New Urbs

How We Subsidize Suburbia

Wikimedia Commons/BrendelSignature

What image springs to mind when you picture “federally subsidized housing”? Most people imagine a low-income public housing tower, a homeless shelter, or a shoddy apartment building.

Nope—suburban homeowners are the single biggest recipient of housing subsidies. As a result, suburbs dominate housing in the United States. For decades, federal finance regulations incentivized single-family homes through three key mechanisms:

  1. Insurance
  2. National mortgage markets
  3. New standards for debt structuring

The housing market hides these details from the typical home buyer. As a result, most people are unaware of these subsidies. But their effects are striking—they determined the location and shape of development across America for generations.

A New Deal to Restore the Housing Industry

Debt has a negative connotation these days. Credit cards, student loans, and auto loans are the anchors that keep many Americans in debt for most of their lives. Meanwhile, we view mortgages very differently—they are seen as an investment, a symbol of adulthood, and a sign of financial stability.

This was not always the case. In the early 1900s, mortgages were just like any other kind of debt. Nowadays payments are spread out over decades, but back then they came due all at once after a few years. Most people didn’t have enough cash at the end of the term. It was standard to pay back some and negotiate a new loan for whatever they still owed.

This worked fine while the economy was booming, but investors refused to renew the loans after the 1929 stock market crash. Homeowners missed payments and foreclosure rates doubled. The housing industry collapsed, taking the economy down with it.

New Deal policymakers realized that restoring the economy depended on restoring the housing sector. In 1934, they created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) with two key mandates:

  1. Revive the housing market, and
  2. Make homeownership attainable for more Americans

In pursuing these goals, the FHA determined the design, structure, and location of new private development. In turn, it made suburbia the dominant form of housing in the United States.

“The most ambitious suburbanization plan in U.S. history”

By making an offer lenders couldn’t refuse, the FHA exercised tremendous power over residential design. Mortgages had to meet an opinionated set of criteria to qualify for the federal insurance. Lenders could invest in mortgages not covered by the program, but they had a strong preference for homes that conformed to the guidelines. Compliance was mandatory for the insurance, so they pressured developers to follow the rules. By 1959, 25 years after it was formed, the FHA had helped three out of every five American families purchase a home.

FHA rules had implicit and explicit hierarchies of what homeowners ought to want. They had two key purposes: to stimulate the economy, and to constrain the market to only good investments. These goals—plus the social assumptions of the time—were reflected in the FHA’s evaluation of a mortgage. The standards included:

  • Large, new homes were given a higher score, because they increased demand for labor and materials. Older homes with small spaces didn’t create demand for new furniture. Features like long hallways and steep staircases lowered the rating, because they prevented easy moving of furniture.
  • Homogeneity of neighboring housing stock was believed to indicate stable housing prices. To get the max score on the FHA evaluation, the manual preferred that a house be a part of “a sparsely developed new neighborhood … completed over the span of very few years.”
  • The ideal house had “sunshine, ventilation, scenic outlook, privacy, and safety,” and “effective landscaping and gardening” added to its worth. The guide recommended that houses should be set back at least 15 feet from the road, and well-tended lawns that matched the neighbors’ yards helped the rating.
  • The manual had strict definitions for how streets should be built.
  • It prescribed minimum street widths and other specific measurements.
  • It recommended a hierarchical network, with a major arterial roads interlaced with smaller streets. The idea was to separate through traffic and enable efficient circulation.
  • It saw cul-de-sacs as the most desirable home locations, because they were most isolated from foot and auto traffic coming from outside of the neighborhood.
  • The guidelines favored auto- rather than transit-oriented development. The idea was that this would increase demand for cars, which were a growing part of American manufacturing.
  • The manual emphasized that suburbs must be arranged to promote strict separation of land uses
  • Multi-use districts with “commercial, industrial, or manufacturing enterprise” were seen to threaten residential value. So the FHA simply did not provide insurance for units where the first floor was a shop with residences above for most of the agency’s lifetime.
  • Development like what you see in Greenwich Village and other traditional neighborhoods in East Coast cities could not get an FHA loan. (These rules only changed in 2015.)
  • “There would be no corner groceries; if there were any stores at all, they would be grouped into a single shopping center,” wrote Tom Hanchett in The Other “Subsidized Housing.”

The combined effect of these standards was the most ambitious suburbanization plan in United States history. The FHA favored suburbia, so subdivisions became one of the most common neighborhood types within a few decades.

New Frontiers for Suburbia

New Deal programs enabled the expansion of suburbia into new regions, too. Prior to the Depression, mortgages were extremely local. Investors could not lend money from a distance, so capital accumulated in slow-growth areas and was scarce in fast-growing ones.

In commoditizing mortgages, New Deal programs made possible a national mortgage market for the first time. FHA guidelines standardized home loans, which allowed lenders across the country to treat loans of the same rating as fungible. Since the quality of these homes was assured by FHA inspectors, “investors from all over the country would know exactly what a particular mortgage was worth.” For the first time, capital-rich investors could lend money to developers expanding into the South and West.

The creation of the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA, better known as Fannie Mae) in 1938 took this a step further. Fannie Mae created a secondary market by purchasing mortgages from lenders. It created liquidity for these originators, which in turn allowed them to underwrite more mortgages. The federal government created Freddie Mac (FHLMC) in 1970 to serve a similar purpose. The combination of these secondary markets and the FHA guidelines was in effect a massive financing of suburban sprawl, all facilitated by the federal government.

The government also set a national limit on interest rates for mortgages. It created a standard rate for the country as a whole, where before there had been immense variation. Mortgages had been far more expensive in the West and South than in the capital-rich Northeast. The new standard rates made it artificially cheap to finance new development in the Southwest. This subsidized sparsely populated parts of the country, while disadvantaging older metropolitan areas. It also coincided with the creation of the interstate highway system, on which we’ll go into more detail in an upcoming post.

New Markets for Suburbia

While federal programs increased the geographic size of the market, they also increased the number of people who could afford a down payment. They did this by tweaking the structure of mortgage debt in two ways:

1. They decreased the size of monthly payments by spreading them over a longer period of time.

  • Federally-backed loans required terms of at least 10 years, replacing the balloon mortgages of the 1920s. This paved the way for the standard 30-year mortgage that we have today.
  • Borrowers focused on the size of these monthly payments rather than the total, so this made mortgages more affordable without actually decreasing their cost.

2. Federal programs slashed what was an acceptable down payment.

  • Before, the buyer had to pay upwards of 50 percent of the purchase price in cash, but with the FHA guarantees, banks were willing to accept down payments of just 10 percent.
  • To reward G.I.s returning from WWII, the Veterans Administration (VA) offered mortgage aid as well. The VA insurance program was even more generous than the FHA, so by midcentury banks offered as low as 0 percent down to newly returned veterans. These set the standard for conventional mortgages within a few years.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser described the impact of “the mortgage subsidies that were explicit in the tax code and implicit in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae” in a Boston Globe op-ed:

These home-borrowing subsidies … pull people out of America’s urban centers. More than 85 percent of people in detached homes are owner-occupiers, in part because renting leads to home depreciation. More than 85 percent of people in larger buildings rent. Since ownership and structure type are closely connected, subsidizing homeownership encourages people to leave urban high-rises and move into suburban homes.

By making long-term, amortized loans with low down payments the norm, federal policies made it possible for millions of people to buy single-family homes. These homeowners enthusiastically moved into the new mass-produced subdivisions to the west.

Invisible Subsidies

On the surface, mortgages appear to be a mostly free-market enterprise. Buyers take out financing through a private broker; they find a home through a private real estate agent; and they purchase their home from a private developer. Some people take out FHA loans, and everyone has to deal with the pesky permitting process, but for the most part homeowners transact with private parties.

The system masks a huge amount of government intervention. It isn’t evident to the average person, because it works through obscure mechanisms like insurance and financing terms. These don’t look like conventional cash subsidies, but they distort incentives, supply, and demand in the same way. Though these mechanisms go mostly unnoticed, they have transformed residential finance in America.

The U.S. is the most suburban country in the world. Most assume this is the organic result of individual preferences, because there’s little visibility into the ways that policy has shaped incentives. The reality is that the government played a huge role. Because these subsidies are complex and technical, it’s easy to forget their long history, but if we want to begin to understand the current state of the housing market, we have to first understand how we got here.

Devon Zuegel is a software engineer and urban planning enthusiast. This article originally appeared at Medium.

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Struggling Cities Don’t Need Creative Class Leadership

Connecticut State Senator John Fonfara joins Mayor Luke Bronin (far right) to announce new business accelerator for the city, Startupbootcamp, in September. Credit:Ct. Senate Democrats/Creative Commons

Any unbiased observer of our cities can see that mediocrity is the salient characteristic of the typical local American politician. Another important problem in small and mid-sized cities is that they are poor and in need of revitalization, especially in Rust Belt areas. A natural conclusion to draw from the coincidence of inept leadership and socioeconomic decay is that better leaders are needed. But in the poorest, most troubled cities, talented leadership is not much of an asset, and it can be a liability. Talent does real harm by raising false expectations of a revival—distracting from mundane yet essential operational matters, and forestalling state intervention at critical junctures.

To assess the value of talented urban leadership, it’s best to start by looking at exceptions to the rule: places where it does exist. Hartford, Connecticut’s capital and home to 123,000 people, is one such exception. Mayor Luke Bronin is a former Rhodes Scholar and intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve. He investigated terrorist financing at the Obama Treasury Department, and served as the state of Connecticut’s general counsel before being elected mayor in 2015. An amateur musician, he wrote a song that was featured on Dawson’s Creek. He is 38. This is not a typical resume for a mayor of a small, deeply impoverished city. Decades of economic decline and imprudent budgeting have brought Hartford to the brink of bankruptcy.

Yet it remains unclear if Bronin’s talents will do anything to stabilize Hartford’s budget, and they may even constitute an impediment. Hartford can only regain solvency through the involvement of the state government. The most sensible solution would be a financial assistance package accompanied by a state takeover. Were Hartford now led by a long-serving mayor under indictment for corruption, a state takeover would be a foregone conclusion. But since it is being led by a brilliant up-and-comer, the case for state oversight is weaker—as helpful as that option may be for the city.

