Charles Haywood writes from Indianapolis, Indiana. This article originally appeared at his blog, The Worthy House.
Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.
If there is one truth about the second half of the 20th Century it is that, by all accounts, we started moving out rather than up; horizontal rather than vertical. Not only through the process of suburbanization, the building of massive highways, and the rapid capital flight from cities, but also in how we designed everything from our homes to our workplaces. It could be said that, since the development of major highways, America has flattened—much in the same way that the invention of both the elevator and air conditioning brought skyscrapers to every major city in the first half of the 20th century. [Read more… ]
—Kate Wagner, McMansion Hell
Nobody would say that health is a luxury. To the extent that walkable neighborhoods contribute to health, it follows they are not a luxury good. Similar cases can be made for walkability and safety (fewer automobile deaths and injuries), pollution (reduced tailpipe emissions), and time (fewer hours spent commuting). Walkable neighborhoods add value and utility to lives of people of all classes. They are willing to pay for that value. Walkable neighborhoods also enable a lifestyle that has the potential to reduce overall costs while providing health and welfare benefits. [Read more…]
—Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square
A lot of the focus in Rust Belt and rural communities is on the economy, and rightly so. There are economic challenges that do need to be addressed. But in many cases the real problems are more than economic. They are social and perhaps even spiritual in a broad sense, a despair that has destroyed so many lives…. The America of the 1970s and 1980s is dead and gone. It can’t be recreated. But America must find a way to rebuild its social capital if it hopes to change the trajectory of so many struggling people and places. Economic development is not enough. [Read more…]
—Aaron Renn, Governing
Vacant buildings can attract criminal activity like drug use. They sometimes pose safety hazards. Getting rid of them is overwhelmingly framed as positive by local governments that often leverage hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to do demolition work (often through state or federal grants). And yet, there’s something darker that lurks beneath the surface when we talk about “blight.” The word completely disregards the past of a place. When you label something blight, you utterly negate any purpose it may have had and any hope of saving it. It is mere garbage to be discarded. And it’s not just individual buildings that are labeled as such. Whole blocks and neighborhoods can receive this designation, either officially or by association. Once the label has been applied, it can be a natural progression to start thinking that the people, businesses and institutions that are still alive in these neighborhoods are also blight. [ Read more… ]
—Rachel Quednau, Strong Towns
At a time when states and cities are often at odds over hotly contested social and economic issues, land use reform to expand housing choice and opportunity can constitute common ground. State and local collaboration on housing can create a lower cost of doing business, a more efficient real estate market, and a wider array of options for buyers and renters across the income spectrum. [Read more…]
—Stockton Williams, Lisa Sturtevant, and Rosemarie Hepner, Urban Land Institute
“Learning made a boy leave the farm to live in the city—to consider himself better than his father.”
John Steinbeck wrote these words 65 years ago, in his classic work East of Eden. Even then, he sensed the deep schism growing between rural America and the elite, urban enclaves that housed many of the nation’s universities and colleges.
But if such things were true in Steinbeck’s day, they are only more common now. Our nation’s top universities have embraced a detached, globalized approach to education—one in which youths are unlikely to be sent home, and rather encouraged to join a larger sphere of success and influence.
On its website, Yale assures visitors that it is training “the next generation of world leaders.” Harvard boasts that it develops leaders “who make a difference globally.” The University of Virginia, meanwhile, promises to foster “illimitable minds,” and “endless pursuit.”
In his classic consideration of American society, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the United States contained an “innumerable multitude of those who seek to get out of their original condition …. There are no Americans who do not show that they are devoured by the desire to rise.”
But the consequences of such attitudes have been staggering. In America’s rural towns and communities, “brain drain” is sucking away talented youth, leaving an economic and social hole in its wake. According to a 2008 Pew poll, college graduates are far less likely to live in their birth state, and most young people still living in their hometown want to move in the next five years. Seventy-seven percent of college graduates change communities at least once.
Few in the world of higher education are taking a stand against this tide of exodus and globalization. But in their new book, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro explain the dangers of a higher education that is placeless and, in the words of UVA, “illimitable.”
Baker and Bilbro work in the English Department at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University. Both professors have long studied the life and work of Wendell Berry, and his writing and thought serve as primary inspiration for this book.
Berry himself, via both his fiction and essays, has considered the deleterious impact of higher education on small farming communities. As his protagonist Hannah Coulter notes in a novel of the same name, “After each one of our children went away to the university, there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away.”
Higher education fosters what Wendell Berry has termed “boomers”: individuals who “are always on the lookout for better career opportunities in better places.” He contrasts this group to “stickers”: those who root themselves in a place, and dedicate themselves to its wellbeing. Wallace Stegner first used these terms to describe the pioneers who settled in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries; but our universities have long fostered boomers instead of stickers.
Coulter’s children, like most American youths, bought into “the destructive ideology of the university as part of an industrial economy—an economy in which schools bring in customers and send out displaced individuals with immense debts, having taught those individuals that the good life can be found anywhere but at home,” write Baker and Bilbro.
Many in and outside America’s universities don’t see a problem with this sort of displacement. Upward mobility, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, has always been a present and accepted part of the American psyche. We increasingly strive to be cosmopolitans, global citizens, people who exist outside of place and its tribalistic ties. Today, as never before, the virtues of contentment, gratitude, and loyalty have fallen into disrepute.
But resurrecting such virtues, Baker and Bilbro suggest, is critical for the health and happiness not just of America’s small towns and communities, but also of its young people—for although independence may appeal for a while, living as a “global citizen” and “world leader” can be rather lonely and alienating. Cultivating opportunities for homecoming is not just a romantic or reactionary notion. It is a recipe for holistic healing and reintegration, in a nation that sorely needs it.
To foster this sort of reintegration, Baker and Bilbro suggest, we need to tell different stories to our youth: stories that foster the aforementioned virtues of place, stories that suggest home is in fact a beautiful place worth preserving. Baker and Bilbro thus begin to lay out a vision for reforming higher education—for cultivating a university in which students are encouraged to love their place.
While education means “to lead out from,” Baker and Bilbro argue that the university’s direction in times past was more metaphysical and intellectual than it was geographical. Universities in Athens and Rome served the polis. After the rise of Christendom, universities sought to serve the church, and most of America’s first colleges were theological in both their education and ends. As American society has grown increasingly pluralistic, however, the purpose and end of the university has shifted once more—this time to focus on economic success.
“The institution that began with the purpose of leading students out of ignorance to better serve their communities and the church now primarily serves the nation-state’s industrial complex,” Baker and Bilbro write. “In the absence of any higher purpose, the multiversity defaults to serving the economy, to training students to be effective cogs in a capitalist machine.”
In contrast, Baker and Bilbro suggest that universities ought to work like a rooted tree,providing students with a “trunk of truth,” which is surrounded and informed by a geographical context. They suggest that a strong core curriculum—the classical liberal arts’ trivium and quadrivium—is the best such trunk.
The classical liberal arts do not dictate or specify success to students. Instead, they cultivate wisdom and understanding—and from these seeds, students can and must cultivate their own, particular vision of the good. Great, classic works of the past—such as Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, or newer works such as The Lord of the Rings—foster a “rooted imagination.” But they also prompt questions of application that students must answer for themselves.
“We have found that our students struggle with imaginative work because it doesn’t provide neat, tidy answers,” note Baker and Bilbro. “In fact, it acknowledges that some, perhaps many, of their questions will remain unanswered.” But this sort of learning fosters prudence: the ability to apply certain virtues and skills within a variety of disciplines and places. Whereas others forms of education spit out machine cogs, the rooted university fosters diverse and multifaceted human beings.
As Berry once wrote in his essay “The Loss of the University,” “Underlying the idea of the university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good—that is, a fully developed—human being.”
In the second part of their book, Baker and Bilbro consider the four key dimensions “in which humans ought to be placed”: tradition, hierarchy, geography, and community. They then detail the virtues which ought to be fostered within these dimensions: fidelity, love, gratitude, and memory. They turn here to Alasdair MacIntyre, who has argued in After Virtue that virtue is “an excellence or quality intelligible only within a community’s tradition and story, oriented toward a common good.” Without this orientation and context, virtues become mere “skills,” which may not in fact further the good.
Baker and Bilbro thus argue that love and service are contextual disciplines; abstract love, “empathy” without subject or context, is not the proper end of human existence. And in a world in which the placeless, roving humanitarianism of Angelina Jolie and George Clooney receive highest accolades and praise, such a vision is both unique and deeply needed.
“When professors tell their students the wrong stories, stories of heroic success rather than quotidian faithfulness, it reinforces the boomer mentality of the broader culture,” write Baker and Bilbro. Such narratives, according to Berry, convince “good young people … that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”
Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.
As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.
This book is not just for college students or professors. It is for all those who toil within a specific vocation. The thoughtful wisdom of Baker and Bilbro convicted and inspired me, prompting me to consider whether my work is as place-centric, thoughtful, and prudential as it ought to be. These thoughts will likely occur to any who spend much of their time behind a computer, who commute to work, or otherwise engage in labor than can often feel divided and displaced. The authors also encouraged me to keep fostering the “sticker arts” in my own life: the quotidian labor of mending and repairing, gardening and canning, cooking and cleaning. This book is more than a treatise on higher education. It is also, at least to some extent, a manual for the place-centric life.
There is no easy way to turn the tide of youthful exodus plaguing America’s communities. But the seeds of change are here. Perhaps the first step, as Baker and Bilbro suggest, is to reconsider the stories we tell, and the visions we cast. Perhaps, instead of telling students they ought to be “world leaders,” we should encourage them to be good neighbors.
Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. You can follow her on Twitter @gracyolmstead
One of the most significant consequences of the 1926 Euclid Supreme Court decision—which declared that the then relatively new practice of zoning ordinances was Constitutional—has been the ability of municipal governments to quash organic approaches to efficient land development. In many cases, this impulse has served a valuable function, allowing communities to protect themselves from nuisances, incompatible uses, and the damage wrought by bad development. But along with their clear benefits, it is important to note the potential costs of zoning policies that discourage efficient land use.
In their 2000 book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck note that between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of American families that could afford to purchase a median-priced home fell from 50 percent to just 25. During the same years, planners and others widely observed a troubling decline in the aesthetic design quality of new buildings and land uses, while lamenting the growing number of communities in which people cannot take part in basic, daily activities without a car. Significantly, a number of the contributing factors that have been cited for these trends have a common thread: a declining efficiency of land use.
Land-use efficiency has a long and practical history in town planning, beginning organically at the dawn of urban civilization, and refined in its method at least since the fifth century B.C., when Hippodamus planned the reconstruction of his native Miletus, after the Persian War. The goal of efficient land use was traditionally driven by the practical necessities of urban life in pre-industrial societies, where walking and animal use were the primary modes of mobility on land. Even with the advent of railroads in the nineteenth century, and the fast, long-distance travel that they facilitated, new towns were still built on a walkable scale—that is, their streets were laid out within walking distance of one another and the train station. Out of this practical necessity, a refined tradition developed that included resourceful devices for saving the valuable land near existing settlements, and for making the best use of the land that was already contained within them.
The industrial pollution and massive crowding of the late nineteenth century, followed by the individual freedom supplied by the automobile in the early twentieth, undermined the established, pragmatic rationales for maintaining the traditions of town planning: As cities became increasingly unpleasant, many individuals soon became free to leave them behind. In the United States, the Supreme Court’s 1926 decision in Euclid eliminated yet another support for traditional urban growth patterns: their legal inevitability. By empowering local governments to widely regulate the lawful uses of private property, the ability of individual land owners to maximize their use of every urban parcel was greatly abrogated. In Suburban Nation, Duany et al. point out two common, practical devices that fell out of favor due to their increasing illegality under Euclidian zoning regimes. The first is the age-old tradition of building inexpensive apartments over the retail space of business districts. Duany et al. write:
Upstairs apartments provide customers for the shops, activity for the streets, and nighttime surveillance for the neighborhood. They also represent one of the most economical ways to provide housing, since the land and infrastructure costs are covered by the shops; the housing can be supplied for the cost of construction alone. . . . Additionally, [housing over shopping] contributes much-needed height to retail buildings, which with only one story fail to adequately define street space.
