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.

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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.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: from urban corner stores to suburban corporate headquarters back to cities

Where exactly did Flamin’ Hot Cheetos come from? According to Frito-Lay, the impetus for the popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came from Northern cities and Plano, Texas:

Flamin’ Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand — she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence…

Six of the former employees remember inspiration coming from the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit. One of the earliest newspaper articles about the product corroborates that detail: A Frito-Lay spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News in March 1992 that “our sales group in the northern United States asked for them.”…

Over the next few months, Greenfeld went on market tours of small stores in Chicago, Detroit and Houston to get a better feel for what consumers craved. She worked with Frito-Lay’s packaging and product design teams to come up with the right flavor mix and branding for the bags. She went with a chubby devil holding, a Cheeto, Frito or chip on a pitchfork, depending on the bag’s contents, she recalls, a memory independently corroborated by newspaper archives…

“In response, Frito-Lay launched a test market of spicy Lay’s, Cheetos, Fritos and Bakenets in Chicago, Detroit and Houston” beginning in August 1990, the company wrote in a statement.

The article focuses more on the controversy of exactly how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came about but I think the geography is pretty fascinating. Here is why I think the geography matters:

  1. The impetus were existing products in urban stores. Even as more Americans lived in the suburbs than cities by the 1980s, a large company like Frito-Lay cannot ignore consumers in the city.
  2. The product was developed in the Dallas suburbs. Plano is a notable suburb because of its growth and wealth (and McMansions). But, there are plenty of suburban office parks where ideas are discussed. Who knew the snacking fate of America was decided in a relatively anonymous suburban facility by business professionals? (And how many other products have a similar story?) Across the street is Toyota American Headquarters and then each direction on major roads leads to strip malls, fast food, and highways.
  3. The product was tested in cities and the idea developed in the suburbs took flight. Now, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are widely available (though it would be interesting to see the sales breakdown by geography).

Modern capitalism was able to span these disparate locations and churn out a product loved by many. From a suburban office park to snack aisles everywhere…

Americans celebrate moving away from their small home town

An excerpt from a new book presents an American conundrum: many Americans like the idea of small towns yet celebrate moving away from them.

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I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.…

So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of…

Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring…

In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.

There is a lot to consider here: the particular stage of life in the discussion here (from roughly college to settling down as an adult), mobility, frontiers, cities versus other settings, and larger American narratives about success. A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. I wonder how much these narratives differ across places. Is this more prevalent in rural areas where the allure of trying the big city is strong or is it also present in big cities where young people want to experience other places, including other appealing big cities? This could help untangle whether this is more about small towns or a general theme that emerging adults need to strike out on their own somewhere else.
  2. This reminds of some marriage advice I once read that suggested newlyweds should move hundreds of miles away from both families to establish themselves as a couple before moving back near family. Does such a narrative go against most of human history?
  3. Could all of this help explain the enduring appeal of the suburbs? They are not quite small towns but they are not cities. Americans can feel better about returning to suburban municipalities and making a home there because it feels in between.
  4. This all seems to beg for a more robust theology of place in the United States.
  5. It would be interesting to know how social media and the Internet either help connect people to home towns from afar or present just a poor and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute.
  6. Plenty of Americans do stay in the community in which they grew up or stay nearby. What is different about their stories? What are the factors that help explain why some commit to staying and others leave?
  7. How do Americans process their experiences with and understandings of place? If the emphasis is largely on mobility or making do where you are, this might discourage positive memories or investing too much in a particular place.

Some evidence Americans are returning to cities in early 2021

Some Americans left cities during COVID-19. New data suggests some people are returning to those cities:

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Some data suggest a return is already underway. Cellphone tracking firm Unacast had earlier noted that phone users were shifting their overnight locations out of New York, but now sees them coming back.

“New York is growing again,” with the city adding a net 1,900 people in the first two months of 2021 versus a loss of 7,100 in the same two months of 2019 and the 110,000 estimated by the company to have left the city throughout 2020…

Similarly, Bank of America economists wrote last week that they “don’t see evidence of a broad urban exodus,” a conclusion that combined analysis of the company’s own card spending data as well as a survey of other reports…

“Out-migration did increase in many urban neighborhoods, but the magnitudes probably would not fit most definitions of an exodus,” he wrote. “What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of people who would have moved into an urban neighborhood in a typical year were unwilling or unable to do so in 2020.”

Stay tuned for years to come: untangling these numbers and what it means for the long-term health of cities will take time as scholars and leaders collect, analyze, and interpret patterns. Was COVID-19 a blip on the long history of American cities? Will they signal a resurgence of urban life or exacerbate the issues many face in moving to major and expensive cities?

