New Urbs

Trader Joe’s: Good Food and Good Urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in , , , . 24 comments

The Methodist Paradise on the Jersey Shore

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

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

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

Credit: John Sanphillippo

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

John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun, where this post originally appeared.

Posted in , , , , , . 5 comments

Why Can’t I Afford to Live Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in , , , , , , . Tagged , , . 19 comments

No, Edward Hopper Did Not Hate the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 6 comments

The Suburbs Can’t Be Blamed for Everything

Love for the suburbs is in relatively short supply. The great American migration out of center cities coincided with a number of social trends, not least the dramatic disengagement from civil society spotlighted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. Automobiles replaced streetcars, backyards replaced city parks, television replaced the front patio, and the shared amenities of urban life gave way to more private pursuits. Kenneth Jackson, the preeminent historian of American suburbanization, once lamented, “There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon.”

As a result, the traditional Main Street—in which neighbors kept eyes on the street and there was a bar where everybody knew your name—has come back into vogue. New Urbanists herald the dramatic rebirth of American downtowns and claim that more walkable cities and towns will lead to a more robust sense of community. In tight-knit urban environments, they tell us, neighbors are more likely to run into each other, create unexpected social connections, and build bridges across the identity divides that too often separate us.

The idea that fewer white picket fences might make us better neighbors is an attractive claim. Yet, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has pointed out, “there is no evidence suggesting that discouraging medium-density, car-based living will improve social capital.” An urbanism that thinks denser neighborhoods will change behaviors and reknit frayed social fabrics will fail. But America does need an urbanism focused on providing individuals and families more choices in the style and type of their environment, a choice too often constrained by the paths already taken.

During America’s exodus to the suburbs, traditional development patterns, clustered around streetcars and rail lines, were abandoned for the large lots and car-centric culture of the Baby Boomers. From 1960 to 2010, the average household size fell by about one sixth, while the average square footage in a new home and the number of cars per household both rose by about two thirds. During that time, Putnam reported in Bowling Alone, the number of Americans traveling to work in private vehicles increased from just over half to about nine in 10.

Sprawling development meant lower social capital for three reasons, Putnam speculated. First, those solitary commutes crowded out available time for other community or social activities. Second, suburbs accelerated socioeconomic stratification and homogeneity, reducing the perceived need to participate in local politics in order to advocate for heterodox positions. Lastly, sprawl disrupts community “boundedness”—when we live in one suburb, work in another, and shop and socialize in a third, our daily lives become disjointed, passersby in multiple geographic communities rather than full residents in a single one.  

Some studies had found reasons to believe compact neighborhoods were more conducive to social capital, a strong sense of community, or even upward mobility. Yet in 2017, a meta-analysis surveyed the published research literature on the relationship between density, urbanization, and social capital. The evidence is mixed, but, on the whole, seems to cut against placing the blame on suburban life: overall, higher levels of population density are associated with weaker community life and lower social capital.  

Researchers have known that density and civic participation don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Residents of a major metropolitan area were less likely to attend public meetings, to be active in community organizations, to attend church, or even to visit friends. But as Putnam and others pointed out, Americans urbanized at a rapid pace during the first half of the 20th century, and civic engagement rose to record levels. It seems implausible that those three mechanisms—longer commutes, socioeconomic self-segregation, and a loss of community integrity—could not have had at least some impact on our willingness to become involved in community life.

Yet Harvard’s Glaeser points out these mechanisms are not inherent to suburbanization. Take commuting time, which is actually shorter in low-density metropolitan areas. (The average commute on public transportation is almost twice as long as the average car-based commute.) In fact, if it weren’t for the easier point-to-point commutes enabled by suburban spreading, social capital might have fallen even further in the second half of the 20th century. Putnam’s sprawl-based “civic penalty” turns out to be illusory, Glaeser says:

Whatever caused the decline in civic engagement (the television, perhaps) has been partially offset by sprawl…. Density is associated with less, not more social capital, perhaps in part because density is associated with longer commutes. Sprawl may have negative consequences along other dimensions, but it cannot be credited with killing social capital.

Glaeser’s work is buttressed by a recent analysis of the American Time Use Survey, which found that time spent with neighbors and friends did not significantly vary between city dwellers and suburbanites after controlling for relevant demographics, eliminating the idea of a “civic penalty” against suburban residents.

Small towns, lauded by Putnam for their high rates of civic engagement, often boast the kind of low-density development and heavy automobile reliance associated with the much-maligned suburbs. But they also often feature downtown cores as traditional central hubs of social activity. Might this kind of density, with the Main Street-as-civic space ethos lauded by the New Urbanists, provide a path towards greater neighborliness?  

Research from the University of California-Irvine’s Jan Brueckner and Dublin City University’s Ann Largey casts cold water on these hopes. Density might be correlated with higher social interaction, but these effects seem to be driven largely by self-selection. Their methodology rests on a technical assumption that is defensible but not rock-solid. Yet, if we grant it, their work implies that a given individual moving from a denser to less dense census tract would see their level of both formal and informal social activity rise, not fall.  

Brueckner and Largey speculate that the kind of casual interaction that builds up community ties, such as like stopping to chat with a neighbor mowing the lawn, is less common in denser cities, where encounters might be harried or rushed. Again, the key takeaway is the importance of self-sorting—denser neighborhoods do seem not to make people more sociable, but simply offer sociable people the chance to live close to other sociable people.

