Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.
There are more than a few ghosts left behind by Johns Hopkins, the 19th-century Baltimore businessman; the man himself remains a generally benevolent apparition, others veritable poltergeists. Johns Hopkins is the ghost of a better Christmas Past and his institutional legacy the best hope for Christmas Future but there haven’t been many lessons learned in the interim and Ignorance and Want attend constantly to the story of that great and unfortunate city.
As for Hopkins’ biographer, Antero Pietila’s own story is a fascinating later piece of the churn of immigration to Baltimore: a Finn who arrived in the United States at 20, he was employed by The Baltimore Sun a mere four years later in 1969 and wrote for them for 35 years, with stints spent at the Sun’s bureaus in Johannesburg and Moscow (just that fact is tangible evidence of Baltimore’s institutional decline).
The Baltimore Sun didn’t mismanage itself into the closure of all of its foreign bureaus; it was the casualty of broader disastrous systemic trends in journalism, just as Baltimore at large is the grievous victim of broader deindustrialization. It boasts problems of corruption and historical racism which were its own devising to be sure. These were easier to handle or ignore when the city was relatively successful, impossible to avoid when it began to decline.
It rose on the back of a variety of industries, many of which Johns Hopkins had an early hand in or were linked to his principal asset, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The city reached a peak in the postwar era with a population over 900,000. Long one of the largest of American cities its population declined beginning in the 1960s; enterprises fled or atrophied.
As you know, “Eds-and-Meds” is the revitalization strategy for every single down-at-heels American city, and not unreasonably so, but in few are these hooks hung so dramatically on a single educational and medical institution. Johns Hopkins University is the largest private sector employer in Baltimore and its Health System the third. Pietila writes:
The Hopkins legacy straddles two realities. His pathfinding First World institutions are islands of excellence in a city that rewards mediocrity and increasingly exhibits Third World dysfunctions. Killing and drug addiction are out of control, bureaucracies are faltering amid corruption and falling tax revenues, and kids drop out of school, or are graduated without being able to read or write.
Hopkins was a teetotaling Quaker who achieved an early start bartering his products for whiskey which he sold as “Hopkins’ Best.” He was a strikingly successful businessman whose investments soon grew to involve railroads, steamships, banking, insurance, and more. He was also an Abolitionist in a city with unambiguous southern sympathies. He was a forward-thinking man, and many ensured that his legacy would be foiled in varied ways.
His 1870 bequest of $7 million to establish a university and hospital was the largest to educational institutions in American history to that date. His specifications for a hospital that treated patients regardless of color (and a university that allowed them similarly) were briefly observed—and then entirely ignored. In 1887 the first African-American student was admitted to the University; the second was admitted after World War II. The first African-American MD graduated in 1967. There were initially integrated wards at the Hopkins Hospital: these were subsequently segregated.
The trouble in Baltimore is that its intensive segregation was often implemented decades after the Civil War. Downtown featured a diverse set of businesses and institutions as late as 1900, which were steadily purged. An African-American school opened in 1889 and was evicted 13 years later. In 1903, a mob attached a black Masonic temple. The Baltimore fire of 1904 encouraged mass relocation elsewhere. By the 1950s, the only establishments black diners could patronize in downtown Baltimore were the Greyhound bus terminal, railroad stations, and the YMCA. The first black police officer was hired only in 1937. Maryland belatedly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1973 (which had granted equal rights with three-quarters of the states in 1870).
Attempts to ferret out racial mixing took on almost farcical aspects. The mainly African-American business district on Pennsylvania Avenue had plenty of bars with a “black” liquor license patronized by whites. The city cracked down on this abomination in the early 1950s. In whiplash fashion, this was only a few years before Baltimore’s sweeping school desegregation in 1954.
New Deal redlining, a kind of nonsensical sociological scientism courtesy of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, exacerbated these problems. It’s at times framed inaccurately as entirely a racial classification: older white neighborhoods were also redlined, with their age regarded as an inevitable source of decay, but there’s no question that African Americans suffered worst as they literally couldn’t leave. Pietila quotes a 1943 New York Times report that “in 1943 that Baltimore’s estimated two hundred thousand blacks, are about 20 percent of the total population, were compressed to neighborhoods comprising less than four square miles of the city’s total 78.6.”
Every time something looked better in Baltimore some fresh problem seemed to bedevil it. The end of segregation was chased closely by widespread blockbusting and land-installment contract swindles, large-scale public housing construction and frequent demolition for misbegotten urban renewal.
One understated consequence of the end of segregation was growing black flight to the suburbs: those who could get out of troubled neighborhoods did, generally leaving behind the poorest of residents.
* * *
One of these neighborhoods was the troubled location of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Originally a “semirural nuisance district” it was host to a shifting variety of populations, Irish, German, Eastern European Jewish and then African-American. One nearby pocket, Little Bohemia, was studded by breweries. The hospital was marooned amidst slums by the 1970s.
It was a potent symbol of inequality. Pietila writes, “The ten census tracks surrounding one of the world’s premier hospitals had one doctor serving six thousand people—or fifteen serving a population of a hundred thousand—whereas national average was one doctor for 750 patients.”
The hospital’s location was in trouble in an age of medical specialization that was increasingly marketable on a national scale:
If Hopkins—and Baltimore—did not provide the desired services and amenities, rival hospitals in other cities were eager to step in. In any case, why would any important person want to come to Hopkins? True, the citadel of hope was a bastion of breakthroughs and excellence. But nothing can erase the stigma of its location smack in the midst of squalor and abandoned buildings, surrounded by poor blacks of all ages whose mere presence and demeanor some visitors viewed as threatening.
Hopkins considered relocating but one obvious spot, the land around the university in more stable North Baltimore was already built up. A move to Columbia, Maryland, was mulled but didn’t happen. Redevelopment schemes came and went, leaving mainly empty lots. A Sheraton was built in 1960 which acquired a reputation as Baltimore’s worst hotel. Some homes were demolished to build nurse-and-doctor dormitories. Redevelopment only accelerated recently, with a Residence Inn constructed nearby.
There is an unfortunate and invidious pattern in Baltimore, starved for any development, of endemic giveaways for any scraps of investment, generally benefitting wealthy institutions or developers. Property tax forgiveness for decades is often the carrot inducing development. Grants intended to foster organic development flow to those with no need of them.
The Residence Inn project received the largest 2018 grant from a state-established Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, whose funds have generally been awarded to much smaller increments for neighborhood improvements. These funds were disbursed by the Board of Estimate lead by Baltimore’s mayor Catherine Pugh.
Pugh, who resigned, in early May, was the focus of a scandal cartoonish even by Baltimore’s very low standards, which has developed even since this book’s quite recent publication. While serving on the Board of Directors of the University of Maryland Medical system, she arranged the sale of 100,000 copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books to the system for $500,000. This would make her one of the most successful children’s authors in the country, with the bill footed not by a publisher but a medical system. There were no competitive processes anywhere near this arrangement and several members of the board made substantial donations and loans to Pugh’s election campaign. It required months and the seeming unanimity of every elected official in Maryland to induce Pugh to resign.
Pugh won election in 2015 running against a disgraced former mayor, Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2007 as part of a plea bargain after a guilty verdict at trial for a variety of unreported gifts while in office.
Corruption is heavily entrenched at multiple levels and institutions in the city, from schools to community development programs. We are well familiar with considerable problems of corruption in the Baltimore Police. Then-U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein prosecuted the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force’s shocking record of organized theft. He commented. “This is not about aggressive policing, it is about a criminal conspiracy. These are really simply robberies by people wearing police uniforms.”
The unquestionable and dire problems of the Baltimore police, from corruption to excess violence have lead to dangerous pendulum swings in other directions. Alex McGIllis recently wrote an excellent profile of the consequences of hands-off policing after the Freddie Grey death, with spiking crime rates the reward to those convinced that the problem is entirely the police or “root causes” of poverty, and not lawbreakers that increasingly are not intercepted.
* * *
It’s not all terrible in Baltimore now or throughout this past. Pietila encapsulates Baltimore’s appeal well, writing about the city in the troublesome 1970s:
Despite a steady exodus to nearby counties, many Baltimoreans found the city as comfortable as a pair of worn-out slippers. It was a nickel city, big enough, cheap, and unpretentious. Washington down the road was a dime city. Each year Straw Hat Day on May 15 marked the return of straw boaters and seersucker attires to be worn until Labor Day. Summertime fun included snoballs, cheap bleacher seats at Memorial Stadium where the Orioles played, ad visits to neighborhood crab houses where waitresses called everyone “hon” and where families hammered steaming crustaceans at long newspaper-covered tables groaning under pitchers of beer.
