“The Future is not Retro,” declares a recent Pedestrian Observationpost that has been my metaphorical pea under the mattress for the last several weeks. Its tone is so bombastic and cavalier that the piece is difficult to take entirely seriously—much like another Alon Levy hot take, “The NTSB Wants American Trains to Be Less Safe,” or that infamous Market Urbanism tweet about rebuilding Notre Dame as a contemporary mixed-use skyscraper—but as an indicator of the way we urban planning nerds think and talk about cities, it should be taken very seriously, indeed.
Much of the post details Levy’s vision for the future of urban development, which goes something like this: In a few decades from now, the cities of the West—the largest of them, anyway—will look increasingly like the crowded, transit-oriented metropolises of East Asia. They will be crisscrossed by driver-less metros, whose stations will be surrounded by clusters of high-rise offices and residential towers, and be linked together by high-speed rail for zero-emissions, long-distance travel. Vacations will entail a bullet train ride to San Francisco or Miami instead of a road trip to some bygone natural wonder. (As for mid-to-lower tier cities, and the National Park Service, the outlook is rather grim—Levy fully expects those to shrivel up and die.)
So far, 2019 has seen the release of the new Dumbo, the new Aladdin, and the new Lion King—and a new Mulan, by the way, is in the works, too. All-mighty Disney used to inspire kids to sing about the “circle of life”; now they’ve got critics jeering cynically about the “circle of franchise reboots.” Et tu, Mickey? At least, Disney partisans can reassure themselves, creative bankruptcy is a relatively new look for the studio. In 2016, a year that wasn’t so long ago (best remembered, or forgotten, for a presidential election of biblical proportions), Walt Disney Animation released the surprisingly clever Zootopia, a thinly-veiled allegory for present-day identity politics and the millennial urban condition. Then November saw the release of Moana, a slightly-less-clever movie about a South Pacific teenage girl endowed with magical powers and a destiny to save the world.
On the night I opened my browser to buy a ticket to see John Wick: Chapter 3, I had never actually seen any of the John Wick films before. Fortunately, the premise of this sequel-to-a-sequel isn’t terribly complicated: John Wick himself (Keanu Reeves) is a professional assassin who has run afoul of the High Table, a world-spanning secret society of assassins. Wick is a master of his occupation, which entails committing dozens upon dozens of grisly on-screen murders with improvised weapons.
My movie buddies–human repositories of John Wick lore and repeat viewers of all his films–assured me the movie’s selling point would be its fight choreography. And at first, it indeed wowed me: The action started out as quirky, exhilarating fun. But as the gun-slinging, knife-slashing power fantasy dragged on, I couldn’t escape the feeling that that initial novel spark was gradually devolving into empty spectacle.
Last week, I swung by the Wilson Library to attend Bakersfield’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Day march. To me, it was a march that lacked bite, because the adjectives I would use to describe that event—docile, tame, by-the-book, ordered—are not words I would normally associate with a march for civil rights. Yet how else would I describe a civil rights march that had an itinerary? It had been sent out in the Bakersfield Californian in advance: set off at 6 o’ clock, march to the tune of “We Shall Overcome,” and then attend a service at the neighborhood church. As it turned out, we and our police and media escorts followed this kindergarten-field-trip schedule to the letter.
The march began just past 6. The crowd—about people 30 to 40 in size, dressed in coats and down jackets, appropriate for the chilly January night—was small, according to two of the marchers, both of whom had been regular attendants for years. One of them told me that the march was abbreviated, too, because it used to extend “all around town”; now, considering the age of the participants—mostly middle-aged, some elderly, several with Vietnam veteran’s caps—the march had been truncated to a half-mile walk to the community church. We hope more young people like you will join us in the future, both of them said.
Nonetheless, the parade moved surprisingly briskly. About a third of the marchers formed a line in front, standing side-by-side with their arms locked, singing “We Shall Overcome.” The rest formed a vaguely organized mass of people, some of them talking among themselves, some of them joining in the singing, some of them holding up their smartphones to recording the proceedings.
As we walked, the cameramen darted nimbly in and out of the crowd, capturing the scene from all sorts of angles—one of them equipped with a large, brilliant rectangular torch as bright as any construction site work light—while the police barricaded the intersecting roads with their squad cars and shut off the lone traffic signal along the marchers’ route. The attention our crowd received was proportionate to its small size, for there was little foot traffic in this ramshackle corner of Southeast Bakersfield—populated as it was with dilapidated strip malls, humble taco trucks, and working-class ranch homes—but some neighbors did observe the goings-on, out of curiosity, from the chain link fences that lined their modest front yards.
