Long Island resistance to a denser suburbia

Plans from New York’s governor to bring more housing to the suburbs is not being greeted with joy by some Long Island leaders and residents:

Photo by Thirdman on Pexels.com

In New York, one such proposal from Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul has run into howls of opposition in one of the birthplaces of the American suburb. Critics on Long Island, a sprawling expanse of communities home to 2.9 million people, are denouncing provisions that would set growth targets, drive denser development near train stations and sometimes let state officials override local zoning decisions.

“Her plan would flood YOUR neighborhood with THOUSANDS of new apartments” reads one opposition mailing. Others warn Long Island would become New York City’s “sixth borough.” Critics, many of them Republican officials, claim it would strip away local control…

If municipalities don’t meet targets, developers could pursue a process in which the state could allow projects to go forward. Another provision would require localities to rezone areas within a half-mile of commuter rail stations unless the area already meets density requirements…

A counter proposal from the Senate’s Democratic conference included a more incentive-heavy housing plan that excludes mandatory requirements and overrides of local zoning.

Hochul and legislative Democrats were trying to resolve their differences in negotiations over the budget, which was due April 1. That deadline has been extended into at least next week. The governor has described housing costs as a “core issue” that needs to be addressed.

Affordable housing is badly needed in the New York City region, as well as many metropolitan regions throughout the United States. How to encourage or mandate housing construction is under consideration in multiple states. When suburbanites move to the suburbs in part because of local government and control, how much can a state override local zoning and land use decisions?

Even without state level mandates, there is at least some interest in denser suburbs. Some want “surban” places that combine suburban and city life. Thriving suburban downtowns can bring in money and boost a community’s status.

So what really is at threat here is the sanctity of the single-family home neighborhood and its housing values. This might be the most sacred of suburban settings.

Take Levittown as one example. If Levittown’s density significantly increases, it will mark another stage in the evolution of the paradigmatic suburb. It started with the mass construction of a limited number of floor plans, the community changed over time as residents added to and changed the residences, and the homes became more valuable. Could the Levittown of 50 years from now be marked by significant amounts of multifamily housing?

Declining populations in the New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago regions

The biggest metropolitan areas in the United States are losing residents:

Source: William H. Frey

And what is behind this?

Each of these Chicago phenomena—declining immigration, revitalized downtowns coinciding with a middle-class exodus, and the specific decline of the black population—has spread from the heartland to America’s largest coastal metros…

First, immigration to both New York and Los Angeles has declined by 30 percent in the last five years. This could be for a variety of reasons, including the fear, and reality, of more restrictive immigration policies; richer and safer home countries; and a less affordable housing stock in these metros.

Second, higher-income residents bidding up the price of housing in both cities has accelerated the middle-class exodus. Earlier this decade, Los Angeles was the fastest growing county in all of southern California. But in 2018, it was the only major county in the region to shrink, even as its median home price set a new record. As more middle-class families leave the Los Angeles area for cheaper markets in the West and Southwest—their preferred destinations: Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Dallas—California’s population growth has slowed to its lowest rate in state history. This might have something to do with the recent tax law, which, in capping the state and local deductions, effectively raised the cost of living in these places for the upper-middle class. (The next few years will tell us more about whether high earners are fleeing high-tax metros for the South, as well.)

Third, the black population of both New York and Los Angeles peaked in the early 2000s and has since been in steady, and perhaps accelerating, decline. The political implications of the first Great Migration were immense, as blacks moving into northern cities forged an alliance with urban liberals and pushed the Democratic Party to prioritize civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. The political implications of the Reverse Great Migration could be equally ground-shaking, if blacks moving south redraw the political map for the second time in 100 years. The slow decline of America’s largest metros may also mark the beginning of a new political movement in the suburbs of the South and Southwest.

When it was just Chicago losing residents, it was easier to write it off as inevitable Rust Belt decline combined with particular issues that have dogged the city and region for decades. But, if New York and Los Angeles are also losing people, then this becomes more interesting as even the glitzy coastal cities are losing people to other parts of the United States and there are fewer new residents via immigration.

