Trolleys and Rail in the Capital District: Interview with Capital Green Scene on WVCR, 7/2/2016

At the beginning of July I was invited to do my first radio spot, appearing on the local radio show Capital Green Scene (WVCR 88.3 FM, Siena College’s station) to talk about transit and transportation in the Capital Region. We recorded the show on July 1st and it aired July 2nd, but I’ve only just now gotten the audio files, so here they are. The interview is in two segments, embedded here separately. I had a blast doing this; hosts Bill Helmer and Brian Nearing, who found me after a few of my articles on All Over Albany intrigued them,  are great guys who ask really interesting questions.

Watch for a new segment with me on Capital Green Scene appearing on Labor Day Weekend as well…

Part 1

 

Part 2

Reclaiming Sewer Reformism

Anyone who reads this blog knows I think that the approach many American leftists take toward urban policy is fundamentally broken.  It’s easier to come up with a critique than to propose a positive agenda, though, and it’s taken me a while to come up with the beginnings of one. Things started to crystallize a bit after the kind of remarkably random interaction that really only Twitter can enable:

I’m sure y’all can look it up yourselves, but for the record Emil Seidel was one of several Socialist mayors of Milwaukee between 1900 and 1960, serving from 1910-1912–indeed, the first elected Socialist mayor of a major city in the US (and no, I don’t know who runs the account, but they’re very thoughtful!).

As I mentioned on Twitter, Milwaukee’s Socialist tradition is indeed extraordinary, in part because the concerns of the city’s Socialist mayors seemed excessively mundane to many more ideologically inclined leftists. Indeed, ideologues gave the Milwaukee tradition the sobriquet “Sewer Socialism,” an intended insult that the Milwaukee crew adopted as a compliment.

Let’s take a look at some of the tenets of Sewer Socialism. The Wikipedia article linked above is pretty good, but I found this 2009 Journal-Sentinel article by John Gurda particularly accessible and informative; not by accident given what I will argue, the title is “Here, Socialism meant honest, frugal government.” Here’s what Gurda has to say:

The key to understanding Milwaukee’s Socialists is the idea of public enterprise. They didn’t just manage, and they didn’t just enforce laws and regulations. They pushed a program of public necessities that had a tangible impact on the average citizen’s quality of life: public parks, public libraries, public schools, public health, public works (including sewers), public port facilities, public housing, public vocational education and even public natatoria.

Underlying their notion of public enterprise was an abiding faith – curiously antique by today’s standards – in the goodness of government, especially local government. The Socialists believed that government was the locus of our common wealth – the resources that belong to all of us and each of us – and they worked to build a community of interest around a deeply shared belief in the common good…

The Socialists governed well, and they did so without breaking the bank. Contrary to another popular myth, these were not tax-and-spend radicals intent on emptying the public coffers. They were, in fact, every bit as frugal as the most penny-pinching German hausfrau. The Socialists managed civic affairs on a pay-as-you-go basis, and in 1943, Milwaukee became the only big city in America whose amortization fund exceeded its outstanding bond obligations. It was, in other words, debt-free.

Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism placed good government–including good fiscal management–at the forefront of its public-facing persona. Not just something you had to pay homage to on the campaign trail, this ideology recognized that for government to win the confidence of the people and further an agenda of the common good, it had to prove its competence and earn that confidence. Placing something as “boring” as goo-gooism at the center of a political and governing ideology may indeed be “curiously antique by today’s standards,” as Gurda says–but perhaps it is a heritage that we should pay attention to.

Though socialist governance of any kind was rare in American cities, it was not limited to Milwaukee alone. Barre, Vermont also elected a pair of Socialist mayors in the early 20th century, as Robert Weir details for the Vermont Historical Society. As Weir argued, “municipal socialism” in Barre took on a very similar tinge to Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialism.

both Gordon and Suitor brought Barre into the modern age with relative efficiency. In the decades following the Civil War, American cities faced the challenge of transforming themselves from merchant hubs into industrial, commercial, and retail centers. Rapid urban growth quickly revealed the utter inadequacy of antiquated city infrastructure, often with disastrous results (epidemics, floods, poverty, class conflict). Every upgrade that cities needed—from tenements and streetcars to sewers and sidewalks—entailed enormous expense, hence opportunities for graft. The same was true of the incidentals associated with technological change, including the paving of roads to accommodate automobiles, the building of airports, the issuance of radio licenses, and the location of electrical and telephone poles. That Gordon and his protégé Fred Suitor helped Barre make these transitions without a whiff of scandal and with the interests of the citizenry in mind should not be remarkable, but it was.

