New Urbs

Words on the Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Storefront Index” via City Observatory

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

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

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Tower Block Dystopia

"High-Rise" Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
"High-Rise" Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

The xkcd cartoon “Logic Boat” shows the familiar problem of the man who has to carry a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage across a river. The problem: “The boat only holds two, and you can’t leave the goat with the cabbage or the wolf with the goat.”

There’s a logic-puzzle solution here. There’s also the xkcd solution: “Leave the wolf. Why do you have a wolf?”

High-Rise is a dystopian science-fiction flick about an experimental skyscraper in an alternate-history ’70s Britain. Eccentric architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) designed the place so that every floor represented a rung on the socioeconomic ladder, like a vertical Snowpiercer train: rich folk in the penthouse, with a rooftop garden where Royal’s caricature wife rides horseback dressed as a shepherdess; maids and whatnot probably in the basement, not that we get to know any; everybody else precisely placed on the appropriate level in the middle.

We’re told, “Most people don’t care about what happens two floors above or one floor below them.” You can tell that that’s true, because in real life, when the cities started to go Charles Bronson, rich people left. Why don’t they leave the high-rise once the class war starts? Why do you have a wolf?

High-Rise is based on a J.G. Ballard novel, and its most striking characteristic is how much of a throwback it is. The ’70s aren’t just setting and costume. The whole emotional tenor of the movie is redolent of the disco era–and of Britain’s “winter of discontent.” The casual sexism, ecstatic violence, and casual ecstatic sexual violence are filmed pretty much exactly as they would have been in-period; you can bring your own critique if you want to.

These days we talk about globalization and the flight of manufacturing jobs. High-Rise recalls an earlier narrative, where social breakdown is linked with moral decadence. The ’70s are one long party that got out of hand. All the usual signs of decadence eventually emerge: wife-swapping, adults eating cereal, blood-spattered clothing, fires.

This isn’t a good enough movie; its plot is tangled, and it’s both overstuffed and thinly-sketched. It’s disingenuous to make a movie about society-wide class conflict where the lowest class we get to know is the educated professionals. (See Jamie’s comments here on the rhetoric of the “1%.”) Tom Hiddleston, whom I enjoyed in Crimson Peak, is wasted in a role where he mostly wanders around looking tormented. The final stages of societal breakdown happen in a muddled montage. By the movie’s final stretch the audience was so frustrated and confused that even very good lines (“This is my party… and I decide who gets lobotomized”) got zero laughs.

That said, there are some great images–the dentist’s Terry Gilliamesque flak jacket covered in dentures, the overbalanced cake plate–and some unexpected insights.

When the movie starts we know things will go horribly awry. Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) roasts his dog on a spit in the burnt-out, powerless building and muses that in some ways he likes it here in the post-apocalypse. Then we flash back to when the high-rise was new, a huge gleaming angular monster surrounded by parking lots, far from any city.

Royal says he “conceived this building as a crucible for change,” and the tenants were apparently carefully curated. (In one of the best lines of a movie with unnecessarily good dialogue, one of the inhabitants notes that Laing’s “tenancy application was very Byronic.”) Royal’s idea of literal and explicit class hierarchy + forced proximity seems so crazy that maybe he always intended the plan to fail. Yet he seems surprised when power outages prompt the building’s descent into anarchy.

Violent anarchy starts as a party, in fact a clash of two parties: a raid by middle-class children on a private pool party. Nobody is pursuing anything other than fun. I sincerely loved the way partying is used in this movie, as a kind of synonym for oppression and resistance: “We’ve got to show the lower floors that we can throw a better party than them!” It implies an ironic, amoral vision of politics which in our relentlessly moralistic age we find hard even to remember. And it makes sense when you notice that none of the adults have parents. The closest thing we get is Royal, who begat the building; they are all the building’s adolescent children, raised by the society Margaret Thatcher (more or less) said didn’t exist.

Lucien Steil’s presentation “Architecture Which Hurts, Architecture Which Heals,” underscores the ways Royal’s choices shaped his building’s eventual collapse. There is a parking lot wasteland instead of a courtyard, for example, and a lack of truly public spaces. (“I recognize you,” a higher-floor man says to a lower, “from the foyer.”) There’s a supermarket for consumption and a pool for leisure–that pool party encapsulates a lot of the movie’s themes. Parents organize as an interest group because children aren’t wanted: “The women round here would help the planet more by keeping their legs crossed.” (And yet there’s a kindergarten built in. Why do you have a wolf?)

