Describing Detroit at its peak

In discussing Detroit’s decline, it is good to be reminded of the city’s peak:

As Maraniss’s book opens, Detroit appears to be a city on the verge of unimagined greatness. President John F. Kennedy campaigns in the Motor City in October 1962 in support of the off-year elections. Democrat Jerry Cavanaugh is mayor of the city, then the fifth largest in the country with a population of nearly 1.7 million. Cavanaugh is the mayoral version of JFK, a relatively young man with a big Catholic family, liberal, civil rights minded. George Romney is elected governor, a Republican who also champions civil rights. Vice President Lyndon Johnson visits the city in early 1963 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Motown, now well established, is conquering the Billboard charts. Mary Wells’ “My Guy” dislodges the Beatles from the number one spot in March of 1964. Following the best sales year in its history, Ford introduces the Mustang in the spring of ’64. The United Automobile Workers, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, has won an unprecedented standard of living for its members, setting the bar for workers across the country and building the foundation for the Affluent Society. Martin Luther King delivers the first version of his “I Have a Dream” speech to a Detroit crowd of 100,000 two months before the March on Washington in August 1963. The city nearly wins the bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Of course, this is what helps make the Detroit case so interesting: the city was so large, so influential, so promising, and then the bottom dropped out over the next fifty years. Humans often make the mistake of romanticizing some sort of golden age where problems were few and life was good, but in this case there really does seem to have been a better era.

Reactions “when your childhood home becomes a ‘teardown’”

A reporter describes seeing her childhood home make way for a teardown:

I understand why the house is being torn down. The stairs aren’t up to today’s construction codes. The bathrooms and kitchen are small. When someone slams the door in the garage, you can feel the vibrations upstairs in my brother’s old bedroom. The plumbing, windows and electric wiring haven’t been touched in decades. The metallic wallpaper with blue flowers in the bathroom my brother and I once shared says it all: The house is clearly outdated.

Still, I dread its rendezvous with a wrecking ball. When my childhood BFF’s century-old house was bulldozed last spring (goodbye high ceilings and ornate mantelpieces), the teardown trend in our old neighborhood suddenly became personal. Was some nefarious force—McMansion mania? Voldemort?—out to destroy my childhood haunts?

And what might explain such emotions?

Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, says teardowns can be more traumatic for former owners, and their children, than sales in which a house survives.

For one thing, she says, it’s hard to escape the finality of a teardown, which makes it all the more obvious “that you can no longer go back to the safety and comfort” of childhood. “It’s in your face,” she says.

There is also an obvious analogy to my aging parents. With new construction springing up all over the neighborhood, the house suddenly looks like a relic of another era. Still, when I came across the property records in my parents’ files last spring, the comparison that immediately sprang to mind was to myself. Although I had always assumed the house was older, it was actually erected just a few years before I was born in 1964.

For many people, childhood homes function like a psychological safety net, says Gerald Davison, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “Even if you don’t feel comfortable knocking on the door, it’s nice to know that it’s always possible to do so” and reconnect with childhood, he says.

Neighborhoods do change over time but homes often represent permanence. This hints at the broader ideology of the American Dream as well as childhood. The first refers to the emotional attachment to single-family homes on plots of land, places that people can call their own. The second involves the development of childhood as a sort of “golden age” in the lifecourses filled with good experiences and exploring the world.

It would be interesting to hear more about the expression of and limits to such emotions. Perhaps we can add “McMansion mania” to the list of childhood bogeymen…

Can’t return to an American era where only private charity and churches took care of the poor – because it doesn’t exist

Here is a look at American social welfare policy throughout history and the argument is that there was no golden era of private charity:

One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.

This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world…

As for social insurance specifically, the historian Michael Katz has documented that there has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century. During this period, these issues were usually dealt with through questions of “settlement.” A community had a responsibility to provide relief to its own needy, native members, defined as those who had a settlement there. This became increasingly difficult with an industrialized society, as people moved to and fro looking for work and were forced out of communities when they couldn’t find any.

