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.
I recently reviewed photojournalist Chris Arnade’s Dignity (and was fortunate enough to chat with him too). It’s a poignant and very important book and photo collection on the struggles of America’s poor communities of all geographies and races.
What sets Dignity apart from similar books is that his photographs and anecdotes are not employed to prop up a narrative or to merely illustrate data. They are the narrative. And that’s important: we should not rely on statistics seasoned with hit-and-run dispatches from flyover country to understand these left-behind Americans that Arnade actually meets, chats with, and, despite being a cultural world away as a former Wall Street banker, tries to understand.
But don’t leave it to Arnade. “Be open a little more to experiences,” he says, perhaps with a little understatement, though he dismisses fear of crime. Check out the dive restaurants, he says, the decrepit strip malls, the ethnic neighborhoods in “sketchy” parts of towns. If, like me, you live in the D.C. metro area, he suggests visiting the Hispanic neighborhoods of Arlington and Alexandria and the white working-class towns in Virginia down I-81. Readers should strike out with a little street smarts and figure out America for themselves. Or ourselves. Here’s my little contribution.
You can begin first by not going anywhere: explore your own community at irregular (for you) times of day. You may run into people you’re not used to seeing: folks who work longer or less favorable shifts doing late-night shopping; seniors going for early morning or late evening walks. You may meet people that you don’t even know live in your community if you only go shopping or driving after leaving the office or during the lunch break. You might notice routines and activities you never even thought of—observing workers opening up lunch joints in the mid-morning, listening to baristas chat during the afternoon slump, coming across groups of “loiterers” who are merely treating the strip mall plaza as the de facto town square that it pretends to be. Even small places are home to a multitude of micro-cultures, and even barren-looking places are often teeming with life.
But that will only get you so far. If you want to retrace Arnade’s journey, you’ll probably have to venture into places that a lot of affluent people instinctively learn to avoid, whether due to lack of interest, lack of necessity, or even racism. Though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, I did a fair amount of this when I lived in College Park, Maryland, attending graduate school there.
Many of the white suburbanites I grew up with would be terrified for my life and safety knowing that I went out and about in poor, heavily immigrant and non-white D.C. suburbs like Langley Park, Hyattsville, and Riverdale. Some call this reaction racism; others, notably those who practice it, probably consider it risk aversion. And risk aversion it may be, though it is hard to conclude that it isn’t informed by racial attitudes and stereotypes. (Driving everywhere, for example, is much more likely to end in injury or death than walking around in a downscale neighborhood.)
Like Arnade, I never did have a brush with crime, and—though it makes me sound like something of an elitist—I felt that I learned something from exploring these places and meeting people there.
Compared to my own quiet exurban hometown in central New Jersey, these D.C. inner-ring suburbs had a more chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere—which can be unsettling, exciting, exhausting, or all three. Trips to the store, for example, are often neither brief nor merely transactional; they may involve more social interaction than you expect. They may involve being called “honey” or “dear” by a sweet Hispanic lady. They may involve a man in the thrift store asking you how some odd or end works (who knows?) or if you have any change to catch the bus that stops out front (sure). They may involve check-out lines backing up due to arguments, language barriers, customers simultaneously counting coins and keeping rowdy kids in check, and poorly maintained equipment. Parking lots are likely to host possibly unlicensed food trucks and de facto picnics, complete with thumping Latin music. The highways—now doubling as suboptimal main streets, since many of the current residents are carless—are congested and dangerous. There is a baseline level of stress in getting around and doing business that I’d never previously felt.
University Boulevard, the main commercial corridor in Langley Park, MD
My experiences at an Italian deli in Hyattsville (run by an Arab man, serving a largely black clientele) were particularly warm in contrast with the usual grocery chain fare. It sold all sorts of cold cuts I liked that were not available in the chain supermarkets. Sometimes the products were a little old; I avoided the olive oil that had expired in 2007, which was sitting out on the counter in the sun, and once I had to alert the clerk to a stack of spaghetti with dead bugs inside. At the counter, I would buy the deli meat ends, too small to put on the slicer. There was no set price; depending on the owner’s mood and the quality and size of the pieces, he would simply name one. Sometimes I would take it; sometimes I would decline; sometimes we would bargain. Every time we would chat about work and life. Once a woman came in and pointed to a choice mortadella chunk that she wanted for soup. The owner, slightly bemused, announced that it had just been sold to me. I felt that an argument might have been narrowly avoided.
One reason these places feel stressful and chaotic is that suburbia, often by design, lacks truly public space, and so things that are relatively normal in urban settings—handing out pamphlets or ads, screaming into a bullhorn about the end times, selling food out of trucks or carts, hanging out on the street in large groups—are transformed by the nature of the suburban built environment into suspicious acts or even crimes. The incongruity of this urban rough-and-tumble taking place within a suburban development pattern that was originally designed for middle-class nuclear families (and, of course, for cars) is probably part of why some people feel uncomfortable here.
This total combination of aging suburbia, ethnic and racial diversity, and relative poverty was new for me, back when I started my graduate program at UMD. I thought about the diversity of these places a lot; I wrote previously, based on these experiences, that at a personal, psychological level, diversity is hard. It is also beautiful, to see people from dozens of different countries finding a way to get along. Communities are ever-evolving things, emerging unpredictably out of social, political, and demographic trends. To artificially arrest this process is not only potentially racist; it is also rather absurd, as though Langley Park in 1950 was the purest expression of some Platonic form and not the result of specific, timebound political and economic conditions.
Kenilworth Avenue in Riverdale, MD
None of my experiences in Maryland’s inner-ring suburbs would be remarkable to someone who grew up in such a community; none of them would be remarkable to most Americans who grew up in the early post-war years, when downtowns and mom-and-pop stores were still predominant features of American life. Yet eventually I got so used to it that when I visited home in New Jersey, I would notice that trips to the store or walks around towns seemed low-key and kind of boring.
There is an irony here. The typical (or, perhaps, stereotypical) people most likely to avoid places like Hyattsville and Langley Park—white suburban Republicans—tend to favor more market activity, less regulation, and strong property rights. You’ll occasionally hear praise for a great-grandfather who built a vacation cabin, sans building codes, out in the country. Yet the closest thing to this in America today is probably the activity taking place in these relatively downscale, often heavily immigrant communities, which make creative ad-hoc use of existing infrastructure and buildings and sometimes stretch health and building codes in the service of entrepreneurship. In many ways, these places are a little step back in time, a throwback to an older, poorer, yet more tightly knit America. There is a lot of self-reliance and entrepreneurial rough and tumble. My Italian great-grandparents opened urban grocery stores that were probably just like that Arab-owned deli. That period and demographic in American history has now been given a nostalgic sheen, Norman Rockwell-style. But we don’t have to go back in time to see it again. We just have to take off certain blinders and be willing to see all our neighbors and countrymen.
Neither Arnade nor I have any grand answers. It’s a big, diverse, complicated country, with a political tradition of individualism and constrained government. Big solutions are both practically and conceptually difficult. This anticlimactic conclusion is not a copout; it is a necessary humility, and perhaps that is itself where we will start to find answers.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.
[Editor’s Note: Next week, please join those interested in architecture, preservation, and urbanism (including Rod Dreher, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Duncan Stroik) in New York City on September 17 for a discussion of “Till We Have Rebuilt Notre Dame: A Conversation on the Future of Architecture, Faith, and Civilization in the West.“]
It is well known that the British government recently appointed me to chair a commission with the task of advocating beauty in building. Our planning system empowers people to oppose consent for buildings in their neighborhood, if they can make a persuasive case. And because there is a widespread and justified belief that whatever is proposed is likely to be ugly, people put all their energies into defending their landscapes and townscapes from the developers. This has made it increasingly difficult to house our growing population. The commission was to persuade people that we can still build in ways that enhance rather than detract from the beauty of their surroundings, and in this way to overcome their opposition. It was a challenging task to produce a report that would both soothe the producers and satisfy the consumers, in a market distorted by vested interests, class conflict and ideology.