When public-spirited reformers call for better leadership for cities, they typically have in mind a collection of qualities that are more likely to be possessed by an outsider. They are not sounding the call for everyone to get behind this or that city councilmember, someone who got his start as a campaign worker to some local hack and has patiently waited his turn. Instead, they want someone with experience and/or education that most of the local crowd does not have, derived perhaps from service in the private sector or government at the federal or state level. This is likely to be someone who did not come up through the ranks and can thus apply a novel approach to longstanding challenges; who admires innovation; who can envision a solution to every problem, instead of a problem with every solution.

That was how many once viewed former New York City mayor John Lindsay. When Lindsay, a Republican congressman from the Upper East Side, first ran in 1965, New York Post columnist Murray Kempton famously opined “He is fresh and everyone else is tired.” Handsome, standing 6’4’’, and articulate, Lindsay was celebrated by the city’s elites. He emphasized youth and intelligence over government experience in his staffing decisions, and used the phrase “Fun City” to describe his vision for a revitalized New York. Now, however, historians mostly use “Fun City” in an ironic way, with reference to how lousy things got under Lindsay. Crime skyrocketed. Jobs and residents exited at a galloping rate. Though Lindsay was not mayor when New York almost went bankrupt in 1975, he was arguably more responsible than any other figure for the fiscal crisis because of his tolerance for budget gimmicks that papered over the widening gap between revenues and spending. Lindsay’s responsibility for the “bad old days” has caused many to forget what a dashing figure he first cut on the scene when he arrived.

The Progressive Turn to Experts

One of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s major legacies was to make the public feel entitled to hold politicians directly responsible for the health of the economy. As a result, elected officials at all levels of government are now held to totally unrealistic standards. This is nowhere more clearly so than in the case of struggling cities.

Here’s how Edward McClelland, in his 2013 book Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland puts it: “Running Flint [Mich.] requires the financial acumen of William Pitt the Younger, the law-and-order bullying to Benito Mussolini, the city-building vision of Romulus, the labor negotiating skills of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the industrial efficiency of Otto von Bismarck. Obviously, no politician has all these qualities. Any politician who had even one probably wouldn’t settle for mayor of a bankrupt city of one hundred thousand and counting backward. Flint is ungovernable, yet Flintstones continually punish mayors who can’t govern it.”

In order to compete in a mayoral election, all candidates must promise better days are ahead. But not every city has mayoral elections, or not consequential ones. So called “council-manager” cities do not. Under the council-manager form of government, the head of the city administration is an unelected appointee of the city council. The mayor is a ceremonial figurehead. Also known as the “weak mayor” model, the council-manager system was a Progressive-era innovation whose premise was that, by separating politics and administration, the former will become less corrupt and the latter more effective. Slightly more than half of all small and mid-sized cities have council-manager, according to the International City/County Management Association.

The council-manager system has not achieved its ideal. A century of experience with the form of government—Dayton, Ohio was the first major city to adopt council-manager, in 1913—has produced numerous examples of waste and corruption. It appears that politicians will always want to meddle in administrative matters, and top city administrators, if they want to survive in their position, must cultivate and use political skills to some degree. But you can say this for council-manager: At least it has the right ideal, and everyone has a right to expect competent delivery of basic municipal services.

But there’s no such thing as a right to revitalization. City reformers call for inspired leadership because they see it as a condition of revitalization, but what if that’s impossible? Our conception of urban renaissance is unduly influenced by the experience of a small handful of large cities. If you look past New York, San Francisco and Boston, and survey their dozens of small and mid-sized Rust Belt peers, it is very difficult to find an example of true revitalization. In a forthcoming research report, I survey 96 major poor cities in the Rust Belt and find that every single one has seen its poverty rate increase since 1970.

The Problem With Public-Sector Unions

The best argument for the benefits of talented urban leadership its ability to question the power of public-sector unions. Someone from outside city politics is more likely to grasp the many bizarre pathologies that result from having allowed teachers, police officers, and other public servants to assert formal influence over their own compensation and terms of employment, regardless of what’s in the public interest. Government unions are able to do this via their sway over the electoral process, selecting the “management” with whom they will be negotiating their contracts.

In the contemporary urban era, the threat of municipal bankruptcy looms large. Due to the steady corrosion of their tax bases, and the escalating costs of bonded debt and retirement-benefit liabilities, poor cities have a thin margin of error, fiscally speaking. Cities that have seen no substantive economic growth for decades should not be making retirement-benefit promises that stretch sixty years out into the future. And yet this practice is routine for all cities that still compensate their workforces through defined-benefit pensions.

If fiscal policy is one of the most important issues in urban politics today, and government unions are the greatest barrier to a more responsible fiscal policy, then bringing in more talented outsiders to mayor’s offices across the nation may be one of most important things we could do to help cities. But those who came up through a city’s political system are likely to view government unions’ stranglehold on city finances and operations with a “twas always thus” attitude. Examples of outsiders who grasped the lunacy of municipal compensation structures are Hartford’s Bronin and New York’s Michael Bloomberg.

But there’s a limit to how much any American mayor wants to be identified as a union-buster. Republicans revere Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a happy warrior who “sit[s] upon a throne made out of the skulls of his enemies.” But Democrats must take pains to avoid the Scott Walker tag. And only a Democrat can get elected in most cities. Long ago, it was possible for an American politician to be against public-sector unions while supporting private unions—FDR is the obvious example. But such a political brand is not possible now because the decline of unionization in the private sector is so far advanced. Local Democrats who go too far in their battles with teachers unions risk being seen as anti-worker, even though going “too far” is what needs to be done to stabilize municipal budgets. So they have to counterbalance their union fighting with all manner of very liberal policies, some of which are will mean more spending.

A 2016 analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission found that Bloomberg, the centrist who frequently tussled with the unions, increased spending in New York City during times of economic growth at an even greater rate than his openly labor-friendly successor Bill de Blasio has. In the end, it is almost impossible not to succumb to the lure of “labor harmony.” No Democratic mayor relishes the thought of fighting government unions across two or three terms in office, even though that may be how long it takes to effect genuine fiscal reform.

Big Ideas or Sound Management?

Perhaps the biggest problem with the talented-outsider mayor is that he is apt to get ideas. He may be more educated than the local doofuses, but that does not mean he is fully enlightened. It’s a case where a little knowledge can become a dangerous thing. State and local politicians who are known as big thinkers will always be strong candidates for a “public official of the year” award from Governing magazine or singled out as one of “America’s 11 Most Interesting Mayors” by Politico. New York and DC-based reporters from national publications are naturally attracted to mayors who can speak the language of urbanism.

But too much of urbanists’ advice for small and mid-sized cities consists of trying to impose lessons from successful top tier cities such as New York, Washington, San Francisco and Boston. Poor small and mid-sized cities should spend more time comparing themselves to other poor, small, and mid-sized cities. If you’ve lost half your population since 1950, you probably don’t have an affordable housing crisis; you’re not grappling with the challenges of density but rather a lack of density. If you have no wealth to redistribute in the first place, then Bill de Blasio can teach you little about the joys of redistribution.

In public budgeting, which is the area of greatest concern for many cities today, getting ideas is especially dangerous. John Lindsay’s innovative fiscal maneuvers were noted earlier. Detroit lit the fuse for its 2013-14 bankruptcy with a complicated $1.4 billion debt issuance that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his advisers dreamed up in 2005 in order to evade both the city’s legally-imposed debt limit and a pension contribution it could not afford. The Bond Buyer, the preeminent trade publication for state and local finance, gave Kilpatrick—now in federal prison for convictions on separate corruption charges—its 2005 “Midwest Regional Deal of the Year” award for so cleverly arranging “future flexibility” for his city’s budget. But all Kilpatrick’s deal really did was pile on more debt and make a bad fiscal situation worse.

“Flexibility,” like “innovation,” may be a core value in Silicon Valley, but it’s frequently a bad thing in the world of municipal finance. Remember all the encomiums to “boring banking” in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis? Often enough, the same principle applies for how to run a city.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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Who Are the Most Influential Urbanists?

Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

The 100 Most Influential Urbanists

The results are in, and Planetizen readers have chosen the “Most Influential Urbanists” of all time. And, yes, we mean all time. Names on the list date back as far as 498 BCE, but there’s also no shortage of contemporary thinkers, activists, planners, and designers in the final list of 100. It probably won’t surprise anyone that Jane Jacobs won this vote by a long shot, basically lapping the competition. [Read more…]


The Thirty Years’ War: New Urbanism and the Academy

The (so far) the unbreachable chasm between New Urbanism and what now passes for architectural culture consists of opposite conceptions of the relationships of place, time and objects–not small matters. For architects, the culture of objects, their history and the discipline of making them are infinitely rich subjects. For urbanists, objects, especially buildings, have meaning only as the constituent elements of places. This is not just a matter of I’m more interested in this and you’re more interested in that—like say botany and astronomy. Botanists and astronomers have nothing against one another—unless they happen to be competing for faculty resources or parking. By contrast, there is real animus between the object people and the place people. Each subject has its own historiography, one focused on canonical buildings, the other on the history of the city. They not only see each other as a threat to what they hold most dear, they regard each other as uncouth, uncultured philistines. [Read more…]

—Daniel Solomon, CNU Public Square

‘Instant Neighborhoods’ Don’t Make Great Cities, But DC Insists on Them

From an urban design standpoint, “instant neighborhoods” rarely have the visual or social diversity that many people enjoy about urban places. Great neighborhoods evolve as a mixed collage of uses, buildings, activities, and people over time – resulting not just in a more interesting place, but also a more enduring one…. A diverse building stock also accommodates a fuller diversity of human activities, which ultimately turns out to be a significant economic strength, according to research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In its “Older Smaller Better” report, since expanded into an “Atlas of Reurbanism,” the Trust found that older neighborhoods had better economic performance across a range of factors: “The higher performance of areas containing small-scale buildings of mixed vintage suggests that successful districts evolve over time, adding and subtracting buildings incrementally, rather than comprehensively and all at once.” [Read more…]