The next major initiative was the construction of poorhouses by state governments, especially in the early nineteenth century. The central idea was that by forcing people in need of aid to live in poorhouses where living conditions were quite harsh, there would be fewer applicants. This ended up not being the case, as able-bodied people would still seek out these poorhouses, especially when work was slack and unemployment high. Worse, these institutions became the default support for orphans, the mentally ill, and the elderly without income or family to support them…

That need was partly what gave rise to the Progressive movement. Private charity simply didn’t have the breadth and depth necessary to truly respond to the Four Horsemen in this industrializing era, and Progressives saw a greater role for government to address these ills.

In other words, the government has been involved with addressing social problems from the early days of America. Granted, it may not have looked like the centralized welfare state that is common in the industrialized world today but there was still some government involvement.

This also reminds me of a recommendation made by sociologist William Julius Wilson at the end of The Truly Disadvantaged. After looking at concentrated poverty, Wilson concludes with policy recommendations which includes the key proviso that American social welfare policy should try to raise everyone’s boat because targeted programs for specific groups tend to be seen unfavorably by the larger public. Think of Social Security, a program that benefits a majority of Americans and enjoys widespread support.

Parking garage proposal for Sheridan Road in Chicago sparks discussion of parking, New Urbanism, and a past golden age

A recent proposal for a new parking garage on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park has prompted further conversations about the neighborhood:

“Sheridan was a beautiful lakefront boulevard, a model of urban design that should be reclaimed, not transformed into a suburban highway,” said Susan Olin, a community activist who would be a neighbor to the 250-car garage proposed by prominent real estate developer Jennifer Pritzker.

But the local alderman, Joe Moore, not only supports the project, he also thinks its opponents have a wildly romantic vision of what Sheridan Road once was…

Moore said the Sheridan Road of yesteryear was a hodgepodge of gas stations, billboards and empty lots, in addition to stately and substantial family homes…

To some residents, that blend of a natural landscape and an urban skyline is Rogers Park’s aesthetic trump card, said John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

“Against that backdrop, Pritzker’s garage would be way, way out of scale,” said Norquist, who lives nearby. “It could fit in the Loop. Maybe in Schaumburg, but not in a city neighborhood.”…

Pritzker’s designers declined the suggestion for mixed use, and the latest plan shows parking spaces from top to bottom. According to a representative, Pritzker was traveling and unavailable for an interview.

This is a great example of the conversations that erupt with urban development:

1. A set of current residents wants to preserve the neighborhood as it is and a parking garage does not fit their image of a cozy neighborhood that will meet their interests in rising property values.

2. The alderman thinks the project has merit because it will add parking but also possibly because a new development might help bring new money into the neighborhood.

3. The discussion of the parking garage leads to conversations about whether the neighborhood should harken back to a golden era or plan for the future.

4. This isn’t just about the parking garage; residents are worried any such project (or a fast food joint or a big box store) will open the floodgates to lots more new development.

5. Attempts to make the garage more palatable by including retail space on the first floor or some kind of mixed use have been rebuffed so far by the developer.

Perhaps the only question left is how this episode will conclude. Based on what is in this article and what the alderman says at the end of the article about the neighborhood support and disapproval for the garage running 50/50, I suspect the garage will happen in some form.

Is it okay to be a Christian and quiet suburbanite?

One blogger suggests the “missional” or “radical Christianity” movements go too far in suggesting one cannot be a normal suburbanite and Christian:

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about…

In the 1970s and 1980s, the children and older grandchildren of the builder generation (born between 1901 and 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And now millennials (born between 1977 and 1995), taking a cue from their baby boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should, too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.

There are many churches that are committed to being what is called missional. This term is used to describe a church community where people see themselves as missionaries in local communities. A missional church has been defined, as “a theologically formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered, united community of believers who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ for the glory of God,” says Scott Thomas of the Acts 29 Network. The problem is that this push for local missionaries coincided with the narcissism epidemic we are facing in America, especially with the millennial generation. As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.