Indeed, it was unlikely from the outset that someone like me, a believing conservative who sees architecture as inextricably linked to our sense of who and where we are, should survive long in such a post. My appointment was greeted with howls of outrage from the architectural profession, and a massive campaign of defamation was launched in order to secure my dismissal. The campaign was unsuccessful, despite the best efforts of the architectural press, and I remained committed to the task allotted to me. Later, however, following an interview given to the New Statesman, I was summarily dismissed by the government for my “offensive and unacceptable” remarks. Since nobody told me that I had been dismissed, still less what the remarks were that had caused this, I was unable to reply to the accusations. In due course it was revealed that the “interview” was a fabrication and that I and the New Statesman had both been entrapped by the journalist, who had broadcast his triumph in social media posts that revealed a hostility bordering on the pathological.
By then, however, it was too late for the government to go back on its decision without showing a commitment that it would rather jettison than defend. The main aim of conservative politicians is to get through to the next election without being noticed. Nothing is more embarrassing to them than a person who claims not only to share their beliefs but also to be inclined to put them into practice. Hence the new volley of character assassinations precipitated by the fabricated interview have included quite a few contributions from conservative grandees. Even the former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, having presided through the Evening Standard, which he edits, over a continuous defamatory assault on me, has joined in the exultant Twitter storm to celebrate my dismissal. It became clear that in accepting the commission I had stepped into a minefield, and that the rumor that I would be defending the sentiments of ordinary people against the interests of the architectural profession and the volume builders was enough to mobilize the entire establishment against me. [Editors’ note: As TAC went to press, the New Statesman acknowledged its errors and the UK government reinstated Roger Scruton’s commission appointment.]
I draw the following lessons from this episode, and the first and most important is this, that conservatives, because they are no longer sure of their principles and frightened of any call to express them, will not defend the one who is hounded on their behalf but, on the contrary, hastily look round for the stones that they too can throw. Although, in my view—and in the view of readers of this magazine—the conservative position is the default position of all true communities, conservatives exist in a state of fear. Their beliefs are true but forbidden, and forbidden by the self-appointed censors in our universities and media. If accused, conservative politicians will deny that they have any such opinions and join in denouncing the criminals who could subscribe to them. Nor will they bother to find out the truth once someone is under attack from the mob. “Join in” is the only advice that occurs to them.
The second lesson I draw is that the architectural establishment is not, as it pretends, governed by an ethic of social responsibility. On the contrary, it is a powerful vested interest, and like all such it has fortified its position with an ideology, thereby disguising self-interest as a historical, moral and political necessity. Any opposition to this ideology calls forth contemptuous abuse, such as that recently heaped on James Stevens Curl for his book Making Dystopia, in which he shows that the inhuman ways of building introduced by the modernists were the result of inhuman ways of thinking too. It has not escaped the attention of the ordinary citizen that, while modernist templates and materials are defended by the profession as morally and historically necessary, uniquely true to the Zeitgeist, and so on, these templates and materials are used for one reason only, namely profit. And it is profit gained at the expense of the rest of us. Anybody who sides with popular feeling in this matter becomes a threat to one of the most powerful vested interests in our world, and must expect to be attacked not just by the construction industry and the architecture schools, but by all the political interests in their pockets.
The third lesson that I draw is that conservatives must wake up to the danger. Our built environment is not some accidental feature of our world that can be left to look after itself. It shapes our communities and our sense of identity, conveys an image of our belonging and of the attachments that matter to us. You cannot have a coherent conservative philosophy that does not address the question of our surroundings. As I try to show in my book How to Think Seriously about the Planet, it is conservatives, not radical greens, who have the real environmental agenda, and part of that agenda concerns the human habitat, the place where we settle and which we shape as a home. It is absurd to believe that we can leave our habitat to look after itself, and still pursue a politics of rootedness and national identity. And we should not blind ourselves to the fact that the architectural modernists have, from the beginning, conceived architecture as a part of social engineering, projecting a new and transnational order in place of our old forms of membership, and condemning their opponents as reactionaries and nostalgists. Ask almost any successful architect where he or she stands politically, and the answer will be some version of the “progress” idea, bound up with all the fashionable causes of the Left.
Until conservatives wake up to the fact that the built environment is part of their real agenda, and to be fought for just as tenaciously as any other aspect of our inheritance, they will be wrong-footed in their attempts to govern our cities. This does not mean that styles should not change, or that new forms and materials should not be experimented with. It means that we should approach architecture as conservatives approach everything else, with a view to distinguishing what fits and what grates, what belongs to us and what threatens us, what the people want for themselves, and what the vested interests and the ideological elites wish to impose on them. Working out how to do this is a vital part of our agenda, and the first step is to look around for architects and urbanists who share that agenda and who refuse to be bullied by a lobby that is as out of date as the old trade unions of Europe.
However, we enter here into dangerous waters. The sanctity of private property is so fundamental a part of the American settlement that the country’s conservatives look with suspicion on any policy that seems to prevent people from doing what they will with what is theirs. Although zoning laws are now an accepted part of urban policy, they are accepted because they are the wrong kind of laws. They divide the city into residential, business, manufacturing and shopping areas, and so contribute to the effect famously lamented by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, of a city that is unwalkable, disjointed, without a living center or a shared public face. Businesses accept these laws, since they are easy to comply with, like an entrance test. Pass the test and you can do what you will.
The question for conservatives, therefore, is what kinds of planning law are acceptable, within the context of a free economy. The issue came to the fore in the case of Penn Station, New York, the Beaux-Arts masterpiece of 1910, built by the firm of McKim, Mead and White, and demolished in 1963. Protests by the citizens of New York were on a scale to match the recent protests against the extradition law in Hong Kong. But they failed to move the City governors to take steps to preserve the station, which was replaced by an alienating rats’ warren, surmounted by one of the ugliest mid-rise buildings in New York, facetiously described as a garden.
This cultural disaster perhaps could not have been averted: it was only as a result of it that Americans began to wake up to the need for conservation laws, introducing the “landmark” concept as the best way to ring-fence the objects judged necessary to the national heritage. The suggestion has been made, by Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Arts Society, that Penn Station should be rebuilt, using the sculptures and columns dumped in the New Jersey meadowlands, some of which have since been retrieved. A campaign has even been launched—though how far it has got or is likely to get I do not know. But such battles over “heritage” should not distract us from the real problem, which is not how to conserve beauty but how to produce it. Buildings like Penn Station attract our protective instincts not only because of their beauty but because we fear what will come to replace them. By what policy can we defend the human habitat from the uglification that is growing all around? Who decides, with what powers, and by what right?
This is one part of a yet greater question, which is whether conservatives in government can ever succeed in developing a cultural policy, and if so what form could it take? There are those who say that culture is no business of the state. But in an era when the state has taken charge of education, so as to degrade it in the interests of its egalitarian agenda, it is no longer possible for conservatives to take that simple line. We need to develop our own urbanist curriculum, our own conception of what should be taught in schools of architecture, our own conception of how new settlements should be laid out, and of the ways in which the built environment should be adapted to the community that grows in it. We need to make a comparative study of the planning regimes that have produced places where people flourish, and of the regimes which produce places where they decline. And we should be bold enough to choose between them.
