Imagining St. Louis as the capital of the US

It is fascinating to consider (1) a different capital in the United States in the center of the country and (2) a different center to the Midwest:

Photo by Nick Haynes on Pexels.com

In some ways, Arenson says, St. Louis was at the heart of these questions. Geographically, it was located where North, South and West came together. It had been a slave state, but had not seceded. It was central to many railroad lines. And it was growing at a remarkable place—it would rise from the country’s 24th most populous city in 1840 to the fourth biggest in 1870.

No one was more convinced of the importance of St. Louis than local businessman and booster Logan Uriah Reavis. Reavis was a remarkable man, with a remarkable appearance. He wore a long, messy red beard and walked bent over a cane due to a childhood illness. Born in Illinois in 1831, he failed in his early career as a schoolteacher “when the students ridiculed him ceaselessly,” according to Arenson’s book. In 1866, he arrived in St. Louis intent on starting a newspaper and elevating the image of his adopted hometown.

Reavis wasn’t the first to suggest the city as a new capital for the nation. In 1846, St. Louis newspapers claimed that the move would be necessary to govern a country that grew significantly in size after the end of the Mexican-American War. But Reavis may have been the most outspoken supporter of the cause. He presciently envisioned a United States stretching not just out to California but up to Alaska and down to the Gulf of Mexico. And he saw St. Louis as the obvious place for the government of this mega-United States: “the great vitalizing heart of the Republic.” In contrast, he wrote, Washington was a “distant place on the outskirts of the country, with little power or prestige.”…

In response, between 1867 and 1868, three House representatives from the Midwest proposed resolutions to move the capitol toward the middle of the country. As historian and educational publisher Donald Lankiewicz writes for History Net, the first two of these stalled in the Ways and Means committee. But a third, introduced by Wisconsin Representative Herbert Paine in February 1868, came to a vote on the floor. Eastern congressmen saw the proposal to move the seat of government to somewhere in the “Valley of the Mississippi” as a joke. But it shocked them with the amount of support it received, ultimately failing by a vote of just 77 to 97.

This story sounds very American: local boosters combined with an expanding frontier and disorder after the Civil War to produce a vision for a new capital in a booming city. Even though this did not come to fruition, it sounds like there was a short window in which is could have happened. And then what would have happened to Washington, D.C., one of the most important cities today?

I also cannot help but contrast this to the fate of St. Louis after this era. I recently showed my urban sociology class the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. This documentary puts the infamous public housing project in the context of a city that peaked in population in 1950, lost residents in white flight, and is racially segregated. Add this to the competition with Chicago for the center of the Midwest and St. Louis might be a great story of a city that did not live up to its lofty dreams.

Too many teardown McMansions in the Washington, D.C. region?

One writer complains of the spread of “infill McMansions” in the Washington D.C. region:

An example of a teardown McMansion – Naperville, Illinois

The modus operandi is always the same: Take a totally usable older house that is the same style and size as neighboring dwellings, though perhaps needing a rehab, and knock it flat, along with every mature tree on the property—there will be no room for them, owing to the enormous footprint of the planned structure. Then construct a particle-board chateau that has at least 75 percent more square footage than the neighbors, complete with a quarter-acre driveway for the obligatory Range Rover…

While the sheer size of the structure guarantees disharmony with the local houses, the eye-lacerating incongruity of its style brings it to a new level. The structures resemble the architecture of the Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany—as imagined by Walt Disney, or perhaps Liberace. As with McMansions everywhere, the new owners could have obtained a sounder design for less, but they prefer the turrets, portes-cochères, and ill-proportioned Palladian windows that they bought.

The basic proportions are unfailingly clumsy. The roofs aren’t symmetrical, so that one more giant walk-in closet could be shoehorned in. From the side, this asymmetry and the too-small windows make the construct look like an old sawmill in the Pacific Northwest, or a three-story wooden barracks hurriedly thrown up during World War II. Some manage to look imposing from the front, mimicking George Mason’s brick mansion. But closer inspection reveals the fraud: The front is a brick veneer; the sides and back consist of vinyl siding. Often enough, the brick is a shocking uremic yellow…

The infill McMansion spectacle is a warning and a symptom, like political polarization, of the rising income inequality and concomitant decline of community feeling in the United States. It is not something that fell out of the sky, but a phenomenon that was carefully engineered by financial management.

