In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Demographics, Politics, Discourse, Frankness | Main | Question for the Day »

August 15, 2008

'Burb Thoughts, Info, Questions

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I dropped this comment on a recent posting about Bill Kauffman, Fred Reed, and James Kunstler. Since the commentsthread was dying out, and since I'm curious about how people will respond to some of my points, I'm reprinting it here. It's good to be blog-host.

Was somebody arguing that all malls are bad? Let alone that Fred Reed, James Kunstler and Bill Kauffman are philosophers? I missed those parts of the posting.

One fact that a surprising number of you bright people seem unaware of is that post-WWII US suburbia is anything but a spontaneous creation of the free market. There were suburbs before WWII, god knows. And the movement of some people from the city to the edges outside the city is apparently a constant in history.

But post-WWII US suburbia -- collector roads, cul de sacs, strict zoning separating retail, industry, and residential, and zero access to public transportation -- is something quite distinct, and quite a weird, never-before- seen-on-the-face- of-the-planet type creature.

Post-WWII suburbia is at least partly (if not largely) a function of a number of factors: government guarantees for home-mortgage loans; government sponsorship of freeway building (often said to be the largest civil engineering project in all history); a government-sponsored attack on city downtowns in the form of "urban renewal," which destroyed thousands of neighborhoods and hundreds of thousands of residences, and which forcibly displaced millions of citizens from their homes; and a handy-dandy tacit agreement between government and industry to support and encourage car culture.

Notice how many times the word "government" appears in the above paragraph.

OK, few people were forcibly moved to the new 'burbs (though some millions were indeed forcibly removed from their traditional city homes). But 1) that's a lot of carrots and sticks the country's elites were applying to its populace, and 2) that's a lot of top-down social engineering.

Viewing post-WWII American suburbia as "normal," let alone as something that developed spontaneously out of people's freely expressed preferences, is like ... oh, I don't know, arguing that Cheetos grow on trees. They may be your personal favorite treat-- but your fondness for Cheetos is not a trustworthy guarantee that Cheetos grow on trees. In fact, they're the product of a lot of food engineering. Which of course is OK. But let's at least recognize that there are a few differences between an apple and a Cheeto.

Now, would many people have moved to whatever kinds of 'burbs would have developed had the government not interfered, and if we'd all been left to our own devices? Could well be. Hard to know.

A couple of questions for you market types? (I'm one myself, with some reservations.)

1) You're moving to a new city area. You're going to have to choose a place to live. We could think of you as a "housing consumer" shopping for a "housing product" in something called the "housing market."

In and around many American cities the housing products available to the housing consumer in the local housing market are rather limited: depressed loser downtown, distant straggly farmy not-quite-towns, and sprawl-style suburbs. That's it. That's quite a restricted set of choices -- and don't "market" types generally think that one of the great things about the market is that it offers consumers lots of options? So whassup with that? Is the market failing in some way?

Let's imagine a more open market ... What if that same housing consumer were shopping in a housing market that offered more variety: some lively downtown neighborhoods, some small towns with actual walkable blocks, farm towns with town centers, as well as the usual sprawl-suburbs. You may personally prefer sprawl-style suburbia. But how can you object to a housing market that offers a wider variety of choices? More choice is better, right? At least a lot of the time?

2) New Urbanist developments can be more usefully pictured as ways of opening up local housing markets than they can as attempts to dictate your life. There are some badguy/socialist types in the Smart Growth world who we all ought to be wary of. Good topic -- but a minor one, since most NU supporters are market fans. They get a lot of flack for this from the usual academic-critical architecture establishment, btw. You'd think that alone would endear them to market fans ...

In any case, thanks to NU, housing consumers in some markets now have -- because of the presence of a NU development or two -- greater choice than they had before. Do you root against "greater choice" and a livelier market?

Another point here is that (to my knowledge, happy to learn better, etc) NU developments generally command a sizable price premium over more routine housing developments. That's usually interpreted by market fans as a sign that a given product has a lot of as-yet-unmet demand out there, no?

It would seem safe to suspect that a fair number of people in the U.S. would like to live in NU-style developments but currently can't, because not enough of them are available.

So why isn't a broader range of choice more widely available in US housing markets? And why isn't a housing product with a proven appeal -- new-traditionalist neighborhoods -- more widely available?

Answer: Because our usual financing / zoning / development bureaucracies and structures make many kinds of developments impossible to construct. Really-truly: In many U.S. cities and regions, given current practices and regulations, you literally cannot create a New Urbanist development - you can't even create a neighborhood in proven traditional styles -- despite the fact that all indicators are that such developments are successful and liked.

Seems to me that a fair conclusion for a market fan to draw from the above is that many American housing markets are rigged -- and rigged against a kind of housing product that many Americans would enjoy buying and living in.

Seems to me that a real market fan would 1) deplore our current, hugely-rigged, top-down practices, and 2) look at New Urbanism as a successful new housing-market innovation and cheer it on, saying, "Hey, let's have more of that." And would do so independent of personal aesthetic preferences.

Incidentally, the usual post-WWII American way of 'burb development may well manage to house tons of people, may well be efficient, and may even please loads of people. It's impressive. Did someone say it wasn't? And you may love the post-WWII 'burbs yourself. Fair enough, interesting to learn, etc. But please quit claiming that they're the consequence of freely expressed preferences except maybe in the narrowest kind of way.

In most American housing markets, you're like someone at the grocery store who has been set down in the packaged-crinkly-foods aisle and made to choose your eats from among packaged crinkly foods. OK: You're free to choose ... between Doritos and Cheezits ... and it's kinda-sorta-dimly interesting which choice you make from those options. But, really, that's not a lot of freedom, and that's not a lot of choice.

A person who contents himself with what's on sale in the packaged-crinkly-foods aisle is letting General Mills make a lot of his eating decisions. (Which of course is OK.) But a person who thinks of the packaged-crinkly-foods aisle as representing the entire food universe, let alone as the pinnacle of the free market, as well as what all evolution has led towards, is just being naive.

Hey, shoppers: There are many other aisles -- let alone stores, let alone farmers markets -- you might want to consider visiting and trying out. Why are officials and elites actively keeping you from exploring them? And why do you put up with being treated this way?

Whether or not you personally like packaged crinkly foods ...

For some history about suburbia, try the following film. It's very informative.

To be avoided, perhaps, if you don't enjoy James Kunstler's brand of caustic brainy humor. And be warned: The film is heavily biased in the New Urbanist direction. (Hmm, I look kinda like the New Urbanist planner/architect Peter Calthorpe.) But -- and I know you'll take this with the usual grain of salt -- I've followed architecture and urbanism for decades, and the film's info and arguments strike me as both solid and well worth a wrestle.



posted by Michael at August 15, 2008


The veterans coming home from WW II wanted to do three things and they wanted to do them in a hurry: get a job; get hitched and start a fambly; and get the hell out of those oh so charming inner cities the minute they could scrape enough together to put a downpayment on a ticky-tacky Levittown home.

And they did those three things. By the millions.

That the government helped the process along is beyond dispute.

But it was going to happen no matter what. The exodus to the suburbs was the explosive uncoiling of a pent-up coiled spring.

Posted by: ricpic on August 15, 2008 11:08 AM

That's one way to tell the story. Here's another version, from the viewpoint of my very own parents.

Like most veterans of WWII, my dad returned home physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted. He thought that he was owed a house and a decent job for the years of terror he endured. This was a pretty broadly agreed upon consensus. He wanted a place to raise a bunch of kids, and he didn't want anything to do with living anywhere that required him to smell his neighbor's asshole.

The architect of the Interstate Highways was Dwight Eisenhower, my dad's commander-in-chief during and after the war. Ike pushed building the interstates for reasons of military defense, to simulate economic development and to provide the kinds of homes those returning veterans wanted.

Your attempts to portray something you call the "car culture" as an enforced preference... give it up. You are, as they say in my hometown, just pissing in the wind here. Among men, your hatred of cars is in such a minority... in my hometown these statements would be seen as proof that you are gay. Really, Michael, drop this one. Every other guy in the world loves to work on cars, drive cars, go to car races, etc. How in the world, in the face of this, do you continue to insist that your view represents anything except that 0.1% of intellectuals in NYC and San Francisco? Next to a house with enough land to separate him from smelling his neighbor's asshole, my dad wanted all the cars and trucks he could buy. I'm going to say it again, Michael. Drop this car nonsense. Absolutely nobody wants what you want. We love our cars. You are offending people with these rants against cars and babies. Cars and babies are great!