But where was the shock value, the spontaneity? I kept waiting for someone to take the initiative, to heckle the cops or to shout a defiant headliner into the cameras. Public demonstrations are supposed to be calls to action, not just background roll on the evening news. After all, for every feelgood speech that MLK made, there was also a sit-in, bus boycott, freedom ride, or some other provocation that deliberately pissed a lot of people off.
Okay, I suppose an MLK march has to be inclusive of all ages, not just rebellious 20-somethings like myself. Besides, who am I to assume what Bakersfield’s Black community wants and needs? Bakersfield is a conservative town, and the issues faced by the coastal metropolises—affirmative action and blatant racism, among other issues raised by attendees at their MLK marches—seem many worlds away on these sleepy streets.
There was an informal meet and greet before the march began at 6, through which I was treated to an anthropological cross-section of the marchers. I saw friends meeting old friends and exchanging greetings, news, and small talk under the harsh streetlights of the Wilson Library parking lot. I also saw church buses, vans, and carpools bringing more groups of people to the march. As one might expect, most of the marchers were Black, but people of all races were in attendance—some Whites, some Latinos, and a few Asians—which would have pleased one spirited marcher, who made an impromptu speech expressing hope for a multiracial march in the spirit of MLK Jr. himself.
Surrounding us were the policemen who would close the streets and the television crews who would send images of the march to the rest of the city. Already, the cameramen were mingling in the crowd, shooting footage and interviewing some of us. The policemen stood idly by their squad cars, watching, preparing to halt traffic on Wilson Road on a moment’s notice. Later on, when we got the church, I saw some of them shaking hands with the marchers.
Sitting in one of the pews of the Church of Christ, watching Black leaders from Arvin and Fresno deliver speeches that struck a delicate balance between religious sermon and political lecture—Moses’ delivery of the Israelites out of Egypt as a metaphor for the civil rights struggle was the highlight of the night, as was a firm reminder that social equality had not brought about economic equality—I realized I had learned more about Black culture than I had in all my years of growing up in Bakersfield. The media, to their credit, were watching diligently, too. They had set up a camera inside of the chapel, and one of their anchors also live-streamed a very moving performance by the church’s choir.
Maybe I’m the one who has the wrong idea about MLK Jr. Day. The event is as much a focal point for the Black community as it is a rallying cry for social justice. Sure, we didn’t create headlines, but how important is a few minutes of a fame in our present-day outrage culture, anyway? I like to think that between the marchers, the church, the police, and the media, we all learned a little bit more about each other that evening. Isn’t that what Mr. King would have wanted?
A contemporary review of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biographical masterpiece.
Big City, USA, in 2019—where the traffic doesn’t move at rush hour, the roads are full of potholes, the mass transit is useless, and the schools and parks are overcrowded and falling apart—and despite all of that, the rent is still too damn high.
Some say the modern American city increasingly resembles one of those generic science-fiction dystopias, neatly divided into the privileged and the underclass, beholden to the whims of Amazon and Alphabet and other such faceless corporations. Well, screw that. It’s about time we fixed our cities so they started to work for us again. All we have to do is agree on our diagnosis and its proper cure—easy peasy, right?
I’ve heard a lot of ideas on how to give our cities a good government kick, ideas from property tax reform to zoning reform to congestion pricing to privatization. Most of them are just plain stupid, but a handful sound like they might work. You probably have a few ideas yourself (don’t worry, they’re some of the good ones—I promise.) That’s great, because we need more interested citizens like you. But before you rush off to moonlight as a civic activist, I’d like you to meet this interesting figure, a reformer who worked in New York City throughout much of the twentieth century.
His name is Robert Moses, and he will teach you some valuable lessons about how cities work.
Put succinctly, urbanism is the belief that we can fix everything wrong with our cities by building them upward instead of outward, shunning suburbs, homesteads, and cars for row homes, bike lanes, and public transit.
The case goes something like this: Climate change? Density reduces the land footprint of cities and the amount of resources consumed by their residents. Traffic congestion? Density encourages public transportation usage, reducing the numbers of cars on crowded city streets. Housing affordability? Density increases the number of homes available to renters and buyers, bringing down the price of housing for all.
With most of our cities facing kind of urban crisis–subways and water pipes failing, rents rising without a ceiling in sight, traffic congestion ensnaring recovering economies–urbanism has evolved into a national movement. Its political advocacy is actualized by YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”) parties that are thriving in every large American city, loosely organized around a single issue: build, baby, build more housing. Like their cyberspace counterpart, the Pirate Party, the “YIMBY Party” are brazen, cocksure, and social media-savvy.
