Can a list of the most beautiful homes in Dallas include McMansions?

An earlier article I published suggested McMansions are not viewed as negatively in Dallas compared to New York City. The list of “the hand-down 10 most beautiful homes in Dallas” from D Magazine includes two references to McMansions:

Each year of the last decade, the editors of D Home have canvassed the city to bring you a list of “10 Most Beautiful Homes” that hopefully appeal to every taste. While on the road, we’ve spilled endless Diet Cokes due to sudden stops, exposed ourselves to the occasional McMansion, and risked looking like embarrassingly low-tech private investigators snapping photos with our iPhones. We do it all for you!…

We once named Tokalon Drive the most beautiful street in Dallas, which we suppose makes this 4236-square-foot dwelling the most beautiful home on the most beautiful street in Dallas. Plus, it reminds us why turrets are actually totally cool and not just something that just gets thrown on a McMansion. All that’s missing is a moat.

Yet, the list of 10 homes includes no McMansions. While these are large and expensive homes, all were constructed prior to World War II and have an architectural coherence that many McMansions lack. However, homes on this list for previous years did include newer homes and I would guess some of these 2017 selections have had major work done to them which might also negate some of their old-image charm.

Even in Dallas, such lists may not be able to select or trumpet McMansions as beautiful homes. If you run in certain circles – particularly when your readers are educated and wealthy – McMansions are a dirty word. A magazine like this that considers itself “a member of the original generation of city magazines: New York Magazine, Washingtonian, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago” could likely not support such as crass consumer item as the McMansion.

Historical irony: Naperville magazine suggests “discover Hinsdale”

Naperville’s size, wealth, accolades, and amenities make it a suburban behemoth outside of Chicago. Yet, when Naperville Magazine features in its current issue the story titled “Discover Hinsdale” (see the cover image below), it is a reversal of history regarding which community was more desirable.

NapervilleMagazineSep17

Naperville was founded first in the early 1830s though Hinsdale was not far behind (and the community was originally known as Brush Hill and then Fullersburg). The two communities share a rail line in and out of Chicago, originally the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy, which opened in the mid-1860s. While the two communities were similar in size until the postwar era, Hinsdale was the wealthier town. It had a hospital. It attracted executives as residents. It was at the eastern edge of DuPage County and just 15 miles from downtown Chicago. Naperville, in contrast, was seen more of a farm community, there wasn’t much development between it and Aurora (and little at all to the south or southwest), and it had lost some luster after losing the county seat to Wheaton in 1867.

Long-time Naperville resident and real estate agent described the relationship between the two suburbs in Is it Eden? Is it Camelot? It is Paradise? Better yet…It’s Naperville.

I discovered an overlooked “fact of life” one Saturday afternoon when a well-dressed, house-hunting couple entered our office. Both were quite disappointed to learn that our town had no tree-lined street full of gracious, period-type houses built in the 1920’s and 30’s, the likes of which they could find in some affluent suburbs east of us. They were also shocked to find we had so little “speculative” building and that our listings were generally of very old homes. The wife then made a biting comment that raised the hairs on my neck. She said, “Did you know that Naperville is rated a class ‘C’ town in some Hinsdale real estate offices?” “What in the world do you  mean!” I sputtered through clenched teeth. “Oh, don’t get made,” she replied, “Just in the area of ‘income per capita’.” “What in the world do you mean!” I sputtered through clenched teeth. “Oh, don’t get made,” she replied, “Just in the area of ‘income per capita’.” Well, Hal, I admit that I was truly deflated. Deflated because, even though it seemed such a minuscule area to me in light of all of Naperville’s ENDURING values, it was a fact of life, and there would be more people of this bent for us to deal with in the future. Hinsdale today is probably still the “class” community of the western suburbs. Time, effort and planning have earned it its reputation. Housing costs in Hinsdale are, on average, 30% higher than in Naperville. However, by now we must have about caught up in “income per capita”. I would (secretly) like to challenge Hinsdale to a rating battle based on “percent of residents with advanced college degrees.” Maybe then I might be able to walk into a realty office in their town and square a long-remembered rebuke by saying, “Did you know that in Naperville, some real estate offices rate Hinsdale a Class ‘B’ community?” I wonder if they’d squirm a little, as I did?” (“Dear Hal” column, Aug 28, 1981, The Naperville Sun)