The development of suburbia arose because Americans want to live in a small town, if they can, but they also want the economic opportunities of living near a big city. It's that simple. They want to live in a small town because they don't want their children exposed to the sexual nihilism of gays and hipsters, and they don't want to deal with the crime. Most of the people I know who live outside NYC regard the living conditions of NYC as a nightmare. They don't agree with you that the cultural benefits outweight having a million assholes farting right in your face.

You aren't just wrong here, Michael. You are outrageously, righteously, insanely wrong. I lived in Manhattan for two decades and I love it. Take a trip outside of Manhattan to just about any other city or town. The vast majority of Americans regard Manhattan as a nice place to visit, and a place they wouldn't live in if you paid them a million bucks.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 15, 2008 11:20 AM

Ricpic-- Clearly, many people want their own homes. Space, quiet, safety -- all these things. (I've got nothing against them myself, god knows.) And with some prosperity around after a few decades of hard times, off they went chasing the dream. And good for them, of course.

But what doesn't inevitably follow is the sprawl-style automobile suburb. That's the form much postwar developoment took because the government sponsored massive highway building; sponsored "urban renewal," one of the great self-inflicted tragedies of American history; and underwrote home mortgages.

Sprawl-style US suburbia seems to me one expression of the runaway ambitions of the '50s and '60s, alongside freeways, growth in government, the space program, ambitious state-sponsored education (SUNY, UCal, etc), industrial ag, the art-appreciation racket, affirmative action ... Some of it good, some of it bad, I suppose. Anyway, we're stuck with all of it now, like it or not. But do we like it all?

I'd love to have seen what would have emerged from post WWII prosperity minus all the government meddling ... Maybe loads of really nice 'burbs. Maybe even a few with town centers. Because, y'know, many housing consumers turn out to like towns with centers.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2008 11:24 AM

ST -- Your ability to conduct entertaining arguments all on your own is awe-inspiring!

Look, the existence of demand doesn't automatically explain (let alone justify) the form that the supply arrives in. There were suburbs before the '50s. We even had automobile suburbs before the '50s. They didn't take the form of post-WWII sprawl suburbia.

Consider food. It's clear that people like crunchy, and people like salty. That may help explain the success of a product like Doritos, but it doesn't mean that Doritos are good, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to buy alternatives to Doritos, and it doesn't mean that the people who make Doritos should run the world.

So, you endorse American government subsidies to corn ... because a lot of people like Doritos? Not sure I follow the reasoning there. Me, I don't mind Doritos, or that some people enjoy Doritos. I do dislike the government subsidies, though.

Why not let people sort their eating lives out without so much guvmint meddling?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2008 11:56 AM

Once again, I'll answer from the point of view of my mother.

Mom grew up in a family of subsistence farmers. They ate precisely the way that you advocate. Both my grandfathers built concrete block slaughter houses on their property. Outside of coffee, sugar and flour, the family ate nothing that they did not produce.

This was a life of back breaking labor and very little entertainment. The women got up before dawn to cook breakfast for a dozen men. The rest of the day they washed clothes and prepared for the next meal. The men did hard labor from dawn to dusk.

My mother viewed the development of supermarkets and processed foods as a Godsend. The opportunity to work only eight hours a day in a factory seemed like heaven. To sit down in front of the TV and enjoy leisure... she had never dreamed she would experience that. So, for the first generation in my family we ate processed and canned foods. In every generation before that my family ate whole grains, free range meats and their own garden vegetables.

So, yes, I think that the development of the consumer/supermarket economy was a result of choice. Success, as it often does, got out of hand and produced unforseen results.

The part of the hippie rebellion that I still admire is the realization that food has aesthetic value. My parents were so driven by the desire to escape poverty and hard labor that they saw this aesthetic as a luxury. They were willing to sacrifice this luxury to attain middle class status.

They thus built a foundation for their children that allowed them to both be prosperous and to value aesthetics. God bless my parents for their sacrifice. Their children did seize upon that opportunity. Every one of us assume middle class status and we've re-learned our habits in regard to food. My parents' grandchildren also have reaped the benefits of my parents' sacrifice. My parents were just dumb hillbillies, and they are the smartest people I've ever met.

Part of their wisdom was that they wanted their children to stay home and produce grandchildren. In my ignorance, I thought until I was an adult that they were motivated in this by some sort of prudery or moralism. This was incredible stupidity on my part because my father witnessed sexual depravity on a daily basis during four years of combat that boggles the imagination.

What they wanted was happiness for their children and a mess of grandchildren. They didn't really give a shit whether people fucked around, and they cared less whether people wanted to fuck the same sex. At the end of the day, they just plain wanted grandchildren. Properous, happy grandchildren was what they dreamed of as they slogged their way through years in the factories.

So, yes, the consumer/supermarket era was a necessary part of our development and its was chosen. Now, we need to make some adjustments. And, we will.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 15, 2008 12:30 PM

In the sixties, the Italian neighborhood here in Madison WI was bulldozed by urban renewal:

To this day, it is mourned almost as if it were a beloved ancestor who was murdered.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on August 15, 2008 12:51 PM

In the comments to your previous piece on the subject, I came out on the anti-sprawl side. (Albeit libertarian anti-sprawl: I wouldn't legislate against sprawl, and accept the fact that liberty sometimes involves people making decisions with their lives and property that I don't particularly like.) However, I like malls. I like the old neighborhoods with their neighborhood stores, but apparently most people herein Atlanta don't, because the city is rapidly turning into one big shopping-mall/condo-complex (where it isn't a slum). My feeling is that if you're going to have sprawl, as apparently is inevitable, at least the malls provide some measure of convenience. A large mall opened within walking distance of my neighborhood, and it's nice that it's there and I don't have to take a trip out to some suburban mall to visit certain stores (Target, PetSmart, etc.) that in Atlanta you generally find only in or near malls. So the malls help counteract some of the time-consuming inconvenience associated with urban-sprawl, "Edge City" living.

Posted by: Bilwick on August 15, 2008 12:52 PM

"That's like the Catholic Church saying the world is round before Galileo." Oh well, at least he didn't say Columbus.

Posted by: dearieme on August 15, 2008 12:53 PM

Oh, and BTW, that Italian neighborhood that was bulldozed? Replaced with big government housing complexes and giant hospitals.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on August 15, 2008 12:53 PM

Just a few points;

1. Anyone who thinks that the "Car Culture" is a creation of big government is dreaming. The American love affair with cars long predates the era of big government. In fact people all over the world love cars; the primary reason more European countries do not resemble the U.S. is that E.U. governments actively supress "car culture" through high gas prices and MASSIVE subsidies to public transportation. If you believe that our government should adopt a similar policy, fine; but lets not pretend that love of the automobile was forced on the American people by the Military-Industrial complex. Was there a government subsidy of the "car culture"? You bet - in a democracy, the government always subsidizes what is popular. The cart is before the horse, here. And I just love the part where the government and the evil auto companies conspired to deny Americans what they really wanted; trolly cars. For heaven's sake...

2. Urban Renewal was not an attack on cities - it was an attempt to revitalize cities. Of course, it was done according to the prescritions of liberal ideologues, so naturally it was a disaster, and ran lots of people out of cities, but that was not the intent.

3. No discussion of the post-war flight from cities is possible without mentioning crime. This was probably the greatest factor in causing many long-term residents to flee urban areas, and it had nothing to do with cars, except insofar as they enabled flight. The American middle class voted with its feet in fleeing decaying, crime ridden urban centers, and all that many New Urbanists can think to do is condemn the means of flight. Incidentally, crime also did a lot to reduce the appeal of public transportation. It's interesting to note that the decline in crime in the last fifteen years has also seen a (very modest) revival in the fortunes of inner city urban areas.

I don't understand it Michael; you celebrate populism in literature, movies, and erotica, yet you fall back on leftist-style elitism with regard to transportation and housing, seeminly because in this one area, public taste does not agree with yours. Why don't you celebrate the suburb in the same way you celebrate the detective novel and webcam girls; as yet another example of exuberant American Pop Culture?

All I can really do in conclusion is to echo Professor Steve Dutch; "if Americans wanted to live like Europeans, they would already be living like Europeans." Or are all of us suburban Americans just suffering from that old Marxist disease, "False Conciousness"?

Posted by: Tschafer on August 15, 2008 1:40 PM

I think everything you said is basically true. I bought a house last year and was really disgusted with the lack of choice. And you can lay a fair amount of that blame at the feat of government regulation.

BUT, most people are happy with their suburbs. I swear it! Typical suburbanites do not miss the kind of neighborhoods you like, and I think they would even find them odd and uncomfortable.

The NU developments you describe are premium properties because they appeal to a small group that's willing to pay more for something special, the same people that will buy a Prius or a Cooper Mini. It's a niche market.