In all this we should remember the most important fact, which is that towns, villages and cities are shared spaces. They contain buildings that are privately owned. But those buildings should be acceptable to everyone who has to live with them. The revulsion against modern ways of building is not confined to a few fogeyish aesthetes. It became clear to me in the research for the commission that the revulsion against the glass and steel office block, against the residential tower without streets or parkland, against the computer-designed “envelope” in the place of the up-standing façade is worldwide and visceral. From all across Europe came the message: when you have sorted things out in Britain please come and sort things out here. Indeed, in response to my sacking by the British government the Polish Ministry of Culture promptly awarded me its architecture prize.
The purpose of planning law is to make places that residents can belong to; and the way to do that is to make places that belong to their residents. This simple extension of the idea of ownership, to embrace all that have a relevant interest, should be the basis of a conservative cultural policy. We should do what we have always wanted to do, which is to return the real choices to the people, and to prevent the elites from imposing the things that the people abhor.
Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
The Atlas of Ancient Rome, ed. Andrea Carandini, Princeton University Press, 2 vols., 1280 pages.
Rome holds a special place in the tradition of Western urbanism. Its forms, its colors, and its layout transmit echoes from an ancient past. Its iterations and enclaves are way stations between antiquity and our own time. Today, as ever, Rome is a city of deep-green Mediterranean scrub, red tufa, and fast-changing skies; a city of busy markets and public fountains; of seafood and wine. An eternal city, yes—but also one whose mood is always contingent upon the present. An afternoon rain soaks the cobblestones and runs off the awnings, and then the sky is all watercolors.
Today, the center of Rome, graciously, shows little evidence of the late-20th century. Renaissance churches may stand beside shops pushing the latest sartorial and culinary offerings, but the city’s development seems to have jumped from Hemingway’s time to our own, skipping over the superblocks of modernism and keeping its traditional urban fabric intact. From certain prospects, as where pathways from the Campidoglio look out over the sprawling ancient Forum, this pattern may create a superficial impression that everything within view is simply old. And, with few exceptions, this is true. But, the layering of so many ages is richer and more mysterious than meets the eye.
From our distant perspective, we may be tempted to collapse the many generational layers that shaped the ancient elements of the city into a single phenomenon. Or, in another approach, authors like Jérôme Carcopino have focused on a particular moment in history to create a less unwieldy urban narrative. (Carcopino chose the late first and early second centuries, A.D.) Yet the more recent Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Andrea Carandini and first published in 2012, represents a sharp counterpoint to the impulse to simplify. Rather than attempt to fit the ancient city to the limits of working memory, it uses the latest spatial and database methods to give order to the stratified complexity of urban growth and change.
The Atlas depicts a living city over a period of more than a thousand years. Its temporal breadth flows from its research context: Rather than a mere survey of existing knowledge, the Atlas was distilled from a much broader landscape of ambitious research, documentation, and analysis. Carandini, now 81 and professor emeritus of archaeology at Sapienza, led this work with a team of younger scholars who contributed heavily to the Atlas. In his introduction, Carandini laments the dormant (or at best neglected) state of what he calls topographical scholarship of Rome. Prior to the Atlas, no map of a such broad scope had been completed since Rodolfo Lanciani had created the Forma Urbae, a 46-plate atlas, between 1893 and 1901.
Having identified a need, Carandini articulates the laudable goal of applying 21st-century technologies, especially GIS (geographic information systems) and CAD (computer-aided drafting), to render a new realm of topographical analysis of the ancient city. With its precision and its layering abilities, these types of three-dimensional modeling allow scholars to pursue a uniquely multifaceted approach to the archaeological knowledge that has been collected, but not always contextualized, since the dawn of modern classicism. The Atlas, to Carandini, is simply the first major product of such an effort. He floats the ideas of a virtual, interactive Atlas—or similar atlases of other historical cities—as future possibilities.
The first edition of the Atlas was published in Italian, in 2012, and an English translation followed, from Princeton University Press, in 2017. Future possibilities aside, the Atlas itself is an ambitious project: a two-volume, hardcover set with more than 1,100 pages of essays, color images, technical drawings, and maps. The richness of is immediately apparent. Art and photographs punctuate the otherwise text-oriented first volume, while maps, site plans, and sections define the second. One senses that even at 1,110 pages, the available material has been compressed.
The detail and precision of the Atlas are extensive and impressive: As in Lanciani’s work, every inch of the ancient city’s physical footprint is covered in Carandini’s. Here, this means all of the urban land that was enclosed by the city walls in the third century. Within this context, countless individual monuments, buildings, and outdoor sites are illustrated at higher resolutions in plan-and-section form. All drawings are color-coded to distinguish between extant structures, archaeological records, and scholars’ presumptions; and to date as much of the evidence as possible.
The written parts of the Atlas are thorough and serious. A collection of scholarly essays provides narratives of the ancient city’s infrastructure networks, building methods, natural environment, and demographic trends. Chapters on each of the 14 Augustan regiones—essentially, its political wards—are methodically organized, beginning with notes about urban planning, and proceeding to histories of urban change across the span of classical antiquity. The methodology used to collect and organize the information contained in the Atlas is also discussed at length—creating a degree of transparency between the editor and his readers that is refreshingly candid.
Presumably, Carandini and his team would agree that a project that draws on such a wealth of information will pose challenges when salience must be assigned to selections. In this respect, the Atlas occasionally falls short: In an effort to be evenhanded, some of the city’s most interesting points of interest do not get enough ink. For instance, the Suburra, a sprawling slum of the classical city that foreshadowed those of the industrial age, is not explored in much detail, either with respect to its role in housing the poor or its setting for some of the earliest building codes. Maps and drawings of the city’s engineering marvels (e.g., aqueducts and sewers), are less thorough than they could be.
Ironically, while the Atlas celebrates one of history’s most organic, ad hoc cities, its own organization shares an approach with 20th-century zoning in its attempt to impose an oversimplified order on an intrinsically complex subject. For instance, its content is sorted into broad categories rather than contextualized in a messier but more satisfying way. (As a result, the separation of essays (in vol. 1) from plans, sections, and maps (in vol. 2) does not make for the easiest cross-referencing of context and details, while a decision to examine the city through the lens of its 14 Augustan regiones does not encourage the most honest exploration of its integrated, continuous urbanism.)
Such things make Carandini’s thought of an interactive, virtual Atlas more appealing. Given the wealth of information on which the Atlas was drawn, a printed version—even at 1,100 pages—feels at times curated. In fact, the editor describes the Atlas as a virtual museum of the city (which has no brick-and-mortar institution devoted to its ancient topography). It would be fascinating to delve into these sites at various scales, to explore direct links between essays and related imagery, to analyze geospatial data for new patterns, or to reorganize the layering and visibility of elements on a particular map, plan, or section.
Ultimately, the Atlas, and its underlying research, adds value to our cultural landscape. It begins to fill a void that, as Carandini notes, has persisted for too long. Many Italian Renaissance writers expressed the architectural thinking of their time, and from their books we can learn the context of their visions and revisions, and how the work of their time was shaped by an understanding of the forms of classical antiquity. Leon Battista Alberti, Sebastiano Serlio, Andrea Palladio and others told that piece of the story well—and much of what they have said can be confirmed, or intuited, with one’s own eyes. The written and physical links between the quattrocento and our own time are intact.
The mystery of Rome’s urbanism—the part most shrouded in shadows—lies in what is inherited from its truly ancient past. We know that many of the forms and structures still exist; we know, roughly, what purpose these places served, and how they correspond with the customary elements of urbanism in the modern West. Yet Vitruvius remains an enigma, and no other ancient author’s comprehensive record survives. The Atlas of Ancient Rome, through literal concrete details, shows what close, iterative study since the 1400s has clarified, by correlating disparate bits of knowledge with a single place.
