New Urbs

How a Denver Coffee Shop Exploded the Gentrification Debate

Channel 7-Denver during Ink! Coffee protests last year. (You Tube)

The “gentrification” phenomenon unfolding in many American cities shows no signs of abating, as “gentrifiers” move into deteriorated urban neighborhoods, renovate homes, start new businesses, and pave the way for other people of higher incomes to follow. The result is usually the transformation of  those neighborhoods. Of course such transformations often entail significant changes in the socioeconomic mix of the area and often in its ethnic and racial composition as well. That can generate controversy and civic anger.

That’s what happened late last year in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood, where a poorly worded sign set off  civic agitations and attracted unwanted national attention. Around the Thanksgiving holiday, “ink! Coffee,” a Denver-based coffee chain, put up a sign outside its shop that contained a bit of a boast. It read: “Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014.”

Bad move. The sign didn’t go over so well with some residents, many of whom congregated outside the little coffee shop in an angry mood. Hundreds showed up during a subsequent weekend to protest against the gentrification of their neighborhood, which they said had pushed out longtime minority residents. The shop building was sprayed with graffiti; at least one window was broken; the offending sign was carted off. The protesters demanded that the shop be shut down. Some wanted it replaced with a community center dedicated to helping residents with housing and other issues stemming from rising living costs in their neighborhood.

The shop was forced to close for more than a week. After it reopened I stopped by for a weekend visit. The broken glass on its front window had not been replaced. Although there were no protesters, the store was shuttered that day. A sign on its front door said it closes on weekends during winter, which seemed odd since weekends should be a busy time for a coffee shop. Indeed, the competing vendor across the street was open and packed with customers. It seemed that ink! Coffee was still struggling to recover its lost business.


And the controversy didn’t recede quickly. A city councilman who represents the Five Points area suggested that ink! Coffee should have each staff member go through “cultural competency training,” presumably to ensure that staffers don’t harbor bad racial attitudes. The councilman, Albus Brooks, urged the coffee shop company to pressure employees into making charitable contributions in the neighborhood to demonstrate their civic good faith in the wake of the sign fiasco.

That led Vincent Carroll, a prominent retired newspaperman, to opine in The Denver Post: “In other words, an employee who has done nothing more offensive than greet customers with a smile while cheerfully inquiring what beverage they would like to order should be treated as a potentially bigoted ignoramus requiring an attitude adjustment.”

Carroll elicited a torrent of angry reaction when he called the protest against ink! Coffee “an embarrassment to Denver.” Anyone who expected the neighborhood of his youth to remain unchanged, he wrote, was “shockingly nave regarding the relentless power of the social and market forces that trigger such naïve makeovers.” He added there may be “one sure-fire cure” for gentrification: “urban decay and recession.”

That led one Post letter-writer to characterize Carroll’s op-ed piece as “embarrassing in its condescension.” Another wondered, “What’s Vincent Carroll smoking?”

Denver is of course not alone in being buffeted by intense feelings on the gentrification issue. In his Post article, Carroll cited press reports noting that the issue had roiled last year’s mayoral race in Atlanta, which in 50 years has gone from being majority white to majority black—and now seems on the threshold of becoming majority white once again.

And in Illinois earlier this year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy (yes, of those Kennedys) attacked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for what he called a “strategic gentrification plan” aimed at forcing African Americans and other minorities out of Chicago to make the city “whiter” and wealthier. The allegation backfired, as critics quickly alleged Kennedy was simply trying to exploit Emanuel’s poor standing with blacks in his city as a way of cementing his own support from African Americans in his gubernatorial run. The Chicago Tribune expressed a hope in an editorial that the governor’s race wouldn’t “get any uglier than it did this week” and suggested Kennedy had “hallucinated aloud” in pressing his allegation against the mayor.

Still, though Kennedy’s allegation lacked credibility and seemed politically motivated, it demonstrated just how emotional the gentrification matter can be, irrespective of the merits surrounding any particular controversy stemming from the issue.


As for the Denver controversy, the question that emerges is why the word “gentrification” got so many residents of Five Points so riled up. Here we see the role of local loyalties and sentiments. It has everything to do with the history of Five Points, an area also known as the “Harlem of the West.” It is one of Denver’s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods. Named “Five Points” in 1881 for the five-way intersection of 26th Street, 27th Avenue, Washington Street, and Welton Streets, it  historically has been a predominately African-American neighborhood. Back when it got its name, it was known for its jazz music scene and vibrant commerce. From the 1950s to 1990s, however, the community deteriorated due in part to drugs and crime. Properties were abandoned, and many businesses shut down. Many residents who were able to move did so. And many who were left behind languished in poverty.

The City of Denver has tried to revitalize Five Points many times through the years. But those efforts have fallen short due to Denver’s frequent economic boom-and-bust cycles. Thus did residents of Five Points become accustomed to empty promises. Around 2005, however, Denver’s economy finally took off with the energy boom, a growing tech sector, and an explosion in the craft beer industry. Buoyed by Colorado’s $2.7 billion craft beer industry (first in the nation), Denver has become the craft beer capital of the world. Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report ranks Denver number two on its “Best Places to Live” list, both reflecting and spurring an ongoing influx of new citizens to the city and its environs.

Denver’s booming economy and vaunted quality-of-life index have particularly attracted, it seems, people of the distinctive Millennial generation, Americans born in 1984 or later. These young migrants—with strong lifestyle preferences—prefer to live in cities, particularly diverse neighborhoods within walking distance of nightlife and entertainment. Some of them streamed into Five Points. Businesses catering to these young and affluent newcomers quickly followed. Today’s Five Points is also known as “RiNo,” or River North Art District, an ultra-trendy zip code that features microbrewery bars, new age restaurants,  contemporary art galleries, and hip concert venues.

Mod Livin’ Rino, a furniture/interior design shop, is one such new Five Points establishment. It sells finely crafted mid-century classic furniture with a modern flair. I noticed a lovely chair selling for $700 and a chest for $3,000. An interior designer who works at the store told me that the store owner is a Denver businesswoman who owns another furniture store on the more established East Colfax Avenue. She decided to open her second store in Five Points to get closer to a young, hip clientele.

But with the growth of Five Points came growing pains. The booming economy and expanding population have pushed up demand for housing. Denver is one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation, and Five Points is the hottest area in Denver. According to Zillow, the median list price per square foot in Five Points is $426, considerably higher than the Denver average of $343. The median price of homes currently listed in Five Points is $569,900.