In addition to separating what might be perfectly compatible uses, such as stores and apartments, Euclidean zoning laws have also frequently dictated that no more than one unit shall be permitted on a single lot. According to Duany, this policy has resulted in the elimination of so-called outbuilding apartments, such as those located above the garages of a detached carriage house, or those contained in a separate, smaller building, in the yard behind a primary house. Significantly, the elimination of such market-rate, affordable housing alternatives may have a doubly negative effect on the affordability of housing. By reducing the availability of new, affordable units, it has created greater competition for existing housing options.
In addition to quashing the potential for over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats, typical Euclidean zoning codes, in keeping with the language of Justice Sutherland’s opinion in the decision, often greatly constrain the development of multifamily buildings in areas beyond their immediate vicinity at the time of drafting. In the post-Euclid world, any significant changes to established land use policies generally require the highly-political, time consuming, and necessarily infrequent process of revising the official map. And in a typical zoning ordinance, each of the basic use-zones is further correlated with a schedule of so-called zone requirements. These rules typically mandate minimum lot widths, depths, and street frontages, as well as maximum lot coverages, numbers of units, and heights. While safety codes have long been used to regulate the height of urban construction, comprehensive zoning ordinances are often written in language that is so restrictive that it effectively precludes the potential for creativity by builders and architects. In short, the hands of developers are quite well tied by the common restrictions of Euclidean zoning.
The impact of Euclidean zoning on economic development is powerful: First, it ensures that the productive potential of a community’s land is controlled by legislative restrictions on both its use and its intensity of development. Up to a point, the prudent exercise of this power can be beneficial to local economies, especially where it protects local properties by averting the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses. But where the impact of zoning laws exceeds these practical goals, and results in the arbitrary exclusion of compatible uses, walkable neighborhoods, and decent, land-efficient housing, such laws can severely limit a community’s capacity for healthy economic development. And when zoning policies result in artificial shortages of necessary floor space, the resulting increase in costs can impose a high entry barrier on a local marketplace, and ensure that a larger portion of a community’s wealth must be spent on obtaining access to real estate, rather than be invested in more productive, dynamic sectors of the local economy.
In contrast to the patterns that develop under the legal and political restrictions of Euclidean land policies, the pre-zoning development patterns of late-Victorian New York City illustrate the trends that emerged in a metropolitan land economy that was driven mainly by the organic demands of the market, and large-scale adaptations of traditional town-planning devices. In the period between 1880 and 1930, when the available land in Manhattan (and, later, what would become the Bronx) was being increasingly built out with single-family brownstones, a continued demand for housing led to the gradual redevelopment of many townhouse neighborhoods with larger apartment buildings. The architects of these new buildings, who were often limited to a canvas of just a few attached lots, were required to find resourceful ways to create housing on limited parcels of land.
Accordingly, the housing stock of New York City that was built between 1880 and 1930 contains a wealth of examples of traditional land use efficiency. The buildings of that era occupied the entire spectrum of both practical and aesthetic possibilities, representing, as they did, the products of a largely unregulated urban land market awash in the tumult of industrial capitalism. In the years since the turn of the century, a number of reporters have thoroughly documented the deplorable conditions of the downtown tenements in Victorian New York, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the remarkable qualities of the city’s vast upper-middle-class apartment stock, which was beginning to take shape around the same time. The design and land use efficiency of these buildings, and the value that they concentrate on small parcels of private land, often compares quite favorably with the endless payout of strip malls, garden apartments, mundane architecture, and distorted housing costs that has accrued to much of the post-Euclid metropolitan landscape of the United States. While zoning remains a useful tool in the hands of local authorities, the argument for re-examining its standard applications, often made by New Urbanists like Duany, has grown increasingly strong.
Market-Based Efficient Land Use: Late Victorian New York City
The upper-middle-class apartment stock of New York City, dating from the late Victorian era, represents a unique historical intersection of traditional, pre-zoning, land efficient approaches to town planning, and the large-scale, extensive infrastructure of a modern urban economy. In light of the present situation, it is interesting to look more closely to the not-so-distant past, and to examine some of the better approaches to efficient metropolitan land development that were employed in that context. In 1892, a guidebook author, Moses King, published an extensive survey of the contemporary city of New York that continues to offer some of the clearest depictions and descriptions of American urbanism in the late years of the Victorian period. In a chapter discussing the city’s growing supply of middle-class apartment buildings, King offers a thoughtful analysis of the social and economic factors that had influenced the increasing respectability of apartment living. He writes:
Apartment houses, it has been said, hold more than half of the middle-class population of Manhattan Island. Real estate is so valuable, and consequently rents so high, that to occupy a house is quite beyond the reach of a family of ordinary means, and the suburbs on account of their inaccessibility are out of the question. Consequently, apartments and flats have become a necessity, and a system of living, originally adopted for that reason, has now become very much of a virtue. Apartment-life is popular and to a certain extent fashionable. Even society countenances it, and a brownstone front is no longer indispensable to at least moderate social standing. And as for wealthy folk who are not in society, they are taking more and more to apartments.
It was during this period that a sharp distinction began to emerge in the city’s apartment stock, with the traditional slum-tenement buildings on one side, and the new supply of well-appointed buildings on the other. Both made efficient use of land, but the former group took into account few other considerations, while the latter tried to balance efficient land use with an effort to meet the aesthetic expectations of more affluent tenants.
The differences between these two tranches of buildings highlight the inherent tension between the goals of achieving maximum land use efficiency and creating decent living spaces. In the pre-zoning days of the 1890s, developers of the two types of buildings became embroiled in battles over the character of individual blocks and neighborhoods. King describes the frontiers of class geography in 1892 Manhattan:
The tenements display the lowly side and often the dark side of New-York life. It is not possible to locate the tenement-house population within any closely defined limits. In general, it may be said to hold parts of nearly all the streets below 14th, except a part of the old Ninth Ward, which is distinctively the Native [-born] American section of the city, and in and about Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue, clinging to the river-front on either side, monopolizing almost entirely the East Side nearly over to Broadway. Above 14th Street on the East Side it is supreme east of Third Avenue as far as the Harlem River, with the exception of a part of lower Second Avenue and a few side-streets here and there. On the West Side it comes from the river-front as far east as Sixth Avenue, with oases of better homes here and there, and this as far north as about 59th Street. The territory above 59th Street to 125th Street has very little of this population. Tenement-houses are as a rule great towering buildings, many of them squalid and in bad repair, and devoid of any but the rudest arrangements for existence. They are packed with human beings. In a single block between Avenue В and Avenue С and 2d and 3d Streets there are over 3,500 residents, and a smaller block on Houston Street contains 3,000 people, which is at the rate of 1,000,000 to the square mile. That section is altogether populated at the rate of 500,000 to the square mile, which is as if the entire population of the city should be crowded into a space less than two miles square.
Presumably, it was with this landscape in mind that developers of new, upscale apartments sought to acquire land parcels further uptown, especially in the clean-slate blocks near Central Park, in Harlem and Washington Heights, and along the Grand Concourse. Many of their buildings took the spatial efficiency measures that had long been used in downtown tenements, and tempered them with a consciousness of form to create compact yet beautiful buildings.
The Classic Six
The New York Public Library maintains an extensive digital image database called “Classic Six: New York City Apartment Building Living, 1880-1910.” The name refers to the six-room layout that was typical in many of the city’s late Victorian apartment buildings, and the images are mostly scanned from The World’s New York Apartment House Album, an out-of-print volume that was published in 1910 by the New York World; and Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, a similar out-of-print album published two years earlier by G.C. Hesselgren & Company. Among the many plates are hundreds of color lithographs, depicting the footprints, floor plans, details, and dimensions of actual buildings that comprise the early portion of the iconic, pre-war apartment stock of the city.
These plans, which refer to bedrooms and living rooms as chambers and parlors, respectively, and which often provide for a maid’s room and a library in an otherwise modest unit, depict the urban American lifestyle of a lost time. Yet, in spite of their indulgence of dated pretensions and their frequently ornate details, these buildings contain a practical wisdom in their simple geometry, one that deserves to be recovered and applied in the contemporary search for efficient housing solutions. And, notably, like the over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats described by Duany, et al., many of these buildings’ most useful efficiency devices could never be reconciled with the typical zoning ordinances of contemporary suburbia.
One of the basic architectural features to be employed for spatial efficiency in the apartment buildings of the late Victorian period was the interior courtyard. By opening up the inside of the structure to air and light, internal rooms could be arranged to overlook a courtyard, and a larger portion of the lot could thus be covered with living space. As an added benefit, interior courtyards facilitated the aesthetic effect of having continuous façades along a street’s block face, creating a strong sense of intimately contained space on each block, and maintaining the enclosure that had previously been established by rows of attached brownstones. While the courtyard remains in use today, it is applied less frequently in the kinds of simple, basic buildings that it often enhanced a century ago. This has led to a loss of both aesthetic value and land-use efficiency in urban housing,
A good example of the ordinary application of the interior courtyard can be found in the layout of the Wadsworth Court, a six-story elevator building that was finished in 1909. Situated at the southwest corner of Wadsworth Avenue and West 180th Street, its modest, 100-by-75 foot lot is the land-use equivalent of just three standard row houses. But the Wadsworth accommodates five generously proportioned apartments on each of its upper five floors, and four large apartments, as well as a lobby and vestibule, on its ground floor. If one could presume that the chambers, maids’ rooms, and libraries of 1909 would today be, simply, bedrooms, then the Wadsworth layout manages to accommodate a total of 66 separate sleeping areas. And if a predictable portion of these are shared by couples, then the building provides enough space for about 100 people to live comfortably.
Today, few people who passed on the street would be likely to notice the Wadsworth as anything more extraordinary than a typical New York apartment building. In fact, its cornice is gone—replaced by mismatched bricks—and its paint is visibly fading. Its aging fire escapes have marked it for conflation with the tenements it was designed to contrast. But, in a way, its unremarkable present-day appearance is exactly what makes it interesting: These ordinary old buildings often contained simple design elements that have been shelved by subsequent generations of architects. Yet some of these devices might well be recovered in the contemporary quest to create more housing in dense metropolitan areas.
Similar to interior courtyards, externally-oriented adaptations of the same principle were widely employed by architects of the period. Rather than being enclosed by four structural walls, exterior courtyards are generally open to the street, resulting in a building whose façade is visually separated into two or more arms. The deep setback created by this design might be furnished with landscaped gardens, paths, lamp posts, benches, and patio tables. Like the interior courtyard, the open courtyard allows a larger percentage of the building lot to be covered by extending the length of exterior walls, and providing the necessary geometry to gain greater access to light and air. Unlike the interior courtyard, it is generally less private, and it may or may not be gated from the street. A good example of two buildings whose design employs this device to maximize ground coverage can be found in Washington Heights, in a pair called the Knowlton Court. Occupying the entire east side of Broadway between West 158th and West 159th Streets, these buildings were constructed between 1907 and 1908. Together, they have four exterior courtyards, with two facing Broadway and one facing each of the cross streets. At seven stories, the Knowlton Court buildings provide at least 244 bedrooms on a parcel that measures 200 by 125 feet, or enough space to house about 300 people.
Yards, Alleys, and Airshafts
While courtyards offer a balance of function and form, providing both practical and aesthetic benefits to buildings in urban settings, their function alone can frequently be achieved on a smaller scale with more utilitarian applications of the same basic concept. Simple paved or unpaved yards, bounding alleyways, and airshafts can be designed into large apartment buildings to maximize lot coverage and provide at least a modicum of air and light to a large number of off-street rooms.