Carandini’s team has built the most comprehensive model, to date, of an ancient city. What comes next will turn on how this is put to use. The focus on Rome’s topography could as well be described as an exploration of its multilayered urbanism. The intricate relationships between infrastructure, streets, squares, monuments, temples, baths, marketplaces, and private realms are depicted at a level never before seen. A close parallel might be found in the early-20th-century Sanborn Fire Insurance maps that show the granular forms of American industrial urbanism in the period before zoning. The Atlas depicts the original case of large-scale, traditional Western urbanism (including its customs, patterns, and evolution) in similar relief.
The importance of classical Rome to the conscious and unconscious customs of later Western urbanism cannot be overstated. Today, as cultures cross-pollinate, and as technologies topple timeless ways of living, it is an open question whether the familiarity of Rome’s ancient forms will be felt much by those who live in the future, beyond the next horizon. Yet, at least for now, for many of us, the artifacts and patterns that come to life in the Atlas remain contextualized by some tenuous, collective memory; some sense that these mysterious patterns, finally reduced to print, could have shaped the ones we find so familiar.
Perhaps this time—our time—is really the end of the ancient world.
Last spring, the wide outcry at the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris seemed to indicate that many people care about the West’s cultural inheritance from Christendom. Yet with so many Christian traditions threatened by both architectural and religious decay, is there hope for civilization? The French government has insisted it will rebuild, but will it be restored in a way that respects the cathedral’s Christian and Western heritage?
This month in New York City, TAC’s editors will join University of Notre Dame Professor of Architecture Duncan G. Stroik, National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty, author of My Father Left Me Ireland, and TAC‘s senior editor Rod Dreher in a wide-ranging discussion of this watershed moment for Notre Dame, Western civilization, and more.
Register now for this special September 17 evening on “Till We Have Rebuilt Notre Dame: A Conversation on the Future of Architecture, Faith, and Civilization in the West.” Seats are limited, and you won’t want to miss this all-star lineup.
About the speakers:
Duncan G. Stroik is a practicing architect, author, and Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His award-winning work includes the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in Santa Paula, California, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A frequent lecturer on sacred architecture and the classical tradition, Stroik authored The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternal and is the founding editor of Sacred Architecture Journal. Professor Stroik is the 2016 winner of the Arthur Ross Award.
Rod Dreher, The American Conservative’s senior editor writes about social and cultural conservatism, with a particular interest in religion in the public square. He has written and served as editor for the New York Post, National Review, Dallas Morning News, and other publications. He is the author of four books, Crunchy Cons, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, How Dante Can Save Your Life and The Benedict Option.
Cocktail Reception: 6-7 pm
Program: 7-8 pm
Location: Church of Saint Agnes, 143 East 43rd Street, New York, NY 10017.
Back in June, a user on the Facebook group “What Zoning Board Approved This?”—a kind of zoning-focused little brother forum for New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens—shared a photo of an unusual McDonald’s restaurant in Arizona. Users in turn marveled at and mocked the franchise’s teal Golden Arches and tacky stucco facade. The board that approved this particular McDonald’s was in Sedona, Arizona, which enforces an especially strict design code. A local in the group provided additional context: “I live in Sedona [and] all the boards that run this place have a stick up their …”
Weird McDonald’s are a mainstay in the group, which interrogates the strange results of America’s hyper-localized system of land-use regulation. For the most part, the chain has produced standard, recognizable stores, from Googie food stands to double-sloped mansard roofs. So when local zoning boards insist on aesthetic control, the results stand out, producing an awkward mix of formula design and local whims. If the group’s comment section is any indication, the resulting McDonald’s are often a bit of a disappointment. Indeed, they each in their own way suggest that something has gone awry in the way we design cities. Here are their stories.
…With A Side of Preservation
When local entrepreneur Lawrence Anderer decided to bring McDonald’s to the tony Long Island suburb of New Hyde Park, the chain already had the franchising process down to a science. In 1985, he acquired a cheap lot with a dilapidated old house along the Jericho Turnpike, already a busy suburban commercial strip at the time. There was just one problem: that dipalitated old home was the Denton House, a 1795-built Georgian mansion.
As locals rushed to apply historic designation to the property, Anderer’s original plan to demolish the then-decaying house and build a conventional McDonald’s was quickly scuttled. At this point, Anderer might have walked away, but he didn’t. Instead, he opted to navigate the new set of rules applied to the property, restoring the home’s front facade and opening what has been called “the most beautiful McDonald’s in America” in 1991.
A similar fight played out when McDonald’s set out to open its first location in the state of Maine. Bumping up against Freeport’s extremely strict design and preservation codes, it quickly became clear that the standard site plan wasn’t going to fly. After raucous public debate, the town agreed to allow McDonald’s to rehabilitate the Gore House, an 1850-built Colonial manor. Like Denton House, Gore House stands to this day, just one block north of the L.L. Bean headquarters. In an awkward nod to local culture, this is also one of the few McDonald’s to sell the “McLobster,” the chain’s take on the lobster roll.
Did Somebody Say Design?
As Anglos moved en masse into the American Southwest in the early twentieth century, design quickly became a key part of the region’s emerging culture. As Virginia Savage McAlester describes in A Field Guide to American Houses, Spanish Revival homes sprung up behind conventional front lawns in California, while Monterey-style balconies projected from English-style massings in Texas.
Enthusiasm among settlers for a unique Southwestern aesthetic reached a fever pitch in Arizona and New Mexico. Promoted by architectural historians and tourism boosters alike, Pueblo Revival quickly became popular, combining flat roofs, projecting roof beams, and stuccoed walls. Out of this, many of America’s first modern design ordinances were born, requiring that new buildings incorporate what came to be known as “Santa Fe style.”
The folks at McDonald’s got a crash course in this unique slice of American architectural history when they tried to open a franchise in Sedona, Arizona. Nestled in the hills of Central Arizona, Sedona boasts strict design codes that prohibit “franchise buildings.” Designing buildings like outfits, city officials argued that the Golden Arches clashed with the region’s famous red rock faces. In addition to complying with the standard Pueblo Revival design rules, which produced a curious adobe-style building, the company was required to turn the Golden Arches teal.
At the same time that planners in New Hyde Park were fighting with McDonald’s to preserve the Denton House, planners in Independence, Ohio were negotiating with the chain to produce a building with quality design. Like Sedona, the outer Cleveland suburb enforced strict facade rules, requiring McDonald’s to secure signoff from the town’s Architecture Review Board. The result of these negotiations is a two-story, post-modern-by-way-of-Greek Revival McDonald’s—three-quarters of a mile east of Interstate 77.
Locals seem to be content with all four developments—if nothing else, for their sheer weirdness—and each allowed McDonald’s to slip locations into otherwise restrictive towns. But if a mixed online reception is any indication, these developments raise serious questions about the efficacy of historic preservation and design regulations.
Today, the once-manicured grounds of the Denton House are a surface parking lot. And the interior of the Gore House has been gutted and remade into a garden-variety McDonald’s. The Sedona McDonald’s is still, at the end of the day, an outparcel next to a strip mall that could be anywhere in North America. And as Redditors have observed, the Independence McDonald’s looks kind of evil.
One can’t help but wonder, was it worth all the fuss to save a mansion that sells McDoubles and McFlurrys—a McMansion, if you will? Are teal Golden Arches really strengthening the heritage of the Southwest? Are faux Greek Revival columns at the drive-thru window really changing perceptions about the quality of a humdrum suburb? At the same time that we likely overestimate the placemaking powers of preserving and designing by committee, perhaps there’s underappreciated wisdom in just letting a McDonald’s be a McDonald’s.
Nolan Gray is a city planner in New York and a regular contributor to Market Urbanism.
Hotels have received plenty of architectural attention, but unless you’re Howard Hughes or Coco Chanel you probably haven’t spent four years living in them. One space where most readers have likely spent just that long in residence–and that hasn’t attracted a fraction of that kind of attention—is the old-fashioned college dormitory, now ably addressed in Carla Yanni’s Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.