Is there evidence then that cities are losing steam compared to suburban areas? Not necessarily; Sun Belt cities are growing in population. At the same time the three biggest cities draw outsized attention in the United States (consider the relative anonymity of Houston which is approaching Chicago for third in population). Americans generally do not like what declining populations connote and particularly not in their largest locales.

Ultimately, the actual population figures which could fluctuate slightly from year to year might matter less than the perception that the biggest cities are floundering. Would they then put into place big plans to try to attract residents? Would second tier cities step up their efforts to toot their own (growing) horns?

Final note: Chicago’s long-standing quest to put itself in the same company as New York City might be looking up if both cities are losing residents.

What happens to “hipsturbia” when the wealthy start building 30,000 square foot homes?

The “hipsturbia” of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York may never be the same with the pending construction of a 30,000 square foot home:

In this comfortable Westchester County community, many residents like to think of their village as the anti-suburb, jokingly calling it the Upper Upper West Side.

With painters, writers, jazz musicians and web designers liberally represented among the population of 8,000, the village displays an arty, slightly irreverent ethos. Subarus with bumper stickers that say “Make Dinner, Not War” outnumber the BMWs with vanity plates. Teenage rock groups are overshadowed by their parents’ bands; Housewives on Prozac is a local favorite. Residents are more likely to play down their wealth than to flaunt it.

So it came as a surprise when residents learned that a house was rising in their midst that was not only over the top for Hastings, but also called for superlatives even for Westchester, one of the richest counties in the entire nation.

The contemporary structure and accompanying pool house together measure more than 30,000 square feet. The underground garage is 3,572 square feet, larger than most of the Tudors and Colonials in town. On the application for a building permit, the construction costs were estimated at more than $40 million.

Maybe we could think of waves of gentrification: hipsters and creative types (think Richard Florida’s “creative class”) can represent a first wave that is willing to move into edgier (grittier, more authentic, cheaper) areas. However, what happens when these increasingly wealthy and educated areas start to attract the uber-wealthy? How does that big money fit with certain hipster values? The article ends by noting that the wealthy couple are Democratic and the big home features alternative energy, so perhaps it is less about money than it is about having the right progressive values. Big homes might be okay as long as the owners have the right morality about such homes.

The other interesting dynamic is that this all is taking place in a suburban setting, specifically in wealthy Westchester County. Hastings-on-Hudson is fairly suburban in its demographics: 85.2% white, the median household income is over $114,000 (the US median is around $50,000), and over 66% of adults have bachelor’s degrees. In other words, this suburban location may be hipsterish but it is certainly not that diverse in terms of race or social class.

The continued rise of the Sunbelt: Florida’s population to pass New York’s

One of the largest demographic shifts in American history continues: Florida’s population will soon surpass that of New York.

When the 2013 census results are revealed on Monday, Florida is expected to edge out New York as the third most populous state. The population gap between New York and Florida has been closing quickly over the past few years, but the ranking swap could still signify changes ahead for both states.

According to The New York Times, the new census figures reflect the trend of migrants born outside the U.S. making their way toward sunnier states, like California, Texas — the top two most populous states — and Florida. The Times reports that roughly 50,000 New Yorkers move to Florida each year, compared with only 25,000 Floridians who come to New York. Though New York state’s population is still growing, it is far outpaced by Florida growth. And upstate New York is largely economically stagnant, while cities like Tampa and Jacksonville flourish…

A larger population can dictate a state’s future, in addition to simply reflecting its current circumstance. It means a larger chunk of the federal government’s money and more political representation. The New York Times explains:

The changing population pattern could have many practical and political implications, including diminished congressional delegations, a setback New York already suffered in 2010 — the year of the last decennial census count — when the state lost two districts, while Florida gained two seats. Census data also inform how billions of dollars in federal funding and grants are divvied up among the states, for things like highway planning and construction, public aid for housing and health care and education programs.

