Opposition to five McMansions built by billionaires in England

A proposal from two billionaire brothers for five McMansions in Blackburn prompted concerns from community members:

Mohsin and Zuber Issa, both in their 40s, who own Europe’s biggest independent forecourt firm Euro Garages, will proceed with their buildings, which have been dubbed ‘McMansions’, after overcoming a string of complaints from protesters.

Despite the fierce opposition, which saw the council face 30 letters of complaint, eight old houses on the site in Blackburn, Lancashire, have now been demolished and builders have laid foundations for the five 5,000 sq ft mansions…

The identical builds, which sit just three miles from where the Issa brothers grew up in a two-up two-down terraced house, have been described as ‘not in fitting with the local area’ as the homes stand over over 4.5 metres taller with 1,500 square metres of floor space…

He said: ‘They will look monstrously big – this is totally out of character, as all the other executive houses in this area are individually architect-designed and are laid out with plenty of valuable mature garden space between them.

This is an interesting case of McMansion conflict in England. The pictures show the land in question originally held eight homes, all single-family, with decent-sized lawns and green space around them. The land is in a more secluded area with a small forest on one side of the properties and large lots on the other side.

So these new homes are not changing the single-family nature of the stretch and they are even consolidating the number of homes from eight to five. Yet, this seems similar to many American teardown cases: the new homes are larger than what was previously there, the homes are taking up more of the lot (and reducing the greenery), and the design of the home is more cookie-cutter large home than “individually architect-designed.”

How much effect will these five McMansion homes have on a sparser neighborhood and small village? Checking back after five or ten years could reveal how the presence of these larger homes affects social relations and the feel of the neighborhood.

Examining neighborhood diversity and cohesion in England

A study published in European Sociology Review examines the effect of ethnic diversity on community cohesion:

A 17 year study of over 10,000 people found Britons felt less attached to their neighbourhood when communities become more multi-cultural.

Yet those who moved out to areas where they were surrounded by their own kind were happier, the Manchester University research found.

But the same was not true for Britons moving into already mixed places as relocating there had no harmful effect on how people viewed their surroundings or levels of happiness.

More explanation from the article abstract:

This article provides strong evidence that the effect of community diversity is likely causal, but that prior preferences for/against out-group neighbours may condition diversity’s impact. It also demonstrates that multiple causal processes are in operation at the individual-level, occurring among both stayers and movers, which collectively contribute to the emergence of average cross-sectional differences in attitudes between communities.

It sounds like the attitudes of those moving and staying are important. I would guess that younger residents – more used to diversity – are more open to diverse neighborhoods compared to their elders. Could the effect of moving – which was more positive either way – be related to residents feeling like they have options as opposed to having to stay where they are at? It is one thing to choose a neighborhood that fits your preferences as opposed to feeling like your community is changing without you being able to do anything about it.

This reminds me of Putnam’s study about neighborhood diversity:

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Given the historic salience of race and ethnicity – centuries both within England and the United States – finding consistently positive feelings about increasing neighborhood diversity may just take more time.

Preserving the Beatles modest post-World War II childhood homes

The Beatles grew up in modest homes outside of Liverpool but because of the stature of their former residents, the U.K. National Trust has preserved the dwellings:

A recent feature in the Liverpool Echo details how the U.K.’s National Trust restored the dwellings where Beatles songs like “Please Please Me” and “I Saw Her Standing There” were written. The childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney have been warped back to the ’50s, using “photographs and eyewitness accounts” as a guide to restoring fixtures and sourcing identical furniture.

Both homes are located in Liverpool, and are currently owned by the National Trust, which operates public tours four times a day. Lennon’s house, called Mendips, was purchased by Yoko Ono in 2002, who donated it to the Trust, requesting they “restore the house to what it once was, and tell John’s story.” (Paul’s has been owned by the Trust for 16 years.) Today, Mendips still has the creaky floorboards that Lennon once had to tiptoe around when returning from late night gigs. There’s also a replica of his bike leaning by the side of the house.

Notable details in McCartney’s former home include a replica of his first guitar and a stack of eggs tray in the kitchen, which his father used for noise insulation when the boys rehearsed in the dining room.

