Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow.
Historically, property boundaries were generally demarcated by a physical object, either by a boundary marker or a fence to visually communicate the edges of land ownership. These were human impositions that represented a cultural, political, and social meaning upon a natural environment or within a settled area.
In present day, the use of markers for land ownership has largely been replaced by maps and land-title registration. International borders continue to rely on markers which are traditionally classified into two categories: natural boundaries correlating to topographical features such as rivers, forests, or mountain ranges, and artificial boundaries unassociated with topography.
Cast-iron statues of dragons on plinths demarcate entry thresholds into the one-square mile City of London. Commonly referred to as The City, it constitutes the Roman settlement in the 1st century AD extended to the Middle Ages, and contains the historic center and primary central business district. Due to extensive growth, The City is today one of thirty-three local authority districts of Greater London.
The tall, black Temple Bar Dragon fiercely stands guard on Fleet Street overlooking the boundary between the City of London and the City of Westminster. It is the most celebrated gateway to The City and was the point where the Lord Mayor would welcome the ruling monarchy. Charles B. Birch designed the 14-foot-tall dragon in 1880.
The other Dragon Boundary Markers that guard the gateways into the City of London are painted silver with their tongues highlighted in red. The City of London shield, integrated into each sculpture, is painted white and red. The design is based on two seven-foot-tall dragon sculptures that were mounted above the entrance to the 1849 Coal Exchange. The building was demolished in 1962. The two statues were preserved, however, and re-erected on six-foot-high plinths at the western boundary of the City. These dragons were the model for the additional Dragon Boundary Markers installed at other entry points into The City.
The Celts believed in dragons and used its symbol to portray strength and power. In mythical legends, dragons were associated with protection and defense—and in medieval romance stories they guarded captive women. Pertinent in England, the use of the dragon in the City of London coat of arms was probably influenced by the legend of Saint George, who slays the dragon and rescues the princess chosen as the next offering for human sacrifice.
Unfortunately, these well-intentioned dragons at the thresholds of the City of London have been unable to guard against the onslaught of hubristic architects and developers. Falsely proclaiming sustainability, their profit-driven, out-of-scale glass towers are destroying the historic character of this once beautiful City.
The outcome of the recent building boom in The City is discordance at every level. The cacophony of buildings rising to the east of St. Paul’s Cathedral leaves much to be desired, especially at the pedestrian level. The argument thrust upon insecure decision makers — that an iconic glass tower skyline is necessary for a city to be taken seriously as a financial center — is utter nonsense. One can only hope that this lesson from London will convince other cities that the emperors of glass towers have no clothes.
Dhiru A. Thadani is an architect and urbanist who has complete projects all over the world. He is a six-time Charter Award winner and the recipient of the Seaside Prize.
This post originally appeared at CNU Public Square, and was republished with permission from Dhiru Thadani.
Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market was once the largest fish market on Earth. It was a bustling distribution center that supplied Tokyo with most of its seafood. Established in 1935 after the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Tsukiji fish market grew into more than just an extra-large wholesale market. It also grew into one of Tokyo’s cultural landmarks, with a distinctive working-class civil society that attracts visitors from the world over. Much like Mt. Fuji on the horizon, the Tsukiji fish market came to define urban life in Tokyo.
Unlike Mount Fuji, the Tsukiji fish market has proven to be a transient aspect of that urban life. Last October, the market was moved from Tsukiji to a glitzy new facility in Toyosu. Part of the market will be paved over to construct a transportation hub and a multi-lane thoroughfare for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Where there was once a vibrant social space, there will now largely be barren concrete. However, there is more reason to regret the decision than mere nostalgia. The destruction of the Tsukiji fish market exhibits how the perverse politics surrounding the Olympics can enable modern city planners to pursue their notion of urban efficiency at great costs to their urban ecosystem.
The Tsukiji fish market was an urban ecosystem that teemed with life. Curiously enough for a district in the middle of the world’s largest metropolis, it simultaneously functioned as both a wholesale market and a farmers’ market. People were connected to commerce at almost all levels of exchange, from the auctioning of whole tuna to the sale of ramen ready for consumption. As such, the Tsukiji fish market was a manifestation of an ancient form of urban life that emphasized commercial exchange in a shared social space as essential to the idea of a city.
Within a metropolis that is all too populated by anonymous salarymen, the Tsukiji fish market stood out as an urban spectacle. Rather than being secluded behind walls, the gritty reality of how food is produced was open for everybody to see. Tsukiji was a unique social space in which the otherwise mundane task of butchering a tuna could become a spectator sport. Tourists and locals alike admired the deft blade work of Tsukiji’s fishmongers as they transformed whole tuna into steaks ready for sale. In a capitalist economy where most consumers first come into contact with their meat once it has been wrapped in sanitary plastic, there was something undeniably romantic about the blood and grime of the market. It is a cruel twist of fate that, in an era where people are seeking more of a real connection with how their food is produced, the Tsukiji fish market, which provided an idea for how to establish that connection, has been closed.
The Tokyo metropolitan government’s decision to move it to Toyosu has already proven both costly and controversial. The new Toyosu complex, which comes across as yet another uninspiring piece of modern architecture, was constructed at the cost of some $5.4 billion. Chemical contamination discovered in the soil further complicated the move. Despite an expert panel’s verdict that Toyosu is safe, many fishmongers are still anxious about the move. Tensions between experts and local decision makers were heightened by the fact that the move was unpopular, with some 80 percent of fishmongers at Tsukiji opposing the move to the Toyosu complex.
Accessibility is another problem that casts the move in a bad light. Whereas visitors could access the Tsukiji fish market via both rail and metro lines, they can only access the Toyosu fish market via a special monorail. While this problem will probably not affect the fish market’s status as the premier seafood wholesale market in the world, it makes the fish market a less public social space, and diminishes its status as a cultural landmark.
Even worse, visitors are now entirely secluded from the marketplace itself. Whereas they were allowed to roam the Tsukiji marketplace after 11am, visitors are now only allowed on a viewing platform a floor above the market. From there, they can observe activity on the market from a hygienic distance, safely removed from anything gross—or for that matter alive.
Compared to Tsukiji, the Toyosu fish market is therefore more zoo than ecosystem. As a building that might impress professional architects, the Toyosu fish market appeals to what an urban planner thinks should be a wholesale seafood market. But it is a lifeless facility that lacks Tsukiji’s vitality and its embodiment of the idea of public exchange as an essential part of urban life.
This points to a principal problem in modern urban planning: that it treats a city as a machine to be improved upon, rather than a garden to be cultivated. By doing so, it frames urban life as being summarized by the buildings and infrastructure over which urban planners have top-down control. There is little space within that framing for the spontaneous orders that have emerged from the bottom up. Among those spontaneous orders are the social spaces, including the Tsukiji fish market, in which most people discover human flourishing.
Planners should solve complex problems, like governing a city, by cultivating those bottom-up orders that emerge as people spontaneously cooperate to solve them. There is an important symmetry here: although top-down planning cannot solve those complex problems, it can wreak havoc on the bottom-up orders that have emerged to solve them. Modern urban planning’s negligence of bottom-up social spaces therefore becomes a danger to cities when their planners are willing to destroy those orders in the name of urban efficiency.
Here, past is prologue. The 1971 demolition of Paris’s Les Halles market is an unfortunate reminder of how the unintended consequences of top-down urban planning can lead to cultural vandalism. Much like Tsukiji, Les Halles was a wholesale food market that defined urban life in its era. Also like Tsukiji, Les Halles was demolished to make way for a transportation hub—Châtelet-Les Halles station.
Since then, there has been enough regret that Paris has invested around €1 billion into revitalizing the district with a monumental pavilion. However, it was not Les Halles’s architecture that made it into a Parisian landmark, but the public act of exchange in a social space. No amount of money can regrow that social space; once killed, some gardens shall never grow back.
The Olympics are one of the great scams of our modern era. Despite their breathtaking promises, they tend to leave behind a legacy of debt and disappointment for those cities unfortunate enough to have hosted them. The fundamental problem with the Olympics is that hosting them is a different kind of problem than that of managing of a city.
However massive they are, the problems of hosting them are characterized by simplicity, not complexity. Whether they involve the construction of stadiums or ferrying tourists to them, urban planners can foresee the consequences of their actions and can therefore solve those problems from the top down.
