Something has gone wrong with homeownership in America. Once the ladder to wealth, economic divides in real estate have increasingly become a driver of inequality, further entrenching political and economic privilege. Not only does this trend have knock on effects for the younger generation, but it’s not unique to the United States. The United Kingdom, Canada and possibly other countries are also feeling the shock of changing real estate markets.
On the surface, at least viewed from prosperous places, things look pretty good. According to Bloomberg, homeowners in some of America’s major coastal cities gain as much as $100 in wealth through equity each hour of the working day. Collectively, reports CNBC, U.S. homeowners are sitting on $5.4 trillion in property equity, the most ever reported.
And yet these gains are not realized equally across the country. For every suburb where 1950s starter homes once sold for less than $10,000 are now worth around $700,000, there are places like Baltimore, Detroit, Buffalo, or Rochester, where many homes are basically worthless. In many areas, no matter how much money people invest in their homes, they are not sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity. In fact, since the Recession, the primary assets of millions of ordinary Americans have most likely lost value.
But what should be even more alarming than these troubling disparities is the underlying fragility of real-estate markets, and the increasing folly of government policies that promote suburban property development. Today’s trends are merely a symptom of a larger delusion—homeownership as the path to middle-class wealth and status—and have exposed it as the lie it always was.
* * *
Since World War II, the United States has suffered from a divergence in home values—but it is only recently that this reality began to affect the white middle class. The roots of the present crisis go back to the 1930s.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted at least one New Deal program that would work with private enterprise rather than against it, according to Kenneth T. Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier. The result was the Federal Housing Administration (later expanded by the GI Bill), which used the full faith and credit of the United States government to affect a revolution in banking and housebuilding. The effort not only standardized appraising across the country, it more or less invented the 30-year mortgage, imposed construction quality standards, and took much of the risk out of homebuilding and lending by guaranteeing mortgages and construction loans.
Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s program also helped segregate parts of the country not previously segregated—and strengthened such discrimination so that it persists in some cities well into this century. This shocking history is documented at length by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law. Basically, the FHA decided that they weren’t going to guarantee (or only partially guarantee) loans in places that didn’t meet their racial and aesthetic standards: Neighborhoods and suburbs that were both all white and “well-planned,” meaning that residences were all single-family homes, with commercial and industrial uses kept separate or out of the area altogether, had the easiest time getting loans. In fact, according to Rothstein, the FHA made developers like the Levitt brothers in New York—famous for the middle-class Levittowns that became the image of affordable postwar suburbia—put deed restrictions in their homes prohibiting their resale to a non-white person.
The result of these two policies together—government-subsidized risk and economic and racial segregation—was unsurprising.
Coupled with massive highway building, the suburbs mushroomed around cities and tens of thousands of white Americans bought new homes at prices that were cheaper than renting. City neighborhoods depopulated and the prewar building stock—with fewer renters and almost no possibility of loans—declined drastically in value and deteriorated in quality. Urban blight and the ghettoization of racial minorities in cities and away from opportunity was the direct result of federal policy, reinforced by zoning and a neighborhood’s own poverty. The people who owned those homes never saw their equity grow through the years. Even in cities that are experiencing growth in property values, Black neighborhoods rarely see any benefits. In Chicago, the city’s segregation is starkly shown on Google Maps: the North Side looks like Brooklyn, while the South Side looks like Detroit.
Washington has encouraged homeownership for decades. The result has been windfall profits for the few and an albatross of mortgage debt for the many. According to Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, in 2015 the federal government subsidized homeownership to the tune of $134 billion, $71 billion of which was through the Mortgage Interest Deduction. According to Jackson, these policies, which largely promote suburban development, are rooted in 19th-century views of cities as unhealthy and immoral.
Such policymaking was also driven by a belief that newer homes would foster better character: The trouble with slums and slum-dwellers wasn’t that they were desperately poor in an era of massive industrial upheaval, but that they lived in slum buildings. (According William Tucker in The Excluded Americans, so-called reformers like Jacob Riis were often motivated as much by a desire to prevent Jews and Catholics from immigrating to America compassion for the urban poor.) By the 1920s the justification for single-family homes had evolved from crude ethnic and religious stereotyping into a more recognizable narrative: One’s home still formed one’s character, only now homeownership would incubate the virtues of hard work, thrift, and industriousness instead of moralizing Protestantism.