Having just published an article on suburban teardowns outside Chicago, it is interesting to see similar processes at work in wealthier communities in another region.

Even as the focus of this piece is on a particular kind of McMansion – the teardown McMansion – the critique of McMansions hits multiple aspects of such homes I identified in a 2012 article. Here is what I see above:

-Teardowns are a problem in multiple ways. They often do not fit the architecture of neighborhood. They take up too much of the lot on which they are built.

-The size of the teardown and the incongruity with the existing homes are not the only problems: the architecture of the home is subpar. A McMansion can take multiple architectural features and styles and try to mash them together in an imposing array of size and newness.

-McMansions are problematic houses but also symbols of other significant societal problems. The article notes income inequality and a lack of community plus financial intrusion in housing.

So, yes, critics argue teardowns or infill McMansions have some unique disadvantages. But, these concerns about teardowns are connected to concerns about McMansions as a whole.

An on-trend Amazon HQ2

Many plans are made for large buildings in cities and metropolitan regions. Not all of them are built. But, when Amazon releases plans for their HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, people take notice because of the company and the design.

AboutAmazon.com

The centerpiece will be the site’s fourth and tallest tower, a 350-foot structure dubbed the Helix because it will feature two spiraling outdoor walkways with trees and plants from Virginia that twist to the building’s top…

Amazon’s new campus is the latest in a growing line of outdoorsy office projects, as companies try harder to offer a pleasant work environment and appeal to eco-conscious employees.

The Helix “will be an opportunity for people to literally go on a hike in the city,” said Dale Alberda, a principal at architecture firm NBBJ, which is designing the development across the river from Washington, D.C.

Plans for inside of the building also call for plenty of greenery, along with meeting space, offices and studios for artist residency programs. “You feel like you’re in a lush garden in the middle of winter in D.C.,” Mr. Alberda said of the interior design.

As someone who teaches Urban Sociology, this is right on trend in multiple ways.

  1. It is just outside the central city of the region but within a business district. (The Washington D.C. region has some unique features due to the government buildings at the center but the multinode region is found throughout the United States.)
  2. The building has numerous green features, both visible (such as lots of trees) and invisible (planning for efficiency).
  3. The design is more whimsical and playful compared to the more common glass and steel box. The structure will certainly stand out and attract visitors just to see it.
  4. The architects and the company say it is designed with people and well-being in mind, not just efficiency or costs.

Perhaps the only trend missing is a mixed-use component where the office space is combined with residential and commercial space.

All of this is for a tech company – perhaps the tech company right now – within an industry that hundreds of American communities would love to attract. Does this building work in the same way if it is built by an insurance company or as a municipal structure?

It will also be interesting to see how this interacts with surrounding buildings – including the other planned Amazon towers – and the broader community. Amazon says the grounds will be open to the public yet how many community members will be able to take advantage.

Data from Washington, D.C. does not suggest people are fleeing for the suburbs

A new analysis from Brookings Institution suggests real estate sales are down in both Washington, D.C. and its suburbs during COVID-19:

In the Washington, D.C. metro area, there’s no sign so far that residents in the urban core are more anxious to sell their condos and rowhouses than suburbanites are to ditch their McMansions. Home sales for the entire metro area dropped in March 2020, very similar to the pattern in the District. (Washington, D.C. accounts for less than 15% of the metro area’s population and home sales.)

Breaking out the year-over-year change in home sales for each local jurisdiction in the metro area shows similar patterns in the urban core (darkest gray), inner suburbs (medium gray), and exurban jurisdictions (light gray).

4

Other items of note:

  1. Prices have not dropped (similar to elsewhere).
  2. As I noted a few posts ago:

In the U.S., large cities have been hit earliest—and hardest—by the coronavirus pandemic, spawning a cottage industry of speculation over whether city-dwellers will flee to low-density suburbs.

Without seeing the data from a lot of major metropolitan areas in the United States, it is hard at this point to conclude much of anything. Perhaps New York City is an outlier where people want to go to the suburbs to escape all of its density. Are transportation patterns in Washington D.C. where a majority of residents drive daily more like Los Angeles than New York City?

Analysis from Moody Analytics suggested Washington D.C. is one of the metro areas more likely to rebound from COVID-19. Would such a recovery help the city and region move toward being the true second city in the United States?

