Monday, April 6th, 2009

Impossibility City

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17

The Louisville Cardinals were in the NCAA regionals last weekend in Indianapolis. In conjunction, a group of people from Louisville planned to bring up a laser projector and put images on the sides of buildings in Indianapolis ranging from the Cardinal logo to Louisville’s “Possibility City” marketing slogan. I thought this would be great fun in the grand tradition of college game day pranks (here’s a famous one to show you what I’m talking about).

The city of Indianapolis, however, felt otherwise. Prosecutor Carl Brizzi said it would be illegal since these projections would require a permit and a variance. I thought this was a terrible shame. A permit? Print them one. Or fine them afterward. You can bet that if the Colts wanted to do this, no permit problem would have been allowed to stand in the way. It shows fear, as if Indy is a city so insecure that it would have felt itself “disrespected” by a mere light show. They could have taken the high road. The right response is would have been a bit of bemused, “Whatever”. (For Louisville’s part, they screwed up by announcing they were going to do it. You can’t do guerrilla marketing if everyone knows about it in advance).

While this incident is a nit in the grand scheme of things, it makes me think generally about the ways cities more and more are trying to regulate fun out of existence. An ever more complex regime of permits, licenses, inspections, and a general attitude that “whatever is not explicitly permitted is forbidden” seems to have taken hold in American cities. Every urban activity now seems to be subjected to some form of scrutiny and sanitization.

I think this is a mistake. There’s a name for a places with an over-regimented, over-scripted, over-manicured, “approved fun only” mindset: the suburbs. But cities aren’t suburbs and they shouldn’t imitate them. Many urban advocates correctly abhor bringing strip malls and other manifestations of the suburban built form into the city. But we shouldn’t import suburban values or functioning either. It’s not that those values are bad. They are wonderful in the right context. But they hurt cities.

The richness of life in the city comes from its capability to contain diversity, generate the unexpected, and produce the innovation, color, and energy that comes from a vital “informal” sector. I think about the busker, the Latino men you see pushing around ice cream carts, elotes sold from a ramshackle corner stand, gypsy cabs, grafiti artists, etc. Even in a less edgy sense, I think of an enterprising guy who turned an old bowling alley into Chicago’s premier punk rock venue or the internet entrepreneurs taking advantage of a new area without regulation to create one of the most dynamic and thriving sectors of our economy.

The focus of much research on third world cities is often on how to “regularize” things and bring marginalized activities into the mainstream. But first world cities now seem to have the opposite problem. They are squeezing out anything with a hint of the unusual or the unscripted. They suffer from over-formalization. I think this is an area that needs serious academic study.

This has been ongoing for a while, but I attribute a lot of the current penchant for it to the Rudy Giuliani administration in New York. He tamed a city once thought ungovernanable by employing a variety of techniques and programs, ranging from aggressive policing informed by the “broken windows” theory to an aggressive campaign to “clean up” Times Square by running out the sex businesses and bringing in Disney. Other cities are keen to see the same results.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that it co-mingles multiple items into a single program when they should really be evaluated separately. Broken windows policing seems to be backed by solid social science research, including some very interesting recent studies in the Netherlands, hardly the poster child for the police state. On the other hand, cracking down on criminal activity is very different from using zoning, and civil and administrative processes to get rid of legal activities you don’t like.

Also, this took place in New York City. New York is sui generis in America. Its scale and density are beyond any other place. And its unique ability to draw the not just America’s, but the world’s elite, as well as massive quantities of tourists, all into a rather confined geographic space, means that killing off the traditional generators of urban energy doesn’t destroy the power of the urban fabric as a whole because so many other forces sustain it. This isn’t true in the vast bulk of other cities.

Also, the renaissance of New York needs to be re-evaluated in the context of global cities. As I noted about Chicago, New York’s transformation was hardly unique. Crime fell in the same period in many US cities. And we saw around the world the stupendous rise and transformation of many global cities from their 70’s nadirs. London, Chicago, Tokyo, etc. all experienced a similar story arch of urban rejuvenation in many respects. How much of New York’s turnaround was good leadership and how much good fortune? It was probably a bit of both.