—Payton Chung, Greater Greater Washington

Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks

It’s not a coincidence that Olive Gardens tend to spring up near highways and shopping malls, within the orbit of mid-range hotels. Chain begets chain, or maybe chains are more comfortable among other chains — and in sufficient concentration they cause a little hiccup in the psychospace of reality, erasing any locality or sense of place, replacing it with a sanitized, brand-driven commercial hospitality. In downtown Salt Lake City or western Massachusetts or on the southern edge of the Chicago suburbs, wherever you see an Olive Garden, you’ll find something like a Quality Inn & Suites nearby. These accretions of commercial activity, stripped from geographic or historical identity, are what the French anthropologist Marc Augé talks about as “non-places.” … What it means to be a non-place is the same thing it means to be a chain: A plural nothingness, a physical space without an anchor to any actual location on Earth, or in time, or in any kind of spiritual arc. In its void, it simply is. [Read more…]

—Helen Rosner, Eater

How I-95 Broke Philly’s Waterfront (and What the City Is Doing to Fix It)

To walk to the river from any number of urban neighborhoods today is to encounter an elevated highway structure that is completely out of scale with the surrounding environment. In some places it feels dangerous to walk through the dark underpasses. And even in places where I-95 is already buried, it feels dangerous to cross over Christopher Columbus Boulevard, the at-grade arterial thoroughfare that runs parallel to the interstate along the Central Delaware. These things aren’t natural. “The highways are only roughly fifty years old,” says Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. “In the scheme of things, that’s pretty new. We don’t know what new technologies are coming down the road, no pun intended. So we should seriously question whether we should rebuild these interstates in kind, as we are doing, for an outdated technology that is essentially anti-urban.” [Read more…]

—Jared Brey, Curbed

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Loyalty to Place Can Renew American Towns

Downtown Jackson, Mich. (Flickr / Michigan Municipal League)

Editor’s Note: This article is based on an address delivered by Bill Kauffman at “Revitalizing Jackson’s Main Street,” an event held by The American Conservative at Grand River Brewery in Jackson, Michigan, on September 28.

I am delighted to be in Jackson, where in 1902 Hughie Cannon wrote “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” at Conrad Diedrich’s saloon on Main Street.

According to a 1973 interview with his 100-year-old widow, Bill Bailey was a charming two-timing musician who lit out for Los Angeles and never came back to Jackson. Hughie Cannon, the song’s composer, skipped town, too, drinking himself to death in Toledo. (Despairing over the Mud Hens, perhaps.)

My hometown, Batavia, New York, population 15,500, has had plenty of Bill Baileys and Hughie Cannons over the years. I don’t mean by that shiftless drunks, daydreaming musicians, guys who stay out all night—they’re okay by me—but rather people who leave town, or who refuse to make a home in the place where they live. They reject Booker T. Washington’s wise injunction to cast down your bucket where you are.

In 2003 I published a book called Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a memoir about my repatriation to Batavia, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.

To the world, Batavia is merely Exit 48 on the New York State Thruway, that hideous gray scar across our green and lovely state, that drab version of the Erie Canal dedicated to that drab man Thomas E. Dewey, who fled his fine little hometown of Owosso, Michigan, which was too small to contain a man of his talent, or ego.

I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.

Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.

In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.

Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—“in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)

Batavia’s urban renewal was an act of parricide, really, unequalled this side of Rumania, where the vampiric Ceausescu once waged war on pre-communist architecture with all the decorum of Vlad the Impaler. Our city fathers rushed headlong into this mad program whereby the federal government paid Batavia to knock down its past: the mansions of the founders, sandstone churches, the brick shops of Main Street—the whole damned—or, rather, blessed—thing.

Batavia tore out its five-block heart and filled the cavity with a ghastly mall, a colossal failure built in the aptly named Brutalist style. We are used today in urban-planning texts as a case study in disaster.

The economist Martin Anderson had published The Federal Bulldozer, his scholarly demolition of urban renewal, in 1964, when so much of our city might still have been saved, but we never got around to reading that book.

Apart from the noble Landmark Society of Genesee County, organized opposition to this destruction—this wholesale vandalism—was meager. For this was “progress,” the American religion, the true and only god of the Greatest Generation, to borrow a phrase from Tom Brokaw’s ghostwriter.

I was young then—or maybe I should say I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now—but I recall my family grousing about urban renewal. They understood that every building carries within a fund of meaning and memory that can never be duplicated or replaced, and I think they sensed that when these buildings were gone, the memories might remain but the corporeal evidence of a life lived disappears, and we would become as ghosts, strangers flitting through a strange land. The children would leave, because their anchorage was no longer visible. When the signposts of your life vanish, it doesn’t make much difference where you live. Or work. Or shop. One place is pretty much the same as the next—not hostile to our residence therein, but merely indifferent.

And if we are disloyal to our place, to the place our ancestors made, then why should our children show any loyalty to us? If the city in which they grow up is stripped clean of its landmarks—and I don’t mean just the homes of great men, of presidents and thieves—I mean the corner groceries and baseball fields and the front-porched homes that make a neighborhood—well, why should young people choose to stay in such a self-disrespecting place? Why not just move to a manicured suburb with high average SAT scores—say, Columbine, Colorado, where all your dreams can come true?

I was blessed in that I grew up with a sense that my place had a history, a culture, an accent, all its own. It was ravaged, it had often been mistreated, outsiders might think it a flavorless dump, but to me it had pith and soul and was a source of endless fascination. My dad used to tell us the stories, some probably apocryphal or libelous, behind the houses: we’d drive around and he’d say “that’s where the town whore lived”—the fact that it was my great aunt complicated matters; or “Father Kelly’s fife and drum corps played in that field”; or “that’s the joint of Vinny the bookie, a guy who never did a day’s work in his life.” Parenthetically, a friend of mine who’s a musician, also a repatriated native son, he and I say that’s our ambition: that when we’re old men we’ll be walking down the street and fathers will point us out to their sons and say, “Those two guys never did a day’s work in their lives.”

Ah, dare to dream.


I grew up with the knowledge that Batavia contained the stuff of myth and drama and tragedy and farce. I knew that where I was from mattered, even if the corporate media relentlessly pound into the skulls of every kid who doesn’t live in LA or Manhattan or DC the message that your life is risible, it’s trivial, why even bother to live if you’re not partying with Kendall Jenner or talking Dianetics with Tom Cruise? As a girl band from Los Angeles sang many years ago, “This town is our town/it is so glamorous/bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us.”

Or maybe not.

I always felt an intense homesickness no matter where I was. So in 1988, I persuaded my wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, that we should come home to my own not-so-glamorous town for what I said would be a one-year experiment. That year, it turns out, is measured in Old Testament terms, a la Methuselah.

I had worked prior to that as a legislative assistant to the legendary Senator Pat Moynihan and as a magazine editor in DC and Southern California before a vague suspicion that I had nursed since college concretized into a massive and unshakeable conviction: that a live lived anywhere but in my natal place would be fugitive, evanescent, meaningless. So we went back.

According to the popular culture definition of success, going home—doing what I did—is the act of a loser. Home may be where the heart is, but the body is usually long gone. In the typical American success story, the heart is the only organ that is not transplanted. These poisonous assumptions are even embedded in our language. Consider a pair of colloquialisms: “He’ll go far,” approving elders say of promising youngsters, the assumption being that success can be measured in terms of the distance one has traveled from home. If, on the other hand, we say of a boy, “He’s not going anywhere,” we are not praising him for his steadfast loyalty but damning him as an ambition-less sluggard. Those who stay loyal to their little postage stamps of ground are said to be losers; to abandon it, to trash it, to forget it—that’s the freeway to American success. We are expected to look away, to prize the distant over the near-at-hand, to care more about Hollywood than Hanover, or Baghdad more than our own backyards.

Well, absence may make the heart grow fonder, but love’s truest, greatest expression, I have come to believe, is immobility. Fixity. Staying put.

We now live five miles north of Batavia in Elba, an apt address for an exile. Lucine, my wife, I note with pride, served two terms as our town supervisor—and since the fade to black of Governor George Deukmejian she may be the highest ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, or at least she will be until the voters of California elect Kim Kardashian to the U.S. Senate. I should add that as first husband, my role model was Mamie Eisenhower. My special project was staying out of the way.

(In the U.S. Senate of the 19th century, Daniel Webster debated John C. Calhoun; in our enlightened 21st century, Senator Kim Kardashian will match wits with Senator Kid Rock.)

So what do you do when your small city has been leveled by well-meaning but fatuous city fathers who can’t resist the lure of “free” federal money?

There are many ways of going, as a poet who lived in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, once said. In the new issue of The American Conservative, which you are sitting on, I write about my friend Tim Tielman, the charismatic urban geographer who has done so much to revitalize Buffalo. (Charismatic urban geographer: is that like “Ohio State scholar”?)

Joseph Ellicott, who at the beginning of the 19th century founded both Buffalo and Batavia, remarked, “God made Buffalo; I will try and make Batavia.” I’m not sure who won that contest; I wish God had been with Scott Norwood when he tried that 47-yard field goal at the end of the 1991 Super Bowl. In any event, Tim and many others are now doing God’s work in Buffalo.

As for Batavia….I am of the old Thoreauvian school that distrusts big political solutions. It was the federal government that demolished our little city, so I don’t turn first to the federal government to rebuild it.  

DIY, as the old punk rock ethos went. Do it yourself. And across America, from Grand River Brewery to Front Porch Republic Books, people are doing it themselves.

For instance: Batavia’s not-so-favorite literary son was the 1970s novelist John Gardner, among the last American writers to grow up on a farm. Gardner had something of an ambivalent relationship with his hometown. When asked by an interviewer what function Batavia served in his fiction, he replied that it was “a good symbol…of the decline of western civilization.”

It’s kinda hard for the chamber of commerce to put that on a brochure.