Maybe Washington D.C. is another outlier in all of the possible data. That leads to another question that often comes up when talking about urban theory: what is the modal American city, particularly in the time of COVID-19?

The development of a changing and global northern Virginia

Alongside the rise of Washington, D.C. as an American center, the suburbs of northern Virginia have expanded and evolved:

One such non-DC-centered book was published in 2013 by the scholar Andrew Friedman. “Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia” stands out as a serious application of academic history and landscape studies about the Dulles Corridor. It just may be the first 21st-century attempt to mold a critical perspective on Northern Virginia…

The book is built on Friedman’s understanding that “there is no American place that’s not also a global place.” He establishes a dichotomy between the “Overt Capital” of Washington, where the Capitol dome represents the public sphere, and the “Covert Capital” of the Dulles Corridor, where the CIA and Pentagon manage their operations in relative privacy. As Friedman examines how foreign policy and foreign interventions shaped the domestic landscape, he locates the cross-border flows of material and people that have made our region what it is today…

For Friedman, the history of the Dulles Corridor begins with the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s, followed a decade later by the CIA headquarters. These buildings took advantage of car-oriented development to gain a new kind of hiddenness, obscured behind forests and parking lots. A drive through Langley can reveal nothing about what takes place behind the agency’s doors.

Friedman sees the seven years since his book was published as the beginning of a “third generation” in the development of the Dulles Corridor. It’s no longer characterized by leisurely semi-rural landscapes nor by McMansions, but by “lifestyle centers” and “placemaking,” as in the Mosaic District or The Boro. These centers, Friedman says, are in danger of becoming “fortified cells… reinventing the ‘urban’ into subdivisions, compartmentalized, buy-in-based.” Rather than creating an inclusive environment, he worries that lifestyle centers will only create a new form of “landscapes of denial.”

On one hand, this like the development of Sunbelt suburbs after World War Two. With defense spending, the spread of highways, and sprawling suburbs, this could describe any number of regions from D.C. to southern California. Over time, communities developed and became part of a global system: new immigration flows starting in the late 1960s brought new people, multiple generations of people lived in the new communities, and suburbs began to differentiate themselves. On the other hand, few places have the CIA and Pentagon – defense spending in suburbs could run the gamut from aircraft plants to military bases to government offices. And individual communities and regions have their own particular histories that affect local development character.

More broadly, looking at regional development – not just at cities – is a worthwhile endeavor. Major cities, like Washington, D.C., cannot be separated from their suburbs and vice versa. Considering the variation within a region versus connections between particular parts of the region and other parts of the United States is fun. Tyson’s Corner, cited above would be a good example: is it more like edge cities or northern Virginia. And what lessons could northern Virginia provide for the rest of the country about what to do or not to do?

Amazon HQ#2 may be headed to a wealthy suburb

Crystal City, Virginia may be the new home of Amazon’s second headquarters site. Here are a few features of the suburban neighborhood located in Arlington:

With the Ronald Regan Washington National Airport two miles to the east, the heart of Washington D.C. five miles to the north, and a few stops on Washington’s Metro linking all three, Crystal City is in the right geographic spot for the Seattle-based company…

Today, the neighborhood, although a part of Arlington, has its own distinct downtown area. The walkable Crystal Drive is dotted with businesses, restaurants and public art, while public/private partnerships are bringing investment in parks and open space

Home prices in Crystal City might be more affordable than they are in Seattle, but that’s not saying much. The median home value in the 22202 area, a zip code Crystal City shares with neighboring Pentagon City, Aurora Highlands and Arlington Ridge, is $625,800, according to Zillow — nearly three times the U.S. median.

Might the lack of single-family homes also be attractive to Amazon?

Crystal City is dominated by one apartment building after another, most of which don’t have ground floor retail or restaurants that would create a sense of community or neighborhood vibrancy. Walk a few blocks away from the shopping mall during any evening of the week and it’s a quiet, almost desolate place. This lack of a community might have been the final piece that Amazon was looking for since it means they can come to town without much opposition.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. On one hand, it is interesting for Amazon to choose a suburban location. A sizable headquarters would be a boon for numerous communities, particularly cities that need a shot in the arm. On the other hand, this is an urban suburban location. The location is technically outside Washington D.C. yet it is a community of high-rises with little distance with the central city in the region.
  2. A location in this region contributes to the rising status of the Washington D.C. region. While other cities and regions may still be larger, this region with its collection of government, military, and business opportunities just keeps growing.
  3. It would be interesting to see how much Amazon would want to contribute to a thriving streetscape in the community. Based on several articles, it sounds like there is limited activity in this community after business hours. Does Amazon want to contribute money to trying to develop a vibrant urban neighborhood (even if it is located in a suburb)?

