The College and Resort-Town Housing Crisis: a YIMBY Laboratory?

Featured image: Looking over Hood River and towards Mt. Hood, just because. Source.

With media attention to urban issues often focused obsessively on the coasts and major cities, there’s a crying need for a little bit more varied texture in our discussions of planning and urbanism. People like Pete Saunders and Jason Segedy have done important work showing how needs and paradigms differ in a Midwestern/Rust Belt context. And indeed, it’s important to learn from the Rust Belt, since the geography of demand and capital in most American cities looks far more like its cities than those of the coasts. But there’s another, underappreciated set of towns whose experience of housing policy and planning may actually more closely parallel that of the coasts: those towns that are smaller, but are closely associated with a college or resort, and consequently experience a high level of demand and high prices–and as such need solutions similar to those of the much larger cities.

If you follow me on Twitter you know I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I was inspired to finally write about it by the appearance of two items in close proximity. The first was posted by my dad’s cousin Lisa Perry, who with her mom runs Cody Orchards in Oregon’s Hood River Valley (my dad’s family’s ancestral homeland, a gorgeous place to visit, and some of the most fertile fruit-growing land in the world). Titled “The Next Aspen” and posted by a local activist group, this flyer calls citizens to action over increasing housing prices driven in part by the increasing presence of second homes and AirBnB-style part-time rentals in the Hood River Valley. The flyer cites a median listed home price of $533,000, which–to my admittedly-not-a-realtor eye–seems shockingly high for a rural area.

hood river market

The track of Hood River’s housing market, from an article in The Oregonian

The other article is from the current Aspen, the high-end ski resort in Colorado. Written by Aspen Ski Co. VP of Sustainability Auden Schendler, it takes a fairly standard YIMBY approach to ameliorating Aspen’s notoriously severe housing crunch–a situation so bad that the local transit agency recently initiated a 43-mile BRT-lite service to move commuters around. It’s worth quoting at length:

This worldview is widespread. Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from 40 years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil. They hate crowds—even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy. “The only thing they hate more than sprawl,” an architect told me, “is density.”

Parts of Aspen look like they did decades ago, with Victorian houses and big, lovely parks. There are, however, no people in those houses (often second, third, or fourth homes), and a long line of traffic every morning and evening as people forced to live downvalley, where real estate is cheaper, end up commuting 20, 30, and even 50 miles to work.

There’s nothing environmental-friendly about any of this. The long commute creates pollution. It blocks guests from the ski hill. It wears out the road. It’s the exact antithesis of all the ideas Aspen was founded on—about renewal and escaping from the world.

Aspen is perhaps the single most extreme example, but we can see here the ways in which towns that are small in terms of population, but have high demand for housing, can mirror the problems of big cities in a way that most of the nation’s midsize cities don’t. Indeed, as Aspen shows the problems in small towns can often be, though on a smaller absolute scale, even more severe on a per-person basis, as poorer citizens are displaced to entirely different towns, which in rural areas may be miles away and entirely lack suitable housing or transit.

The same is often true in college towns. The blog Walkable Princeton and the (sadly silent right now) Twitter account Central NJ YIMBY by one of its authors have chronicled the dearth of affordable housing and walkability in that Ivy League town. I’ve spent a lot of time in Massachusetts’ college-heavy Pioneer Valley, and particularly Northampton and Amherst, both of which are fairly expensive by rural/small-town standards–and lack sufficient housing for their student and young-adult populations.

As with resort towns, college towns are often dominated politically by aging ex-hippies and Boomers who consider themselves environmentalists, but feel ambivalently at best about the popular demand that underlies their town’s economic success. David Roberts’ recent piece in Vox about the difference between environmentalists and climate hawks is perhaps one of the best–although not the only–lenses onto the political dynamic that drives (non)-development decisions in both resort and college towns. College towns suffer from the additional complication of much housing demand being driven by students, who are (with perhaps some justification) generally considered an undesirable class to live near and preemptively zoned out. It was, after all, conflict between “townies” and students that yielded Belle Terre v. Boraas, one of the Supreme Court cases that allows towns to most restrict housing flexibility. College-town homeowners have even been known to speak about student housing with language reminiscent of racial blockbusting:

Smaller towns do present YIMBYs with the challenge of accepting that certain things we (correctly, in my opinion) dismiss as distractions from the housing debate in larger cities do in fact have outsize impacts in some smaller towns. Part-time occupation and the outsize presence of second (and third, and fourth) homes in high-demand small towns and rural areas really do have a huge impact on the local market. I’d argue that you do have to be more careful with development than I’d argue for a big-city context. For some of these towns–particularly resort towns–it’s the existing built environment and character that form a large part of their appeal, and therefore their economic bottom line. There’s no shortage of potentially cute small towns out there in America; there’s always going to be stiff competition for success, and it’s reasonable for leaders to be wary of ceding their core competencies in the face of stiff competition.  

Those items aside, the high-demand small-town dynamic in some ways parallels–and can learn from, and inform–the big-city experience more than that of most of Middle America. As such, the solutions to the crisis confronting some of these towns probably parallel big-city solutions as well: a simple willingness to grow and include the people who want to be there as well as old-timers, an emphasis on walkability and a few select transit corridors so that growth can scale without corresponding increases in traffic, and selective application of regulation and mandates like incentive zoning and social housing. Indeed, given the very manageable scale of need in smaller towns, it’s probably not unfair to think of these towns as laboratories for proving the efficacy of YIMBY policies that can then be scaled to apply to larger areas.

