New Urbs

100 Years of Jane Jacobs Down, 100 Years to Go

Wikimedia Commons

It is difficult to write about the centennial of Jane Jacobs. For one thing, her influence on urbanism is unsurpassed and difficult to understate; for another, everyone has been writing something and so there’s a lot of overlap between pieces.

And yet, for all the encomiums and praise and think pieces in City Lab, Vox, Toronto’s Globe and Mail and even the New York Daily News, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that for all her intellectual influence, very little has changed about the American city and what has changed has been mostly cosmetic.

In the Boston area, for example, outdated zoning and building codes have created a process so complex that only professionals can navigate it and so long that only luxury buildings are profitable. The codes result in structures that encourage driving with parking minimums, setbacks that turn already wide streets into drag strips and use-separation that deadens them further.

And that’s ignoring the great architectural void in America right now: new buildings, even when they’re on the street, have patently horrible interaction with it. We continue to massive, whole block buildings with blank curtain walls, hypertrophic setbacks and useless lawns. As previously noted, Somerville’s Assembly Square development has produced a lot of giant parking garages and little else.

Charleston, South Carolina, has become a poster-child for the New Urbanism by creating restrictive architectural codes and figuring out clever ways to hide parking instead of helping people to become less dependent on it.

Many neighborhoods are still mired in a lack of activity. Downtown Crossing is vibrant during the day and almost deserted at night, Brighton Center, Roslindale and other neighborhoods have the opposite problem. The only people in the South End during the day appear to be dog walkers.

The dualistic level of activity has effectively prevented the development of “sidewalk ballet” streetlife in most neighborhoods, which has made it haerd for them to absorb newcomers. While Boston retains a fairly strong civil society, which can make up for the lack of street-life, those institutions are not attracting or even working to attract the young or newcomers.

Perhaps the only way Jacobs’ ideas have really been applied have been in the development of mixed-use buildings. Just about every new building in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville is mixed-use. However, what this usually means is a small portion of the street frontage goes to a retail use. Often they are tenanted to a chain company even before construction starts and sometimes they’re deed-restricted in an effort to not generate traffic. Unfortunately, the focus on retail ignores the just as important industrial and office uses vital to the health of the city.

Worse still, the lip service paid by officials and planners to Jacobsian ideas can lull citizens and activists into a false sense of security. It’s one thing for the mayor to talk about Vision Zero and mode shift, but Boston is falling behind in its bike commitments and the administration has been indifferent to transit issues.

Where Jacobs’ legacy has truly been transformative has been in her famous battle with Robert Moses. The organization and mobilization of entire neighborhoods to resist being destroyed for suburban motorists helped make today’s revival and renewal of American cities possible. It’s true that it has also contributed to the plague of NIMBY’s, eager to oppose anything and everything with cries of “Save our neighborhood!” but without Freeway Revolt there wouldn’t be much of anything left in Boston to even feel threatened.

The No Boston Olympics movement helped to derail a costly, condescending and absurd attempt to hand over control of the City to a shadowy and corrupt oligarchy, fully prepared to prevent Bostonians’ freedom of movement across their city and access to their parks, as well as using eminent domain to destroy an important business cluster in Widett Circle.

Similarly, residents of Allston have played a major role in keeping the Massachusetts Department of Transportation honest as it tries to rebuild Interstate 90 through the neighborhood. The Allston Interchange Task Force and People’s Pike have fought MassDoT every step of the way to get them to do a project that’s actually acknowledges the fact that this highway is in an urban neighborhood. While a lot of work remains ahead of them, they show no signs of giving up.

Perhaps, though, it’s appropriate that the recovery of our cities from urban renewal is taking so long. Cities are the products of centuries of tradition, economic evolution, and human use. Expecting them to recover instantly makes the same mistake of cataclysmic redevelopment that overthrew them in the first place. That organic tradition cannot be revived all at once: the only way to rebuild the city is to rebuild it brick by brick, building by building.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history. This post was originally published on Urban-Liberty.com.

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

Post a comment

Is ‘Queen Bey’ a Front Porch Republican?

