Democratic Planning in the Age of Urban Freeways and Today

I finished reading two very different, but equally interesting and informative, recent urbanist-y books over Shabbat. The first is Akum Norder’s The History of Here, a fun and talented Albany writer’s look into the history of her family’s house, the people who have inhabited it, and the life of the neighborhood around it. The second is Karilyn Crockett’s People Before Highways, an ethnographic and historical look of the anti-freeway movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and ‘70s. Both books are worthy of a full-scale review that I may or may not be able to undertake at some point, but I wanted to pull out a common element that I think makes for an interesting, and very relevant, point of discussion: the question of how democratic planning should be, and how that should look.

Let’s start with People Before Highways. Crockett’s work is essentially an ode to the grassroots anti-highway backlash that transformed transportation policy in Massachusetts and led to the end of freeway building inside the Route 128 beltway and the ability to “flex” federal transportation spending from highways to transit. Boston’s anti-freeway coalition was a broad–and varying at different times–group of institutions, scholars, “radical” planners like future Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, and community members. The last element is perhaps the most interesting; participants ranged from tenant activists in public housing to Black Panthers to patricians in Brookline and Cambridge to people we would now identify as first-wave gentrifiers in the South End and my own neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. This coalition demanded not just an end to highway building, but also to the heavy-handed way in which the freeways had been planned, and significant amounts of land taken, with virtually no opportunity for public input. Crockett wastes no opportunity to remind the reader that the demands of the Boston anti-highway movement were not just specifically anti-highway, but processually radical and progressive in their insistence on the distribution of power.

Certainly, the righteousness of the Boston anti-highway, pro-public participation cause is not in dispute; it’s a difficult book to read for a professional planner. One thing that strikes me about Crockett’s work, though–and it’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere in leftist planning thinking and writing–is that her narrative is shaped by a powerful nostalgia for the kind of grassroots planning and localist democracy that her subjects believed in, but doesn’t engage with some of the potential challenges of a highly democratic process. Indeed, some of the potential challenges with such a process show up even within her own research. In the sixth chapter of the book, Crockett profiles the planning process around the creation of the Southwest Corridor linear park, by all accounts pretty much a triumph of democratic planning that created a valuable community amenity and showpiece to this day. The cracks in the process of democratic planning, though, show through this account. Crockett shows how the South End community was able to demand that the Southwest Corridor trench through their area be roofed over to reduce noise, pollution, and vibration. This is, of course, not an unreasonable ask–but Crockett’s account makes it clear that the presence of educated, middle class people in the neighborhood, including some who we would clearly call gentrifiers today, was what got the deck built in that section, but not elsewhere in the Southwest Corridor. Why, one thinks today, is the trench not decked through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain? I lived a block from the trench for my first 10 months in Boston, and one can feel the vibrations and hear the roar from passing trains. A purely “democratic” planning process is already one that gives greater voice to those able to shout loudest–and Crockett’s account of the decking of the South End trench shows how this can lead to opportunities being available inequitably.

Crockett also narrates the process for planning the park that went on top of the South End trench, and if anything it reveals more of the cracks in the facade of democratic-planning-as-magical-cure. She writes:

By removing the railroad’s stone embankment and inserting decking along segments of each section of the Corridor, the Southwest Corridor planners knit together neighborhoods that had been physically separated for more than a century. Not every resident viewed this as social progress…The existing railroad right-of-way created a dividing line between the South End and St. Botolph neighborhoods. Though these two areas held only slightly different economic profiles, their racial and ethnic compositions could not have been more different. St. Botolph residents constituted a largely homogeneous block of white families and some professionals working in the city. Though they themselves were city dwellers, many St. Botolph residents looked askance at the idea that deck cover would allow other urban neighbors easy access to parts of their neighborhood previously blocked by the railroad. These residents used the Corridor’s public meetings to voice their opposition. (p. 187)

In other words, the residents of St. Botolph engaged in fairly standard-issue urban racism, classism, and (one would imagine, given the increasing gay population of the South End at the time) not a small amount of homophobia–and saw in the democratic Southwest Corridor planning process an opportunity to (very democratically!) write their oppressive agenda in concrete. Unfortunately, Crockett’s handling of this rather obvious challenge to the viability of democratic planning is less than inspiring. 

