Wednesday, June 19th, 2013
I was recently invited to give a short talk on why cities, and especially global cities, are so important to the world today and in the future. My case for an urban future generally is more quantitatively oriented, but my global city section focuses more on the unique role they play in our world. I also issue a challenge to understand and contextualize solutions to the things that make every global city (and every city period, actually) so unique and different from any other in the world.
This was at an event that was making a pitch for the importance of cities to religious mission, but my talk is secular. Other than a short mathematical analysis of the implications of urban growth for spiritual infrastructure investment, there’s no religious content in this talk and my case is applicable to any endeavor.
If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Thursday, May 23rd, 2013
My latest post is up over at GoLocalProv and is called “How White Providence Really Is.” I contrast the strong diversity of the city and some other urban core type places versus the extreme whiteness of the rest of the region. New England generally is lacking in diversity. Boston, for example, is by far the whitest tier one type city in America. I’ve got a chart on that as well. Here’s an excerpt:
The city of Providence is a very diverse place. In fact, it’s over 62% minority, making it a so-called “minority majority” city. However, the city of Providence is only a very small part of the overall state and region.
Metropolitan Providence is one of the whitest major regions in America. Looking at metro areas with more than one million people, Providence ranks third in the country for the total non-minority population. The percentage of the population that is “white only, non-hispanic” – Hispanic people can be of any race – is nearly 80%. Only Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are higher.
Minority population growth actually bailed out the entire region. During that 11 year period metro Providence actually lost over 81,000 non-hispanic white residents. Without minority population growth, the region would have actually shrunk in population.
Tuesday, May 21st, 2013
[ Here's another nice entry from Pete Saunders, a Chicago urban planner. If you haven't checked his stuff out before, be sure to pay a visit to his blog Corner Side Yard - Aaron. ]
Most Americans take it as an article of faith that there’s a strong connection and relationship between the major cities of the East and West coasts. Indeed, there may be 3,000 miles separating New York from Los Angeles, or San Francisco from Washington, but psychologically the cities each seem to be more connected to each other than, say, Dallas to New York or Atlanta to San Francisco. Of course, in the minds of the coastal crowd, the rest of the nation has become “flyover” country. That wasn’t always the case. How exactly did that happen?
Lots of factors helped to develop America’s west coast. Certainly the pioneer spirit that initially brought settlers west led to a strong sense of individualism and entrepreneurism that pushed development forward. The allure of the weather brought many transplants west. But I think the West Coast benefitted much more from the kinds of connections identified by Jim Russell at Burgh Diaspora (and now at Pacific Standard) – the West Coast had an effective talent attraction strategy, created strong bonds with the East Coast, and never let them go. It’s a lesson that the shrinking cities of the Rust Belt should heed and practice.
I’m no historian, nor am I the ultimate authority on the development of cities. But it’s clear West Coast cities did some things that Rust Belt cities did not. As we all know, the settlement of California was kicked off with the Gold Rush of 1849. Prior to that California was a sparsely-settled former Mexican territory with no physical or institutional infrastructure. The Gold Rush propelled Eastern financiers to provide the money to develop San Francisco as the financial center that would open up the west, and give it the physical and institutional resources to deliver its goods to the rest of the nation. San Francisco never relinquished those ties.
Further south, Los Angeles used its fabulous and consistent weather as a means to attract parts of a budding film industry previously based on the East Coast. The growth of the film industry ultimately led to the growth of the media industry in Southern California, and voila – the economic underpinnings of a major metropolis are established. Like San Francisco, LA never relinquished those ties. (Side note: I don’t think you can understate the importance of the Rose Bowl in luring Midwesterners in particular to Southern California. The “Granddaddy of Them All”, started in 1902, annually brought the Big Ten’s best and brightest for a few weeks of sun and fun in winter. The strategy paid off.)
The lesson here for the Rust Belt is talent attraction, and maintaining the connections over time. San Francisco was able to parlay its Eastern financial connections into the development of a strong financial center, which later served as the financial apparatus for the tech industry. Los Angeles was able to do the same with the film industry and media, and it could be argued that the city’s ties to Midwestern interests led to the growth of the defense industry there.
As for the Rust Belt? It seems that what sets it apart from the West Coast is that it remained content to be the industrial hearth of the nation, instead of seeking other avenues to leverage its advantages for even more growth. That, and the fact that West Coast cities understood the importance of maintaining strong connections with East Coast partners, and East Coast cities understood the financial upside – for their own cities – of staying close to those on the West Coast. Can the Rust Belt do the same?
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on May 3, 2013.