From what I have gathered in reading over the years, these homes aren’t terribly different from many homes in Britain after World War II. The Beatles came from working-class to middle-class families who cast normal aspirations for their sons. Of course, the Beatles moved beyond those aspirations though there was an interesting period between the start of their musical careers and before they hit it big when it wasn’t clear whether they were going to be stuck in normal lives. While it is hard to imagine a Paul McCartney or John Lennon living mundane lives in office jobs or manual labor or hustling to get by, this could have happened.

I suspect one question that people would ask when walking through these homes is how such music could have been developed in such settings. Perhaps it even helps drive home the point about the unusual success of the Beatles compared to many others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping England’s emotional mood in real-time

A group of researchers have developed a real-time map of England’s emotions based on Twitter:

The team, from Loughborough University, say it can scan up to 2,000 tweets a second and rate them for expressions of one of eight human emotions…

The team, from the university’s new Centre for Information Management, say the system can extract a direct expression of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, shame and confusion from each tweet.

The academics said that using the Emotive software to geographically evaluate any mass mood could help police to track potential criminal behaviour or threats to public safety.

It may be able to guide national policy on the best way to react to major incidents, they added.

There have been several projects like this in recent years. The algorithms to sort out all of the language must be intricate. But, I’m skeptical about two things. One is a sampling issue. Just how many people in England are using Twitter? In the United States, the figures about regular Twitter users are still quite low. You can map the moods of Twitter users but this doesn’t necessarily represent the larger population. The Twitter population probably trends younger. At the same time, responding to vocal responses on the web or on Twitter might be effective for public relations. A second issue is how exactly tracking moods could be used to help police. So police will be sent to places that show high concentrations of disgust or anger and pay less attention to places experiencing happiness? Or, such a system might alert police to trouble spots? I suspect it is more complicated than this yet I imagine such talk could make Twitter users nervous about how exactly their moods will be analyzed.

British grandparents believe their grandkids would rather get advice from Google

British grandparents thinks Google has replaced them as sources for advice:

Almost nine out of every 10 UK grandparents claimed their grandchildren failed to ask them for advice for simple tasks, instead turning to online channels such as Google, YouTube and Wikipedia for information.

Answers on how to boil an egg, iron a shirt and even details on their own family history are now easily found by younger generations glued to their smartphones, tablet computers or laptops, according to research commissioned by cleaning products firm Dr Beckmann.

“Grandparents believe they are being sidelined by Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and the huge resource of advice available on the internet,” spokeswoman Susan Fermor said in a statement…

The survey of 1,500 grandparents also found that children chose to research what life was like for their elderly relatives in their youth rather than asking the grandparents themselves, with just 33 percent of grandparents having been asked: ‘What was it like when you were young?’.

Almost two-thirds of grandparents felt their traditional roles were becoming less and less important in modern family life, with 96 percent claiming that they asked far more questions of their own grandparents when they were young.

I’m not sure how valid this survey is but assuming the results are good, I think the key is in the last paragraph of the story. It is isn’t necessarily the Internet or Google or another website that is causing trouble. These new technologies are part of a larger society that grandparents believe doesn’t have much room for them. On one hand, this may be a common complaint of grandparents: people in the newer generations aren’t paying enough attention to them. This could be backed up by 96% saying they were more likely to question their grandparents. On the other hand, perhaps this is evidence of significant shift away from learning from one’s elders and turning to digitized information sources. Why go through the trouble of asking a human being when you can just watch a YouTube video or type a sentence into Google? Either way, grandparents still have these perceptions.

English sociologist says “suburbs not so boring”

A sociology lecturer in England argues that suburbs are more complex than many think:

A sociology lecturer has delved into life on the Kingsynmpton estate, the racial make up of Kingston and TV show The Good Life as part of a new book about suburbia.

Kingston University’s Rupa Huq’s book, On The Edge, says that those who fondly imagine the suburbs as the preserve of maiden aunts on bicycles, archetypal Englishness –or places of stifling conformism are wide of the mark.

She said: “I think suburbs are much more complicated and dynamic than we give them credit for.”