Baltimore has been home to a striking set of personalities: Poe (dead likely of excess drink amidst a political scam), Mencken, Fitzgerald, Eubie Blake, Billie Holliday, John Waters, Philip Glass, John Barth.
The university plays a somewhat smaller role in this narrative than the hospital does, but it yields many nuggets of interest, from Woodrow Wilson to William Sloane Coffin to Alger Hiss to Chester Wickwire, the William Sloane Coffin of Baltimore. The university was not a draw for revelry for much of its history, or my own attendance. Barth wrote, semi-autobiographically in The Floating Opera: “One thing more, which perhaps distinguished my crowd from similarly exuberant groups of undergraduates at other colleges at the time: those of us who didn’t flunk out got an education—it is difficult to remain long at Hopkins and escape education.”
Baltimore remains a city with an extraordinarily excellent and walkable housing stock, full of historic neighborhoods that have seen good use and many more that have not.
The largely anonymous Inner Harbor district did launch a pattern of development that radiated south and eastward. It’s a city that has attracted gentrification agonies but one according closely to Jason Segedy’s observations about the forgotten problems of urban America—where more neighborhoods are threatened by collapse and extreme concentrated poverty than by an influx of the affluent. A few neighborhoods have changed visibly in the last 15 years, but many more seem frozen in time.
There are no easy solutions to Baltimore’s many intense problems, but Pietila’s account will ensure you don’t stop caring.
Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.
I recently read and reviewed Tim Carney’s excellent book Alienated America, a sort of combination of the “how we got Trump” genre with the sociological works of researchers like Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. Carney’s exploration of the Trump phenomenon, and his grappling with the timeless question of economic security versus personal responsibility in regard to the formation of virtue, family, and community, are among the best you’ll find. There is a deeper subtext in his book, however, that is not excavated. But first, a quick recap.
As in most treatments of inequality, geographic immobility, deindustrialization, and related issues, Alienated America features the requisite visits to faded old towns with ghostly main streets, and paeans to the blue-collar jobs that once allowed men with high school educations to comfortably own homes, raise families, and retire with pensions.
Through a long analysis, including a fascinating visit to a fracking camp in North Dakota—awash in money but utterly lacking in neighborliness and community—Carney concludes that wealth alone does not produce human flourishing. It is rather community and what social researchers call “civil society” that makes the American Dream possible. Obviously, money helps, but it is not sufficient, nor, in Carney’s telling, even necessary. For much of America, especially less affluent places, the primary institution of community and civil society is the church. While acknowledging that there is a chicken-and-egg problem here, and a problem of reinforcing cycles and virtuous circles, Carney nonetheless deems an economic, or “materialist,” explanation of American civic and family decline insufficient. The revival of the American Dream requires the re-churching of America.
This may well be largely true for places that are struggling; struggling to keep family and community intact in the face of deteriorating economic opportunity and the withering of old community institutions and social norms. But here’s the rub: some of the places Carney visits and alludes to are not exactly “struggling.” This is euphemism; these places are destroyed, ruined, vast swaths of their built environments far beyond the hope of revitalization.
The surfeit of Detroit “ruin porn” and the counterexamples of hipster homesteaders and craft businesses have recently been steering the Rust Belt narrative from one of terminal decline to one of scrappy, unlikely renewal. But the growth of a few Detroit or Youngstown neighborhoods, or the eds-and-meds reinvention of a few towns or inner-ring suburbs, is more like the growing of moss on a dead log than the sprouting of a new shoot. It does not presage comprehensive renewal, and it is not likely to bring the old community back, much less the old way of life.
Carney’s juxtaposition of old industrial towns, once overflowing with family and community life, to fracking camps is fascinating for a different reason than the one he gives: one can argue that many of these places where the American Dream is dead are, essentially, fracking camps writ large. The fact that they once possessed vibrant civil society—ethnic and social clubs, Little Leagues, union halls, tightly-knit public schools—is deceiving. In reality, they were often glorified company towns, with funding or tax revenue from the dominant employer flowing to and propping up these institutions of civil society. In some cases, even housing was built, cheaply, by employers. Gary, Indiana, famous once for steel and now for spectacular urban decline, was in fact founded by a steel company.
— Jason Segedy 🇺🇸 🇭🇺🇮🇹 (@JasonSzegedi) April 4, 2019
While to the passing eye, Gary or Carney’s example of Fayette City, Pennsylvania (in his words, it’s “not a city; It’s barely even a town. It’s a former town”) look like cities, they may be closer to simulacra of cities—unlike New York City or Old Town Alexandria, for example, they never managed to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them. Indeed, large numbers of human settlements never do, and never have. A one-dimensional, economically undiversified city is essentially a housing tract for a factory or a wharf or whatever industry drives its economy. What is left when that economic engine breaks down? A company town without a company. This is the fate that has befallen many of America’s declining places, and it is hard to argue that this economic reality doesn’t play a direct role in the decline of the family and of civil society. Is this a “materialist” explanation? Perhaps. But it may also be true.
There are those who admirably hope and work for revival, for restoration in places like Gary, Detroit, or any number of gutted small towns. But many of the buildings in these ghostly, empty blocks, even with their mighty and almost pleasantly timeworn facades, are far beyond the point where renovation is economical. For now, poverty is a sort of preservative. More money, for many hollowed-out cities, would simply mean more demolition.
To urbanist and declinist James Howard Kunstler, it may simply be the case that the national gold rush of petroleum-fueled industrial growth is over. If this is the case, the crisis of declining America is a structural, inexorable economic reality on the order of the Industrial Revolution itself.
It is true that countless dying cities and towns across America were and are “home”—and there is “a non-material aspect to home…that a purely materialist worldview can’t adequately express.” But Gary or Fayette City would never have been home had there not been a purely material reason for their existence. Perhaps cities—like people, like organisms—can die, and should be allowed to. Perhaps, counterintuitively, allowing them to die will also allow us to feel sadness and loss and humility, to acknowledge that technocratic tinkering is not a cure-all for the afflictions of being human in a broken world.
Urban blight along Broadway, Gary’s main commercial boulevard.
It would take a monster not to feel empathy or even vicarious loss surveying the ruins. It is almost necessary to remind oneself that Google Maps’ Street View is not an open-world apocalyptic video game. Perusing Gary’s blighted Broadway, you will find many buildings sporting glass blocks and lightbulb-lined marquees, which must once have given the strip quite a modern and glamorous feel. Occasionally, in neighborhoods like this, one happens upon a stray building that is still clearly inhabited and maintained, surrounded by desolation. Within living memory, these were new, sparkling places, with a beguiling appearance of permanence. No doubt there are people who intended to comfortably retire here, and other people who intended to sell and move and are now underwater.
Can the American Dream be resurrected in such an environment, in a settlement that is essentially a housing tract with no attendant need for workers? Money alone may not translate into community, but we also may have a need for at least a base level of economic and psychological security. Or at least hope for such security. Perhaps the difference between the hardship of the pre-industrial era, and the decaying remnants of the industrial era, is hope. No amount of municipal reform or insightful urban policy or federal funding or urban farming or homesteading is going to turn back the clock on all of America’s gutted main streets, vanishing rural communities, or Rust Belt company towns. And most people know it.
This is not a reality anyone should like—or even accept without struggle. It is particularly difficult for a person of faith to believe that faith, community, and other genuine human goods can be mere epiphenomena of passing economic conditions. Yet that may simply be the case. After all, the Gospel makes no promises of worldly affluence, and “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” is not a Bible verse.
The unwinding of rural and post-industrial America is a human tragedy, not to be written off, much less tacitly celebrated. Yet the facts of the post-industrial landscape may not care about remaining working-class feelings. This does not mean that any of these places “deserve to die.” But it may well mean that their collapse is beyond the ability of policy—or church—to alter.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
There’s a pretty wide divide between the Fairfaxes.
That’s one thing I’ve learned when my mother moved, quite unintentionally, from our hometown in Virginia across the country to a small town north of San Francisco that just happens to bear the same name: Fairfax. Having recently visiting my mother’s new home for the second time in less than a year, I’m getting pretty well-acquainted with this Bay Area community. Though there’s much for this conservative child of the Commonwealth to find, well, peculiar about this oasis of the Left, I’ve also been impressed by how much the California Fairfax seems to get right.