Many long-time residents have left the neighborhood, including minorities (many of whom can no longer afford housing in the area). Though the neighborhood was once dominated demographically by African-Americans, today about 79 percent of residents are white. Further, some mom-and-pop businesses and independent artists, long a significant part of the social and economic scene, are leaving too. A notable closure was Tom’s Home Cooking, a beloved Southern soul-food eatery that had been an anchor in the community for 16 years.

During my recent visit I talked to Price Davis, owner of a neighborhood art studio. After some 23 years in Five Points, he now is in the process of closing his art studio. Davis explained that his property taxes have doubled just in two years, to $18,000 annually from $9,000. His insurance costs also skyrocketed. The cost of doing business makes businesses like his untenable, said Davis. Among his artist friends in Five Points, only five remain, and they all expect to depart sooner or later. Davis believes that the City of Denver prefers to bring in big corporations to Five Points rather than make an effort to keep independent businesses like his. Not far from his studio, a Shake Shack sign is hanging on a construction site, as if to bolster his point.


The diversity of population and art has for years contributed to the attractiveness of Five Points. Though gentrification has brought economic growth and safer streets, it has also frayed the social fabric and eroded the community’s historic charm.

Besides, many argue that the area’s new economic growth hasn’t benefited everyone equally. About 40 percent of remaining minority residents still live below the poverty line, most of them in the area’s central and southeastern sectors. These are places that still have plenty of run-down properties and high crime rates. Residents there are also stuck with one of the worst public schools in Denver, Manual High School. In contrast, Five Points  newcomers generally can afford $2,000 monthly rents and can send their children to high-performing schools outside Five Points.

Given all this, it isn’t difficult to see why some of the area’s long-time residents reacted angrily to ink! Coffee’s poorly worded sign. (Another one, at a different location, was even more insensitive: “Nothing says gentrification like being able to order a cortado.”) But of course vandalizing a coffee shop is a criminal act. Beyond that, it’s counterproductive, likely to scare new businesses away. And shutting down ink! Coffee isn’t likely to help the neighborhood or anyone who lives there. Low income residents can’t afford to reject economic development. Without an  influx of new business, there can be no expanded employment opportunities or economic upward mobility. Five Points’ long years of economic languishment, prior to gentrification, certainly illustrate the point.

The City of Denver has tried to address the housing affordability issue with the typical progressive tools. Through zoning policies it sought to mandate that developers set aside a number of new development units as “restricted units,” to be sold or rented at government-determined affordable rates. But the unintended consequences weren’t difficult to predict. With prospects for profitability reduced or eliminated, developers abandoned drawing-board projects. With incentives to create new housing reduced, there was less housing. With less housing, real estate prices rose.

Such governmental policies distorted the market and ended up worsening the very problems they were intended to fix. Ruinous zoning and tax policies aren’t the answer. Letting the free market do its job is the only way the low-income residents of Five Points will have a fighting chance for a better life. As Vincent Carroll puts it, it’s no wonder that every so-called fix for displacement—housing subsidies, property tax assistance, construction mandates—“sounds positively puny compared to the surge of folks willing to pay what is necessary to move into neighborhoods they like.” Besides, he adds, critics should understand that “businesses that flock to revitalizing neighborhoods lift the tax base on which crucial government services depend.”

Helen Raleigh is a senior contributor to The Federalist and the author of Confucius Never Said.

Posted in . 20 comments

Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, Not Gentrification Worries

Closed Firestone Factory (Wikimedia Commons)

AKRON, Ohio—There is a type of neighborhood that you never hear about in the gentrification story mostly told by writers living in the coastal centers of power. It is the type of neighborhood where the majority of ordinary people in ordinary cities like Akron actually live.

This type of neighborhood is a lower-income, working-class, mixed-race community, comprised primarily of single-family homes, many of which are owner-occupied.

The standard gentrification narrative is typically about affluent newcomers displacing existing lower-income residents—driving up housing prices, rents, and property taxes to stratospheric heights.

But there are millions of people throughout the cities of the Rust Belt living in neighborhoods with the opposite problem. They are lower-income, working-class homeowners, living in deteriorating homes, with no foreseeable prospects for property appreciation.

The working poor living in these neighborhoods typically cannot afford to reinvest much in their property to begin with, and even the few who can often choose not to, because they will never come close to getting their money back.

These are places where the property values are so low that people have to sell their houses at a loss—if they can even find anyone interested in buying them at all—and where there is little economic incentive for homeowners to improve their properties.

Consequently, over time, these houses begin a long and tortuous cycle of decline and neglect, as they transition from owner-occupancy, to reputable rentals, to disreputable rentals, to vacancy, tax delinquency, abandonment, and eventual demolition – often at public expense.

South Akron is a perfect example of the type of neighborhood that I am describing. The residential heart of the neighborhood is located about a ten-minute walk from where Firestone Tire and Rubber’s massive industrial complex and world headquarters once stood. The neighborhood reached its zenith in the 1930s, populated by thousands of predominately Eastern European immigrants, many of whom worked at Firestone, and at other nearby machine shops and foundries, at a time when the rubber and tire industry alone employed nearly 60,000 people in Akron.

Census tract 5045 is representative of what South Akron looks like today. The median household income is $28,684. The poverty rate is 45 percent. Of the more than 800 housing units, 92 percent are single-family detached homes, and 46 percent are owner-occupied. The typical home was built during World War I. The median value of an owner-occupied house is $62,300. Only 9.1 percent of the population over the age of 25 has a 4-year college degree.

Forty-four percent of the population is white, 34 percent is black, and 22 percent is Asian, Latino, or multiracial. It probably goes without saying that this neighborhood is more racially diverse than 99 percent of the census tracts in the United States.

Yet this is the type of place that is routinely ignored by urbanists and pundits. It is a community that is already racially diverse, and where many residents may be poor, but are also employed, and also own their home. This is the type of place where the binary, coastal gentrification narrative of rich versus poor, or white versus black, simply does not apply.

In many of Akron’s neighborhoods, just like this one, and in neighborhoods throughout the Rust Belt, the problem is not that housing costs are so high that virtually no one can afford to pay the rent. The problem is that houses routinely sell for less than $50,000—which is essentially the point at which, even in a low cost-of-living market like ours, it no longer makes any economic sense to maintain them.

New investment and residential redevelopment is not the enemy of these types of neighborhoods. It is their best friend. If new housing were built, it would help raise the values of existing homes to levels that would at least warrant cost-effective investment in their renovation and rehabilitation.

So what does gentrification look like in a place like South Akron?