To make matters worse, some religious leaders have added a new category to Christianity called “radical Christianity” in an effort to trade-off suburban Christianity for mission. This movement is based on a book by David Platt and is fashioned around “an idea that we were created for far more than a nice, comfortable Christian spin on the American dream. An idea that we were created to follow One who demands radical risk and promises radical reward.” Again, this was a well-intentioned attempt to address lukewarm Christians in the suburbs, but because it is primarily reactionary and does not provide a positive construction for the good life from God’s perspective, it misses “radical” ideas in Jesus’ own teachings like “love.”

As a suburban scholar, I’d like to point out there are a number of interesting things going on in this argument.

First, it makes some sweeping generalizations. Is this true of all “missional” or “radical” Christians? If I remember correctly, Platt argued that Christians don’t necessarily have to leave their suburban settings though they should change their focus. Similarly, making broad claims about generations is a difficult task. On the whole, a majority of Americans live in the suburbs (and they didn’t necessarily choose it – there was a whole lot of public policy that helped pushed them there) though there are rumblings that millennials and younger adults are interested in more urban spaces, whether they are in denser suburbs or cities.

Second, the argument makes some interesting claims about narcissism and what is really the good/virtuous life. The charge of narcissism among millennials and emerging adults in America today is a common one. There may be some truth to this. (However, I wonder if there is also some golden age mythologizing going on here – are those in the builder generations the paragons of virtue here?) But, is narcissism completely limited by geography? How are participating in the arts and pursuing social justice necessarily narcissistic activities? What qualifies as a non-narcissistic action? Critics of the suburbs have argued for decades that the suburbs are built to be all about the individual: suburbs promote private spaces to the neglect of public spaces, individualism over community life. Are these values, “Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous,” necessarily Christian values? They may be general suburban or traditional American ideals but they don’t necessarily match up with Christian lives throughout the centuries or around the world.

Third, I think there is merit to the idea that suburbs can be home to Christians just as much as cities. However, this radical approach might be linked to cities because evangelicals do have a long history of anti-urban bias. This is due to multiple factors including thinking that cities are more evil, corrupting, and dangerous (this dates back to Christians like William Wilberforce in the late 1700s wanting to escape a changing London – see Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois, viewing cities as less friendly toward families (a primary conservative Christian focus), and a history of racialized actions and prejudice which is tied to white flight from the cities after World War II and residentially segregated suburbs today. Thus, the suburbs can often be a safe, comfortable space for evangelicals and people challenging this can make a pointed and needed contrast to cities. Christians could argue that the faithful need to be in both places without saying it is an either/or proposition and that living the easy life in a suburb or city is the way to go.

Fourth, there is a difference between feeling shamed and being confronted with helpful or unpleasant truths. I wonder if this is similar to the feelings of shame some white evangelicals express when confronted with the problem of race in the United States today. I don’t think authors like Platt or Chan are suggesting people should be shamed; they are more likely to suggest relatively well-off suburbanites acknowledge their blessings and advantages and then go to work in following and obeying God. It is not about feeling guilty but rather living a life that properly acknowledges and utilizes one’s relative privilege and status.

On the whole, this argument demonstrates how the categories, ideas, and values of American, suburban, and conservative/evangelical Christian can become intertwined. They are not easy to sort out and it is not as simple as suggesting cities are inherently good or evil or arguing the same about suburbs.

American driving culture can lead to some opulent garages

Curbed highlights eight fun quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal story on some unusual American garages. Here are four of the quotes:

6. “Once seen as a catchall space to store bicycles, trash cans and lawn tools, garages are being rediscovered as the ideal place—who knew?—to park cars.”…

4. “Mr. DesRosiers recently completed a 6,200-square-foot garage in the suburbs of Detroit that has a 1,800-square-foot detail shop on the lower level with a penthouse above, accessible via elevator.”

