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.




Revisiting State-Level TOD Planning

Last month I wrote about Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s ambitious plans to create a state-wide Transit-Oriented Development corporation, essentially making the case that Nutmeggers and planners alike should give the idea a chance. In short, I wrote (and believe) that the state needs some control over station areas to maximize the relatively significant investments it has been making in transit and combat rent-seeking by suburban NIMBYs. That being said, I think the discussion is worth revisiting and sharpening, since this legislation is potentially a really big deal both for Connecticut and the planning world.

The Connecticut proposal brings up two related issues: the question of regional governance and the question of whether state government is any more trustworthy than local government when it comes to progressive principles of planning and development. Let’s tackle these individually.

Regional Governance–Does it Matter?

Angie Schmitt posted a summary of my piece on, and it provoked a number of responses, mainly along the lines of “but state governments suck too!” Fair enough–we’ll talk about that below. One commenter wrote that

I have a feeling that Streetsblog is very, extremely casuistic when discussing the “whose level of government should do what”, without any consistency on the arguments, only some specific situation where it will support whatever arrangement works for a single case, damned be unintended consequences.

To which I say: so be it! If I have one feeling about forms and structures of governance, it’s that we don’t matter nearly as much as we think. I’ve been taking a course on regional governance this semester, and while it is perhaps the bias of my professor, the overwhelming takeaway has been that the exact structure of governance and government matters less than accountability, good stewardship, and the intentions of elected officials. This point gets hammered home over and over again in one of the primary books for the course, David K. Hamilton’s comprehensive 2014 Governing Metropolitan Areas: Growth and Change in a Networked Age.  As LetsGoLA wrote in one of my favorite-ever urbanist blog posts,

None of this really matters, though, if the people running the agencies are acting in bad faith…In fact, in the context of discrimination, regional consolidation can make things worse, even if it makes technical sense. For years, urbanists bemoaned the lack of a regional transit agency in Detroit. The feds finally forced the issue, and in late 2012, the state created such an agency. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) was charged with administration during the transition, and promptly used its power to reduce Detroit’s transit funding by 22%. When the problem is a desire to avoid treating some people fairly, technical solutions are helpless.There are no apolitical technical policies.

So yeah, let’s embrace casuistic governance. Whatever works, we can do. After all, casuistic policymaking is as old as the Western tradition; Hammurabi’s Code is largely written in a casuistic mode, as are many biblical legal passages. I don’t really care who runs things, as long as stuff gets done. And conversely, no structure of governance should be afforded less skepticism or held less accountable than any other.

Can (and should) we trust Connecticut state government to be better at TOD than cities?

Anstress Farwell of the New Haven Urban Design League was kind of enough to have coffee with me last time I was in New Haven, and we took the opportunity to chat about the governor’s TOD plans. Anstress, who is inarguably New Haven’s top urbanist scold and city purist, is appropriately suspicious of the ability of any level of government to implement progressive planning principals. It’s an entirely understandable attitude in New Haven, the city that probably did more per capita (it took more federal dollars than any other city per capita) than any other to destroy itself through “progressive” urban renewal.

And it’s completely reasonable to be suspicious of the intentions of state government, considering that it’s pushing giant new garages next to the train stations in both Stamford and New Haven. And yet, in other places, state government has pushed TOD against the NIMBYish intentions of suburban towns, and the state could hardly make existing conditions worse in many places, and seems likely to force some reluctant municipalities into compliance. It’s also worth noting that local government has been on board with the new garages in both Stamford and New Haven, while New Haven is making only halting strides towards tackling its downtown parking addiction.

So can urbanists and progressive planners trust Connecticut state government to implement good policy, should it gain power over station-area land use? There certainly seems to be reason for skepticism. But it also seems unlikely that the state government could do any worse than municipalities are currently doing, and centralizing planning might at least streamline some processes. So I guess the answer is a resounding maybe.

If we can’t trust anybody, what should we do?

One of the ideas that Anstress and I threw around when we chatted was the idea that instead of TOD power resting with any particular level of government, it should instead reside in the area of policy. That is to say, the state should establish a strict set of benchmarks for land use around stations, and give local governments a certain amount of time to meet them. Should municipalities prove unable to meet those benchmarks, the state would then be authorized to seize the land through eminent domain (which it of course already legally is) and add it to the inventory of a statewide TOD authority. This way, it would be the TOD benchmarks–rather than the state authority–that would become the center of the policy. It would be clear that the intention is to achieve good land use, rather than just to concentrate power in the hands of state government at the expense of municipal government. And the targets for municipalities to  meet would be clear and public, meaning the reason for a state takeover would be clear if that should in fact happen.

Obviously, suburban municipalities in Connecticut are going to resist any initiative that threatens to bring them dense development. And city governments clearly need some work as well There is, therefore, an obvious role for state government to play; but what should it look like? In my ideal world, the state would be foregrounding good policy rather than centralization of power in its messaging and actions on the topic, which would likely help them sell the TOD authority as well. Cynical political bartering will most likely win out, but I can dream, can I not?

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.

Transit and the Rockview Problem

On Wednesday the New Haven Independent reported on the challenges facing residents at the city’s recent rebuilt Rockview public-housing development who wish to catch a bus into town:

It doesn’t matter if it’s freezing cold, or broiling hot, whether you can walk or have to use a wheelchair. If you want to catch a bus, you have to make your way to the intersection of Wilmot Road and Brookside Avenue, which is nearly a mile away.

“It makes no sense,” she said. “This neighborhood used to have a bus stop.”

That was before the old West Rock housing development was razed and rebuilt with $33 million, reopening with a sparkle in December 2013. Now the residents of this pocket of West Rock have shiny new homes, but still lack one of the all important amenities that officials said they would receive as part of a master plan to revive the area: bus access.

Now people need to walk seven-tenths of a mile uphill to catch a bus, seven-tenths of a mile back up to head home.