A similar evolution took place in the United Kingdom, where in 1923 the Conservative MP Noel Skelton wrote a series on housing policy in The Spectator, later published under the title Constructive Conservatism. Skelton coined the phrase “property-owning democracy” and argued that homeownership would encourage people to be better citizens, who in addition to the economic justifications, would become invested in their community and country. Skelton’s ideal was made policy by Conservative governments throughout the 20th century, reaching its apogee during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, who popularized the idea of the property-owning democracy and introduced a right-to-buy policy where residents of council flats (apartments built under Labour governments and owned and maintained by local governments) could purchase them.
* * *
The century-long burst in homeownership on both sides of the Atlantic has had dire consequences. As John Myers, a co-founder of the pro-development group London YIMBY, put it, “Encouraging homeownership also makes it more difficult to get political support for more housebuilding.”
The people who own homes in this current boom cycle believe that allowing more homes to be built in their communities, especially apartments, could lower their property values and hence their net worth. As a result, San Francisco now has serious discussions about whether a coffee shop facade that’s just four years old qualifies for historic preservation, while affordable senior apartments get torpedoed by wealthy homeowners. The results do not sound like a recipe for good citizenship: Young people are prevented from forming families, small businesses are forced to relocate, and the working classes are condemned to either unthinkably long commutes or overcrowding. Or, in the parts of the country not enjoying a housing boom, small cities and towns face continuing deterioration and decline.
The irony is that homeownership isn’t even an unqualified good for the homeowner. Their property wealth is completely illiquid. They could be sitting on a million dollars worth of house, but not have the cash to pay the property tax. In the end, real estate speculation does not create wealth; it sets up a game of musical chairs—and we now know what happens when the music stops. Countries, communities, and cities are much healthier economically when their financial security doesn’t depend on the performance of one type asset—especially when the better the asset does, the worse off the larger society becomes.
Skelton, far more than the progressive reformers in the United States or his successors in Britain’s Conservative Party, saw this. His property-owning democracy wasn’t simply a nation of homeowners, but involved factory workers that became co-owners or profit-sharers in their factories, along with smallholdings and cooperatives for farmers. When he spoke of “property,” Skelton meant “capital.” This philosophy is thus much more similar to the distributism of Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton than the tracts of ticky-tacky stretching away forever.
I doubt we will ever get the wealth we foolishly ploughed into postwar suburbs back. But we can at least pivot toward a recovery by changing laws to encourage people to save to build wealth, rather than rely on speculative equity in real estate.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
By the late 20th century, much of the landscape of urban America had retreated from the goal of placemaking. Crime, suburbanization, and motor vehicles all worked to convince people that such an object was no longer desirable; that we had (in America, at least) moved beyond the street; that perhaps it was a relic of the old world, literally or figuratively. Allan Jacobs’ classic study of urban aesthetics, Great Streets, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, continues to represent an important and persuasive counterpoint to this story.
Building on the work of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and other urban writers of the post-war period, Jacobs offered a fresh perspective about what was possible, and the value that it could add to our lives—both as individuals, and as participants in a broader culture. For American readers, at least, it also subtly underscored the cultural continuity that existed between the urbanism of Western Europe and that of North America—and of how the historical links of that tradition were in danger of being lost. A quarter-century later, American cities still face many challenges. But their standing overall has greatly improved since 1993. The willingness of cities to re-engage with the elemental forms of traditional urbanism has played a vital role in their improved fortunes.
At its best, the urban environment has an intrinsic advantage over atomized, cookie-cutter developments. Real neighborhoods are simply interesting: they reflect the lives of the people who live in them today; and they are tangible artifacts of those who came before. But neglect makes cities haunting and, sometimes, dangerous: a healthy urbanism requires constant work. And Great Streets reminds us that this endeavor is more than a technical or bureaucratic exercise—indeed, placemaking is more art than science.
* * *
It is fitting that a spirit of art runs through Great Streets. An artist’s approach to urbanism is the essence of the book. Its very arrangement is artful: divided into four major sections, each part is distinct from the others in its length and conceptual focus. Yet the reader immediately senses that this is not a formulaic work; nor is there a formula implicit in the urban qualities its author identifies. Instead, an intrinsic mystery draws you in, and Jacobs uses comparison and surprise to spotlight a wide array of characteristics. Throughout the work, he stubbornly defies the temptation to simplify what is complicated. With close analysis of form and context, he highlights the innate variety of factors that can contribute to a street’s charisma and provides a diversity of examples from cities around the world.