Self-selection ends up being a consistent theme. New Urbanist developments in Arizona juiced social capital, but their impact is fully explained by residents’ self-reported preferences on spending time with neighbors or having a close-knit community, and those preferences did not change over time. The same holds in walkable neighborhoods’ purported health benefits—an apparent link between sprawl and high levels of obesity seems to be driven by overweight individuals choosing to live in low-density, automobile-friendly developments. After controlling for relevant characteristics, researchers from the London School of Economics found “no evidence that neighborhood characteristics have any causal effect on weight…[thus] recent calls to redesign cities in order to combat the rise in obesity are misguided.” With obesity, as within sociability, neighborhoods may attract like kinds, but their power to change behavior is unproven.

If the ability to choose walkable or automobile-oriented communities was unconstrained, we might not worry about this relationship. This is clearly not the case. Putnam’s second mechanism of sprawl on social capital was a concern over self-segregation in the well-to-do suburbs, but wealthy census tracts both in and out of cities have become rigidly stratified. As the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project put it, “because of residential segregation by income, race, and other attributes, neighborhood advantages enjoyed by families in the communities richest in social capital are often mirrored in disadvantages faced by residents of other neighborhoods.” While the higher levels of social interaction seem to be an artifact of self-selection, the option to self-select in is far from universal. Residents of walkable urban communities often tend to be rich and white. This has a feedback loop—greater racial and social homogeneity leads to higher levels of trust, and thus more associational life.

There is much more that could be said about the socioeconomic determinants of communities and how they are weaponized through exclusionary public policy choices. Those barriers to entry often freeze out the disadvantaged, working-class, and families. Instead of taking on the exclusionary approaches of San Francisco or Boston, we might find more promise (and less resistance) in making mid-size cities more available, desirable, and amenable to people who seek more holistic forms of community life. Devolving power to the local level, and creating space for communities to come together as organic units, can combat the centrifugal tendency of modern life. As Putnam pointed out, “Getting involved in community affairs is more inviting—or abstention less attractive—when the scale of everyday life is smaller and more intimate.”

New Urbanist advocates and suburban apologists could make common ground by realizing the limitations of the built environments in changing the behavior of our community life. Rather than making grand claims about creating better neighbors, urbanists should be content with understanding the built environment as an auxiliary, not primary, determinant of social capital. At the same time, recognizing the desire hunger for integrated community life that has driven some of the dissatisfaction with traditional suburban settings entails taking those desires seriously, rather than assuming urbanism is a “phase” that Millennials will outgrow once they become parents. The high prices for trendy downtown lofts at least partially reflect the pent-up demand to be able to self-select into denser community lifestyles.

In our age of liquid modernity, community is no longer something we inherit, but something we construct, for better or for worse. The way we build our cities and towns can treat social interaction as given or as something to encourage. Making the scale of everyday life more intimate, increasing the opportunities for residents to casually interact, creating physical space for more cross-class relationships—not everyone will want to live in a neighborhood that pursues those goals, and that’s okay. But many more do than currently have the means or opportunity to, and meeting that demand should be something urbanists and suburbanists can agree come to terms on.

Patrick T. Brown is a master’s of public affairs student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His writing has appeared at National Review Online, First Things, and the Washington Post, and he is on Twitter at @PTBwrites.

Posted in , , , . 24 comments

Was ‘White Flight’ a Personal Economic Decision?

The Bronx in early 1980’s. Steve McNicholas/Flickr   

The switch in development pattern the United States experienced after World War II—one where major cities lost population while a new series of auto-oriented suburbs sprung up on their periphery—is often referred to as “white flight”.

When this term is used to describe the results of those decades, it broadly makes sense. But I’ve always been confused when people use the term as a description of motive. As stated: white people did not want to live near non-white people, thus, white flight occurred. I don’t think it’s that simple. Or that reductive.

That’s not to suggest that race, and racism, wasn’t a motive—or even a large motive—for why settlement patterns shifted. The practice of redlining, policies of blight control and urban renewal, suburban housing subsidies only available to white Americans…. these are just three of the public policy realities with racist underpinnings that shaped our post-war development pattern.

It’s just that, if I were to reduce things to a single personal motive, it wouldn’t be racism. It would be rational economic decision-making.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there are no races—just follow me, I’m going somewhere with this—and that everyone living in the United States in 1945 was racially indistinguishable from each other. Would we still have had people move to auto-oriented suburbs? Of course we would, and those people that moved would have been the ones in the best economic position. The people left behind would have been the most disadvantaged, those without the option to move.

That’s because moving to the suburbs in the 1950’s was, individually, a rational economic thing to do. It was horrible public policy, and in the real world, it certainly had racist underpinnings. But for an individual or a family whose home is losing value, when another home on the outskirts of town—one that just happens to be newer, more spacious, and served by better schools—is gaining value, it’s very logical to make that move given the opportunity.

Nearly all of us would make that move, even if we are committed to an egalitarian public policy. Some wouldn’t, just like some send their kids to a poor-performing public school when they can afford a private education simply because they believe in public schools. And we can honor those people. But that doesn’t change the reality that most wouldn’t stay. Race may be an accelerator, but there is an underlying human condition other than racism that is a more basic, logical explanation.

Last week, I heard someone suggest that the people living in the poorest neighborhood in my town of Brainerd, Minnesota have no “pride of place.” This was said by way of explanation for why homeowners in this neighborhood allow their places to fall into disrepair. Supposedly, their motive is that they don’t care. I’ve heard this before and I find it to be a poor explanation.

A home in the poor part of Brainerd could cost as little as $60,000. Let’s say you are poor, but you’re able to get into that home. However humble, it’s shelter. It serves its core purpose.

That being said, it’s in a neighborhood of similarly priced homes. And unlike homes in other parts of the community, it’s not appreciating in value. In fact, it’s dropping slightly each year. You’re building equity because you’re making payments, but the house is not a great investment.

