The Sinister History of America’s Urban Geography

A 1939 “residential security” map of Essex County, New Jersey. The eastern half largely comprises of Newark and the Oranges.

Mapping Inequality provides a darkly fascinating time-sink: a zoomable map of the United States overlaid with New-Deal era local maps of most major cities, depicting what we today would call redlining. Typically, this term brings to mind the American banking practice of dicing up American neighborhoods and excluding African-American areas from mortgage eligibility. The heyday of this practice coincided with the heyday of post-war, first-time home ownership in the United States — a history that has been identified as a key source of persisting family wealth disparities between Black and White Americans. (The achievements of the Civil Rights era, and further legislation aimed at dismantling redlining, did not come about until the tail-end of the post-war boom — starting in the mid-1960’s — by which point many of the regional ethno-geographic patterns had already been established, and property values had begun to increase significantly.)

The map above depicts Essex County, New Jersey, where I live, and which has the same boundaries today as in 1939. Newark is roughly on the right; many of its inner-ring/streetcar suburbs are roughly in the center; low-density townships (then still partly rural outside Millburn and Caldwell — now mainly affluent suburbs) are on the left. As you might guess, there is a hierarchy of colors: areas mapped in green were considered prime investments, followed by blue (still desirable); yellow (declining); and red (dangerous). Zooming in on the neighborhoods of Essex County reveals that many of the patterns of neighborhood gradation that were adjudged by appraisers for the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1939 overlap with the characteristics of the same neighborhoods today. That is to say, if the green-red palette were to be roughly translated as neighborhoods that are predominantly wealthy, middle-class, working-class, or poor, its assessments would still align with many districts.

Many of these maps contain explanatory notes for each color-coded district, and many of these notes bear out a pervasive practice of correlating African-American neighborhoods with red districts. Several neighborhoods that today have high concentrations of African-American residents had already been established as Black communities by 1939. The matter-of-fact prejudice reported in these otherwise mundane business notes is evidence that Americans have made progress in the norms of acceptable discussion, if nothing else. I won’t quote examples, but it should suffice to say that the recurring tone leaves no doubt that mortgage lending — at least during the late Depression — was based on an overtly discriminatory calculus.

Perhaps more remarkable, given the conventional understanding among lawyers and urban planners about what redlining was, is the evidence that in addition to rationalizing discrimination against African-Americans these maps also justified discriminating against other populations, as well — including many people of European origin. Italian and Jewish enclaves are singled out for negative treatment because of the mere presence of … Italian or Jewish people. In both Newark and New York City (maps are posted for each of the five boroughs) many of the red districts are described as “slums”, encompassing residents of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Poor and working-class predominantly White neighborhoods are often classified exactly as Black neighborhoods are (though described as having “laboring class” populations, “tenements”, or something similar; or highlighted for their “infiltration” by other marginalized groups); and those that avoid being fatally redlined are typically shaded yellow — marking their properties as the second least desirable class of securities.

The precise impact of these maps is unclear. The federal HOLC of 1939 was not a formal precursor to the private banks that — with government backing and subsidies — financed the massive suburban development wave that took place after World War II. A study of early HOLC lending in the Philadelphia region found that interest rates, but not lending decisions per se, were influenced by the maps’ color-coding; and that private lenders had other sources of comparable information about granular urban economic and demographic trends. Sources like fire insurance maps, meanwhile, would have made analysis of the building stock in a particular slice of any city readily doable.

Another study found that the HOLC had hired private-sector appraisers to complete the evaluations and explanatory notes for the residential security maps, suggesting the conclusions they contain represent prevailing assumptions in the real estate industry of that time. Regardless of their direct impacts, the patterns in these maps bear an uncanny resemblance to the enduring patterns of racially and economically segregated housing that solidified in post-war metropolitan America.

How these maps and the lending policies that they shaped align with early land-use zoning maps developed around the same time is a topic for exploration in another post (or perhaps a book!). As an aside, it is worth noting that private covenants were still quite common for controlling land use in the early days of zoning, as they represented one of the few traditional legal devices for doing so prior to the rise of public land use law; and many of these were discriminatory, as well. The human capacity for excluding others never ceases to amaze; nor does its deviousness.

