This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The switch in development pattern the United States experienced after World War II—one where major cities lost population while a new series of auto-oriented suburbs sprung up on their periphery—is often referred to as “white flight”.
When this term is used to describe the results of those decades, it broadly makes sense. But I’ve always been confused when people use the term as a description of motive. As stated: white people did not want to live near non-white people, thus, white flight occurred. I don’t think it’s that simple. Or that reductive.
That’s not to suggest that race, and racism, wasn’t a motive—or even a large motive—for why settlement patterns shifted. The practice of redlining, policies of blight control and urban renewal, suburban housing subsidies only available to white Americans…. these are just three of the public policy realities with racist underpinnings that shaped our post-war development pattern.
It’s just that, if I were to reduce things to a single personal motive, it wouldn’t be racism. It would be rational economic decision-making.
Let’s pretend for a moment that there are no races—just follow me, I’m going somewhere with this—and that everyone living in the United States in 1945 was racially indistinguishable from each other. Would we still have had people move to auto-oriented suburbs? Of course we would, and those people that moved would have been the ones in the best economic position. The people left behind would have been the most disadvantaged, those without the option to move.
That’s because moving to the suburbs in the 1950’s was, individually, a rational economic thing to do. It was horrible public policy, and in the real world, it certainly had racist underpinnings. But for an individual or a family whose home is losing value, when another home on the outskirts of town—one that just happens to be newer, more spacious, and served by better schools—is gaining value, it’s very logical to make that move given the opportunity.
Nearly all of us would make that move, even if we are committed to an egalitarian public policy. Some wouldn’t, just like some send their kids to a poor-performing public school when they can afford a private education simply because they believe in public schools. And we can honor those people. But that doesn’t change the reality that most wouldn’t stay. Race may be an accelerator, but there is an underlying human condition other than racism that is a more basic, logical explanation.
Last week, I heard someone suggest that the people living in the poorest neighborhood in my town of Brainerd, Minnesota have no “pride of place.” This was said by way of explanation for why homeowners in this neighborhood allow their places to fall into disrepair. Supposedly, their motive is that they don’t care. I’ve heard this before and I find it to be a poor explanation.
A home in the poor part of Brainerd could cost as little as $60,000. Let’s say you are poor, but you’re able to get into that home. However humble, it’s shelter. It serves its core purpose.
That being said, it’s in a neighborhood of similarly priced homes. And unlike homes in other parts of the community, it’s not appreciating in value. In fact, it’s dropping slightly each year. You’re building equity because you’re making payments, but the house is not a great investment.
Why would such a person — regardless of their race or the racial makeup of the neighborhood—put thousands into new exterior paint? Or a new roof? Or to shore up the cracked foundation? Those are not very good investments, because if you can’t sell the house, that money is likely to never be recouped.
Now step back a little further and take into account that, in most of our poorest neighborhoods, the public sector is neglecting their responsibilities as well. The streets have more potholes, the parks have more weeds, and the sidewalks have more cracks and gaps than the ones in our affluent neighborhoods. The signal being sent is that decline is going to continue, regardless of what the property owners do.
Some people in these neighborhoods do take care of their homes to the best of their ability, often in the spare time they have between their second and third job. They mow the lawn and keep things picked up. Nobody in this neighborhood, however, is building huge additions or making expensive upgrades.
That’s not because they don’t have pride of ownership. Maybe some don’t, but we don’t have to assume that motive as an explanation. A more logical motive—and one that is more straightforward and universal—is that the people in this neighborhood are not dumb. No savvy person is going to invest what little wealth they have into something that is going to lose them money. The people there are making a smart decision, and suggesting otherwise sounds rather ignorant.
Let’s deeply discuss policy implications, but let’s stop assuming the motives of individuals, especially when there are other, perfectly rational, universal explanations for why someone would do something we don’t agree with.
Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by Planetizen. In October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.
Lloyd Alter’s recent piece, “The Issue for Boomers Won’t Be ‘Aging in Place,’” raised some important points about transportation, urban design, and getting old in America.
The choice between no longer driving and losing one’s personal freedom, or continuing to drive and risking one’s own life and the lives of others, isn’t a new one. The vast majority of older people have been living in the suburbs for decades now, and the mobility challenges for car-dependent older adults have been with us for decades.
What is unique about today’s moment, however, is the sheer number of Baby Boomers who will be getting old at the same time, the degree to which society is now auto-dependent (after decades of suburban sprawl), and the likelihood (based on what we’ve observed about their response to aging, thus far) that Boomers will be even less likely than previous generations to relinquish their keys.
Our overdependence on cars is a well-established fact. The speed at which American society adopted the automobile is arguably the most significant and disruptive technological change in modern history. Here are some data on motor vehicle registrations from Robert Gordon’s masterful The Rise and Fall of American Growth:
Motor Vehicle Registrations per 100 U.S. Households
In just four decades, the United States went from a country where no one owned an automobile to one in which there was nearly one motor vehicle per household. Today, there are two motor vehicles per household.
The widespread adoption of the automobile completely remade the face of the North American continent, and drastically changed the way that our cities and towns are designed and built, as well as the way that we navigate urban places and experience public life.
Although this change to an auto-dominated society is commonly viewed as happening after World War II, the reality is that we began reorienting our cities and neighborhoods around the automobile far earlier than that. Even as early as 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression, there was already close to one automobile for every American household. The genie was out of the bottle, and our places would never be the same again.
The rapid adoption of the automobile is a great object lesson in the unintended consequences of technological change. A machine that promised (and has delivered) one type of freedom, has also limited our freedom in other ways.
As Aldous Huxley said of science and technology, “[It] takes away with one hand even more than what it so profusely gives with the other.”
Yes, the automobile has helped us cover long distances more effectively, but it has also made us travel long distances for basic goods that we didn’t always have to. It has saddled us with significant social, economic, and environmental costs: air pollution, hundreds of billions of dollars in annual infrastructure costs, trillions of dollars in annual car-related household expenditures, tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of injuries each year.
And, yes, it has put older people who cannot drive, or should not drive, in a precarious position.
When cars were first introduced, no one had to buy one if they didn’t want one. Now that we have reordered our entire society around them, outside of a very small number of cities, the use of an automobile is really no longer an option.
Motor vehicles have changed our urban form to the point where very few people live within walking distance of their job, shopping, or other everyday activities. And for those who do, the walk to that place is likely to be unpleasant and unsafe, due to the way that cars have altered the design of our streets and neighborhoods.
We should think long and hard about the fact that, within several decades, we reordered our entire society, our built environment, and our way of life to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.
The unintended consequences of our overdependence on automobiles have fallen heavily upon the elderly. Even as their ability to drive safely declines, older people have a powerful incentive to hold on to their cars. The vast majority of older adults live in neighborhoods where giving up their car means that they will become prisoners in their own home. People keep driving, even when they shouldn’t, for understandable social and psychological reasons.
Unfortunately, public transit isn’t any easy answer. Most older people live in suburban areas with poor (or non-existent) public transportation services, and, contrary to popular belief, older people are actually the wealthiest age group in the United States. Public transit usage has a strong inverse correlation with income, so even in places where public transit exists, older people are less likely to use it. According to APTA, only seven percent of public transit passengers are age 65 or older, while 15 percent of all Americans are 65 or older.
Autonomous vehicles have been suggested as a viable alternative for getting older adults to where they need to go. Don’t hold your breath. People underestimate the level of technological sophistication that will be needed to operate one. They underestimate the importance of having a human being present who can assist an older person at the beginning and end of the trip. Most importantly, they underestimate the pace at which the technology will be developed and implemented. Many credible experts do not believe that that truly autonomous vehicles will be with us for decades—if ever.
Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are probably one of the best alternatives for older adults who live in areas without viable public transportation, and who cannot, or do not want to, drive any longer. These services obviously do not help with the problem of car dependency, per se, but they do improve mobility for older adults and provide a reasonable option for people who should no longer be driving to give up their keys.
While older people will experience some technological challenges using ride-sharing services, these are likely to increasingly disappear as the next generation of technologically-savvy older adults replaces the existing one.
We are never going to retrofit suburbia to become significantly more urban. We lack the incentive, the will, and the money to make it happen. As Lloyd Alter writes:
Baby boomers are looking around their houses and thinking “What can I do so that I can age in place?” and investing in renovations, when all the data show that one of the first things go to is the ability to drive — long before the ability to walk. Instead, they should be asking “What can I do to get out of this place? How will I get to the doctor or the grocery?” Every single one of them has to look in the mirror right now and ask themselves, “What do I do when I can’t drive?”
Yes, it would make sense for elderly people living in suburban areas to move, but this is easier said than done. It is normal for a person to become attached to their house and neighborhood, particularly as they age. Decisions on where to live are emotional and are made with the heart as well as the head. There are cultural, psychological, and sociological barriers to leaving that beloved house and all of those wonderful memories behind.
In theory it would be far easier to have older people move to urban core areas where it would be easier for them to get around, rather than having them stay in the suburbs and continue to drive or expending considerable resources on cost-ineffective suburban public transit to transport them. And while ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are likely to help, human nature and our cultural ethos of personal autonomy make it likely that older people will continue to drive long past the point thatt it is safe for them to do so.
There is another practical problem with the theory that moving from the suburbs to the urban core will help improve accessibility and mobility. Most metropolitan areas, with the exception of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, have few neighborhoods where people can conveniently live without needing a car.
This theory also presupposes that the urban core has the amenities that people need. While urban core areas often have “good bones,” high population density, and a walkable street grid, the reality in many metro areas is that most of the shopping opportunities, medical offices, everyday amenities, and safe, convenient, desirable neighborhoods are in the suburbs. This is especially true in Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, where the historic urban cores have been decimated by urban decline and disinvestment.
In practice, we are often left with the worst of both worlds: urban places with good bones which are impractical or unattractive for older people to live in or suburban places which are designed exclusively for cars, where all of the activity and amenities are. In many American cities, even people living in the heart of the urban core must drive for miles to get to a grocery store, a bank, or a doctor’s office, due to urban decline and suburban sprawl.
As critical as good urban design and walkable neighborhoods are, most older people are going to have mobility challenges, at some point, regardless of the built environment. Walking and biking become progressively more difficult as people age, too.