The two cities, perhaps unsurprisingly, share a common ancestor: the old English noble family of Lord Fairfax. The Virginia city is named after Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, whom King Charles awarded 5,000,000 acres of land in northern Virginia in the seventeenth century. Her California counterpart is named after a descendant of Thomas Fairfax, Charles Snowden Fairfax, who moved to Marin County from Virginia in the 1850s. He maintained a famous, widely-visited residence and became active in county and later state politics.
Both Fairfaxes are firmly in the pocket of the Democratic Party, though my hometown still possesses a sizeable conservative minority—it voted for a Republican presidential candidate as recently as 2000 (voters in Virginia don’t register with a party), and Trump received 31 percent of the vote in 2016. Compare that to Fairfax, California, where Trump received less than eight percent of the vote, and where only about 27 percent of the population are registered Republicans. Both towns are lauded as ideal locations—Forbes in 2009 named the Virginia city, located in the second wealthiest county in America, as No. 3 in the “Top 25 Places to Live Well.” The California Fairfax, in turn, is considered one of the best places to live in Marin County, which in 2010 had the fifth highest income per capita in the United States.
After these historical, political and economic similarities, things start to diverge pretty quickly. Fairfax, Virginia is increasingly diverse—though still predominantly white, there are sizeable minority communities of Asians (15 percent), Hispanics (15 percent), and Blacks/African-Americans (5 percent). Her California cousin is 85 percent non-Hispanic white. In the Virginia municipality, one may find more than fifty churches, encompassing just about every major Christian denomination, “conservative” or “liberal,” as well as two synagogues. In the California town, there are only three churches. To be fair, it is much smaller town, with only 7,500 residents, compared to 25,000 people residing in Virginia. Even so, it is obviously a much less religious place. This may in part be explained by the influence of hippie culture—many flower-children moved out to Marin County, and one of Fairfax’s claims to fame is that members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead played a pickup softball game on a local field.
Yet despite its more liberal, less religious identity, Fairfax, California, has many laudable traits. The town maintains ordinances against chain stores, meaning that most everything shop and vendor is unique and locally-owned, with perhaps the exception of a single 7-11. Settled in the 1800s and incorporated in 1893, it retains a commendable historical charm, with many old, well-maintained buildings. California Fairfax residents are also unparalleled in their environmental-consciousness, promoting eco-friendly policies that seek to preserve the majestic natural beauty of the hills and forests that surround the town. There is a notable lack of cell phone towers in town—there’s no reception at my mom’s house, and one can’t pick up a signal until one is practically out of town. Cycling is very popular here, and there are many cafes and bars that cater to bicyclists. The bumper sticker “I heart Fairfax” is ubiquitous, evincing the locality’s loyalty to community identity. Unlike the common perception of nearby Oakland, of which Gertrude Stein remarked, “there is no there there,” Fairfax has a very hearty “there.”
This, unfortunately, is less and less the case in my hometown in the Old Dominion. There is certainly a small but strong party of proud Fairfaxians—we still put on one of the best Fourth of July parades and fireworks shows in the country, I’d wager. We have a beautiful, several-block “Old Town Fairfax,” which has been around since around 1805, and was the site of multiple Civil War battles. But there are few people in Fairfax, Virginia, who, like my children, are fourth-generation residents (my mother’s father came to Virginia in the 1940s, and arrived in Fairfax County in the 1960s). Northern Virginia is largely a land of transplants, people from across the country who come for either federal jobs or occupations that directly support the federal government. Many of them are only here for a few years before moving onto another destination, either domestically or internationally. Children from these families have little sense of local identity, and many leave for other parts of the country after high school or college.
The distinction between the Fairfaxes is perhaps most palpable in the family of the man who married my mother last year (my father died in 2013 from cancer). My step-father originally hails from Fairfax, California, which explains why my mother sold her home in Virginia and moved to the Bay area. The two live on several acres of land with two homes, one for my mom and step-father, and one for his brother. Their father, a Danish immigrant who served in the U.S. Coast Guard, purchased the land in the 1950s. The two brothers—who exude a strong blue-collar, working-class ethic—both served in the military. My step-father now works in construction, while his brother, a retired machinist with incredible gifts as a handy-man, is in a never-ending cycle of repairing and refurbishing their shared property.
Neither have any intention of leaving, despite the fact that they are sitting on millions of dollars of land. When my wife asked my step-father if he had ever considered selling the property and moving somewhere less expensive, he looked at her like she had two heads. “We’re not leaving, the family will always live here,” he asserted. The brothers, whose conservativism on many things makes them a bit of an outlier, identify too strongly with this stronghold of blue California to ever leave. My step-father speaks proudly of the many homes in the town that he’s worked on, of local board meetings he’s petitioned going back to the 1970s, of his constant battles with the invasive, foreign weed scotch broom that covers much of Fairfax’s hills.
Perhaps part of the reason two working-class conservative guys can live in an unabashedly-liberal place like Fairfax, California, is because some things about the town overlap so seamlessly with the ethos of “main-street” conservatism. Here people know one another, many sharing histories going back generations. After Easter Mass, my wife asked a random passerby if he would take a picture of our family in front of the church—my step-father casually noted that the man had been one of his old neighbors, and that the man’s brother owned a popular, old Italian restaurant in town. People are proud to live here and uncompromisingly protective of preserving its identity and beauty. Ultimately, they recognize their community as something good that should be protected from radical societal or technological change. While there are plenty of things about this California township that make a conservative uneasy, perhaps there are more than a few things we can learn from it. Indeed, safeguarding an America for our children and grandchildren that is worth living in might depend on it.
Two days after the horrific fire at the most beloved Gothic cathedral in the world Prime Minister Philippe announced a competition to replace the spire. Why would we replace the historic cathedral spire unless it was ugly, poorly constructed, or incongruous with the cathedral? A few days later, we saw the first of many designs exhibiting a greenhouse and a glass and steel spire denuded of all reference to the masterpiece. What should be done with Notre Dame’s spire?
First we need to understand the history of the spire. An earlier spire in danger of falling was dismantled in 1786 and the French revolution assured that it was not rebuilt. Only when the cathedral was restored seventy years later was a new spire added. That second spire is the one that was destroyed during Holy Week.
The spire — in architectural terms, the flèche or arrow — is typically a metal tower with a conical roof placed at a crossing or on top of another tower. New Yorkers can see them on various churches throughout the city. At Notre Dame the flèche marked the crossing, where the nave and transept meet. It pointed up to the heavens like an arrow for which it is named.
The architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, created something new but in the original style. After a study of historic towers, he determined that Notre Dame required a flèche equal to the height of the main church body which is 150 feet tall. At 305 feet above the ground, its only rival in Paris until recently was the great spire by Eiffel. Thanks to the wonderful Parisian height limit the flèche can seen from around the city, most romantically from the banks of the Seine. A gray metallic pinnacle, the flèche seemed to grow organically out of the roof, while its design was in perfect keeping with the stained-glass windows and the flying buttresses below.
In the 1850s, the new spire was beautifully hand-crafted out of 50 tons of lead over a wooden armature weighing 180 tons. This hidden oak structure was part of the attic structure, which helps explain why the fire brought down the spire so quickly. The octagonal base of the spire was surrounded by larger than life statues of the apostles and evangelists, fortuitously removed before the fire. Above them, two levels of pointed arches were crowned by gables and gargoyles. Tall pinnacles at the corners ring the pièce de résistance, the tall conical roof covered with croqs or crockets, inspired by the “crook” of a bishop. On top of the croq covered roof is a large cross topped by a coq (rooster).
The spire’s delicate and open tracery contrasted with the massive stone of the nave while the spire’s height and location balanced out the front two towers. Artists throughout the centuries have captured the elegance and picturesque quality of Viollet’s spire from around the city. Not all Gothic cathedrals have a spire at the crossing, and this is one of the many elements that sets Notre Dame and Viollet-le-Duc’s design masterfully apart.
One does not have to be a Gothicist to appreciate Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of Notre Dame. One of the most influential architects of the 19th century, he is best known for his restorations and harmonious additions to Gothic structures. He has also been criticized by historians and purists for taking liberties with historic buildings and “improving” them rather than merely rebuilding them. In this, Viollet did what most talented architects in the Gothic period would have done. Perhaps his great sin was to call a sympathetic addition a “restoration.” However, one does not have to agree with his theories of restoration to see that Viollet’s flèche at Notre Dame was an original yet seamless addition to a magnificent cathedral. Up until its fiery destruction, no sane person was calling for its removal.
