Edward L. Glaeser on Houston-versus-New York City

Incredibly interesting food for thought. I’m not always comfortable with some of the fare that Glaeser offers (Neither is Ryan Avent.), but this is worth the read.

But what if, like most Americans, you are neither a partner at Goldman nor a penniless immigrant? Consider an average American family with skills that put them in the middle of the U.S. income distribution—nurses, sales representatives, retail managers—and aspirations to a middle-class lifestyle. What kind of life will such people lead in Houston and New York City, respectively?

For starters, they’ll probably earn less in Houston, though not as much less as you might think. In the 2000 U.S. Census, the typical registered nurse made $50,000 in New York and $40,000 in Houston. A retail manager earned $28,000 in New York and $27,800 in Houston. Let’s be generous to New York and assume that our middle-income family would earn $70,000 there but just $60,000 in Houston.

If our Houston family’s income is lower, however, its housing costs are much lower. In 2006, residents of Harris County, the 4-million-person area that includes Houston, told the census that the average owner-occupied housing unit was worth $126,000. Residents valued about 80 percent of the homes in the county at less than $200,000. The National Association of Realtors gives $150,000 as the median price of recent Houston home sales; though NAR figures don’t always accurately reflect average home prices, they do capture the prices of newer, often higher-quality, housing.

[ . . . ]

The average home price in New York City is dramatically higher. In 2006, the census put it at $496,000, and $787,900 in Manhattan—way out of reach for a family earning $70,000 a year. There are cheaper options: a perfectly pleasant Staten Island home with three bedrooms and two baths for $340,000, for instance.

[ . . . ]

Ah, but doesn’t it cost a lot more to get around sprawling Houston? The Houstonians must have two cars: the poor public-transit system leaves them no other choice. American families earning $60,000 typically spend about $8,500 a year on transportation—and sure enough, in Houston, that’s sufficient (barely) to cover gas, insurance, and payments on two relatively inexpensive cars.

Just as with housing, however, there’s a significant difference in the quality of transportation in Houston and New York. In Houston, the middle-class breadwinner likely will drive an air-conditioned car from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned workplace, and take 27.4 minutes to do it, on average. Commuting via New York public transit is more complicated. If you live in Queens, the average commute to midtown Manhattan (if that’s where you work, as we’ll say) is 42 minutes, and longer if you’re coming from Far Rockaway.

The question, I believe, that urban planners must contemplate is “How do we engender the higher quality of life, at least quantitatively speaking, enjoyed in Houston in real cities, cities designed well, in ways that embrace high standards of aesthetics, decrease reliance on the automobile, and facilitate community (vague term, I know!) in meaningful ways?” New Urbanism, I believe, has a role to play, but it, too, proves to be problematic. In fact, it’s that, when done properly, New Urbanism can be too good for its own good, driving up the market rate on properties, turning “gentrification” into a force of division and inequality, rather than the positive phenomenon that it can, and should, be. It bears on my aforementioned concern about property valuation, but, again, I’m not entirely sure how to address this properly, in a way that improves communities, as discussed above, without requiring more dastardly government intervention in the market.


Excuses; forthcoming

I realize that I’ve been particularly remiss in my web-logging duties of late. For this, I apologize. The school year has started off far more busily than I could have prognosticated: Already, I’ve a project due, tomorrow, in my studio; I serve as a teaching assistant; I have two other courses, both of which require some of my time; and I’m the editor-in-chief of The Terrapin Times, a paper in disarray: This job has taken quite a bit of my time. Fear not, though, loyal readers: The next few days, save tonight, as much of which as necessary I shall spend in the studio, I shall dedicate to at least some of the following, as well as whatever else strikes me fancy.

*Larison’s “Kosmopolitis Take Two”, in response to Helen’s “Does Veneration Really Wither on the Pavements?”, and my thoughts on urban conservatism, aristocratic populism, and the like.

*The subject matter of this Washington Post article. Really, a website called BedPost, which “was created to map users’ sex lives online — everything from partner to duration of the encounter to descriptive words, which could later be viewed as a tag cloud.” Is nothing sacred, beyond the totalitarianism of the computer? Have we no shame?

*More on the District’s battle to destroy the Second Amendment.

*Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment: Why we should.

*Conservative New Urbanism, I swear, and some urban planning news.

*Belgium, John McCain’s campaign slogan, and the need for precision in language

Wal-Mart math

I’ll have much more (I hope!) to offer on this later. For now, though, I want to list a couple of statistics and then to return to my hard cider, which I enjoy before I must, somewhat unwillingly (I drove a John Deere tonight! I never have that opportunity in Maryland.), leave Indiana for the East Coast. These are really loose figures — and this is a really rambling post –, but they should give the reader some idea of the massive amount of ground coverage detailed.

At any given time, approximately three hundred and fifty Wal-Mart stores sit empty, the victims of relocation and/or expansion.

In Nineteen ninety-nine, the average empty Wal-Mart covered sixty-two thousand and fifty-seven square feet.

