New novel “The Megabuilders of Queenston Park” addresses McMansions

The problems McMansions can pose are addressed in a new novel where builders spread teardowns in suburban Princeton, New Jersey:

Author, translator, Greek poetry scholar and Princeton University Professor Emeritus Edmund Keeley tackles this issue in his newest novel, “The Megabuilders of Queenston Park,” published by the Lambertville-based independent Wild River Books. Joyce Carol Oates has called it a deftly written “contemporary comedy of manners.”

Set in present-day suburban Princeton, with its architecturally distinct buildings, the book’s “megabuilders” roam neighborhoods in search of modest homes to tear down. When a smooth-talking real estate developer tries to convince Cassie Mandeville to sell her beloved home and property, she and her husband Nick decide to take action. Nearing retirement, Cassie and Nick find themselves thrust into a battle with a father-and-son construction company that plans to erect an overgrown, high-end eyesore next door and convince the Mandevilles to sell their home as a teardown. As the couple tries to save their neighborhood, they run headlong into an insensitive and possibly corrupt local government as they navigate the maze of community zoning.

“The Megabuilders of Queenston Park” brings to life unsettling environmental questions that plague many families and communities, large and small. What is the true value of real estate? How do we measure the stability and familial loyalty our homes nurture and shelter? How do we protect our neighborhoods from large-scale development, construction, pollution and sewage run-off?…

Says the developer to the fictional Mandevilles: “I understand how you and a few others around here feel, but I’m afraid you’re all living in dream land. I promise you, if it isn’t Solar Estates working to revitalize the neighborhood, it will be somebody else moving in for their own kind of upgrading. The lots in your neighborhood are just too valuable and — forgive me — the houses are too old and small. Someday soon they will have to come down, and I’m afraid that includes yours.”

Novels have been a common way to express critiques of the suburbs since the early 1900s. Teardowns are common in numerous older suburbs with a higher quality of life as people want to move into homes with all the amenities but still live in quaint neighborhoods with plenty of character. I wonder just how many novels provide positive perspectives on McMansions and teardowns?

I hope the book isn’t as didactic as this summary makes it sound…

The social networks of white Americans are 93% white

In trying to explain why white Americans don’t see racial issues in Ferguson, Missouri, one writer points to this: white Americans tend to interact largely with other white Americans.

Drawing on techniques from social network analysis, PRRI’s 2013 American Values Survey asked respondents to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey. The results reveal just how segregated white social circles are.

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent)…

For most white Americans, #hoodies and #handsupdontshoot and the images that have accompanied these hashtags on social media may feel alien and off-putting given their communal contexts and social networks.

If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles.

This is a good use of social network data. We know that who people interact with and who they are connected to matters. Want more evidence in a pretty easy read? Read Connected, which I have my Introduction to Sociology students read. If I remember correctly, that book addresses all sorts of areas where social networks matter – health, economics, politics, emotions, etc. – but doesn’t address race. Yet, this all makes sense with what we know about how easy it can be for whites to ignore race in America since they aren’t always personally confronted with race or live in places where race is consistently a social issue. And, interacting with people you know like family or coworkers or neighbors matters a lot more than getting more impersonal information from the media which some whites argue is always talking about race.

One other thought: social networks are also related to where people live. Given the propensity of white Americans to move to places that are largely white, residential segregation plays into this.

Taxpayers pay 70% of NFL stadium costs, owners pocket 95% of the revenue

Gregg Easterbrook summarizes the research on who pays for and benefits from the construction of new NFL stadiums:

Judith Grant Long, an urban planning professor at Harvard, has shown that about 70 percent of the cost of building and operating NFL stadia has been paid by taxpayers — many not even sports fans. About 95 percent of the revenue the stadia generate is kept by team owners. It’s a deeply disturbing arrangement. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, has shown that NFL investments never generate the promised job totals or local economic activity. If there’s public money to spend in Buffalo, investments in infrastructure — schools, transportation, a replacement for the dilapidated Peace Bridge, improving Delaware Park — would have more of an economic multiplier effect than an NFL field.

This said, if there is one city where public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified, it’s Buffalo. Should Atlanta or Miami lose its NFL team, that would be a shame, but these cities would still have strong economies. Should Buffalo lose the Bills, this could be perceived as the “last one turns out the lights” moment, reducing the odds of a Buffalo urban recovery.

Public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified only if the facility is located downtown. The Buffalo News reports that 15 sites are under consideration for a new stadium. Two are in Toronto. Several are suburban, including an abandoned shopping mall property an hour’s drive from the city. One is near Niagara Falls, where the tourist activity is on the Canadian side, not the American side. One is on the Buffalo Outer Harbor, which is cut off from downtown by a freeway and doesn’t contribute to the pulse of urban life. Only downtown locations should be considered if public funds are spent.