One problem in the meantime is that there are plenty of people who want to declare an answer to these questions. For those who dislike cities, the move of residents in 2020 to suburbs and other locations is evidence of the downsides of dense cities. For those who like cities, the numbers can suggest a few people left but city life continued strong and will bounce back. And because either narrative is highly politicized and connected to numerous long-standing American issues like race (example from then President Trump in summer 2020), these are not just speculations; there are people with interests who want to settle the debate over cultural narratives before the data is in.

The improbably straight hallway outside Seinfeld’s apartment door

Residences on famous television shows can become very familiar. Yet, these places do not always match reality. On Seinfeld, Jerry’s apartment appears to have some discrepancies with how his apartment building is depicted:

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Reddit user PixelMagic has revealed (in a post we first came across at Indy100) the dark lie of Seinfeld. Jerry’s home can’t exist in the real world. Not if you believe in basic rules of time and space. You can see why in an overhead rendering of the apartment. If you actually built it to these specifications, the outside hall would need to run through Jerry’s kitchen.

Your instinct might be to say the hallway must have been curved. That was my first reaction. Lots of other Reddit users said the same thing too. If you look at screenshots of certain episodes, that does seem plausible. In certain moments the area between Jerry and Kramer’s apartments seems small enough that it could form a little cove. As you walk away from Jerry’s door, the hall could bend away from the kitchen.

But once again, “The Strongbox” is here to ruin Jerry’s life. That was the episode when Jerry kept inadvertently torturing his building mate Phil. Poor Phil owned a parrot that choked to death on the strongbox key Kramer hid in his food dish.

As PixelMagic showed, that episode provides indisputable evidence that Jerry’s hall did not curve away from his door.

This is a common issue on television shows. For example, see earlier posts about the Brady Bunch house or the apartment on Friends and other shows depicting young people living it up in the city. The primary focus on shows is to provide a home environment that works for the characters and filming, not necessarily one that fits reality or spaces common seen in these locations.

At the same time, consistent hiccups between what is depicted and what is actually possible can create issues down the road for viewers. Even if those watching to not consciously spend time dwelling on the physical spaces of a show or start drawing up floor plans to explore the particulars, spending all of those hours watching Seinfeld could shape how one views apartments and cities. Is this how people live in apartments? Is this what New York City is really like?

“Digital nomads” wanted to enjoy city life but could not

Researchers studying “digital nomads” detail their initial enthusiasm for big cities and later decisions to move elsewhere:

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Most digital nomads started out excited to work in career-track jobs for prestigious employers. Moving to cities like New York and London, they wanted to spend their free time meeting new people, going to museums and trying out new restaurants…

Although these cities certainly host institutions that can inspire creativity and cultivate new relationships, digital nomads rarely had time to take advantage of them. Instead, high cost of living, time constraints and work demands contributed to an oppressive culture of materialism and workaholism…

Although they left some of the world’s most glamorous cities, the digital nomads we studied were not homesteaders working from the wilderness; they needed access to the conveniences of contemporary life in order to be productive. Looking abroad, they quickly learned that places like Bali in Indonesia, and Chiang Mai in Thailand had the necessary infrastructure to support them at a fraction of the cost of their former lives…

The digital nomads we studied often used savings in time and money to try new things, like exploring side hustles. One recent study even found, somewhat paradoxically, that the sense of empowerment that came from embarking on a side hustle actually improved performance in workers’ primary jobs.

As the researchers note, this is a different perspective on the creative class that works in particular jobs and industries and pursues particular locations. Could these pieces detailed by Richard Florida be pulled apart; can the creative class jobs exist outside of the urban culture that Florida argues goes with it?

On one hand, numerous other locations other than big cities would love have to more creative class workers. These young professionals, often working in industries like tech, are desired by suburbs, smaller big cities, and many places because they represent status and potential long-time taxpayers and contributing members of society.

On the other hand, the creative class is supposedly not just looking for jobs with particular features: they also want to move to places with cultural opportunities and diversity. Can “digital nomads” find this outside of big cities? Maybe; there are suburbs and smaller big cities with diversity and vibrant creative scenes. Can these locations match the big city possibilities of places like New York or San Francisco or Austin?

These digital nomads have the potential to shape how communities look at jobs and residents in the coming years. Many will want them to locate in their community and yet the power of clustering together with other creative class people is strong.

White flight spontaneous or planned?