Because the Olympics are a machine to be improved upon, Olympic politics encourage urban planners to frame their entire cities as similar machines. Rather than moderate modern urban planning, those politics therefore unleash its megalomania. The 2008 Beijing Olympics gave impetus to the destruction of the irreplaceable hutong alleyways. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics lead to Tokyo paving over many of its canals and estuaries. That history of cultural vandalism continues with 2020 Tokyo Olympics’s destruction of the Tsukiji fish market.
The death of a social space as vital as the Tsukiji fish market is a veritable tragedy for Tokyo and for the wider world. For Tokyo, Tsukiji’s death denies the city a vibrant cultural landmark that has helped characterize its urban life for generations. For the wider world, it denies interested onlookers with an experiment in organizing urban life in an era of rapid urbanization and when people would like to learn the lessons of various ideas of how to organize urban life.
Harrison Searles is a writer from Northern Virginia. He can be reached at [email protected].
In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush spoke of going shopping as essential to the ordinary routines of life. Read in context, Bush’s remarks were trying to make a point about social solidarity, and how shopping can serve to bind together communities comprised of many different cultures and religions. But of course, most people bring up Bush on retail only to chastise him for being a crass consumerist. That goes even for those New Yorkers who are now anxious about the “epidemic” of retail vacancies widely seen as a threat to the city’s very soul. In truth, both Bush and his critics have a point. Retail activity can be an important source of community life, but not a sustainable one. This can be explained through a look at the golden age of the American department store.
Try as they may with their sports stadium, “mixed use,” and transit-oriented development ventures, city planners have never come close to recreating the excitement of downtown during the heyday of the great urban department stores, which flourished from the late 19th century until roughly World War II. It is impossible to look at old photographs of crowds standing seven deep in front of the Macy’s holiday window displays and not feel like we’ve lost something in a profoundly civic sense. Thousands would attend the opening of a major new store. Though chartered as for-profit companies, the old department stores embraced a business model that relied on spectacle and shopping as an experience. Department stores’ social and cultural contributions to city life far outstripped their economic significance. They enhanced the quality of life of countless city residents regardless of whether or how much those residents actually shopped at them.
When generational change strains the social fabric, communities respond both by adapting old civic institutions to meet new demands and by crafting entirely new institutions. In his book City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, the German-American historian Gunther Barth places the department store in the latter category. In his view, it’s no more possible to understand the development of American urban life without reference to the department store than to try to make sense of medieval society while ignoring the church. At a time of rapid and disruptive economic growth, and unprecedented levels of inequality and diversity, Barth argues that the department stores knit urban communities together.
This thesis would have sounded strange, to say the least, to many who lived through retail’s late 19th- and early 20th-century convulsions. The great department stores struck many as anti-local, “anti-social,” even. Neighborhood dry-goods merchants felt crushed by merciless commercial forces beyond their control and they identified the department store as the force doing the crushing. By the standards of their day, 19th-century department stores were very big business. Take for example their “fixed price” policy, which prohibited haggling. Though this would have democratic consequences (no more the-rich-don’t-have-to-pay-for-anything type deals for socially prominent shoppers), most historians agree that storeowners’ hands were forced by hire a small army of salespeople, who could not be trusted to bargain with the proper mix of fairness and effectiveness.
The sheer physical scope of these “commercial palaces” was amazing. No one had ever seen anything like the city block-sized “New Store” that AT Stewart put up on Broadway and 9th around the time of the Civil War. And yet, north of 14th St., within a couple decades, New Yorkers would witness the emergence of an entire district, “Ladies Mile,” that was composed of several stores of a similar magnitude. Many companies who built the first wave of department stores started off as small dry goods establishments, but felt like they had no choice but to get big if they wanted to compete with the likes of B. Altman’s and Macy’s.
Scale was substantially the result of urbanization. Stores’ expansions kept pace with bigger and bigger markets: people were getting packed into city borders on a historic scale. (American industry’s productivity, too, was proceeding apace. There is a certain sense in which department stores had to emerge to solve a distribution problem that manufacturers were grappling with in the mid-19th century.) Raw population growth, though, was not the only factor behind the dramatic expansion in the size of retail markets. Public transportation systems facilitated cheap, reliable movement in and out of downtown corridors, whereas, in the past, most ordinary families did most of their shopping within a couple mile radius of home.
Equally significant was newspaper advertising. Historian Daniel Boorstin describes newspapers as “streetcars of the mind” because of how the aggressive marketing techniques of RH Macy and John Wannamaker extended the reach of their brands even into the suburbs that were beginning to take shape outside city borders. Extravagant ad buys were necessitated by the low markup.
Emile Zola’s 1883 novel The Ladies Paradise is the definitive novel about the rise of the department store. Early on in that work, Zola foreshadows doom for Monsieur Baudu, a small shop proprietor, by having him remark: “‘The art [is] not to sell a lot, but to sell at a high price.’” Leading 19th-century department stores crushed the competition by selling a great variety and amount of individual products each of which on its own turned only a marginal profit. Low markup required high turnover of stock, which in turn prompted the invention, or at least the acceleration, of the fashion cycle. The 19th-century department store had to constantly stoke desire for the new through creative and expensive advertising techniques. Boorstin argues that the gusher of ad revenues department stores sent to newspapers gave the American press an independence that it lacked in those of other Western European nations. There may never have been two more “synergistic” industries than newspapers and department stores.
Department stores served to maintain communities’ social fabric, as much as that was possible while those communities’ populations were growing by leaps and bounds. Take, for instance, department store magnates’ community-oriented philanthropy. Macy’s keeps the flame burning for these traditions with its annual Flower Show, July 4 fireworks, and Thanksgiving Day Parade. We should never underestimate the civic value of being awestruck at the same things. If not by one’s ancestors or one’s Redeemer, then, perhaps, for a time, extravagant window displays will do. Competition between these stores was fierce but, somehow, the dynamics of 19th and early 20th-century retail caused rivals not to cut costs relentlessly, per the Walmart paradigm, but to spend more on ways to enhance the shopping experience. The marvels, amenities, and even smells that storeowners saw as the logical consequence of conceiving of shopping as a mode of recreation, an end in itself, created public goods from which all benefited, not just the buyers and sellers on each side of the core commercial transactions.
The great downtown department stores left a proud architectural legacy. Even in the case of stores that lasted as a going retail concern for only a couple decades, as was the case with many of the Ladies Mile establishments, the quality and attractiveness of their structures has enabled them to be continually repurposed for the needs of later generations. Storeowners made energetic use of the then-novel technologies of cast-iron and affordable plate glass, which worked in concert with one another. Old load-bearing walls had to be massive in order to support multi-story buildings, thus leaving little room for window space. Cast-iron allowed buildings to be supported by their structures, not their walls. That opened up space for window displays, which along with the interior courts that many department stores featured, gave them a lightness that balanced out their impressive height and square footage.
Department stores’ character as an active shaper of urban culture—and not just passive suppliers of families’ needs and wants—have made them rich topics of study. Well before the advent of cultural studies, scholars were taking note of their contribution to the changing role of women. On the buy side, it was apparently a rallying cry of 19th-century feminists that middle-class women should seize control of their household budgets. On the sell side, by around World War I, the vast majority of department store employees were women. Department stores changed women and women changed cities. You had to clean up your act and your storefront if you expected to attract hundreds of women shoppers every day.
Barth explains “The attention the department store devoted to its female customers changed the urban environment and made downtown streets attractive to women. Clean and orderly sidewalks became an extension of the store.” Again, private activity generated public goods, but in a social sense. At a time when scores of families were advancing up from poverty and assimilating into American society, department stores defined what it meant to be a member of the middle class. With the decline of department stores, retail has become more and more defined by Walmart, on the one hand, and, on the other, those places that sell $5,000 handbags. Department stores’ decline thus stands as evidence that America now is less of a middle-class nation than it once was.
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But the department store is no way around the fact that such scale is the enemy of localism. If, like Jane Jacobs, you like small blocks and are opposed to single-use districts, then you would not have felt perfectly at home during the golden age of the department store. The larger a community gets, the harder it becomes to pull off self-government. Moreover, middle-class culture is mass culture. Early 20th-century intellectuals who derided the growing consumerism and homogenization of American society viewed department stores as important culprits.
