My recently published piece highlights how architects and builders used resourceful massing devices to save scarce urban land when developing many of the Late Victorian apartment buildings in New York City. So I was intrigued by a journal article I recently found that examines the city’s massing in the same period from a different angle: the restrictive height regulations that governed buildings and even, in the pre-zoning era, placed artificial restrictions on builders that may have exceeded the requirements of safety. In Keeping the Tenants Down: Height Restrictions and Manhattan’s Tenement House System, 1885-1930, Professor Michael Montgomery highlights the history of tenement laws and other safety codes in New York City during that time, shining a spotlight on how they limited the ability of the market to respond to the demand for more and better inexpensive housing units.
I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs feature, has published my article about the key factors that shaped Late Victorian urbanism in the United States. My piece focuses on this period before zoning, and explores the physical, legal, economic, and cultural phenomena that drove neighborhood development in the absence of comprehensive plans. I chose this period because it has intrigued me for a long time; and because so much of the New Urbanism of today seems to be imitating the forms of that era without necessarily asking the important questions about the larger context that created them. TAC deserves credit for taking a lead in discussing the important dynamic between urban form, society, and sustainable communities. Here’s a nice piece by executive editor Lewis McCrary about the walkability of New Jersey shore towns, many of which I have walked through, and many of which have an urban fabric that dates from the same period that my article describes.
My office is just across Park Place from the landmark Woolworth Building. Once the world’s tallest skyscraper, the whimsically Gothic tower still dominates the western edge of New York’s town green. Back in the fall, I took a guided tour of the lobby — which is otherwise off limits — which turned out to be a pretty incredible experience. Here are some pictures.
Would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in the building itself, early skyscrapers, tesellation and mosaics, the transition from classical to modern architecture, or just the history of American business. The colors are incredible. Likewise, the masonry and marble. Photos in my album begin in the main lobby, then move to the back of the main floor, down into the basement (where a lost entrance to the subway can be found, sealed off), and finally up to the balconies, where you can almost touch the tiled ceilings.
Was up on the walkway of the Manhattan Bridge. The view is really incredible, especially of the rooftops of Chinatown, and the lower stretch of the East River. The walkway sways a little bit in the wind, and — there are subway tracks right beside it — it really shakes when a subway goes by. It’s much less touristy than the Brooklyn Bridge, and still reminds me a little bit of how the city was in the 80s and early 90s: lots of graffiti, neglected infrastructure, homeless people. I saw three street people getting high, and another lying flat on the walkway.
Just some night photos from the Hoboken rail yards and surrounding blocks. (Click on the above photo to see my full album.)
As much as Hoboken has become a bland commuter city, a lot of the industrial-era infrastructure survives. The waterfronts in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken once served as a break-of-bulk point for all rail lines coming back to Port of New York from the American interior. In the 19th century, passengers and freight bound for New York City would leave the rails at these stations along the New Jersey waterfront to be ferried across the Hudson River to Manhattan. In the early 20th century, the Hudson Tubes made passenger service into Manhattan possible; and, later, the tunnels to Penn Station allowed the main lines to enter the city. Today, the PATH system still links the sites of three of the old New Jersey terminals: Hoboken (once the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal), as well as Newport (once the Erie terminal) and Exchange Place (once the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal). Here is a map by James R. Irwin, showing the old setup:
One the most striking buildings in the New York Commons area, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was begun in 1899. In addition to housing the Manhattan probate court it is home to the municipal archives and is therefore sometimes called the Hall of Records.
The Surrogate’s Courthouse has some of the city’s most ornately detailed interior masonry, including heavy columns that support a mezzanine that encircles a soaring atrium. Building materials include variegated colored marble, like something out of classical antiquity. Natural lighting is sparse, and late-Victorian lamp fixtures do not fully compensate. It is enough to create a pervasive gloominess throughout the building. Together, these elements set the tone of its echoing corridors, which comprise a labyrinth of beautiful but eerie spaces — so fitting for a courthouse of this jurisdiction. This building is about death and dusty records, and its architecture reflects those cold facts through darkness and weight, but it also captures the somber and transcendent role of the law in making permanent the legacies of those who are gone. To be anodyne was not a priority in 1899.
Click on the above photo to see my full album.