Nevertheless, Gardner was ours. As another Upstate New York writer, the drunken scamp Frederick Exley, once said of his birthplace, “Watertown is not in my marrow—it is my marrow.” So, too, with Gardner. And so every October we have an evening of Gardner readings in his favorite diner, the unselfconsciously funky Pokadot, outside which now sits our purple and yellow John Gardner bench, upon which you all are invited to sit your literate selves when next you’re in our fair town. (Because Gardner’s novel The Sunlight Dialogues begins with a wild man being arrested for painting Love at Batavia’s Thruway exit, we were going to emblazon Love on the bench, but we feared that the passionate and randy youths of our amorous town might take it a bit too literally.)

(How about a “Come Home, Bill Bailey” day in Jackson?)

I also wrote and played a role in our county’s bicentennial play several years ago, a furtively didactic farce. As an actor I have all the emotional range of The Rock, but few things have ever given me as much satisfaction as doing that play to packed houses, honoring our forbears, making myth of their lives at the same time we tried to celebrate the everyday moments of holiness in their—and our—lives.

These are small, person-to-person acts, I know. But I don’t see how anything larger is practically possible, or should I say desirable.

If you wanna change the world you’ve gotta do it within your own ambit. Within your own circle of love. Anything grander—more far-reaching—and you’re dealing with people not as flesh and blood but as constituents, as soldiers, as abstractions, as faceless numbers on a bottom line. You wind up shipping them off to war or herding them into housing projects—always for their own good, of course. I’m not saying shun politics, but from my angle of vision, the healthy imperative is to decentralize, to devolve power to the most human scale levels: to the small community, the urban neighborhood, the family business, the individual. That will be the source of our renewal.


Home of Tennessee Williams, Columbus, Miss. (Onasill ~ Bill Badzo / Flickr)

I was very much struck by an incident a dozen or so years ago, when we spent a day in Columbus, Mississippi, hometown of Tennessee Williams, a city of beautiful antebellum homes untouched by the Civil War. First place we stopped was a little restaurant. I am a hopeful romantic and expected to find vatic old men, white and black, whittling on benches, and laconic loafers playing checkers and drawling wittily on courthouse steps, and tomboyish Nell Harper Lee hiding in the bushes, taking it all down. Eh, not quite.

We entered the eatery and were seated behind four ladies with lovely and mellifluous Mississippi accents. They spent the next half hour recounting the plot of the previous night’s episode of Friends, that smuttily witless show by which archeologists of the 23rd century will condemn our civilization. I wanted to confront them, to plead with them: “Look, here you are, daughters of a poor reviled state which is nevertheless one of the culturally richest states in the union; your home gave us the Delta blues, Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, William Faulkner, Muddy Waters, and yet you consume the commercial products of cocaine-addled greedheads in Manhattan and Los Angeles, people who hate your guts, who despise you as ignorant crackers and stupid rednecks. Get off your knees, Mississippi! There are new Robert Johnsons and Eudora Weltys in your midst. Support them. Look inward; look homeward. With a little help, the flowers in your own backyard will bloom a thousand times more brilliantly than anything on your high-definition TV set.”

Well I didn’t say this, being a polite Upstate New Yorker. but I wanted to. The tools of our revivification are at our feet, if we’d just look down. Look around. Every Main Street and Oak Street and Elm Street deserves its own record, its own poem, its own lively and vital and enriching street life. So where are they?

Maybe one problem is that so many of those who might create them leave for greener pastures, or, more often, leave just for the green.

There is green and there is green. There is the green of Goldman Sachs and there is the green of the ballfield.

In my town that greensward is home to the Batavia Muckdogs.

Batavia is a charter member of baseball’s New York-Penn League, founded in 1939, one of the oldest minor leagues in the country. My dad was a batboy in the ’40s. I grew up one block from Dwyer Stadium, named for the kindly Irish Catholic shoestore owner whose labors of love kept baseball alive in Batavia—and boy could Mr. Dwyer lacerate an umpire when he disagreed with a call. I spent much of a book writing about what baseball means to our town. It’s been a gathering place across the generations, a place of fellowship and good cheer, and as vice president today of a club perennially on the financial ledge I’m trying to keep it alive now for those who’ll follow, so that my daughter, with whom I have shared so many soft summer nights in the third-base bleachers, may one day do the same with her children. It’s those dreams of continuity that sustain one. Or sustain me, anyway. When I look out over the crowd I see the dead as well as the living. (Alas, the dead sometimes play third base for our team.)

The presence of those who’ve gone before—it’s not an annoyance, or a grimly obligatory pull—it hallows the places we live.

This is not to say they’re Edenic. In fact, when you’re living in a place rather than idealizing it at a distance—which is easy to do, and I’ve done it; as Lord Acton said, exile is the nursery of nationalism—when you’re actually living in a place you see, you even embrace, the imperfections. I’m sure even Jackson has imperfections.

A decade or so ago, we misconceived the idea of baseball poetry night, or what I like to call shoving culture down fans’ throats night. I detest the constant noise at modern sporting events: the walkup songs, the between-innings excerpts from moronic pop and rap songs—such a plummet from the sublime music of my youth: the Velvet Underground and the Captain and Tennille.

Anyway, on baseball poetry night, the team president, the local museum director, our daughter and I filled the between-innings air of a contest between the Batavia Muckdogs and the Auburn Doubledays with recited odes to the American game by Charles Bukowski, Grantland Rice, Tom Clark, and other bards of the ballfield. My favorite was Bukowski’s “Betting on the muse,” which begins, “Jimmie Foxx died an alcoholic in a skidrow hotel room.” I thought of it as a cautionary tale for the boys.

The whole thing went over as disastrously as you’d expect. My Batavia, God bless her, is poetical enough in my imagination, but as for poetry appreciation…let’s just say that when the p.a. announcer asked the fans, “Do you want another poem or a song?” the shouts of “song!” rivaled the New Testament crowd’s cry of “Free Barabbas!”

You can’t always get what you want. But I’ve gotten what I need.

Or I think of a recent season when the team unwisely scheduled “Bill Kauffman Day.” I thought every day was Bill Kauffman Day….I had to throw out the first pitch that night. I shambled out to the mound, told the crowd over the mike that my brother had promised to buy everyone in the stands a beer if I threw a strike, and I threw a fastball right down the pipe. I think the radar gun clocked it in the low 80s—others estimated the mid-40s.

That night my daughter and her friend sang the national anthem, melodiously. During the seventh-inning stretch, now unfortunately scored in so many ballparks by that empty cloud of bombast “God Bless America,” the girls ignored post-9-11 protocol and instead sang my favorite, “America the Beautiful.”  

They weren’t past “Oh beautiful…” when a heckler started in from the beer deck: “Wrong song! Wrong song!” The girls got a huge kick out of it. How many singers have ever been jeered during “America the Beautiful”?   

The revival of our towns, our neighborhoods, our America the Beautifuls, our Jacksons and Batavias, has to start with individual revolutions of the soul. Or, less grandiosely, with the choices we make each day. We can watch Friends reruns or we can make friends. We can shop at Wal-mart, we can buy our kids the most expensive electronic gadgetry, further alienating them from their families and their surroundings, or we can buy our produce at the farm market from our neighbors; we can listen to local bands at the corner bar; we can sing “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey?” from a stool at the Grand River Brewery; we can support the local sports teams; we can buy the works of local writers and painters and crafters and musicians.

It’s up to us.

Our hometowns—or the places we make our hometowns—deserve our love. We can treat them with love and care and solicitude, or we can treat them as carelessly as we would a used Big Mac wrapper.

Batavia, Jackson, all the Batavias and Jacksons, reveal to us at the most unexpected moments the alternative to the insanity that’s going on out there, in TV land, in the unreal America. In Batavia it’s the heavenly grease at the Pokadot diner, the chestnut trees on the campus of the New York State School for the Blind; it’s the novels of John Gardner and a crowd chanting “BHS! BHS!” at a Batavia High basketball game. That’s what’s real. That’s what keeps our town alive. Jackson has its own analogues of these things. Protect them. Preserve them. Sing them. Enhance them. Share them.

Thanks for listening. Long live Jackson.

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.

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How to Start a Retail Business Without a Main Street

This is the historic Main Street in Garden Grove, California. Back in 1874 land was platted in small twenty-five foot wide lots and sold off with minimal infrastructure. Individuals built modest pragmatic structures with funds pulled largely from the household budget, extended family, and short-term debt. This was long before the thirty-year mortgage, government loan guarantees, mortgage interest tax deductions, zoning regulations, subsidies, economic development grants, or the codes we have today.

Many of these simple one-story shops were specifically designed to be subdivided in to two smaller shops that were each about 12 feet wide and not terribly deep. These were ideal economic incubators with a low bar to entry for tenants, yet they generated a high yield per square foot for the landlord. Businesses could expand and contract as needs changed. Some things failed. Others succeeded. Time sorted it all out.

Families often lived above their own shops. In many cases, rooms or apartments were rented to tenants. Sometimes the upper floors served as professional offices or hotel rooms. This was an additional layer of flexibility that allowed properties to adapt over time while providing affordable yet profitable accommodations. Everything expanded gradually as money and market demand permitted. This was the process that produced our Main Street towns all across the country.

Here’s an aerial view of Main Street courtesy of Google. At one time it was the economic and cultural center of a thriving farm community. Notice the amount of private value relative to public infrastructure.


Let’s pull out a bit and see what the surroundings look like today.

Whatever may have existed around Main Street is now a vast ocean of surface parking lots. Next door and across the street are big box stores along high speed arterial roads. Times change. When transportation switched from shoe leather and horses to cars and trucks the scale of absolutely everything in society ramped up exponentially. Then the old Main Street became a relic.

Garden Grove’s civic leaders obviously thought its historic center was worth preserving, so planners did the best they could to keep it viable. Removing defunct buildings in favor of parking lots made the shops available to suburban motorists.

Decorative paving, ye olde lamp posts, hanging flower baskets, park benches, lots and lots of American flags, potted shrubbery, and piped in music created a respectable unified atmosphere for retail. The place is clean, safe, and orderly.

Events are programmed to keep Main Street active and attract customers: an Elvis festival, a vintage car show, the annual celebration of the strawberry. Shops that might otherwise go empty are filled with civic organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the offices of elected representatives. Garden Grove’s remaining historic center—all one block of it—is well maintained. But it stopped functioning as a town a long time ago. It’s now an embellished strip mall. The current regulatory environment and larger economic context have halted the iterative wealth building process that might have otherwise continued. Now it’s dependent on city planning efforts to keep up appearances with grants for fresh lipstick and rouge. It’s an exercise in sentimentality and kitsch. Nothing else is legal anymore.

