A Stormy Night

A few more photos from last month’s quick visit to New Orleans.

A wild storm moved in on the last night of my stay. It had been threatening all afternoon, and the winds began for real about the time I was checking out the Old Absinthe House in the Vieux Carre, some time close to 4 pm. This batch of photos starts out with images of some of the old streetcars on Canal Street, the cardo of modern New Orleans; then moves on to some scenes in the historic bar, once immortalized by Aleister Crowley; then continues into the vanishing city streets as the night rain began to fall.

The rain, at first, came gingerly but ominously. Later, in the overnight hours, it escalated to a crescendo of windblown sheets and lightning. At some point after the Absinthe House, I walked to the Algiers Ferry — only to learn (having reached the far side of the Mississippi) that the rest of the night’s service had been canceled, due to the gathering storm. Ah, the joys of exploration. And so I spent a solid 30 minutes waiting for a Lyft in an absolutely desolate Algiers Point, staring out at the inky river and hoping that what souned like distant gunfire was, in fact, something else. Fortunately, the heavy rains held off until I was safely back at the hotel. In fact, I even had time to duck back into the Carousel Bar for a last icy drink.

Stormy Night

For reference, yes, this was the same incredible storm that people in the Northeast may remember — it moved through New York about a day later.

The Living Music of New Orleans

I was impressed by the vitality of live music in this city. In the evenings, nearly every bar had music. Not surprisingly, jazz and blues predominated, but other genres could be heard as well. And practically everyone I heard was good. Here are some photos, mostly from Faubourg Marigny, but also from outside the French Market and inside the Hotel Monteleone in the Vieux Carré. I probably spent the longest time at Bamboula’s. That’s not saying much — three complete sets (and a couple of Sazeracs, the high price of entry).

Here’s a sample of the Midnight Ramblers at Bamboula’s — skip to about 1:11 for the classic “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?

Blue Nile and Apple Barrel had some enchanting sounds spilling out onto the sidewalk, as well — which led me into each venue briefly.

Midnight Ramblers at Bamboula’s.

A later set, great music, didn’t catch their name.

Here’s an extended sample from the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar (with a bit of the carousel, below):

A Haunted and Enchanted City

I spent part of last week in New Orleans — my first time in that city. The photos included in this post are mostly of architecture and a few street scenes around the Vieux Carré. I’ll post other batches, including of jazz clubs, houses in the Garden District, and the enchanting light that came over the streets during an impending and fierce storm (including a visit to the again-going Old Absinthe House) in a later post.

A group of young women, dressed as angels (with iridescent haloes), congregate in front of the St. Louis Cathedral to prepare for a Joan of Arc-Twelfth Night parade that also marks the start of the Mardi Gras season. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

I hope to spend time in New Orleans, again. It is a fascinating city to explore, and to try to process, on so many levels: its architecture and urbanism, its layered social and cultural history, the surprising way in which its high culture, cheap alcohol, traditional Catholicism, hedonism, classicism, neon, jazz, old money, abject poverty, and all else seem to (mostly) gracefully coexist. It reminds me of no other place in America, yet it could not exist in any other country.

The streets of New Orleans (at least, those in the Vieux Carré) are reminiscent of a Mediterranean city, maybe one in Spain, with low rooflines and floral balconies and breezy palms, and everything organized on a grid around a central plaza (anchored, of course, by a fine old church). Other aspects seem not-quite-American: many people dress more carefully in New Orleans than most Americans do elsewhere (except, perhaps, Boston). Streetcars still operate. Alcohol is everywhere in public. As is live music. And, in stark contrast to the genericism that has now conquered much of the United States, the local culture here struck me as the most vital I’d encountered in the States. That is, people participate in it. (Following the image above, an entire parade, including floats and more costumery, sponsored by a local krewe, would arrive.) Yet, for all its distinctions, it is a distinctly American city, combining influences that have only ever converged in this corner of the Deep South.

There were moments when I felt like I had opened a time capsule and entered a world where the twentieth century hadn’t quite arrived. Instead, this potent preserve of Victoriana and Vaudeville was floating obliviously on the sea of 21st century America. I’m sure such an impression is engineered by the tourism bureau; and pressing beyond the confines of historic neighborhoods would yield plenty of evidence to the contrary. But with such a concentration of historic spaces, inside and out, and so many people still participating in centuries-old traditions, any line between fantasy and living memory, like other contrasts in this strangely familiar city, can seem ephemeral.

Hover over or tap the image below for slideshow.

