New Urbs

A Suburban Mall Dies in a New Deal Paradise

Addison Del Mastro

Greenbelt, Maryland, an early suburb of Washington, D.C. in Prince George’s County, has a more storied history than its appearance would suggest. It was established in 1937 as a planned community under the Roosevelt administration, as one of three “Greenbelt Towns.” The overarching New Deal project never quite panned out, but Greenbelt itself was a success. The original planned community is now surrounded by typical commercial and residential sprawl, but “Old Greenbelt” is still there, sporting a vintage movie theater, a community center, and even a coffee shop called New Deal Cafe. In that surrounding sprawl is Beltway Plaza, an exquisitely well-preserved early 1970s indoor mall. Beltway Plaza is vibrant, thriving, and, if a new development plan reaches completion, about to be torn down.

The mall opened in 1963 as a strip shopping center; the indoor portion was added in 1972 and expanded in 1975, and the building has been renovated and rejiggered many times over the years, though with few updates to its atmosphere. A little piece of trivia: it originally housed the largest suburban department store in the D.C. area.

Though built concurrently with thousands of similar shopping centers, today Beltway Plaza is a rare time capsule of postwar suburbia: the kind of mid-sized, middlebrow indoor mall that barely exists anymore, and has not been newly constructed in decades. Most retail today is housed in strip plazas, larger and more upscale malls like the ones in Tysons Corner, Virginia, or, increasingly, New Urbanist-inspired “town centers” like those in Reston, Virginia and Rockville, Maryland.

The mall’s appearance and decor is even more of a time capsule than its layout. Remarkably, the stores are largely non-chain small businesses, some with completely generic names such as a small hardware shop called…“Hardware.” Instead of Victoria’s Secret, there’s Luv’n Time, complete with mannequins in kitschy plastic alcoves decked out in retro lingerie. Instead of Men’s Wearhouse or Jos. A Bank, there’s Ties Shirts & More. There are carnival-style ice cream kiosks, electro-mechanical rides, and lots and lots of neon. A place like this will never be built again.

Addison Del Mastro

This might sound like a “dying mall,” but it is vibrant and alive, with only a handful of vacancies out of approximately 100 spaces. A retro mall bustling with locally owned small businesses sounds like a community fixture, if not a tourist attraction.

Yet its days are numbered, as a redevelopment plan (the latest of several) has recently moved forward. The building is aging, and having been renovated and altered piecemeal over the years, a full overhaul wouldn’t have been cheap or easy, nor would it make full use of the real estate value of the lot. The mall is also just a stone’s throw away from a large, recently built development called Greenbelt Station, which looks like this.

Addison Del Mastro

These are large, spacious, brand new townhomes, and while some merely house wealthier University of Maryland students rather than homeowners or families, most people living in them will not be buying lingerie at Luv’n Time or knick-knacks at Gift Outlet.

Greenbelt is already one of the more desirable towns inside the Beltway, enjoying lower crime than many others, and very little urban blight. It isn’t exactly gentrifying, but it’s not likely to become cheaper.

The current redevelopment plan, like many similar projects around the D.C. metro area, aims to turn the single-story suburban mall into a mixed use project with housing, office space, and retail. A report from the Urban Land Institute went further, envisioning a transformation of Greenbelt Road—the highway on which Beltway Plaza sits—from a suburban strip to a walkable street. “Greenbelt Road must decide…are you bringing people through you, or to you?”

Addison Del Mastro

One can imagine keeping the mall and transforming the Greenbelt Road corridor, by turning it into a tourist attraction in its own right. New floor tiles and a new coat of paint would brighten the place up considerably. An old neon sign on the nearby Route 1 corridor was just refurbished, and neon is cool again. A lightly refurbished Beltway Plaza would be a lot like a more affordable version of the slick, faux-authentic food halls going up in old warehouses, or the weirdly manicured, movie-set “town centers.” There’s something conservative, in the truest sense, about making do with and appreciating what already exists. Surely a piece of retro architecture built only 26 years after its surrounding municipality was established is a community landmark. It’s even got a community wall of fame.

Addison Del Mastro

On the other hand, whatever replaces Beltway Plaza will be much nicer, and it will also include a lot of housing. With gentrification pushing former D.C. residents into Prince George’s County, that’s a good thing, even if it means losing a neat old building.

Addison Del Mastro

This raises an issue, however, that often goes under the radar: what we might call “commercial gentrification.” Much early suburban retail is now downmarket, worn out, or even derelict. D.C.-adjacent Maryland and even Fairfax County, Virginia are littered with aging strip plazas, full of little hole-in-the-wall places advertising pupusas and Indian groceries on faded signs. But as aesthetically unpleasant as these places can be, they are also a resource. Economist Tyler Cowen has found that some of the best restaurants are junky looking strip mall joints. The Eden Center plaza, in Falls Church, Virginia, went from old strip mall to major Vietnamese-American cultural and culinary center—and tourist attraction.

Some assume the immigrants somehow caused these places to become shabby; the reality is that shabby buildings provide poor immigrants a chance to start a business and make their own living. Urbanist Matt Robare notes in a piece about small local business, “As neighborhoods get more popular and local retailers are successful, the rents start going up until only the chains can afford them.” In an ongoing redevelopment debate in my hometown of Flemington, New Jersey, the answer to existing businesses is essentially to move or pay astronomical new rents. In a few cases of strip mall redevelopment, existing retail tenants are grandfathered into new developments or promised below-market rates. Mostly, they move or close.

Addison Del Mastro

We talk a lot about affordable housing, and far less about affordable commercial and retail space; weighing the costs and benefits of building new housing versus maintaining low-rent retail is going to be a major concern as “suburban retrofit” continues and as more and more aging, low-rent retail sites meet the end of their service life.

Greenbelt, Maryland isn’t exactly Georgetown, and whatever stores are built one day on the Beltway Plaza site probably won’t be Coach, Apple, and Papyrus. But they probably won’t be Hardware or Luv’n Time either. Losing those stores, those business owners, and those cheap retail spaces is a kind of gentrification and displacement, too, and it deserves to be part of the calculation. And so does all of that neon.

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

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Hyperlocal Zoning Can Reset London—and American Politics

Muswell Hill, London

“All politics are local” was former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s favorite political adage, while the old saw that “politics makes strange bedfellows” is an unquestioned cliche, even in these hyper-partisan times. Taking the two together, it’s no surprise that the world of hyperlocal of zoning is a scary and weird mirror universe of America’s national political conversation.

For example, when it comes to housing issues, the Democratic Socialists of America, a group which formed in 2016 to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president (and candidates like him for lower offices), frequently take the side of wealthy homeowners—including conservative Republicans like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists in their support for local control of zoning. Conversely, former President Barack Obama, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson all support efforts to use the federal and state governments to weaken local zoning ordinances.

Preempting local ordinances is controversial for a number of reasons. Many states have strong traditions of local government and so preemption would cost an enormous amount of political capital and be very unpopular. It also recalls the heavy-handed and insensitive methods of urban renewal from a few decades before. The alternatives of continuing to fight proposal by proposal or for upzones in comprehensive plans are slow, risky, exhausting and don’t always result in allowing for more housing.

But now there is another way. Developed in Britain, LondonYIMBY was presented to Americans at the YIMBYTown conference in Roxbury, Mass. by co-founder John Myers. (The movements refer to the “Yes In My Backyard” slogan that opposes anti-development efforts.)

Myers said that in Britain, like the United States, planning regulations break down when there are many homeowners and cities with the most homeownership paradoxically build the least amount of new housing. He added that while renters outnumber homeowners in large cities, the renters who pay market rents and the renters who pay below-market rents have conflicting interests—market renters want lower rents and below-market renters want to keep their advantage.

To make matters worse, Myers said that it was the explicit goal of the British government to increase house prices.

“Is there a solution?” he said. “We think there might be. What’s our long-term goal? What’s our vision?”

Myers said that their goal was a system that benefits all participants, is politically doable, and would produce abundant housing.

Unusually, for a movement that’s often skeptical of local approaches, Myers said that London YIMBY came up with a “hyperlocal” solution inspired by the work of the late Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work analyzing how traditional societies governed the commons. Myers said his London group noticed that where things were left to individual owners, they often wanted to maximize the value of their property and would either sell their property to a developer or build speculatively themselves. But with a lot more people involved in deciding on the rules, the willingness of an individual to build goes down because of the benefit they get from not building. Yet support for building goes up beyond the small-town level where states and countries generally approve more construction.