To the residents facing a challenging and punishing walk to a local bus stop, the lack of bus service to Rockview seems–appropriately–like an obvious example of poor planning. That the development should re-open for residents without one of the basic components of urban life–transportation options–is indeed an affront to good planning, and, above all, to those residents. But the challenges facing Rockview residents also illustrate a broader issue within the world of planning: how to successfully integrate housing, land use, and transit, and above all how to make transit function in an environment that is fundamentally hostile to its efficient operation.

The walk from Rockview to the nearest bus stop. Exhibited line is 4/19 of a mile; other homes not shown on satellite imagery are further.

The walk from Rockview to the nearest bus stop. Exhibited path is 4/10 of a mile; other homes not shown on satellite imagery are further.

The defining characteristic of Rockview–and its neighboring developments, Brookside and Westville Manor–is their isolation. Adam Wolkoff wrote of the area’s remoteness in his excellent Connecticut History article (and Columbia University senior thesis) on the developments, “Creating a Suburban Ghetto: Public Housing at New Haven’s West Rock“:

Geography, combined with the institutional history of the site, meant that the Springside Farm had never been developed within the broader pattern of New Haven’s pre-war residential sprawl. In the shadow of the picturesque glacial moraine of West Rock Ridge State Park, and removed from shopping areas, employment centers, and mass transportation, it possessed a suburban quality, which one writer lamented in 1937, should have made it a choice location for first-class residences instead of a home for the indigent. Yet even after New Haven brought infrastructure and a critical mass of people to the site, it retained this secluded character, largely because the site was too inaccessible to attract investment. Geography, however, did not have to determine the fate of this community and to a great extent the development’s failure to become an integral part of greater New Haven was the product of political choices. Through a series of decisions, the city, in cooperation with the neighboring suburb of Hamden, walled off the project’s residents from the surrounding community. (pp. 70-71)

Rockview, Brookside, and Westville Manor were built to be “out of sight, out of mind”–to store New Haven’s needy in suburban greenery far from the grime and grit of the city’s inner neighborhood. Perhaps the outdoorsy benefits of the site were thought to outweigh its isolation; certainly, midcentury urban renewal in New Haven exhibited a fierce strain of the environmental determinism that infected renewal projects all across the country. More likely, the connection between land use and transportation needs was never considered. At that time of seemingly boundless political will, energy, and money, overcoming any obstacle–even sending buses miles out of their way to a remote development–certainly would have seemed possible.

Housing Authority of New Haven developments in 1953, via Wolkoff (see below). Brookside towards top left.

Housing Authority of New Haven developments in 1953, via Wolkoff. Brookside towards top left.

It is, sadly, not an unusual story; scattered-site public or designated-affordable housing, while seemingly  an attractive concept, is often later found to be sadly isolated both in terms of both social context and infrastructure needs. And so it was with the West Rock developments, which gradually slipped into decline–and then worse. But that story has been told many times over. I want to talk here about the impact that Rockview’s isolation has on CTTransit’s ability to serve it efficiently with transit, because, well, it’s not a pretty story.

Here’s a snip from CTTransit’s New Haven system map showing the Rockview/Brookside area and the adjoining Pine Rock neighborhood of Hamden:

Snip from CTTransit's New Haven system map,

Snip from CTTransit’s New Haven system map,

The West Rock area is served by the B1 variation of the B bus, the trunk route serving Whalley Avenue, one of New Haven’s main drags. The B1 leaves Whalley at Blake Street in Westville Village (map), and meanders over to terminate in Brookside after wandering past Westville Manor and the entrance to Rockview. It doesn’t connect to the G bus (technically, the G4 variation–maybe you’re getting a sense for why New Haven’s bus system is in need of a major revision) because, well, there’s no physical connection in the street grid. When Wolkoff writes that New Haven and Hamden combined to “wall off” the new developments, he means it literally; a fence was put in along the city-suburb border to forbid passage. The fence became such a symbol of contention and rancor that when it was finally taken down last year, even the New York Times paid attention. Neither bus comes with any particular frequency; the B1 operates with widely variable 10-25 minute headways at peak hours, and 30-minute headways off-peak, while the G4 condescends to circle through Pine Rock six times per day.

The problem, of course, is that it’s virtually impossible to serve such a remote development with efficient transit. Brookside and Rockview are being rebuilt to a fairly dense, New Urbanist-y standard, but they’re not big enough in and of themselves to be a major traffic generator on their own, and they’re not on the way to anything at all.  Reopening the connection from Wilmot Road to Woodin Road in Hamden, and the G4 bus, is a start, but a bus that operates that infrequently is just of very little utility to residents. The B1 provides decent service to the area–probably more than ridership really justifies–but it’s a prime example of some of the drawbacks of branching; every bus that turns to serve Brookside is a bus that doesn’t serve the far denser Whalley/Amity corridor, where buses often run full at rush hour. It’s not that Brookside and Rockview don’t deserve service. It’s just that the decision to site the developments there 65 years ago, and the much more recent decision to rebuild them in place, means that every bus serving them is a bus that doesn’t serve corridors with more demand. At the same time, it’s hard to justify serving the West Rock developments frequently enough to really build ridership, so they get service at somewhat random, not all that useful intervals.

In other words, Rockview’s bus problem is really an example of the coverage-ridership tradeoff. Succinctly put, this principle states that transit agencies and planners face a tradeoff in deciding how many of their resources to devote to “coverage” (trying to make sure as many geographic areas as possible have transit service, regardless of ridership potential), and how many to devote to building ridership in core areas that are likely to attract riders. A closely related phenomenon, labeled the bus complexity tradeoff by, is also at work here, as it is all across the New Haven bus system; a rider from downtown seeking to get to the Stop & Shop on Amity, say, could easily board a B1 rather than a B2 or B3 and wind up at Brookside, or vice versa. The coverage-ridership tradeoff means that serving Rockview and Brookside depresses ridership on core routes likely to attract more riders; the bus complexity tradeoff means that the complexity inherent in a system with as many branches–and twists and turns on those branches!–as New Haven’s is itself overwhelming and a turn-off to potential riders.