Why would such a person — regardless of their race or the racial makeup of the neighborhood—put thousands into new exterior paint? Or a new roof? Or to shore up the cracked foundation? Those are not very good investments, because if you can’t sell the house, that money is likely to never be recouped.

Now step back a little further and take into account that, in most of our poorest neighborhoods, the public sector is neglecting their responsibilities as well. The streets have more potholes, the parks have more weeds, and the sidewalks have more cracks and gaps than the ones in our affluent neighborhoods. The signal being sent is that decline is going to continue, regardless of what the property owners do.

Some people in these neighborhoods do take care of their homes to the best of their ability, often in the spare time they have between their second and third job. They mow the lawn and keep things picked up. Nobody in this neighborhood, however, is building huge additions or making expensive upgrades.

That’s not because they don’t have pride of ownership. Maybe some don’t, but we don’t have to assume that motive as an explanation. A more logical motive—and one that is more straightforward and universal—is that the people in this neighborhood are not dumb. No savvy person is going to invest what little wealth they have into something that is going to lose them money. The people there are making a smart decision, and suggesting otherwise sounds rather ignorant.

Let’s deeply discuss policy implications, but let’s stop assuming the motives of individuals, especially when there are other, perfectly rational, universal explanations for why someone would do something we don’t agree with.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.

This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission. 

Posted in . Tagged , , , , , . 26 comments

Baby Boomers Aging In a Car-Dependent World

Lloyd Alter’s recent piece, “The Issue for Boomers Won’t Be ‘Aging in Place,’” raised some important points about transportation, urban design, and getting old in America. 

The choice between no longer driving and losing one’s personal freedom, or continuing to drive and risking one’s own life and the lives of others, isn’t a new one. The vast majority of older people have been living in the suburbs for decades now, and the mobility challenges for car-dependent older adults have been with us for decades.

What is unique about today’s moment, however, is the sheer number of Baby Boomers who will be getting old at the same time, the degree to which society is now auto-dependent (after decades of suburban sprawl), and the likelihood (based on what we’ve observed about their response to aging, thus far) that Boomers will be even less likely than previous generations to relinquish their keys.

Our overdependence on cars is a well-established fact. The speed at which American society adopted the automobile is arguably the most significant and disruptive technological change in modern history. Here are some data on motor vehicle registrations from Robert Gordon’s masterful The Rise and Fall of American Growth:

Motor Vehicle Registrations per 100 U.S. Households

1900               0.1

1910               2.3

1920              38.3

1930              89.8

1940              93.0

In just four decades, the United States went from a country where no one owned an automobile to one in which there was nearly one motor vehicle per household. Today, there are two motor vehicles per household.

The widespread adoption of the automobile completely remade the face of the North American continent, and drastically changed the way that our cities and towns are designed and built, as well as the way that we navigate urban places and experience public life.

Although this change to an auto-dominated society is commonly viewed as happening after World War II, the reality is that we began reorienting our cities and neighborhoods around the automobile far earlier than that. Even as early as 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression, there was already close to one automobile for every American household. The genie was out of the bottle, and our places would never be the same again.

The rapid adoption of the automobile is a great object lesson in the unintended consequences of technological change. A machine that promised (and has delivered) one type of freedom, has also limited our freedom in other ways. 

As Aldous Huxley said of science and technology, “[It] takes away with one hand even more than what it so profusely gives with the other.”

Yes, the automobile has helped us cover long distances more effectively, but it has also made us travel long distances for basic goods that we didn’t always have to. It has saddled us with significant social, economic, and environmental costs: air pollution, hundreds of billions of dollars in annual infrastructure costs, trillions of dollars in annual car-related household expenditures, tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of injuries each year. 

And, yes, it has put older people who cannot drive, or should not drive, in a precarious position.

When cars were first introduced, no one had to buy one if they didn’t want one. Now that we have reordered our entire society around them, outside of a very small number of cities, the use of an automobile is really no longer an option. 

Motor vehicles have changed our urban form to the point where very few people live within walking distance of their job, shopping, or other everyday activities. And for those who do, the walk to that place is likely to be unpleasant and unsafe, due to the way that cars have altered the design of our streets and neighborhoods.

We should think long and hard about the fact that, within several decades, we reordered our entire society, our built environment, and our way of life to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.

The unintended consequences of our overdependence on automobiles have fallen heavily upon the elderly. Even as their ability to drive safely declines, older people have a powerful incentive to hold on to their cars. The vast majority of older adults live in neighborhoods where giving up their car means that they will become prisoners in their own home. People keep driving, even when they shouldn’t, for understandable social and psychological reasons.  

Unfortunately, public transit isn’t any easy answer. Most older people live in suburban areas with poor (or non-existent) public transportation services, and, contrary to popular belief, older people are actually the wealthiest age group in the United States. Public transit usage has a strong inverse correlation with income, so even in places where public transit exists, older people are less likely to use it. According to APTA, only seven percent of public transit passengers are age 65 or older, while 15 percent of all Americans are 65 or older.

Autonomous vehicles have been suggested as a viable alternative for getting older adults to where they need to go. Don’t hold your breath. People underestimate the level of technological sophistication that will be needed to operate one. They underestimate the importance of having a human being present who can assist an older person at the beginning and end of the trip. Most importantly, they underestimate the pace at which the technology will be developed and implemented. Many credible experts do not believe that that truly autonomous vehicles will be with us for decades—if ever. 

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are probably one of the best alternatives for older adults who live in areas without viable public transportation, and who cannot, or do not want to, drive any longer. These services obviously do not help with the problem of car dependency, per se, but they do improve mobility for older adults and provide a reasonable option for people who should no longer be driving to give up their keys.