Apartments Are Hot — In the Suburbs

The Times has another article jumping on the bandwagon about the supposed ongoing urban exodus — with a twist. This one reports anecdotal evidence that apartments in suburban towns are seeing a surge in popularity among fleeing urbanites. (Sorry for the paywall. If you’re not a NYT subscriber, you can usually still read a few articles for free if you log in with a Google account.)

I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to this trend. I have long believed that the New York City region, and similar metropolitan regions with high housing costs, ultimately need to expand their geographic footprint of multifamily housing beyond its current locations to accommodate long-term population growth. I still believe that. But what we are seeing in 2020 is a separate and discrete trend, driven by people’s more immediate desire to get out of the city, and to have more room, as work and home suddenly compete for the same space.

It’s not clear yet how these trends are going to intersect with the housing markets in the suburbs. If working from home (WFH) turns into a permanent phenomenon that outlasts the pandemic, then some of the built-up pressure may come off of competitive regions, including their inner-ring suburbs, as people are free to go further afield and seek permanently larger spaces. In such a scenario, there may be additional suburban growth at the metropolitan fringe, but less demand for new apartments nearer to the core. On the other hand, if most people return to their daily commute (or something close to it), then the suburbs may find themselves needing to absorb more commuters — as trends indicated before 2020 — and doing so in the form of more apartments.

It’s an interesting question — and one, I think, that is still very open. If I had to bet, I would predict a little bit of both, especially in places like Northern and Central New Jersey: a continued need for growth in demand for (1) compact, commutable units and (2) larger, WFH-friendly properties at the fringe, and beyond. In both scenarios, good planning will be a necessity to ensure that new growth takes the form of attractive and sustainable neighborhoods.

New apartments take advantage of commuter rail service in suburban South Orange, N.J.

Unwin’s Town Planning in Audio

The Overhead Wire, an excellent San Francisco-based urbanism consulting firm/blog/podcast led by Jeff Wood, has just produced a new audiobook of Raymond Unwin’s 1909 traditional urbanism classic, Town Planning in Practice. The reader is Mark Tester, whose charming English voice is a perfect fit for Unwin’s Edwardian prose. Something for your commute, perhaps? Nice work!

My 2017 New Urbs article about Unwin’s classic planning book can be found in TAC’s archive, here. Meanwhile, a PDF of the entire original Town Planning in Practice, including all illustrations, is available here.

Zoning Reform: a Return to Traditional Norms

My latest article at TAC‘s New Urbs is a response to the recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, allowing people to build neighborhoods that evolve in response to land markets is an old common-law tradition — and one that has been increasingly distorted by local governments over the last century, under an ever-more-restrictive morass of zoning requirements.

I argue that measures that would restore even some space for neighborhoods to grow organically, in response to demand, ought to be embraced by Americans across the political spectrum. New laws in California, Oregon, and Minneapolis are good first steps. And proposals to condition certain streams of federal infrastructure funding on having non-exclusionary local land-use laws in the communities that benefit from such taxpayer investments should not be dismissed out of hand.

The Colors of Urbanism

I really enjoyed this Curbed Longform article by Jessica Furseth about the intrinsic color palettes of particular cities, and how they came to be:

Gold is the perfect color for a place so often covered in fog and rain, providing an uplifting sunny yellow that looks almost better when it’s wet. But this was never a conscious decision: The gold tones of London were an accident of nature. The yellowbrick is made from London clay, which is rich with minerals deposited by the river Thames on its journey to the sea. When fired, the bricks come out in a range of yellows, from whitish and ochre to brown and purple. London’s ever-present yellow is the result of a Georgian building boom that relied on local materials. All over the world, the colors of cities can be traced back to similarly unglamorous practicalities.

Apart from St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations, which Furseth mentions to illustrate her point, there’s this splash of gold that has defined London for so many generations:

Or as Claude Monet inverted the palette:

Houses of Parliament, Stormy Sky, 1904.

The article also accurately notes that New York has a lot of brown — and that its ubiquitous brownstones are colored by a type of stone that was found in abundance in the nearby quarries of upstate New York and New Jersey.

This fits with something else that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is how smaller cities in a particular region often have uncanny similarities in their colors and materials with the big metropolis. Not surprisingly, Albany’s urbanism closely resembles New York City’s (and Brooklyn’s), and even has similar hues, although it is more than a hundred miles away.