If most people really didn't like the environment that has in part been created by government, there would be strong groundswell movements to change it. As it is, there isn't any such movement.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on August 15, 2008 1:53 PM

I'd agree that the boom in post WWII suburbs had a lot to do with government intervention. There certainly was and is demand for suburban type housing, but far from what the market would dictate. No need for NU type development on the fringes of urban areas when you already have the infrastructure and potential for walkable neighborhoods in the vast majority of cities that emptied out during the boom.

I've always been curious to what extent the federal government's policies favor the suburbs over the city or vice versa. Today, whatever the difference may be, I'd guess it doesn't make a big difference. In my opinion, the biggest problems with urban areas is the local government and bureaucracies that control them. I don't see any real value in arguing the benefits of an urban lifestyle with people who don't prefer that lifestyle, because the real goal should be improving urban schools or allow school choice, taking on crime (perhaps the NYC method) and destroying the patronage dump that is city government. When urban areas have good schools, low crime and reasonable taxes, they will fill up and we will have a lot more choices.

Posted by: fredhead on August 15, 2008 2:02 PM

I think Michael and ST are both partially right and partially wrong. Some people like suburbs, some like the big city, some people even like entirely rural areas. Michael is not objecting to suburbia per se. He is objecting to the government subsidizing of it during the 50's and 60's in the form of the highway system and the FHA. If these had never existed, I believe that there would still be suburbs, just not as many as we have now.

I think zoning has created many of the problems. In Asia, there are many places where you have your business on the ground floor and have your residence on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Being self-employed, I find this arrangement to be quite attractive. We do not have this in the U.S. because of the zoning laws. It is the zoning laws that have necessitated much of the commuting that we have today.

By subsidizing the car/highway system, the government undercut the profitability and, therefor, development of all other transportation possibilities.

It is interesting to speculate if there had never been an interstate highway bill. Train service would have become far better. Intercity ferry trains (where you take your car with you) would be common and would be very popular. Wider gauge rail networks (perhaps 10-12 feet or more) would be a lot more common as well. Trains would be as sophisticated as cruise ships, with many of the same amenities. I think the airline industry would have developed differently.

A privately funded highway system would have developed over time. It would not have been as extensive as the interstate freeway system we have. Many highways would have been built along side the rail networks, either by the rail companies themselves or by other investors leasing the right of way from the rail companies.

I think passenger sea travel would have developed in a more varied fashion as well. There would be more coastal passenger travel by sea.

Posted by: kurt9 on August 15, 2008 2:03 PM

Why do people get so mad when one criticizes the god-forsaken suburbs? The idea that a government-designed and mandated living environment has anything to do with populism is kinda weird, even if populist types happen to live in it; and the notion that one is an elitist for believing folk should be allowed to have a choice in the matter is even weirder. But everyone gets irrational on this point because they feel their lawns are threatened I suppose. Do they believe the only choice is between mandated sprawl and mandated confinement? Why can't folk get a grip on the idea of letting whatever happens, happen?

But anyway.

Regarding the economic arguments, here's a link to my old professor Peter Boettke listing the different methods of addressing claims of market failure. In a nutshell: "Market failures are really legal failures." Debate ensues.

Speaking of Boettke, here's a not-quiet-but-somewhat related link of Boettke speaking, this time about government ineptness in the aftermath of Katrina.

And heck, while I'm drifting from the point and filling your iPod, here's another old professor of mine, Israel Kirzner, (hey, I know everybody!) giving a crash course on Austrian economics. Click on More Info to get the link to the full hour-long broadcast.

Posted by: Brian on August 15, 2008 2:34 PM


I think all of your commenters here, and you, have good points.

Firstly, I think there are a lot of people out there who genuinely love cars. I do, I really really do. Car culture comes from the heart. If Europeans drive less, it's because cars there are incredibly expensive, both to buy them, and then to run them.

I also am an ex-City person (Boston, New York, Chicago) who moved to the burbs in California, and I'm not going back. My neighbors were horrible in Boston, and don't discount the pleasure you get from being able to avoid horrible people. In NYC I did not know my neighbors, which was fine, and in Chicago I loved my neighbors. In California I also really like my neighbors, but seeing them is strictly optional.

While my Boston and NYC experiences were extremely urban, and California is suburban, I'd put Chicago in the middle. I was in Bucktown, which isn't a concrete canyon, but also isn't detached SFHs. You could walk to some stuff, but you also needed a car. There was good public transportation into the city, but it wasn't too far to the highway either.

I can't see why there aren't more neighborhoods like these, and yes, this is the kind of thing that New Urbanism promises. Mixing *some* commercial and residential is fine, and I don't know why it's still verboten in so many building codes.

In the area I'm in, the two main New Urbanism developments are The Crossings, and Santana Row. Neither of them were great, but both charge a premium, so someone must like them. The Crossings is much less NU than it purports to be -- it's essentially a cluster of small row houses, there isn't much commercial there. Santana Row is literally built into a mall, and it's weird, but people there love it. My main issue is that the homes themselves are strangely designed -- the bathrooms are *enormous* but bedrooms and living space is *tiny*.

I don't think that the govt subsidizing suburban expansion has had a big impact on how people live. People want a plot of land to call their own, with a yard, and no crime. Maybe the subsidies made it happen a little faster, and a little more, but they were working with the current.

On the other hand, I do think that strict zoning separating residential from commercial HAS had a big impact. Instead of getting the safe, small towns in nostalgic memory, we get isolated houses in a sea of isolated houses.


Posted by: zanon on August 15, 2008 2:43 PM

The drab isolation of suburbs makes them sterile and often maddening to people with curious minds. But if you prefer tranquility, little crime and space, this can be a blessing.

A lot of people are of two minds about the 'burbs. This post gets into aestherics and such, but I don't think we can leave soliology out of the mix. The government may have help start the 'burbs, but they never could have been sustained unless they offered something people wanted. That something sure wasn't sterility; it was safety for families. Like it or not, cities and minorities equals crime (see Half Sigma for more on this).

Poster Zanon wrote something intriguing about mixed zoning. I agree. If there could be a store or two every few miles in the burbs, they wouldn't seem so isolated. Plus, getting back to the cars thing, it's really wsteful to have to drive a half hour to get a donut or burger. Thank god I live near a 7-Eleven and a Wendy's!!!

Posted by: Days of Broken Arrows on August 15, 2008 3:20 PM

I grew up in the sticks outside of a mid-size midwestern town. Then in college I lived in a college town (Urbana-Champaign), and agfter college moved to the big city (Chicago). I live in a suburb of Chicago now.

So I've had a good bit of all kinds of settings. In addition, I'm a highway engineer, so I know a thing or two about transportation.

The first thing I want to say is that highways are indeed public transportation! If, by public transportation you mean that I am restricted to a train route and I don't drive the vehicle, that is a MASSIVE restriction of my freedom, and I don't like it at all. If I have a choice, I'll choose a car, because I can go where I want to go when I want to go, and its usually a lot faster too. Highways are an extension of the great freedoms that Americans have held dear for a long long time now. The move to taking that freedom away by restricting oil exploration and shoving non-autonomous "public transportation" down everybody's throat is frightening and unnecessary. I resent it. I can't tell you how many times I have taken public trains an buses filled with smelly, rude idiots, or had to squeeze on a train or bus and ride what seemed like forever in great discomfort. Government-run stuff usually sucks, and "public transportation" is no different.

Second, I want to say that living in the modern third-world American city is disgusting and dangerous. If all you see of any big city is the lily white areas, you have no idea what cities really are these days. You are just one big disaster away from a New Orleans Superdome scenario, and don't you forget it! I have seen so many third-world anti-white racists that there's no way I would want to live in a third-world American city again.

The only thing that suburbs lack is culture. But now, the third worlders are driving the culture out of the cities. So the lack of culture in the suburbs may be changing. In the near future, it will probably be the cities, full ot various third worlders who dislike and distrust one another, that lack culture, and the suburbs, with their educated denizens flocking to escape the third world cesspool, that have the goods.

Kunstler is truly insufferable too.

Posted by: BIOH on August 15, 2008 4:07 PM

It is always gratifying to know that I'm not the only guy whose definition of being a guy (despite not being gay and not living in NYC or SF) does not always align with that of Shouting Thomas. ST has a way of equating his own history and views with that of 99.99% of the populace, regardless of any facts that may get in the way. I particularly like the way he makes this a choice between Manhattan and the 'burbs.

