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.

The Story Behind Erie RR Co. v. Tompkins

This 2019 law review article by Brian L. Frye, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” is more than an excellent piece of legal history scholarship. It is also a riveting tale of ambitious lawyers, the dangers of freight trains, hoboes during the Great Depression, life in Pennsylvania’s coal country, and a how a host of terrible American class attitudes crossed paths in the aftermath of one poor man’s grievous injuries.

To be honest, I couldn’t stop reading. A taste:

At about 2:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27, 1934, William Colwell of Hughestown, Pennsylvania was awakened by two young men banging on his front door. When he went downstairs, they told him that someone had been run over by a train. Colwell looked out his side window. In the moonlight, he saw someone lying on the ground near the railroad tracks. He went back upstairs and told his wife that there had been an accident. She told him “not to go out, that them fellows was crazy,” but he dressed and went out to help anyway.

Colwell’s house was at the stub-end of Hughes Street, where it ran into the railroad tracks. When he reached the tracks, he discovered his neighbor Harry James Tompkins, about 6 or 10 feet south of Hughes Street. Tompkins had a deep gash on his right temple, and his severed right arm was in between the tracks. Colwell told the young men to go to Mrs. Rentford’s house down the street and call an ambulance. After calling the ambulance, they disappeared.

Here is a direct link to the whole article, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” at the Akron Law Review.

Elsewhere, Frye gives fascinating accounts of the legal theories, interests, and found-facts that helped shape the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case that resulted, Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938) (“There is no federal general common law.”), raising the strong possibility that there was a bit more to the story than what made it into Justice Brandeis’s written opinion.

My own small contribution to preserving the history of the Erie case: I added a marker to Google Maps near the abandoned railroad crossing where Mr. Tompkins was hurt in 1934.

A Time to Build

Traditional city rooflines on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the United States needs 5.5 million new housing units. That’s a serious backlog. As a nation, we are not building homes quickly enough to keep up with population growth. This is the story behind the soaring prices we hear about in the news. Digging a bit deeper, it could also be a key factor in falling birthrates and adults who continue to live in their parents’ home. So, how do we get serious about building the homes people need? Shouldn’t the market be driving toward an equilibrium?

The market is hot (again), but the shortage is chronic. Part of the problem is undoubtedly zoning, especially in the regions with the greatest demand. In New Jersey, the Mount Laurel doctrine has been a valuable tool since the 1970s, when it established the basic legal principle that zoning is a state action that may not be used to exclude entire classes of state residents from particular communities; to do so is inconsistent with the 1947 New Jersey Constitution. (I simplify, but not too much.) The New Jersey Fair Housing Act, which the state legislature enacted in 1985 to follow the Mount Laurel cases, has helped produce a significant number of regulated affordable units, over the years. Yet Mount Laurel, though based on an exemplary principle, has invited constant political resistance. Its implementation has been obnoxiously complicated. Worse, it does little tangible good for New Jersey residents who don’t fall into the income band for affordable housing — or even many who do, because the demand always outstrips the availability of units.

Yet today, more than four decades after Mount Laurel crystallized the concept of exclusionary zoning, the impacts of a chronic housing shortage reach much further up New Jersey’s socioeconomic hierarchy than they did in 1974, when the first case was argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court. That is, there remains a severe shortage of decent, affordable housing units for poor and working-class people. But there is also a dearth of homes for sale (or rent) at higher price points, in many communities — a bottleneck similar to ones that have formed, to greater or lesser degrees, in other high-cost metropolitan regions throughout the world. Not surprisingly, out-migration continues apace. Yet immigration keeps the overall population going up. Those who stay pay more for less.

So how can this unmet housing need be met? And should housing policy necessarily be bureaucratized, or could it be pursued more effectively by unlocking the private production of more market-built, non-income-regulated units? One concept that the Mount Laurel formulas acknowledge is filtering. That is, older units (often well built!) will become more affordable, through market forces, when newer units are produced quickly enough to soak up a lot of the high-end demand. This is how, for example, poor and working-class people inherited the incredible (if neglected) Art Deco apartments of the Grand Concourse (for a time — they are getting expensive again!).

I believe the next frontier will be a process of artfully (at best) customizing and improving zoning laws. Done wisely, this will foster the construction of market-rate homes that complement our existing neighborhoods while improving land values and strengthening public finances.

Urban Forms of the Mediterranean

My latest piece is up at TAC‘s New Urbs — an essay reflecting on how nature and culture have shaped the urban patterns of the Mediterranean region, and what we might learn from the wisdom of this particular Old World approach. Not surprisingly, the writings of Camillo Sitte (about Italian towns, in particular) figured heavily in this piece — as did a fascinating scholarly book: Mediterranean Urbanism, by Besim Hakim, which identifies, translates (!), and analyzes many of the written laws that historically shaped the towns and cities of Southern Europe and the Near East. Hakim’s book, which examines influences from Greece and Rome through Byzantium and Islam, is an incredible resource for understanding one of the world’s richest cultures of traditional urbanism.

A street in Rome.

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 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

A surviving Victorian in the West Bronx. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

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.

As it looked in 2012. Credit: Google Maps

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: https://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.