Thursday, May 9th, 2013
My latest blog post is up over at GoLocalProv and is called “ Who’s Coming + Going—Surprising RI Migration Data“. In it I take a look at migration to and from Rhode Island based on my IRS data sets. Here’s a sample:
If it’s true that Rhode Island is a basket case but Massachusetts is so great, why are more people moving from Mass to RI than vice versa?…Massachusetts is actually the #2 source of net imports to Rhode Island. In a sense it is unsurprising. Contrary to popular belief, sprawl is alive and well in America, and people continue to move out further from the centers of metro regions.
What I find most curious is that Rhode Island’s migration problems have been all over the map. Looking back as far as 1995, Rhode Island was losing people and income, but it was recovering, even becoming a net gainer of people in the early 2000s, then the bottom fell out in 2003.
Here’s the image showing the net income flow to/from Rhode Island over time.
Understanding migration flows is critical for any metro area or state, but few people take the time to do any analysis of it.
Sunday, May 5th, 2013
This post originally ran on November 11, 2009.
Until recently I had an apartment in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis. Fountain Square is a small commercial node surrounded by houses on the near southeast side of the city that has long been my favorite ‘hood in the city. I’ve been hanging out in the area for over 15 years.
Fountain Square was a sort of lower working class neighborhood. The South Side of Indianapolis is notably more Southern in character than the north. In fact, some have said that Washington St. (or I-70) is the real Mason-Dixon Line. In the case of Fountain Square, it is literally Southern. A good chunk of the population is from Appalachia. This has been true a long time. Back in the 1960′s, then Mayor (now Senator) Richard Lugar commissioned a study called “The Appalachian in Indianapolis” to study the question of whether or not the city’s Appalachian community needed special help like other minority populations. The epicenter of Appalachian Indianapolis is Fountain Square. Even today, many people are new arrivals from places like West Virginia. There’s a lot of circulation back and forth. Sometimes kids who get in trouble in Indy get sent back home to West Virginia to stay with relatives there, for example. In effect, Fountain Square is an ethnic immigrant neighborhood, but instead of traditional immigrants from places like Poland, Italy, or Mexico, it is made up of domestic migrants from a particular region and with a distinct culture. New arrivals are, in effect, straight off the boat. As with waves of immigrants from elsewhere, they are seeking better opportunities. Fountain Square is the traditional port of entry for people from West Virginia and similar places to Indianapolis.
The area is about a mile and a half from the center of downtown, and is one of the few intact commercial nodes left in the city. So it was long targeted for development. A few enterprising people bought and refurbished the Fountain Square Theater Building, which now houses restaurants, a duckpin bowling alley, and a boutique hotel. A former department store was converted into cutting edge art galleries and studios. An indie rock club has opened. Many restaurants dot the area and it is really a destination dining district in some ways. (Santorini on Prospect is the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever eaten at). A lot of artists and culturally inclined types have moved in. My apartment was previously occupied by an assistant curator of contemporary art the Indianapolis Museum of Art, for example.
When the artists started moving in I was originally very worried about gentrification and the area becoming unaffordable to anyone without lots of money, like Lockerbie Square or Chatham-Arch, displacing all the original residents. But that didn’t happen. Housing remains extremely affordable and despite the influx of newcomers, they are still a minority.
What’s notable about Fountain Square, and similar areas in other Midwest cities, is that a lot of these artists are able to buy homes. This means they are likely here to stay even if prices go up. That’s in contrast to NYC, SF, or Chicago, where the artists rent.
In any case, while Fountain Square may go upscale, wholesale remaking of large chunks of the city a la Chicago is not likely to happen. Despite the increase in demand for urban living, there is not enough demand to materially increase prices outside of selected district because of the vast acreage of land that has fallen to nearly zero in value. It is a huge overhang. Also, the type of wage inflation and resulting salary gap that you see in bigger cities, which I’ll argue in a future piece is a big driver of their two-tier societies, didn’t happen in Indianapolis. For example, a partner in a major local law firm told me that a few years ago the salary difference for new associates between Indianapolis and Chicago was 30%. Now it is 100%.
So unlike in so many other cities, in Indianapolis yuppies and artists can live side by side with traditional neighborhood residents for a long time. When I lived in West Town in Chicago, my area was probably 30% Mexican, 30% Puerto Rican, 30% yuppie, and 10% other white ethnic. But that was only a transitional period presaging a yuppie takeover. In Fountain Square though, I expect the Appalachians aren’t going anywhere for quite some time, even if the core area around the commercial district does gentrify. (Perhaps the arrival of a spur of the Indy Cultural Trail may by a catalyst for that – we’ll see). I often describe the demographic of the neighborhood as “Artists and Appalachians”, though that doesn’t do it justice since artists are a minority of the new arrivals, who are often professionals, especially those who merely patronize businesses in the area, and there is by my eyeball estimate a 10% or so African American population.
