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.

Silicon Valley packing up for New York City and other locations

Google’s plans to open a big office in New York City may presage larger geographic shifts:

Google is said to be close to signing a $2.4bn deal to establish an East Coast base in New York City, the latest in a series of moves by tech firms who believe Silicon Valley‘s best days may be “over”…

If it goes ahead, Google would be among a number of tech companies that are looking to expand their New York footprint. Concerns about the soaring cost of living in San Francisco, and worried that innovation may be accelerating faster in other parts of the country, a number of firms are looking to New York and other cities…

The AP said New York had been pitching itself as an alternative to Silicon Valley for years. While tech may never rival financial services and Wall Street as the most important private-sector employer and economic driver, it has already established a legitimate footprint that goes beyond a handful of giant companies…

The news comes as a number of other tech giants are looking to find alternative locations for investment opportunities and expansion. The New York Times said Robin Li, an investor with the San Francisco venture capital firm GGV Capital, recently led a three-day bus tour through the Midwest, stopping in Youngstown and Akron in Ohio, Detroit and Flint in Michigan and South Bend in Indiana.

On one hand, it is not a surprise that New York City is alluring: it is one of – if not the most – important city in the world with its finance industry, influence, and standing as the leading America city. Many major companies throughout the world would consider a location in New York City. If any industry wants to conquer the world – and tech is on that path – New York City is a place to be.

On the other hand, New York City is a very different place compared to Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The notable laid-back vibe that helped give rise to tech start-ups over the decades does not really exist in New York City. The tech industry may be king in Silicon Valley but New York City has plenty of other options (finance, media, fashion, etc.). New York City is several times zones east, making some communication around the world more difficult (but making it easier to connect with Europe). The city and suburbs are on a different scale compared to the Bay Area.

Put this news from Google with Amazon’s search for a second headquarters and there could be a large geographic shift. While it would take some significant changes to move away from the massive Silicon Valley headquarters (including recent efforts from Apple and Facebook), the tech industry may be associated with new locations within a few decades.

Are TV portrayals of NYC housing realistic? An (incomplete) analysis

Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran an interesting analysis of how realistically the housing for numerous New York City characters was portrayed:

TVhousinginNYCWashingtonPostApr17

The article has a detailed breakdown of the housing in Girls and then has summaries for everything else.

Although this does not include every major television show depicted in New York City (I could think of a number off the top of my head), there are two noticeable patterns in the shows discussed in this particular article:

  1. Three popular and influential shows from the 1990s, all ones that supposedly made the city attractive to new generations, showed unrealistically large apartments. The city may look like a fun place to be when everyone has plenty of space and cool stuff.
  2. The number of working class shows here is limited. Television does not do a great job in general portraying the working class – see the documentary Class Dismissed – and this article deals mostly with shows with higher class aspirations.

Additionally, it seems like it would be important to also discuss the field of housing prices within New York City over the last sixty years. Manhattan is one of the most expensive places in the world now but was it always this bad? Additionally, the fates of the boroughs have changed over time.

 

More (pricey) senior housing units in the (expensive) city

Several developers are constructing luxury senior housing in Manhattan and trying to tap a new market:

Senior housing has traditionally been suburban-focused because land is so much cheaper outside cities, and developers hadn’t seen a big enough market to justify paying more, and charging more, for urban locations near transportation and nightlife, Knott said. The aging members of the massive baby-boom generation helped change their minds. Now, he said, many living in cities have the means to pay a premium to remain in familiar environments.

And many will need special care. In New York state alone, about 460,000 residents aged 65 and older are expected to be living with Alzheimer’s-related dementia in 2025, some 18 percent more than there are today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

To serve the wealthiest of them, senior-housing developers are taking cues from their tony-apartment building counterparts and putting extra emphasis on finishes and flourishes, to make their facilities look like the places residents left behind…

It is, of course, a rather small group of any age or mental ability that can handle the monthly rents these kinds of places will command. They’ll start at $12,000 at the complex that Maplewood Senior Living and Omega Healthcare Investors Inc. are putting up on Second Avenue and 93rd Street. Some will top more than $20,000 at the building Welltower Inc. and Hines are about to break ground for on the corner of 56th Street and Lexington Avenue.

The top 10% ages as well.

If this catches on, will it make it even harder to construct senior housing for average Americans (those who lived as adults around the median household income)?

I had a somewhat radical thought: many community leaders suggest that their residents should be able to age in their community, if they so desire. Would it be possible to set aside plots of land to be used for senior housing? The community would not necessarily have to designate what kind of housing is placed there but setting aside or zoning certain land might take away some of the market-rate pressure for land. Communities and developers regularly do this for other important uses such as parks or schools. Why not get out ahead of the aging population and make a tangible contribution to allowing senior residents to stay?

Finding more open space in NYC by using parking spots

Eliminate parking along streets and there is more room for people:

The repurposed parking spots are the latest effort to carve out more open space on New York City’s crowded streets and sidewalks. These blink-and-miss-them bits of greenery — called “street seats” — have spread along commercial corridors, though they are often overlooked or overshadowed by sprawling pedestrian plazas. In contrast, street seats are tiny and temporary, returning to parking spots come winter…

There are 18 pop-up street seats this summer, double the number from 2015, according to the city. They range from one in TriBeCa that attracts moms and tots in strollers to another in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that has become popular for alfresco dining. In a hands-on lesson in urban planning, students at the Parsons School of Design at The New School in Greenwich Village have designed a street seat with drought-resistant plants and solar-powered LED lights that draws about 250 people daily…

The street seats grew out of a national movement that began in San Francisco in 2005 when members of an arts collective called Rebar transformed a parking spot with grass turf, a bench and potted tree, and invited passers-by to feed the meter. The experiment inspired a daylong celebration, known as Park(ing) Day, in which people took over parking spots. Later, a new generation of curbside micro parks, or “parklets,” was born…

While each street seat typically takes up two parking spots, the benefits of serving hundreds of people a day — versus a handful of cars — have outweighed any concerns over lost parking, said Shari Gold, a senior manager in the transportation department’s public space program. She added the department approves a street seat only with the agreement of the local community board, and nearby businesses and property owners.