In the short term, improving Rockview’s access to transit really shouldn’t be that hard. Creating road and pedestrian access to Woodin Road and the G4 bus will help residents get to shopping, jobs, and amenities on Dixwell Avenue–but CTTransit will have to increase that bus’s frequency for it to be useful. In the meantime, residents seeking a ride down to the Green should not have to walk all the way down to Wilmot and Brookside. As can be seen in the Master Site Plan illustration above, plans at one point existed to link Brookside and Rockview with a road bridge that would give access to the bus stop at Brookside Ave. and Solomon Crossing. While site plans and road layouts have changed somewhat since then, in the short term a pedestrian bridge that would allow Rockview residents to reach that stop–a much shorter walk than the one to Wilmot and Brookside–seems eminently achievable. When I reached out to city transportation chief Doug Hausladen about that idea on Twitter, he responded enthusiastically:

The long-term challenges are more severe. Rockview’s citizens have been disadvantaged, and the political and policy leaders serving them put in a difficult place, by decisions made over half a century ago. The failures of urban renewal and midcentury “rationalist” planning are myriad, but perhaps none is greater than the assumption that automobility had broken the connection between transportation and land use forever and that government would always be able to sustain rump transit service as a politically acceptable social service program. As we have learned, neither of those things was close to true. And as transit regains–through cultural shift or economic necessity–some of its past popularity, policymakers will be increasingly faced with the legacy of places like Rockview: physically isolated communities, crying out for service, but fundamentally hard to serve on a basis of rational efficiency. Rockview is a reminder of how long the planning mistakes of the past can linger, but it is also a warning for the future.

Towards a Shore Line Metro

My home state (I lived in New Haven for 9 years as a kid) of Connecticut has been making some halting, slow positive moves towards better transit, and they’re starting to add up to something. All four tracks of the New Haven Line are close to being back in service after extensive work (except in the remaining three-track gap between Devon and Woodmont, see below); the Waterbury Branch may be getting signals and more trains; New Haven will soon have all-day half-hourly service to Grand Central Terminal; the CTFastrak busway between Hartford and New Britain should open in March; and the revamped, albeit imperfect, New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter/intercity service should roll out at the end of 2016. And now, Governor Dannel Malloy has come up with state funding for two more stations, the long-discussed Bridgeport Barnum and Orange, on the New Haven Line.

The utility or lack thereof of those two stations is up for debate, but I want to highlight another aspect of their addition to the New Haven Line. With the other two recent infill stations, Fairfield Metro Center and West Haven, there are now 21 stations (including the endpoints) in the 46 route-miles between Port Chester and New Haven, or on average one station every 2.19 miles. With the additions of Barnum and Orange, there will be 23, or exactly one station for every two miles. Though few trains make all local stops, that stop spacing is rapidly dropping toward that of a spaced-out urban rapid transit line, rather than a “commuter rail” system. And that, I think, offers a great opportunity to transform the New Haven Line into something unique in the US, an interurban regional rail system with a focus on moving people not just to and from New York City, but within Connecticut as well.

Here’s the thing about the Connecticut Shoreline region: while its economy and culture are intricately and inextricably linked to New York City, it is not a pure bedroom region. The region’s older cities–New Haven, Bridgeport, and Stamford–all have an economic identity and gravity of their own (though Bridgeport’s can be kinda hard to figure out), and Stamford has evolved into something of an Edge City, attracting corporations fleeing the costs of Manhattan and pulling in commuters from its own hinterlands. In fact, only a relatively small proportion of people living in the Shoreline region commute to New York City. 61.60% of employees in New Haven County work in the same county; Fairfield County takes second place with 16.10%, and only 1.10% of New Haven County employees, or 4,150, work in Manhattan; the other NYC boroughs and Westchester add about 3,000 people. Fairfield County follows the same pattern; 67.7% of employed residents work within the county, and another 9.2% work in New Haven County, with only 6.2%, or 24,086, work in Manhattan. 4.5% (17,514) work just across the border in Westchester County, and the other NYC boroughs have 0.4% each, or around 4,500 workers total. Full numbers (from Census LEHD data) are included here:

So, the Shoreline towns share closer economic links to each other than they do to New York City, but Metro-North’s rail operations are, somewhat inevitably, still quite NYC-centric. This is to some extent justifiable; people commuting to Manhattan from Connecticut are obviously way more likely to travel by transit than people commuting within the highly suburbanized Shoreline region. Yet, the Shoreline does have a core of transit-friendly, somewhat dense cities and towns linked along the New Haven Line, and it’s not just Stamford, Bridgeport and New Haven; Greenwich, Norwalk, Darien, Fairfield, Stratford, and Milford all have downtowns that are close to the train station and walkable or potentially walkable. The region also suffers from an insufficient transit system, aside from Metro-North (or including it, depending on who you ask!). Jobs, especially those in the service sector, are heavily suburbanized, making job access by transit for disadvantaged populations especially difficult. Given the close intra-regional economic links, and the close station spacing along the New Haven Line, using the trackage for frequent transit-like service makes a hell of a lot of sense.

Of course, I’m far from the first person to advocate this approach. Just to highlight one take, Alon Levy included the New Haven Line in his series on a regional rail system for New York on The Transport Politic. Rather than preserving an NYC-centric approach, though, I want to focus on the New Haven Line’s potential for intra-Connecticut journeys. The true difficulties of such a transition lie in operating practices and labor costs; the only capital investment I truly see as necessary is the replacement of the previous fourth track between Devon (the junction where the Waterbury Branch joins the main) and Woodmont interlocking, the only stretch that doesn’t currently have all four tracks active and electrified. That would also require the replacement of the NYC-bound platform at Milford, which sits on the former fourth trackway, but that platform is short anyhow and should probably be replaced. I’d also argue that, long-term, the New Haven maintenance facilities should be shifted to the old Cedar Hill freight yard north of New Haven, allowing all trains to run through both New Haven Union Station and the downtown State Street Station rather than turning, and opening the current land up for development.