Unfortunately, the same story of clamping down on anything that isn’t Disney compliant has spread throughout America. When I was in school, my college buddies and I could hang out in Grant Park during the Taste of Chicago proudly drinking our own beer out of cans right in front of the cops. Try that today and you are going to jail. The city’s “public place of amusement” license requirement has all but rendered starting a live music club – the central meeting place of Chicago’s fabulous indie rock scene – impossible. A new ordinance would require any music show promoter to get fingerprinted. The City Council banned foie gras, since thankfully repealed.

Now a lot of this regulation is in place for good reason. Chicago had an incident where an unsafe, overloaded deck collapsed, killing several people. The fire at the E2 nightclub killed 21 people in an environment that was overloaded and not compliant with fire codes. INDOT just built a fantastic looking new overpass at 46th St. in Indianapolis, and some jerk already tagged it. I’m not saying there’s not a legitimate role for public regulation, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

There are two things we need to do to put this into perspective.

1. We should understand what we are giving up as well as what we are gaining through this hyper-regulation approach, and make a balanced choice.

2. We need to understand that novel, unplanned, and even uncomfortable activity in the city is the key to urban function and success – not just street energy and attractiveness, but also economic success.

On the first part, I want laws to protect public safety. I don’t want to eat unsafe food, nor do I want somebody spray painting my house. On the other hand, we need to understand that everything comes with a cost.

Consider the example of America’s love affair with huge SUV’s and vans. I frequently see this ascribed to our national character, cheap gas, subsidies, etc. But while Americans have long loved big cars, I think the rise of SUV’s and mini-vans is more easily explained by child seat laws.

I’m 39 years old, not young, but hardly ancient. My parents were divorced and my father got re-married to a woman with two children of her own. When my brother and I were with them, we’d often drive around in a Toyota Corolla with the two adults in the front and us four kids piled into the back. Nice and eco-friendly – and wallet-friendly too. Today, that would get my dad arrested. How can you possibly ferry around four kids who all require child seats except in a huge SUV or van? And even if you only have two kids, they might have, you know, friends. And think about it, parents who might want to live in a city with their young kids in a car free lifestyle are handicapped because they can’t use taxis easily on account of the car seat issue. Not good.

I think a lot of the anti-SUV crowd are urban dwellers without kids or with few kids, where they simply don’t run into this issue. It is virtually impossible to have a decent sized family today without a large vehicle whereas in the past a small vehicle would do. Remarkably, most of us did not die. Improved safety? No doubt, but at a cost.

Another classic example is, of course, zoning, which accomplished many good things, but also had a lot of unintended side effects that hurt our cities.

On the second front, I don’t think people truly get the link between a broad vision of what a city is, a large sphere in which individuals can pursue divergent activities and goals, and economic success. As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” The life of the small town or the suburb are rigidly circumscribed. They might not be about a single vision, but they are about a more narrow and defined view of what life should be. They demand conformity. A place like that, no matter how large or even how successful, is not a true city.

A collision of incompatible demands. What a great way to put it. It is in containing that collision within a geographical, political, social, and culture context that a city creates its meaning. Cities can resolve the paradox, reconcile the incompatible into something new and powerful. It isn’t always pretty. The results are sometimes messy or unpleasant. But its in that resolution process that we create the energy and innovation that moves the city forward and allows its residents, business, and institutions to reinvent themselves and their lives if they so choose.

Let’s put it in terms that are broadly understood, by considering this in the framework of Richard Florida’s “Creative Class”. I don’t think this is the end all, be all by any means. But clearly, in a nation pinning its hopes on an innovation economy to replace the jobs lost by productivity gains and offshoring in traditional sectors, and to power the economic growth of the future, you need to both have the talent and the catalyst to make innovation happen.

Florida’s simplified thesis is that successful cities are about talent, technology, and tolerance. The last point is usually taken to mean a tolerance for gays and various “bohemian” types. But tolerance isn’t about non-discrimination ordinances and it isn’t about gays. Tolerance is a mindset.

The dictionary definition of tolerance is “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own”. From this is clear that most advocates for “progressive” policies of the type advocated by Florida really aren’t tolerating anything. They might be about allowing differences, but it is seldom about allowing views or actions that are in actual conflict with their own values. Indeed, progressives can be as intolerant as anyone for beliefs or actions that differ from their orthodoxy.

