Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

September 13, 2011

“Because the essential characteristic of humanity is our ability to learn from each other, cities make us more human.”

I finally read Edward Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City and I liked it. I will assign it in my “A City Cannot Be A Work of Art” class next Spring. In some ways Glaeser is a standard issue neoliberal economist, decrying government regulations, especially landmarks laws. At the same time, he is a champion of Jane Jacobs and of cities in general. He recognizes the concentration of creativity – human capital – that can happen only in cities and he decries the massive government subsidies for roads and mortgages that fueled the abandonment of cities for sprawl in the second half of the 20th century.

I finished the book while in the massively overscaled environs of Beijing, which I initially disliked but have found oddly comforting with each visit. I actually enjoyed being crushed on the subway until my lungs hurt. Excitement beats comfort.

The vitality of city life is palpable in Beijing as it is in New York. Glaeser grooves on this vitality and actually PROVES the increased value derived from face-to-face contact in cities: a Michigan study showed that a group meeting for 10 minutes face-to-face cooperated better and made more money than a group with 30 minutes of electronic interaction.

There are reasons people want to live in crowded places and Glaeser counts among them the “intellectual explosions” that happen in concentration; the power of proximity; even health: Manhattanites aged 25-34 have a lower death rate than the rest of the country. Why? The biggest killers in that age group are suicide and automobile accidents: Manhattanites are in cars a lot less and they must have enough fun that they aren’t tempted by the overly abundant skyscraper window ledges.

Glaeser also breaks the old moldy mold of the standard U of C laissez-faire economist by acknowledging climate change and recognizing that adding gigatonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans is not a positive thing. How to reduce carbon emissions? More cities. The denser the city, the less fossil fuels are needed for living (the largest user) and transportation (next largest). As density doubles, Glaeser shows, the percentage of the population that takes a car to work drops by almost 7 percent. Cities are more efficient and “greener” than suburbs, and crowded cities are super-green: “Household emissions in Daqing, China’s oil capital and brownest city, are one-fifth of emissions in San Diego, America’s greenest city.” Part of that is also standard of living, but Glaeser decries Americans who think they have a constitutional right to drive their car everywhere. He loves “Red Ken’s” driving tax in Central London, for example.

“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their life.” Glaeser is in more familiar neolib territory here, but he is right, despite the familiar economist’s elision of the threshold distinction between consumer choice and financial exigency. He is more right of course for the Sao Paolos and Guangzhous of the world than the Detroits or Clevelands with their “legacy” underclass that did not move there.

I actually like this book despite its attacks on preservation, most of which were witheringly familiar to those of us who have watched the Chicago Boyz economic juggernaut for the last 35 years. “The enemies of change essentially want to control someone else’s property” he says. Well, no. Real preservation/conservation does not oppose change but in fact promotes change within the context of existing buildings. As to whose property, in historic districts they are simply preserving those externalities (other people’s buildings) that provide the lion’s share of their property value.

In “The Perils of Preservation” he harps on the costs of restricting development and how historic districts become high-value areas that exclude the poor. The former is a bear to quantify and the latter is a bit of a red herring: People want to save their neighborhoods and their own property values and historic districts do that. They can become “owner’s clubs” that exclude the new poor along with new buildings.

He talks about the “web of regulation” that includes zoning and how we need to incentivize rebuilding cities for the good of the species. Glaeser’s view here is heavily inflected by his native Manhattan, which he says has preserved15 percent of the land south of Harlem. He sees Chicago as relatively free to develop, an argument I will be pleased to use for the next several years against our U of C-enamored zoning attorneys.

But he also doesn’t really know what preservationists are up to. Every preservation group in town commented on the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes by CHA this year. And they all bought into Glaeser’s basic concept of more density on part of the site IN ORDER to preserve more of the original low-rise homes. Contrary to his stereotype, they were not being NIMBY but looking at the larger urban system.

He argues that cities are not equivalent to their buildings, implying that preservation is a misguided place-based attempt to retain or foment the truly valuable human capital that happens to exist within and around those buildings. This is an academic distinction. The young professional who loves Cuban food and the Chrysler Building and MOMA isn’t going to parse out which elements of the environment she is buying into. In historic districts especially, architecture and place are extremely valuable externalities driven not simply by regulation but amenity and cachet as well.