The core principles of a growth-accepting worldview still apply. There are almost always corridors where growth can happen without impacting the touristy areas. For Northampton-Amherst, those would be the Route 9 corridor connecting the two towns, with its relatively robust transit and high-quality rail trail:

northampton amherst route 9

And the north-south Route 5 corridor in Northampton, much of which was previously railyards and has been developed not as the dense housing that’s needed but as pedestrian-hostile big-box retail.

route 5

Smaller towns also present the possibility of the strong alliance between farming/conservation interests and YIMBYs/Smart Growthers that should exist nationally. Dense development close to the core of town ought to absorb sufficient demand to slow or stop the farmland-eating process of sprawl–a process that, as in Hood River, not only threatens the environment but drives up costs for farmers, making a difficult business even harder. This alliance can’t function, though, if core development priorities continue to be set by people with a no-growth agenda; and the result is that farmland continues to be eaten up by sprawl (the same goes, to a lesser extent, for conservation of open land in non-farming areas). Technical tools like a regional Transfer of Development Rights program could help facilitate this alliance, but face several challenges: they are highly complex and unintuitive; are often only legally authorized to follow municipal boundaries, when a rural environment demands a regional strategy (this is true in New York State, where the Hudson Valley would really benefit from such a program); and above all require a willingness for somewhere in the core to accept actual growth.

Northampton isn’t Boston and Hood River isn’t Portland (duh). But if the goal is creating sustainable policy that can meet the needs of today while also nurturing future generations (a particular concern in college towns, I suppose), these smaller towns have in some ways failed nearly as badly as our big cities have. And it’s important not only to recognize those failures as an opportunity (which they are!) but to understand that they are the product of particular choices made by particular people at particular times. The core insight of YIMBYism–its simple power–is the insight that none of this was inevitable. Big-city activists can learn from smaller towns confronting similar issues–and the smaller towns from their big siblings.  

 

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Refocusing the Urban Renewal Conversation

Urban renewal remains a rhetorical and contextual constant in today’s discussions about planning and policy, even though 60 years have passed since the apex of the idea’s power in American life. The term is invoked by a wide variety of people to make a wide variety of points carrying a wide variety of intellectual consistency and honesty; indeed, at times it seems near-ubiquitous in urbanist or planning discourse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, talk about urban renewal and its legacy often focuses on the Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs paradigm and the lessons about community control and out-of-control bureaucracy. With perhaps somewhat less frequency, renewal is used as a weapon in the never-ending online wars about whether capitalism or socialism is worse (it is perhaps testament to how uniquely terrible an idea urban renewal was that it allows both sides of that debate to use it with a truly straight face). And of course, discussion of renewal often veers off in a hyperbolic and/or totally non-factual direction. This, then, represents my attempt to reset the urban renewal discourse a little and re-focus it on what renewal was really, consistently about: cars and autocentricity.

It’s worth taking a moment to define our terms. Strictly applied, the term “urban renewal” originated with the  Housing Act of 1954, but the concept of “slum clearance” became popular  with Title I of the Housing Act of 1949. In general discourse, it has become customary–and I think useful–to bundle these federal housing programs with the mass demolition of urban neighborhoods for freeways, most associated with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. While these federal programs mostly wound down in the face of opposition and lack of success by the 1970s, in some cities the robust powers granted to government to facilitate them still exist, even if they now receive less frequent usage.  I use the term to refer to the entire assemblage of programs at all levels of government that pushed hard for the destruction and redevelopment of neighborhoods through a philosophy of built-environment determinism and a conception of determinedly auto-centric mobility.

Many on the left (but not just those on the left!) understand renewal  as a joint conspiracy of capital and government. An example: this quotation from former Cleveland planning director Norman Krumholz, the originator of the “equity” or “advocacy” school of planning, in this NextCity article about Boston’s recent fights over whether to extend the city’s renewal powers:

“You know the story of urban renewal: low-income people driven away from choice locations that developers selected for redevelopment.”

And although there’s certainly truth in the idea that capital and corporations drove renewal , this analysis is at best incomplete. For one thing, the massive reshaping of cities to accommodate megablock development and autocentricity was a worldwide phenomenon at the time, hardly limited to capitalist economies (indeed, if anything it was notoriously worse in socialist or Communist countries).

The narrative that renewal happened because “developers” or “capital” demanded it  exists in some tension with the idea that it was the fault of authoritarian planners and bureaucrats. It also happens to elide the fact that the physical effects of renewal were popular with large swaths of the growing white upper and middle classes in the postwar period; indeed, of all people Robert Moses saw himself as responding to the demands and interests of this powerful class (while of course also being an egomaniac). Douglas Rae’s City: Urbanism and its End gives a glimpse into this process in the city that took more federal urban renewal money per capita than any other; while New Haven’s business and institutional communities provided substantial support to urban renewal, renewal was also a downright popular policy with the suburbanizing middle classes (which benefited from easy auto access to downtown) and with urban liberals (who saw it as a positive government intervention). I grew up in New Haven in a community that frequently discussed the trauma of urban renewal–but many of the same people who mourned the loss of the old Jewish Oak Street neighborhood are perfectly capable of complaining in the same breath about the (perceived) difficulty of parking downtown. I’m sure many people who think critically about land use and transportation issues have similar stories: it’s a useful reminder that at least some of the tenets of urban renewal remain popular to this day.    

Reminding the public of the centrality of auto dependency to renewal has become necessary in large part because of the emergence of a particular dynamic where certain people (in good faith or bad) claim the mantle of fighting urban renewal specifically to preserve faux-populist autocentric practices in planning. Their narrative typically adopts aspects of the leftist story about renewal, whereby the core legacy of the fundamental trauma associated with renewal  is the lesson that community control of planning processes is an absolute obligation and an inherently positive way of doing policy. The result is an inherently contradictory, and often toxic, dynamic that instead of striving to discuss the potential conflicts in the legacy of urban renewal instead clouds history and obstructs any attempts to undo renewal’s physical legacy in the present day.

One genre of attempts to twist renewal’s admittedly highly undemocratic processual legacy into preserving its physical legacy is the preservation of open space at the expense of the potential to restore the dense development that in many northeastern cities existed before the era of renewal. One of my favorite hangouts in Albany was Hudson-Jay Park, a small green space carved out of the junction of the dense brownstones of Center Square and the Modernist marble wall of the Empire State Plaza, and a legacy of land cleared for a never-built planned freeway tunnel entrance.

hudson jay

Hudson-Jay Park in Albany, looking east toward the Empire State Plaza. Author’s photo.

