Town, gown, and attracting remote workers

Two universities, Purdue and West Virginia are hoping remote workers might like the community to be found in college towns:

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Universities have long hosted corporate incubators, but the new programs represent another way the pandemic has shifted the way colleges think about who works on campus, and why. Many universities are considering how employees’ desires for remote work will affect their own human-resources policies. These colleges, however, are making a play for other people’s employees, showing that campuses will both influence and be affected by this major shift in where Americans live and work.

Purdue is set to hold a visitors’ weekend for a small group of applicants for a so-called “remote-working community” in the campus’s business-and-research park, which is operated by the university’s research foundation and a development company. These people will uproot their lives — some with a deal-sweetening $5,000 — to move to West Lafayette, Ind. They can live at discounted rates in housing built in the Purdue park and access campus facilities, including the library and a co-working space…

West Virginia University and its state’s tourism agency are teaming up to try to recruit outdoor enthusiasts to Morgantown, Shepherdstown, and Lewisburg. The campus is offering free certifications — in remote work or remote management — through its business school. Other incentives, backed by donors and the state, include $12,000 in cash over two years, the subsidizing of activities like skiing and rafting, and co-working space and social programming…

Remote employees want to be in places with amenities — locations with “substantial infrastructure” and a “built-in community,” said Evan Hock, co-founder of MakeMyMove, which promotes incentive packages for relocations and has listed the offerings of both West Virginia and Purdue. The company and Purdue developed the incentive package together, he said. He expects college towns to hold these employees’ interest, he said. “Ultimately, the bet that the university is making is that more smart people in a region is better.”

This assumes, of course, that colleges will be back to their thriving residential centers this upcoming year and in the near future. During COVID-19, college towns may not have been much better than many other locations in the United States regarding finding community.

Another factor in favor of this idea: with the period of emerging adulthood where college graduates have years after graduation to settle in to college life, more might appreciate being around some of the things they liked about college. This could help the transition by providing access to college energy and activities without the same day-to-day schedule.

However, I do not think it is a surprise that these two schools are featured in this story. How many college graduates, even from these schools, want to stick around in these locations? In contrast, would schools like UCLA or NYU want to offer such programs? The incentives are being offered to attract workers to western Indiana and West Virginia because they are the kinds of places even remote workers might not consider. Remote workers can go a lot of places but they also probably follow popular patterns of where Americans would go if they could.

The random name generator for Chicago suburbs

After thinking about Chicago suburbs with elevation clues in their names, I was reminded of the names of Chicago suburbs more broadly. To quote again from the WBEZ story:

One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.

So how exactly did developers and local leaders come up with all of the existing Chicago area names? It could have looked like this:

I had to check on Willowridge because it puts together two commonly used words in suburban place names. I found some companies with this name as well as one suburban street but no official place.

Here are the next ten names generated:

Romeowoods

Franklinsville

Elmburn

Hillhurst

Musmukda

Glenside

Rolling Bluff

Hillwoods

Highfield

Crystalfield

Out of these, I would vote for Glenside as the most probable.

On one hand, this all makes sense: suburbs often want to invoke nature and idyllic settings. On the other hand, such anodyne names invoke the conformity and dullness of suburbs many suburban critiques have noted.

A McMansion with a real McDonald’s/fast food theme inside?

A home in suburban New York has an interior devoted to McDonald’s and fast food:

There is a New York house for sale that was decorated as a love affair with fast food and it’s crazy. The kitchen looks like a modern McDonald’s complete with a kids section with old playland furniture. There are also tons of old fast food memorabilia like Ronald McDonald statues and stained glass that was used in McDonald’s restaurants in the 70s.

The fast-food theme doesn’t just start and end with McDonald’s. It includes Burger King, Wendys, and White Castle too…

This is the actual kitchen in this house. Does that not look like a modern McDonalds? Just about the only things missing are cash registers and a drive-thru window…

I swear I didn’t just run down to my local McDonalds and snap a picture of their bathroom. I mean really, how creepy would that be? This one of the bathrooms off the kitchen and it looks just like one you’d find in a typical fast food joint.

