Learning about the notorious criminals of other major cities

In recently reading Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, I learned about several notable criminals and crimes in the largest city in the United States. This got me thinking: does every large city have its cast of unsavory lawbreakers that are relatively unknown to those who live outside the city or region?

Without reading histories of every large American city, it is hard to know. And I wonder if it is harder for these infamous characters to go unnoticed on the national scene today with the round the clock news coverage online and on TV that can talk about possibly criminal activity for hours and days without stop. On the flip side, these local characters might even become a part of civic pride or a grim experience everyone has shared or even tourist fodder. While cities can be compared on overall crime statistics (such as with claims that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States), stacking criminal individuals or groups against each other is a more nuanced task.

And would it be worthwhile to be able to name a few notable criminals from every major American city? These cases could help reveal some unique local history and character. But, they could also reinforce notions that cities are centers of crime. With so much interesting material to learn about a large city and/or a metropolitan region, criminal activity would be far down my list of what I would want to know.

Building a 1,000+ foot skyscraper in a rural town of 7,000 residents

Skyscrapers and cities are tightly linked. Can one be built in a small town in the countryside?

Until a local company announced plans to send a 320-metre skyscraper soaring over the surrounding countryside, most people in Denmark had only the haziest idea where Brande, a town of 7,000 people in rural Jutland, even was.

The Bestseller Tower, designed by star architectural studio Dorte Mandrup, will not only be the tallest building in Denmark, but the tallest in western Europe, besting the Shard in London by a crucial 10.4 metres…

It won’t be the first rural skyscraper. At the height of Japan’s property bubble back in 1991, a 41-story residential tower, Sky Tower 41, was erected among fields.

But in Jutland, the surrounding landscape is so flat that the tower will be visible from 60km away. Visitors to Jelling, the royal seat of Harald Bluetooth, the Viking king who united Denmark, will see its slender form jutting up from the horizon, as will visitors to Legoland 30km away.

While the article suggests it will not be the only rural skyscraper in the world, they are certainly rare. They are rare enough outside of sizable central business districts that numerous tall buildings in the Chicago suburbs – probably in the 20 to 30 stories in height – attract attention as unusual and sticking out in the landscape in a metropolitan region that takes pride in its tall buildings and architecture.

It is certainly possible to build such a structure almost anywhere but I wonder how this will all work out in day-to-day life in this community. Small towns and rural areas have a particular scale that people are used to and that is human scaled or even dominated by nature and landscapes rather than human creations. Constructing a building over a 1,000 square feet disrupts all of this: it will be visible for miles, it will dwarf anything nearby, and it will cast shadows and block the sun from certain angles. It is not slightly out of scale for this community; it is a massive change. It could be beautiful, modern, and efficient and still have negative consequences for the community.

 

Suggestion that Hudson Yards and other urban megaprojects threaten suburbs

The glitz of the new Hudson Yards in New York pushes one theater critic to argue such spaces threaten suburbs:

A problem faced by suburbs becomes all too clear at Hudson Yards. Affluent Americans are almost all going to live in cities, starving urban centers of affordable housing just as they’ll choke up the traditional suburban resources. No suburb, I kept thinking, can compete with this. And Hudson Yards, or Lincoln Yards, or whatever comes next, are far from done.

Such large developments in significant urban neighborhoods are worth keeping an eye on because of all the change that comes at once plus what is included in the new spaces.

But, I don’t think Hudson Yards or the proposed megaproject on Chicago’s north side or the development around Staples Center in Los Angeles will threaten suburbs in the long run:

  1. These spaces do not have the same combination of factors that Americans like in suburbs starting with the emphasis on single-family homes and family life. Projects like these have elements of what suburbia can offer but primarily offer a different experience: bustling activity, diversity of dining and cultural options, presumably a greater mix of people. Suburbs can indeed compete with this by offering a different lifestyle.
  2. The housing available in these new projects is primarily for wealthy urbanites, likely appealing to young professionals and older adults who like all the activity and the newness. This may indeed continue to help concentrate the affluent in certain urban neighborhoods but there will be plenty of working to middle-class residents who will be priced out and will find suburban housing more affordable.
  3. Surveys continue to suggest that even young Americans desire a suburban life in the long run, particularly when they reach a certain age or have families. From my vantage point, the emphasis on the rush to the big cities is overplayed.

Both sizable and exciting urban megaprojects can find success alongside suburban life. Perhaps they may even draw on different people groups in the long run, segmented by age as well as resources. And perhaps we should continue to keep paying attention to who has difficulty finding a true home in either type of space.

