Tag Archives: planning

Mapping Decline: St Louis

3045503Colin Gordon (2008) University of Pennsylvania Press

So many maps! And they are so beautiful! And also damning, I loved them. I wanted more about the process of mapping itself, because so few academic geographers and planners really wield maps like this. So I was a little disappointed that this didn’t involve some thinking through of what the process of mapping teaches us, especially given the title.

What it did do was masterfully describe the growth of St. Louis and its spectacular decline, and it balanced fairly beautifully a big picture view of the policies that caused it along with enough of the intricate detail to judge how it all happened. It describes the period from 1940-2000, bringing this story somewhat into the present which is also rare. He also does a far better job of combining policy and planning analysis with acknowledgment of race: ‘The plot of this story, in St. Louis and elsewhere, is irretrievably racial in its logic and its consequences’ (11). Also that

This is a story that can be retold, with local twists and variations, for virtually nay American metropolis in the modern era. Local, state, and national policies encouraged economic and demographic flight from increasingly poor, and black, central cities. Sprawl and political fragmentation made these cities–and the larger urban (35) areas they anchored–increasingly difficult to govern or finance. The modern urban crisis was a direct consequence of public policy, not an unfortunate social ill that persisted despite public policy.

He opens with ‘Local Politics, Local Power’, a look at the wildly fragmented political mosaic of counties, cities and jurisdictions that make up St. Louis (233 incorporated municipalities in a 12-county area? Jesus). It’s so different than that of L.A. which I know best, but with the same effect — the carving up of an urban area into smaller sections allowing wealthy white areas to insulate themselves and their wealth from the rest.

This pattern of governance in greater St. Luis was accomplished quite purposefully; it was, in Terrence Jone’s apt phrase, ‘fragmented by design’. This fragmentation in turn, facilitated and invited a prolonged pattern of local piracy as political units sought to maximize local wealth and tax bases while minimizing any claims that might be made on them (45-46)

Here too, he examines the politics of the growth machine, the movement to the suburbs of whites and wealth, cities left with no tax base for their poverty-stricken populations.

Next Collins looks at the “‘The Steel Ring’: Race an Realty in Greater St. Louis,” an examination of both the local, state and federal polices that led to intensive segregation, and the real estate industry, which he sees as lying at the heart of it. St Louis was one of the cities that legislated racial zoning, when that was struck down it turned to race restrictive covenants (which, like L.A., heightened during the first great migration of African Americans from the South during WWI). One neighbourhood purchased their street and streetlights from the city so they could impose uniform deed restrictions, but most simply formed those ubiquitous neighbourhood and homeowner associations. Interestingly, Collins writes:

As with most such settings in St. Louis, the local improvement association was more a consequence of the covenant than it was a cause; the boundaries of the neighbourhood were determined by the willingness of homeowners to sign the covenant. (80)

After restrictions were outlawed, these restrictions continued on as art of policy.

The FHA, as Robert Weaver…noted in 1948, had ‘turned the agency’s operations over to the real estate, and home finance boys.’ Four years later the NAACP scored what it viewed as an ‘extension of racial discrimination and segregation abetted and furthered by a government agency backed by billions of dollars of insurance secured by taxpayers’ money’ and concluded bitterly: ‘We are breaking down the ghetto in old housing only to see federal funds being used to establish impregnable ghettos in new, desirable suburban developments’ (From memorandum re: FHA Underwriting Manual (n.D.), NAACP Papres pt 5, reel 4:0945).

I like this pithy statement: ‘African Americans did not, in the logic of the HOLC, live in residential areas; they invaded them and compromised them’ (92).
Some of the data Collins managed to get and map is truly awesome.

On to zoning! The most boring thing on the planet, but yet also one of the most devastating. Because this is what it does:

Exclusive and fragmented zoning in the suburbs erased any semblance of residential diversity, sorting the white middle class into income-specific single-family enclaves on the periphery and leaving African Americans, the elderly, and the poor to filter into older and higher-density housing stock (much of it unprotected by zoning)in the central city (112)

A 1926 court case challenged zoning, and the law in question on nuisances was actually struck down by an Ohio judge, stating ‘in the last analysis the result to be accomplished is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life’. The Supreme Court agreed, but allowed it as part of a bigger plan for land use. Through zoning for large lots, single family homes, minimum square footage and the like, lower-income people were kept out.