Advocates for a return to the kind of development pattern that existed a century ago are up against hard limits of every kind. Reforming the current system of regulations and cultural attitudes is a waste of time. What they don’t recognize is that the small scale, fine grained, mom and pop process is alive and well in places like Garden Grove. It just doesn’t look like a Norman Rockwell village. That era is gone and isn’t coming back anytime soon. But a new version is already here. The mobile shop is the new version. I see more and more of these all across the country, because this is the new low resistance entry point for small businesses to form.

This is only the visible stuff. Inside many suburban homes are businesses that you can’t see. These aren’t traditional retail stores. Operating a physical shop makes no sense in most cases. Who can compete with Costco or Amazon? Who wants to try to extract permission from the zoning authorities? But household ventures generate income in ways that aren’t readily apparent from the curb. I can’t publish photos of the best examples because I’d get a lot of good people into trouble. But trust me. They’re out there in large numbers under the radar.

When it comes to housing it’s incredibly difficult to build anything simple and cost effective anymore. A combination of endless regulations and outraged neighbors means only production home builders are left in the game. They build whole subdivisions of single family homes, or they build two hundred unit apartment complexes. The middle range of modest accommodations is no longer a reasonable option. Under the circumstance the existing stock of suburban homes are pressed in to service as de facto multifamily buildings. On my way out of Orange County I asked a waitress at the airport about her living arrangements. She said she rented shared space in a five-bedroom house in Costa Mesa. The overall rent was $4,200 a month. Her share was $1,100. She had three room mates. She also had three kids. That’s why so many front lawns are parking lots.

I have a peculiar ability to wander around and get myself invited in to people’s lives. This place in Garden Grove was once a little 1950s tract home. It was added on to in a way that perfectly conformed to all the existing rules and procedures and is still a fully detached single family home.

But individual rooms are rented out and the tenants share a common kitchen and baths. It’s a small apartment building by other means. This is what we get when we forbid the Norman Rockwell Main Street model. Some people hate it. I see it as a perfectly natural response to the artificial constraints that have been placed on the old Main Street model.

We can’t go back. But we can adapt and move forward under the circumstances.

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared. New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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The Making of Horizonal America

Words on the Street highlights the best writing on the built environment we’ve encountered recently at New Urbs. Post tips at @NewUrbs.

Looking Around: Horizontal Space

If there is one truth about the second half of the 20th Century it is that, by all accounts, we started moving out rather than up; horizontal rather than vertical. Not only through the process of suburbanization, the building of massive highways, and the rapid capital flight from cities, but also in how we designed everything from our homes to our workplaces. It could be said that, since the development of major highways, America has flattened—much in the same way that the invention of both the elevator and air conditioning brought skyscrapers to every major city in the first half of the 20th century. [Read more… ]

—Kate Wagner, McMansion Hell

Why Walkability Is Not a Luxury

Nobody would say that health is a luxury. To the extent that walkable neighborhoods contribute to health, it follows they are not a luxury good. Similar cases can be made for walkability and safety (fewer automobile deaths and injuries), pollution (reduced tailpipe emissions), and time (fewer hours spent commuting). Walkable neighborhoods add value and utility to lives of people of all classes. They are willing to pay for that value. Walkable neighborhoods also enable a lifestyle that has the potential to reduce overall costs while providing health and welfare benefits. [Read more…]

—Robert Steuteville, CNU Public Square

Are We Still Bowling Alone?

A lot of the focus in Rust Belt and rural communities is on the economy, and rightly so. There are economic challenges that do need to be addressed. But in many cases the real problems are more than economic. They are social and perhaps even spiritual in a broad sense, a despair that has destroyed so many lives…. The America of the 1970s and 1980s is dead and gone. It can’t be recreated. But America must find a way to rebuild its social capital if it hopes to change the trajectory of so many struggling people and places. Economic development is not enough. [Read more…]

—Aaron Renn, Governing

What Is Blight?

Vacant buildings can attract criminal activity like drug use. They sometimes pose safety hazards. Getting rid of them is overwhelmingly framed as positive by local governments that often leverage hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to do demolition work (often through state or federal grants). And yet, there’s something darker that lurks beneath the surface when we talk about “blight.” The word completely disregards the past of a place. When you label something blight, you utterly negate any purpose it may have had and any hope of saving it. It is mere garbage to be discarded. And it’s not just individual buildings that are labeled as such. Whole blocks and neighborhoods can receive this designation, either officially or by association. Once the label has been applied, it can be a natural progression to start thinking that the people, businesses and institutions that are still alive in these neighborhoods are also blight. [ Read more… ]

—Rachel Quednau, Strong Towns

Yes In My Backyard

At a time when states and cities are often at odds over hotly contested social and economic issues, land use reform to expand housing choice and opportunity can constitute common ground. State and local collaboration on housing can create a lower cost of doing business, a more efficient real estate market, and a wider array of options for buyers and renters across the income spectrum. [Read more…]

—Stockton Williams, Lisa Sturtevant, and Rosemarie Hepner, Urban Land Institute

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We Need Fewer World Leaders, And More Good Neighbors

Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro, University of Kentucky Press, 268 pages.

“Learning made a boy leave the farm to live in the city—to consider himself better than his father.”

John Steinbeck wrote these words 65 years ago, in his classic work East of Eden. Even then, he sensed the deep schism growing between rural America and the elite, urban enclaves that housed many of the nation’s universities and colleges.

But if such things were true in Steinbeck’s day, they are only more common now. Our nation’s top universities have embraced a detached, globalized approach to education—one in which youths are unlikely to be sent home, and rather encouraged to join a larger sphere of success and influence.

On its website, Yale assures visitors that it is training “the next generation of world leaders.” Harvard boasts that it develops leaders “who make a difference globally.” The University of Virginia, meanwhile, promises to foster “illimitable minds,” and “endless pursuit.”

In his classic consideration of American society, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the United States contained an “innumerable multitude of those who seek to get out of their original condition …. There are no Americans who do not show that they are devoured by the desire to rise.”

But the consequences of such attitudes have been staggering. In America’s rural towns and communities, “brain drain” is sucking away talented youth, leaving an economic and social hole in its wake. According to a 2008 Pew poll, college graduates are far less likely to live in their birth state, and most young people still living in their hometown want to move in the next five years. Seventy-seven percent of college graduates change communities at least once.

Few in the world of higher education are taking a stand against this tide of exodus and globalization. But in their new book, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro explain the dangers of a higher education that is placeless and, in the words of UVA, “illimitable.”

Baker and Bilbro work in the English Department at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University. Both professors have long studied the life and work of Wendell Berry, and his writing and thought serve as primary inspiration for this book.

Berry himself, via both his fiction and essays, has considered the deleterious impact of higher education on small farming communities. As his protagonist Hannah Coulter notes in a novel of the same name, “After each one of our children went away to the university, there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away.”

Higher education fosters what Wendell Berry has termed “boomers”: individuals who “are always on the lookout for better career opportunities in better places.” He contrasts this group to “stickers”: those who root themselves in a place, and dedicate themselves to its wellbeing. Wallace Stegner first used these terms to describe the pioneers who settled in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries; but our universities have long fostered boomers instead of stickers.

Coulter’s children, like most American youths, bought into “the destructive ideology of the university as part of an industrial economy—an economy in which schools bring in customers and send out displaced individuals with immense debts, having taught those individuals that the good life can be found anywhere but at home,” write Baker and Bilbro.

Many in and outside America’s universities don’t see a problem with this sort of displacement. Upward mobility, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, has always been a present and accepted part of the American psyche. We increasingly strive to be cosmopolitans, global citizens, people who exist outside of place and its tribalistic ties. Today, as never before, the virtues of contentment, gratitude, and loyalty have fallen into disrepute.

But resurrecting such virtues, Baker and Bilbro suggest, is critical for the health and happiness not just of America’s small towns and communities, but also of its young people—for although independence may appeal for a while, living as a “global citizen” and “world leader” can be rather lonely and alienating. Cultivating opportunities for homecoming is not just a romantic or reactionary notion. It is a recipe for holistic healing and reintegration, in a nation that sorely needs it.

To foster this sort of reintegration, Baker and Bilbro suggest, we need to tell different stories to our youth: stories that foster the aforementioned virtues of place, stories that suggest home is in fact a beautiful place worth preserving. Baker and Bilbro thus begin to lay out a vision for reforming higher education—for cultivating a university in which students are encouraged to love their place.

While education means “to lead out from,” Baker and Bilbro argue that the university’s direction in times past was more metaphysical and intellectual than it was geographical. Universities in Athens and Rome served the polis. After the rise of Christendom, universities sought to serve the church, and most of America’s first colleges were theological in both their education and ends. As American society has grown increasingly pluralistic, however, the purpose and end of the university has shifted once more—this time to focus on economic success.

“The institution that began with the purpose of leading students out of ignorance to better serve their communities and the church now primarily serves the nation-state’s industrial complex,” Baker and Bilbro write. “In the absence of any higher purpose, the multiversity defaults to serving the economy, to training students to be effective cogs in a capitalist machine.”

In contrast, Baker and Bilbro suggest that universities ought to work like a rooted tree,providing students with a “trunk of truth,” which is surrounded and informed by a geographical context. They suggest that a strong core curriculum—the classical liberal arts’ trivium and quadrivium—is the best such trunk.

The classical liberal arts do not dictate or specify success to students. Instead, they cultivate wisdom and understanding—and from these seeds, students can and must cultivate their own, particular vision of the good. Great, classic works of the past—such as Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, or newer works such as The Lord of the Rings—foster a “rooted imagination.” But they also prompt questions of application that students must answer for themselves.

“We have found that our students struggle with imaginative work because it doesn’t provide neat, tidy answers,” note Baker and Bilbro. “In fact, it acknowledges that some, perhaps many, of their questions will remain unanswered.” But this sort of learning fosters prudence: the ability to apply certain virtues and skills within a variety of disciplines and places. Whereas others forms of education spit out machine cogs, the rooted university fosters diverse and multifaceted human beings.