It doesn’t look like hordes of bourgeois newcomers building million-dollar homes and displacing long-time residents.

It looks like ordinary middle-class people incrementally drawn back to the neighborhood by private investment in new infill housing construction and rehabilitation of existing homes, all incentivized by the City of Akron’s newly-launched 15-year, 100 percent residential property tax abatement program.

It looks like a $40,000 house that gradually becomes an $80,000 house. In a city where the median household income is $35,000, that $80,000 house is still affordable for the typical family. But the critical difference is, unlike the $40,000 house, the $80,000 house is worth maintaining and improving.

Applying national narratives about gentrification, without understanding the realities of our regional real estate market, can lead people to the mistaken belief that new housing, or any change at all, is bad. But new residential development and private reinvestment is exactly what the traditional working-class neighborhoods of the Rust Belt desperately need. Opposing it is like bringing a fire extinguisher to a flood—it is bringing the wrong tool to the wrong disaster.

Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 22 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.

Posted in , , , . 19 comments

Why St Louis Built a Streetcar To Nowhere

George Zhou

After years of planning, delays, and cost overruns, a 2.2-mile streetcar will soon be debuting on the streets of St. Louis and the adjacent suburb of University City. The Delmar Loop Trolley, named after the entertainment and shopping district that part of the line runs through, cost $51 million.

The Loop Trolley was built conspicuously close to St. Louis’ existing mass transit system, Metro. The area already has four light rail stations within a mile of the trolley, as well as a dedicated bus line that runs on the same street. They all go to downtown St. Louis.

The trolley won’t even operate within the same system as Metro: the $2 two-hour fare and $5 all-day fare will need to be purchased separately from all Metro fares.

Many transit users in St. Louis use the trains and buses to commute to their jobs and get to places of interest in the city. But I cannot think of a reason why any of these users would be compelled to take the trolley over the existing transit system. Why would they pay an extra $2 to take the trolley if they can take a short walk to the train station or bus stop to board something that will take them much farther for the same price? Why would they sit through car traffic on a trolley that has a stop every few blocks if they can get to where they need on a train with its own right-of-way?

Why would the region invest in such an unnecessary transit project? Because it is not a transit investment at all.

Development and tourism have always been cited as reasons for building streetcar projects, but in St. Louis, they seem to be the reasons for building the Loop Trolley.

Along with the requisite on-street rail, overhead lines and maintenance facilities, the trolley came with a variety of pedestrian-friendly streetscape improvements that anyone hoping to build a strong town would welcome.

It also came with gigabit (download speeds 300 times faster than typical household download speeds) internet fiber underneath its tracks, replete with an option for businesses to pay for access to information on everyone using that internet. A promotional website boasts this “Data Rail” as “the first Gigabit Main Street”.

page on the official Loop Trolley website explaining how the project was conceived and executed has not a word on how the trolley could serve as transit. A 2000 feasibility study, the page explains, suggested that “an electric trolley line was indeed feasible and even more efficient and effective than a system of buses disguised to look like trolleys.” It is clear that “effective” means having a higher ridership and attracting development, rather than being a meaningful form of transportation.

Trolley advocates maintain that the trolley will spread development east of the Delmar Loop station, where empty storefronts and vacant lots persist (In fairness, there are a good number of businesses east of the station as well, such as a chop suey place, multiple lounges and salons, and a couple check-cashing joints. They just aren’t the cozy coffee shops and boutique shopping stores people who frequent the area west of the station are used to, though that’s another topic altogether.). Tourists visiting the Delmar Loop may be compelled to take it from where they are to the Missouri History Museum, enjoying the nostalgia of the heritage streetcar along the way.

These proposed benefits come at a cost, however. Of the project’s $51 million cost, $25 million was funded by a grant from the federal government, with the remaining $26 million coming from federal agencies, local-tax incentives and St. Louis-area entities. Customers of businesses along the line will be on the hook for maintaining the trolley’s operations through a one percent sales tax.

Unlike Metrolink, a lot of which was built on existing, decades-old rail and tunnel infrastructure, the Loop Trolley’s infrastructure was constructed completely from scratch, save the roads themselves.

Skepticism about the trolley is pervasive, and rightfully so. Businesses in the area have lost traffic during construction. The tracks on the street have made it nearly impossible for cyclists in the area to bike on Delmar Blvd., and consigned them to a disjointed route on adjacent streets. Limited clearance between the trolley route and cars jeopardizes on-street parking. People have been crying foul about the wastefulness of the project for years.

As other poorly-leveraged transit investments in the region (like three car dealerships popping up near a Metro station) demonstrate, simply building light rail through an area will not improve its walkability or attract the kind of development urban planners might covet. The Delmar Loop is already an active and walkable area, full of pedestrian traffic every day of the week, showing every sign of a strong neighborhood. Years of incremental development brought it to where it is today. There was no trolley that brought it there.

Transit should first and foremost move people, not money. This project from the beginning and by every metric was designed to do the latter.

However, the tracks have been laid and the project is on the verge of completion. So while it arose under less-than-ideal conditions, residents can still take advantage of the “stroad“-narrowing and improved pedestrian infrastructure that came with the trolley tracks.

Perhaps eventually, the track could be extended eastward to connect to other established, populated parts of the city in a financially responsible manner. But not before these places have a need for transit intended as such.

George Zhou, a resident of St. Louis, Missouri, is an urban enthusiast and member of Strong Towns, where this article originally appeared.

Posted in , . 5 comments

Self-Driving Cars and the Hostile Takeover of Our Streets

Last Sunday, Elaine Herzberg, a homeless woman in Arizona, became the first person to be killed by an autonomous vehicle. The sobering event was something of a watershed moment for a decade of fanfare surrounding the development of self-driving cars. Ride services and automakers should face increasing questions not only about the safety of AVs—the public must also reexamine the historically unprecedented priority now given to private automobiles in metropolitan areas.

The Uber-owned Volvo SUV that killed Herzberg in Tempe that evening held a person behind the wheel capable of taking control, and hit her near the intersection of two wide surface roads curving through a typical suburban landscape: to the east, an expanse of open space with trails and other recreational uses and to the west office parks stretching to the city line. It was a place one would expect to find deserted on a Sunday night, and not even the kind of environment that normally attracts homeless people. Nevertheless, Elaine Herzberg was there and “she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” as Temple Police Chief Sylvia Moir told reporters at a press conference following the incident.