In her 1916 work “Greenwich Village As It Is,” the poet Djuna Barnes scoffed “The greater part of New York is soulless as a department store.” For better or worse, a strong middle-class culture compels conformity. That scholars are now able to generalize about “the modern department store” speaks to how much stores in different cities had in common in terms of their operations and products. (Otherwise, department store history would be confined to so many unrelated histories of individual stores.) The peak department-store era was antithetical to true localism to the degree that it promoted mass culture. Another lesson here may be that strengthening the middle class and strengthening localism are not only not the same thing, they probably stand in tension with one another, at least as far as things go in a massive nation-state like America.
In a “city of neighborhoods,” the “city” element is certain to predominate over the “neighborhood” one. There are considerable social advantages to restricting one’s shopping activities to a 1-2 mile radius of one’s home, even if it means higher consumer prices. The bonds of community were weakened when retail shifted from neighborhood establishments to grand department stores that strove to serve an entire metro. This point was either unknown to or overlooked by critics who, throughout department stores’ decline in the latter part of the 20th century, focused their energies on suburban malls and corporate mergers. See, for instance, this bitter passage from a 1985 article in The American Scholar, about what’s lost when family-owned stores sell out to chains and conglomerates directed from afar:
The limited support of local activities undertaken by distant corporate owners is based, not on a relationship with the community, but on the possibility for tax deductions, which ultimately take more from the taxpayers than its publicly given to them… The once-standard waiting room of the large department store, a place for the tired shopper to sit and rest, has been removed, as have the chairs that used to be scattered around on the selling floor for the same purpose. Keep ‘em moving and spending is the idea, and, if they sit down, let ‘em pay for it in a snack bar. The ambience of comfort, luxury, and beauty that was inextricably bound up with respect for the customer and the desire to cultivate lifelong loyalty has been sacrificed to a marketing technique that foists on the buyer huge quantities of merchandise as a substitute for real variety, and manipulation of prices as a substitute for quality.
That perspective looks quaint to us, who seem to be faced with the near-total disappearance of bricks-and-mortar retail in cities, even in those as dense and wealthy as New York. Is it possible to develop and maintain a healthy community if its members never shop together? Regularly encountering one’s neighbors in the flesh is a simple thing but also indispensable from a communitarian perspective. The more that a community’s members have to go out into public to obtain goods and services at least on occasion, the more that their days will be filled with spontaneous conversations and new introductions.
But the history of department stores teaches that you’ll never be able to revive retail through virtue and the appeal of “buy local.” The 19th-century consumer did not shop at the grand old department stores because of a commitment to women’s rights or urbanism. She did so because their scale allowed them to offer stuff at better prices than the neighborhood dry goods shops. Civic life rests on obligation more than choice. The rise and fall of the department store is ultimately a story about the limits of localism in modern American society.
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.
In every art form there has been a “battle of mithtyles,” as the old idioms became tired and repetitious, and new idioms searched for space in the creative mêlée. For the most part the battle has been good humored, with new solutions steadily gathering approval from the art-loving public. The passage of The Rite of Spring from an act of outrageous defiance to a classic of the symphony-hall repertoire is a case in point, as is the rise of T.S. Eliot from the purveyor of arcane mysteries to the unofficial poet laureate of the modern world. Art lovers have mostly taken an open-minded attitude in this battle. They have recognized that what seems like anti-human defiance may often be a deeper form of acceptance, so that apparent ugliness might turn out to be real beauty in the long run.
There is one exception to this ecumenical approach to modern art, and that is architecture—an exception that goes to the heart of architecture’s status as an art. From its beginnings in the Bauhaus, architectural modernism has been less an aesthetic experiment than a moral crusade, typified by the polemics issuing from the Centre Internationale de l’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in the 1920s. Those who advanced the “international” style were animated as much by revulsion towards the existing fabric of our cities as by enthusiasm for the new materials and the large-scale projects that they facilitated. They referred constantly to the benighted quality of their opponents, who were not simply competitors in the realm of style but wicked reactionaries, withholding the benefits of progress from the mass of humankind.
The modernists belonged, on the whole, to the revolutionary wing of contemporary socialism, with Hannes Meyer, as director of the Bauhaus, explicitly pledging allegiance to the Leninist vision, while others, like the endearing Karel Teige in Prague, advocating a romantic and poetic communism designed to liberate the common people without controlling them. Le Corbusier attempted to join this revolutionary movement at a certain stage but, finding a more congenial sponsor in the Vichy Government of war-time France, he moved right-wards, without, however, losing the totalitarian mentality that united him to Gropius and Meyer.
This totalitarian mentality should be seen in its historical context. Modernism came to the fore in the wake of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, when massive displacements of populations into cities ill-adapted to receive them suggested that only large-scale planning could prevent disaster. The first duty of government was to take control, and to provide for the basic social needs of people on the verge of starvation. The great housing projects of the post-war period began from that thought, and the new materials, which made it possible to build without the constraints contained in the dying tradition of post and beam construction, offered what was seen at the time as the only possible solution to a growing social problem.
This solution was the estate of high-rise apartment blocks set in a green space, which involved building on a scale that had previously been impossible, and building according to a top-down plan, rather than according to the tastes of individual house-owners. The international modernist aesthetic was, to a great extent, an effect of that way of building, rather than a cause of it. But it was presented as an aesthetic innovation, and the inspiration for the new building types. People who didn’t like it—and then as now they were the majority—were held to be committing the same kind of aesthetic crime as those who banished Manet from the salons, or those who rioted at the first performance of The Rite of Spring.
In due course an element of realism entered the contest, though not before “slum clearance” had removed much of the genial fabric of our city streets, and the high-rise estate had risen from the ruins. High-rise buildings do not, on the whole, last much longer than the illusion that people want to live in them. Within thirty years the dilapidated towers, standing in a sea of garbage, ravaged by vandalism and criminal gangs, and with many of their residents suffering from mental health problems and living in a permanent state of anxiety, are usually blown up, and their population re-housed in the next generation of mistakes, this time comparatively low-rise buildings of concrete trays, stacked beside streets on which their backs are turned: a idiom that can be encountered in its most brutal form in London’s Elephant and Castle estate, the work of the Smithsons.
At the same time, the message that the modernist idioms are uniquely suited to our age is still shouted at the top of the voice in the schools of architecture. We may have moved on from the great socialist projects; but we have not moved on from the architecture to which they gave rise. Curtain wall structures along existing streets offer a lucrative way to exploit the infrastructure of our cities, so that the financial interest in defending this style against all-comers has become one of the most important causes in the architecture journals. The schools no longer teach facades or streets or skylines, but only “envelopes.” The resulting soap-bubble architecture is disliked by almost everyone, and the architects themselves are seldom observed to live in the vicinity of what they build, preferring elegant Georgian terraces along old-fashioned streets.
Nevertheless, there remains in the background of the modernist movement a kind of fury, an indignant assault on all alternatives, and a readiness to accuse opponents of every kind of moral, political, and intellectual failing, and in particular of the “historicism” effectively criticised by Teige and others, and subsequently confused with any sincere attempt to treat architecture, as it should be treated, as an art of composition. In a recent book, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, the distinguished architectural historian James Stevens Curl goes to the root of the “international style” championed by the early modernists, and documents its long-term psychological effects, in ways that leave no doubt that the whole thing has been a mistake—a mistake motivated at first by ideology, subsequently by greed. Curl’s book is well worth reading; but so too is the response to it by the architectural establishment, with reviewers crowding each other out in the competition to cast spells against this intruder from the realm of aesthetic reaction.
The fury vented against Curl was far out-done by that vented against me, when the British Government announced that I would be chairing a commission established to review the need for beauty in new building. It was assumed that I would side with my own personal preferences against all rival styles, since after all that is what leftists do—namely, close all questions in their own favor by allowing no opposing voice.
Just about every name in the book of political correctness has been flung at me—Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, even anti-Semitism—in order to dissuade the government from my appointment. So far the campaign hasn’t worked. But it has awoken me to the fact that the fury of the modernists is no passing agitation, but part of what they are. The hatred of which I have found myself to be the target is exactly the attitude that is embodied in those featureless high-rise blocks in which the working classes were to be imprisoned. It is present too—dare I say it—in those polished aquariums where the superrich blow bubbles against the glass for a year or two like exotic fish, before suing the architect who designed their costly prison. Both templates are deeply hostile to what matters in human life, which is the ability to live side by side in privacy, to enjoy the benefits of family love, and to cooperate with one’s neighbors in creating a place that belongs to us all.
