Cutting a suburban house in half for art

In 1974, artist Gordon Matta-Clark sought a suburban house to turn into art:

In the spring of 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark approached his dealers, Holly and Horace Solomon, and asked whether they knew of a house that he could cut in half. As it happened, they had recently purchased an empty, soon to be demolished house, 322 Humphrey Street in the suburb of Englewood, New Jersey – they were interested in the underlying lot rather than the building itself. As the house was going to be pulled down, the Solomons let Matta-Clark work on it for a few months prior to its destruction. [1] It was an ordinary balloon-framed, two-storey house, with a porch back and front and a base of cinder blocks. It was built during the 1930s when Englewood was expanding due to its proximity to New York City and its separation from the decay and lawlessness of the inner city. However, with the postwar economic downturn there had been a decrease in the number of households. [2] The house at 322 Humphrey Street would have been only one of a number of empty lots, and, like the apartment buildings that Matta-Clark had appropriated, was part of the larger system of profit and loss.

Having enlisted the knowledge and help of the German-born artist Manfred Hecht, Matta-Clark jacked up one end of the frame, including one of the porches, removed a layer of cinder blocks, and cut through the entire side of the building – inside and out – with a chainsaw. Gradually he lowered the back of the building onto the remaining blocks, leaving a gap in the cut of about two-thirds of a metre at the top that tapered to a slit at the base. [3] He called this work Splitting, and part of the filmed record features Matta-Clark stripped to the waist, at different times pulling hard on the jacks, up a ladder directing the saw and manipulating the cuts; he appears to be as engrossed in his work as Jackson Pollock in the films that show him dripping paint onto canvas, or indeed Trisha Brown in films of dance performances in which she scales buildings and creates improvised urban encounters. All show the artists’ physical and mental engagement with their work and are performances of a type. When writing about Splitting, Matta-Clark also gave the house its performative role, saying that having made the cut there was a real moment of suspense about how the house would react, but that it responded ‘like a perfect dance partner’. [4] Matta-Clark wrote that the production of the work was not illusionistic, but that it was ‘all about a direct physical activity, and not about making associations with anything outside it.’ [5]…

Matta-Clark felt, like the Situationists, that this dream had been used as a political tool by the ruling classes through the provision of convenience and dwellings, in order to contain and control the masses. [10] It was also integral to the return to family values in America after the war, which were promoted in television programmes, films and magazines. While the home was seen as private, the family was also encouraged to be part of a network of neighbourhood relationships, where conformity was important, but these relationships were ‘sold’ as intrinsic to the ‘good life’. [11] Matta-Clark questioned the interests involved in developing this dream and then providing for it:

The very nature of my work with buildings takes issues with the functionalist attitude to the extent that this kind of self-conscious vocational responsibility has failed to question or re-examine the quality of life being served. [12]

The Whitney Museum of American Art describes the meaning of the project: “This splitting implied both a rupturing of the fabric of domestic space and a liberation of the individual from suburban isolation.” This is one way to cut through the suburban facade…

Could you design a skatepark that the neighbors don’t mind?

Designing outdoor spaces for teenagers – such as basketball courts – is difficult as many residents don’t like the activity. One Finnish landscape architect thinks there is a way to cut down on complaints:

Though they’re a teen-friendly third space, many skateparks receive noise complaints, and as a result, may be  deemed too much of a nuisance to maintain. Some parks are removed after only a few years of use at the request of nearby residents, possibly resulting in thousands of dollars in city funds squandered. However, Saario doesn’t think this is inevitable. The parks that go astray, he believes, are a result of poor community planning, awareness, and design—and sometimes independent business contractors who don’t have the skaters’ or the community’s best interests at heart.

“If a landscape architect is designing a space like this, they need to take the time and map land that’s accessible, but far enough away from residential areas so as to not disturb local neighborhoods,” Saario says. Cities often have multiple locations where new recreational spaces can be installed, and some idea of the ground conditions they’re building on top of, but Saario says landscape architects are needed so that officials can understand what design options are available within each site, and whether multiple types of users are permissible.

Saario’s final requirement for designing a park is that it’s built around a unique element that encourages conversation between groups and imaginative ideas. “I grew up skating inside an asphalt pool named The Footprint of the Giant,” he says. “When I met other skaters in the city, they knew where we were from—we had an identity. Skateparks need to have a strong concept that creates a sense of place.”

For an example of integrating a local landmark within a new park, Saario points to Fiskars, a village about 100 kilometers from Helsinki. Fiskars city officials recognized the need for a recreational space for kids and teens, but weren’t sure where to place it so as to avoid any disturbances. The officials asked Saario to analyze a number of possible locations for the park and suggest the best placement. Saario’s solution was to tear down a concrete manure silo near an abandoned barn at the edge of the city. In its place, a number of concrete bumps, curbs, and ledges (pictured above) were added to create the park’s surface. The final design used the brick walls from the original silo structure to support the newly poured concrete. “We were able to cut down on the park’s expenses this way,” he says. “And architecturally, there was a nice contrast of new against old.”