More about the building’s history here. Incredible details. Click on the above photo to see my full album!
My interest in urbanism has recently shifted to absorbing its visual elements and textures. Working in Lower Manhattan has given me a chance to process the city’s massive urban fabric much more deeply. I use my lunch hours to explore, and I try to go slowly. Also, my S.O. lives in Battery Park City, so I’m often here in the evenings. Being in the city has led me to more photography and less writing. I’ve been able to absorb common law urbanism on a spatial, tactile level: walking the old blocks with their pavements of slate, cobblestone, and concrete; studying the varied architecture, from pitched-roof, colonial row houses to futuristic Art Deco skyscrapers; sitting on park benches in triangles and churchyards; touching the iron and stone and cement. It sometimes surprises me how much there still is to discover in this embryonic core of New York, and how the organic city still lives and exerts its patterns, in spite of all the modern forces that promote homogeneity.
Since I’ve had less to say lately, I’m going to start posting some of the pictures I’ve been taking, in place of frequent commentary. I will add links to Flickr albums with particular themes, and will backdate them to (roughly) when the pictures were taken. (I was hoping to embed entire albums directly into the LT page, but that turned out to be more time consuming than I can handle, given the amount of material I’d like to share. So, a cover photo that links to the Flickr album will have to do, for now). Hope my readers enjoy. And please do comment on the photos. : )
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Here’s a three-dimensional, color map of Los Angeles, in 1909. It’s interesting. You can see the urban core that was beginning to take shape: the concentration of zero-lot line buildings, the canyons of concrete, the traditional green squares, the grid of warehouse blocks near the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the interruption by history — motor vehicles, modern zoning — a more traditional big city might have evolved there.
Here are a couple of surviving examples that I found of urban fabric in the core of Los Angeles, from which you could kind of envision an alternate pattern of how Southern California might have developed:
Broadway / 7th Street, Los Angeles.
Spring / West 4th Streets.
Just north of the urban core is Bunker Hill. You can see it in the bird’s-eye view, above, where the land rises behind the dense grid of streets, and the structures transition from commercial to residential. Most of what was once there is gone today. Here’s an old photograph, looking across Pershing Square:
Raymond Chandler described the late stages of the neighborhood’s decline in his 1942 novel, The High Window, as only he could do:
Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.
Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.
The urban fabric of Bunker Hill was almost completely demolished in the 1960s under a massive redevelopment plan. For a sense of what was lost: George Mann, a Los Angeles photographer, took this picture in 1959:
A few years ago, I wrote a short piece about the lost public baths of New York City. Built around the turn of the 20th century, the public baths were meant to address the lack of sufficient bathing facilities in areas with (1) high concentrations of old-law tenements and (2) no public beaches. They were concentrated on the east side of Manhattan.
This summer, I came across one of the bath buildings that still remains. Here’s a picture that I took on July 4th of the Free Public Baths at 23rd Street and the East River, which has now been converted into a public swimming pool. Still, the original inscription remains on the architrave:
FREE PUBLIC BATHS | CITY OF NEW YORK
The mix of tenements that once characterized the area — and which gave rise to the public baths — is long gone. The adjacent super-blocks are now occupied Peter Cooper Village (a formerly middle-income housing development) and the VA Hospital.
Here’s the structure, and its context, on Street View:
In my free time, I’ve been reading Great Streets, the 1995 urban design art book, by Allan Jacobs — and a great birthday present from Honey :). Jacobs dedicates an entire chapter of Great Streets to Venice’s Grand Canal, making the case that certain cities’ urban canals are essentially liquid streets: as thoroughfares, places for public gathering, retail business, the showcasing of architecture, and cross-cutting neighborhood vistas.
Now, Google seems to have taken Jacobs’s position, offering extensive and striking StreetView images of the canals of Venice, treating them as the equivalent of city streets. Here’s a view of the Grand Canal, near the Rialto Bridge:
Here’s the Campanile di San Marco, seen from the water:
And here is a satellite view of the entire old city, surrounded by the Lagoon.
It’s fitting that the outline of Venice looks like a fish.