While older people will experience some technological challenges using ride-sharing services, these are likely to increasingly disappear as the next generation of technologically-savvy older adults replaces the existing one.

We are never going to retrofit suburbia to become significantly more urban. We lack the incentive, the will, and the money to make it happen. As Lloyd Alter writes:

Baby boomers are looking around their houses and thinking “What can I do so that I can age in place?” and investing in renovations, when all the data show that one of the first things go to is the ability to drive — long before the ability to walk. Instead, they should be asking “What can I do to get out of this place? How will I get to the doctor or the grocery?” Every single one of them has to look in the mirror right now and ask themselves, “What do I do when I can’t drive?”

Yes, it would make sense for elderly people living in suburban areas to move, but this is easier said than done. It is normal for a person to become attached to their house and neighborhood, particularly as they age. Decisions on where to live are emotional and are made with the heart as well as the head. There are cultural, psychological, and sociological barriers to leaving that beloved house and all of those wonderful memories behind.

In theory it would be far easier to have older people move to urban core areas where it would be easier for them to get around, rather than having them stay in the suburbs and continue to drive or expending considerable resources on cost-ineffective suburban public transit to transport them. And while ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are likely to help, human nature and our cultural ethos of personal autonomy make it likely that older people will continue to drive long past the point thatt it is safe for them to do so. 

There is another practical problem with the theory that moving from the suburbs to the urban core will help improve accessibility and mobility. Most metropolitan areas, with the exception of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, have few neighborhoods where people can conveniently live without needing a car.

This theory also presupposes that the urban core has the amenities that people need. While urban core areas often have “good bones,” high population density, and a walkable street grid, the reality in many metro areas is that most of the shopping opportunities, medical offices, everyday amenities, and safe, convenient, desirable neighborhoods are in the suburbs. This is especially true in Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, where the historic urban cores have been decimated by urban decline and disinvestment.

In practice, we are often left with the worst of both worlds: urban places with good bones which are impractical or unattractive for older people to live in or suburban places which are designed exclusively for cars, where all of the activity and amenities are. In many American cities, even people living in the heart of the urban core must drive for miles to get to a grocery store, a bank, or a doctor’s office, due to urban decline and suburban sprawl.

As critical as good urban design and walkable neighborhoods are, most older people are going to have mobility challenges, at some point, regardless of the built environment. Walking and biking become progressively more difficult as people age, too. 

Ultimately, Alter focuses so heavily on the trees of bad urban design, that he misses the forest of culture:

If urban planners and the politicians they work for had any sense, they would stop approving any more suburban sprawl and do a big intervention to allow mid-rise apartment construction everywhere in city centers where there is transit and pedestrian infrastructure that lets people get to their doctors and grocers without needing a car. Or they would adopt the principles of New Urbanism and make every new community walkable.

I grow weary of people blaming urban planners for every urban problem. The root of this particular problem is cultural, and the reality is that urban planners have very little power or influence in this country. 

Most urban planners hate our current built environment, and would love to change it. But they are trying to bail water out of the Titanic with a thimble. They are continually stifled, not by the politicians, but by the people that the politicians work for. The fact of the matter is that Americans like the urban development status quo, and efforts to change it are often met with bipartisan opposition. It’s one of the few things that we still agree on.

Yes, of course, we have an urban design and land use problem that results in many transportation problems.

It is not safe for older people to continue driving as they advance in age. It is foolish to think that autonomous cars will save us (they won’t). It is not financially feasible to send shuttle buses around on three-hour round trips collecting older people in suburban neighborhoods and taking them to grocery stores, banks, and doctor’s offices.

But these are all symptoms of a larger cultural problem. The real problem is the way that we Americans (both young and old) view old age and the NIMBY culture that will not allow the mid-rise, dense, mixed-use, walkable communities that Lloyd Alter dreams wants to make a reality. It is not the urban planners, or some cabal of faceless bureaucrats who are preventing this from happening. It is all of us.

We live in a society where we expect older people to muddle through their final years alone, in their own households. Multi-generational households, or situations where adult children live in extremely close proximity to their parents, and where they can help and interact with one another, are the norm in many cultures. Not here in America.

And it’s not just a matter of younger people shunting the elderly aside. Older people themselves, steeped in our powerful culture of radical autonomy, individualism, and self-sufficiency, often enter into a self-imposed exile, afraid or unwilling to ask for help. American culture has a perverse way of making even very old people feel like failures for needing assistance from others.

We live in a culture that worships youth and self-sufficiency. It is hard for older people to say “I can’t do this anymore, and I need your help.” Similarly, it is hard for younger people who could help them to say “I need to extricate myself from the never-ending rat-race of my busy and overscheduled life and help my older friends, neighbors, and family members.” Even if younger people tried to make the time to help, would employers, friends, and colleagues understand?

Our cultural challenge is a Gordian knot of dozens of interwoven, interrelated behavior patterns: transportation, urban design, the way that we view older people, the way that older people view themselves, and how we establish our personal, social, and political priorities. 

If we are to solve the problem of a lack of safe, affordable, and practical mobility options for older people, we are going to need to look in the mirror.

This isn’t ultimately a failing of the urban planners. This a failing of American culture. It’s not up to the planners to figure it out. It is up to each and every one of us.

Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the city of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground.

