include a small square in front of the old town hall.
The Partnership now had a place to host special events that drew massive shopping crowds downtown for the first time since the retail heyday of the 1950s. When the bare concrete canal was lined with tents showcasing local businesses, art, and agriculture, it became possible to forget that the space had been relegated to the realm of teens on skateboards during the workweek.
Around the same time the business community was getting a boost from the new event space, a prominent local artist saw all of that concrete as a blank canvas. William Cochran, who has major public art installations in cities throughout the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, wanted to get his hands on the plain concrete bridge that carried cars over the creek near the city’s new nonprofit visual arts center.
Dubbing the project the Community Bridge Mural, Cochran created a massive trompe l’oeil mural which, when viewed from a distance, gives the illusion that the bridge is constructed of old stonework. On closer inspection, one can see symbols of the community embedded among the stones. The work received national attention, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to an area of town seldom seen by local residents.
The nationally-recognized artwork, combined with the increasing number of special events along the creek, generated renewed interest in the linear park concept among the public and at City Hall.
In the summer of 2004, the city began work on what would become the central section of the linear park. By the following year, the bare concrete sections between Market Street—the town’s main traffic corridor—and the bridge mural were covered in brick. Then came two elaborate pedestrian bridges, three new fountains built into the canal, a 350-seat amphitheater, and little green spaces with big shade trees and flowers.
Then a large commercial building was opened by a private investor along the north side of the creek and leased out to a variety of eateries that included outdoor seating. A four-story condominium complex was placed on the south side, immediately across the creek from the eateries.
In October 2006, thirty years after the flood, the city held an official dedication of the linear park. It didn’t have the canal islands, gondola boats, massive picnic areas, ice skating pond, or as much commercial development as Young planned. Indeed, a large section of the project east of the bridge mural was still just bare concrete.
But according to Norman, the new attraction downtown helped take Frederick “to the next level” by giving the city one more thing to advertise to visitors and investors. She credits the new park with ending a period of stagnation in the downtown business community.
Trendy foodie restaurants supplied by local county farms now joined the quaint family diners and sandwich shops. The coffee shops were joined by loose-leaf teashops. New distilleries, breweries, and wineries sprang up. Celebrity chef Bryan Voltaggio, a town native, opened a high-end restaurant in an old Frederick mansion. Zoe’s Chocolate Co., a tiny confectionary on Market Street, became the official chocolatier of the 2013 Academy Awards after just a few years in business.
After investors and city officials saw ten years of sustained growth and the public came to enjoy the linear park, money was budgeted to finish the section east of the bridge mural. The canal was expanded to include a large pond with dancing water resembling a miniature version of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The concrete was bricked over and lined with street lamps and park benches. More green space was added. An industrial-style pedestrian bridge now connects the two sides of the creek on the eastern half of the park.
By the 40th anniversary of the flood, a 1.3 mile-long park sat atop the creek that nearly destroyed the town. And more development is still in the works. Over $150 million in private investment is planned. Including a hotel and conference center, a new tech startup with a creek-front café for the public, and an expansive park between the terminus of the flood control project and Monocacy River.
It’s impossible to say whether the struggling downtown would have ever recovered from a trajectory of decline without the 1976 flood and the resulting linear park. But it’s also difficult to look at the downtown today and call the linear park anything less than a complete success.
With its historic architecture and trendy business district, Frederick is now frequently compared to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. But it has managed to largely avoid the displacement of working and middle-class families normally associated with gentrification. Family homes in the heart of the historic district start as low as $250,000 and apartments for singles can still be found for under $1,000 per month. The city has even recently invested in building several low-cost housing options that conform with the historical architectural character. Somehow, the simple addition of pleasant walkable public space vastly improved the overall quality of life for everyone in the town—all without pricing out economic diversity.
Ironically, it’s now the suburban areas on the western side of town that need help. Fifty years ago, the word “customer” became synonymous with “motorist.” Today, the vast parking lots that flood the town creek with dirty runoff water stand largely empty. The Frederick Towne Mall shut its doors in 2013 after a painfully slow death, and many of the other strip-mall anchors along the western corridor have low patronage and high turnover.
A special committee of suburban business and property owners has been formed to revive the sprawling area locally called “The Golden Mile.” So far, few major changes have been implemented, but most of the proposed solutions involve making the sprawl more like the downtown that it nearly destroyed.
Erik Anderson is a freelance writer from Frederick, Md. who covers local history, arts, features and entertainment. His work has appeared in The Frederick News-Post, The Journal (Martinsburg, W.Va.), Find It Frederick, and the Montgomery County Sentinel.
American malls are on the decline. Payless ShoeSource is the latest victim, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and announcing the immediate closure of 400 stores in the United States and Puerto Rico. A few months ago, Forbes cited a U.S. Department of Commerce study finding that sales at U.S. department stores—which have served as traditional mall anchors—declined from $87.46 billion in 2005 to $60.65 billion in 2015. Macy’s has announced it will close 68 stores by mid-2017, while Sears has declared its intention to shut down 42 stores by the end of the year.