While reexamining the absolute right of property to develop their property is politically impossible, Myers said that YIMBYs could focus reform on devolving decision making down below the level of the neighborhood and to the level of the street or block.

Myers said this “Better Block” or “Better Street” method took groups of properties facing each other on one street, just from one intersection to the next, and allows them to vote to upzone just their block with a two-thirds majority.

“Hyperlocalism is gradual,” Myers said. “It doesn’t change people’s retirement plans.”

According to a draft YIMBY Handbook London produced, the Better Block program would incentivize homeowners to support upzoning because they would directly benefit from it, but there would still be protections for tenants and dissenters.

“It is politically easier to let very small areas choose to add more housing themselves, over time, so they can make sure that some of the benefits flow to their own communities,” the handbook said.

Myers said that the hyperlocal methods were already popular in London and the handbook noted that similar proposals had been suggested in California and New Zealand.

It’s tempting to be skeptical, thanks to many nights at community forums that were little more than shouting matches, but at the hyperlocal idea is attractive because the people voting are not self-selected the way people at community meetings are. A study by researchers at Boston University recently found that people going to development meetings were older, whiter, wealthier, and more opposed to development than the neighborhoods they supposedly represented. Under the Better Blocks scheme, the people who have a say are well-defined instead of just living nearby.

It will be exciting to see if the idea can be implemented anywhere and see the results. It would be pleasingly ironic if the answer to the problems of local control was more localism and not another round of top-down planning.

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

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

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Why Pittsburgh Is a Planner’s Dream and Nightmare

The legendary urban planners of Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses are well known, in different decades, for New York City projects. Both men built large amounts of parkland and Moses dutifully accented the works of the former with asphalt. But one connection is more unusual: Olmsted’s son and successor, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. authored an urban plan for Pittsburgh in 1910, and Robert Moses provided the first of several transportation plans for cities outside New York starting in 1939.

Each offers an intriguing glimpse into these two very distinct design and planning philosophies, applied to an outlier of one of America’s most vertiginous—and accordingly not-quite-easy-to-plan-for-cities.

Each sound like traffic suggestions: Olmsted Junior’s “Pittsburgh Main Thoroughfares and the Down Town District: Improvements Necessary to Meet the City’s Present and Future Needs; a Report” and Moses’ “Arterial Plan for Pittsburgh.” Neither are just that, although Moses’ is not unsurprisingly closer. Several of their road building ideas were implemented in some form. It’s no surprise whose plan aged better, and remains full of ideas that would be a benefit even today.

Pittsburgh has proved recurrently a planner’s dream and nightmare, with its growth circumscribed by dramatic terrain, with river valleys occupied by massive factories, slopes teeming with hasty worker housing and slightly more distant locations housing the better-off. The results were frequently excellent but sometimes simply jumbled and sclerotic. The city was given to intermittent waves of efforts to clean up its cluttered affairs, many the partial starts of a functioning drunk—ashamed of his chaotic appearance but unable to shake it entirely.

Pittsburgh, which doesn’t feature any of the work of Olmsted Senior (if it features other manifestations of City Beautiful-like thinking) exerted a sure attraction for his son, in part because it seemed a considerable challenge. As he wrote, “No city of equal size in America, or perhaps in the world, is compelled to adapt its growth to such a difficult complication of high ridges, deep valleys, and precipitous slopes, as Pittsburgh.” As Edward K. Muller and John F. Bauman wrote in “Before Renaissance: Planning in Pittsburgh, 1889-1943”, of the era’s efforts, “What better city than Pittsburgh, the archetypal befouled industrial metropolis, to show off planning’s wares?” Pittsburgh seems to have intrigued Olmstead, an enthusiasm that radiates throughout the report, “Throughout the city and its surroundings the one pre-eminent quality of an agreeable sort is the bold picturesqueness of the landscape — the deep ravines, the lofty hills, the precipitous declivities..”

Olmsted had a team of experts at work for a year researching the report, and he himself visited often, an amount of time evident in the voluminous document that they produced. It contains many prosaic suggestions of strict interest to civic engineers but impressionistic and ambitious improvement schemes as well.

Its eighty (!) proposed road improvements are exhaustive, many of which concern minor widening or grade changes; these principally concern roads connecting portions of the city already settled. The city’s ad hoc growth frequently resulted in dense portions of the city connected by two-lane roads and the exigencies of its topography frequently entailed that the city couldn’t benefit from the traffic dispersal merits of grid networks due to frequent chokepoints. One ambitious exception to this proposal was “some high-level bridge and tunnel scheme” through Mount Washington to the city’s south, which became the Liberty Bridge and Tunnel. This plan is encouraged, as are many suggestions throughout the report, not with examples from other American cities, most of which did not resemble Pittsburgh much at all, but from a wide range of European cities featuring difficult geography, in this case with bridges and roads from Stuttgart, Budapest, and Lausanne.

Two improvements concern linking the city’s downtown to its burgeoning East End. The sides of the hills that rise just beyond Downtown Pittsburgh were the solution. One road, Grant Boulevard (present-day Bigelow Boulevard) already ran along the northern edge of these heights, topographically separated from both the city beneath and above. Given this ideal circumstance for a parkway he proposed accentuation with “tree-shaded promenades or overlook terraces” and the reclamation of hillsides above “from their present status as free dumping grounds and barren wastes.” Some improvements were made—and then largely undone in subsequent decades.

He recommended a similar solution for the southern edge of these heights, a “Monongahela Hillside Thoroughfare” which later came into being as the Boulevard of the Allies, another avenue that shows occasional signs of aspirations to a parkway pedigree but whose reality remains a good deal more unlettered. He proposed parkways that eventually Negley Run Boulevard, Allegheny Run Boulevard, and the current Saw Mill Run Parkway, although the foliage along them is more often by accident is design.

The hillsides that line these routes (and nearly everything else in Pittsburgh) are a focus of frequent and inventive interest in Olmsted’s report. With development most often occurring elsewhere, steeper slopes often served then (and now) as either trash heaps or collections of nuisance buildings “frequently abandoned or subject to landslides.” He counseled either the improvement of these lands or that “the City ought to step in and assume the burden of maintaining the land in a decent and attractive condition, converting it from a public nuisance into a park asset of positive value to the public.”

Some of the locations that he criticized, such as the South Side Slopes, eventually became densely and interestingly settled, many others remain underutilized today, often featuring a few scattered homes or uses and frequently abandoned dwellings, decayed teeth along what could be pastoral slopes. One of his more promising suggestions was efforts to standardize building lines along hillside streets, and to concentrate development on only one side of these streets, retaining opposite slopes for park terraces (illustrated appealingly again with photos of streets in Geneva and terraced gardens in Bern).

His recommendations for the reclamation of the Mount Washington hillside, that it “should be preserved intact for all time as a monumental example of the Pittsburgh landscape” were at least fairly largely realized.

No Olmsted plan would be complete without parks: Pittsburgh had already established a respectable number of urban parks but many other locations were neglected. He proposed a park along a small creek, Nine Mile Run, which was only achieved in the mid-1990s. Several other park ideas remain on the drawing table.

He is critical of the steel town’s inferior bridges: “It is a case of the cobbler’s children going barefoot: when a man sells shoes at wholesale in every quarter of the globe, it is time for his own family to be well shod… Bridge-builders everywhere should be enabled to think of Pittsburgh not merely as a source of cheap raw material for bridges, but as all all-round leader in the bridge-building art.” This was one deficiency reasonably well addressed later.

Olmsted sketched out a concept for a new civic center on overlooked land adjoining the city’s monumental H.H. Richardson Allegheny County Courthouse. He suggested decking over a rail line in the process “and that a great public square with gardens be laid out thereon somewhat after the manner of the celebrated public gardens built over the railroad at Princes Street, Edinburgh, or, in a smaller way at Park Avenue, New York.” Civic buildings rise on the slope above (roughly around where the city’s PPG Paints Arena stands) with comparisons to the Cathedral Terrace at Bern and a hillside in Budapest. Unfortunately, the core of this area is now occupied by a Moses-proposed highway.

Muller and Bauman note that Olmsted Jr’s plan, while well-received in many quarters, had one significant and maximally influential detractor: Joseph G. Armstrong, who was director of the city’s Department of Public Works in 1910 and after being fired from that post was elected mayor in 1914. He proceeded to denude the Department of City Planning of Staff and disregard the Olmsted report, if elements of its solutions continued to shape city construction projects through the 1910s and 20s.