Ultimately, Alter focuses so heavily on the trees of bad urban design, that he misses the forest of culture:
If urban planners and the politicians they work for had any sense, they would stop approving any more suburban sprawl and do a big intervention to allow mid-rise apartment construction everywhere in city centers where there is transit and pedestrian infrastructure that lets people get to their doctors and grocers without needing a car. Or they would adopt the principles of New Urbanism and make every new community walkable.
I grow weary of people blaming urban planners for every urban problem. The root of this particular problem is cultural, and the reality is that urban planners have very little power or influence in this country.
Most urban planners hate our current built environment, and would love to change it. But they are trying to bail water out of the Titanic with a thimble. They are continually stifled, not by the politicians, but by the people that the politicians work for. The fact of the matter is that Americans like the urban development status quo, and efforts to change it are often met with bipartisan opposition. It’s one of the few things that we still agree on.
Yes, of course, we have an urban design and land use problem that results in many transportation problems.
It is not safe for older people to continue driving as they advance in age. It is foolish to think that autonomous cars will save us (they won’t). It is not financially feasible to send shuttle buses around on three-hour round trips collecting older people in suburban neighborhoods and taking them to grocery stores, banks, and doctor’s offices.
But these are all symptoms of a larger cultural problem. The real problem is the way that we Americans (both young and old) view old age and the NIMBY culture that will not allow the mid-rise, dense, mixed-use, walkable communities that Lloyd Alter dreams wants to make a reality. It is not the urban planners, or some cabal of faceless bureaucrats who are preventing this from happening. It is all of us.
We live in a society where we expect older people to muddle through their final years alone, in their own households. Multi-generational households, or situations where adult children live in extremely close proximity to their parents, and where they can help and interact with one another, are the norm in many cultures. Not here in America.
And it’s not just a matter of younger people shunting the elderly aside. Older people themselves, steeped in our powerful culture of radical autonomy, individualism, and self-sufficiency, often enter into a self-imposed exile, afraid or unwilling to ask for help. American culture has a perverse way of making even very old people feel like failures for needing assistance from others.
We live in a culture that worships youth and self-sufficiency. It is hard for older people to say “I can’t do this anymore, and I need your help.” Similarly, it is hard for younger people who could help them to say “I need to extricate myself from the never-ending rat-race of my busy and overscheduled life and help my older friends, neighbors, and family members.” Even if younger people tried to make the time to help, would employers, friends, and colleagues understand?
Our cultural challenge is a Gordian knot of dozens of interwoven, interrelated behavior patterns: transportation, urban design, the way that we view older people, the way that older people view themselves, and how we establish our personal, social, and political priorities.
If we are to solve the problem of a lack of safe, affordable, and practical mobility options for older people, we are going to need to look in the mirror.
This isn’t ultimately a failing of the urban planners. This a failing of American culture. It’s not up to the planners to figure it out. It is up to each and every one of us.
Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the city of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground.
For the truly great projects, architects are necessary, and can take credit for magnificent structures like London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and Istanbul’s Suleymanyie Mosque. Nevertheless, most architects of the buildings we love remain anonymous, and those who designed the great Gothic cathedrals owe their achievements as much to the guilds of stonemasons as to their own astonishing plans. Moreover, by far the greatest number of buildings that we admire had no architect at all. Think of the medieval houses that compose the hilltop towns of Italy, the great stone tenements of Edinburgh, the backwaters of Venice, the thousands of village churches scattered over Europe, and just about every other building stitched into the fabric of those places that we visit because they provide the soothing experience of a deep settlement and a shared home.
Reflecting on these matters I long ago drew the conclusion that the first principle of architecture is that most of us can do it. You can teach music, poetry, and painting. But what you learn will never suffice to make you into a composer, a poet, or a painter. There is that extra thing, which the romantics called “genius”, without which technique will never lead to real works of art. In the case of architecture not only is the part that can be taught sufficient in itself, but also the belief that you need something else—genius, originality, creativity, etc.—is the principal threat to real success.
The pursuit of genius in architecture is what has most contributed to the unstitching of our urban fabric, giving us those buildings in outlandish shapes and unsightly materials that take a chunk of the city and make it into somewhere else, as Morphosis did with New York’s Cooper Square, or Zaha Hadid with the Port Authority Building in Antwerp.
These buildings that stand out when they should be fitting in declare the genius of their creators, with no consideration paid to the offense suffered by the rest of us. China is now littered with this stuff, and as a result there is no city in that country that has the remotest resemblance to a settlement.
In response it will be said that we need to accommodate our growing populations, and to make efficient use of the land available for building, and how can we do this without architects? The refutation of this lies in the garden shed and the trailer. Almost all of us are capable of designing such a thing, and placing it in agreeable surroundings and conciliatory relation to its neighbors. The trailer park usually achieves a density of population far greater than the estate of tower-block apartments, and leaves the residents free to embellish their individual holdings with agreeable details, flower pots, even classical windows and doorways, along the edges of incipient streets.
In my experience the most poignant illustration of these truths is provided by the gecekondu (= built in one night) around Ankara. An old Ottoman law, inherited from the Byzantine Empire and therefore from Rome, tells us that, if you have acquired a piece of land to which no one has a proven right of ownership and if you build a dwelling there in one night, you can assume a permanent right of residence. When Atatürk declared the ancient city of Ankara to be the capital of the new Turkey he set the architects to work, building tower blocks and modern highways in regimented patterns that chill the heart and repel everyone who is not obliged by his work to reside there. Meanwhile all around the capital, on the bare hills to which no one had a claim of ownership, there arose by an invisible hand some of the most harmonious settlements created in modern times: houses of one or two stories, in easily handled materials such as brick, wood, corrugated iron, and tiles, nestling close together since none can lay claim to any more garden than the corners left over from building, each fitted neatly into the hillside and with tracks running among them along which no car can pass.
In time the residents cover them with stucco and paint them in those lovely Turkish blues and ochres; they bring electricity and water and light their paths not with glaring sodium lights but with intermittent bulbs, twinkling from afar like grounded galaxies. They join together to form charitable associations, so as to build mosques in the ancient style and neighborhood schools beside them.
These suburbs are the most unpolluted (in every respect) that the modern world has produced, and contain more residents per square mile than any of the architect-designed banlieux around Paris. And they are produced in just the way that sheds are produced, by people using their God-given ability to knock things together so as to put a roof over their head.
Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow.
The New Urbs series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
When I was a teenager, in the late 1990s, Asbury Park, New Jersey had fallen on hard times.
The kinetic energy of the small shore city—Ferris wheels and carousels, breezy counters with young people selling waffle cones and hamburgers to beachgoers in the salty air—was largely gone. Six Flags and shopping centers, situated on highways to nowhere, had taken the wind out of its aging sails. Gone, too—or neglected beyond recognition—were the compact blocks of attached storefronts and ornate, 19th-century homes that had once given form to a traditional seaside urbanism. In place of its storied past was a myriad of empty lots, empty stores, failed projects, and tired rooming houses, many of which looked more like Halloween than summer vacation.
Today, Asbury Park is coming back—in a way. Over the past decade, the fresh gleam of new construction has filled in vacant canvases, and small investors have renovated much of the surviving stock of old houses, hotels, and storefronts. Cookman Avenue, which links the Boardwalk with an active train station, is once more a vibrant, traditional downtown. Ocean Avenue, which runs parallel to the Boardwalk, has a mixture of old and new sites. The grit has faded, but it is not all gone. Across the train tracks, in the neighborhoods away from the beach, poverty grinds on.
Meanwhile, the blocks closest to the waterfront retain a high proportion of parking lots and post-war sprawl, where the draw of the ocean, and rising property values, could sustain a more intricate, richer urbanism. The recent changes in Asbury Park offer hope, but also highlight a need for caution.
In its first heyday, Asbury Park was the crown jewel in a long string of late-Victorian urban gems along the Monmouth County coast that also included Ocean Grove, Avon-by-the-Sea, and Long Branch. Here, block after block of compact, detailed houses, with towers and turrets, stood against the pastel Atlantic coast. Developed by James Bradley on land purchased from the nearby Methodist co-op at Ocean Grove, Asbury Park combined the best instincts of the traditional building practices of the late 19th century with a near-perfect location. The text of a 2002 waterfront redevelopment plan describes Bradley’s 1873 vision for the new city’s layout:
His plan sets a grid of traditionally scaled blocks and streets between four natural open spaces: Wesley Lake, Sunset Lake, Deal Lake and the oceanfront. Streets, which are perpendicular to the ocean, flare open as they approach the waterfront. By widening the east-west streets at their ends, Bradley increased the views of the ocean from the City, facilitated the movement of sea breezes into the city and provided space for landscape and parking improvements adjacent to the beachfront.
Asbury Park prospered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its surviving urbanism reflects the architectural patterns of those times. Along with neighboring communities (most notably, Ocean Grove), it retains many fine examples of late-Victorian urbanism, including spacious, detailed houses, a traditional downtown, a wide, wood-planked boardwalk, and a rich mix of complementary activities along its streets.
Its urban fabric is also sustainable. Its street pattern is walkable, built around a railroad station (still active) and streetcar lines (long gone). The sea breeze and the shade created by street walls, combined with pre-air-conditioning architecture, keep the pedestrian space somewhat cooler in the summers, and the short proximities between homes and businesses minimize car travel. Small, urban parcels, by nature, require less maintenance than subdivisions of more recent vintage. Places like Asbury Park still manifest the wisdom of practical and more sustainable building customs.
By the end of the 20th century, however, the raison d’être for this particular strand of traditional urbanism had begun to fade. The ubiquity of air travel and climate control had taken vacationers further afield, and in the path of suburban sprawl, the beach towns of Monmouth County began to divide into two groups. The more urban ones, like Asbury Park and Long Branch (having apartment houses and old hotels), began to absorb the poorest portion of residents from the encroaching tendrils of New York City’s metropolitan region. Meanwhile, towns with larger lots were reinvented as year-round suburbs.