It is interesting to see the attention these estimates are getting. This population shift to the Sunbelt has been happening for decades now, spurred on by being closer to immigration sources (the 1965 Immigration Act helped increase immigration from Mexico and Latin America), warmer weather, more affordable housing, and economic growth. But, I suspect there are some other reasons in particular to point out the closeness in population of New York and Florida:

1. New York, particularly New York City, is seen as an American center of power (economic, political, cultural, social). Florida is seen as a place where people go on vacation or to retire. Yet, the population shift suggests Florida might be able to grow in power and influence while a relative population decline suggests New York has already peaked.

2. A conservative-liberal divide between the two states. For example, the New York Times article cited above mentions the stand your ground law in Florida as well as the implications for Congress. The horrors that might ensue if the people of Florida get to help dictate policy for the people of New York City…

3. It is more difficult to understand larger population trends without having these kinds of comparisons. In other words, we could say the Sunbelt population has grown 15% over 10 years while the population in the Northeast has grown 4% over the same period but these are big areas and vague numbers. Being able to pit two states against each other makes the data more understandable and produces a better news story.

New York governor says local governments, schools should save money by merging

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested one way local government can save money in this economic crisis: merge or consolidate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had tough words Friday for local officials facing fiscal crises and seeking more help from Albany, telling them they should consolidate services or whole governments and school districts rather than looking for relief from Albany.

“If it was really, really tough, you’d see that happen,” Cuomo said in his strongest comments yet on the local fiscal crises. “If you are a school district, or a city, or a town or a county, and you are looking for a fundamental financial reform, consolidation is one of the obvious ones.”

Cuomo said he believes local politics is standing in the way of mergers and consolidations that would save taxpayers money and improve efficiency of services. He said deciding to consolidate should be easy, yet “politically, it’s difficult … I get the politics.”

Despite years of hard times, Cuomo said you can count “on one hand” the number of consolidations among 50,000 local governments, school districts, fire and library taxing districts and more.

School districts and local governments say they are already consolidating and merging, but that’s not enough. They are asking for more laws than Cuomo has offered in his state budget proposal to cut labor costs, pension costs and more funding.

Advocates like Myron Orfield and David Rusk have been pushing for metropolitanization for decades – and if Cuomo is right, it might happen now because local governments will have little choice when faced with tough economic issues. However, there are three major issues standing in the way of government consolidation even when times are tough:

1. Local control and interests. This is part of the foundation of the American governmental system: residents should have some say in local government. Thus, local governments and residents will fight hard before they have to hand off decision-making to outsiders.

2. We could end up with situations where communities and governments that are harder off are pushed to consolidate while wealthier areas can hold out longer. This is then a different kind of inequality: wealthier residents would have more local control while poorer residents would have less control.

3. Consolidation might save money but what happens to the quality of the local services? Merging might lead to a reduction of services and some residents will not be happy about this. This is more of a quality of life issue that could influence crime rates, school performance, garbage pickup, and more.

Onion: “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game of ‘Big City'”

The Onion says this about Boston:

Boston residents once again hustled and bustled their way into the nation’s hearts this week as they continued playing their adorable little game of “Big City,” a live-action role-playing adventure in which Bostonians buzz about their daily routines in a delightful hubbub of excitement as if they lived in a major American metropolis.

Inhabitants of real cities across the nation smiled in affectionate amusement as Bostonians put on their big-city clothes, swiped their Charlie cards for a ride on one of the MBTA’s trolley-like subway cars—charmingly called the “T”—and rushed downtown for “important” business meetings at the John Hancock Building, the South Boston Innovation District, and other pretend centers of global industry and commerce…

According to enchanted onlookers who live in actual metropolitan areas, Boston residents are particularly endearing when they get all dressed up for a night at the theater; eat a big, fancy dinner at the Prudential Center’s top-floor restaurant; and read The Boston Globe, whose reporters get to play a game of Big-City Journalist each and every day…

Sources went on to call the city’s darling nickname, “The Hub,” a great, hilarious touch, as though Boston were an actual locus of anything vital whatsoever.

I don’t know if Boston residents have an inferiority complex. But, the article also mentions a Chicago resident suggesting they also play “Big City.” This reference to Chicago might have a grain of truth in it; Chicago leaders and residents occasionally worry about whether the city is keeping up and is still a global city. Presumably, the only people who don’t have to play “Big City” are residents of New York City and Los Angeles – and this is perhaps how residents of the two largest US cities see it.