According to Zillow, the home is over 3,400 square feet and has seven bedrooms:

The term McMansion is linked to McDonald’s in that the “Mc-” prefix implies something mass produced with relatively poor quality. Does this home fit? The home is big, roughly 1,000 more square feet than the average new home. The exterior is interesting: the proportions are off as the top windows which look like they are symmetrical do not line up with the bottom features where the entryway (completely with columned portico) and garage are offset. The gables over the top windows are unncessary though the siding looks consistent.

Is the house a bit odd looking? Yes. Is the McDonald’s and fast food interior unique? Yes. But, I wonder if something else is going on here that does not quite line up with the McMansion moniker. When I first saw the home and location, I wondered if this was a postwar house. Indeed, the Zillow listing says the home was constructed in 1947. My guess is that this home had at least one addition or major change since its initial construction and these add-ons contributed to the odd facade. When people use the term McMansion, they tend to refer to a home built since the 1980s that was constructed with the poor features and quality. This home is not that. When looking on Google Street View, many of the nearby homes look to be older homes as well.

Perhaps this home is more like a McMansion because the interior specifically references fast food. Is it ironic? Nostalgic? Does all of it come the property? Put a Golden Arches in front of the house and this might be accurately termed a McDonald’s House, not a McMansion.

Far right-wing militias in the Chicago suburbs

Who lives in the (Chicago) suburbs? According to WBEZ, far right-wing militia leaders:

Traditionally, extremists interested in rightwing paramilitary activities have had to make a special effort to locate and join private paramilitary groups, said Friedfeld. The effort itself was enough to deter many from even bothering. But with hundreds of unlawful militias featured on the site, MyMilitia has reduced the process to a matter of a few clicks. Moreover, the website has pioneered the concept of so-called “area code militias,” which directs users to others living nearby…

Joshua Ellis is 41-years old and lived in Naperville until recently. Bankruptcy court documents indicate he has relocated to Antioch, Illinois. Ellis works in mold remediation and water damage. He calls himself an Army veteran, although his record was just six months with the Iowa Army National Guard, which he acknowledges he left before finishing advanced individual training. He has lived in several states, has a long history of not paying taxes and has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection at least three times…

The fact that a far right extremist social media site would be run from someone’s home in Chicago’s suburbs has been no surprise to Alexander Reid Ross, a professor at Portland State University and a fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. Reid Ross began tracking far right street activity after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. He found that, in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election, the Chicago region was a hot spot…

“I ran the data, and I found out that, demographically, places where these far right incidents were taking place were actually demographically more diverse and actually had slightly higher median household income than the national average,” he said. “That narrative was true that these guys are rising up in the suburbs. They’re feeling like the world is getting more diverse and they’re losing their white power.”

That the front line of right-wing militia activity could be in the suburbs makes sense for several reasons:

  1. Suburbs are split politically with voters closer to big cities leaning Democratic and voters on the edges leaning Republican. The example of Ellis above fits this.
  2. The demographics of many American suburbs have changed in recent decades with more minority, immigrant, and poor residents.
  3. Numerous suburbs have experienced tensions over changes in recent decades. This includes controversies in local government, schools, public activities, and among neighbors.
  4. The majority of Americans live in suburbs.

At the same time, I suspect many suburbanites would be surprised by this. I remember reading a book years ago about Timothy McVeigh and the rural locations in Arkansas and elsewhere of the groups he interacted with. I can imagine the typical news report about something shocking in the suburbs: “We had no idea our neighbor was doing X. This is a quiet community with friendly neighbors. Person Z was a recluse but we did not imagine this.” How would reactions to this news compare to other negative activities? Or, could such group carry out activities in public without receiving pushback?