We need tolerance properly so-called. We need an environment where we are willing to put up with things we don’t like in return for the same freedom for ourselves. We need cities where “live and let live” is the motto. Rules that stifle this in order to produce a perpetual suburban style family friendly or least common denominator view of what a city should be are ultimately counter-productive. They sap the city of its animating power.

This isn’t just an obscure philosophical point. It’s real and tangibly important. George Bernard Shaw famously said that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. Innovation requires non-conformity with existing ways of doing things. This requires not just the idea, but the mental fortitude to break away not just from our own patterns of doing things, but from the social pressure to conform. In a sense, all innovation depends on the outcast.

A civic culture that over-values social conformity will ultimately stifle innovation, creativity and the conditions that bring it forth. Firstly, such locales are not attractive to innovative people in the first place, hence you won’t have the talent. Secondly, it raises the degree of difficulty for bringing innovative ideas to be because there are so many social obstacles to overcome. And thirdly, it deprives the city of the conflict of incompatible demands that catalyzes and sparks creativity. “Iron sharpen iron, so one man sharpens another”. Perhaps another great description of the essential function of the city.

We’ve got to stop making our urban areas “impossibility cities”. We’ve got to adopt a mind set of, to use another basketball analogy, “No harm, no foul”. We’ve got to let people play. Let the people themselves decide the outcome of the game. By all means we need to take an appropriate stance on health and safety, bona fide criminal activity, and the environment. But we also need to create an enlarged public sphere in which individual expression and action is permitted to flourish. Our cities will never be truly successful over the long term until they do.

It might seem a leap from tolerance of some projections on the sides of buildings to the innovation economy. But you can’t expect a civic culture to stop at the boardroom doors. It’s hard to have good table manners at a fancy business dinner if you eat like a slob at home. Similarly, building the culture that supports success in the 21st century knowledge economy starts with letting innovation and creativity flourish on the streets and in the general life of the city.

I’ll wrap this up with one other personal observation. I grew up in the country. The mindset I just described is not that far off from rural values. In the country, you meet a lot of strange people. But interestingly, people tend to stick to a “I’ll stay out of your business if you stay out of mine” mindset and quirkiness is often surprisingly tolerated. In a sense, city and rural dwellers have more in common in this way than small towner or suburbanites. Is this a way to bridge the city-rural divide in some way? It’s something to think about.

(Ok, one last post-script. My personal suspicion: the NCAA told Indy to shut that light show down. In any event, banning the Louisville display is pretty much a nothing event in itself, so please don’t read to much into it. It is just a point of departure).

Topics: Economic Development, Globalization, Public Policy, Urban Culture

33 Responses to “Impossibility City”

  1. A Midwest Transplant says:

    I am a new reader to your blog but I find it refreshingly open and full of absolutely common sense ideas. Yet somehow these common sense ideas read as truly original. In other words, by stepping back from the headlong rush to a society and culture that none of us can predict but that we somehow believe is off or wrong at the margins, you have given me an ability to re-visit so many things that can work.

    My friend, there is a book to be written here. Dare I compare your thinking to jane Jacobs.

    Thank you

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Gosh, you are making me blush. Thank you so much for saying so. This blog is something I do in my spare time after work and on weekends. It takes up a lot of time as you can imagine. I never wanted to have the biggest audience, just the best audience. Knowing that readers such as yourself value it is what makes this worthwhile.

    While I would never put myself in the same league as Jacob’s, I do have a couple of book ideas. I need to square away some issues I won’t bore you with before I’d have the leisure to put a proposal together. Having said that, if any publishers want to go ahead and contact me about this, please do!

  3. E. says:

    While I regularly read your blog Aaron and tend to agree with the vast majority of what you have to say, I’m afraid this is one thing I strongly disagree with you on.

    Louisville’s so-called “prank” was an attempt of creative marketing albeit desperation. If Indy were to pull this off say in Chicago we would be laughed at and frowned upon. If Louisville wants publicity so bad perhaps they should try to lure an NCAA round to their new arena instead of trying to take advantage ours.

    This is not provincial thinking, this is common sense. It is one thing to embrace other cultures and people to our own city. It is another to allow a different city put up THEIR advertisements on OUR civic structures. That weekend was time for Indianapolis to shine as a city and Louisville’s time to shine on the basketball court. Simple as that.