A later story:

For as long as I can recall, having a Hinsdale (Ill.) residence address had the same effect on others as did the car, wristwatch, or college on attended – it “made a statement.” Aesthetic Hinsdale, with a population of only 17,000, has the highest income per capita of any community in DuPage County… ((“Dear Hal” column, May 17, 1981, The Naperville Sun)

The Naperville Magazine piece is similar to many you can find in suburban magazines. Here is the primary text that then leads to a list of attractions:

Just about halfway between Naperville and Chicago you’ll find the village of Hinsdale, known for its stop-and-stare-worthy homes along tree-shaded streets and a cute, compact downtown lined with shops and restaurants. Though the abundance of women’s clothing boutiques and pampering salons make it a popular destination for a ladies’ day out—no question—there’s a little bit of something for everyone in Hinsdale.

Hinsdale is now the quaint and wealthy suburb to visit. There are upscale restaurants and shops to explore as well as a few historical sites. The community is still wealthy and on average has higher incomes and housing values than Naperville. The teardown phenomenon seems to have begun earlier in Hinsdale in the 1980s before spreading to Naperville (according to several late-1980s columns by Herb Matter). Local celebrities seem to live more in Hinsdale than Naperville.

Yet, Naperville is the more vibrant place. It is clearly bigger. The downtown is more lively. Hinsdale is older money, Naperville more emblematic of the late-twentieth boom among the white-collar and educated.

“Why Parents Can’t Resist Buying…the Hottest Gifts”

A sociologist discusses the compulsion parents across social classes feel to purchase the season’s hottest gifts:

After observing and interviewing children and parents from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, Pugh published “Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture” in 2009, which explored commercial culture and how it relates to economic inequality and community. Since then, the spending trend hasn’t let up – even through the recession – and she typically fields media calls around this time of year on the topic.

Parents often have trouble deciding what to do in response to their children’s “I want’s,” Pugh found when she studied a range of families in Oakland, California. She found that both affluent and low-income parents disliked the pressure they felt to buy the most popular gifts for their kids; affluent parents were worried about giving in to materialism, while low-income parents knew that popular items cost money they would prefer to spend on household essentials…

Affluent parents often said they were uncomfortable about buying the latest popular items and they didn’t want their children to be so materialistic. Nevertheless, even if they decided to forego a certain product – which Pugh calls “symbolic deprivation” – they bought a lot of other things for their children that they thought added to what’s perceived as a good childhood.At the other end of the spectrum, lower-income parents were willing to forego some basic needs at times to buy products for their children, to show that they were capable of fully caring for their children – which Pugh called “symbolic indulgence.”

Wanting to belong – or on the flip side, not to be left out – is a powerful human motivator. And what American parent wants to be held responsible for their kid not fitting in? Arguably, this sort of logic drives much consumerism: as a number of scholars have shown, companies decades ago shifted advertising from emphasizing what products could do to what lifestyles were associated with having the product. Do you need the latest smartphone because it has such revolutionary technology or you do you want to be seen as part of a certain group? Do you need the clothing with the brand label to signal your status or to cover yourself?

It would be interesting to follow some of these same families to see how these choices about buying the hottest gifts influences children. Does it lead to more materialistic attitudes and behaviors? Do families who do not purchase such items encourage different kinds of behaviors?

Curbside parking in the suburbs was seen as déclassé

Benjamin Ross in Dead End includes this interesting tidbit about restricting street parking in suburbs:

As is common in zoning matters, status motivations lie hidden behind the stated rationales for parking minimums. Large-lot subdivisions where curb space is plentiful are rarely exempted. Indeed, early off-street parking rules, which mandated one space per house, could shrink the supply of parking. A one-car garage furnishes one space, but that space goes to waste when the owner is away from home. Its driveway eliminates a curb space that was usable twenty-four hours a day.

Curbside parking was disfavored because it was déclassé, suggestive of old neighborhoods with no garages and cars lining the roads. A 1969 planning text says that homeowners often object to on-street parking “from the purely aesthetic standpoint.” Aesthetics, here, is best understood as a euphemism. Parking is still allowed on driveways, and any given car is no better-looking there than on the street. But one’s own BMW in the driveway is entirely different from someone else’s Toyota at the curb. (p. 51)

Three quick thoughts:

1. Social class and status underlies a lot of activity in the American suburbs (as well as in other settings). Few people would admit such a thing but there is little reason to move cars to driveways outside of status.