Posted in , , , , , . Tagged , , , , . 28 comments

The Threat of ‘Genius’ to Truly Successful Architecture

Cooper Union New Academic Building at 41 Cooper Square near Astor Place in the East Village of Manhattan, New York City. Designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architecture, opened in 2009. Credit: Beyond My Ken/flickr

For the truly great projects, architects are necessary, and can take credit for magnificent structures like London’s St Paul’s Cathedral and Istanbul’s Suleymanyie Mosque. Nevertheless, most architects of the buildings we love remain anonymous, and those who designed the great Gothic cathedrals owe their achievements as much to the guilds of stonemasons as to their own astonishing plans. Moreover, by far the greatest number of buildings that we admire had no architect at all. Think of the medieval houses that compose the hilltop towns of Italy, the great stone tenements of Edinburgh, the backwaters of Venice, the thousands of village churches scattered over Europe, and just about every other building stitched into the fabric of those places that we visit because they provide the soothing experience of a deep settlement and a shared home.

Reflecting on these matters I long ago drew the conclusion that the first principle of architecture is that most of us can do it. You can teach music, poetry, and painting. But what you learn will never suffice to make you into a composer, a poet, or a painter. There is that extra thing, which the romantics called “genius”, without which technique will never lead to real works of art. In the case of architecture not only is the part that can be taught sufficient in itself, but also the belief that you need something else—genius, originality, creativity, etc.—is the principal threat to real success.                   

The pursuit of genius in architecture is what has most contributed to the unstitching of our urban fabric, giving us those buildings in outlandish shapes and unsightly materials that take a chunk of the city and make it into somewhere else, as Morphosis did with New York’s Cooper Squareor Zaha Hadid with the Port Authority Building in Antwerp.

These buildings that stand out when they should be fitting in declare the genius of their creators, with no consideration paid to the offense suffered by the rest of us. China is now littered with this stuff, and as a result there is no city in that country that has the remotest resemblance to a settlement.

In response it will be said that we need to accommodate our growing populations, and to make efficient use of the land available for building, and how can we do this without architects? The refutation of this lies in the garden shed and the trailer. Almost all of us are capable of designing such a thing, and placing it in agreeable surroundings and conciliatory relation to its neighbors. The trailer park usually achieves a density of population far greater than the estate of tower-block apartments, and leaves the residents free to embellish their individual holdings with agreeable details, flower pots, even classical windows and doorways, along the edges of incipient streets.

In my experience the most poignant illustration of these truths is provided by the gecekondu (= built in one night) around Ankara. An old Ottoman law, inherited from the Byzantine Empire and therefore from Rome, tells us that, if you have acquired a piece of land to which no one has a proven right of ownership and if you build a dwelling there in one night, you can assume a permanent right of residence. When Atatürk declared the ancient city of Ankara to be the capital of the new Turkey he set the architects to work, building tower blocks and modern highways in regimented patterns that chill the heart and repel everyone who is not obliged by his work to reside there. Meanwhile all around the capital, on the bare hills to which no one had a claim of ownership, there arose by an invisible hand some of the most harmonious settlements created in modern times: houses of one or two stories, in easily handled materials such as brick, wood, corrugated iron, and tiles, nestling close together since none can lay claim to any more garden than the corners left over from building, each fitted neatly into the hillside and with tracks running among them along which no car can pass.

In time the residents cover them with stucco and paint them in those lovely Turkish blues and ochres; they bring electricity and water and light their paths not with glaring sodium lights but with intermittent bulbs, twinkling from afar like grounded galaxies. They join together to form charitable associations, so as to build mosques in the ancient style and neighborhood schools beside them.

These suburbs are the most unpolluted (in every respect) that the modern world has produced, and contain more residents per square mile than any of the architect-designed banlieux around Paris. And they are produced in just the way that sheds are produced, by people using their God-given ability to knock things together so as to put a roof over their head.

Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’New Urbanism Fellow.

The New Urbs series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Posted in , , , . Tagged , . 17 comments

Glory Days: Reviving Asbury Park, City on the Shore

Asbury Park postcard, sometime between 1930-1945. By Boston Public Library /Flickr

When I was a teenager, in the late 1990s, Asbury Park, New Jersey had fallen on hard times.

The kinetic energy of the small shore city—Ferris wheels and carousels, breezy counters with young people selling waffle cones and hamburgers to beachgoers in the salty air—was largely gone. Six Flags and shopping centers, situated on highways to nowhere, had taken the wind out of its aging sails. Gone, too—or neglected beyond recognition—were the compact blocks of attached storefronts and ornate, 19th-century homes that had once given form to a traditional seaside urbanism. In place of its storied past was a myriad of empty lots, empty stores, failed projects, and tired rooming houses, many of which looked more like Halloween than summer vacation.

Today, Asbury Park is coming back—in a way. Over the past decade, the fresh gleam of new construction has filled in vacant canvases, and small investors have renovated much of the surviving stock of old houses, hotels, and storefronts. Cookman Avenue, which links the Boardwalk with an active train station, is once more a vibrant, traditional downtown. Ocean Avenue, which runs parallel to the Boardwalk, has a mixture of old and new sites. The grit has faded, but it is not all gone. Across the train tracks, in the neighborhoods away from the beach, poverty grinds on.

Meanwhile, the blocks closest to the waterfront retain a high proportion of parking lots and post-war sprawl, where the draw of the ocean, and rising property values, could sustain a more intricate, richer urbanism. The recent changes in Asbury Park offer hope, but also highlight a need for caution.

History

In its first heyday, Asbury Park was the crown jewel in a long string of late-Victorian urban gems along the Monmouth County coast that also included Ocean Grove, Avon-by-the-Sea, and Long Branch. Here, block after block of compact, detailed houses, with towers and turrets, stood against the pastel Atlantic coast. Developed by James Bradley on land purchased from the nearby Methodist co-op at Ocean Grove, Asbury Park combined the best instincts of the traditional building practices of the late 19th century with a near-perfect location. The text of a 2002 waterfront redevelopment plan describes Bradley’s 1873 vision for the new city’s layout:

His plan sets a grid of traditionally scaled blocks and streets between four natural open spaces: Wesley Lake, Sunset Lake, Deal Lake and the oceanfront. Streets, which are perpendicular to the ocean, flare open as they approach the waterfront. By widening the east-west streets at their ends, Bradley increased the views of the ocean from the City, facilitated the movement of sea breezes into the city and provided space for landscape and parking improvements adjacent to the beachfront.