RPA/Getting Back on Track Report

RPA/Getting Back on Track Report

In any case, running trains every 15 or 20 minutes shouldn’t be a problem even given current infrastructure; trains already run that frequently during rush hour. Though the half-hourly trains between New Haven and NYC are a start, I’d like to see those trains become what Metro-North calls “super expresses,” stopping only at Bridgeport, South Norwalk, and Stamford, with another 2 trains every hour running local between New Haven and Stamford and between Stamford and Grand Central. That would give the major stations service every 15 minutes all day, and considerably shorten running times between the major cities. Obviously, that’s just a start; I see no reason that once the four-track gap is closed and the signaling improved (and perhaps the power system improved some) the line shouldn’t be able to handle four locals and two expresses per hour.

There is one more element to my plan for improving transit along the Shoreline. Here in Albany, the local transit agency operates a successful limited-stop bus service, BusPlus, linking Albany and Schenectady along Route 5, the region’s major commercial axis. The buses, soon to be running every 12 minutes during weekday hours, have improved ridership in the corridor, cover the 15.5 or so miles in around an hour, carrying about 4,000 riders per day.

CDTA BusPlus (Route 905)

CDTA BusPlus (Route 905)

The concept of a limited-stop bus service linking close-together major cities along a major suburban arterial would, I think, be a perfect approach for transit supplementary to the New Haven Line along the Shoreline. The Shoreline even has its own counterpart to Route 5, the famous Boston Post Road (US 1). A tertiary through-route (since it parallels both I-95 and the Merritt Parkway) along the Shoreline, the Post Road has instead taken on an identity as the region’s main commercial drag. It’s a (fairly depressing) 50-mile-long cluster of mini-malls, full-scale malls, big-box stores, and the other stuff that accumulates along a suburban commercial arterial, but it does hit all of the region’s major towns, and intersects with the New Haven Line at multiple points.

CDTA's plan for an extended BusPlus network (Red Line currently in operation)

CDTA’s plan for an extended BusPlus network (Red Line currently in operation)

Obviously the Shoreline is too long to be served by one bus service along the Post Road (and such a service would be redundant with the rail service anyhow), but I’d argue that splitting the stretch between Port Chester and New Haven into three segments makes sense. These links exist, to some extent, already, though they’re quite fractured; CTTransit operates (different) infrequent buses in both directions out of Stamford, Norwalk Transit operates a relatively frequent service (somewhat randomly) through Bridgeport to Milford, and CTTransit picks up again there. I’d like to see these services upgraded to an Arterial Rapid Transit standard, with signal preemption, turn and intersection pockets, nice stations, and fare integration with Metro-North. Split into three sections, each service wouldn’t be much longer than the BusPlus service, and though Post Road traffic is heavier than anything in the Capital District, the buses should be able to stay on time with decent scheduling and some signal help. The point of the buses wouldn’t be to carry people between the cities, but to distribute riders to local destinations from train stations, and to improve access to jobs along the Post Road from the urban cores. In essence, an ART system along the Post Road would be the local to the New Haven Line’s express service. Here’s a map:

The exact routings and boundaries of the bus services are only approximate. You could make the case that stopping a (long) block away from the train station in Stamford, rather than going right into it is good enough. Norwalk is also an awkward situation; should buses terminating there serve both the South Norwalk train station and downtown Norwalk? Nor have I accounted for the presence of trains coming off of the branches to New Canaan, Danbury, and Waterbury; and I’ve included a speculative re-routing of trains through downtown New Haven to turn at Cedar Hill. There are other infrastructure aspects of the line that need significant attention, especially the numerous movable bridges. But the overall structure, I think, is solid. The Shore Line Metro would be a relatively low-investment, non-capital-intensive way to create regionwide non-automotive mobility. It would involve service and fare integration between agencies, regional planning cooperation, and various other things American planning tends not to be too good at, but the payoff could be tremendous.

The Urban Regulatory Regime and the Left

Anthony Flint had a piece on CityLab on Wednesday titled “The Tragic Comedy of Small Business Permitting,” lamenting the calcified, regressive nature of many rules and regulations applied to small (and large) businesses in urban settings. He writes,

At the place I’m staying at through the new year, the On the River Inn in Woodstock, Vermont, I inquired why we had the elegantly appointed bistro and bar all to ourselves. Only guests allowed, replied the bartender, because if they want to be open to the public, a specific number of excess parking spots are required. It’s the first time the arcane law has been tested in 40 years—the hotel is the first new building in town in that time—but there’s no opportunity to re-assess the Long Trail Ale-to-parking ratio. The entire enterprise is subject to many regulations a half-century old.

Flint’s piece doesn’t break any particularly new ground—much of it consists of a transcription of an only marginally funny Xtranormal video made by a jaded planner in San Francisco—but it is a decent summary of the challenges facing small businesses that attempt to function in the context of an aggressive, inflexible regulatory regime. And it brought to mind—just in terms of pure outrageousness—a couple of incidents I read about recently that, I think, illustrate the problem nicely.

My neighborhood in Albany recently gained–though I, despite being vegetarian, haven’t been there yet–a new veggie/vegan coffee shop dedicated to “hitting the brakes” on climate change and the carbon lifestyle, etc. It took them a few months to get things together, certainly unaided by the city of Albany’s regulatory provisions. Check out especially what local signsmith Frank Smith had to say in the comments below the post (Red Poppies was the Polish bakery that occupied the space before The Brakes):

There’s very little about this situation that can be described without resorting to profanity. I suppose there might, theoretically, be some justification for permitting signs in windows—though I really doubt it—but the mere existence of a city regulation governing the size and duration of a temporary paper signs is very nearly enough to drive me into libertarianism. Sure, it might not kill the business to not have a sign—but a new business, in particular, does stand to benefit from being able to advertise itself from within its own boundaries—but what, at all, is the point of making a new small business owner spend more time, and more resources, filling out more government forms? Remember, this is a business renting space in a mixed-use building, dedicated to the slowing of climate change and to responsible environmentalism. Entirely aside from its almost-cliched Millennial—attracting properties, this EXACTLY the kind of business somewhat economically stagnant cities like Albany should be desperate to attract and keep. Making the life of the business owners harder is just incomprehensibly bad policy.