2. Many communities, including my own, have restrictions on parking overnight on the street. What good reason is there for this?

3. Parking on the street actually could make streets safer. New Urbanists argue that having cars parked on both sides of the road makes drivers more cautious and attentive, leading to fewer accidents. Take parked cars away and throw in extra-wide streets like there are in many suburban neighborhoods and drivers will go a lot faster.

Realtors argue their guild needs more professionalization

Real estate is an important part of the American economy but a recent report from the National Association of Realtors suggests realtors need more training:

In an unusual move for a major American trade association, the million-member National Association of Realtors has commissioned and released a frank and sometimes searing assessment of top challenges facing its industry for the next several years. The critiques hit everything from the professionalism and training of agents to the commissions charged consumers, and even the association’s ?leadership.

-“The real estate industry is saddled with a large number of part-time, untrained, unethical and/or incompetent agents. This knowledge gap threatens the credibility of the industry.” Ouch!

-Low entry requirements for agents are a key problem. While other professionals often must undergo extensive education and training for thousands of hours or multiple years, realty agents need only complete 70 hours on average to qualify for licenses to sell homes, with the lowest state requirement for licensing at just 13 hours. Cosmetologists, by contrast, average 372 hours of training, according to the report.

-Professional, hard-working agents across the country “increasingly understand that the ‘not-so-good’ agents are bringing the entire industry down.” Yet there “are no meaningful educational initiatives on the table to raise the national bar …”

 

This is a good example of maintaining professional standards, a key activity of many business associations. (For an award-winning sociological read on trade associations and a book for which I did a small amount of research work, see Solidarity in Strategy: Making Business Meaningful in American Trade Associations.) Keeping track of the actions of thousands of members is a difficult task. The NAR has the ability to bestow the name REALTOR®. Upping the standards with harder tests and stricter requirements has been done by lots of groups in order to improve their status.

But, this might also have some negative consequences:

1. Might it encourage more people to bypass realtors all together? This is easier than ever with the Internet.

2. If I remember correctly, the average age of realtors has increased in recent years. Might this simply increase that?

3. Might this issue be solved in other ways like if realtors worked within agencies that stressed standards or through mentoring programs that offer benefits for both parties?

4. Do realtors want more regulatory oversight like other groups – such as cosmetologists? This may help up their status but could lead to more hoops to jump through.

Patterns in teardowns in Chicago’s inner-ring suburbs

An architecture professor has found some patterns in the teardowns in inner-ring suburbs surrounding Chicago:

Together, the data set Charles studied included 591,101 single-family houses in Cook County suburbs [between 2000 and 2010], and she determined that 4,789 were redeveloped during that 10-year period. That’s less than 1 percent, but that 1 percent was concentrated and not just in the obvious suburbs one might think.

She found that the teardown phenomenon didn’t affect all communities, wasn’t driven just by developers (often a homebuyer was behind the first teardown in a subdivision), and wasn’t confined to tony neighborhoods where the rebuilt homes were expensive McMansions that stretched from one lot line to the other.

In fact, some of the municipalities that saw clusters of teardowns were suburbs with moderately priced houses and families with moderate incomes, and it was those communities that saw the most conspicuous difference in size between the old house and the new one that replaced it. Charles also found that most teardowns occurred in white and non-Hispanic communities, and in areas with highly regarded school districts.

The article continues with the typical arguments for and against teardowns. Her conclusions?

“I’m not entirely convinced this is gentrification,” Charles said. “If you look that the new house is three times as expensive, you’d think the household coming in would have a considerably higher income. By one definition, that’s a form of gentrification. But I’ve heard examples in Norridge of people who grew up in Norridge and wanted to stay there.”

I wonder if this is what is going on: the Chicago suburbs have experienced teardowns for decades but they were much more likely in higher-class suburbs like Elmhurst, Hinsdale, and Naperville. These suburbs had relatively expensive property so only those with a lot of money and who were really interested in the particular status conferred by these suburbs could pursue teardowns. However, now with those with less money or who are looking for “original” neighborhoods have spread out to other suburbs that offer good schools, good deals, and some status. In other words, the locations have become more diffuse as the practice spreads. This won’t necessarily spread to all suburbs – some just don’t have the status or schools or demographics that those with money will want to buy into. Yet, those looking for unique teardown opportunities may continue to seek out new suburbs.

