The Broken Diamond of Washington, D.C.

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Here’s an interesting bit of American urban and legal history. In 1791 and 1792, a team led by Andrew Ellicott (including the famous Benjamin Banneker) surveyed the boundaries of the original District of Columbia.

In its first iteration, the District was shaped like a diamond, each side ten miles in length. It comprised the limits of the present city of Washington, whose lands were donated by Maryland, and a somewhat smaller area on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

In 1849, Virginia recovered its portion of the federal district, leaving only Maryland’s former portion as the federal district. So, today, a map of the City of Washington, D.C., looks like this:

Meanwhile, most of the land that Virginia reclaimed became today’s Arlington County, which retains the corresponding geometry of the original diamond for much of its boundary. The remainder is now in the independent city of Alexandria.

Today, the boundary stones set out by Ellicott, Banneker, et al., still, for the most part, exist — including those defining Virginia’s former portion of the District, which, in an alternate history, might also have remained legally a part of the nation’s capital.

You can learn more, and see all of the remaining D.C. markers, by visiting boundarystones.org.

The Singer’s Sisters

Although New York’s Singer Building (149 Broadway, New York City) was lost in the late 1960s, at least two other buildings remain today with strong claims of sisterhood. One is in New York City, just about a mile north of where the lost Singer Building once stood. The other is halfway around the world.

The Little Singer Building (561 Broadway, New York City) was built in 1903. Like the (Big) Singer Building, it designed by the Beaux-Arts-trained architect Ernest Flagg for the Singer Manufacturing company. The Little Singer is an attached, zero-lot-line building, in keeping with traditional urban forms. But, unlike Flagg’s next project, it does not have a freestanding tower. Although it was sandwiched between two other buildings, the architect found ways to make it stand out, including the use of cast-iron, arches, and a recessed bay that gives shape to its distinctive color scheme (red brick and green), which presaged the palette of the Singer Tower. Today, it has a clothing store on the ground floor, with residential units above. Here it is, today:


Singer House (28 Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg) is located on one of pre-Soviet Russia’s grandest commercial strips — the Nevsky Prospekt. Designed by Pavel Suzor, and completed in 1904, the Singer House is more playful in its Art Nouveau design than either of its Beaux-Arts, New York sisters. Yet, in a less formal way, it expresses a similar tendency to combine solid materials and ornate flourishes in a way that defined the visual themes of the company. The Singer House couldn’t have a tower, because the Czar wouldn’t allow anything to exceed the height of his nearby Winter Palace. Here it is, today:

I never find a site on Google Maps without doing some virtual wandering. Roaming around Saint Petersburg on StreetView makes me want to visit. It’s a beautiful and complex city. I’m often taken aback by the incredible richness and refinement of Russia, and its contrast with the country’s seemingly interminable political harshness. It’s a mystery — which makes it interesting.

Piano Tuner Defeats Casino Agency — But Why?

Here’s some good news: in New Jersey, the government can’t take your land for a public purpose unless it has, actually, um, specified a public purpose. That’s good. But here’s the bad news: in Atlantic City, a state agency called the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has spent the past five years trying to do precisely that, to a local couple. Specifically, the agency tried to leverage the state’s power of eminent domain to take away Charles and Linda Birnbaum’s three-story building and “bank” it for an unspecified future use.

Here’s some human context about the decision, from Amy Rosenberg at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Birnbaum retained the right to keep the home his parents, who were Holocaust survivors, bought in 1969, because the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority could not provide assurance that its plans for the property and surrounding area “would proceed in the reasonably foreseeable future,” the court ruled…. Birnbaum’s mother, Dora, lived in the house on Oriental Avenue until 1998, when she was killed during a home invasion. Birnbaum, who lives in Hammonton with his wife, rents out the upper floors and uses the first floor for his piano-tuning business.

Your tax dollars at work, New Jersey. It’s good that the court said no. But maybe this case is a signal that it’s time for the state to stop acting as a legal henchman for casino developers. Casino gambling has failed to bring back Atlantic City, after more than four decades. It has, however, destroyed much of what once remained of the traditional seaside urbanism of America’s prime Victorian-era beach resort. And it has resulted in perverse scenarios like the one at the center of this lawsuit.

Remembering the Singer Building

My latest piece at TAC‘s New Urbs looks at New York’s lost Singer Building, which once stood at Broadway and Liberty Street in what’s now called the Financial District (but was once known simply as Downtown New York).

Seen above, a mural in the Liberty Tower, at Liberty and Nassau Streets, shows how the Singer Building might have appeared during its early days. The painting was commissioned by one of the great architects of recent restorations, Joseph Pell Lombardi.

Minneapolis 2040: Have the YIMBYs Already Won?