    Again I applaud your blog Aaron and look forward to continue reading it. Even if I disagree with you on this peticular post. Thank you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Well, if someone comes out and announces they’re going to do something that is clearly illegal–no matter how seemingly benign, authorities have no choice but to respond firmly. That’s their job.

    On the other hand, if authorities come down hard on a non-violent, non-chronic (happens once in a blue moon) offense, then shame on them.

    You raise some interesting questions about the impacts of the Nanny State on cities. I think they had it right in Amsterdam by regulating prostitution to a specific zone (not that I approve of the practice… it’s the principle of restricting certain behaviors to a defined territory).

    Those who choose to visit the area do so voluntarily. Those who disapprove can stay away. The impacts to those who do not approve are thus significantly minimized (yes, I know there are residual societal affects from legalized prostitution, but that’s not my point).

    That’s probably how smoking should have been handled in this country. It’s clearly a dangerous behavior for those who participate and those who work in smoking environments. But, it’s not illegal to smoke. Nor is it illegal to be chronically obese. But, we’ve already started to regulate body weight via insurance coverage penalties, and that scares me.

    I guess for me, in terms of cities, the bottom line is this… is the place, overall, child friendly? Is it safe for families with kids? Places that are child friendly will, for the most part, always be attractive to investors and talent.

    Non child-friendly behaviors can still be accommodated if their overall impacts are minimized and contained to a small geographic location. But, it they dominate–whether it’s drinking, smoking, drugs, guns, violence–then places that allow them will always struggle to be socially, economically and culturally sustainable.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    E., appreciate your difference of opinion on that.

    Anon 9:44, speaking of Jane Jacobs and kid friendly, I suggest re-reading the portions of Death and Life where she addresses this very issue. True kid friendliness isn’t always what we make it to be.

  6. Ahow says:

    I completely agree that regulation and conformity are best left in the suburbs. The city requires socially and fiscally liberal regulation to thrive. Indianapolis had a chance at this and blew it. Ed Coleman was a Republican City Councilman who took a stand against the moral policing and the over-taxing/over-spending by switching to the Libertarian Party, who believe that unless someone is injured by force or fraud, the government should stay out of it.

    Unfortunately, he was run out of all committees by both Democrats and Republicans. I applaud his stance to protect our citizens and stand up for our personal liberty.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It’s interesting that I thought of J Jacobs when I was reading about your social issues with urban/suburban conflict. Anyway, it’s just proof that you love non sterile urban life forms and Indy needs you as Major to move this close minded town forward in the future. ‘Too good of a good thing’ sums it up for me when it explains the lack of common sense which plagues our minds these days: because society as a whole is over regulated and based on conformity…SORRY SUBURBANITES for living the current ‘american dream.’ Unfortunately, many of u will be awaken after 50+ years brainwashing. I hear there is some prime real estate in detroit these days. Go UAW!!!

    So why couldn’t Indy as the host city for this important sporting event last week get with both Louisville and Michigan State and come up with a Marketing scheme to benefit all parties?? I’m sure it’s asking all of the brilliant city officials to be way too creative, but it’s just an idea that would ultimately benefit the host city while paying respect to the visitors, who in return would gain a sense of ownership for the weekend. Any Ideas? Or is everything these days illegal?

    Indy really needs 10 years to grow up (not out) under the right leadership. With today’s current economic and social conditions, Indy is in prime position to start this more ‘natural’ progression of growth.

  8. Unfocused Me says:

    This is my first time visiting, but I expect I’ll be back. I thought the post was well-reasoned and dead on.

  9. J. says:

    Great post. What a doozy.

    I’ve lived in New York long enough that I can say that I miss the days when you could brown bag it with your friends in Union Square. Good times.

    You covered a lot of ground and I like your idea of making a balanced choice.