Nobody would have believed 20 years ago that Pittsburgh and Cleveland could bounce back and have trendy downtowns. And nobody believes that about Buffalo now. But already underway on the north side of the city is a complex of a teaching hospital and medical research center that will be among the world’s largest and best equipped. Thousands of professionals will move to the city to staff the center. Add the NFL to downtown, and Buffalo might acquire the cachet it needs to rebound.

In other words, the research from recent years is consistent: building a publicly-funded stadium is not really a good deal for taxpayers. Major league teams will appreciate it and the owners certainly benefit but the money does not flow back to taxpayers. Yet, since the political calculus is such that no major leader wants to be the one that let the favorite team get away plus there are still sites that existing teams can threaten to move to (in the NFL, Los Angeles is perhaps more important as a potential city rather than an actual home for a team), taxpayers are likely to continue to help foot the bills for new stadiums.

Naperville considering 8 new rules to limit bar and alcohol problems

Naperville may just be a victim of its own success: the city is looking at 8 possible regulations intended to limit problems related to bars and alcohol.

“I don’t think anybody here could deny this is detracting from the Naperville brand,” council member Robert Fieseler said about “the whole rowdiness thing.” “We can do something about that.”

Drawing from a liquor service best practices manual developed a year ago and recommendations the liquor commission made last week, the council asked for documents to be drawn that would restrict drink sizes, limit discounts on drinks, regulate shot sales, require additional training for security and prohibit entry to bars within one hour of closing time.

The council also asked staff members to research ID scanning technology with a goal of requiring bars to install it by May 1, 2015; to prepare a list of police statistics that should be analyzed as part of a review of night life activity; and to create a plan to train security personnel at bars in conjunction with the training program the police department already mandates for servers…

The eight regulations the council supported Tuesday do not include reductions in bar hours, which drew opposition from bar owners and the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce.

An interesting set of regulations ranging from more education for bar owners and workers to limiting the size of beers from a maximum of 24 ounces to 20 ounces.

This could be viewed from multiple perspectives. One is a concern with safety. There have been some violent acts, public drunkenness, and a recent car crash that killed two young adults. But, I think the more important perspective – which doesn’t preclude the importance of safety – is the image of Naperville. Few communities, particularly well-off suburbs, want to be known for incidents related to bars, alcohol, and related violence. This is the same reason many communities prohibit tattoo parlors in their zoning laws: the image of such places do not lend themselves to a family-friendly atmosphere. Could such incidents in downtown Naperville stop people from moving to the suburb or hinder them from spending their money in the downtown? Even if the answer is no, this is the sort of risk a suburb like Naperville does not want to take.

Study finds college education not related to less religiosity

Adding to several other studies from recent years, a new study suggests education is not a hindrance to religiosity:

His study of 38,251 people found that college-educated folk born after 1960 are no more likely to disaffiliate from their religion than those who have not pursued a higher education.

And those born in the 1970s and ‘80s who have attended college are more likely to claim religious affiliation than their lesser-educated counterparts — thereby completely reversing the trends of education and secularization.

“This study suggests that, at least at an individual level of analysis, it is not the highly educated who are driving this change,” said Schwadel, an associate professor of sociology. “If anything, the growth of the unaffiliated over the last couple of decades is disproportionally among the less educated. … For younger generations, it’s the least-educated Americans who are most likely to disaffiliate from religion or say they have no religious affiliation.”…

“Religion is just a fact of life for a lot of college students. It is not compartmentalized as just Sunday morning (worship),” he said.

Some pockets of both liberals and conservatives may not like this news: conservatives who rail against agnostic and atheist college environments may have to back off while liberals may not like that college and higher levels of learning don’t discourage religion.

Additionally, religious groups and congregations may want to think about what it means if religion is increasingly the domain of the more educated. Marx suggested religion was a tool for dominating the lower classes but recent findings in the United States suggest those with more education favor religion more. Are lower income Americans less interested in religion (and if so, why) or do they find organized religion less appealing (perhaps they have less social capital with which to navigate religious organizations)?

John Starks’ 1993 dunk and New York exceptionalism

John Starks had a memorable dunk against the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Playoffs and one writer argues this illustrates the city’s belief in its own exceptionalism:

New York exceptionalism — the belief that, as Joey Litman once wrote at FreeDarko, “everything must be the best because it is of New York, and, naturally, it is of New York because it is the best” — isn’t just something people here feel; it is literally the name of an e-seminar produced by Columbia University, one where “Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique,” and argues that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place.” (Columbia sits at 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Naturally.)