Many who view malls as the paradigm of soulless suburban culture will say good riddance, though to the extent that these places are replaced by e-commerce distributors like Amazon, their disappearance may be worth mourning. To clarify what we Americans are losing, consider a comparison to malls in Thailand, where I’ve lived for almost three years.
It seems most of the malls in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, cater to the upper-class elite. “Hi-so” Thais, members of the country’s “high society,” find everything they could possibly want to validate their nouveau riche status at luxury shopping centers like Emporium, Em Quartier, and Central World. Wealthy Thais and expats can find every high-end designer brand there, including Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Tiffany & Co. The places are packed—a place to see and to be seen.
What is perhaps most strange about these malls is that they exist in communities surrounded by poverty. One has only to walk out onto the street to find scores of people hawking cheap food and various other bric-a-brac, people who exist somewhere between poverty and lowest of the lower-middle class. You’ll never see such people actually coming inside the Thai malls: the extensive security, frequently dressed up in the most ridiculous old-school European-style costumes (think Windsor Castle meets the Nutcracker), ensure that only those who can actually afford anything inside actually make it in. The malls serve to reinforce the severe stratification of Thai society.
This isn’t to say that America doesn’t have boutique malls oriented toward the most affluent of society. As a suburban Virginian, I grew up near Tysons Corner and Tysons Galleria, centers that also cater to the upper and upper-middle class. But this is not the typical experience in the U.S. For most of us, malls, for better and worse, represent one of the most plebeian, if also egalitarian, aspects of American culture.
The malls my family frequented were places where rich and poor alike rubbed elbows. The mall closest to my home in Virginia featured not only higher-end department stores but also the kind of cheap vendors populated by teenagers with only five bucks in their pocket. Indeed, in the local Chick-fil-A one was just as likely to see an older, moneyed southern couple, wife decked out in her Sunday best, as one was to see the redneck family of six with the father sporting camouflage and a John Deere baseball cap. Sure, some few rich folk might visit a custom tailor for shirts and suits, but the rest of us were renting our tux from the Men’s Wearhouse or Joseph A. Bank at our local mall.
Moreover, malls were the place where people hung out. They were, in their own weak, terribly imperfect way, a humanizing factor in what were in other respects disconnected, soulless suburbs. I remember in high school every other Friday one of my best friends and I would stop by the country club where we did maintenance work, pick up our checks, drive over to the mall to drop our money on CDs from our favorite bands, and pick up some Wendy’s for dinner. Maybe we’d check out a movie. Along the way, we were bound to see some friends, or if we were lucky, some cute girls—maybe from a different school, so that we wouldn’t feel so self-conscious about saying “hey.” So much suburban “coming of age” transpired in those air-conditioned monoliths.
I was reminded of the strange importance of these malls a few years ago when I was inspired to volunteer at a tutoring center located within walking distance of a suburban mall. One of my students was a first-generation Pakistani teenager—bright, energetic, and totally surrounded by bad influences. Yet we would walk over to that mall, grab something to eat and wander around, talking about life. I encouraged him to find work: he got his first job at the mall selling those cheap plastic wristbands then so popular among teenagers. The mall, oddly enough, was central in this kid’s upbringing—albeit not an ideal one, by any means.
As malls continue to die in America, what will take their place? As more and more people buy online (with, I acknowledge, many good reasons), there is an unfortunate side effect: we spend even less time wandering around in public spaces where we connect with people in our neighborhoods, both seeing people we recognize but also encountering new faces, new ideas, and maybe even new cultures. The echo chambers online are showing that the web falls far short of the kind of interconnected pluralist society that it fashions itself to be. Check out most website comment sections, and you’ll get a flavor for how online conversation is weakening, not strengthening, social bonds. Would two kids at a mall record store who disagreed over their favorite artist curse each other like they now do via YouTube?
Yes, malls reflect a certain societal degeneration from the old Main Street culture of Leave It to Beaver, where residential and commercial spaces so fluidly intersected, where most every store was family-owned, and where folks were caring neighbors whom you knew and who knew you. But at least malls maintained many of the positive social aspects of that more classic America. Indeed, as one Washington Post article argues, the loss of “anchor stores” like Macy’s and Sears leads to a decrease in foot traffic and the closure of smaller, family-owned businesses. As we move further into the digital age—and deeper into stratified sub-cultures where we have so little knowledge of “how the other half lives”—we may find ourselves wishing to return to something like the American mall.
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.
Perhaps we can agree with George Washington University’s Christopher Leinberger and many others: “walkable urbanism” is a worthy goal. Indeed, let’s simply declare that pedestrian-rich street life, flaneur-friendly walkability, and nice cafés and shops are a key to improving the quality of life in cities and towns.
But there’s just one thing: we must avoid being run over. And unfortunately, in the last few years, we’ve discovered something quite horrible: in the hands of a terrorist, the familiar four-wheeled vehicle can be a frightful weapon.
