The Decline of Chinatown’s Bilingual Street-Name Signs

I’ve always liked New York’s Chinatown, and its unique, bilingual riff on standard street-naming has highlighted the special qualities of this neighborhood for as long as I can remember — distinguishing its corners from those in the surrounding blocks of the Lower East Side and the so-called Civic Center (that cluster of neoclassical courthouses and public buildings centered on Foley Square). So this article at the Times gave me a pang of sadness — zeroing in, as it does, on a small but meaningful detail that I’d also noticed, showing how cities can change slowly, then all at once.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to work in the Municipal Building, on Centre Street, for some time. Being there daily afforded me frequent opportunities to cover the blocks of Chinatown on foot (as well as the various subparts of the Lower East Side and SoHo), block by block, during lunch hours. I noticed then that the center of gravity was moving eastward, with a commercial nexus increasingly focused on East Broadway, far from the old core along Canal, Mott, and Mulberry Streets.

I also noticed that the new street-name signs were rarely subtitled, like the older ones had been:

Bilingual street signs in New York’s Chinatown, circa 2017. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The Times essay, linked above, covers the history of these signs in the context of the history of the neighborhood. I do hope their decline is not a harbinger of rapid change. There have been rumors that Chinatown could soon be made a target for more intense gentrification; and some has already begun. But because it has not gone full-scale (yet), Chinatown is one of the few places in Lower Manhattan that retains some of the character of an older New York City — a messy, discordant, multilayered urban universe (photos by your webmaster) whose spirit has largely been tamed and curated into submission, elsewhere in the tangle of narrow downtown blocks that once teemed with so much human variety.

That is to say, Chinatown is still New York City, as it was meant to be. And I, for one, hope it will stay that way for a while longer.

Inventing a National Currency in a Divided Nation

An early ten-dollar note, including a likeness of Abraham Lincoln.

Here’s an engaging essay by Roger Lowenstein, at the WSJ, plugging a new book he’s written on the same theme: the early story of U.S. paper money and its debut by the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. This snapshot illustrates how hard it would be to overstate the transformative force of that bloody war in U.S. history. So much that has shaped and defined the modern Nation, not merely in areas of federalism and abolition, but also especially in the landscapes of law and economics, can be traced to the crucible of the 1860s. Our paper money — vested with an intangible faith in a particular living system, rather than a redemption value in a abidingly precious metal — is another ghost of that time.

Gated, But Without Gates

That’s basically how Binyamin Appelbaum, at the Times, is describing the housing situation today in suburban Long Island, and he’s right. Four decades is an awfully long time to have to beg the good people of an ostensibly enlightened New York suburb to approve fewer than 150 new apartments:

Housing Help, a local civil rights group, first proposed the 146-unit development, known as Matinecock Court, in the late 1970s to provide some of the less expensive housing that the town so desperately needs. Huntington fought the project all the way to the Supreme Court, and even after losing the case, officials continued to find ways to delay development.

It’s not even a rental property. It’s a limited-equity cooperative. More:

For others, the issue has been transformed because now, rather than strangers, it is their children who are in need of more affordable homes. Hunter Gross, 26, grew up in Huntington and returned to the town after college in Ohio and a few years in Brooklyn. Mr. Gross, the head of a group called the Huntington Township Housing Coalition, which supports more development, makes about $60,000 a year as a political consultant, but he said he slept in a spare bedroom at his aunt’s house because he hasn’t been able to find an apartment.

None of this is new. In The Poor Side of Town, Howard Husock reported that in the late 1940s William Levitt resorted to packing a Hempstead zoning board meeting with a sympathetic crowd of returning World War II veterans (and their young families) to win approval from a skeptical board for a proposal that would become Levittown. Keeping certain groups of people out of town — and making others beg for permission to develop private property — has been par for the course since the advent of American zoning. (In earlier eras, subdivisions could achieve exclusion through similar devices in private covenants, but municipalities had less direct power to do so.) The biggest change is how much further up the socioeconomic hierarchy the exclusion now goes.

Still, one can be sure there’s no shortage of, “In this home, we believe …” lawn signs in Huntington. Across the New York suburbs, the cost of a single-family home with modest curb-appeal is creeping ever closer to a million dollars, and property taxes often rate in thousands-per-month. Here, “no human is illegal” — just the apartment that he or she could afford live in.

