I love this setup at the Roberson Museum in Binghamton, New York. I remember going to see an earlier version of this project at Christmastime when I was growing up in the 1980s. The model of pre-war American urbanism, accurately centered around railroads, is incredibly realistic down to the smallest details — including an old A&P grocery store with a billboard for its Eight O’clock Coffee above the storefront. Now that I think of it, this exhibit had an outsized influence on my early interest in how towns and cities were organized.
I have a short essay at Inwood Gazette, an Upper Manhattan photoblog and news site. My piece complements photos by the talented qphotonyc to examine the progress (and the lack of progress) on rail infrastructure in New York City, through the lens of the newly opened (and actually quite beautiful) Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station.
My latest piece at TAC’s New Urbs looks at the incredible, two-volume Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Sapienza’s Andrea Carandini. An excerpt:
The detail and precision of the Atlas are extensive and impressive: As in Lanciani’s [19th century] work, every inch of the ancient city’s physical footprint is covered in Carandini’s. Here, this means all of the urban land that was enclosed by the city walls in the third century. Within this context, countless individual monuments, buildings, and outdoor sites are illustrated at higher resolutions in plan-and-section form. All drawings are color-coded to distinguish between extant structures, archaeological records, and scholars’ presumptions; and to date as much of the evidence as possible.
The written parts of the Atlas are thorough and serious. A collection of scholarly essays provides narratives of the ancient city’s infrastructure networks, building methods, natural environment, and demographic trends. Chapters on each of the 14 Augustan regiones—essentially, its political wards—are methodically organized, beginning with notes about urban planning, and proceeding to histories of urban change across the span of classical antiquity. The methodology used to collect and organize the information contained in the Atlas is also discussed at length—creating a degree of transparency between the editor and his readers that is refreshingly candid.
Here’s an interesting bit of American urban and legal history. In 1791 and 1792, a team led by Andrew Ellicott (including the famous Benjamin Banneker) surveyed the boundaries of the original District of Columbia.
In its first iteration, the District was shaped like a diamond, each side ten miles in length. It comprised the limits of the present city of Washington, whose lands were donated by Maryland, and a somewhat smaller area on the Virginia side of the Potomac.
In 1849, Virginia recovered its portion of the federal district, leaving only Maryland’s former portion as the federal district. So, today, a map of the City of Washington, D.C., looks like this:
Meanwhile, most of the land that Virginia reclaimed became today’s Arlington County, which retains the corresponding geometry of the original diamond for much of its boundary. The remainder is now in the independent city of Alexandria.
Today, the boundary stones set out by Ellicott, Banneker, et al., still, for the most part, exist — including those defining Virginia’s former portion of the District, which, in an alternate history, might also have remained legally a part of the nation’s capital.
You can learn more, and see all of the remaining D.C. markers, by visiting boundarystones.org.
I’m happy to report that The American Conservative, in its New Urbs feature, has just published my article about the land-use efficiency of New York’s turn-of-the-century apartment houses. My piece focuses on the period before zoning — although building safety codes did impose some limits on construction — with an eye to the simple, practical measures such as courtyards and alleyways that builders of the time used to make efficient use of small parcels — and to make room for more people to live comfortably in New York City. Hope you enjoy.
Incredible. The Museum at Eldridge Street, located near the base of the Manhattan Bridge is a restored 1887 synagogue — the first house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in New York City. The block on which it is located is now very much Chinatown, but in the late 19th century it was at the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side.
The synagogue was almost lost to abandonment in the 1970s, but has now been meticulously restored. I walked in on a lunch break last week, expecting just to look around and take some pictures. Instead, I was lucky to coincide with a scheduled tour with an incredibly knowledgeable docent, Ester, who told the story of the congregation from its founding in the late Victorian period through the neighborhood’s transition, the synagogue’s decline, and finally the building’s beautiful restoration.
The blue stained-glass window is recent; the rest of the details are original. Most of what looks like marble or masonry is actually wood. Very much worth a visit.
A good decision was handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court today on an important Mount Laurel controversy. In its unanimous ruling (responding to an interlocutory appeal from the Appellate Division), the Justices found that New Jersey municipalities must address the housing need that formed while the so-called Third Round numbers were in flux, between 1999 and 2015, in addition to the current need. This means the state’s towns and cities will be required to facilitate a larger number of affordable housing units.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, writing for the Court:
As to the fundamental disagreement — whether the gap period must be addressed — we waste no time in settling that issue. There is no fair reading of this Court’s prior decisions that supports disregarding the constitutional obligation to address pent-up affordable housing need for low- and moderate income households that formed during the years in which COAH was unable to promulgate valid Third Round rules.
Right on. The persistence of Mount Laurel cases highlights the virulent opposition from New Jersey municipalities to a 1970s finding that municipal zoning may not be used to exclude housing opportunities for low- and middle-income families in entire municipalities. For more than 40 years, certain towns have perennially fought to prevent this law from being carried out in a meaningful way. Their main complaint — though they rarely concede this in public — is the ‘fiscal impact’ of households whose children add to the public school rolls without contributing enough in property taxes to cover their costs. (Incidentally, the same stupid approach to school funding is one of the chief reasons New Jersey has become a paradise for strip mall development: more ratables, no kids.)
Credit goes to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which has maintained its jurisprudence on Mount Laurel for more than four decades. This has been done in the face of constant political pressure from those who would rather allow exclusionary, market-distorting zoning laws to go unchecked, allowing towns to become more exclusive, while pricing out more and more long-time residents.