We might ask Silicon Valley engineers what the point is of a self-driving car that’s supposed to be better than a human if it can’t “see” past the visual spectrum. (Some cars sold today, like the Audi A6 and the BMW 7 Series, have night vision systems, which are also available as aftermarket modifications). We might call for more regulation and oversight of the AV testing process, as CityLab, NPR, and others did.

We might do all that and more, but never focus on the real issue: Herzberg’s death, and the police assigning blame to her instead of the operator of the large vehicle moving 38 miles per hour, slightly exceeding the posted speed limit. Then there are any of the basic failures of AVs that wouldn’t allow them to pass a driving test—their inability to always stop at red lights, easily merge into traffic, navigate bridges or snow, get around without proper road markings, understand temporary cones and construction, avoid potholes, or deal with other unanticipated safety issues.

In truth, Herzberg’s death was little different from the other 30,000 or so deaths of pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists that will occur this year as a result of automobiles. A few years ago, Boston (which brands itself as “America’s walking city”) Mayor Marty Walsh, when asked about traffic fatalities in the city, remarked, “You have to understand, cars are going to hit you.” This attitude is also the attitude of many American mayors, despite the popularity of adopting Vision Zero programs aimed at reducing road deaths.

The conservative luminary Russell Kirk called cars “mechanical Jacobins.” While Kirk’s all-too-brief 1962 essay concerned the automobile’s effect on culture, the car has been at its most revolutionary in overturning common law, in exiling people to narrow or non-existent sidewalks and, in truly totalitarian fashion, running over all who resist. The Canadian Tory George Grant went so far as to assert that the “directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.” I don’t entirely agree with this idea, but in the case of the automobile it is literally true.

As Hunter Oatman-Stanford argues, mass automobile ownership ushered in a revolution in law. Streets were once understood to be public spaces all had equal right to use and in the case of a crash the common law (following common sense) would assign liability to the operator of the heavier and faster vehicle. Since streets were public property, in cities children often played in them—so by 1930 more than 200,000 people had been killed by cars and most of the victims were children.

But the automakers looked at the rapidly expanding cemeteries and thought only of the how the negative publicity would affect sales. Taking swift action, they spent heavily on public relations and formed task forces and committees ostensibly designed to promote safety and responsible regulations. In fact they exiled people from the streets and overturned common law decisions: Now it would be up to the pedestrian or cyclist to avoid getting hit; pedestrians could be fined for walking against the lights or crossing the street outside of the crosswalk. When a car mounted the curb and crashed into a building—the building didn’t get out of the way in time, apparently—it would be written off as an unavoidable “accident.”

Today, the revolution of Kirk’s mechanical Jacobins continues unabated. Drivers still routinely murder children with virtual impunity. Across the country it has become all too common for drivers who kill people not to face any consequences, much less be charged with vehicular manslaughter. In Minnesota, for example, the Star-Tribune found that between 2010 and 2014, drivers crashed into pedestrians over 3,000 times, killing 95 people—but only 28 drivers were charged. In many cases involving a death, the driver wasn’t issued so much as a traffic ticket. In Atlanta, according to Aeon, a woman walking her three children home was charged with vehicular manslaughter and faced three years in prison for the death of her four-year-old son. The driver who hit them—a man blind in one eye, on painkillers, and with alcohol in his system—spent six months in jail for hit-and-run.

The technical issues involved in Herzberg’s death may or may not be solved by AV engineers—and even if they are, it won’t matter. The fundamental safety flaw in the automobile has never been human error, but the shared attitude of traffic engineers, automakers, politicians, and drivers: this is a culture that prioritizes the speed, convenience, and storage of automobiles over human lives, human flourishing, and human justice.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

Posted in , , , . 46 comments

Why No Nobel Prize For Architecture?

Dupont Hall at the University of Delaware, by architect Allan Greenberg, 2006 Driehaus laureate. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is no Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for architects or urban planners. Such an omission is not necessarily surprising, since the design field is neither pure art nor practical or theoretical science. (Nor is it statesmanship, even with the inevitable political element of large building projects.) But there is no doubt that few other fields have as much impact on our everyday lives, in both public and private realms.

Over the last few decades, many have recognized that there should be formal, public recognition of the most accomplished architects outside of their own professional circles. And at least two prominent philanthropists—both based in the long architecturally-vibrant Chicago—have acted to make such an award a reality.

In 1979, the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain, established a prize for architects that awards $100,000 annually. The late Jay Pritzker had been a fan of using trend-setting architects in his business, with Hyatt hotels becoming famous in the 1960s and ‘70s for their dramatic, glass-enclosed lobbies and elevators.

The first recipient of the Pritzker Prize was Philip Johnson, known for his minimalist Glass House and later more playful postmodern skyscrapers. Subsequent recipients of the award include some of the most famous contemporary architects—IM Pei, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Rem Koolhaas, for example. These may not be household names for regular folks, but for say, average readers of the New York Times, they will likely be familiar, their conspicuous buildings now icons of the cities where the cosmopolitan elite tend to reside.

By 1988, architecture critic Paul Goldberger could report in the Times that “architects have come to speak of the Pritzker Prize as their peers in science and literature speak of the Nobel … If the Pritzkers wanted their prize to have an air of gravity, they have gotten it.” At the time, Goldberger criticized the Pritzker selections as being focused on architects who treat buildings primarily as “pure objects,” rather than “having something to do with the physical and cultural makeup of the place in which they are built.”

Walt Disney Concert Hall, by architect Frank Gehry (Wikimedia Commons)

The trend Goldberger identified largely continued to the present day. Pritzker laureates known for monolithic slabs of glass may have been replaced with postmodern deconstructivists—for whom the primary aim is the formless “shock of the new”—but there has been little change to the trajectory of the Pritzker Prize as it approaches its fifth decade. This year’s Pritzker laureate, Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi, calls radical modernist Le Corbusier his “guru,” and while his public housing projects evince some characteristics of human-scale streets, other buildings display the cold features of Brutalism that often contribute to somewhat lifeless urban surroundings.

A more recently established alternative to the Pritzker, established by Chicago financier Richard Driehaus in 2003, has thus breathed new life into the conversation about architecture. For over a decade now, the Driehaus Prize, which is administered by the University of Notre Dame, has sought to recognize architects who would otherwise be ignored by the stifling ideology embraced by the Pritzker and the architectural establishment.

Its detractors might characterize the Driehaus Prize, if they acknowledge it at all, as a kind of reactionary embrace of tradition. It is true that the prize tends to lean toward architects who embrace classical forms, but perhaps its most overlooked virtue is its emphasis on creating vibrant places—what in the professional vernacular is often simply called “urbanism.”