As Berry once wrote in his essay “The Loss of the University,” “Underlying the idea of the university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good—that is, a fully developed—human being.”

In the second part of their book, Baker and Bilbro consider the four key dimensions “in which humans ought to be placed”: tradition, hierarchy, geography, and community. They then detail the virtues which ought to be fostered within these dimensions: fidelity, love, gratitude, and memory. They turn here to Alasdair MacIntyre, who has argued in After Virtue that virtue is “an excellence or quality intelligible only within a community’s tradition and story, oriented toward a common good.” Without this orientation and context, virtues become mere “skills,” which may not in fact further the good.

Baker and Bilbro thus argue that love and service are contextual disciplines; abstract love, “empathy” without subject or context, is not the proper end of human existence. And in a world in which the placeless, roving humanitarianism of Angelina Jolie and George Clooney receive highest accolades and praise, such a vision is both unique and deeply needed.

“When professors tell their students the wrong stories, stories of heroic success rather than quotidian faithfulness, it reinforces the boomer mentality of the broader culture,” write Baker and Bilbro. Such narratives, according to Berry, convince “good young people … that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”

Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.

As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.

This book is not just for college students or professors. It is for all those who toil within a specific vocation. The thoughtful wisdom of Baker and Bilbro convicted and inspired me, prompting me to consider whether my work is as place-centric, thoughtful, and prudential as it ought to be. These thoughts will likely occur to any who spend much of their time behind a computer, who commute to work, or otherwise engage in labor than can often feel divided and displaced. The authors also encouraged me to keep fostering the “sticker arts” in my own life: the quotidian labor of mending and repairing, gardening and canning, cooking and cleaning. This book is more than a treatise on higher education. It is also, at least to some extent, a manual for the place-centric life.

There is no easy way to turn the tide of youthful exodus plaguing America’s communities. But the seeds of change are here. Perhaps the first step, as Baker and Bilbro suggest, is to reconsider the stories we tell, and the visions we cast. Perhaps, instead of telling students they ought to be “world leaders,” we should encourage them to be good neighbors.

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. You can follow her on Twitter @gracyolmstead

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The Perfect Apartment Building Is Hiding in Plain Sight

The Wadsworth Court, Wadsworth Avenue and West 180th Street in Manhattan, pictured in 1909. Source: NYPL Digital Archive.

One of the most significant consequences of the 1926 Euclid Supreme Court decision—which declared that the then relatively new practice of zoning ordinances was Constitutional—has been the ability of municipal governments to quash organic approaches to efficient land development. In many cases, this impulse has served a valuable function, allowing communities to protect themselves from nuisances, incompatible uses, and the damage wrought by bad development. But along with their clear benefits, it is important to note the potential costs of zoning policies that discourage efficient land use.

In their 2000 book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck note that between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of American families that could afford to purchase a median-priced home fell from 50 percent to just 25. During the same years, planners and others widely observed a troubling decline in the aesthetic design quality of new buildings and land uses, while lamenting the growing number of communities in which people cannot take part in basic, daily activities without a car. Significantly, a number of the contributing factors that have been cited for these trends have a common thread: a declining efficiency of land use.

Land-use efficiency has a long and practical history in town planning, beginning organically at the dawn of urban civilization, and refined in its method at least since the fifth century B.C., when Hippodamus planned the reconstruction of his native Miletus, after the Persian War. The goal of efficient land use was traditionally driven by the practical necessities of urban life in pre-industrial societies, where walking and animal use were the primary modes of mobility on land. Even with the advent of railroads in the nineteenth century, and the fast, long-distance travel that they facilitated, new towns were still built on a walkable scale—that is, their streets were laid out within walking distance of one another and the train station. Out of this practical necessity, a refined tradition developed that included resourceful devices for saving the valuable land near existing settlements, and for making the best use of the land that was already contained within them.

The industrial pollution and massive crowding of the late nineteenth century, followed by the individual freedom supplied by the automobile in the early twentieth, undermined the established, pragmatic rationales for maintaining the traditions of town planning: As cities became increasingly unpleasant, many individuals soon became free to leave them behind. In the United States, the Supreme Court’s 1926 decision in Euclid eliminated yet another support for traditional urban growth patterns: their legal inevitability. By empowering local governments to widely regulate the lawful uses of private property, the ability of individual land owners to maximize their use of every urban parcel was greatly abrogated. In Suburban Nation, Duany et al. point out two common, practical devices that fell out of favor due to their increasing illegality under Euclidian zoning regimes. The first is the age-old tradition of building inexpensive apartments over the retail space of business districts. Duany et al. write:

Upstairs apartments provide customers for the shops, activity for the streets, and nighttime surveillance for the neighborhood. They also represent one of the most economical ways to provide housing, since the land and infrastructure costs are covered by the shops; the housing can be supplied for the cost of construction alone. . . . Additionally, [housing over shopping] contributes much-needed height to retail buildings, which with only one story fail to adequately define street space.

In addition to separating what might be perfectly compatible uses, such as stores and apartments, Euclidean zoning laws have also frequently dictated that no more than one unit shall be permitted on a single lot. According to Duany, this policy has resulted in the elimination of so-called outbuilding apartments, such as those located above the garages of a detached carriage house, or those contained in a separate, smaller building, in the yard behind a primary house. Significantly, the elimination of such market-rate, affordable housing alternatives may have a doubly negative effect on the affordability of housing. By reducing the availability of new, affordable units, it has created greater competition for existing housing options.

In addition to quashing the potential for over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats, typical Euclidean zoning codes, in keeping with the language of Justice Sutherland’s opinion in the decision, often greatly constrain the development of multifamily buildings in areas beyond their immediate vicinity at the time of drafting. In the post-Euclid world, any significant changes to established land use policies generally require the highly-political, time consuming, and necessarily infrequent process of revising the official map. And in a typical zoning ordinance, each of the basic use-zones is further correlated with a schedule of so-called zone requirements. These rules typically mandate minimum lot widths, depths, and street frontages, as well as maximum lot coverages, numbers of units, and heights. While safety codes have long been used to regulate the height of urban construction, comprehensive zoning ordinances are often written in language that is so restrictive that it effectively precludes the potential for creativity by builders and architects. In short, the hands of developers are quite well tied by the common restrictions of Euclidean zoning.

The impact of Euclidean zoning on economic development is powerful: First, it ensures that the productive potential of a community’s land is controlled by legislative restrictions on both its use and its intensity of development. Up to a point, the prudent exercise of this power can be beneficial to local economies, especially where it protects local properties by averting the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses. But where the impact of zoning laws exceeds these practical goals, and results in the arbitrary exclusion of compatible uses, walkable neighborhoods, and decent, land-efficient housing, such laws can severely limit a community’s capacity for healthy economic development. And when zoning policies result in artificial shortages of necessary floor space, the resulting increase in costs can impose a high entry barrier on a local marketplace, and ensure that a larger portion of a community’s wealth must be spent on obtaining access to real estate, rather than be invested in more productive, dynamic sectors of the local economy.

In contrast to the patterns that develop under the legal and political restrictions of Euclidean land policies, the pre-zoning development patterns of late-Victorian New York City illustrate the trends that emerged in a metropolitan land economy that was driven mainly by the organic demands of the market, and large-scale adaptations of traditional town-planning devices. In the period between 1880 and 1930, when the available land in Manhattan (and, later, what would become the Bronx) was being increasingly built out with single-family brownstones, a continued demand for housing led to the gradual redevelopment of many townhouse neighborhoods with larger apartment buildings. The architects of these new buildings, who were often limited to a canvas of just a few attached lots, were required to find resourceful ways to create housing on limited parcels of land.

Accordingly, the housing stock of New York City that was built between 1880 and 1930 contains a wealth of examples of traditional land use efficiency. The buildings of that era occupied the entire spectrum of both practical and aesthetic possibilities, representing, as they did, the products of a largely unregulated urban land market awash in the tumult of industrial capitalism. In the years since the turn of the century, a number of reporters have thoroughly documented the deplorable conditions of the downtown tenements in Victorian New York, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the remarkable qualities of the city’s vast upper-middle-class apartment stock, which was beginning to take shape around the same time. The design and land use efficiency of these buildings, and the value that they concentrate on small parcels of private land, often compares quite favorably with the endless payout of strip malls, garden apartments, mundane architecture, and distorted housing costs that has accrued to much of the post-Euclid metropolitan landscape of the United States. While zoning remains a useful tool in the hands of local authorities, the argument for re-examining its standard applications, often made by New Urbanists like Duany, has grown increasingly strong.

Market-Based Efficient Land Use: Late Victorian New York City

The upper-middle-class apartment stock of New York City, dating from the late Victorian era, represents a unique historical intersection of traditional, pre-zoning, land efficient approaches to town planning, and the large-scale, extensive infrastructure of a modern urban economy. In light of the present situation, it is interesting to look more closely to the not-so-distant past, and to examine some of the better approaches to efficient metropolitan land development that were employed in that context. In 1892, a guidebook author, Moses King, published an extensive survey of the contemporary city of New York that continues to offer some of the clearest depictions and descriptions of American urbanism in the late years of the Victorian period. In a chapter discussing the city’s growing supply of middle-class apartment buildings, King offers a thoughtful analysis of the social and economic factors that had influenced the increasing respectability of apartment living. He writes:

Apartment houses, it has been said, hold more than half of the middle-class population of Manhattan Island. Real estate is so valuable, and consequently rents so high, that to occupy a house is quite beyond the reach of a family of ordinary means, and the suburbs on account of their inaccessibility are out of the question. Consequently, apartments and flats have become a necessity, and a system of living, originally adopted for that reason, has now become very much of a virtue. Apartment-life is popular and to a certain extent fashionable. Even society countenances it, and a brownstone front is no longer indispensable to at least moderate social standing. And as for wealthy folk who are not in society, they are taking more and more to apartments.

It was during this period that a sharp distinction began to emerge in the city’s apartment stock, with the traditional slum-tenement buildings on one side, and the new supply of well-appointed buildings on the other. Both made efficient use of land, but the former group took into account few other considerations, while the latter tried to balance efficient land use with an effort to meet the aesthetic expectations of more affluent tenants.

