An Update

I’ve been very busy juggling more time-sensitive priorities over the last couple of months, and my postings here have suffered. I apologize to regular readers for being AWOL during that period, and I will try to be more clear about it in the future when things come up. I’m having a little bit of a breather now, so I’m going to begin catching up the New Jersey Land Use Updates. I should also have more general content soon. Thanks for reading. – T.

EHS Settles Fraud Accusations

This caught my eye, and brought back some memories. I stayed in an EHS building for a semester when I was at the New School, back in 2001. The company was a total slumlord. The school had a contract with EHS, so when I signed up for university housing I was given a room in one of their buildings, as if it were a dorm.

The place was in Brooklyn Heights. EHS had recently acquired the building, and the room hadn’t been touched since the acquisition. The previous owners had used the building as an SRO, so, really, it hadn’t been well maintained in a very long time. There was a small private bathroom within the room, and its doorknob was broken. The door itself had a big, black shoe mark squarely in its center, as if a previous tenant had tried to kick it in. This was a plausible theory, at least, given its tendency to trap a party inside, when fully closed. The water was never quite hot. The faucets would come off of the sink, exposing the tops of the valves. The carpeting in the main room had a plate-sized burn mark in the center of the floor. It didn’t seem like they had even thoroughly cleaned the place prior to the beginning of the semester. Other rooms in that part of the building were comparable, but there was another wing where things had at least been painted. It was very random.

I put in a request for a room change, but it went nowhere. I put in work orders to get things painted and repaired, but they went nowhere, either. And as anyone who dealt with the New School in those days knows, complaining to the university would have been an exercise in sheer futility. Then 9/11 happened, and having a shabby dorm room seemed like a very small problem. We actually took on additional roommates in that building — students who had been displaced from a building in Lower Manhattan. What a terrible time.

Trees v. Power Lines

On a smaller note, something about the utilities’ storm response in my neighborhood struck a nerve. Whenever I’ve spoken with anyone from any of the utilities, they’ve eventually come around to the same issue: Trees. Almost to a person, every customer service rep, lineman, or technician has pointed out that we have a lot of old trees in this neighborhood, as if this explains why our services are being restored more slowly here than in some neighboring areas. Seriously? So, now the trees are to blame for utility companies’ logistical problems? Just out of curiosity, I compared the outage rates that PSE&G was reporting several days after the storm in two neighboring municipalities: West Orange (where I live, and where most wires are overhead), and East Orange (which is an older city, where most of the utility lines have been buried for over a hundred years). The difference was striking:

Municipality                             Total Customers    Customers Out     Percent Out
ESSEX – EAST ORANGE CITY         30,403                 6,525                21.5%
ESSEX – WEST ORANGE TWP        19,970               11,078                55.5%
Source: Public Service Electric & Gas.

It’s a classic natural experiment, where a sudden event subjects two different scenarios to a comparable set of circumstances, with observable differences between the results. It’s no secret that suburban neighborhoods lose power more frequently, and for longer periods, after storms. And, of course, with a storm of Sandy’s magnitude, one would expect outages to be longer and more widespread. But stop blaming the trees. East Orange has plenty of old trees, too. It also, quite frankly, has a poorer population that enjoys less political clout — leading to an older infrastructure, fewer political favors in a time of crisis, and whatever other indignities such a disadvantage might entail. Yet two days after the storm, the percentage of East Orange households in the dark was approximately one-third of the percentage in suburban West Orange.

Yes, we do have a lot of old trees in this neighborhood. We’re very fortunate, and for the most part they’re great to have around, but sometimes they do come down when there’s a storm. But there’s a practice that’s worked for more than a hundred years to mitigate the effects of storm damage on utilities that transmit by wire: burying the lines. The practice also has the added benefit of creating more attractive neighborhoods by removing one of the most ubiquitous eyesores of the postwar American landscape. It’s not a perfect solution, and in flood zones, it might even do more harm than good. But, in light of the growing frequency of severe weather events, the time has come to start making this investment, again, in the places where doing so would be most effective.

The utilities don’t want to spend the money, and they’ve avoided doing so for a long time. Going forward, that has to change.

Back From the Storm

It’s funny how unaware one can be of his dependence on modernity until a ten-day stretch without power comes along. Fortunately, aside from the epic utility interruptions, there was no trouble at the house. Nearby, things weren’t so lucky. This was the scene at a neighbor’s place after the storm:


Note that this picture was taken after a hundred-year-old tree had been removed from the roof. Here’s a shot of another tree that came down in the same vicinity:

So, the effects of Sandy were fairly bad in this part of Essex County. We have an elevation of about 500 feet a.s.l., and we’re situated on the first ridge of mountains that runs behind the coastal plain– so we took a direct blow from the high winds that came in off the ocean. But the impact here was still mild compared to what happened in low-lying areas of the region: There was no flooding here.

We had no idea, initially, how extensive the damage had been to the entire utility system. There wasn’t much specific communication from PSE&G, Verizon, or Comcast. In the end, it took ten full days to have our electricity restored — almost to the minute. To this day — 23 days after the storm — cable television has still not been restored. Go Comcast! No one in this cluster of houses uses a landline, so who knows what happened with those?

New Study Finds Fault With New Jersey Land Use

New Jersey 1884.

New Jersey Future presents a concise digest of a sobering new report by researchers at Rowan University, concerning the land use patterns of New Jersey since 1970.  The report finds modest support for a positive impact from the Mount Laurel doctrine, but an overall increase in both exclusionary zoning policies and inefficient land use patterns.  The report also finds a growing separation between the locations of housing and employment opportunities in Monmouth and Somerset, a trend that foreshadows more wasted resources and greater traffic congestion.  This is not how the state should be developed.

End of El Norte?

For the last generation, Mexican migration to the United States has been one of the strongest factors driving neighborhood change, labor markets, and housing demand in American cities from California to New Jersey.  Now the Times has a report, riffing off of research by Princeton’s Douglas Massey, that suggests that the long era characterized by heavy migration from Mexico may be coming to a close.  If the trend is real, it will be interesting to examine how U.S. urban development is influenced by this change over the next several years.