Now what shall be done, with the flèche and indeed with much of the whole building needing to be restored? Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the architectural community want to build something new, something that looks 21st century. Why not a glass and steel tower, an asymmetrical shard, a diamond-tipped laser going up to the sky? Is that not what Viollet-le-Duc and the great Gothic architects before him would have done if they could have? Wouldn’t they have built in the spirit of the times?
Yes and no. Viollet and his forbears certainly sought to develop contemporary solutions for Gothic architecture such as missing spires. Sometimes this resulted in new designs, as it did in Viollet’s flèche, or modifications to the original, as it did in much of the rest of the cathedral. But they did so in humility towards the construction methods and artistry of the original. Yes, Viollet felt that he could make a better spire than the one that had been pulled down in 1786, but then he also knew how to speak the language of Gothic architecture fluently.
So why not allow contemporary architects to try their own hand at building a spire on top of the most important house of God in France? First, because Viollet’s spire is a great work of architecture on a world heritage site, and secondly because most contemporary architects couldn’t design Gothic to save their life. Those architects who have tried to design using the Gothic or Classical languages today will humbly admit the brilliance and timelessness of Viollet’s work. If you don’t agree, please name ten Gothic spires, from anywhere and anytime, that are considered more beautiful than Notre Dame’s spire.
This returns us to the original question of what to do with Notre Dame and all of the contemporary architects who cannot wait to get their hands on it? Notre Dame deserves a harmonious spire worthy of this great cathedral not an ugly, incongruous spike. As for the architects, they should have the freedom to experiment somewhere else.
Duncan Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, in the U.S., and an architect who focuses on church architecture.
Imagine you’re out for dinner with your friends. You order a large pizza. After fifteen minutes of eager anticipation, you are served bare pizza crust on a platter. In a bowl next to it is the mozzarella cheese; in another bowl the green peppers; in another bowl the diced tomatoes; in still another bowl, the mushrooms. You are rightly disappointed. Don’t they understand what a pizza is? All the toppings are supposed to be mixed together on the crust. That’s what makes a pizza so good: the mix.
Urban theorist Leon Krier once compared the city to a pizza. Just as you expect a pizza to have all the toppings in each slice, so you should expect to find all the basic elements that make for a good city in each of its neighborhoods. You should expect to enjoy a convenient, interesting, and lively mix of housing, office, retail, civic buildings, parks, and squares. Instead, in functional zoning it was decided that these elements were somehow incompatible and should therefore be physically separated from each other. Hence the housing subdivision in one place, the shopping mall in another place, and the office park in still another. The city hall cast at random on the side of an arterial. The park way out on the edge, on left-over land. How strange.
The idea that different land uses within a city should be physically separated came from the modernist movement of the early twentieth century. Modernism, generally speaking, was the attempt to do away with the old and, starting from scratch, reconstruct society along strictly rational lines. Modernist architects, as a rule, had no use for traditional cities. Those cities appeared too messy, too irrational, a “picture of chaos,” as one of them famously put it. Not fit for the modern age of the car and machine production, of science and efficiency. Best to analytically separate out the distinct functions of a city, siting each in its most advantageous location as determined by the relevant sciences, and reconnect them all by the high-speed transit now afforded by the automobile. Generally speaking, cities are built to provide access—access to work, school, home, cultural amenities, goods, and services. The traditional city provides access on the basis of proximity; the modern city was to provide access through mobility. The “means of transport are the basis of all modern activity,” according to a modernist manifesto of 1922. And those cities that do not adapt to the means of transport afforded by the motor-car “will be stifled and will perish.”
In the summer of 1933, a prominent group of modernist architects met on a boat sailing from Marseilles to Athens. On board they discussed a number of principles for city planning that would later be codified in the Charter of Athens, a new vision for cities of the future. They distinguished just four functions within the city: housing, work, recreation, and traffic. Each function would have its own exclusive location, assigned to it after a careful study of climate and topography. “Land will be measured and assigned to various activities,” (Charter of Athens, section 85) thus “bringing order to urban territory” (section 81). Space for recreational activity and broad highways would be created by building vertically, sweeping all development up into high towers in a park. The planning of what they called the “Functional City” would be under the control of specialists and technicians invested with public authority. No longer would it be left to “vulgar private interest” (section 95). Private interest must be entirely subordinated to the collective interest. If this program is to work, we must of course have “an enlightened population that will understand, desire, and demand what the specialists have envisaged for it” (section 91).
This sentiment is typical of the modernist program for the top-down, theory-driven reconstruction of society according to a singular logic of machine-like efficiency. It thrives on elite culture; it has little use for participatory democracy.
In a later work, The Radiant City (1935), the lead author of the Charter of Athens, Swiss architect Le Corbusier, envisioned his urban ideal: “The cities will be part of the country. I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work . . . enough for all.” Corbusier’s dream of full employment based on dispersed, auto-dependent development has become in large part a reality in North America—and the nightmare of later generations who find themselves bound to a car and stuck in traffic. Adults between the ages of twenty-four and fifty-four now spend on average over an hour a day in their cars. If the earth could dream, Corbusier’s ideal would be the earth’s nightmare as well. Cars account for roughly one third of our greenhouse gas emissions, putting out twenty pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of gas.
We can readily see the widespread influence of functional zoning across post-war development in America. Practically all land uses are now separated. And the car is the only way to get around. On average, 87 percent of the trips we make are by car. The idea of towers in a park took hold in the downtown areas of our cities that underwent urban renewal in the 1960s—another modernist intervention. Four years after the close of World War II, President Harry S. Truman signed the Housing Act of 1949. In this act, Congress set aside federal funds to support cities in the “clearance of slums and blighted areas” (section 2). And cities were given the power of eminent domain to get the job done. Local authorities were encouraged to identify blighted areas, condemn them, acquire them through eminent domain if necessary, and tear them down. They could then turn around and sell or lease those areas for private or public development. The act made one billion dollars available in loans and another five hundred million available in capital grants.
The focus of the 1949 act was on the creation of low-rent housing. In 1954, the act was amended to make federal money available for the redevelopment of civic centers as well. It was bolstered by a Supreme Court decision in that same year (Berman v. Parker) that allowed the government to take private land not only for public use but also for more broadly defined public purposes. In both cases, the new, federally supported development followed the planning ideas of the Functional City together with Le Corbusier’s vision of towers in a park—and his vision of what had to be done to create those towers. It is my “settled opinion,” Corbusier wrote in 1925, “that the centers of our great cities must be pulled down and rebuilt.” Wherever urban renewal went, the fine texture of the city was erased. Existing buildings were demolished to establish a clean slate. Many streets were eliminated to create superblocks. The redeveloped areas were typically restricted to a single use: residential or office. Towers went up in park-like settings for housing and on vast concrete plazas for civic centers.
Grand Rapids, Michigan, was one of the first cities to go in for the complete redevelopment of its downtown area using Title III money from the 1949 Housing Act as amended in 1954. In 1959, Grand Rapids invited to town John Paul Jones, a planning consultant from the New York firm of Ebasco. He blew in with lots of energy and big ideas for the complete reconstruction of downtowns using federal funds to cover two thirds of the cost. In July of that year, he proposed more than a million square feet of government office space and 13,500 new parking ramp spaces. Retail and residential uses were no longer part of the picture. They were separated out. In August of 1960, the citizens of Grand Rapid were sold on the plan to revitalize the downtown. They approved a 1.75 mill property tax hike to the pay the city’s share of the redevelopment costs. In September of that year, Jones was appointed the new planning director of Grand Rapids, and soon the wrecking balls and bulldozers went to work, taking down all the buildings in a forty-acre, twenty- two-block area. The Richardsonian Romanesque city hall andKent County buildings were reduced to rubble. Sleek office towers were built on huge superblocks, creating a sterile urban environment that few would visit unless they worked for a bank, were called for jury duty, or wanted to contest a utility bill. The promised revitalization of the downtown did not happen. After 6 pm, the place is a ghost town.