A good example of the judicious application of such devices can still be found at the Saxonia, in Harlem. Designed by the architects of Neville & Bagge, the building opened in 1907 at the northwest corner of Broadway and West 136th Street, in an enclave known as Hamilton Heights. A six-story, elevator building with extensive ground floor retail space, the Saxonia capitalized on its proximity to the new City College campus, which also opened in 1907, and to the simultaneously-constructed IRT subway station at the corner of Broadway and West 137th Street. With a façade that wraps around its block face on both streets, the retail spaces are arranged to open on Broadway, while the building’s residential lobby is entered through a vestibule on the cross street. Neville achieved internal space efficiency through a variety of devices, including both interior and exterior courtyards, an oversized airshaft (providing air and light to a number of the tenants’ bathrooms), and a narrow setback from each of the interior property lines to create bounding alleyways, which are faced with windows and fire escapes. In this way, despite being situated on a lot that measures only 100 by 100 feet, or the equivalent of just four row houses, the architects were able to provide for at least 100 bedrooms on the upper five floors, as well as seven retail stores and a superintendent’s apartment on the ground level.
Similarly, in west Midtown, the architects of the Summersby Apartments achieved an even greater efficiency with just a 50-foot lot. Their seven-story building, located on West 56th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, opened in 1910. Its façade is attached to those on either side, creating the aesthetic of a continuous streetscape, but the building edges are stepped in at a depth of 20 feet, to create a pair of narrow bounding alleys that run to the back of the structure. There, these spaces are connected by a small, paved yard that adjoins the similar yards of adjacent buildings. The crevasses of light and air thus provided are used as facings for the placement of windows and exterior fire escapes, and they allow for an astonishing eighty percent of the Summersby’s lot width to be covered with livable floor space. As a result, space enough for at least 68 bedrooms is provided in just seven stories on the land that would be required for just two standard row houses. Admittedly, the actual light and air enjoyed by many rooms under such a design is minimal. But the building’s description in the Album indicates that, even in 1910, there was a market for apartments that traded aesthetics for access to Midtown:
The Summersby is a splendidly built, fireproof apartment house, with elevator service and telephone in each apartment. The highest degree of efficiency is demanded of the superintendent and uniformed hallboys. Tenants are selected with great care, and each apartment has the advantages of a private house.
Surprisingly, in light of today’s Manhattan land costs, the building was designed to have just two large apartments on each floor. Clearly, in the alternative, a number of smaller units could be carved out of the same space to provide more housing at lower price points to smaller households.
The Legacy of Late Victorian Urban Design
The approaches applied by the architects of the buildings described above are not especially unique. Instead, they are examples of routine design elements employed in the kinds of typical, middle-class and upscale apartment houses that were built in New York City around the turn of the twentieth century. For better and for worse, these devices were applied in thousands of buildings to achieve a higher density of residential space on limited parcels of land. Late Victorian urban design employed a much greater intricacy in its building devices than the majority of today’s apartment buildings. Many of these devices continue to haunt the collective consciousness that Americans have of old city buildings: long, echoing hallways, precarious fire escapes, dim alleys, and dark, paved yards. The hard times that fell on many urban neighborhoods in the late-twentieth century further colored the perception of these devices, as their inherent creation of mystery, density, and intricacy seemed terribly ill-suited for a world of crime, poverty, pervasive danger, and neglected maintenance. Yet, some of the period’s classic devices, like landscaped courtyards, grand lobbies, sunken living rooms, high ceilings, and transom windows are remembered much more fondly, and are still admired for the aesthetic grace that they add to the older buildings—almost to the point of obscuring their practical purposes. Yet, all of this complexity, both good and bad, was built with a small toolbox of simple, geometrical adaptations that allowed for the very efficient use of limited land.
In the years after World War II, as the patchwork of postwar America developed from the application of traditional Euclidean zoning, much of the resourceful wisdom and intricate variety of urban America began to unravel under a legal regime whose mandatory, broad brushstrokes pushed builders, architects, and even small-scale private landowners in entirely new directions. As New Urbanist writers like Duany have frequently observed, post-war land development was largely removed from the historical, practical, and aesthetic contexts of traditional approaches to town planning, and the consequences of this fundamental shift can be perceived in the strip malls, garden apartments, stunted design quality, wasted land, car dependence, and distorted housing that now characterize much of the American landscape. But, in spite of this, the conventional wisdom at the heart of land-use zoning retains a broad and powerful appeal: Most people recognize that the authority that has been delegated to local governments, pursuant to Euclid, has allowed many communities to protect themselves and the economic value of their properties from the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses, each of which has the potential to blight the landscape in a nearly permanent way.
While the potential value of land use zoning is evident, it is interesting to consider whether some of the architectural devices that were employed in New York City before its advent might be recovered and applied to address today’s planning challenges across the United States. A recovery of certain design elements from that time would hold the promise of influencing a wider recovery of land-use efficiency in metropolitan housing. This would be broadly consistent with the sustainable goals of economic development, ecological stewardship, and social equity, for many of the reasons discussed above. As we revise the calcifying approaches to Euclidian zoning, and seek to increase housing stocks without destroying the complex fabric of existing neighborhoods, we should look to the intricacy of New York City’s late-Victorian approach to apartment building. We might find it contains a number of valuable secrets, hidden in plain view.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.
Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack
When I visit my old home in New Jersey, I usually drive down a semi-rural stretch of U.S. Route 202. It used to be totally rural. I pass the Sunset Pancake House, boarded up for as long as I can remember, and the living anachronism next door, the Sunset Motel, its antique neon sign still lit and a station wagon or two parked out front.
There used to be two other motels along the same route: one was replaced by a shiny Holiday Inn Express; the other was torn down but never replaced, and only the signpost remains.
Along U.S. Route 22, closer in to New York City, there’s a mediocre hibachi joint that replaced the somewhat famous “Leaning Tower of Pizza” restaurant. And my favorite theme park as a child, Bowcraft Playland of Scotch Plains, is slated to be razed and turned into another hulking apartment block with a pastel facade and fake balcony railings.
Mid-century buildings, and their futures, inspire a variety of opinions, to say the least. The historic preservation scholar Howard Mansfield wrote, in his book The Bones of the Earth, of the Americana that still lines Route 22: “On days when you thought the Republic was rotted to its sills, these buildings stepped forward as exhibits….They were ugly; they were a dead end.”
Others are more sanguine about the future of aging American sprawl. In a fascinating master’s thesis titled “The Death and Life of Great American Strip Malls,” architecture student Matthew Manning suggests that strip malls and other popular roadside architecture are indeed of historical value and deserve to be treated seriously by preservationists. Nonetheless, preservationism usually loses when it comes suburban Americana, as it does in almost every sphere.
Perhaps such buildings were ugly, and few have aged well. There is something ironic about reading serenity and simplicity into them, when at least some 1950s New Jerseyans surely railed against bulldozing more farmland and covering it over with another gaudy neon-signed motel. Why is the motel more worthy of nostalgia than the farmland?
And yet even artifacts like this, having survived so long, deserve entry into the club. They are not just old buildings; they are little pieces of a way of life that has been superseded, but should not be forgotten. It seems silly, but it might also be valuable, to meditate on how a family of five or six and their dog could fit happily into a motel room smaller than an average New York City apartment. Old buildings can teach us humility.
The debate over historic preservation is ultimately more than one of aesthetics; it is one of cultural memory and even morality. It might be a sin to tear down a building, and sometimes demolition is truly cultural vandalism. Yet other than demolition and replacement, what realistic option is there for much of our built infrastructure? Sunset Motel is no Chartres Cathedral or colonial Jamestown, and it only appears unique because it is one of the last of its kind. We cannot force owners to keep languishing businesses open in perpetuity, nor can we turn every postwar motel and restaurant into a living museum. It is more the idea of such places which inspires nostalgia, not the buildings as they really exist. In all likelihood, Sunset Motel is not a time capsule of the Dick Van Dyke era, but a dingy hovel adorned with faded wallpaper and smelling of stale tobacco smoke.
Our society has developed mourning rituals for people—we have not developed them for buildings, or more broadly for fading artifacts of culture. There is something disconcerting about finding our built landscape unceremoniously transformed, often without warning. We are largely past the point where replacing one building with another confers any real benefit but satisfying the fickle interests of developers. The futurist Alvin Toffler wrote—in the 70s!—that only in America could a shopper, upon walking down the wrong street, conclude that the store had simply been torn down overnight.
Perhaps we need a “wake” and a “funeral” when it comes time for demolition. A day or two before the bulldozers come, the old building could be opened up for viewing, and the owner could take a few hours to do a final tour of his business. Pictures could be taken, memories could be shared. Some small consideration for the patrons and the community of which the business was a part could be shown.
No clear line can be drawn between the demolition of aging Americana and our existential loneliness and rootlessness that lead to distinctively American phenomena like angry talk radio and even mass shootings. Demolition is not murder. Yet if American life is sometimes water torture, the ever-changing roadside landscape, and the unceremonious ripping away of little pieces of our communities and their histories, is surely one more drop.
Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
The rain in Houston has barely stopped and the flood waters have yet to fully recede, but already a narrative has been created in the media, led by ProPublica, but with a lot of people and publications playing follow the leader, that blame the severity of Harvey’s impact on the region squarely on the city’s lack of zoning codes.
Unfortunately, it’s nonsense.
First things first: Hurricane Harvey dumped a record amount of rain on Houston. According to the Los Angeles Times, the region received more rain in a few days than they normally get in a year. One of the meteorologists the Times interviewed said that it was over a trillion gallons of water and that the amount was unprecedented for the continental United States.
According to NOAA, only a handful of cities get more rain in a year than Harvey brought to Houston. No one could have planned for this devastation because no one ever anticipated it being a possibility. No storm drainage system in the country is built to handle that much rainfall in that little time.
As far as Houston’s lack of zoning goes, it’s a myth. Stephen Smith pointed out nine years ago that Houston’s lack of normal land-use zoning has not prevented the city government from mandating minimum-parking requirements, setbacks, minimum lot sizes and all the other thousand ills that flesh is heir to. More than that, the main difference in the built environment of Houston and other cities that have experienced the bulk of their growth in the automobile era (one is tempted to write Anthropocene) is that infill development is much easier.
Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Jacksonville, and Tulsa all have downtowns with modern glass towers, acres of surface parking, subdivision after subdivision of single family detached residential on a hierarchy of streets feeding into a network of freeways.
Publications like ProPublica, Quartz, and Newsweek also have argued that zoning would have required developers to leave more of any given lot’s area as unpaved, preserving the wetlands and prairie that absorb water. But as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns pointed out, the wetlands that were filled could have accommodated 0.02 to 0.1 percent of the rain Harvey brought.
Another fact that ProPublica’s narrative missed: Other cities, in addition to having zoning, have faced extreme flooding events from much less rain than Houston received this month. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, for example, severe flash floods result from as little as two inches of rain in 25 minutes and enormous storm drains have been built under the city to cope. How big are they? Big enough that around 1,000 people live in them. Hurricane Sandy caused major flooding in New York and New Jersey with just seven inches of rain, according to NASA.
Moreover, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 92 percent of urban flooding takes place outside of designated floodplains, so restricting development within the floodplain is not effective. Flooding in cities around the country may not be as severe as that caused by Harvey, but urban flooding is still a national problem. Between 2007 and 2011, flooding in Cook County, Illinois, caused about $773 million in damage.
The relationship between impervious surface area and flooding seems to be very close, although the CNT found ambiguous evidence on this point. Only 10 of the 23 Cook County zip codes with the most flood insurance claims were also where the most impervious surface was. This is probably because they, like the people blaming building regulations for flooding, have got the short end of the stick: As two-thirds of the surface area in the typical American city is devoted to parking and roadway.