Now, in some ways, the canals of Venice are more than just technically streets. One could argue that in light of the role Venice played in the emergence of the modern commercial world the patterns of urbanization that developed there actually served as an early prototype for the growth of modern cities. The traffic flows in the city’s canals were not so different from those of land vehicles in modern or ancient cities. But the liquid nature of these streets presumably allowed for one less break of bulk between the arrival of goods in the city and their delivery to local end users — and this was good for the productive economy. In Roman Ostia, vast warehouses were used to store shipments of olive oil and wine amphorae that had been imported from Africa, Greece, and Spain. Each shipping company had its own branded warehouse, from which it sold goods to merchants one step down the supply chain, or stored them until its own distributors were ready to take them to market. Much smaller quantities were then transported, separately, up the Tiber to the city proper; or over land to other Italian cities and towns. This made for a supply chain with a lot of middle men, barriers to purchasing in bulk, and, presumably, high markups between the seaport and Roman workshops.
In Venice, the innovation would be that these points of delivery could be distributed throughout the city, rather than concentrated in a single seaport. In Venice, the urban fabric and the seaport became one, a development that predicted the more distributed pattern of industrial space in modern cities. Canals and their branches and slips would, of course, continue to be an important part of city-building for years to come, but only a few cities would have both the topography and trading frequency to justify the kind of extensive canal building that took place in Venice. Amsterdam comes to mind. More commonly, the post-Renaissance economy would interpret the lesson from Venice in another way: The most successful cities to be founded after the Renaissance would be those built on sites where natural waterways conveyed an almost Venetian advantage, and allowed for distributed delivery points. Think of New York City, with its miles and miles of natural waterfronts. Likewise, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Sydney. Finally, the pattern of distributed industry would really be broken open, in the 19th century, by the railroads, which would slice through the fabric of every European and American town and city as thoroughly as the canals sliced through Venice.
Another interesting point is that Venice is also arguably more of a direct continuation of the Roman tradition than Byzantium was. That is to say, while the Eastern Empire may have carried on the apparatus of the Roman state from Constantinople until 1453, is was essentially a Greek cultural entity for its entire history; but Venice was founded in the fifth century by Italian Romans who had taken refuge from the fall of the Western Empire in an inaccessible Italian swamp, and who went on to preserve a slice of distinctly Latin culture — eventually building a city that carried on many parts of the Italian Roman tradition, and served as a unique cultural bridge between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and, ultimately, the Early Modern age. This is a simplification of Venetian history, but it illustrates the important thread. Because the plan of Venice — and especially its canals — more literally captures the tradition of Western commercial cities growing out of the sea, than almost any other example of European urbanism. From Ostia to Venice, and from Amsterdam to New Orleans, the mercantile tradition in the West has a long tradition of shaping a maritime urbanism in which the riches brought by sea trade have driven extensive urban growth on the land around the ports. And this growth has always been premised on the trading patterns of the merchants within the seaports.
The sea has always been a saturating element in trading cultures. Look at the Odyssey. Look at its haunting omnipresence in this Roman wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda, on view at the Metropolitan Museum, found in Boscotrecase, near Pompeii:
Amidst its clear references to religion and fantasy, it is the sea, and not Vesuvius, which might consume all. I thought of this painting recently at work, where I’m writing decision letters for a post-Sandy recovery project here in New York City. Three years after that storm, the conflict between the city and the ocean is still being sorted out, block by block, house by house. Some people are selling their land back to the state; some are elevating their homes, with or without public subsidies; many are keeping their fingers crossed and going on as if nothing had happened in 2012.
The same forces of commerce, greed, politics, and ambition that built the world’s port cities are now driving the global climate change that threatens them. New Orleans was nearly wiped out in 2005; Venice now deals with flooding on a regular basis; in New York, Manhattan seems mostly oblivious, but the sprawling coastal neighborhoods of the outer boroughs are not looking very healthy. The paradox of mercantile cities, the wealth that they draw from maritime trade, and the ever-present danger of the sea, will not go away. It is only getting stronger.
All three are located in the Bedford Park section:
356 Bedford Park Boulevard, New York, N.Y.
280 Bedford Park Boulevard, New York, N.Y.
2806 Pond Place, New York, N.Y.
I recently read Tom Slater’s 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism.” It’s really a fascinating piece. Slater argues that much of the imagery in Hopper’s art is part of a deep and old tradition of suspicion of cities in the American worldview. Slater claims that a “negative discourse of the city … began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, [and] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.” He then closely analyzes four pieces by Hopper — Night Shadows, Nighthawks, Approaching a City, and Sunday — to illustrate his thesis. I strongly recommend reading the piece.