Or take the example of Meriden, Connecticut, which I wrote about in 2014. In the core of downtown, right across the street from the railroad station, a giant, autocentric mall had torn down several square blocks of dense urban development decades ago. With the coming initiation of more frequent rail service on the Hartford Line, Meriden engaged in a generally positive community process designed to revitalize downtown with TOD….but instead of restoring dense development on the former mall site, built a giant transit-oriented park.

meriden

Meriden is, though, an economically depressed city where the demand side of the development equation is unclear and where community members may be less conscious of exactly how they’re handling the legacy of urban renewal, so let’s take a look at an example closer to my current home.  Last year MassDOT sold off a number of small plots of land along the Southwest Corridor in Jamaica Plain (JP). The plots are a direct legacy of the era of urban renewal and freeway construction; the state had seized them decades earlier in order to build a freeway on what’s now, after a civic revolt, the Amtrak/MBTA line known as the Southwest Corridor. Since rail lines, even with an accompanying greenway, take up much less room than a freeway, the state was left with a number of leftover lots, some of them of irregular size or shape, but many of them potentially suited to restoration of the dense pattern of development that existed before the massive use of eminent domain and land clearance in the area. Since the construction of the Southwest Corridor, some of these lots have become open space or part of the greenway; others serve as community gardens. Indeed, one of the lots was taken off the auction block in order to formalize its use as a garden. An anonymous Twitter user took the time to argue with me, contending that my desire to see public land used for a purpose higher than community gardening was, in fact, insensitive to the memory of the struggle against urban renewal:

Similar thoughts appeared elsewhere during the discussion. I think it’s worth diving into that a little bit. In the mind of this Twitterer–and numerous other JPers–fighting urban renewal has nothing to do with restoring the dense development that characterized pre-renewal JP, or fighting autocentricity per se, but relates exclusively to honoring the wishes of the self-defined “community” that once fought renewal–and no one else. Fighting to preserve open space–open space that had not always been that way!–in an area truly rich in it when Boston is suffering from a housing crisis induced in large part by the era of urban renewal seems, in contextual reality, not only quite far from honoring the fight against renewal but indeed supportive of the very ideas that drove renewal in the first place. What better honors the JP that existed before renewal: a community garden or moving toward rebuilding, for example, the vibrant commercial area that once existed around what is now Green Street station on the Orange Line?

Jamaica_Plain_station_postcard_(2)

Jamaica Plain railroad station, on the current site of Green Street MBTA station, around 1910. Note the significant commercial and industrial development around the station. Source: By Unknown – Scanned postcard from eBay auction: “JAMAICA PLAIN MASSACHUSETTS MASS. RAILROAD DEPOT TRAIN STATION VINTAGE POSTCARD”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45952810

31931813192_72db4a59e6_o (1)

Jamaica Plain station in the middle of disinvestment and urban renewal, in 1951. Source: City of Boston on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/cityofbostonarchives/31931813192/in/photostream/

green street today

Green Street station today, looking south from the corner of Green and Amory. Note removal of all commercial buildings (although there is one behind the camera) and empty lot at the southeast corner of Green and Amory; I’m told local residents have opposed new construction on this lot.

It’s worth thinking about the implications of an ideology (although it’s hardly theorized enough to be called that, the feeling seems common enough) of open space-as-antidote-to-renewal. I would, bluntly, posit that this ideology is in no way an antidote to renewal and in fact in many ways accepts and cements the Corbusian principles underlying the entire concept of urban renewal. It’s towers in the park, minus the towers, but with some (but not too many) handy restorable brownstones or triple-deckers.

This ideology of garden-as-preservation-from-renewal is, whether consciously in the minds of its proponents or not, inseparable from the same kinds of (mainly white) middle-class consumer desires that actually drove renewal as an ideology. In his highly original and significant The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, Suleiman Osman lays out how 1960s South Brooklyn gentrifiers created narratives of saving their “middle ground” (that is, between Manhattan and suburbia) areas from the twin threats of Robert Moses-style Modernist renewal and the uncaring natives who were allowing the area to decline. These narratives, obviously, were self serving, and in them we can see the seeds of some of the more obnoxious aspects of gentrification today. But we see arguably the same logic at play in JP and elsewhere today, as some defend de-densifying the neighborhood and preventing the restoration of transit-oriented development as fighting renewal. Like Osman’s South Brooklyn gentrifiers, the people who fought fiercely for their neighborhood in the face of the assault of Corbusian, autocentric renewal deserve credit for preserving an ideology of urbanism of sorts in decades past–and critique when they end up doing the work of autocentrism.  

Understanding the fetishization of open space in the wake of renewal as a middle-class consumer ideology largely invented by gentrifiers makes the second, and far more challenging, common genre of slightly-off references to urban renewal somewhat jarring. This is the tendency of leftist anti-gentrification activists and some within communities of color to refer to densification and transit-oriented development efforts as a variation on urban renewal. On the one hand, where community consultation is lacking–or even where it is done well, but displacement is accelerating because of strong market demand–it’s reasonable for fearful people to interpret pretty much any action policymakers take as not reflecting the wishes of the community and therefore bringing up the spectre of renewal (and in a situation with limited good options, policymakers should be ready to be accused of not being consultative enough no matter their choices). On the other hand, this accusation completely erases the aspects of urban renewal that had to do with autocentricity and the consumer desires of the white middle class for easy car access throughout the city and easily available parking–which is to say, most of the core of the renewal ideology.

A typical example is this from  Erick Trickey’s reasonably good article on the Green Line light rail project connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul in Politico:

And many poorer communities along the route simply didn’t believe the Green Line would benefit them. They saw light rail as a threat that would disrupt their neighborhoods and bring gentrification—a sequel to the urban-renewal projects of the mid-20th-century that bulldozed poor communities for the sake of suburban commuters…Another reason for opposition—which surprised transit planners and city leaders—was the long memory of St. Paul’s older African-American residents, who’d been victimized by racist highway policy a half-century before. Rondo Avenue, the main business strip in St. Paul’s largest black neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for the I-94 freeway in 1960. That destruction of more than 600 black families’ homes and dozens of black businesses—a tragedy the federal government replicated in black neighborhoods across the country—ripped apart the city’s African-American middle-class economy, inflicting lasting damage to black families’ wealth and homeownership. (A play about Rondo, The Highwaymen, played this February at St. Paul’s History Theatre.) So for some black residents south of University Avenue, another transportation project in their neighborhood felt like war….Nathaniel Khaliq, who was president of the St. Paul NAACP at the time, lost his childhood home on Rondo Avenue to I-94. To avoid any repeat of the disruption the freeway had caused, he preferred an earlier proposal to place the train tracks down the center of I-94. When transit planners chose University Avenue as the route instead, the NAACP sued.