According to Charlie Gardner, around 20 percent of Downtown Houston is surface parking, while another 40 percent is devoted to streets—while in a typical city built before the 19th century, only about 15 percent of land would be devoted to roadway. This huge amount of urban land given over to asphalt dwarfs the amount of space available for housing and parks. Writing at Planetizen, Todd Litman calculates that as much as 4,000 square feet of land per automobile is given over to roadway and parking—that’s a lot of land consuming taxes instead of producing them. For comparison, according to Michael Lewyn, until 1998 the minimum lot size in Houston for a new home was 5,000 square feet. This is important because standard planning practices are based around retaining storm water on site, meaning that buildings need large green space foot prints to absorb water, but if the effect of such regulation is to separate buildings, then they could lead to more driving and hence more asphalt.
Even then, geography matters: According to economist Phil Magness, some of the worst flooding, in terms of water volume, occurred in the rural areas along the Brazos River.
What lessons can we learn from Harvey? Geography and geology are important to how cities handle severe storms and sea level rise. More importantly, cities do not need historic storms to suffer from flooding and the 60 percent of a city’s surface area devoted to parking and roadway likely exacerbate flooding more than residential or commercial development. Compact, walkable cities of the types advocated by New Urbanists should be better able to deal with urban flooding.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein, Liveright, 368 pages
Some years ago, I lived for a time in Oak Park, Illinois. For decades Oak Park has been filled with rich white liberals, living just across the street from a City of Chicago neighborhood, Austin, that is filled with poor black people. Yet, for some reason the citizens of Oak Park simply can’t fathom, people from Austin almost never move to Oak Park. Who can say why? Well, Richard Rothstein can. His book, The Color of Law, shows all the ways in which the officials of Oak Park, and innumerable other government functionaries across the nation, have aggressively worked for decades to keep black people in inferior, segregated housing. Rothstein’s service is to precisely set out why this happened, how it was done, and what exactly the effects today are.
Rothstein doesn’t actually mention Oak Park, but it is the perfect example of many of the racist behaviors he documents. To this day, the quaint-sounding “Village” funds (behind a screen of third parties, whose pictures are not shown on their website) the boringly named Oak Park Regional Housing Center. The OPRHC advertises all over Chicago that it will help those moving to Oak Park find rental apartments. Since Oak Park has very few rentals (due to deliberate zoning to prevent them), this is a seemingly valuable service. Thus, when I needed to move to Oak Park, I took advantage of it, setting up an appointment, as required, with an “advisor.”
When I arrived, my “advisor” gave me a sheet that said, in deliberately obscurantist legalese, “We will give you listings on the basis of your race.” This blatantly illegal practice (not made legal by disclosure, either) took me aback. Why, I thought, would they do that? It did not take long for me to figure out: They wanted, and still today want, to prevent black people from clustering there (shades of the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village), which could attract more black people who might thereby start to view Oak Park as welcoming to African Americans. So they scatter black people among white people, and they try to locate white people among black people already living in Oak Park, both to prevent clustering that might attract more black people. I suspect that they probably also try to directly discourage African Americans in other ways, though I can’t speak personally to that. Turned off by their overt racism, I ultimately found an apartment in Oak Park by myself, in those early Internet days, by going to the offices of the Chicago Reader the night before the paper was distributed, and being the first to call one of the few apartments offered for rent that week. Unsurprisingly, I had to leave a voice mail, and I was called back, having met the Village’s effective main criterion of a good renter—being white.
I encourage you, after you read Rothstein’s book, to go to the OPRHC’s current website, or to the “History” article linked on their site, to see the contortions that racists go through to justify their racism, especially when their own self-image is as completely non-racist, and to see how precisely the OPRHC lines up with the practices Rothstein documents. For example, in the OPRHC’s FAQ, they ask “Question: Do you have listings online? Can I get them over the phone or email?” Answer: “We don’t, and here’s why: Because our services are customized to each individual client, we must meet with you in person to review your financial requirements with you and discuss your space and location needs and any other preferences you might have.” Sure. If Oak Park really wanted to help people find rentals, they’d operate a purely online service. And they’d also change their zoning, which includes many fun rules, such as forbidding “For Rent” signs and on-street overnight parking, the better to discourage black people from Austin from walking around town, or owning houses or apartments without expensive off-street parking. But they don’t do any of those things, because the reality is they don’t want “those people” from Austin coming into their town.
Enough about Oak Park, although it is in many ways the perfect exemplar of the practices documented by this book. The Color of Law, while not flawless, is very impressive on many levels. It offers voluminous scholarship and detailed history. But what most impressed me was that at each step of the way Rothstein directly and without flinching or evasion addresses all possible counter-arguments. When the reader thinks “but what about . . . . . ?,” the next paragraph or chapter is nearly certain to address just that question. And in case he missed anything, Rothstein has an entire ending section on “Frequently Asked Questions” to directly answer questions and objections raised by others during his research. Throughout the book, Rothstein makes great efforts to be intellectually honest, which makes his book very different than most modern political debates, where advocates pretend that their desired solutions are cost-free, and their opponents are idiots or driven by malice. Rothstein freely admits where he expects there to be costs, and gives specific reasons why and by whom those costs should be borne. If he thinks there is malice (and given the topic of his book, it could not be otherwise), he does not spend his time focusing on it, rather spending his time on facts. This honesty is refreshing and adds considerable power to the book.
A major theme running through The Color of Law is that the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation is both functionally fictitious and obfuscatory. Non-black people (me, for example) tend to think of housing discrimination as something in the past, engineered mostly by individuals in their private capacities, though with effects in the current day. It’s more convenient to think that way, after all. Just as importantly, we tend to think that if, in some cases, the government did engage in segregation (de jure), it doesn’t anymore, so there’s little to talk about. Plus we conclude that by now the effects of private and government actions are impossible to separate. Rothstein rejects all these explanations, or rather, claims they obscure more than clarify. First, there was, until relatively recently, vastly more de jure segregation than most people are aware. Second, even if legal segregation is now gone, what we think of as de facto segregation was primarily driven by earlier de jure segregation—and therefore the government, not private choice, is almost exclusively responsible for present-day patterns of segregation, as well as the consequent multiple negative effects on African Americans in the present day. Third, because it was our government, we are all responsible for finding a solution.
Although most of the book is taken up with the dry bones of statistics and with carefully phrased parsing of specific instances of de jure segregation and their effects, Rothstein frames his book with the story of Frank Stevenson, born in 1924 in Louisiana. As a young man, he moved to San Francisco, working in war industries and settling in Richmond, Calif., just north of Oakland. Many African Americans came to California to work, because the war opened up (some) good jobs for black men—but it did not open up opportunities for good homes. Rothstein documents the myriad ways in which men like Stevenson and their families were forced into less desirable housing, usually far from their jobs. These included official refusal by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration to insure mortgages for black applicants seeking homes in white areas, or for white applicants seeking homes in black areas. They also included putatively private practices such as blockbusting (real estate agents trying to stir up white panic about declining house values if black people moved in or near) and redlining (banks refusing to lend for housing in any area where many black people lived). All of northern California engaged in these practices, which is largely why Stanford and Palo Alto have almost no black people today—black people were kept out and now they can’t afford to enter. And Stevenson’s descendants are, if not poor, barely middle class—unlike the vast majority of descendants of white wartime workers.
Rothstein spends much of the rest of the book delineating the breadth and nationwide impact of each of the obstacles encountered by Frank Stevenson and other African Americans in California. He discusses at great length government efforts to ghettoize (his word) black people, both where they lived and most especially as they moved north. These efforts began primarily in the Progressive Era (segregation was actually less aggressive earlier) and were led by Progressives. The policies were aggressively supported and expanded by Franklin Roosevelt and his team of Democrats, both on the national level and in most large municipalities (though primarily driven at the federal level). There were so many such efforts, with interlocking effect, and Rothstein itemizes them all, that the reader’s eyes begin to glaze over. They included discriminatory mortgage insurance (or the lack thereof); innumerable explicit racial restrictions in development and housing sales; location of services and schools; the racism of the Tennessee Valley Authority; the segregation of federally driven high-rise housing projects; and much more. Rothstein also documents the intermittent attempts by courts to forbid various segregation practices, usually promptly evaded by government functionaries who made slippery statements about how they were really complying with the law (a practice that seems to characterize most functionaries of the administrative state even today, on any issue where the courts overrule the superior judgment and insight of bureaucrats).
The book extensively covers zoning—something mostly neutral on its face, but widely used by Oak Park, and thousands of other localities, to keep black people out. Occasionally such zoning was explicitly racial, but early on that was forbidden by the courts, so various clever alternatives were used, primarily focused on preventing the creation of housing attractive to lower income people (with other actions taken against higher income black people who didn’t get the message). And just in case the reader starts to think he means just places like Alabama, Rothstein points out that zoning and other local ordinances were used to drive black people almost wholly out of places such as Montana.
Other chapters elaborate further on FHA policies designed to prevent black people from obtaining desirable housing (including, most poignantly, in Levittown) and tell how ostensibly private discrimination, such as in housing covenants, relied not just on direct government enforcement (which was ended relatively early), but on governments refusing to enforce laws against those who intimidated or used violence against black families daring to move to white areas. There is also coverage of tax policy and numerous additional local efforts to keep black people out, such as by hugely raising utility connection fees for “black developments,” and paying black people to go away by offering them above-market prices for their homes. None of this is strictly news, but its breadth and permanence, as well as its brazen conduct, is news to most people, including me.
Rothstein also repeatedly points out the knock-on effects of housing segregation. Renting or owning a house in a less desirable neighborhood prevents the building of equity over decades. Subsequent generations therefore get less money handed down to them. Living far from job centers makes it harder to get, and to keep, a good job. Related to this were government efforts to suppress black wages, such as by Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, which was designed to set much lower wages for industries with a heavy African-American presence, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, with its segregated camps and assignment of black people to menial, unskilled jobs, thus hampering skills development. This continued after the Depression and World War II, when blacks were largely excluded from the good jobs in many industries that boomed and allowed millions of white people to enter the middle class. Even aside from overt segregation, when you make less money, you have less choice in housing, and are more likely to end up in cheaper, crowded, already segregated housing.
Of course, it does not take much historical knowledge to know that racism against black people was widespread government policy, both in the North and South, for a long time. (The exceptions were areas where public policy was heavily influenced by Christian social principles, which drove anti-racism just like it drove abolitionism.) Gun control, for example, was originally introduced, in the South post-Reconstruction, as a naked effort to strip black people of their constitutional right to keep and bear arms, so that they could be more effectively oppressed. But historical knowledge is in short supply nowadays, so Rothstein fills in the picture for readers, and then adds plenty of detail.
The author notes in several places that the Progressive movement, from Woodrow Wilson (“an uncompromising believer in segregation and black inferiority”) on down, was incorrigibly racist, most aggressively against African Americans. He does not note, but could have with profit, that this was closely related to the racism of the Progressive-run eugenics movement, which sought to “purify the race,” and was led by, among others, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. She founded it with a primary goal of limiting the black population through the eugenics methods of the day, including birth control, forced sterilization, and abortion. As she said, in writing, talking of hiring black ministers to propagandize recalcitrant black people opposing her methods, “We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” And even today, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg let her mask drop a few years back, noting with approval that Roe v. Wade invented a constitutional right to abortion in part because of “concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” That is, to be clear, Ginsburg thinks it good to encourage the killing of black people so there won’t be so many of them. If that’s what a sitting Supreme Court justice, the heir of Woodrow Wilson’s Progressives, today feels comfortable saying in public, it’s no wonder that de jure housing segregation lasted so long.