When Jacobs first published Great Streets in the early 1990s, the future of American cities stood on shaky ground. True, some Americans had begun to forego the starched lawns of suburbia for the weathered brick and clapboard of old neighborhoods. But even in exceptional places where the virtues of old urbanism were valued, blight was never far. Everywhere, middle-class flight and the War on Drugs had turned entire subsections of American cities into violent ganglands. In such an atmosphere, a narrow focus on the elemental forms of traditional urbanism was, understandably, tangential; and struggling cities continued to seek salvation by incorporating discordant suburban concepts, like parking lots and shopping malls, into their aging fabric. In this context, Great Streets was a well-timed contribution. By focusing on the aesthetics and vibrancy of public space, Jacobs reminded readers that urban planning could be a conscious art that makes meaningful, humane places—and thereby attracts positive human activity—through decisive physical forms. To this end, Great Streets illuminates the qualities in different settings that are worth studying, questioning, and understanding.
The first section of the book is a collection of case studies of individual streets. With its focus on traditional Western forms, most examples are from Europe and North America. Jacobs begins by examining a residential cul-de-sac in Pittsburgh on which he once lived. He thus dispenses with the notion that fame or busy-ness should be prerequisites, focusing instead on scale, enclosure, and human activity. He looks at 14 additional streets in Europe and North America; a neighborhood in Beijing; and two street ensembles in Europe. His selections include grand boulevards in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Barcelona; winding, medieval streets in Rome and Copenhagen; and urban and suburban streets in the United States. Jacobs’ narrative is one of the best aspects of the book: in addition to providing a wealth of information, and a focus on important qualities, it reads at times like the tight, colorful prose of a 20th-century American novel.
The most interesting case study is also the most counterintuitive. Jacobs makes the case that the Grand Canal of Venice and other urban waterways are essentially liquid streets, serving, like paved streets, as thoroughfares, gathering places, architectural showcases, and prospects for vistas. And one might argue that the canals of Venice are more than just technically akin to modern streets: given the role of Venice in the emergence of the modern commercial world, its urban patterns represent a sort of prototype for later cities. But Jacobs’ focus is neither history or economics; it is aesthetics. And while one might observe that its liquid cartway is what distinguishes the Grand Canal most fundamentally from traditional, paved streets, Jacobs cites an absence of sidewalks along much of the canal—and associated absence of street life—as the most salient difference. As a result (and in contrast to many of the smaller waterways of Venice, as he notes), the Grand Canal is essentially a service thoroughfare, with few opportunities for foot traffic, outside a handful of specific locations (e.g., the Rialto, San Marco, etc.). Jacobs sees that this absence of pedestrians— which undoubtedly diminishes an element that is present in many great streets—as a boon to the observant visitor, helping shift one’s focus toward some of the canal’s higher-order, street-like qualities. In one of his more poetic passages, he highlights a sense of spatial enclosure, where saltwater takes the place of paving stones:
The water is calm, mostly a light olive green mixed with cerulean blue. In the early morning it may be a mixture of blues and greens and yellows that can be indistinguishable from the sky, so that one hardly knows where one stops and the other starts. In Venice, in the early morning, an artist might paint the air, permitting shapes of buildings to emerge at times not all that different in color from the air itself, only darker, maybe with some pinks. At these times there is a faint horizontal line in the water, a clue to where the buildings emerge. Generally the buildings are light-colored and richly detailed, as becomes apparent as soon as the sun burns off the morning haze. At first impression, they seem to be of similar if not the same height along the water’s edge.
The Grand Canal stands out as a unique example, but a more typical case study, also from Italy, is the Via dei Giubbonari in Rome. Beginning at the famous Campo de’ Fiori—an old market square that today doubles as a center of Roman nightlife— the Via dei Giubbonari takes a southeasterly course to the more subdued green space of the Piazza Cairoli. Covering less than a thousand feet, the street is nonetheless characterized by the mystery and irregularity of its medieval form. From wider ends, it narrows and bends over a short course, coaxing pedestrians into its right-of-way and obscuring what lies beyond. Jacobs describes its effects:
Once on Via dei Giubbonari, attracted by one of the funnel-shaped widenings at either end, you want to see where it leads, even if you already know, and you want to experience what is more immediately around you as well. There are many buildings, even more doorways, and almost continuous store windows at the street level. […] Wall thickness and building solidity are made clearly evident by their visible contrast with the glass panes in them. Buildings and other stores as well are deep, and the windows show this. How deep are they? What is in there? There is a bit of inviting mystery; something to be explored. Above, there are more windows, shuttered or open depending on the time of day and where the sun may be.