Asbury Park prospered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its surviving urbanism reflects the architectural patterns of those times. Along with neighboring communities (most notably, Ocean Grove), it retains many fine examples of late-Victorian urbanism, including spacious, detailed houses, a traditional downtown, a wide, wood-planked boardwalk, and a rich mix of complementary activities along its streets.

1877 Street map, showing small building lots and flared street approaches to the ocean (at bottom), as envisioned by James Bradley, and railroad service to New York City (at top). Source: Rutgers University Libraries

Its urban fabric is also sustainable. Its street pattern is walkable, built around a railroad station (still active) and streetcar lines (long gone). The sea breeze and the shade created by street walls, combined with pre-air-conditioning architecture, keep the pedestrian space somewhat cooler in the summers, and the short proximities between homes and businesses minimize car travel. Small, urban parcels, by nature, require less maintenance than subdivisions of more recent vintage. Places like Asbury Park still manifest the wisdom of practical and more sustainable building customs.

By the end of the 20th century, however, the raison d’être for this particular strand of traditional urbanism had begun to fade. The ubiquity of air travel and climate control had taken vacationers further afield, and in the path of suburban sprawl, the beach towns of Monmouth County began to divide into two groups. The more urban ones, like Asbury Park and Long Branch (having apartment houses and old hotels), began to absorb the poorest portion of residents from the encroaching tendrils of New York City’s metropolitan region. Meanwhile, towns with larger lots were reinvented as year-round suburbs.

Today’s Renaissance

Today, a new shift is underway. A growing appreciation for urban neighborhoods, combined with long-term economic and demographic patterns, has fueled an unprecedented affordability crisis in many of our old, first-order cities. This has been particularly true at the core of the New York region, where dozens of erstwhile working- and middle-class neighborhoods have become very expensive in the space of just one generation. A similar trend may now be gaining steam around Philadelphia.

At the same time, new appreciation of the value of community has sparked a newfound interest in the virtues of smaller places, while the rising number of Americans who can work remotely has made housing options at the metropolitan fringe more viable for those who remain attached (but not tethered) to specific regions. Accordingly, livable, attractive, and humanely-scaled towns situated at the affordable frontiers of metropolitan housing markets have a special combination of advantages in the current real estate environment. Those places with natural beauty to offer, as well, are poised to be in the catbird seat.

Situated roughly halfway between the more famous boardwalks of Coney Island and Atlantic City, Asbury Park has benefited from the convergence of these trends. Its proximity to two of the largest and most dynamic cities of the American Northeast allows it to be easily rediscovered. As it was in the elegant days of the late Victorian era, and in the cool, modern 1920s, Asbury Park is but a day trip from Midtown or Center City. But today, its comparative affordability, combined with its traditional, humane scale, have joined the Atlantic Ocean as major selling points.

Asbury Park’s renaissance has benefited from the wisdom of its late 19th century builders. Significantly, recent development has largely followed established patterns. This inherently conservative approach means that new buildings promote a continuous fabric of traditional urbanism. Street walls have been extended, building lines that approach sidewalks, and foot traffic and physical coherence are maintained through the resulting density. Where new development departs from established patterns, it is concentrated in the right locations – along the beach itself, and around the traditional downtown blocks. These sections define the city’s present chapter.

Ocean Avenue and the Boardwalk

Ocean Avenue runs parallel to the Boardwalk and has several surviving historic buildings. Most significant is arguably the combined Convention Hall and Paramount Theater, designed by Warren & Wetmore and built on the cusp of the Great Depression, between 1928 and 1930. The theater faces Ocean Avenue, Atlantic Square, and Sunset Park; the Convention Hall stretches east onto the wide sandy beach. In a unique turn of design, the coordinate, east and west parts of the complex are joined by an enclosed arcade, through which the Boardwalk passes on a north-south axis.

The Paramount Theater and Convention Hall. Source: Acroterion, via Wikimedia Commons.

The New Jersey Historic Trust describes the entire structure as “an eclectic mélange of Italian and French designs with detailing in several different architectural styles incorporating nautical motifs.” Today, the Paramount Theater has been meticulously restored, but the Convention Hall – the largest piece of the complex – is disused and in need of significant restoration.

Just north of the Paramount Theater, the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel has stood for more than a century and continues to offer elegant rooms with ocean views. To the south, the Stone Pony, at Ocean and Second, has been a consistent destination since the 1970s, with nightly concerts in the warm months. The music club has long been the hub of a vibrant local scene, helping launch the careers of Bruce Springsteen, the Asbury Jukes, and others.

The famous Stone Pony, where Springsteen has been known to play since the 1970s. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

Nearby, the Wonder Bar, at Ocean and Fifth, provides another stop on the music tour, and is visually notable for its large reproduction of Tillie – a smiling, toothy cartooned face that has become Asbury Park’s de facto mascot, having long branded the façade of the now-demolished Palace Amusements.