The urban theory behind SimCity

In constructing the game SimCity, Will Wright worked with the ideas of James Forrester:

Looking to understand how real cities worked, Wright came across a 1969 book by Jay Forrester called Urban Dynamics. Forrester was an electrical engineer who had launched a second career as an expert on computer simulation; Urban Dynamics deployed his simulation methodology to offer a controversial theory of how cities grew and declined. Wright used Forrester’s theories to transform the cities he was designing in his level editor from static maps of buildings and roads into vibrant models of a growing metropolis. Eventually, Wright became convinced that his “guinea-pig city” was an entertaining, open-ended video game. Released in 1989, the game became wildly popular, selling millions of copies, winning dozens of awards, and spawning an entire franchise of successors and dozens of imitators. It was called SimCity

Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today…

Forrester spent months tinkering with this model, tested and corrected it for errors, and ran a “hundred or more system experiments to explore the effects of various policies on the revival of a city that has aged into economic decline.” Six months after beginning the project, and over 2000 pages of teletype printouts later, Forrester declared that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters…

Forrester thought that the basic problem of urban planning—and making social policy in general—was that “the human mind is not adapted to interpreting how social systems behave.” In a paper serialized in two early issues of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968, Forrester argued that for most of human history, people have only needed to understand basic cause-and-effect relationships, but that our social systems are governed by complex processes that unfold over long periods of time. He claimed that our “mental models,” the cognitive maps we have of the world, are ill-suited to help us navigate the web of  interrelationships that make up the structure of our society.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. How many people dream that cities could be reduced to equations and parameters? Cities are both fascinating and frustrating because they are so complex. And the quest to find overarching rules governing urban life continues – see the work of Geoffrey West as an example.
  2. Figuring out when more government intervention is helpful or not is a difficult task, particularly when it comes to complex cities. Housing is an area I have written about before: free markets do not bring about fair results and the federal government has promoted one kind of housing, single-family homes, over others for decades.
  3. This is a reminder that game users can learn about how the world works – they are not just mindless entertainment – but they also do so under the conditions or terms set up by the designer. Cities are indeed complex and SimCity presents them in one particular way. All games have a logic to them and this may or may not match reality. How much theory do we imbibe on a daily basis through different activities? At the least, we are forming our own individual theoretical explanations of how we think society operates.

A vote against urban McMansions in 2018

One design and architecture writer takes aim at urban McMansions as a tired trend from 2018:

Allison Arieff (columnist, New York Times):

Urban McMansions. I gotta ask these folks—was it always your dream to live in the Apple store? And if you want to live in 10,000 square feet, maybe you should move to the suburbs?”

Arieff draws attention to three traits of McMansions which she sees as negative:

  1. Their large size. She pegs the size at 10,000 square feet though I would argue that once you are at 10,000 square feet and above, this is more of a mansion than a McMansion.
  2. Their poor or low quality architecture. The comparison here is to an Apple store, presumably a structure of a lot of glass and silver metal. This may be appropriate if you are selling trendy phones and tablets but perhaps not so much in a new residence.
  3. A connection to the suburbs. Whereas McMansions are expected to arise from empty fields, plopping a large McMansion in an urban neighborhood, particularly an older one, could be viewed more negatively. How exactly does a big and poorly-designed single-family home contribute to a vibrant and cosmopolitan city scene?

Together, these homes are an inappropriate size, do not look good, and are meant for a different kind of streetscape and lifestyle. For more, refer to my four traits that can define a McMansion.

Secondary cities attractive but have a ways to go to catch biggest US cities

New data from Redfin suggests Americans are moving to secondary big cities:

Nashville, Sacramento, Atlanta, Phoenix, Austin and Dallas are among the top-10 cities with the largest influx of new residents, according to new data from the Redfin real estate brokerage…

“People in the coastal markets are just fed up with double-digit price increases, and they’re moving to a commuter town or to the middle of the country,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin. “In our most recent ‘hottest markets’ report, Indianapolis tied for third place with Boston among the cities where homes go under contract fastest. People are moving there from Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area because it’s affordable.”…

“It’s the combination of affordable housing and jobs that are causing people to move,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based property database.

“In places like Tampa, Dallas and Las Vegas, there’s a booming economy, with lots of jobs, along with relatively affordable homes. You can cut your housing costs in half if you move to Dallas from Los Angeles and there are jobs there, too.”

The United States has now had a decades-long hierarchy of the largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. It would be interesting to see if other regions could challenge those top three in terms of population or status/importance. I have written before about the case that could be made for Washington, D.C. but it also has relatively expensive housing and may be considered a secondary city. In population, Chicago has lost ground compared to Toronto and Houston may overtake it soon. But, does Houston or Toronto have the same status? Most of the locations on the list above of secondary cities are Sunbelt cities with relatively recent population growth and/or importance. Can a place like Phoenix or Nashville or Dallas translate these changes into global city status? It would take a lot of work and changed perceptions.

Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.