Today, a new shift is underway. A growing appreciation for urban neighborhoods, combined with long-term economic and demographic patterns, has fueled an unprecedented affordability crisis in many of our old, first-order cities. This has been particularly true at the core of the New York region, where dozens of erstwhile working- and middle-class neighborhoods have become very expensive in the space of just one generation. A similar trend may now be gaining steam around Philadelphia.
At the same time, new appreciation of the value of community has sparked a newfound interest in the virtues of smaller places, while the rising number of Americans who can work remotely has made housing options at the metropolitan fringe more viable for those who remain attached (but not tethered) to specific regions. Accordingly, livable, attractive, and humanely-scaled towns situated at the affordable frontiers of metropolitan housing markets have a special combination of advantages in the current real estate environment. Those places with natural beauty to offer, as well, are poised to be in the catbird seat.
Situated roughly halfway between the more famous boardwalks of Coney Island and Atlantic City, Asbury Park has benefited from the convergence of these trends. Its proximity to two of the largest and most dynamic cities of the American Northeast allows it to be easily rediscovered. As it was in the elegant days of the late Victorian era, and in the cool, modern 1920s, Asbury Park is but a day trip from Midtown or Center City. But today, its comparative affordability, combined with its traditional, humane scale, have joined the Atlantic Ocean as major selling points.
Asbury Park’s renaissance has benefited from the wisdom of its late 19th century builders. Significantly, recent development has largely followed established patterns. This inherently conservative approach means that new buildings promote a continuous fabric of traditional urbanism. Street walls have been extended, building lines that approach sidewalks, and foot traffic and physical coherence are maintained through the resulting density. Where new development departs from established patterns, it is concentrated in the right locations – along the beach itself, and around the traditional downtown blocks. These sections define the city’s present chapter.
Ocean Avenue and the Boardwalk
Ocean Avenue runs parallel to the Boardwalk and has several surviving historic buildings. Most significant is arguably the combined Convention Hall and Paramount Theater, designed by Warren & Wetmore and built on the cusp of the Great Depression, between 1928 and 1930. The theater faces Ocean Avenue, Atlantic Square, and Sunset Park; the Convention Hall stretches east onto the wide sandy beach. In a unique turn of design, the coordinate, east and west parts of the complex are joined by an enclosed arcade, through which the Boardwalk passes on a north-south axis.
The New Jersey Historic Trust describes the entire structure as “an eclectic mélange of Italian and French designs with detailing in several different architectural styles incorporating nautical motifs.” Today, the Paramount Theater has been meticulously restored, but the Convention Hall – the largest piece of the complex – is disused and in need of significant restoration.
Just north of the Paramount Theater, the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel has stood for more than a century and continues to offer elegant rooms with ocean views. To the south, the Stone Pony, at Ocean and Second, has been a consistent destination since the 1970s, with nightly concerts in the warm months. The music club has long been the hub of a vibrant local scene, helping launch the careers of Bruce Springsteen, the Asbury Jukes, and others.
Nearby, the Wonder Bar, at Ocean and Fifth, provides another stop on the music tour, and is visually notable for its large reproduction of Tillie – a smiling, toothy cartooned face that has become Asbury Park’s de facto mascot, having long branded the façade of the now-demolished Palace Amusements.
On the Boardwalk, the Silverball Museum contains a dense collection of dozens of colorful, clanging, vintage pinball machines – a refreshingly tactile and mechanical diversion from the ubiquitous touchscreens of liquid modernity. Nearby, a miniature golf course gives way to a water park comprising a cluster of gigantic, bright-hued garden tools. At the southern end of Ocean Avenue, where the Boardwalk ends and car traffic turns inward from the beach, the midcentury modern Empress Hotel, with a striking electric green backlit sign, stands across from a newer strip of stores, including Stella Marina, serving good Italian fare with an ocean view; and Style Rocket, a tourist-oriented clothing shop, sells T-shirts, caps, and other mementos graced by Tillie and other icons of Asbury Park’s branding efforts. The haunting, ruined shell of the massive Asbury Park Casino and Carousel House looms on the white sandy beach, nearby.
Unfortunately, despite the historic, iconic, tragic, and otherwise curious sites along Ocean Avenue, a very high proportion of the buildable land between the beach and Bergh Street (another ocean-parallel street, two blocks west) continues to be occupied by parking lots and random, low-rise, post-war buildings. The persistence of this pattern vitiates any aesthetic benefit that may once have accrued from James Bradley’s flared approaches to the ocean, in the city’s Victorian-era street plan. In fact, it essentially eliminates any intersection between the city’s urban fabric and its key attraction – the beach. One could easily surmise that the underuse of these parcels is not accidental, but the result of ongoing speculation. (It is common practice in urban real estate for owners to tie up prime land with dubious uses, in perpetuity, while awaiting a more optimal seller’s market – costs to the community be damned.)
Presently, the one obvious exception to this underutilized land-use pattern on the waterfront is the Asbury Ocean Club, a 17-story white tower nearing completion at Ocean and Third. The project’s developers seek, rather shamelessly, to skip over the incremental progress otherwise being made through small-scale redevelopment by a critical mass of individual actors. Instead, they hope to inject a dose of serious outside money into the local real estate market. A recent piece in the Times helps advance the spin by local politicians that building a plethora of expensive, ultramodern condo units will somehow better the lives of Asbury Park’s self-supporting artists and most impoverished residents. Perhaps that seller’s market is now on the horizon.
Cookman Avenue and Downtown
Moving inland, the core of Asbury Park’s traditional downtown is once again bustling with a mix of retail, residential, and commercial uses. Focused around Press Square (named for the former newsroom of the Asbury Park Press, and its neoclassical building, which still stands), a cluster of stores and restaurants caters to residents and visitors alike. Cookman Avenue, the main commercial street, comprises a multicolored variety of compact, attached storefronts, dating mostly from the early 20th century. The scene is visually reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, but with fewer faces marked by anomic despair.
Cookman Avenue at Press Square.
Along Cookman Avenue, the absence of a Woolworth’s from the cascade of storefronts still feels like an omission. Though the chain is long gone, it probably should have been enshrined in neighborhoods like this, along with an old-fashioned A&P, via public trust. A closer look quickly reveals several practical, downtown businesses, along with a growing number of make-your-own-art galleries, chipper bruncheonettes (serving the requisite esoteric varieties of Bloody Marys and mimosas), a cat-themed tea house, and other shops geared toward the pervasive retail marketing correlation between excessive cuteness and disposable incomes.
Fortunately, there is also a thriving bar scene downtown, where a summer visitor can find solace from the heat, as well as the schmaltz. On a recent Sunday, an outdoor farmers’ market also added a measure of authenticity to the setting. Set up at the eastern end of the Cookman Avenue strip, near the former site of Palace Amusements, the market was busy with shoppers despite an intensely humid August heat wave. Bright-red Rutgers tomatoes, glass jars of berry jelly and clover honey, and individually wrapped cranberry muffins could all be found. About a dozen stands were set up by New Jersey farmers, bakers, jelly makers, and beekeepers.
Perhaps surprisingly, nowhere within the city limits is there a full-scale amusement park, as one might expect in such a city. Palace Amusements, which stood near the waterfront from 1888, near what remains of the Casino and Carousel House once offered a Ferris wheel, a Victorian-era merry-go-round, a funhouse, bumper cars, and other essential seashore attractions. After a century, it shut its doors in 1988, and the remaining structure was demolished in 2004. In its heyday, the business district and the beach were joined by the hub of activities around the Casino and Palace Amusements, but today only a scattering of generic townhouses and empty grass define the walkable transition between the two main nodes of the city. Recreating continuity between these distinct but complementary realms has been put off, for now, and the transition is awkward and jarring.
Where do we go from here?
Today, Asbury Park feels more hopeful than it has felt in years. But it also has reasons to remain cautious. The small, Victorian city’s location and history provide it with a salience among New Jersey beach towns that ensures a certain amount of interest in an ever-tightening real estate market. Small businesses, urban homesteaders, and individual investors have done much to build on this. Because of those factors, a new vibrancy animates the natural focal points its urban plan. Beachgoers are returning, and people are heralding a rebirth.
Yet the future of Ocean Avenue, including the sites that adjoin the Boardwalk, remains an open question. This part of the city demands a rich and intricate urbanism. Bradley’s 1873 plan would reward the development of parcels here in a traditional urban pattern of small lots with distinct, architecturally varied structures. Hewing to traditional building lines would frame and accentuate the vistas Bradley envisioned for the flared street approaches to the ocean. Such a pattern would also have the effect of weaving the city’s older blocks more naturally into a newer, larger canvas that incorporates the shore.
There appears to be a danger, however, that the land in this neighborhood will be sold off in large parcels to corporate developers. Such an outcome could have the effect of aesthetically separating the city’s historic urban fabric – an undervalued asset from its past— from the shore—its most apparent economic asset – through the construction of large-scaled, self-contained, and very expensive projects. In such a scenario, it is also likely that the city’s existing economic disparity within the community would only be deepened (tax receipts notwithstanding); and that, in the resulting environment, small businesses and middle-class homebuyers would be the first to be told: No Vacancy.
Asbury Park stands at an important crossroads. With pockets of 19th-century urbanism and 20th-century Americana, it offers the hopeful tale of a small, east coast city—with history, character, and a strong sense of place—finally rising above the grind of post-war urban America and reclaiming its spot in the 21st century economic landscape. This reading is accurate, and this moment is valuable, and worth appreciating—not only here, but in numerous small places around the United States that have begun, against the odds, to find their way. The question now is whether the qualities of this moment can be sustained, because they are appreciated; or whether, like so many fleeting moments in our high-speed culture, they will prove to be ephemeral.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
Anyone who grew up in or around large families probably remembers a particular kind of evening. Perhaps it was a birthday, or a family reunion, or a Christmas or New Years’ party, or a civic holiday.
Depending on the ethnicities of the families involved, there might have been trays of baked ziti and meatballs, or pierogies and pickled herring, or kielbasa and sauerkraut, or perhaps all of them and much more. These were the nights when the kids could eat as much dessert, or anything else, as they wanted, when the visitors and hosts agreed it was time to part ways before opening another bottle of wine.