Nobody has forgotten the April 7 attack in Stockholm, when one Rakhmat Akilov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, hijacked a brewery truck and drove it onto the sidewalk and then into a store, killing four and injuring 15. According to one report,
The truck mowed down pedestrians along Drottninggatan, a busy pedestrian shopping street. The truck, stolen just blocks away earlier in the day, came to a stop after slamming into the entrance of the Ahlens department store. Photos from the scene showed a billowing cloud of black smoke rising from the store. “I saw hundreds of people running. They ran for their lives” before the truck crashed into the department store, [said] a witness.
In the wake of the carnage, a former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter:
Steal a lorry or a car and then drive it into a crowd. That seems to be the latest terrorist method. Berlin. London. Now Stockholm.
In fact, the dolorous list is longer than that. Perhaps the best known such incident occurred in Nice, France, in July 2016, killing 84. Meanwhile, “ram raiding” has been happening in Israel for years. Indeed, in 2014, an al-Qaeda video celebrated the tactic.
In the bloody-minded eyes of a would-be terrorist, it’s easy to see the appeal of vehicular terrorism: who needs an elaborate conspiracy when one can just get behind the wheel? If the authorities are tracking guns and explosive materials, as well as monitoring travel and airports, why not simply turn on the ignition and start killing? After all, there are plenty of “tools” available; it’s estimated that the U.S. is home to 264 million cars and trucks, and another billion or so vehicles inhabit the rest of the world.
So what to do? How to stop such attacks? Obviously, improvements in homeland security, including immigration vetting—extreme or otherwise—is one answer.
In addition, some will argue that driverless cars are the answer, since they could take away the volitional capability of the motorist to kill. That might all be true in theory, and yet we can point to a few practical problems:
First, according to even the most optimistic scenario, driverless cars are years away—and as we have seen, there are more than a quarter-billion “traditional” vehicles on American roads.
Second, even with driverless technology, do we really expect that the “driver” will have no control of the vehicle whatsoever? Do even the techiest of us think that the computer will control every last movement of every last car, everywhere? And if not—if the driver has any sort of latitude or autonomy—then, in the wrong hands, the potential for mayhem is perpetually present.
Third, speaking of computers and mayhem, we have learned by now—or at least we should have learned—that between Murphy’s Law and malevolent hacking, no cyber-technological solution comes without its own passel of problems, including the problem of deliberate homicide.
So maybe a better way to defend against ram-raiding is, well, defense. That is, a wall, or the equivalent of a wall. As we know, good walls have been making for good neighbors for eons—so why not keep a good thing going?
We can put a wall, or barrier, in the category of “passive defense.” That is, as opposed to “active defense.” Passive defense is just what it sounds like—it’s just there, always on guard. Admittedly, active defense sounds cooler, but by definition, it’s more complicated and thus prone to glitches. And of course, active defense is likely more expensive.
Yet in the meantime, in the wake of the Stockholm attack and all the others, the pressure on public officials and building owners to “do something” will only increase.
Indeed, we might add that here in the litigation-happy United States, there’s an additional prod to take steps. After all, it’s only a matter of time before someone who has been hurt in a vehicular incident, terroristic or accidental, files a lawsuit on the theory that the relevant authority has had plenty of “constructive notice” that such a calamity was coming.
In response to such dangers, this author has no doubt that human creativity and techno-exuberance will produce all sorts of defense mechanisms, including traps, pop-up barriers—and maybe even kinetic projectiles and force fields.
Yet here’s a bet: in the end, when all costs and practicalities are factored in, the most commonly deployed solution will be the humble bollard. That is, those stubby vertical posts that have been used forever to guide traffic and, more recently, to protect buildings.
In fact, we already see bollards, as well as other kinds of barriers, in front of buildings and monuments that we really wish to protect, such as the White House and the Capitol in Washington, DC, as well as other prominent structures, public and private, in Manhattan and elsewhere.
We can’t pull walls around every building, or along every sidewalk, but at least we can put up bollards. Of course, bollards won’t stop every threat, but they will stop a car or truck, and that’s something.
Moreover, bollards, simple as they are today, can be improved. That is, they can be made temporary, or mobile, or self-aware, springing up only when told to do so by a sensor. Thus we can see that bollards could prove to be a hybrid of passive and active.
To be sure, the bollardization of streetscapes, low-tech or high-tech, will not be uncontroversial. By our current reckoning, bollards are ugly and obtrusive. Indeed, we might compare the process of bollard-building to the process of bar-building—that is, the protective bars and grates we often see on domestic windows. To be sure, there’s a tradeoff between aesthetics—and, in some cases, zoning or other kinds of regulation—and safety.
Of course, if bollards prove their value at saving lives, people will likely start to become accustomed to their squat and stalwart visual presence. That’s something we have learned about human nature: if something serves a good purpose, we come to like it, even love it. The little fellas will grow on us!
Still, without a doubt, it’s a shame that it’s come to this. It’s sad that the “sidewalk ballet,” as Jane Jacobs called it, needs new guardrails. But then, of course, even ballet dancers need their barre. As noted, if something is necessary, we soon learn that we can’t live without it.
James P. Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor for 20 years, served as a domestic-policy aide in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.