The inevitable conclusion from Rothstein’s powerful demonstration of overwhelming government discrimination against black people is that the African-American experience is unique. He draws that conclusion, without hesitation. Unfortunately for today’s Left, though, this is the wrong conclusion, because today’s American Left relies nearly wholly on identity politics, and its underlying Marxist theories of oppression and emancipation, to unite its coalitions and to stir up rage to action. If one group is unique, then this program collapses of its own contradictions. Thus, Rothstein has been criticized in some quarters for overtly refusing to use the term “people of color,” instead explicitly insisting on “black” or “African American.” “When we wish to pretend that the nation did not single out African Americans in a system of segregation specifically aimed at them, we diffuse them as just another ‘people of color.’” He similarly refuses to use the vague term “diversity,” in effect recognizing it as a cult word designed to obfuscate through its meaninglessness—rather, he insists on using the precise goal term of “racial integration.” This speaks well of his passion for exactitude, but undercuts the bogus narrative of generalized, non-specific but all-powerful “white privilege,” and thus makes him guilty of wrongthink. If Rothstein worked at Google, he’d be fired.
Rothstein ends with a list of possible “fixes,” ranging from giving effectively free houses to black people, to eliminating the mortgage-interest deduction, to various fairly complex schemes to incentivize the building of low-income housing in desirable suburbs. He openly admits that these fixes have considerable costs, ranging from direct monetary costs to the increase in local crime that will result from importing young black men—noting, with rare honesty, that “integration cannot wait until every African American youth becomes a model citizen.” But he also freely admits none of these are constitutional under current principles or are politically palatable—both to white people, and, what he does not say, to non-black “people of color.” Thus, his primary goal is educate—to show readers that the common narrative of “it was a long time ago, and it wasn’t really the government, and anyway don’t black people choose to live by themselves” is wrong, and to hope such education bears fruit in public policy, especially in the courts. And Rothstein sticks to that goal. Unlike Ta-Nehisi Coates, he does not get bogged down in blaming white people for every bad thing that has ever happened to a black person. This gives more power to his analysis, not least by preventing those in his audience uncomfortable with his analysis and conclusions from wriggling away or changing the topic.
There are many unanswerable questions that Rothstein does not get sidetracked into addressing. What would patterns of housing, and economic progress, look like in a world without the government actions Rothstein narrates? How much did government segregation contribute to the destruction of the black family from the 1960s onward, with consequent further negative impacts on black economic progress? How can cultural pathologies in some African American communities be repaired? All these are worthwhile questions, but not the focus of the book, which is a wise choice by the author, I think.
Yes, there are some false notes. Most of these consist in mushy application of legal principles. No, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution does not “prohibit the federal government from treating citizens unfairly.” That may be a layman’s version of the Fifth Amendment (or rather the Fifth Amendment viewed through the Fourteenth), but that is not what the Fifth Amendment says, and to import vague concepts like “fairness” decreases clarity. Similarly, Rothstein makes much of the Thirteenth Amendment, arguing that the long history of government housing discrimination “was not only unlawful but was the imposition of a badge of slavery that the Constitution mandates us to remove.” The Thirteenth Amendment says nothing about “badges of slavery.” Rothstein also insists on referring to all discriminatory actions as unconstitutional as of the time they were taken, stating “I reject the widespread view that an action is not unconstitutional until the Supreme Court says so.” In fact, all of us . . . bear a collective responsibility to enforce our Constitution and to rectify past violations whose effects endure.” I am all for private interpretation, and I agree with Rothstein that what is unconstitutional should not be defined solely by the Supreme Court, but also by legislators and simple individuals. Dred Scott should not be viewed as having made slavery constitutional in its time, any more than Roe v. Wade should be viewed as having made abortion constitutional in our time. In practice, though, Rothstein’s moral outrage on constitutionality does not really add to his overall argument.
On another legal matter, Rothstein repeatedly complains that mortgage brokers and banks “targeted lower-middle-class African American communities for subprime lending during the pre-2008 housing bubble, leaving many more African American families subject to default and foreclosure than economically similar white families.” This may be true—but some, or perhaps all, of that targeting was required or encouraged by law, by the so-called Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which Rothstein does mention, but only in an endnote, and by pressure from financial regulators to issue more loans to “underserved communities.” As a former director of a publicly-traded bank, I’m quite familiar with both, and their effect was (and is) to require race-based lending to bad credit risks. Naturally, when you lend to bad credit risks, they default more, and they are disproportionately adversely affected by downturns in the economy as a whole. Criticism of modern-day bank policies as designed to perpetuate segregation is the weakest part of Rothstein’s book (although it is also a very ancillary part of the book)—it is, perhaps, ironic that the CRA results in black borrowers being set back further in a downturn, but that does not show racism. There is simply zero evidence for discriminatory lending—as shown by the default rates for black borrowers being generally actually higher, suggesting that the underwriting standards for them are looser, not tighter.
Rothstein also uncritically praises the Obama administration’s “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” regulations, a radical expansion of the Fair Housing Act by bureaucratic fiat. He notes, correctly, that much of what AFFH demands is designed to address the effects of many of the government policies on which his book focuses. He does not note, however, that AFFH dilutes that focus by requiring exact quotas for all races in housing for suburbs of any given city, not just African Americans. Moreover, he ignores the much more sinister overall goal of AFFH, which is to tap the monies of successful Republican suburbs by federal force, in order to redirect them to prop up cities that are failing due to decades of Democratic leadership and policies, so they can take that money and pay off their political cronies and supporters, without any political responsibility to those who are actually providing the money. (This is not dissimilar to the way in which Democrats have for decades used government-employee unions to reinforce their power while handing the bill to future generations, one of the many reasons government unions should again be made illegal.)
But these mild problems don’t detract substantially from the power of this book. Yes, it’s a bit of a slog, and like any book about the evil that men do, the reader doesn’t necessarily thrill to the read. If you stick it out, though, you’ll be rewarded with fresh insights into critical public policies, and that is well worth the time and effort.
The Late Victorian period in the United States—roughly the last third of the 19th century—produced some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the history of Western civilization. It also produced some of the most hopeless slums. In response to the crisis of industrial cities, the modern discipline of city planning emerged. The tools of this new profession helped clean up many unhealthy aspects of urban industry, but also stifled some of the best innovations of Late Victorian urbanism.
By the 1920s, planners in the industrial world had established the legal authority to promulgate land-use regulations, and over the next generation, they succeeded at slowing the construction of slum housing and segregating noxious industries from incompatible activities, such as housing and office space. Through some of the same devices, however, planners curtailed some positive features of 19th-century urbanism, including the rich variety of free-form industrial development and the adaptive responsiveness of such neighborhoods to the changing needs of a dynamic society.
In recent years, critics have lamented the parallel declines in beauty and functionality of newly built neighborhoods, and have sought to recover some of the best features of the Late Victorian city by mandating development styles that imitate its forms. The New Urbanism movement is the most salient example of this phenomenon. But far from being the products of a comprehensive legal process, the forms of traditional neighborhoods were the end result of a larger development context—one that has largely been forgotten.
The Late Victorian period is an object of admiration for many New Urbanists, and left a durable imprint on American urbanism before comprehensive zoning regulations began. By identifying the factors that shaped development in that the heyday of modern urbanism, we may begin to uncover how they interacted to build neighborhoods that people continue to love.
The Common Law and Urbanism in Late Victorian America
Today American law acts as the dominant factor shaping new neighborhoods. Prior to the onset of zoning, however, law was one among several factors that created the built environment. In the 19th century, a paradigm shift began to take place in the legal systems of the Anglo-American world. Statutes had coexisted with case law in the English tradition for many centuries, but in the early 19th century, statutes remained much less pervasive than they are today: The flexible doctrines shaped by courts through case law were broadly workable in agrarian societies. Partly in response to industrialization, and partly for other reasons, demand grew for greater specificity and predictability than case law could offer. One consequence was an ambitious effort to codify both the substance and procedure of law. During the 19th century, legislatures became more prolific, legal codes became more prominent, and case law began, more frequently, to interpret statutes rather than to expound on traditional rules.
The body of law that governs the physical development of real property did not escape the trend toward codification, although the result, modern land use zoning, did not crystallize until the early 20th century. Nevertheless, in the history of development there is a long tradition of formal regulation, which may obscure the importance of a key change in modern city planning.
Since antiquity, written codes have regulated construction in cities (e.g., to reduce risks of fire, collapse, and disease) and ensured the integrity of public rights of way. In the 19th century, such codes were at work American cities, and they continue to exist today, primarily in the form of building codes. The salient change, which tracked the modern trend toward greater codification, was the advent of the comprehensive regulation of land use. Unlike a building code, a zoning ordinance specifies permissible activities and limits development intensity for non-safety reasons. Thus, in the common-law world, one could see the advent of land-use zoning as an attempt to codify the prevention of nuisances. The increasing regulation of land use over the past century has diverted and reordered the powerful non-legal forces that once shaped development; when studying land development norms of the Late Victorian past, the silence of the law is often its most notable distinction.
Logic and Tradition as Positive Forces
In the more free-form legal context that developers enjoyed before zoning, one can imagine the formation of a new town. In an environment of light regulation, new settlements form as local variations on a general, logical pattern. Imagine any crossroads, for example, as the seed of a new town. A crossroads is logical, because it will experience more traffic than any non-intersecting point along either of its constituent thoroughfares, making it a good spot for a church, an inn, or a market. Better, still, is a crossroads near a secondary transport route, such as a river, harbor, or railroad track; or a crossroads near a natural resource, like a mineral vein or a hardwood forest. In some cases, chance or unique circumstances may determine why people initially select a particular point for a solitary outpost. Yet once a destination is established, the value of the adjacent sites increases by an order of magnitude: Now, this site receives the traffic for its newfound destination. With a second destination, the crossroads becomes the smallest kind of settlement.
From here, our settlement has the potential for continued growth. At some point, it may attract enough people to justify building a green or a forum. With foresight, the founders may reserve the last unoccupied angle of the crossroads for this use, as was done in the Roman tradition. If, instead, the designation of a common space is reactive, then it might be done a short distance up or down one of the two main roads, from which point it may eventually become a new center of gravity for the growing settlement.
If the trend continues, a logical course of action would be to build out a grid from the central locus to accommodate continued growth. Builders may extend blocks to establish the green shoots of this settlement pattern into the surrounding raw land. Over time, these activities may shape a pattern of neighborhood development with the economic and cultural forces that operate within it. This is because, in the absence of a formal planning process, towns and cities are living, responsive manifestations of the social lives, economies, and cultural norms of their people.
The Shaping Factors of Free-Form Urbanism
In contrast with the positive forces of urban genesis, an array of other, limiting factors presented forms of resistance that ultimately shaped the growth of neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods whose essential qualities survive from the late 19th century were not formally, centrally planned. One of the most interesting land use riddles—which should be at the heart of any inquiry into traditional town planning— is how the towns and cities of that period often achieved such good layout, massing, and general communication between diverse sites, given the much smaller toolbox of legal devices that controlled such phenomena prior to the early 20th century. Solving the riddle about what has gone missing in today’s development requires identifying the factors that fostered greater cohesion between urban parcels in the past. (This is a separate question from what caused the decline in quality of the architecture of individual structures and it goes much more to the essence of effective land-use planning.)
Five major constraints, or shaping factors, tempered the form of urbanism in its Late Victorian, free-form heyday. Bright-line distinctions did not always separate these factors. In fact, to a certain extent, their forces of influence tended to overlap.
1) The Topography and Dimensions of Development Sites
In the period before modern zoning, the layout of a new neighborhood was shaped by topography and subdivision. The former was mostly a given; the latter was done, as it is today, through the recording of plats, which showed the precise dimensions of new lots and rights-of-way. A typical American platting statute in the 19th century was enacted by a state legislature, and required filings to include a survey map; a written site description, with metes and bounds; a declaration of intent to subdivide the property; a scale and a compass; and the seal of a licensed surveyor or engineer. Publicly-owned lands could be platted by municipal authorities, while private lands could be platted by their respective owners, and multiple owners could jointly file for contiguous parcels. Issues such as street lines and zero-lot lines might have been addressed on a case-by-case basis. Notably absent from these statutes were any references to regulations pertaining to massing and land-use considerations. However, it was not unheard of for platting statutes to include an acknowledgment of the general police power over subsequent development. In areas of new growth, plats may have been initiated by the developers themselves.