The high-rise has no library, no place of worship. (Royal’s private penthouse includes art taken from museums.) It has no history–preserving a place’s history would open up imaginations, allowing the possibility of a life unshaped by the engineers; and it might lead to mixing income levels.

It has rules (you can’t put diapers down the garbage chute) but no responsibilities. There are no institutions to allow the practice of citizenship. For 10 years I lived in a block-long big box apartment hellscape and we at least had a tenants’ association, although I suspect the largest voting bloc was cockroaches. In Royal’s high-rise, parties are the only thing anybody organizes: the sole native form of leadership. So it shouldn’t be surprising when the final words of the movie are a radio broadcast from Lady Thatcher herself, as the voice of Judgment Day: “Where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom.” I suspect this is meant to be ironic, but it works without irony: Royal as capitalist head of state offered no options for political freedom; his tenant-subjects didn’t want it, so why include it in the lease?

The rich folk in the high-rise fled the city to live anonymously. The movie, which is shot entirely from within the upper middle-class POV, will never tell you why on earth they don’t flee the high-rise to live in a place with toilet paper. But if you’re willing to take it as fairy tale, its message is simple: You may no longer share a city with the wolf, but as long as you share a polis with him he is in your home. And one day he will open his jaws and vote you right up.

So maybe it’s not so retro after all.

High-Rise is a weird movie that hides its insights under a wrack of violent incident. It’s dumb in a lot of the ways that matter for audience interest, and unexpectedly smart in a lot of the ways that don’t. If you want a tower-as-microcosm movie with Reagan-era anxieties, though, you’re probably still better off watching Candyman.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

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

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The Boarding Houses that Built America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Words on the Street

A Barcelona street. (Vincent Moschetti / Flickr)
A Barcelona street. (Vincent Moschetti / Flickr)

“Words on the Street” highlights the best NewUrbs content we’ve encountered this week:

Superblocks to the Rescue: Barcelona’s Plan to Give Streets Back to Residents | Marta Bausells, Guardian

Private vehicles account for just 20% of total movements in the city today and yet they occupy 60% of roads. “We need to win the street back,” says Janet Sanz, city councillor for ecology, urbanism and mobility, who emphasised the need to encourage social cohesion, coexistence and human exchanges. Recently, she remembered the spirit of Jane Jacobs and her activism for the right to the city on the 100th anniversary of the writer and urbanist’s birth: “She proposed giving the street back to the neighbours. Today we work for that objective.”

Life in Ruins | Mary Beard, Times Literary Supplement

That life cycle of buildings, from conception to death, with an occasional lucky, or unlucky, resurrection, is the theme of James Crawford’s Fallen Glory – twenty chapters telling the biography of twenty structures, from across the world, ancient and modern, real and imaginary (the first chapter is on the Tower of Babel, the last on the virtual world of the web hosting service GeoCities).

Why U.S. Cities Are Segregated by Race: New Evidence on the Role of ‘White Flight’ | Allison Shertzer and Randall Walsh, Center for Economic Policy Research

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How to Build Housing From the Middle Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How to Bring Back Southbridge

6SN7 / Flickr
6SN7 / Flickr

Southbridge, Mass., is one of dozens of New England mill towns that have fallen on hard times. These places were once prosperous, with traditional development built around walkable downtowns and streetcars. But today, the factories have closed and the downtowns are empty, thanks to economic collapse, antiquated zoning laws, and an automobile-centric transportation policy.

In many ways, Southbridge is typical of these towns. Its American Optical Company was once the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world; now, the town’s structures are falling apart and few businesses are left. But in Southbridge, whose population numbers about 16,000, one native son is working to revive his hometown one building at a time.

A boyish, bespectacled 21-year-old, Hunter Foote entered the world of real-estate development as soon as he graduated college at the age of 17. Foote studied business at UMass-Amherst and found he was different from his classmates, who typically looked at a business career as a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “I looked at business as creating value,” he says. “By creating value, the business is rewarded with profit. Profit is the method, not the goal.”

That outlook informs his work today. While many city governments seek huge government or corporate investments to come to their splashy rescue, Foote is an incremental entrepreneur. His company, Bellus Real Estate, works by buying distressed properties and renovating them. This style of small-scale development has low barriers to entry, is less disruptive to neighborhoods, and can produce a decent profit margin without ultra-luxury apartments or chain restaurants.

It also puts into practice many of the ideals of New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to recover the traditional patterns of urban development that prevailed before World War II. This time-tested model is characterized by walkable communities and buildings with storefronts and street-level windows and doors. The contrast is especially striking with the nearly windowless concrete bunkers and shopping malls built in the middle of the last century.