Beyonce's "Lemonade" (WB Music Corp)
Beyonce's "Lemonade" (WB Music Corp)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deneen closed his essay with the following challenge:

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

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

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


//

4 comments

Words on the Street

Wikimedia Commons

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

“Reclaiming Redneck Urbanism” via MarketUrbanism

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

“Trains in Space” via London Review of Books

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

“The Rowhome Is Us” via Philadelphia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in . Post a comment

Strong Towns Draw Strong Citizens

Buffalo, New York Atomazul / Shutterstock.com
Buffalo, New York Atomazul / Shutterstock.com

I’m a long time member of the Strong Towns organization which advocates for financially solvent municipal governance. I’m also a member of the Congress for New Urbanism which strives to build walkable mixed-use neighborhoods of the kind our great grandparents would have taken for granted, but are rare indeed these days. I often ask myself what good a financially stable town is if most of the people living there are heavily leveraged and living pay check to pay check. So I have a particular fascination with people who embody the Strong Towns ethos within their own households. My assumption is that if most individual families are strong and economically resilient then collectively the town will likely be too. Here are four examples of strong households from my travels.

Todd is a twenty something who lives in the Days Park neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. He purchased an affordable historic fixer upper duplex with the intension of renovating the property with sweat equity. He and his girlfriend live downstairs. He quickly got the upper floor apartment in great shape and began renting it for income. That covered his modest mortgage freeing up his salary for savings and investments in other projects. One of those projects involved the purchase of an adjoining vacant lot which Todd is in the process of developing into a new building in an historical style that will serve as his office as well as an additional rental apartment.

Unlike previous generations who placed themselves in great personal debt in order to acquire a large prestigious home to demonstrate wealth and status, Todd sees his home as a productive object to generate revenue. It’s precisely the opposite philosophy from the McMansion in a gated community. The value isn’t loaded on to the eventual speculative value of the home come sale time, but in the month-to-month productive capacity of the property. Status for him doesn’t come from a two story entry foyer or an extravagant master bedroom suite. Instead, he rejoices in the economic freedom of having a home that pays him each month rather than the other way around.

In the same way he’s an ardent bicycle advocate. Owning multiple cars to enable you to live in an isolated location and endure a long miserable commute isn’t considered “moving up”. For Todd a bike represents financial freedom which trumps the illusion of physical mobility promised by car culture. This is particularly true since a big chunk of your paycheck is dedicated to maintaining those vehicles. Why not live and work in a place where you can skip the car altogether and pocket the extra funds?

Todd explained that his father was scandalized at the thought of moving back to Buffalo. In the 1980’s when Todd’s father was a young man Days Park was a derelict and unsavory place known more for drugs and prostitution than charming vernacular architecture. Many people of that generation left the city for suburbia and never returned to notice how the city is changing. A new generation is hungry for community, walkable neighborhoods, vitality, and reinvention. They’re also loaded down with student loan debt, facing an anemic job market, and making do with a paralyzed and ineffectual government. The crash of 2008 exposed suburban real estate as a not-so-reliable investment along with the stock market. Millennials like Todd are looking for a bargain that’s pragmatic and livable over the long haul. Undervalued inner city neighborhoods and century old streetcar suburbs are the perfect sweet spots for this generation.

Like so many Rust Belt towns Buffalo endured fifty years of unrelenting decline. But it bottomed out a few years ago and is coming back. If you’re young (or not so young) and you’re looking for the kind of environment you might find in Brooklyn, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Queen Street in Toronto, but at one tenth the price… that’s Buffalo. And you get to have great people like Todd live next door.

Jeremy and Kelsey live in Dallas, Texas. Like Todd in Buffalo they’re in their 20’s and also purchased a duplex in an inner ring suburb. You can ride a bicycle from their house to the skyscrapers in downtown Dallas in twenty minutes. Jeremy and Kelsey each grew up in prosperous north Dallas suburbs in big homes that announced that their parents had “arrived”. They wanted none of that for themselves. They live comfortably in the upstairs portion of their home and rent the downstairs. That income more than covers their expenses and actually provides them with extra money each month. They aren’t sacrificing anything. They live very well and have the luxury of being able to work less, save more, and enjoy raising their two small children rather than scrambling to maintain dual incomes to pay all the bills. For them this is a truly family friendly high quality living arrangement.

Dallas is a younger city than Buffalo and even the older neighborhoods are more car oriented than what you typically find in cities back east. While Jeremy and Kelsey’s part of town is suburban in nature it’s an older suburb that’s far more walkable than newer suburbs. It’s also maturing and offering better quality restaurants, grocery options, and more nuanced retail than the standard national chains found everywhere. Dallas may not always look like Norman Rockwell small town America, but increasingly the reinvented strip malls and muffler palaces are functioning like Main Street – and you can walk to them in five minutes.

