Just how much historical preservation is too much?

The source of this information is on one side of the issue but it is an interesting question to consider: just how much historic preservation of buildings is too much?

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four “historic districts”—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That’s all “anyone had seriously considered.”

The Landmarks Act  was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool’s testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative destruction that made New York, well, New York…

What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for “its prominent siting” and “frequent appearances in pop culture.” The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that “owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity.”

If “prominent siting,” “tree-lined streets,” “residential character,” and “architectural integrity” are grounds for landmarking, what’s to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?

Here are the two sides of the issue:

  1. The preservationists will argue that buildings and streetscapes need protecting because (1) capitalism and free markets tend to bulldoze meaningful structures for current residents and future generations in pursuit of progress and (2) residents of particular places should expect that features of the location that helped draw them there should remain there.
  2. Reason and others would argue that such restrictions limit the free market, stopping progress and natural processes of neighborhood change. Such regulations constrict the market for property which can drive up prices as well as freeze areas in time even as the world has moved on to better things.

Perhaps there is some middle point or range where both parties can get what they want? This opinion piece suggests nearly a third of Manhattan is simply too much but where is the empirical evidence to support this? Is Manhattan development suffering because of this? As is common in social life, neither side will likely get all that they want – no such designations vs. always having to get approval from the neighbors when building a new structure – so some compromise should be reached.

It would also be interesting to look at the level of historic preservation in wealthier vs. poorer areas. Can more of Manhattan be saved because there are resources to do so versus an inability to save many noteworthy structures in poorer American neighborhoods because there are few organizations who could handle the burden? In other words, perhaps historic preservation is an issue largely faced by wealthier communities who can afford to protect some of their gloried past.

Soccer won’t make it big in the US because it doesn’t have enough time for commercials?

Forget cultural differences; perhaps soccer won’t make it big in the United States because there is not enough money to be made.

“Soccer is the least profitable sport on the planet,” says Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and co-author of Soccernomics. “The whole structure of soccer is totally at variance with the America model.”…

In America, TV contracts have a lot to do with a sport’s profitability. MLS recently took a step toward the big leagues with new contracts that will generate around $90 million in revenue per year, the most ever for the league. But that’s puny compared with leagues such as the NFL, which takes in about $5 billion per year from TV rights. The visibility generated by saturation TV coverage helps the NFL earn even more revenue from sponsorships, ticket fees and licensing deals.

It might be unfair to compare the MLS with the NFL, which is the world’s most profitable sports league and an almost unexplainable phenomenon. But pro soccer in the U.S. may face a chicken-and-egg problem that prevents it from ever following in the NFL’s cleats. Most NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL teams manage to be profitable whether they win or lose. That’s because of revenue-sharing deals, salary caps and other equalizers meant to keep leagues competitive and owners satisfied…

“The MLS is pursuing the America business model, which means it’s not pouring billions into making it successful but is actually limiting player spending,” Szymanski says. “There are probably 30 soccer leagues that spend more on wages per team than the MLS — including the Romanian soccer league.”

I wonder how American sports fans would react to the idea that sports “work” in the US because owners can make lots of money. Sure, the sports may be interesting and the athletes impressive but the owners have to make money and there have to be lots of commercials. The average football game has about 11 minutes of gameplay. It’s more like the sports play around the commercial breaks.

Does this mean American sports don’t really follow a free market model? It sounds more like team owners work together to guarantee their profitability and then others on the outside, like various corporations and television networks, can try to make money.

WaPo op-ed suggests sociology degree are the antithesis of Wall Street

An opinion piece a few days ago in the Washington Post contrasts those working on Wall Street and sociology majors:

How nice it would be if the 99 percent had never heard of Wall Street – perhaps if it didn’t exist at all.

There would be no need to be jealous of your college classmates’ $10 million paydays while you majored in sociology. No egg on your face if, as a hot-shot investment manager, you had poured $100 million of widows’ and orphans’ money into securities called collateralized debt obligations that you didn’t understand. There would be no collapse in the value of the home you bought in 2005. Several million people who lost their houses to foreclosure might still be proudly mowing their lawns. And your retirement savings would not be shattered because of all those high-flying technology firms that your mutual fund bought back in the 1990s.

The rest of the opinion piece goes on to talk about the downside of Wall Street. But the comparison of wealthy Wall Street employees versus sociology majors is interesting. The main point seems to be that sociology majors don’t make much money. My response: sociology majors aren’t at the bottom of the heap for median earnings.

A more latent point might be that sociology majors might be the most recognizable discipline that is opposed to the free-market capitalism represented by Wall Street. Is there any other discipline that would be even close? This animosity between sociology and neoliberalism or free-market economics could come from two areas:

1. Different explanations for human actions. Economists tend to go with rational choice explanations that humans are motivated by incentives and self-interest. Sociologists would suggest things are more complex and include factors like values, emotions, ideology, social networks, and altruism.

2. Different values: money and resources flowing freely versus a greater sense for a need for economic and social equality.