Since starting in 2012—he had to delay closing on his first property until he turned 18—Foote has built up a portfolio of 60 properties. “What’s really remarkable is that he did this with no money,” says Ted Carman, a developer and consultant with Boston-based Concord Square Planning and Development.

When Foote started out, banks basically wouldn’t talk to him. They didn’t like lending money for real estate in an area like Southbridge, and they certainly didn’t like lending money to a 17-year-old. As a result, he had to raise money from other sources, such as his family and private investors. He initially asked 117 contacts before he found one willing to take the risk.

Foote then used historic-preservation grants and tax credits to help him get started, and as he’s built up a track record he’s been able to get money from local banks. Now he’s looking into crowdfunding for real estate, which was legalized recently, and he’s taken advantage of tax credits and grants to install solar arrays on the roofs of some of his buildings. “It doesn’t take a lot of money, it takes creativity,” Foote says. “We kept piggy-backing on our previous projects.”

His work benefits the whole town. Foote says there had been dozens of crimes, including assaults and even a murder, at three of the buildings he chose to renovate. In just those three buildings, his company has added $2.2 million in value, he says, worth about $40,000 in annual tax revenue to the town. Outside of downtown, the properties he purchased were all delinquent in taxes or water bills. He also hires local contractors to handle the renovations. “Interest rates are low, property values are low,” he says. “We saw an opportunity to buy cheap properties with cheap money and hire cheap people to renovate them.”

In keeping with New Urbanism, Foote also aims to reduce Southbridge’s reliance on automobiles. “It really appeals to have a walkable downtown,” he told a fall meeting of the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU-NE). “It reduces the need for anyone to have a car.”

Walkable development is much healthier for a city than the auto-oriented alternatives, according to Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, an organization that advocates traditional development. Marohn wrote for TAC last year that “on a per-foot or per-acre basis, [traditional development] is vastly more productive financially than anything being built in an auto-orientation.”

Marohn compares a city to an ecosystem. “Any time you look at a natural system, it benefits from small iterations,” he says. “You get systems that are far more optimized than if you take big leaps all at once. Traditional development is to suburban development as the Amazon rain forest is to a corn field.”

Many places in New England have still not learned that lesson, and continue to chase big-dollar projects. After Massachusetts passed a law legalizing casinos a few years ago, an $800 million gambling project was planned on 15 acres in Springfield, while a $1.7 billion project was planned for Everett’s waterfront. Even Boston isn’t immune to pie-in-the-sky projects, as its aborted attempt to host the 2024 Summer Olympics revealed.

Not only do casino projects and heavily subsidized corporate chases fail to rescue declining cities, but they can stoke backlash against development in general.  The result is that the well-financed and well-connected developers still get to do their large projects, but the less influential developers get stiffed.

Foote has faced his own challenges in Southbridge, such as preservationists who try to insist that he get “Certificates of Historical Accuracy” for his renovations, a process that can significantly increase costs. The building inspectors he’s worked with, on the other hand, would prefer he burn the buildings down. Marohn says inspectors around the country need to understand how to apply building codes to renovated buildings instead of expecting them to conform to new codes.

Neighbors have also been an issue. When Foote was renovating one downtown building for apartments, some people wanted him to make the apartments too big for transients but too small for families. The redevelopment of a former Raytheon site in the Boston suburb of Sudbury faced a similarly motivated challenge, as town officials demanded that most units built on the 50-acre property be restricted to people 55 and up to avoid increasing the school-age population.

One of the aims of CNU-NE is to encourage more people to become developers and build toward New Urbanism’s vision rather than succumbing to these pressures. “We need to chart a vision of development that speaks to … democratizing control of change in cities by reducing the amount of capital or power you have to have to make an individual or small group contribution,” say Seth Zeren, a member of CNU-NE’s board of directors and an urban-planner-turned-developer himself. “Essentially, it’s an argument for the petit bourgeois—small landlords, shopkeepers, etc. The bigger the buildings get, the fewer capitalists you’ll have; the bigger the experiments you make, the greater the returns at the top. There are plenty of examples from older urban contexts that you can have dynamic, dense, and economically prosperous cities with a majority of the city built of fine-grained urban buildings.”

Too many cities have become trapped by once-bitten, twice-shy neighbors and a failed philosophy of auto-centric urbanism. Small developers, whether real-estate entrepreneurs like Foote or Zeren’s petit bourgeois looking to get the most value from their assets, can be that needed force for local renewal.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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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.

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Is ‘Queen Bey’ a Front Porch Republican?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deneen closed his essay with the following challenge:

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

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

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


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Words on the Street

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.

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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.

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