    When you stressed the importance of the unplanned, uncomfortable city I was reminded of the Situationists and their notions of the derive and psycho-geography. Of course, the irony here is that this creative marketing ploy reminds one of the Situationist fear of the city experienced as a scrim of commodities and puts a face on Guy Debord’s idea of the spectacle…

    Yet, I wholeheartedly agree with you that for the city to ban such silly things is, well, is just as silly. City folk are not mindless consumerist zombies. We are recalcitrant. Reading catalogs, walking in shopping malls and chain stores we see things we want but that do not exist. But with the positing of the question, things like advertising becomes transparent. Creative detachment and irony are powerful tools. Due to there excessive nature and proliferation, these types of things provide enough rope to hang themselves with. Anyone who has drawn a mustache on a magazine ad has exercised this analysis. (I am sure the Indy’s sports fans would have come up with a fantastic antidote to the menacing projection and, what is more, it would have been really interesting to watch it unfold. It would have been one of those everyday urban dramas or street theater –one of the things that makes living in a city great…) As De Certeau says: consumption can actually be a form of production; in our consuming of a good we are actually reconfiguring it our own standards.

    Urbanophile, you’re dead on to assert that in the center of this paradox is where any kind of reconciliation lays, as you simply put it, -a balanced choice. We need to be well aware of what we are giving up when we make more convenience and order.

    I also liked your dismantling of Florida’s 3T’s. As fate would have it, he spoke at Columbia when I was a student there and he had just come from a speaking engagement in Indianapolis. He tried to act like he was too cool for Indy and said some unkind words. Afterwards, during the Q and A, some of us in the audience pointed out that we were from Indianapolis and that his notion of harnessing creativity and using it as an economic driver is unsustainable. (In order to extract economic value from a creative product it must be homogenized. In doing this, what had been different, unique, and, ultimately, authentic has been made uniform and banal, -rendering its creative value and uniqueness obsolete. In the end, this conversion process is unsustainable…blah blah) He started to stutter and apologized and said that this was a fundamental problem that he looked forward to working on in the future. He refused to answer any further questions after that.

    Again great post. Cheers!

  10. Anonymous says:

    E – “Louisville’s so-called “prank” was an attempt of creative marketing albeit desperation. If Indy were to pull this off say in Chicago we would be laughed at and frowned upon. If Louisville wants publicity so bad perhaps they should try to lure an NCAA round to their new arena instead of trying to take advantage ours.”

    – methinks thou protest too much. It was a creative idea and certainly not based on desparation. I assure you that Louisville will be a first and second round site for future NCAA tournament games. In fact, if the NCAA ever elects to take a Final Four site to an arena (vs a stadium) the new UL Arena would provide possibly the best setting in the country to do that.

    Noticed that Indy is attempting to raise thier room tax to be among the highest in the country to provide support to the agency that runs the stadium, arena and convention center…

  11. Anonymous says:


    I empathize with your sentiments, but cheer up!

    Having lived in Chicago since 1976, I’ve watched it homogenize, neighborhood after neighborhood. I’d say 80% of this is for the better.

    When I was an “urban pioneer” (interesting term, fortunately fallen out of fashion — I guess everyone who’d been living there before I showed up was just an indigenous primitive) in the lawless territory of DePaul, west of Halsted, you might be able to drink and smoke pot in any park in the city, but you also risked getting knifed whilst doing so. To do your laundry, you stepped over winos, lounging on the sidewalks in front of the laundromat, sipping Thunderbird out of paper bags (no one had a washer or dryer in their apt, or even the basement; basements, even in 3-flats were not really very safe). Ah yes, trade-off’s.

    Yeah, DePaul lost a lot culturally. And I suppose if you inquired, you could find some older gay gents who mourn the days when they could get a quick bj in the bushes around North Pond, instead of a $50 brunch at the cafe that bears that name today. The analogy to Giuliani’s effect on Time Square is spot-on.

    The process you describe is, as many comments agreed, right out of Jane Jacobs, and is one of the many downsides of gentrification. It’s hardly worth describing again the pattern — it’s so well understood. Off-brand, somewhat dangerous, low-rent neighborhoods are first inhabited by gays, students and artists. Traditionally below the regulatory radar, these neighborhoods and their residents were free to paint murals, do performance street art, publicly display affection, incubate head shops, store front theater, etc., etc. The neighborhoods get discovered, and the original residents get priced out. In come the BMWs, strollers and boutiques, and voila, you’ve created another white upper-middle class enclave. The new residents demand — and get — better police protection, form garden and clean-up committees, and make the neighborhood kid-friendly. Out goes indie-anything. And Disney and Starbucks reign supreme.