Similarly, a lot of smaller cities in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey look oddly like lost crumbs of Philadelphia, with their brick facades and pitched roof row houses with oddly varied widths.

The role of local materials in establishing the palette of a specific place — as well as building styles that may be influenced by the materials used — may have historically been an accident. But for a long time it has also been increasingly a choice. The availability of building materials from elsewhere is hardly a brand new phenomenon. The Romans transported marble, and other stones, and paints, throughout the Empire. And as Furseth points out in this piece, the Silk Road had made the colors of the Far East available to Indians, Middle Easterners, and Europeans long ago. But the widespread use of imported building materials for vernacular projects is a more recent phenomenon.

When employed artfully, imported materials can of course add richness and variety to the urban form. But in the wrong hands (of which there are many) they can more easily contribute to a sort of postmodern chaos borne of a jumble of discordant materials (and associated forms), driven by parsimony, and reflecting an almost complete lack of grounding, purpose, or continuity with the past.

In my own research, I have found that some of the worst effects of this trend are accruing to cities in developing countries where urbanization has happened rapidly, and in the context of the global economy; and also in the postwar development of America, where the bulk of construction has taken place in a wealthier version of the same context.

Building the West Bronx

I have a new piece in City Journal about how the West Bronx evolved from a series of suburban neighborhoods of Victorian houses (built in the late 19th century when the City of New York first incorporated the wards north of Manhattan), into an urban environment of (often beautiful) apartment buildings. The transition mainly took place between the turn of the 20th century, when subway service began, and the onset of the Great Depression, when construction and migration both came to a near standstill. It remains a model of how cities can grow incrementally, by allowing the construction of apartment buildings when demand for housing rises.

This piece is something of a spinoff from the original research that I did several years back, and reported on this blog, about the last few Queen Anne-style Victorian houses along Woodycrest Avenue in the neighborhood known as High Bridge. Sadly, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission declined a proposal to preserve these last few detached gingerbread houses on the NYC street grid (that is, the one begins in Manhattan and continues north to the Westchester County line), and many have now fallen to the wrecking ball.

Several people have expressed interest in this topic. In addition to the ones on Woodycrest Avenue, I tried to document the handful of other remaining houses like these that are on the Commissioner’s Plan-Risse Plan streets of the West Bronx. I documented the research several years back, and most of it can be found here: http://www.legaltowns.com/category/the-bronx/

Can Dense Cities Survive the Coronavirus?

A street in Greenwich Village. Theo Mackey Pollack.

Yes, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, author of A Country of Cities, and one of the most well-known progressive proponents of a more urban urban fabric in America. Here’s a link to an interview that Chakrabarti gave last week to Gregory Wessner of Open House New York (which, as an aside, is a wonderful organization that facilitates things like public visits to the Tiffany stained glass at the Neustadt Collection, New York City Hall, and Edward Hopper’s art studio). A quick registration is required, but no fee.

The sprawling conversation between Wessner and Chakrabarti touches on everything from the resilience of urbanism to the pitfalls of ‘exceptionalism’ (e.g., the American variety). The conversation also delves into an aspect of the density discussion that does not get enough attention (in my opinion), namely, the potential to achieve traditional urban densities through low- and mid-rise development patterns; and the fallacy of equating urbanism with an inhumane, impersonal scale.

I’ve seen Chakrabarti speak at Columbia, the Newman Institute, and the AIA’s Center for Architecture. Apart from his flair for urban design, he is a persuasive proponent of the humane aspects of urban density. This timely conversation also reaches difficult questions that have been raised in the context of the coronavirus about the continued viability of large, dense cities. Chakrabarti’s thoughts are fundamentally optimistic, but also — not surprisingly — a challenge to the planning status quo.

The Singularity of Single-Family Zoning

Another mainstream piece — this one by Justin Fox at Bloomberg — zooms in on the role of zoning laws in the housing crisis of metropolitan America. This one focuses on the abnormality of the American approach, which has set aside large portions of our municipalities for single-family housing since the days of Euclid v. Ambler. It feels like we’ve reached a crescendo of MSM coverage of the zoning-affordability question. Here’s another recent article from The Economist. This trend in coverage is good news.

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.