Meanwhile, in New Haven, messy zoning has collided with what seems to be a mixture of community prudishness and rent-seeking by local business owners, as the New Haven Independent reports:

A loophole in zoning regulations is enabling a third liquor store to open on a single block across from the Green — unless neighbors succeed in shutting it down… Normally local zoning regulations say stores with package permits must be more than 1,500 feet from each other. But an exception — Section 42.1(g) — excludes that section of the city from the provision, specifically “the area bounded north by Chapel Street, east by Church Street, south by the Oak Street Connector, and west by Temple Street.”

New Haven zoners believe that the exception in the code is an artifact of the time, after urban renewal took its toll on New Haven, when the entire relevant block was a single massive, car-oriented mall. But in 2014, when approached by reporter Aliyya Swaby, the owner of one of the two existing liquor stores on the block was only too happy to join the opposition to the newcomer, which he had previously not known about. There is certainly a case to be made that there is a public interest in restricting the presence of liquor stores near the New Haven Green, or anywhere, but it is hard to see how having three, rather than two, operating in close proximity will seriously degrade community life.

It’s hard to see where the opposition to the new store is doing anything other than enabling rent-seeking by the owners of the existing stores. Opposition would be more understandable if this were a national chain seeking to drive locals out of business, but all three stores are locally owned. Maybe a third store will drive all three out of business through excessive competition; I grew up hearing stories of how the two kosher meat plants in Sioux City, Iowa (where my family went to synagogue for a couple of years when I was little) drove each other out business through refusal to merge and cooperate. But liquor is a pretty resilient commodity, and agglomeration economies are strange beasts. Back here in Albany, there are three dedicated mattress stores, plus a Bed, Bath, and Beyond AND two department stores, within a mile or two of each other on Wolf Road and Central Avenue around Colonie Center Mall.

mattress stores

It’s well-documented that liberal (especially old, Northeastern) cities are generally presumed to have more restrictive regulatory regimes than their Sunbelt counterparts. Often, in political discourse, this gets lumped together with high taxes and a functional welfare net as being part of a climate of “business-unfriendliness.” But there’s no particular reason that needs to be the case. Given that many liberal cities continue to enjoy higher quality-of-life ratings, and that demand for housing in places like New York City, Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles has kept housing prices stubbornly high, there’s clearly little or nothing about the high-tax climate that’s intrinsically a turn-off to business. Rather, businesses large and small are willing to accept the trade-off of higher taxes for better public services (transit, clean streets, libraries) for themselves and especially for their employees.

But the restrictive regulatory regime that is all too characteristic of many “blue” cities doesn’t fit neatly into that framework—and it IS a turn-off to businesses, and especially to small ones. There is an apt comparison to housing policy. As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic last October, liberal cities tend to be less affordable than their conservative counterparts. There are, as with any complex policy issue, several elements behind that phenomenon, but the primary one is that conservative cities simply tend to be more pro-development: they allow much more housing to be built. For whatever reason, liberal cities have taken a turn towards following the (perceived or real) interests of existing homeowners, rather than promoting the public good through allowing new development as they grow. Ilya Somin wrote in the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog that

As is often the case with perverse regulatory policies, excessive zoning is in part the product of a “baptist-bootlegger” coalition. Well-meaning, but badly misguided Baptists supported Prohibition out of genuine moral concern about the harmful effects of alcohol. Meanwhile, bootleggers backed it because it put money in their pockets. Housing policy in liberal cities is influenced by a similar implicit unholy alliance between well-meaning progressive voters and unscrupulous economic interest groups.

Hmmm, sounds like the case in New Haven with the liquor stores, does it not? Housing policy may be the best, most obvious example of the overzealous regulatory regime in “blue” cities, but it is not the only one. Small businesses, too, suffer from the same restrictive environment–and an environment in which the ability to play the system is arguably more important than the ability to do business well or ethically tilts the playing field not towards small business, but toward the giant chains that liberal voters tend to despise. A major corporation can hire a lawyer to swoop in and prepare a business application that will meet all of the relevant city codes in ways that a small business will never be able to.

So what’s going on? And why, among generally sophisticated and well-educated liberal voters, does the tendency to make such poor and anti-progressive choices about development and business policy still hang on? Analyses of the attitude of the urban Left toward development and business have typically focused on more recent iterations of liberalism–identity politics, anti-gentrification activism, and the like. But I’d like to trace the origins of the Left’s “urban problem” back a couple more decades, to a time simultaneously more visionary and more paranoid.  The anti-gentrification Left of today is quite good at drawing media attention to itself (indeed, probably better at that than at most other things). But as someone who has lived in several of the liberal cities at question (New Haven, Chicago, NYC, Albany) there are two factors in the over-regulatory attitude that above all that stand out to me, and both can be traced to a different generation of liberal activists: the white liberal tendency towards controlling policy behaviors, and hangover from the period of white flight and urban renewal.

When we moved to Albany, I made a point of subscribing to the local neighborhood association listserv, so that I could see how homeowners (the NA is open to renters too, but most of the participants own) in an urban setting think. In general, the people on the listserv tend towards the professional-class and managerial, unsurprising in a part of Albany that re-populated with people from that general demographic after the Empire State Plaza brought more state office jobs into the immediate area. Whenever the question of a new business, or modification of an existing one, comes up, the listserv lights up with commentary, most of it taking the attitude of “we should tell the owners to do X, Y, and Z.”  On the one hand, I admire citizens who are so willing to be involved in the affairs of their neighborhood. On the other, the most privileged members of the community throwing around their weight to tell local business what to do can be stifling to precisely the kind of spirit and innovation an urban neighborhood needs. Center Square and Hudson/Park are areas where people literally sit on their stoops to socialize; it could be right out of a Jane Jacobs textbook, had she written one. But the Neighborhood Association class seems to have missed the part of Jacobs (and so many other urban thinkers and observers) where she emphasized that the spontaneity of urban life is precisely what makes it special.