Vieux Carré

London: Work + Exploring

Our group made a quick trip to London last summer (2022) to meet with a collaborating team that’s based there. I stayed a few extra nights because I wanted to explore the city a little bit. Fortuitously, my visit coincided with an infamous heat wave in which temperatures hovered around 100° F: not the most pleasant walking-around weather. But I determined to make the best of my brief visit, and to take some photos that captured the city’s beauty, history, and spirit — and of course its urban form.

I stayed near Victoria Station. Many of these photos are from three walks originating from the hotel and reaching into Lambeth, Westminster, St. James Park, Hyde Park, and Belgravia. The fourth and longest (after the heatwave had broken) began in Whitechapel. Heading into the City, I went down to the embankment near the Tower and followed the Thames up to around the Monument and St. Mary Woolnoth. From there, I roughly followed the Roman Wall to the Barbican, then headed back down toward St. Paul’s. (By then, I was exhausted enough to hail a taxi back to the hotel).

A few small takeaways about London’s urban personality:

  • The Thames is London’s Grand Canal: functional, focal, and eternal. The urban fabric builds out from its banks.
  • The meandering streets, like so much that is English, evoke the benevolent chaos of plants: their roots and branches are of a piece with England’s common law, language, and gardens. For all its modernity, England is a deeply agrarian place.
  • In July, there are lilacs everywhere: little shocks of purple against stone walls. The whole city has a floral and smoky scent, a mix of lilacs, gardens, European perfume — and city smoke.

Edward Hopper’s New York

Enough writing. Time for some visuals. Let’s start with some photos from the Edward Hopper show that I saw at the Whitney Museum early this year. Some of the shots are at an angle; I think I had in mind that since these were familiar paintings, it might be interesting to see them from a slightly different perspective. Not sure how well that worked out. You can judge. Before going, I had posted a link to a review in The New Criterion. So it feels like I’m closing a loop with this entry.

Breaking Records: American Homelessness

The United States passed an ignominious milestone this year, with more than 650,000 homeless people. This figure — a record, according to Axios, and almost certainly a lowball — is inextricably linked to the nation’s chronic, insufficient production of new housing units. Of course, in this musical-chairs game of a housing market, the most vulnerable groups have been hit hardest. Per Axios, some of the numbers are staggering:

  • Homeless families with children increased by 16% in 2023, comprising 28% of the US homeless population — roughly 186,000 people.
  • Despite being just 13 percent of the US population, African-Americans made up 37% of the US homeless population, and 50% (!) of homeless people in families with children — roughly 90,000 people.
  • 61 percent of homeless adults were men, including 90 percent of homeless veterans.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported separately in September that homelessness among seniors is reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression.

This is a slow-motion disaster. It is also an epic failure of the nation’s moral priorities, as enshrined in law. While it is true, of course, that addiction, mental illness, and poverty all contribute to people becoming homeless, I think it is important that the role of high housing costs, made worse by limits on missing-middle housing and SROs, not be ignored. There was a time when American cities (and towns, and suburbs) could grow creatively and quickly to house a rising population. Then, it became the law’s priority, in too many places, to oppose any change. Homelessness is a visible human consequence.

Community and Microcosm in NoVa

An LT reader and fellow urban writer based in the DC area, Bryce Tolpen, has launched a new Substack called Political Devotions. One of his first podcasts, “Stories & objects”, explores a global community that has coalesced around Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia; and how an arts space in a strip mall, StudioPause, came to serve as a neighborhood focal-point in the post-2020 American anomie that may never quite end. Such an interesting piece — check it out, along with the rest of Bryce’s writing and podcasts. He is a great storyteller, and writes with a perspective that incorporates a thoughtful and eclectic range of influences.

Status Check

I haven’t written much here lately — other obligations have taken priority. Also:

I have been trying to come up with a new organizing principle for this page. One reason is positive: when I began writing here, 13 years ago (!), I was about to begin my last year of graduate school. At the time, the spirit of New Urbanism had captured many imaginations (including, to an extent, my own), and I was especially interested in Andrés Duany’s assertions about the need to legalize traditional building patterns (an obvious factor in the title of this blog); but I wasn’t convinced that master-planning was the right approach, and I had also found little discussion on the Web or in the press about the role that land use law might be playing in housing markets, or how market-rate housing was becoming less affordable in many regions. I wanted to explore those issues and see what I could learn.