The first recipient of the Driehaus Prize, the London-based Leon Krier, has written that “All buildings, large or small, public or private, have a public face, a facade; they therefore, without exception, have a positive or negative effect on the quality of the public realm, enriching or impoverishing it in a lasting and radical manner. The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language—they are the foundation of civility and civilisation.”

This sentiment has carried down to the 16th recipients of the prize, French architects Marc Breitman and Nada Breitman-Jakov. The husband-and-wife team were recognized in January for “their outstanding achievements in introducing human scale and proportion and the grace of classical architecture to large public housing developments in France and Holland, creating a sense of place as well as enhancing urban security and civic welfare.”

The Breitmans’ most well-known development, a neighborhood of Paris suburb Le Plessis-Robinson, had become a slum of undesirable public housing. Under the care of the Breitmans and other architects, it has been transformed into something that not only is unmistakably French, but could be assumed to be a wealthy neighborhood, such is the care that has gone into the new streetscape.

Le Plessis-Robinson, France (University of Notre Dame)

Along with the prize for the Breitmans, Notre Dame also announced that it would bestow the Henry Hope Reed Award—a recognition for non-architects named after one of the last century’s most important architectural critics—on a German businessman who has worked to restore a district of Dresden once left for dead after World War II.

The Dresden Neumarkt (Wikimedia Commons)

The alternative architectural prizes aren’t limited to those run by Notre Dame. The independent Institute of Classical Architecture and Art also recognizes the traditionally inclined with awards for architecture, education, history, and interior and landscape design. This year’s honoree for her work in architectural education was Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of the founders of the New Urbanism movement (and co-laureate, with her husband Andres Duany, of the 2008 Driehaus Prize).

The Pritzker and Driehaus prizes are far from possessing the wide public prestige of the Nobel or Pulitzer brands—and the Driehaus Prize unsurprisingly receives far less media coverage than the avant-garde Pritzker awards. Yet we should praise the effort to elevate architecture and urbanism to as important an activity in civilization-building as any other art, science, or civic activity. And urbanists everywhere can be grateful that at least one of these prizes recognizes practitioners of a once nearly lost tradition, one that builds places at a human scale.

Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.

Posted in , . 12 comments

Charting History–With a Little Voyeurism–in Google Maps

Inside of Verve Restaurant, Somerville, NJ (Google Maps)

I am no fan of Google or of big tech in general, and am skeptical of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian worldview. I nonetheless have to admit that, as someone interested in the history and preservation of places, Google has produced some excellent tools: specifically, its satellite maps and Street View imagery. You may already know that Google Maps includes these features. You may not know that it is possible to view historical Street View imagery, some of it from the original 2007 launch of the feature (that is already 11 years ago). You can also view historical satellite imagery as far back as the late 1980s in Google’s desktop app Earth, which is something of an expansion of the online Maps site.

You can use these features to piece together the recent history of the built environment, or simply to see a place from a bird’s-eye view. Hunting for old images on these apps is something like metal detecting—you never know what you’ll find or how interesting it is, but there is nonetheless a certain thrill in the activity. Adding frustration is that the quality of the photos and imagery is best in the most recent years. The images that actually reveal changes in the landscape come in blurry low resolution.

Worn parking lot at a Virginia shopping center, in detailed satellite image. Copyright 2018 Google.

The historic Street View photos, which are almost always taken by a Google car with a camera contraption on top, can be very grainy, and a tree or a van often blocks whatever you’re actually looking for. The recent ones, however, are very high-quality. The satellite images too are now so sharp that you can tell whether a parking lot is cracked and pockmarked.

Every so often, the inside of a store or restaurant will have Street View imagery. These images, unlike most of the pictures taken from roads, are provided by ordinary people. Like playing an old “point-and-click” PC game where only a few of the doors open, you can make your way down a street virtually, clicking at every shop door until you’re suddenly transported inside. The photos are not staged portraits. A Google exec or contractor did not walk in and announce “Smile for Google Maps!” A couple has dinner, a pair of waitresses work the bar. One day a future historian may come across such an image and find it notable for the restaurant patrons’ now-obsolete style of dress, or for the now-defunct channel playing on the television. Just as most antiques and collectibles are merely common things from the past, much of history is only obsolete forms of everyday life.

Inside of Verve Restaurant (above) and breakroom in Tessuto Menswear (below), Somerville, NJ

There is a whole genre of content geared towards identifying people in these Google images (though the faces are automatically blurred), or finding humorous situations accidentally photographed, or finding criminals in the middle of committing crimes. You can even engage in a virtual Disneyland tour. There is an interesting and voyeuristic weirdness to it all. And adding to the strangeness is the dissonance caused by using a cutting-edge, partially crowdsourced, semi-autonomous computer application to observe snapshots of the past, or quotidian, mundane snapshots of the present. It is all distinctly “Internetty.” One senses that this, and not amateur porn or endless imported trinkets a la Amazon, is probably the sort of thing that the inventors and early enthusiasts of the Internet were hoping for.

Futurist Alvin Toffler included an anecdote in his 1970 book Future Shock in which his young daughter ran to the grocery store but ended up on the wrong block. She came back and told him, “It must have been torn down.” Only in America, he mused, could someone believe—and possibly be correct!—that a building would be unceremoniously torn down overnight. He did not predict, however, that we would one day be able to essentially watch time-lapses of our built environment on our computer screens.

In any case, let’s go back to Route 22 in New Jersey, which I’ve written about previously. In most places, as noted, Street View imagery only goes back a few years, but in some spots it goes back to 2007. For some reason the 2007 imagery can only be accessed from a few discrete spots along the highway, but once you find it you can view it for long stretches—an odd mechanic, possibly a bug, that once again makes the user experience something like a video game.

2007 and 2017 view of a diner, now a bank, on Route 22, North Plainfield, NJ

Here is a Capital One bank in 2018. 2007 imagery reveals a boarded-up seafood restaurant in a former diner, which I recall passing many times as a child. The diner itself was built around 1970. Along other stretches of Route 22, a Blockbuster appears in a small strip mall, and a shiny new Walgreens stands where there was once an iconic trapezoidal Pizza Hut. (Despite having driven down Route 22 dozens of times throughout my childhood, I did not remember these previous businesses until I found them on Street View.) That Street View begins just before the Great Recession is useful for these purposes; the post-recession era as well as the low period during the recession caused a lot of churn in the built environment. 