The differences between these two tranches of buildings highlight the inherent tension between the goals of achieving maximum land use efficiency and creating decent living spaces. In the pre-zoning days of the 1890s, developers of the two types of buildings became embroiled in battles over the character of individual blocks and neighborhoods. King describes the frontiers of class geography in 1892 Manhattan:

The tenements display the lowly side and often the dark side of New-York life. It is not possible to locate the tenement-house population within any closely defined limits. In general, it may be said to hold parts of nearly all the streets below 14th, except a part of the old Ninth Ward, which is distinctively the Native [-born] American section of the city, and in and about Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue, clinging to the river-front on either side, monopolizing almost entirely the East Side nearly over to Broadway. Above 14th Street on the East Side it is supreme east of Third Avenue as far as the Harlem River, with the exception of a part of lower Second Avenue and a few side-streets here and there. On the West Side it comes from the river-front as far east as Sixth Avenue, with oases of better homes here and there, and this as far north as about 59th Street. The territory above 59th Street to 125th Street has very little of this population. Tenement-houses are as a rule great towering buildings, many of them squalid and in bad repair, and devoid of any but the rudest arrangements for existence. They are packed with human beings. In a single block between Avenue В and Avenue С and 2d and 3d Streets there are over 3,500 residents, and a smaller block on Houston Street contains 3,000 people, which is at the rate of 1,000,000 to the square mile. That section is altogether populated at the rate of 500,000 to the square mile, which is as if the entire population of the city should be crowded into a space less than two miles square.

Presumably, it was with this landscape in mind that developers of new, upscale apartments sought to acquire land parcels further uptown, especially in the clean-slate blocks near Central Park, in Harlem and Washington Heights, and along the Grand Concourse. Many of their buildings took the spatial efficiency measures that had long been used in downtown tenements, and tempered them with a consciousness of form to create compact yet beautiful buildings.

The Classic Six

The New York Public Library maintains an extensive digital image database called “Classic Six: New York City Apartment Building Living, 1880-1910.” The name refers to the six-room layout that was typical in many of the city’s late Victorian apartment buildings, and the images are mostly scanned from The World’s New York Apartment House Album, an out-of-print volume that was published in 1910 by the New York World; and Apartment Houses of the Metropolis, a similar out-of-print album published two years earlier by G.C. Hesselgren & Company. Among the many plates are hundreds of color lithographs, depicting the footprints, floor plans, details, and dimensions of actual buildings that comprise the early portion of the iconic, pre-war apartment stock of the city.

These plans, which refer to bedrooms and living rooms as chambers and parlors, respectively, and which often provide for a maid’s room and a library in an otherwise modest unit, depict the urban American lifestyle of a lost time. Yet, in spite of their indulgence of dated pretensions and their frequently ornate details, these buildings contain a practical wisdom in their simple geometry, one that deserves to be recovered and applied in the contemporary search for efficient housing solutions. And, notably, like the over-the-store apartments and outbuilding flats described by Duany, et al., many of these buildings’ most useful efficiency devices could never be reconciled with the typical zoning ordinances of contemporary suburbia.


One of the basic architectural features to be employed for spatial efficiency in the apartment buildings of the late Victorian period was the interior courtyard. By opening up the inside of the structure to air and light, internal rooms could be arranged to overlook a courtyard, and a larger portion of the lot could thus be covered with living space. As an added benefit, interior courtyards facilitated the aesthetic effect of having continuous façades along a street’s block face, creating a strong sense of intimately contained space on each block, and maintaining the enclosure that had previously been established by rows of attached brownstones. While the courtyard remains in use today, it is applied less frequently in the kinds of simple, basic buildings that it often enhanced a century ago. This has led to a loss of both aesthetic value and land-use efficiency in urban housing,

A good example of the ordinary application of the interior courtyard can be found in the layout of the Wadsworth Court, a six-story elevator building that was finished in 1909. Situated at the southwest corner of Wadsworth Avenue and West 180th Street, its modest, 100-by-75 foot lot is the land-use equivalent of just three standard row houses. But the Wadsworth accommodates five generously proportioned apartments on each of its upper five floors, and four large apartments, as well as a lobby and vestibule, on its ground floor. If one could presume that the chambers, maids’ rooms, and libraries of 1909 would today be, simply, bedrooms, then the Wadsworth layout manages to accommodate a total of 66 separate sleeping areas. And if a predictable portion of these are shared by couples, then the building provides enough space for about 100 people to live comfortably.

Plans showing the original layout of the Wadsworth Court. Source: NYPL Digital Archive

Today, few people who passed on the street would be likely to notice the Wadsworth as anything more extraordinary than a typical New York apartment building. In fact, its cornice is gone—replaced by mismatched bricks—and its paint is visibly fading. Its aging fire escapes have marked it for conflation with the tenements it was designed to contrast. But, in a way, its unremarkable present-day appearance is exactly what makes it interesting: These ordinary old buildings often contained simple design elements that have been shelved by subsequent generations of architects. Yet some of these devices might well be recovered in the contemporary quest to create more housing in dense metropolitan areas.

Knowlton Court, in Washington Heights: Broadway between 159th Street and West 158th Street, shown when new, in 1907 (top), and today (below). Source: NYPL Digital Archive (modified), and Google Street View.

Similar to interior courtyards, externally-oriented adaptations of the same principle were widely employed by architects of the period. Rather than being enclosed by four structural walls, exterior courtyards are generally open to the street, resulting in a building whose façade is visually separated into two or more arms. The deep setback created by this design might be furnished with landscaped gardens, paths, lamp posts, benches, and patio tables. Like the interior courtyard, the open courtyard allows a larger percentage of the building lot to be covered by extending the length of exterior walls, and providing the necessary geometry to gain greater access to light and air. Unlike the interior courtyard, it is generally less private, and it may or may not be gated from the street. A good example of two buildings whose design employs this device to maximize ground coverage can be found in Washington Heights, in a pair called the Knowlton Court. Occupying the entire east side of Broadway between West 158th and West 159th Streets, these buildings were constructed between 1907 and 1908. Together, they have four exterior courtyards, with two facing Broadway and one facing each of the cross streets. At seven stories, the Knowlton Court buildings provide at least 244 bedrooms on a parcel that measures 200 by 125 feet, or enough space to house about 300 people.

Yards, Alleys, and Airshafts

While courtyards offer a balance of function and form, providing both practical and aesthetic benefits to buildings in urban settings, their function alone can frequently be achieved on a smaller scale with more utilitarian applications of the same basic concept. Simple paved or unpaved yards, bounding alleyways, and airshafts can be designed into large apartment buildings to maximize lot coverage and provide at least a modicum of air and light to a large number of off-street rooms.

The Saxonia, at the corner of Broadway and West 136th Street in Hamilton Heights, Harlem, shown as a new building in 1907. Source: NYPL Digital Archive

A good example of the judicious application of such devices can still be found at the Saxonia, in Harlem. Designed by the architects of Neville & Bagge, the building opened in 1907 at the northwest corner of Broadway and West 136th Street, in an enclave known as Hamilton Heights. A six-story, elevator building with extensive ground floor retail space, the Saxonia capitalized on its proximity to the new City College campus, which also opened in 1907, and to the simultaneously-constructed IRT subway station at the corner of Broadway and West 137th  Street. With a façade that wraps around its block face on both streets, the retail spaces are arranged to open on Broadway, while the building’s residential lobby is entered through a vestibule on the cross street. Neville achieved internal space efficiency through a variety of devices, including both interior and exterior courtyards, an oversized airshaft (providing air and light to a number of the tenants’ bathrooms), and a narrow setback from each of the interior property lines to create bounding alleyways, which are faced with windows and fire escapes. In this way, despite being situated on a lot that measures only 100 by 100 feet, or the equivalent of just four row houses, the architects were able to provide for at least 100 bedrooms on the upper five floors, as well as seven retail stores and a superintendent’s apartment on the ground level.

Similarly, in west Midtown, the architects of the Summersby Apartments achieved an even greater efficiency with just a 50-foot lot. Their seven-story building, located on West 56th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, opened in 1910. Its façade is attached to those on either side, creating the aesthetic of a continuous streetscape, but the building edges are stepped in at a depth of 20 feet, to create a pair of narrow bounding alleys that run to the back of the structure. There, these spaces are connected by a small, paved yard that adjoins the similar yards of adjacent buildings. The crevasses of light and air thus provided are used as facings for the placement of windows and exterior fire escapes, and they allow for an astonishing eighty percent of the Summersby’s lot width to be covered with livable floor space. As a result, space enough for at least 68 bedrooms is provided in just seven stories on the land that would be required for just two standard row houses. Admittedly, the actual light and air enjoyed by many rooms under such a design is minimal. But the building’s description in the Album indicates that, even in 1910, there was a market for apartments that traded aesthetics for access to Midtown:

The Summersby is a splendidly built, fireproof apartment house, with elevator service and telephone in each apartment. The highest degree of efficiency is demanded of the superintendent and uniformed hallboys. Tenants are selected with great care, and each apartment has the advantages of a private house.

Surprisingly, in light of today’s Manhattan land costs, the building was designed to have just two large apartments on each floor. Clearly, in the alternative, a number of smaller units could be carved out of the same space to provide more housing at lower price points to smaller households.

The Legacy of Late Victorian Urban Design

The approaches applied by the architects of the buildings described above are not especially unique. Instead, they are examples of routine design elements employed in the kinds of typical, middle-class and upscale apartment houses that were built in New York City around the turn of the twentieth century. For better and for worse, these devices were applied in thousands of buildings to achieve a higher density of residential space on limited parcels of land. Late Victorian urban design employed a much greater intricacy in its building devices than the majority of today’s apartment buildings. Many of these devices continue to haunt the collective consciousness that Americans have of old city buildings: long, echoing hallways, precarious fire escapes, dim alleys, and dark, paved yards. The hard times that fell on many urban neighborhoods in the late-twentieth century further colored the perception of these devices, as their inherent creation of mystery, density, and intricacy seemed terribly ill-suited for a world of crime, poverty, pervasive danger, and neglected maintenance. Yet, some of the period’s classic devices, like landscaped courtyards, grand lobbies, sunken living rooms, high ceilings, and transom windows are remembered much more fondly, and are still admired for the aesthetic grace that they add to the older buildings—almost to the point of obscuring their practical purposes. Yet, all of this complexity, both good and bad, was built with a small toolbox of simple, geometrical adaptations that allowed for the very efficient use of limited land.