So it’s possible to live well in a home that doesn’t bleed you dry, particularly if it’s in a neighborhood that let’s you live car light if not entirely car free. But what about earning a living? Most people work a nine-to-five job because it’s the only thing that makes sense given their obligations and expectations for how life should be. Starting your own business is a big scary endeavor and most people fail when they try. Partly that’s because running a business requires genuine skill and perseverance. It doesn’t help that most small business activities are heavily regulated and require a great deal of start up funding to even get off the ground. Try opening a restaurant and see how far you get before the paperwork alone drives you to madness. But there are people out there who have not only conjured up a business out of thin air, but who have managed to thrive under the most unlikely circumstances.

Gretchen and Devon are a young couple who started making soap in their home in rural Hawaii and experimented with selling it at a local farmers market. The farmers market provided a low cost venue to see which products sold and which didn’t without much risk. Over time they gradually refined their line of soaps as well as their production techniques. They hired employees, created a wholesale distribution system, built a small manufacturing facility on their rural property, and now sell their Filthy Farmgirl soap to retailers nationwide. That home, by the way, is now mortgage free. While they almost certainly would have been successful at whatever they turned their hands to in life, they probably wouldn’t have achieved these goals as early in life if they had remained in the rat race on the mainland. Devon and Gretchen’s experience may not be typical, largely because their talent and skill is exceptional. But it does demonstrate that such things are actually possible.

Courtney, Tyler, and Jordan live in my neighborhood here in San Francisco and manage to support themselves and several employees (at a living wage) providing walking tours of the Mission, Chinatown, and the Castro to tourists. I’ve taken their tours myself and they’re amazing.

The thing about running a tour guide company is that the entire business is composed of talented people, a few funny hats, and a ukulele. They have an excellent website that I’m sure took time and skill to put together, but there isn’t much physical stuff involved and it’s mercifully unregulated other than the usual tax procedures that any business must comply with.

But here’s the crazy part. Even as they pay insanely high San Francisco rents along with all the other necessities of life, they’ve been able to squirrel away $30,000 in cash over the last couple of years. That’s seed money they plan to use to buy property and establish a home base for themselves and their business. That property won’t be in San Francisco, prices being what they are around here.

But I’m here to tell you that whichever town they finally choose is going to be amazingly lucky to have them. They’ve already demonstrated an ability to create real value out of thin air in a highly competitive and cost prohibitive environment. The thing is… not every town deserves to have citizens like these. Do you think they’re going to zero in on some cookie cutter subdivision with a 7 Eleven and Walmart on the side of the interstate? I’m just sayin’.

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. This post was originally published at his blog, Granola Shotgun. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

3 comments

‘Smart Growth’ and the Sidewalk Ballet

“All you urbanists look the same to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in . 9 comments

Building the Virtuous Neighborhood

In my work as a primary care physician in a Baltimore homeless clinic and hospital, most of my office visits ended by asking my patients if I could do anything else for them. Sometimes I forget to address a concern a patient brought up at the beginning, or they save a difficult question about erectile dysfunction or depression for the very end of the visit. The response I tended to hear most often, though, was this: “Not unless you can get me a job.”

Much to my regret, I was unable to prescribe “One job—at least five days a week at a wage that pays the bills” for my patients. While the residents of the post-industrial region were not exactly rural, they were the sort of people who have been discussed, quoted, pandered to, or sneered at during this election cycle—poor, underskilled, often with a history of hard labor in an industry that was gutted in the last several decades.

If we are to find a solution to the problem that Donald Trump has exposed—the cultural and economic evisceration of the working class, particularly the white working class—we cannot simply ask how to magically prescribe jobs. We have to ask how public goods and virtuous behavior come to be. And that must always bring us back to community, and to whether our cities and towns are organized in ways that make us good neighbors.

Conservative discourse has of late found itself unable to describe how virtue is formed, even as it presupposes that virtue and the institutions that form it are necessary for any meaningful political order. We can bluster on about the role of faith, family, virtue, self-discipline, and community in maintaining economic and social flourishing, but then we actually give very little regard to such institutions when we talk as though people would abandon them all for $185 a month and some food stamps.