The legacy of urban renewal and white flight, too, has a role in the urban Left’s counterproductive support of the regulatory regime. Growing up in New Haven, and now living a block away from the marble edifice of the Empire State Plaza, the scars of this period have been ever-present in my life, as they are in the lives of many Blue City dwellers. When your physical environment constantly reminds you that your city is little cared for, and primarily designed for suburbanites to get into and out of quickly, is it any surprise that you may develop a mindset that has a hard time adjusting to a 21st-century reality where your city is growing again? The neighborhood associations that dominate white liberal middle class dialogue in many Blue Cities grew out of a period where no one–not government, and certainly not business–gave a shit about the communities that form in urban neighborhoods. They are, fundamentally, relics of a period where to be a middle-class urban liberal was to feel under siege. And they have thus had an extraordinarily difficult time adjusting to what should be their glory years–a time when the cultural narrative in the US has shifted to the opposite pole, from White Flight to The Triumph of the City. The urban left, then, clings to the things that gave it power 40 years ago after the era of freeway revolts and the end of urban renewal–legal protections from development, empowerment of the local community above all in business regulation, and just generally writing everything into law.

It’s really hard to give up power when you feel like it’s the only thing that’s been protecting your neighborhood for several decades. But now, those laws, regulations, and zoning decisions are counterproductive. Some (not all, but many) American cities are growing again. Young people want to live in the areas their parents or grandparents abandoned. And the urban Left, so accustomed to being suspicious of everyone and everything, is going to have to adapt.

The Challenges of Geography of Jobs in Small Cities

I’ve been having a lot of fun recently playing with the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool, which (primarily) allows users to do a variety of fun things with data relating to where people live and work. As someone who grew up in a mid-size Northeastern city (New Haven), and currently lives in another (Albany), I have a particular sensitivity to the economic challenges facing such cities. And while researching New Haven last year for a paper, I ran across some rather disturbing data in the city’s comprehensive plan about just how few of the jobs in the city are held by city residents, which the following graphic does a pretty good job summarizing:

via New Haven Comprehensive Plan Update 2013 Databook and Census OnTheMap/LEHD

via New Haven Comprehensive Plan Update 2013 Databook and Census OnTheMap/LEHD

Just 23.1% of workers in New Haven actually live in the city, and over half (56.5%) of the city’s employed residents have to travel outside city limits to find work. The latter statistic actually interests me more, since, as a transit planner, it is much harder to plan service for reverse-commuters, who tend to head to diffuse locations, than it is for people employed within a city.

How typical is New Haven, though? New Haven was, proportionally, among the hardest-hit cities from urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s, and in many ways has yet to recover. Using OnTheMap, I decided to look into these numbers among a set of midsize American cities, and compare them to some larger cities. The selections, are, admittedly, arbitrary; I picked cities I’m familiar with or know at least something about, and I will perhaps return to this in more rigorous fashion later.

Major Cities % of working city residents employed in home city Minor Cities % of working residents employed in home city
Washington, DC 64.20% New Haven 44.00%
Philadelphia 63.20% Hartford 34.30%
NYC 84.40% Albany 46.70%
Chicago 63.70% Akron 36.30%
Houston 68.90% Dayton 33.00%
Phoenix 60.20% Portland, ME 52.10%
LA 51.90% Harrisburg 26.10%
San Francisco 61.60% Roanoke, VA 43.20%
Denver 48.00% Des Moines 50.40%
Minneapolis 42.10% Peoria, IL 47.40%
Average 61% Average 41%

On the whole–there are, obviously, exceptions–smaller cities are able to hold in and employ a smaller percentage of their residents than larger cities. That’s not particularly surprising–larger cities have greater economic “pull” and will naturally pull a larger percentage of total regional jobs into themselves (that’s a set of data I will perhaps pull into comparison with these at some future time). But it does have other, negative effects for residents of those smaller cities that have trouble providing in-town jobs for their residents. Those residents are (probably) more likely to have longer commutes, and are obviously less able to use public transit or walk to work.

There’s a lot more to unpack here, and obviously regional differences have a major impact in employment patterns. Sunbelt mid-size cities, for example, which have historically been able to annex growth, retain more of their workers than older cities. Northeastern mid-size ex-industrial cities are really struggling; look at the numbers for Harrisburg (a state capital, a status which tends to cement lots of job in place!), Akron, and Dayton. Overall, these numbers present a challenge for planners that goes beyond the typical land-use considerations. I’ve become more and more convinced that arresting job sprawl is just as important to a more sustainable future than stopping land-gobbling residential sprawl. I think what these numbers are telling us is that that job sprawl is a particular concern for small-to-midsize cities. After all, concern for pollution, congestion, and such is important, but what happens to a core city when half or two thirds of the residents have to look elsewhere for work?

For a look at how this dynamic can look in practice, let’s take a look at the census tracts that contribute the most workers to jobs in New Haven:

Data from LEHD/OnTheMap; exported to Google Earth

Data from LEHD/OnTheMap; exported to Google Earth

The pattern is just about backwards from what we should expect. All of the tracts that contribute the most workers to New Haven are located either on the fringe of the city (mostly in wealthier neighborhoods) or in the suburbs. The inner-city neighborhoods hardly register at all. It’s the residents of those neighborhoods–poorer, more vulnerable, less educated–who are having to trek out to the suburbs for work.

New Haven Should Follow Houston’s Lead on Transit. Wait, What?

Note: A slightly different version of this piece this ran in the New Haven Independent on 5/27/14, under the title “Houston Could Point the Way for City’s Buses.” 

(Opinion) Yes, New Haven’s bus system is broken. Hope can be found in, of all places, the Lone Star State.

The critiques of some CT Transit riders—made in this Independent article—are pretty standard fare for transit riders in all but the most transit-rich cities: The buses don’t come reliably on time, off-peak frequency is terrible (and weekend service essentially nonexistent), buses don’t always go to where the jobs are, and the route structure, relying on transfers at a central point (the Green) is incredibly inconvenient for many riders. These are all very valid, and accurate, criticisms.