My short response: I think Huq’s argument would also work well for American suburbs. While critics argue they are dull and similar, suburban communities are quite varied. But, I’m not sure the image of “maiden aunts on bicycles” would quite apply…

Potential solutions to fixing high streets in England

While Americans have worried about Main Streets for decades, a similar concern has arisen in England about their high streets. A recent panel, including sociologist Richard Sennett, proposed some solutions – of which one journalist was quite skeptical:

In Tuesday’s Guardian, a panel comprising a politician, an academic, a policy wonk and two campaigners offered the high street a range of solutions. The politician, Labour’s Chuka Umunna, said almost nothing at all: “Shopping can become an experience where conventional retailers can complement the success of online retailing.” Sociologist Richard Sennett favoured a mixture of pop-up art venues and pop-in medical centres and government bureaux: “A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop.” Others wanted cheaper rates to attract young entrepreneurs and, in the words of Anna Minton, “a new genuinely productive economy based on making, caring and exchanging goods and services”.

A lot is to be hoped for. None of it seems likely. A new ironmonger’s in a prosperous north London high street is one thing, but think of the dead shopping streets in almost any old industrial town: what a fusillade of pop-ups would be needed there! The future of these streets is surely the fate of the village I grew up in, where every shop but two was demolished or became the ground floor of a dwelling. It would be hard now to imagine that commerce (“That’s a penny for your liquorice and tuppence for your sherbet”) ever existed in these TV-lit rooms.

This is a pessimistic take and doesn’t really engage with what the panel said. Here is what Richard Sennett said:

The high streets of 50 years ago were all about retail commerce. Small manufacturers and craftsmen had gone elsewhere in the post-war city; planners – those bureaucratic bogeymen – thought to make the centre of the city tidy. But the high street inevitably then became vulnerable to an even more efficient, mono-functional retail space, the shopping mall. High streets “fought back” by imitating these out-of-town competitors; Oxford Street became a poor cousin to Bluewater. Of course the law of the capitalist jungle ruled: chains like HMV paid bigger rents than little shops, but the character and environmental quality of the central city eroded.

I am convinced we can reverse this trend, first by making high streets more truly mixed in use. They should house elder-care centres and medical clinics, government bureaus helping the public and pop-up music or art venues. A vibrant high street must be more than a place in which to shop. But, equally, the capitalistic beast must be fed. Horrific to our Conservative masters as it may be, the state should pay commercial rents to locate its own activities on high streets, and it should give small businesses tax breaks, even special loans, to allow them to return and survive as high street enterprises.

If we think of high streets as a “commons”, which like the old agricultural commons knit the entire community together, we’d think about them as places, in sum, which the community should support. Which means subsidy.

Sennett’s ideas sound like a mix of New Urbanism, Jane Jacobs, and plans in many American communities where civic buildings and residential units were located in downtowns to try to boost foot traffic and help bring about a 24/7 culture rather than a 9-5 culture. And why can’t there be a little art to try to bring in “the creative class” and others? But, even if Sennett’s plan is generally good for communities, it is likely to be a little (or a lot) different in each unique place which faces different current conditions, different histories, and different visions for the future.

Quick Review: The Casual Vacancy and Back to Blood

I recently read two recently-published New York Times best sellers: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Even though the books come from very different authors, one known for writing about a boy wizard and the other known for “new journalism” and tackling status, I thought the books had a lot in common. After a quick overview of each story, I discuss some of the similarities:

1. The Casual Vacancy is about English small-town life as the village of Pagford debates whether a nearby council estate (public housing project in American terms) should remain under their purview or should come under control of the nearby large city. The sudden death of a local council member alters the debate and different members of the community, from residents of the council estate, disaffected teenagers, and local business owners get involved in the decision. In the end, the battle doesn’t really turn out well for anyone involved.

2. Back to Blood is about multicultural Miami where different ethnic and social groups vie for control. The main story is about a Russian businessman turned art benefactor who is investigated by a beleaguered Cuban cop and WASP reporter. Others are caught up in this story including the black police chief, the Cuban mayor, a Cuban psychiatric nurse, and a pornography addiction psychiatrist. Similarly, no one really wins in the end.