Pinball machines at the Silverball Museum. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

On the Boardwalk, the Silverball Museum contains a dense collection of dozens of colorful, clanging, vintage pinball machines – a refreshingly tactile and mechanical diversion from the ubiquitous touchscreens of liquid modernity. Nearby, a miniature golf course gives way to a water park comprising a cluster of gigantic, bright-hued garden tools. At the southern end of Ocean Avenue, where the Boardwalk ends and car traffic turns inward from the beach, the midcentury modern Empress Hotel, with a striking electric green backlit sign, stands across from a newer strip of stores, including Stella Marina, serving good Italian fare with an ocean view; and Style Rocket, a tourist-oriented clothing shop, sells T-shirts, caps, and other mementos graced by Tillie and other icons of Asbury Park’s branding efforts. The haunting, ruined shell of the massive Asbury Park Casino and Carousel House looms on the white sandy beach, nearby.

The haunting, ruined shell of the massive Asbury Park Casino and Carousel House (Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, despite the historic, iconic, tragic, and otherwise curious sites along Ocean Avenue, a very high proportion of the buildable land between the beach and Bergh Street (another ocean-parallel street, two blocks west) continues to be occupied by parking lots and random, low-rise, post-war buildings. The persistence of this pattern vitiates any aesthetic benefit that may once have accrued from James Bradley’s flared approaches to the ocean, in the city’s Victorian-era street plan. In fact, it essentially eliminates any intersection between the city’s urban fabric and its key attraction – the beach. One could easily surmise that the underuse of these parcels is not accidental, but the result of ongoing speculation. (It is common practice in urban real estate for owners to tie up prime land with dubious uses, in perpetuity, while awaiting a more optimal seller’s market – costs to the community be damned.)

Ruins of Palace Amusements in Asbury Park, New Jersey, 1997. The cartoon image on the wall was known as “Tillie”. Now demolished. Source: Willjay, via Wikimedia Commons.

Presently, the one obvious exception to this underutilized land-use pattern on the waterfront is the Asbury Ocean Club, a 17-story white tower nearing completion at Ocean and Third. The project’s developers seek, rather shamelessly, to skip over the incremental progress otherwise being made through small-scale redevelopment by a critical mass of individual actors. Instead, they hope to inject a dose of serious outside money into the local real estate market. A recent piece in the Times helps advance the spin by local politicians that building a plethora of expensive, ultramodern condo units will somehow better the lives of Asbury Park’s self-supporting artists and most impoverished residents. Perhaps that seller’s market is now on the horizon.

Cookman Avenue and Downtown

Moving inland, the core of Asbury Park’s traditional downtown is once again bustling with a mix of retail, residential, and commercial uses. Focused around Press Square (named for the former newsroom of the Asbury Park Press, and its neoclassical building, which still stands), a cluster of stores and restaurants caters to residents and visitors alike. Cookman Avenue, the main commercial street, comprises a multicolored variety of compact, attached storefronts, dating mostly from the early 20th century. The scene is visually reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, but with fewer faces marked by anomic despair.

Cookman Avenue at Press Square.

Along Cookman Avenue, the absence of a Woolworth’s from the cascade of storefronts still feels like an omission. Though the chain is long gone, it probably should have been enshrined in neighborhoods like this, along with an old-fashioned A&P, via public trust. A closer look quickly reveals several practical, downtown businesses, along with a growing number of make-your-own-art galleries, chipper bruncheonettes (serving the requisite esoteric varieties of Bloody Marys and mimosas), a cat-themed tea house, and other shops geared toward the pervasive retail marketing correlation between excessive cuteness and disposable incomes.

Storefronts along Cookman Avenue. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

Fortunately, there is also a thriving bar scene downtown, where a summer visitor can find solace from the heat, as well as the schmaltz. On a recent Sunday, an outdoor farmers’ market also added a measure of authenticity to the setting. Set up at the eastern end of the Cookman Avenue strip, near the former site of Palace Amusements, the market was busy with shoppers despite an intensely humid August heat wave. Bright-red Rutgers tomatoes, glass jars of berry jelly and clover honey, and individually wrapped cranberry muffins could all be found. About a dozen stands were set up by New Jersey farmers, bakers, jelly makers, and beekeepers.

An art deco high-rise at Bangs and Emory in Asbury Park, NJ. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

Perhaps surprisingly, nowhere within the city limits is there a full-scale amusement park, as one might expect in such a city. Palace Amusements, which stood near the waterfront from 1888, near what remains of the Casino and Carousel House once offered a Ferris wheel, a Victorian-era merry-go-round, a funhouse, bumper cars, and other essential seashore attractions. After a century, it shut its doors in 1988, and the remaining structure was demolished in 2004. In its heyday, the business district and the beach were joined by the hub of activities around the Casino and Palace Amusements, but today only a scattering of generic townhouses and empty grass define the walkable transition between the two main nodes of the city. Recreating continuity between these distinct but complementary realms has been put off, for now, and the transition is awkward and jarring.

Where do we go from here?

Today, Asbury Park feels more hopeful than it has felt in years. But it also has reasons to remain cautious. The small, Victorian city’s location and history provide it with a salience among New Jersey beach towns that ensures a certain amount of interest in an ever-tightening real estate market. Small businesses, urban homesteaders, and individual investors have done much to build on this. Because of those factors, a new vibrancy animates the natural focal points its urban plan. Beachgoers are returning, and people are heralding a rebirth.

Yet the future of Ocean Avenue, including the sites that adjoin the Boardwalk, remains an open question. This part of the city demands a rich and intricate urbanism. Bradley’s 1873 plan would reward the development of parcels here in a traditional urban pattern of small lots with distinct, architecturally varied structures. Hewing to traditional building lines would frame and accentuate the vistas Bradley envisioned for the flared street approaches to the ocean. Such a pattern would also have the effect of weaving the city’s older blocks more naturally into a newer, larger canvas that incorporates the shore.