Slater cites Hopper’s childhood in then-rural Nyack, N.Y. as the source of the artist’s skepticism about city life, and he describes the contrast between the ideals of small-town America and the exploding urbanism of large, east coast cities that occurred in the late 19th century. Of Hopper’s relocation to New York City — where he would spend most of his life — Slater writes:
Hopper lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.
It seems to me that by the late Victorian period, some of the contrarian hallmarks of early 19th-century Romanticism — especially, the idea that humans should make an effort to live in harmony with nature — had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way as the countercultural values of the 1960s have been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising, today.
Slater sees Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, rooted in this culturally idealized view of nature. He cites this larger narrative as a key source of the American political establishment’s long hostility toward urban interests. In that, Slater identifies something real: There certainly is a tradition in America of ignorant hostility toward big cities. (Is it not the inevitable reciprocal for a country with a frontier mentality to also have some degree of contempt for those who choose to live in more thickly settled locations, rather than strike out for the West — or the suburbs?) But I would hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. His city scenes are layered: Though often dark and alienating, his settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. Inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic, but not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their inherent sadness, is not to malign the city. It is simply to observe it honestly.
Furthermore, one must concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s skepticism — if that’s what it is — about many of the circumstances that he depicted in New York and elsewhere. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced in response to the excesses of industrial urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something undeniably harsh about a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is something that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers all observed in Hopper’s time (and continue to observe, today). Its expression is hardly the hallmark of a puritanical, anti-urban mind. More to the point, as I interpret his images, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry that pervaded cities in his lifetime, and the rapid change that it imposed on those in its path, including its disruptive impact on the individuals and traditions that required stability and patience to flourish. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, House by the Railroad has long struck me as one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Notably, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw, N.Y.:
Slater’s article is fascinating on many levels, and I strongly recommend reading the entire piece.
Crain’s New York Business has some recent rent data showing that the West Bronx continues to heat up — albeit slowly and maybe inequitably. What’s really interesting about this report is that it doesn’t seem to find outright gentrification so much as the solidifying of a moderate-income housing market, which is beginning to displace the neighborhood’s poor.
Much of the West Bronx was developed in the early 20th century for market-rate, middle-class urban housing; now, the housing stock seems to be aligning with that market sector, again. Here’s an old image of the early phase of Bronx and upper Manhattan development at the end of the 19th century, as the large lots of detached houses were being replaced by mid-scale apartment buildings:
Notably, the patterns of the West Bronx (between Manhattan and the Bronx River), including street layout, lot sizes, and early architecture, were built, simply, as a natural extension of New York City, which could no longer be contained in Manhattan. Unlike the other boroughs, which were developed independently of New York City, there was no distinction between Manhattan and the Bronx (other than the Harlem River) until the five boroughs were established in 1898.
This is why street numbering and house numbering in the Bronx are continuations of the same in Manhattan; and why you will never find the same two digits at the end of a Manhattan ZIP code as you will at the end of a Bronx one. The latter fact is because, in the days of postal codes, the post office treated both boroughs as, simply, “New York,” due to their shared history. Thus, a building in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan would have had the address, “New York 10, N.Y.,” while a house in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx would have been, “New York 63, N.Y.”
Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
— William Wordsworth: Poems, in Two Volumes: Sonnet 14
In contrast to the orderly subdivisions of East Coast cities, or the predictably square farms that dice up the countryside of the rural Midwest and Texas, variations on the above mish-mash can be found on tax maps throughout the Intermountain West: long, rectangular parcels — some overlapping others — with no apparent rhyme or reason. Apparently, these parcel patterns are the legal remnants of old mine claims. Here’s a map showing claims in the Leadville, Colorado vicinity as of 1880:
This map makes you realize how intense the American mineral rushes really were. Claims covered every inch of land in the promising places, and even overlapped each other as new claims supplanted abandoned ones — or maybe the claims just conflicted with one another in the legal vacuum of the old West. The names claimants gave their mines are usually funny — names like Dead Broke and Legal Tender, Last Chance and Grand Prize.