Sociologist Orly Clergé’s 2019 book The New Noir: Race, Identity & Diaspora in Black Suburbia includes the history of Blacks moving to New York and its suburbs. In her study, Clergé talks to both Black residents and white residents of suburban communities. Here is how Clergé responds to the claim by some white residents that their families left neighborhoods spontaneously as Black residents moved in:

Although White flight is discussed as a spontaneous response to Black in-migration, White fight and flight were well thought-out, collective, strategic, and immoral acts against Black people condoned by the state. (101)

White flight is the American phenomena where white residents left urban neighborhoods for the suburbs when Blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities moved in. This is most common in the decades after World War Two when government policy and community changes combined to lead to often rapid turnover in cities. In some Chicago neighborhoods, the population moved from +90% white to a significant Black majority in just a decade or two.

A number of studies explain how white flight happened in particular cities such as in Detroit as detailed by Sugrue in The Origins of the Urban Crisis or Atlanta as discussed by Kruse in White Flight. White flight affected all areas of life, ranging from the suburbanization of jobs as Wilson highlights in When Work Disappears and the move of white churches to the suburbs (an area I have done a little work in with a study of Protestant denominations in the Chicago region).

What the quote above highlights is just how prepared white residents were regarding potential changes in their neighborhood. Over the course of at least a few decades, whites deployed a range of techniques that culminated in white flight: restrictive deeds and covenants, blockbusting, redlining, and threats and violence. As each of these techniques was rendered illegal or went against public opinion, white residents moved onto the next option. And white flight was eventually the choice as white residents left en masse. It did not just happen; it was part of well-established patterns of exclusion that would then continue in suburban communities.

Cities that rise from the dead

With Easter today and Atlanta in the news, I was thinking of American cities that claim to have risen from the dead. The phoenix has been the symbol for Atlanta for over a century:

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Like the Phoenix, Atlanta had risen from its own ashes following its destruction in 1864. Many times during the city’s history, Atlanta has redefined and reinvented itself, rising again as the city slogan, Resurgens, suggests. The “Atlanta Spirit” is another oft-referenced slogan describing an entrepreneurial and ambitious attitude that has shaped the city’s historical identity.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, boosters and others were eager to rebuild:

On October 11, 1871, three days after the fire started that devastated the city, Bross’s Tribune proclaimed, “CHEER UP. In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”

Bross, who was an avid promoter of the city, predicted that Chicago would be rebuilt in five years and would reach a population of 1 million by the turn of the century, as Donald Miller reports in City of the Century.

There is an accepted narrative that the fire created a blank slate upon which Chicago was quickly rebuilt. That blank slate allowed it to become a dynamic city of innovative architecture with a fresh skyline dotted with a brand-new building called the skyscraper.

“The great legend of Chicago is that it’s a ‘phoenix city’ – it almost instantly rebuilt itself bigger and better from the ashes. And to a certain and significant extent, that’s true,” said Carl Smith, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and author of Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.

And the city of Phoenix draws on the presence of people hundreds of years before:

Those former residents were industrious, enterprising and imaginative. They built an irrigation system, consisting mostly of some 135 miles of canals, and the land became fertile. The ultimate fate of this ancient society, however, is a mystery. The accepted belief is that it was destroyed by a prolonged drought. Roving Indians, observing the Pueblo Grande ruins and the vast canal system these people left behind, gave them the name “Ho Ho Kam” — the people who have gone…

By 1868, a small colony had formed approximately four miles east of the present city. Swilling’s Mill became the new name of the area. It was then changed to Helling Mill, after which it became Mill City, and years later, East Phoenix. Swilling, having been a confederate soldier, wanted to name the new settlement Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name Salina, but neither name suited the inhabitants. It was Darrell Duppa who suggested the name Phoenix, inasmuch as the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization. That is the accepted derivation of our name.

Many cities have faced crises, disasters, or unusual starts. Local histories and narratives can also emphasize positive moments (and downplay negative moments). The rising from the ashes, overcoming great obstacles, coming back to life, these are all powerful narratives for big cities. They imply success, progress, and hopefully growth.

What these narratives mean now may be harder to ascertain. What does the aftermath of the Chicago Fire mean for Chicago today? Is Phoenix still rebuilding a great civilization? More than 150 years after the Civil War, is Atlanta continuing to reinvent itself? A city rising from the dead once is impressive but it may be harder to pull off over decades of change.