Twenty-nine years later, the city obtained a new plan from the most famous planner of its era. The tragedy is that this far less nuanced plan was not just considerably implemented, it was radically outstripped.

The start of this story actually dates to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where Moses was impressed by the Heinz corporate exhibit. Howard Heinz returned the favor with compliments about Moses’ highway planning work and asked if he might produce a plan for Pittsburgh. Moses demurred for some time but eventually replied to Heinz that “The family exchequer is low, and for that reason I have had to consider ways of adding to it.” Heinz proceeded to raise funds from Pittsburgh corporate grandees.

The Moses plan is actually more modest than one might expect: his own highway building had not quite reached stages of megalomania in New York in 1939 and his “parkways” were still generally lined with actual trees. He also not unreasonably observed that the infrastructure requirements of Pittsburgh were considerably slighter than New York’s given their discrepancy in size. His remedies still naturally involved more and larger roads, neighborhood demolition, and the scrapping of the city’s trolley system, all delivered in familiar imperial tones.

Early on he references his august predecessor:

In 1910 Frederick Law Olmsted made a plan for Pittsburgh which was a remarkably fine piece of work in its day and generation. It appeared at just about the beginning of the automobile age, and as one might expect there are assumptions in his report which appear absurd today when we face problems which Mr Olmsted could not conceivably have anticipated.

Moses does not detail the absurdities of Olmsted’s plan. He doesn’t pretend to much novel insight however. “We have discovered little that is new.”

He does make rapid early and accurate comparison of Pittsburgh’s downtown to the financial district of Manhattan:

A glance at the two maps will show astonishing similarities. In both cases a tremendous number of people converge every morning except Sunday into the business district in the two triangles and depart every evening for their homes across the rivers or elsewhere in the suburbs. The topography of the two places is, of course, entirely different. Here the analogy ends and the Pittsburgh problem become specifically difficult. The hills added to the rivers make the Pittsburgh problem unique.

Moses made some very sound suggestions, such as criticizing the huge amount of space occupied by underused railroad facilities in Downtown Pittsburgh. He unfortunately drew no distinction between the utility of unused rail yards and that of grand rail terminals however, encouraging the destruction of a Beaux-Arts station designed by Theodore Link, who also built St. Louis’ Union Terminal, and Frank Furness’ B&O terminal, “The B&O railroad station…. is an eyesore and a reproach to the city, and since its usefulness is nearly over there should be comparatively little trouble in getting rid of it.” Lamentably, that was the case.

It’s interesting, appearing as the report did amidst the very year that Moses was obstreperously encouraging the Brooklyn Battery bridge project (over the alternative tunnel eventually constructed) that he flatly rejected any proposal for a replacement of two older bridges converging at the Point:

It is useless to bemoan the bad planning which brought these bridges together at this point or to adopt the fantastic suggestions that they be torn down and reconstructed elsewhere. They are there to stay at least so far as several coming generation of Pittsburghers are concerned.

As even the most casual viewer of photos of Pittsburgh can see, these bridges were removed and replaced with expressway bridges not long after.

As for what to do with the Point otherwise, he encouraged the sort of wholesale demolition that constituted the area’s subsequent redevelopment: “The traffic at the apex of the Triangle should be unsnarled by a complete reconstruction of the Point so as to eliminate obtrusive, unnecessary and obsolete structures including the disgraceful old Exposition buildings.” He proposes that much of this land be occupied by a park, which ultimately it was, although the footprint of his proposed changes were considerably smaller than the eventual Point State Park and Gateway Center complex.

Moses then turns economical again, dismissing the idea of a new road tunnel through Mt. Washington (which would happen in the form of the Fort Pitt highway tunnel) proposing instead the conversion of the former Wabash railroad tunnel and bridge to automobile use and improvement of its connection to existing roads at each end, and the boring of another tunnel parallel to this in the event of increased need. This tunnel was eventually converted to HOV use in 2004.

The highways Moses does advocate came about, “We recommend that a genuine Parkway, to known as Pitt Parkway, be built from the William Penn Highway, east of Wilkinsburg, across the Lincoln highway, through Nine Mile Run.” This route, running to the bridges at the point, is but one part of the girdle of roads that chokes Pittsburgh off from waterfront access, if in fairness even Moses imagined more of a buffer of trees and greenery than was eventually constructed.

Pittsburgh parkway traffic in 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

The most classically destructive Moses scheme in this plan is for a “Crosstown Thoroughfare” which was part of a much more comprehensive leveling of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill. “Incidentally, this will take out a slum district which is no credit to Pittsburgh and which has a depressing effect on available surrounding property.” Where Olmstead proposed a grand civic center Moses suggested only connecting highways: which is exactly what happened, and has resulted in a road that the city is currently seeking to cover in part with a park.

Some were surprised at the timidity of Moses’ recommendations; The city’s postwar reconstruction efforts followed the spirit of his ambitious New York projects rather than the more modest letter of his recommendations. Both the Parkway (current I- 376) and the Crosstown Boulevard (current I-579) were constructed at greater length than Moses had suggested. The broader demolition of the Hill District and many other examples of Pittsburgh self-destruction were entirely its own idea.

The story of urban planning in the 20th century is unfortunately often that of planners wielding maximum influence when their ideas were worst, sadly again the case in Pittsburgh. Olmsted produced an excellent plan combining attention to traffic, parks, civic structures, and city beautification drawing upon a voluminous number of discerning European examples implemented only in fragments: 29 years later Robert Moses produced a more rudimentary traffic plan oriented principally around his experiences in New York whose main elements were built. The ironical and unfortunate result was that the holistic advice of an excellent physician was ultimately disregarded while a fad diet was considerably exceeded. The one encouragement is that Olmsted’s ideas are still out there, and of benefit at any moment.

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.


When Did Gentrification Become A Dirty Word?

About five years ago, the term “gentrification” began popping up more and more in the media. At one time, that term referred to the natural and cyclical nature of cities—meaning that neighborhoods go in and out of fashion as people move around. No real blame as to why, or how or who goes where. Or as we used to say, “some places get hot, others not.”

The new way of thinking is that neighborhoods shift strictly along racial and economic lines. Gentrification is the accepted term for that now.  

A few months ago in Cleveland, I asked Alan Mallach about this urban planning conundrum that has growing in recent years. Mallach is a progressive, longtime, respected urban planning expert and a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a non-profit which describes itself as “dedicated to building a future in which vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties no longer exist.”

“Gentrification has become a term that no one knows what it really means any more,” he said. He then referred me to his recent new book, The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, a powerful look at the current state of the urban environment.

“I’m not sure why this is so,” Mallach writes, “but [the term gentrification] represents a worrisome disconnect between the reality of our cities and the rhetoric flossing from them…Gentrification is widely seen as something that’s being done by someone to someplace or somebody. In an increasingly tribal world, young white people with money, and the members of the gentrification-industrial complex working behind the scenes, are Them—a visible enemy on which to unload one’s frustration and anger.”

Mallach’s book explains the complexity of urban planning —downtown high-rises and who lives in them, neighborhood lifespans, how people are always moving, retail trends and earning power fluctuations—in ways that are clearly explained. And to him, gentrification is not really a part of that. But the media and some urban citizens’ rights advocates are using gentrification as a one-size-fits-all explanation everything that’s wrong in changing American cities today.

East Palo Alto, California, Mayor Ruben Abrica recently said gentrification resulting from the settlement of high-tech companies in a city means the residents there “are living in a semi-feudal society.” Meanwhile, a Boston radio show asked listeners to share their gentrification experiences, which they described as a “super isolation and anxiety producing issue.” A play opening up in Chicago this month called “Rightlynd” describes its plot thusly: “A powerful real estate conglomerate is planning a massive development project that would gentrify the neighborhood … forever.”

Some of the bigger cities in the U.S.—New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and a few others —have seen some of their neighborhoods go upscale over time, while others have descended into further poverty.

But it’s not just more dog-walkers and vegan bakeries that dictate the change. It’s more about the overall changes in the economy—from manufacturing jobs to computer programming employment, wage disparities, education levels, less state and federal programs in cities—that drive the changes, and not the favoring of one ethnic group or another.

So in most urban areas, yoga classes and trendy restaurants are the result, not the cause. As Mallach writes in his book, “in the midst of growth and increasing prosperity, the ranks of the poor and near-poor are often growing, rather than shrinking.” 