Northeastern University moved up 113 spots in the USN&WR rankings in 17 years

Northeastern University successfully moved itself up the US News and World Report college rankings in a relatively short amount of time:

Figuring out how much Northeastern needed to adjust was one thing; actually doing it was another. Point by point, senior staff members tackled different criteria, always with an eye to U.S. News’s methodology. Freeland added faculty, for instance, to reduce class size. “We did play other kinds of games,” he says. “You get credit for the number of classes you have under 20 [students], so we lowered our caps on a lot of our classes to 19 just to make sure.” From 1996 to the 2003 edition (released in 2002), Northeastern rose 20 spots. (The title of each U.S. News “Best Colleges” edition actually refers to the upcoming year.)

Admissions stats also played a big role in the rankings formula. In 2003, ranked at 127, Northeastern began accepting the online Common Application, making it easier for students to apply. The more applications NU could drum up, the more students they could turn away, thus making the school appear more selective. A year later, NU ranked 120. Since studies showed that students who lived on campus were more likely to stay enrolled, the school oversaw the construction of dormitories like those in West Village—a $1 billion, seven-building complex—to improve retention and graduation rates. NU was lucky in this regard—not every urban school in the country had vast land, in the form of decrepit parking lots, on which to build a new, attractive campus.

There was one thing, however, that U.S. News weighted heavily that could not be fixed with numbers or formulas: the peer assessment. This would require some old-fashioned glad-handing. Freeland guessed that if there were 100 or so universities ahead of NU and if three people at each school were filling out the assessments, he and his team would have to influence some 300 people. “We figured, ‘That’s a manageable number, so we’re just gonna try to get to every one of them,’” Freeland says. “Every trip I took, every city I went to, every conference I went to, I made a point of making contact with any president who was in that national ranking.” Meanwhile, he put less effort into assessing other schools. “I did it based on what was in my head,” he says. “It would have been much more honest just to not fill it out.”…

In many ways, Aoun tries to distance himself from Freeland. He resists talking about the school’s meteoric rise over 17 years—from 162 to 49 in 2013—and plays down the rankings, brushing them aside like an embarrassment or a youthful mistake. “The focus on the ranking is not a strategy, for a simple reason,” he says. “You have thousands of rankings. So you will lose sleep if you start chasing all of them.” While it’s true that U.S. News no longer appears in the university’s strategic plan, it does appear in NU’s portrayal of itself: The school has no qualms using its high ranking in recruiting materials and publicity videos. Yet multiple Northeastern administrators expressed concern over this article’s focus on the rankings. One vice president telephoned Boston’s editors in a panic.

Despite Aoun’s carefully crafted image, the school’s actions undercut his words, as gaming U.S. News is now clearly part of the university’s DNA. And Aoun is a willing participant. “He may not admit to it, but that’s definitely what’s going on,” says Bob Lowndes, who is retiring as vice provost for global relations. Ahmed Abdelal, provost under both Freeland and Aoun, says the two presidents have shared “the same goal: further advancement in national ranking.”

These rankings clearly matter and few schools can ignore them completely. A few parts of this that I found interesting:

1. There are some indications in the article that some faculty resisted this rankings push. It would be interesting to hear more. At the same time, doesn’t being ranked #49 now mean faculty would also benefit?

2. The article suggests but doesn’t say exactly how much Northeastern was able to budge the reputational assessments. These can take take a long time to move. Another difficulty is that for a school like Northeastern to move up, others have to move down. But, it sounds like the gladhanding campaign had some effect.

3. Articles like these suggest that gaming the rankings is a bad thing. Lots of academics would talk about how this goes against the true values of a college education. Yet, the rankings matter to the public. The success of the US News & World Report Rankings has helped lead to a whole cottage industry of other assessments based on the best financial value schools, the best schools for public service, and so on. And, it is hard to imagine that once you introduce a quantifiable system like this in any industry that is highly based on status – and academia is perhaps a status industry par excellence – that one of the outcomes will be that different actors will want to work their way to the top.