By listening and respecting the concerns of residents, [Southwest Corridor planners] were able to identify an architectural strategy that was responsive to the demands of St. Botolph’s residents but did not subvert the overall public planning agenda for the Corridor…[they developed] designs for a removable fence that could be unbolted at a later date should the neighborhood change its mind. Unfortunately, the design was compromised by another decision to lay granite at the base of the fencing, and when St. Botolph’s residents did, in fact, reverse their decision and requested direct access to the Corridor Park, it was no longer possible. (p. 188)

One must, I suppose, applaud the Corridor planners for their commitment to democracy, inasmuch as they were committed to listening to, to the point of acting to some extent on, an obviously bigoted agenda. To this day, many streets on the western side of the Southwest Corridor in this area dead-end at the Corridor Park with a wall or fence of some considerable height rising to prevent what should be an obvious pedestrian connection.

blackwood barrier

A democratically erected barrier preventing easy pedestrian access to the Southwest Corridor Park, Blackwood Street, Boston.

Crockett calls this “The seeming contradiction of a connective landscape needing to reconcile itself with existing race and class divisions and residents’ divergent opinions about what to do about them,” (p. 188) but–especially as one of the direct inheritors of the conflict around transportation planning in Boston–this feels like an unsatisfying resolution to me. Many of Crockett’s interviewees for the book talk about how they saw themselves as “advocacy planners,” adherents of a mid-’60s theory that planners should not be impartial experts, but advocates for the oppressed in society. It seems to me that there’s an obvious tension between this identification and engaging in a planning process that encodes racial and class injustice (literally building fences!) in the built environment in the name of “democracy.” While incredibly valuable for its documentation of the Boston anti-highway movement, and its repetition of the lesson that megalomaniacal centralized planning is generally abusive, People Before Highways would be more useful and convincing if it grappled honestly and openly with some of the shortcomings of the democratic, grassroots visions of planning that it advocates.

Akum Norder’s book, too, offers a lesson on this topic–and perhaps the juxtaposition of the two narratives can allow us to draw some conclusions about the intellectual and social milieu of participatory planning and its challenges. Norder’s book is an ode to her Pine Hills neighborhood, an absolutely lovely streetcar suburb-era area that reminds me strongly of the Westville section of New Haven where I grew up. Pine Hills originally and today is a strongly middle-class area with a strong communal identity; but it’s had its ups and downs, borders the “student ghetto,” and generally has some reasonable fear of tipping into neighborhood decline in the same way that most middle-class areas in cities that aren’t part of the overheated coastal housing markets do. As such (and seeing that many of the residents are educated, have money, or both), these neighborhoods are ripe for democratic, grassroots organizing around the issue of perceived problems–and using a democratic planning process to deal with them in a way that may work well for the neighborhood but not always for those pushed out as a result.

Norder profiles one such case (though without the slightly negative valence I’m attaching to it). She writes, on pages 204-205, of a property on the corner of North Allen and Lancaster that, at 5,921 square feet, held by the early 2000s twenty-six units. That is, of course, far more than current zoning would allow, but most of the neighborhood is nonconforming and grandfathered anyhow. Normally, such properties can continue unmolested unless the owner requests a change of use or makes major modifications; but city code allows for the property to be forced into conformance if it’s declared a nuisance property. And since the building in question does appear to have genuinely been a nuisance property, generating fights, noise, and an astonishing number of police calls, the local neighborhood association took the opportunity to force a zoning board hearing. They won, and the landlord had to empty the building to cut its units down to the allowed two.

So, on the one hand, this is a victory for a democratic planning process and for community concerns. The area residents took on a nuisance landlord, used the objective rule of law, and made their neighborhood a better place. Bully for them–we should encourage everyone to care about their neighborhoods like that. On the other hand, we’re talking about a process–a very democratic process–that led directly to the eviction of at least twenty-four people, with those who provoked it presumably taking no financial responsibility for their relocation. This being Albany, where rents are generally cheap, I think it’s reasonable to assume that few of those people were displaced from the area entirely; most were probably able to find housing relatively close, and quite possibly at not much increased rent. So the result isn’t necessarily the worst. But what if it weren’t Albany? What if this were a property in Boston, where rents are triple or quadruple what they are in Albany? Would we tolerate a neighborhood group getting together to democratically destroy what’s effectively an SRO, a vanishing resource for the very poor? How should a progressive advocacy planner react to this scenario?