Greenbelt, Maryland, an early suburb of Washington, D.C. in Prince George’s County, has a more storied history than its appearance would suggest. It was established in 1937 as a planned community under the Roosevelt administration, as one of three “Greenbelt Towns.” The overarching New Deal project never quite panned out, but Greenbelt itself was a success. The original planned community is now surrounded by typical commercial and residential sprawl, but “Old Greenbelt” is still there, sporting a vintage movie theater, a community center, and even a coffee shop called New Deal Cafe. In that surrounding sprawl is Beltway Plaza, an exquisitely well-preserved early 1970s indoor mall. Beltway Plaza is vibrant, thriving, and, if a new development plan reaches completion, about to be torn down.
The mall opened in 1963 as a strip shopping center; the indoor portion was added in 1972 and expanded in 1975, and the building has been renovated and rejiggered many times over the years, though with few updates to its atmosphere. A little piece of trivia: it originally housed the largest suburban department store in the D.C. area.
Though built concurrently with thousands of similar shopping centers, today Beltway Plaza is a rare time capsule of postwar suburbia: the kind of mid-sized, middlebrow indoor mall that barely exists anymore, and has not been newly constructed in decades. Most retail today is housed in strip plazas, larger and more upscale malls like the ones in Tysons Corner, Virginia, or, increasingly, New Urbanist-inspired “town centers” like those in Reston, Virginia and Rockville, Maryland.
The mall’s appearance and decor is even more of a time capsule than its layout. Remarkably, the stores are largely non-chain small businesses, some with completely generic names such as a small hardware shop called…“Hardware.” Instead of Victoria’s Secret, there’s Luv’n Time, complete with mannequins in kitschy plastic alcoves decked out in retro lingerie. Instead of Men’s Wearhouse or Jos. A Bank, there’s Ties Shirts & More. There are carnival-style ice cream kiosks, electro-mechanical rides, and lots and lots of neon. A place like this will never be built again.
This might sound like a “dying mall,” but it is vibrant and alive, with only a handful of vacancies out of approximately 100 spaces. A retro mall bustling with locally owned small businesses sounds like a community fixture, if not a tourist attraction.
Yet its days are numbered, as a redevelopment plan (the latest of several) has recently moved forward. The building is aging, and having been renovated and altered piecemeal over the years, a full overhaul wouldn’t have been cheap or easy, nor would it make full use of the real estate value of the lot. The mall is also just a stone’s throw away from a large, recently built development called Greenbelt Station, which looks like this.
These are large, spacious, brand new townhomes, and while some merely house wealthier University of Maryland students rather than homeowners or families, most people living in them will not be buying lingerie at Luv’n Time or knick-knacks at Gift Outlet.
Greenbelt is already one of the more desirable towns inside the Beltway, enjoying lower crime than many others, and very little urban blight. It isn’t exactly gentrifying, but it’s not likely to become cheaper.
The current redevelopment plan, like many similar projects around the D.C. metro area, aims to turn the single-story suburban mall into a mixed use project with housing, office space, and retail. A report from the Urban Land Institute went further, envisioning a transformation of Greenbelt Road—the highway on which Beltway Plaza sits—from a suburban strip to a walkable street. “Greenbelt Road must decide…are you bringing people through you, or to you?”
One can imagine keeping the mall and transforming the Greenbelt Road corridor, by turning it into a tourist attraction in its own right. New floor tiles and a new coat of paint would brighten the place up considerably. An old neon sign on the nearby Route 1 corridor was just refurbished, and neon is cool again. A lightly refurbished Beltway Plaza would be a lot like a more affordable version of the slick, faux-authentic food halls going up in old warehouses, or the weirdly manicured, movie-set “town centers.” There’s something conservative, in the truest sense, about making do with and appreciating what already exists. Surely a piece of retro architecture built only 26 years after its surrounding municipality was established is a community landmark. It’s even got a community wall of fame.
On the other hand, whatever replaces Beltway Plaza will be much nicer, and it will also include a lot of housing. With gentrification pushing former D.C. residents into Prince George’s County, that’s a good thing, even if it means losing a neat old building.
This raises an issue, however, that often goes under the radar: what we might call “commercial gentrification.” Much early suburban retail is now downmarket, worn out, or even derelict. D.C.-adjacent Maryland and even Fairfax County, Virginia are littered with aging strip plazas, full of little hole-in-the-wall places advertising pupusas and Indian groceries on faded signs. But as aesthetically unpleasant as these places can be, they are also a resource. Economist Tyler Cowen has found that some of the best restaurants are junky looking strip mall joints. The Eden Center plaza, in Falls Church, Virginia, went from old strip mall to major Vietnamese-American cultural and culinary center—and tourist attraction.
Some assume the immigrants somehow caused these places to become shabby; the reality is that shabby buildings provide poor immigrants a chance to start a business and make their own living. Urbanist Matt Robare notes in a piece about small local business, “As neighborhoods get more popular and local retailers are successful, the rents start going up until only the chains can afford them.” In an ongoing redevelopment debate in my hometown of Flemington, New Jersey, the answer to existing businesses is essentially to move or pay astronomical new rents. In a few cases of strip mall redevelopment, existing retail tenants are grandfathered into new developments or promised below-market rates. Mostly, they move or close.
We talk a lot about affordable housing, and far less about affordable commercial and retail space; weighing the costs and benefits of building new housing versus maintaining low-rent retail is going to be a major concern as “suburban retrofit” continues and as more and more aging, low-rent retail sites meet the end of their service life.
Greenbelt, Maryland isn’t exactly Georgetown, and whatever stores are built one day on the Beltway Plaza site probably won’t be Coach, Apple, and Papyrus. But they probably won’t be Hardware or Luv’n Time either. Losing those stores, those business owners, and those cheap retail spaces is a kind of gentrification and displacement, too, and it deserves to be part of the calculation. And so does all of that neon.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
“All politics are local” was former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s favorite political adage, while the old saw that “politics makes strange bedfellows” is an unquestioned cliche, even in these hyper-partisan times. Taking the two together, it’s no surprise that the world of hyperlocal of zoning is a scary and weird mirror universe of America’s national political conversation.
For example, when it comes to housing issues, the Democratic Socialists of America, a group which formed in 2016 to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president (and candidates like him for lower offices), frequently take the side of wealthy homeowners—including conservative Republicans like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists in their support for local control of zoning. Conversely, former President Barack Obama, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson all support efforts to use the federal and state governments to weaken local zoning ordinances.
Preempting local ordinances is controversial for a number of reasons. Many states have strong traditions of local government and so preemption would cost an enormous amount of political capital and be very unpopular. It also recalls the heavy-handed and insensitive methods of urban renewal from a few decades before. The alternatives of continuing to fight proposal by proposal or for upzones in comprehensive plans are slow, risky, exhausting and don’t always result in allowing for more housing.
But now there is another way. Developed in Britain, LondonYIMBY was presented to Americans at the YIMBYTown conference in Roxbury, Mass. by co-founder John Myers. (The movements refer to the “Yes In My Backyard” slogan that opposes anti-development efforts.)
Myers said that in Britain, like the United States, planning regulations break down when there are many homeowners and cities with the most homeownership paradoxically build the least amount of new housing. He added that while renters outnumber homeowners in large cities, the renters who pay market rents and the renters who pay below-market rents have conflicting interests—market renters want lower rents and below-market renters want to keep their advantage.
To make matters worse, Myers said that it was the explicit goal of the British government to increase house prices.
“Is there a solution?” he said. “We think there might be. What’s our long-term goal? What’s our vision?”
Myers said that their goal was a system that benefits all participants, is politically doable, and would produce abundant housing.
Unusually, for a movement that’s often skeptical of local approaches, Myers said that London YIMBY came up with a “hyperlocal” solution inspired by the work of the late Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work analyzing how traditional societies governed the commons. Myers said his London group noticed that where things were left to individual owners, they often wanted to maximize the value of their property and would either sell their property to a developer or build speculatively themselves. But with a lot more people involved in deciding on the rules, the willingness of an individual to build goes down because of the benefit they get from not building. Yet support for building goes up beyond the small-town level where states and countries generally approve more construction.
