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.