The towers in a park idea was also used in the creation of federally sponsored public housing, known as “the projects.” Between 1949 and 1973, the heyday of urban renewal, over 2,000 urban communities were plowed under and 4,000,000 individuals displaced. Most of the communities affected were African-American, leading novelist James Baldwin to claim that “urban renewal” was actually about “negro removal.” Many claimed with good reason that the new public housing towers were an attempt to isolate, concentrate, and contain the urban African-American population, keeping it from spreading to white neighborhoods. For the most part the projects only created dead urban spaces and social disasters. On July 15, 1972, at 3:32 in the afternoon, someone pushed a button, and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis were demolished. Built in early 1950s in keeping with the ideas of the Functional City, they were, in the end, judged to be completely dysfunctional. Some take that event as the official death of modernism in the realm of architecture. Not long after, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, which focused on the redevelopment of existing neighborhoods rather than their demolition. Since then other public housing towers have been taken down, most notably Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. They were replaced by, of all things, traditional urbanism—mid-rise mixed-use buildings on re-established street networks with a combination of market rate and affordable housing.
Perhaps a lesson should be drawn from the modernist experiments of the mid-twentieth century. Traditional urbanism represents the cumulative wisdom of building the human habitat over some 6,000 years of experience. It developed slowly over time by incremental acts of innovation and much trial and error as it adjusted to standing human needs and physical constants as well as technical advances and differences in local climate, custom, and materials. Modernism was a revolutionary program, born of a theory sprung from a few heads. But reality is wondrously complex and notoriously difficult to capture in a theory. Theories are inevitably abstract and often one-sided. Applying them on a large scale regularly leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.
Catherine Bauer, who was deeply involved in the formulation of federal housing policy in the 1930s and 40s, came to realize this point in retrospect. The modernist architects and planners, she wrote in 1955, “too frequently assume that there must be a single rational, logical solution . . . which results in vast housing projects that are apparently viewed by their designers mainly as huge pieces of technocratic sculpture, abstract forms that have little to do with satisfying, pleasing or delighting the occupants, as places to live in.” Later, in 1971, David Rockefeller, then CEO of Chase Manhattan Bank, rightly put his finger on the problem of abstraction, of focusing on one element of the urban ecology in isolation from others. The federal urban renewal program, he pointed out, “concentrated almost exclusively on housing and not on other related community activities The funds were not used to build a rounded community; they merely built houses.” Troubled urban neighborhoods were bulldozed; but what replaced them was only one element of the rounded community.
Tradition is certainly not infallible. And on some points—such as longstanding practices of slave labor or racial segregation— it is rightly opposed. But surely tradition deserves some respect, especially in areas of craft and practical endeavor. Why start with the idea that it needs to be entirely overthrown? What reason do we have to think that our big untested ideas will not just make things worse? Michael Pollan recently argued in his book In Defense of Food that our scientific/industrial approach to food has in fact diminished our diets and damaged our health. He suggests that we turn an appreciative eye to time-tested traditional diets, note the strong correlation between them and the health of their populations, and return to “real food”—unprocessed, without all the additives invented by people with chemistry degrees. Why not try something similar with respect to our built environment? Why not start with something like appreciative inquiry, where we identify, observe, and learn from what actually works, figure out why it works, and then critically and creatively appropriate it in our own times?
Lee Hardy is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. His latest book is The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods, from which this article is adapted.
Copyright 2017 Lee Hardy.
Adolf Loos, founding father of architectural modernism, maintained that only in two of its applications is architecture an art—in the temple and the tomb. For it is only in these structures, built to house the non-existent, that architecture escapes from its everyday function as a shelter against an inhospitable reality. The tomb and the temple are ostensibly built as monuments to the hero or the god contained in them. In fact they are monuments to our own ideals, giving form and mass to purely mental entities.
Tombs, temples, and memorials form the heart of our ancient settlements, marking the public squares, the crossroads and the places of pilgrimage. They are the nodes of the urban network, and the streets radiate out from them, carrying the message of belonging to the furthest reaches of the city. Every town in Europe is built around a church, and public spaces are marked by monuments and chapels, reminding us that the place has a meaning more durable than the people who reside there.
The twentieth century saw mass urbanization on both our continents. Suburbs grew around the existing hubs; inner cities decayed as their edges receded; buildings rose high above the wrecked streets of the old neighborhoods and automobiles drove swathes of devastation through the city centers. People moved out to the suburbs, and into the suburbs from the fields. And yet no new places were created. The suburbs were no-places, and the city itself became a concrete platform, on which the glass boxes could be shifted back and forth like pieces on a chess-board. In an astonishingly short time, many of the places that we knew had disappeared, and no places had come in their stead.
The causes of this tragedy are complex, and there is no simple remedy. Traveling around England in order to examine the new buildings that are being squeezed into our towns or dropped in our fields, asking myself why they are often so ugly and what might be done to change this, I have been struck by the physical difference between the old and the new. And I have been even more struck by a deeper metaphysical difference. The old buildings belong in the places that they create; the new buildings typically belong nowhere, and create a nowhere wherever they are constructed. Physically the old city center is a space; metaphysically, however, it is a place, a somewhere to which buildings, people and the institutions that unite them can belong. But the new developments are spaces that refuse to be places, spaces where nothing belongs.
At first, I thought that the placeless character of modern housing is a matter of style—the modern materials and proportions, the grammarless disposition of windows and doors, the random orientation along cul-de-sacs that join nothing to nothing. But it soon became clear that the style made next to no difference to the effect. Meticulous steel and glass edges à la Mies van der Rohe are as out of place as beefy classicism à la Stanford White. All are out of place because there is no place to be in. So what makes a place? How does the peculiar experience of belonging enter human consciousness, and to what end?
These questions return me to Adolf Loos’s observation concerning the temple and the tomb. In constructing these memorials to the non-existent we are fixing ourselves to a space. Temples and tombs are massive, immovable, as though the spirit contained in them has been fixed forever to the ground. The god and the hero cling to their allotted space with all the force of the imagination, and this causes us to reimagine that space as a somewhere to be shared and defended. In a space that has become a place it is not the body only but also the soul that finds a home. So much recent attempt at placemaking fails because it bypasses those core emotions. Yet how can you make a place for people if you do not first make a place for their heroes and their gods? We settle down by inviting our gods and heroes to settle beside us. And in that way the place is sanctified as ours.
When the Antifa activists gather in the squares to pull the statues from their pedestals and the busts from their plinths, they are sending the message that this place is not ours, that we do not belong here, and that we want to start again outside the community that brought us into being. And the result of their destructive pranks will surely be no different from the result of so much modern building—the replacement of somewhere by nowhere. And I suspect that that is where we are going.
Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow.
MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Danny Thomas Boulevard is technically State Highway One which runs the full breadth of Tennessee and cuts a deep north/south trench through Memphis. Highways are important. They connect towns and cities and facilitate commerce and all the rest. We need them. But in the center of a city they can be designed well or poorly. Danny Thomas isn’t great. I’m being kind here. It’s actually a death trap and I almost died crossing it on foot.
Now, I’m going to skip ahead for a moment to the larger issue here. Almost no one cares about this stuff. Not in Memphis. Not in Tennessee. Not in 99 percent of North America. It’s just not on most people’s radar. Almost everyone drives everywhere nearly all the time and there’s very little thought given to how to get around any other way. The people in this landscape who aren’t in cars are… inconsequential. And even the smallest attempts to create safer more convenient accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists are met with a chorus of complaints about the war on private vehicles and social engineering. So why bother bringing up the subject?
I was attending a professional gathering that was focused on how to revitalize a collection of half dead neighborhoods that were right on the edge of downtown Memphis just on the other side of Danny Thomas. It’s a simple formula. Neither the aspiring working class nor the comfortably middle class will choose to live in this part of the city in its present condition. It needs a lot of love. And the kind of neighborhood that it once was (and might be again) isn’t about green lawns and tidy suburban cul-de-sacs. Any attempt to make it so will fail. Right now most of Memphis is a formerly livable place that’s been bulldozed into submission. Genuinely desirable suburbs exist farther out, but Memphis proper can’t compete in that regard even if it wanted to.
For decades whole chunks of Memphis were removed and replaced with grass and parking lots. The state and federal government provided generous funding to build new highways and the city chose routes that erased the oldest, poorest, and most blighted neighborhoods. It made sense at the time. And additional demolition efforts continued block by block until large sections of Memphis came to resemble abandoned rural villages. That was the plan. But greening up the ghetto had some unanticipated side effects. Grass and parking lots don’t pay taxes or employ people. The city now finds itself in need of jobs and revenue and its most valuable untapped resource is vacant land near the urban core.
In order to successfully reinvent itself Memphis needs to appeal to the portion of the population that actually likes living downtown. The percentage of people who want to live in an urban environment may be small, but there are so few really good options in the larger region that Memphis could draw in a serious number of people. Good urbanism is about building wealth for the city and the people who inhabit it. But the neighborhoods need to provide genuinely good urbanism. That doesn’t include playing Frogger to cross Danny Thomas.