There’s a lot to unpack here. There should be no doubt that community concerns about displacement and racist policy were, as they often are in other cities, valid; while the vulnerability of poor people of color to displacement is a symptom not of transportation policy but of much larger structural forces in American life, it is in many ways felt most acutely in areas with new high-quality transit, given the overall scarcity of such systems in this country. But there’s no escaping the contradiction inherent in the rhetoric and suggestions here. Put simply, the way to protect the black community from a second wave of urban renewal was to replicate the physical planning practices of the original urban renewal programs. Putting rail transit in a freeway right-of-way was for decades, and in some places remains, a common practice, but it’s a really crappy idea that exposes passengers to pollution and minimizes walking access to stations–and cements (literally) the autocentricity of the built environment.

Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition provides a somewhat more hyperbolic example of this train of thought in last week’s post in response to Scott Wiener’s ambitious attempt to solve California’s housing crisis by taking the revolutionary step of … building housing.  In response to the idea that dense development should accompany transit, Goodmon declares,

Not since the “Urban Renewal” projects of the 1960s (most appropriately characterized as “Negro removal” by James Baldwin) has something so radical and detrimental to the stability of urban communities of color in California been proposed.

Certainly, Wiener’s bill as proposed would markedly transform many California communities. But Goodmon’s attitude points to a tension in the concept of what’s “good for” disadvantaged communities. It is, in today’s immediate context, somewhat reasonable for communities of color and poorer communities to understand some transit projects and the project of restoring transit-centric urbanity as not being primarily “for” them. In many cities, transit lines generally run radially, connecting outlying neighborhoods to downtowns; as downtown employment has in many cities become increasingly white-collar, low-wage/low-skill employment has fled to the suburbs–often to areas impossible to serve well with transit because of terribly hostile land use. In polycentric Los Angeles, jobs and other trip attractions are spread widely across the metropolis, a development pattern that can be equally hard to serve with transit. Car usage, then, becomes an apparent necessity for low-wage workers, even as it represents a massive financial burden.

However, as I’ve written about New Haven, we should understand this dynamic as being a product only of today’s immediate context, not as inevitable but as a consequence of a series of autocentric policy choices beginning with the era of urban renewal and pushed over the course of decades by the car- and parking-obsessed white and white-collar classes. Thinking of restoring transit-centric development patterns as a follow-on to urban renewal, rather than a refutation of it, only makes sense if one cannot envision a future where disadvantaged people gaine equal access to the world of mobility by transit–a world that should logically be far more hospitable to them than the literally poisonous world of autocentrism. It is possible that if Scott Wiener’s SB 827 were to be enacted as written, it would lead to a traumatic change in specific black and Hispanic communities in LA (though smarter people than I have expressed doubts about that, expecting most new construction to occur on LA’s rich, NIMBY Westside). Yet it is virtually inevitable that in the long run life for the poor and vulnerable in California would be greatly improved by greater housing availability, more transit, and the restoration of the ability to live a life without car ownership, now effectively government-mandated in much of the state.

There’s a lesson there for policymakers, and it doesn’t consist exclusively of “consultative planning is the way to make up for urban renewal.” Rather, it’s that undoing the damage wrought by renewal is a long-term process that we must consistently center on strong principles relating to  mobility, design, safety, and equality. Taking once more  the example of New Haven, which has hollowed out its downtown for parking at the demand of white-collar professionals, only to see increasing numbers of  jobs taken up not by city residents but by suburban commuters. It is those demands for parking, and those worries about the speed of traffic that lead to widening of streets, marginalization of transit, and increasing hostility to pedestrians, that represent the true core of the anti-humane and inegalitarian legacy of urban renewal.

To some extent, I think urban renewal discourse has become so toxic and counterproductive precisely because we find ourselves at a moment of transition and crisis. Urban renewal and freeways destroyed the spatial/economic logic of transportation and land use that had prevailed since the beginning of urbanity, a logic that values physical access and proximity. With the end of construction of new urban freeways (with some horrific exceptions) and growing congestion strangling suburban highways, that logic–one that rewards compactness and punishes spawliness–is reasserting itself rather strongly. It is, perhaps, a testament to the lasting autocentric effects of urban renewal that many people, including advocates from the very communities that have suffered most from renewal, are struggling so hard to adapt to the new/old reality.

Fighting autocentrism remains an uphill battle in the US. As I hope I have made clear here, despite the reassertion of basic spatial logic in recent decades, the principles of autocentricity, car mobility, and easy parking introduced by the era of urban renewal have proven extremely durable and remain in practice remarkably popular, no matter the consensus on Urbanist Twitter. It’s important to keep in mind, then, that those principles ultimately reflect a spatial, economic, and social ethic not of equality and egalitarianism, but of segregation and geographic injustice–an ethic that has done enormous damage to vulnerable communities across 60 years of car-centric American living. The lesson here is, to say the least, not to liberate vulnerable communities, or preserve “authentic” urban neighborhoods like JP, by cementing autocentricity, but to smash the wheel entirely, taking our inspiration from a renewed understanding of the core meaning of renewal–and from aspects of the neighborhoods and networks that existed before it, modified with the lessons we have learned about democracy, privilege, racism, and egalitarianism in the meantime. Onwards.

Building Urbanism and Transit in Small Cities

I’ve been following updates from the APTA conference in the Twin Cities this past week via Twitter and a friend who works in the area. A couple of the tweets I saw really caught my eye and helped to crystallize some thoughts I’ve been having for a while, since thinking about the role of transit in smaller cities during my time in Albany.