I and other writers here often talk about the built environment, about things like zoning and street width and neighborhood design. But just as important are the individual buildings that make up those built environments. Construction and architecture are about more than aesthetics: we now know that humans are wired at a very deep level to appreciate various elements of traditional architecture and planning. Traditional middle-class homes promote those fun-filled evenings through their design. Basements, attics, nooks, and little mazes of rooms are inseparable from things like kids hiding out, trying to make their parents forget the night is over.
Many modern homes, like everything else in our tech-ified, ultra-efficient era, are stylish but not cozy, functional but not warm. There are no inconvenient nooks and crannies, no janky closets under staircases, no half-rooms above the garage, no dark, mysterious basements that could be caves or tunnels in a child’s imagination. Increasingly there is just an “open concept” floor plan, the domestic equivalent of the vaguely authoritarian open-plan office. One article notes, “Prior to the last 25 years, an ‘open floor plan’ meant a living configuration without doors; now the term has come to mean a living configuration without walls.”
It can be challenging in a traditional house to have a quiet dinner, watch television, and segregate the children during a family gathering or party, let alone in a house with an open-floor plan. But maybe it’s less of a problem than it should be; my mother used to point out that family size inversely correlates with average square footage—smaller and smaller families live in larger and larger homes. There is something profoundly lonely and consumeristic about that.
Then there are the “smart” devices, which too often require an inordinate amount of intelligence to actually operate. They can read us our shopping lists and schedule our laundry and tell us when someone is approaching the front door. Because they can be controlled remotely, they also permanently lodge themselves in our brains, one extra thing to check while fidgeting awkwardly with our phones. What these devices provide in convenience they take away in focus.
If a living space does not allow for a few moments of comfortable solitude, it cannot really be called a home. There are, one suspects, not very many homes being built in America today. It is highly unlikely that most of the recent housing—whether the soulless, gaping McMansions that evoke international hotel lobbies, or the condo complexes with pastel facades and fake balconies, or the industrial-chic urban row houses—will ever age gracefully or be able to provide that enchanting mix of wonder and comfort that makes a place a home for a child.
What does the lack of these spaces do to children’s creativity? Does it blunt their minds? Perhaps we are too busy with our daily grinds to remember what it is like to be a child in a house. Having people over, especially entire families, is a way to recapture a little bit of that feeling, to see one’s home from the perspective of a guest, if only a little bit for a little while. It’s a useful exercise.
Among my most pleasant childhood memories are “rosary nights”: a group of us homeschooling Catholic families would meet at someone’s house every 13th of the month (it had something to do with Fatima), and pray one, sometimes three, rosaries. Occasionally we would display a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which came in an equally large bag and which one family’s cat liked to treat as an enclosed bed. When the praying was over, we would retire to the kitchen for cakes and desserts. The kids would eat quickly and fit in as much unsupervised playtime as we could—even more exciting if we were in an unfamiliar house—before it was time to go home.
In our own way, we were a part of that vast but receding web of private, communal associations that we call “civil society” or “intermediating institutions,” the maintenance of which is the core of conservatism, and perhaps of society itself.
What all of this has to do with housing and urbanism is that in my child’s mind, the pleasantness of the houses and the company of friends and the comfort of the Faith were inseparable. I’m not sure my child’s mind was wrong. Perhaps I am merely elevating the bourgeois lifestyle or indulging in nostalgia. But what’s really so bad about the bourgeois lifestyle (or its relative, the much-reviled “middle-class morality”?). America is poorer for its vanishing communal middle between the individual and the state, for its vanishing blue-chip firms and lifelong occupations, for its burgeoning economic inequality and insecurity.
I can’t change the housing industry or the economy. I can only be thankful for the janky closets in my home, for the quirky rosary club, for the endless trays of baked ziti during the holidays. But they are not the point, ultimately—the point is that those memories modeled for me what a home and a family are. The family is biological, but it is also a web of inherited and learned behaviors. Those seemingly trite bits of childhood nostalgia can serve as little models, as little guideposts. Our families are one piece of making that happen. Our physical houses and built environments may be no less important.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
South Philadelphia’s rooftops offer a stunning panorama of a city balancing its past and future. A sea of row homes, occasionally broken by old school buildings and church steeples, flow northward toward Center City, where towers of glistening glass spread symmetrically within the confines of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.
The 60-story Comcast Technology Center, nearing completion, is the tallest skyscraper, its structure reminiscent of a nineties-era cellphone. Nearby is Liberty Place, comprised of two office towers that imitate New York City’s Chrysler Building. In the mid-1980s, One and Two Liberty Place broke the “gentlemen’s agreement” that Center City’s buildings should not exceed the height of the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. Three decades later, City Hall—a gigantic Second-Empire pile once described by Walt Whitman as “silent, weird, beautiful”—is overshadowed by Philadelphia’s contemporary architectural landscape.
The occupants of City Hall, especially in the 1990s, played a pivotal role in Philadelphia’s resurgence. At the time, the city was confronting skyrocketing crime, stark population loss, shuttered manufacturers, fleeing employers, a public housing crisis, and the prospect of bankruptcy. Ed Rendell inherited this perfect storm when he became Philadelphia’s 96th mayor in January 1992. Rendell’s first term, often credited with reinvigorating the city, was the focus of Buzz Bissinger’s 1997 masterpiece, A Prayer for the City.
It’s now been two decades since Bissinger chronicled the spectrum of feelings that a city conjures for its mayor and constituents—and revisiting the landmark book reminds us how dramatically Philadelphia has transformed since those dark days of Rendell’s first term.
Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist widely known as the author of the West Texas saga Friday Night Lights, composed a story that reveals the urban experience with clarity and empathy. In the anthology of books on American cities, Robert Caro is celebrated for The Power Broker, his magisterial biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses. But A Prayer for the City should be remembered as the book that best describes a city on the brink of salvation or perdition.
A Prayer for the City movingly describes the boundless optimism generated by mundane moments, the tensions aroused by the slightest provocations, and the heartbreak and despair induced by the unknown. Bissinger successfully documents the American city with all its intensity, violence, decay, and political intrigue. He reveals an urban culture from a period when only negative trends prevailed.
Bissinger’s main characters are Rendell, the city’s beleaguered yet resilient guardian, and David L. Cohen, his affable and brilliant chief of staff. Rendell, a larger-than-life figure, enjoyed a political comeback with the 1991 mayoral election. In the 1980s, Rendell hoped to leverage his District Attorney years by running for governor. In 1986, Rendell was crushed by Bob Casey, Sr. in Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. A year later, Rendell ran against Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, but the outcome remained the same. In Bissinger’s telling, Neil Oxman, a political consultant, recalls that somehow, in 1990, Rendell “woke up…and said, ‘I’m going to do this the right way.’” Rendell prevailed in the 1991 Democratic mayoral primary. Then his general-election opponent, the legendary former Mayor Frank Rizzo, died suddenly over the summer. Rendell coasted to victory that November.
When Cohen was named Rendell’s campaign manager in 1990, he was working at one of the city’s top law firms. Despite their contrasting personalities, a loyal friendship commenced between the two men. A meticulous professional, Cohen was “known for the way he learned the nuances of group insurance by reading some five thousand pages on it.” He was also “known for the way he personally inspected every piece of mail his secretaries typed up for him, even the envelopes.”
Rendell, meanwhile, was often a canvas of emotions ranging from charm and irreverence to rage and gloom. But neither Cohen’s efficiency nor Rendell’s charisma could prepare them for City Hall’s chaos. “To be the mayor of an American city meant facing potential tragedy twenty-four hours a day,” writes Bissinger.
Post-election developments, whether anticipated or unexpected, left the Rendell-Cohen duo with limited time to save Philadelphia from its seemingly endless problems. In early 1992, a computer model forecasted that Philadelphia faced a $1.246 billion budget gap over the following five years if the city didn’t take action.
Rendell went public with the city’s dire fiscal situation. Candor proved an advantageous strategy, with the Rendell administration ultimately winning significant concessions from Philadelphia’s omnipotent unions. Bissinger, who had open access to City Hall for four years, reveals the backstage negotiations that subsequently protected Philadelphia from financial collapse, scored bipartisan praise and media accolades, and insured Rendell’s political future.
As mayor, Rendell embraced 1990s-era revitalization strategies. He favored the entertainment approach common among big cities. A new convention center, the construction of luxury hotels, and the opening of major-chain restaurants like Hard Rock Café heralded hope for Center City’s future. But citywide challenges often overshadowed Rendell’s efforts to improve downtown, promote tourism, fund the arts, and attract suburban visitors.
Philadelphia’s post-industrial trends, far from unique, proved overwhelming. Rendell delicately navigated the city’s demographic complexities as a peacemaker, hoping to subdue or maintain support from aggrieved politicians and resentful residents. The statistics fueled the tension. In the early 1990s, Philadelphia’s poverty rate was 20 percent, its high school dropout rate was 40 percent, and only 32 percent of the region’s jobs were within city limits. Philadelphia was no longer a “Workshop of the World,” where the working class thrived in a neighborhood-centric city with sprawling mills and factories. As Bissinger recounts, the city had “become the Manufacturing Mausoleum of the World.”
Bissinger features a supporting cast alongside Rendell and Cohen, unveiling city characters who represent the cycle of urban life. He profiles Jim Mangan, a welder who must regroup when the federal government closes Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. Mike McGovern, an assistant district attorney proud of his city, grapples with its realities, and aggressively pursues justice against violent criminals. Linda Morrison, a libertarian reformer, meets defeat in her pursuit of city living. Fifi Mazzccua, a loving matriarch, finds comfort in her church despite family tragedy in the city’s “Badlands.”
In the background, Rendell and Cohen aggressively respond to Clinton-era policies that risked placing the city on life support. “Forget all the good things I’ve done; Philadelphia is dying,” Rendell says during a conference call. “It’s happened a lot more slowly since I took office, but we’re dying.”
Philadelphia has transformed since Bissinger’s mid-90s portrait. City Hall now enjoys the fruits of an expanding higher-education sector, growing hospital systems, start-up companies, and new real estate development. Millennials flock to neighborhoods that only a decade ago were ridden with crime and blight. North Philadelphia’s Francisville, for example, is a haven for bike-riding residents living in newly-built apartment buildings. As the U.S. Census notes, as of 2017, Philadelphia’s population has risen eleven years in a row. An expanding job market, with suburban companies opening Center City offices, continues to attract new residents.