I want to take you back to my walk. This aerial view provides perspective. Danny Thomas is essentially a limited access divided highway with a series of on and off ramps and high speed flyovers. I’m going to use Google street view images to demonstrate my route as a pedestrian.
This is the moment when the regular sidewalk of the older neighborhood morphed into a highway on ramp. The obvious safe route was to follow the sidewalk down, not try and cross the road onto the grassy median amid high speed cars.
There’s an oddly placed set of stairs and handicap accessible ramps on the side of a landscaped berm between roadways that lead to an incongruously located light rail stop. This might have made sense to engineers in a distant office building during the planning phase. But on the ground it’s the least welcoming or pragmatic spot for transit and the most expensive infrastructure for badly accommodating humans. No one who ever walks anywhere would design an arrangement like this. It’s just a collection of disconnected items off a list of requirements from the Department of Transportation textbooks. When I see things like this I tend to agree with the folks who reject public transit as a waste of money. It doesn’t have to be, but when it’s done this poorly it’s worse than no transit at all.
Further down the sidewalk things simply end. There’s no way to cross the highway without risking your life.
Only after I walked down to the edge of the highway did I see the pedestrian bridge, but there was no way to reach it from the road. The bridge connected one desolate landscaped parking lot to another desolate landscaped parking lot. The engineering brief for this project must have read something like this:
Make it physically possible to walk over the highway even if the path is completely obscure and pedestrians need to walk half a mile out of their way on each side of the road. Make it really unpleasant for old ladies carrying grocery bags and parents with little kids and strollers. And as an added bonus, try and make women feel threatened at night.
I noticed bike lanes were installed on the sides of Danny Thomas. But… really? WTF? This is the worst imaginable place to be a cyclist. Again, no one who rides a bike would ever consider putting bike lanes here. It makes no sense. As a culture we’ve lost our ability to create high functioning, beautiful, rewarding urban environments. Even when an effort is made in Memphis it’s just … wrong.
There was a time when Memphis knew how to build great urban places. There are vestiges that survive to show the way. My hope is that Memphis can revive the lost art of city making. The market exists for the right kind of quality urban environment. Private capital is ready to be deployed. There are people who would love to live in the best parts of what’s left of old Memphis if the gaps and bare patches are filled in properly. But if the usual suspects are left in charge it’s just going to be easier for folks to move to a different city that does this sort of thing better. No one in Germantown, Cordova, or Whitehaven will care if downtown disappears entirely. They’ll keep driving by along Danny Thomas on the way to someplace else.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared. Johnny provides additional coverage of Memphis, including “the flowering of some of [the city’s] historic neighborhoods.”
Here’s a word you’ll almost never see planners use: “why.”
But it’s a useful word when dealing with the dizzyingly complex world of development ordinances. Which, of course, are everywhere.
Whether big or small, fat or thin, municipalities of all shapes and sizes relish the chance to churn out pages of code. Never, or not nearly ever, asking “why” these codes exist in the first place.
Take Concord, New Hampshire. While a beautiful and historic city, “sunny” isn’t an adjective that jumps to mind. That hasn’t prevented solar panel regulations from becoming a major local controversy.
As the Concord Monitor reports, the planning board there has recommended a change to the zoning ordinance that benefits solar development. In a nutshell, they want to allow solar in all zoning districts and expand how much of a lot may be developed, loosening the restriction on “impervious coverage.” In areas zoned “Residential Open,” this means shifting from permitting a paltry 10 percent to 40 percent of lot coverage—at least, for solar.
On top of that, the suggested change calculates the size of impervious coverage differently for solar. Instead of measuring the actual developed space on the lot, it uses the overall perimeter of a solar array. In other words, the space in the area between the panels would count against the developer.
Per the Concord Monitor, Assistant City Planner Beth Fenstermacher states in a February report that “… staff has not found another municipality that utilizes the same method of calculating solar land coverage.” I bet they haven’t. Yet, in very the same sentence, she claims “…this method is the best way to provide predictability in what the city and property abutters can expect to see when the land is developed.”
Another way to say that: no one else is doing this, but we think this will work.
Concord’s attempt to found its own bizarre formula on impervious ground coverage for solar panel arrays seems to please almost no one. Property owners who were mad about a commercial solar array the city blocked last year are mostly still mad. The solar business people say it doesn’t allow for enough solar development and they’re fussy, too.
While one wonders where a solar company gets the money to build solar arrays in the capital of New Hampshire, that’s not the issue here. Nor, indeed, is it the only such example of wackiness around.
To that question asked at the outset: why? Why does Concord have such restrictive zoning ordinances in the first place? Why do most towns?
Ostensibly, the reason is to prevent harmful externalities. Though not a word planners use, “externality” should find a broader audience among those who champion a more market-driven approach to municipal governance. It means those things in the marketplace which cause an effect upon something else without consent. Milton Friedman often called them “neighborhood effects.”
Municipal ordinances would made a heck of a lot more sense if their true purpose in mitigating externalities—and which ones—was considered.
Years ago, I was an at-large city councilman in a city of 100,000. One day, not long after my election, I stood in for another council member at a meeting of the committee in charge of pedestrian improvements. They reported to the Planning and Zoning Committee, which of course made recommendations to the council.
I was rather surprised to find that, far from talking about sidewalks and multi-use paths, they were fixated on how some homeowners were parking boats in their driveways. In fact, a council member and the staff had drafted an ordinance that would prevent, as a part of the city’s development ordinance, parking any recreational vehicle or boat on one’s own residential lot.
Anywhere on their own property!
After listening to the back and forth a bit, I asked what they were really trying to prevent. It sounded to me, I said, that they were trying to keep other homeowners from being somehow affected by the eyesore—or perhaps, their property value.
Yes, the committee members said. That’s the point.
So I asked why a homeowner should be disallowed from having a recreational vehicle or boat parked in, say, a garage hidden from the street or a storage shed that didn’t disturb his or her neighbors. Was such concealed storage really bothering the neighborhood?
After an awkward silence, the committee members all agreed that yes, this made sense. What they really wanted to do was ban the nuisance, and the nuisance was that which was visible. I still disagreed with the ordinance, but much less so, and it was amended to incorporate this change.
As I would come to find in my city and countless others through years as a local government policy analyst, few staffers and fewer local officials ask such questions to distill the purpose of their proposed development policies. It is a shortcoming that knows no geographic or political boundary.
The problem with Concord and most cities with complicated development ordinances is that they rarely consider just what externalities are being dealt with. In the case of the solar panels, it’s hard to imagine how solar panels could have a negative impact on adjoining properties, especially if they’re on a roof.
More likely is that neighbors prefer a different use altogether, or keeping the land raw and undeveloped as greenspace. Surely that’s why Concord’s “Residential Open” developed.
When considering the proper ways to restrict development, a city should first ask about the potentially harmful impact is of a new development on existing property owners—thus, identifying the externalities in play.
Then they should use what I will here refer to as the “Grandma Test.”
This is highly scientific, and relies upon a multitude of peer-reviewed papers in obscure journals that utilize a satisficing heuristic to draw conclusions from vast arrays of uncoordinated variables using logarithmic regression.
Just kidding. All it is: what would your grandma think was bothersome?
The Grandma Test is a way of internalizing the “community standards” principle for planning and zoning issues in which you imagine how a sensitive member of the area potentially being affected (often an existing neighborhood) would feel if X, Y, or Z happened nearby. There’s no math, there’s no formula, nothing. It’s just common sense.
Here’s an example.
Would Grandma be upset if the guy next door parked his boat in his driveway some of the time? Probably not, especially if it was a small boat. Would Grandma get her hackles up about a 30-foot sailboat stretching the entire length of the driveway and poking out into the street past the mailbox? Yes, she probably would.
Here’s how, say, Concord’s planning staffers could use this.
Would Grandma be upset if a company installed a bunch of solar panels on a vacant parcel of land and shielded those solar panels with trees? She might be upset during construction, but probably not after completion.
My suspicion is that, outside of building the array as a vertical wall reflecting the sun at Grandma’s house, it would be hard to find a less intrusive development use than solar.
The few NIMBYs who believe that every undeveloped parcel should remain so indefinitely would do well to be reminded by council members and staffers that if they want to control a property, they should buy it. Sadly, most local officials and staffers tend to cower at the sight of more than two or three unsolicited citizens showing up at city hall.