But just because two groups of people live side by side doesn’t mean they interact socially. With some exceptions, I rarely observed much in the way of interaction between them. The upscale restaurants and art galleries are not affordable or perhaps even of interest to West Virginia refugees. Similarly the rent to own stores for yuppies or arts crowd.
There are some older institutions that are, however, used by everyone. One of them is a greasy diner called Peppy’s Grill. If ever a place deserved an exemption from the smoking ban, this is it. The place just hasn’t been the same. Good burgers, great atmosphere. But not a lot of conversation between the two sets of customers.
Another is the Liquor Cabinet, the neighborhood package liquor store. They carry a large inventory of 40′s along with a cooler of top end microbrews from the likes of Three Floyds – all behind a bulletproof glass shield. There’s a drink for every taste and budget.
As an aside, is there any better example to show why, despite what one may think, Indianapolis is not an overgrown small town? I mean, physically, it basically is one. I’ve long noted that a residential street in Indianapolis is not that different from one in the first state capital of Corydon, population 3,000. Heck, Fountain Square is like a literal small town, with its fading Main St. shops along Virginia Ave., the Theater Building and its surrounding streets the courthouse square, and the tidy rows of small, single family homes that have seen better days around it.
But appearances can be deceiving. Function does not always follow form. How many Indiana small towns have a liquor store like that? Or a piece of contemporary architecture like the Craig McCormick designed Ragsdale House on Pleasant St.? Or several edgy contemporary art studios? Or an indie rock club?
Need more proof? Just look at the city’s blogosphere. One of America’s leading LGBT blogs is based in Indy. The leading Republican blogger in the city is gay. A hardcore libertarian anti-tax activist is a former professional dominatrix. And a prominent political pundit is a cigar smoking, whiskey sipping Black Muslim stand-up comedian – and Republican.
No, my friends, this is no small town. And it has a lot more character – and characters – than you might think.
Back at the Liquor Cabinet, a variety of people come together to buy their nightly libations – but I don’t see any real conversation or interaction. Only occasional light banter of the type one might make with strangers – because that’s what we are. There’s no connection or bond that has been built between the different groups, with some limited exceptions such as at the Community Development Corporation.
Long time readers know I care a lot about the notion of a “commonwealth”. That is, a city and region where people feel that their fates are linked together, where they rise an fall together, where they feel like they have a stake in the system and in a shared prosperity for everyone.
I think it is harder to view ourselves as sharing a common destiny with people who are very different from ourselves. But if we get to know them personally at some level, there is generally some base commonality there. How do we foster that type of connection, not just of the “Isn’t this weather nice?” variety but some type of real relationship?
I’ve thought about this a bit and it often seems to require some type of pivot point or area of mutual concern people can connect around. I think about, for example, how back in the early 90′s a lot of heavy metal bands and gangster rappers started hanging out together and promoting each other’s stuff. They saw the marketing possibilities yes, but also a way to tap into the common alienation and marginalization their respective audiences felt from the mainstream.
Because each pivot point is likely to involve a subset of people, it is best to have multiple of them. Then you start creating all sorts of cross-network pathways. I thought about this with regards to Fountain Square and came up with a few ideas.
- The obvious neighborhood institutions: neighborhood associations, local schools (such as the area charter school), the library branch, the CDC, etc.
- Back to our musical example, a shared sense of being marginalized in a community felt by both artists and Appalachians. Certainly both of those groups have a shared interest in not seeing runaway real estate prices. The artists already had a scare recently when the Murphy Building which houses many of their studios and such was put up for sale.
- Bicycling. Fountain Square is the heart of Indy’s bike culture. One of the people behind the Indy Cog blog lives there and is brave enough to live in Indy with only his feet and bike for transportation. Joe’s Cycles on Virginia is a local gathering place. But in Fountain Square, lots of people ride. It’s not just hipsters or people making an alternative transportation statement, it’s kids and regular neighbors, people black and white, a true neighborhood cross-section. Seems like an opportunity.
These are a few examples in only one neighborhood. The bigger point is that a big part of what makes a city is its social infrastructure. It’s not just bike lanes and buildings. It’s people and relationships and networks. Especially where there is so much traditional distrust between groups who have often had big differences in interests, finding ways to bring people together across those boundaries, at least at some level, is a way to help strengthen civic social capital. A mixed neighborhood is of limited benefit if people do not, in fact, mix. We should be looking for ways to break down barriers that too often create parallel societies.