As in Milwaukee, Barre’s leftists recognized that competence, honesty, and good government were essential to place at the center of any viable agenda.

Nor would I want to leave the impression that this emphasis on good, competent government was limited to the socialist or radical fringe. Not to keep it in the family too much, but I’ll refer to my dad’s book about Portland, OR, and specifically to the chapter about Harry Lane, mayor of Portland from 1905 through 1909 and later a Senator. A doctor by training, Lane was generally identified with the capital-P Progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

An interviewer asked Lane in 1914 to name the major problem with American municipal government. “Decentralized power,” Lane replied without hesitation. Lane went on to state, “A benevolent despot, if he is honest and capable, can manage a city better than can 50 men filling a dozen different offices…I would run a big city or a little city with one, two, or three men at the most.”

Unsurprisingly, Lane’s critics accused him–and other Progressives–of being technocratic elitists, but we can see the commonality with Sewer Socialism in the emphasis on efficiency and honesty. And indeed, my father–inclined as he is to be sympathetic to the petite bourgeoisie–defends Lane as a champion of the principles of small business rather than organized capitalism, and as a trenchant critic of technocracy who championed centralization because he thought it would be easier to hold a centralized government accountable.

To be sure, there were then and are now a wide variety of ideological differences among urban leftists. Weir analyzes some of the differences in the first few decades of the 20th century:

Gordon and Suitor, like most goo-goos and Progressives, believed in efficiency, industrial progress, and the material improvement of society, but they sought to expand democracy, not contract it. Barre’s socialist mayors were not revolutionaries, but neither were they seduced by the blind belief in experts, a hallmark of Progressive thinking. As Bruce Stave observed, “socialists generally opposed . . . attempts to institute city manager or commission forms of government,” staples of top-down Progressive urban reform. Gordon and Suitor encountered and resisted calls for commission-style government. As their battles with public service boards, power authorities, banks, and traction companies reveal, Barre’s socialist mayors were suspicious of the “experts” that Progressives thought should manage cities. The socialist perspective was the difference between trusting the masses to make bottom-up changes, and the Progressives’ paternalistic belief that meaningful reform should be imposed from the top, often by unelected policymakers….

There were other stylistic differences between Progressives and municipal socialists. The first group longed for consensus politics and sought order; the latter averred that political change was inherently chaotic. Progressive reformers sought centralized programs; socialists demanded grassroots local control. Socialists favored public enterprises often deemed unrealistic by Progressive reformers who believed (romantically) in the benevolence, efficiency, and civic pride of the private sector.

Emphasis mine. (Note: I’m sure my dad is going to comment here and say Weir’s view of Progressivism lacks nuance)

But I’m interested in looking at the emergent commonalities, not the differences. Whether against capitalism or for regulating it, what can the Left of the early 20th century share with the new urban age?

  • Milwaukee, Barre, and Portland all adopted competence-based leftist governance at a time of rapid growth. It’s hard to imagine today given the prevalence of NIMBYism from both limousine liberals and concerned poor communities, but there was a time when dealing positively with growth was recognized–properly, in my mind–as a Left issue, precisely because the newcomers were often vulnerable. Perhaps there is, after all, a Left ideology that can be recovered to help guide growth instead of resisting it.
  • Both Sewer Socialists and Progressives placed “taking on entrenched interests” (primarily, of course, corporate interests) at the center of their agenda. One challenge the Left has been slow to adapt to in contemporary high-demand American cities is the need to recognize that “entrenched interests” are not solely corporate, but sometimes come in the form of “the people”–and most specifically, homeowners who follow perceived self-interest at the expense of others.
  • Though some Progressive reformers sought an elegant urban model, most urban leftists seem to have understood–as in the bolded passage from Weir above–that change is both necessary and chaotic. In a sense, this understanding is a key counterpoint to the Modernist planning ideology that has captivated the US public mind–the idea that “order” is important and there’s a right amount of tinkering that can be done to produce an optimal city. (in an earlier post, I called the dissemination of this idea in homeowner circles the Bootstrap Theory of Urban Development) Rather, the Sewer Socialist/Progressive idea stresses getting the fundamentals right, probably but not necessarily under public ownership, and allowing democratic society to flourish and provide the rest. In that sense, it seems to share a lot with Jane Jacobs’ fear of too much government involvement and quasi-libertarian ideas about urban business; but that’s a much longer paper.
  • This really shouldn’t need saying, but reform is not neoliberal. There’s been a tendency on the Left of late, I think, to present all attempts at reform or making government more efficient as corporate raids intended to weaken government and privatize services. Some certainly are–cough, “education reform,” cough–but we should remember that there’s a proud, though perhaps neglected, Left tradition of prizing competence and efficiency precisely as a Left value . One wonders what impact such an agenda might have on relations with some civil service unions…