ST likes government intervention on behalf of the car, but hates it on behalf of the train or trolley? Why? This notion that our auto-centric culture it is the result of the unbiased, omnipotent hand of the market giving us what we want is so full of nonsense that it defies counter-argument. If the choice is paying three times the money and taking twice as much time to get from point A to point B by train as opposed to car, trains lose riders. The subsidies, direct and indirect, for roads, gas and automobiles has had this effect. How many times does one have to look, say, at L.A., which once had one of the world's greatest mass transit systems until it was bought and destroyed by the auto industry, to expose the lie of the market giving us what we want?

Which came first, the job or the move to the suburbs? For my own WWII era parents the first job Dad got after college on the G.I. Bill was on an island. That was just a bit too isolated. The next was in a small town, and if it had continued they would have stayed. Then, there was the job offer in the suburbs just over an hour from NYC. It wasn't their top choice for where to live, but it was a job so he took it. Even then they found a very small town to live in ... which they couldn't stop from becoming a quintessential suburb. In the early seventies Dad managed to find a job next to the small town locale of his first job and they moved back.

When my wife and I were in the market to buy a house, we would have preferred an in-town bungalow, but ended on a cul de sac 12 miles from the center because that was what we found that we could both afford and wrap our minds around living in. Of course, we're actually labeled rural and could keep livestock if we were of a mind to do so.

Posted by: Chris White on August 15, 2008 4:14 PM

Let me repeat what Tschafer said: "crime... was probably the greatest factor in causing many long-term residents to flee urban areas, and it had nothing to do with cars, except insofar as they enabled flight."

Although I have a different take on it. First, crime as it happened in the 60s was essentially a government problem. The government failed to stop it, which it clearly could have. It's not like we didn't have the same ability to repress criminals that we had in 1950, 1920, 1890, etc. It's that we lacked the will, politically. For more on this let me refer you to Mencius Moldbug.

Second, I think the existence of cars and the interstate infrastructure very much did play into the demise of inner cities. Given a problem, people will take the lowest cost solution, and one you control yourself (moving, aka exit) is much, much lower cost than one you have essentially no control over (political organizing, aka voice). Looked at in this light, we see the reason why crime did not cause the mass abandonment of cities until the 60s: that was the first time that a crime wave coincided with mass mobility. In the 1920s crime wave, the middle classes were stuck in the city, and so they organized (oh so gradually) and eventually killed the idiotic progressive policy which was the root of the problem.

Posted by: Leonard on August 15, 2008 4:24 PM

Cars, like all other tools, bore me. I'd rather have a nice new one than a crappy old one (and I've had both kinds) but to me they're only a tool for getting from point A to point B. I bought the one I drive now (used) after about four hours looking, and test-driving three or four others. My time is more valuable to me than getting the finest possible deal on the finest possible vehicle. (You will guess, of course, that I skip Donald's car-styling posts.)

On the government-subsidy issue, EVERY form of machine-powered long-distance transportation in the history of this country has been heavily subsidized by state and federal governments. The early steamboat lines depended on the government for some revenue and a lot of infrastructure; ditto, in their turn, the railroads (and oh the wailing from the former favorite); ditto the postwar car culture (and ditto the wailing); ditto the airlines (though now it's them and the consumer wailing).

Free markets are great, but really really rare.


Posted by: Narr on August 15, 2008 4:42 PM

Car culture is not going to go away. No attempt to solve any urban problem that does not take the automobile into account will succeed. Banishing it, or hoping for its extinction, is a mug's game.

I believe David Sucher made the point about the continuing and unavoidable presence of the automobile in the city, and built his very simple schema around how to deal with, ahem, parking. (If I understand him correctly.)

The car is here to stay. We still haven't found a way to integrate it comfortably with cities proper; maybe we never will. I'm a lifetime pedestrian, always lived downtown, never owned a car. But I know that my preferences are far too restrictive for most people. The people in the burbs want to be there. That my soul would wither there is not a guide to policy.

But lordy, they're creepy places, aren't they? It can be a beautiful sunlit day, cloudless sky...and empty sidewalks, empty lawns, empty, empty, empty everything. And silent. So silent. Moonscape silent. I'll never forget my encounter with American burbland, Oakland County, north of Detroit. In 3 days of driving around, not one non-white person anywhere (I don't mean no blacks, I mean no non-whites), 3 pedestrians, 2 of whom were out for a power walk. And everywhere else, silence and emptiness.

When I came back to Ottawa, I almost cried with relief when I took a bus back downtown; the bus was filled with a cross-section of humanity, and in the three blocks it took me to walk from the bus stop to my apt building, I saw more people out walking and talking than I had seen outside in 3 days in Oakland County...population 3 million!

Maybe burbs aren't so bad. But I can tell you, every cell in my body tells me to flee them with all the energy I have. They're death to me, I know. Death to me.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 15, 2008 4:54 PM

PatrickH: I love that you use Oakland County as your example. It really is a moonscape. But not as bad as Detroit itself, which is returning to prairie.

And what of this once great city, who gave us the mass produced motorcar, motown, and house, and is now crumbling into nothingness? Well, it looks like the folks who run it are focused on staying out of jail.



Posted by: zanon on August 15, 2008 7:25 PM

From what I understand, the flight from the cities and the desolation of the suburbs is all about crime and schools.

The following are the homicide rates for a number of major cities in 1911 and 2006:

Baltimore 1911: 5.8
Baltimore 2006: 43.3

Philadelphia 1911: 4.4
Philadelphia 2006: 27.7

New York 1911: 5.9
New York 2006: 7.3

Newark 1911: 4.0
Newark 2006: 37.4

Chicago 1911: 9.0
Chicago 2006: 16.4

Washington DC 1911: 7.8
Washington DC 2006: 29.1

Providence, RI 1911 5.1
Providence, RI 2006: 6.3

Boston, MA 1911: 4.6
Boston, MA 2006: 13.3

Memphis, TN 1911: 69.7
Memphis, TN 2006: 21.6

New Orleans, LA 1911: 24.9
New Orleans, LA 2006: 37.6

Two things stand out:
1) Crime rates in the northern cities increased dramatically. Some cities could accurately be described as being a in a state of civil war.

2) The cause of this increase in crime was the Great Migration. The homicide rate is strongly correlated with the percentage of the population that is African-American. The most violent cities - Memphis 1911, New Orleans 1911, Baltimore today, Philly today - all have a population that is 40%+ African-American. The most pacific cities - all the northern cities in 1911, plus Providence today, have African-American populations under 15%. The cities with moderate homicide rates - New York and Boston - have around 25% percent African-Americans ( New York has an extra low homicide rate because the finance and real estate boom pushed the most crime prone blacks out to Newark).

The combination of high crime plus enforced school busing essentially made American cities unlivable for a middle class family.

Posted by: Libra on August 15, 2008 9:41 PM

I think one of the problems in discussing what is generally called New Urbanism is that it actually isn’t all that clear what people mean by the term. How, exactly, is New Urbanism supposed to be different from just plain Urbanism? How does it compare with the Garden City movement? And in the real world, what exactly are the differences from -- or similarities to – run-of-the-mill post-WWII suburbanism?

It seems to me, however, that when you really look closely at what is generally called New Urbanism, it isn’t actually all that different from the Garden City movement or – even more importantly -- post-WWII suburbanism! Basically, it’s just a slightly denser version of the post-WWII suburb – just overlaid with a “holier-than-thou” veneer.

So I think one of the biggest problems with what is generally called New Urbanism is, to begin with, its name. By rights, it seems to me that the movement should really be called New [Sub]Urbanism, or something like that -- which is what I will call it from this point on. Can people use more different types of suburbs? Sure! But one of the big problems with New [Sub]Urbanism, in my opinion, is that it is trying to pass off such communities as being urban, and they’re not.

Two other, inter-related, problems with New [Sub]Urbanism:

1) It seems to me to be, essentially, an aesthetic movement; and 2) it seems to me to have little true interest in economics. New [Sub]Urbanists seem to me to mainly concern themselves with the “look” of a community, and they seem to display little interest in whether communities work economically or not. Can a wide variety of businesses – and jobs -- survive or thrive in a New [Sub]Urbanist community? Is it a place that will generate new products, services or businesses?

The fourth problem with New [Sub]Urbanism is that it seems to me to be ahistorical – by that I mean it seems to me to be ignorant of how cities have historically developed over time. If you look at the Astor Place area of New York City for instance. First it was a suburb; then it got high class shops; then it got fine hotels, etc.; then it became kind of run-of-the-mill; then kind of bohemian; then kind of yuppified. There was constant evolution. New [Sub]Urbanists seem to me to see the world statically. You build a New [Sub]Urbanist community and then you try to preserve it against any change.

