Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.
Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?
In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.
Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.
Pittsburgh is home to a lot of profitable house flipping activity:
Today, old industrial cities such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Cleveland are among those offering the greatest returns. They have struggled to recover from the recession, but now are beginning to attract tech firms, such as Google-parent Alphabet Inc, Uber Technologies Inc, and Amazon.com Inc.
The influx of new workers is boosting demand for urban homes in areas that have some of the oldest housing stock in the nation and not much new construction, creating richer opportunities for flippers than in Las Vegas or Miami at the height of the housing boom more than a decade ago…
In Pittsburgh, home flippers made a gross profit of 162.7 percent on average during the second quarter of this year, while in Buffalo, the average gross return came in at 107.5 percent, according to ATTOM data. Nationally, the average house-flipper earned a 44.3 percent gross return on investment this year, compared with the 35.3 percent during the boom…
“Pittsburgh’s housing market was under-invested in for 40 or 50 years,” said Aaron Terrazas, senior economist at real estate listing firm Zillow. “The housing stock in the urban core of these cities requires substantial investments to update these older homes and bring them up to modern living standards.”
There are plenty of Rust Belt cities that would want in on this action. Do you think political and business leaders in places like Syracuse or Milwaukee or Lansing wouln’t salivate over the prospect?
But, it sounds like Pittsburgh could be a unique place. Certain conditions were in place:
- An influx of tech workers. Pittsburgh has a university and research base that not all Rust Belt cities can draw on. Everyone wants part of the tech industry but how many cities, particularly struggling ones, can attract significant numbers of tech employees?
- Relatively cheap homes. Many Rust Belt cities have this.
- An attractive urban core. In addition to jobs, a vibrant city or neighborhood scene could go a long way to attracting new workers and residents.
- While the article mentions concerns about residents being priced out of their own neighborhoods, I assume leaders in Pittsburgh are at least okay with the house flipping activity if not outright encouraging it. A “favorable business climate” could signal to developers and investors that the city wants redevelopment and is okay with seeking profits. This does not even account for the moves local leaders may have made to encourage the growth of the tech industry.
In other words, if the conditions change in Pittsburgh – such as there are fewer cheaper houses to make money on – it is not guaranteed that house flippers will simply move on to the next Rust Belt city with cheap housing.
According to the Wall Street Journal, some local governments are purchasing shopping malls. With plenty of malls in trouble across the United States, this could be an opportunity for many municipalities. Yet, some problems could lie ahead:
- Some of this depends on the resources of the municipality. How many resources do they have to purchase the land and develop it? Does it require taking on debt? Would this debt outweigh the negative consequences of leaving the property vacant or leaving it in private hands? Communities with more resources to draw on have a leg-up in this process.
- Finding an acceptable use of the land can be a tricky process since the surrounding properties likely were developed under the assumption that the land would be a shopping center for a long time. Working out the zoning issues, particularly if residences are nearby, could prove tricky.
- Developing a plan for these sites is not necessarily easy and part of the reasons the malls are dying or dead is because of the attractiveness of the surrounding area to developers. Swapping out a mall for another thriving commercial use – such as entertainment – may be hard to do.
- Could this put communities on the hook for properties that are very hard to develop? It could be useful for local leaders to push the blame on developers or outsiders but it may not be so pleasant if the government is viewed as the reason the property is not improved. Such large properties could become albatrosses for local governments.
- Perhaps the simplest route for local governments would be to use the buildings or land for government purposes: park districts, schools, and other taxing bodies that do not always have easy access to large parcels. There might still be zoning issues to deal with and the loss of revenue could be tough. However, repurposing the retail space into space that the broader community could utilize could be a winner.
On the whole, there is a lot of potential for innovation when it comes to local governments and shopping malls. Yet, there are numerous ways this could go poorly for local governments, particularly those with limited resources.
A new sociology study followed 36 white ten to thirteen year olds to see how they approached race. Sociologist Margaret Hagerman describes her findings in an interview:
I use the phrase bundled choices because it seemed to me that there were some pretty striking patterns that emerged with these families in terms of how they set up their children’s lives. For example, I talk in the book about how choosing a neighborhood leads to a whole bunch of other choices—about schools, about the other people in the neighborhood. Decisions about who to carpool with, decisions about which soccer team to be on—you want to be on the same one as all your friends, and all these aspects of the kid’s life are connected to the parents’ choices about where to live.
I’m trying to show in the book that kids are growing up in these social environments that their parents shape. They’re having interactions with other people in these environments, and that’s, I think, where they’re developing their own ideas about race and privilege and inequality…
In my book, I’m trying to highlight this tension between the broad, overarching social structures that organize all of our lives and the individual choices that people make from within these structures. So yeah, if we had equal educational opportunities, people would not be able to make choices that would confer advantages to their child over someone else’s child, right? That wouldn’t even be a possibility. Certainly, the structural level really matters.
But the best answer I can really give is that the micro level potentially could shape what goes on at the institutional or structural level. I really think—and this might sound kind of crazy—that white parents, and parents in general, need to understand that all children are worthy of their consideration. This idea that your own child is the most important thing—that’s something we could try to rethink. When affluent white parents are making these decisions about parenting, they could consider in some way at least how their decisions will affect not only their kid, but other kids. This might mean a parent votes for policies that would lead to the best possible outcome for as many kids as possible, but might be less advantageous for their own child. My overall point is that in this moment when being a good citizen conflicts with being a good parent, I think that most white parents choose to be good parents, when, sometimes at the very least, they should choose to be good citizens.