I’ll end this here, because it’s already been a very long post. Still kind of short on details, I think, but perhaps I have made some progress in recovering an intellectual tradition that can, with modifications, be of use in 2016 and beyond. I certainly think we could do a lot worse.

via Greater City Providence, http://www.gcpvd.org/2015/01/23/abc-6-video-pawtucket-central-falls-commuter-rail-station/

Rhode Island and an Incipient Critique of Commuter Rail

My post from last year about the woes of Rhode Island’s Wickford Junction park’n’ride investment enjoyed a brief renaissance last week when Streetsblog linked back to it. How convenient, then, that Wickford Junction was in the news again this week when Rhode Island state legislators used it as a reason not to provide state funding for the (probably much more useful) long-awaited infill station in Pawtucket/Central Falls.

Let’s get one thing straight: Wickford Junction and Pawtucket/Central Falls are completely different scenarios. Pawtucket has regular service throughout the day (albeit at crappy frequency), while Wickford Junction…doesn’t. And then there’s this:

Wickford Junction

The physical setting of Wickford Junction station

pawtucket setting.PNG

The physical setting of future Pawtucket/Central Falls station

Wickford Junction is completely cut off from development of any kind, while Pawtucket station would be located in one of the densest areas in all of New England. Comparing them, in other words, is pointless at best. No wonder Providence blogger Jef Nickerson, in his own words, “went ballistic” when the legislature approved funding for a garage in downtown Providence after ignoring the train station.

I want to dig a little deeper into this, though. Let’s consider quotes such as this, from Patrick Anderson’s Providence Journal article linked above:

The free-market Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity has put the station plan in its cross-hairs, adding the funding bill to its “five worst” list for the year and saying it aligns with a “submissive philosophy” that Rhode Island should be considered a suburb of Boston.

Although the Center for Freedom and Prosperity critique of the station is unnecessarily couched in parochial provincialism (and, likely, in deep denial of the benefits that closer links to the booming Boston economy can bring to Rhode Island), it almost unintentionally touches on a serious critique of the “commuter rail” mode: it serves one kind of trip, and one kind of trip only. The libertarians substitute a critique of the station for what should be a critique of the mode of transit, perhaps because the answer to the question “how does commuter rail become useful to all users?” is “more service, not less.”

When framed this way, the critique not only becomes more sympathetic, but reminds me of another anecdote I turned up in the process of researching my master’s paper. When the Providence Foundation studied intrastate commuter rail from Woonsocket to Providence in 2009, the project team met with planners along the route to gauge interest in the potential new service. All showed interest, except for the town planner in Lincoln, where a station was proposed in the hamlet of Manville. The reasons given were fascinating, and a little bit sad:

The proposed Manville site is located near a low-income neighborhood, where residents could typically be expected to benefit from additional transit services. However, commuter rail – with its peak-oriented services – may not be a good fit for these residents who tend to work at jobs with nontraditional schedules. Moreover, the town planner in Lincoln indicated the most town residents were not interested in a new commuter rail station. (p. 71)

Justifiably or not, Lincoln’s town planner believed that commuter rail, as a mode, is not for “us” (us being anyone working in a job that is not white collar or 9-to-5). That’s not too far off from the idea that investing state money in a commuter rail station would only increase Rhode Island’s dependency on Boston, if we assume that “Boston” here stands in for white-collar jobs with little access for middle- or working-class Rhode Islanders. It may not be entirely apparent to the people I’m quoting here, but I believe the pattern indicates the very tiny glimmer of a kernel of a coherent, trenchant critique of the commuter rail paradigm.

Rhode Island has ambitious plans for commuter rail, both expansion of Boston-oriented MBTA service and intrastate, not to mention random private ideas for Providence-Worcester service. That’s admirable for a state of Rhode Island’s size, and the Providence Foundation study projected very positive results for Providence-Woonsocket service.

projected results providence cr

Projected costs and operational figures from the Providence Foundation study

That being said, I think the difficulty of gaining political traction for commuter rail in places like Pawtucket (which has been waiting for a station for decades, since its legacy one closed in 1981) and Lincoln reflect both the normal anti-transit animus of certain groups AND something deeper and more profound.

