Quick Review: The Island at the Center of the World

Russell Shorto argues the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam helped kickstart the American mindset and dream even though the city’s history before the English takeover is often ignored. Shorto bases his claims on research in recent decades that involves translating the old Dutch records and revealing the political and social history of the colony. In the end, Americans might see their origins largely in the English colonies but Shorto suggests “it helped set the whole thing [the American experiment] in motion…They reshuffled the categories by which people had long lived, created a society with more open spaces, in which the rungs of the ladder were reachable by nearly everyone.” (317)

Here is what the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam gifted to the United States:

1. Emphasis on trade. Even in its early decades, the city was a hub for shipping in the New World. The English colonies in New England and Virginia both worked through the Dutch port. The protected harbor was important as was its connections to the interior.

2. Giving rights to all the citizens. While the English colonies only had a limited number of freedmen, the Dutch had much broader citizenship rights and this social standing allowed people of all backgrounds to rise up the social ladder. This also involved quite the fight for control over the colony; Shorto describes the efforts of the lawyer Adriaen van der Donck to fight for citizen control rather than the autocratic rule of the Dutch West India Company and their charge Peter Stuyvesant. This did have an interesting side effect in the end. When the English ended up moving in from their colonies in Connecticut, the people of New Amsterdam wanted to be handed over peacefully to the English in order to continue the life of their city and the English largely granted them the continuation of their lives.

3. Religious tolerance. The Netherlands was open to people of different faiths – mainly different Christians – and this continued in their colony. Thus, a number of immigrants ended up in New Amsterdam rather than the much more restrictive English colonies. Other fun fact: those same Puritans who founded Plymouth and its more narrow restrictions had arrived from the Netherlands where the Dutch had offered them religious freedom.

4. Openness to immigrants. With the emphasis on trade, rights, and religious tolerance, New Amsterdam from the beginning was home to people of many backgrounds.

Another large factor in shaping New Amsterdam: the larger political and military conflicts between England and the Netherlands over this period. The two countries fought three wars and the colony’s fate was often caught in the middle.

Overall, an interesting summation of recent research on the early decades of New York City. The English weren’t the only Europeans to help found the United States and the Dutch played an important role in this influential global city.

Paris planning to add millions in the suburbs to its boundaries

Plans for metropolitanization in Paris are well underway:

The new Métropole du Grand Paris, or Metropolis of Greater Paris, will include nearly seven million people, more than triple the population now living in the central city. It will swallow rich suburbs to the west. But it should also provide better access to jobs and to business hubs and, if it really works, a greater sense of belonging for millions of immigrant families who live in poverty and isolation on the city’s southern, northern and eastern fringes. Resources would be redistributed, in particular those dealing with housing. The complexion of Paris would change…

As much as any struggling suburb, this one shows how urban development across decades, even centuries, has failed millions of immigrant families and contributed to what France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, recently denounced as “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid.” His remark provoked a lot of hand-wringing in France. But, as all sorts of French planners, architects, historians and political scientists point out, a legacy of belonging and exclusion, center and periphery, inside and outside, is baked into the very layout of Paris and of places like Grigny, which has nice old houses and woods but is a de facto warehouse for tens of thousands of mostly poor, disenfranchised Muslims.

In essence, Paris Métropole promises a new regional council to coordinate housing, urban planning and transit for a greater Paris. The idea evolved from a proposal by Nicolas Sarkozy, who as president imagined business hubs and a high-speed train linking them to the city’s airports. That morphed into a more complex rail system serving poorer suburbs.

Pierre Mansat has spent years helping to put the plan together. He said the other morning that taxes on businesses, and, France hopes, billions more from Europe, will pay for Paris Métropole. Who knows whether right-wing and left-wing politicians from suburbs and city neighborhoods will actually cooperate, but Mr. Mansat stressed that “it’s above all about creating a new image of Paris as more inclusive, integrated, fluid.”