Historic preservation of a strip mall and parking lot

Benjamin Ross in Dead End retells the story of a historic preservation movement to save a Washington D.C. strip mall:

It fell to a suburb-like section of Washington, DC, to test the limits of historic preservation. In 1981, the new Metro reached Cleveland Park. Riders entered down a stairway alongside the parking lot of a fifty-year-old strip mall. The owners of Sam’s Park and Shop wanted to replace it with a larger, more urban structure. But the wealthy and influential homeowners who lived nearby liked things as they were – the neighborhood had led the successful fight against freeways two decades earlier – and they didn’t want any new construction. Tersh Boasberg, the local leader, told the Washington Post that “the central question is, ‘Can an urban neighborhood control what happens to it, or is development inevitable?”…

Sam’s Park and Shop, its neighbors thus proclaimed, deserved protection as a pioneering example of strip-mall architecture. But for the historic designation to succeed in blocking new construction, it wasn’t enough for the store building to remain intact. The parking lot had to be saved as well.

The residents’ base was not an easy one to make. In front of the original Park and Shop were a gas station and a car wash (an “automotive laundry” in the preservationists’ inflated prose), later town down to make room for more parked cars. Nearby stores were built in a hodgepodge of styles, without parking of their own…

It was a long way from landmarks to human and appealing places to shop, but in 1986 the fight for the parking lot ended in victory. (p.93)

A fascinating story that illustrates the power of NIMBYism and local control. Generally, those opposed to sprawl really dislike parking lots: they are only filled at certain hours of the day (usually during business hours), often are too large (though parking at a mass transit stop may be for the larger good), they are ugly, and their surfaces encourage water runoff. Yet, in the right setting, this parking lot was viewed as a better alternative than denser construction. (And the stated concerns about such construction might have been about traffic and safety but it often involves social class and status connected to denser development.)

DC punk music takes on gentrification

One writer explores how punk music in Washington D.C. has long since moved on from Ronald Reagan and is now attacking gentrification:

It’s a total Empire Strikes Back play: Satellite Room is one of the latest bars produced by Eric and Ian Hilton, entrepreneurs who are regarded by many as the face of gentrification along Washington’s hippest corridors. For example: In a recent cover story on dive bars for the Washington City Paper, Paul Vivari, owner of one such dive bar (Showtime), complained that the Hilton brothers named one of their properties, Marvin, after life-long D.C. resident Marvin Gaye. Specifically, Marvin is a Belgian restaurant that refers to the year that Gaye spent in Belgium—a swagger-jacking move if ever there was one. (To be fair, Marvin is also one of the most diverse bars in all of Washington.)…

A pseudonymous punk going by the name Jack on Fire put out a song called “Burn Down the Brixton” just days after the Post‘s story. In this song, “The Brixton” refers to another one of the Hiltons’ properties, a multi-story bar and restaurant in D.C.’s historic U Street corridor that’s packed to the rafters most nights. The song couldn’t be more topical:

Burn down the Brixton!
Send it to its doom!
Then we’ll have a milkshake at the Satellite Room

[ . . . ]

They paved Black Broadway for a breeding ground
A nice patch of grass for some K Street cows

But the snappiest pushback against gentrification—and against development of any kind, really—is by Chain and the Gang. “Devitalize the City” is an anthem celebrating chaos in the face of market-driven homogenization in Washington (and elsewhere)…

While it makes sense from a certain perspective for D.C. musicians to target developers who appear to turn over properties and churn out bars by a formula, artists’ wrath may be better directed at a higher office. Only Congress has the power to lift the Height Act of 1910 that puts a cap on building height in Washington. That law restricts the supply of housing, office buildings, and taverns alike, meaning that when demand is as high as it is today there’s that much less room for dives, group houses, art galleries, and DIY venues—things that help a scene to thrive. To be sure, plenty of developers, homeowners, and local pols are satisfied with the status quo, but only Congress can change it.

Gentrification has raised concern in a number of American cities but not all of the movements against it have prompted songs. Any of these songs draw the attention of activists who use it for their cause?