I devoted much of my master’s paper to developing the idea that American commuter rail has been socially and politically constructed as a luxury mode of travel for the middle and upper classes, one that serves only a niche subset of trips. In many other countries, mainline rail systems–often branded “regional”–operate frequently all day and on weekends, allowing use for numerous kinds of trips to numerous destinations. Perhaps, to build political momentum and promote a system that can be truly useful to a broad swath of Rhode Islanders, state leaders should consider something not less, but more ambitious–a regional rail system along the lines proposed by Peter Brassard over at Pedestrian Observations several years ago. Maybe  even that wouldn’t quite redeem Wickford Junction–but it might be the only plan that has a chance to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking in Networks, or Transit’s Political Challenge

Last week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie made headlines (in a small segment of the population at least) by poo-pooing entreaties to extend the Camden-Trenton River Line to the Statehouse, telling riders to “Use Uber” instead.  Now, the River Line is seemingly mediocre transit; despite forming a strategic link between two depressed cities, and connecting to strong transit options on both ends, its farebox recovery is atrocious (although it has shown some returns for the region).

That being said, it’s clear that the River Line’s Trenton terminus is in a less-than-ideal location. Although it connects well with SEPTA, NJT, and Amtrak trains, I think it’s fair to assume that most River Line riders are local, rather than making connections to destinations along the Northeast Corridor. And to reach many of the government jobs in downtown Trenton, those riders will have to walk a decent distance or transfer to a collection of buses branded as “Capital Connection.”

The Trenton Transit Center is on the far eastern end of the heaviest job concentration in Trenton.

trenton jobs

From Census LEHD

So: even if the River Line is mediocre transit, extending it a few more blocks into downtown Trenton isn’t a waste–it’s a key network connection that holds potential to be highly useful to lots of riders. And that’s where my take on the potential extension differs from Gov. Christie’s. Where the governor sees a question of expanding an underperforming transit system–that is, in a sense, rewarding underperformance–I see an attempt to redeem that same system with a relatively minor expenditure based on the principle of network connections. Indeed, is it possible that the statehouse connection could be the key to unlocking the River Line’s overall potential?

Much the same logic has been at work in Massachusetts, where Governor Charlie Baker has posed a dichotomy between “core operation” and “expansion,” as told to Politico:

“It just so happens our capital investment is in its core operation and not in expansion. But we see what happens when you spend all your money on the shiny new thing and forget about the fact that you have a core system that you need to invest in, to maintain, to enhance, and to modernize”

Baker’s commitment to this dichotomy has played out mostly in his administration’s skepticism toward the Green Line Extension into Somerville and Medford, and to a lesser extent on the North-South Rail Link. Baker has a point, of course, that MBTA and the state of Massachusetts have shown little capacity for effective project management, and there is a crying need to fix the maintenance and State of Good Repair backlogs facing the existing system.

But, like Christie, Baker fails to understand that the Green Line Extension and NSRL represent not “expansion” for its own sake but targeted infrastructural investments on the principle of building a transit network. Indeed, NSRL would enable the transformation of the MBTA commuter rail system from a collection of disconnected dead-end lines into a real network. In the dichotomous lingo that has taken effect in Boston, NSRL represents neither reform nor revenue, but reform through revenue (or really, investment), which, when needed, is the core logic of network-based thinking. It would take the system from this:

pre NSRL

Existing MBTA commuter rail network, from the North-South Rail Link website

to this:

post NSRL

One vision for a post-NSRL network, from the NSRL website.

To illuminate the conceptual challenge in convincing politicians to think in terms of networks, let’s turn to Jarrett Walker’s well-timed (for my purposes!) post from yesterday on core vs. edge debates. Of course, core/periphery fights are not precisely the same issue as opposing “expansion” that actually represents a key network link–but both represent a failure to think in terms of networks. In Jarrett’s words:

Once more with feeling: Transit is a network, which means that its parts are interdependent.  You cannot think about it the way you think about libraries or fire stations, where putting one in a certain place clearly benefits the people there, because the whole network affects everyone’s ability to get everywhere.