Tuesday, April 16th, 2013
[ This week's guest post comes courtesy of reader Scott Beyer - Aaron. ]
Last Sunday, as the issue was being prepared for Congress, I was witnessing the remunerative effects of immigration firsthand on city streets just an hour north. This was while at Chicken Rico, a Peruvian hotspot in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood. After eating a plate of chicken and plantains–priced, as usual, at under $5—I stepped outside onto Eastern Avenue. This crowded thoroughfare is the center of Baltimore’s Hispanic community, which stretches a half-mile through the city’s southeast side, even merging into what’s known as “Greektown.”
But Highlandtown wasn’t always like this. Although once working-class, it suffered, like much of the city, through decades of industrial decline. In 2000 the City Paper quoted an official who represented it in the 1990s, when it teemed with “absentee landlords, dysfunctional families, loss of businesses,” and a robust drug trade. Its revival, just then beginning, has continued the last decade because of public improvements, and gentrification in nearby Canton. But this revival is also due to immigration, suggesting a potential long-term fix for Baltimore, and other declining cities.
After all Baltimore, a city that for decades was mostly black and white—and heavily segregated—has reestablished its role as an immigrant enclave, adding 20,000 the last two decades. During this it lost 115,000 people overall, mirroring similar population declines in every decade since the 1950s, and making one wonder what would’ve become of the city without these new foreigners.
According to a report by the Abell Foundation, a local non-profit, it occurred here in Baltimore because of the communal nature of immigrants, who after settling somewhere often invite friends from back home. But it’s continuing because of conscious efforts to attract them under Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. In 2011 the mayor announced an initiative to add 10,000 families to Baltimore, declaring immigrants instrumental for this. A year later she signed an order preventing policemen from questioning people’s citizenship status. She also started Spanish-only classes within city-run schools, and community groups that help immigrants with paperwork. As a result housing is being filled and businesses started in once-dying neighborhoods, not only by Hispanics, but West Indians, Jews, and Koreans. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, these and other immigrants now compile 9% of Baltimore’s population but 12% of its workforce, and a whopping quarter of its small-business owners.
Baltimore is an example of how the benefits of immigration can vary by locality. In many growing municipalities, immigrants have overwhelmed the services, causing resentment and even legal backlashes. But in declining cities, they’re considered essential for survival. This includes not only in Baltimore, but in Detroit, where “Mexicantown” is one of the only functioning neighborhoods, and heavily-Arabic Dearborn one of its nicer suburbs. Immigration has also helped St. Louis, Birmingham, and Richmond, VA; and has accelerated growth in emerging but relatively-homogenous cities like Charlotte and Nashville. Its benefits were recently validated by both the Cato and Manhattan Institutes, who published papers linking immigration with greater innovation and productivity.
But how can the issue become localized when enforced at federal level? One way, said demographer Joel Kotkin in an interview, is for declining areas to attract, on their own, the immigrants that do exist. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking Baltimore’s aggressive measures, but simply providing the same things, like jobs and affordable housing, that also attract natives. In his article “California Needs More Immigrants”, he explained that the state’s failure at providing this has caused sharp immigration declines, which have dovetailed with its economic decline overall. Instead immigrants now settle for states with lower taxes and living costs, like Texas, and that to attract them back California must adopt similar policies.
Nonetheless Kotkin also saw a “compelling argument” for a federal program that directed immigrants to where they were most needed. This was explored recently in an article by Nancy Scola about Canada’s “Provincial Nominee Program”, which enables provinces “to self-determine the sort of immigrants they’d like to admit.” The program has matched immigrants and their skills with relevant locations and industries, creating, for example, an influx of garment workers in Winnipeg and truck drivers in Saskatchewan. The same strategy, she wrote, could be implemented in the U.S. with “place-based visas” that enable states to select their preferred number of immigrants, who must then remain for a given time.
Of course this would limit both the number and the quality of locations available to immigrants, generating, for example, what Scola imagined might be a robust “Detroit Visa” program. But it would still grant states more autonomy than federal policy now does in dealing with the issue. And while some states would use this stringently, others would become immigrant welcoming mats, only to watch their inner city neighborhoods become hotspots for cheap eating, eclectic shopping, and revived entrepreneurialism.
Scott Beyer writes about cities at Big City Sparkplug.
Thursday, April 11th, 2013
My latest post is up over at GoLocalProv and is called “Providence by the Numbers.” It’s a look at some under-appreciated numbers around incomes, housing prices, and demographics. Here’s an excerpt:
Providence’s median household income is $53,553 per year, above the US average and about in the middle of the pack for those big cities. But this misses the story because Providence has a very high cost of living. If you take the average pay per job and adjust it for cost of living, Providence actually ranks 48th out of the 49 large metro areas for which we have data. That’s worse than Memphis, New Orleans, and even Detroit. This is why Providence feels poor despite relatively healthy headline incomes.