Small Projects, Big Cities: An Abundance of Gems

I have a new essay at City Journal, in which I’ve reviewed Jim Heid’s recent book, Building Small: A Toolkit for Real Estate Entrepreneurs, Civic Leaders, and Great Communities. In this ULI Press publication, Heid, a Bay Area developer, offers a genuinely holistic and comprehensive approach to developing city lots (or combinations thereof) as small urban projects. His approach fits within the tradition by which cities have customarily been built: one small piece at a time.

Heid’s exploration shows how building small urban projects remains possible, and can still yield excellent results; but he also illustrates how the bureaucratic, regulatory, and financial parameters of present-day development culture have taken a timeless, iterative, and once-efficient process, and transformed it into something that is often much more difficult and expensive than the proponents of healthy growth should want it to be. This fits, unfortunately, with much of what we have covered at LegalTowns over the years.

On a practical note, Building Small offers readers a wealth of topical templates (hence, the ‘toolkit’ title), covering development tasks that range from structuring a special-purpose entity, to stacking funding from diverse sources, to working with attorneys (and identifying the qualities of good ones). Heid’s book is recommended, especially for planners and lawyers who value the development of coherent townscapes, and whose contributions to code development would be enriched by a clearer understanding of the small builder’s perspective. Small projects make great towns and cities.

Victorian brownstones on Carroll Street in Brooklyn. Most neighborhoods were traditionally developed lot by lot. This practice continued in American cities through the industrial era. While several adjoining lots were often built in tandem, the inherent potential for diversity on a single block, tempered by consistent spatial dimensions, due to building-lot sizes, fostered a balance between a spontaneous richness and an overarching order. This deepened over time, as individual owners modified their structures, or combined lots to create larger buildings with dimensions that were often neat multiples of the most prevalent, smaller houses. This quality of ordered irregularity is typical of older, traditional urban settings, like Park Slope, seen here; it is often absent from master-planned, strictly-zoned communities.

The Traditional Urbanism of New York’s West Village

I thoroughly enjoyed this pair of online classes from the ICAA. The planner Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro takes us on a grand tour of the urbanism of Greenwich Village, in which he touches on everything from Leon Krier’s elements of good traditional cities to the still-visible remnants of colonial property lines and century-old street extensions. 3.25 credits toward your ICAA Certificate in Classical Architecture if you complete the quiz at the end.

Part of the urban fabric of the West Village, as it stood in 1895, from a Sanborn map of Manhattan. Red is brick; yellow is wood frame; green is a special hazard (with brick or frame construction signified by dots or X’s, respectively). Evidently, the lot that now contains one of the city’s great jazz clubs, 55 Bar, was already numbered 55 Christopher Street in 1895. Next door, the building that would become the landmark Stonewall Inn, stood at 53-51. Source: New York Public Library.

A Quick Status Check on Zoning Reform

I have an article at Strong Towns that looks at recent zoning-reform developments from around the US, including — primarily — efforts to reduce the footprints of exclusively single-family residential zones. The goal of such efforts is allow for legal two-family homes, mother-in-law houses, studio apartments, and similar lower-impact arrangements on privately owned land. Check it out for a snapshot of reforms, and early results, in Minneapolis, Oregon, and California.

The Intrinsic Value of Poor (or Adaptable) Neighborhoods

Howard Husock’s The Poor Side of Town: and Why We Need It looks at the history of American housing policy since Jacob Riis. Exploring the social and economic value of poor neighborhoods, Husock examines how urban processes are intertwined with civil society, and their traditional role in allowing Americans (especially migrants) to shape their lives and obtain an initial foothold in a commercial society. Husock also explores how a century of American public policy — in particular, the growth of prescriptive land use regulations and the failures of large-scale public housing — has interrupted or distorted the participatory, resourceful urban adaptations that once fostered new communities and small-scale property wealth. My review of this timely and thoughtful book is now up at National Review.

Pace Jacob Riis, many working-class neighborhoods of the industrial age, like this street in Philadelphia circa 1910, comprised small rowhouses or other human-scaled housing options. Source: Helen Parrish, National Housing Association (1911).

The Missing Middle for Incremental Growth

I have a new essay in City Journal that looks at Daniel Parolek’s Missing Middle Housing — and the case for both land use and financing policies that encourage builders to develop more midsized housing options in growing regions. The bottom line: traditionally, homeowners could develop additional units as neighborhood markets signaled demand through rising prices. As this demand was met, prices would trend toward an equilibrium — with the smaller units being most affordable.