Out with vacation McMansions but keep going with pricey, exclusive, luxurious homes

An article about a popular new development in Park City, Utah suggests millennials do not want McMansions but the rest of the text suggests they are not giving up on having nice homes:

https://www.benlochranch.com/

What Benloch Ranch represents is a collision of trends in real estate and demographics. Millennials of homebuying age are rejecting the sizes of their parents’ homes, so-called cookie-cutter McMansions. And the second-home market, hastened by COVID and the same millennial-buying population, is booming. The pandemic has forced buyers to value outdoor spaces and activities more than ever before. Benloch Ranch currently has a waitlist of 175 for its single-family lots…

The development’s amenities include more than 20 miles of trails, a ski hill, a skeet shooting range, an ice skating pond and 900 acres of open space…

A lot of millenials don’t want these big houses anymore. We’re redefining the size and scale of the house and altering the price point so it’s more affordable.”

According to data released by the Park City Board of REALTORS, the median price  single-family home rose roughly 26% year-over-year to $2.5 million. Benloch Ranch offers single-family homes starting at $695,000.

The pitch is an attractive one: lean into the terrain and the idea of sustainability, feature interesting architecture, provide amenities, be close to an exciting scene and in at the start of a new development. This is a shift to new preferences of millennial buyers. The vacation homes of today and the future may look different and there is money to be made.

At the same time, this is about vacation homes in a wealthy community. This development has potential because millennials with resources can afford a vacation home starting at $700k. Sure, there are no more McMansions with all of that wasted space and tacky design but this kind of life is only available to those who can buy into it. The price for these homes would be beyond the reach of many residents of the Salt Lake City region, let alone many residents of the United States.

Does this mean the McMansion vacation homes of an older generation will not find buyers? This will be worth watching, both for vacation homes and regular homes. If McMansions go out of style, this could be reflected in lower prices or modifications – imagine multiple units – or even redevelopment.

New-York or New York?

Mix arguments over immigration and hyphens and you have a historical debate over whether the name of New York City should be hyphenated:

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What Curran either didn’t know, or wanted to erase, was the fact that up until the late 1890s, cities like “New-York” and “New-Jersey” were usually hyphenated to be consistent with other phrases that had both a noun and an adjective. In 1804, when the “New-York Historical Society” was founded, therefore, hyphenation was de rigueur. The practice of hyphenating New York was adhered to in books and newspapers, and adopted by other states. Even the New York Times featured a masthead written as The NewYork Times until the late 1890s.

It was only when the pejorative phrasing of “hyphenated Americans” came into vogue in the 1890s, emboldened by Roosevelt’s anti-hyphen speech, that the pressure for the hyphen’s erasure came to pass.

Writing in 1924, several years after Roosevelt’s speech, Curran accused New York society of being overly judgmental, noting that “it is Ellis Island that catches the devil whenever a decision comes along that does not suit somebody. Of course, we are now in the midst of the open season for attacks on Ellis Island. We have usurped the place of the sea serpent and hay fever. We are ready to be roasted.” For the next twelve years he served as commissioner of immigration, Curran became more staunchly anti-immigrant, and his hatred was fueled by the anti–hyphenated Americanism espoused by people like Roosevelt and, later, Woodrow Wilson.

Curran was outraged that his beloved city would appear hyphenated, and he continually insisted that Morris call a meeting to pass a law that barred the use of a hyphen in New York. Meanwhile, curators, historians, and librarians banded together with antidiscrimination and immigrants’ rights defenders to defend a hyphenated New-York. Curran could not win this time, they insisted. The curators and librarians at the Historical Society bravely stood by the hyphen in their name, confirming that they had been founded in 1804, that the hyphen was in the original configuration of New-York, and that, no, this hyphen would not be erased. Hyphenated Americans and activists throughout New York City worried that this erasure would signal that they would not be welcome in the one city that was supposed to be a bastion of openness in America…

In the end, much to his chagrin, Curran lost this contest. No law was ever passed outlawing the hyphen, and it remains to this day, etched in stone on the building of the New-York Historical Society, a homage to the journey of the city and the hyphenated individuals who fought the good fight to keep the hyphen—and its many meanings—alive.