I don’t have a coherent set of answers to these questions yet. But I think they’re crucially important to ask. And I think it’s important to recognize that the historical and socioeconomic context in which calls for grassroots, democratic planning came around has in many cases vanished. The type of democratic planning Kaitlyn Crockett profiles so well was a product of a city under siege, under threat of imminent literal physical destruction. Places like Albany may well still feel a lessened version of that threat. But in Boston, today, it’s gone. There is still a threat of displacement and destructive change, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from a hyperactive real estate market and the desire of many more people than the city has been willing to build housing for wanting to live here. Already in the time period that Crockett narrates privileged voices were figuring out how to use the democratic planning process to subvert planning aims of social justice and integration. We can’t, and we won’t, throw out the baby of democratic planning and extensive public outreach with the bathwater of urban renewal and highway building.  But we can, and must, recognize that there are tensions between promising all comers a democratic process and achieving egalitarian, democratic outcomes. Just this past week the Globe wrote about how Boston’s input-based sidewalk-repair system is failing poorer neighborhoods that are less likely to call in for repairs. Is it possible, one must ask, that planners again need to start putting our thumbs on the scales of justice–this time, to tip them back toward the right?

Featured image source:


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 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 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,

31931813192_72db4a59e6_o (1)

Jamaica Plain station in the middle of disinvestment and urban renewal, in 1951. Source: City of Boston on Flickr.

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.

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

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

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

Part 1


Part 2

Albany has a Choice to Make

Last week I wrote that Upstate New York needs to fundamentally change it development paradigm before it can demand more infrastructure funding. But choices about how to plan and develop aren’t just (or even primarily) a regional choice; they are, at their core, local. And at a local level, the choices are if anything even more stark.

One of my favorite planning-related books of recent years, for its challenging argument if not for my agreement with every aspect–is Chris Leinberger’s The Option of UrbanismHis argument is that given market and demographic trends, urbanism–a pro-urban agenda favoring urban growth, urban amenities, and new paradigms of transportation–is not only again viable in America, but the way of the future. While Leinberger’s case may be overstated–and his emphasis on market forces will certainly turn some off–the framing about cities and stakeholders again having the ability to make an active choice for urbanism, after 60 years of pro-suburban policy, is a useful one. And Albany is facing a critical moment where it must choose whether to make that choice.

Consider these recent cases:

Bus Stop NIMBYism

CDTA, the local transit authority, wants to consolidate several bus stops in the vicinity of the intersection of Lark and Washington in Albany, one of the system’s major hubs. The particulars of the plan are somewhat complicated and I can’t find CDTA’s graphics about it, but the gist is that it would consolidate the four stops on the corner of Lark and Washington into one mid-block stop on Washington between Lark and Dove, and pull in the current local stop at Dove as well. This would alleviate several complex situations that are dangerous to pedestrians and drivers alike. It would also allow CDTA’s #12 bus–one of the system’s busiest, running from downtown to SUNY and Crossgates Mall–to straighten out a kink in its route caused by the fact that buses can’t make a stop at the corner of Lark and Washington and then get back into the left lane to continue straight on Washington as it splits from Central Avenue. The stop can’t be moved any further west because it would create crazy congestion in the intersection, or east because buses would back up at the existing express and local stop at Hawk, just one block down.

The plan has sparked vicious NIMBY opposition–organized around a petition–led by the owners of the Iron Gate Cafe, outside of whose front door the new stop would be located. The opposition has also been given a boost by usually responsible Times Union columnist Chris Churchill, who I do think would typically recoil at the classist and racist rhetoric to which the opposition has predictably devolved (see below). To their credit, the Iron Gate Cafe owners have used relatively responsible rhetoric, affirming their belief in CDTA as a system, and limiting their complaints to the stop’s location right outside their door. Others, however, have predictably not been as responsible, as Martin Daley documented at a meeting last night that was publicly promoted by the NIMBY coalition, but not by anyone else (or believe me, I would have been there):