I think my favourite chapters were around Urban Renewal and the definitions of blight, and some of the data Collins was able to get hold of is amazing. Also profoundly profoundly depressing as he charts the passage of the multiple and often overlapping programs under which urban renewal was carried out. There are volumes to be written on the changing and highly political uses of the term ‘blight’, ‘blight’ as verb, as risk, as disease, as something that even if not yet present can loom and threaten and justify another huge tax break to yet another corporation. And of course, it always invoked the presence of Black people. It helped ensure that ‘renewal’ focused on the destruction of community, the tearing down of homes to build for commercial use and ‘economic development’. Almost no onewas rehoused or given compensation as homes came down to make way for freeways and landmark projects like malls, hotels, and stadiums. Taxes were shifted entirely into financing the loans required to construct such projects through TIF (Tax-increment financing), essentially stolen from schools and other essential city services. And at the end of the day, only 1 of 12 projects financed through TIF was even breaking even in terms of what the site had been earning before development and what after.

To conclude, Collins writes: ‘Wile its central thread is private property, this is not a story…of private markets and private choices. What gives this story its plot, and its sorry ending, are the many ways in which private and public policies shaped or frustrated those choices’ (221). The solutions he believes is to ‘displace local fragmentation with some form of regional governance’. This will help ease competition between local areas, help increase density and improve services, can approach the topic of tax sharing. Here is where my greatest critique comes in, because this book does so much but doesn’t take the next step in trying to answer why public policy took the turns it did. It doesn’t really get at the multiple ways that this preserves the unique privileges of wealthy whites in exclusive areas and how they have fought to increase those privileges, nor how it serves the interests of large corporations and real estate developers lobbying at all levels of governments. These are the interests that must be overcome to reverse any of it, and there is not much sense of how to go about that.

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Racist Real Estate Text Books of an Earlier Era

Stanley McMichael. Ugh. Though if you want a vintage encapsulation of how subdividers worked in the 1930s-50s and probably after through racist real estate text books, hurrah. This is an extremely detailed nuts and bolts handbook for developers creating subdivisions with occasional chapters by other experts in the field. It contains check-lists for getting things through planning, sample contracts and deeds, detailed explanations of how and what to build and what creates value. It opens like this however:

‘POSSESSION AND USE of land, since the very dawn of human history, has been the most interesting and important business pursuit of mankind. Biblical history, the oldest written record of human events, is replete with real estate transactions and there is scarcely a book in the Old Testament in which reference is not made to land and its possession.

Adam was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions. Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred, for God banished them from the Garden of Eden. Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal docket than any other phase of human behavior. [7]

From Adam it moves along to other old testament figures, then jumps quickly to George Washington before reaching the builders of today. Both extraordinary and vomitous, I confess. But the reason for it is because for all of its focus on the how-to of subdividing and development, this book recognises that ‘The place for social control of land to start is through the subdivider himself‘. Which is why we should care about it, and read rubbish like this. And this is essentially a manual for building a divided, unequal and bigoted society really, representing the leading theory of the time as pushed by the National Real Estate Board, the Federal Housing Adminstration and multiple others in the field.

First you have to split people up by class

The subdivider knows that “birds of a feather flock together.” It is a wise assumption and consequently there must be a variety of allotment properties, possessing definite social grades and distinctions to fit into community life. The location and character of the land to be subdivided usually suggest the class of buyers that will be most readily attracted and accommodated. [21]

and develop accordingly:

While expensive pavements, curbs, and sidewalks go well with the higher classes of development they are not so necessary in most allotments where workingmen aim to make their homes.