Why is the cost of living so high? A key driver is housing costs. A rule of thumb is that a family should spend no more than about three times its annual income on a home. But in greater Providence the so-called median multiple, that is the multiple of the average (median) family’s income that is required to buy the average (median) home in the area, is four. This puts housing out of reach for in a difficult to afford zone for many.
Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
What Killed Downtown?: Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls
by Michael E. Tolle
For those of us who have grown dyspeptic on the over-indulged topic of the collapse of the American city center, Michael Tolle’s What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls earns much of its anodyne appeal by straying from a commonly accepted convention in urban studies—that an analysis of the socioeconomic decline of a community should draw heavily upon socioeconomic variables. Isn’t there another way to get the point across? And more importantly, aren’t there other contributing factors?
This compassionate narrative of the 20th century rise and fall of an older Philadelphia suburb avoids graphs and charts for the most part, becoming much more engaging for its alternative approach. And likeability is exactly what it will need to win over skeptics, or the merely apathetic, because most people in the US probably have never heard of Norristown. In fact, it’s likely that quite a few people on the other side of the Keystone State aren’t familiar with it either. After all, the borough at its 1960 peak only had 39,000 inhabitants (the 2010 Census records a population of 34,000). But Norristown merits further observation, not so much because its downtown has declined in the mid-20th century—that happened everywhere, in municipalities of all sizes—but because Norristown sits squarely in the middle of Montgomery County, an expansive bedroom community of Philadelphia with 800,000 people and a median household income of over $78,000, placing it within the top 100 wealthiest counties in the nation. Meanwhile, Norristown’s median household income, according to the latest Census, is approximately $43,000 and its poverty level of 16.4% is almost triple that of the county’s 5.7%, and still a fair amount higher than the state’s rate of 12.6%. While Montgomery County boomed over the last half century, Norristown has not shared in that prosperity. It is by no means a devastated town—many old neighborhoods remain charming and fully intact—but the commercial heart of Norristown has never healed.
The above paragraph contains a higher concentration of raw data than one should ever expect to encounter in Tolle’s new book. Rather than delving into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US Census Bureau, or rankings from Urban Land Institute or the Brookings Institution, Tolle manages to chronicle the rapid ascent of this suburban outpost, its 75-year dominion over commercial activity within the county, and its precipitous decline shortly after the Second World War—and he achieves it through a diligent perusal of old city directories, interviews with almost two dozen of Norristown’s older citizenry, and a vigorous exploration of the internal machinations of the Borough Council. He applies an anthropologist’s lens to a subject that sociologists have long overcrowded.
While Norristown’s early history—first as a manor under one of William Penn’s initial surveys, followed by a subdivision into smaller farms by Isaac Norris in 1712—is clearly never the focal point for Tolle’s methodical dissection of downtown, he avoids glossing over it. Not surprisingly, Norristown emerged as the most desirable plot of land in the sprawling manor because of its accessibility: it abutted the “canoeable part of the Schuylkill” and the interconnected American Indian trails that allowed for easy fording of the river. By 1784, the Pennsylvania Assembly carved Montgomery County out of the existing Philadelphia County, and a subsequent deed conveyed lots reserved for county buildings at the intersection of two of the only extant roads at the time. Due to its advantageous location, it became a nearly self-sufficient Town of Norris within a few years, abiding by Penn’s “Town Model” for Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities, employing tightly organized, gridded streets that maximized uses of available space. The construction of some of the earliest turnpikes helped to stimulate the town’s steady growth and prepare it for its incorporation as a borough of 520 acres in 1812, followed shortly thereafter by the rail networks that galvanized further expansion.
Swede Street just north of Main Street, known by some as Lawyers’ Row. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.
The early chapters of the book may only provide a backdrop for Norristown’s 20th century rise and fall, but Tolle chronologically accounts for the factors that helped Norristown emerge as the primary urban center in Montgomery County. And unlike neighboring 19th century boomtowns that dot both the Delaware and Schuylkill Valleys, Norristown “lacked the characteristics that define similar towns of sufficient size and influence that could easily explain the downtown’s decline. . . [It] was never a one-company town. It was never dependent on [a] single employer whose corporate fate might have led it to a catastrophic domino effect; rather Norristown’s workforce has always been distributed among many workplaces.” It owed much of its steady growth to its fortuitous location 17 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the convergence of several modes of transportation, and its role as the administrative center of a large and increasingly prominent county.