While it might be easy to dismiss this as a language debate from long ago, this excerpt highlights how language is not just about grammar or particular words: all of it is tied to how people see and understand the world. It sounds like the hyphen in place names followed conventions for the day of separating adjectives and nouns that went together. As hyphens later helped demarcate identity, they generated controversy.

Would New York be a different place today if it were New-York? Perhaps it might work like this. The hyphen implies a more hybrid identity than the solid “New York” together. Would this point people back to the original roots of the city, not as an American place but a British territory and before that a Dutch city? All of this could help put together contradictory ideas including American individualism and capitalism, colonialism, slavery, and pluralism. Add to that the immigrant history of New York from a variety of countries at numerous time points and perhaps the hyphenated version would help highlight the bricolage that is the city of five boroughs, numerous neighborhoods, and uncountable different experiences. “New-York” is still being shaped, “New York” already exists.

Involving public comment in a revision of the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices

There is a federal government manual that guides decisions for transportation engineers regarding roads. While it is notable that it is going to be revised for the first time in eleven years, there is also a process for public comment:

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The Federal Highway Administration released a draft of proposed changes late last year. The last time the manual got an update, a few thousand people, mostly transportation professionals, submitted comments. This year, 26,000 comments poured in from all over the country.

Some arrived from big companies, including the ride-hail and mobility company Lyft, the Ford-owned scooter-share company Spin, and the Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs. Each asked for a major rewrite that would, as Sidewalk Labs put it, “more closely align with the equity, safety, and sustainability goals of American cities, as well as those of the Biden administration.”

Others came from individuals. “There’s a broader set of people who see that these streets don’t work, that there are too many people getting killed, that they’re too unpleasant. It’s not consistent with what a place or a community should be,” says Mike McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle and executive director of the group America Walks. He credits those everyday activists with the new interest in the design document—and his own group, which urged thousands of people to submit comments to the federal agency…

The last time the manual got an update, the process took more than a year; with the volume of comments this year, it may take longer. A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration says the agency “needs to carefully consider all comments before determining next steps and the timetable for updating the manual.” Given the interest, that might take a while.

One of the reasons Americans like local government is that it is easier to interact with the officials who are making the decisions. For example, in a small town to a moderately sized suburb, a resident who has feedback on a municipal decision can probably even convey this face-to-face or in a public meeting. As the size of the municipality grows, it becomes harder to meet with local officials.

At the federal level, some might feel that decisions are made by an abstract group of people in a place far away. This idea has been expressed regularly in recent years: Washington D.C. is out of touch with the rest of the country.

However, this process of public comment described above offers an opportunity for people around the United States to comment on federal guidelines for roads. In the age of the Internet and social media, this is even easier to do: people can hear about it through email or social media feeds and submit comments online.

How exactly the federal agencies in charge here work through all of these public comments would be interesting to examine. Assuming they are all read or analyzed, do they look for the most common themes? Or, are some comments weighted more than others? This sounds like an important qualitative research process in order to find the patterns in all of the comments, discuss, and then incorporate (or not) into a revised manual.

Los Angeles as a city state?

The idea of the global city and metropolis of today as a city state is not a new one. However, I was interested to see this discussion of how Los Angeles might really fit the bill:

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Los Angeles fits the city-state frame well, certainly better than it does a lot of other possibilities—if we update the model a bit. In 2010, Forbes suggested that if the criteria for a place to be considered a city-state were modernized for the 21st century, certain global capitals might qualify thanks to a few key features: a big port to sustain trade; investors from overseas; money laundering; international museums worth visiting; multiple languages spoken in good restaurants serving alcohol; and an ambition to host the World Cup…

The city-state label rings true to me for hazier reasons as well. Los Angeles lacks the bedrock Americana that anchor towns like Chicago, New York, and Boston. In terms of identity, it doesn’t attach to the state of California the way that Houston and Dallas serve Texas. As for international ties, Miami has Latin America, Seattle has Canada and Asia, but Los Angeles, perhaps the city of globalism, has everybody. We’re Angelenos first, Californians second, Americans third or not at all.