Jason Segedy, the director of planning and urban development in Akron, Ohio, sees the conundrum very clearly. Akron has lost population over the past few decades, and the city is trying to stop people from moving out of the central city to the suburbs.

“There is no doubt that the word ‘gentrification’ has created tension and confusion,” Segedy says. “What underlies some of the concerns is the frustration about economic inequality. But I would argue in this part of the country, [inequality] is about the differences between the suburbs and the inner cities, not one city neighborhood against another.

“Stepping back, if the only concern is that wealthy people might be living near lower income people, then I would point out, that in many ways, isn’t that a socially desirable thing we all want?” he continues. “Developers are building $400,000 houses all the time in the suburbs and getting some public funding for doing so, and people don’t have a problem with that. But to build those same houses in the city means wealthy people living near poor people and that automatically leads to displacement?”

What Segedy and many other urban planners are referring to is that housing is market driven, and if cities are looking to get middle-income buyers to move back into the central city in places like Akron, they can’t do it with more cheap apartments and public housing. Poor neighborhoods need higher-end housing investment (which helps spur renovation of older housing), and not more of the lower-end market.As Segedy wrote in Strong Towns, “Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, not Gentrification Worries”:

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

There are ten cities in the U.S with a population of 1 million or more, but there are 90 cities with a population 221,000 or more. Problems of urban displacement and economic disparity and neighborhoods being in the “hot” and “not” cycle might be happening in those big cities because, unfortunately, that has always happened in those places. But “gentrification,” meaning rich people taking over poor neighborhoods en masse is not exactly happening in those 90 other smaller cities.

A cursory look at the media coverage suggests that the scourge of gentrification is not only happening, but everywhere. In Portland, Maine, and in Portland, Oregon. Brownsville, Texas, and the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Las Vegas has a gentrification problem, too.  Add Traverse City, Michigan; Bentonville, Arkansas; Austin, Texas, and Jacksonville Florida to that list.

Then there is Detroit. A popular tee-shirt there commands, “Don’t Brooklyn My Detroit.” That might be code for “keep your gentrifiers out of here.” But in a city that has gone from 1.8 million in population to 673,000 in 2017 —and with an unusually high concentration of poverty —is not a good place to disparage outside investment.

The experts know that Detroit’s gentrification claims make little sense. The Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube writes, “It’s hard to imagine that [Detroit] will do better over time without more high-income individuals.” Noted urban economist Joe Cortright wrote, “Detroit’s problem is not inequality, it’s poverty…The city has a relatively high degree of equality at a very low level of income.”

And Mallach wrote this in the Detroit News in August:  “This is the context of gentrification in Detroit. If we think of gentrification as affluent people moving in, supplanting a lower-income population and pushing up sales prices and rents, there are few areas in Detroit where that’s happening … There is no upside, though, to neighborhood decline, the bleeding of family wealth, the deterioration in housing conditions and quality of life, and the loss of the middle class, all of which are afflicting far more of Detroit than is likely to be gentrified in the foreseeable future.”      

Peter Moskowitz had the opposite view in his own book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood: “Gentrification in much of Detroit seems to have skipped the beginning phase with the artsy folks, the laid back coffee shops, and the activists and instead jumped straight from broke dystopian metropolis to yuppified playground.”

Juliana Maantay, professor urban environmental geography at City University of New York and author of Brownfields to Greenfields: Environmental Justice Versus Environmental Gentrification, falls into that camp and says government is supposed to safeguard against policies that may hurt people. But “government is going all in and saying ‘rah rah rah’ about any new project…some don’t see that as being lifting up the city, but penalizing the people who were already there. That’s where the ‘gentrification’ issue comes into play.”

Maantay is right about that to an extent, and her credentials in urban planning circles are impeccable. But the notion about what “gentrification” has come to mean—a dirty word—is perhaps a symbol of social media gone wild.

The media is adding fuel to the fire by covering urban equality issues in smaller town America as if it were the same as Brooklyn. The New York public radio station, WNYC, asked it this way: “Does This Avocado Toast Come with a Side of Gentrification?”

Interestingly the anti-gentrification crowd can’t find one political group to blame for their urban displeasure. One tweet I found says, “Gentrification is a racist practice that Democrats use to trap blacks in poverty.” Another says, “What the Republican call trickle-down economics is really updraft economics. It’s called gentrification.”

Then again, some say all this is about vegan cheese and fro-yo and juicing. Rose wine in malt liquor bottles. Neighborhoods where you can almost smell the pesto and the privilege.

But maybe making fun of it allows us to make sense of it all. Boston artist Tory Bullock has come up with “The Gentrification Game,” where the players roll the dice and move forward or backward, depending on the color you get. A neighbor or bystander calls the police on you for looking suspicious or playing music loudly.

In the NPR story about Bullock’s game, one of the players said she thought the game was “rigged.” Another player called the Gentrification Game and its changing rules a “metaphor for America.”

I like the artistic interpretation of all this. Things being rigged as a metaphor for America. Maybe it is rigged. But against some of us or all of us?

Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio. He tweets at @danmcgraw1



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A NYC Tenement Legacy Persists, Despite Gentrification

New York’s Lower East Side, past and present. (Wikimedia Commons/Theo Mackey Pollack)

When Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives in 1890, New York City’s Lower East Side was the epicenter of American tenement life.

At one point, almost three hundred thousand people were packed into a square mile—a frightful and unprecedented urban density. Lack of sanitation contributed to frequent cholera epidemics. Poverty fed the growth of gangs. An endless stream of people, arriving from Europe, kept wages dismally low, and the resultant crowding kept rents extremely high. Newcomers had little clout to improve their lot. Victorian New York had a social hierarchy, and the Lower East Side was near its lowest rank.

The most extreme conditions that Riis describes have been eliminated in the 13 decades since his work was published. Stronger building codes, better infrastructure, and more than a century of urban planning efforts have combined to substantially raise the baseline of housing conditions in New York City. Poverty, of course, still exists. But many of the worst buildings have been torn down or repurposed for use at healthier densities. More than a century of additional growth has also pushed today’s epicenters of poverty to more distant geographic margins.

Today, the Lower East Side retains certain badges of its impoverished past. It remains, barely, a working-class neighborhood. A dwindling stock of low-rent apartments has been sheltered from market forces for decades by rent regulations. Twentieth century housing projects hug the dark banks of the East River. Families here hold onto apartments from generation to generation. Many of the old tenements that once instantiated the worst conditions remain standing and occupied in this complex, haunting neighborhood.

Tenements still line Henry Street on New York’s Lower East Side. (Theo Mackey Pollack)

A scattering of mom-and-pop businesses has also survived. Disproportionately, these are shops with storied histories that bring tourists and mail-order trade. Russ and Daughters, which still does a nice business in caviar and smoked salmon, retains the look and feel of a century ago. Yonah Schimmel’s, founded the same year Riis’s book was published, does the same with knishes. Wo Hop, near Chatham Square, could be a cousin of the restaurant in Edward Hopper’s 1929 Chop Suey. But the neighborhood’s changing character is reaching a tipping point. Newcomers have brought soaring values. Real estate agencies are side-by-side with wholesale fabric stores. Neighborhood conditions reflect many walks of life, but vacancies are mostly limited to those with means.

To read Riis in 2018 is to travel in time. The 1890 neighborhood is long gone. But if one walks through the blocks he describes today, memories of his time can be found everywhere. Mott Street remains the heart of Chinatown—a community that has now grown to encompass many of the areas once occupied by European immigrants. Gotham Court, one of Riis’s worst examples of tenement blight, is long gone; but in its place stands an aging housing project that Riis’s reporting helped bring about. Orchard Street still has its fabric stores. The Eldridge Street Synagogue is now a cozy museum—but still has an active congregation.

Stairwell in the restored Eldridge Street Synagogue, 2017. (Theo Mackey Pollack)

Unlike the tidy, geometrical streets that characterize Manhattan’s well-known gridiron, the world that Riis describes had grown up around the winding lanes and dark alleys of Lower Manhattan—an aging colonial seaport that had been transformed, through waves of change, into a cacophony of bricks and concrete. These streets have names, not numbers. They once had houses with yards, which were gradually replaced by tenements. The pattern of blocks is the product of haphazard subdivision, the platting of farms into neighborhoods, as the vagaries of history would have it. These patterns represent the growth of New York City before it was rationalized. In many ways, they reflect a more traditional, European approach to urbanism.