One cannot read Jacobs’ case studies without being reminded of, and marveling at, the relative permanence of urban street patterns. Because while individual buildings and their diverse uses exist in a sort of eternal flux, the patterns of thoroughfares themselves—once established— tend to remain fixed indefinitely. This is undoubtedly due to the practical nature of streets, and the consensus that exists at any moment among the many who rely on perpetual access. Thus, in very old cities like Rome, we find examples of streets like the Via dei Giubbonari, whose route and shape have survived for many centuries. Some elements date from classical antiquity; others from medieval or early modern times; and still others are of more recent vintage. Not surprisingly, similar tapestries can be found in Istanbul and Jerusalem, and in smaller towns and cities whose histories began in a similarly ancient past.
In a subchapter called “Trees Alone,” Jacobs addresses the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla (which follows the historical course of the Via Appia from central Rome past an ancient bath complex), explaining how the city’s iconic umbrella pines help define space:
Their height and linearity can be seen from a distance. In a city full of stone landmarks, these rows of pines are yet another way to understand the city and one’s location in it. Below, closer to the ground, there is another ceiling made of dark, spreading Quercus ilex. Some of their branches meet, other do not, so there is both light and shade, mostly the latter. Against the bright, hot Roman sun and in welcome contrast to the undefined large spaces at the street’s beginning [i.e., the Circo Massimo] … the tree-covered medians attract walkers with a promise of coolness…. During the winter months, when there is less sun, it is pleasant to walk on the side paths. If the design of the Viale della Terme di Caracalla was meant to attract walkers from central Rome … to the Baths of Caracalla another half mile or so distant, then these dark, cool, tree-lined paths are the way to do it.
Returning to the point of historical layering, note how the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla combines the showcasing of a ruined complex from classical antiquity, the creation of the pastoral aesthetic of Romantic landscape architecture, and the functional expedience of modern highway engineering—all while keeping faith with the ancient course of the Appian Way. Amazing.
The other sections of Great Streets are more spatial than narrative. Describing the definitive residential section of Fifth Avenue in New York City, the author notes the bounding and tone-setting functions of trees, masonry walls, benches, and paving stones; and he notes the distinction between the private spaces that can be glimpsed within apartment buildings and the public nature of adjacent sidewalks and Central Park.
Another familiar example that Jacobs offers is the curved portion of Regent Street, London, near Piccadilly Circus. Here, he describes a subtly discordant contrast between striking visual design qualities and a street-level environment that caters to vehicular traffic and fails to encourage leisurely walking. The author notes that numerous intersecting side streets, leading off into the quieter blocks of Mayfair and Soho, are much more inviting to pedestrians.
The third part of Great Streets, “Streets and City Patterns: Settings for Streets and People,” mostly departs from the narrative approach. Rather than examining individual streets, Jacobs visualizes the neighborhood context of streets, presenting black-and-white ink maps of square-mile samples of cities throughout the world. By examining these simple plans, the reader instantly grasps the impossibility of developing a standard set of quantifiable dimensions for the creation of streets (whether great, or not). The variety of building patterns between cities—even among culturally similar cities—is simply too profound. That the dimensions of post-war American suburbs bear little resemblance to those of European cities may not be especially remarkable; but that the dimensions of similarly-sized Mediterranean cities are so divergent from one another; or that the differences in street patterns across pre-industrial neighborhoods of the English-speaking world are so pronounced – these things are surprising. Block lengths, street widths, the absence or presence of grids, and the degree of adherence to land contours all prove nearly impossible to compare across locations. This is often true even within a single city.
Jacobs teaches that the physical form of urbanism—even traditional, Western urbanism at its aesthetic best—is not uniform. Echoing Camillo Sitte, the 19th century Viennese planner, he demonstrates that urban planning is truly an art: a practice whose application is borne of intuition and experience (both individual and cultural), drawing on a set of refined technical skills. And while certain elements may often present as common threads—street walls, for example, and public squares—these have been both successfully and unsuccessfully interpreted in countless ways. For this reason, instead of attempting to devise a unifying formula of urbanism, Jacobs uses the last section of Great Streets to articulate a synthesis, including rules of thumb, from the observations and interpretations that have filled the preceding pages. Examining the threads found in diverse case studies, with an eye to the organizing patterns of broader neighborhoods, Jacobs distills a group of general-but-necessary factors for good urban placemaking, cautioning that “By themselves, as a group, the required qualities will not assure a great street…. a final ingredient [is] … the magic of design.”