“I absolutely think of Los Angeles as a city-state,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told me a few months ago. “The root of politics is the same as the root word in Greek for “city”: polis. People engage in politics because they came to a city and vice versa.” I wanted to point out that lots of citizens don’t engage with Greater L.A. in the way he described. If anything, civic life here often feels optional. Residents stay in the bounds of their neighborhood. Voters supported a $1.2 billion bond in 2016 to build supportive housing, but progress on the homeless problem is abysmal, stymied in part by NIMBYism. To borrow Garcetti’s measure, had life in the Greek city-states been as complacent, as mean, as L.A. often feels? “The man who took no interest in the affairs of state was not a man who minded his own business,” the ancient historian Thucydides wrote, “but a man who had no business being in Athens at all.”

My unspoken question for Garcetti was a nod to the fact that the city-state label can stretch only so far, at least until Los Angeles secedes from the United States. Angelenos may not always feel particularly American, but L.A. continues to receive policies and funding from Sacramento, which receives the nod—or not—from Washington. Our tap water flows from the Colorado River. A fifth of our power is from a coal plant in Utah. Los Angeles simply isn’t self-reliant. We have plenty of investment from abroad, but no local currency. The world’s largest jail system, but no independent military. Garcetti recently proposed a guaranteed-basic-income program that would be the country’s largest experiment of its kind—but that’s only even theoretically possible thanks to funding from President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

The main argument here seems to be that Los Angeles has the infrastructure, amenities, and identity needed to be a city state. On the other hand, the political fragmentation and reliance on other parts of the American federal system may be obstacles. However, I am not sure

  1. Political fragmentation comes through the sprawling and decentralized landscape. Who is in change? Whose opinions should hold sway? Going further, what is the relationship between the sprawling city and the sprawling suburbs? This would seem to be in tension with the identity as Angelenos. On which issues does the identity bring political unity and where do the fault lines emerge when fragmentation bests identity?
  2. A city state could make relationships with other entities. But, this might be a little different than having steady relationships within a system versus having to negotiate new relationships if Los Angeles became a city state. Take an example relevant to sprawling LA: could a city state of Los Angeles afford to fund all of the highways that right way get monies from the federal government? Or, would this then courage a LA city state to pursue more mass transit? Right now, the highways might be an amenity but
  3. If the mayor of Los Angeles operates now as if his city is a city state, what exactly does this mean? Is there an American city that is already more city state like and provides a model of how this might look in the future?

Where are the heights, mounts, hills, and ridges referenced in the names of Chicago suburbs?

WBEZs’s Curious City looks into the elevation implied by the name of multiple Chicago suburbs:

Mount Hoy offers views of Chicago thirty miles to the east.

For real: Highland Park, Park Ridge, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights, Palos Heights, Chicago Heights, Ford Heights, Barrington Hills, Palos Hills, Rolling Meadows.

And before you say: “But wait! There is some elevation out in the ‘burbs!” Let’s make something clear: You’re not wrong. Chicago’s Loop is at about 570 feet above sea level, and the high point of Cook County is near Barrington Hills at 950 feet. That height difference is just under 400 feet, and that’s spread over 40 miles. If we were talking about any other state in the country (besides Florida) you’d barely notice the difference. In other words, in Illinois, the default standards are low for what’s considered high…

Chicago suburbs end up with names that imply elevation in these two ways: crowd-sourced rebranding and straight-up marketing…

One-hundred years ago we named places very differently, Callary says. Places were named after a town founder, or family member, or after something that indicated the place’s actual, physical presence in the world. Today, it’s more common to name a place after what you want it to be, rather than what’s actually there.

