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.
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.
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: https://www.legaltowns.com/category/the-bronx/
All three are located in the Bedford Park section:
356 Bedford Park Boulevard, New York, N.Y.
280 Bedford Park Boulevard, New York, N.Y.
2806 Pond Place, New York, N.Y.
The momentum just keeps building:
Keep your eyes on the Bronx. That’s the next borough. They’re ready for it. They have land available, and that’s the primary factor.
— Louis Coletti, CEO, Building Trades Employers Association, in TRD.
Today would have been my grandmother’s 99th birthday. She grew up in the Bronx, mainly in the 1920s, and like so many city kids of her generation, she moved out of the city as soon as she moved out of her mother’s house — first to upstate New York, then to northern Westchester, and eventually to a tiny apartment in New Rochelle, where she grew old. But what happened in, and to, the Bronx was not lost on her, or on the other family members or friends who started life there. And if they were living today, I’m certain that they would be pleased to see the old neighborhoods beginning to recover.
Crain’s New York Business has some recent rent data showing that the West Bronx continues to heat up — albeit slowly and maybe inequitably. What’s really interesting about this report is that it doesn’t seem to find outright gentrification so much as the solidifying of a moderate-income housing market, which is beginning to displace the neighborhood’s poor.
Much of the West Bronx was developed in the early 20th century for market-rate, middle-class urban housing; now, the housing stock seems to be aligning with that market sector, again. Here’s an old image of the early phase of Bronx and upper Manhattan development at the end of the 19th century, as the large lots of detached houses were being replaced by mid-scale apartment buildings:
Notably, the patterns of the West Bronx (between Manhattan and the Bronx River), including street layout, lot sizes, and early architecture, were built, simply, as a natural extension of New York City, which could no longer be contained in Manhattan. Unlike the other boroughs, which were developed independently of New York City, there was no distinction between Manhattan and the Bronx (other than the Harlem River) until the five boroughs were established in 1898.
This is why street numbering and house numbering in the Bronx are continuations of the same in Manhattan; and why you will never find the same two digits at the end of a Manhattan ZIP code as you will at the end of a Bronx one. The latter fact is because, in the days of postal codes, the post office treated both boroughs as, simply, “New York,” due to their shared history. Thus, a building in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan would have had the address, “New York 10, N.Y.,” while a house in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx would have been, “New York 63, N.Y.”
My cousin recently found an apartment near this surviving NYC detached Victorian-type house. The Victorian sits on an oddly shaped corner lot at Briggs Avenue and East 201st Street. The owner seems to like gardening, and there is at least one well-fed cat living in the yard. It’s two blocks down from the Grand Concourse, and it’s in much better shape than most of the similar houses on Woodycrest Avenue in High Bridge. Unfortunately, it’s not part of a cluster. There are some other detached houses nearby, but they’re not of the same style or period.
Update: I’m using Google Maps Engine now to create a database of these houses. Since there are thousands of examples of Victorian architecture in New York City, here are the criteria, for now:
1. The structure must have been built within the legal boundaries of the pre-1898 City of New York. That is, the present-day borough of Manhattan, or the portion of the present-day Bronx that lies west of the Bronx River.
2. For the time being, I’m going to cut off the year of construction (if determinable) in 1910, because there was a burst of this type of construction around the turn of the century. (So, we’re actually looking for Victorian and Edwardian-era houses.) I don’t want to exclude structures that were part of an organic phenomenon, simply because the city’s legal boundaries were expanded to include other, non-NYC-proper phenomena (e.g., Brooklyn, Flushing, etc.). But at some point, I may create separate categories for pre-1898 and post-1898 houses.
3. The structure must be (or show evidence of having once been) a fully-detached house. Evidence could include side-windows and façades, and side yards that are (or clearly were) more than mere alleyways.
4. Finally (the fun part), the structure must show evidence of Victorian-era (especially, American Queen Anne-style) architectural details, such as cones, turrets, towers, stained-glass windows, bays, wraparound porches, asymmetrical façades, and the like — or strong evidence that such features were originally incorporated into the structure, but have since been modified or removed.
And, by all means, please send along any new finds that meet the criteria!
I thought this Britannica map of the New York Harbor area in 1885 was pretty interesting. It shows how the West Bronx had been incorporated into the city long before Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, or the East Bronx would be — and why the remaining detached Victorian houses in that area are significant to New York City‘s urban history, as opposed to the separate histories of Brooklyn or Flushing or other towns that were unfolding during the same time period. Mainly because of its shape, the map also gives a good look at where the larger cities in North Jersey were at the same time.
I like the inebriate and lunatic asylums on Ward’s Island. And also the way that the cartographer jumped the gun on the first Hudson Tube (showing a “Tunnel” between Greenwich Village and Jersey City). That’s not entirely wrong — it actually was been being attempted in 1885, and the mapmaker probably didn’t want to leave off an important project. But due to legal, financial, and engineering challenges, it wouldn’t be finished until 22 years later, in 1907.
Update: I found a companion plate that shows the details of Manhattan below Central Park. It includes the names of the ship lines on the Hudson River and East River piers, and Thirteenth Avenue.
The Atlantic has some incredible photos of the East Side Access (ESA) project. When you see too many good ideas mired in legalities and politics, it’s easy to forget what humankind is capable of achieving; and then you see images like these, which are really quite inspiring. Because sometimes meaningful things actually do get done. (Just not in New Jersey.)
If the ultimate cost of service can be kept reasonable, then the service upgrades supported by this project will pay dividends through transit-oriented development around Long Island Railroad stations in Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk. There’s also a serious proposal that was discussed last year to add direct Metro-North service via the ESA project to the affordable housing markets of Parkchester and Co-Op City in the Bronx. What’s happening today under the East River will likely support the next generation of neighborhoods in metro New York.
All of the solid building stocks in Brooklyn were discovered at least a decade ago — and since then, people have taken to upgrading parcels in the Victorian slums of that borough, like Bushwick. Upper Manhattan is well on its way, too, with new investors moving into the multifamily buildings of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood. (To be fair, Bloomberg does note that some of the recent uptown sales activity flows from multiple sales by institutional investors who are bailing out of big, pre-2008 bets that they had made on those neighborhoods.) Queens is really interesting, culturally, but it has a limited number of existing, traditionally urban neighborhoods. So where’s the love for some of New York City’s best apartment architecture, rarest Victorian mansions, most unusual topographies, and densest transit infrastructure, in the urban core of the Bronx? And does recent activity in the Arthur Avenue section offer a preview of what may be coming? (I really hope not.)
(Here, an Art Deco residential building and a Gothic-style stone church stand beside one another on the edge of a steep hill, where East Tremont Avenue drops to meet Valentine Avenue in the Tremont section of New York City. Note the intricacy of the relationship between the buildings and their respective contexts: The architects of the apartment house clearly designed their building for this parcel, following the curve of East 176th Street for the contour of their façade, and taking advantage of the adjacent church tower’s five-foot setback to create double-exposed corner windows. Meanwhile, the church, though suffering a location without southern exposures, is located on a parcel opposite a park, whose perpetual open space has maximized the amount of sunlight that illuminates the large, stained-glass windows.)