As one of the first writers to experiment with photojournalism, Riis combines striking pictures with his narrative, in language that varied from matter-of-fact descriptions of human nature to sensational accounts of filth and depravity. A native of Denmark, Riis struggled with poverty as an immigrant in New York City and throughout the Rust Belt for years before finding success as a writer—an experience that infuses his work with a rare degree of personal understanding. Here, with a photograph, is Riis’s description of the infamous Mulberry Street Bend: a salient example of what had gone wrong with urban development in America during the late Victorian period:

Around “the Bend” cluster the bulk of the tenements that are stamped as altogether bad, even by the optimists of the Health Department. Incessant raids cannot keep down the crowds that make them their home. In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share such shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination rifled from the dumps and ash-barrels of the city.

Mulberry Bend, New York, circa 1890. (public domain/wikimedia commons)

Intertwined with dysfunctional urbanism is what Riis sees as a more extensive pattern of jading experiences that twist the values of the individuals they shape. Customs, he seems to argue, are formed not only by adherence to long traditions, but also by how people react, through trial and error, to immediate circumstances. Riis describes this nexus with foreboding, but also with humor. In a chapter shadily titled, “The Harvest of Tares,” he describes an encounter that led to a series of photographs of members of a notorious street gang:

They were not old and wary enough to be shy of the photographer, whose acquaintance they usually first make in handcuffs and the grip of a policeman; or their vanity overcame their caution. It is entirely in keeping with the tough’s character that he should love of all things to pose before a photographer, and the ambition is usually the stronger the more repulsive the tough. These were of that sort, and accepted the offer with great readiness, dragging into their group a disreputable-looking sheep that roamed about with them (the slaughter-houses were close at hand) as one of the band. The homeliest ruffian of the lot, who insisted on being taken with the growler to his “mug,” took the opportunity to pour what was left in it down his throat and this caused a brief unpleasantness, but otherwise the performance was a success. While I was getting the camera ready, I threw out a vague suggestion of cigarette-pictures, and it took root at once. Nothing would do then but that I must take the boldest spirits of the company “in character.” (180-182)

The Mongomery Guards (A Growler Gang) by Jacob Riis, Preus Museum.

Riis’s descriptions of his subjects are generally humane, but his casual recitations of ethnic and religious stereotypes would be too offensive to pass muster with a reputable publisher today. And yet, there is something clarifying about seeing such notions put down in black and white. One sees in Riis’s half-baked racial theories how certain stereotypes were frankly presented before doing so became taboo, and one even hears echoes of Herodotus and Aristotle in his attempts to discern an entire people’s character from its historical geography. The reader is reminded how conventional wisdom is a moving target; how writers, even well-meaning ones, ought to keep this in mind.

The most significant aspect of Riis’s work, though, is not its depiction of the forms of industrial urbanism, per se, nor its dated prejudices, nor even its occasional dark humor. Its salient contribution is a stark documentation of the uncivilized living conditions that had taken hold in New York City during this outwardly prim and fastidious era. In every wave of rapid change, customs and laws lag the cutting edge of transformation. But few times have manifested the inadequacy of traditional norms to address what was new more dramatically than the late 19th century.

Jacob Riis, “Organized charity – family making artificial flowers,” (New York, 1890) (Library of Congress)

Common-law doctrines that had evolved over centuries in agrarian societies were unable to temper the unprecedented poverty, pollution, and density of the industrial age. The consequences were not only (or even primarily) aesthetic, but human. In a society that saw itself as being both scientific and Christian, growing numbers of citizens were daily reduced to contending with the filth and chaos that modern industry had spawned. The benefits of Western knowledge and mores did not accrue to the urban poor.

Riis’s pictures and descriptions of squalid living conditions in one of the world’s wealthiest cities are his most powerful legacy; and perhaps the absence of the worst of those conditions in today’s Lower East Side is partly his legacy, as well. His depictions helped force New Yorkers and other Americans to acknowledge the chronic failures of industrial urbanism, and to begin to look for solutions from all angles. Radicals, reformists, and conservatives all had ideas: the point was to focus attention.

“Five Cents a Spot,” showing an illegal housing arrangement in a Bayard Street tenement. (1889) (public domain)

Today, one can see tangible improvements, made over 13 decades, on the streets of the Lower East Side. Gone are the extreme crowding, the admixture of absolute poverty and industrial pollution, the lack of basic sanitation. Over the last two decades, the neighborhood has grown stable enough that people with means have zeroed in on its convenience and curiosities and have begun the familiar process of transforming it into a destination of choice, for those who have choices.

Yet one must also acknowledge that the changes to the Lower East Side are largely a result of the world’s economic geography. Today’s industrial urbanism is not found in the narrow Victorian streets of Lower Manhattan, but in far-flung sprawling neighborhoods where no spotlight is focused, where undocumented immigrants work “off the books” and property-less Americans hustle in Amazon warehouses. Even more, it exists in the faraway cities of Asia and Latin America. If there is an abiding message in Riis’s work, it is to look closely where the smart crowd refuses to look. That is where one will find the contradictions between a society’s ideals and its priorities.

Eldridge Street, today. (Theo Mackey Pollack)

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at

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If a Tree Falls in a Bedroom Community, Does It Make a Sound?

Recently, on a day when I was working from home, I ran to the supermarket for a couple of things. My local grocery store happens to be next to a Five Guys, and because it was before lunchtime—around 11 a.m. or so—I saw the employees unlocking and opening up the restaurant. Stopping and watching for a moment, I realized I’d almost never seen that before. It’s easy to think of visiting places like this almost like turning on a video game—pop in the disc, and it plays. Drive to the strip mall, and the stores are just there. Shopping on a different schedule revealed a normally invisible pattern.

Once, while in college, I walked to my favorite local strip mall—the one with the best Chinese takeout—after all the stores had closed. It was a strange and almost indescribable feeling to see the line of shops that are usually lit up and bustling completely quiet and empty. If the traffic from the local highway let up for a minute, you could easily imagine that you were in some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was one of those things that seemed like it could teach a lesson, though as a college student I didn’t really know what that lesson was.

As I’ve studied urbanism, I’ve figured it out: I had seen a vivid illustration of how inflexible and unadaptable this kind of suburban development is. You could walk down the main street of my college town at any time of day or night and come across at least a handful of people. There were a couple of bars, a supermarket open until midnight, and, of course, apartments above the shops and adjacent to them. The town collectively did not have a single, timebound use, and its streets and sidewalks were public spaces. That gave it a character and liveliness that the nearby suburban development lacked. You can talk all day about the merits of density and mixed-use development, but walking through a strip mall and a main street in the middle of the night and observing the difference might be the strongest argument yet.

In order to make this comparison, which is visible only or primarily at night, you need to get out at unusual times. If you’re like most Americans, living and working in different places and not enjoying much true leisure time, you’ve only ever seen your town or your place during a handful of times of day. Gracy Olmstead has written beautifully on how walking allows us to see the places we live and travel through from a different perspective—to appreciate a level of detail that is simply impossible to notice when zooming by in an automobile. But if experiencing your place through different modes of transportation can reveal insights, so can seeing your place at different times. It’s the only way to fully experience what it is.

“Reston at 5 p.m.” (my town and my usual time) is different from “Reston at 10 p.m.” Everybody knows this on some level: we try to avoid the dark, crime, long lines, or whatever it may be by being in places at appropriate times. But we may not have a full sense of what those other place-times are. When I was in Italy last month, we often ended up walking home late at night. There were some seedy characters about, but there was also a vibrant late-night street life that felt very different from the crowds of power walking or selfie taking tourists during the day. Or try going into a restaurant at 2 or 3 p.m.—having the whole place to yourself is an entirely different experience than being served in a packed house. When you think of times as places, there’s a lot more to see.

You may see different people and kinds of people too. My local supermarket is crawling with young, well-dressed professionals in the early evening. It would be easy to think they constituted more or less the whole population of Reston. But when I go shopping during the day, I see families—homeschoolers?—as well as some more eccentric and probably poorer people (I see more of them late at night). You might see someone using cash and counting out coins. Or you might see seniors and retirees out for some leisurely exercise. I had to go to Northern Virginia’s Fair Oaks Mall once for a DMV visit, as the DMV is inside the mall. The DMV and one or two stores open before the official mall opening time, so a few doors are unlocked early. It turns out the mall was full of mostly older people who used this as an opportunity to get some quiet, indoor activity. If I had not visited the mall at an odd hour, this would never have even occurred to me.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if you run into the poor folks or retirees. But for those who care about putting down roots in a place, it’s a way to know more fully what that place is. It’s also possible that local and municipal politics could be shaped for the better if everyone had a sense of what the entire community actually looked like. We should probably not be too heavily involved in local decisions that could affect people we do not know exist.

