Neighborhood change via highway construction and the resulting change in local character

Neighborhood or community change happens over time. Yet, as this look back at a Black Dallas neighborhood that was drastically altered by the construction of a highway in the late 1960s suggests, it was not just that the physical aspects of the neighborhood that changes: the intangible yet experienced character of a community matters.

Photo by Mizzu Cho on Pexels.com

That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

This helps explain the anger and protests in the last sixty years or so about highways bulldozing their way through urban neighborhoods. The particular form of highways – wide, noisy, made to help people speed through the community rather than visit or stop – and consequences – often bisecting lively places, erecting a barrier, destroying important structures, and furthering connections for wealthier and suburban residents at the expense of others – could be very detrimental.

More broadly, this hints at the delicate nature of neighborhood or community character. Change will happen but it matters how quickly the change happens, what form it takes, and who drives the process. Highways do not do well in these three metrics: they tend to go from bulldozing to construction to use within a few years, it is difficult to rebuild street life around it, and it is pushed on a community by others. Could highways support neighborhood character in any form? Perhaps not. But, it is a question asked not just of highways: the issue of character comes up with structures and development of a different form including denser housing among single-family homes, a major height differential such as a 20 story tall building in a community with a current max of five story buildings, or a new kind of land use. It could be easy to write off the concerns of local residents and leaders as NIMBY concerns but they may have a point in that new construction could change the character.

And, as noted above, the character of a place is vitally important. The people who live and work there have a particular understanding of what it is. When it is threatened by something as characterless as a highway, this can be particularly painful.

Large actors in the US housing market and building more homes

Derek Thompson argues those interested in more housing in the United States should be more concerned with local NIMBY activity than private investment firms buying up homes to rent:

Photo by Lady Emillia on Pexels.com

Far worse than corporations taking a few thousand units off the market for owners are the governments and noisy NIMBYish residents taking millions of units off the market for owners and renters alike—by blocking construction projects in the past few decades. (California alone has an estimated shortage of 3 million housing units.) From New York to California, deep-blue cities and states have amassed a pitiful record of blocking housing construction and failing to meet rising demand with adequate supply. Many of the people tweeting about BlackRock are represented by city councils and state governments, or are surrounded by zoning laws and local ordinances that make home construction something between onerous and impossible.

One of the issues at play here is a numbers one: who exactly is acting within the US housing market and how much sway do they have. Concerns about corporations and housing can be placed in the larger context of how many housing units there are and how many are being built. Here are the numbers Thompson provides:

The U.S. has roughly 140 million housing units, a broad category that includes mansions, tiny townhouses, and apartments of all sizes. Of those 140 million units, about 80 million are stand-alone single-family homes. Of those 80 million, about 15 million are rental properties. Of those 15 million single-family rentals, institutional investors own about 300,000; most of the rest are owned by individual landlords. Of that 300,000, BlackRock—largely through its investment in the real-estate rental company Invitation Homes—owns about 80,000. (To clear up a common confusion: The investment firm Blackstone established Invitation Homes, in which BlackRock, a separate investment firm, is now an investor. Don’t yell at me; I didn’t name them.)

If I am calculating correctly, institutional investors currently own 2% of the single-family rentals. Of course, this number could grow if these firms find this to be a good investment.

Also of interest is the number of new homes being constructed. Thompson links to figures from the National Association of Home Builders that shows 6.8 million new single-family units were created in the 2010s. So, concerns about big investors buying homes could be considered alongside housing construction: if the investors are buying more quickly than new homes are being built, this could be an issue.

Thompson settles on local actors – governments and residents – as holding back housing construction. In this numbers game, restrictions on a local level collectively are holding back the construction of single-family housing. If these restrictions were lifted or lessened, concerns about institutional investors would presumably diminish because there is a larger supply of houses to choose from.

One problem I see with this among the larger numbers: while local actors might in the aggregate have oversight over millions of units, they individually have control over relatively few units. Let’s say a particular suburb in the Bay Area (and this NIMBY argument often comes back to California) is against building new single-family homes. Depending on the size of the community and the availability of land, this might affect just a few homes to several thousand. This is not many. Zoom out to the whole region and many suburbs doing this adds up to tens of thousands of potential homes. Do this across all of California’s metro areas and the numbers add up. Similarly, you could do this across all the metro areas in the United States.