Why New Yorkers and pigeons get along

A sociologist explains the social interaction New Yorkers have with pigeons:

For more than three years, Jerolmack observed the ways in which people interact with pigeons in cities. His forthcoming book, The Global Pigeon, which, as he put it, seeks to examine “our social experience of animals,” draws from that research. Yesterday evening he spoke about our own city’s rather vexed relationship to the birds.

In the 1960s, for instance, Thomas P.F. Hoving, the former city parks commissioner and longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not to mention the subject of a famed John McPhee New Yorker profile from 1967), called pigeons “rats with wings,” an epithet—often wrongly attributed to Woody Allen—that really stuck. Hoving cited the species, along with litterers and vandals, as a plague on Bryant Park. The park’s supervisor at the time, Andrew Petrochko, told the New York Times that “the homosexuals … make faces at people [and] once the winos are dried out at Bellevue, they make a beeline for Bryant Park.”…

Despite their bad reputation, though, Jerolmack noted that our urban encounters with pigeons “are profoundly social.”

“The impulse to feed pigeons is not so different from wanting to chat with strangers,” Jerolmack said, speaking about one of the subjects for his book, Anna, the elderly pigeon lady who regularly feeds the birds at Father Demo Square, the tiny enclave in the West Village where Jerolmack’s research began.

This sounds like it could be a testable hypothesis: do city dwellers have more positive, social relationships with wildlife (not including pets or animals connected to a household) than people who live in suburbs or rural areas? Cities aren’t typically known for their wildlife but perhaps this could be tied to Simmel’s arguments in his piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” He suggested there were too many people for individuals to interact with in big cities so they would have to develop blase attitudes to protect themselves. But what if they could interact safely with pigeons (and even ducks and squirrels)? Or perhaps this is tied to romanticized (or real?) notions residents have about needing to connect with nature in the middle of the “concrete jungle.”

Old New York law says each community must have a historian

Strange laws that are still on the books are occasionally rediscovered and make headlines. For example, here is an interesting 93 year old law from New York:

Back in 1919, the New York state legislature mandated that every “city, town, or village” must have an official historian. It’s a regulation that’s unique among the 50 states, and basically unenforceable. Towns are not required to pay these record-keepers, who are appointed by a town mayor or manager. Municipalities that fail to find a volunteer are sent a strongly worded letter, but little else can be done.

But this law could tell us a lot about American culture and our quest to preserve and understand our own history:

The phenomenon of local historians came of age in the early days of the Industrial age. As Americans began populating “the frontier,” they struggled to define themselves and their role in the places they called home. “In the late 19th century, you see a local history rush,” says James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association.

This fascination with ourselves was fueled by commercial firms that drafted early town histories, books that resemble the Who’s Who franchise of today. For a couple of dollars, anyone could contribute a piece about their own place in the history of their town, be it the story of their family, their house, or their autobiography.

It was around this time that city historians also became part-time urban boosters. “Cities began using history as an economic asset,” Grossman says. Many early historians were “people who had relationships with commercial interests, trying to promote city growth.”

A couple of reasons are given here: Americans wanted to understand themselves and there was money to be made in this business of local history. This second reason would fit right in with the growth machine model of urban growth: local boosters, leaders, and businesspeople promote development in order to make more money.

One might wonder how much this boosterism affects the actual reporting and interpretation of history. I suspect it influences things quite a bit. This doesn’t necessarily mean a local historian gets the facts wrong but it is more about how the story is told and what parts of local history are revealed. I have read a lot of local history for research projects and several features of local histories stood out across communities:

1. The local histories are often most interested in big and exciting facts and less about day to day life in the community or how these big changes occurred. We might call this the “peak view” of history – you only see the highest or noteworthy points.

2. Tied to the first observation, these histories tend to report only positives about the community. The histories leave out some of the most formative elements about a community if it doesn’t paint the community in a positive light. For example, I’ve uncovered information about racial prejudice in action in some suburban communities but based on the “official” histories, you would never know there was even any tension.