While reexamining the absolute right of property to develop their property is politically impossible, Myers said that YIMBYs could focus reform on devolving decision making down below the level of the neighborhood and to the level of the street or block.
Myers said this “Better Block” or “Better Street” method took groups of properties facing each other on one street, just from one intersection to the next, and allows them to vote to upzone just their block with a two-thirds majority.
“Hyperlocalism is gradual,” Myers said. “It doesn’t change people’s retirement plans.”
According to a draft YIMBY Handbook London produced, the Better Block program would incentivize homeowners to support upzoning because they would directly benefit from it, but there would still be protections for tenants and dissenters.
“It is politically easier to let very small areas choose to add more housing themselves, over time, so they can make sure that some of the benefits flow to their own communities,” the handbook said.
Myers said that the hyperlocal methods were already popular in London and the handbook noted that similar proposals had been suggested in California and New Zealand.
It’s tempting to be skeptical, thanks to many nights at community forums that were little more than shouting matches, but at the hyperlocal idea is attractive because the people voting are not self-selected the way people at community meetings are. A study by researchers at Boston University recently found that people going to development meetings were older, whiter, wealthier, and more opposed to development than the neighborhoods they supposedly represented. Under the Better Blocks scheme, the people who have a say are well-defined instead of just living nearby.
It will be exciting to see if the idea can be implemented anywhere and see the results. It would be pleasingly ironic if the answer to the problems of local control was more localism and not another round of top-down planning.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The legendary urban planners of Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses are well known, in different decades, for New York City projects. Both men built large amounts of parkland and Moses dutifully accented the works of the former with asphalt. But one connection is more unusual: Olmsted’s son and successor, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. authored an urban plan for Pittsburgh in 1910, and Robert Moses provided the first of several transportation plans for cities outside New York starting in 1939.
Each offers an intriguing glimpse into these two very distinct design and planning philosophies, applied to an outlier of one of America’s most vertiginous—and accordingly not-quite-easy-to-plan-for-cities.
Each sound like traffic suggestions: Olmsted Junior’s “Pittsburgh Main Thoroughfares and the Down Town District: Improvements Necessary to Meet the City’s Present and Future Needs; a Report” and Moses’ “Arterial Plan for Pittsburgh.” Neither are just that, although Moses’ is not unsurprisingly closer. Several of their road building ideas were implemented in some form. It’s no surprise whose plan aged better, and remains full of ideas that would be a benefit even today.
Pittsburgh has proved recurrently a planner’s dream and nightmare, with its growth circumscribed by dramatic terrain, with river valleys occupied by massive factories, slopes teeming with hasty worker housing and slightly more distant locations housing the better-off. The results were frequently excellent but sometimes simply jumbled and sclerotic. The city was given to intermittent waves of efforts to clean up its cluttered affairs, many the partial starts of a functioning drunk—ashamed of his chaotic appearance but unable to shake it entirely.
Pittsburgh, which doesn’t feature any of the work of Olmsted Senior (if it features other manifestations of City Beautiful-like thinking) exerted a sure attraction for his son, in part because it seemed a considerable challenge. As he wrote, “No city of equal size in America, or perhaps in the world, is compelled to adapt its growth to such a difficult complication of high ridges, deep valleys, and precipitous slopes, as Pittsburgh.” As Edward K. Muller and John F. Bauman wrote in “Before Renaissance: Planning in Pittsburgh, 1889-1943”, of the era’s efforts, “What better city than Pittsburgh, the archetypal befouled industrial metropolis, to show off planning’s wares?” Pittsburgh seems to have intrigued Olmstead, an enthusiasm that radiates throughout the report, “Throughout the city and its surroundings the one pre-eminent quality of an agreeable sort is the bold picturesqueness of the landscape — the deep ravines, the lofty hills, the precipitous declivities..”
Olmsted had a team of experts at work for a year researching the report, and he himself visited often, an amount of time evident in the voluminous document that they produced. It contains many prosaic suggestions of strict interest to civic engineers but impressionistic and ambitious improvement schemes as well.
Its eighty (!) proposed road improvements are exhaustive, many of which concern minor widening or grade changes; these principally concern roads connecting portions of the city already settled. The city’s ad hoc growth frequently resulted in dense portions of the city connected by two-lane roads and the exigencies of its topography frequently entailed that the city couldn’t benefit from the traffic dispersal merits of grid networks due to frequent chokepoints. One ambitious exception to this proposal was “some high-level bridge and tunnel scheme” through Mount Washington to the city’s south, which became the Liberty Bridge and Tunnel. This plan is encouraged, as are many suggestions throughout the report, not with examples from other American cities, most of which did not resemble Pittsburgh much at all, but from a wide range of European cities featuring difficult geography, in this case with bridges and roads from Stuttgart, Budapest, and Lausanne.
Two improvements concern linking the city’s downtown to its burgeoning East End. The sides of the hills that rise just beyond Downtown Pittsburgh were the solution. One road, Grant Boulevard (present-day Bigelow Boulevard) already ran along the northern edge of these heights, topographically separated from both the city beneath and above. Given this ideal circumstance for a parkway he proposed accentuation with “tree-shaded promenades or overlook terraces” and the reclamation of hillsides above “from their present status as free dumping grounds and barren wastes.” Some improvements were made—and then largely undone in subsequent decades.
He recommended a similar solution for the southern edge of these heights, a “Monongahela Hillside Thoroughfare” which later came into being as the Boulevard of the Allies, another avenue that shows occasional signs of aspirations to a parkway pedigree but whose reality remains a good deal more unlettered. He proposed parkways that eventually Negley Run Boulevard, Allegheny Run Boulevard, and the current Saw Mill Run Parkway, although the foliage along them is more often by accident is design.
The hillsides that line these routes (and nearly everything else in Pittsburgh) are a focus of frequent and inventive interest in Olmsted’s report. With development most often occurring elsewhere, steeper slopes often served then (and now) as either trash heaps or collections of nuisance buildings “frequently abandoned or subject to landslides.” He counseled either the improvement of these lands or that “the City ought to step in and assume the burden of maintaining the land in a decent and attractive condition, converting it from a public nuisance into a park asset of positive value to the public.”
Some of the locations that he criticized, such as the South Side Slopes, eventually became densely and interestingly settled, many others remain underutilized today, often featuring a few scattered homes or uses and frequently abandoned dwellings, decayed teeth along what could be pastoral slopes. One of his more promising suggestions was efforts to standardize building lines along hillside streets, and to concentrate development on only one side of these streets, retaining opposite slopes for park terraces (illustrated appealingly again with photos of streets in Geneva and terraced gardens in Bern).
His recommendations for the reclamation of the Mount Washington hillside, that it “should be preserved intact for all time as a monumental example of the Pittsburgh landscape” were at least fairly largely realized.
No Olmsted plan would be complete without parks: Pittsburgh had already established a respectable number of urban parks but many other locations were neglected. He proposed a park along a small creek, Nine Mile Run, which was only achieved in the mid-1990s. Several other park ideas remain on the drawing table.
He is critical of the steel town’s inferior bridges: “It is a case of the cobbler’s children going barefoot: when a man sells shoes at wholesale in every quarter of the globe, it is time for his own family to be well shod… Bridge-builders everywhere should be enabled to think of Pittsburgh not merely as a source of cheap raw material for bridges, but as all all-round leader in the bridge-building art.” This was one deficiency reasonably well addressed later.
Olmsted sketched out a concept for a new civic center on overlooked land adjoining the city’s monumental H.H. Richardson Allegheny County Courthouse. He suggested decking over a rail line in the process “and that a great public square with gardens be laid out thereon somewhat after the manner of the celebrated public gardens built over the railroad at Princes Street, Edinburgh, or, in a smaller way at Park Avenue, New York.” Civic buildings rise on the slope above (roughly around where the city’s PPG Paints Arena stands) with comparisons to the Cathedral Terrace at Bern and a hillside in Budapest. Unfortunately, the core of this area is now occupied by a Moses-proposed highway.
Muller and Bauman note that Olmsted Jr’s plan, while well-received in many quarters, had one significant and maximally influential detractor: Joseph G. Armstrong, who was director of the city’s Department of Public Works in 1910 and after being fired from that post was elected mayor in 1914. He proceeded to denude the Department of City Planning of Staff and disregard the Olmsted report, if elements of its solutions continued to shape city construction projects through the 1910s and 20s.