However, convincing all these municipalities to act in the interests of the region, state, or country as a whole regarding housing is a difficult task. Housing is local and this makes legislation at the state or federal level very difficult. California’s recent efforts with SB 50 did not go through. Illinois just recently gave some teeth – but not all the teeth – to affordable housing guidelines for communities set almost two decades ago. Federal guidelines are met with the suggestions that the suburbs are going to be abolished. One reason Americans like suburbs in the first place is that local government, presumably more responsive to the needs of residents, has the power to exclude (particularly on race and social class) and protect the existing single-family homes.

All of this does not necessarily mean Thompson is wrong. Yet, to get to the numbers of new homes constructed that would make a significant difference – whether in reducing the need many metro areas have for more affordable housing or outweighing the actions of investment firms – would require a lot of change across many communities. State or federal legislation may or may not be successful and would be unpopular in many places without a significant public groundswell of support that this is an issue that all or even most communities need to address.

Together, municipal changes regarding zoning and NIMBY could add up. But, changes would need to come across communities to make a big difference.

Targeting the right subset of suburban voters for the 2022 midterms

Politicians, strategists, and the media are looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections. Just like recent elections, the outcome may depend on particular suburbanites:

Photo by Curtis Adams on Pexels.com

That’s one reason Democratic strategists are taking steps now to set the terms of the debate in the midterms. To this end, they say they’ve homed in on a key demographic: suburban women who support President Biden but are at risk of either backing Republicans in 2022 or staying at home.

This demographic is somewhat distinct from the relatively affluent, educated White suburbanite demographic that is often discussed as central to the suburban shift to Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Instead, this group is a subset of suburban women who are more likely to be non-college-educated and somewhat less affluent, and tend to be drawn from the working class or lower middle class, or the ranks of small-business owners…

As Sena notes, for Republicans to win the House, they’ll have to win back some suburban voters in areas where Biden did very well. “The very first place Republicans are likely to go will be the suburbs, especially with non-college-educated White women,” Sena told me.

Fighting over suburban voters, and the variations within, is a regular part of American politics. Some suburban voters can go back and forth in their national political preferences and both parties would like to swing them to their side to insure victory.

As the article notes, the messaging has already begun in some parts of the country. It sounds like the ads thus far are for television. With the shift in recent years toward social media and text campaigns, does this suggest operatives are making use of all the possible tools or are particular demographics easier to reach through certain media?

If this is indeed one of the groups to reach for 2022, does this mean we can expect major political personas to make numerous appearances in certain suburban areas throughout the United States? It could be worth tracking which candidates and political figures visit which suburban locations in the next 20 months.

The suburbanization of Islam in America

A new study of mosques in the United States highlights the locations of the surveyed respondents:

The location of mosques in terms of the urban-suburban-town parameters are changing significantly. Mosques in downtown areas and in town/small city locations are decreasing. In 2010, 20% of mosques were in towns/small cities, but in 2020 that percentage is down to 6%. One of the reasons for this decline might be linked to the dynamic that the children of mosque participants are moving away to seek education and better jobs. Many town and small city mosques were established by doctors from overseas who were incentivized in past decades to set up practices in underserved locations. These doctors are now retiring, and mosque attendance is dwindling. The decrease in downtown mosques is most likely tied to the decline of African American mosques and the general move of immigrant mosques to the suburbs.

Mosques are moving and being established in suburbs. Mosques in older suburbs went from 21% in 2010 to 33% in 2020. Mosques in new suburbs went from 7% in 2010 to 15% in 2020. The age-old pattern of immigrants achieving financial success and moving away from cities seems to be repeating itself in the American Muslim community.

If I am reading these categories correctly, the percent of mosques in the American suburbs is close to the percent of Americans overall who live in the suburbs (just over 50%).

But, perhaps more interesting, is the change from 2010 to 2020. Mosques became more suburban over this time frame. The explanation with Figure 4 gives reasons for this: specific migration patterns and general migration patterns in American life with immigrants moving from cities to suburbs over time (known as spatial assimilation). It would be interesting to see if the established research in recent decades on segmented assimilation – or other kinds of assimilation according to scholars – has more to say about different groups of Muslims who may or may not follow these general patterns.

For more on this, I recommend the 2018 book Suburban Islam which examines the experience of a Muslim institution in the suburbs of Chicago. Similarly, the 2015 book Religion & Community in the New Urban America considers congregations in a number of religious traditions in the Chicago region (city and suburbs).