Today, land use policies often prevent or limit these kinds of resourceful adaptations by owners — and subject any proposed changes to the gauntlet of local politics, where those who oppose any change often have a deep advantage. (Note how even the legal concept of ‘spot zoning’ militates against boards allowing incremental change, by deeming it facially illegitimate to change the rules for a single property outside the comprehensive planning process — even though such gradual adaptation in response to opportunities is how cities have historically grown.) One result, in the aggregate, has been a widespread shortage of affordable housing in growing regions.

Victorian-era rowhouses in New York’s Hudson Valley. Such construction traditionally provided an attractive segment of housing on small amounts of land. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

Besim Hakim on Traditional Urban Growth

The historic center of Tunis, as it appeared circa 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring, I mentioned the work of Besim Hakim in an article at TAC about the traditional urbanism of the Mediterranean. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to speak with Hakim (an incredibly kind and knowledgeable man); and also to read an earlier book of his, Arabic-Islamic Cities, in which he laid out his findings about traditional urban planning rules from the Islamic world. Here’s an excerpt from a review that I offered:

Excellent research and analysis. The author provides an in-depth study of the traditional rules and urban forms that shaped urban growth in the Islamic west (i.e., the Maghreb and Andalucía). Much of what he uncovers and writes about (including treatises by medieval jurists and observations of repeating patterns) adds significant depth to the conventional present-day, Western understanding of urban genesis.

The author’s primary case study is the old city of Tunis, which sits near the Mediterranean coast, close to the site of ancient Carthage. For more than a thousand years, Tunis grew according to a bundle of simple and flexible traditions. The author’s maps and diagrams illuminate these visually — and an accompanying narrative provides context and explanation. Topics range from the small (e.g., party walls, windows, houses, and cul-de-sacs) to the large (e.g., marketplaces, religious sites, defensive walls, and citywide patterns).

Many unique elements of Islamic and Mediterranean urbanism (e.g., covered markets, privacy measures shaped by religious traditions, and arcades over public streets) are treated carefully. Citations to the Quran and Hadith illuminate the cultural aspects of the Islamic components (or justifications) of the urban form. (A later book by the same author, Mediterranean Urbanism, traces a variety of similar urban phenomena from ancient times down through the Byzantine Empire to the building practices of Christian Europe.)

This is a valuable piece of scholarship that is focused on the traditional, sustainable building patterns of vernacular urbanism. Urban planners, lawyers, builders, and architects should read this (as well as Hakim’s Mediterranean Urbanism) for a deeper understanding of how towns and cities were traditionally formed. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in urbanism, history, property law, or the dynamic between customs and the built environment.

I’m gradually making progress on an essay that I think will be of interest to general readers, that will examine some of this history, including what Hakim has uncovered. In the meantime, I highly recommend Hakim’s work to readers with an interest in the nuts and bolts of more traditional approaches to urban growth. His writing is incredibly interesting, well researched and documented, and relevant to the challenges towns and cities face today.

Lehigh Valley Blues

Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1910.

Addison del Mastro has a thoughtful essay at Real Clear Policy about the changing real estate landscape in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, a region that includes the older cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. His piece is focused on the disappearance of affordable housing across the region as it becomes more closely entwined with the economy of New York City. Long-term residents are being priced out; new housing is coming online very slowly, due to the usual morass of American regulatory barriers; and what’s being built largely caters to those with money.

I find it very sad to see this phenomena marching deeper into the American continent. Clearly, we have learned little from the past 40 years, because this is a repetition of a pattern that was seen in the working-class parts of New Jersey and the outer boroughs of New York City a generation ago. A community cannot absorb a great influx of new people under restrictive land use regulations without squeezing out long-term residents. At first, the results seem positive: reinvestment in vacant properties and improving tax rolls. But once any slack in the market is soaked up, this is what happens. And while some owners will cash out on rising property values, local renters and young people will be the ones who get the business end of the deal.

On a brighter note, it’s true what Addison writes about Pennsylvania’s small-town urbanism, here and on his Substack. My firm recently proposed on some planning work in the anthracite coal region, where zoning has never been enacted by some towns. The urban patterns are very traditional. Towns may be five blocks long, but for those five blocks it feels as though you’re in an old city. It’s nice.