I know this because I used to call myself an urbanist. It was the natural label for someone like me, who cycles for transportation, rides public transit, and has never owned a car; I simply wanted to build better cities where these things were both viable and encouraged. So I jumped on the urbanist bandwagon. I subscribed to the Twitter feeds, read articles from Streetsblog and Curbed, and proselytized the fruits of market urbanism on my Daily Texan column. And for awhile, all was well–until I made some observations that were difficult to reconcile with urbanism’s precepts. I began to reexamine my beliefs–and cities, it turns out, are pretty complicated.
For one thing, urbanism’s prescriptions for cities don’t actually work.
Urbanism says that the way to fix cities is to build them up, and that the way to build cities up is to abolish land-use restrictions. This would pave the way for property owners to construct more housing units and thereby more dense, vibrant, and livable neighborhoods. At least, so goes the theory. But it’s an open secret among those who pay attention to cities that that is not what really happens when private infill development is let loose by urban planners and politicians.
The “urban villages” that developers build may have the signature high-rise condos, bike lanes, narrow streets, and roundabouts, but they bear little resemblance to the walkable, diverse, pre-automobile neighborhoods that urbanists so often celebrate. They are not walkable, but isolated and disconnected; nor vibrant and diverse, but sterile and exclusive. Far from Jane Jacobs’ intricate sidewalk ballet, the environment created by these new-age communities more closely resembles one of Le Corbusier’s dehumanizing machines for living.
Once again, I know this from firsthand experience. Austin is littered with many such failed New Urbanist experiments in community master-planning. Two of the most prominent are the Mueller and Domain neighborhoods, both designed to be incorporate all of the things urbanists strive for in a neighborhood–density, mixed-use, and transit-oriented design. Their tiny lots contain multi-story row homes and stores, woven together by narrow streets, wide promenades, and bike boulevards.
But closer inspection reveals some troubling details. Mueller, for example, is surrounded by a moat of empty space and parkland that segregates it from the rest of impoverished East Austin. And until recently, the neighborhood also lacked any basic bus service, although that did not stop Mueller residents and developers from lobbying for a streetcar line to downtown. The Domain, meanwhile, is filled with high-end chain stores (including one of Austin’s only Apple Stores, and a Whole Foods) and stories upon stories of covered parking garages. It has a stop for one of Austin’s rapid bus lines, but the bus lets off at a large parking lot, half a mile away from the shops.
Nor has the neighborhoods’ design produced the social kumbaya that their high-minded architects envisioned. In Mueller, a neighborhood so liberal that it produced a nationally mocked Beto O’Rourke ad, residents of color routinely grapple with racial profiling. In the Domain, it’s no secret that the stores are largely stores for the affluent, and my UT friends tell me how “overwhelmingly white” the place feels compared to old Austin.
Worse still, elsewhere in Austin, as is the case in many of the world’s most affluent cities, new communities have been carved entirely out of old ones, leaving their once-vibrant streets safer and “cleaner” but also desolate and lifeless, not to mention the real human cost in terms of destroyed social networks and lost access to services and opportunities. Gentrification, contrary to urbanist rhetoric about “place-making” and “livable cities,” is both very real and morally reprehensible.
Why is it that every attempt to realize the urbanist formula seemingly ends in a gated community for the rich? Has urbanism simply not been given a fair shake–and if we kept critiquing its implementation, and iterating on it, the rents would eventually come down?
It isn’t so. The truth is that urbanism is allied with powerful forces that dominate municipal governments, forces that are not interested in just or equitable outcomes for cities. Urbanists like to portray themselves as a scrappy, millennial-led rebellion against backwards twentieth century urban planning paradigms. But far from fighting against the system, they’re part of it, complicit in its machinations.
Gone are the days when city governments simply apportioned services and infrastructure, if that ever was the case. Today, cities market themselves to global pools of capital and educated labor, competing for lucrative investments from the creative classes and the high-technology sectors. Urbanists may say that reinvestment in the urban core is a merely reflection of Americans’ desire to “return to the city,” but the reality is that urban redevelopment is the result of a conscious remaking of a city’s economy–a remaking that usually comes at the expense of its most marginalized residents.
In Austin, for example, the University of Texas has been the driving force behind the city’s meteoric transformation into the Silicon Valley of Texas, acquiring land to donate to high-tech firms to establish local headquarters–necessitating, of course, the removal of less fortunate residents who stood in the way. Similarly, Austin’s smart-growth policies–a prototypical form of urbanism that encouraged compact land development within the inner city–were forged by a compromise between Austin’s business and environmental elites, who sought to replace environmentally damaging suburban sprawl with “sustainable” urban development–which in turn entailed the displacement of powerless residents from East Austin.