The city’s Navy Yard, which dates to 1776, is now a mixed-use campus with over 11,000 employees working in the office, industrial, and R&D sectors. Penn’s Landing, along the Delaware River, is being redevelped to connect the waterfront to neighborhoods by capping a portion of I-95 with a 12-acre park. Even the Divine Lorraine Hotel, long a source of wonder for its deteriorating majesty, is enjoying a $44 million rehabilitation.
Across from 30th Street Station, Philadelphia’s central transportation hub, the Schuylkill Yards project will transform 14 acres of barren, Drexel University-owned land into 7 million square feet of commercial buildings, retail space, and research labs. The 20-year, $3.5 billion project is part of West Philadelphia’s rapid gentrification. As WHYY Plan Philly’s Jim Saksa recently reported, in 1995 the average home in the University City neighborhood sold for about $80,000. Homes just west of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus are now valued at nearly $500,000.
Philadelphia’s 10-year property-tax abatement played an important role in the city’s population growth and construction boom. The measure, introduced in 2000, exempted new or renovated residential properties from taxation on improvements for a decade. The abatement created a construction frenzy, reshaping the character of neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and Fishtown. But the policy, while economically critical, also has downsides. In many cases, developers replaced historic properties with cheap, stucco-clad apartment buildings. Property taxes, in turn, increased for existing residents already dealing with a burdensome wage tax. For many families, the city’s struggling public schools have made private school tuition an additional unavoidable expense.
The city has changed since the Rendell years, but negative socioeconomic trends linger. Philadelphia continues to have one of the nation’s poorest populations and it trails the growth of other U.S. cities. In 2017, the Brookings Institution released a report addressing how Philadelphia can excel in a global economy and serve its local population. While Brookings acknowledged improvements in Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, it also warned that the city ranked lower in innovation and growth measures compared to its metro peers.
And so, Philadelphia, despite its renaissance, still wrestles with cognitive dissonance. The city embraces its future, but history and tradition restrain its forward pace. The city attracts new employers, investment, and residents, but the statistics remain sobering. The city even pursues efforts at reform, but machine-style politics—Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented”—inhibit lasting improvements.
Bissinger showed how a big city’s economic, cultural, and political complexities can make its imperfections an inescapable reality. He captured how Rendell, as mayor, triangulated Philadelphia’s political ecosystem to restore the city’s future. Looking back, it’s indisputable that the city’s comeback began with Rendell’s administration. His efforts, largely successful, delivered career success. Following his chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, Rendell served two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania. Cohen, who remained his chief of staff until 1997, is now Senior Executive Vice President at Comcast.
Would Rendell thrive in Philadelphia’s current political landscape? He was a Democratic mayor in a Democratic city, but a political leader capable of working with all sides. Of course, there are not many Republicans in Philadelphia. Registered Democrats presently outnumber Republicans by 7 to 1. This majority has its origins in the 1950s, when Joseph Clark broke up the GOP machine that had ruled the city for decades. The Democratic City Committee has ruled Philadelphia since that time, perpetuating the very machine politics that Clark hoped to extinguish after World War II.
But questions are now arising about the establishment’s lasting power. In May, progressive Democrat Elizabeth Fiedler, a former reporter, pulled off an upset primary victory in the South Philadelphia legislative seat held by retiring state Rep. Bill Keller. Left-wing, grassroots-based groups played a pivotal role in Fiedler’s win. Based on national trends, it’s unlikely that candidates like Fiedler would replicate the spirit of moderation and compromise favored by Rendell.
Will the old machine withstand this left-wing ascendance? Corruption does not help their cause. Between 2000 and 2015, nearly 40 Philadelphia politicians found themselves under investigation. In recent years, the city’s district attorney went to prison for bribery, a long-time Congressman was sentenced to prison for influence peddling, and five state legislators were caught trading favors or laundering money. The Traffic Court, meanwhile, dissolved after a ticket-fixing scandal, and the FBI raided the City Council majority leader’s office.
For now, the construction boom continues, the Democratic machine endures, and city leaders celebrate favorable trends. It’s a city that retains an almost chiaroscuro quality, finding enlightenment through investment and population growth, but also darkness as a one-party system maintains its tribal grip over the city. Bissinger captures these qualities in A Prayer for the City, which is not only Philadelphia’s story, but also a history of the American city. Reading the book twenty years later, one can draw an encouraging conclusion. Despite the challenges, Philadelphia’s prayers were largely answered. As Bissinger shows, the path to resurrection is long and perilous, but it can be successfully navigated, particularly by a gifted politician like Rendell.
Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, James and Deborah Fallows, Pantheon, 432 pages.
For many people, the story of small towns outside the country’s major metropolitan areas is one of decline and disinvestment: businesses moving to more central or more populous locations, and factories and farms employing fewer people thanks to automation. As people move out, small businesses suffer from a reduced customer base—and now local retailers face even more competition from warehouse giants such as Amazon.
The causes of urban decline, especially among smaller cities, can seem obvious, but revival is less understood. But even the simple narrative of decline and revival can be misleading. For instance, the Rust Belt is regarded as a place in decline, where a lot of jobs have gone away, but a closer examination reveals that while many traditional industrial jobs have left cities, other sectors of the economy have become prominent, concentrating jobs in city centers while the employees live in more distant suburbs.
Revival is also more complicated. Take Columbus, Miss., a city recently profiled in a bestselling travelogue. A town of about 23,000 people in southeast Mississippi, its initial prosperity was based on labor-intensive manufacturing—there was a toilet seat factory, and mattress and textile plants, along with a U.S. Air Force base. Like in many other communities, the traditional factories closed, resulting in high unemployment and an empty downtown. But the state’s Congressional delegation was able to prevent the base’s closure, and the local community college worked with remaining employers to help residents get the skills demanded by today’s industries. Regionally, Columbus is located in the Golden Triangle, with Mississippi State University in nearby Starkville keeping young people in the area, along with the Mississippi University for Women (now coed).
By now Columbus is thriving, with multiple high-tech manufacturing concerns, including a helicopter factory, an unmanned aerial vehicle plant, and a Steel Dynamics mill. There are also hospitals and the universities themselves are important employers.
But there are signs that “revival” is not the best term for what’s happening in this part of the rural South. None of the major employers is “home-grown” and the factories are as much attracted by expensive infrastructure projects like work on the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and two Tennessee Valley Authority megasites. For readers of sites that promote fiscal sustainability, such as Strong Towns, this is the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells. How was the airport and megasite work paid for? Are they depending on growth and more factories coming in to sustain municipal budgets? Are they building places that generate a lot of tax revenue per square foot of property, or are they building miles of unneeded roads so WalMart can offer customers lots of free parking?
These are the sort of questions that are important for towns to ask themselves—and for journalists to be asking boosters. But too often the latter elite group of reporters ignores these key issues, making their work seem superficial. One recent prominent case of this missed opportunity is the multi-year journey of Atlantic writer James Fallows and his wife Deborah.
* * *
Between 2012 and 2017, the two Fallows crisscrossed the United States in a light aircraft, reporting on urban revival. These stories, expanded and repackaged into a coherent narrative, have now been published in book form: Our Towns: A 100,000 mile Journey into the Heart of America. The places they visited ranged in size from the 94 inhabitants of Uncertain, Tx., to the aforementioned small town of Columbus, Miss., to the over 800,000-strong metropolis of Columbus, Ohio.
According to the Fallows’s reporting, towns that appear to be in the midst of a revival certainly have some features in common. Our Towns emphasizes things like the presence of a research university or liberal arts college, openness to immigrants, a successful community college, a microbrewery, a local arts scene, and so on—until they sound like a parody of once celebrated theorizing about the “creative class.”
Yet if these features are common to successful towns, it does not seem like they necessarily generate new growth. For all the places that have been revived, there are just as many places in the nation’s forgotten corners that continue to be mired in high unemployment and blight. Some small cities defy all expectations: Lynn, Mass. is a post-industrial city less than ten miles northeast of Boston. It has a commuter-rail station, comparatively cheap real estate, and the sort of old brick mill buildings million-dollar tech startups love to repurpose for their incubation. Despite being so close to the heart of one of the most dynamic metropolitan economies in the United States—if not the world—Lynn’s economy persists in lagging behind. As far as most theorists of urban revival are concerned, Lynn ought to be full of entrepreneurs priced out of Cambridge’s Kendall Square or the Seaport Innovation District. Instead, in Lynn one can buy a three-bedroom condo on the water for less than $400,000—possibly the only place in all of Massachusetts where that’s possible.
The Northeast seems to be full of similar counterexamples. The whole Knowledge Corridor—as the stretch of Interstate 91 between Brattleboro, Vt. and New Haven, Conn. has been branded—contains a higher-ed cluster that includes the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Yale University, and the University of Hartford, with the University of Connecticut not too far away. These towns have microbreweries, community colleges, art scenes, and the whole nine yards. But they still have high unemployment, high levels of poverty, and the other signs of decline. One of the Knowledge Corridor cities, Springfield, Mass., even attracted a casino using Massachusetts’s expanded gaming law.
Perhaps the story of urban decline and revival is about more than statistics. Yes, residents and officials need to face their reality and stop pursuing economic development strategies around tax incentives and factories or big box retailers—and start supporting local entrepreneurs and adaptive reuse instead of demolition. But the most important thing seems to be loving the place. The real story of Our Towns is not one of economic incentives and kitschy art shops, of craft beer and land-grant universities, but of committing to a place and persevering to help overcome the obstacles.
As GK Chesterton wrote of a 19th-century workaday London district, “If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence.” As with Pimlico, so with Eastport, or Bend, or Lynn.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The origins of European urbanism lie deep in a long-forgotten past. But any discussion of the tradition could not go on for long without reaching Vitruvius. The renowned Roman writer on architecture, though hardly the first urbanist in the classical world, remains a leading light of Western urbanism for the simple reason that he is the earliest author whose work on the subject is both extant and extensive. A Roman proverb is appropriate: Verba volant, scripta manent. Spoken words fly away, but written words remain.