The state of transit in the US is, generally, pretty damn poor, and this is especially true of smaller cities and towns. I’ve written a lot about cities in the size class of Albany, New Haven, or Providence, say in the 100,000-500,000 range, but I’m talking here about somewhat smaller cities, places like–to use near-Albany examples–Utica or Kingston. Generally, transit in those places is, shall we say, not particularly useful; generally it’s conceived of as a last resort, welfare transit, the kind of thing that only people with no other options use. That’s a product of mentality, but also of lack of resources.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned from exploring Upstate New York, much of New England, and a few choice parts of the Midwest: a lot of the older cities, even (in some cases especially) the smaller ones, really do have “good bones.” They are potentially salvageable as places of good, safe, walkable mixed-use urbanism. But there’s a catch–often, in my experience and observation, this is true only in one or two choice corridors. A city like Albany or New Haven might have several or numerous corridors appropriate for high-frequency transit and dense urbanism, but smaller towns may only have one. In both cases, the most urban corridor is likely underserved, because of the general terribleness of American transit; but in the smaller cities, this likely means that the city has lost any chance at transit-based urbanism at all.

In transit-planning terms, small-city transit leans quite heavily toward the coverage side of the coverage vs. ridership debate. That’s not a criticism, per se; it’s how the incentives–including funding incentives–are biased, as well as how local leadership generally directs transit agencies to operate. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the first point that Erik Landfried made in the tweets presented above–that the best practice in the transit world is to get your best corridors right first. So this post is, in part, a thought exercise about how small-city transit might look if more funding–or different funding–were available, enough to let agencies focus on intensive service on the best corridors.

It’s also a musing on the future of smaller cities. It’s not news that many of these places are struggling, facing economic marginalization and brain drain. In part–though only in part–those struggles derive from a lack of good urbanism; with terrible transit and general unwalkability, those who want or need an urban lifestyle often literally cannot find it in smaller cities. As Cap’n Transit has pointed out, these “small city exiles”–people who would have been able to stay if the good bones of smaller cities had better flesh built upon them–make up one of the gentrifying flows to larger cities. Note that this isn’t just a Creative Class follow-the-talent kind of a thing; it seems clear that smaller, fully car-dependent cities are simply inaccessible to many.

Whether Small City Exiles follow the jobs, or the jobs follow them, is of course a little bit of a chicken/egg problem, but it seems unlikely that many will return without the option of urbanism. The implication is that to have a shot at revival struggling smaller cities would do well to try to build at least one corridor where life can be conducted in a car-free (or, more realistically, car-lite) manner. Typically, discussions of urbanism, revival and/or gentrification occur at the neighborhood level, but one of the things that I think this typology of city can teach us is that the relevant unit may in fact be corridors. Not all efforts at revival have to be focused in one area; but there should be an emphasis on creating the ability to live urban daily life–with all of the uses that entails–along at least one given corridor in any city. That means frequent transit service; it means reviving or allowing mixed-use development; it means locating hospitals and schools and shops along that corridor to the extent possible. It’s the preservation, revival, or creation of these corridors that will make a small-city revival through urbanism possible. And it means that the identification and intentional development of these one or two possible transit/urbanist corridors is extremely important to the future of these cities.

What I’m aiming for here, then, is somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive; I don’t have specific infrastructural, financial, or operational ideas in mind, but I have, to illustrate, picked out a number of cities and corridors that I think fit this paradigm.

Utica’s a big enough city to have multiple viable transit corridors at some minimal frequency, but it has one that’s absolutely perfect for frequent transit and good urbanism. Genesee Street is Utica’s main commercial drag, is lined by fairly dense housing already, and is anchored on one end by Union Station–offering transfers to Amtrak and intercity buses–and on the other by a major mall. Current service is decent by small-city standards but the schedule is–typically of Centro, the operator–nearly incomprehensible.

Like Utica, the Binghamton area is big enough to support more than one transit corridor, but there’s one that really ties everything together. Stretching from Binghamton through the downtowns of the area’s several other decaying industrial cities, this corridor could, potentially, link a wide variety of different uses–although a strong system would need a link to Binghamton University too.

Kingston’s a relatively small place, but it still offers a strong corridor for building out an urban revival. Broadway links the Rondout–the somewhat touristy old port area–with the Stockade District, one of Upstate’s best remaining examples of the colonial era (and its urbanism), running in between through the good-bones Midtown area. It’s a short corridor, under 3 miles, but hey, that just means it only takes a few buses to operate frequent transit service on it!

I’ve highlighted two potential corridors in the Glens Falls area: one running north-south from the village of South Glens Falls up through the city proper to a suburban commercial strip, and the other running east-west from Glens Falls through even-more-depressed Hudson Falls to the Amtrak station and Champlain Canal trail in Fort Edward. Neither is a slam-dunk corridor for decent urbanism, but the east-west corridor especially takes advantage of the historic clustering of good-bones development along the Hudson.

Montpelier is notorious for being the smallest state capital in the country, but the area has a proud tradition of Sewer Socialism and is located in a river valley, which has the natural effect of concentrating development. There is, in fact, a little-used rail line linking the towns of the Winooski River valley, and while it’s potentially usable for transit service, it doesn’t hit some of the newer, road-based commercial development. The choice of a hilltop outside the river corridor for the area’s hospital and a major commercial development also illustrates the danger of poor planning that removes key functions from an area’s one viable transit corridor.

Cheating a tad maybe by looping in two towns and a major university, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pioneer Valley and have a lot of…feelings about its transit potential. The Route 9 corridor connecting Amherst and Northampton is the key transportation corridor in the area; both towns have strong downtowns, there’s a lot of travel between them, and there’s been significant commercial development along Route 9 in Hadley. As it is, though, the area remains quite expensive to live in due to limited housing supply in the historic cores of Northampton and Amherst, and Route 9 between them remains a horrid stroad. A previous study called for development of a BRT service on the corridor; while PVTA has (understandably, in my opinion) prioritized development of BRT on State Street in Springfield instead, this corridor seems ripe for some kind of consistently high-end transit, and while we’re making the investment, why not try to fill in the empty/stroadish parts with dense development and relieve the housing crunch in the process?