Twenty-nine years later, the city obtained a new plan from the most famous planner of its era. The tragedy is that this far less nuanced plan was not just considerably implemented, it was radically outstripped.
The start of this story actually dates to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where Moses was impressed by the Heinz corporate exhibit. Howard Heinz returned the favor with compliments about Moses’ highway planning work and asked if he might produce a plan for Pittsburgh. Moses demurred for some time but eventually replied to Heinz that “The family exchequer is low, and for that reason I have had to consider ways of adding to it.” Heinz proceeded to raise funds from Pittsburgh corporate grandees.
The Moses plan is actually more modest than one might expect: his own highway building had not quite reached stages of megalomania in New York in 1939 and his “parkways” were still generally lined with actual trees. He also not unreasonably observed that the infrastructure requirements of Pittsburgh were considerably slighter than New York’s given their discrepancy in size. His remedies still naturally involved more and larger roads, neighborhood demolition, and the scrapping of the city’s trolley system, all delivered in familiar imperial tones.
Early on he references his august predecessor:
In 1910 Frederick Law Olmsted made a plan for Pittsburgh which was a remarkably fine piece of work in its day and generation. It appeared at just about the beginning of the automobile age, and as one might expect there are assumptions in his report which appear absurd today when we face problems which Mr Olmsted could not conceivably have anticipated.
Moses does not detail the absurdities of Olmsted’s plan. He doesn’t pretend to much novel insight however. “We have discovered little that is new.”
He does make rapid early and accurate comparison of Pittsburgh’s downtown to the financial district of Manhattan:
A glance at the two maps will show astonishing similarities. In both cases a tremendous number of people converge every morning except Sunday into the business district in the two triangles and depart every evening for their homes across the rivers or elsewhere in the suburbs. The topography of the two places is, of course, entirely different. Here the analogy ends and the Pittsburgh problem become specifically difficult. The hills added to the rivers make the Pittsburgh problem unique.
Moses made some very sound suggestions, such as criticizing the huge amount of space occupied by underused railroad facilities in Downtown Pittsburgh. He unfortunately drew no distinction between the utility of unused rail yards and that of grand rail terminals however, encouraging the destruction of a Beaux-Arts station designed by Theodore Link, who also built St. Louis’ Union Terminal, and Frank Furness’ B&O terminal, “The B&O railroad station…. is an eyesore and a reproach to the city, and since its usefulness is nearly over there should be comparatively little trouble in getting rid of it.” Lamentably, that was the case.
It’s interesting, appearing as the report did amidst the very year that Moses was obstreperously encouraging the Brooklyn Battery bridge project (over the alternative tunnel eventually constructed) that he flatly rejected any proposal for a replacement of two older bridges converging at the Point:
It is useless to bemoan the bad planning which brought these bridges together at this point or to adopt the fantastic suggestions that they be torn down and reconstructed elsewhere. They are there to stay at least so far as several coming generation of Pittsburghers are concerned.
As even the most casual viewer of photos of Pittsburgh can see, these bridges were removed and replaced with expressway bridges not long after.
As for what to do with the Point otherwise, he encouraged the sort of wholesale demolition that constituted the area’s subsequent redevelopment: “The traffic at the apex of the Triangle should be unsnarled by a complete reconstruction of the Point so as to eliminate obtrusive, unnecessary and obsolete structures including the disgraceful old Exposition buildings.” He proposes that much of this land be occupied by a park, which ultimately it was, although the footprint of his proposed changes were considerably smaller than the eventual Point State Park and Gateway Center complex.
Moses then turns economical again, dismissing the idea of a new road tunnel through Mt. Washington (which would happen in the form of the Fort Pitt highway tunnel) proposing instead the conversion of the former Wabash railroad tunnel and bridge to automobile use and improvement of its connection to existing roads at each end, and the boring of another tunnel parallel to this in the event of increased need. This tunnel was eventually converted to HOV use in 2004.
The highways Moses does advocate came about, “We recommend that a genuine Parkway, to known as Pitt Parkway, be built from the William Penn Highway, east of Wilkinsburg, across the Lincoln highway, through Nine Mile Run.” This route, running to the bridges at the point, is but one part of the girdle of roads that chokes Pittsburgh off from waterfront access, if in fairness even Moses imagined more of a buffer of trees and greenery than was eventually constructed.
The most classically destructive Moses scheme in this plan is for a “Crosstown Thoroughfare” which was part of a much more comprehensive leveling of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill. “Incidentally, this will take out a slum district which is no credit to Pittsburgh and which has a depressing effect on available surrounding property.” Where Olmstead proposed a grand civic center Moses suggested only connecting highways: which is exactly what happened, and has resulted in a road that the city is currently seeking to cover in part with a park.
Some were surprised at the timidity of Moses’ recommendations; The city’s postwar reconstruction efforts followed the spirit of his ambitious New York projects rather than the more modest letter of his recommendations. Both the Parkway (current I- 376) and the Crosstown Boulevard (current I-579) were constructed at greater length than Moses had suggested. The broader demolition of the Hill District and many other examples of Pittsburgh self-destruction were entirely its own idea.
The story of urban planning in the 20th century is unfortunately often that of planners wielding maximum influence when their ideas were worst, sadly again the case in Pittsburgh. Olmsted produced an excellent plan combining attention to traffic, parks, civic structures, and city beautification drawing upon a voluminous number of discerning European examples implemented only in fragments: 29 years later Robert Moses produced a more rudimentary traffic plan oriented principally around his experiences in New York whose main elements were built. The ironical and unfortunate result was that the holistic advice of an excellent physician was ultimately disregarded while a fad diet was considerably exceeded. The one encouragement is that Olmsted’s ideas are still out there, and of benefit at any moment.
Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.
About five years ago, the term “gentrification” began popping up more and more in the media. At one time, that term referred to the natural and cyclical nature of cities—meaning that neighborhoods go in and out of fashion as people move around. No real blame as to why, or how or who goes where. Or as we used to say, “some places get hot, others not.”
The new way of thinking is that neighborhoods shift strictly along racial and economic lines. Gentrification is the accepted term for that now.
A few months ago in Cleveland, I asked Alan Mallach about this urban planning conundrum that has growing in recent years. Mallach is a progressive, longtime, respected urban planning expert and a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a non-profit which describes itself as “dedicated to building a future in which vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties no longer exist.”
“Gentrification has become a term that no one knows what it really means any more,” he said. He then referred me to his recent new book, The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, a powerful look at the current state of the urban environment.
“I’m not sure why this is so,” Mallach writes, “but [the term gentrification] represents a worrisome disconnect between the reality of our cities and the rhetoric flossing from them…Gentrification is widely seen as something that’s being done by someone to someplace or somebody. In an increasingly tribal world, young white people with money, and the members of the gentrification-industrial complex working behind the scenes, are Them—a visible enemy on which to unload one’s frustration and anger.”
Mallach’s book explains the complexity of urban planning —downtown high-rises and who lives in them, neighborhood lifespans, how people are always moving, retail trends and earning power fluctuations—in ways that are clearly explained. And to him, gentrification is not really a part of that. But the media and some urban citizens’ rights advocates are using gentrification as a one-size-fits-all explanation everything that’s wrong in changing American cities today.
East Palo Alto, California, Mayor Ruben Abrica recently said gentrification resulting from the settlement of high-tech companies in a city means the residents there “are living in a semi-feudal society.” Meanwhile, a Boston radio show asked listeners to share their gentrification experiences, which they described as a “super isolation and anxiety producing issue.” A play opening up in Chicago this month called “Rightlynd” describes its plot thusly: “A powerful real estate conglomerate is planning a massive development project that would gentrify the neighborhood … forever.”
Some of the bigger cities in the U.S.—New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and a few others —have seen some of their neighborhoods go upscale over time, while others have descended into further poverty.
But it’s not just more dog-walkers and vegan bakeries that dictate the change. It’s more about the overall changes in the economy—from manufacturing jobs to computer programming employment, wage disparities, education levels, less state and federal programs in cities—that drive the changes, and not the favoring of one ethnic group or another.