Real estate development is a powerful driver. How could developers and communities differentiate themselves from the hundreds of other suburbs in the Chicago region? Pick an idyllic name and hopefully the moniker plus the new development brings in people and businesses. The image of a mountain or hill would be an attractive one; they are both pleasant to look at and offer vistas from the top.

While none of the communities near me are named after a higher elevation, this story did remind me of the highest height around (see the picture above): a small hill made out of a landfill. Because the area is so flat, on a clear day you can see the tallest buildings in downtown Chicago thirty miles to the east. All this from an artificial 150 foot hill:

Starting in 1965 trash collection agencies and community members were invited to drop off junk and other discarded garbage items. At the end of each day county workers spread the clay, which they had excavated, onto the growing pile of garbage named Mount Hoy after the pioneering family.

Mount Hoy quickly earned its nickname of Mount Trashmore. As the Chicago Tribune article in 1973 announcing the competition of the project read, the hope was to create a popular ski destination by literally “turning garbage to ski slopes.” Although the idea seems a bit farfetched, the City of Evanston was undertaking a similar project and many were trying to convince the City of Chicago to do the same thing.

Overall three millions cubic yards of garbage and clay went into Mount Hoy, becoming a 150 foot hill. By 1974 Mount Trashmore was supposed to host four ski slopes, a snow machine and a chair lift along with two toboggan slides, however a less elaborate setup welcomed skiers and tubers to the area.     

Ignore the venting for the gasses in the landfill and it is almost like a real hill…if we know what those are in northeastern Illinois.

The one HGTV show that leans into the idea of community – but does so through the context of single-family homes

Home Town is one of the big shows on HGTV and it has a premise somewhat different from the other headliners: all of the renovations take place in or near Laurel, Mississippi. The couple in the show, Ben and Erin Napier, say they enjoy contributing to a town that they love:

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The town of Laurel (population 18,338) itself is a starring character in “Home Town,” and it’s a huge part of what keeps the Napiers grounded. “Everybody here knows us,” says Ben. “When we’re in places like New York, Atlanta, Nashville or (Los Angeles) and people stop us on the streets …” Finishing his thought, Erin says, “It’s very surprising.”

Laurel, located about 90 miles southeast of Jackson, was founded in 1882 and flourished thanks to the timber industry (the region is known as the state’s Pine Belt). Mills and factories followed, bringing economic prosperity. Even now, the town boasts the state’s largest collection of early 1900s residential architecture. But as companies moved their operations offshore seeking a cheaper bottom line, the town languished. When the Napiers planted roots in 2008, there was virtually nothing to draw visitors or locals, with vacant storefronts lining the brick streets. Still, they saw its potential and looked for ways to support it, with Ben volunteering with economic and preservation organization Laurel Main Street.

Now, thanks in no small part to the success of the show, “People come to visit Laurel every day, and that’s amazing. It’s incredible. It’s why we agreed to do the show,” says Ben. 

Even with the community focus and the history they provide for each property, the show still takes a classic HGTV approach to the bulk of the episode: it is all about the single-family home under renovation. There are limited shots of the street. There are limited views of the rest of the community. There are no neighbors in view. Most of what we see if of the interior rooms, the facade, and sometimes the rear yard. The new owners move in and presumably live a private happy life ever after.

Slowly rehabbing the housing stock of a community plus bringing visitors is a laudable thing. Many small towns in the United States need attention. Many HGTV shows focus on wealthier suburbs or urban neighborhoods where housing prices are already good and people have money to make the homes even better. The housing in Laurel is not what many would want in growing communities but it represents the housing that is found in many American communities.

Can a show truly be about community when the primary focus are interior private spaces? Home Town offers a variation of HGTV’s relatively anonymous single-family homes but it might only be a veneer of community and not a true transformation.