This sounds like an interesting confluence of factors. On one hand is inequality in the French suburbs which has been surfacing for quite a while. Urban images are important, if at the least for France’s international reputation and Paris’ thriving tourism, as are aiming to give all residents opportunities for a better life. On the other hand are the practicalities of comprehensively tackling urban issues – like housing and transportation – that require the cooperation of a range of communities. Cities can do a lot on their own but many of their needs are tied to the fate of nearby communities that can either join cities in pursuing common goals or pursue their own.

Of course, the article suggests it isn’t clear how successful the metropolitanization attempt might be. This is a long-term project and it will be interesting to see how other major cities learn from this process.

Deciphering the words in home listings; “quaint” = 1,299 square feet, “cute” = 1,128 square feet

An analysis of Zillow data looks at the text accompanying real estate listings:

Longer is almost always better, though above a certain length, you didn’t get any added value — you don’t need to write a novel. Over 250 words, it doesn’t seem to matter. Our takeaway was that if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Descriptive words are very helpful. “Stainless steel,” “granite,” “view” and “landscaped” were found in listings that got a higher sales price than comparable homes.

And there are words you should stay away from, especially “nice.” We think that in the American dialect, you say “nice” if you don’t have anything more to say. And then there are the words that immediately tell a buyer that the house is small: When we analyzed the data, we found that homes described as “charming” averaged 1,487 square feet, “quaint” averaged 1,299 square feet, and “cute” averaged 1,128. All of them were smaller than the average house in our sampling.

The impact of words seems to vary by price tier. For example, “spotless” in a lower-priced house seemed to pay off in a 2 percent bonus in the final price, but it didn’t seem to affect more pricey homes. “Captivating” paid off by 6.5 percent in top-tier homes, but didn’t seem to matter in lower-priced ones.

There are certainly codes in real estate listings that are necessary due to the limited space for words. But, as the article notes some of the words are more precise than others. If someone says they have stainless steel appliances, the potential buyer has a really good idea of what is there. But, other words are much more ambiguous. Just how “new” are some big-ticket items like roofs or flooring or furnaces? The big data of real estate listings allows us to see the patterns tied to these words. Just remember the order for size: cute is small, quaint is slightly larger, and charming slightly bigger still.

If I’m Zillow, is it time to sell this info to select real estate professionals?

Mining Twitter for ratings of mass transit and what the agencies can do in response

A new study examined Twitter comments about mass transit in the United States and Canada and came up with a ranking of those invoking the most positive and negative sentiments:

The results of her study, published this month in the Journal of the American Planning Association, ranked 10 of the largest public transit agencies in the US and Canada by how well regarded they are on Twitter. Based on Schweitzer’s “mean sentiment score” and more than 60,000 tweets collected between 2010 and 2014, Twitter was nicest to Vancouver’s Translink, which was followed by Portland, Oregon’s TriMet and Toronto’s TTC. The harshest tweets concerned systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. For comparison, Schweitzer calculated scores for public figures (the sentiment score ranged from William Shatner to Osama Bin Laden), airlines, police departments, and welfare programs (the full chart is at the bottom of this post).

Schweitzer used text mining to pick out positive and negative words from the tweets (and manually added terms including brokedown, wtf, scam, epicfail, pervy, and unsuck). Machine learning helped spot things like parody accounts and unusually frequent tweeters. Schweitzer and her graduate students also analyzed some 5,000 tweets by hand, to ensure they lined up with the computer system’s interpretations. Reasons for complaint included delays, facilities, staff conduct, public mismanagement, and the class, race, and gender of other riders.

Here’s the funny thing: The transit system’s scores don’t line up with service quality (judged by on-time performance). But the unsurprising fact that public griping doesn’t necessarily match reality doesn’t make the data useless. Because Schweitzer did find one factor that predicts “mean sentiment”—the way the transit agencies themselves behave on Twitter…

So what’s the takeaway? If you’re looking for a low investment way to improve your public image on Twitter, use Twitter as a tool for conversation, not one-way communication. It may seem that someone complaining to 18 followers that their train is late doesn’t matter, but Schweitzer makes the point that social media does influence broader public perceptions.