In a piece called, “This Land Is Your Land. Or Is It?” Justin P. McBrayer uses the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a jumping-off point to question some of the most pervasive assumptions about private property, including how it comes to be, and the moral standing of one’s claim to ownership. Challenging the idea that history illuminates claims, he writes:
What are the chances that the money you used to buy your phone can be traced backward through your employer, your employer’s customers, and so on back through history without passing through the hands of a serious injustice? Slim to none. The same can be said for the seller’s side of the transaction. Chances are excellent that your phone arrived in your hand only after the exploitation of workers, abuse of the environment, theft, fraud, human trafficking, or any number of deal-breaking injustices.
This is true. It is especially true of currency, which passes through so many iterations of title, often in short periods of time. But even with tangible or intellectual property, and especially with land, a good number of today’s titles were created or have changed hands since their creation via some form of trickery or theft. Knowing this to be the case, one of the major challenges of property law is to determine when, if ever, the law should throw its weight behind a private claim to ownership. One could make the argument that the presumption ought to be against such claims; that the burden of proof should fall on the person in possession who seeks to claim anything more than mere possession. To some extent, this burden already exists. Buyers take title at their own peril, hence, the need for title insurance. But the burden could be greater. Good title, itself, could have to be proven against the presumption of historical wrongs, before it could vest. That is to say, the moral rationale that underpins legal title could have to be proven by the one claiming ownership.
One inevitable result of such an approach would be to have much more property in common ownership. That is to say, such a burden would be so difficult to meet that, were it to be established as a requirement, nearly everything in private hands would default to the commons. From a socialist viewpoint, this mass erosion of title might seem desirable, providing as it would a basis for tearing down claims to private property that are undoubtedly dubious, but that nonetheless, because they are supported by legal presumptions, provide the basis for real economic and political power in the present time. But, as with most attempts to legislate an ideal, such a structure would present its own host of difficulties through its intrinsic conflicts with human nature. The human propensity to fight over property creates powerful incentives for the law to sanction and settle who has title to what, without necessarily examining the immemorial chaos that has gotten us to the status quo. By decisively recognizing titles, and presuming that possession can be equated, in most cases, with recognizable ownership, the law averts an infinite number of potential conflicts, and creates incentives for individuals to acquire wealth peacefully, rather than by force.
This compromise, like most law, remains both logically and morally imperfect. But, so what? If, as Holmes famously remarked, the path of the law is experience, not logic — that is, if there is no perfect answer to the power struggles that characterize life within civilization that can be reconciled with what we know of human nature — then why shouldn’t practicability have the last word on these matters, at least when what is most practicable is not in direct conflict with any fundamental moral consensus? From such an angle, the current system of private property titling is actually quite defensible, so long as there is sufficient opportunity in the marketplace for those who act legally and peacefully to acquire enough private property for the system of incentives to work. With this caveat, the system largely keeps the peace and provides incentives for individuals to work, invest, and improve their property. The practicable imperative, therefore, is not to divest a large number of economic stakeholders of their admittedly dubious but nonetheless socially stabilizing claims; it is to ensure that enough economic opportunities exist for others, still in line, to ensure that existing claims do not become the obsessive objects of jealousy and scrutiny.
Emily Matchar at Smithsonian.com has an article on the state of the art of self-healing concrete. The concept:
Inspired by the human body, Jonkers [the inventor], who works at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, created self-healing concrete. He embeds the concrete with capsules of limestone-producing bacteria, either Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii, along with calcium lactate. When the concrete cracks, air and moisture trigger the bacteria to begin munching on the calcium lactate. They convert the calcium lactate to calcite, an ingredient in limestone, thus sealing off the cracks.
The article notes that the embedded bacteria can remain dormant in the material for more than 200 years. The current high price — about $40 per square meter — means that the material will likely be reserved for use in special situations, for the time being, such as underground and underwater structures. Meanwhile, Nwakibe Kanu at HAKSblog provides a somewhat broader survey of self-healing materials. He writes:
Other self-healing materials have built-in microcapsules filled with a glue-like chemical that can repair damage. If the material cracks, the capsules break, exposing the healing agent and sealing the crack. It is possible that such a mix will be viable on a large scale within the next five years.
This is all pretty awesome.
This story is consistent with what I’ve been hearing, and it suggests that the growing unionization of the New York metropolitan workforce is being driven by strength in the real estate sector.
It’s going to be a strong few years for new construction in the Tri-state area. Hudson Yards is now seriously getting underway; the Cornell-Technion project is gaining momentum; and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center continues. Add to these the residential booms in Northern Brooklyn and Western Queens; the blue-collar renaissance of the West Bronx; de Blasio’s push for more affordable housing units, citywide; the commodification of NYC residential units, and the sliverscrapers it has spawned; and the potential upzoning of East Midtown; and it’s hard to miss seeing that New York real estate is entering a significant phase of expansion. If confidence fades, this could change, but a lot of these projects are already approved and financed, and right now the momentum remains strong.
This, right now, is a heyday for New York City. America may still be in moderately bad shape, post-2008, but New York City has never been wealthier, safer, more polished, or more in demand. The uptick in local construction activity is creating a lot of new union jobs in Greater New York, which is good for working people’s incomes — and it signals their growing political clout, as well.