Meanwhile, state transportation Commissioner James Redeker insisted (in an Independent interview; click on the video to watch it) that “a bus service is scheduled based on demand” and that New Haven’s bus system runs on a fine balance of resource allocation and response to demand, and that sparse off-peak service and the Green-centric route structure are both results of that calculation.

Is New Haven’s transit system actually the best it can be, demand considering? I’d argue no.

Assuming that Commissioner Redeker’s contention that resources for urban transit are severely limited is accurate—and considering CT Transit’s recent fare hike, which seems to have been the result of a legislative raid on dedicated transit funds, I see no reason to dispute the argument that statewide political will for increasing transit bus funding is sparse—New Haven has to find a way to improve its bus operations more or less within the bounds of current operational funding. Luckily, last week also provided a high-profile example of a city which is doing exactly that—and in an unexpected place.

Houston, of all places (yes, the city with no zoning code and massive urban sprawl) is currently playing host to a much-anticipated (among the transit and urbanist world) revamp of its bus system. The regional transit agency hired consultant Jarrett Walker, a favorite of transit purists everywhere, to redesign its system around goals of increasing transit reach and ridership. As with many of his projects, Walker’s plan for Houston is built around the concept of a frequent network, a system of buses and light rail which are assured to come every 15 minutes or less, every day of the week, at all hours during which the system operates. The new plan will place 111 percent more riders within a 1/2 mile of frequent buses, and 55 percent more jobs. You can see a mesmerizing .gif of the transformation below:


The magical part? Houston is doing it with no new operating funds. Operational funding for the system will stay at exactly the same level that it had before. That shouldn’t seem possible, but, as Walker explains on his blog:

• That’s how much waste there was in the existing system.  Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people’s demands.

• Hard choices are proposed about expensive service to very small numbers of people.  The plan devotes 80 percent of Metro’s resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20 percent to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places. Currently only about 50-60 percent of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome.

This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed. (About 0.5 percent of existing riders end up over 1/4 mile of service, and most of them are just over that threshold.  Often, their longer walk is to a better service, a tradeoff that most people are willing to make in practice.)

In other words, Houston was able to make some easy decisions (to cut inefficient or wandering routes), but also had to make some hard ones (retrenching service from areas that aren’t densely inhabited and/or are difficult to serve on a logical route).

The numbers of people negatively affected are small, if Walker is to be believed, but any city following this model of resource allocation will clearly irritate some people. The key is to make sure that the burden of cuts doesn’t fall on lower-income communities, and to carefully consider whether the demands of certain vocal segments of the population make sense in a regional context.

In addition, some riders might find that their former one-seat ride now requires a transfer, since the system is less core-centric and more gridded, but in theory even they should end up saving time. And again, this transformation is planned with no new operational funding.

It’s not clear to me how exactly the financials of the Houston revamp are to be worked out such that it does not require new funding, but given Walker’s recommendations in his book, I imagine that it consists of:

• The aforementioned pruning of costly, low-ridership routes.

• Projecting that higher ridership means better farebox recovery ratios (the percentage of operating costs paid directly by rider fares, which according to Redeker is around 25 percent in New Haven—not far off from the average in a city this size).

• Eliminating costly “split shifts” for drivers, where drivers get a premium for driving during the busier morning and afternoon peak hours, and not in between.  By employing drivers on standard eight-hour shifts and giving them something to do during the day, the transit agency can actually save money even if it is paying for more hours overall. (This, of course, assumes that labor agreements allow such an arrangement.)  Renegotiating labor agreements, of course, is often a very, very politicized question, which brings me to my final point about how to go about bringing a Houston-style approach to New Haven.

Implementing a frequent network in New Haven would require two things above all: political will and changing the mindset of transit operations from trying to serve demand to trying to induce it. The political question is notably tricky in a situation where the city does not control its own transit system. New Haveners from top to bottom can and have shown support for a revamped, improved transit system, but the city lacks the financial capacity to fund improvements itself, and is in any case dependent on the willingness of  state-run CT Transit to commit to following the city’s lead.

That dependency on CT Transit also means that shifting the agency’s conservative mindset (and I assign no blame there—transit agencies are captive to, and have their tone set by, a political system that values transit little) will require sustained political pressure from both the Harp administration and New Haven’s state and potentially even federal lawmakers.

Capital-intensive, sexy transit projects like improving Metro-North’s New Haven Line,  building out the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail, or even the New Britain-Hartford CT Fastrak busway offer concrete rewards both to transit riders and to politicians who can point to newly poured concrete and newly laid rails and show off what they have accomplished. Doing something as simple as reworking the way a city’s already-existent local bus system works, and making the buses come more frequently, offers no such flashy rewards. It just requires a lot of hard work, and focus on the issues from both the grassroots and the leadership. And that’s hard.

At the same time, though, New Haven’s transit is stuck in a downward spiral where there is only an attempt to match service to demonstrated demand, no attempt to build ridership or move people from cars to transit. If Houston, of all places, can bring together a transformatively cheap and simple transit plan, why can’t a city that was built around horsecars and still longs for its lost trolleys?

Re-post: Streetcars for New Haven?

This piece originally ran in the New Haven Independent, under the title “All Aboard? Define ‘Streetcar’ First” on 1/17/2014. Crossposted here with permission. Original link here.

(News analysis) Streetcars, innocent as they may seem, are in fact one of the most controversial topics among 21st-century planners—and among people who care about New Haven, as witnessed by passionate debate over a plan that the Harp Administration revived this week.

This seemingly never-ending discussion is of interest to me both as a New Haven expat and as a planner-in-training, since it directly reflects some of the loudest debates in the planning and transportation professions.

New Haven’s nostalgia for streetcars as a mode of transportation is certainly understandable. The city was once home to a comprehensive streetcar system, the last remains of which can be seen at the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven. Though the last trolleys operated in 1948, and despite the damage done by the misguided urban renewal efforts of the 1960s, the city still has “good bones” that make it transit-friendly—a logical street grid, densely built neighborhoods, a system of mixed-use arterial roads, and a compactness conducive to getting across town quickly even on a local bus.