Apparently, the similarities between the dimensions of different miners’ claims is not coincidental: Legislation at both the federal and state levels had attempted to standardize the rules for mining claims on a number of occasions; these efforts culminated in the U.S. General Mining Act of 1872.
At an elevation of 9,494 feet (2,894 m) and just below tree line, for many years, Cripple Creek’s high valley was considered no more important than a cattle pasture. Many prospectors avoided the area after the misnamed Mount Pisgah hoax, a mini gold rush caused by salting (adding gold to worthless rock).
On the 20th of October, 1890, however, Robert Miller “Bob” Womack discovered a rich ore and the last great Colorado gold rush began. Thousands of prospectors flocked to the region, and before long W. S. Stratton located the famous Independence lode, one of the largest gold strikes in history. In three years, the population increased from five hundred to ten thousand by 1893. Although half a billion dollars’ worth of gold ore was dug from Cripple Creek, Womack himself would die, penniless, on 10th August, 1909.
For the past 16 months I’ve been researching local business regulations around the United States. In the course of the work, I talk with police chiefs and mayors, and I read a lot of municipal ordinances. Over time, it’s become a telephonic tour of America.
Cripple Creek, the seat of Teller County, is a great example of late Victorian frontier architecture and town planning. It almost became a ghost town in the 1960s, but it’s apparently made a comeback with gambling and historical tourism.
The Times has a piece by Mireya Navarro about the Sarkars, a couple in Queens who created an affordable new housing unit in the basement of their home; and how the City of New York responded by forcing them to evict their tenant, dismantle their improvements, and pay penalties in excess of $1,200. In a metropolitan region where the imbalance between wages and housing costs is as extreme and inequitable as it is in New York City, surely local government could find better ways to direct its energy. The article highlights the increasingly mainstream political support for such a case:
Largely written to prevent slum conditions and firetraps, New York’s housing regulations have not kept up with changing cultural norms and increasing financial pressures, some housing experts said. It is, for example, illegal for more than three unrelated adults to live together in New York City. That law is widely broken and infrequently enforced.
For many students and new immigrants, sharing space has long been the most affordable housing option in the city. New economic challenges, the experts said, have spurred even more demand for such arrangements.
Look: Illegal units and other informal living arrangements are part of the natural process of urbanism; they are how towns and cities absorb incremental growth as the population level begins to exceed the existing number of units, and as rents and property values rise accordingly; but before the market pressures become significant enough to support new, denser construction projects. In New York City, neighborhoods of Queen Anne houses in what would become the West Bronx were gradually replaced by large, courtyard-centered apartment buildings that occupied similar footprints but housed far more people. Nevertheless, it would be reasonable to presume that, before the apartments, many of the ostensibly single-family mansions were renting out rooms.
Universal Euclidean zoning since World War II, and the stringent building codes that have gone with it, have thwarted the natural process of urban growth, driving it underground. This has caused urban housing supplies to be constrained not only until the market pressure is sufficient to support new development, but until the market pressure is sufficient to create the political pressure that is needed to revise local land use codes. This is particularly challenging because the most established residents in any community — those who own property — will benefit, up to a point, from a shortage, through higher rents and property values. Accordingly, universal zoning has created a much higher bar for initiating the kind of densification process that would actually accommodate demand, and, I believe, it largely explains why housing costs in major US and European metropolitan areas have become astronomical since the 1970s. In addition to the natural price rises resulting from shortages, the chronic constraint of land markets has also turned very small slices of prime urban real estate into exchangeable commodities, adding even more capital to the competition for urban land. This is not all bad, of course, but it is inherently unstable because too much value rests on a stubborn but artificial shortage; and at the same time, it is crushing the supply of affordable housing in several key regions.