The urban development projects that urbanists champion–no matter how dense, no matter how “inclusive,” no matter how transit-oriented–solely reflect the desires of the developers and politicians who implement them. And because they are intended for “desirable” residents–the creative classes, the wealthy–only “desirable” residents are welcome in them. This is why such glaring injustices as gentrification, and poor doors, and over-policing are all but inevitable, and why harebrained projects like Mueller and the Domain perpetuate inequality instead of disrupting it.
Urbanism is a huckster that reduces the problem of fixing cities to architectural fetishism, and cities aren’t defined by setbacks or parking minimums or any other boogeyman invented by urbanists to attack housing and transportation policies. Cities are defined by power–who has it, who doesn’t have it, and what the people ordained with it do with it. Only by acknowledging this difficult truth can we hope to make cities work for everyone, not just for the affluent few.
It’s not too often I attempt to write a justification for my existence, but here goes.
Few people in Austin are willing to talk about public transportation right now, which seems odd given the major developments in Connections 2025 (now branded “Cap Remap”) and Project Connect. This is a gap I’ve tried to fill with my new transit blog, the Austin Metro Journal.
Capital Metro’s board meetings draw a small cohort of regular critics, but they focus on individual service planning and customer service issues (“I don’t like the way y’all cut service to my neighborhood post office”) and thereby miss the bigger picture. I’d put Austin’s light rail boosters in the same camp. These folks have the best intentions, but they’re narrowly focused on building a specific transit technology.
On the flip side, you have Austin’s “urbanists” and policy wonks, comprised mostly of millennials and techies, who see public transit as a stepping-stone to a New Urbanist utopia complete with Vision Zero, universal cycle tracks, and—let’s be honest—Manhattan-like densities. Urbanists certainly value public transit, but it’s not their main focus. They care about transit insofar as it paves the way for their starry-eyed visions.
Westpark is a neighborhood like any other in Central Bakersfield. It’s filled with single-story ranch homes from the 50’s and 60’s; its streets are wide, clean, and lined with orderly parked cars; its lawns are neatly divided by fully matured palm trees.
But Westpark is a neighborhood under siege.
Over the past several years, city bulldozers sliced a wide, sterile arc directly through the heart of the neighborhood; they razed at least 300 homes and 120 businesses. And now, where the humble homesteads of hundreds of families and retirees once stood, there is nothing–just woodchips and orphaned cross-streets as far as the eye can see.
The city was clearing the way for a titanic construction project. It’s building a six-lane freeway, called the Centennial Corridor, that will someday wind its way through Westpark in a trench. But until the excavators get the go-ahead to carve out the highway’s sunken alignment, the land will sit barren, in a bizarre state of limbo.
On one foggy January morning, I took a childhood friend of mine to Westpark to document the neighborhood as it stands in 2018. Our plan was to meet up with a mutual friend of ours and take photos while getting some exercise. I told them we were exploring an “abandoned neighborhood,” but none of us was really prepared for the scene we came upon. Continue reading “Gone: Clearing the Path for California’s Last Freeway”
After months of analysis paralysis, Connections 2025, Capital Metro’s shiny new transit system, is almost here. I witnessed the board of directors approve the first set of service changes back in November. The new local bus network is slated to roll out in June 2018.
In the spirit of other transit network redesigns, Connections 2025 will transform Austin’s bus network from a collection of downtown-oriented radials to an intuitive, connected grid with vastly expanded frequent service. Capital Metro will become much more useful for non-commute trips; journeys not involving downtown will be much more convenient to take, while weekend service will be largely on par with weekday service.
At least, that’s the pitch. And if you’re a transit rider or public transit advocate, that all sounds like pretty good stuff. Austin clearly needs a new bus network; Capital Metro’s decades-old system is inconvenient and frustrating to use.
One man is on trial for murder under the threat of the death penalty, and a jury must decide his fate; he lives. This is the basic outline of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides and Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, except one courtroom is in ancient Athens, while the other is in 1960s New York City. In The Eumenides, protagonist and Mycenaean prince Orestes is on trial for the killing of his mother, Clytemnestra, who herself murdered her husband Orestes’ father Agamemnon. The Greek gods Apollo and the Furies cannot agree on whether Orestes’ murder was just, so Athena conjures up a court of ten jurors she intends to become the model for justice in Athens. The jury is tied, but Athena has already cast her own vote in favor of Orestes, so he goes free. In Twelve Angry Men, a working-class boy is accused of murdering his own father. The prosecution’s case is strong; a mountain of evidence suggests the accused did the deed. But one juror believes there is room for reasonable doubt, and as he untangles the facts of the case and dismantles the prejudices of the others, he gradually convinces the entire jury to return the verdict “not guilty.” Continue reading “Weighing Desert: Justice for Kings, Justice for New Yorkers”