The fifth problem with New [Sub]Urbanism is that it seems to actually be in some ways anti-urban. True, it is for denser suburbs – but don’t let such communities become too dense with, for instance, out-of-scale apartment houses or commercial structures, etc. So rather than really increasing the choices available to people, New [Sub]Urbanism seems to me to be against increasing choice. Yes, it’s adding its slightly denser version of suburbia to the mix – but it’s also against, intentionally or not, allowing such communities to evolve into even denser alternatives. So in a way, New [Sub]Urbanism seems to me to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing – an anti-city movement that is masquerading as an pro-city movement.

Time does not permit me to give lots of illustrations of the above observations/assertions. But I hope people will keep them in mind when they look at New [Sub]Urbanism – and then judge for themselves whether this seems the case or not.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 15, 2008 10:14 PM

That is just plain sickening stuff. What's even more sickening is this kind of thing isn't going to cost Kilpatrick his following, any more than that kind of stuff and worse cost Marion Barry.

I also saw some of Detroit during my visit. Eerie is right. I remember in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged how whole sections of the country reverted to barbarism, and were known as "blighted areas". That's happening right now in America, except that our blighted areas are in cities.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 15, 2008 10:19 PM

Too many of commenters think the only alternative crowded, noisy city is a large lot suburb where you have to drive everywhere. It is possible to have a nice small city that enjoys safety, ample green space, and detached homes, but where you can walk to a variety of stores, restaurants, and cultural centers. The New England towns are great examples of this ( see for instance, Portsmouth, NH). Why weren't new developments designed like this?

My dream city would be something like this:
Around 25,000 people in 4 square miles. There would be a variety of home styles - detached single family, town houses, victorian, triple deckers, and apartment buildings. People could choose according to taste and price. All houses would open onto streets that had no cars running on them - it would only have a paved path for bikes and golf carts. Cars either would run on alleys behind the house, or would be parked at the ends of the streets. You would be able to bike or take a golf cart anywhere in the city without having to share a road with cars. Young kids could play in the streets and run around town and never have to worry about safety. The density of the town would support a number of cultural centers, restaurants, cafes, theaters, etc, to keep older people entertained. Housing, office buildings, retail, would all be integrated according to the taste and preference of the residents. Only enterprises that were actually noisy and offensive would be zoned out. Because no car would be required, people could live much more cheaply if they so desired. Because you could just let kids play outside, and work would be so close to home, child care costs would be dramatically lower. People would find they would work shorter weeks working for the man, and spend more time with family or engaging other pursuits.

Now, the $64,000 question: Why doesn't something like this exist? I'd certainly pay a 20% premium at least to live in a neighborhood like this. Developers would benefit by maximizing the price per square foot of land. Residents would benefit by having a nice community.

My best explanation is that cities are democracies, and democracies are not pareto optimal systems.

Let's say there is a town of 1,000 households. The population density is a sparse 500 people per square mile, the average home price is $400K, and there is plenty of room for infill, apartment buildings, and duplexes.

A proposal comes before the voters of the town to loosen the zoning laws, allowing infill and duplexes, thus increasing the density up to 1,000 people per square mile. If you are a homeowner, this proposal will have the following effects:

1) For reasons of purely supply and demand, the price of your house will decrease by $10,000. ( I'm pulling this number out of thin air - the effect won't be great because a thousand new homes won't enough to effect regional supply that much)

2) The duplexes and infill will be less expensive than full lot houses, by definition. This means the residents will have a lower income. This means the average per pupil spending on the schools will decrease. Also, since a lower income correlates with not doing as well in school, the quality of the schools will go down. The town might drop in the overall state rankings, thus decreasing housing values even further.

Thus it is in the home owners interest to keep the zoning restrictions. Removing the restrictions would result in losing tens of thousands of dollars.

Now imagine that we convert this city from a democratic municipal corporation into a for-profit joint stock corporation. Each household gets a share of stock in the corporation. If the CityCorp loosens the zoning laws to allow a thousand new homes, the cost of building a new housing unit will be around $200,000, and the market price will end up being $350,000, because of the increase of supply. Thus the city can sell rights to build these new units at $150K. This is pure profit, that gets redistributed as dividends.

The original homeowner instead of having a $400K house, now has a $350K house, plus $150K in dividends.

The people moving into town are also better off, because they have much more housing that never would have existed before.

By turning the city into a join stock corporation, we have made everyone better off. Our current municipal corporations are really very, very inefficient companies. The shareholders ( the voter-home owners) are not allowed to formally redistribute profits back to themselves. So the only way of maximizing their personal wealth is by restricting the supply of new housing. This is absurdly inefficient. By switching a city to a for-profit corporation, we can create a pareto optimal solution where everybody wins. Until then, there is no hope for new urbanism, because it is against the best interests of the powerful homeowners.

( If any are of Mencius Moldbug fans, there is a lot of his formalism in my proposal, see )

Posted by: Libra on August 15, 2008 10:33 PM

P.S. – I forgot to add that New [Sub]Urbanists seem to me to generally be more interested in exploiting “their” victimization than in actually looking at their product and making it more competitive. "Is something wrong with a New [Sub]Urbanist community? No! It just seems wrong because the competition (i.e., suburbia) is getting hidden subsidies." (Which isn’t to say that the other guy isn’t, in fact, getting hidden subsidies –- but that still doesn’t mean that the New [Sub]Urbanist product can’t be rethought and improved too.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 15, 2008 10:43 PM


Nothing wrong, in my view, with government playing a role in the geography of social and economic development. There have been major instances of that from the beginning in this country, from the original New England towns, to 19th century "internal improvements" (canals and railroads especially), to the post WWII suburbia you speak of, made possible by our new highways and government backed mortgages.

What I would like to see is a new government program to encourage a rebirth of small(ish) towns (25-30 thousand people) out beyond the exurban fringe. The next wave in suburban devolution, if you like: a place suited to slower, cheaper, and more efficient cars (yea cars!), with more woods and undeveloped lost for children to play in (yea, bicycles!), and more free time off the job that working-class people can devote to their families. Maybe if life gets good enough they won't spend so much of their time watching tv?

Here's a sketch:

Ain's gonna happen without federal intervention, and a lot of popular(ist) electoral support. Go Obama, maybe?

Posted by: Luke Lea on August 15, 2008 11:23 PM

ST 1. -- That's a nice memoir. I think convenience, ease, relief, and a sense that everyone else was doing it and the government was to be trusted, all played big roles in the development of post-WWII suburbia. I think the fact that people had spent the war obeying orders may have played a role too.

Lester -- A sad story, and only one of literally thousands of such stories from the Urban Renewal days. Many of the blocks and neighborhoods that were knocked down were functioning communities -- were "home" to many people. Imagine a government coming along and not just taking away but destroying your home. Fuck the people behind such developments -- and didn't the people who were victimized show a lot of class by not going and promptly destroying the homes of the assholes behind Urban Renewal? I wonder why they didn't. I'd certainly have been tempted to. Anyway, nice to see that the neighborhood is remembered.

Bilwick -- That's a nice description, tks. I think most people do what they can with what's available, don't you? Always interesting to see (and hear about) what they come up with.

Tschafer -- I'm not sure anyone here has claimed that Car Culture was "the creation" of big government. My point here is that the U.S. government played a big role in promoting post-WWII suburban development, often known as sprawl. It's fairly standard history -- I've never seen the point seriously disputed, though I'm always eager to learn. I think your account of Urban Renewal is a little incomplete, btw. Urban Renewal wasn't just meddling do-gooding social engineering that worked out badly, it was also a process that was captured by real estate hustlers and racists. Much of white America seems to have forgotten the episode (though I think it's as important in understanding recent America as knowing a bit about the Vietnam War), but many black people remember it well. They refer to it not as Urban Renewal but as "Negro Removal."

Todd -- "Typical suburbanites do not miss the kind of neighborhoods you like, and I think they would even find them odd and uncomfortable." I think you're right about that. Weird the way some people adapt to artifical environements like many suburbs, isn't it? "[New Urbanism] is a niche market." Definitely, though I'd compare it more to, say, Macs in the computer market than to MiniCoopers. It's about class, aesthetics, status. But it's also about machines (or neighborhoods) that suit and please you better than others might. And in the general ecosystem of products, stuff like Macs (and New Urbanism) are important. What Apple comes up with is often what other computer outfits are furiously copying a few years later. In fact I've talked to a few developers that have begun to incorporate some New Urbanist principles and processes into their acts. The panhandle of Florida (near the proto-New Urbanist town of Seaside) is a busy hive of New Urbanist-ic new developments, a few of which I've toured. They're 1) not as nice as real traditional towns or neighborhoods, and 2) much nicer than most contempo developments. But where these things go I'm a glass-half-full kinda guy: an improvement's an improvement. And for most American suburbanites, moving to a New Urbanistic development on the Florida panhandle would probably a real step up in terms of class, beauty, pleasure, calm, neighborliness, etc.