3. Although set in very different places, the muted English countryside versus vibrant Miami (reflected to some degree by the writing styles, more conventional for Rowling, more in-your-face from Wolfe), there are common themes.

3a. Power and status. At the heart of these novels are characters vying for control. Of course, this looks different in different places: in Pagford, England, this means being a local council member or having a respectable job in the local community (say as a bakery owner or a doctor) while in Miami, this means the ability to own expensive clothes, cars, houses, and boats while also twisting people’s arms in the directions you want them to go. The characters in both books spend a lot of time worrying about their relative position and scheming about how to get to the top of the heap or how not to be buried completely by others (there is little room for middle ground).

3b. Sex. This is tied to power and status, but both books feature a lot of sexual activity. On one hand, it is presented as one of the rare moments when the characters aren’t solely consumed by the quest for power and yet, on the other hand, sex and who is having sex with whom and for what reason, is inevitably wrapped up in the naked grab for power and status.

3c. Characters alienated from society. Both books are full of characters who feel like they don’t fit in society, that they don’t know where they belong or aren’t able to achieve what they would really want to achieve. This comes across in some classic types: there are teenagers who feel like the adults around them are idiots and so they grasp at ways to make their own name. There are characters caught in the cogs of bureaucracy, particularly adults who are “successful” but don’t feel like it, who have some agency but are ultimately dependent on social and government institutions.

3d. Communities striving for goals but having difficulty overcoming the frailty of their human actors. Although the communities are quite different in size and aspirations (Miami striving to be a world-class city and Pagford striving to control more of its own destiny), their characters want them to be known and coherent places. They want their neighborhoods as well as their municipalities to be about something. Alas, both places are reliant on social actors that can’t overcome their own anxieties and hang-ups and this limits what the larger whole can become.

In the end, I’m tempted to write these off as the sort of themes one finds all the time in “serious adult literature,” the sort of books that peel back the facade of life and expose people for the vain creatures that they are. These are not uncommon themes in more modern books where there are no real heroes, most characters are just trying to get by, and authors revel in tackling sociological issues. But, I don’t think it is an accident that the two books cover similar ground. Power, sex, alienation, and communities striving for success are known issues in our 21st century world. Compared to movies, books like these offer more space to develop these themes and really expose the depths to which individuals and institutions have fallen. Stories like these can translate sociological themes into a medium that the public understands.

Yet, I can’t help but wish that both books had more redemptive endings. If power, sex, alienation, and community striving do make the world go round, how can this be tackled in a “right” way? Is there anyone or any social institution who can put us on the right path? In ways common to 21st century commentary, both of these books offer a bleak view of social life and not much hope for the future.

View from across the pond: Americans don’t interact with people unlike themselves because of the automobile

Here a sociological take on American social interactions and our love of the car:

A while ago a friend of mine, a leading sociologist, told me that the reason people in the United States seem so conservative and set in their ways, their politics so polarised and full of hate, is that they never meet anybody who disagrees with them, they never encounter a single other person who offers a different way of seeing the world, and so their attitudes become overly rigid.

The reason for this is that their lives are so governed by the private automobile. The average citizen of America lives not in a city where you have to rub along with others, but in a suburb where everybody is ethnically and socially indistinguishable, then they get in their car to drive to work and tune their radio to a station that exactly mirrors their own views and when they arrive at work all the people there share the same opinions.

Three thoughts:

1. This sounds like The Big Sort kind of world where people live with people like them, chalk it up to taste and preferences, and don’t think about the structural factors, like class and race and settlement patterns, that influence these decisions.

2. Mass transit is implicated here: Americans don’t want to ride buses and be that close to others. Instead, we would rather hop into our personal cars – think about all of those single-occupant cars in rush hour traffic.

3. But, we can’t think about mass transit without also thinking about how settlement patterns, generally more spread out in the idealized American suburbs, influences the feasibility of  mass transit.

Put this all together and perhaps there is some merit to these arguments. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans dislike other people. However, it could mean that Americans tend to privilege the lives and actions of individuals before considering community life.