Trying to keep up with growth in housing and jobs, Dallas edition

A report on the growing numbers of housing and jobs in the Dallas metropolitan area over the last decades highlights the connection between the two:

Photo by Mizzu Cho on Pexels.com

From 2010-2020 the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area added 438,000 new housing units, increasing the housing stock by 18%. Dallas’s growth in new housing ranks No. 9 fastest among the nation’s 100 largest metros, Zillow’s stats show.

Over the same period, Dallas added 802,000 new jobs, an increase of 29%. A healthy housing market should add a new housing unit for every 1-2 new jobs as the local economy grows, according to the Zillow report and industry rule of thumb

.In Dallas-Fort Worth, 1.8 jobs have been added for every new housing unit, indicating that the area is building enough new housing to keep pace with demand, according to Zillow, although many realtors, homebuilders, and would-be buyers argue that’s not the case, at least right now.

Many American communities would like to have this problem: more residents and more jobs. Growth is good. Yet, growth in one area that outpaces the ability for other areas to keep up could become a problem.

In this case, the issue is housing. A flood of new workers could lead to higher demand for housing, driving up prices and increasing competition. In the long run, this could be discouraging both to new workers as well as long-term residents who find themselves in a different housing market.

I could imagine other issues in the Dallas area and elsewhere where growth happens. Take schools. This often comes up in booming suburbs where new residences are plentiful. This puts a strain on local schools and construction has to take place rather quickly to avoid having a lot of students in temporary settings. But, at some point, population growth will slow down and then there might be too much education infrastructure and costs that are difficult for the community to sustain.

Another example could be traffic and congestion. Adding all these jobs and housing units means many more people have to travel between them. Can the current roads and mass transit (roads in the case of most American metropolitan areas) handle all of this? New lanes can be added but putting in additional roads or highways is expensive and time-consuming. And studies show that adding road capacity just leads to more driving and more traffic.

The Dallas area might be fine in the long-run with roughly 1.8 new jobs per new residence but it will take some time to catch up with and settle in to the growth.

Rituals to mimic the valuable aspects of a commute (without the actual travel time)

COVID-19 has disrupted the work patterns of many and this included the commute to and from work. Even as some relished the opportunity to work from home and avoid the time and hassle of a commute, the pattern could offer some advantages. Enter in alternative rituals to mark the beginning and end of a work day:

Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Pexels.com

I sought the advice of Ezra Bookman, a corporate-ritual designer (yes, this is a real job) based in Brooklyn. His work includes coming up with ideas like “funerals” for failed projects. “Every single conversation I have with corporate clients is the same,” he told me: “Employees are burnt out and have no separation between home and life.”

Naturally, he has come up with some rituals to replace the commute and mark the beginning and end of each day. The ideas he’s proposed to clients include lighting variations, warm-up stretches, cellphone-free walks, and, as he demonstrated to me over Zoom, shrouding your computer in a fine blue cloth when you log off, as if it, too, needs a good night’s sleep.

“Rituals are friction,” he told me. Like the commute, “they slow us down. They’re so antithetical to most of our life, which is all about efficiency and speed.” One ritual that worked for Bookman was changing his laptop password to “DeepBreath”: “It helps me to locate myself in time and say, ‘Okay, what am I here to do?’ ”

Iqbal, the Microsoft researcher, said that this was the same idea behind a “virtual commute” that her company has just released. An onscreen tap on the shoulder—“Ready to leave for the day?”—signals that it’s time to knock off. The shutdown sequence has you bookmark what you were working on. It invites you to “take a minute to breathe and reset,” in sync, if you like, with a calming meditation video. Because work is done.

The stark physical distance in the modern world between work and home is one that is relatively unusual in human history. In communities prior to the 1800s, many workers lived and worked in close proximity, often on the same property or land. The availability of new transportation options plus burgeoning populations and industries separated the two such that the physical distance between home and work increased.

These rituals hint at these physical distances while emphasizing the broader dimensions of not living and working in the same place. Humans fall into and often enjoy routines/rituals. Even if they are stressful – and commuting can be both in the moment and long-term – they can become needed.

At the same time, how exactly does replacing one ritual with another work? Here the issue is work and home life, trying to recreate patterns that allow for decompression and shifting focus. Yet, the new ritual is quite different: it does not involve the body in the same way – less motion, more emphasis on breathing – and happens at a different speed – commuting involves the possibility of higher speeds via car, train, and other means.

Does this always work? I am thinking of T. M. Luhrmann’s book on religious kindling which involves a lot of discussion of rituals. Replace a religious ritual with an action that tries to invoke something similar – say mindfulness – and does it replace the previous ritual or is it deficient or even better? How much time does it take to adjust from one important rituals or set of rituals to another?

Add technology to this mix – which could help pattern and establish new rituals as well disrupt old patterns such as making work possible at all hours and in all places – and lots of rituals may need reinforcing or replacing.

In the past year, Americans moved to less expensive but bigger homes

A new report from Zillow shows what kinds of homes Americans chose in the last year:

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

By and large, Americans chose bigger — and less expensive — homes, particularly if they moved across state lines. Zillow’s analysis looked at data from North American Van Lines, a trucking company based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This was “a notable reversal of trends from prior years,” Zillow economist Jeff Tucker said in the report.

The average home value in the ZIP codes that movers left was $419,344, versus $392,381 for the ZIP codes they relocated to. That represents a difference of roughly $27,000.

But a cheaper home doesn’t mean a smaller one. While the average size of the homes movers left behind was the largest since Zillow began tracking this data in 2016, the average size of the new homes people chose was even larger. The average difference in size, according to the analysis, was 33 square feet…

This is allowing Americans to get the most bang for their buck in the housing market, rather than needing to sacrifice affordability or space in the name of living closer to urban centers.

Is this a perfect distillation of the American Dream at this period of history? “The biggest house for the least amount of money.”

I wonder how this might affect broader patterns regarding the size of American homes. The size of new houses grew steadily from 1950 on but has leveled off in recent years. At the same time, I could imagine a scenario where small shifts as described above help keep inching up the size of American homes. Here is how this might work:

  • From the summary, it sounds like people moved, on average, to slightly bigger houses. Having 33 more square feet is not that much – imagine a 5.5 x 6 foot space (bathroom? mudroom? closet?) – but it is an increase.
  • There does seem to be some interest in not living in McMansions or extra-large houses (see a recent example). Some have suggested prior generations wanted crazy amounts of space while younger adults today want more reasonably sized homes.
  • So imagine the standard size of a “small house” keeps inching up – there are fewer starter homes so people go to bigger houses, new or old, to start – while there is less interest in homes 4,000 square feet and up (which relatively few Americans owned in the first place). In other words, the size of American homes move more because truly small homes are phased out and truly large homes fall more out of favor.

A purchased home does not need to be a McMansion to be a bigger home compared to past standards or even smaller units today.

Illinois finally providing some teeth to affordable housing guidelines for communities set in 2003

In 2003, the Illinois legislature passed guidelines saying communities with less than 10% affordable housing needed to provide a plan to address this. Only recently did lawmakers set out consequences for not following this:

Photo by Constanze Marie on Pexels.com

A sweeping affordable housing bill, recently passed by Illinois state lawmakers, has strengthened the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act (AHPAA). That law requires cities, with at least 1,000 residents and with less than 10% affordable housing, to submit affordable housing plans to the state. The law also allows for affordable housing developers to appeal the decisions of municipalities who reject their affordable housing proposals. Those appeals are heard by the Illinois Housing Appeals board.

The AHPAA, originally passed in 2003, is intended to encourage affordable housing, but resistance is rampant. As of October 2020, the Illinois Housing Development Authority identified 46 municipalities that met the law’s requirements. At that time, fewer than half had submitted plans or indicated that they intended to do so. Some municipalities cited home rule as the reason why they didn’t comply. The revised law says that doesn’t matter anymore. It gives the Illinois Attorney General enforcement powers, including seeking court relief, if the municipalities continue to flout the law…

Schecter said the next hurdle is getting units built — not just submitting plans. She said deadlines are needed for when municipalities must turn in their plans and by when they must achieve the 10% affordable housing requirement.

I have followed this particular Illinois statute as affordable housing, particularly in wealthier suburban areas, has been a contentious issue for decades. In some places, this has been addressed through court cases; see the example of Mount Laurel in New Jersey. Elsewhere, it is often left to market forces and municipal ordinances, which typically means that few communities explicitly address providing affordable housing (and not just housing for people groups they would like to have in their community) and local leaders and residents push back against living near cheaper housing (see the example of resistance to apartments).

The last paragraph quoted above suggests there is still work to be done. The recent changes suggests there are now consequences if communities do not submit plans. But, I would guess the real goal of the 2003 guidelines and the update is to lead to new affordable housing units. Even if tomorrow Illinois moved to push communities to submit plans, it would take years for the actual housing to be planned and built. According to various groups, there at least tens of thousands of affordable housing units needed in the Chicago region. If these legislative changes make a sizable dent in this number, this could help a lot of people.

Religious parents, congregations, and passing on faith

Sociologists Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk have a new book where they look at parents and passing down religion to children. In an interview, here is how Smith describes some of the findings:

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

The other big surprise was parents’ views of their religious congregations. The common story is that laypeople just want to dump their kids off at church and have religion taken care of by youth ministers. But we found parents just want church to be friendly and a good environment, but they think it’s their job to take care of religious things. That seemed to be kind of a mismatch in how clergy and youth ministers think about parental involvement and the way parents described that involvement…

In the book, you say that a central part of your argument is that what religion is has fundamentally changed from a “communal solidarity project” to a “personal identity accessory.” Can you elaborate briefly on what that means?

This is my historical interpretation of our findings, trying to make the best theoretical sense I can of what’s going on. The idea of a communal solidarity project is that in a former time in American history, religion would have been much more of a collective, community-based experience. It would have been something people shared in common and that had much more of a social dynamic to it. The parents wouldn’t have had so much burden to promote religion because it would’ve just been living in the community. Over time, that world has dissolved…

And you raised the question of mismatch earlier, but I would say this is the real mismatch. Not so much strategy differences between parents and youth ministers, but what church is for. I think some of the main actors that are gathered in congregations have very different ideas of what they’re even doing there. What’s fascinating, sociologically, is how they can continue that mismatch for years and not really figure out the differences between each other—like not really have it dawn on them, “Oh, we have totally different realities going on here.”

These are big picture issues regarding religion in the United States: what is the role or place for parents even alongside the common idea that children should be able to make their own choices? What are religious congregations about: places of religious community and solidarity or places for individual consumers to take what they can get? How do parents and churches interact when their goals might be similar but their means and/or expectations differ?

One notable feature in the books Smith and his colleagues have written about the faith of teenagers and emerging adults is how these patterns among younger adults help shed light on broader patterns in American society. What teenagers take in and how they act does not come out of nowhere. They may be exacerbating existing trends or remixing elements of culture, but they are building on what is already happening with adults, institutions, families, and others.

The scale of American shipping illustrated in one broken-down semi with 14,000 chickens

Americans are used to highways, semi-trucks, and breakdowns. They might not be as familiar with what can be in some of the trucks that break down:

Photo by 500photos.com on Pexels.com

Loucks, a mechanic at Super Truck Service in west suburban Addison, didn’t think anything of the call. But when he got to the semi, he found 14,000 live chickens in the trailer…

He couldn’t tow the truck the nearly 30 miles back to the shop because tipping the trailer up could be even more dangerous for the chickens, Loucks said, so his team chained up an axle and had the semi drive back to Super Truck Service on eight wheels instead of 10. That meant driving 35 to 40 mph down I-90, which wasn’t a very safe option either, Loucks said.

After returning to the shop at 562 S. Vista Ave. in Addison, and with the temperatures rising, Loucks said the first thing he did was grab a garden hose as he started to “water the chickens,” despite being afraid of birds.

Three things stand out to me in this short story that might be easy to ignore since vehicles break down all the time:

  1. The number of chickens on one truck is astounding. Ask people on the street how many chickens would fit on a truck and I wonder how many would be close to this number.
  2. While this is a large number of chickens, this is just one truck. Therefore, this is just a drop in the bucket in the number of chickens in the United States. According to Statista, there are over 1 billion chickens in the United States.
  3. There are numerous ways to ship goods and animals. Moving all of this requires a lot of infrastructure behind the scenes that helps get eggs and chicken to grocery shelves. Put #1 and #2 together and you need a lot of ways to transport everything.

The United States is a large country with a big economy and a critically important set of structures and vehicles that get things where they need to go. Semis and other trucks are needed to help make this possible.