In tandem with the human hand of subdivision, natural topography determined how individual sites could be developed. Steep slopes, watercourses, flood plains, wetlands, exposures to sunlight, and other factors could all present obstacles to the development patterns of a particular site. Of course, these topographic and environmental considerations have shaped the development of towns since antiquity.
2) Patterns Shaped by Contemporary Building and Transportation Technologies
Prior to the advent of railroads, any settlement not situated on a navigable waterway was limited to such commerce as could be supported by slow, overland routes, and the beasts of burden that traversed them. Accordingly, nearly every large settlement was situated on a seaport, a river, or a canal. And even within these maritime cities, intense development was viable only in proximity to the piers. Thus, the densest parts of old river cities as diverse as classical Rome, Elizabethan London, and 18th-century New York, tended to sprawl along their respective riverfronts, with their densest areas of settlement being essentially riparian and expanding in a linear, rather than concentric, pattern. Meanwhile, European cities with extensive canals, like Venice and Amsterdam, offer some of the most extensive examples of pre-industrial concentric urbanism, because their networks of artificial waterways served as capillaries for trade and the corresponding growth of dense urbanism.
During the second half of the 19th century, the growth of railroads played an outsized role in reshaping American land development patterns. With the advent of railroads, suddenly, vibrant towns and neighborhoods could be developed—and integrated into the larger economy—in proximity to any fixed stop along a track. Freed from its dependence on navigable waterways, the canvas of urbanism grew exponentially. On a local scale, streetcar lines, subways, and elevated railroads acted as arteries of urban growth that allowed the outward expansion from the central districts served by intracity rail. Yet, within this far-flung network rail-driven settlements, technological limits continued to exert pressure on developers to maximize land use efficiency on parcels close to transportation arteries. Most significantly, before the advent of motor vehicles, neighborhoods were still necessarily compact: A practical limit, walkable distances from rail lines, represented the continuation of a constraint that had existed in relation to navigable waterways since classical times. Thus, while railroads, including streetcars, expanded the canvas of urbanism, they did not so much disrupt the traditional patterns of cohesion within individual neighborhoods.
Accordingly, the period between the advent of railroads and the rise of motor vehicles (from about 1850 to 1910) was a historically unique period in the history of land development. In this era, urbanism could be economically viable in settings that lacked maritime commerce, and industry drove such development to countless new places. Yet the essential, intricate patterns of Western European urbanism were not threatened by sprawl. In contrast, the potential height of structures did grow significantly during this period. Large apartment buildings became increasingly common in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other east coast cities, and the first skyscrapers took shape at the latter end of this era. Accordingly, this period became a sort of tabula rasa for free-form urbanism, in which traditional forms could admit variations and experiments—such as taller buildings, experimental architecture, and streetcar suburbs—that would not have been technologically viable in earlier times. Yet neighborhoods retained the compact scale of European urbanism that had shaped settlements since antiquity.
3) Common Law Principles
In the late Victorian period, covenants could be made between private parties pertaining to land use. The basic form of such covenants dates from the decision in Spencer’s Case, in 1583, though scholars have suggested that the principle itself may be much older than that. However, the early covenants applied to the assignment of leases, and not to successive owners in fee. In England, the modern form did not take shape until the 1848 decision in Tulk v. Moxhay, which confirmed that equitable remedies (e.g., injunction and specific performance) could be used to enforce such agreements; and that covenants could be enforced in the equity courts against successive owners in fee. In America, real covenants had been allowed by courts from earlier times. Thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, by the time the Industrial revolution was reaching its full force, a device was available by which private parties could limit the allowable uses of their land—and these covenants could be made to “run with the land”—providing some measure of protection, for certain parties, against the dangers of growing industry.
In a typical form, one parcel would be burdened while the other would be benefited. Thus, reciprocal covenants could be used to enshrine certain qualities in future development patterns. When tracts of rural land were subdivided into smaller parcels for town development, entire neighborhoods could be shaped by running covenants. In addition, such covenants could fill the vacuum—to some extent—that the common-law system had left in the land-use constraints on private property as industry became more noxious. Yet covenants were limited in their utility by their requirement of horizontal privity, which typically meant the covenanting parties had to begin by subdividing a single parcel. While the precise definition varied by time and place, this rule had the invariable effect of limiting the circumstances under which parties could create covenants that would bind their successors. Thus, even neighboring property owners who agreed upon the need for specific restrictions could not simply establish covenants that would bind subsequent owners, in the same simple manner by which they could enter into contracts.
Because covenants required the assent of both the burdened and benefited parties, they were also relatively useless in addressing the growing number of conflicts that arose as cities and industries grew. Until the onset of zoning laws in the early 20th century, the common-law nuisance case was the main legal device that parties could use to restrain the noise, pollution, and congestion created by industrial sites. Nuisance law was limited, however, by interpretive trends that led to all-or-nothing remedies (e.g., closure of a factory versus the continuation of its nuisances); and by an increasing tendency of the courts, in the industrial age, to weigh the societal benefits of an activity against the costs to the immediate neighbors of the purported nuisance. Thus, by the early 20th century, the failure of traditional nuisance law to effectively police the consequences of heavy industry had become a major factor in the push for clearer and more predictable land-use regulation. As noted above, the early zoning ordinances could be seen as a codification of nuisance law to address—and presumably avert—some of the most common disputes that arose in industrial cities.
Thus, private covenants, on one hand, and nuisance law, on the other, constituted the basic common law that governed private land use in the Late Victorian period. This decidedly non-comprehensive system fostered a liberal development environment within which individual owners were largely free to innovate and be resourceful in how they developed the land. In the rural settings where new towns were being settled, and at the edges of growing cities where new neighborhoods were being developed, there were often only the constraints of nuisance law and simple economics on builders. Moreover, within established neighborhoods, as changing economic and technological pressures gradually altered the types of development that would be viable, the constitution of the urban fabric was free to evolve much more organically and responsively than it would be under today’s heavier and more political regulation.
Describing the transition of neighborhoods from private homes to apartment and commercial buildings, a process that was once taken for granted, Frank Backus Williams counseled urban planners in 1922 that, “such changes usually cannot and should not be opposed, for the higher land values (attained for such purposes) generally indicate that the new use is of greater importance to the community[.]” Fundamentally, a property owner under the common law system had a great deal of latitude and—with a few exceptions—could build as he pleased on his land.
4) The Evolving Landscape of Building Safety Codes.
Common-law urbanism was also covered by a veneer of statutory laws. The most significant of these were various types of safety codes. Yet much of the statutory land-use regulation that existed in the Late Victorian period was similar in nature to rules that had shaped urban development since ancient times; and these laws, like their ancient forerunners, did not attain the pervasiveness and restrictiveness that would characterize later, modern zoning laws. The rationale for safety laws was, quite narrowly, the promotion of safety, and their scope was defined accordingly.
In Rome, Augustus limited the height of new residential buildings to approximately 68 feet, to reduce the risk of collapse in the city’s growing insulae, or apartment blocks. Likewise, during the Renaissance, buildings in Venice and Florence were limited in height. Following the Great Fire of 1666, the City of London enacted the first significant building codes in British history. While these examples of laws were all enacted to reduce various risks to the public safety, they had the collateral effect of shaping their respective cities in those places, like Classical Rome’s Suburra, or along the Grand Canal in Venice, or in the 17th-century City of London, where unrestrained development pressures would otherwise have promoted the construction of larger and more crowded buildings.
The enactment of safety regulations, which in certain cases limited and shaped the development patterns of private property, was not novel—and during the heyday of free-form urbanism, such safety codes continued to govern urban building practices to reduce the risks of fire, disease, or collapse. Still it is important to note that codes prescribing a maximum density were likely to be factors only in those exceptional places where development pressure was quite intense, and where economic pressures would support development intensity that exceeded a consensus about safe practices. (This limited impact stands in sharp contrast to modern American zoning laws, which prohibit the construction of safe, economically viable development patterns to protect the preferences and property values of current owners from the real estate pressures of an evolving marketplace.)
In late Victorian America, safety laws primarily addressed the usual culprits. Over time, however, local authorities found ways to discourage certain unwanted types of development through dubious applications of safety regulations. Frank Backus Williams captures this when he writes:
A favorite means in many communities of excluding the “three decker” (i.e., the three story tenement house, with an apartment to the floor, often covering an undue percentage of the lot) is to make the requirements for it so expensive that it cannot be built at a profit. The New York City tenement house law, passed in 1901, provided that all tenements over six stories in height should be fire proof, and later amendments have made the six story building proportionately more expensive than the five story structure. Chicago has for many years required all tenements over three stories to be of fire proof material. The result is that in Manhattan and other parts of the city, New York is prevailingly a city of six or five story residences, while in Chicago the three story type is the predominant one. At the time these fire proofing regulations were passed, a plain height limit prescribing such a maximum would have been difficult of enactment.
Thus, by the turn of the century, we can see that local officials were using safety rules to limit the massing of apartment buildings in dense cities; and we can imagine that this practice may have incorporated political objectives, in addition to safety objectives. But we can also see how limited the hand of the law remained: Even these constraints only came into play in locales where development pressure was sufficient to promote construction that exceeded the size of traditional neighborhood development patterns. When, in describing the impact of the New York tenement law, Williams writes about “other parts of the city,” he presumably refers to those exceptional places in the boroughs outside Manhattan where real estate markets would support development that equaled or exceeded these constraints. In contrast, in most of the outlying locales of Greater New York at the turn of the 20th century, the city’s regulatory discouragement of residential buildings exceeding five stories in height would have had little or no effect on the formation of neighborhood patterns.
Similarly, setback requirements were also more constrained in the heyday of Late Victorian urbanism, as they typically represented strips of land acquired prospectively, or reserved by easement, for future street widening. By the early 20th century, the potential use of setback requirements to forestall high-density development was understood. Yet, as Williams notes, planners at the time saw this as a secondary purpose, and a temporary device to preserve the low density of certain blocks until they had become ripe for more intense land development. He wrote:
[T]he change should not be made at the whim of one or two shortsighted or selfish land owners, who by building to the sidewalk force an immediate and general change against the interests of the street as a whole, and temporarily impair land values for the entire street. With a setback established, such a change is impossible until the city, in the general interest or the interest of the majority of the property owners on the street, removes the restriction and authorizes the change of use.
Thus, we again see a utilitarian exercise of the general police power that was applied, creatively, in the early 20th century, to circumscribe market activities that had previously been driven by a plethora of individual actors. In the heyday of Late Victorian free-form urbanism, it was the norm for individual property owners to build to the established street line when they intuited—correctly or not—that their neighborhood real estate market would reward such development. When the initial actors intuited correctly, and their hyperlocal market did reward such densification, other nearby actors would also step in to meet the demand. This was the force that shaped the development of the whole physical fabric of free-form Late Victorian urbanism. Even among planners who sought to constrain the chaotic effects of ad hoc activities by individual actors, there was a general understanding of the logic and desirability of organic urban growth, and the trend toward densification that occurs as result of intensifying development pressures.
5) Traditional Western European Concepts of Town Planning
Finally, tradition remained a powerful shaping factor in modern free-form urbanism. When examining the genesis of urban forms, it can be a particular challenge to separate the influence of tradition from the force of logic.