By the book’s twentieth page, Tolle reveals the real heart of his study: the bustling commercial core of Norristown’s six-block Main Street. At the borough’s Centennial Celebration, population approached 30,000, swelling largely from immigrants who arrived to work in various industries: first the northern European Protestants, then the Irish, then, in by far the highest concentration, the Italians, overwhelmingly from Sicily. Mennonites, Amish, and Jews (predominantly of German heritage) along with African Americans arrived in smaller numbers. While the population self-segregated along largely ethnic and economic lines (working and lower-middle class Protestants on the West End; the wealthy, Northern European original settlers in the North End and DeKalb Street; Italians and African Americans in the blue-collar East End), all the strata converged along Main Street’s densely commercialized blocks. Tolle explores the full week’s worth of celebratory activities, from the details of the floats in the Industrial Day parade to overhead weave of flags, bunting, and electrical wires. The pace of the narrative slows at this point, but Tolle employs a humanism that he retains across the ensuing pages. When he intermittently bogs down in relentless detail, he’s easily forgivable—even a little admirable for not shying away from his obsessions.
A view of DeKalb Street, Norristown’s most affluent residential address, from its southern junction with Main Street. This was once the center of commercial activity in the borough. Tolle details the controversy of the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan to make DeKalb Street one-way northbound in 1951, a restriction which remains today. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.
The Directory of the Boroughs of Norristown and Bridgeport, Montgomery County, Pa, for the years 1860-1861 serves as the bedrock for his chronological exploration of the commercial health of downtown Norristown. For some of the most resilient businesses—Chatlin’s Department Store, Egolf’s Furniture, Zummo’s Hardware—Tolle offers vignettes on their immigrant backgrounds and the financial maneuvering necessary to start their trades. Interspersed with these brief accounts are updates from subsequent City Directories, chronicling the change in business composition over time. But Tolle generally eschews tables and charts—with few exceptions, he narrates the changing commercial landscape of Norristown by integrating the livelihoods of the proprietors with the demands of the consumers. Because the authorial voice depends so heavily on firsthand accounts of the business climate—articles from the Norristown Times Herald, advertisements (including misspellings and solecisms), and, in the later years, eyewitness accounts—the routine references to City Directory data never grow stuffy or monotonous.
What Killed Downtown? is a concatenation of anecdotes. While such an indulgence in human-interest nostalgia could take a maudlin turn, Tolle again counterbalances these episodes with moments of acerbic subjectivity, as any conscientious anthropologist cannot help but do. My two favorite anecdotes feature a building and a person. The Valley Forge Hotel emerged in the roaring 1920s, purely driven by the local business community, who felt that the proud city demanded a first-class hotel. A stock subscription campaign raised enough to complete the massive six-story brick structure by November of 1925. Though it rarely made a profit, its size and relative opulence made it an icon for the city, and as an emblem of civic pride, it succeeded. The other great anecdote involves the detailed account of the life of the city’s most colorful politician, the recalcitrant Paul Santangelo. Lacking greater aspirations than borough administration, Santangelo earns more ink on these pages than any other civic leader, including the mayors. He fiercely defended the interests of the poorer Sicilian immigrants who comprised much of his district, voting ferociously in their favor but often—in Tolle’s opinion—at the expense of city progress as a whole.
Norristown Main Street, west of Swede Street and looking westward. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.
Tolle’s account of Norristown’s Main Street after its 1950 apex avoids mind-numbing predictability even has he identifies the usual culprits contributing to its decline: growing dependence on the automobile, competition from suburban shopping plazas like the now-mammoth King of Prussia, shift of the population center toward the far-southern part of Montgomery County, construction of limited access highways outside of the borough’s limits. And of course, all these factors converge with the suburban amenity that wounds Norristown the most: “free, ample parking”—a mantra which Tolle repeats enough that it tacitly answers the question to his book’s title. Anyone with a scintilla of knowledge of American urbanism will know where this is headed. But by the1950s, Tolle reaches a point in time where procures firsthand accounts of Main Street’s changes. The worm’s-eye view continues, imbuing the narrative of Norristown’s saddest days—by the 1970s it is not safe to walk Main Street at night—with empathy and hope.
Courthouse Plaza along Main Street, one of many mid-century projects that removed commercial buildings and replaced them with staid, largely unused civic space. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.
For a person as enamored by details as me, Tolle’s worm’s-eye view never really grows old, even when he’s a fussbudget over counts of shuttered storefronts from year to year. At the same time, this intricate approach to an already small subject could easily undermine the ability for What Killed Downtown? to find a broad audience. What happens to a little-known suburban city can hardly resonate as much as if he had explored the devolution of downtown Philadelphia—or even Allentown or Erie. The fixation on downtown storefronts—at the expense of geographic context—firmly ensconces the book in the “local interest” category. His 250-page narrative rarely explores impacts on Norristown Main Street outside of Montgomery County. From an early point in the book, he describes street intersections with specificity that would only mean anything to a local; then he only provides two referential maps.