    Net, net, I guess I’m resigned and even comfortable with the process, at least from the perspective of cultural trade-offs. (Not so comfortable about other effects of gentrification.) Yes, Lincoln Park Zoo isn’t seedy anymore, and parents can even let their kids use the public toilets there without witnessing a depraved act. But you’re probably safer there and in the formal gardens next-door to it than you would be after getting through metal detectors in the White House. And although it’s all wholesome as hell, there’s still something special and urban about hearing a dozen or so languages, spoken by people in saris, jeans, head scarves, etc., everyone smiling and looking at each other. That’s still something you don’t get much of in Schaumburg. And it gives me hope that, although the City scrubs up to meet the standards of its newcomers, the newcomers scruff-up a little bit in return.

    And, whether or not that’s just wishful thinking, I do know that, in a city like Chicago anyway, the beat does still go on. There’s always another beat-up under-the-radar neighborhood for the students, the artists, the unsubsidized young and the philosophically scruffy to find, and start the cycle again.

    True, it’s not happening in Time Square, Millenium Park or downtown Indie, but it’s happening. And I wonder if our cities could really stop it if they tried. Luckily for those of us who, like you, prize a little more anarchy with our coffee, the City Beautiful movement still hasn’t made that much of a dent in the City Scruffy dynamic.

  12. thundermutt says:

    This specific example is a case of a liberal nanny-state idea (codified city regulation) appealing to conservative boosterism when it suits their needs.

    And that, Aaron, is as unbeatable a combination in Indy as in NYC.

    (I would remind you that the “freewheeling” era in Indianapolis planning and zoning gave us your three favorite buildings in Indy: Arby’s, Subway, and White Castle on South Street.)

    In economic development terms, I suspect that sanitizing or closesly supervising redevelopment of a city area (according to a “master plan”) too soon in its redevelopment arc probably prevents the spontaneous springing up of creative nodes and activities that are necessarily to set off a new localized “boom”.

    So maybe you end up with the manicured office-park amenity that is the Indianapolis Downtown Canal instead of the San Antonio Riverwalk?

    I believe “the big sort” phenomenon plays into this. A city full of “progressives” will likely be a city full of regulations and master plans and progressive orthodoxy (an oxymoron?).

    My take is that progressives today are not of the Teddy Roosevelt “rugged individualist” stripe. They are of the nanny-state variety and do not see how their nanny-state regulations tamp down the very same bohemian/non-conformist notions that they purport to tolerate or support.

    I actually know “progressives” who are proud of the fact that they don’t know anyone whose views are substantially different from theirs! (Sadly for them.)

    One last thought regarding the Louisville thing: I honestly think that the Lvl light-show plan had potential for actual violence. Being the father of college students, I can well imagine civic pride, alcohol, and testosterone mixing with the light show to produce a combustible result…a fight or worse. If not this year in Indy, maybe next year somewhere else when a copycat civic booster group tried something else.

  13. John says:

    Interesting point about the car seats. I had my first kid a little less than a month ago and it is somewhat difficult to get the car seat in and out of my completely reasonably sized Honda Civic. It’s not difficult enough for me to trade up to an Accord or a CRV, but I bet it would be for some people.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Anon 8:19:

    Regarding “don’t get much of in Schaumburg”: I respectfully disagree. Schaumburg’s supposed lack of diversity was perhaps true 20 years ago – it definitely isn’t anymore. In fact, speaking of saris, much of the South Asian businesses on Devon Avenue have opened up shop or even outright relocated to Schaumburg because of the now very-large South Asian population there. The saris and headscarves you saw at Lincoln Park Zoo may in fact “reside” in Schaumburg (or Naperville, or perhaps more modestly, Des Plaines or Skokie). The zoo, of course, is still one of those true urban amenities that haven’t made it out to the suburbs, but that doesn’t change the fact that places like Schaumburg are fare more diverse and cosmpolitan, than, as you suggest, now uber-gentrified Chicago neighborhoods like LP, Wicker Park, etc.

    I noticed this in the DC metro as well, especially since unlike Chicago they do not have a history of in-town urban ethnic neighborhoods. You want good Korean or Indian restaurants? Head out to mid-suburban and even exurban locations in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia, because that’s actually where minorities, especially middle class ones, live today.