Engaging in public relations on social media is not new. However, the idea that government agencies or infrastructure organizations need to may be more recent. On one hand, Americans expect government to be responsive. On the other hand, mass transit is one of those areas that seems monolithic: leaders in those organizations are not elected and infrastructure faces its own kind of difficulties (aging, weather issues, particular funding sources, a sort of permanence that is difficult to change quickly). But, at least the disgruntled might feel heard if there is social media interaction even if their complaints are not fixed immediately.

Possible next steps: would major mass transit groups make policy decisions based on Twitter? Remember, a small percentage of Americans use Twitter regularly but those users can be pretty vocal and/or well positioned in society.

Approaching drastic water rationing in Sao Paulo

One downside of rapid urban growth is illustrated in Brazil where drastic water rationing may start soon:

In São Paulo, the country’s largest city with a metropolitan area of 20 million people, the main reservoir is at just 6 percent of capacity with the peak of the rainy season now past…

After January rains disappointed, and incentives to cut consumption fell short, São Paulo officials warned their next step could be to shut off customers’ water supply for as many as five days a week – a measure that would likely last until the next rainy season starts in October, if not longer.

State officials say they have not yet decided whether or when to implement such rationing, in part because they are still hoping for heavy rains in February and March. Indeed, thunderstorms in recent days have caused lakes to rise a bit.

Still, independent projections suggest that São Paulo’s main Cantareira reservoir could run out of water as soon as April without drastic cuts to consumption.

While this problem may seem far away, I imagine numerous big cities around the world would face major problems in addressing a shortage of certain resources if something “out of the ordinary” – whether weather or changing political conditions – occurred. Wealthier big cities are expected at the most basic level to have water, electricity, sewers, and other features of modern infrastructure but these could be threatened by a variety of factors. And while the article notes that residents and institutions are scrambling to meet the crisis, cities should have some sort of long-term planning for some of these foreseeable issues.

Teardowns back on the rise in the Chicago area

Teardowns are back in wealthier Chicagoland communities:

Wilmette, for example, saw 48 teardowns last year. That’s way up from the 15 to 20 the North Shore town experienced annually from 2009 to 2011. “We’re almost back to the old average of 50 a year,” says John Adler, Wilmette’s community development director. “And the resurgence is attributable to developers getting involved again on the speculative side—not just people of means building their dream homes.”

Hinsdale, the priciest west suburban housing market, had 60 teardowns last year, versus 47 in 2013, says its community development director, Robert McGinnis. All but six of the single-family homes that started construction there in 2014 replaced teardowns. McGinnis estimates at least half of the new projects are being built on spec, as opposed to being custom-built…

The teardown candidates aren’t just tiny bungalows this time. Developers are targeting larger houses as well, particularly if they sit on coveted property. Antiquated plumbing, the absence of upscale amenities such as media rooms, and the high cost of gut rehabbing (roughly $300 a square foot, versus $200 for new construction) are pushing homes on North Shore lots near the lake into early retirement. Two properties that sold for around $4 million each in 2014—one in Wilmette and one in Winnetka—are on their way to the scrap yard, says Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices KoenigRubloff agent Joseph Nash. Both were on three-quarter-acre lots with private beaches, and the Winnetka house had seven bedrooms—big and nice, but apparently not nice enough.

While there will always be preservationists who bemoan these changes, Boyle says he hasn’t witnessed as much handwringing this time over the evolving neighborhood character in La Grange: “Most people are happy that people are updating homes, because they’re seeing the value increase for their own property.”

I want to know more:

1. Are some people (like the neighbors who get upset about such homes next door) going to be happy that teardown McMansions are back just because they signal a more vibrant housing market? Or, are these teardowns just another sign of the bifurcated market where the wealthy still have money to burn?

2. Do these teardowns today look significantly different than those of the early 2000s? Did builders learn any lessons or has the market shifted dramatically?

3. We might know that the housing market has really returned when teardowns are happening in communities that aren’t the usual suspects like Hinsdale, Naperville, Elmhurst, and the North Shore. Any activity in other suburbs?

Are the suburbs the heart of the anti-Common Core movement?