None of these cavils really amount to an inherent weakness of the book—after all, it might prove just the right medicine for Tolle’s fellow Norristowners. But the narrowness of scope does foretell an oversight as to the broader implications for this city’s decline, which could have made for a much bolder peroration than the one the book currently provides. The only atypical bogeyman contributing to downtown Norristown’s precipitous decline is the persistent political gridlock and resultant incompetence of the Borough Council, which he relates with the same humanist eye he applies to his wonderful vignettes of immigrant entrepreneurialism. But Tolle had the chance to make this story matter on a scale that could mean something to someone from Ashtabula or Waukegan, and he spurned the opportunity.
My knowledge of Philadelphia, having lived there for a time, gives me an unfair advantage, but I can’t help but ask a few questions. Norristown, the seat of wealthy Montgomery County, declined and its main street is moribund to this day. But Media, the much smaller seat of neighboring Delaware County, boasts a flourishing main street of local shops and restaurants—all despite the fact that Delaware County, while equally urbanized, is much less affluent than Montgomery County. Meanwhile, cities like Chester (also in Delaware County) and Camden, New Jersey can claim a similar lifespan to Norristown, strong transportation access, and an industrial boom. But today these two cities are not only among the most devastated municipalities in their respective states, Chester and Camden are among the poorest cities in the country. Perhaps most interestingly, after several decades of population decline, Norristown began to trend upward again in the 2000 census, and by the 2010 Census the city grew virtually 10%–an unprecedented occurrence for a city that still has the reputation of being the poorest place in its respective county.
What Killed Downtown? remains a welcome contrast to countless other chronicles of downtown decline whose narratives depend on sociological detachment. Recognizing that true objectivity is impossible, Tolle instead depicts the Norristown transformation from the perspective of people who experienced it. Because its vision is geographically precise and obscure to people outside southeast Pennsylvania, I suspect our author felt driven to write it even if it enjoyed a readership of zero. Such an endeavor could reek of self-indulgence, but Michael Tolle’s opus has way too much empathy for that. Hopefully Norristown’s coterie of model train owners and newspaper collectors will put this book on their to-do lists—and then recommend it to others.
Tuesday, February 26th, 2013
Matty G has a short post up on the economy of Breezy Point, Queens and my first reaction is “right, this is reason #763 why Houston is so prosperous.”
Mostly it has to do with annexation. At one extreme end you have a city like Philadelphia. Philly isn’t all that bad of a place, but when you look at the massive growth of NYC and DC, you have to consider the city’s development trajectory to be a failure. Philly lost population during the nineties and was flat during the aughts, and the city largely coasts on the infrastructure of previous generations. Roadway expansion (e.g. double-decking the Schuylkill) and transit expansion (e.g. Roosevelt Subway, Swampoodle Connection) have both gone nowhere. Taxes are high, services are low, and what little growth has occurred mostly takes the form of cancerous exurban development which has consumed productive farmland without much housing to show in return. Detroit follows the same pattern.
But if you look at the city boundaries this all makes sense. The place is hemmed in on all sides by small boroughs and townships. In some directions you can go from Center City to out-of-the-city in less than four miles.
The fun continues outside the city boundaries. There are no big suburbs outside Philly; instead, counties are a bouillabaisse of boroughs and townships of a couple thousand acres each. This is about the size of your basic Sunbelt master-planned community, so it isn’t particularly surprising that the local governments function more like homeowners associations. Exclusionary zoning is the norm, and most residential subdivisions are required to include large swaths of “open space” which is mostly about maintaining the visual deceit that you live in the “country” and not a suburb.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the annexation distribution you have a city like Dallas. Dallas goes out about eight to ten miles, plus Far North D, which is like an extended middle finger of garden apartments sticking into the adjacent cities. An east-west trip across Dallas is about 20 miles. But while Dallas is in the middle of the “city annexation” distribution, DFW as a whole is hardly in the 50th percentile in terms of prosperity and quality of life.
There is a reason for this: Where Dallas ends, the mega suburbs begin. Arlington and Plano are respectable cities in their own right, holding about 360,000 and 270,000 people, respectively. Carrollton, Frisco, Irving, and Grand Prairie each clock in well above 100,000. Large suburbs are not always favorable to “urban” things like mid-rise and high-rise structures, or LRT and other rail transit. Frisco in particular opted out of the DART taxing area, using sales tax money to subsidize commercial development instead. But large suburban jurisdictions generally tend to have coherent transportation planning, well-developed park systems, and a variety of housing types, including multifamily and small-lot single-family.