The dormitory is an interesting space, intrinsically transient but often designed to serve as a social aggregator, edifying home environment and cocoon from baleful influences, once loose morals and religious nonconformists, lately Halloween costumes and Republicans. It’s a building type represented virtually everywhere in the United States—Yanni notes early on that there are likely more than thirty thousand dormitory buildings in the U.S.
The first unusual thing about American dormitories is simply how widespread they are. You don’t actually need to house students on-site: this happens for a very small minority of students in secondary and boarding schools, and a minority in graduate education. Living on campus is not remotely as common in a number of other societies, and wasn’t the standard even in some European societies that provided inspiration to American universities. A prime task is to explain “why Americans have believed for so long that college students should live in purpose-built structures that we now take for granted: dormitories. This was never inevitable, nor was it even necessary.”
The religious and often rural origins of many American colleges, designed to remove students from the malignant influences of the city, played a prominent role in the provision of housing. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe and its fictional Harley College—“The local situation of the college, so far secluded from the sight and sound of the busy world, is peculiarly favorable to the moral, if not the literary, habits of its students; and this advantage probably caused the founders to overlook the inconveniences that were inseparably connected with it.”
It’s easy to roll one’s eyes about broader recent claims about housing always being an ideological project, but in the case of universities it was and always has been one, concerning “the socially constructed nature of the student”—with the (partial) exceptions occurring in the postwar period, when students were treated less like charges to be bent to one’s will and more like cattle. Even then, questions emerged: is it social engineering to separate genders or engineering to combine them? I simply don’t know.
Harvard and William and Mary featured student residences from their earliest days, often intermingled with virtually all university functions in the same buildings. Residence halls were a feature of most early colleges, but a fair number of universities dispensed with them. State universities located in towns of any size frequently looked upon dormitories as an extravagance and students entirely capable of renting lodging elsewhere. The first dormitory at Rutgers was only built in 1890. The University of Wisconsin at Madison had some housing but then eliminated it for decades.
Boardinghouses almost always existed on the outskirts of universities, but were generally viewed as fertile ground for immorality or even literal disease, and campus residences a better means of shaping the moral and educational lives of their students—which is all true to some extent. The sheer number of moral concerns affecting the lives of students receded as time went on, although stances on these questions have never gone away, and have risen again in prominence in the age of institutional social-justice claptrap.
The notion of cultivating a seamless educational environment no doubt has considerable value. A University of Wisconsin pamphlet advertised new dormitories as “designed to bring into the life of every undergraduate the cultural inspiration and force of the university.”
One chapter addresses the rise of fraternities. These were at times welcome as self-supporting institutions promoting some version of civic responsibility, at other times a source of concern as charnels of affluent drunkards whose vortex of vice distracted many more than members from their studies. Their highflying economic character often prompted colleges to respond with more explicitly egalitarian efforts. The University of Wisconsin characterized its own building effort in leveling tone, “Here, too, the man from the well-to-do house and the man who tends furnaces to buy his text-books will learn respect for each other across a common table.”
There were limits, of course, with dorms frequently being segregated or otherwise limited, obviously barring women but an assortment of faiths and minorities. One casually rancid comment on the topic from a University of Michigan dormitory donor: “I don’t see why the orientals are there. That building is not the League of Nations.”
Yanni devotes ample attention to the literal arrangement of residential halls, with the most common being either double-loaded corridors or vertically-oriented stairway plans. The former are obviously simple, the latter more common in fancier confines. Female residential halls often took on the corridor format which enabled easier monitoring, while also generally featuring more social space: when visitation between sexes was permitted it was far more common that males could attend social events at female dorms, with the hopeful result being a transmission of some domestic calm. Her focus shifts between exemplars and averages in this book, but touches upon a large amount of excellent residential work, from an Ann Arbor fraternity house designed by Albert Kahn to numerous superb residential halls.
James Gamble Rogers’ sublime Yale residential colleges are treated in detail, as landmarks in their own right, but also as avatars of a broader trend aping Oxbridge residential colleges both in their concept and quadrangular form. Yanni notes that the 1930s-era “scale of building Yale’s residential colleges is almost unimaginable in the context of university planning today. It would be like designing, constructing, furnishing, and opening for business several enormous five-star hotels, all in the space of two years.” Some universities built very respectable residences on smaller budgets, but this points to another pressing dilemma. Fantastic dormitories make sense for the wealthiest of American colleges, while for many others they are a huge extravagance.
One far-less-than-satisfactory solution of skyscraper dormitories, beginning after World War II and explosion of enrollment under the G.I. Bill, which mar a considerable number of universities. Sometimes these are simply necessary in urban circumstances, while in other cases they are not remotely: the campus of Ohio State University occupies over 1500 acres; it wasn’t any shortage of space that lead to 26-story dormitory towers. Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J. is slightly more constrained, but a series of seven-story housing towers only utilized 18 percent of its plot. They are cheap: she explains that once an expensive elevator bank was installed there was generally no reason not to pile on a few or a dozen more floors. Such large-scale construction often frustrated the important aim of forging smaller coherent communities in the midst of large universities, and added another anonymizing element to already anonymously large universities.
Yanni then details the reaction against this facelessness, some of which was objectively silly, some quite meritorious. One guide for planning a new college at Rutgers commented that “every effort must be made to avoid the hotel-like atmosphere so common in large universities today.” (They must have been simply looking across their own campus.) At the same time, a dean suggested that the new residential college would have “a very swinging faculty, an exciting student body, and a real degree of orientation to everyday problems.”
Having students design their own units was not much of a successful idea at the University of California, but efforts at building smaller and more organic residential communities often had many praiseworthy elements. Charles Moore’s Kresge College at the University of California Santa Cruz, modeled on Italian Hill Towns, has many fine aspects. Eero Saarinen’s colleges at Yale may very well not be to your taste compared to Rogers at Yale, but his inspirations were medieval and his design a reaction to the monotony of more recent collegiate architecture. He commented, “we have tried to avoid the sense of standardization which is so prevalent in twentieth century architecture.”
More recently, we reach the rise of luxury dormitories, the Lazy River at the University of North Florida and other fripperies that lead parents to the equivalent of second mortgages—and also the rise of the for-profit University of Phoenix, and learning expedients with no dorms at all. Both are obviously flawed, and there are no easy solutions to college housing. But as college presidents, benefactors, and architects look forward, they might consider the many examples explored by Yanni in the long history of over two centuries of American college dormitories.
Anthony Paletta is a journalist based in New York.
AKRON, Ohio—Rolling Acres Mall in Akron opened in 1975. I was three years old.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of going to that mall. The mall had only been there for two years, but to a five year old in 1977, it was as permanent and impressive as the pyramids of Egypt.
The mall was huge: two levels, over one million square feet, four anchor department stores, and 140 individual stores. Our family would go to York Steak House for dinner, buy our clothes at O’Neils, buy hardware at Sears, and purchase hi-fidelity stereophonic sound at Radio Shack.
The mall was a center of community and commerce. In the 1970s and 1980s, a family trip, or a 16-year-old’s solo teenage voyage to the mall, was an iconic all-American experience and a rite of passage.
In the mid-1980s, it would have been inconceivable to think that this still practically brand-new mall’s best days were already behind it.
But by the early-1990s, the mall’s fortunes had begun to rapidly fade. And by the mid-2000s, it was nearly empty. The power was turned off in 2008. Soon afterward, the mall went viral on the internet as the ur-example of retail apocalypse and suburban decline.
The hollowed-out husk of what was once a temple to commerce, familial bonding, and teenage freedom rapidly became a post-apocalyptic casualty of late capitalism and a dangerous nuisance. The mall bounced from one absentee-owned LLC to another. The owner(s) stopped paying property taxes.