There are ways to bridge these two approaches, perhaps in subfields like economic sociology. At the same time, it is interesting to see the choice to contrast Wall Street and sociology.

Does the failure of urban renewal necessarily mean that the free market could solve the problems of poor neighborhoods?

Reason looks at what happened to one New York City neighborhood in the name of urban renewal:

In 1949, President Harry Truman signed the Housing Act, which gave federal, state, and local governments unprecedented power to shape residential life. One of the Housing Act’s main initiatives – “urban renewal” –  destroyed about 2,000 communities in the 1950s and ’60s and forced more than 300,000 families from their homes. Overall, about half of urban renewal’s victims were black, a reality that led to James Baldwin’s famous quip that “urban renewal means Negro removal.”

New York City’s Manhattantown (1951) was one of the first projects authorized under urban renewal and it set the model not only for hundreds of urban renewal projects but for the next 60 years of eminent domain abuse at places such as Poletown, New London, and Atlantic Yards. The Manhattantown project destroyed six blocks on New York City’s Upper West Side, including an African-American community that dated to the turn of the century. The city sold the land for a token sum to a group of well-connected Democratic pols to build a middle-class housing development. Then came the often repeated bulldoze-and-abandon phenomenon: With little financial skin in the game, the developers let the demolished land sit vacant for years.

The community destroyed at Manhattantown was a model for the tight-knit, interconnected neighborhoods later celebrated by Jane Jacobs and other critics of top-down redevelopment. In the early 20th century, Manhattantown was briefly the center of New York’s black music scene. A startling roster of musicians, writers, and artists resided there: the composer Will Marion Cook, vaudeville star Bert Williams, opera singer Abbie Mitchell, James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosemond, muralist Charles Alston, writer and historian Arturo Schomburg, Billie Holiday (whose mother also owned a restaurant on 99th Street), Butterfly McQueen of “Gone with the Wind” fame, and the actor Robert Earl Jones.

Designating West 99th and 98th Streets a “slum” was bitterly ironic. The community was founded when the great black real estate entrepreneur Philip Payton Jr. broke the color line on 99th Street in 1905. Payton, also credited with first bringing African Americans to Harlem, wanted to make it possible for a black man to rent an apartment, in his words, “wherever his means will permit him to live.”

While Reason is a conservative website, there are plenty of others on the other side of the political aisle that also agree that urban renewal had a negative impact on many neighborhoods. Ultimately, this policy was used to clear “slums” and to use that land for more profitable development, typically for wealthier residents and businesses. Additionally, what actually counted as “blight” or as a “slum” was contentious as it tended to frown upon cheaper, ethnic or non-white neighborhoods. Blacks weren’t the only ones displaced; Herbert Gan’s classic work Urban Villagers looked at the fate of an Italian-American neighborhood which was ripped apart by urban renewal.

Since this comes from Reason, I assume that this is a critique of liberal policy and of eminent domain: you can’t trust the government with these kinds of powers as they will use it to trample people they don’t like. But can we swing all the way in the opposite direction and suggest that the free market will eventually get rid of the issues that poorer neighborhoods face and that lead them to be ripe for urban renewal?

I would argue no. Left to its own devices, the free market can also result in harmful policies that hurt less than wealthy neighborhoods. Here are a few examples:

1. Redlining. This was based on the practice of marking urban neighborhoods in terms of the security of their real estate by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation which arose out of the New Deal. But this practice really took off when private lenders and institutions adopted the government agency’s markings and then only made loans to the better neighborhoods, effectively shutting out poor neighborhoods from mortgages.

2. Exclusionary zoning. After the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ruled out discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, exclusionary zoning became a hot topic in the 1970s. A number of court cases looked at how the zoning guidelines of communities and counties effectively kept poor people out of suburban locations. By only allowing higher priced housing or certain kinds of housing (like single-family homes on a minimum of 2 acres), these zoning guidelines were very effective in maintaining the exclusivity of certain areas.

3. Still existing discrimination in obtaining mortgages and other loans. There have been plenty of studies that show when equally matched whites and blacks apply for a mortgage or a car loan or another loan, blacks are rejected at higher rates. Similar research has shown this also applies to jobs. Read an overview of this research in a 2008 Annual Review of Sociology article.

4. The ongoing presence of residential segregation in the United States. Many of our major cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, are still very segregated. View maps of some of these cities here.

5. Gentrification. While the influx of residents may “improve” a neighborhood, it often has the effect of pushing the poorer residents into other poor neighborhoods because of increased housing prices and property taxes.

So urban renewal was not the answer. But it is unlikely that a completely unfettered free market is as well. So perhaps the real question to address is how to craft effective public policy that provides aid to neighborhoods and their residents so that these neighborhoods truly improve, add jobs, and experience revitalization. The key here is “effective,” policy that does not become cost prohibitive, works with local residents and organizations rather than just applies a top-down approach, and achieves attainable and worthy objectives while minimizing unintended consequences. This is likely a difficult task but swinging the pendulum all the way to the free market side isn’t the solution.