The claim here that backlash to the Common Core is based in the suburbs may be true but lacks hard evidence:

Now, amid all the backlash, an unlikely subculture appears to be emerging in the anti-Common Core world: suburban parents. Even U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken note of the trend, who last November told a group of superintendents that “white suburban moms” were resisting the implementation of the Common Core. His theory? “All of a sudden … their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

I happen to live in a middle-class suburb outside of New York City—one that could easily be considered the capital of “white suburban moms.” And I’m realizing Duncan was on to something: Their wrath is real, and it’s based largely on misperception and widespread fearmongering perpetuated by the Tea Party skeptics and anxious state policymakers…

So, why are suburban parents suddenly taken with test anxiety? Duncan reasoned that “white suburban moms”—and, presumably, dads as well—fear their children will perform poorly on the Common Core tests. But based on my conversations with parents and school administrators, as well as my observations of local school-board meetings, I believe parental fears are broader and more complex than Duncan made them out to be.

A typical suburban parent, like all parents, has an intense, natural instinct to protect his or her kids. We parents are hard-wired to protect our babies from the unknown—and for the most part, this is a good thing. After all, protection of offspring and suspicion of outsiders have kept the human species alive for millions of years. But this instinct sometimes takes parents in the wrong direction. Just look at the anti-vaccination movement: Though the instincts of anti-vaccination parent activists are pure, their actions have resulted in what’s arguably a public-health crisis in the country.

Many parents view the Common Core and the accompanying tests as a threat to their ability to keep their kids safe in a hostile world. Suburban parents, who are known for being particularly involved in their kids’ education and traditionally enjoy a good deal of influence on district policymaking, are frustrated by not being able to convince their local school boards to alter the standards or testing requirements. They worry that they won’t be able to help kids with homework, because the new learning materials rely on teaching methods foreign to them. They worry that, ultimately, their kids will be unemployed and living in the basement in their 20s…

Tea Party conservatives and suburban parents might not have a lot in common, but they seem to increasingly share a distrust of bureaucracy, so-called experts, and federal rules. The sources of their opposition, of course, are entirely different: For Tea Party conservatives, it’s about ideology; for parents, it’s about protection. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, indeed.

Does that mean urban and rural areas are the ones supporting the Common Core? Here is why this argument without much evidence bothers me: it sounds like the decades-old suburban critiques that haven’t changed all that much since the mid-1900s. It is easy to stereotype all the suburban population as white, conservative, individualistic, unable to see past their own interests. There is some evidence that would seem to fit with this argument: the exurbs tend to vote Republican, wealthier suburban communities (those likely with better schools) tend to be whiter, American suburbs have been all about raising children for a long time, and suburbs idolize local control in all sorts of areas. Yet, the suburbs were never that monolithic and certainly aren’t now with increasing non-white, poorer, and immigrant populations. Do inner-ring suburban parents view the world the same way as exurban parents?

If this story wanted to be more accurate, it might go a few directions:

1. Use some data. There certainly has to be some survey data regarding opinions on the Common Core. Many national surveys include a measure for living in urban/suburban/rural areas.

2. Don’t paint all suburbanites with broad strokes and instead limit the claim to certain groups. Perhaps the author is really talking about wealthier parents. Or moms. Or suburban conservatives.

Defacing/correcting a LA highway sign for the public good

Defacing an interstate highway sign would not be seen favorably by many municipalities but what if a resident changed the sign for the better to help people get where they want to go?

In the early morning of Aug. 5, 2001, the artist and a group of friends assembled on the Fourth Street bridge over the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. They had gathered to commit a crime—one Ankrom had plotted for years.

Twenty years earlier while living in Orange County, Ankrom found himself driving north on the 110 freeway. As he passed through downtown Los Angeles, he was going to merge onto another freeway, Interstate 5 North. But he missed the exit and got lost. And for some reason, this stuck with him…

Since he was an artist and sign painter, Ankrom decided to make the I-5 North shield himself. He also decided that he would take it upon himself to install it above the 110 freeway…

Ankrom wanted his sign to be built to Caltrans’ exact specifications, which included designs able to be read by motorists traveling at high speeds. He copied the height and thickness of existing interstate shields, copied their exact typeface, and even sprayed his sign with a thin glaze overspray of gray house paint so that it wouldn’t look too new…

The whole installation took less than 30 minutes. As soon as the sign was up, Ankrom packed up his ladder, rushed back to his truck, and blended back into the city.