We recognize rightly that, as moral agents, humans are to be held accountable for their actions. But at their worst, both liberals and conservatives treat virtue and economic self-sufficiency as a closed system—either supposing that people will just behave virtuously when you subsidize them hard enough or that personal character only grows under threat of deprivation. Neither account actually describes how the state interacts with all of the intermediary institutions that shape the decisions we can make or how we make them. Economic agency is exercised through the employers who offer jobs. When those institutions disappear, the virtues they supported can go with them. Likewise, neither a check nor a job can substitute for an intact family.

Furthermore, looking realistically at the forces which make bad decisions easier or harder is hardly the same as granting people victimhood. GOP leader Reince Preibus didn’t put a needle in anyone’s arm, but the maker of Oxycontin spent over $200 million to deceptively promote their product. The suggestion by some conservatives that people simply move out of declining areas won’t help anyone whose doctor’s exercise of agency led them to addiction—unless, of course, they are hauling themselves to a state where one can get treatment on demand. If we’re going to talk about accountability, we must not reserve our judgment only for the people who are too poor to paper over their mistakes.

Even if we can agree that the current welfare regime doesn’t encourage virtue, we have to give a constructive account of one that will. We have to describe a way back more comprehensive than “quit whining and find a job.” Talking about personal character and cultural decay as black boxes from which spring forth either virtue or victimhood is a lazy habit of thought that has no place in conservative discourse; discipline is always imposed by someone or something, and while deprivation is often a means of discipline, it is hardly the most useful or most prescient one. Relationships discipline as well as support, and good behavior often comes from good neighbors.

Thus I appreciated Rod Dreher’s extensive dialogue with Kevin Williamson’s recent, rather incendiary take on the white working class in National Review. Dreher invokes his father’s work as a public health officer to create, sustain, or extend public goods for the sake of his community. A public servant, he “helped bring running water and sewerage to the houses of poor people who had never had it,” helped start his town’s volunteer fire department, gave free rabies shots to the parish’s dogs. The instinct to keep the state from meddling as much as possible is a perfectly reasonable and often quite wise one, but if it becomes an allergy to building the infrastructure within which justice and mercy are practiced then it has actually become a detriment to creating a beneficent culture.

Dreher’s follow-up post about concentrated poverty contains a significant part of the solution. If distant conservative exhortations to virtuous living as a means of economic self-sufficiency, or the liberal tactic of manually extracting people from poor areas into rich ones, have failed to work, it is not because our pleas for discipline fall on deaf ears. Rather, it is (in part) because such extraction decreases the concentration of good neighbors, explicitly favoring a geographical arrangement that segregates the best and the brightest into places where they can maximize their wealth and time. If we actually want to deal with the cultural malaise that has fueled the messianic politics that threatens our republic, then we will have to reverse the trends that create more distance between the disciplined and the undisciplined. That will probably require a greater supply of good neighbors than we currently have on offer.

This endeavor of creating a less toxic culture through less marked segregation will take a lot of work. For the rich and powerful, it will involve taking on risks and making sacrifices (you know, the same things that we ask the poor to do in order to be more self-sufficient). If we reject the simplistic notion that the state deserves the ultimate power so that it can guarantee as many positive human outcomes as possible, we had best be willing to exercise the stewardship and discipline of our power to prevent any voids that the state might be asked to fill.

A pundit castigating my patient to “rent a U-Haul” (as Kevin Williamson would do), is about as useful as me scribbling “get a job” on a prescription pad. Yet each of us has the power to do other things that will put us more in touch with the poor—who might be able to help us with some of our moral failings, by the way—and thus rebuild the culture instead of merely condemning it. If we are going to invoke the value of virtue and refuse to accept anyone’s learned helplessness, then we must also count the cost of inculcating self-discipline and refuse to throw our own hands up when compassion and justice require difficult choices from us.

Matthew Loftus teaches health workers and practices family medicine in South Sudan with his family (MatthewandMaggie.org). Before that, he lived with his family for six years in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

14 comments

Affordable Housing Starts From the Bottom Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 comments

Why San Francisco Has to Build Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco 1915 - Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco 1915 – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Tagged , , . 12 comments

Why Bernie Sanders Shouldn’t Call Baltimore ‘Third World’

Bernie Sanders speaks at a criminal justice forum. Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com
Bernie Sanders speaks at a criminal justice forum. Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com

Baltimore’s Sandtown is getting used to media blitzes. After the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in April, the subsequent protests and a night of rioting brought lots of journalists, but the national media probably weren’t due back until it was time for “one year later” stories. But on Tuesday Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made a stop there. He spoke on the need for jobs and better housing, but what dominated coverage of the event was his off-the-cuff reaction to Sandtown: “You’d think we were in a Third World country.”