It might also be worth exploring what exactly gentrification does for the careers of punk music. I suspect punk groups are not exactly welcome in swanky spots for young professionals in gentrifying neighborhoods. But, that suspicion is based on a single notion of gentrification where it is only white and wealthy people who quickly take over a neighborhood. The process is often slower and can include a wider range of people, perhaps leaving space for theaters and bars and other performing spots for punk artists.

Panel: keep Washington D.C. building height restrictions, preserving height to street-width ratios

A panel recently suggested height restrictions for buildings should remain in the older areas of Washington D.C.:

Building heights in the 68-square-mile (176-square-km) area are determined by the width of the street on which a structure fronts. The maximum height is 130 feet (40 meters), with some exceptions.The result is a distinctive low-lying skyline that showcases historic monuments and distinctive landmarks such as the U.S. Capitol, National Cathedral and the Old Post Office. The tallest structure is the Washington Monument, which stands at the center of the Mall and is about 555 feet (169 meters) high.

The National Capital Planning Commission recommended leaving intact the federal height rules for the part laid out in the 18th century. The area of wide avenues and traffic circles is home to the White House, National Mall and museums.

The commission left open the possibility that buildings in the area developed beyond the city’s original layout can be higher – but only after additional study and as long as they did not interfere with federal interests.

Another article I saw about this suggested this would restrict growth in Washington, a city whose suburban counties are growing in both population and wealth. Without opportunities for taller buildings in the city, money that could go to the city through property and sales taxes will instead go elsewhere.

But, taller buildings in or near the National Mall would change it quite a bit. These height restrictions are reminiscent of a more traditional kind of architecture. For example, New Urbanists often suggest linking building heights to a particular ratio compared to the width of the streets to create a more comfortable feeling. Contrast the National Mall with the experience of midtown Manhattan, a place busy and interesting but also full of concrete canyons and structures that tower over anything going on in the streets. These two areas serve different purposes but the experiences are quite different.

Analyzing the SuperZips of the Washington D.C. region

There are a lot of wealthy and educated people living in SuperZips around Washington D.C.:

Clarksville sits in one of the nation’s “Super Zips” — a term coined by American Enterprise Institute scholar and author Charles Murray to describe the country’s most prosperous, highly educated demographic clusters. On average, they have a median household income of $120,000, and 7 in 10 adults have college degrees…

A Washington Post analysis of the latest census data shows that more than a third of Zip codes in the D.C. metro area rank in the top 5 percent nationally for income and education. But what makes the region truly unusual is that so many of the high-end Zip codes are contiguous. They form a vast land mass that bounds across 717 square miles. It stretches 60 miles from its northern tip in Woodstock, Md., to the southern end in Fairfax Station, and runs 30 miles wide from Haymarket in Prince William County to the heart of the District up to Rock Creek Parkway.

One in four households in the region are in a Super Zip, according to the Post analysis. Since the 2000 Census on which Murray based his analysis, Washington’s Super Zips have grown to encompass 100,000 more residents. Only the New York City area has more Super Zips, but they are a much smaller share of the total of that region’s Zip codes and are more scattered…

Yet many who live in these rapidly evolving communities do not think of themselves as rich or elite. The cost of living, particularly for housing, eats up a large chunk of the two incomes it typically takes to afford a comfortable home in a good school district.

Interesting look at social class today in America; those on the upper end tend to argue they worked hard to get there, deserve what they have, and they aren’t really rich (though comparisons to much of the U.S., let alone most of the world, suggests otherwise). As the article goes on to note, a number of people are concerned about what the lack of interaction with others might mean down the road.

This is a story that has developed in recent years. For example, a number of people have noted that a large number of the wealthiest counties in the United States are in the Washington region. While conservatives tend to tie this wealth to the growth of big government (and the businesses associated with it), how come scholars haven’t looked at this more closely? There have been some studies of a few areas in the Washington metropolitan area, such as Prince George’s County and its large suburban black population or the growth of the edge city of Tysons Corner or responses to growing immigrant populations in Prince William County, but little look at the region as a whole. Perhaps this is a lingering artifact of American urban sociology’s emphasis on some “traditional big cities” like Chicago, New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia and not paying as much attention to newer big cities like Washington D.C., Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and others. Do we need something like a “Georgetown School” or “Brookings Institution School” of urban sociology?