Two historic houses in Minneapolis. Photo: McGhiever via Wikimedia Commons

Time to note a major victory: the City of Minneapolis is on board with YIMBYism in a serious, substantial way. Minneapolis has become the first major U.S. city to adopt a comprehensive plan that eliminates single-family-only zoning districts. And, although its amended zoning still caps out development of many parcels at just three units, it will still (in broad theoretical terms) allow builders to triple the number of housing units within those neighborhoods. That’s impressive. And since housing markets are more regional than municipal, and Minneapolis is the largest city in its region, I predict this legislation (presuming it passes the remaining hurdles) will have a salutary effect on housing affordability throughout the Twin Cities, for years to come. This really is great news.

In a related story, the Oregon Legislature may soon consider a Democratic bill to eliminate single-family-only zoning districts in cities with a population of 10,000 or more. The fact that the lead sponsor is the House Speaker indicates the degree of acceptance that our kind of zoning analysis has attained, politically, in a very short time. Of course, there is pushback, as there always is in politics. But once it comes into focus, the picture is pretty clear, and economy, equity, and the environment all call for one basic solution: expanding the latitude of property owners to build more housing in response to the need for … more housing. People see the need to stop protecting a calcified status quo that is working for fewer and fewer people.

When I first started writing here about exclusionary zoning laws and their distortion of housing prices (way back in 2010, when I was a law student at Rutgers) it remained a very arcane issue. The basic nexus between restrictive land use policies and declining affordability had been well documented in New Jersey case law through the Mount Laurel decisions of the 1970s and 80s. But outside the local community of housing activists, the slow crisis of an artificial, regulatory shortage of housing units in growing metropolitan regions was hardly on anyone’s radar. Today, housing activists on both right and left accept this common-sense analysis: zoning laws that limit development of new units play a major part in the lack of housing affordability in growing cities.

I got into this issue because I saw people being displaced from their long-term neighborhoods across the New York & New Jersey region in the late 1990s and early 2000s — and nobody with a voice seemed to be noticing. Since then, the soaring cost of housing options in metropolitan America has become, perhaps, the most glossed-over factor among the myriad economic challenges facing Millennials. Now, finally, we are making some real progress, and although we’re not there yet, I am more optimistic than ever.

Cheers to everyone who is out there working on the front lines.

End of Summer, Asbury Park

Asbury Park, sometime between 1930-1945. Source: Boston Public Library/Flickr

My latest piece at TAC’s New Urbs is a look at the ongoing renaissance of Asbury Park, New Jersey. A small, Victorian-era beach city on the Monmouth County coast, Asbury Park had fallen on hard times when people my age were growing up. Apart from the Stone Pony — a music club that helped launch Springsteen and Bon Jovi — it didn’t have many live destinations. Now, that’s all beginning to change.

On Indifference

Dawn breaks over the clouds above Côte d’Azur.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate   
Somewhere among the clouds above;   
Those that I fight I do not hate   
Those that I guard I do not love;   
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,   
No likely end could bring them loss   
Or leave them happier than before.   
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,   
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight   
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;   
I balanced all, brought all to mind,   
The years to come seemed waste of breath,   
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

(W. B. Yeats, 1918)

Many seem to have trouble fathoming the cause of the widespread indifference that appears to sustain our terrible status quo in this era of nihilism and opiates; of reductive identities and pervasive escapism. In the early 20th century, the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats articulated one probable cause in his incredibly poignant and patently reasonable poem, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

Written in 1918, exactly a century ago, Yeats’s poem imagined the thoughts of a young Irish fighter pilot — flying for Britain, his legal sovereign, but certainly not an object of sentimental loyalty — during the bloodbath that was World War I. He fought not for patriotism but for the simple, personal reason that he loved the thrill of flying; and because, even with the near certainty of death, his service offered him a daily, enthralling escape from the hopeless drudgery that the status quo guaranteed him at home, in Ireland.

It is not hard to imagine that many working-class Americans and Europeans — not to mention the billions living in crushing third-world poverty — would now register a similar indifference toward the well-being of the so-called global order, even as it looks increasingly imperiled. Just as a poor Irish boy during WWI might have jumped at a chance to fly an airplane, while remaining indifferent to the fortunes of the British Empire, people today may be roused to temporarily escape their misery, even through less inspiring endeavors: narcotics, pornography, the dazzling-but-vapid pop culture, and the fantasies of demagogues. But people cannot be roused to defend a soulless system (on its merits, no less!) that has made the thought of escape so persistently seductive.

Indifference may always be with us, to an extent. Most people are apolitical in ordinary times. But in the face of existential threats to a once-viable order, the manifestation of a critical mass of indifference is not normal. It is a dividend returned to a glib and legalistic system for having scorned the meaningful interests and loyalties of so many, for so long.