I lived in Sandtown for six years and recently moved to South Sudan. There are a few similarities, yes, but there are also some very important differences that the language of “Third World” misses.

First of all, the term “Third World” is a Cold War relic that should be retired along with proxy wars and terrible accents in movie villains. It is not meant to elucidate anything positive when it is used to describe a place. Instead it attempts to politely signal “abject poverty” by using the language of geopolitical otherness. Even the crustiest old colonizers I know have switched to the more politically correct term “developing world,” which more accurately reflects reality.

Even when one grants that the poverty in Sandtown can be clearly seen just by walking through the neighborhood, the reference to the “Third World” neglects the history that shaped this poverty. Where I live now in South Sudan looks the way it does because some things were never built, but also because the northern government bombed anything that looked like infrastructure and spread landmines across anything that didn’t. Baltimore was shaped by racism, too, but in more subtle forms designed to slowly poison and suffocate what people owned rather than instantly blow up or burn it. Knowing the local history of how an impoverished community got to be that way is crucial to addressing how to make things better.

This may seem like a pedantic point or a gotcha game, but one of a presidential candidate’s jobs is carefully choosing words to foster trust and communicate vision, and the vision that Sanders is communicating is one of pity. (To be fair, his next event was framed as a “listening session” and while most of the pastors don’t work in Sandtown, they represented a broad base of African-American Baltimore’s concerns.) The optics of poverty are crucial and people should see how terrible certain parts of Sandtown look—they reflect a systemic neglect that ought to be a cultural shame. Some voters may need to be moved by pity, guilt, or shame in order to go along with a more radical economic plan, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that the poverty in Sandtown is self-evident.

Yet there are other parts of Sandtown that don’t look like the developing world. At the same time, they aren’t mistaken for an affluent block in another part of Baltimore, nor do they look like suburbs. They have their own character, having been clawed back from urban decay by the hard work of local residents partnering with foundations and city government.

The 1200 block of Whatcoat Street. Not shown: banana plantations, pile of AK-47s, children in rags playing soccer

The block next to the house I still own was the winner of 2009 Afro News Clean Green Block Award; it is still kept meticulously, as can be seen above. Those houses were rebuilt by a different set of forces than the block that Habitat for Humanity renovated, as each part of the neighborhood has retained or recreated its own character. There are streets in the neighborhood that I would avoid in broad daylight and others where I would happily let my toddler wander around.

Politicians should be commended for spending time in neighborhoods where poverty is having obvious effects. I recognize that 20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time for a man who is running for president to visit an area that had voter turnout in the single digits, and I do not begrudge Bernie Sanders that he did not see the Clean Green Block Award winner. Doing so certainly would have made the narrative that day more complicated, which is exactly the point—there is only so much that a president can do for any one particular neighborhood or even a certain set of neighborhoods with similar characteristics.

The impulse to lump all poor communities together with “Third World” discourse also makes it easier to assume that they have monolithic opinions (which often conveniently agree with whoever is invoking “the voice of the community”). If you talk to people in Sandtown about how to address the issues facing their community, they will almost invariably mention the same sorts of things that have made Bernie popular on the campaign trail, including more generous government funding for jobs and housing. But they will also usually bring up the urgent need for cultural or spiritual renewal, a stronger sense of fatherhood, and greater personal responsibility as part of fighting poverty.

This mixture of discourse from approaches typically dividing left and right is by no means universal, either, which is why talking about particular places with such universal language is so dangerous: it constrains the political imagination to suppose that the right set of fixes in Washington will bring flourishing to Sandtown and Muskogee alike. While some of Senator Sanders’ plans have the potential to help poor people across the country (such as greater support for worker-owned cooperatives), others could hurt the poor with a blundering colonial instinct to help, overzealous in its confidence that it has seen Sandtown and now knows what Sandtown needs.