Michigan City has one major corridor, stretching from the waterfront through the thoroughly urbanly renewed downtown to a big suburban commercial strip on the outskirts. What sets this corridor apart from the others highlighted here is that it would actually offer connections to not one but two somewhat frequent rail services, the South Shore running literally in 11th Street and Amtrak’s Michigan corridor on the waterfront.

Many Great Plains cities and towns grew up around railroads and still cluster around their historic rights-of-way; such is the case in DeKalb and Sycamore, IL, west of Chicago. What’s added to the mix here is the presence of a midsize public university (Northern Illinois) and the fact that the commercial strip in the area has grown up along one road connecting the two downtowns. What it adds up to is quite a reasonable transit corridor, in an area that’s otherwise very auto-oriented.

There are lessons here, then, on both the transit level and the “regional priorities” level. Regions centered on a small city should seek to ensure that living an urban lifestyle is at least an option somewhere, ideally centered on a functional transit-centric corridor. And small-city operational and funding patterns should adapt to facilitate this. Perhaps it’s time to split rural and small-city transit funding into two pots: one with a coverage/welfare goal, where routes are expected to reach all those who need, but not to return huge ridership or hit specific financial goals; and another with a goal of maximizing ridership, connections to jobs, and economic benefit to the region. That would require a paradigm shift at multiple levels of government–never easy–but it’s worth thinking about. Rural and small-city transit agencies rely heavily on federal funding, but I imagine states have a role here too; would not, say, New York State have an interest in developing corridors like this in its decaying Upstate cities? With a need for both up-front capital and ongoing operational investment, there are numerous options on the table. As numerous, one might say, as the cities that could benefit from building out their transit corridors.

 

The Bible and Neighborhood Memory

Earlier today Lisa Schweitzer posted a short piece pointing out what she labels as the anti-NIMBY politics of a particular Biblical verse, Isaiah 5:8. You can go over to her place for a range of translations, but for my purposes I like the Hebrew text and translation offered by the essential Sefaria:

ה֗וֹי מַגִּיעֵ֥י בַ֙יִת֙ בְּבַ֔יִת שָׂדֶ֥ה בְשָׂדֶ֖ה יַקְרִ֑יבוּ עַ֚ד אֶ֣פֶס מָק֔וֹם וְהֽוּשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם לְבַדְּכֶ֖ם בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Ah, Those who add house to house And join field to field, Till there is room for

none but you to dwell in the land

The verse is part of an extended analogy involving a vineyard and the iniquity of the people Israel (both, of course, common themes in Biblical literature, and unsurprisingly often found in close juxtaposition), but its point comes quite close to some contemporary concerns. Isaiah’s critique might easily be read as a criticism of the ancient equivalent of large-lot exclusionary zoning. His concern is essentially that the rich will enlarge their own estates–both urban and rural–at the expense of the poor. Or at least that is the understanding of Rashi:

מגיעי בית בבית. מקרבים בתיהם זה אצל זה ומתוך כך גוזלים קרקע העניים החלשים שבין ב’ הבתים וכן שדה בשדה:

Those who add house to house: They bring their houses one next to the other and in the process steal the land of the weak poor who are between the two houses; and thus also field by field. (translation mine)

The prophet’s concern is not idle; see for example the process of enclosure by which  British elites consolidated their control over the countryside. But one senses in the Isaiah passage, even as it is probably most accurately read to reflect pro-housing policies, also the roots of some of today’s most tenacious anti-housing themes: concerns of “overdevelopment” and even, absurd as it might be to retroject this idea 2,600 years into history, gentrification. So, I think, it’s worth looking a little further afield for some other Biblical texts on the topic.

Before we proceed, it is worth a caution that the Biblical corpus (and I refer to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, which is my area of familiarity; I claim no expertise in the New Testament) is of course composed of a huge variety of different voices, all with their own perspectives. One of my longer-term projects is a more comprehensive look at planning and development in Genesis in particular, and maybe someday the Bible generally. But, as it happens, in the Jewish calendar we just this past Shabbat read one of the many passages that has something to say  about housing policy and politics, Deuteronomy 6:8-11:

וְהָיָ֞ה כִּ֥י יְבִיאֲךָ֣ ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֜רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֛ם לְיִצְחָ֥ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֖ב לָ֣תֶת לָ֑ךְ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וְטֹבֹ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־בָנִֽיתָ׃ וּבָ֨תִּ֜ים מְלֵאִ֣ים כָּל־טוּב֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־מִלֵּאתָ֒ וּבֹרֹ֤ת חֲצוּבִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־חָצַ֔בְתָּ כְּרָמִ֥ים וְזֵיתִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־נָטָ֑עְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ׃ הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֔ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֖ח אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the LORD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

On the one hand, this is the admonishment of a conquering people, about to take possession of the cities and infrastructure built by their vanquished enemies. On the other hand, this passage offers, like President Obama, a reminder that you didn’t build that, that structural forces of time, history, and economics exist. And it’s a reminder that the housing policy debate sorely needs.

To a certain extent, Moses’ admonishment to “remember where you and your neighborhood came from!” is a warning against the development of what Daniel Hertz has called the “immaculate conception theory of neighborhood origins,” the idea that homes and neighborhoods just magically appear and it’s only new development that’s greedy and not community-oriented. I’ve labeled a related, but somewhat different phenomenon by which neighborhood activists claim all credit for a neighborhood’s success, therefore ignoring structural factors and spatial economics, the “Bootstrap theory of urban development”; fundamentally the two concepts share roots in a deep denial of history.  

As Daniel says:

The problem with the immaculate conception theory is that, like parents swearing that they would never have behaved the way their kids do, it is conveniently forgetful about what actually happened in the past. Taking, just as an example, the kind of housing that Berger romanticizes—the early 20th century bungalow boom—a closer look reveals that it was defined not by mass affordability, efficiency, and respect for traditional communities, but something very nearly the opposite.