At least, some do. Vitruvius, the man, is an enigma. Surprisingly little is known about his life. The words that would have told us were either lost, or never written down. His work is cited a few times by Pliny the Elder in the Natural History, indicating that he was a known name in his field. A 19th-century classicist argued that Vitruvius was actually a pen name for a wealthy Caesarist, Marmurra—an enticing theory with little corroboration. Vitruvius (whose full name may or may not have been Marcus Vitruvius Pollio) probably came from a small town in Campania. After more than twenty centuries, maybe it is not surprising that there is more mystery than certainty.
What we know about Vitruvius’ life, we learn mainly from his own asides, peppered throughout the text of De architectura, and by inference, from our general knowledge of his time. He tells us that his parents had valued his education. We know that he began a career as a military engineer, traveled throughout the provinces, and eventually worked for Caesar. He also writes that he was involved in the design of a basilica (that is, a public building) in the Adriatic seacoast town of Fano. No other building projects are definitively linked to him. Those are the hardest facts.
Scholars have even debated the publication date for De architectura. If it is true, as many believe, that it was published in the same decade as the Battle of Actium, then, about its time, we know quite a bit. It was a time with historical themes that would be uneasily familiar to an American in the early 21st century: Rome was politically dominant and it fostered the best of the fine and practical arts. Its trade routes were well worn, with the diverse nations of the Mediterranean fully within its economic and political realms. Wealth was being created and displayed with fervor.
And yet, in the midst of this heady time, the culture of Rome was coarsening. Customs once shaped by the proven traditions of disciplined, patrician farmers whose citizen armies had first conquered Italy, and then the known world, were dissipating. In the wake of Caesar’s murder, and in the midst of a raging civil war, cracks had appeared all over the republican edifice of the state. If its date has been pegged with any accuracy, De architectura was written in the last days of the Republic, and dedicated to Caesar Augustus —Octavian, the victor of Actium—whose building projects would transform the city at the very dawn of the Empire.
De architectura reflects the contradictions of its historical moment. At times, Vitruvius shows a brittle, almost obsequious reverence for the forms of tradition, while displaying a lack of knowledge about the plasticity of the actual tradition from which those forms emerged. Scholars have observed, for example, that his discussion of temple architecture seeks to categorize the arrangement of columns into a set of idealized forms that, in practice, had never truly existed. This criticism has been supported by the facile contradictions between his proffered forms and the dimensions found in most actual, surviving Greek and Roman temples.
Yet the text also reflects, in its great breadth of technical instruction and its very nature as a treatment of the myriad forms of building, the striking ingenuity and ambitious dynamism of the Imperial moment. And even as he falls short, at times, in his interpretations of established customs, Vitruvius embodies, with the very same impulse, a prescient awareness that something of deep value is being lost all around him; and that he has the power, because of his own imperfect observations, to write down a record of what remains—before it flies away.
A heartbreaking proportion of classical writings would not survive the fall of the Western Empire, nearly five centuries after De architectura was written. By some estimates, more than 95 percent of classical texts were lost. By fortune or fate, De architectura would be one of the few that survived, preserving and transmitting the practices of ancient architecture down to the modern world. But given the scale of loss, we cannot be certain Vitruvius’ treatise on the building traditions of the Roman world was unique in its breadth. Even less can we judge that it was the best.
Nevertheless, since its popular rediscovery in Renaissance times, De architectura, unique as an artifact (and a talisman, of a sort), has become a touchstone for students of classical planning and architecture. Its author’s sometimes clumsy treatments of important topics, such as temple architecture, are thus forgiven and his imperfect analyses have served as starting points for modern attempts to decode, understand, and revive the traditions of the ancient past.
Much like Leon Battista Alberti, the 14th-century Florentine who studied Vitruvius and is credited with reviving the classical building tradition for modern times, Vitruvius encompassed many urban planning topics in his writings on architecture. Accordingly, a reading of his work is pertinent to understanding the planning traditions of Western Europe that continue to influence and shape our neighborhoods.
For example, following some introductory formalities about the objectives of architecture, the first topic Vitruvius explores in Book I is one of the most basic questions of urban planning—the selection of a site for a new town. Writing at a time of significant expansion (as Caesar had recently conquered most of Gaul), he describes a number of intriguing traditional practices for choosing a site, many of which looked to health as a paramount concern.
The Romans believed that the situation and orientation of a town had a vital impact on its inhabitants—a concept not so different from today’s study of microclimates, or the more traditional vinicultural interest in terroir. In particular, he advised that, within a town, the directions of new streets should be determined with reference to prevailing winds, to avoid the creation of wind tunnels. But there was more, particularly with respect to site selection:
First comes the choice of a very healthy site. Such a site will be high, neither misty nor frosty, and in a climate neither hot nor cold, but temperate; further, without marshes in the neighborhood. For when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mists from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy…. [I]f the town is on the coast with a southern or western exposure, it will not be healthy, because in summer the southern sky grows hot at sunrise and is fiery at noon, while a western exposure grows warm after sunrise, is hot at noon, and at evening all aglow.
Themes of sunlight and prevailing winds recur throughout De architectura. They reflect a resourceful principle to which Vitruvius and others in the Western European tradition have long subscribed. In the pre-industrial world, with limited technical knowledge, it was essential to identify natural phenomena that could assist builders in their goal of creating comfortable, durable, low-maintenance built environments. Studying and acceding to the predictable patterns of nature was the surest way to do this. Plainly, the roots of today’s interest in sustainable development can be found in the texts of classical antiquity; perhaps earlier.
The most planning-relevant section of De architectura is found in Book V. Here, Vitruvius identifies and describes an index of vital public sites. While the author’s primary focus is on architecture, his enumeration of purposes is valuable to the student of planning because the scaling and assemblage of these sites fundamentally shapes the physical character of the city, including surrounding urban interstices. The same text also provides a rich vein for Roman customs, because each of the sites the author notes reflects (and helped transmit, in its own time) the life patterns of the people that built it.
Each site that Vitruvius describes has a corresponding, firmly established cultural practice. Forums provided a venue for assembly and participation. Theaters reflected the primacy of music and drama. Harbors and treasuries showed the vitality of markets. Basilicas and senate houses, the practice of politics and the rule of law. And so on. In light of this manifest dynamic between sites and customs, one could also identify strands between the cultural forms of classical antiquity and those of more recent times in the modern West.
No single element of Western urbanism is more essential than that which the Romans instantiated in the forum. In Town and Square, an excellent (and sadly out-of-print) mid-20th-century book about the role of public spaces in traditional European cities, urbanist Paul Zucker taught that spaces like the Vitruvian forum corresponded tightly with the customs of politically participatory societies. He argued that no true public squares could be identified predating the classical Greek experiments with various degrees of self-government. (In classical Greece, the agora served a similar purpose; in the modern West, the town green or the plaza inherits the same.)
Vitruvius showed how the forum was the heart of the Roman plan. Around it, the more specialized civic sites should be arranged. These would include legal, political, and religious spaces. The author’s instructions for composing a new forum are simple. First, reserve an open space with a 2 to 3 ratio (roughly equivalent to the golden mean) at a scale befitting the importance of the town or city. Next, develop the blocks overlooking this space with buildings that comprise both street-level and upper-tier (i.e., balcony) access for pedestrians. Finally, over the course of several sections, he expands on a number of the special buildings that should be built in proximity to the forum. Notably, Vitruvius never prescribes the Roman frontier practice of establishing the forum near the origin of a town grid, at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanis maximus.
One site adjoining the forum was the basilica, which typically housed a mix of courtrooms and political chambers. One could compare the basilica’s purpose to that of a modern city hall or municipal building. (Today, basilica is typically a descriptor of church architecture, but in classical antiquity it did not carry religious overtones.) Ever cognizant of the potential benefits of astute site selection, Vitruvius advises building the basilica on the most sun-scorched lot facing the forum. This, he believed, would facilitate winter usage and, presumably, ensure convenient public access.
For basilica design, Vitruvius draws on elements from temple architecture, making reference to his formulae, presented in Book III, as starting points for the proportioning of columns, tiers, and other elements. Vitruvius also recommends situating the treasury, prison, and senate house at the forum presumably with complementary architecture. Thus, we see an early written example of a practice that has remained common throughout the history of Europe: the conscious incorporation of classical temple elements into secular, civic buildings.
Away from the forum, the outdoor theater implicitly forms a second node in the Vitruvian plan. It will draw crowds to a new destination and actuate a new center of urban development. In addition to addressing the structural and visual elements of theaters, Vitruvius delves into acoustic considerations:
Voice … moves in an endless number of circular rounds, like the innumerably increasing circular waves which appear when a stone is thrown into smooth water, and which keep on spreading indefinitely from the centre unless interrupted by narrow limits, or by some obstruction which prevents such waves from reaching their end in due formation. When they are interrupted by obstructions, the first waves, flowing back, break up the formation of those which follow.
After incorporating design considerations for optimal sound, Vitruvius recites a short history of Greek theaters, and presents a unique list of site-selection criteria. Notably, his unusually detailed treatment of public theaters illustrates an interesting marker in the timeline of Rome. In the last days of the republic, theater remained at the top of a cultural hierarchy that continued to reflect the philhellenic biases of old times. But as Jérôme Carcopino noted in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, in tandem with the growing authoritarianism and decadence of imperial society, competitive games and bloody spectacles at the amphitheater would supplant traditional drama at the center of Roman entertainment in the next century.
Forming a third node in the plan, Vitruvius describes a bath complex. Befitting the theme of architecture, his focus is on the fundamentals of construction. Similar to the forum, he recommends building at a scale proportionate to the population. Thus, a smaller town would reserve a smaller site for a bath complex, while a larger city would reserve a larger site. Like the public theater, only more so, the bath complex could be expected to attract frequent visitors. Hence, we could imagine a locus of activity in its vicinity.