This exceptionalism extends to local sports fandom. There’s long been a sense among New Yorkers that New York’s teams are just supposed to be good because they’re New York’s teams. And when they’re not, which is often, the anger gets as big as the payrolls: “How can a team that makes that much, that spends that much, that charges that much, and that is from New York be that bad?” (The answer is typically “mismanagement.” New York sports teams, especially the one that employed Starks, often have that in spades.)…

Yes, Starks would eventually become an All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year, but he was never a Jordan- or Reggie Miller-esque star; he always had to punch up when it mattered. And yes, he was a gunner making six (and eventually seven) figures to jack jumpers and occasionally boil over, but he always seemed to be doing stuff like kissing the Knicks logo at center court or saying “someone would have to tear the No. 3 jersey from his chest before he was traded to another team.” Starks treated New York like the exceptional thing New Yorkers believe it to be, and in so doing gave the forever-bigging-itself-up big city a little-guy underdog to rally behind.

As the article goes on to note, this memorable moment came at the end of Game 2 of a series that the Bulls won by beating the Knicks in the next four games. So, even though New York City can lay claim to being the number one global city, the sports teams can’t exactly make that claim. It takes a scrappy player like John Starks to rally the fans even as the teams themselves fall short. Yet, in the 1994 NBA Finals, Starks was blocked at the buzzer of Game 6 as the Knicks lost and then Starks shot 2-16 in Game 7 as the Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets.

It would be interesting to ask residents of the top global cities about whether they consider their city to be the best. Is this a unique property of New York, a city that can back up its claims with a powerful finance sector, lots of celebrity, and a big population? Going back to the e-seminar mentioned above, here is the course description for New York Exceptionalism:

Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique, laying down the essential arguments for what one might call “New York exceptionalism.” His thesis for the e-seminar, indeed for the whole series of e-seminars, is that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place, and in some ways [New York City] is certainly unique in the United States and in many ways [New York City] is unique around the world.” How is it unique? Professor Jackson begins with geography, discussing how New York City is a good port and a natural transportation break, in other words, a place where you switch modes of transport. He describes the founding of the city by the Dutch West India Company and explains how the commercial focus of the company, and of the Dutch in general, made New Amsterdam different from Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia. People came to New York to succeed. Finally, Professor Jackson discusses how all these factors (commerce, geography, and religion) produced a greater willingness to accept those who are different, a tolerance for diversity that makes New York exceptional.

It is one thing to say a city is unique – which all cities are -  and another to say it is exceptional.

Being a better neighbor linked to better heart health

Be nice to your neighbors because it may just help keep your heart healthier:

For the latest research, the University of Michigan team used data from 5,276 people over 50 with no history of heart problems, who were participants in an ongoing Health and Retirement Study in the United States…

At the start of the project, the respondents were asked to award points out of seven to reflect the extent to which they felt part of their neighbourhood, could rely on their neighbours in a pinch, could trust their neighbours, and found their neighbours to be friendly.

When they crunched the numbers at the end of the study, the team found that for every point they had awarded out of seven, an individual had a reduced heart attack risk over the four-year study period.

People who gave a full score of seven out of seven had a 67 percent reduced heart attack risk compared to people who gave a score of one, study co-author Eric Kim told AFP, and described the difference as “significant”.

This was “approximately comparable to the reduced heart attack risk of a smoker vs a non-smoker,” he said.

“This is an observational study so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect,” the statement underlined.

While this research doesn’t establish direct effects, it introduces additional reasons for being a better neighbor. Would conclusive findings that this would help people’s health be more convincing to Americans than civic or moral arguments? Focusing on health could have a more individualistic emphasis – “I’d like to live longer” – though health could also be viewed on a community-wide scale – fewer heart problems mean less community money spent on healthcare.

It is also interesting that this relies on self-reported accounts of neighborliness. Is this fairly accurate? This could be measured in a variety of ways: number of conversations or visits with numbers, participation in local groups, and reports from neighbors about the neighborliness of others. Of course, it could be that perceptions of being a good neighbor matter even more than actual actions. Yet, I wonder how this lines up with the typical shocked accounts suburbanites present when one of their neighbors is accused of a crime.

Rapidly growing suburban poverty illustrated in Ferguson, Missouri

Communities like Ferguson, Missouri illustrate growing rates of poverty in many American suburbs:

In Ferguson, Missouri, a community of 21,000 where the poverty rate doubled since 2000, the dynamic has bred animosity over racial segregation and economic inequality. Protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9 have drawn international attention to the St. Louis suburb’s growing underclass…

Such challenges aren’t unique to Ferguson, according to a Brookings Institution report July 31 that found the poor population growing twice as fast in U.S. suburbs as in city centers. From Miami to Denver, resurgent downtowns have blossomed even as their recession-weary outskirts struggle with soaring poverty in what amounts to a paradigm shift…

Ferguson, once a majority white community that’s now about two-thirds black, highlights that dynamic. Coinciding with the decline in white population is a rapid rise in poverty since 2000, a period that includes the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009…

“Looking at the neighborhood poverty rates, it’s striking how much has changed over a decade,” Kneebone said. “In Ferguson in 2000, none of the neighborhoods had hit that 20 percent poverty rate. By the end of the 2000s, almost every census tract met or exceeded that poverty rate. That’s a really rapid change in a really short time.”