This is the key concept that, it seems, Christie and Baker have failed to grasp. Certainly, there are transit expansions that benefit only a discrete set of people within a region; many (politically popular) commuter rail and light rail extensions into low-density areas fall into this category. But many “expansions” have utility well beyond their own immediate area. The key is for decision makers to be able to differentiate between different kinds of “expansion”–and, in fairness to Christie and Baker, the political incentives are largely set up to make this differentiation hard.

Politicians face pressure to “give” everyone (that is, all geographic areas) benefits from government spending, which–and this is where we return to the parallels with the core/periphery problem–incentivizes spreading money around inefficiently rather than investing in geographically central yet regionally (networkily?) beneficial links. Would Christie or, especially, Baker, be more willing to risk some political capital on an “expansion” if it were seen as a key network link rather than a luxury whose benefits accrue to one particular area? Maybe, maybe not. But those of us with a stronger grasp of the concepts behind the transit can work on educating, those nonspecialists whose first instinct is to respond to the loudest voices.

 

 

drgw-5771-plainview_co-sep-1978-000

A New Sleeper Train in the Rockies?

Featured image source

Prompted in part by experiences like this, I’ve thought a lot about whether Amtrak’s long-distance operations are at all viable. They’re unprofitable, slow, and infrequent, and seemingly constantly under threat–but also generally the most politically popular part of the Amtrak system, since rural elected officials love seeing trains in their districts.

In thinking about the long-distance trains, I often come back to this excellent Sic Transit Philadelphia post. The core of Michael’s theory is this:

I have a developing theory of sleeper trains, which is that they are essentially a point-to-point service. A sleeper passenger who is willing to pay a fare that is going to pay for most, or all, of her costs, wants a train that is leaving in the evening and arriving in the morning. Perhaps a short ride in daylight can cover more another market or two with the same departure, but the basic form is evening-morning. It requires two trainsets to operate the entire service.

The luxury of such a service is that timing can be somewhat loose; trains just need to arrive by the beginning of the business day. From a cost-savings perspective, a one-overnight trip could mean that passengers can eat before and after their time on the train, eliminating the need for an expensive dining car. Michael discusses several potential routes for such a service in his post, and it’s been an occasional topic of discussion on Twitter as well.

This topic came back to me earlier this week when I read Jim Wrinn’s pessimistic take on the future of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western main line through the Rocky Mountains. Apparently, this line, once dominated by coal traffic, is down to a couple of trains per day in each direction, plus Amtrak’s California Zephyr, the successor to D&RGW’s grand, long-lived (D&RGW kept operating it privately until 1983) flagship train. That’s not a lot of traffic to keep up a 570-mile line (including a 6.2 mile tunnel) in some of the most spectacular–and most brutal, for weather and maintenance purposes–scenery in the country.

DRGWMap

System map of the D&RGW in 1965, featuring the Moffat Tunnel line. Source.

The coal traffic that once sustained the Moffat line is probably mostly dead for good. But, as Wrinn suggests in his piece, what if the former D&RGW could become one of the US’ rare passenger-primary routes? An unlikely proposition given the expense of maintaining it, surely, but the line does have a strong passenger heritage, and links two growing cities with extensive, recently built out transit networks that connect well to their intercity train terminals. And it’s just about the right length to trial the one-overnight model that Michael proposes above.

Today’s California Zephyr is essentially a day train, with a mildly useful but slow schedule westbound across the Rockies, and an equally slow but less useful one (3:30 AM departure from SLC!) eastbound.

CZ timetable

A 15-hour trip wouldn’t work to run a one-overnight trip with two trainsets, but it wasn’t always that slow. The 1952 Official Guide (indicate Denver & Rio Grande Western on the menu at left) has westbound train 17 at 13:40 from Denver to Salt Lake, leaving at 8:40 AM and arriving at 10:20. Eastbound #18 left SLC at a somewhat more civilized 5:40 AM and arrived in Denver at 7:00 PM sharp, for a time of 13:20. The Zephyr was a true day train in both directions, complemented by sleeper service at night.

And I think it might be time to bring that kind of service pattern back. With much less freight interference than in the line’s glory days and modern equipment (this line might work very nicely for tilting trains), it might be possible to get run times down into the 12-hour range. Even if that’s not possible and some train sets have to lay over, one day trip and one night trip in each direction–plus the Zephyr, whenever Amtrak feels like running it–between Denver and SLC might work nicely. The day trip would appeal to tourists wanting to see the spectacular scenery, while a barebones, no-meals sleeper operation could appeal to budget travelers who don’t want to make the stressful drive over the Rockies or don’t want to travel with a car. There’s also the possibility of restoring Ski Train service to resorts along the route, which current owner Union Pacific has been open to but Amtrak has been its usual obstreperous self about.