In spite of their functionality, some of the ubiquitous elements of traditional urbanism have a cultural provenance. The role of a crossroads in embryonic urbanism has ancient roots in European planning: The Romans formalized the generative significance of the crossroads early in the Republic. In new towns, and especially in frontier towns, a crossroads lay at the heart of the textbook Roman town plan. Two major thoroughfares, following initial surveyors’ lines, bisected the settlement into quadrants, roughly approximating the cardinal directions. Running north and south, the cardo was typically the main commercial strip of the town; while the decumanus maximus was its largest cross street, running roughly east and west. In the angle where they met was the town forum. But in spite of its formalization by the Romans, the simple mathematical logic of growth around a crossroads is too compelling to attribute its ubiquity to purely cultural factors. In fact, a crossroads lies at the historical center of many towns more ancient than the Roman republic. (The ancient Parthian capital of Ctesiphon is a good example; but there are too many other examples to count.)
The placement and significance of an open public square, serving as a gathering place, is unambiguously a product of cultural tradition. The Roman forum was heir to the Greek agora, which originated in tandem with the participatory political systems of the Hellenic city-states. Prior to classical antiquity, there is little evidence of true squares having existed. Likewise, the geometric grid, which produces a potentially infinite number of intersections and squares, is a product of fifth-century Greece (although less formal grids had developed earlier, and more organically, in towns of the ancient Near East). By the time of Imperial Rome, the forum was the established site for law courts, temples, political activities, festivities, and various commercial and administrative activities; and the grid was the textbook method for building out a new Roman town. One can still observe the basic Roman layout of cardo, decumanus, and forum at the ruins of Pompeii and Lepcis Magna, and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean basin. Down through the centuries, the English carried on some of the major elements of this tradition, and the Mediterranean countries carried on others, the major distinction being between town greens in the Anglo-Saxon world, and paved plazas in continental Europe and Latin America.
Similarly, the formation of continuous street walls, the separation of cartways (now traffic lanes) from sidewalks, and the separation of uses between street levels and upper stories are all phenomena that came down to the modern city from the urban traditions of classical antiquity. Other elements, such as the densification of settlements with continued growth and the concentration (in larger settlements) of related activities in particular neighborhoods, derived from the simple logic of past practices. Yet irrespective of their cultural or practical origins, these traditions exerted both positive and limiting influences on how neighborhoods were developed in late 19th century America. While these forms presented the surveyors and builders of the industrial age with a template for how towns and cities should take shape, their pervasiveness may also have tended to discourage radical departures from the patterns that had characterized the familiar pattern of European urbanism since classical antiquity.
The Landscape of Development in Late Victorian America
Even if comprehensive land-use planning were eliminated today, the factors that influence development patterns would be very different from those of the Late Victorian period—as different as the factors in that time were from those that had shaped agrarian or maritime towns before the advent of railroads and heavy industry. Thus, one cannot presume that a radical liberalization of land-use regulation would lead directly to a renaissance of traditional neighborhood design. More likely, such a change would take land development into uncharted territory.
Consider that the most significant effects of automobile-driven sprawl occurred after the widespread adoption of zoning ordinances. In the absence of zoning, market forces might drive the densification of development in certain locales, such as the suburbs of major cities; but these forces would not necessarily produce organic development patterns—particularly in low-density regions—similar to the compact forms that characterized American neighborhoods in the Late Victorian period.
Perhaps of equal importance, the broad Western cultural norms that influenced urban development in the late 19th century no longer sustain a consensus in American society, and a century of adherence to formal regulations has vitiated many of the granular traditions that once shaped the work of architects, tradesmen, land surveyors, and lawyers. For these reasons, the large-scale and small-scale traditions that shaped the building patterns of that time are not necessarily within reach. Finally, it is important to acknowledge two very important successes of land use regulation—the end of widespread slum housing development and the segregation of noxious industry—either of which could be undone with a radical liberalization of land use regulation.
Today, achieving the kind of development environment that flourished during the Late Victorian period—and spawned walkable, diverse, and architecturally rich neighborhoods—would likely require a hybrid approach. It would need to incorporate certain elements of the more liberal development landscape that existed in late Victorian urbanism. But it would also be tempered by new forms of regulation narrowly targeting modern tendencies toward sprawl and homogeneity, while preserving the advances in city planning that have been attained over the last century. Yet a clearer understanding of the elements that helped shape the urbanism of another time may light the way as 21st-century planners seek to once again build vibrant towns and neighborhoods, places that reflect the greatest traditions of a free society.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.
Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack
CAPE MAY, N.J.—New Jersey is the punchline of many jokes, with opinion polls confirming that the Garden State has the most negative reputation of any state in the nation. This ranking is deserved in some respects, at least when assessing the dismal condition of the built environment in many parts of the state. Much of the metropolitan landscape of New Jersey, particularly in the northern suburbs of New York City, is marred by a combination of industrial blight, suburban sprawl, and traffic-choked highways—the gritty scenery seen in the opening titles of the hit HBO series The Sopranos. But there is another part of the state with many towns that are models for good urban form, and perhaps for long-term conservation efforts as well.
For years, the New Jersey coastline has had an undeserved reputation for being a somewhat downmarket series of beach towns past their prime. The hedonism of the MTV reality TV series Jersey Shore, which only ran from 2009 to 2013, undoubtedly did much to reinforce this stereotype, and the last few decades of boom-and-bust casino development in Atlantic City hasn’t helped the region’s image, either. Yet along the 100-plus miles of coastline, stretching from the Lower New York Bay and Sandy Hook to the mouth of the Delaware River, there are many places that realize the central ideals of great urbanism—including walkability, vernacular architecture, preservation, and authentic sustainability.
The area’s prospects for success were secured by a combination of fortunate historical timing and favorable geography. The shore towns were some of the first resort destinations designed for the masses, in this case the burgeoning populations of nearby Philadelphia and New York. Passenger rail service from the big cities, which began as early as the 1850s and expanded for the rest of the 19th century, made rapid development possible all along the Jersey coastline. Ever faster trains allowed daytrippers of more modest means to visit the seashore, making the beach towns a playground for more than the wealthy classes who could afford upmarket hotels or second homes. At the same time, many religious leaders established summer encampments for their congregations, with at least one of these communities, Ocean Grove, still maintaining its explicitly Christian identity.
When tourists or pilgrims arrived, whether they were staying overnight or not, they found themselves in relatively compact, walkable settlements. Most hotels and beachfront amenities were an easy walk from the station, and in some cases, such as in Cape May, local interurban rail routes enabled travelers to reach smaller adjacent towns and villages. Further, the sites of many of the settlements, which were built on narrow barrier islands, limited development to a fixed area. This geography created an incentive, even in a pre-automobile area, to use the available land carefully. This physical reality holds today—near the shore, there is far less of the strip-mall sprawl that now litters the mainland along the Garden State Parkway.
The 1950s-era turnpike that now brings both vacationers and residents “down the shore” does not enter the historic districts, which means that unlike so many other pre-war urban neighborhoods torn apart by freeways, the original human scale of old shore towns remains largely intact. The dawn of the jet age and expansion of the interstate highway system in the 1960s also meant that many Philadelphians and New Yorkers were able to travel much further afield than the Jersey shore for their holidays. This initially resulted in some decline, but the slowed growth also indirectly contributed to preserving the late 19th and early 20th-century streetscape, now celebrated for its beauty and practicality. Cape May, for example, boasts the largest concentration of intact Victorian homes outside of San Francisco.
In most of these shore towns, there are relatively few superblocks, with small lots and alleys still dominant. Cape May has the abundance of restaurants and touristy boutiques one expects to find, but a practical supermarket sits almost at the center of town, and national-chain businesses are rare, at least downtown. Driving the narrow streets to find parking is difficult enough that many people seem to abandon their cars while they are here, walking between their accommodations, the beach, and shops. A three-block pedestrian mall, an idea tried and discredited in many other American downtowns, survives and appears to be prospering, at least in the summer.
This seasonal ebb and flow of residents has caused some to suggest these shore towns are not real places, and that any of the admirable characteristics of the townscape here are a kind of “dollhouse urbanism”—a series of charming facades where most the time nobody is actually home. While most of these places have always been summer resort towns, it’s true that the portion of full-time residents in many of them is lower than ever before. With renewed prosperity, there is also the rising sense that gentrification will make some shore towns accessible to only the rich. One former regular in the small hamlet of Avalon recently complained in the New York Times that a beloved deli had recently been replaced by seasonal outlets of high-end national fashion chains.
The solution to this demand is of course is to build more walkable urban places near the Jersey Shore, creating additional opportunities for the small-scale Main Street businesses that have long had a place on the streets here. Regional authorities should also aim to improve transportation options between shore towns and the major metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia. New Jersey Transit trains still serve some of the northern portion of the shoreline, and another regional train departs Philadelphia for Atlantic City about a dozen times a day. The trains are relatively slow, though, mostly running over very old infrastructure. New investment and restoration of service along the shore could spur development and the return of full-time residents as these cities are better connected to major job centers.
Revitalizing infrastructure would also once again make a car-free vacation or even day trip to the beach a more appealing prospect for the tens of millions who live nearby. If governments are serious about trying to reduce private vehicle and aircraft emissions, creating alternative transportation options to reach local resorts should be a priority. Notwithstanding sea-level rise, perhaps a low-carbon future can still include an occasional day at the beach.
With its settlement driven by a strange combination of Robber Baron-era capitalism and Great Awakening-style religious revivalism, the Jersey Shore was birthed by strange bedfellows. Yet these forces created communities that still are remarkably functional, enjoyable, and beautiful places to reside and play. Urbanists, preservationists, and real-estate developers often focus on places such as New York and Philadelphia. They may also have a lot to learn from the nearby Jersey Shore.
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.
Editor’s Note: New Urbs occasionally reviews classics of urbanism and architecture, showing how these great books remain relevant to the public discourse about the future of our built environment.
First published in 1991, Nature’s Metropolis is a fantastic book that well deserves its reputation as a classic. Part history, part sociological study, part economic analysis, and part ecological survey, William Cronon examines the growth of Chicago by studying the city’s 19th-century relationship to the larger “Great West” (more or less the once-sparsely settled regions between the Ohio River Valley and the Pacific). He does this by analyzing, in fascinating detail, the city and its surrounding territory in three areas: transportation (water and rail), physical commodities (grain, lumber, and meat), and capital. For each topic, he focuses both narrowly on how each developed and changed over time, and more broadly on how each affected the city and the larger Great West. I suppose to some this sounds boring—but as far as I’m concerned, Cronon nearly magically retains the reader’s interest throughout.
If Cronon has an overriding theme, it is that a sharp distinction between city and country, or between humans and nature, is an illusion, and a damaging one. Rather, they are all an interdependent whole, each continuously changing the other. This sounds like a cliché, but it is not one in Cronon’s hands. As he takes pains to make clear, Nature’s Metropolis is not a comprehensive history of the city or the Great West. Rather, it is a story about how the city shaped the Great West, while being shaped itself by the Great West. This shaping is primarily viewed through commodity flows, including the commodities themselves and how they were transported. Famous people are not the focus; culture and politics are only addressed in passing and where actually relevant; and, fortunately, ideology and political correctness make no appearance at all.
Cronon repeatedly refers to, and reacts to, “central place theory”—attempts to systematize and base in mathematics the growth of urban-rural systems such as Chicago. Cronon clearly thinks that while the theory has value, central-place theorists make claims of systematization that are inaccurate at best; the real world is a messier place than a mathematical theory allows for. And much of his book is an attempt to remove an artificial sharp distinction between rural and urban areas. Still, Cronon relies heavily on Johann Heinrich von Thünen’s concentric circle analysis, from 1826, of the zones that surround a city, from intensive agriculture closest to the city to wilderness at the farthest extent. Von Thünen, an economist, was focused on the economic viability of production, particularly as dictated by the cost of transport of different types of goods produced in different areas. Chronologically, Cronon demonstrates how over time the zones around Chicago developed and changed, from covering only a few miles from the city center to stretching, by the end of the 19th century, all the way to the cities of the Pacific coast.