Big suburbs also make more effective use of land. The easiest way to measure this is population density. Bellevue, Washington clocks in at 4000 people per square mile. Plano “sprawls” at 3800, Arlington at 3900. Irvine, California holds 3200 a mile, and has what is perhaps the most coherent bike network in SoCal, combining near-100% arterial bike lanes with continuous off-street paths.
Meanwhile, back outside Philly, Exton – a major Amtrak and SEPTA stop – contains fewer than 1400 people per square mile, while neighboring East Whiteland township contains fewer than 1000. Density scarcely improves as you get closer in. The major corporate centers and edge cities of King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting straddle multiple townships which each contain fewer than 2000 people per square mile. By contrast, even Frisco – which is exploding in population and has annexed a lot of vacant land in anticipation of future development – is already at 1900 people per square mile.
Which brings us to Houston, the opposite extreme. Houston’s expansion knows no geographic or political boundaries. When other cities incorporate, it just goes around. Suburbs like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages become enclaves. Strategic annexations of roadways and other tracts of land extend Houston’s reach even further. A cross-section of strategic Houston annexations from Prairie View to Lynchburg measures 65 miles across. A trip from Willowbrook to El Dorado is forty.
When your city is this large, it leads to some interesting paradoxes. Houston’s nominal population density of 3600 people per sq. mile is surpassed by many of the enclaves. West U, in particular, is north of 7000. But Houston is scattered with pockets of density above 10,000/sq. mi, and portions of Gulfton and Gulfgate check in north of 20k. Houston’s 3600 is also almost exactly 30% higher than Phoenix, which pursues the exact same transportation and annexation policies but with Euclidean zoning.
Really rough back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope calculations tell me that if you drew a line at Beltway 8, you’d come out with a population density in the 6000s. (Note: see followup post.) Which is really incredible. That’s higher than Portland or San Jose, and almost to Minneapolis and Seattle, both of which have more constrained geographic boundaries. And this density is achieved in a relatively young, Sunbelt city, that grew up almost entirely around cars.
The reader may note that the title of this blog post said “prosperous,” while an earlier paragraph on Dallas mentioned “quality of life.” This because the two are indirectly related. Prosperity is inextricably linked to population; you need people to have an economy, you need people with skills to have clusters, the more people you have the more skills there’ll be and the more clusters you’ll get. Likewise, life is typically more enjoyable if there’s more stuff. What the stuff is doesn’t matter – it might be restaurants, museums, churches, or death metal. People do stuff and the more people you put in reach of yourself the more stuff there is and the more likely it is you’ll find stuff you like.
Now there’s two ways to gain access to people and stuff. The first is you can put people closer together. The second is you can build faster transportation so it’s easier to get to them. The Chicago “L” is a slow loris, but at 11000 people per square mile citywide, it’ll still take you to a lot of places. The intersection of North and Halsted affords a view of a set of three successive 10mph corners on the Ravenswood and Evanston Ls. But as you can see there’s also a whole of stuff built there. On the other side, Phoenix is not particularly dense, but you can always hop on this thing and go wherever. Of course the best option is to combine density with high-speed transportation infrastructure which gets you the spur through Midtown or perhaps Roppongi.
Both of these things, land use and transportation, are more easily accomplished in a larger governmental jurisdiction. The primary opposition to land use is NIMBY – “I don’t want to look up at the Ashby high-rise while I’m mowing my lawn.” The primary opposition to transportation infrastructure is, again, NIMBY – “I don’t want to live next to this freeway.” The latter is somewhat more understandable, since freeways generate noise and pollution externalities that residential towers don’t. But in both cases you’re pitting NIMBY concerns against regional concerns. The larger a city you have, the more diluted the NIMBY voices are within the overall governmental framework.
About the only way to screw this up is to devolve decision-making authority to sub-units. DC and NYC do this with zoning decisions, which is sort of exactly why DC and NYC have ludicrous zoning policy. By contrast, Houston’s super neighborhoods are strictly advisory bodies. If you had any doubts you can check out the official site which uses the words “stakeholder,” “plan,” and “priority” twice each in the span of three paragraphs. Anytime you see those words, you know that no actual, real decisions are being made. And that’s the right way to do it.
This post originally appeared in Keep Houston Houston on November 1, 2012.
Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
The Huffington Post pointed me at this graphic below, which shows how the racial makeup of Chicago’s community areas changed between 1910 and 2000. It was apparently created by something called the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Chicago Area Geographic Information Study. The graphic speaks for itself.