Of course, this kind of NIMBYish reaction happens everywhere. What’s particularly galling about this situation is that the owners of Iron Gate Cafe–who claim to value CDTA service–and their supporters haven’t even considered the possibility that government suddenly putting hundreds of riders per day on their doorstep might lead to increased business. It’s the kind of knee-jerk anti-urban attitude typically adopted by suburban NIMBYs, right there in the heart of the densest, most urban part of Albany. It’s a paradigm in which only parking and easy accessibility by car can lead to business–and the only people who ride the bus are the ones who can’t afford to eat at the moderately nice Iron Gate. It is, to say the least, a profoundly anti-urban attitude that doesn’t even attempt to understand a mode of being aside from that of the suburban paradigm. Aside from the issue at hand–to which a compromise solution may be possible–this anti-urban attitude is completely at odds with Albany’s ability to be, to understand itself as, a real city. 

Protected Bike Lanes? 

For the past several years Albany has been planning a road diet on Madison Avenue, one of the city’s primary east-west arterials. A grassroots group, the Albany Protected Bike Lane Coalition, has been vocally advocating for the inclusion of protected lanes in the final configuration of the road diet, which is to be decided upon in the coming weeks or months. Despite a thorough report, including a parking census, but the PBL Coalition, all indications are that the city is not going to include protected lanes in the final plan, primarily over parking concerns (advocates suspect stated concerns about the cost of plowing in the winter are largely a smokescreen).

Parking Galore

Albany has a lot of parking. It has so much, in fact, that even where perceived shortages exist, it’s largely because parking hasn’t been regulated well and no central organizing system exists. When Albany Med wanted to rip out two whole blocks of homes and replace them (in part) with a massive parking garage, the city commissioned a report on parking in the area from Nelson/Nygaard–and then meekly scrubbed the report from the city website when it found that the garage was unnecessary and Albany Med made it clear they were going to go ahead anyhow.

And yet–and yet! Albany continues down a path of not only not recognizing the existing oversupply of parking, but allowing even more. Capitalize Albany, the city’s downtown business development group, recently commissioned a parking study–not an access study by all modes as is best planning practice, but a parking study–that, when read honestly, basically confirmed the existence of oversupply in the downtown area at almost all times, yet called for more.

SUNY Polytechnic, the newest in Governor Cuomo’s long list of throw-gum-at-the-economic-development-wall-and-hope-it-sticks public-private partnerships, is planning three stories of student housing in downtown Albany–and three stories of parking to go with. The kicker? The downtown SUNY Poly campus is to be centered on the city’s old Union Station.

Union Station, 1948  Albany NY 1940s

Albany Union Station then, from the Albany Flickr group

albany union station 1

And now, with structured parking out back, on Bing Maps.

Aside from the absurdity of providing structured parking intended (at least partially) for students in the city’s downtown, which has literally acres of unused parking at night, Albany’s obsession with parking has serious costs. Prioritizing parking over bus stops, or housing, or other potential land uses, devalues urban land, treating it as nothing more than a place for suburban drivers to park their private property. And it sends the message that the city has nothing more valuable to do with itself than provide a convenient (“user-friendly,” as one suburban troll once told me it should be on Twitter) experience for those who don’t live there.

Albany at the tipping point

There are a lot of good things going on in Albany. Construction of residential units is accelerating in the long-depopulated downtown. The local MPO is finally studying removing the eyesore that is the waterfront I-787 freeway. I kvetch a lot, but there are a lot of really lovely things about living here.

At the same time, in over two years of living here, it’s become increasingly clear that Albany is facing a tipping point in terms of its ability to be a city. The city is facing a serious budget crisis, precipitated in no small part by the vast amount of city land taken entirely or mostly off the tax rolls because of institutional use (colleges, hospitals, state offices) or because it’s culturally believed to be valueless (all that parking). All Over Albany recently asked why people in this region are so determinedly pessimistic about everything.  For the city itself, I think, a lot of that has to do with the city’s inability to believe in itself as such. Decades of thinking about Albany’s most urban areas as little more than a destination for car-bound commuters have left the city without a self-image as an urban place–and without that self-image, Albany is left adrift in policy and purpose, unable to plow a clear path forward.