I like the idea: when the weather is nicer, turn some of the street space back to the people. In fact, I would love to see this come to the suburbs, not just on streets but also in parking lots. It would be a little more difficult in locations that are highly dependent on people driving but why not have more outside dining, shopping, and socializing?

A longer-term question about this practice is whether it leads to the permanent loss of parking space and addition of public space. Once people get used to fewer parking spots, can they adjust all year long? I don’t know if proponents have this in mind but it seems like a genius way to reduce the size of roads and parking.

The difficulty in naming urban neighborhoods

It is not easy to name every neighborhood of New York City:

SoHo, so-called because it is south of Houston Street, was better known until the 1960s as Hell’s Hundred Acres. It was the first to use an acronym, and has spawned imitators. Tribeca (triangle below Canal Street) emerged in the 1970s. Despite, or perhaps because of, its silly name, Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is one of the most sought-after areas in the city. NoHo (north of Houston) and NoLita (North of Little Italy) are now on maps. Others, like SoBro (south Bronx), BoCoCa (Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, which is in fact flat) and Rambo (Right after the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), mercifully did not stick. “None of these worked,” says Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at City University of New York. “At a certain point they got too silly.”

They also didn’t work, he says, because their residents objected. ProCro, a rebranding of Crown Heights, another historically black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, did not take either. Hell’s Kitchen is equally resilient. Attempts to change the name to the generic Clinton have not been successful. It is a lot easier to rebrand when there are few residents, as was the case in SoHo. Brokers also rely on recent arrivals not knowing the city well.

“You can’t talk about this without talking about race,” says Amy Plitt of Curbed, a property blog. Affluent white New Yorkers have flocked to Harlem, followed by restaurants, bars and shops. The stock of cheap housing has dwindled. Longtime residents, already feeling financial pressure, resent what they see as a deliberate move to erase their history. “It’s about identity,” said Brian Benjamin, a Harlem-born state lawmaker. He recently introduced legislation in Albany requiring estate agents to consult the community on any name change, or face a fine. Others see a clumsy attempt to link SoHa to SoHo in the minds of would-be buyers, making it cooler and justifying higher prices.

This raises a whole host of questions:

  1. Who gets to name the neighborhood? The article mentions several actors including residents and those in real estate but I could also imagine local officials might want a say. The gatekeepers of neighborhood naming have the power to define a place for years to come.
  2. How long does it take for a name to change? Even if it is a relatively short official process – say the city changes it on its official maps – it may take years before residents and others know and use the new name.
  3. How often can the name for a neighborhood change? Urban neighborhoods can be very fluid yet switching names too often will simply confuse people.
  4. How easy is it to define the boundaries of the named place, particularly if things are changing? Each neighborhood is also affected by the activity of the neighborhoods around them.

It would be interesting to compare these processes across major cities. For example, compare Chicago with its well-defined community areas (little major change in names or boundaries since the early 1900s) to New York City or a booming city in the developing world.

Subways: “New York City is the demented spin-off of Settlers of Catan”

The New York subway system has some problems:

New York City subway service isn’t consistently bad. It isn’t consistently anything. It mixes days of normalcy with surprise disasters whose disruptive effect is something like an air-raid drill, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded underground, while their kids wait at schools, their office chairs sit empty, and their shifts begin. If, as former New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere once put it, transportation is “the game board upon which the economy is played,” New York City is the demented spinoff of Settlers of Catan. The board changes every day, with a debilitating effect on businesses, birthday parties, and everything in between.

That delays have tripled in four years, that subway ridership is declining, that bus ridership is plummeting—these things should alarm Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and bears ultimate responsibility for its failings, despite his protests otherwise….

Last Monday, the MTA announced a six-point plan to address delays. “Decades of underinvestment … has led to a system that is excessively vulnerable to failures,” the statement read. (Interestingly, New York has been governed by a Cuomo for 18 of the past 35 years.) The order includes some good news, like the imminent arrival of newer subway cars and deployments of teams to handle broken signals and sick passengers, two major causes of delays. It also appears to have been devised rather quickly—an MTA board member found out about it from the press—and as such, does not account for the subway’s two biggest problems: its ancient signal system and its insanely high construction costs.

Those two things are interrelated and together account for virtually every other problem with the subway. Signals break, hinder the deployment of countdown clocks and driverless trains, and prevent trains from running closer together. High costs impede the development of 20th-century signal technology and other capital improvements, including region-altering projects like the Triboro RX and low-hanging fruit like reopening closed subway entrances. (Read Alon Levy’s excellent coverage of the cost issue and weep.) As long as the MTA fails to address these issues, its troubles will continue.

Bonus points for working Settlers of Catan into a discussion of infrastructure. At the same time, the roads of Settlers might be crazy (particularly when they are blocked by other players) but wouldn’t a better analogy be to a transportation game, perhaps Ticket to Ride?

Seriously though, cities and other levels of government ignore infrastructure at their own peril. It may be easier in the short-term to push off the repairs and costs but the problems only continue to affect users and then are even more costly in terms of money and time down the road.