3. It is suggested later in the article that local historians need some training before they are set loose to collect and tell local history. From what I have seen, many local historians got the job because they wanted it, not because they necessarily had qualifications. This person might have had a particular interest in the community and so had done a lot of research or perhaps they knew a lot of people in the community. This has changed somewhat in recent decades with the rise of museums and degrees regarding operating museums as there are now often “official” keepers of a community’s history.

Rahm Emanuel says Chicago is “the most American city”

In announcing that a prestigious conference will be held next year in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an interesting statement about the city:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced today that Chicago will host the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates this spring…

The event is expected to attract high profile leaders from around the globe. All former Nobel Peace Laureates will be invited to attend. It will be co-chaired by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome. Emanuel will serve as an honorary co-chair.

This event “has been held in Paris, it’s been held in Berlin, it’s been held in Rome,” Emanuel said. “And they picked, in my view the most American city in America, Chicago.”

Chicago was chosen “due to its rich heritage and international profile,” organizers said Thursday.

What exactly makes Chicago “the most American city”? Several reasons come to mind:

1. Chicago came to prominence during the late 1800s as Americans were expanding to the West Coast, the railroad became really important, and America became a larger player on the world stage. In these changes, Chicago helped lead the way as a major port connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi and becoming the railroad hub of the nation. Chicago was the boomtown of this era, growing from just over 112,000 people in 1860 to nearly 1.7 million in 1900.

1a. In comparison, the older cities of the Northeast, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia are too dependent on the colonial era.

1b. However, one could make the case that Los Angeles (or maybe even Houston) is the quintessential American city of the 20th century with a rise of the suburbs, highways, culture industries, and a population shift to Sunbelt and West Coast. At the same time these things were happening, Chicago was also changing: its suburbs have continued to grow (and also experienced growth in high-tech/white collar jobs) even as the city has experienced the Rust Belt problems of white flight and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

2. Chicago embodies some of the best and worse of America. It’s skyline is beautiful and it features miles of parks along Lake Michigan. The downtown and Michigan Avenue area is relatively clean and full of tourists. Chicago is a prominent world city because of its finance industry. On the flipside, Chicago is well known for its segregation (bringing MLK to the city in 1966), corrupt politics, and crime/gangsters.

3. Chicago is middle America, not the more educated or stylish East or West Coast. It embodies American values of hard work and grittiness alongside success and entrepreneurship.

A side note: it will be a busy spring in Chicago with the G-8 and NATO meeting in Chicago not too long after this Nobel gathering.

A sociology ph.d. becomes a New York state legislator and New York Supreme Court judge

Since students often ask what students can do with sociology degrees, I like to write about sociology majors (like Ronald Reagan) or sociologists who go on to intriguing careers. Here is another case: a sociologist who became a New York Supreme Court judge.

Sidney H. Asch, a New York judge with a Ph.D. in sociology who wrote scholarly works about civil liberties and made notable decisions about landlord-tenant law, employment of gay people and a man’s right to get his hair cut in a women’s beauty salon, died on Sept. 1 in a nursing home in North Carolina. He was 92…

Judge Asch, who wrote eight books, was modest about his academic credentials when he began his public career as a member of the State Assembly in 1952, and he seemed almost apologetic about them when interviewed a few years later, after he had won election to a Democratic Party leadership position in the Bronx…

Notwithstanding his effort to blend in, The Times found a scholar’s rise in city politics so unusual that it put its article about his election on the front page under the headline “Democrats Pick Ph.D. Egghead as District Leader in the Bronx.”…

In his decade in the Assembly, Judge Asch, who earned his doctorate from the New School for Social Research, promoted legislation to ban corporal punishment in schools and to require that cigarette packaging carry health warnings. Neither bill passed — though the objectives would later be met — before he left in 1961 to accept appointment as a New York City municipal court judge.

Sounds like an interesting career. I wonder if Asch ever spoke openly about how sociology influenced the decisions he made as a legislator or judge.