So in most urban areas, yoga classes and trendy restaurants are the result, not the cause. As Mallach writes in his book, “in the midst of growth and increasing prosperity, the ranks of the poor and near-poor are often growing, rather than shrinking.”
Jason Segedy, the director of planning and urban development in Akron, Ohio, sees the conundrum very clearly. Akron has lost population over the past few decades, and the city is trying to stop people from moving out of the central city to the suburbs.
“There is no doubt that the word ‘gentrification’ has created tension and confusion,” Segedy says. “What underlies some of the concerns is the frustration about economic inequality. But I would argue in this part of the country, [inequality] is about the differences between the suburbs and the inner cities, not one city neighborhood against another.
“Stepping back, if the only concern is that wealthy people might be living near lower income people, then I would point out, that in many ways, isn’t that a socially desirable thing we all want?” he continues. “Developers are building $400,000 houses all the time in the suburbs and getting some public funding for doing so, and people don’t have a problem with that. But to build those same houses in the city means wealthy people living near poor people and that automatically leads to displacement?”
What Segedy and many other urban planners are referring to is that housing is market driven, and if cities are looking to get middle-income buyers to move back into the central city in places like Akron, they can’t do it with more cheap apartments and public housing. Poor neighborhoods need higher-end housing investment (which helps spur renovation of older housing), and not more of the lower-end market.As Segedy wrote in Strong Towns, “Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, not Gentrification Worries”:
“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.”
There are ten cities in the U.S with a population of 1 million or more, but there are 90 cities with a population 221,000 or more. Problems of urban displacement and economic disparity and neighborhoods being in the “hot” and “not” cycle might be happening in those big cities because, unfortunately, that has always happened in those places. But “gentrification,” meaning rich people taking over poor neighborhoods en masse is not exactly happening in those 90 other smaller cities.
A cursory look at the media coverage suggests that the scourge of gentrification is not only happening, but everywhere. In Portland, Maine, and in Portland, Oregon. Brownsville, Texas, and the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Las Vegas has a gentrification problem, too. Add Traverse City, Michigan; Bentonville, Arkansas; Austin, Texas, and Jacksonville Florida to that list.
Then there is Detroit. A popular tee-shirt there commands, “Don’t Brooklyn My Detroit.” That might be code for “keep your gentrifiers out of here.” But in a city that has gone from 1.8 million in population to 673,000 in 2017 —and with an unusually high concentration of poverty —is not a good place to disparage outside investment.
The experts know that Detroit’s gentrification claims make little sense. The Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube writes, “It’s hard to imagine that [Detroit] will do better over time without more high-income individuals.” Noted urban economist Joe Cortright wrote, “Detroit’s problem is not inequality, it’s poverty…The city has a relatively high degree of equality at a very low level of income.”
And Mallach wrote this in the Detroit News in August: “This is the context of gentrification in Detroit. If we think of gentrification as affluent people moving in, supplanting a lower-income population and pushing up sales prices and rents, there are few areas in Detroit where that’s happening … There is no upside, though, to neighborhood decline, the bleeding of family wealth, the deterioration in housing conditions and quality of life, and the loss of the middle class, all of which are afflicting far more of Detroit than is likely to be gentrified in the foreseeable future.”
Peter Moskowitz had the opposite view in his own book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood: “Gentrification in much of Detroit seems to have skipped the beginning phase with the artsy folks, the laid back coffee shops, and the activists and instead jumped straight from broke dystopian metropolis to yuppified playground.”
Juliana Maantay, professor urban environmental geography at City University of New York and author of Brownfields to Greenfields: Environmental Justice Versus Environmental Gentrification, falls into that camp and says government is supposed to safeguard against policies that may hurt people. But “government is going all in and saying ‘rah rah rah’ about any new project…some don’t see that as being lifting up the city, but penalizing the people who were already there. That’s where the ‘gentrification’ issue comes into play.”
Maantay is right about that to an extent, and her credentials in urban planning circles are impeccable. But the notion about what “gentrification” has come to mean—a dirty word—is perhaps a symbol of social media gone wild.
The media is adding fuel to the fire by covering urban equality issues in smaller town America as if it were the same as Brooklyn. The New York public radio station, WNYC, asked it this way: “Does This Avocado Toast Come with a Side of Gentrification?”
Interestingly the anti-gentrification crowd can’t find one political group to blame for their urban displeasure. One tweet I found says, “Gentrification is a racist practice that Democrats use to trap blacks in poverty.” Another says, “What the Republican call trickle-down economics is really updraft economics. It’s called gentrification.”
Then again, some say all this is about vegan cheese and fro-yo and juicing. Rose wine in malt liquor bottles. Neighborhoods where you can almost smell the pesto and the privilege.
But maybe making fun of it allows us to make sense of it all. Boston artist Tory Bullock has come up with “The Gentrification Game,” where the players roll the dice and move forward or backward, depending on the color you get. A neighbor or bystander calls the police on you for looking suspicious or playing music loudly.
In the NPR story about Bullock’s game, one of the players said she thought the game was “rigged.” Another player called the Gentrification Game and its changing rules a “metaphor for America.”
I like the artistic interpretation of all this. Things being rigged as a metaphor for America. Maybe it is rigged. But against some of us or all of us?
Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio. He tweets at @danmcgraw1
When Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives in 1890, New York City’s Lower East Side was the epicenter of American tenement life.
At one point, almost three hundred thousand people were packed into a square mile—a frightful and unprecedented urban density. Lack of sanitation contributed to frequent cholera epidemics. Poverty fed the growth of gangs. An endless stream of people, arriving from Europe, kept wages dismally low, and the resultant crowding kept rents extremely high. Newcomers had little clout to improve their lot. Victorian New York had a social hierarchy, and the Lower East Side was near its lowest rank.
The most extreme conditions that Riis describes have been eliminated in the 13 decades since his work was published. Stronger building codes, better infrastructure, and more than a century of urban planning efforts have combined to substantially raise the baseline of housing conditions in New York City. Poverty, of course, still exists. But many of the worst buildings have been torn down or repurposed for use at healthier densities. More than a century of additional growth has also pushed today’s epicenters of poverty to more distant geographic margins.
Today, the Lower East Side retains certain badges of its impoverished past. It remains, barely, a working-class neighborhood. A dwindling stock of low-rent apartments has been sheltered from market forces for decades by rent regulations. Twentieth century housing projects hug the dark banks of the East River. Families here hold onto apartments from generation to generation. Many of the old tenements that once instantiated the worst conditions remain standing and occupied in this complex, haunting neighborhood.
A scattering of mom-and-pop businesses has also survived. Disproportionately, these are shops with storied histories that bring tourists and mail-order trade. Russ and Daughters, which still does a nice business in caviar and smoked salmon, retains the look and feel of a century ago. Yonah Schimmel’s, founded the same year Riis’s book was published, does the same with knishes. Wo Hop, near Chatham Square, could be a cousin of the restaurant in Edward Hopper’s 1929 Chop Suey. But the neighborhood’s changing character is reaching a tipping point. Newcomers have brought soaring values. Real estate agencies are side-by-side with wholesale fabric stores. Neighborhood conditions reflect many walks of life, but vacancies are mostly limited to those with means.
To read Riis in 2018 is to travel in time. The 1890 neighborhood is long gone. But if one walks through the blocks he describes today, memories of his time can be found everywhere. Mott Street remains the heart of Chinatown—a community that has now grown to encompass many of the areas once occupied by European immigrants. Gotham Court, one of Riis’s worst examples of tenement blight, is long gone; but in its place stands an aging housing project that Riis’s reporting helped bring about. Orchard Street still has its fabric stores. The Eldridge Street Synagogue is now a cozy museum—but still has an active congregation.
Unlike the tidy, geometrical streets that characterize Manhattan’s well-known gridiron, the world that Riis describes had grown up around the winding lanes and dark alleys of Lower Manhattan—an aging colonial seaport that had been transformed, through waves of change, into a cacophony of bricks and concrete. These streets have names, not numbers. They once had houses with yards, which were gradually replaced by tenements. The pattern of blocks is the product of haphazard subdivision, the platting of farms into neighborhoods, as the vagaries of history would have it. These patterns represent the growth of New York City before it was rationalized. In many ways, they reflect a more traditional, European approach to urbanism.