The author advises selecting a site with a long southwestern or southern exposure for the bath. The southern element reflects a belief (as with the basilica) that prolonged natural sunlight is valuable to a public site. The western element, particularly for the warm bathing rooms, further incorporates the Roman custom of visiting the baths in afternoons and evenings. We can glean a bit more about the bath customs from Vitruvius. For example, he confirms the traditional, tripartite division of a bath complex into temperature-distinguished chambers, and that men and women had separate bathing areas as well.
Vitruvius rounds out Book V with a discussion of harbors. Depending on the topography and trade patterns of a particular town, waterfront activities may form a fourth node in its plan. In some places, however, the waterfront will simply adjoin the urban fabric of other neighborhoods; or, more likely, will create the initial node of settlement, onto which others are appended. One might surmise that a waterfront district would include warehouses, workshops, inns, taverns, and restaurants—as could be found in traditional ports throughout the ages. Vitruvius’ discussion, however, provides little guidance on adjacent development. Instead, he offers specific advice for the improvement and construction of maritime facilities.
The other books of De architectura do not touch as directly on the urban plan, but are nevertheless relevant to traditional Western urbanism. For example, the architecture of individual buildings forms a salient characteristic of urban fabric. His investigation of temple design identified, broadly, many of the building blocks of classical architecture that would continue to shape the face of Western urbanism down to the present time. In addition, he covers a number of allied arts, like the construction of aqueducts, agricultural land use, and a survey of Roman technical knowledge. One of the most curious points of De architectura is Vitruvius’ departure in Book IX into a long discussion about the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars.
A voice from a distant past, Vitruvius offers many of the same assets to urban planners and cultural historians that he does to architects. He also generates similar mysteries. The illustration he has left us of the late Roman republic is unique, if imperfect. De architectura offers a glimpse into the urban world of a decisive moment in classical antiquity—and into the mind of a man who quite literally helped to shape it. Through his writings, Vitruvius provides special insights on an early phase of a rich tradition that would evolve, over centuries, into modern European urbanism. And in light of its cultural influence since the Renaissance, De architectura remains the cornerstone of a canon of readings that have helped shape the traditional urbanism of the modern West.
Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, and is a consultant on urban-planning projects, including Hurricane Sandy recovery. He blogs at legaltowns.com.
This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Editor’s Note: This is part two in a two-part series on Rust Belt urban revitalization. Last week, in part one, Jason Segedy challenged the advocates of “managed decline.” Part two explores the new policy ideas leaders in Akron are using to spur growth in housing and residents.
AKRON, Ohio—There is much discussion about the decline of the Rust Belt—in capital, jobs, influence, and most especially, residents. But the one thing that America’s post-industrial Rust Belt cities do not have a shortage of is vacant urban land ready for residential redevelopment. As the population has declined over the past 70 years, tens of thousands of residential structures have gone through a long and tortuous cycle of neglect, vacancy, abandonment, and tax delinquency, culminating in demolition.
By 2017, Detroit had lost 64 percent of its peak population; Youngstown lost 62 percent; Cleveland lost 58 percent; Buffalo lost 55 percent; and Akron lost 32 percent.
The sheer number of vacant parcels in the hardest-hit of these cities is staggering. In Youngstown, there are 23,831 vacant lots, or 38 percent of all parcels in the city. In Detroit, there are 116,378 vacant lots, or 31 percent of all parcels in the city.
The surfeit of vacant parcels is both a huge opportunity and challenge. The cost of simply managing, mowing, and maintaining these properties can be daunting, especially for cash-strapped local governments with fiscal difficulties of their own. As such, cities have ample incentive to get these properties into private hands, whether those be the hands of next-door neighbors, community development corporations, or real estate developers.
From a land-availability standpoint, the opportunities to build new urban housing are nearly boundless. In Akron, the city alone owns over 1,400 vacant residential lots, and the Summit County Land Bank owns 500 more.
Residential lots that once contained houses are not the only places that new housing can be built. Vacant school sites can be particularly attractive for residential development, given their sheer size and often strategic locations. As the enrollment in the Akron Public Schools has dropped by nearly one-third in the past 20 years, the City of Akron has begun acquiring vacant school sites, between three and eleven acres in size, for future residential reuse. Even in a mid-sized city like Akron, thousands of new houses and apartment units can be built on the land that is already under public control.
But who is going to buy these houses? To answer that question, we need to talk about the real estate market.
How the Urban Real Estate Market Works
The real estate market boils down to supply, demand, and of course, location, location, location.
Before we get into specifics, let’s establish a few things about urban housing:
- A person cannot buy a house that does not exist, so we need supply of marketable product in the city;
- People can just as easily move from a suburb to the city, as they did from the city to a suburb, provided there is demand to do so;
- Demand for urban housing has nothing to do with whether or not the city needs more jobs, because prospective home buyers already have jobs.
In many Rust Belt metros, there is an oversupply of housing in the regional real estate market. Northeast Ohio is a textbook example of this. This 12-county region of nearly 4 million residents, containing Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown, has lost 7 percent of its population since 1970, yet it has seen massive suburban sprawl, with an additional 250 square miles of land developed for residential use over that same period. The oversupply of housing, coupled with low overall demand, leads to depressed home values, and contributes to vacant housing in the core cities, as middle-income buyers filter from older to newer housing.
But this isn’t a complete picture. While there is an oversupply of housing in the region, there is an undersupply of saleable housing in the urban market. A scrapyard technically has a large supply of cars, but none of them are drivable. A similar situation exists in the urban housing market. All of the high-quality older homes, in the desirable neighborhoods, are already occupied and cared-for, leaving behind a large stock of defunct and obsolete vacant housing which no one wants, that is slowly rotting away.
There are two other things that you need to know about housing markets in Rust Belt cities.
The first is that the housing is old. Cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Rochester contain the oldest overall stock of housing in the nation. These are places where close to 80 percent or more of the housing was built before 1960. Some of the old houses are great (I live in one of them), but many of them are not marketable, which is one of the reasons why these cities are shrinking. There is a self-reinforcing vicious cycle at work: Because there is not a lot of demand, new housing is not built in the city; and because there is little new housing available, no one wants to move there.
Some people love older houses and have the time, energy, and money that it takes to properly maintain them. Many others do not—and, as such, they are probably not going to find what they are looking for in the urban market. Cities which fail to update their housing stock are losing out on a huge number of potential buyers, due to lack of supply.
The second thing to know is that housing prices are low—often too low. The median value of an owner-occupied house in Buffalo is $83,500. In Cleveland it is $66,800. In Detroit, it is $43,500. And these are owner-occupied houses. Once rental properties are factored in, the average sales price for a home is even lower. Price points like this are not even close to what it costs to build a brand-new house.
When houses begin selling for less than $50,000, they have essentially reached the point where it is no longer worthwhile to maintain them. No one is going to buy a house for $10,000, and put $60,000 into renovating it, only to have it sell for $40,000. A $10,000 house is not an asset. It is a liability.
In order to unlock latent demand for urban living, the first thing that a city needs to do is to increase the supply of marketable housing. In Akron, we have tackled this problem by launching a citywide, 15 year, 100 percent residential property tax abatement program. Any new house or apartment built anywhere in the city is eligible to be exempted from property taxes for 15 years, and any renovations of existing houses or apartments, totaling over $5,000, which contribute to the taxable value of the property, are eligible to be exempted.
This powerful incentive, which helps bridge the gap between the cost of new construction and the sales price of the home, is already reaping dividends. In 2015, over 500 houses in Akron were demolished, while less than 10 were built. Since the residential property tax abatement program was launched in April 2017, there are nearly 1,000 housing units (both single-family and multi-family) that are in varying stages of development throughout the city.
Supply is one piece of the puzzle. Demand is another. People often ask me “Where are all of these new people going to come from?” My answer is “They are already here.” There are nearly four million people living within 50 miles of downtown Akron. If we build an attractive enough community, we can compete for them. The roads run in both directions.
Generating demand for urban living is a complicated topic, and space does not allow me to do it justice here. Suffice it to say that it involves doing dozens of things to make the city look and feel better—improving public safety, repairing neglected infrastructure, reforming zoning and urban design codes, improving schools, and enhancing neighborhood business districts—to name just a few.
People often mistakenly conflate housing demand with job creation. “How are you going to get more people in the city without more jobs?”, they ask. But the fact that the city needs more jobs, or better-paying jobs, is a completely separate issue. The prospective buyers of urban homes living in nearby suburbs already have jobs. Eighty-one percent of the people who work in Akron, and earn over $40,000 a year, do not live in Akron. If we reduced that number to 50 percent, the city would gain thousands of new middle-class residents.
Finally, as we all know, real estate ultimately comes down to location. Not all vacant lots are created equal. The likelihood that a new house or apartment will be built on a given vacant parcel is heavily dependent upon where it is located. Housing demand, even within the urban market, varies greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. One of the strategic challenges for a city is to identify and successfully market vacant properties to developers—particularly those located in “middle neighborhoods”—places which are neither firing on all cylinders, nor experiencing widespread decline. These are the most important neighborhoods in a city from a redevelopment standpoint, because they are at a tipping point and will either change for the better, or for the worse.
Same Old Challenges Need New Answers
When land is available, and when sufficient market demand exists, there are still many challenges that cities which are seeking to build new housing must work hard to overcome.
One set of hurdles involves financing. Multi-family projects, particularly those that involve renovating older buildings, can encounter daunting challenges in terms of building the capital stack needed to implement a complicated project, which may include everything from conventional bank loans, to state and federal historic tax credits, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, HUD 108 loans, and Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) packages offered by local governments.
For single-family housing projects, it can often be difficult to find the comparable sales transactions required to generate the appraisals needed to secure financing for the project. Lenders and investors are often reluctant to invest in unproven urban markets, so developers and municipal governments often need to collaborate and work tirelessly to sell these projects to risk-averse lenders.
Administrative procedures can present another set of challenges. Developers must often run the gauntlet through a series of Byzantine administrative processes involving zoning, subdivision regulations, street and public utilities design standards, planning commissions, urban design and historic preservation commissions, and city councils. Even in the most cooperative and receptive municipal environment, these processes take time and resources to navigate.