Leaving room for magic, then, what are the concrete qualities that great streets require? Jacobs begins with three basic, physical characteristics: (1) a pedestrian realm, (2) considerations of physical comfort, and (3) well-defined space. With respect to the first, a variety of approaches may satisfy: well-defined sidewalks, car-free streets, and even narrow, stone-paved streets—where vehicles are slowed to a human pace—can all make good places to walk. For the second, physical comfort, a time-honored planning tradition (taught at least as far back as Vitruvius) calls for studying hyperlocal factors when laying out new streets: prevailing winds, shadows cast by topography, and the transit of the sun may all be weighed to ensure the most comfortable use of environmental factors in a particular spot. Jacobs endorses this. On the third point, defined space—that is, a sense of placemaking enclosure at the street level—Jacobs turns to the research, and takes a more technical (and precise) approach than usual, arguing space is established when “height to horizontal distance ratios are 1:4 (or less) when the viewer is looking at a 30-degree angle to the street direction.”
It is interesting that there may be such a quantifiable component to placemaking; that we may in fact be predisposed to experience a sense of intimacy within certain measurable, urban dimensions—and a sense of alienation in others. Evidence of measurable, psychological ground rules for good urbanism does pop up from time to time: an experienced teacher’s advice that development ought to be concentrated within 1,500 feet of a town square or a railroad station feels about right—and is consistent with many examples of good urbanism. The Commissioners’ Plan of New York parceled out typical blocks with 60-foot-wide rights-of-way (i.e., cartways and sidewalks), spaced 200 feet apart. These were divided into building parcels with 25 feet of street frontage and 100 feet of parcel depth. For two centuries, this rude formula has shaped the Manhattan grid, and some have blamed the large-lot platting for the mishmash of big, expensive brownstones and even bigger tenements that continues to characterize the old fabric of the city between Houston Street and Washington Heights (where the regularity of the grid begins to break down). So, yes, there are hard numbers that go into placemaking, and these numbers matter. Yet we see in Great Streets how the numbers are just one of the many components that support placemaking; and that most of its aspects are not so easily measured.
Other essential qualities Jacobs cites hew more closely to a dynamic between visuals and imagination. In a literal sense, these elements are superficial; in an aesthetic sense, they are much more—but a casual observer might not be attentive to their effects, even as he or she experiences them. Jacobs cites visual curiosities that “engage the eyes,” like textures in building details that enrich surfaces and play in the shadows cast by changing sunlight. Another factor is transparency, achieved through windows, doors, and passageways that facilitate glimpses—or at least intuitions—of what happens in the private realms beyond. Also, there is complementarity: a sort of harmony, by chance or by design, among roof lines, floor heights, building materials, and other factors shaped by multiple structures. And though we might consider them givens, Jacobs cites good building materials and consistent maintenance to round out the list of essentials. Finally, Jacobs offers a list of non-essential factors, ranging from park benches to lighting design, that may work to invest urban settings with a deeper sense of place.
Ultimately, Jacobs’ work might be summarized as follows: Great streets combine certain identifiable, designable physical qualities to draw out public life; and that this liveliness, fueled by the right context of economics and culture, complements the well-built environment—and completes the process of placemaking on a day-to-day basis. This, one might surmise, is part of what Jacobs means when he talks about magic: the ephemeral dynamic between a good built environment and those who engage with it to create a living place.
Jacobs’ ideas in Great Streets track closely with improvements made toward reinvigorating the urban tradition since its publication. Keeping a valuable tradition alive requires a perpetual process of reframing and retelling; in short, it requires good teachers. The continuing relevance of established practices must be communicated effectively to maintain adherents who will be motivated to transmit their wisdom forward to the next time and place. In the tradition of urbanism as a cultural imprint and a living artistic pursuit, Jacobs is an excellent teacher. Twenty-five years after its publication, his work remains a guidebook for the cities of our own time.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.
Copyright 2018 Theo Mackey Pollack
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.
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.
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”.
A 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
* * *
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]