It is worth remembering that Grandma generally won’t show up at city hall, and almost never to protest non-invasive use cases. If your proposed variance sullies Grandma’s petunias, she’ll be out in force.
Otherwise, she’s got better things to do.
Many issues are more complicated than Grandma can deal with, of course. But the principle remains true: if a fairly sensitive member of the community probably won’t take issue, then a proposed use or development likely isn’t a problem.
Imagine how different, and how much more diverse, our cities would be if, instead of constricting use to a particular school of planning thought, average members of our communities – not just the ones who show up at council meetings – were consulted, in actuality or in a thought experiment. This is rather different, too, than taking a preordained plan to regulate and placing it before a community town hall for “input” and “feedback.”
No, this precedes the ordinance being written up in the first place. If it did, many of them wouldn’t be written at all.
What if Grandma took a look at the ordinances already on the books in many American cities? Suffice it to say, she would probably consider it overkill.
Then, because Grandma doesn’t have time for such nonsense, she would go back to tending her petunias.
Jess Fields is a public policy analyst who has worked with state and local officials in 31 states. Prior to that, an at-large city councilman in a town of 100,000.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote derisively about the state of Downtown Los Angeles in 1961:
So spattered and decentralized are the central functions … that the only element of its downtown that has full metropolitan dimensions and intensity is that of the leisured indigent…. Los Angeles is fortunate that the vacuum of a disintegrated downtown has not been appropriated by predators but has been relatively respectably populated by a flourishing Skid Row
Fifty-eight years later, Downtown Los Angeles has evolved. No longer is it the sole domain of the homeless (although LA’s Skid Row remains the highest concentration of poverty anywhere in the United States). Instead, it’s a collection of tech bros, young professionals, bar hoppers, druggies, tourists disappointed by Hollywood, unhappy anti-gentrification activists, foodies, Taco Trucks, wannabe artists, real estate speculators, small businessmen, street cleaners, street vomit, a wonderful bookstore, and some of the most interesting new areas of Los Angeles.
The dominance of coastal cities has long been portrayed in the media as growing economic inequality between Blue and Red America. But these cursory explanations miss the growing economic inequality within coastal cities. As real estate values have exploded in West LA neighborhoods like Venice, Santa Monica, and Brentwood, the protectionist phenomenon known NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) has spiked as well. In Venice Beach, one of the most liberal areas of America, residents booed Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti when he announced the building of more homeless shelters.
With the incredible difficulty of building in suburban neighborhoods in Los Angeles, developers looking to cash in on the rising cost of rent have turned their eyes on the only area completely abandoned by pesky community organizers: Downtown. Until a decade or so ago, the only people living Downtown were homeless, and developers benefit when homeless have few rights.
Walking down Broadway Street (whose name seems envious of New York’s Broadway, because nothing in Los Angeles is authentic), it seems strange to imagine that the area was once abandoned. The streets are diverse and walkable. Most of the Historic Core is still very beautiful. Neoclassical architecture sits side by side with Art Deco and Postmodern buildings. It’s a snapshot of LA history that can’t be found in the sprawling strip malls and palm trees of the popular imagination.
Unfortunately, it’s those same postwar strip malls that led to the eventual degradation of Downtown. In the early 20th century, the heyday of Downtown LA was born before the age of the car. Back then, Downtown was known only as Los Angeles, a city separate from other cities such as Pasadena or Glendale which would later be engulfed into the larger county of Los Angeles. In these early days, Los Angeles developed in the traditional style of older American cities; oil barons from the west came downtown and built beautiful monuments to their legacies. That’s when many of LA’s historic landmarks were built, from the cast-iron jungle of the Bradbury Building to the austere brick triplets of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
This all changed, of course, once the car arrived. Mid-century Los Angeles exploded outwards, with abundant housing subsidies from the federal government and the post-war boom combining to create what we now know as California sprawl. Much like the style of today’s Sun Belt expansion of housing, Los Angeles was the forerunner for huge highways and sprawling city life. At the time, it led to an expansion of cheap housing for the American middle-class home from World War II.
Half a century later, the limits to sprawl have been reached. Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the United States, largely as a result of sprawl and poor zoning codes that force housing away from jobs. To the west, the sea has drawn a clear stop to expansion. Further north along the coastline, cities like Malibu have been hit hard by the recent dramatic wildfires, as expansion into dangerous fire zones led to the destruction of lives, homes, and communities. Along every other side, deserts and mountain ranges block further expansion of cheap suburban land. There’s nowhere left to expand but upwards.
Unfortunately, Los Angeles has been slow to shift toward upward expansion. The good news is that LA has not lost what President George H.W. Bush described as “a thousand points of light.” There’s a strong culture of civil society, with numerous charities, community clubs, and activist groups all participating in local governance. The bad news is that these groups inevitably oppose building more housing.
It’s a strange eclectic mix of wealthy suburban owners, anti-gentrification activists, and socialists who oppose city growth. This group of anti-growth activists inevitably show up to oppose any new construction in any part of suburban Los Angeles. Suburban homeowners oppose new construction on the grounds that it affects local neighborhood character, anti-gentrification activists fear the expulsion of minority communities, and socialists rant about the evils of letting needs be dictated by capitalists.
These anti-construction groups, the so-called NIMBYs, are emblematic of a classic clash within conservatism, between Hayekian libertarianism and Burkean traditionalism. The YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement advocates for housing, noting the works of pro-development economists like Professor Ed Glaeser of Harvard. The NIMBY crowd, while ostensibly all Democrats, advocates for local identity and continuity. Solving the issue of development in Los Angeles could almost be described as a conservative issue. It’s a battle between the needs of the market and the needs of the community.
So far, the solution from City Hall has simply been to avoid constructing in politically tense neighborhoods. Downtown Los Angeles, with its 9-to-5 culture and history of urban abandonment, has been brought back to life in the past two decades. City Hall has been on a tear to rebuild dilapidated streets. An Adaptive Reuse ordinance passed in 1999 that allowed developers to reuse commercially-zoned buildings as housing. These renovated apartments serve as the set for numerous Instagram photos of artist lofts with exposed brick walls and open-air lighting. The hub of Union Station serves as a possible future center of Los Angeles, although the relative unpopularity of the Light Rail lines running through the county put that future in question. The LA bikeshare system theoretically makes Downtown multimodal as well, although it’s rare to see someone actually using the rather clunky, one-size-fit-all bikes. Theoretically, it’s an urbanist paradise!
Then you have superblocks like these.
As Downtown LA has fled from its former roots as homeless capital of the nation, construction has boomed. This has led to the distinction of being one of the only regions in the city where rents have actually stayed stable, rather than the rent-controlled neighborhoods so fiercely protected by activists. This has also led to the construction of plenty of bland, corporate, cookie-cutter mixed-use developments. On street after street, these modern mixed-use superblocks share space with older, more traditional buildings. The traditional streets have a blend of buildings from different ages; in contrast, the modern superblocks have a blend of fast-food chains from Chipotle to Subway.
In some ways, these superblocks are the suburbs of our day. They serve a young populace eager to move into their own places and don’t care much about the homogenization of the street. The process of suburbanization created a quintessentially American identity that lasted for decades; the process of re-urbanization will do the same.
While architects may decry the unoriginality of the superblocks, and traditionalists may bemoan the lack of continuity with the surrounding areas, the fact remains that this area is the only place willing to build housing for the next generation. All other areas of Los Angeles remain testaments to history and the generations of the post-war boom. They stay stagnant, encased in a sort of living nostalgia.
The sad part about Downtown LA are the people who move here. The average income of the young professional who lives in Downtown is nearly $100,000. As members of Los Angeles, a city that serves as the home of the media and entertainment elite, these are the people who will define the next generation of American identity. Unlike the suburbs of the post-war generation, these aren’t middle-class families looking to reach their American Dream. These are the privileged elite of the populist imagination: young, secular, unlikely to marry early, financially secure, liberal.
Unable to move into the communities of their parents, they have moved to conquer Downtown. The next generation of this elite will make their mark on the old downtown—and soon will again become the core of the city. This all brings up one troubling question: if the last version of suburbanization is dominated by the last generation—and this generation’s is dominated by the elite—where will the ordinary Angeleno go to seek his American Dream?
Alix Ollivier lives in Los Angeles.