Of course it celebrates the suburbs, you develop low density for automobiles, separate residential from commercial. They are designing neighborhoods for people whose top 3 out of 4 reasons for buying a home they believe are about status:

Among the motives that cause buyers to acquire subdivision property are:

(1) Desire to own a home
(2) Desire to “put up a front”
(3) Ambition to outshine his neighbors by living in a better district
(4) Imitation-a “follow the leader” impulse, caused by seeing his friends move into better neighborhoods

Thus the primary goals of such an individual when choosing his (and it is of course, a him)subdivision are protection

The purchaser who buys a lot-particularly for a home-reasonably expects certain benefits to accrue, among which are these: that the restrictions will establish a district in which future improvements will conform to minimum standards as to cost, character, and location thereof; that he will be protected against the possibility of undesirable neighbors; that the restrictions are designed to accomplish the complete and economic use of the tract …

A protection which is far more important than any other larger sense of public feeling or obligation, thus quite a lot of time is spent in looking at how best to protect him, and you have to really appreciate the candour and honesty of the old days:

zoning restrictions, to be valid, must be substantially related to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare. They must operate uniformly for the general public welfare; they cannot be created for the benefit of any particular group, nor discriminate against another. Furthermore, “since the police power cannot be invoked by purely esthetic considerations, zoning ordinances merely seeking to promote or protect the beautiful, or to preserve the appearance of the neighborhood, are unauthorized.”

Deed restrictions, on the other hand, may be imposed in any manner and for any purpose that will best serve the desire of the subdivider and of the lot owners. In contrast to zoning ordinances, such restrictions need not necessarily promote public health, safety, morals, or general welfare of the public-they may be intended to create a particular character of neighborhood desirable only to the subdivider or the tract owners, and may be based upon “purely esthetic considerations.” They may be uneconomic, discriminatory, and utterly unsuited for the character of community development which should be sought; but they are, nevertheless, valid contract obligations which may be enforced [181]

The book has three chapters devoted to restrictions, a full chapter to race restrictions. Can they still be enforced? McMichael writes:

Chief Justice Vinson, who wrote the decisions covering the two cases, declared that the application of restrictive clauses to the sale of real estate violates the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but he further definitely specified that it “erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful.” This means, it is generally conceded, that two persons can make a contract that will be binding between them but it cannot be enforced against all comers. [202]

Given:

‘That the entry of non-Caucasians into districts where distinctly Caucasian residents live tends to depress real estate values is agreed to by practically all real estate subdividers and students of city life and growth. Infiltration at the outset may be slow, but once the trend is established, values start to drop, until properties can be purchased at discounts of from 50 to 75 per cent.’

yet non-Caucasians are going to keep moving into cities, McMichael asks the key question,

‘What remedy will solve this tremendous problem and protect the interests of subdividers, as well as the owners of property in selective sections of our great cities? [204]’

He quotes the full address of the president of the California Real Estate Association stating their reasons for pushing an amendment to the constitution giving owners the ‘right’ to discriminate, grandfathered of course. Then gives another little gem from Glendale real estate expert, which is worth quoting in full as McMichael does

The president of a real estate board can arrange for a meeting of a small group of persons interested in helping to solve this problem locally. To this meeting invite persons representing each of such groups as: the real estate board, real estate brokers not members of [208] the board, the local lending agencies, the chamber of commerce, the merchants association, and the planning commission. At this meeting the problem can be discussed and a general planning committee can be appointed to work out a long-range plan whereby certain portions of the community will be designated, and agreed upon by those interested, as most suitable for the residence of nonwhites, a location where they and their children would be more likely to be contented and happy than in an all-white neighborhood.
After this general committee makes a careful study of the problem, it should report its findings with recommendations to the original group, who, in turn, should report back to their various groups, each reporting suggestions or recommendations as to what can be done by his organization to help further the general plan. Part of the program should be to develop a “sales talk” setting forth the advantages which would accrue to the nonwhites by having their own neighborhoods apart from the all-white sections.

In cities where certain races predominate in some neighborhoods, especially when it appears that the residents are more contented among people of their own race, the program should cover that situation as well as the general segregation of whites and nonwhites.

The value of real estate depends upon its salability, or marketability. Marketability depends largely upon desirability. Maximum desirability of residential property depends importantly upon the neighbors being harmonious. For this reason, racial segregations are often advisable because persons of the same race have a tendency to possess similar tastes, traits and tendencies which encourage the harmonious relationships so important in making a neighborhood a desirable place in which to live.

there are some humerous moments of course, when you suddenly realise that hot-dog stands could cause ruin to residential property values, but really this is just a long explanation of so much of what is wrong with America, complete with sample residential restrictions and articles of incorporation for Homeowner Associations, their best bets for keeping undesirables out.

[McMichael, Stanley L. 1949. Real Estate Subdivisions. Prentice-Hall.]

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

381359Jane Jacobs (1961)

One of the books that all planners are supposed to have read, I know it’s a bit shocking that I have only now read it. And regrettable. It deserves every ounce of it’s status as a classic (if such status were to be measured in ounces). It’s eminently readable (and isn’t that a pleasure in a book of this kind), but also incredibly insightful and of course I love how it resonates so brilliantly with my experience living in many different cities while toppling most accepted planning theory. The more diverse cities are, the more people love them. The more people on the street at all different times of day, the safer and more enjoyable those streets are. High foot traffic allows a glorious flowering in the kinds of local businesses to spring up, and those in turn provide stability and attraction to the street. The longer people stay in neighborhoods and the more they feel pride and ownership and love for them, the better those neighborhoods become. It’s brilliant to be able to walk out of your door and buy what you need within a few blocks, getting to know the shop owners as you do so. Kids growing up in this environment feel a sense of civic engagement and helpfulness, and are accountable and supervised by a multitude of friendly and known adults. And who could know better the improvements and changes needed for a neighborhood than those who live there?

And yet planning over decades has worked to destroy all this.

This is a practical and eminently sensible account of what makes city neighbourhoods work. I think its weaknesses are highlighted by the fact that it is a rare popular book read by those who are not planners, and accepted as a classic amongst urban planners themselves, and yet, although written in 1961, has had remarkably little effect on how planning occurs or how urban development takes place. This points to the questions that Jacobs answers only superficially — why exactly planning and development have taken the shape they have. That is truly a tragedy for it is full of brilliant and insightfully practical suggestions on how to improve both. It does look at the process of redlining, it has some analysis of racism and classism and prejudice, but not enough. And ultimately the driving forces of profit and capitalism are left unquestioned. To find those you have read David Harvey and Neil Smith and a host of others. I don’t think that makes the insight offered by Jacobs any less, simply incomplete, and highlights the fact that a more fundamental change in how we develop and plan our cities is required, one based upon need and increasing vitality rather than the greatest profit.

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LA’s floating islands

Wealth in LA floats. We are not just segregated from north to south and east to west, but above and below. And I suppose I knew about the aerial isle that was once Bunker Hill, but I’d never really walked it, and until you walk you don’t really know a place. At 4th and Hope you are high up above LA, and all traces of the old Victorian neighborhood once there were completely bulldozed and destroyed several decades ago. And there followed some truly grim decades in terms of block architecture, and a planning model designed to keep public space as the exclusive right of the right people. So it is a modern wonderland of concrete and plazas leading to car garages and sleek, expensive men and women. There are a couple of skyscrapers built on it, their lights serve as the stars and I’ll not deny a strange beauty to them…there are some expensive shops and restaurants, but they all look like upscale chains. It’s that particularly L.A. thing I think, where everything is relatively new, sanitized, familiar, safe. People here trade what is real and true for a secure and enhanced façade every time, just look at sunset strip with its fake western bar, it’s fake Irish pub. Look at people themselves. And this place is made for cars, you have to climb a very steep hill to get here, and it isn’t the easiest thing on foot. I’m sure that’s quite deliberate. The right sort of person doesn’t walk in this city. I passed Gehry’s Disney hall, it’s on the edge of this as is MOCA. Wealth’s claim on high culture.

Usually I go beneath this place, through the terminator tunnel with its shiny white tiles reflecting the light when they are not falling off the walls, and the homeless sleeping along the sidewalk. I like it better underneath.  The higher you go in LA, the richer it invariably gets. From crack in Hollywood to cocaine in the Hollywood Hills and so it goes everywhere…even Echo Park has had its bastions of wealth up on top of everything, and now of course it is gentrifying at the speed of light, and from top down.

These things make me angry, so I’m glad the YMCA is still there, giving people one last reason to democratize space. I was walking because I forgot a clean shirt to change into after workout, sauna and steam, and couldn’t face jumping on a standing room only bus full of people going home from work. Especially since I was going home TO work. Happy Friday to me. But I haven’t really been home for so long, so I’m still enjoying it.