I don’t know if three passenger trains per day plus scattered freight service would be enough to justify the massive maintenance expense of keeping the Moffat Line open. I do know that the metro areas at both ends of the route are among the country’s biggest transit success stories, and have been highly creative in getting there. And I suspect that a day/night schedule on trains dedicated to SLC-Denver service could work. Hopefully someone will give it a try.

tony wallace house

The Bootstrap Theory of Neighborhood Development

Readers of this blog and of my Twitter feed know that I am particularly confounded by one of the superficially odder phenomena of contemporary urban discussion—the wide prevalence of NIMBYism from people whose political views otherwise lean well to the left. Attention to this phenomenon has largely, and justifiably, focused on San Francisco and the Bay Area, where skyrocketing housing prices have been met with stiff resistance to the idea of actually trying to solve the problem in any realistic way. But having grown up in a college town with liberal politics—and living in a liberal state capital with a dominant Democratic bent—I suspect that middle-class lefty resistance to urban change is in fact more common than one might think, affecting smaller markets as well as the uber-hot coastal metropolises.

The prompt for thinking about this now and trying to put together a coherent theory of it was a truthfully extremely minor zoning issue originating in my childhood neighborhood of Westville in New Haven. I posted an article about it on Facebook and became embroiled in a discussion with a few people I grew up with—mostly folks my parents’ age with whom I was growing up and continue to be close—about whether opposition to this building modification was NIMBYism or reflected genuine concerns. I also contributed to and monitored the comments section on the New Haven Independent site. The discussion on Facebook, I think, broke down more or less along the lines one would expect, with me advocating for growth in New Haven’s tight rental market and others, homeowners in the area, expressing more or less typical homeowner concerns, although politely and reasonably (I grew up with good people). In some ways, it was a predictable discussion, one in which I may have overstated my anti-NIMBY position. But something else struck me about both the Facebook discussion and the comments section:  just how much my experience of the city as a Millennial differs from that of older middle class people.

Let’s look at some of what people who I would characterize as more sympathetic to “community concerns” (which I acknowledge is an extremely problematic term) had to say:

Two comments from TheMadcap on the Independent comment section:

Unlike some of the comments here, I bought my house in reliance on the protection of zoning laws.  I certainly wouldn’t want my next door neighbor to build a 40’ wall next to my house and look to mine the house like it’s gold.

it could easily end up with renters, not her family, at some point.  That will change the character of that corner for sure.  My sympathies lie on Burton St…

I have a right, when I buy my single family home, to know generally what’s allowed by zoning, by my neighbors.  Without that, there’s chaos.  If my next door neighbor converts his single family into a 4 family and moves out, I’ll be gone before the 1st renter moves in. It’s not what I bargained and paid for.

Westville is a good blend of families in single family homes and students, young prof, and retirees in multis. But it’s a delicate balance.  Start removing the single families and you will see less families with children there. And they are what helps makes Westville special.

I don’t know to what extent TheMadcap represents the sentiments of other people opposed to this renovation. But their comments reflect a belief in the essential fragility of the Westville neighborhood that—while it seems bizarre to me—I have come to understand is extremely common among middle-class residents of what we might call “middle cityscape” neighborhoods (we’ll get there in a moment). For TheMadcap, the only thing keeping the neighborhood from tipping into chaos is the protection of dip-it-in-amber zoning laws, without which, this commenter says with absolute confidence, the neighborhood WILL decline. Having too many renters in the neighborhood is to be feared, and interference from government—even to the extent of issuing one zoning variance—is a constant threat. I have a lot of confidence in the neighborhood I grew up in, and I doubt most people are quite that paranoid. But there’s no doubt that this kind of attitude is prevalent among urban middle class residents in many areas.

The Awl recently wrote about Washington Park in Troy, a kind of less notorious Upstate equivalent to Manhattan’s privately owned, closed-to-the-public Gramercy Park, and elicited some rather telling quotes from the homeowners who control access to the park. Troy isn’t Manhattan—right now, it’s not even Westville—and the Washington Park owners are not especially wealthy, coming mainly from Troy’s professional class (doctors, lawyers, and professors) rather than some landed gentry. Their attitude toward the possibility of opening their park, though, is telling:

“The city does such a shitty job [of maintaining] its own properties”…

A former W.P.A. official and her husband, park residents for thirteen years, told me they’d like to see the square opened to the public—in theory—but had no faith in the city to maintain it…

One park-property tenant cited the fate of Barker Park—a much smaller, plaza-like park downtown—as a kind of testament to why Washington Park could not be opened to the public. The Times Union reported in 2012 that the city “removed four benches” from the park “due to complaints about fights and lewd behavior by those who loiter[ed] in the area.” I asked if such a fate were unlikely to befall Washington Park, given all the eyes on it.