As the Brookings Institution has pointed out and nicely summarized, there are now more people in poverty in suburbs than cities. Of course, just as in cities, the poor in suburbs aren’t evenly distributed across neighborhoods or communities. The demographic shift in Ferguson is common: a community adjacent to or close to the big city – an inner-ring suburb – that offers more low-skill jobs or cheaper housing experiences an influx of non-white residents. In response, whites in the community leave, just as they tended to do in urban neighborhoods during “white flight” in the decades after World War II. The transition period can be tough: these suburban communities aren’t prepared to provide public services, whites remain in powerful local positions even as they represent a smaller percent of the residents, and less wealthy residents can contribute to a declining tax base. All the while, wealthy suburban communities can isolate themselves through zoning, restricting bike lanes, limiting affordable housing, and other means.

In other words, police violence is still limited in most suburbs but the growing issues of class and race are only going to continue to grow in many suburban communities.

Bike lanes in Barrington Hills could unravel the whole fabric of the community?

Feuds between bicyclists and drivers are not uncommon but the recent conversation in Barrington Hills about bike lanes seems like rampant NIMBYism:

Residents say their roads are being clogged by unlawful, unsafe riders of the “professional biking community, clad in spandex.” Bicyclists, they say, flout the rules of the road, block vehicles from passing and, in some cases, have been caught urinating in yards.

Cyclists say Barrington Hills residents have driven them off the road, harassed them and even pelted them with objects as they ride by.

The long-simmering feud came to a head this summer amid talk of adding bike lanes along a village thoroughfare, a proposal quickly shot down by town leaders and upset homeowners.

If there is one thing the two sides have in common, it is an appreciation for the scenery of Barrington Hills. The affluent community of about 4,200 residents features thousands of acres of open space filled with forest preserves, horse farms, riding trails and rolling hills. Homes are built on lots no smaller than 5 acres, and village leaders have fiercely defended the town’s borders against encroachment by development that doesn’t meet their standards…

“We have no obligation to a professional biking community, clad in spandex, who are regularly abusive to our residents and drivers, and urinate on our property,” the website reads. “We have no obligation to out-of-town traffic speeding through our community. It is time we stood up and said NO MORE TRAFFIC!”

This is just an outside perspective but if Barrington Hills residents are so threatened by bicyclists, there are larger issues at work here. Bicyclists could be annoying on relatively low-volume roads. Yet, their level of traffic is minimal compared to vehicular traffic. It sounds more like the residents want to close off their roads to any outsiders.

See a story from a few years ago about arguments in Barrington Hills about how much outdoor lighting residents could have in order to limit light pollution. If lights and bicycles can rip the fabric of your community, I would guess the community is one in which people generally want to be left alone. This is one of the paradoxes of suburban community as pointed out by M. P. Baumgartner in The Moral Order of a Suburb: community is built by leaving your fellow suburbanite alone.

Stat of the day: cable companies now actually have more Internet customers

New figures show cable companies now have more Internet customers than TV customers:

For the first time, the number of broadband subscribers with the major U.S. cable companies exceeded the number of cable subscribers, the Leichtman Research Group reported today. Among other things, these figures suggest the industry is now misnamed. Evidently these are broadband companies that offer cable on the side.

To be sure, the difference is minimal: 49,915,000 broadband subscribers versus 49,910,000 cable subscribers. But even assuming a huge overlap in those numbers from customers who have both, the primacy of broadband demonstrates a shift in consumer priorities. Nearly all the major cable companies added broadband subscribers over the past quarter, for a total of nearly 380,000 new signups. Cable subscribers don’t have to worry about TV as they know it going away any time soon. But cable is on its way to becoming secondary, the “nice to have” compared to the necessity of having broadband access…

The better margins boil down to the fact that broadband is purely about access, while cable is about content. The crux of the cable side of the cable business is hatching deals with the makers of sports, news, and entertainment so there’s something to send through the box. And the costs can be steep. ESPN, the most pricey by far, tops $5 per subscriber per month.

The temptation with these numbers is to see a decline in television but I don’t think this is necessarily the case. TV has had remarkable staying power over the decades (it doesn’t hurt that the technology keeps getting better with better picture and sound as well as lots more channels) and Americans continue to watch a lot of it, on average. The Internet offers different possibilities compared to TV: access to more specific information, interactions with other Internet users, and a less passive overall experience. They also can be consumed together, presenting intriguing potential for interactions between the two.

Perhaps the bigger story here are the larger profit margins with the Internet…