A man was killed by electrocution trying to steal copper pipe from the mall. An infamous serial killer dumped the body of one of his victims at the site. Photographers, urban explorers, and curiosity seekers descended upon the ruins, drawn by the site’s fall from grace. (Photographer Seph Lawless’ compelling and haunting images of the mall were captured in his book “Autopsy of America.”)
As is typically the case with such things, this failure of private business ultimately became the problem of the public sector to solve.
After years of corporate irresponsibility, millions of dollars of tax-delinquency, and legal battles between the various absentee owners and Summit County over foreclosure, the City of Akron became the new owner of the remaining flotsam and jetsam from this retail shipwreck.
The city began the expensive task of demolishing the million-square foot behemoth, and embarked upon the hard work of figuring out what to do with this gigantic site.
After a lot of extensive planning and research, and untold hours of discussions and in-depth analysis, Mayor Dan Horrigan, his development-team, and many other partners worked out an agreement with Amazon to purchase the site and construct a new fulfillment center.
What was once the most-infamous dead mall in America, an eyesore, a nuisance, and a place that generated $0 in tax revenue, will now employ over 1,500 people at a minimum of $30,000 per year.
The median household (not individual) income in the census tracts surrounding the former mall is less than $30,000. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the people in these tracts live below the poverty line.
A derelict site which generated $0 in taxes, and was a huge net liability in every respect, will now generate over $1 million annually in income taxes for the City of Akron, and will employ 1,500 people in a part of the city that desperately needed steady, living-wage jobs.
Is all of this a panacea? Are all of our economic problems solved? Will Amazon’s business model last forever?
Of course not.
Nothing lasts forever, and plenty of challenges remain for America’s cities—particularly here in the Rust Belt.
But there is no possible universe in which the conversion of this wasted and god-forsaken site into an employment center that will pay 1,500 people livable wages, and will become a net tax revenue contributor, is not an unbelievably positive thing for Akron and its people.
When you work in local government, particularly in an older-post-industrial city, and are charged with the daunting task of stabilizing it and turning it around, you become acutely aware of the impermanence of everything. Nothing is static. Everything is evolving. Everything is ultimately in need of renewal, because everything eventually falls apart.
You learn to stop seeing things in the black-and-white and theoretical terms of “good” and “bad.” You begin to understand choices in terms of the way that they actually present themselves in the real world: good/better/best vs. bad/worse/worst. You learn to ignore extremists, trolls, and fanatics and focus on doing what is best for the people of the community that you serve.
If we are ever to overcome the numerous and far larger challenges that face our wonderful but troubled nation, it is imperative that we, too, learn to think this way about our country. We don’t need ideology. We need ideas.
We need to stop listening to the ideologues who want to further divide us with Ex uno plures, and who are incapable of thinking of anyone but themselves and the narrow interests that they serve, and instead choose ourselves to be citizens and leaders who still believe in E pluribus unum, and who are capable of doing what is best for the nation as a whole.
Jason Segedy is the Director of Planning and Urban Development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban planning field for the past 22 years, and is an avid writer on urban planning and 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: Please join author Duncan Stroik (with Rod Dreher and Michael Brendan Dougherty) in New York City on September 17 for a discussion of “Till We Have Rebuilt Notre Dame: A Conversation on the Future of Architecture, Faith, and Civilization in the West.“]
When you go to a great European city, you find beautiful spacious piazze, outdoor cafes, charming shops, fountains to sit near, and people to watch. For many today, that symbolizes the good city.
As bricks-and-mortar retail decreases, our cities become more about experiences we can’t get online. Most of us like active places with nightlife, theatres for movies and plays, concert halls, museums, parks for bike riding, and sidewalks for walking our dogs. Fresh food, old bookshops, coffee bars, and micro-breweries satisfy our passions. Those make a public realm worth visiting.
Adding a church to the mix doesn’t really help. Or does it? Is the European plaza so great merely because of commerce and culture? Does it need something else? Does it need the temple? Our temples serve people’s most fundamental needs: forgiveness, hope, and meaning. Their presence on the piazza says that commerce is not enough, that not even culture is enough.
But who visits churches? They need to be something out of the ordinary like Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, preferably with masterpieces of art inside. We are a secular country with Protestant origins and our church buildings are not normally open, and in any case rarely worth visiting for their architecture or their art. (Interestingly, a recent study in the U.K. found that church architecture had a greater impact on conversions than even youth groups. If left open, people will visit beautiful churches and have the opportunity for conversion.)
There are certainly many great cities with churches where the urban realm is not so lively. There neither commerce nor culture nor the temple flourish. In Naples, I have witnessed many closed churches with desolate piazze. Of course, a closed church can still be a beautiful ornament on the square, not unlike a Roman ruin, but it will not be able to fulfill its ultimate purpose. This is because the role of church architecture, like retail, is to draw us inside, but for a different purpose: to bring us in contact with the divine.
A city is more than just commerce and culture. The good city needs a civic realm marked out by a proper architecture of the civic realm. City Halls are there to promote good government, schools to promote education, courts to promote justice, museums to promote art and concert halls to promote the performing arts. Some of these civic structures we visit once a year or on special occasions, others every week or daily. Others we prefer not to visit, like the courthouse. These are the foci of our cities, and we have invested our best efforts to erect them.
The answer to good cities is not to put retail everywhere to activate the public realm with commerce, nor to add cultural pleasures like parks and micro-breweries. It’s first to have a public realm that is worth visiting. That public realm must include our temples. And it must be architecturally expressed in a certain way. If churches and other civic buildings are invested with monumental architecture, they will become the focus of our streets and city squares. Adding a church to the mix does help. It helps create and sustain a vital public realm by serving people’s most fundamental needs for forgiveness, hope, and meaning in a way no other civic institution can do. And ironically, perhaps, temples will draw parishioners and tourists alike, resulting in vibrant commerce as well.
Duncan Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and an architect who focuses on church architecture.
This article was adapted with permission from Sacred Architecture Journal.
Since Amazon has changed the way many Americans buy things, most of the big-box retailers have struggled. Fox Business recently reported that Walmart and its ilk are battling mightily to “fend off retail apocalypse.” But before the zombies come, the superstore giants want you to gas up and bravely drive over to your local strip center—at least once more, dear consumers—as legacy retailers try to create a new paradise in their old parking lots. Walmart executives announced late last year that they were “reimagining” the typical dull parking lots by building “town centers” that could “provide community space,” and “areas for the community to dwell.” And at least one new Walmart “experience” is now open for business in Temple, Texas.
The irony is thick, and not only built up under the numerous layers of asphalt that have paved tens of thousands of acres of formerly verdant pastures; the superstores killed off remaining family hardware stores and groceries on nearby Main Streets. Over the past few decades, Walmart’s easy, free parking and low prices kept many consumers buying there—at least until the e-commerce revolution of Amazon and its imitators challenged the old superstore model of cheap, easy suburban growth.
Now Walmart is trying desperately to think outside its big boxes, yet these attempts at “reimagining” can only lead to more decline for the old paradigm of giant retail. The stagnant model of suburban real-estate development may also be a harbinger of long-term American economic decline—unless government officials and policymakers reorient incentives and make smarter infrastructure choices. It isn’t Walmart alone that is struggling to adapt the old model, but Walmart’s prominent experiment at revitalizing its big boxes is worth following closely.
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Today, as the superstores gesture toward creating more human-scaled places, Walmart appears to be finally catching on to New Urbanism, the movement that has promoted the return of traditional neighborhood planning for over a quarter century. Will Walmart, with all its resources and capital, be able to recreate all the benefits of a mixed-use Main Street in an old parking lot?