2007 and 2017 view of a small strip mall on Route 22, North Plainfield, NJ

Since different roads are photographed at different times—generally the more important the road, the more years of photos there will be and the more often they will be updated—one can occasionally observe the landscape change even without toggling the historical view. Along a more rural, westward stretch of Route 22 in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, is a new-looking building split between a deli and a flooring store. If you click over to the smaller cross street, it becomes a derelict thrift shop. Depending on one’s view of tech, this can be seen as an almost humorous lapse for a multi-billion-dollar company, or as a sort of glitch in the Matrix, in the attempt to reproduce the real world through imperfect but powerful technology.

There is one final feature worth pointing out: a “3D view” in Google Earth, which aggregates Street View and satellite imagery and produces what looks like drone footage or aerial photography. As with the other imagery, it is not all current. Here is an example. The Sports Authority on the right has long since ceased to be, replaced by a Hobby Lobby.

Springfield, NJ stretch of U.S. Route 22, as seen through Google Earth 3D View. Copyright Google.

This all brings to mind an amusing formulation of Plutarch’s famous Ship of Theseus thought experiment: if none of the original stores or landmarks remain along a highway, is it the same highway? One day Google will capture the Hobby Lobby of course, and the image will change. The detritus of consumer capitalism is thusly given a second life, and a second death. One day the imagery and the computer-generated interpolations will probably be good enough that you can simulate an actual drive down the highway, perhaps aided by a VR headset.

If I were dictator, there would be no VR headsets, and there might even be no Google. But they exist. If you hate big tech, think of tech-assisted historical exploration as a kind of judo—using tech’s power, and its inherent skepticism of the past, against itself. Or just enjoy the pictures.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets @ad_mastro.

Posted in , , , , . One comment

Today’s Skyscrapers Assault the Skyline and the Street

LinkedIn building at 222 Second Street, San Francisco (Courtesy of Brock Keeling, Curbed San Francisco).

Why do we dislike modern skyscrapers? Well, most of us do, at least.

The architects, as well as the reviewers for fashionable architectural journals, tell another story: These buildings—the recently completed LinkedIn building in San Francisco, for instance—are expressions of the time in which we live, are full of the energy and defiance of the Internet society, are the presence of youth in the decaying structures of the past, and… Well, you can fill in the gaps for yourself. Just remember to use the buzzwords—vibrant, exciting, challenging, cutting edge—and you will have produced an impeccable work of architectural criticism, suitable for even the glossiest magazine.

But those buzz words provide the real answer to my question. “Cutting edge,” for instance: Is that not a perfect description of the edges of the LinkedIn building, which neither bend to accommodate the neighbors nor retreat from the line of the street, but simply cut and slash their way to domination? And is that what we want from a vast building in the centre of a once beautiful city? “Exciting,” “vibrant,” and the other millennial clichés: Do we really want to live among buildings with attributes like those?

Think of the old center of Boston: not an excitement to be found, only quiet, polite façades standing side by side in conversation, symbols of a world at peace with itself—except, of course, for the 1968 Boston City Hall, that chunk of vibrant concrete that has created all around itself a desert of disaffection.

The Chrysler Building (Wikimedia Commons)

It is not the cutting edge that we ordinary observers want, but the gentle and retreating edge, the cheerful pinnacle and the polite façade. Look at the first generation of skyscrapers and you find those things in abundance. The lovely pinnacle of New York City’s Chrysler Building, for example, which does not assault the sky like an angry fist, but proudly stands above the city like a cathedral spire, puncturing the sky but also gently repairing the injury. Those old skyscrapers followed the line of the street, so that their edges did not jostle their neighbours aside, but simply rose beside them, conceding space at street level. And the meeting of the building and the street was not, as it now so often is, an abrupt horizontal, like a crushing block of concrete on the toe, but a collection of colonnades and arches, a busy labyrinth of welcomes, that blended with the doors and windows to either side.

We learn from those old skyscrapers that the height of a building does not in itself detach it from the city. There are critical points where building and city meet, and where it is good manners rather than “cutting-edge” excitement that are most required. These points are three: the skyline, the street line, and the vertical order that unites them.

Study those things and you will quickly find an answer to my question. The modern skyscraper has no skyline: merely a blunt fist thrust above the city, without grace or courtesy. It has no façade at street level, but merely an opening somewhere, marked if at all by some garish logo, and surrounded by characterless steel and glass. And the two extremities are not joined together in any meaningful way, since the only vertical lines are the sharp forbidding edges of the building, brandished like threats towards the buildings to either side. Top and bottom are simply the first and last of a stack of trays, producing an effect of accumulated horizontals in which all vertical order—all true posture towards the city—is lost in a vision of junk.

Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow.

Posted in , , , , . 28 comments

Roger Scruton Appointed New Urbanism Fellow at TAC

The American Conservative is pleased to announce that distinguished English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who senior editor Rod Dreher has called “a gift and a wonder,” has been appointed the magazine’s New Urbanism Fellow. Upon accepting the role, Scruton commented:

It is a great honor to be invited to take up this fellowship. Conservatism is based in the desire to protect a shared home. The question of how we design the places where we settle is therefore at the centre of the conservative vision of political order, so that architecture must occupy a central place in the conservative vision of culture. The point is one that I have made throughout my literary career, and it is marvelous that a leading conservative journal has joined in taking up the cause.

Scruton’s writing will be a regular feature in this space and the print magazine, and he is scheduled to speak at an event TAC will host in Washington, DC on October 10.

Scruton, long a defender of traditional urbanism and authentic sustainability, is the author of dozens of books, including The Aesthetics of Architecture, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, and News From Somewhere: On Settling. He is also a previous contributor to The American Conservative, having authored our June 2007 cover story, “A Righter Shade of Green.” That essay asked why conservation issues have become the exclusive property of progressive activists, but also touched on how conservatives might acknowledge the perverse incentives that destroy a sustainable balance between the built and natural environments:

The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs…. [S]uburbanization forces millions to go to work in cars everyday when they might have been walking. It requires vast acreages of the countryside to be covered with buildings and roads, destroying natural ecosystems. Yet it goes ahead because it is something that people want, and the cost can be easily externalized onto other generations or people in other parts of the world.


Other notable essays on architecture and urbanism include “Cities for Living” (on urbanist Leon Krier), and “A Plea for Beauty: A Manifesto for a New Urbanism.”

* * *

We would like to thank both the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Bradshaw-Knight Foundation for their generous support of the New Urbanism Initiative at The American Conservative.