Since the mid-2010s, there has been a sea change: a widespread mainstream awakening to the role of land-use policy in shaping regional housing markets. I think it’s fair to say this was helped by the growing visibility of the scarcity of housing units, and the fact that it began to impact more people in the professional class. California and Oregon, two housing-expensive states, recently enacted laws that presume this dynamic to be at work — and seek to create many new legal units by relaxing zoning. Major cities across the country, including Minneapolis and New York, have largely accepted the same premise. Development opponents are now routinely expected to engage with impacts on housing; and articles skewering the obstructionary role of local zoning have become commonplace. For these reasons, I don’t feel the same urgency about raising attention anymore. It has become conventional wisdom that zoning contributes to housing shortages; and that these impacts deserve scrutiny. This change is a major win, and I hope my contributions here, and in publications, have helped to bring this discussion forward since 2010. Based on the engagement I’ve gotten from readers, I think they have.

But there is also a less positive side to my questioning of purpose here: it is clear to me that none of what has changed has been nearly enough. Not yet. Today we see and discuss the role of zoning in housing markets more easily, and this represents progress toward a goal I believe many share, namely, to create a more responsive legal framework for urban growth. But actual reforms, so far, have been far too modest; market pressures remain high; a NIMBY mindset continues to prevent enough building to match demand (particularly in the suburbs); and inequality continues to be amplified by past circumstances and present inertia. The current gridlock in the housing market (due, they say, to high interest rates) has pushed the cost of a home to record highs. And if existing pressures weren’t enough, American cities, with high levels of homelessness, now face a migration crisis that will require homes for perhaps millions of additional people — a Sisyphean challenge whose high-water mark remains unknown.

To be candid, I have a bad feeling about where this is all going. Healthy social institutions need to be able to adapt to changing demands, and, right now — despite some key recent victories — America’s model for urban growth is not capable of being sufficiently responsive. We need better results. With tent cities, shelters at capacity, and impossibly high rents, I fear that some US cities are at a turning point, and may be moving in the direction of those global cities where a mismatch between the population and available housing creates a permanent class of homeless or barely-housed people. To head that off, we would need elected officials and municipal planning officials to get serious about authorizing much more housing construction. We would also require a more coherent policy on migration, one that acknowledges the centrality of affordable homes to successful resettlement. From what I can see, I am not optimistic.

Whether a niche law-and-planning blog can do much to move the needle on these kinds of policy goals is debatable. Over the past few years, I’ve shifted to wrtiting articles that have had wider exposure. I have also been working on some primary-source research into the factors that shaped the more responsive American urbanism of the pre-zoning era, because I think we can learn a lot from the past; I know that I have, simply by examining it. In the meantime, I do still plan to write here on occasion, and will share links to any pieces I publish elsewhere. As always, I am happy to receive feedback. One of the best things about writing is the opportunity it provides to hear from others. That said, please forgive me for having posts that appear like rare birds.

Edward Glaeser on the Housing Shortage

In his recent City Journal article, “Free to Build,” Edward Glaeser begins to reframe the zoning-driven housing crisis as a national phenomenon, requiring national solutions, rather than a merely local or coastal problem. Advocating for the use of federal policy to unwind the cumulative, national effects of zoning overreach strikes me as a stark milestone in the right-leaning policy world. That said, I think this may represent one facet of a pent-up, multipartisan response to the NIMBYism that, for generations, has damaged the US economy and environment through land-use policies that promote rent-seeking behavior and de facto segregation at the expense of traditional, participatory, incremental urban growth.

Photo by the author of some traditional apartment houses located in Cape May, New Jersey, illustrating how traditional urban housing is an artfcat of more liberal historical building laws.
Traditional urban housing is an artifact of more liberal historical building laws. (TMP)

A Top Ten List for Urban Code Reform

R. John Anderson has an article at CNU’s Public Square identifying ten code-reform priorities that would help to address the endemic shortage of housing units in the United States. Several of these principles align with recommendations I’ve touched on here at LT, or in other articles, including: provisions to reduce parking requirements for new units; zoning that allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built, as-of-right; amendments to state and local building codes to allow small multifamily (Missing Middle) buildings to be built in accordance with the International Residential Code (IRC), rather than the more compliance-costly International Building Code (IBC); and a general liberalization of structural massing requirements and lot-size minimums, to facilitate more efficient uses of scarce metropolitan land parcels. This top-ten approach strikes me as a practical summary of salient points for code reformers to keep in mind. David Letterman would be proud.

To this list, I would add: amending state subdivision statutes (or municipal ordinances, in some places) to actively encourage the creation of new, tiny, privately-owned lots. I have in mind parcels less than 30 feet wide at the street line, with no side yard requirements. This would allow traditional attached buildings to be built in diverse designs, as part of a coherent overall pattern. Over time, this would foster the growth of a variety of small housing options, along with the richness and equity of a broad base of participatory property ownership. Ultimately, it would allow the kinds of tight urban blocks to be generated today, in plausible settings, that already characterize our favored old neighborhoods.