The renderings provided by architects suggest that existing Walmart parking lots might be rebuilt into retail and restaurant space alongside what in more urban settings are sometimes called “pocket parks,” small patches of grass and foliage that provide some relief from the asphalt. And there may be even more. Dog parks, food trucks, and European-style food halls all abound. (One proposal in the prosperous Kansas City suburb of Lee’s Summit, Missouri even imagines a grand piano atop an outdoor stage, as if a performer will belt out some show tunes or an operetta. So it’s not exactly Nordstrom, but they’re trying.)
Other aspects of the parking lot retail strategy look remarkably akin to typical chain restaurants, albeit wanting to look more like Brooklyn bistros, with exposed brick and vintage bulbs galore. Of course, there are still plenty of stalls for private vehicles, without anyone having to parallel park or feed a meter any time soon.
Another central component of Walmart’s new strategy is the use of pop-up shops inside large modular shipping containers, that oddly appropriate symbol of global capitalism. And the most ambitious “reimagined” town centers feature large shimmering ponds, presumably to capture all the water runoff over the hard landscape, oily car stains included.
Still, for all of Walmart’s creative attempts at “reimagining,” which try to humanize suburban parking lots, they start to look a lot like typical shopping malls. Acres of parking remain, and huge arterial roads act as moats that prevent pedestrians from easily traveling beyond Walmart’s property.
To draw on urbanist James Howard Kunstler’s approach, including these sorts of similarly flawed attempts at humanizing suburban blight, Walmart’s new town centers are akin to “bandaids.” The big boxes may stem the bleeding for awhile, but death is coming eventually. It’s not just a matter of aesthetic snobbery or the rise of Amazon and online retailing. The big-box store is an outdated economic paradigm. But it’s also a way of living that is becoming unaffordable—ecologically, and also for the bottom dollar. As former President Bill Clinton’s onetime campaign slogan explains, it all comes back to “the economy, stupid.”
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For decades, big-box stores were made possible by pouring billions into new suburban infrastructure, all of it subsidized by taxpayers. The good times of the 1980s and 1990s fueled the building of thousands more big-box stores, including the now-ubiquitous local Walmart. In the short term, jobs were created, and everyone was getting cheaper TVs and any number of other goods.
Of course there was never a free lunch, even at the stunningly cheap cafeterias of Ikea, those ultimate big boxes that outdo Walmart’s typical square footage with five football fields of space. Historians and economists may soon look back at these hubristic years, just prior to and after the new millennium, as the peak of the big-box sprawl experiment.
One landmark moment should not be forgotten from the annals of 1992, when President George H.W. Bush traveled on Air Force One to Arkansas to pay homage to ailing Walmart founder Sam Walton (and present him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom). Increased trade liberalization had begun during the elder-Bush years, and then in 1993, Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for which Walmart had intensely lobbied, hoping to open thousands of stores south of the border.
After NAFTA, the decline of domestic manufacturing only accelerated. At the same time, desperate local municipalities seeking big-box employers gladly provided “tax incentives.” These big breaks, of course ultimately funded by taxpayers, created new roads—including traffic signals, power, water, and policing. Decades later, the deferred maintenance is coming due, and who will foot the bill for all the infrastructure spent to prop up the big-box experiment?
In America’s wealthier metropolitan zip codes, Walmart can “reimagine” a new place, seeking consumers to sip five-dollar lattes and buy artisanal burgers. But in many less prosperous burghs, stagnant wages won’t support such reinventions or fuel economic growth. Hundreds of Walmarts first creatively destroyed local businesses, but the company later shuttered some of its under-performing superstores themselves—sometimes only a decade or two after they were built—leaving many towns that were already struggling even poorer.
The Guardian reported in 2017 on one closed Walmart, among the deep poverty of rural West Virginia: “Walmart descended in 2005 on the site of an old Kmart, like the spacecraft of alien botanists that lands in the forest at the start of the movie ET. And there it sat: a massive gash of concrete encircled by nature’s abundance.” Over 100,000 square feet once employed over 300 people, serving as a kind of town square; only a decade later, it was empty.
Some people might be surprised that the store gave up on the area so quickly. An average big-box store is only designed for a 15-to-20-year lifespan, Joe Minicozzi, an urbanist consultant, has explained that a Walmart executive once disclosed. So if a distant corporation decides to cut their losses and move out, the local officials are stuck with maintaining the extra public infrastructure for years to come, as well as a further reduced tax base.
This is why New Urbanists and others care about more than creating beautiful, traditional downtowns. It’s good fiscal sense, too. Doubling down on more big-box fads can’t support sustainable places. Minicozzi found one example from Asheville, North Carolina, where analyzing the tax structure with a traditional street “realizes an astounding +800 percent greater return” on downtown tax revenue—as compared to “when ground is broken near the city limits for a large single-use development like a Super Walmart.” In short, the city of Asheville “yields $360,000 more in tax revenue to city government than an acre of strip malls or big box stores.”
The currently “reimagined” Walmart won’t fundamentally change the economics, even if it tries to change the paradigm. There are no plans to include density near homes or offices; Walmart even generously suggests that the new big boxes can provide better bike and walking paths to reach other destinations—yet just try to safely cross a multi-lane arterial road on a bike or scooter.
There is no shortage of new research on how to fix badly designed big boxes, including the wealth of case studies in Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. Walmart is apparently uninterested in these retrofits, which break up asphalt deserts of superblocks into a traditional street grid, slowing down cars. (In Englewood, Colorado, city officials successfully pushed Walmart for a better facade and tree-lined streetscape, but this is the exception rather than the rule.) Many retrofits hide large parking lots from the street, and at least two-story buildings create space for residential housing. Mixed-use developments also make economic sense, allowing developers “to better ride out real estate market cycles by having a mixed portfolio, and being able to more flexibly respond to shifts in demand.”
In some cases, where there is currently no demand for redevelopment, Dunham-Jones and Williamson suggest “regreening” large parcels of land for small-scale agriculture or conservation. This solution may make the most sense for underperforming big boxes, particularly at the edges of both large and small cities. In so many places, then as now, municipalities are tempted to allow development on greenfield sites, even following New Urbanist principles. But it would be unwise to ignore languishing core downtowns when in many cases regional population growth is only modest, as in the Rust Belt, for example.
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The stakes may be higher for the future of Walmart than any of the other big boxes, notably the large real-estate footprint it has created over the past few decades. Local municipalities and state officials should not allow big-box stores to duck responsibility for the mess they helped create; now Walmart and others are using court decisions known as “dark stores” to depreciate their properties, letting them become worthless, and leaving invested cities and counties stuck with the tab. It’s not only an impending economic disaster, but there is also a moral imperative to insist on solidarity between capital and local taxpayers.
In recent years, Walmart has put moral pressure on localities to pay workers higher wages. Cities and towns must wake up to another moral imperative—that of economically and ecologically responsible land use. It’s not simply a New Urbanist fashion, but a way forward for retrofitting our communities as resilient places that will not squander past investment, and continue to make the same mistakes.
Almost all suburban and exurban real-estate developers and local officials are heavily invested in the old formula of enabling sprawl to create wealth, and changing that paradigm will be difficult. Yet waking up to the big-box mirage will build American prosperity on a firmer foundation, one block at a time.
Lewis McCrary is executive editor of The American Conservative. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Over the last half-decade or so, a distressingly similar story has been heard from many cities around the world. Newly popular city cores are drawing more people, pushing up prices, and driving out small businesses and lower-income residents. City leaders, alarmed at the trends, try to build their way out of the problems, on the theory that more supply will better match demand, and result in lower rents and home prices. But the efforts don’t seem to work—and even seem to exacerbate the problems.
That’s because, as we’ve seen, cities aren’t simple machines, in which we can plug in one thing (say, a higher quantity of housing units) and automatically get out something else (say, lower housing costs). Instead, cities are “dynamical systems,” prone to unintended consequences and unexpected feedback effects. By building more units, we might create “induced demand,” meaning that more people are attracted to move to our city from other places—and housing prices don’t go down, they go up.