This, then, is Deuteronomy’s critique (although, admittedly, it is glorifying as much as remembering with regret a violent, colonialist history): to forget the history, the predominant factors, that got your built environment to where it is today is to become deeply corrupted. Indeed, a couple of chapters later Deuteronomy sharpens this point to include an explicit critique of the idea that כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃,  “My power and the strength of my hand have made this glory for me” (Deut. 8:17, my translation). It would not, I think, be out of line to suggest that somewhere in the ancient tangle of texts and morals interacting with each other Isaiah’s admonishment of the wealthy who use housing and fields to squeeze out the vulnerable is explicitly directed at those who had, indeed, forgotten this exact point.  An ancient lesson, perhaps, but what is the Bible if not a timeless text? Neighborhoods: remember where they came from, always.

Illustration source: http://biblicalwatersystem.weebly.com/cisterns.html. Picked because it’s an example of a cistern in a famous Israelite site that, most likely, the Israelites did not build.

Ironies of Highest and Best Use

I went to the Roslindale Square/Village RMV to convert my NY license to a MA one yesterday. While I successfully converted the license, the trip was a pain because a) I was available to do it because I was home sick from work and b) the RMV has clearly not learned the lesson I keep tweeting at transit agencies, that inaccurate real-time estimates are worse than none at all (I was given an estimate of zero wait and ended up being there for 45 minutes, standing the whole time in a room that was incredibly hot and smelled strongly of pot and people). It did, however, give me a chance to check out the area some, and in particular (the exterior of) a building I had wanted to see, the former Boston Elevated Railway Company substation at the corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway.

A substation, you might think, would be a boring and utilitarian building. Not so! Remnants of traction systems past–and there are many, since the power systems (as opposed to the tracks) tended to be heavily built–were in fact often elaborate in design and construction.

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The Roslindale Substation, from Adams Park across the street.

The Roslindale substation features beautiful brick construction and high, arching windows; while it’s clearly a building with an industrial history, it’s the furthest thing from today’s functional but ugly boxes. Most interestingly, perhaps, the substation occupies a place of honor and importance in Roslindale, at the intersection of two busy streets (and transit corridors) and in the absolute center of the neighborhood.

rozzie

On the one hand, this makes sense, since several trolley routes historically converged at this corner, as seen in a 1936 map:

ros square substation 36

On the other hand, it seems like placing a substation–as opposed to, say, storefronts–on such an important corner would have been a terrible violation of the zoning/real estate principle of highest and best use, although it should be said that the substation was built in 1911, before zoning swept America. To a certain extent, surely, the substation’s location was the product of a disconnect between transportation and land use; from their own perspective, it made perfect sense for BERy to place it there in 1911. And for much of the building’s history, demand for land in Roslindale Square was relatively low; it was, after all, vacant for 45 years, until just this year. But–and here’s the irony the title of this piece refers to–the area is now somewhat up-and-coming, and the substation is now in the process of being converted to commercial use (an already-open craft beer store and a restaurant to be called the Third Rail), with the remainder of the lot taken up by new apartments. As the planner’s proverb that I just made up goes, every lot finds its highest and best use, sometimes it just takes 106 years.

Interestingly, much the same story unfolds just a few miles down Washington Street toward downtown Boston, with BERy’s former Egleston Square substation.

Egleston substation walgreens

Like Roslindale Square, Egleston Square historically represented the convergence of several transit lines, and was thus a logical place to put a substation. Unlike the Roslindale substation, this one served both streetcars and the Elevated, and thus remained in service until the closure of the latter in 1987. Like its more southerly counterpart, though, it fell into abandonment and ruin thereafter, until being resuscitated in 2008 to serve as the studios of Boston Neighborhood Network Television. As you can see from the Streetview capture above, the building is a remarkable contrast to the low-slung, suburban-style Walgreens next door–the high-quality architecture of a century ago continuing to pay dividends. While Egleston Square as a whole is not the world’s most urban-feeling built environment, the substation should–after nearly a century of life as an industrial building–be able to help anchor its rebirth in its new role.

If there’s a point to this post, other than that people do interesting things with old trolley substations, it’s that good architecture endures and tends to lend itself to a positive use in the long run. Like life, land-use dynamics are unpredictable and changeable, which is (part of) why locking uses and styles forever, as American zoning slanted toward single-family uses typically does, is a bad idea. Did the architects who designed the Egleston and Roslindale substations in 1909 and 1911 ever imagine the buildings being adaptively reused for another purposes? Unlikely, although they were clearly built to last. This is not to say that every abandoned building can or should be reused, but it’s a useful reminder of the way demand for land can change over the course of a century. And who knows? The Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, released just today, calls for rapid bus lines to pass both substations. Though they’ll most likely never power trolleys again, both substations could again serve an important transit-oriented use (as they do relative to local bus service today), as attractions drawing people to their neighborhoods along the transit corridors of the 21st century.

 

Notes on Central Florida

I spent last week on vacation in the exurbs of Orlando (well, really Kissimmee) with my partner’s extended family. Since theme parks are, well, really not my thing, I spent a decent amount of time thinking about the planning and urbanist implications of an area that I found frankly fairly miserable from a built environment perspective. I don’t so much have an overarching argument here as a series of notes on a few things I found interesting.

Pod-based building

We were based at a resort called the Vacation Village at Parkway, off the arterial Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (US 192) west of downtown Kissimmee. In many ways, the sprawling urban form along that road is typical of suburban land use across the country, though perhaps in an exaggerated form. Developments occur in pods, completely disconnected from one another along property lines. Take, for example, this pathetic excuse for a pedestrian crossing from “our” resort to the strip mall and resort next door:

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Mind you, one has to traverse this after crossing four lanes and a median of road without a crosswalk of any sort.