Private city for business opens in Honduras

A Honduras city primed for business will soon open for remote operators:

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Próspera is the first project to gain approval from Honduras to start a privately governed charter city, under a national program started in 2013. It has its own constitution of sorts and a 3,500-page legal code with frameworks for political representation and the resolution of legal disputes, as well as minimum wage (higher than Honduras’s) and income taxes (lower in most cases). After nearly half a decade of development, the settlement will announce next week that it will begin considering applications from potential residents this summer.

The first colonists will be e-residents. Próspera doesn’t yet have housing ready to be occupied. But even after the site is built out, most constituents will never set foot on local soil, says Erick Brimen, its main proprietor. Instead, Brimen expects about two-thirds of Prósperans to sign up for residency in order to incorporate businesses there or take jobs with local employers while living elsewhere…

The idea behind charter cities, along with their predecessor seasteading, which sought to create independent nations floating in the ocean, is to compete for citizens through innovative, business-friendly governing systems. For some reason, the idea has long been linked to Honduras, an impoverished country whose governing system is classified as “partly free” by the human rights organization Freedom House. Paul Romer, an American economist who pioneered the idea of charter cities, tried to start one in the country a decade ago. It failed, but Honduras has spent much of the time since then writing a law to enable such cities, which are known in the country as Zedes, short for zonas de empleo y dessarollo económicos (employment and economic development zones).

But the prospect of creating pockets of prosperity that play by their own rules is controversial for obvious reasons. Próspera has drawn protests from local residents who see a lack of transparency and little to gain from its existence, and a group of local political leaders signed a letter of opposition in October. This month, an arm of the Technical University of Munich said it’s reevaluating its relationship with Próspera and that it generally withdraws from projects if there are indications of human rights violations. Representatives for TUM didn’t respond to requests to elaborate. A spokeswoman for Próspera says it has had a “great working relationship with TUM over the years.” 

Although this city has been in the works for years, it seems appropriate that is will open for remote businesses in the COVID-19 era. Even without a physical presence in the city, corporations will be able to incorporate there and enjoy the benefits.

Down the road, it is interesting to imagine what a thriving or beleagured charter city could be like. For some reason, I am thinking of some of the more colorful communities from Star Wars where all sorts of characters come together to conduct their activities. How many people would come to live and work versus how many will access the city’s benefits from afar? What kinds of alterations to the regulations might be necessary? How many free market cities might this inspire elsewhere?

What the architecture of City Hall communicates

A new book titled City Hall looks at the design of city hall across American communities:

“Our democratic heritage goes back to ancient Greece, and so it stands to reason that when America was born, so to speak, in the late 18th century, municipal buildings referred to the Greco-Roman architecture, with the pillars and pediments and cornices,” he says. But as the country matured, different forms of architecture began to emerge. “Then it becomes, ‘Do we still embrace the neoclassical style architecture, or do we start embracing our own time?’” he adds. (That argument more recently played out at the federal level, when former President Donald Trump tried to make neoclassical architecture the default style for all national buildings in his controversial “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” effort.)…

In many of these examples, governments used their city halls to express civic pride, and to be “at the forefront of progressive building technologies and changing architectural styles,” architectural historian Thomas Mellins writes at the beginning of Drooker’s book…

Regardless of the architecture, there is a recognition among mayors and architects that municipal buildings are ultimately places for the people, and that the designs need to convey a message of approachability. In San Jose’s new city hall, which opened in 2005, Richard Meier’s postmodern design made extensive use of glass, making a statement about government transparency as well as energy efficiency. The building’s unusual three-part structure emphasized that theme: There’s the rotunda and the city council chamber, and in between them at the heart of the complex is an open plaza that then-mayor Ron Gonzales and his administration wanted toserve as the “people’s living room.”

Public or civic buildings present a unique opportunity to highlight particular values and create public space to be used and enjoyed. This can be done in a variety of architectural styles or forms, affected by trends in architecture, regional differences, the size of the community, the resources available, and more.

This reminds me of James Howard Kunstler’s critique of Boston’s City Hall, a building designed by noted architect I. M. Pei. Kunstler argues that the space is not inviting and not a worthy public space. The Brutalist architecture does not necessarily invoke warm fuzzies about local government.

In contrast, many suburban communities opt for modest city halls in either more traditional styles or simpler postwar forms. Many suburbanites like the idea of smaller local governments and the suburban structures can highlight tradition and/or efficiency.

West Chicago City Hall depicted on Google Street View.

Part of the approachability of these a city hall or civic building involves how well they fit with the surrounding landscape. A Brutalist building could be more approachable with lush greenery around it. A plain suburban city hall could be more inviting if it did not sit behind a large parking lot. More broadly, American communities would benefit from inviting public spaces that are connected to civic buildings.