I live in one of the faster-growing cities in one of the fastest-growing states in America. A common joke here in Florida is that the state bird is the crane. (Get it?) Needless to say, growth is a contentious and emotional subject around here. And growth control is a hot topic.
And rightly so. Rapid growth can be disorienting and detrimental to the existing residents of a place—traffic jams where they didn’t used to occur, crowded schools and hospitals. It’s not at all clear, despite conventional wisdom, that growth itself should be viewed as any sort of measure of success or prosperity. Plenty of growing places aren’t thriving, and plenty of thriving places aren’t growing. (A particularly salient point in Florida, where our population growth is largely driven by low-wage jobs.)
And at Strong Towns, where I work, we have long pointed out that plenty of growth looks more like a Ponzi scheme than like real, resilient wealth. Think spread-out, low-value development that fails to pay for itself, leaving the next generation on the hook for this generation’s overbuilt infrastructure.
But there’s one particular line of argument when it comes to managing growth that I simply can’t get behind. It’s the notion that whether or not to grow, or precisely how much to grow—how many people to let in—is something that a community should naturally get to decide through the political process. That they maybe even have an inalienable right to decide.
It’s certainly not just a Florida preoccupation. “More than a million people in San Francisco? Did anyone ask you?” inquired a prominent Bay Area activist in a blog post a couple years ago. Growth-control advocates in Boulder, Colorado muse about “carrying capacity” and overpopulation. Here in Gulf-coast Florida, the preferred pejorative is “Browardization,” after Broward County on the state’s Atlantic coast—held up by growth-control partisans as a warning of our grim fate if we don’t slow our population growth.
The approval of locally unpopular development proposals, to hear many here tell it, constitutes a betrayal of the public interest by our own elected officials. Slow-growth appeals are usually accompanied by calls for development to be orderly, predictable, and always, always the favored buzzword: “compatible” with surrounding neighborhoods. None of this sounds objectionable on paper. Who would be against compatibility?
And yet, here’s why this doesn’t always sit right with me.
The actual outcomes on the ground of successful growth-control advocacy are often not very pretty. Whether in Boulder, Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, or Sarasota, those who claim we can keep existing neighborhoods under glass; restrain the pace of growth to only that which makes us comfortable; and preserve affordability, economic opportunity, and quality of life, and do these difficult things all at the same time—well, these people are indulging an illusion.
A city is a complex system. It’s made up of thousands or millions of people making billions or trillions of decisions, in endless, fractal feedback loops. The city is not a machine; it’s more like an ecosystem. You can tinker with an ecosystem—but when you do, you’re subject to the law of unintended consequences.
The Water Has To Go Somewhere
One such consequence, when it comes to growth-control policies, is that you may simply displace growth to another location—without actually lessening any of its disruptive effects. In the process, you may even prevent some people from living and/or working where they otherwise would have preferred to—and in doing so, prevent the market signals from functioning that would have otherwise told us what is a productive and desirable location.
Many growth critics seem to operate with a flawed mental model that, rather circularly, treats development itself as the cause of population growth. Let the builders build, and the city gets more crowded and the traffic gets worse. Don’t let them build so much, and growth will slow down and traffic will thin out. Easy, right?
Instead, think of demand to live and work in a place like the water in a river. Building a dam across the river, or channelizing it, doesn’t make the water go away. The water has to go somewhere. It might rush around the dam. It might overflow the dam, or pool behind it. But it’ll go somewhere.
Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco, is perhaps the most famous poster child for this. Thanks to powerful environmental advocacy, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the western half of the county has been preserved as protected open space, while the eastern half was developed in a largely car-oriented pattern dominated by single-family houses. Resistance to denser development in those east-Marin communities remains fierce.
Marin County is stunningly beautiful. And it’s been stunningly successful at limiting the number of people who can live there. One result: as of this writing, Zillow reports that the median home value in Marin County is $1,159,400. Many of the children who grow up in Marin will never have the option of settling there as adults. Service workers with jobs in Marin often have excruciating commutes (the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap data tool indicates only a third of those employed in the county travel fewer than ten miles to work). And the county’s freeways end up clogged with these long-distance commuters.
These things are the fallout of not allowing more homes in Marin County. Worth it? I tend to think not—when discussing these issues with people in the also-picturesque, also-waterfront county where I live, Marin is usually my cautionary tale of choice. But I would listen respectfully to someone who made an honest case that it has been worth all the trade-offs and side effects. (Though, it must be said, the voices of Marin County residents shouldn’t be the only ones that matter in that question, any more than a dam that floods the countryside above it was a good idea if only the people living below it think it was.)
We need to at least acknowledge the connection between decisions which restrict growth and their indirect side effects.
The Fallacy of Control at the Neighborhood Level
The same applies at the neighborhood level, in miniature. Efforts to carefully orchestrate where and what kind of change occurs within a city can have unintended consequences, just as when we do so between cities.
One neighborhood becomes trendy and experiences skyrocketing rents and crippling traffic. Speculation, exacerbated by well-intended efforts to promote concentrations of dense development, fuels mini-construction booms, while other neighborhoods go without needed reinvestment. An older generation of homeowners ages out of their homes in a neighborhood where little has changed in decades, and the city finds that a younger generation isn’t clamoring to buy them.
I had a conversation a year or so ago with a friend working for the local government of a small Midwestern suburb whose city council was deeply concerned about the influx of renters into what had until recently been a homeowner-dominated community. The council’s proposed solution? A cap on the number of rental licenses. My friend and I both agreed this was a dumb idea, likely to have unintended consequences. It wasn’t going to be possible to manufacture demand for homeownership that didn’t exist simply by trying to exclude renters.
We can lay out a vision of the city we want through whatever political processes are available to us. But we simply don’t always get to script the city we want, at the size we want, with development in only the locations we want it. Not without severe side effects.
Good Planning is Like Conservation Biology
The collective, emergent wisdom of the crowd does a better job of making decisions like “How many people ought to live here?”, “Where should we have what sizes and types of buildings?” and “Who or what should occupy those buildings?” than any individual can. The consequences of those decisions echo through cascading feedback loops: that’s the nature of complex systems.
Planners should treat a city the way a conservation biologist treats a forest. We look for indications that something is out of balance. Where it is, we come in with a light touch and try to restore equilibrium. But we don’t decide how many wolves and how many elk should live in Yellowstone. We’re not qualified to make that decision.
How many people should live in my town in Florida? What’s the right number? We’re not qualified to make that decision.
We Are Qualified to Make Our Places Better Incrementally
Please understand that when I say we’re not qualified to decide how many people should live in our towns, I’m not saying we need to prostrate ourselves to the all-powerful hand of The Market—or that planning is futile, and we’re powerless to act collectively to make the places we live better. Not in the least.
No; we have immense power to alter the future of our neighborhoods, cities, and regions. That is why we need to wield that power with humility.
The word “overdevelopment,” a favorite of growth-control advocates, probably ought to be retired from our lexicon, for the same reason we’ve argued at Strong Towns that “sprawl” should be retired: it’s imprecise and lazy. It implies that we know what the correct amount of development is for our cities. Let’s have the humility to admit that we don’t—because we can’t know all the indirect consequences of not letting people live where they want to live, build where they want to build, open businesses where they want to open businesses.
But we can work to make great neighborhoods. We can work to make great streets. We can clean up parks; we can restore the urban tree canopy; we can take action to calm high-speed traffic in our cities.
Our civic leaders can insist that we grow in ways that are productive—by doing the math and making sure new development is of a type that generates the wealth to pay for itself in the long run, instead of leaving taxpayers on the hook.
Relinquishing the urge to control doesn’t mean caving to special interests. We can insist that growth occurs on a level playing field and that decisions about development be transparent. We don’t have to accept backroom deals that enrich a small group of insiders, or byzantine rules that are expensive to comply with and end up having much the same effect.
But we do have to relinquish our desire to fundamentally dictate how our neighborhoods and cities evolve.
A Strong Towns approach isn’t pro-growth or anti-growth or pro- or anti- any specific size or shape of development. A Strong Towns approach does say that every neighborhood should allow at least the next increment of development—that is, allow the gradual evolution and iterative growth of successful places.
A Strong Towns approach starts with humbling ourselves, acknowledging that we can’t know what the right future is for the cities we live in. We don’t get to choose an end state and then work toward it methodically. We go out and we see what problems people are facing today. And then we try to address them, in small steps. Then tomorrow we do the same thing. And the day after, and the day after.
If that’s your town’s approach to planning, then relinquishing control over the future doesn’t have to be all that scary.
This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission.