Quick Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Joining the subjects of crime and architecture, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is an interesting if not repetitive read. Some thoughts about a book that would intrigue many general readers:

  1. Manaugh’s main argument is that criminals – burglars in particular – see buildings and cities in very different ways compared to architects. While architects assume people will use the correct entrances and the rest of the building as it is intended, burglars are always looking for unique ways in and out of buildings which leads to going through walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, the locations of buildings can significantly affect burglary – such as the banks right next to highway on and off ramps in the Los Angeles area. In other words, these criminals are hackers of the built landscape.
  2. Manaugh talks to a number of law enforcement people and records some interesting insights. The best people he talks to are from Los Angeles as he travels with the helicopter crews and tries to see the city from above as well as spot criminal activity from this vantage points.
  3. Oddly, Manaugh doesn’t spend much time talking to architects. Do they think they should pay more attention to possible criminal behavior? Do they need to change how they think about buildings? He does talk to one creator of safe rooms.
  4. Overall, Manaugh seems a bit in awe of the burglars who can see the landscape in the ways that no one else can. He basically admits this at the beginning of the last chapter – he likes heist films – and admits at a few points that the vast majority of burglaries are connected to drugs.

This is an interesting read and those who like examples of daring criminals – such as those bank robbers who build tunnels under bank vaults, emerge from the floor, and escape through water tunnels on 4x4s – will find plenty to like. Yet, Manaugh doesn’t go far enough to connecting of how architects and city planners should respond or even if they should – perhaps this is just collateral damage of living in American cities today.

Quick Review: Evicted

I recently read Matthew Desmond’s much discussed work Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Here are my thoughts on the ethnographic work.

  1. The book is certainly readable as he tells the stories of a number of tenants and landlords in the Milwaukee area. The plight of the tenants is striking and the landlords are also an interesting group (particularly Sherrena who wanted to tell her story). Of course, such readability may not impress some sociologists who prefer more scientific prose (and who complain about the work of Venkatesh or Goffman) but this should reach a broader public. The narratives have some summary data and causal explanations sprinkled in but the emphasis is on the stories.
  2. One of the more impressive features of this work is the quantitative data that it also draws on. This information is buried in the footnotes but Desmond also developed several quantitative datasets that helped (1) suggest his stories are not unusual and (2) provide the broader patterns for an issue that is not studied much in sociology.
  3. The biggest takeaway for me: the number of evictions that take place on a regular basis.
  4. The subject area – evictions – certainly needs more attention. I’ve read my share of work on affordable housing in the last decade but rarely did I see this issue mentioned. As Desmond notes, big cities have a sizable population of people who consistently have to move around due to evictions. Even if there were more housing units – and big cities are often tens of thousands of units short of affordable units – evictions make it difficult to establish roots and settle kids into schools. The final chapter – where Desmond discusses the broader issue and possible solutions – leads off nicely with this idea of a good physical home as the centerpiece of a thriving society.
  5. That said, how common is this issue in suburban areas? As poverty moves to the suburbs as do increasing numbers of minorities, I would expect that evictions are not limited just to larger cities.
  6. One area that gets less attention in this ethnography that may also prove worthwhile to explore further is the legal apparatus. Desmond follows one of the eviction squads and provides some insights into the court process but it would be interesting to hear more from judges (who from the book seem to work against the tenants – though they may just be following the law) as well as local officials (how do public officials respond to these situations).
  7. A second area is thinking about the intersections of race and class. Desmond hints at the influence of race: comparing the experiences of blacks on the North Side of Milwaukee versus whites on the South Side, comments from black and white tenants about the possibilities for living in the other’s neighborhoods, briefly discussing the race of landlords. However, there is a lot more here to unpack, especially given Desmond’s other work on race. Take the two main landlords in the book: one is white, the other black. The first has a more stand-offish approach (working through intermediaries) while the second is more directly involved with tenants. Both are in it for the money and seem to be doing well. How much does their race matter?

An enjoyable read and a work I could imagine using with undergraduates who often have little to no experience with housing issues. I look forward to looking at Desmond’s journal articles that also build on this ethnographic and quantitative data.

Quick Review: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream

Thomas Dyja has a provocative argument in The Third Coast: while New York and LA are widely viewed as America’s cultural centers, Chicago of the mid-1900s contributed more than people think to American culture. My quick review of the book:

  1. The fact that the book is built on impressionistic vignettes is book its greatest strength and weakness. Dyja tells a number of interesting stories about cultural figures in Chicago from author Nelson Algren to Bauhaus member László Moholy-Nagy to University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins to puppeteer and TV show creator Burr Tillstrom to magazine creator Hugh Hefner. The characters he profiles have highs and lows but they are all marked by a sort of middle America creativity based on hard work, connecting with audiences, and not being flashy.
  2. Yet, stringing together a set of characters doesn’t help him make his larger argument that Chicago was influential. We get pieces of evidence – an important contribution to television here, the importance of Chess records, a clear contribution to architecture there – but no comparative element. By his lack of attention, Dyja suggests Chicago didn’t contribute much – art is one such area with a lack of a vibrant modern art scene (though what TripAdvisor ratings say is the world’s #1 museum does not get much space). Just how much did these actions in Chicago change the broader American culture? What was going on in New York and LA at those times? The data is anecdotal and difficult to judge.
  3. A few of the more interesting pieces of the book: he suggests Chicago contributed more to the Civil Rights Movement than many people remember (particularly due to the Emmett Till case); Chicago music, particularly through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, was particularly influential elsewhere; Mayor Richard J. Daley was on one hand supportive of the arts but only in a functional sense and the arts scene slowly died away into the early 1960s as creative type went elsewhere.

Ultimately, it is hard to know whether these contributions from Chicago really mattered or not. The one that gets the most attention – architecture through former members of the Bauhaus and then the International Style – probably really was a major contribution for both American and global cities. But even there, the focus of this book is on the people and not necessarily on their buildings or how normal Chicagoans experienced those structures or how the changes fit within the large social-political-economic scene in Chicago.

The perils of analyzing big real estate data

Two leaders of Zillow recently wrote Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate which is a sort of Freakanomics look at all the real estate data they have. While it is an interesting book, it also illustrates the difficulties of analyzing big data:

1. The key to the book is all the data Zillow has harnessed to track real estate prices and make predictions on current and future prices. They don’t say much about their models. This could be for two good reasons: this is aimed at a mass market and the models are their trade secrets. Yet, I wanted to hear more about all the fascinating data – at least in an appendix?

2. Problems of aggregation: the data is analyzed usually at a metro area or national level. There are hints at smaller markets – a chapter on NYC for example and another looking at some unusual markets like Las Vegas – but there are not different chapters on cheaper/starter homes or luxury homes. An unanswered questino: is real estate within or across markets more similar? Put another way, are the features of the Chicago market so unique and patterned or are cheaper homes in the Chicago region more like similar homes in Atlanta or Los Angeles compared to more expensive homes across markets?

3. Most provocative argument: in Chapter 24, the authors suggest that pushing homeownership for lower-income Americans is a bad idea as it can often trap them in properties that don’t appreciate. This was a big problem in the 2000s: Presidents Clinton and Bush pushed homeownership but after housing values dropped in the late 2000s, poorer neighborhoods were hit hard, leaving many homeowners to default or seriously underwater. Unfortunately, unless demand picks up in these neighborhoods (and gentrification is pretty rare), these homes are not good investments.

4. The individual chapters often discuss small effects that may be significant but don’t have large substantive effects. For example, there is a section on male vs. female real estate agents. The effects for each gender are small: at most, a few percentage points difference in selling price as well as slight variations in speed of sale. (Women are better in both categories: higher prices, faster sales.)

5. The authors are pretty good at repeatedly pointing out that correlation does not mean causation. Yet, they don’t catch all of these moments and at other times present patterns in such a way that distort the axes. For example, here is a chart from page 202:

ZillowTalkp202

These two things may be correlated (as one goes up so does the other and vice versa) but why fix the axes so you are comparing half percentages to five percentage increments?

6. Continuing #4, I supposed a buyer and seller would want to use all the tricks they can but the tips here mean that those in the real estate market are supposed to string along all of these small effects to maximize what they get. On the final page, they write: “These are small actions that add up to a big difference.” Maybe. With margins of error on the effects, some buyers and sellers aren’t going to get the effects outlined here: some will benefit more but some will benefit less.

7. The moral of the whole story? Use data to your advantage even as it is not a guarantee:

In the new realm of real estate, everyone faces a rather stark choice. The operative question now is: Do you wield the power of data to your advantage? Or do you ignore the data, to your peril?

The same is true of the housing market writ large. Certainly, many macro-level dynamics are out of any one person’s control. And yet, we’re better equipped than ever before to choose wisely in the present – to make the kinds of measured judgments that can prevent another coast-to-coast bubble and calamitous burst. (p.252)

In the end, this book is aimed at the mass market where a buyer or seller could hope to string together a number of these small advantages. Yet, there are no guarantees and the effects are often small. Having more data may be good for markets and may make participants feel more knowledgeable (or perhaps more overwhelmed) but not everyone can take advantage of this information.

Quick Review: Suburbia (the board game)

I study suburbs so it was appropriate that I received the board game Suburbia for Christmas. Here is my review of the game after three playings:

1. The game is built around constructing five different kinds of land: residential zones, commercial zones, industrial zones, civic zones, and lakes. You purchase hex pieces and your suburb grows as each zone gives you different abilities such as a growing income, a growing reputation (which increases your population), and more money. Because it is hex based, it is kind of like a cross between Catan and Carcassone where the hexes allow you do things but you have choices of what you build.

2. Like in real suburbs, zoning definitely matters. You have to keep certain properties away from each other. For example, industrial zones usually decrease the reputation of adjacent residential or civic zones. One residential zone, housing projects, have to be the most removed as they decrease your reputation if placed near residential, commercial, or civic zones. Because of these different zoning rules, you tend to have clusters of different properties. The one thing that can help break up the clusters? Lakes.

3. It is interesting that you have to reduce your income and reputation each time you cross a certain population size. As the game goes along, you have to find ways to keep your income and reputation up because as you grow, these go down. As the game suggests, quality of life is hard to maintain as your suburb grows larger. Thus, having a growing population is a kind of penalty even though you need the biggest population to win.

4. Getting a Casino and a PR Firm can really help you win – if you can afford them. They don’t come along until later in the game but they stop you from losing reputation/population (Casino) and income (PR Firm) when you cross each population threshold. These would be harder to obtain in a four player game but in a two player game where one player had both, they made for an easy win.

5. One nice twist of the game is that the players look at four common goals and then each player has an individual goal (unknown to the other players). Winning each goal (and ties do not count) leads to a population bonus so your planning and zoning is affected by these different goals. This helps vary the gameplay quite a bit.

6. One oddity: each player is building a borough and all of the boroughs constitute suburbia. The terminology for the level below suburbs as a whole likely reflects regional terminology. But, why not use municipality? Community? Just call each player’s board a separate suburb? Players actions can affect those of others so it makes some sense that each board is not a suburb but I found the word choice interesting.

As a suburban scholar, I think this game does a nice job simulating some of the broad aspects of suburban life. As noted above, zoning matters but a winning outcome also likely requires a mix of zones as a community needs population, income, and reputation to get ahead. Finding the right balance can differ from game to game given the goals.

Quick Review: Cubed

The book Cubedtackles what has become a ubiquitous space in today’s America: the white-collar office. Here are some thoughts about the book:

1. While the book might appear at first glance to be about office spaces, it is largely about the development and evolution of white-collar workers in the United States. This shift from farming and manufacturing in the late 1800s to office and clerical work was a profound shift in American society that affected everything from women in the workplace to educational aspirations to what it means to be middle class to what urban downtowns look like. It isn’t just about cubicles or desk chairs; it is about a shift toward knowledge workers increasingly laboring for big corporate America. It may seem normal now, but it is a remarkable shift over roughly 100 years.

2. While this shouldn’t be surprising given the field of architecture and design, it is still remarkable how much of office design was about trendy ideas and theories than on-the-ground information about what makes offices work. Thus, a history of American offices includes Taylorism, Le Corbusier, and Peter Drucker. Have a new idea about the intersection of work spaces and human interaction? If it is popular enough, it is likely going to going to be translated into office designs. Unfortunately, some of this theorizing comes at the expense of workers who were guinea pigs.

3. The book does well to include plenty of sociology, particularly picking up after World War II as sociologists like C. Wright Mills noticed the big shifts in society. At the same time, it strikes me that there isn’t enough well-known sociology about office life and American businesses more broadly. This may change in the near future with more economic and organizational sociology but it seems like a missed opportunity in the past from a field that focused on other topics.

4. This is the sort of book that would benefit from more pictures and architectural plans. There are some scattered throughout the book but I could easily imagine a coffee table companion book with rich photos and designs of iconic office arrangements. It can be hard at times to visualize the major patterns.

All in all, the book is a nice overview of American offices in the last 100+ years. There are numerous places where this book could have ballooned to many more pages but it doesn’t feel like the author is painting with too broad of strokes. Indeed, if we want to understand America in 2014, perhaps we should look less to Washington, glittering skylines, and the entertainment industry but rather examine what millions of Americans experience regularly in their offices.

Quick Review: Tune In: The Beatles, All These Years, Vol 1

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn has released the first in a Beatles trilogy titled Tune In. While plenty of books and authors have covered the Beatles (and I’ve read quite a few treatment), this book does a number of things well as it covers the band’s career through the end of 1962:

1. Lewisohn does a nice job discussing the more mundane aspects of their early life such as the home life of each band member. They came from a range of working to middle-class families with several from the Liverpool suburbs. Additionally, until 1962, several Beatles had to have regular jobs because the music business wasn’t yet working out. If I remember correctly, both Ringo and George worked as apprentices in certain trades while Paul worked in various delivery and clerk jobs. It is hard to imagine the Beatles in these roles but they had to balance a normal life path (as some of their family members reminded them) versus trying to succeed in music.

2. Like others, Lewisohn highlights the importance of the band’s early stints in Hamburg. However, he clearly drives home the point that this is where the true Beatles emerged. Not only did the band have a lot of time to play and hone their craft, they also took advantage of this: they knew they had to become serious about their music in order to get ahead. In other words, they went to Hamburg as just another band from Liverpool and came back and blew everyone away with their music, image (black leather), and confidence.

3. There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the larger music scene in England – which was fairly nonexistent regarding rock and roll. The Beatles were quite good at tracking down American music and they were heavily influenced by black artists like Little Richard, white artists who played black music like Elvis, and musicians who emphasized the band like Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The Beatles liked a broad range of music, which helped give them plenty of music for their long sessions on stage in Hamburg but also set them apart from other Liverpool bands who stuck to more tried and true songs. When the Beatles were in position to record auditions, the music labels weren’t really looking for full bands like them that sang in harmony, emphasized the group rather than the lead singer, and wrote some of their own songs. It is interesting that they ended up with a fruitful working relationship with George Martin at Parlophone as Martin had an eclectic career himself producing a wide range of albums and having difficulty getting a #1.

4. From the beginning, the Beatles wanted to be rich and famous. Perhaps it was simply the brashness of youth. Perhaps they wanted to escape humdrum Liverpool. It is not necessarily clear that the natural talent was there early on to back these ideas up: the Lennon-McCartney classics didn’t really start flowing until 1962 (plus bands didn’t a whole lot of this themselves at this point), John was creative but not always pleasant or focused, they weren’t the greatest musicians early on (especially with Paul learning the bass – though he became good quickly), couldn’t settle on a good drummer until Ringo was asked to join, and some of their early shows/auditions were marked by nervousness. But, it eventually came together in a product that was quite different from other music options and that propelled them ahead of other bands that were once their peers.

This book is full of details in its 800+ pages such that even as it covers similar ground as other biographies, it helps show how the mundane became extraordinary by the end of 1962. I’m looking forward to the next two books which should help reveal how the band that led to Beatlemania entered their most creative period of songwriting, transforming the music and recording industry, and maturing.

Quick Review: The End of the Suburbs

I recently read The End of the Suburbs, written by Fortune journalist Leigh Gallagher. On one hand, the book does a nice job describing some recent trends involving, but, on the other hand, the book is mistitled and I think she misses some key points about suburbs.

1. If I could title the book, I would name it something like “The End of the Sprawling Suburbs” or perhaps “The End of Sprawl.” Neither title is as sexy but she is not arguing that the American suburbs will disappear, rather that demographics and other factors are shifting toward cities. There is a big difference between ending suburbs and seeing them “grow up,” as one cited expert puts it.

2. Some of the key trends she highlights: the costs of driving (the whole oil industry, maintenance/gas/insurance/stress for owners, paying for roads/infrastructure), a changing family structure with more single-person and no-children households, changes among millennials and baby boomers who may be looking to get out of the suburbs in large numbers, a push toward New Urbanism in new suburban developments to increase density and strengthen community, and builders and developers, like Toll Brothers, are looking to build denser and more urban developments with more mixed-uses and smaller houses.

3. But, here are some big areas that I think Gallagher misses:

a. While she highlights the benefits of New Urbanism, does this lead to more affordable housing? In fact, the need for more affordable housing is rarely mentioned. As certain areas become more popular, such as urban neighborhoods that attract the creative class, this raises prices and pushes certain people out.

b. The main focus in the book is on big cities in the Northeast and Midwest. While she mentions some Sunbelt cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, there is a lot more to explore here. There are particular patterns in Northern cities compared to newer, more sprawling Sunbelt cities. And in a book talking about the end of sprawl, how could she not mention Portland’s fight against urban sprawl in the last few decades?

c. It is an intriguing idea that cities and suburbs are starting to blend together. But, some of the examples are strange. For example, she talk about how there is increased poverty in the suburbs, which then could make cities more attractive again. There are still some major differences between the two sets of places, particularly the cultural mindsets as well as the settlement patterns.

d. She highlights thriving urban cores – but what about the rest of big cities? While Manhattan and Chicago’s Loop might be doing all right, what about the poorer parts of those cities? The recent mayoral race in NYC involved this issue and many have complained in Chicago that most of the neighborhoods experience little government help. In other words, these thriving urban and suburban developments often benefit the wealthier in society who can take advantage of them.

e. It isn’t until the last chapter that she highlights some defenders of sprawl – people like Joel Kotkin or Robert Bruegmann – but doesn’t spend much time with their ideas. Indeed, the book reads as if these trends are all inevitably moving toward cities and defenders of suburbs would argue critics of suburbs have been making these arguments for decades.

4. Two questions inspired by the book:

a. Just how much should the American economy rely on the housing industry? Gallagher suggests housing is a sign of a good economy based in other areas rather than one of the leading industries. Sprawl can lead to boom times for the construction and housing industries but it can also face tough times. Perhaps our efforts would be better spent trying to build up other industries.

b. Is the century of sprawl in America (roughly 1910 to today – there were suburbs before this but their mass development based around cars and mass housing really began in the 1920s) an aberration in our history or is it a deeper mentality and period? Gallagher suggests we are at the end of an era but others could argue the suburbs are deeply culturally engrained in American life and have a longer past and future.

Overall, this is an interesting read summarizing some important trends but I also think Gallagher misses some major suburban trends.

Quick Review: League of Denial

I had a chance this past week to read the book League of Denial and see the PBS documentary by the same name. Some thoughts about the story of the NFL and concussion research (focusing mostly on the book which provides a more detailed narrative):

1. I know some fans are already complaining of “concussion fatigue” but it is hard to think of football the same way after hearing this story. For decades, we have held up players for their toughness and yet it may be ruining their brains.