The Choice, or Not

I began this piece by framing Albany as facing the choice to adopt what Chris Leinberger calls the “option” of urbanism. But perhaps that’s not quite the right framework. The way I see it–and, admittedly, I’m an outsider, but one with the valuable perspective of having lived in numerous different places–Albany doesn’t really have that much of a choice. 60 years of being squashed by the suburban attitude, some of it self-adopted, has left the city constantly facing financial crisis, with its downtown just now recovering from being wiped out,  and with an entrenched classist, racist mentality that prevents urbanist improvements from getting done. Like many American cities, Albany’s tried suburbanism, and like most other places, it has failed. The option, such as it ever was, is no longer extant. It’s time for urbanism.

A Walk in the Neighborhood and Urban Albany

It’s drop-dead gorgeous out today, and Wednesday is my day off of classes, so it was time for a walk around the neighborhood. Since the sun is out (finally) I figured now would be a good time to showcase Albany a little bit and comment on some of the (positive and negative) aspects of urban design, planning, and urbanism in the downtown area. All pictures are taken within a mile of my apartment.

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

Tree budding, Hudson Ave. just east of Lark

One of the the surprising things about Albany is that some of the monumental architecture can make it feel like a much bigger city than it really is (~97,000 people, down from a high of 135,000). Here the towers of the Empire State Plaza–the larger one, the Corning Tower, is 42 stories, and the Agency Buildings are about 20 stories shorter–pop up over the mid-rise apartment buildings occupying the valuable real estate adjacent to Washington Park as we look east down Hudson Avenue. The towers are cleverly tucked into the slope down to the Hudson so that their full height isn’t apparent, but they do put the low-rise Center Square neighborhood into perspective.


Olmstedian (though not designed by Olmsted himself) Washington Park is one of the true joys of living in downtown Albany. Here, the sun shines over the lake that is one of the park’s central features, and over the odd-duck Lake House (now mainly used as a theater), one of a very few Spanish Revival-styled buildings in the area.





Who says modern builders can’t imitate historic styles? I don’t usually walk on the block of Madison between New Scotland and Robin, so while scooting by on the bus I’ve never actually noticed that this townhouse is a relatively recent fake:


Albany has several other infill projects that are well-done imitations of historic styles; it’s something that the city does well. If that offers hope, turning the corner offers despair:


This was really the point of my walk today. The Park South Urban Renewal Plan–yes, we still use that phrase here in Albany–driven by Albany Medical Center has (just since I moved here less than two years ago!) wiped out two whole blocks of homes to put up a new mixed-use development (but mainly just parking). Just months ago, this view would have looked like this:

robin dana

The plans certainly aren’t the worst, but they’re certainly not the most urban-feeling plans either. What makes the project–the beneficiary of state tax credits–particularly outrageous is that the enormous, 800-1000 car garage (the exact size seems to keep changing) you can see under construction in the picture above is completely unnecessary.

More garage, in case you weren't convinced enough of the scale.

More garage, in case you weren’t convinced enough of the scale.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that's been left out. It's almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.

Somehow, a single daffodil survives between concrete, construction materials, and insulation material that’s been left out. It’s almost TOO #$@#$ poetic.


No seriously, it's really huge.

No seriously, it’s really huge.

What was here before clearance? Nothing particularly special, a few low-rise middle-class homes:

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

Looking west on Dana about halfway between New Scotland and Robin

The Park South neighborhood has been in a rut for a while; many of the houses, including the ones that have survived the renewal project, are in poor shape, and this was never an upper-class neighborhood to begin with. That being said, AMC owns much of the real estate in the area and has been patiently awaiting its opportunity at redevelopment. And major institutions, for-profit or not, that hold on to large swaths of land for a promise of future development over long periods of time are virtually never good stewards; if you haven’t read my early post on Chicago’s The Valley neighborhood, go do so. Granted, it’s an extreme example, but it’s illustrative of the dangers of long-term planning for megablock development.

We’ll close the tour with a picture of something more hopeful, a new mixed-use building (retail on the first floor and apartments above) on the corner of Lark, Delaware, and Madison.