The ideas seem sound: reuse old spaces and materials, create unique skateparks that give users a sense of place, listen to the input of the teenagers/users, and don’t locate right near residences. Yet, finding the “perfect site” is likely to be difficult in many communities.

These issues are not new. I recall Herbert Gans noting in The Levittowners that the new mass suburbs offered few opportunities for teenagers away from their homes. On one hand, American teenagers are encouraged to assert their independence but on the other hand, few suburbs like the idea of large groups of teenagers hanging around. Does this help explain the rise of organized and structured activities – the fear of parents and communities that just hanging around will lead to trouble? Additionally, the teenagers themselves often have little voice in the political process as they cannot yet vote and may not like the idea of working with the system.

The potential decline of mature, wealthier suburbs

If you are not growing, you are falling behind. Does the principle apply to older suburbs? See the case of several New England suburbs:

This has little to do with the housing market broadly speaking: In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, prices are rising and homes are sold within days of listing. Rather, it’s a sign that suburban neighborhoods straight out of Mad Men are no longer as in-demand as they once were. Around Boston, for example, 51 towns and suburbs started the year with price declines while the city’s prices skyrocketed. Indeed, as Blackwood drives me through this picturesque New England town just an hour from New York, we pass dozens of for-sale and for-rent signs outside home set back from the road. These are homes that, one day, might have been on any family’s dream list, back when suburbs were where everyone wanted to live and there were dozens of companies to work for nearby. Median home values in Fairfield County, where New Canaan is located, are down 21 percent from their peak in 2003, according to Zillow; for the state as a whole median home values are down 18 percent from their 2004 peak. By contrast, home values nationwide are down just 5 percent from their 2005 peak. In urban areas, they are up—often substantially; in Boston, Charlotte, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, prices this year have set record highs.

Cities are in vogue again, and that’s starting to be a problem for places that are made up mostly of suburbs. Companies like General Electric that were once headquartered here in the suburbs are decamping for city centers, where they say they can more easily find the talent they need. In 2010, Aetna abandoned a giant campus in Middletown, Connecticut; Pfizer recently tore down 750,000 square feet of unused laboratory space in nearby Groton. At the same time, the baby boomers who flooded the suburbs to raise their children are getting older and no longer need big homes, but their children’s generation doesn’t have the desire—nevermind the savings—to buy up the houses, at least not at the prices boomers are looking for.

The Northeast has long been growing more slowly than other, warmer, parts of the country. Now, parts of the region are starting to see net losses in population. Between 2014 and 2015, Connecticut lost nearly 4,000 residents as Florida, a retirement hub, added 366,000. During that same period, the Northeast and Midwest together lost half a million people to the South and West. “Where the real action is is the Sun Belt,” William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute, told me.

The losses are exacerbated by the fact that the region’s median age is growing. Connecticut, alongside New England neighbors Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is one of only a few states to have a median age over 40, which means half of its population is over child-bearing age, according to Peter Francese, a New Hampshire-based demographer. “Connecticut is a basketcase demographically, as are many of the states in New England,” Francese told me.

Several thoughts:

  1. As the article notes, there is both inter-regional competition for residents and businesses as well as intra-regional competition. It would be interesting to know whether these communities have seriously considered changes to attract new people. Of course, doing so might mean altered demographics or character.
  2. The problems here are partly regional but also common across American suburbs. What do communities do when (1) they run out of new greenfield space and (2) stop growing? This stage of development might require large decisions to be made because of a default of not changing much could lead to additional issues – see #3.
  3. I would also add that these suburbs are also competing with other nearby suburbs in addition to cities. There are plenty of suburbs trying denser housing or more cultural events or affordable housing that might just attract some of those residents who are leaving or city residents who want the suburban life.
  4. It would be fascinating to compare suburbs at this mature stage – limited land to develop, aging populations and an older housing stock, population plateau or decline – that differ on social class. The suburbs profiled here are wealthy and it could take some time before outsiders could truly point to noticeable decline. In contrast, suburbs with fewer resources could more quickly decline. And once the “decline” starts, what can stem the tide or reverse it?

Urban segregation leads to bad outcomes – and what if the city is okay with this?

Following recent events in Milwaukee, NYMag summarizes some of the sociological research on urban segregation. As noted, the results of persistent segregation are not good.

However, what if this segregation is desired by the city or by large percentages of residents, whites in particular? The outcomes of segregation may be bad but the alternative might be considered worse: whites would have to live near blacks and share more resources and social spaces. With segregation, the problems are largely confined to certain areas (though there can be widespread fear if bad things happen in whiter and safer areas) and can be explained away by being attributed to particular groups. The segregation can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: there are neighborhoods for different groups because these sorts of things keep happening.

At some point, the negative consequences of segregation may be too much to ignore and stronger action might be taken. One good example is the destruction of public housing high-rises in many cities in order to deconcentrate poverty. City and national leaders perceived that something needed to be done. Yet, less provision was made for helping residents move elsewhere and find better opportunities. A less helpful example might be the uptick in shootings in Chicago: this is widely decried by leaders and the public but will much action be taken to (1) counter segregation and (2) provide more economic opportunities? At the moment, it appears not.

tl;dr: the outcomes of segregation are bad but how much will is there to consider alternatives?