That’s about five hundred acres. Area dedicated to parking at a Wal-Mart sometimes as much as triples the acreage of the store. Estimating conservatively, we’ll go with two-and-one-half times. That takes us to about twelve hundred and fifty acres.

Think, now, about how many more Wal-Marts have, probably, closed their doors, about the increased size of stores — and the size of Supercenters and concomitant parking lots –, and the number of abandoned Home Depots, Lowe’s, and so forth. And don’t forget about shopping malls and strip malls. Stacy Mitchell, in 2000, wrote that, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, about five hundred million square feet of retail space sat empty (almost eleven thousand, five hundred acres!); acres of unused asphalt surround most of those vacant spaces.

Anyone not see something wrong with this?

More on this — with a point! — and, I hope, much more web-logging, once my respite in the Hoosier State ends and I return to the Free (except for all of those taxes) State

Ruminations on rootedness, place, community

Corresponding with a former professor regarding my next potential steps in academia, I made, in my most recent e-mail to her, the following comment

I should confess that part of my reason, beyond obvious things, for wishing to return is that N.D. [for, ideally, my juris doctor and, concurrent with that, either a Ph.D. or M.A. in political theory] is only about seventy miles from my home-town, and I, having my roots planted fairly deeply in the fertile northern Indiana soil, shouldn’t mind being nearer . . . .

I must admit, I suppose, that, were I not reading Wendell Berry these days, I probably wouldn’t have phrased that as I did. It is, however, my virtually complete lack of knowledge of farming know-how notwithstanding, wholly accurate. (This point about my lack of knowledge I hesitate to admit: My family has owned the same farm, on which my grandfather, born on the farm, still resides, for more than one hundred years; my father provided the bulk of our family’s income farming that land for the first fifteen years of my life; and, yet, I don’t know a damn thing, although I do enjoy mowing the filter strip, after 1 July, on the ol’ John Deere 4020 or 2510.) A saying exists about North Judson, IN, that many of us, our “feet stuck in the Bogus”, the Bogus being a well-known creek flowing through the nearby, cannot escape the area. It’s apt enough, but, for me, it suffices not, for the water in a creek flows; one can never, as Heraclitus reminds us, step into the same river twice; this is not so with the land: My roots have grown deep into the soil whence have arisen decades’ worth of corn stalks, soybean plants, mint, alfalfa and bromegrass, as well as scores of vegetables, the soil whence my antecedents derived their livelihoods, enjoyed periods of success and years of doubt.

Undeniably, this sense of rootedness in northern Indiana has affected me, particularly of late, as I’ve contemplated withdrawing from my program at the University of Maryland. My experience, thus far, inside the Beltway, has been, on the balance, a positive one, but immanent in me lies a longing for home, a desire to reconnect myself to my roots. My reasons for considering (I’ve yet to make a determination.) withdrawing are multifarious, and, gladly, I should explain in detail to any-one who, sincerely curious, would contact me privately at nporiger – at – gmail – dot – com. Presently, though, I wish to concentrate on one of my most momentous concerns with the program, one regarding place and community.

I worry that, all too heavily, my program — or, at least, the students therein — focus on process, rather than reality; put otherwise, we emphasize the “Planning” part of the degree’s name, rather than its predecessor, “Community”. Having raised this issue, during a frank conversation about my future, to my program’s director, I learned that the program’s degree bears this name, rather than the broader “Urban and Regional Planning” because, somehow, Morgan State University convinced the Maryland State Legislature to grant it a monopoly on the term. Nonetheless, I believe that I present a lucid and compelling claim, one I shall defend with, currently, two points, the first, admitted, rather specious.

1) The primary text in our required, wholly worthless Planning Process course (An entire semester dedicated to group negotiations and playing with Duplo blocks, as well as being indoctrinated with the cause du jour in planning, multiculturalism and facilitating democratic participation!) is called Community Planning.

2) More pressing and relevant, we use, probably far too loosely, the word “community” constantly. We ramble off philippics about community involvement, about place-making, about improving communities. After all, call it what you will — city planning, urban planning, community planning — it’s all the same, it’s all about planning (and/or “improving”) spaces — places — that we call home.

Except that we don’t, and here lies one of my more serious complaints. We study community planning; we pontificate about the evil capitalist chain stores, developers, et alia, who destroy communities; we exhort and implore governments to spend more money, further foolishly to intervene, to “save” communities, but we ignore our own. We come from Indiana, Georgia, California, Texas, Germany, and a dozen other places to Maryland to earn our degree, to receive our “education” (That is, our specialized training.), and we, all too often, stay right in this area, finding planning jobs in D.C. or the Maryland suburbs, maybe Baltimore. Mayhap, this isn’t all bad, but, essentially, when we make this decision, we deny the soils, so to speak, that nurtured us, in exchange re-planting ourselves (or, rather, attempting vainly and foolhardily to do so) and imposing our perspectives on the residents, some of them, doubtless, from families generations deep in the community; we project our ignorant beliefs on communities that functioned, ebbed, and flowed, for decades, even centuries, without the assistance of young encroachers.