I could’ve gone with two or three more stories of apartments on top, but it’s certainly nothing to sniff at…and there’s no added parking! (the building will share with the condoized historic police station next door on Madison)

Amazing how many issues come up on a brief (1.5 miles total) stroll around the neighborhood sometimes.

The Second and Third Lives of Elite Urban Neighborhoods

Gentrification, of course, is all over the news. We hear about it all the time. We’ve also heard a lot about how poverty is a bigger problem for most American cities than gentrification. This latter point is undoubtedly true. But based on my experience living in and studying a couple of midsize American cities, I want to propose a middle ground–that what might otherwise be called “gentrification” in higher-demand markets in fact follows a somewhat different pattern in these cities.

Last week a friend sent me a link to this interesting documentary produced by Albany’s PBS station, WMHT. Though only aired recently, the footage chronicles changes that took place on the block of Lancaster Street between Dove and Swan (“Lower Lancaster” in the film’s parlance) almost 35 years ago, in 1980-81, as filmed by a cameraman who lived on the block.  The Empire State Plaza—the massive, anti-urban state office campus imposed on Albany by Nelson Rockefeller—had opened at the bottom of the block only a decade before, and its arrival had brought a wave of professional-class urban pioneers (as they repeatedly call themselves) into what had been a somewhat rundown area. The word “gentrification” gets thrown around a lot in the documentary footage, and there’s a lot of talk about the numerous lower-income tenants on the block who were then in the process of being displaced by newcomers who bought up buildings, renovated them, and rented them back out at higher price points.

But is what we see in the WMHT film really what we today call “gentrification”? Clearly, the process in action on Lower Lancaster in the film involves displacement of poorer renters—some, though by no means all in this case, minorities—by wealthier (though not by any means elite), whiter new residents who mainly own their own homes.  But it’s also worth considering the differences between the occurrences on Lower Lancaster and the typical American narrative about gentrification.

The first thing to understand is the Center Square—a name acquired by the area relatively recently, in the postwar era—has long been one of the “elite” residential neighborhoods in Albany. The block of Lancaster in question is only two blocks from Washington Park, around which clustered the toniest homes in Albany (a truly spectacular architectural legacy to this day).  The “Lower Lancaster” block itself is home to a number of gorgeous 2-3 story rowhouses, as well as the 1885 Romanesque masterpiece Wilborn Temple (built as Temple Beth Emeth), which in its day attracted the wealthiest of Albany’s German-Jewish population to the block.  All that is to say that while the area around Lark Street had gone somewhat downhill by the 1930s, with many buildings being converted to downscale rooming houses, it still retained vestiges of its elite past, both socially and architecturally.

Beautifully restored woodwork on the door of a home on Lancaster Street. Lower of two plaques at left is a federal historic designation.

Beautifully restored woodwork on the door of a home on Lancaster Street. Lower of two plaques at left is a federal historic designation.

And it was that heritage more than anything else that made the neighborhood ripe for “settlement” by professional-class types in the years after the South Mall (the original working name for the Empire State Plaza) opened. These people were attracted not solely by the proximity to the Plaza—indeed, many of them were, and continue to be, turned off by its looming presence—but by the neighborhood’s rich cultural heritage and incredible housing stock.

The Empire State Plaza looms at the bottom of the "Lower Lancaster" block.

The Empire State Plaza looms at the bottom of the “Lower Lancaster” block.

The construction of the South Mall may have depressed housing prices in the next-door blocks enough to make the risk of urban pioneering worth it, but people moved into the neighborhood because they saw a potential for its return to, if not quite the same blue-blood elite status, something similar. Many of the new homeowners and urban pioneers would form the nucleus of the neighborhood associations and activist groups that were able to stop the state’s plans for an amazingly destructive freeway through the heart of the neighborhood.

The story of Center Square—and of that block on Lancaster—isn’t a story of a working-class neighborhood ripped apart and transformed by rapacious, profit-driven developers and wealthy outsiders. It’s the story of a neighborhood that, for better or for worse, experienced an abnormal decline in status—helped along, as in many other places, by the government’s intentional, artificial depression of urban land values—in the immediate prewar and postwar decades, and that many people labored to return to something approaching its peak status in the 1970s and ‘80s. In Center Square, it was the use of luxury housing stock by the poor, not its reclamation by the middle class, that represented an exception to the historical rule.