Cronon begins at the very beginning, when Chicago was merely a minor gathering place for American Indians and European traders, distinguished mostly by abundant wild garlic. (The name “Chicago” is a corruption of a Miami Indian word for garlic—just the first of many things I learned about Chicago from this book, even though I lived there for 12 years.) The Chicago River existed, but was short, silted and access to it was blocked by a large sandbar (and, famously, it flowed the other way from where it does now). Commerce via large-scale transport was therefore minimal. But once the Indians “sold” the local land to the white man in the 1830s, speculators and their closely allied teammates, “boosters,” swept in. Boosters appear again and again in Cronon’s work, both in Chicago and in other cities—men who preached the gospel of the inevitability of a city’s rise, and thus the opportunities available both for commerce and land speculation. Without boosters, Chicago would not necessarily have grown as it did, or ultimately occupied the position it does. Advertising, in other words, was a crucial feature of the city’s growth.
Not that the boosters were all that good at predictions—they mostly adjusted their hucksterism to fit what was happening around them, just projecting it into the future and giving it a hyper-optimistic gloss. Thus, they praised the inevitable rise of Chicago due to its proximity to water routes (the Great Lakes and, at first indirectly, and then directly through canals, the Mississippi)—but failed to predict the supersession of water by rail. Nonetheless, when rail arrived, and with it the increased dominance of Chicago over other contenders such as St. Louis, boosters quickly switched their tune and simply sang harder the praises of Chicago.
As water gave way to rail, more goods could be produced in more locations and shipped more quickly to the city for sale. And, in reverse, the city could ship to its hinterland more goods, both those produced in the city and those made farther east by the much more developed regions of the United States. Chicago’s role, and therefore its growth, was further enhanced by the Eastern rail systems terminating at Chicago and the Western rail systems originating at Chicago, requiring (at least initially) break-bulk trans-shipment through the city, which created all sorts of economic opportunities for local merchants and service providers, such as operators of grain elevators.
After covering transport, Cronon turns to physical commodities, beginning with grain (primarily wheat). Much of his focus is on the diminishing costs of transport, but even more is on the fascinating development of standardization in grain grading and the consequent ability to create a liquid market in a truly fungible good. This, together with mass centralized storage through the new technology of grain elevators, which allowed vastly lower holding costs, meant that fungible grain was traded easily and quickly, rather than trade necessitating the use of sacks of grain identified with a specific farmer until their final sale to the end user. The Chicago Board of Trade was intimately involved with these developments, which further resulted in the creation of the allied futures market, with its ability to reduce risks for farmers and provide additional liquidity for the market—and, not incidentally, to make huge fortunes for speculators and those willing to risk trying to corner the market.
The result was a backlash by farmers, most notably the Grange movement, who were incensed by what they saw as unproductive parasites profiting off the farmer’s labor. This ultimately resulted in state regulation of grain storage, transport, and sale to curb the worst abuses. Cronon has sympathy for the Grange, but, as he points out, in any market governed by abstractions such as grain grades, opportunities for profit exist in the ambiguities contained in the boundaries—and middlemen, whether exploiting ambiguities or “merely” brokering, experience profit as well as loss. This is shown by the failure of the Grangers in their attempts to eliminate the middleman—they were not efficient or good at it, and mostly simply absorbed “the middleman’s loss,” rather than his gain.
With grain, too, Cronon talks much about how the changing demand and structure of the grain market changed nature—this book is, after all, titled Nature’s Metropolis. What was once limitless prairie soon enough was plowed for grain, permanently changing, though always in shifting ways, the face of the land. This conversion from “first nature” to “second nature,” the latter often incorrectly viewed by city dwellers as “real nature,” is a theme Cronon returns to throughout his book.
After grain, Cronon turns to two other commodities that are nearly as equally fascinating—lumber and meat. Who knew that vast areas of what constitute Chicago’s modern near west side were once covered with square miles of stacked lumber, or that Chicago took in billions of board feet of logs, turned them into lumber, and sold them throughout the states of the Great West? Not me, at least. Unlike grain, though, lumber never developed the same type of ultra-efficient market, in part because it was never possible to fully standardize and turn fungible. And soon enough, the wood near to Chicago (which mostly arrived cheaply by water, at least at the beginning) ran out, and the lumber trade was ceded to other regions of the country. When lumber ran out, it left behind vast despoiled regions in Wisconsin and Michigan, the “Cutover,” which contributed to vast forest fires, further destroying first nature—and killing lots of people, including (amazingly) around 2,000 people at one time in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1871. The regeneration of the area into what it is today, for recreation and wood pulp, only took place decades later.
The history of meat in Chicago is better known than that of lumber, perhaps because meatpacking lasted much longer, into living memory, if only as a shadow of its former glory. Cronon covers how Chicago began with pork in competition with Cincinnati; moved into cattle as refrigeration technology, combined with the slaughter of the bison and the changing of western grazing land into range land, permitted greater trade in cattle; and ended, for a while, as meatpacker to the world. (Nearby Hammond, Indiana, was named for a man who moved there to harvest vast quantities of ice, to refrigerate meat, from the Calumet River.) The business was predatory, in the sense that the giant meatpackers like Armour deliberately destroyed the local butchers throughout the Great West, but they offered the best prices and quality, so that destruction was functionally inevitable.
All these trades, especially railroads and meatpacking, required massive amounts of capital, so Cronon wisely covers capital separately and in detail, basically as another type of commodity. I found this section of the book less fascinating, since tangible goods are more interesting to me than abstract money. (I am very interested in tangible money, however.) Not that this section is uninteresting—in particular, Cronon did extensive original research into bankruptcy filings, to analyze who owed money to whom at various points during Chicago’s rise, and in particular who provided financing to Chicago merchants and manufacturers, and how. Here he shows how Chicago’s capital net, the area from which it received financing, was much wider than cities that thought they were competing with Chicago, such as Milwaukee or Minneapolis, or even those that really were competing but ultimately came in second place, such as Cincinnati and St. Louis (the cause of whose ultimate second-place finish Cronon assign to the railroads, as well as the Civil War). In this section on capital, Cronon also examines the spread of the capital-intensive market for farm machinery, which relied heavily on the development of efficient credit markets.
Finally, Cronon evaluates Chicago when it had clawed its way to the top, through the lens of the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Cronon’s focus is less on the famous individual exhibitions and more on how the World’s Fair concealed the dependence of the city on second nature, and furthermore broadly concealed the web of relationships between the city and the Great West. In a similar vein, new suburbs were designed to offer a polished, sanitized version of the nature whose modification and production made the city possible. Cronon’s point is, again, that a sharp division between “urban” and “rural” is a fiction—any city is a dynamic system of constant interplay and exchange between the two, and Chicago is a particularly dramatic exemplar of that principle. Even less are they opposed to each other, whatever city slickers or the Grangers may think—they instead need each other, often in ways that are totally invisible to both.
Charles Haywood writes from Indianapolis, Indiana. This article originally appeared at his blog, The Worthy House.
There are few national solutions that can help all cities. There are, however, two federal policies holding back widespread business creation and concentrating economic power in fewer hands—overly restrictive intellectual-property law and housing regulation that promotes unsustainable sprawl.
Patents used to be difficult and expensive to enforce. One of the main reasons the film industry set up shop in Los Angeles (on the other side of the country from New York City with its legions of actors, producers, set designers, costume makers and all the various and sundry people needed for a major stage production or a film) is because easterner Thomas Edison owned many of the patents on filmmaking and he didn’t want to license the technology. So the moviemakers went to California, where they could skedaddle to Mexico in case Edison wanted to make trouble.
The Industrial Revolution came to the United States because Samuel Slater copied British weaving machinery. It came to Japan because Japanese entrepreneurs were able to copy American and British technology. Now the Chinese are copying American and Japanese technology. Many innovations also resulted from tinkering. Early automobile pioneers experimented with internal combustion engines they made themselves and a number of important figures in Silicon Valley were members of a group called the Homebrew Computer Club that built their own computers and shared skills and ideas.
But such tinkering is all but impossible now. According to Modern Farmer, intellectual-property law has been used to make it illegal for farmers to fix their tractors. Similarly, Barry Lynn has written in Washington Monthly about how Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began applying antitrust law to businesses holding large numbers of patents. This allowed competitors to imitate and innovate. Since the policy was reversed in the 1980s, large companies have once again used patent control to suppress competition or patent troll small firms for millions of dollars.
Related rollbacks of antitrust enforcement across all sectors, according to Brian Feldman, have resulted in smaller, regional firms being absorbed by national and international ones. “While some new out-of-town owners kept large operations in St Louis, the city lost entire layers of expertise,” Feldman wrote. “Applying that lesson more broadly, when the citizens of St Louis . . . look at the decline of their local economies . . . their fates may be the result of decisions in Washington . . . to overturn antitrust laws passed by elected officials of both parties over the course of the twentieth century.”
So Ross Douthat’s recent call to “Break Up the Liberal City” is partially right. There are monopolistic combinations at work in America, based in large cities, but they exist because of government policy. Another such concentration of power exists among homeowners. A few years ago the French economist Thomas Piketty argued that capitalism was in the midst of a crisis because of a lack of regulation resulting in increasing amounts of economic concentration in the hands of the one percent. Shortly afterwards Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Matthew Rognlie analyzed the data and found that virtually all of the increased returns on capital have gone to owners of housing.
In the 1970s, policies were designed to restrict housing construction and increase home values. This change correlates very well with the beginnings of wage stagnation, widening inequality, the hollowing out of the middle class, and a million other factors. To put it bluntly, restrictive housing policies in places like Boston, New York, San Jose, and San Francisco cost the country about $1.6 trillion a year, according to economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti. The result, as Matt Yglesias puts it, is that “People go where land is cheap, not where their labor is valuable.”
Another major impact is from the policies that guide small towns. As Charles Marohn has shown, towns across the country have favored automobile-dependent development that relies on massive infrastructure investment. They go deeply into debt to build the infrastructure in order to attract big-box-store development, which doesn’t generate enough in taxes to pay for the costs of that infrastructure—and then they have to go deeper into debt to build more infrastructure to attract more sprawling development that still doesn’t pay for itself. This also applies to residential construction: According to a 2007 paper by Mark Obrinsky and Debra Stein of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, compact walkable neighborhoods produce more tax revenue while having lower infrastructure costs.
It is perhaps not surprising that, even within Boston’s orbit, Massachusetts cities and towns allow development that is dependent upon car usage, has made compact and walkable development illegal, and are increasingly reliant upon the state for funding to maintain roads and schools. In Iowa, a small city called Mount Union recently dissolved because it couldn’t pay its bills for a new sewer system and several cities and towns around the country have begun replacing paved roads with gravel or dirt ones to save on repair costs.
This is especially prevalent in places where local governments rely on sales taxes for revenue. The worst excesses of consumerism, viewed through such a lens, are a matter of life and death for such communities: Municipalities need people to buy disposable goods in vast quantities from retailers with poorly-paid workforces. Without enough sales or when labor costs get too high, City Hall will be bankrupt when WalMart moves to greener pastures. But City Hall will still go bankrupt sooner or later.
The policies adopted throughout this country to protect big, well-connected businesses from competition, to keep existing home values rising, and to promote economic development have destroyed local economies and the hard-earned wealth built up over decades. Revitalizing rural places and “interior” cities is not simply a question of jobs and infrastructure, but one of whether or not public policy allows for the creation of wealth and economic diversification.
Some aspects of the urban-rural divide will never be closed. Cities and small towns have different cultures because they are different places. More seriously, as cheap money dries up, businesses with good political connections will continue to evade antitrust laws. As deferred maintenance starts to show up, real trade-offs will have to be made. Some rural places may have to be abandoned, both because making them productive would consume too many resources and because the political pressure exerted by suburbs will result in their debts being subsidized by city production.
It’s not pretty, but recovery can only begin when we admit that we can’t borrow, build, or steal our way to prosperity.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.