3. “There are seven flat-screen televisions throughout the three levels. “I can build a motorcycle and watch a football game at the same time, which is pretty sweet,” he says.”

2. “He put a glass door in between the wine cellar and underground parking space so the owner can “walk into the lift and touch and feel the car from the wine cellar,” he adds.”

The original story also highlights some broader trends regarding garages:

Even if an existing home has a garage, one or two bays may not be enough. “Those garages are not suitable for today’s vehicles. They’re just too small,” says Mr. Pekel of the Milwaukee construction and remodeling firm.

Of new homes built in 2011, 29% have a three-car or larger garage, according to Home Innovation Research Labs. These spaces have more bays, taller ceilings and greater square footage, says Ed Hudson, director of the market research division at Home Innovation Research Labs.

By and large, men are the primary users of garages, at 70% overall, Mr. Hudson says. For some purposes, like maintaining vehicles or working on projects,more than 90% of all users are men.

There is still room to discuss why people would want such garages in the first place, particularly if it comes at the expense of other items, such as spending money elsewhere in their houses. I would argue you could make a broader argument about the general love Americans have for driving and vehicles which then leads to a “need” for large spaces devoted to these vehicles. On one hand, vehicles are very functional – they get you where you need to go, particularly in a sprawling American built landscape that often requires driving. On the other hand, people can get attached to such functional objects and see them as much more than tools.

If some recent survey data is correct in showing that the younger generation of Americans don’t care so much about cars, perhaps we are in or have already passed “the golden age of garages.” If New Urbanists and other like-minded architects get their way, the garage would lose some of its prominence by being moved from the front facade of homes to the rear. In several decades, these opulent garages may look even more unusual and unnecessary.

A mid-twentieth century vision of “the future” versus welcome changes to everyday life for average Americans

Virginia Postrel compares the vision of “the future” decades ago versus the changes that have made the everyday lives of many Americans better:

Forget the big, obvious things like Internet search, GPS, smartphones or molecularly targeted cancer treatments. Compared with the real 21st century, old projections of The Future offered a paucity of fundamentally new technologies. They included no laparoscopic surgery or effective acne treatments or ADHD medications or Lasik or lithotripsy — to name just a few medical advances that don’t significantly affect life expectancy…

Nor was much business innovation evident in those 20th century visions. The glamorous future included no FedEx or Wal- Mart, no Starbucks or Nike or Craigslist — culturally transformative enterprises that use technology but derive their real value from organization and insight. Nobody used shipping containers or optimized supply chains. The manufacturing revolution that began at Toyota never happened. And forget about such complex but quotidian inventions as wickable fabrics or salad in a bag.

The point isn’t that people in the past failed to predict all these innovations. It’s that people in the present take them for granted.

Technologists who lament the “end of the future” are denigrating the decentralized, incremental advances that actually improve everyday life. And they’re promoting a truncated idea of past innovation: economic history with railroads but no department stores, radio but no ready-to-wear apparel, vaccines but no consumer packaged goods, jets but no plastics.

I wonder if another way to categorize this would be to say that many of the changes in recent decades have been more about quality of life, not significantly different way of doing things or viewing the world (outside of the Internet). Quality of life is harder to measure but if we take the long view, the average life of a middle-class American today contains improvements over decades before. Also, is this primarily a history or perspective issue? History tends to be told (and written) by people in charge who often focus on the big people and moments. It is harder to track, understand, and analyze what the “average” person experiences day to day.

I can imagine some might see Postrel’s argument and suggest we are deluded by some of these quality of life improvements and we forget about what we have given up. While some of this might be mythologizing about a golden era that never quite was, it is common to hear such arguments about the Internet and Facebook: it brings new opportunities but fundamentally changes how humans interact with each other and machines (see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle). We now have Amazon and Walmart but have lost any relationships with small business owners and community shops. We may have Starbucks coffee but it may not be good for us.