The area in which our resort was located is also cut off from its surroundings in a more profound way. It shares a triangle of land with several other developments; the sides of the triangle are defined by I-4 on the west, Bonnet Creek on the east, and 192 on the south. But grid connections–and ways to exit–exist ONLY on the southern side, to 192.

vacation-villages

That turns what could be an easy stroll over to the as-the-crow-flies-neighboring Gaylord Palms into a 1.8-mile odyssey along high-speed arterials:

vacation-villages-gaylord-palms

such that Google Maps literally cannot calculate walking directions between the two. This area of Kissimmee is to the south of most of the major Orlando-area attractions, so this kind of thing also lengthens the (many) car trips taken between resorts and said attractions, resulting in even more congestion in an already congested region. It’s just thoughtless–and the result of a zoning regime that emphasizes massive parking lots and setback at the expense of all else, including common sense.

Latent demand for car-free vacations

Despite a built environment that seems to invite, or even mandate, car use at every opportunity, it’s clear to me that there is a latent demand for car-free travel from tourists that could be better met. Transit service in this part of Kissimmee is not completely hopeless, but it’s far from perfect. You can catch a bus to Lynx’s Kissimmee hub four times an hour from the corner of Irlo Bronson and Celebration Boulevard, and they’re even nicely spaced much of the time.  The bus stops are nice too:

bonnet-creek-station

But service on one of the lines stops by 10 PM.

There’s also a whole network of resort-contracted shuttles that ferry people to and from theme parks, shopping, and entertainment. The vaguely vintage-styled coaches of Disney’s Magical Express, connecting their resorts to the airport, were ubiquitous on the highways, for example. Vacation Village provides shuttles to theme parks, as well as more local destinations.

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At the same time, the entire built environment–from single-use zoning to massive setbacks to street and grid geometry–basically mandates car use for the vast majority of trips. I’ve spent more of my life in sprawly suburbia than I really would like, but I got a sense for a latent demand for less autocentricity here more than anywhere else.

Celebration is…Weird

Vacation Village is basically across the street from Disney’s much-debated attempt at New Urbanism. Celebration occupies a bizarre place on all kinds of spectra: more small town than suburb, more private than public, kind of an independent governmental entity but not entirely. I didn’t spend much time there (really just one lunch that was mostly spoiled by rain), but it’s…weird. The built environment blows most of the rest of Central Florida out of the water just by dint of having been thought through even a little bit, but the materials used in the construction of the buildings doesn’t really seem much better than your typical suburb; I saw a lot of sagging gutters and cheap-looking vinyl siding. The main street, such as it is, is touristy but reasonably nice; parking is tucked behind the buildings per standard New Urbanist practice, but it’s still abundant and free. Though not a grid, the street geometry makes more sense than most suburbs. A couple of things jumped out at me, though. This is the main drag carrying cars into Celebration, creatively named Celebration Avenue:

celebration-ave

The speed limit drops to 25 mph as soon as you enter the residential part of Celebration–which is nice–but it struck me that despite a nice, wide ROW Celebration Avenue still has very wide travel lanes (much wider than one would expect for a 25 mph speed limit), and no provision for bike lanes.

The other thing that struck me about Celebration? It has zero transit.

Oh, sure, Lynx’s #56 circles through the much more suburb-y single-use commercial section ever half an hour:

But that’s, like, really far from the commercial and residential parts of Celebration:

celebration-map

Celebration is better than other suburbs, sure, but it’s hard for me to accept the word “urbanist” anywhere in proximity to an area that entirely lacks transit service. I suspect the omission is intentional; simply because of the quality of design, Celebration is extremely expensive, and places like that tend not to welcome transit. Do better.

Toll Roads

I don’t want to comment on this too much without reading up more on the background of transportation planning in Central Florida, but the prevalence of toll roads was a common topic of discussion among the extended family. Certainly, it’s annoying that Florida’s extensive toll road network doesn’t accept the EZPass technology common in other parts of the country; outsiders get fleeced by paying higher tolls, in cash. The tolls didn’t seem especially high but the frequency of booths seems potentially counterproductive. I do wonder if a willingness to toll the roads has led to overbuilding of the network, since they may be less of a drag on gas tax revenues and the general fund.

The Great Sucking Sound

We had an enjoyable side trip to Lake Wales, FL, where my grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents and a great-aunt are buried. It’s a very pretty area made famous by the Bok Tower Gardens, but it’s also a struggling agricultural region whose citrus industry–Florida’s Natural is headquartered in Lake Wales–is not exactly at its peak of glory. Consequentially, downtown Lake Wales is struggling to a certain extent. As elsewhere in the country, that struggle is exacerbated by sprawl, particularly the sucking of retail out to low-rent districts on suburban arterials. 6-lane US 27 is the main north-south artery along the Lake Wales Ridge, and it’s characterized by on-and-off clusters of commercial development that become more consistent as one drives north, approaching the Orlando metro. Just outside of Lake Wales, however, the Eagle Ridge Mall stands virtually alone, isolated among cow pastures and citrus groves.

eagle-ridge-isolated

It’s precisely this kind of thing that kills the functional downtowns smaller towns like Lake Wales need to survive in 2016. And the mall’s 20-year history is full of sinkholes and bankruptcies, so it’s not like the competition is going anyone any favors. The mall’s struggles are likely due to its odd, middle-of-nowhere location (I suspect it was placed so as to draw from both Lake Wales and nearby Winter Haven, but it seems to be doing neither). It’s the kind of sloppy economic development and land use policy that has landed so many places like Lake Wales in trouble.

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

More than anything else, this is the overwhelming experience of Central Florida:

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Just out the back door of our building at the resort. 

That’s a high-rise looming out of a wetlands, which is cynically preserved to be pretty at right. Just beyond the fence, there’s a short drop to very muddy and wet land; the entire building must be built on a slab of concrete or else it would sink into the muck. It’s hard to go anywhere in the area without thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”  Florida’s selling point is, to a large extent, its spectacular natural environment; but its growth as a tourist and retirement destination has been largely premised on the destruction of that environment. I’m hardly the first to point out that paradox, and as someone with training in archaeology, I recognize that destruction is sometimes inevitable. But my overwhelming takeaway from this trip is that there’s a lot of opportunity to just correct things that are sloppy, should political and public will exist. Or, you know, maybe the whole state will just slide into the ocean. That’s always a possibility.

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.