  15. Anonymous says:


    Damn those “liberal nanny-states”! Bring back the days when we could give our kids as much thalidomide as we wanted!

  16. SpeedBlue47 says:

    It’s sad to see some people react negatively to such a well-reasoned post. As if drug safety has anything to do with municipal regulation.

    Keep up the good work Aaron, as usual.

  17. Anonymous says:

    It’s sad to see some people are unable to read blog comments well. The above comment was not directed to Aaron, but to another commenter and his/her use of the loaded term, “liberal nanny-state.”

  18. thundermutt says:

    Sorry for that.

    Please substitute the term “well-meaning progressive policy with unintended reactionary consequences when overzealously applied”.

    Thrust and meaning remains the same.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Only thing I would say about the whole Louisville thing. I would have no problem with Indy allowing projections promoting Louisville up on our buildings if they would allow us to put up projections promoting Indy on their buildings at Derby time.

  20. Small town native says:

    Some random thoughts (most of them unrelated to your point) generated from your post.

    First and completely unrelated to the point of your post, seeing you reference both the broken windows theory of policing and child safety seats, I could not help thinking of the book Freakanomics. Only because it is the only other place where I seen both of these topics together.

    You had an interesting juxtaposition of insecurity and tolerance in your post. I think you are dead on. Those who are insecure need more rules that those who are secure. My mind jumped to a community that is a study in contrast on this issue: the Amish. This group is usually tolerant of those outside their communities. Mostly because of their security in their own correctness, we are not their problem and they don’t really care what we do as long as they are not forced to participate. On the other hand, the group has a large number of rules for everyday life that they enforce strictly on their own members. However while this enforcement may cause some to be expelled from the group, it doesn’t usually cause many to leave voluntarily. Is there something here than can be translated or am I just pushing the idea way too far?

    At the end of the post, you mentioned that country people and urban people tend to have a more tolerant view than small town or suburban people. I think that ties back into your insecurity and tolerance idea. I think that rural people that move to big cities do so because they believe that they won’t be forced to conform as they might in a smaller town. However, these people are also not the sort to sign up for jobs or commissions that make the rules. Small town and suburban people do like rules and order. But they don’t always appreciate the freedoms that tolerance can bring as they have not fully experienced them (rather big generalization, I know). These are the people who get themselves put in a position to make the rules. They mean well but they are not secure enough to believe that good things will happen without their intervention. (Did I just label myself a libertarian?)

    In spite of my rambling rather off topic, I enjoyed and agree with the majority of your post and your opinion on the Indianapolis handling of the Louisville incident.

  21. JG says:

    Urbano wrote a nice post a year or two ago called “Why I Hate Historic Districts.” It shares a similar theme with this post of well-intentioned local government and the unintended negative consequences of policies and actions.

  22. JG says:

    …By the way, I don’t hate historic districts and the post’s title is rather provacative compared to its fairly reasonable content. It points out problems that plague many city planning and policy groups.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Give me a break thundermutt- progressives do not advocate controlling thought or expression, the two areas that are the most important in attracting bohemian types.

    And the urbanophile is just a long winded blogger who never is actually able to propose or advocate anything concrete.

  24. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I’m limited on time tonight so can’t respond to everybody (maybe later this week?) but will say.

    1. I want to live my own principles on this blog, so differences of opinion, even strong ones and even anonymous ones, are welcome.

    2. There is definitely a balance. City building isn’t a science, it’s an art and organic process. We need the right mix of conformity and non-conformity at the right place the right time. The great cities of the world consistently get this right. The rest of them don’t, even if they might have their day in the sun.

    3. There’s something cyclical about this. It’s like centralizing and decentralizing, you are always doing one or the other. I hope the pendulum starts to swing back soon.

    Again, more special comments later as time allows. Cheers for now!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Anon from Louisville- your city was trying to ride the hard work of Indy to get some free publicity- shame on it. I am glad the Cardinals got their rears handed to them. Serves you right.