If a tree falls in a bedroom community when everyone is at work, does it make a sound? It’s a good exercise to try and figure that out.

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

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Trader Joe’s: Good Food and Good Urbanism

If you follow my writing, you know that I don’t like a lot of things. That list, not exhaustively, includes the DMV, tiny hotel rooms, most modern movies, suburbia, and even brunch. A friend of mine recently remarked that I was like the modern Andy Rooney. (I’m not sure what surprised me more—that he knows who Andy Rooney was or that he reads my columns.)

I do like eating, though, and shopping for food. Northern Virginia is actually a great place for that. You can get classic Virginia foods like biscuits and country ham, but you can also find Italian delis, Ethiopian and Salvadoran groceries, large Chinese and Korean supermarkets—really almost any cuisine you want. There are also a bunch of Wegmans and Trader Joe’s locations, both of which are excellent places to shop and the latter of which I’m especially fond of.

But first, urbanism. Two things stand out about Trader Joe’s. The first is the relatively small building; the second is the infamous and equally small parking lot (this doesn’t apply, of course, to strip mall locations, though quite a few Trader Joe’s are freestanding buildings).

The stores, despite their compact sizes, are stuffed to the gills, which remedies one of the biggest problems with suburbia: the inefficient and unnecessary use of land. Earlier this year, I noted a shopping plaza in Northern Virginia that had one of the largest and emptiest parking lots I’d ever seen. This is actually required by zoning in most places; while the minimums vary from municipality to municipality, there are generally ordinances mandating X number of parking spaces for Y square feet of retail space.

So far, so good. For popular businesses, or on peak shopping days like Black Friday and the weekend or two before Christmas, that parking can come in handy. But for most of the year, much of it is empty. Heck, even at peak times a lot of it remains empty. That the minimums are already excessive is compounded by the fact that they don’t take into account vacancies, many of which end up being essentially permanent. (Who’s really going to take over every last Toys “R” Us or, now, Sears storefront? Years after their bankruptcies, it’s still possible to find vacant A&P or Pathmark buildings in New Jersey.) All the dying malls and plazas, and even those muddling along with one missing anchor or a bunch of empty small shops, are saddled with considerably more parking than they need. The environment suffers from a lack of greenery and permeable surfaces for flood control. And, it goes without saying, cracked, pockmarked asphalt doesn’t do much for aesthetics (though you can turn the lots into staging grounds for festivals).

What this has to do with Trader Joe’s is that by keeping things compact and not building more than the minimum parking, a Trader Joe’s location takes up about the same land as a CVS while providing at least as much utility as a Safeway, all with lower prices and environmental impacts. (The smaller real estate footprint produces savings for consumers.) This is actually something of a throwback—the first fully modern supermarkets, built in the early post-war years, were roughly the size of today’s drug stores. If you do some sleuthing with retail hobbyists and urban explorers, you’ll even find that a lot of modern drug stores actually inhabit former supermarket buildings.

Then there’s the distinctive Trader Joe’s motif: the bells, the Hawaiian shirts, the Frequent Flyer circular, the cheeky product names. The Flyer in particular is a treat to read, unlike almost any other piece of advertising or merchandising you can think of.

A page from a Frequent Flyer; it looks nothing like a supermarket circular. Addison Del Mastro

The whole shopping experience evokes a neighborhood or family-owned grocery crossed with a slightly touristy country farm store. It’s one of the only companies I can think of that has a consistent, distinctive aesthetic in both its products and physical stores, at least in the food business (Apple certainly qualifies, as does Dyson and probably Nintendo). If you stripped away the logos, displays, and store-brand products, you’d be hard-pressed to differentiate a Giant from a Safeway from a Martin’s from an Albertson’s from an Acme. You can’t mistake Trader Joe’s for anything else, and that’s probably a big part of their success.

And, of course, the food. The food items are quirky and very brand-specific. They’re not just generic copies of national brands, like most private labels and almost everything at Aldi, America’s other small-format, discount supermarket. Instead of 20 minutely different versions of everything, presenting an agonizing “paradox of choice,” there’s a wide array of distinct items. And, perhaps most delightful of all, they’re heavily seasonal. Like McDonald’s with its famous McRib, Trader Joe’s carries lots of limited products, for fall or the holidays or Easter or summer. The sample counter—there’s a sample counter in every store serving different products every day, all day—plays up the featured and seasonal items too. October might have hot or cold apple cider, Thanksgiving time might feature a turkey-stuffed puff pastry (one of my favorites), and major holidays might feature various dips or hors d’oeuvres.

There are a non-trivial number of local products in most stores (though it can be hard to tell which ones), and while many of the private label products are made by national manufacturers, a large share are unique and made by small contract manufacturers. You’re at least doing a little bit to help small businesses and break up the monotony of national mass manufacturing and merchandising.

My opinion, though, doesn’t mean much to the economy. If it did, we’d still have LaserDiscs and cathode ray tube televisions. But I’m not alone: Trader Joe’s consistently ranks among the most popular grocery chains in America.

All of this makes shopping at Trader Joe’s an activity, not just a chore. If you can’t go to the farmer’s market and your standard supermarket ignores the seasons and stocks harvest vegetables year-round and watermelons in winter, Trader Joe’s is the closest you can get to a livelier and more traditional kind of shopping. It’s a little taste of how—if we had to have it at all—the jungle of highways, parking lots, strip malls, and tilt-up big box stores that comprise so much of America could have been a little more pleasant if retailers had thought more about design and customer satisfaction. Trader Joe’s isn’t a charity or a park. It’s a business, and that makes it all the more remarkable.

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

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The Methodist Paradise on the Jersey Shore

Orange Grove, New Jersey, on the sea. Credit: John Sanphillippo

Here’s the ubiquitous American landscape with a dash of central New Jersey local color. It’s not the rain and dark skies that make it look so bleak. No amount of sunshine can brighten this much asphalt, synthetic stucco, and vinyl siding.

There’s no point in complaining about any of it. It exists and will continue to do so for the duration. Shrug.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

But pass through these columns and you enter a little Victorian era town trapped in amber that reminds us that we used to build better places. Ocean Grove was established as a Methodist revival summer camp in 1869. In the aftermath of the Civil War, people were hungry for faith, fellowship, and order. The (then) remote seashore location offered fresh air, tranquility, and escape from the smokestacks, heat, congestion, and disease of industrial cities like New York and Philadelphia.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

The street grid was measured out and small lots were leased with 99-year terms to members of the church. The town began with tents pitched on simple wooden platforms. There were 200 tents for every solid home in the early years. Religious services were held in larger tents and tabernacles. One hundred and fourteen tents still remain in use after a century and a half and are inhabited from May to September each year.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

Over time, cabins were added to the back of each tent to provide sanitary facilities and kitchenettes. At the end of the season, the tents are folded away inside the cabins. Because the people who choose to live here are all self-selecting members of the same community with common sensibilities, the tent city is remarkably safe, clean, and well maintained. People come to Ocean Grove to be together. That’s the whole point of the town.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

The first iteration of church building was the natural landscape itself along the beach. The current pavilion is inscribed with Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

Credit: John Sanphillippo

It’s important to recognize that the most valuable real estate in Ocean Grove is not built upon or commercialized—unlike nearly every other inch of privatized beachfront property up and down the Jersey shore. Nature was revered, celebrated, and preserved as part of God’s creation. The boardwalk is a gift to the public maintained at some expense by the Methodist community, but you’ll find no amusement rides, cotton candy, tourist trinkets, or pay-per-view beach passes. Only free musical events sponsored by the Methodist community are on offer. The lack of privatized commercial activity has a powerful effect on property values and desirability (as well as what might be called social equity or social justice) 10 blocks away from the water. Since everyone in town has physical access to the waterfront the value isn’t concentrated in a handful of expensive homes. It’s distributed throughout the entire community.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