There was, of course, incredible loss experienced in the process of gentrification.  The WMHT documentary makes clear the fear of lower-income residents unsure of their next move. And the documentary preserves some truly cringeworthy moments from the gentrifiers, who proudly proclaim themselves “urban pioneers” (like the “pioneers” of the West, they were, of course, moving into land that was already occupied) and tell soon-to-be evicted residents that “it’s not up to me” and “it’s just economics.” Perhaps 30 years of exposure has taught gentrifying developers to be a little more careful around cameras, but the words here can be quite the jarring reminder of the callousness shown by many early gentrifiers.

Nor, I believe, is Center Square’s experience of gentrification as renaissance rather than transformation unique. Indeed, I believe it might be better labeled part of a pattern of similar occurrences in smaller American cities. Certainly the two other neighborhoods in Albany that might be identified as “gentrified” in recent decades—Ten Broeck Triangle and the Mansion District—fit the same general pattern of being once-elite neighborhoods marked by outstanding housing stock. Neither neighborhood has been as thoroughly gentrified as Center Square, though neither (especially the Mansion District, despite its name) was as thoroughly identified with Albany’s upper crust as the area near Washington Park. Indeed, it is possible that the difference between the “gentrification” of Ten Broeck Triangle and the definite non-gentrification of neighboring Arbor Hill (despite the APA’s best efforts) is largely attributable to historic perceptions that Ten Broeck was the wealthier, more outstanding area.

Since New Haven—a city of mostly similar size, age, and composition–seems to be my most frequent muse for comparisons to Albany, let’s see if the pattern holds there as well. The truth is that for the most part New Haven’s neighborhoods have stayed fairly consistent in their demographic makeup since the disastrous postwar and urban-renewal era.

I’d say that if two New Haven neighborhoods can be identified as “gentrified” they would be the downtown-adjacent (as are Center Square, Ten Broeck Triangle, and the Mansion District) East Rock and Wooster Square. East Rock has always been one of the elite parts of the cities, long home to Yale professors; it is now a “grad ghetto” with a distinctly yuppie feel and a tight rental market by the standards of midsize cities. Like the rest of New Haven, East Rock had its struggles during the postwar era, but it never quite hit the depths of the Albany neighborhoods.

Wooster Square might be a more interesting case.  Originally adjacent to the city’s bustling docks (and since cut off from the water by land reclamation and a massive freeway interchange), it had a short run as a haven for the city’s rich merchants, which gave it an architectural legacy somewhat comparable to those of the Albany neighborhoods. Though some wealthier families continued to live in the area, it always had a mixed class makeup, and fairly quickly became associated with New Haven’s famous Italian community and their distinctive style of pizza. Thus Wooster Square’s primary identification in the minds of New Haveners is as a working-class Italian enclave, but it still holds the architectural and perhaps cultural legacy of its earlier upper-crust residents. Regardless, Wooster Square has seen considerable new apartment construction in recent years, with units being listed for relatively high prices—definitely what the typical American narrative would label “gentrification.”

Diagram of high-status neighborhoods in New Haven in 1909, from Douglas Rae's "City". East Rock at top; Dwight at left. Wooster Square had already declined.

Diagram of high-status neighborhoods in New Haven in 1913, from Douglas Rae’s City. East Rock at top; Dwight at left. Wooster Square had already declined.

Neither East Rock nor Wooster Square follows the pattern I laid out as neatly as do the “gentrified” neighborhoods of Albany, but they’re not that far off. The fate of the Dwight neighborhood directly west of Yale University will be a fascinating test case; formerly one of New Haven’s wealthier neighborhoods, it experienced a redlining-induced slide in the postwar years from which it has never really recovered. Dwight is showing a few signs of gentrification, sparking considerable fear among residents, but whether that process will take off has yet to be determined.

What does it mean, then, that many of the cases of “gentrification” in midsize cities are in fact less a transformation of a neighborhood into something it’s never been than a revival of its former identity? I think it helps clarify a point I’ve had trouble putting into concise words for a long time, but that others have certainly talked about: American discourse—especially on the Left–has been using the word “gentrification” to talk about at least two separate, though related, processes.