Aside from any reservations about the senator’s host on his Baltimore trip (a local pastor known more for his showmanship than his shepherding), I am concerned as someone who loves Sandtown that Sanders didn’t talk about the good work that is already happening there and in many impoverished places. There are local leaders and local initiatives that are working to address the economic, cultural, and social issues that perpetuate poverty; most policy efforts will crumble without thinking about ways to support (or create more of) these front-line soldiers. As crucial as top-down efforts are to mitigating poverty—particularly the emphasis on ending mass incarceration and finding ways to create more jobs that are accessible to low-skilled workers—Baltimore’s government-directed “community development” efforts (like a certain casino) often do not account for the bottom-up work that takes place in homes, churches, and other civic institutions.

I’m glad that people like Bernie Sanders are drawing attention to urban poverty in places like Sandtown. We should be vigorously debating whether or not the policies he proposes would help—but more importantly, we should be thinking about the vast number of things policy cannot do in forming character, strengthening families, and building up the institutions that promote solidarity. After all, one man’s election cannot change the way any one neighborhood looks. It takes neighbors working together to do that.

Matthew Loftus teaches health workers and practices family medicine in South Sudan with his family (MatthewandMaggie.org). Before that, he lived with his family for six years in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

6 comments

Seeking a Return to Beauty

Championing the return of beauty to urban spaces is rooted in an ethos of affirmation, nourishing the citizen’s sense of place and belonging which underpins strong communities. Traditional architectural styles can inspire civic pride and symbolize civic values, unlike the monstrosities of glass and concrete which uglify today’s towns and cities.

There is a temptation to become fatalistic and resign ourselves to the inevitable destruction of the places we love. But that need not be the case. In Great Britain, there has already been some progress which could be emulated here in the United States.

An unlikely leading figure in the effort for reviving beauty in urban spaces is Prince Charles, the future King of England. As long ago as 1984, Prince Charles delivered a provocative speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects which criticized the architectural styles of the post-war era. He elegantly described a prewar London where an

affinity between buildings and the earth, in spite of the City’s immense size, was so close and organic that the houses looked almost as though they had grown out of the earth and had not been imposed upon it—grown moreover, in such a way that as few trees as possible were thrust out of the way.

Later in 1989, Charles published a book, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture, following his wonderful BBC documentary the previous year, which reinforced his critique of modern architecture. You can watch a clip here.

Charles has not been merely content to voice his concerns. He has put his words into action through The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. Its most significant achievement has been Poundbury, an urban extension of Dorchester in Dorset, England, where traditional urban styles have been adopted.

The development began in 1988 under the supervision of Léon Krier, who went on to become a leading light of the New Urbanism movement. Krier decided to prioritize people before automobiles, and mix commercial and residential buildings together, thus producing an attractive urban environment where people could develop a sense of place.

The practical benefits are clear as the development has allowed Dorchester’s population to grow by 25 percent, reconciled high population density with good living standards, and invested in sustainable urban development, such as 11 “Eco Homes.” Over the years Charles has made an invaluable contribution to the renewal of beauty in urban spaces, and resisted the rising tide of vulgarity and ugliness.

Another important crusader for beauty in urban spaces is the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart, who has focused on reviving the neoclassical tradition. His two most notable works are the bronze statues of Adam Smith (2008) and David Hume (1997) on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile:

Alexander Stoddart's Adam Smith (left) and David Hume (right). stephengg/Flickr p&p/Flickr

Alexander Stoddart’s Adam Smith (left) and David Hume (right). stephengg/Flickr p&p/Flickr

One can see Stoddart’s beautiful craftsmanship shine through alongside a clear sense of civic pride, thus giving a meaning to these statues that simply cannot be found in the abstract and postmodern novelties that litter our cities today.

The subject matter Stoddart focuses on is equally important. Instead of sculpting the “footballers” and pop artists who define Britain’s vapid celebrity culture, Stoddart depicts the philosophers who helped make Scotland’s essential contribution to the development of Western Civilization. The result is public spaces with a sense of affirmation and value, instead of cynicism and meaninglessness.

Beauty is based upon an ethos of affirmation. It makes people’s sense of place and belonging tangible which is essential to the flourishing of individuals and communities. By putting beauty at the heart of urban planning and turning back the tide of vulgarity and ugliness, there is hope that we can create urban spaces which reaffirm our collective identity instead of rejecting our past.

David A. Cowan is an editorial assistant at The American ConservativeNew Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

One comment
← Older posts