“It would totally happen here,” the tenant replied, “because these people are too shy to come out and kick junkies out of here. They’re not gonna do that.” He spoke of a “population of people here who are in halfway homes, or rehabbing, or [who] just got out of the mental hospital. [Troy is] kind of a processing zone for people who are in transition, and [there are] a lot of people who have mental health issues and people who have substance-abuse issues.” Troy is the Rensselaer County seat, and there are a number of social-service agencies downtown. Two of the Washington Park residents I met in person expressed disdain for people who use such programs.

The concerns of the Washington Park homeowners reflect two major fears of the urban experience: of Troy’s Other residents, who cannot be trusted not to wreck the peace and quiet of Washington Park, and thereby ruin the stabilized middle-class enclave around it, and of meddling government that cannot even manage its own affairs, much less take on the task of competently coping with social integration of an exclusive space.

If Troy is the new Brooklyn, it’s worth turning to that borough for a little clarification. One of my other influences in thinking about gentrification and policy recently has been Suleiman Osman’s terrific The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, which I read partially in preparation for a trip to said borough a couple of months ago. To be totally honest, I expected a book about gentrification in the 1950s and ‘60s to be totally insufferable, but Osman’s work is quite readable and a terrific guide to the yuppie-gentrifier mindset and the ways it can flip quite readily into NIMBYism. Here’s Osman on Brownstone Brooklyn’s early gentrifiers:

What united this new middle class was a collective urban identity. Bounded by overdeveloped Manhattan to one side and the undeveloped slums to the other, all agreed that they had discovered a historically diverse “real neighborhood” on the cusp of extinction and in need of rescue. Brooklyn Heights was a fragile middle cityscape that reconciled two competing visions of urban verisimilitude. For some it was a historic neighborhood that rooted residents in aristocratic past. For others the neighborhood was a gritty, diverse frontier that exposed middle-class residents to the authentic folkways of the urban poor. (pp. 115-116)

And later:

In the history of the American city, the neighborhood has often coalesced when mobilizing against a perceived outside threat…for Brooklyn Heights—as well as the West Side of Manhattan, Greenwich Village, and other postwar middle landscapes throughout the city—the catalyst for neighborhood formation was the intrusion of the machine. The machine, although a metaphor, represented real political, architectural, and social forces. In fact, two machines threatened Brooklyn Heights in the eyes of new residents, each version encroaching from opposite sides. From the slum of South Brooklyn lurked the old machine: the industrial cityscape of polluted factories, corrupt ward politicians, violent youth gangs, and frightening crime syndicates. From Manhattan threatened a modern and more potent new machine—a matrix of centralized public authorities, city planning agencies, and private development groups spearheading a program of modernist redevelopment in Brooklyn. (pp. 119-120)

For Osman—and I think he’s right—it was this perceived defense of the “middle cityscape” that produced “a new type of anti-statist politics that was hostile to liberal centralized planning and bureaucracy, instead celebrating grassroots government, organic landscapes, existential liberation, creative expression, historicity and diversity, and do-it-yourself neighborhood liberation.” (p. 163) That style of politics—definitely on the left end of the spectrum in theory, but existing in abject terror of both other residents of the city and government that might try to pursue the broad public interest, either of which might cause a solid middle cityscape neighborhood to tip over into decline and chaos at any time—ought to sound awfully familiar from the quotes I’ve presented from Troy and New Haven.

I’ve presented examples from three states and three different, though somewhat similar, kinds of neighborhoods. There are some clear commonalities, so let’s try to tease them out.