The first publicly available “pre-crime” map

A think tank in Rio will soon maintain an online map predicting future crime:

With data from 42 police precincts on crimes committed between January 2010 to March 2016, CrimeRadar tracks some 14 million different crime events. But the app goes beyond mapping historical crimes: Through machine learning and predictive analysis, CrimeRadar will also map out future crime trends—like an open-gov pre-crime heat map…

Muggah says that Igarapé struck a deal with the Institute for Public Security, a state government agency, to build a public-facing mobile app that would show the distribution, intensity, and typologies of crimes across metro Rio. The researchers analyzed data centralized with the ISP along with data from Rio’s 190 system (like 911 in the U.S.) and created 812 categories for crimes. Those break down into capital crimes and violent crimes (like armed assault or intentional homicide), less-intense crimes (thefts, burglaries), and “victimless” crimes (loitering, prostitution).

“We built out a model that uses three data points—the time, the location, and the event—by discriminating in geospatial polygons using these three tiers,” Muggah says. “This algorithm creates a score, a risk score, based on those three data points, for every 250-meter-by-250-meter square unit in the state. You group some of the hundreds of thousands of scores for each sector into deciles to create a simplified, color-coded risk rating, on a scale of 1 to 10.”…

“We have over an 85 percent accuracy of mirroring risk against actual events. The beauty of machine learning is that this improves over time,” Muggah says. “The more data, the more information you feed into it, the higher-resolution your risk projections are going to be.”

Two things strike me as interesting:

  1. The claim that this is for the good of individuals who will be able to then make decisions. What about promoting the public good? This reminds me of apps in the United States that identified tougher neighborhoods but then received backlash.
  2. I’m not sure that 85% accuracy is good or bad. Obviously, such models strive to be much better than that. At the same time, making predictions (and with increasing levels of accuracy regarding times, locations, and actors) in a large city with many variable factors (particularly humans) is difficult. It will be interesting to see how accurate these models can be.

Bringing tiny houses to Chicago’s young homeless

A new plan involves housing homeless teenagers in Chicago in small units:

11,447 – Homeless unaccompanied youth, ages 14 to 21, according to an estimate by CCH

374 – Youth shelter beds across Chicago, according to CCH

The tiny homes, the way they are being planned by the working group, would cost $55,000 to $65,000, excluding the cost of the land or any site work like landscaping. Tenants would have yearlong leases, and the group is hoping that a local nonprofit would play the role of the landlord. Tenants would pay the utilities.

Next to funding, the biggest obstacle tiny homes advocates face is zoning. Chicago zoning attorney and Chicago Tiny Home Summit panelist Danielle Cassel said she ran out of sticky notes when logging inconsistencies between tiny home models and zoning code requirements.

Multiple communities have had discussions regarding plans to house the homeless in tiny houses – see earlier posts here and here. But, it seems that their smaller size and lower cost are not automatically enough to overcome the issues that affordable housing generally faces. Namely, there are three concerns: (1) who will finance these units? (2) who is willing to live next to them? and (3) will enough units be constructed to make a sizable dent in the populations that need such housing? Take Chicago: while it isn’t as expensive as New York City or San Francisco, the cheaper land is in less desirable areas, zoning guidelines will have to be altered, and there is a tremendous need for cheap, durable housing.

A cynical take is that several units or colonies will be constructed in a few Chicago neighborhoods and then touted as solutions. However, much would have to change for tiny houses to be a sizable solution for homelessness and affordable housing.

Indianapolis’ Univgov only worked because schools were not included

The Univgov created in Indianapolis in 1970 may have only gone forward because it didn’t unite all local governments; it intentionally left out school districts.

The celebrated unified government, or “Unigov,” law brought together about a dozen communities in Marion County into a single large city in 1970. The idea was to put a bigger, more powerful Indianapolis onto the national map, simplify city services, and grow the city’s tax base. Indianapolis was not the only city in the country to merge with its surrounding county at that time—but it was the only one to explicitly leave schools out of the deal…

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated. At the time, a majority of the region’s African American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar said. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. Senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.” Lugar said he knew the 162-page Unigov bill would die in the Indiana General Assembly if schools were included. But he still thinks the merger was worth it, despite the effects it has had on schools…

Unigov’s legacy for Indiana education is mixed at best, but neither Lugar nor Cierzniak think a future Marion County school district merger—one way some scholars say segregation can be reduced—is likely. Township districts have grown considerably, and the state legislature has heard district consolidation plans over the years that have repeatedly failed.

Uniting metropolitan governments is a difficult task, primarily for reasons like this: wealthier, whiter, often suburban residents do not often want to share their resources – particularly schools – with those who are not as wealthy and white. When the middle-class and above look for places to live, they often prioritize the school district and if it has a record of higher performance, will fight to keep others out. These wealthier residents want their tax dollars, especially those based on their better housing values, to go to their children and community. And the white-black divide is often the most difficult line to cross in such situations.

As another recent example, see the case of when Ferguson, Missouri students were given the chance to leave their unaccredited school district. Some parents in the new school district do not react well.