Based on the interview, this sounds pretty consistent with existing research. Families with economic means will often choose good things for their children while either thinking little of the consequences for others or rationalizing their choices as being a good parent for putting their children first. This sounds like much of suburbia that emphasizes helping your children get ahead or the idea of “dream hoarders.”
This also sounds like Thomas Schelling’s work about how preferences for certain kinds of neighbors can aggregate to larger patterns of residential segregation. If everyone is just looking out for their own children, then larger structures develop.
These findings suggest Americans have limited understandings of how to address the public good. Many such decisions seem to be binary: pursue what is good for your family versus what might be good for everyone. What about options that could be good for everyone in the long run? Does it always have to be a zero-sum game?
This summer, the New York Times profiled two neighborhoods in a “Suburbs in the City” series. See the profile of Ditmas Park in Brooklyn and Marble Hill in Manhattan. Many American cities have such locations: neighborhoods within the city limits of a major city but with single-family homes, quieter residential streets, and wealthier residents. This is true of both older American cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago – as well as newer cities that are more sprawling – Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.
Three quick thoughts regarding such neighborhoods:
1. Americans like suburbs in part because they offer proximity to the big city and its amenities without necessarily having to feel like they live in a big city. I would guess at least a few Americans would consider attractive urban neighborhoods that have the feeling of a suburb. Single-family homes with yards alongside assurances that their kids are safe and will get ahead are huge. The biggest downsides might be issues like a further removed city government and higher taxes.
2. David Rusk discusses how important it is for big cities to capture such locations within city limits. What he calls elastic cities, places that have successfully annexed more land in recent decades (and many cities in the Northeast or Midwest, like Detroit and Chicago, have not), tend to do better on a number of economic and social measures. These neighborhoods allow some city residents who would otherwise move to the suburbs (like many other Americans) to stay in the city.
3. How much should big cities work to enhance these more residential neighborhoods to entice wealthier residents to stay versus deploying resources to neighborhoods who need the resources more? Chicago presents a great example: the city has worked to reassure whiter and wealthier families that residential neighborhoods, particularly on the north and northwest sides are worth staying in (read about one white flight reassurance program). On the other hand, mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have been dogged by claims that the city cares little about poorer neighborhoods.
Would those who spend money renovating their McMansions be better served by helping their adult children with that money? From the one seeking advice:
My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy, and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That’s fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy…
My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I’ve had a job since I was 14), and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We’re not asking for any help.
But I don’t want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don’t even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It’s all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.
Advice columnist responds:
But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.
There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”
It does not sound as though the McMansion is the actual problem. Yes, the letter writer is upset because the mom both spends money on their McMansion (which, in the letter writer’s opinion, does not need more work) and then spends a lot of time talking about it. But, it seems as though the McMansion could be replaced by a number of objects or hobbies associated with people with resources. It could be golf, fixing up old cars, buying collectible items, playing bridge, or any number of things that, according to the letter-writer, keep the mom from paying sufficient attention to her kids.
At the same time, the McMansion is a potent symbol here. Since it is such a pejorative and loaded term, it leads readers toward a particular kind of person: one with poor taste in architecture, lots of money, and an interest in flaunting their status through their home. Additionally, who would prioritize their expensive home over the real needs of their children? These are not just parents who happen to live in a McMansion; these are unlikable McMansion owners.
Are McMansion owners on the whole more generous with their family? Do they have money to spare and give it away? Others have argued McMansions are bad for children; it is not clear from this letter whether the advice seeker grew up in this home. Could a whole generation of Americans reveal hurts produced by or in McMansions? Even with the attention they receive, widespread tales of childhood McMansion woes are unlikely given the actual number of McMansions in the United States.
Amid droughts and other nudges away from the immaculate grassy lawn, the alternatives may be easier to steal:
Recently, the Hometown dental office in Hesperia had its artificial grass stolen after someone came in the middle of the day and measured it before sending a crew of people to lift it over the weekend.
Kara Sweeney, the office director and wife of the dentist, James A. Sweeney, DDS, told me that the timing of the theft came as a particular punch to the gut, because it happened at the same time that the couple were pouring their savings into renovations to improve their family business.
“Our office manager saw it and assumed that I asked him to come out [and measure the grass] as part of the renovations we were doing. Then that weekend a neighbor across the street saw three men pulling the grass up. Apparently a police officer stopped them with a pedestrian check and one of them took off into the desert. The police officer shooed them away, I guess, but they returned that evening to finish stealing the grass! I guess they already had their measurements and knew it would be the piece for their project. We reported it to the police and I am hoping the pedestrian check helps them find who did it,” Sweeney explained…
When I asked Sweeney what she plans on doing to pretty up the barren eyesore that now sits in front of her office, she said that part is still unclear. “We’re going back and forth on whether to file an insurance claim or not on the grass. We’re not even sure if it’s covered, to be honest with you. We got a quote for fixing our landscaping, not even replacing the grass because it’s so expensive, and it’s over $10,000. So that part is the part that makes me frustrated the most, of course,” she fretted.
I have seen the occasional story of thievery and lawns but it is hard to know how common this is. Even if lawns are sacred to many Americans, who might have the resources or interest in collecting data on this? (Lawn seed companies? Anti-crime groups?) It would take some work to develop this into a pressing social problem though it would be interesting to know whether such crimes are geographically clustered.
The traditional lawn is not very portable as it would require either a lot of labor or specialized machinery to dig up large pieces of sod. Alternatives, on the other hand, often are more portable. Sod can be picked up. To some degree, plants and greenery can be moved. The sorts of accoutrements that help homeowners distinguish their green piece of paradise from someone else’s might be easier to move.