There appears to be a danger, however, that the land in this neighborhood will be sold off in large parcels to corporate developers. Such an outcome could have the effect of aesthetically separating the city’s historic urban fabric – an undervalued asset from its past— from the shore—its most apparent economic asset – through the construction of large-scaled, self-contained, and very expensive projects. In such a scenario, it is also likely that the city’s existing economic disparity within the community would only be deepened (tax receipts notwithstanding); and that, in the resulting environment, small businesses and middle-class homebuyers would be the first to be told: No Vacancy.

Asbury Park stands at an important crossroads. With pockets of 19th-century urbanism and 20th-century Americana, it offers the hopeful tale of a small, east coast city—with history, character, and a strong sense of place—finally rising above the grind of post-war urban America and reclaiming its spot in the 21st century economic landscape. This reading is accurate, and this moment is valuable, and worth appreciating—not only here, but in numerous small places around the United States that have begun, against the odds, to find their way. The question now is whether the qualities of this moment can be sustained, because they are appreciated; or whether, like so many fleeting moments in our high-speed culture, they will prove to be ephemeral.

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

This New Urbanism series is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation

Posted in , , , , , . Tagged , , , , . 5 comments

When a House Was a Home

Anyone who grew up in or around large families probably remembers a particular kind of evening. Perhaps it was a birthday, or a family reunion, or a Christmas or New Years’ party, or a civic holiday.

Depending on the ethnicities of the families involved, there might have been trays of baked ziti and meatballs, or pierogies and pickled herring, or kielbasa and sauerkraut, or perhaps all of them and much more. These were the nights when the kids could eat as much dessert, or anything else, as they wanted, when the visitors and hosts agreed it was time to part ways before opening another bottle of wine.

I and other writers here often talk about the built environment, about things like zoning and street width and neighborhood design. But just as important are the individual buildings that make up those built environments. Construction and architecture are about more than aesthetics: we now know that humans are wired at a very deep level to appreciate various elements of traditional architecture and planning. Traditional middle-class homes promote those fun-filled evenings through their design. Basements, attics, nooks, and little mazes of rooms are inseparable from things like kids hiding out, trying to make their parents forget the night is over.

Many modern homes, like everything else in our tech-ified, ultra-efficient era, are stylish but not cozy, functional but not warm. There are no inconvenient nooks and crannies, no janky closets under staircases, no half-rooms above the garage, no dark, mysterious basements that could be caves or tunnels in a child’s imagination. Increasingly there is just an “open concept” floor plan, the domestic equivalent of the vaguely authoritarian open-plan office. One article notes, “Prior to the last 25 years, an ‘open floor plan’ meant a living configuration without doors; now the term has come to mean a living configuration without walls.”

It can be challenging in a traditional house to have a quiet dinner, watch television, and segregate the children during a family gathering or party, let alone in a house with an open-floor plan. But maybe it’s less of a problem than it should be; my mother used to point out that family size inversely correlates with average square footage—smaller and smaller families live in larger and larger homes. There is something profoundly lonely and consumeristic about that.

Then there are the “smart” devices, which too often require an inordinate amount of intelligence to actually operate. They can read us our shopping lists and schedule our laundry and tell us when someone is approaching the front door. Because they can be controlled remotely, they also permanently lodge themselves in our brains, one extra thing to check while fidgeting awkwardly with our phones. What these devices provide in convenience they take away in focus.

If a living space does not allow for a few moments of comfortable solitude, it cannot really be called a home. There are, one suspects, not very many homes being built in America today. It is highly unlikely that most of the recent housing—whether the soulless, gaping McMansions that evoke international hotel lobbies, or the condo complexes with pastel facades and fake balconies, or the industrial-chic urban row houses—will ever age gracefully or be able to provide that enchanting mix of wonder and comfort that makes a place a home for a child.

What does the lack of these spaces do to children’s creativity? Does it blunt their minds? Perhaps we are too busy with our daily grinds to remember what it is like to be a child in a house. Having people over, especially entire families, is a way to recapture a little bit of that feeling, to see one’s home from the perspective of a guest, if only a little bit for a little while. It’s a useful exercise.

Among my most pleasant childhood memories are “rosary nights”: a group of us homeschooling Catholic families would meet at someone’s house every 13th of the month (it had something to do with Fatima), and pray one, sometimes three, rosaries. Occasionally we would display a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which came in an equally large bag and which one family’s cat liked to treat as an enclosed bed. When the praying was over, we would retire to the kitchen for cakes and desserts. The kids would eat quickly and fit in as much unsupervised playtime as we could—even more exciting if we were in an unfamiliar house—before it was time to go home.

In our own way, we were a part of that vast but receding web of private, communal associations that we call “civil society” or “intermediating institutions,” the maintenance of which is the core of conservatism, and perhaps of society itself.

What all of this has to do with housing and urbanism is that in my child’s mind, the pleasantness of the houses and the company of friends and the comfort of the Faith were inseparable. I’m not sure my child’s mind was wrong. Perhaps I am merely elevating the bourgeois lifestyle or indulging in nostalgia. But what’s really so bad about the bourgeois lifestyle (or its relative, the much-reviled “middle-class morality”?). America is poorer for its vanishing communal middle between the individual and the state, for its vanishing blue-chip firms and lifelong occupations, for its burgeoning economic inequality and insecurity.

I can’t change the housing industry or the economy. I can only be thankful for the janky closets in my home, for the quirky rosary club, for the endless trays of baked ziti during the holidays. But they are not the point, ultimately—the point is that those memories modeled for me what a home and a family are. The family is biological, but it is also a web of inherited and learned behaviors. Those seemingly trite bits of childhood nostalgia can serve as little models, as little guideposts. Our families are one piece of making that happen. Our physical houses and built environments may be no less important.

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

Posted in , , . Tagged , , . 32 comments
← Older posts Newer posts →