Fredhead -- Amen to that.

Kurt9 -- Zoning has been a terrible boondoggle. I'm with you: a more various ecosystem, housing-wise and transportation-wise, would sure be nice.

Zanon -- I love California too, though the whole "spending the afternoon doing chores, driving thru traffic from one parking lot to another" aspect of life there does make me crazy. Those sound like some not-very-successful NewUrb developments near you.

You write "I don't think that the govt subsidizing suburban expansion has had a big impact on how people live."

The form and shape of postWWII automobile suburbia is huuuuugely different than the pre-war automobile suburb. Guvmint money, power, and intervention certainly help explain that.

You write: "I do think that strict zoning separating residential from commercial HAS had a big impact. Instead of getting the safe, small towns in nostalgic memory, we get isolated houses in a sea of isolated houses."

Nice description!

DOBA -- You write "The drab isolation of suburbs makes them sterile and often maddening to people with curious minds. But if you prefer tranquility, little crime and space, this can be a blessing." Too bad the tranquility/space/safety thing isn't crossed better with opportunities for a curious mind, isn't it? I grew up in a smalltown that was being overrun by postwar suburbia (loved the smalltown, wasn't crazy about the suburb), and there was much about it I liked. Couldn't believe, though, how limited most people's horizons were, sadly. Sadly for me, mostly: Had I not had a curious mind I might never have even wanted to leave.

BIOH -- Not sure what your point is. You like cars and dislike cities? Fair enough. But ... You aren't seriously suggesting that your personal preferences are a basis for general social policies, are you?

Chris -- My own parents eventually wound up in postwar suburbia, but I wouldn't say it was something they craved and "demanded" in the economic sense. They followed my dad's jobs from city to city, and did what they could with what was available where they wound up. Given the way downtowns were going, they chose the outskirts. I suspect that for many the decline of cities and the construction of suburbs came first, then came the move to them. To one extent or another, they got engineered into it.

Leonard -- Loads of good points, tks.

Brian -- Great to see you around, thanks for the links. One of these days you'll tell us about your adventures in the land of Austrian economics, right?

Narr -- Even if government should be involved in transportation matters ... Which government? Which transportation systems? In what way? And to what extent?

PatrickH -- Parking is one of the great underdiscussed topics in architecture and urbanism! Wrote about it myself back here. Why aren't architecture magazines and architecture schools full of debates about parking? Why aren't architecture critics visiting the topic regularly?

Libra -- Thanks for pulling up those stats. Take a look at Memphis -- what a wild west kinda place it once was! I think a key question is when and why did rates in many of those cities go up? I know that in NYC crime soared something like 300% in the course of one decade -- mid'60s to mid-'70s, and that LBJ's Great Society had a lot to do with it. Marriages broke down, welfare became easy to get, policing slacked off ... The results weren't pretty. I used to visit Manhattan regularly with my parents when I was a kid in the '50s. Much of it was shiney, glamorous, and safe. By the '70s the place felt like something out of "Blade Runner."

Benjamin - I agree that New Urbanism needs serious criticism. But I think you're 'way ahead of most people. As far as I can tell, reactions to it are mostly split between two camps: architecture-world types who scorn it for being commercial and corny, and suburbanites who get touchy and defensive because someone's saying that post WWII suburbia isn't wonderful. Seems to me that New Urbanism first has to be accepted as a legit and substantial thing -- as "architecture" -- and that once that's accomplished, on to discussions about strengths and weaknesses. But it's certainly an interesting development. How have you reacted to the NewUrb places you've visited? I've seen some New Urby developments that were just typical pod-style suburbs with sidewalks and houses closer together than most. A few others struck me as really nice. But that's OK by me: I don't see "a nicer suburb than usual" as an inconsiderable achievement ...

Libra2 -- I'm too dense to follow your intriguing plan, but I share your taste for small cities, at least small cities with real downtowns and a decent amount of bohemia and culture. In fact, I'm such a small-city guy that it's really weird that I've spent three decades in Manhattan. What was I thinking? And where'd the time go?

Luke -- Thanks for the link. It's a lovely vision and beautifully written. I think I'm a little more of the "central government is generally something to be defended against" camp, though.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2008 12:44 AM

Enjoy one of Kunstler's recent Eyesores of the Month.

Kunstler talks about how to make a better parking lot.

Here's a discussion about suburbs and the future that includes Kunstler.

Interesting fact from Chris Leinberger: "Walkable suburban communities served by transit today command anywhere from a 40 percent to 200 percent price premium over conventional drivable suburban development." So why aren't more such being created?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2008 12:49 AM

What a BS artist you are, Chris White! You love cars and you live in suburbia, but ideally you would love to take the trolley! Shee-it! What a laugh!

Myrna hailed from Portland, Oregon. The hipsters there are full of your BS. In fact, Chris, you should move to Portland. You'd be living in a world of clones.

The hipsters there also love to talk about their great ideals of ridding the world of cars. So, what's the result? The ideal has become to buy a classic American car (like a Chevy 56 Bel Air if you can find one) and sink $30,000 into restoring it. Thus, you can brag to the other hipsters that you aren't a slave to the car culture, and still be knee deep in it. It's also considered very hip to have a Harley or a chopper in the garage alongside the restored classic.

This talk about hating cars is such BS. It's a standard of liberal gassing starting with Rhetoric 101 in college. Nobody really means a word of it. Cars will still rule the world when I am dead. This makes for scintillating blog controversy, and it has nothing to do with the real world.

You really ought to live in Portland, Chris. Your line of BS is the standard crap out there.

Michael, this "we're going to redesign the world to look like the Upper West Side" theme of your is good for endless BSing, and it's absolute crap! I know you won't give it up, so I won't suggest it. This is your Fred Reed theme. I enjoy Reed's BSing too. That doesn't mean I take it seriously.

Cars are great! Who wants to get on a stinking bus or a train unless they have too?

Michael, I guarantee you that if you had the scratch to afford a garage and a BMW in Manhattan, you'd be singing another tune. The corporate lawyers I know, who make in excess of $1 million pride themselves on their garages and their cars. I went through the same thing. You are rationalizing the reality that a middle class person can't afford a car in Manhattan. That's one of the reasons that a lot of people think that Manhattan is a shithole, along with the fact that a studio apartment costs $2,500. You can't afford a car and a garage, so you've turned the absence of a car into a virtuous choice. Baloney!

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 16, 2008 9:15 AM

I apologize in advance for beating on Michael over this. The economic reality of Manhattan is the source of his anti-car grumbling. Substitute San Francisco or Boston, and you'll get the same story.

Attaining a decent middle class life in Manhattan is a bitch. It's far easy to do this in Austin or Champaign and even in some big cities, like Chicago. The cost of owning a car in Manhattan is somewhere between two and three times that of the cost in a sane city. A garage costs $600 a month or more in a decent neighborhood, and a garage is an absolute necessity. Insurance will set you back $400 a month. So, the cost of owning a modest new car in Manhattan is somewhere around $1,500 to $2,000 a month.

So, here's what happens. Idealistic kid moves to Manhattan. Parents from Lawrence, Kansas come to town and get the drift. They say: "What in the hell are you doing living here? You can buy a 1,600 square foot house back home for $150,000 and you'll have a nice garage for your car."

The anti-car babbling from Manhattan (and San Francisco and the like) is driven by this economic reality. Manhattan is the least democratic, least egalitarian city in the country. From an economic standpoint, a middle class person has to be nuts to live in Manhattan. Only the very rich can afford those things that people back in Lawrence expect as a matter of course.

So the ordinary Manhattanite becomes increasingly defensive and argumentative, extending the argument with the parents into a general beef with the world. The problem, you see, is that they are backward idiots in Lawrence. They should build a subway system there, instead of driving around in their cars like yahoos. And the dumb, backward fucks don't even have a film festival.

Yes, this is really what this nonsense is all about.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 16, 2008 9:56 AM

ST -- A stronger cup of Joe than usual this morning? Where are you getting this baloney about me making an "anti-car" case? Reading lesson: This is a posting about the history and nature of the US's post-WWII suburbs, and how socially-engineered a phenomenon it was/has been/is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2008 10:15 AM

Saturday is my day for really maxing out on coffee. My prostate can't take it seven days a week.

