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.

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.

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.

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.

Housing Exuberance?

An exuberant house in New York City’s Douglaston neighborhood. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

In an interview this week with Yahoo! Finance, Yale economist Robert Shiller weighed in on the state of the US housing market, which has surged during Covid-time. Longtime readers may know that I’ve long found Shiller’s market analysis intriguing — especially because he has such a keen interest in the human customs and psychology that shape our markets, and those factors tend to be hard to quantify (which undermines the supposedly mathematical nature of trade). In this clip, Shiller talks a bit about some of the psychological factors that may be at work in the Covid-time housing boom — and where things may be going next. His bottom line? “Home prices are likely to be high for another year or two, and they will bring in a supply response and come back down. Not overnight, but enough to cause some pain.”

For context, this month, the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller New York Home Price NSA Index showed a housing price change in the New York City region of 12.3 percent (+) in the 12 months ending March 2021 — almost precisely corresponding to the year that followed the March 2020 Covid shut-down in New York City and its suburbs.

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 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 practice of dicing up neighborhoods and excluding African-American areas from mortgage eligibility. The heyday of this coincided with the heyday of post-war, first-time suburban home ownership in the United States — and that timing 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 it had in 1939. Newark, the county seat and largest city, 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 are mainly Black were already Black neighborhoods by 1939, and the matter-of-fact prejudice expressed in otherwise mundane business notes leaves no doubt that mortgage lending — at least during the late Depression — was based on an overtly discriminatory calculus.

Also remarkable, given the conventional understanding about what redlining was, is how clear it is that these maps were also used to justify discrimination against other groups — including many of European origin. Thus, Italian and Jewish enclaves were singled out for negative treatment. Many poor and working-class neighborhoods with mostly European residents were classified red, just as Black neighborhoods were. In both Newark, N.J. and New York City (maps are also posted for each of the five NYC boroughs) many of the red districts described as “slums” encompassed residents of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. And working-class neighborhoods that avoided being fatally redlined were typically shaded yellow — branding their properties as the second least desirable class of collateral.

The impact of these maps is not clear. 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 allowed lenders to analyze the building stock in any slice of any city.

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 might align with early land-use zoning maps developed around the same time is another topic for exploration.

It is worth noting that private covenants were still 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 had discriminatory provisions of their own.