2. The human story in all of this is quite interesting. This includes some of the former football players who have been driven to the edge by their football-related brain injuries. At the same time, the story amongst the doctors is also pretty fascinating, the chase for fame, publishing articles, and acquiring brains. Running through the whole book is this question of “who is really doing this research for the right reasons?” Even if the NFL research appears to be irrevocably tainted, are the researchers on the other side completely neutral or pure of heart?

3. The whole scientific process is laid out in the book (glossed over more in the documentary)…and I’m not sure how it fares. You have scientists fighting each other to acquire brains. You have peer-reviewed research – supposed to help prevent erroneous findings – that is viewed by many as erroneous from the start. You have scientists fighting for funding, an ongoing battle for all researchers as they must support their work and have their own livelihoods. In the end, consensus seems to be emerging but the book and documentary highlight the messy process it takes to get there.

4. The comparisons of the NFL to Big Tobacco seem compelling: the NFL tried to bury concussions research for a few decades and still doesn’t admit to a long-term impact of concussions on its players. One place where the comparison might break down for the general public (and scientific research could change this in the near future): the worst problems seem to be in long-time NFL players. When exactly does CTE start in the brains of football players? There is some evidence younger players, college or high school, might already have CTE but we need more evidence of this to be sure. If that is established, that perhaps kids as young as junior high already have CTE and that CTE is derived from regular hits at a young age (not the big knock-out blows), the link to Big Tobacco might be complete.

5. It is not really part of this story but I was struck again by how relatively little we know about the brain. Concussion research didn’t really take off until the 1990s, even as this had happened with football players for decades. (One sports area where it had been studied: boxing.) Much of this research is quite new and is a reminder that we humans don’t know as much as we might think.

6. This also provides a big reminder that the NFL is big business. Players seem the most aware of this: they can be cut at any time and an injury outside of their control could end their careers. The league and owners do not come off well here as they try to protect their holdings. The employees – the players – are generally treated badly: paid well if they perform but thrown aside otherwise. This may lead to a “better product” on the field but the human toll is staggering.

7. How exactly you change people’s opinions, both fans and players, regarding concussions will be fascinating to watch. It will take quite a shift among players from the tough-guy image to being willing to consider their futures more carefully. For fans, they may become more understanding as their favorite players consider what concussions might do to their lives. Will the NFL remain as popular? Hard to say though I imagine most fans this past weekend of football had little problem watching lots of gridiron action Saturday and Sunday.

Quick Review: The Queen of Versailles

I recently watched the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which details the quest of David and Jacqueline Siegel to built the largest house in the United States. My thoughts on the film:

1. I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed more of the movie isn’t about the house. And, I hope the house is completed just to see what an 85,000 square foot house looks like.

2. The film ends up being a lot more about what happens when a wealthy person/family suddenly sees that money disappears. This is an interesting story in itself. How do they adjust? How much of their behavior really changes? Even if they say they can readjust to a lower income, which is closer to what they grew up with, it appears this is is a really hard process. This reminds me of recent research suggesting people feel losses more strongly compared to equal gains.

3. Jackie is a somewhat sympathetic character but David Siegel is the one to watch here. His mood gets darker and darker as his financial prospects dim. I felt sorry for him; he freely admits at several points that he can’t separate his family and work and it shows in how he lives. Is this what trying to hold on to money looks like? If so, it doesn’t look attractive at all.

4. The film does address at various points who is responsible for the situation the Siegels are in: banks who made money easily available or people who got addicted to this easy money? But, the film doesn’t go far enough in trying to resolve this. It would be interesting to see banks or financial institutions interviewed on this particular case, or even more broadly, to get their side. We see the personal fallout of the problem as the Siegel family tries to recover but the film only hints at the bigger picture.

While this is an interesting story, I wonder: if the outlandishly large house was not involved, how different is this from a number of reality shows or films about wealthy people? In the end, I do think the family is pretty honest about the changes they are experiencing and perhaps it is this authenticity that sets this documentary apart.

(Note: critics like the film. On RottenTomatoes, 98 out of 103 reviews were fresh.)