I disagree about the subject of this post. It's about the "false consciousness" of the yahoos out in the stix and how we got snookered into buying cars and a house in 'burbs.

No, we weren't snookered. Well, my house is in the country.

I guess it's great that you take so much pride in the ethic of the Upper West Side. I agree that there are a lot of great things about it. My mom and dad would have taken one look at the place and wondered why anybody would want to live there. In fact, they did just that.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 16, 2008 10:35 AM

This post and comments thread makes me wonder whether in Britain we are more aware of those aspects of our lives where government has interfered a lot, whereas in the US perhaps you are inclined to assume that your government hasn't played much role in matters where, in fact, it has. It's as if you think "This ought to be a matter for markets, therefore it must have been a matter for markets."

Posted by: dearieme on August 16, 2008 11:44 AM

In answer to Michael's question about specifics on how much government involvement there should be in transportation, and which transportation it should be favoring: I dunno. I suspect that governments at all levels will be involved in all sorts of transport technology, with the possible exception of hang gliding.


Posted by: Narr on August 16, 2008 11:46 AM

Michael: One of these days you'll tell us about your adventures in the land of Austrian economics, right?

If you think you can stand the excitement, Michael.

Posted by: Brian on August 16, 2008 11:48 AM

I’d like to add, if you like to drink as much as I do - suburbs aren’t really an option. Multiple DUIs don’t really appeal to me. You can have your schools, low crime and yard, I’ll take a drink.

Posted by: fredhead on August 16, 2008 12:41 PM

I'm not over-fond of suburbs, in spite of living in one now, because I DON'T have a car (or even -gasp - a driver's license) and I hate having to take the bus everywhere or spend the money for a cab.

BUT - are there not other solutions to the crime in the city vs. ever-expanding urban sprawl dichotomy? What about people - developers, voters, governments, businesses, whoever - doing as the ancient Greeks did and founding new cities (small ones) to prevent the perpetual expansion of rings of suburbs around one central city? These new cities could still have an urban core (for downtowny types) with suburbs of their own, but they would avoid the follies of urban sprawl?

I think people in this thread are giving too much attention to the crime-in-the-city problem as the ultimate cause of urban sprawl. Without wanting to be smug about it, our problem in Canada is rather different: many thousands of people want to live in or near the center of our cities (relatively low crime rates), so that it costs a fortune to do so. Nearly all our working-class city neighbourhoods have been "gentrified". If crime rates were lower in American cities, there is a strong possibility that this might happen there, too.

As a result of the expense of city living, our cities too are ringed with suburbs, forcing suburbanites working in a big city like Toronto to take anywhere up to three or four hours to commute every day by car. Never mind car culture - few people love their cars that much, or want to spend all their scarce leisure/family time in driving.

Posted by: alias clio on August 16, 2008 1:11 PM

crime-in-the-city problem as the ultimate cause of urban sprawl

It's not so much the crime as the schools. Urban schools are full of monorities and no sane parent (particularly of a daughter) wants his kids attending such a school.

In ethnically homogeneous Eastern European countries people are perfectly happy to live in cities.

Posted by: PA on August 16, 2008 2:13 PM


Fair enough. My points are:

1) "New Urbanism" is basically a city with almost no minoirities in it. How PC and lovey-dovey is that?

2) Cars and highways are public transportation, in opposition to the snarky and insufferable James Kunstler.

3) The only thing that the suburbs lack is culture, and that can easily be remedied if the white people who fund the(ir) culture in the cities stop funding the cites and put the culture in the suburbs.

Are these policies for everybody? No, just an opinion.

Clear enough?

Posted by: BIOH on August 16, 2008 4:28 PM

While high crime is certainly a strong incentive to move away from a place (!), nevertheless I think crime as a factor in rampant urban decline, especially in the early stages of decline, has been over-rated -- in the sense that late-in-the-game high-crime rates usually masked underlying problems that would have caused an area's decline anyway. When you look at urban areas that declined vs. areas that didn't, basically the areas that declined were just plain less competitive in some way or another (e.g., too monotonously "boring," blocks were too long, not enough mixed uses, not enough density, inconveniently located, economically outdated, etc.) and this was overlooked and never addressed. (The same is true for subsidies, hidden or otherwise, to the suburbs. Most declining urban areas had problems that needed to be recognized and addressed and would have caused the decline anyway -- although, admittedly, not nearly as quickly or extensively.)

In 1961, way before many of the areas of the Bronx (and other parts of New York City, too) really began to decline, Jane Jacobs more or less predicted that these areas would decline as they were the city's "grey" areas. They were city neighborhoods offering neither the pluses of a truly urban environment, nor the pluses of a truly suburban environment either. (Peter Hall, a famous geographer, also made a similar point a few years later.)

Let me emphasize that I'm talking of the early stages of decline. Once decline became part of a vicious downward spiral, high crime rates were, obviously, a VERY strong factor.

- - - - - - - - -

MB wrote:

As far as I can tell, reactions to it [to what I, Benjamin, am calling New Sub-Urbanism] are mostly split between two camps: architecture-world types who scorn it for being commercial and corny, and suburbanites who get touchy and defensive because someone's saying that post WWII suburbia isn't wonderful.

BH writes:

Basically, I agree that these are the discussions so far. But it seems to me that 1) these two discussions themselves would be greatly improved if people looked at the issues more analytically (e.g., how is New Sub-Urbanism similar to, or different from, conventional urbanism and conventional suburbanism, etc.? and 2) that other important issues would also become more apparent too.

- - - - - - -

MB writes:

I agree that New Urbanism needs serious criticism. But I think you're 'way ahead of most people . . . . Seems to me that New Urbanism first has to be accepted as a legit and substantial thing -- as "architecture" [1] -- and that once that's accomplished, on to discussions about strengths and weaknesses [2].

BH writes:

1) I used to participate in an on-line forum dedicated to New [Sub]Urbanism and, even though most of the participants were modern traditionalists (as opposed to orthodox modernists), they were quick to point out -- and rightly so -- that New [Sub]Urbanism isn't necessarily tied to one particular style of architecture or another. One can also have orthodox modernist New [Sub]Urban communities too -- and there may be some, although it seems that most are, indeed, built by those favoring modern traditionalism. So it seems to me that even these ardent New [Sub]Urbanists would disagree with you on this narrow particular point.

While I would concede that New [Sub]Urbanist communities could be either in an orthodox modern style or a modern traditional style (and I would likely personally prefer the ones built in modern traditional style), it still seems to me that the basic range of New [Sub]Urbanist concerns is really pretty narrow and superficial and mostly has to do with appearances.

[2] I think it's important to discuss right now what New [Sub]Urbanism really is and how it compares with the Garden City Movement, with conventional suburbanism and with traditional urbanism, etc. How can one talk intelligently about a topic (e.g., the various specific features of New [Sub]Urbanism) and their likely effect) in the first place, if people haven't first agreed upon what it is (or isn't)?

Plus, it seems to me any weaknesses -- or strengths -- of New [Sub]Urbanism should be discussed from the very beginning. Why wait?

MB wrote:

How have you reacted to the NewUrb places you've visited?

BH writes:

I don't see myself as criticizing New [Sub]Urbanist communities as places. Although I haven't visited any personally, from photos and maps, etc., I could see myself LIKING them as places -- as slightly different versions of conventional suburbs (which I have also visited and liked -- although I'm a dyed-in-the-wool city boy). Plus, whether I personally like a place or not isn't really the important question.

What I see myself discussing instead, rather, is the rhetoric of New [Sub]Urbanism, which I see as being, in certain cases, overblown and false and leading people down wrong paths and towards making bad decisions. (For instance, if one considers Roger Scruton and Nikos Salingros to be New [Sub]Urbanists, I strongly disagree with a number of the ideas they presented in their recent article. I think such ideas hurt cities rather than help them.)

- - - - - -

MB wrote:

A few others [of what I'm calling New [Sub]Urbanist communities] struck me as really nice. But that's OK by me: I don't see "a nicer suburb than usual" as an inconsiderable achievement ...

BH write:

I don't see a nicer that usual suburb as an inconsiderable achievement either -- but I do think that it's important to discuss the various issues involved analytically and "intelligently" (e.g., what precisely are the features of New [Sub]Urbanism?; how do they compare to other forms of urbanism / suburbanism?; etc.).