Open air pavilions were gradually supplemented with more substantial church buildings meant for seasonal use. In pre-air conditioning days, the buildings were self-ventilating with high ceilings, cupolas, and large doors and windows around the periphery as seen here at Bishop Jane’s Tabernacle.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

With 6,250 seats, the granddaddy Methodist church in Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium built in 1894. It was the fourth iteration of the same basic building as each successive version was larger and more substantial than its predecessor. Remember, this church began as a tent. Notice the high ceilings, upper windows, and cupolas for natural passive ventilation like Bishop Jane’s Tabernacle.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

Also notice the huge barn-style doors along the side walls that keep the church open to sea breezes during services but secure the building when closed. The iron framework that made a building of this size practical and affordable—it was built in just 90 days—was a product of the same heavy industry that made a remote meeting camp site so desirable. That’s always the irony of new technology. It solves one set of problems while creating others.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

Again, the generous use of public park space connects the Great Auditorium to the beach pavilion in a way that elevates the spirit, contributes to a better environment for everyone in town, and coincidentally makes properties more loved and valuable. As with many other places (Central Park in New York for example) the most prestigious buildings are clustered along the public parks. That land could have been carved up into private back gardens, but the sense of community would have been compromised. This development style intensionally prioritizes shared interaction rather than insularity.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

The quiet side streets of town are a study in incremental urbanism. These modest lots originally held tents. The tents were upgraded to cabins. The cabins were replaced by proper homes. The dirt roads, shared water wells, and outhouses were incrementally replaced by paved roads, sidewalks, and town services. First many small private investments were made, then collective funds were pooled to install more complex infrastructure with cash on hand. This is in contrast to current practice when all infrastructure is supplied up front and paid for with enormous amounts of debt.

This one group of homes speaks to the organic nature of growth in Ocean Grove. A tiny cottage remains next to an unassuming two-story house on one side, with a significantly larger three-story building on the other side. This is a snapshot of how the town evolved over decades. We don’t see this type of development anymore. Instead, entire subdivisions and master planned communities are built instantaneously and then prevented from changing in any way.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

Ocean Grove has plenty of commercial activity along its Main Street (Main Avenue actually) and demonstrates that if the surrounding town is compact and walkable the need for parking is greatly reduced. So is the need for super wide streets or special bicycle infrastructure. Most people can and do walk or bike to the hardware store, dentist, grocery store, ice cream parlor, restaurants, and post office. It’s not that people here don’t have cars or don’t buy things elsewhere. They simply have the choice of walking and participating in a more local economy. Notice how many buildings have a mix of commercial and residential uses. This flexibility allows the town to bend and adapt easily as the economy and culture shift over time. Yes, Ocean Grove has a tourist element, but it’s first and foremost a town for residents that happens to have a broad popular appeal that coincidentally attracts outside visitors.

Credit: John Sanphillippo

Like nearly all older towns in America, Ocean Grove endured a period of decline from the early 1960s to the 1990s. The Methodist community preserved the town when most other places razed their historic buildings and urban fabric in a rush to install parking lots and Jiffy Lubes. In opposition to the overwhelming trends of the time, Ocean Grove made it illegal to drive or park within the town limits on Sundays, although that practice is no longer in effect. One of the reasons the town stayed intact and was able to be rediscovered and reinvested in by a new generation was the presence of a religious community that had a higher calling and a longer event horizon than the dominant secular culture. There are lessons to be learned here by people who may not identify with the church.

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.

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Why Can’t I Afford to Live Here?

Housing has become expensive all over, at least if you want to be near a source of employment.

In some coastal areas, the cost of housing is ridiculous. Case in point: people in New York City will pay $1,800 for 98 square feet in a building where there is access to a kitchen, but otherwise just a room and bathroom, basically the size of a walk-in closet.

In other areas—like the rust belt Midwest and Great Lakes areas where the job opportunities are slimmer, there is shrinkage—more houses than takers. The same is true in Pittsburgh, which underwent a massive transformation from its industrial heyday, which after going into a long decline is now getting its footing back as an “eds and meds” corridor. But that’s attracting young graduates; not so much the middle class families that fled long ago. The result: 650,000 existing structures and only 350,000 people, according to 2008 numbers.

In these specific urban realities, the problem becomes getting rid of the glut of available dwellings—not to mention the aging infrastructure—which, if you include the fire and police and other services that maintain them all year after year, has become a burden on the taxpayers.

But in places where real estate markets are exploding, affordability is the critical issue. Prohibitive prices make it more difficult for people to move to places they prefer and harder for employers to find service workers and all the people who keep the high-priced urban areas humming.

Even in the Great Depression, it was possible to have enough square footage to house a family, often a multi-generational family, unless you were of course living in the Dust Bowl, which impacted America’s Southern Plains region. People who were lucky enough to own houses during this time took in boarders, and construction, if you had any money, was cheap.

For years it was possible to find housing that matched one’s income. The usual markers were size, age of the house or apartment, and location. “Drive till you qualify” became the watchword in the 1960s for folks who worked in the city and were looking for middle-class, suburban life. It is still is a reality, though the distances have become longer and the commutes more expensive. It began to change in the 1980s, with a brief setback with the crash of 1987.

The Recession of 2008 saw the first real deflation of the real estate market since 1929. But this time the recovery of new construction was slow and began in the high-end market. There was no real incentive to build lower- and middle-end housing as long as a developer could get a fast and good return on a McMansion.

In metro areas experiencing a resurgence of economic growth, the lack of housing for middle and lower income families is a stark reality. Seniors and soon-to-be retired folks on fixed incomes are also struggling to find affordable places to live. Add the younger people just starting out, trying to establish a household. Even the requirements for renting are daunting. First month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a month’s damage deposit can be quite a bit when the average apartment is close to $2000.

The government has moved into this issue, usually in a state-by-state way. Generally there’s been a move to limit affordable units to those with “qualifying” income. In other words, it’s not available if you have a decent income and simply want to live well within your means.

In Massachusetts, and with variations in other states in the Northeast, the basis for affordable housing programs is based on 80 percent of median income. So if the median area income (AMI) in the greater Boston area (according to most recent numbers) is $107,800, a family of four with an income of $81,100 or less would qualify for affordable housing. The state goal is for every town to have at least 10 percent affordable housing, but most fall short, even when the law incentivizes it. As an inducement, developers of new projects are allowed to bypass town zoning laws if a) 25 percent of the proposed units are designated affordable, and b) the town currently has less than 10 percent affordability. This is certainly incentivizing because many townships in Massachusetts have restrictive zoning with low density or relatively large lot size requirements. The state also offers tax incentives to developers who pursue new construction or significant upgrades to existing buildings, of which at least 80 percent of units are “market rate” or affordable housing.

Trailers, or mobile homes, can’t be counted as a town’s affordable housing stock under current Massachusetts law. It doesn’t matter because in many towns in Massachusetts, trailer parks are zoned out because they are considered blight.

But in reality, trailers are market rate, affordable housing. The “trailer trash” stereotype might prevail in New England but it doesn’t in retirement areas in the southwest and Florida. Giving the trailer or mobile home a social facelift lies in designing better parks and the dwellings themselves. Some of the units designed in response to the hurricane Katrina disaster were a first step in using the cost efficiency of manufactured housing to bring in a kind of small, affordable housing in that could be used as an infill, as a small development along the lines of a pocket neighborhood, or even a larger development.

The popular Pocket Neighborhood style—small houses grouped together to provide a sense of community—can make very efficient use of land and appeals to people who want to be close to others, in a neighborhood. There is a real need for zoning to respond to this. I think there is a path for a new urbanist solution for this kind of layout.

But the real problem with the affordable housing today is the selection process for who gets it. I recently saw a 23-page application for a affordable housing rental. Anyone who is self-employed will find that gross income, not net income is counted. For example, in the application, it states that someone with a bicycle repair business who might buy parts, a bicycle chain, even a bike at wholesale to be sold at retail, must count the gross income with no deduction for expenses or parts.

The rental form concludes with the information that for a single person renting an apartment, the maximum income allowed is $54,000, but it also points out that the minimum you must make to qualify for the rent (about $1600 a month) is $50,000. All the applicants must be entered into a lottery and this whole process (except the lottery) must be repeated every year. But if your income changes, if your marital status changes, you may be forced to move.

There is a move among New Urbanists to look also at what codes do to force real costs of development up. Close study of all the complex state and federal restrictions shows that one of the cheapest forms of housing to develop is a four-unit, wood frame walk-up apartment. Without an elevator, and small enough, this two- or three-story building can meet Federal Fair Housing, ADA, and the International Building Code and still be efficient to develop and rent.