Zoning codes and subdivision regulations, even in older cities with densely-developed, traditional neighborhoods, often contain suburban-style default requirements regarding setbacks, lot sizes, and parking. Similarly, civil engineers, public works managers, and fire departments frequently create street design standards that make building new neighborhoods with the design attributes of old neighborhoods, such as smaller lots, and narrower streets and sidewalks, a challenge.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all in successfully executing a new housing project involves people.
City councils usually have the final say in authorizing the sale of publicly-owned land, and in granting zoning variances. Navigating the complex politics of a city council, and getting to know and work with the various personalities can take a lot of time, energy, and effort.
Neighbors and nearby property-owners typically have a wide variety of reactions to new housing. Some are very supportive, while others are extremely hostile.
Although you might think that people living in neighborhoods with a large number of abandoned houses and vacant lots would be thrilled to see new houses being built, you might be surprised to learn how often this is not the case. Sometimes neighbors prefer to have the vacant lot remain as green space. Sometimes they worry that the new housing will not be expensive enough, and will bring their property values down. Other times, they worry that the new housing will be too expensive, and will bring their property values (and taxes) up.
When it comes to new housing, everyone is a critic. I have heard people complain that housing which they will never live in is too dense; that housing which they will never purchase is too expensive; that housing which they will never be inconvenienced by will generate too much traffic; and that housing which they will never look at is not architecturally appealing.
After 23 years as an urban planner, I can honestly report to you that, contrary to popular belief, most people are strongly in favor of heavy-handed and draconian government regulation of private property—as long as it is someone else’s private property, and not their own.
Residents and community activists who are opposed to new housing often demonize the real estate development profession as being “greedy”, overlooking the fact that their own home was developed by a developer, built by a builder, and sold by a realtor—most likely for a profit. This isn’t to argue that every development professional is a white knight, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of people who work in the real estate and construction sectors are not the enemy of neighborhoods. Without them, there would be no neighborhoods.
When new housing is proposed, many people who don’t even live in the neighborhood will come out of the woodwork to oppose it. Sometimes they provoke class conflict by seizing upon the dubious marketing term “luxury housing.” This is especially true of far-left activists and academics, many of whom reflexively label any new development in a lower or middle-income neighborhood as “gentrification.”
The only reason that I continue to use that word is because other people use it. But it has become a useless word, and means so many different things to so many different people that it is no longer of any descriptive value.
People who describe any new market-rate housing as gentrification need to get their story straight, because they often have contradictory, and self-refuting notions about urban redevelopment. They often claim to want to see economic and racial integration, but oppose the new housing in lower-income or minority neighborhoods which could actually bring it about.
I have heard self-described gentrification opponents claim that a new housing development will be home to people who “do not look like” those who live in the neighborhood, while simultaneously calling for diversity and inclusion; and remaining blissfully unaware of the irony that they are the ones who are making stereotypical, unwarranted assumptions about the characteristics of those who will buy the new houses in the first place.
Outside activists who come into a neighborhood and invoke the bogeyman of “gentrification” are denying opportunity to nearby residents who could benefit from the new housing, discouraging private investment in places that need it, and serving to further urban decline in the community.
The Economist recently described this dynamic well:
Those who bemoan segregation and gentrification simultaneously risk contradiction…[Gentrification] boosts racial and economic integration. It can dilute the concentration of poverty—which a mountain of economic and sociological literature has linked to all manner of poor outcomes…Gentrification steers cash into deprived neighbourhoods and brings people into depopulated areas through market forces, all without the necessity of governmental intervention.
There is little empirical evidence that gentrification has led to the displacement of people living in the urban neighborhoods of the Rust Belt. On the other hand, there is incontrovertible proof that thousands of middle-class residents are displaced by urban decline every year in these cities. A shrinking city, with a declining tax base, that is getting poorer will help no one—the poor least of all.
Alan Mallach, in his new book The Divided City, explains, at length, why the changes occurring in a handful of gentrifying neighborhoods in Rust Belt cities, are on balance, good for these places, and also makes the point that these positive changes are dwarfed by the economic and social decline that is happening elsewhere in these cities. We need more gentrification in the Rust Belt (if you insist on calling it that), not less.
New housing can ultimately bring equity and opportunity back to urban neighborhoods. When middle-class people return to the city, they have disposable income that can help create markets for retail and small business, which, in turn, provide basic services and job opportunities for the urban poor. Business districts and housing markets, long dormant, begin to approach at least minimum levels of functionality and attractiveness to prospective entrepreneurs, investors, and residents.
For existing urban homeowners, the gradual rise in property values, in areas with extremely depressed home prices, often means the difference between a house ultimately being rehabilitated or being demolished. So urban infill housing is not just about building new homes—it is also about creating market incentives to preserve and restore the old ones.
The construction of new houses, one at a time, may not be the sexiest of urban development topics, but it is the most fundamental. People are the lifeblood of any city. A city exists, first and foremost, for the people who live in it. Each humble house that is built forms one more building block of a great place.
Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the city of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.
Editor’s Note: This is part one in a two-part series on Rust Belt urban revitalization. Next week, return for part two on the new policy ideas leaders in Akron are using to spur growth in housing and residents.
AKRON, Ohio—A decade ago, the concept of “smart decline” began to gain serious traction in the post-industrial cities of the Rust Belt, particularly in places like Detroit and Youngstown.
The concept makes some theoretical sense. Nearly every economic and social trend in the United States since the 1950s has produced significant headwinds for the cities of this region. Many people believe that those trends are going to continue indefinitely. If you’re not going to grow, why not be realistic about your prospects, and begin to work toward mothballing infrastructure and relocating residents from declining neighborhoods?
There is an argument to be made that this is a pragmatic approach to present-day economic realities. But one could also argue that managed decline is fatalistic, and that it can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Are Rust Belt cities simply hapless victims, subject to the whims of the fates? Or can wise leadership, creativity, and strategic planning create demand to live in a place, and bring about a reversal of fortunes? People who remember Brooklyn in 1977, or East Berlin in 1983, would probably agree that places can change in dramatic and unexpected ways, and that it is sometimes darkest before the dawn.
As Cleveland State University’s Richey Piiparinen puts it, “Perfecting managed decline. . .[assumes] that yesterday’s trend lines will carry on indefinitely. But we don’t know the future. Rust Belt cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.”
Managing decline effectively requires a level of organizational efficiency and sophistication that eludes most declining places. It is much harder work than managing growth. Take Detroit, for example. Detroit talked about managed decline for years, but never really did it. To imagine that a place like circa-2008 Detroit, which did not even have the resources to adequately maintain core public services like fire protection, or to keep the streetlights on, could have somehow been able to implement a highly-complex, top-down program of resident relocation and infrastructure removal, defies credulity. It was never going to happen.
Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.
Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….
Under Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership, Detroit has rejected “smart decline,” and it is beginning to reap dividends. Back in 2010, a few years before Duggan was elected, Dan Gilbert moved the headquarters of Quicken Loans to downtown Detroit, lighting the spark for a wave of private investment which would follow. That wave is continuing to gain momentum. In June, Ford Motor Company announced that it was buying the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station, a symbol of Rust Belt decay if there ever was one, and restoring it as a job hub for 2,500 workers—an announcement that created a sense of hope across the entire city.
Rather than embracing decline, Duggan ran under a slogan of “Every neighborhood has a future.” He was elected by a 72 percent landslide in 2017. People have begun to move back to Detroit’s urban core for the first time in several generations.
Detroit still has a long way to go. Even as the core revitalizes, most of the city’s outer neighborhoods continue to disintegrate and the population loss continues. But there has been an undeniable sea change in terms of local leaders coming to believe that the city can once again be a place where people who have a choice would want to live.
The point is an important one. While many cities never explicitly bought into the fatalism of the “smart decline” philosophy, they still embraced a variant of it. Over the past three decades, Rust Belt cities have spent billions of dollars on stadiums, convention centers, casinos, and economic development incentives, accepting the premise that becoming an entertainment hub for suburbanites and attracting jobs that would be filled by commuters was probably the best that they could ever hope for. The idea that the city could ever again be a place where people who had a choice would want to live was seen as naive and unrealistic. What about crime? What about the schools? The vast majority of the leaders of the major institutions in these cities didn’t even live in the city themselves. If they didn’t believe in the place enough to live there, who else would?
It is refreshing to see city leaders fighting for the new housing that will help to revitalize and restore their neighborhoods. Akron’s Mayor Dan Horrigan, my boss, has established a bold goal of growing the city’s current population of 198,000 back to 250,000 by 2050. He unequivocally states that “I refuse to manage this city’s decline.”
To combat decline in Akron, we are focusing on the key aspect of attracting new residents—housing. To do this, the city is creating tax incentives for renovations of older, low-value housing stock and attracting suburbanites back to urban neighborhoods, even if they work outside city limits. We also must change attitudes around new development and supposed “gentrification,” a term that may be relevant in booming coastal cities, but is misleading in the Rust Belt context.
In a city with a declining stock of marketable housing, building new housing is mission-critical. Without it, the city is doomed to continue to lose population and wealth.
This isn’t about chasing a number. A chronically shrinking population and the concomitant loss of household wealth has incredibly important ramifications for a city’s tax base, employment base, and school performance; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and basic services; the delivery of public services; and the overall well-being and health of its residents.
Cities have the same amount of infrastructure to maintain and the same level of public services to provide, whether they grow or shrink. Permanent contraction of the population means the same amount of services to pay for, with less people to help share the cost of paying for them.
In fact, urban decline often means paying for even more city services than before, because the poverty and abandonment that comes along with decline is expensive—often necessitating more robust police and fire protection, demolition of vacant buildings, maintenance of vacant lots, and the provision of additional social services for the poor.
As neighborhoods decline and hollow-out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population—the jobs disappear, the retail disappears—relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible suburban locale.
Where a person lays their head each night matters. People will always be far more invested in the place that they actually live, than the one in which they work, shop, or watch a ballgame. It is time for the cities of the Rust Belt to recognize this, to put housing first, and to vigorously compete with the suburbs as a place to live. Our residents, both existing and future, deserve no less.
Jason Segedy is Director of Planning and Urban Development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground. A lifelong resident of Akron’s west side, Jason is committed to the city, its people, and its neighborhoods. His passion is creating great places and spaces where Akronites can live, work, and play.