He jumps on NIMBYism for basically pushing problems elsewhere, which is often true: his analysis of Silicon Valley (basically a City of Ideas set in semi-sprawl and the world’s nicest climate and landscape) drives the point home, but I would rephrase it. Yes, regulations limit affordability and admittance but my own research identifies regulatory bodies – especially landmarks agencies – as places where community members attempt to affect a democracy of the built environment.

Sure, this excludes poverty and even density in some cases, and you can call it NIMBYism, but the desire to control your immediate environment is a middle-class value and landmarks agencies – unlike zoning boards – allow a venue for community input that is qualitative as well as quantitative and which can be more surgical and less blunt as an instrument.

Many conservative economists see government agencies as beasts that grow ever larger and more powerful and consumptive, restricting more and more growth. This ignores how these regulations actually play out in the real world. In Chicago, the Landmarks Commission spends most of its professional staff time dealing with those historic districts where community members are active and use the commission as a venue for getting their way: the quantity of regulation is actually measured not in landmarked buildings and districts but the current rate of activism in each community. Yes, professional staff may make some decisions (predictable ones, actually) but there is definitely more regulation in more activist neighborhoods. Moreover, that activity will shift to zoning or other venues in the absence of landmarking, a fact that a student of Jane Jacobs should know. Removing the regulation won’t make it go away, because the true source is community activism, not government.

The book is very well-written and like Bob Bruegmann’s book on sprawl, I agreed with about 90 percent of it. It ends with a call for the elimination of those massive government subsidies that have pushed people out of cities; roads and home mortgage interest deductions. The latter has become increasingly untenable in the wake of “flat world” globalization: permanent homes don’t make intrinsic sense in the 21st century economy. Industrial cities existed to concentrate labor (and management and innovation) for efficient production. In the consumer economy cities compete for workers by being great places to live. The 21st century economy is not, like the 19th century economy, driven by production, but rather by consumption.

Cities are the ultimate consumer product, with all of the status and amenity that that implies and an innovative core of human creativity and action that Glaeser understands and communicates in a powerful way.

photos from top: Chicago; Los Angeles; Beijing; New York; New York; Lima; Shanghai; Lima; Vienna; New York; New York; Chicago; San Francisco; Silicon Valley; Chicago; Chicago; Amsterdam; Chicago.


Dolkart’s Row House Reborn

January 13, 2010

I just finished reading Andrew Dolkart’s new book “The Row-House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908-1929” (Johns Hopkins 2009) and I loved it. Dolkart tells a story that is fascinating from several perspectives in the history of building conservation, and he tells it very well. The book springs from a simple fact: people started rehabbing rowhouses in New York (and elsewhere) in the early 20th century. Sometimes these rehabs respected the original exterior of the buildings, essentially following current preservation practice for locally designated historic districts. Sometimes they heavily altered the exterior, following emergent fashions for “Colonial” or Mediterranean renaissance stylings. This involved chopping off no-longer fashionable stoops and window surrounds and other extraneous Victorianisms.

Near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village. Photo copyright Felicity Rich 2006.

You see these rowhouses everywhere, and Dolkart has unearthed tons of period commentary and reportage on the conversions: they usually involved complete interior remodeling of partitions, kitchens, and the like. They also often involved exterior remodeling that typically eliminated the stoops for new groundfloor entrances; shaved off many of the window and door mouldings; rendered the facades with stucco; often added multipane, casement or studio windows; developed rear gardens in an early and successful attempt at gentrification.

93 Perry Street facade. The archway at left leads to the garden and rear building in this 1928 rehab by local architect Floyd McCathern. Dolkart includes a 1932 photo in his book. This photo is copyright Felicity Rich 2006.

Dolkart’s investigation therefore explores one of the philosophical issues that constantly recurs throughout the history of conserving the built environment: when does something become historic and WHEN are we trying to restore things too? Clearly changes to rowhouses that happened in 1912 or 1922 are now “historic,” yet Dolkart notes that many such changes are eliminated with the full approval of landmarks agencies when owners propose restoring a rowhouse to its original condition of the 1840s or 1880s.