Unfortunately, we have been treating cities too much like machines, and for an obvious reason. In an industrial age, that has been a profitable approach for those at the top, and in past decades, it seemed to fuel the middle class too. More recently, the results have been destructive, creating cities of winners and losers, and large areas of urban (and rural) decline. Even government programs meant to address the problems have seemed at times like a game of “whack-a-mole”—build some social housing here, see more affordability problems pop up over there.
In the years after World War II, and especially in the United States, the largest areas of decline were often in the inner cities, leaving the “losers” of the economy behind, while the “winners” (often wealthier whites) fled to the suburbs. But more recently it has been the cores of large cities that have become newly prosperous, attracting the winners of the “knowledge economy.”
Meanwhile, the inner-tier suburban belts and the smaller industrial cities have suffered marked decline, with a predictable political backlash from the “white working class.” Lower-income and minority populations have been relegated to even more peripheral locations, with limited opportunities for economic development. This gap in opportunity means a gap in the lower-end “rungs of the ladder” that are so essential for immigrants and others to advance.
This more recent pattern of core gentrification and geographic inequality has also been an unintended result of conscious policies. This time we aimed to achieve not suburban expansion, but the urban benefits of knowledge-economy cities, and their capacities as creative engines of economic development. In the United States, authors like Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida have come to prominence by promoting the economic power of city cores. Florida’s “creative class” ranks alongside concepts like “innovation districts” to promote a critical mass of talent and interaction. Glaeser’s “triumph of the city” points to the environmental efficiencies of compact living, as well as the economic benefits.
These and other authors have cited as inspiration the urban economics of Jane Jacobs, who did indeed champion the capacities of cities as creative engines of human development. But Jacobs warned against the kind of “silver bullet” thinking that imagines an innovation district or a downtown creative class is going to generate benefits that will automatically trickle down to the rest of the city. On the contrary, she pointed to the dangers of any form of “monoculture”—including the monoculture of an innovation district or of a creative class.
Instead, Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city—diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old buildings and opportunities waiting to be targeted.
This is a point that Ed Glaeser, Richard Florida and the other fans of “innovation districts” might not yet comprehend. Glaeser for one has been harsh in criticizing Jacobs’ defense of old buildings—for example, in Greenwich Village—which he sees as a sentimental preservation instinct that only feeds gentrification. His formula has been to demolish and build new high rises.
But Glaeser and other critics seem to miss Jacobs’ point. For Jacobs, the answer to gentrification and affordability is not an over-concentration of new (often even more expensive) houses in the core. Rather, we need to diversify geographically as well as in other ways. If Greenwich Village is over-gentrifying, it’s probably time to re-focus on Brooklyn, and provide more jobs and opportunities for its more depressed neighborhoods. If those start to overheat, it’s time to focus on the Bronx, or Queens. Or Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans…
There is no end of good urban fabric, in the U.S. and in other countries, that is ready for some positive gentrification, the kind that increases diversity and opportunities for human development (as we also offer targeted protections for existing residents). It is not wise to over-concentrate on the existing cores, in the belief that this “voodoo urbanism” will magically benefit all of the city’s residents.
A second, related issue is the scale of urban plots or lots. Here too we need diversity at the smaller scales, just as we need geographic diversity at the largest scales of the city. Just as old buildings tend to be more affordable, accommodating smaller businesses and startups, so too, small plots and lots tend to be more affordable for those same users.
But as the cores experience hypertrophic growth, often the pressure to build very large buildings on very large sites also becomes irresistible. A mix of small and large plots can help to tamp down this tendency. At the same time, other tools can manage overheating of the core, and steer growth into new locations. For example, as Jacobs recommended, new public projects in new locations can serve as catalytic “chess pieces” to redirect growth into more benign forms.
These are examples of Jacobs’ “toolkit” approach—one that is badly needed today to cope with the dynamic challenges of rapid city growth around the world.
What are the tools available? In a recent conference on urbanization, affordability and displacement in Los Angeles, speakers brought up the following tools and approaches:
- Taxation, including land value tax. Patrick Condon, professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, described the “Vienna Model”—new projects are taxed heavily, which depresses land cost without raising costs for market-rate housing. The taxes go to affordable projects, and to buying more land—which is then less expensive. Other cities tax the land value directly, using so-called “Georgist” tax policies. Similar tools can help to conserve resources (like land) and reward good development. As I will discuss in the last section, such policies can help to “monetize externality costs” (like sprawl).
- Financial tools to damp down speculative real estate bubbles. Housing is a human need, not an interchangeable investor commodity—yet current policy is rewarding a dangerous new wave of speculation. The last time this happened, 2008, the world found itself in a global financial crisis. We need better tools, including local regulations, that control excessive speculation. We need less childlike faith in the magic of unfettered markets.
- Better tools to unlock under-utilized sites. There are enormous reserves of wasted land, empty lots, parking lots and other suitable sites in many cities — but there is a shortage of imagination and tools to access them. In the U.S., the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently cited a 2014 survey that found that in just a part of New York City, nearly 2,500 vacant lots and more than 3,500 empty buildings had enough capacity to house 200,000 people.
- Tools for “gentle densification”. These include accessory dwellings, duplexes or rental conversions, pocket neighborhoods, “tiny houses,” and other innovative forms of compatible, human-scale housing, as alternatives to “jamming it in.”
- “Beauty In My Back Yard”. Many cities are full of beautiful, neighborhood-compatible typologies, including rich traditions of human-scaled apartments. Where sites are available, such positive alternatives should be developed through “win-win” consultations with residents.
- Targeted protections for existing renters and owners, and aggressive help for the homeless. There can be no excuse for letting people suffer, particularly when proven alternatives have been demonstrated by other cities. Salt Lake City in the U.S., for example, has demonstrated one positive approach to ending chronic homelessness; there are others. Some cities have developed policies that legally disincentivize increases in rents above inflation (including property tax re-assessments based on higher incomes).
Above all, stop scapegoating NIMBYs (that is, those who respond to projects with “not in my back yard”). It is popular today to blame NIMBYs for everything from gentrification to loss of affordable housing. Nonsense. These are complex phenomena, and they are no more amenable to stripping the rights of NIMBYs than they are to other simplistic “silver bullet” solutions. Furthermore, most people agree that those who live in a community should have the right to participate in land use planning that affects their public realm, with a voice in decision-making. As Jane Jacobs said, sometimes NIMBYs are right: although a project type may be needed, “things should be done differently.”
The political environment in many countries is ugly enough without fomenting more needless divisions within communities that have been allies in the past, including the historic preservation community, and the community of neighborhood activists who are best placed to help improve their own neighborhoods. There is more than enough blame to go around, and more to the point, there is more than enough opportunity for citizens to work together on better “win-win” approaches that address the broader needs of cities.
As Jacobs reminds us, we need to become wiser stewards of urban diversity, in both scale and location, so that we can counteract the effects of overheated urban growth. By doing so, we can support a more even and equitable growth of smaller businesses, and viable employment for lower and middle classes. Out of that creative exchange, we will continue to get unimaginable marvels of innovation, and we might also get the next new world-famous startup. But we will also get many thousands of other healthy and creative businesses, forming the real backbone of great cities.
And instead of monocultures of the rich, and of society’s winners, we will get the economic diversity on which the continued growth and vitality of cities actually depends.
Michael Mehaffy is an urban designer, consultant, and senior researcher at the Ax:son Johnson Foundation in Stockholm. He is also director of the Portland-based think tank Sustasis Foundation.
This piece was adapted from his recent book Cities Alive: Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and the Roots of the New Urban Renaissance.