The 1970s were a key turning point: In the wake of the post-war suburban exodus, zoning had no tangible effect on urban housing costs, because there was a glut of urban housing units, and the suburbs were being built on cheap rural land. But then, college-educated Baby Boomers began to recolonize urban neighborhoods; the 1968 US immigration law brought the first new global immigrants to American shores; and at approximately the same time, the commutable portions of the heavily-zoned suburbs began to get built out. This is why Mount Laurel was an issue in the 1970s: In a key state, the availability of affordable housing was becoming a problem, and that situation was eroding the balance of economic opportunity that had characterized much of the post-war period for middle-class Americans. The beginning phase of a situation that was viewed as untenable by the New Jersey Court in 1974 has now become the norm in many metropolitan regions. Beginning to accept the growth of neighborhoods that is driven by market demands, and to provide legal normalization for such phenomena, is an important first step toward deflating the artificial housing shortages that are driving inequality and distorting the dynamics of American places whose regional economic strength ought to be the basis for broad-based opportunity, rather than exclusion.
Multifamily development was up sharply in July. The National Association of Home Builders has the report. Multifamily is a construction sector that is often volatile from month to month — it had been down sharply in June. Still, it’s kind of remarkable that new apartment and condo construction turned an otherwise down month for housing starts into an up month. On a related point, the Times has a really detailed multimedia presentation today that models the massing and zoning changes in New York City during the Bloomberg years.
It’s fulfilling to see all of the new urbanism (literally) that’s happening now, especially in Williamsburg and Long Island City. More units equals a better response to market conditions — a good thing in a city where zoning laws and a scarcity of vacant land led to a chronic housing crisis for the working and middle classes. In addition to the potential relief (over time) to upward pressure on housing costs, the new development is also just really inspiring because of the scale of the transformations that are happening. There’s something satisfying about seeing the imprints of our own time being made on the fabric of the city.
Speaking of which, I had my first grand tour of the new Williamsburg about a month ago, from an old friend who now lives in a condo overlooking the East River on Kent Avenue. We went out to Radegast Hall and Brooklyn Bowl, and walked around the blocks near the waterfront. I’d been to Bedford Avenue a few times over the last decade, but I’d never really explored far beyond the subway station. There’s still some grittiness left in the area, but it’s amazing how thorough the changes to that neighborhood have been since the early 2000s. There has been a ton of new infill development in that part of Brooklyn since it was rezoned in 2005. At night, the streets are full of young people, heading out for drinks or dinner or a live show, or heading home with boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s really very alive, in a way that’s less corporate and managed than much of Manhattan now is. One important point about infrastructure, though: I don’t know how long that part of Brooklyn can keep mimicking the city proper without serious improvements to its sub-par subway service. The whole central part of the neighborhood seems to rely on the Bedford Avenue stop to get into the city. We ended the night around 11:45, and I wound up waiting for more than half an hour, in the Lorimer Street station, for an L train back to Manhattan.
In the short term, it seems like a given that changes like those underway in Williamsburg will have a net inequitable impact on certain residents at the neighborhood level — that is, luxury developments bring wealthier people into a previously undiscovered section, and drive up housing costs for the non-luxury surrounding units. Even with NYC rent regulations, this trend displaces less affluent residents over time — people whose deep reliance on local social bonds makes their displacement that much more painful. In the long term, though, it seems to me, housing costs are determined more regionally than they are at a granular level, and a larger housing stock across a region should temper the upward climb of prices in all but a few places within that region. Historically, since construction of the worst kind of tenements was outlawed, the US urban land market hasn’t produced much new housing for the poor; and it has only produced housing for the middle class sporadically, and with a lot of subsidies. But there are plenty of examples of housing whose occupants became less affluent as neighborhood footprints shifted and regional demand ebbed (e.g., in New York, the Upper West Side for much of the 20th century; and Harlem until even more recently); this is one way, historically, that very solid urban housing stocks have come into the possession of less affluent residents.
But as it becomes more popular, Williamsburg represents a trend in the opposite direction. That is to say, it’s a neighborhood whose fabric was largely shaped by the housing patterns of poor people, in the first place, in the era before comprehensive land use regulation took hold. Betty Smith described a scene from the 1912 neighborhood in the first chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
The [tree] grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.
Basically, a lot of the 19th-century building stock in Williamsburg goes back to the general period that Smith described, when the neighborhood was a classic Victorian city slum. And yet, like the Lower East Side, the East End in London, and the nearer blocks of South Philadelphia, this dense, haphazardly built neighborhood is becoming increasingly affluent, and its gravity is now spawning the development of much more well-appointed new buildings, as well as widespread upgrades to the existing building stock, within its modest and crowded historical fabric.