Process 1 is the pattern where ridiculously high demand for housing—mainly experienced in larger cities—pushes wealthier, whiter professionals into areas that have always, or virtually always, been lower-middle or working-class. The names of such cases, I’m sure, are familiar to anyone who follows urban issues: Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Red Hook, The Mission, Somerville, Humboldt Park, Boyle Heights. These cases are indicative of a housing market that is way out of whack; certainly, the desires of hipster gentrifiers for gritty “authenticity” play a part, but for the most part these neighborhoods boast neither the best convenience (Red Hook doesn’t have a subway stop!) nor the most outstanding housing stock. The impetus for gentrification is push, not pull.

Process 2 is what I’ve described here as being more typical of “gentrification” in smaller cities, though it certainly describes the recent changes in many neighborhoods in larger cities as well.  In this paradigm, people who we call gentrifiers are pulled to neighborhoods that have lost some of their former considerable luster. Let’s face it: generally speaking, the wealthy of the 19th century chose well. These neighborhoods have a lot to recommend them: they tend to be conveniently located and sport excellent access to downtown, green space, and other amenities. Then, of course, there is the matter of housing stock, which is solid at worst and truly outstanding in the case of the Albany neighborhoods I have highlighted.

We need different words to talk about these two processes.

They share many challenges that urban policymakers have to deal with—displacement of lower-income residents being the primary one—but I would argue that we can distinguish between on the grounds of desirability of their occurrence. Process 1 is a sign of a sick city (albeit one sick with success, or as Jane Jacobs said, oversuccess), and in particular of a sick housing market. It’s a symptom of inequality, bad policy, and all that entails. Process 2 is, despite the displacement and inarguable loss and pain that occurs, most likely a sign of a city that is healing itself. The days of the postwar federal gravy train are over, and cities cannot continue to exist as forced repositories of the unlucky, discriminated-against, or undesirable. Like it or not, cities need a base of upper middle class residents, even a small one, and they have to live somewhere. 

To some extent, the confusion in the term “gentrification” is inherent. Ruth Glass’ original definition of the term made reference only to how a neighborhood that was undergoing the process looked now, not its historic characteristics. When the term migrated across the Atlantic, it was quickly applied to areas like Philadelphia’s Society Hill: once-elite neighborhoods that had fallen upon hard times. Glass’ original idea of gentrification also had connotations of a more organic process, whereas Americans tend to apply the term both to government-sponsored transformations like Society Hill and to less organized processes like what happened to Lower Lancaster Street. Our use of the term tends to ignore historical context and nuance in favor of arguments about who “owns” a particular neighborhood or area. And that’s a problem, because not all processes that involve wealthier people moving into an urban area look the same, or are the same.

How are policymakers to respond to cries of “gentrification”? The literature on that topic is obviously voluminous, as are the feelings. That being said, I think what I have labeled “Process 2” has some lessons for us. First, the response to the challenge of gentrification should be triage. Neighborhoods that were once elite, and still have excellent convenience, amenities, and access to downtown, are almost certainly going to gentrify. The reality is that fighting that process is probably going to be a losing battle for all involved. That doesn’t mean there isn’t tremendous pain and loss of community involved—there most certainly is. But efforts should probably focus on fighting winnable battles–finding nearby affordable housing for displaced residents, leveraging new investment to create community assets, and the like–rather than trying to maintain neighborhoods in their historically exceptional stasis. Second, cities should probably plan for gentrification in once-elite neighborhoods in the medium-to-long term–even cities with housing markets that are entirely depressed at the moment. That means proactively zoning for growth, preserving affordable units, and working with landlords to prevent rising rents from displacing small businesses.

It’s not news that “gentrification” as a process differs from city to city, and that in particular there’s a huge disconnect between the experiences of “hot” coastal cities and pretty much everywhere else. Nor is it news that narratives of gentrification and displacement generally lack local and historical nuance, egged on as they tend to be by Marxist-leaning academics who seek to fit every experience into one overarching paradigm. (seriously, does any field have as big a disconnect between academy and praxis as urban studies/planning?) But I hope I’ve pointed here in a direction of understanding at least one of the “other” processes that are currently occurring in American cities. I don’t know what to call it. But I do know the word “gentrification” fails to capture most of what needs to be said.