  • First, it’s crystal-clear that the dominant factor in the middle class/gentrifier narrative of neighborhood development and preservation has been fear. Fear of other city residents, fear of overbearing government, fear of neighborhood decline—it’s all there. And frankly, a lot of it was, historically, justified.
  • Second, middle-class residents of stable or improving urban neighborhoods see themselves—again, historically with significant justification—as saviors. Without their investment, their energy, their civic leadership, and their sweat equity, these neighborhoods would tip over into decline or chaos.
  • Third, the status of a “good urban neighborhood”—often, but not always, the same as a “middle cityscape” between downtown and the ghetto with elements of pastoralism—is fragile and must be preserved. It’s fragile because of Point 1, and because of Point 2 that preservation must be done by the existing residents of the neighborhood, which brings us to Point 4…
  • Fourth, government cannot be trusted to meet the needs of a “good” urban neighborhood. Like the other points here, this one made a lot of sense from the 1950s up through probably the 1990s—and still does in many areas. This is perhaps the biggest challenge people seeking more equitable neighborhood outcomes have to overcome.

Taken together, these narratives form what I’m proposing to call the bootstrap theory of neighborhood development. It’s a narrative in which the primary or even only reason an urban neighborhood can be “good” is through the efforts and expenditures of a very particular urban middle class, working against interference from competitors and government. In its stress on individual (well, communal, but individual relative to the rest of the city) effort and stress on self-preservation, this narrative has obvious parallels to American conservatism’s narrative of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” My labeling of this theory owes a lot to Daniel Kay Hertz’s framing of the narrative of immaculate conception of neighborhood origins; one might say that they are two parts of the same overarching narrative, occupying different time spans.

So what’s the problem? I’ve said multiple times that I think much of the bootstrap theory is valid in historic context. Well…let’s look at outcomes. Middle-class protectionism has certainly preserved a few “good” urban neighborhoods in a time of need. But it has also resulted in some outcomes that would seem to betray the theoretically liberal values of most middle-class urban residents.

  • Osman documents that as early as 1973, only 14% of Brooklyn Heights Association parents were sending their children to public schools. (p. 155) The progressive value of integration vs. the sometimes depressing realities of urban school districts is something that many middle-class parents struggle with, generally in my experience in good faith.
  • Historical validity of a plan of political action is just that, historical; and the bootstrap theory has had a notably difficult time adjusting to the reality that in the 21st century many cities are again approaching or exceeding normalcy in the housing market after decades of disinvestment and suppression. Coupled with policies still intended to protect the “good” neighborhoods, this renewed demand has seen housing prices skyrocket, resulting in an exclusive city.
  • The bootstrap narrative frames homeownership in a “middle cityscape” as almost public-spirited, and homeowners as bulwarks against chaos. Again, that may have been true in many areas until recently—but the restoration of relative normalcy to urban housing markets has once again revealed what was true before suburbanization: that ownership of a single-family home in a close-in urban neighborhood is inherently a luxury good. Homeownership does lend more stability to a neighborhood—but it is also entrepreneurial and a profit-making enterprise. The bootstrap narrative tends to elide that dual reality.

I began this piece by saying that my own experience of the city is very, very different from the middle-aged, middle-class homeowners who seem to be the most common proponents of the bootstrap theory. Like many of these people, I hold more or less liberal social and economic views. But my experience and indeed terror of urban space is very, very different. I am terrified that I won’t be able to afford to live in many cities in the US—largely because of the same policies pushed by many neighborhood bootstrappers in light of their own terrors. Where many neighborhood bootstrappers look at the city and feel fear, I see confidence, growth, and opportunity.

I don’t know how to convince neighborhood bootstrappers that their conception of neighborhood development is outdated. I could point out that the bootstrap theory is much more closely related to suburban narratives of urbanization and really de-urbanization than to 21st-century urbanism and creates a self-congratulatory framework that substitutes for structural thinking. I could talk about how it adopts some of the less savory aspects of Jane Jacobs’ work—her “eyes on the street” stress on constant surveillance–but not others, such as her quasi-libertarian willingness to experiment with urban economies and land use (which, granted, Jacobs herself was inconsistent about). But those are attacks—and I’m not sure they’d work well with people who feel they’ve spent their entire adult lives defending a fragile neighborhood from attack by both other urban residents and government.

So will we just have to wait for people with new experiences to take over? The stereotype that people grow less flexible as they get older seems mostly born out on this measure. And the urban middle class exerts a disproportionate political pull in cities, so it’s unlikely that government could be the best change agent. If the bootstrap narrative validates self-preservation, perhaps we could leverage that; after all, the homeowning middle class is now freezing its own children out of cities, so perhaps they’d be persuaded by arguments about future affordability for their own offspring. Is there a way to induce the people who gave cities life during the anti-urban century, but are now unintentionally squeezing that same life out of them, to play a more constructive role in planning and policy? In many of our cities, that’s the challenge of the 21st century.