The cost impacts of going bigger, like adding elevators, or more expensive construction, is worth understanding if you want to build something that is rentable at a rate than can amortize a mortgage and still be affordable. This kind of building can also be added into all sorts of small infill sites. The logical developers of this kind of housing are small scale developers who can hold the properties and build a portfolio of buildings, maybe costing $500,000 to $1million to build, but bringing lasting value to a neighborhood and a way for small scale developers to build wealth.

Essentially this is downsizing the idea of development—incremental small development. This can also include mixed use, and live-work—apartments above the stores solutions.

This also brings back the traditional patterns of neighborhoods and small towns. What stops this from happening, this more naturally occurring affordability, is a combination of zoning, rigidity of existing regulations on affordability, and the complexity of the financing programs. Efforts on all of these fronts would go a long way towards easing the affordability problems in our growing metro-urban centers.

Sara Hines is an architect, developer, author and urbanist based in Massachusetts. She is currently working on a 40B affordable housing project. [email protected]

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No, Edward Hopper Did Not Hate the City

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper, 1942. (Public domain)

Few artists have captured the essence of America’s industrial urbanism with the precision of Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

His images depict an intricate landscape shaped by factories and railroads, and by the collision of traditional European forms with the novelty of American, electric-lit night. His human subjects manifest a pervasive sense of alienation among individuals of a unique time and place. And for these reasons, the haunting nature of much of his urban imagery has led some to interpret Hopper’s work as being biased against cities, themselves. But this is not quite right.

In a 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism,” Tom Slater, now a scholar at the University of Edinburgh, made the case. He argued that much of Hopper’s imagery carries forward a deep American tradition of anti-urban sentiment, which “began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson. [It] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.”

Such a strain certainly exists in American thought. Well before Hopper’s time, the prevailing transatlantic Romanticism of the mid-19th century converged with reactions to the excess of industry and the uniquely American frontier ethos. Together, these threads helped forge a lasting American identity that saw salvation as always being over the next horizon. In this optimistic view, cities (especially large, eastern industrial ones) were places to be escaped. Rather than representing the boundless promise of America, the old coastal cities represented a kind of domestic version of the very European confines many Americans had meant to leave behind: crowding, competition, class, tribalism, and other factors that circumscribed individual lives. As recently at the late 20th century, back-to-the-land movements of both the left and right represented the continuing life of this idea. 

Yet while Hopper was himself a small-town native (hailing from the boat-building village of Nyack, in New York State’s then-rural Hudson Valley), and was also the product of a traditional religious upbringing, he would find success and choose to live out his life in New York City—the most antithetical of American places. Like most settlements along the eastern seaboard, New York City was built out from the urban forms of European colonial ports, giving its region a typical eastern bias toward settlement values—as opposed to frontier ones—in the late 19th century. But unlike the other great East Coast metropolises, New York City also teemed with an endless stream of immigrants from the Old World whose lives layered the customs of contemporary Europe into a density that exceeded even the greatest cities of the continent.

“Kaaterskill Clove” by Asher Brown Durand, 1864, an example of Hudson River School Romanticism. (Public domain)

Thus, Hopper’s adopted home represented a striking counterpoint to the vast frontier that animated the American imagination. Quite unlike the Lake Poets, or even the painters of the Hudson River School (who had adopted Hopper’s native region a generation earlier), Hopper’s life also contrasted with the ideals of transatlantic Romanticism. An urban artist who focused on the richness and intricacies of human settlement, his subject matter was notably different from that of the traditional Romantic who saw nature as a source of spiritual renewal; a counterpoint to a corrupting and inherently political human world. But this is not to say that Hopper was unmoved by the negative qualities of industrial life — only that it did not, precisely, turn him against cities.

Of the artist’s immediate living environment, Slater wrote:

[He] lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale-yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence. 

If Slater is right, then it seems notable that by the late Victorian period, when Hopper was growing up, some of the once-countercultural touchstones of early 19th-century Romanticism—especially, the idea “that humans should be in harmony with nature” —had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way the countercultural values of the 1960s have today been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising. Yet these notions, while perhaps still viable in certain agrarian settings, had been pushed to the margins of the industrial world in which more and more of Hopper’s American contemporaries made their lives. Indeed, the Victorian landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted made a career of providing America’s city-dwellers with beautiful substitutes for the Romanticist’s connection to nature.

Hopper’s urban landscapes depict the unique product of a 19th-century collision between the traditional building-block forms of European urbanism and the gargantuan upscaling that was forced upon Western cities by the explosion of heavy industry —especially railroads —and the long mass migrations that took place from the country to cities (including, in America, migrations from the Old World to the New). Shaped in the period before modern zoning, the Victorian cities that lasted into Hopper’s era were dense and harsh, with a cacophony of activities and lifestyles layered atop one another. Yet, even in their chaos and discordance, these cities, in their late Victorian heyday, expressed the iconic forms of a world still infused with the cultural symbols and classical proportions of Europe’s pre-industrial past.

So, while some see Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, there are reasons one might hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. Most significantly, his city scenes are empathetic. Though sometimes dark and anomic, his richly layered settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. His New York is essentially a neon-lit update to what remained an essentially Victorian city. The extant landscape is a form to be reckoned with, not invented. And while his inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic – they are not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their poignance, is not to malign the city. It is simply to be an honest reporter.

Edward Hopper’s New York, a 2005 curation by Avis Berman, collects the disproportionate number of the artist’s images that are set in the city. In doing so, Berman’s text focuses on the personality of Hopper’s adopted city, and its role as the setting of so many of his works. And we see that Hopper had unique criticisms of New York City, in contrast to cities writ large. Discussing the content of some of Hopper’s letters from his early career, Berman writes:

Hopper harps on [the insight] that in New York and its environs, the grim business of living, particularly the grinding impact of commercialism, blinkers people and encases them within themselves…. His understanding that New York was essentially a commercial city in which everyone was bent on business, confirmed by his unhappy [early] years as an illustrator, makes itself felt in his art via the state of relations he portrays among men and women. Materialistic pressures harden people, and they become estranged or indifferent to survive them. Hopper probed this Darwinian theme at its most literal in Office at Night (1940; citation omitted) and Conference at Night (1949; citation omitted), which show white-collar workers in impersonal, drably furnished offices. (Berman, 37)

“Office at Night” by Edward Hopper, 1940.(Public domain)

It is hard not to concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s moral and spiritual skepticism—if that’s what it is—about many of the circumstances he observed and depicted in New York City. More than most urban settings, this city embodied in Hopper’s time an unusual combination of the failings of both industrial cities and raw capitalism. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were nevertheless driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced, in New York and other centers of industry and trade.

The heyday of industrial urbanism produced a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is a point that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers alike observed in the 19th century in response to the so-called march of progress. Though often dismissed in its time as mere sentimentality or temperamental conservatism, skepticism of rapid change has proven to be an abiding theme of the modern world.  To acknowledge the paradox of industrial modernity—its riches and conveniences, but also its expedience and nihilism—is hardly the hallmark of an anti-urban mind. Examined in all its context, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry and constant disruption by economic forces that pervaded even the oldest and most settled of American cities during his lifetime. These conditions persisted well into the 20th century and were the driving impulse behind both the advent of zoning laws and post-World War II middle-class flight to suburbia.

The rapid change that waves of industry and their attendant migrations imposed on those in their path had a particularly devastating impact on those individuals and traditions that required – and had come to expect, from the patterns of preindustrial life— a high degree of stability and patience to thrive. Neighborhoods shaped by generations of careful refinement, such as those described by Camillo Sitte in The Art of Building Cities, were one of the phenomena that suffered most immediately from the speed and scale of industrial change.

“Railroad House” by Edward Hopper, 1925. (Public domain)

Perhaps this is the real tragedy of the industrial age—not the disruption that one could readily see, but the haunting sense of lives and traditions that could have been lived more fulfillingly, and more sincerely, in another setting; plans that were cut short by the stupid, unchallengeable power of sudden disruption. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, or included in Berman’s collection, House by the Railroad is one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Without words, Hopper gives voice to this reason for pause. Notably, though it contains many of the sad themes that have been associated with Hopper’s city images, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw. The dark force in Hopper’s imagery is not urbanism. It is the disruptive march of industry.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at

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