It is crucial, therefore, to understand that the recent proposals for bringing a “streetcar” back to New Haven mean something entirely different from what existed in the city before 1948. The 21st-century urban streetcar, often built as a downtown circulator (as is proposed in New Haven), has only limited value as a technology for mobility. Streetcars that run in traffic lanes together with cars move no faster, and often more slowly (you can’t dodge obstacles if you’re on rails!) than bus service on an equivalent route.

Indeed, most advocates and planners point to the primary purpose of the modern streetcar as being not urban mobility, but economic development. Streetcars are supposed to appeal to a Millennial generation that craves the urban experience and living with few or no cars, and their “permanence” (it’s much harder to move rails embedded in a street than a bus stop) is supposed to indicate to developers a city’s commitment to dense and transit-friendly (and therefore profitable) development.

The logic of streetcars as propelling development, too, has been challenged, on the general premise that correlation does not equal causation. If a city is compelling enough to create demand for new development, that development will happen with or without a streetcar, and there is no way to know how the existence of a streetcar or plans for one has influenced development. New Haven’s experience, too, give some credence to that critique, with several new large downtown developments open or in the planning or construction process.

If streetcars are less than useful as a mode for moving people around, and their development benefits are questionable, should New Haven bring one to town? The answer would seem to be a clear no. But there are ways that the process of building a modern streetcar can actually be made to benefit the city.

First of all, the city and its contractors should clarify what they mean by “streetcar.” As noted above, in general the modern streetcar runs in the same traffic lanes as cars, leading to slow travel times. When given dedicated lanes of its own, an electrically powered railcar system is generally referred to as “light rail,” but in reality there is little difference between a light rail vehicle and a streetcar. If New Haven has the political gumption to dedicate lanes to transit vehicles (always a fight), then a downtown streetcar/light rail system begins to make sense.

The second key element of a successful rail system (or really, any public transit service) is frequency. Trains should come at close enough intervals (“low headways,” in transit-speak) that the rider has an incentive to choose that mode over another. In the case of a downtown circulator, the alternative mode is generally walking or a cab. Even when given dedicated lanes or right of way, running a streetcar with low frequency can be a ridership disaster, as the Utah Transit Authority has experienced with its newly opened S Line streetcar.

Finally, the routing of the line must be straight and uncomplicated, and to the greatest extent possible avoid splitting service in different directions on different streets. Unfortunately, past plans for the New Haven streetcar have shown all of these problems.

So a properly built and operated streetcar—one that blurs the arbitrary lines between “Streetcar” and “Light Rail”—can be a useful transit service. Is it right for New Haven?

Past proposals have been (not unreasonably) criticized as Yale-centric and not useful to the city as a whole. Critics have argued that the city of New Haven should not subsidize a service that will not be useful to the majority of city residents, a completely understandable position. However, with the proper understanding of the mission of a downtown streetcar system, and with the implementation of best practices as noted above, a streetcar system might, indeed, not be a bad contribution to the revitalization of downtown New Haven.

So under what conditions should New Haven build a streetcar? Most importantly, the streetcar should have limited impact on the city budget and encourage rather than discourage, a revamping of the rest of New Haven’s transit system. The city should pitch in money and resources to the streetcar project only on the condition that the system runs frequently in dedicated lanes along a simple route, thus serving a real transit purpose. The bulk or all of the operating costs in perpetuity should be born primarily by primary beneficiaries of the new service and its consequent development, rather than the city or state. Most prominently, Yale and Yale-New Haven (technically two separate corporations) should pay a yearly percentage of cost, with rest borne by a special taxing district for downtown businesses, with new developments paying a higher percentage. The idea that civic institutions and corporations which are the primary beneficiaries and proponents of downtown streetcar schemes should be largely responsible for funding it is currently in the process of bringing a streetcar to Detroit, and was recently responsible for saving Cincinnati’s streetcar from a hostile mayor.

What the streetcar won’t, and can’t, do is make job-access easier for New Haven residents, fewer of whom (particularly among the less affluent) have been able to find jobs in the city, even as overall employment in the city has grown.

Nor will it likely increase transit ridership in the city’s outer neighborhoods, though hopefully getting some momentum behind transit expansion in the city will spur CT Transit to give the city’s bus routes a much-needed revamp along with expanded service.

However, if the streetcar could be built with federal funds (no sure thing, given that federal budgets for such projects are generally unstable, and Providence was just denied funding for a similar project), and the majority to all of the operating costs could be covered by the project’s primary beneficiaries, then it could bring several benefits to New Haven.

The city could support the project with zoning for dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented, development along the route, allowing the city to add enough housing (ideally both upmarket and affordable) to bring down New Haven’s rental costs, which are exceptionally high for a city of its size and overall poverty. New residential development downtown, for which there seems to be significant demand, could finally begin to reverse some of the decay caused by the lasting damage from urban renewal, and support the city’s revitalization efforts in the Route 34 corridor. The streetcar could also be a key cog in the city’s attempt to turn downtown into a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, and human-scaled area. Developments along the route could be allowed to build without the parking minimums generally required by American zoning laws, making apartments cheaper and encouraging walking and biking among downtown residents. And, of course, the city would get the high-frequency, fast downtown circulation service many seem to want.

Bringing a streetcar to downtown New Haven is far from a sure success, even if the line does eventually get built. It is clear, though, that the idea is reluctant to die. And while city residents may rightfully resent Yale and downtown developers getting a luxury amenity on the public dime, there are ways to make such a project work for New Haven as a whole. Yes, tens of millions of federal dollars would be better spent on enhancing the city’s primary bus network. Unfortunately, given federal funding priorities that favor new projects over improving existing networks, that is not the choice that urban advocates are presented with. If the streetcar project ultimately achieves the political consensus and momentum it needs to be built, it is in the best interest of urbanist advocates, and of the city itself, to try to shape the project to be the best it can be.