- - - - - -

For those who are interested, I discussed some of my skepticism about New Sub-Urbanism more fully in a “City Comforts” blog thread, dated 4/20/2008, called, “Man on horseback ain’t gonna be no New Urbanist” (which was the title of an article by Catsby Leigh). Here are the first two paragraphs of my first post in the thread:

I haven't gotten a chance to read the Catesby Leigh article yet, but it seems to me that that one of the problems involved with pretty much any discussion involving "New Urbanism" is that "New Urbanism" never seems to be adequately defined in the first place. What PRECISELY is "New" Urbanism -- especially as it relates to whatever "Old" Urbanism might be and also to what might be called Jane Jacobism. In what ways is New Urbansim the same as "Old" Urbanism and "Jane Jacobism" (or what I like to call "True" Urbanism) -- AND IN WHAT WAYS DOES IT DIFFER FROM THEM?

I say this because it seems to me that, when you really look at it, New Urbanism is more accurately understood as "New Sub-urbanism" and it is very superficial and full of ambiguities and "half-baked" ideas when compared to what might be called Jane Jacobism (or "TRUE Urbanism).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 16, 2008 5:27 PM

Coming to this interesting, charged, and polite brawl a little late.

I think Michael is right to say that NU has a market appeal, and that government regulations that serve only to inhibit the development of that market are suspect. Put this way, the claims of NU are modest--just give us a decent chance to compete and let's see how we do. I am all for that.

That said, however, I think pure distilled NU projects (like, say, Poundbury) are likely to appeal to an elite taste: expensive, attractive--and rather rare, despite zoning code reforms. Instead what we see in the flesh in the US are exactly the kind of things Benjamin has written so eloquently about--a mishmashy New Suburbanism about which the best you can say is that (per Michael) it's marginally better than Old Suburbanism.

So ideology meets the real world, and the True Tastes of the Inhabitants must be taken into account.

A relative of mine is blue collar by background, but has become a self-taught, instinctive interior designer, with fine taste and well-heeled clients. By instinct more than intellectualization she ended up in Skaneateles, NY, a Finger Lakes community which, while getting a tad precious, embodies most all of the things a self-respecting New Urbanist village would aspire to.

She recently took a tour of the South, where she had occasion to see some New Urbanist development up-close. She just happened by--it was not an academic tour. She's not part of the debate on this thread at all. In fact, the term "New Urbanist" never came up in our discussion of the trip. She knew they were *something*, but called them "New American, or whatever."

Anyway, her takeaway was how fake they were--contrived and frivolous. While I haven't visited these places, her impression fit squarely with my impression on visiting these places on line and seeing photos.

Indeed, my conversation had a jarring quality a little like my reading of Benjamin--a slight "aha!" frisson. I don't think when visiting these places on-line I quite articulated to myself these reservations. I wanted to think New Urbanism the right thing, and so I gave the photos wide berth. When my relative, plain-spoken as she is, blurted out her unvarnished thoughts, I realized how much truth there was in her observations, at least by my lights, and this line of critique was furthered by Benjamin.

Not that I am now anti-New Urban, or even too much of a skeptic about the principles at play. As Michael says, if all that results is a better suburb, is that so bad?

Still and all, I can point to dozens of villages and neighborhoods in my part of the country, even in this era of sprawl, where many of the principles expounded by NU are on full display. And they are both more 'organic' in form and history, and less expensive, than the next round of Seasides sprouting up.

Personally, I am with Michael aesthetically, but I doubt hardcore NU types constitute a majority or even a plurality. Lots of boomers and even youngers like their cars, golf, big boxes. I think we'll see a range of things happening over time and, like Michael, I think things will be better if we let more flowers bloom. Alas, I suspect many of those flowers will, by NU standards, be rather common. And as for me, I strongly suspect I will continue my practice of finding existing communities rather than create demand for new ones, especially if they are as contrived as those being put up now.

Posted by: Fenster Moop on August 17, 2008 11:27 AM

Great discussion so far. I think only one contributor mentioned what might well be the main driver of those far suburbs--kids. In the 50's and 60's there were loads and loads of kids. People with curious minds, by the way, they had safe streets, nearly unlimited space for playing or riding bikes, and other kids to play with. Not that downtowns don't have attractions for kids, but seen from a 10-year-old's perspective, suburbs are pretty damn neat. They even have a kid culture of their own....who to play ball with, where to find a fabulous dead skunk, how to annoy Johnny's parents, and so on. I lived in one, and it was great, vibrant, challenging and interesting to me at 10. Oddly enough, when I was grown and single, my downtown loft served a similar person, just with older tastes.

But a car was the ultimate freedom, since by 16 you're wanting less control by the parents, and more exploring power. A paper route or baby-sitting would only buy a doggy old wreck, but you gotta start somewhere, and fix it up yourself. Thought question: how many adults now know how to change their spark plugs and oil?

Posted by: Sam_S on August 18, 2008 5:16 AM


I agree. When my first kid was 2 and my second a baby my wife and I were living in a nice Victorian in an older neighborhood with NU-type attributes. A job change prompted a move to another state, where I hunted endlessly to re-create the qualities of the place we left. Such neighborhoods were available, but schools were iffy and my wife--more commonsensical than me and less the snob--pointed out that we might be better off if--duh--we lived in a more traditional suburban neighborhood, for the sake of the kids. I was still too new a father to quite get it, but I agreed. And how right she was.

We've moved since, to two more places with NU qualities. The kids liked them fine--but nothing could compare to a neighborhood that they essentially ran.

Posted by: Fenster Moop on August 18, 2008 1:47 PM

While there is no doubt that many families did indeed move to the suburbs "for the kids," I think it's important for us today not to just blindly accept the idea of the suburbs being better for kids as a fact (especially since many people moving to the suburbs, at least in the NYC area, were not even really moving away from the built-up downtown districts, "slums," anyway, but from older trolley car suburbs in the boroughs). (I think the same might be said for other cities too. For instance, if I remember correctly, that's what happens in the Barry Levinson movie, "Avalon" [1990], set in Baltimore.)

For an extensive discussion of how working-class and middle-class city neighborhoods can be better for kids (and parents), see the chapter on kids in "Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs (a working mother of three).

For a much briefer explanation, let me add that I lived / visited in a variety of neighborhoods along the city-suburban spectrum: i.e., a "tough" inner city neighborhood (Mott Haven in the South Bronx); a model community neighborhood (Sunnyside, Queens); a middle-class apartment house / row house neighborhood (Astoria, Queens); a semi-suburb (Jamaica Hills, Queens) -- AND a few brand new classic 1950s suburbs (Kings Park, Suffolk County, when it was surrounded by potato fields), including the original Levittown, L.I. And, in this kid's opinion (which seemed to be shared by the other kids who had experienced "both," even those who lived in the suburbs), the very best, by far, were the urban neighborhoods. In fact, I used to pity my poor cousins who were stuck in what seemed to me to be the extremely lame suburbs.

In Astoria, Queens, for instance, there were HORDES of other kids of all ages to play with, from sun-up to sun-down, all day, every day. And even at four years old, one could go to the friendly corner grocery store and return soda bottles and buy candies / sodas, etc., or do other errands for your mother (and even vote in the Miss Rhinegold beauty contest, if the owner of the store let you). And as one got older (seven or eight), one could go to a neighborhood park, to the movies, to the library, to lessons, to after school recreation programs, etc. without your parents having to drive you.

In the suburbs, you were really stuck with very few kids to chose from (relatively speaking -- because the kids were all so spread out). And what if you didn't like them or if they didn't like you? You were stuck with babyish, boring swing sets in the back yard and pretty much nothing in the front yard or on the street. The lamest of all was when the Good Humor man would come by and kids would have to hurry back home in order to get some change from Mommy and then hurry back outside to catch the truck before it left. All to select some pitiful ice cream from a measly truck.

In city neighborhoods, kids were plentiful to choose from, you could play on the sidewalk of busy streets (e.g., "street" games, roller skating and for the girls, hop scotch, jumping rope, etc.), on on nearby, quiet closed off streets (e.g., bike riding, stickball, etc.) Some streets would even get these portable amusement rides in the summer.

In the suburbs, not only did one's parents have to drive you everywhere anyway, but in those early days of the suburbs, there was hardly any place for them to drive you to in the first place!!! You would see ads on TV for the latest kids movie, (e.g., Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" or "Old Yeller", the sci-fi movie, "Rodan," etc.), and it wouldn't be playing anywhere closer than a few towns away, if even that close.

So from this kid's perspective (and, from the perspective of many of my cousins, too), moving to the suburbs was a really stupid thing for parents to do "for the kids."

- - - - -

P.S. -- I should add that in those days it wasn't uncommon for public schools in many city neighborhoods to be superior to those in newly built up and cash starved suburban areas. In those days, for instance, when one looked at the schools with the most National Merit Scholars, etc., it wasn't uncommon (at least in the NYC metro area) to see city public schools at the top of the list.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on August 18, 2008 2:00 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?