In the years after World War II, as the patchwork of postwar America developed from the application of traditional Euclidean zoning, much of the resourceful wisdom and intricate variety of urban America began to unravel under a legal regime whose mandatory, broad brushstrokes pushed builders, architects, and even small-scale private landowners in entirely new directions. As New Urbanist writers like Duany have frequently observed, post-war land development was largely removed from the historical, practical, and aesthetic contexts of traditional approaches to town planning, and the consequences of this fundamental shift can be perceived in the strip malls, garden apartments, stunted design quality, wasted land, car dependence, and distorted housing that now characterize much of the American landscape. But, in spite of this, the conventional wisdom at the heart of land-use zoning retains a broad and powerful appeal: Most people recognize that the authority that has been delegated to local governments, pursuant to Euclid, has allowed many communities to protect themselves and the economic value of their properties from the predictable externalities of nuisances, eyesores, crowding, and incompatible uses, each of which has the potential to blight the landscape in a nearly permanent way.

While the potential value of land use zoning is evident, it is interesting to consider whether some of the architectural devices that were employed in New York City before its advent might be recovered and applied to address today’s planning challenges across the United States. A recovery of certain design elements from that time would hold the promise of influencing a wider recovery of land-use efficiency in metropolitan housing. This would be broadly consistent with the sustainable goals of economic development, ecological stewardship, and social equity, for many of the reasons discussed above. As we revise the calcifying approaches to Euclidian zoning, and seek to increase housing stocks without destroying the complex fabric of existing neighborhoods, we should look to the intricacy of New York City’s late-Victorian approach to apartment building. We might find it contains a number of valuable secrets, hidden in plain view.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series.

Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack

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A Proper Lament for Fading Mid-Century Suburbia

Sunset Motel, Branchburg, NJ / Addison Del Mastro

When I visit my old home in New Jersey, I usually drive down a semi-rural stretch of U.S. Route 202. It used to be totally rural. I pass the Sunset Pancake House, boarded up for as long as I can remember, and the living anachronism next door, the Sunset Motel, its antique neon sign still lit and a station wagon or two parked out front.

There used to be two other motels along the same route: one was replaced by a shiny Holiday Inn Express; the other was torn down but never replaced, and only the signpost remains.

Along U.S. Route 22, closer in to New York City, there’s a mediocre hibachi joint that replaced the somewhat famous “Leaning Tower of Pizza” restaurant. And my favorite theme park as a child, Bowcraft Playland of Scotch Plains, is slated to be razed and turned into another hulking apartment block with a pastel facade and fake balcony railings.

Mid-century buildings, and their futures, inspire a variety of opinions, to say the least. The historic preservation scholar Howard Mansfield wrote, in his book The Bones of the Earth, of the Americana that still lines Route 22: “On days when you thought the Republic was rotted to its sills, these buildings stepped forward as exhibits….They were ugly; they were a dead end.”

Others are more sanguine about the future of aging American sprawl. In a fascinating master’s thesis titled “The Death and Life of Great American Strip Malls,” architecture student Matthew Manning suggests that strip malls and other popular roadside architecture are indeed of historical value and deserve to be treated seriously by preservationists. Nonetheless, preservationism usually loses when it comes suburban Americana, as it does in almost every sphere.

Perhaps such buildings were ugly, and few have aged well. There is something ironic about reading serenity and simplicity into them, when at least some 1950s New Jerseyans surely railed against bulldozing more farmland and covering it over with another gaudy neon-signed motel. Why is the motel more worthy of nostalgia than the farmland?

And yet even artifacts like this, having survived so long, deserve entry into the club. They are not just old buildings; they are little pieces of a way of life that has been superseded, but should not be forgotten. It seems silly, but it might also be valuable, to meditate on how a family of five or six and their dog could fit happily into a motel room smaller than an average New York City apartment. Old buildings can teach us humility.

The debate over historic preservation is ultimately more than one of aesthetics; it is one of cultural memory and even morality. It might be a sin to tear down a building, and sometimes demolition is truly cultural vandalism. Yet other than demolition and replacement, what realistic option is there for much of our built infrastructure? Sunset Motel is no Chartres Cathedral or colonial Jamestown, and it only appears unique because it is one of the last of its kind. We cannot force owners to keep languishing businesses open in perpetuity, nor can we turn every postwar motel and restaurant into a living museum. It is more the idea of such places which inspires nostalgia, not the buildings as they really exist. In all likelihood, Sunset Motel is not a time capsule of the Dick Van Dyke era, but a dingy hovel adorned with faded wallpaper and smelling of stale tobacco smoke.

Our society has developed mourning rituals for people—we have not developed them for buildings, or more broadly for fading artifacts of culture. There is something disconcerting about finding our built landscape unceremoniously transformed, often without warning. We are largely past the point where replacing one building with another confers any real benefit but satisfying the fickle interests of developers. The futurist Alvin Toffler wrote—in the 70s!—that only in America could a shopper, upon walking down the wrong street, conclude that the store had simply been torn down overnight.

Perhaps we need a “wake” and a “funeral” when it comes time for demolition. A day or two before the bulldozers come, the old building could be opened up for viewing, and the owner could take a few hours to do a final tour of his business. Pictures could be taken, memories could be shared. Some small consideration for the patrons and the community of which the business was a part could be shown.

No clear line can be drawn between the demolition of aging Americana and our existential loneliness and rootlessness that lead to distinctively American phenomena like angry talk radio and even mass shootings. Demolition is not murder. Yet if American life is sometimes water torture, the ever-changing roadside landscape, and the unceremonious ripping away of little pieces of our communities and their histories, is surely one more drop.

Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.

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Don’t Blame Lack of Zoning Laws for Houston Floods

AMFPhotography /

The rain in Houston has barely stopped and the flood waters have yet to fully recede, but already a narrative has been created in the media, led by ProPublica, but with a lot of people and publications playing follow the leader, that blame the severity of Harvey’s impact on the region squarely on the city’s lack of zoning codes.

Unfortunately, it’s nonsense.

First things first: Hurricane Harvey dumped a record amount of rain on Houston. According to the Los Angeles Times, the region received more rain in a few days than they normally get in a year. One of the meteorologists the Times interviewed said that it was over a trillion gallons of water and that the amount was unprecedented for the continental United States.

According to NOAA, only a handful of cities get more rain in a year than Harvey brought to Houston. No one could have planned for this devastation because no one ever anticipated it being a possibility. No storm drainage system in the country is built to handle that much rainfall in that little time.

As far as Houston’s lack of zoning goes, it’s a myth. Stephen Smith pointed out nine years ago that Houston’s lack of normal land-use zoning has not prevented the city government from mandating minimum-parking requirements, setbacks, minimum lot sizes and all the other thousand ills that flesh is heir to. More than that, the main difference in the built environment of Houston and other cities that have experienced the bulk of their growth in the automobile era (one is tempted to write Anthropocene) is that infill development is much easier.

Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Jacksonville, and Tulsa all have downtowns with modern glass towers, acres of surface parking, subdivision after subdivision of single family detached residential on a hierarchy of streets feeding into a network of freeways.

Publications like ProPublica, Quartz, and Newsweek also have argued that zoning would have required developers to leave more of any given lot’s area as unpaved, preserving the wetlands and prairie that absorb water. But as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns pointed out, the wetlands that were filled could have accommodated 0.02 to 0.1 percent of the rain Harvey brought.

Another fact that ProPublica’s narrative missed: Other cities, in addition to having zoning, have faced extreme flooding events from much less rain than Houston received this month. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, for example, severe flash floods result from as little as two inches of rain in 25 minutes and enormous storm drains have been built under the city to cope. How big are they? Big enough that around 1,000 people live in them. Hurricane Sandy caused major flooding in New York and New Jersey with just seven inches of rain, according to NASA.  

Moreover, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 92 percent of urban flooding takes place outside of designated floodplains, so restricting development within the floodplain is not effective. Flooding in cities around the country may not be as severe as that caused by Harvey, but urban flooding is still a national problem. Between 2007 and 2011, flooding in Cook County, Illinois, caused about $773 million in damage.

The relationship between impervious surface area and flooding seems to be very close, although the CNT found ambiguous evidence on this point. Only 10 of the 23 Cook County zip codes with the most flood insurance claims were also where the most impervious surface was. This is probably because they, like the people blaming building regulations for flooding, have got the short end of the stick: As two-thirds of the surface area in the typical American city is devoted to parking and roadway.

According to Charlie Gardner, around 20 percent of Downtown Houston is surface parking, while another 40 percent is devoted to streets—while in a typical city built before the 19th century, only about 15 percent of land would be devoted to roadway. This huge amount of urban land given over to asphalt dwarfs the amount of space available for housing and parks. Writing at Planetizen, Todd Litman calculates that as much as 4,000 square feet of land per automobile is given over to roadway and parking—that’s a lot of land consuming taxes instead of producing them. For comparison, according to Michael Lewyn, until 1998 the minimum lot size in Houston for a new home was 5,000 square feet. This is important because standard planning practices are based around retaining storm water on site, meaning that buildings need large green space foot prints to absorb water, but if the effect of such regulation is to separate buildings, then they could lead to more driving and hence more asphalt.  

Even then, geography matters: According to economist Phil Magness, some of the worst flooding, in terms of water volume, occurred in the rural areas along the Brazos River.

What lessons can we learn from Harvey? Geography and geology are important to how cities handle severe storms and sea level rise. More importantly, cities do not need historic storms to suffer from flooding and the 60 percent of a city’s surface area devoted to parking and roadway likely exacerbate flooding more than residential or commercial development. Compact, walkable cities of the types advocated by New Urbanists should be better able to deal with urban flooding.

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

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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