Sounds like there were no repercussions. Even so, wouldn’t the situation have been better if he had contacted Caltrans or local officials to get this done? I suppose that would not have been so thrilling. While this might be sold as doing public good, the riskiness sounds like it had its own attraction compared to just helping out California drivers.

You don’t want to win the McMansion award from protesters

Some antitech protestors recently handed out a McMansion award in San Francisco:

Wearing a pig mask and sequined suit jacket, Amy Gilgan stood outside of Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night to accept the McMansion award at the second annual Crappys on behalf of Jack Halprin, a Google lawyer, landlord and frequent target of San Francisco’s antitech ire.

In sparkles and sneakers, technorati streamed past protesters and into the concert hall for the eighth annual Crunchies Awards, the supposed Oscars of Silicon Valley. Few turned their heads to witness the sidewalk satire. Investor Ron Conway, who last year stood on the Crunchies stage and offered his sympathy to the protesters, buzzed by a group of taxi drivers rallying against Uber. Evening news crews scaled back their coverage.

This year the pig masks were new, but the message was old. The verve of the antitech demonstrators felt diminished, and even they noted that the turnout was low.

McMansion sounds like an invasive species for the self-interested and wealthy. Some of the backstory:

Tirado said things started off  badly  as soon as Halprin bought and moved into the seven-unit building two years ago. First, Halprin forced one tenant out under owner move-in laws. Then another existing tenant was evicted,  again through the owner move-in process. Halprin told tenants that his domestic partner would be taking over the second unit. That partner, however, never materialized, according to Erin McElroy, an organizer with Eviction Free San Francisco. The affected tenant has since filed a wrongful eviction lawsuit against Halprin.

The remaining six tenants, which includes two teachers, a small child, an artist and a disabled senior, received Ellis Act eviction notifications in February of this year.

The protests continued through December. This is a big issue right now in San Francisco: in a very expensive housing market, Silicon Valley employees and companies have been perceived by some as throwing their weight around regarding properties and sending buses for workers. While this could be thought of as a more localized issue in some cities – perhaps gentrification occurring in particular neighborhoods – it is bigger than that since prices are high all over the Bay Area.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. It is interesting that we don’t hear as much about protests on this issue in New York City even though Manhattan is similarly expensive and luxury construction is booming. Perhaps the land there is being redeveloped from non-residential uses and/or fewer people are being displaced?

2. Generally, I don’t think winning an award with McMansion in the title is intended as a compliment.

Chicago to get its first national monument: Pullman Park district

George Pullman’s factory town on Chicago’s south side is to be named a national monument next week:

President Obama will designate Chicago’s Pullman Park district, an iconic site in African American and labor history, as a national monument next week, according to White House officials.

The area, which includes nearly 90?percent of the original buildings that rail car magnate George Pullman built a century ago for his factory town, was the birthplace of the nation’s first African American labor union. The president will travel to Chicago Feb. 19 to make the designation in person, said White House spokesman Frank Benenati in an e-mail…

“The people who are part of the Pullman legacy helped to shape America as we know it today,” Lynn McClure, Midwest senior director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “Pullman workers fought for fair labor conditions in the late 19th century and the Pullman porters helped advance America’s civil rights movement… Thanks to the president, Pullman’s story will soon be remembered and recounted for the millions of people that visit America’s national parks each year.”…

Chicago is one of the only major cities in the U.S. that does not have a national park.

Status-anxious Chicago now gets a national park and at least one symbol that its history is important. Some of the earlier discussion about this possible monument had to do with development opportunities; now that there may be a steady stream of visitors to the site, how can it help promote economic development? I’m not sure what I would imagine growing up around such a site; souvenir shops? Restaurants to help feed visitors?