    And yes, in the economic downturn, revenue for the CIB dried up. What a surprise. When you have great sports facilities the way Indy does (and Louisville does not) you have to pay for them.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Anon 9:53

    The CIB deficit of $47M is not related to the economic downturn but rather the underestimated expenses of running LOS, Conseco Fieldhouse and the Convention Center. All great facilities to be sure but they come with a cost. That cost appears will be borne by raising the room tax to be the highest in the country and also raising taxes on those who eat/drink in Marion County.

    Louisville has (or will have) great sports facilities. PJCStadium is expanding to 65000 seats and is one of the best outdoor football venues around (privately funded) and the new UL Downtown arena will be at least as nice as Conseco Fieldhouse and seats @4K more than it. Slugger Field is a nicer stadium than is Bush Field.

    From my view, all those extra taxes that Indy needs to support its venues, will make it less competitive in the convention game and places like Louisville will capitalize on that.

    Indy is welcome to come to Louisville and laser lite our buildings with the message “Send Money”

  27. JG says:

    City-city fighting is poor taste.

    I want to discuss how cities handle in-fill construction, primarily in neighborhoods. Indianapolis has a designation called conservation districts where neighborhoods can establish infill and rehab development guidelines that are less strict than historical districts. I think its a good avenue to promote sometimes conflicting goals of economic and social development in older neighborhoods, with protection for cultural characteristics of neighborhoods. Still not quite the cool spontaneity URBANO is advocating and I tend to agree with, but a movement in the right direction. Any thoughts?

  28. Alon Levy says:

    We need the right mix of conformity and non-conformity at the right place the right time. The great cities of the world consistently get this right.

    I wish. New York has been clamping down on spontaneity since the Koch administration. Just last weekend, NYPD dispersed the annual Pillow Fight, which took place on Wall Street after the city forced the organizers to move away from the traditional venue of Union Square.

  29. CARR says:

    I can see both sides of the coin. I completely understand why cities would want more conformity for their urban areas. It’s easier to understand and its what they are use to. Most of the older guard that usually call the shots in todays cities are from the generation that ran to the burbs. It’s safe and predictable.

    The grungy, scruffy crowd is a little bit harder to appeal to anyway. They are usually on the cutting edge. Which makes it pretty hard to “plan” for them since style and taste change quickly. Besides, all of that diversity is unpredictable.

    This might be most cities have a “safe zone.” An area where you can get a hint of the burbs with chain restaurants, and not a bum in site. Then a couple of blocks over you have the city proper. An excellent example of this would be 4th Street Live in Louisville. Chain clubs and restaurants, and devoid of any bums. It even has a dress code to keep thuggy looking black guys out (even though they say thats not why they have the dress code).

    Now, you go in a block in any direction from 4th Street Live and you have the real city. If you ever go one of those friday gallery hops it really shows the real city that is just blocks from the “Safe Zone”

    I think that some cities need the safe zone. It’s a way to reintroduce people to the urban core again. I don’t think cities should legislate all of the quirkiness out. The safe zones might be a way for them to have their cake and eat it to.

    On the Louisville v. Indy thing. I was in Indy covering the Sweet 16, and I’ll be back to cover the 500 as well. I think Indy is a great city. In fact, I think Indy has the best downtown of its neighboring cities. I haven’t been to any of Indy’s neighborhoods or burbs, but I do love the downtown.

  30. Anonymous says:

    So, if I project some stuff here in Louisville, nobody’s going to get mad, right? I can get my projection-graffiti on, since it’s all in good fun.
    Or is it only good fun when marketing folks and official people do it?
    To put this in context, I looked into doing some “guerilla art” projections, no obscene material or the like, here in L-ville, and was told I would be shut down, no ifs, ands, or buts.
    The difference?

  31. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 9:39 – If that’s the case, I’d say no difference.

  32. Rebecca says:

    Intriguing SUV theory. I think you’re onto something. I remember the station wagons that moms drove back in the day. They’d just put a couple kids in the cargo area and think nothing of it. Of course, we also rode bikes without helmets and stayed out til dark unsupervised. Crazy times.

  33. thundermutt says:

    Rebecca: crazy times that we all lived through.

    Hence my thoughts about “well-meaning progressive policy with unintended reactionary consequences when overzealously applied”: normal, accepted, everyday behaviors of a generation ago are now criminal.

    If that’s not “controlling thought and expression”, I don’t know what it is. People used to be free to be stupid (among other things).

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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