As one of the first writers to experiment with photojournalism, Riis combines striking pictures with his narrative, in language that varied from matter-of-fact descriptions of human nature to sensational accounts of filth and depravity. A native of Denmark, Riis struggled with poverty as an immigrant in New York City and throughout the Rust Belt for years before finding success as a writer—an experience that infuses his work with a rare degree of personal understanding. Here, with a photograph, is Riis’s description of the infamous Mulberry Street Bend: a salient example of what had gone wrong with urban development in America during the late Victorian period:
Around “the Bend” cluster the bulk of the tenements that are stamped as altogether bad, even by the optimists of the Health Department. Incessant raids cannot keep down the crowds that make them their home. In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share such shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination rifled from the dumps and ash-barrels of the city.
Intertwined with dysfunctional urbanism is what Riis sees as a more extensive pattern of jading experiences that twist the values of the individuals they shape. Customs, he seems to argue, are formed not only by adherence to long traditions, but also by how people react, through trial and error, to immediate circumstances. Riis describes this nexus with foreboding, but also with humor. In a chapter shadily titled, “The Harvest of Tares,” he describes an encounter that led to a series of photographs of members of a notorious street gang:
They were not old and wary enough to be shy of the photographer, whose acquaintance they usually first make in handcuffs and the grip of a policeman; or their vanity overcame their caution. It is entirely in keeping with the tough’s character that he should love of all things to pose before a photographer, and the ambition is usually the stronger the more repulsive the tough. These were of that sort, and accepted the offer with great readiness, dragging into their group a disreputable-looking sheep that roamed about with them (the slaughter-houses were close at hand) as one of the band. The homeliest ruffian of the lot, who insisted on being taken with the growler to his “mug,” took the opportunity to pour what was left in it down his throat and this caused a brief unpleasantness, but otherwise the performance was a success. While I was getting the camera ready, I threw out a vague suggestion of cigarette-pictures, and it took root at once. Nothing would do then but that I must take the boldest spirits of the company “in character.” (180-182)
Riis’s descriptions of his subjects are generally humane, but his casual recitations of ethnic and religious stereotypes would be too offensive to pass muster with a reputable publisher today. And yet, there is something clarifying about seeing such notions put down in black and white. One sees in Riis’s half-baked racial theories how certain stereotypes were frankly presented before doing so became taboo, and one even hears echoes of Herodotus and Aristotle in his attempts to discern an entire people’s character from its historical geography. The reader is reminded how conventional wisdom is a moving target; how writers, even well-meaning ones, ought to keep this in mind.
The most significant aspect of Riis’s work, though, is not its depiction of the forms of industrial urbanism, per se, nor its dated prejudices, nor even its occasional dark humor. Its salient contribution is a stark documentation of the uncivilized living conditions that had taken hold in New York City during this outwardly prim and fastidious era. In every wave of rapid change, customs and laws lag the cutting edge of transformation. But few times have manifested the inadequacy of traditional norms to address what was new more dramatically than the late 19th century.
Common-law doctrines that had evolved over centuries in agrarian societies were unable to temper the unprecedented poverty, pollution, and density of the industrial age. The consequences were not only (or even primarily) aesthetic, but human. In a society that saw itself as being both scientific and Christian, growing numbers of citizens were daily reduced to contending with the filth and chaos that modern industry had spawned. The benefits of Western knowledge and mores did not accrue to the urban poor.
Riis’s pictures and descriptions of squalid living conditions in one of the world’s wealthiest cities are his most powerful legacy; and perhaps the absence of the worst of those conditions in today’s Lower East Side is partly his legacy, as well. His depictions helped force New Yorkers and other Americans to acknowledge the chronic failures of industrial urbanism, and to begin to look for solutions from all angles. Radicals, reformists, and conservatives all had ideas: the point was to focus attention.
Today, one can see tangible improvements, made over 13 decades, on the streets of the Lower East Side. Gone are the extreme crowding, the admixture of absolute poverty and industrial pollution, the lack of basic sanitation. Over the last two decades, the neighborhood has grown stable enough that people with means have zeroed in on its convenience and curiosities and have begun the familiar process of transforming it into a destination of choice, for those who have choices.
Yet one must also acknowledge that the changes to the Lower East Side are largely a result of the world’s economic geography. Today’s industrial urbanism is not found in the narrow Victorian streets of Lower Manhattan, but in far-flung sprawling neighborhoods where no spotlight is focused, where undocumented immigrants work “off the books” and property-less Americans hustle in Amazon warehouses. Even more, it exists in the faraway cities of Asia and Latin America. If there is an abiding message in Riis’s work, it is to look closely where the smart crowd refuses to look. That is where one will find the contradictions between a society’s ideals and its priorities.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
Recently, on a day when I was working from home, I ran to the supermarket for a couple of things. My local grocery store happens to be next to a Five Guys, and because it was before lunchtime—around 11 a.m. or so—I saw the employees unlocking and opening up the restaurant. Stopping and watching for a moment, I realized I’d almost never seen that before. It’s easy to think of visiting places like this almost like turning on a video game—pop in the disc, and it plays. Drive to the strip mall, and the stores are just there. Shopping on a different schedule revealed a normally invisible pattern.
Once, while in college, I walked to my favorite local strip mall—the one with the best Chinese takeout—after all the stores had closed. It was a strange and almost indescribable feeling to see the line of shops that are usually lit up and bustling completely quiet and empty. If the traffic from the local highway let up for a minute, you could easily imagine that you were in some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was one of those things that seemed like it could teach a lesson, though as a college student I didn’t really know what that lesson was.
As I’ve studied urbanism, I’ve figured it out: I had seen a vivid illustration of how inflexible and unadaptable this kind of suburban development is. You could walk down the main street of my college town at any time of day or night and come across at least a handful of people. There were a couple of bars, a supermarket open until midnight, and, of course, apartments above the shops and adjacent to them. The town collectively did not have a single, timebound use, and its streets and sidewalks were public spaces. That gave it a character and liveliness that the nearby suburban development lacked. You can talk all day about the merits of density and mixed-use development, but walking through a strip mall and a main street in the middle of the night and observing the difference might be the strongest argument yet.
In order to make this comparison, which is visible only or primarily at night, you need to get out at unusual times. If you’re like most Americans, living and working in different places and not enjoying much true leisure time, you’ve only ever seen your town or your place during a handful of times of day. Gracy Olmstead has written beautifully on how walking allows us to see the places we live and travel through from a different perspective—to appreciate a level of detail that is simply impossible to notice when zooming by in an automobile. But if experiencing your place through different modes of transportation can reveal insights, so can seeing your place at different times. It’s the only way to fully experience what it is.
“Reston at 5 p.m.” (my town and my usual time) is different from “Reston at 10 p.m.” Everybody knows this on some level: we try to avoid the dark, crime, long lines, or whatever it may be by being in places at appropriate times. But we may not have a full sense of what those other place-times are. When I was in Italy last month, we often ended up walking home late at night. There were some seedy characters about, but there was also a vibrant late-night street life that felt very different from the crowds of power walking or selfie taking tourists during the day. Or try going into a restaurant at 2 or 3 p.m.—having the whole place to yourself is an entirely different experience than being served in a packed house. When you think of times as places, there’s a lot more to see.
You may see different people and kinds of people too. My local supermarket is crawling with young, well-dressed professionals in the early evening. It would be easy to think they constituted more or less the whole population of Reston. But when I go shopping during the day, I see families—homeschoolers?—as well as some more eccentric and probably poorer people (I see more of them late at night). You might see someone using cash and counting out coins. Or you might see seniors and retirees out for some leisurely exercise. I had to go to Northern Virginia’s Fair Oaks Mall once for a DMV visit, as the DMV is inside the mall. The DMV and one or two stores open before the official mall opening time, so a few doors are unlocked early. It turns out the mall was full of mostly older people who used this as an opportunity to get some quiet, indoor activity. If I had not visited the mall at an odd hour, this would never have even occurred to me.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if you run into the poor folks or retirees. But for those who care about putting down roots in a place, it’s a way to know more fully what that place is. It’s also possible that local and municipal politics could be shaped for the better if everyone had a sense of what the entire community actually looked like. We should probably not be too heavily involved in local decisions that could affect people we do not know exist.
If a tree falls in a bedroom community when everyone is at work, does it make a sound? It’s a good exercise to try and figure that out.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.