For more information, or media inquiries, please contact executive editor Lewis McCrary at [email protected]


Drivers Declare War on Walkers

jeweledlion / Flickr

Over the last decade, it’s become safer to drive and more dangerous to walk. That’s the conclusion of a new report on pedestrian safety released earlier this week, which documents that from 2007 to 2016, “The number of pedestrian fatalities increased 27 percent … while at the same time, all other traffic deaths decreased by 14 percent.”

Alarmingly, this is not just a medium-term trend, reports the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). In the U.S., “pedestrians now account for a larger proportion of traffic fatalities than they have in the past 33 years.”

Why the increase in drivers killing walkers, as opposed to drivers hitting other drivers? The report fingers those dreaded accessories of the Millennials, smartphones and marijuana, suggesting that increased legalization of the latter—and widespread adoption of the former devices—is leading to more distraction, impairment, and death.

Curiously, there is little attempt by the GHSA to grapple with the very obvious and long-term problem—the conflict that occurs when one attempts to combine pedestrian accessibility with roads that support highway speeds. Even with smartphones locked away and all drivers drug free, there are bound to be incidents in which the operator of a two-ton object barrelling down the road does incredible damage to a defenseless human being of one-tenth the weight. The only sure way to protect the vulnerable party in this situation is to slow vehicles to truly safe speeds wherever pedestrians are present. And the only way to guarantee slower speeds is to create streets—not the all-to-common suburban thoroughfares that accomodate highway speeds—that do not allow drivers to travel through neighborhoods at unsafe velocities.

Such a transformation of our built environment will require more than band-aid fixes, such as “pedestrian hybrid beacons” (special button-activated lights and crosswalks placed at midblock) and demeaningly-named “refuge islands” recommended by the GHSA report. Only a dramatic paradigm shift will cause drivers to ease off the pedal when they are off the interstate. Such a new approach would call for narrower streets that are not designed for highway speeds—or even what behind the wheel may seem relatively pokey rates of travel. At even 35 miles per hour, there is a 31 percent chance a vehicle will kill you, rising to 54 percent for seniors over 70 years old. In contrast, at 20 miles per hour, the risk of pedestrian death goes down to an average of 7 percent.

To its credit, the Governors Highway Safety Association does call for “road diets that create space for other modes” of transit. But despite its commendable effort to deal with the bad press for traffic engineers generated by road deaths, ultimately it is a group that serves as the representative of state highway safety offices, many of which are located within state transportation agencies. State departments of transportation and their engineers are of course notorious for pushing for more highway miles, and for the “upgrading” of roads to allow for greater vehicle speeds.

Perhaps the oddest omission from the GHSA report is any reference to European pedestrian safety practices, an example from which the U.S. has much to learn. There was a time when the U.S. led the developed world in making roads safer, but by the turn of the millennium, our progress slowed, while Europe and Britain continued to post long-term declines in traffic fatalities—including pedestrian deaths.

Compared to these other wealthy countries, Vox reports

[W]e now have traffic fatality rates per person that are three to four times greater than those in the best-performing peer countries — including Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands…. Much of the disparity seems to arise from how we build communities and the types of roads we design and construct. In the US, we drive more than any other developed country in the world, which goes some way toward explaining the higher traffic fatality rates. But even when we correct for vehicle miles traveled, we still have higher fatality rates. What we are learning is that the countries with the best traffic fatality records are different from the US in the following ways: a) they live more compactly, b) their road design favors more vulnerable users such as bikers and pedestrians, and c) they have enacted laws and regulations that also favor these vulnerable road users.

The American defender of the status quo might snarkily remark that the experience of older, narrower streets of Europe will never be duplicated stateside. But much of the progress in European road safety has actually been made in the last generation, and Europe once had more traffic deaths than the U.S. According to Vox, in 1970 in the Netherlands, a unprecedented increase in traffic deaths led to a public outcry that included calls to “Stop the Child Murder,” and subsequent changes in road design resulted in dramatic improvements in safety.

Such heated rhetoric may lead policy wonks to dismiss the story behind it. Yet as in so many examples of public policy debates, the language used by engineers and experts also serves to obscure the real nature of the carnage on our streets. If we dispensed with policy-speak niceties such as “pedestrian casualties” and “traffic fatalities,” and simply stated that last year nearly 6,000 people driving a car killed people who were out walking, these incidents begin to sound less like unfortunate accidents—and more like what in a civilized society should largely be preventable deaths.

A similar faith that new technology will magically reduce pedestrian deaths also distracts us from the real issue. Last year, Google engineers submitted patent documents that suggested coating the front of vehicles in a strong adhesive that might “prevent the pedestrian from bouncing off the vehicle after the pedestrian impacts the hood”—like a human-sized fly catcher. General Motors’ best and brightest similarly proposed airbags that would deploy outside the vehicle, perhaps gently pushing pedestrians away like a cowcatcher. Joe Cortright of City Observatory cheekily responded that perhaps “the next frontier is to deploy this technology on people, with personal airbags” worn on our bodies—and that perhaps subsequent designs could include “small but powerful rocket packs, again connected to self-driving cars via the Internet” that “could fire and lift the pedestrian free of the oncoming vehicle.”

True sharing of the streets between all modes of mobility—including one’s own two feet—demands, as Cortright states so well, that walking and biking are no longer treated as a “second class form of transportation.” This transition will require recovering a rather older form of techne, a craft of building human-centered places, that does not need artificial intelligence or other “smart” devices to save us from the mechanical beasts we have allowed to dominate our streets.

Some might respond that in the last century, easy and cheap automobile transportation has given us freedom that is worth trading for the lives of a few errant pedestrians. Such reasoning of course ignores the needs of tens of millions of our fellow citizens who are unable to drive—particularly adolescents and disabled senior citizens—who now must be shuttled from place to place like cattle, especially when walking has been made an unsafe option.

The idea of true freedom as realized behind the wheel also forgets the long Anglophone tradition of liberty as the lack of an ongoing threat of bodily harm—as Thomas Hobbes famously defined in his Leviathan of 1651, freedom is most essentially the “absence of … external impediments to motion.” Over the past few centuries, this might have come to seem a quaint academic notion, but the question of pedestrian safety makes it concrete once again. If safe mobility requires purchasing a two-ton vehicle to get around, are we really as free as we imagine?

Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative.

Posted in , . 30 comments

The Slow Death of the Shopping Plaza

Sully Place Shopping Center, Chantilly, Virginia. Credit: Addison Del Mastro

I have written previously about some pleasant and nostalgic aspects of suburbia. Putting aside questions of wise land-use planning, much of what remains from our mid-century suburbs is harmless. The buildings are quirky, often include kitschy salutes to their particular locales, and are built at a human scale. That sort of architecture is long gone, but suburbia is still with us, though with much less of the charm. 

Case in point, the Sully Place Shopping Center in Chantilly, Virginia. This strip mall is built along a major intersection on Route 50—known to locals as the endangered Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway (the name, of course, is endangered—not, unfortunately, the highway). Across the street is a collection of car dealers and an apartment complex called “The Fields of Chantilly.” On the other side, Sully Place butts up against a cul-de-sac neighborhood of mostly identical homes. The plaza is quite large and oddly designed; an American farmer from the days of the Founding would easily mistake it for an alien structure.

The anchor stores in the plaza are currently occupied, and there is none of the loitering or petty crime that tends to hasten the deaths of these places; this is no dead or dying mall. Yet the accompanying strips of smaller shops in between the anchors are one-third vacant. Of about 40 small storefronts, 13 are currently sitting empty (the number of vacancies has actually ticked up in the last several years). One or two stores that are occupied are “marginal” businesses, like the closeout warehouse stocked mostly with returned electronics and smashed cereal boxes. This is in one of the richest parts of one of the richest counties in the nation—the households within five miles of the mall sport a median household income of $110,000—during a supposedly thriving economy. That suggests that the high watermark of the massive shopping plaza is probably behind us, though whether greater blame belongs to e-commerce or to the defects of the sprawl model of development is up for debate. In any case, one wonders what the original builders were thinking in 1991 when the plaza was built.

Three consecutive vacant storefronts in Sully Place. Credit: Addison Del Mastro

One of the anchors, inhabiting what used to be an unusually large K-Mart, is a massive home decoration store, with the distinctly uninspiring name At Home. Imagine dozens of aisles of garden gnomes, welcome mats, rugs, brass urns, and hundreds of other tchotchkes and trinkets. Then imagine, if you will, the tens of thousands of similar stores across the country, filled to the brim with the same junk, accounting for most of what is left of brick-and-mortar retail. As James Howard Kunstler puts it, wave your flag over that.

Where could all of this have possibly come from? The answer is not dynamic, value-generating “capitalism.” It is rather that this endless array of stuff is the home-décor equivalent of junk food. Anyone who studies American food and eating habits knows that most of what occupies the supermarket is nothing but various combinations and permutations of corn, sugar, salt, artificial flavor, and food dye.

The same is basically true of those lamps, baskets, Christmas elves, vases, and fake flowers. They are all made from a handful of very cheap, ubiquitous materials: cheap iron and stamped tin, glass, plastic, plaster, particle board (i.e. sawdust), and even actual cardboard. One notices the same thing in furniture shops—all of the beautiful hardwoods have been used up, and so the furniture is made from poplar and rubberwood if you’re lucky, and plywood and particle board if you’re not. Even some of the furniture is made from cardboard, which is green and, we are told, stylish. Plenty of this stuff costs a pretty penny, but virtually none of it has any real value. You can plunk down a couple hundred for a life-sized cactus-shaped urn or Egyptian-esque cat statue if you want, but it’s not going to be an heirloom or an antique any more than that retro-style wood-cabinet record player that shows up in every discount department store at Christmastime.

How long can it go on? How long will there be enough resources and energy to fill discount stores and closeout warehouses and “category killers” to the gills with all this stuff? But that is the wrong question. This is, ironically, what resource scarcity looks like. It’s not an environmentalist trope or a distant cataclysm. It is the reality under which every American consumer lives who is not filthy rich. Recite that list again: glass, cardboard, sawdust, plastic, plaster, stamped tin. These materials will be available in some form virtually forever. So we make everything out of them.

A four-lane road bisects the shopping plaza. Credit: Addison Del Mastro

Exiting this wasteland of garden gnomes and inflatable Santas, you’ll pass a string of those small vacant storefronts. There are rarely more than one or two people on the sidewalk, which is very wide. Two thirds of the parking lot is likely to be empty. This architectural type, the suburban shopping plaza, has married the worst of the windswept Soviet “town square” with the worst of American hedonistic consumerism. Skateboarding, loitering, shoplifting, and demographic changes have slowly killed many a once-mighty shopping plaza, and there is no reason why this one would be exempt from one day becoming a great hulking roadside ruin. A traffic fatality or two might also do it: the sprawling plaza is bisected by an actual road—on which the vehicles routinely do 40 miles per hour—which makes navigating by foot or even by car a risky proposition.  

And while we’re on the subject of cars, the mostly empty parking lot is enormous. There are dividers with shrubs and small trees, intended to prevent the conversion of the lot into a drag strip in the after-hours. Perhaps they are also meant to provide a little greenery, but the sad-looking dried-out pine trees and scraggly bushes only emphasize that this is a vast asphalt desert. There is so much parking that some of the corners and edges of the lot are cracked and neglected, like an entire small lot behind the At Home anchor that is virtually unused. And yet the zoning laws mandate “minimum” parking requirements. Fairfax County’s minimum parking requirement for a shopping center is between four and five spaces—depending on the total size of the plaza—per 1,000 square feet of floor area. Sully Place has 2,819 surface spaces, which is roughly in line with the mandated number. In order to make sure that no one ever waits five minutes for a spot, we pave over double or triple the amount of land that is really needed, and mostly never use it for anything.

An unused, unnecessary segment of parking lot behind an anchor store. Credit: Addison Del Mastro

Most people respond to all of this with a shrug: welcome to America. Or they might suggest that environmental concerns are nothing more than northeasterners in sardine-can cities getting a little stir-crazy. This line of thinking is present in the American West, for example, with its Big Sky Country and endless grazing lands and hardscrabble rural farms. Such a lifestyle, despite its underlying ethic of subsistence and survival, teaches that there is far, far more land and resources than we will ever need. Landfill shortage? Landfills bigger than any now in service could be built all over rural Montana and barely put a dent in the landscape. Think of all the steel locked up in rusting ranch fences and abandoned silos and piles of junked cars. There is some truth to this: the density and claustrophobia of the Eastern Seaboard megalopolis and its sprawl and exurbs is a tiny dot on our massive planet. If the globe is a 70-inch television, Sully Place or even Chantilly is a pixel or two.

But for tens of millions of people, that tiny dot is also home. The existence of the steppes or the tundra does not somehow obviate the uglification of the landscape that we actually inhabit day-to-day, nor does it excuse us from the duty to tend our little corner of the earth with care. We can’t do that all the time, but we can slow down our construction of monstrosities like Sully Place. That’s a start.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , . 26 comments
← Older posts Newer posts →