This troubles me for reasons at least threefold. First, I think we deny not only our natural soil, but our-selves, as well as our families and our ancestors, even those who have passed on, the benefits of continuing that mutually beneficial relationship extant between plant and soil. Second, if I’ve learned nothing else in my planning program, I’ve, more clearly than ever, realized that, well-meaning as we be, we are, ultimately, clueless, bureaucratic morons (I say this, no offense intended to anyone, in the nicest way possible.) whose collective historical track record of destruction outshines even that of General Sherman, perchance our nation’s first war criminal. Finally, the libertarian streak whereof I am possessed faces constant competition, specifically vis-à-vis local government (I am, of course, a decentralist, even if of the heterodox variety.), from an authoritarian urge, one directed, primarily, toward the end of saving the people from themselves — toward good republican trusteeship. Believing that, more frequently than not, the people lack sufficient knowledge, understanding, and foresight always to be trusted with making decisions in the best of interest of the community, I see a role for the planner, for the judicious local bureaucrat (used, strange enough, here, with-out pejorative meaning, and, probably, some-what loosely, for lack of a better term) to hold decision-making power on issues of land-use, aesthetics, and economic development, inter alia. This being so, I tremble at the thought of interlopers, fresh out of school with their “education”, having a say in the decision-making processes of communities wholly foreign to them. No matter how sincerely and passionately one tries, he can never, quickly, truly integrate him-self into this new place, certainly cannot have a true grasp of the history, culture, and quirks of his new city. That, I believe, just ain’t good.

I’m not the biggest fan of Yglesias, but he makes a cogent point here.

Matthew Yglesias:

K-Lo proclaimed a “Dubya-Love Moment” over this answer to a question about why he doesn’t support a federal energy conservation program at yesterday’s press conference:

“The American people are smart enough to figure it out. They know the price of gas. They’re already driving less and seeking smaller cars. I don’t need to tell them; they can balance their checkbook.”

[ . . . ]

[W]e all make decisions that are relevant to our energy consumption. But the choices we make are affected by public policy decisions in dozens of different ways. To suggest individual action as an alternative to changing policy is to ignore the fact that different policies would produce different individual choices.

Public policy decisions have, historically, favored sprawl and and the automobile; to-day, for many, not using the car simply isn’t an option. Obviously, in rural communities, public transportation is out of the question, but small-town sprawl exists, too, and makes travel by foot difficult, some-times dare-devilish, if not impossible; the withering of the rail-roads in favor of expanding high-way networks has left country-folk with no recourse, save the car, when they wish or need to visit the big city (or even sub-/ex-urbia). In many cities and suburbs, though, transit could do wonders to alleviate congestion, to encourage density (which is a good thing, at least in moderation), and to make balancing the check-book easier.

You have to be freakin’ kidding me.

Thanks to Will at The Reactionary Epicurean for alerting me to this doozy of a boondoggle. The Amtrak Line stopped running because of a lack of sufficient ridership, so, clearly, the best policy is to spend millions of dollars, hundreds of millions, on a magnetic levitation train between a ghastly, artificial representation of America, long-lost to capitalism, (and roller coasters, too,) and the Mecca of the real American dream, coming up with money for nothing. 

I’m all for transit; let’s, however, build trains that matter, trains that connect places that matter, trains that don’t cost more than the cheaper diesel-electric alternatives. Thanks, Harry Reid. A big middle finger in the air to you.

A bitter review of Lucky Strike Lanes D.C.

Lucky Strike Lanes has managed to reached the zenith of identity confusion, allowing to coalesce an impotent attempt at classiness — replete with concomitant excessive drink (and bowling!) prices –, the garishness of a sports bar, obtrusive — and wholly inescapable — screens displaying above the bowling lanes what today passes, most regrettably, for art, and a menu, though not at all without its high points, lacking any sort of readily perceived internal coherence.

Additional to all of this, of course, is a very mediocre staff, the fabulousness of waitress Nina more than offset by the disinterest of the bowling counter clerk, who had no qualm with deserting me, shoeless, mid-transaction, and the mannerisms of the imperious blow-hard of a security official.

Moreover, an anticipated two-and-a-half-to-three-hour-long wait for a bowling lane, even at such a trendy spot in the city on Friday night, nigh leaves one in a stupor. When those three hours extend into almost four, the stupor evolves into irateness.

I recommend Lucky Strike Lanes with as much enthusiasm as I advocate shooting puppies with buckshot for the sake of amusement.

I should have known that Lucky Strike were to disappoint me: I loathe Gallery Place, site of the lanes, because it is a painfully sterile artifice, as so many new developments (e.g., downtown Silver Spring) tend to be. Planners — and many others — often are wont to toss about the word “authentic” with such frequency that it has lost much of its value; nevertheless, I confess, it is the lack of just this in these trendy new commercial/social areas that further blemish a field so often prone to destroying the urban fabric.