Dolkart’s contribution is significant in his detailing of how these remodelings were considered in terms of architecture and real estate development. He first details the many projects of Frederick Sterner, who redesigned many houses for himself and other high-end patrons, transforming the East 60s from an immigrant area to an island of elite pied-a-terre. Dolkart crafts a compelling architectural context for these conversions as representing a distinct social and aesthetic history that is implicitly worthy of some preservation.

The Parge House on East 65th, Frederick Sterner’s final house. The use of ornamental relief in the exterior stucco (pargetry) was a feature of Sterner’s work. Photograph copyright 2006 by Felicity Rich.

Dolkart devotes a significant section to Greenwich Village, which I studied as part of my dissertation. The Village is fascinating for two reasons, both of which are central to Dolkart’s story of early 20th century creative rehabilitation. First, the Village had a strong artistic identity, an identity I explored in my dissertation, relying on many of the same sources Dolkart cites (and critiques). This artistic identity was turned into both heritage tourism and real estate speculation, as the artistic identity of the community became a rationale for rehabilitating buildings by adding artist’s garrets, large studio windows and the like, even as the buildings were being rehabilitated beyond the means of most artists to rent or own.

Greenwich Village – another photo copyright 2006 by Felicity Rich. I guess she was noticing these buildings a few years back…

In my dissertation I dealt with Greenwich Village because it was central to the adoption of local landmarking and preservation in general but it lacked traditional architectural integrity, and these 1910s and 1920s row-house rehabs are part of the reason it was originally proposed to be 18 separate historic districts. Thanks to a centuries-old artistic identity and the concept that landmarks designation would help make the district more architecturally cohesive over time, it became a single district in 1969. I used it as an example of the community-planning impulse in landmark designation, which has at least two aspects: first, the motive to preserve not simply architecture and history but community in the largest sense, and secondly a future-orientation focused on community improvement and employing landmark designation as the motor and model for that improvement. Certainly many of the 1910s and 20s rehabs have been “fixed” since the designation of Greenwich Village, which is why Dolkart began looking at this issue in the first place.

My only critique of the book is its perhaps natural limitation – an Epilogue of less than 10 pages called “Beyond New York City” with brief mentions of Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. In my work I compared the ongoing conservation development of Greenwich Village – “Zoning Bohemia” – to its Chicago counterpart of Old Town, certainly smaller and about 10-15 years behind its Big Apple cousin. But as soon as I started reading the book it immediately brought to mind the same type of 1910s and 1920s rehabs in Chicago’s Old Town, like this:

Now this is of course one of the now-famous and independently landmarked homes that Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller fabricated out of existing building stock in the 1920s. But Old Town also has stuccoed, Mediterranean-Revival-roofed houses on Lincoln Park West and altered Italianates with casements and studio rooftops – all added during the transformation of the district into an artistic enclave in the 1920s. There was even a wave of 1960s rehab that inspired the district itself in the 1970s, and much of that did not follow traditional architectural preservation standards.

I am grateful that Andrew has written such a nicely researched and crafted book and I hope it inspires us to look at the early waves of rehabilitation and how they thought about buildings and communities. It was a welcome, enjoyable and inspiring read.

JANUARY 19 update:

Here are the buildings on Lincoln Park west I was thinking of. I haven’t researched these so I don’t know when they were altered, but the first (actually on Menomonee at the foot of Lincoln Park West) has extra-long windows, a rendered upper facade, and diamond panes in the lower windows:

Next, a few houses north on Lincoln Park West, are these two old Italianates made into Spanish Colonial houses with render, a pent tile roof, and adobe-like walls. Again, I haven’t done the research but I am guessing 1920s.

And of course the Crilly Court gardens remind one of the many rear garden schemes Dolkart found in Manhattan. This is where the Old Town Art Fair started in the 1940s, 15 years after Greenwich Village started its art fair.

There are quite a lot of 1960s-70s rehabs in Old Town, when the area become popular and started lobbying for landmark protection.


I found another near Michigan Avenue -as I knew I might, since the area around the Water Tower – Towertown – was the artsy area before the creation of North Michigan Avenue in 1920. I also noticed several over on La Salle near Burton Place, the ultimate arthouse block done by Kogen and Miller in the 1920s. Here is the one off Michigan Avenue: