Friday, April 28, 2006
Washington politics has come to a standstill as politicians fall over each other in trying to appease voters by expressing outrage over rising gasoline prices. Republicans are considering a $100 rebate to citizens, while Democrats call for a windfall tax on oil companies.
Forgive me if I don't join in the frenzy. Why weren't there calls for rebates to citizens when the price of an affordable apartment doubled over the past five years? Why not take the money and spend it on public transportation? If taxing ExxonMobil would be a solution, what will we do a decade from now when gas is $7 a gallon? (With gasoline up to $7 a gallon in Britain, more people are taking the bus.)
My guess is that the political pressure will force the largest oil companies to rush some more supply to the market to temporarily push away the hounds, but that this will have no long-term effect on the inevitable supply and demand pressures behind higher prices.
Get used to it, Americans, gasoline prices are going up, and we're going to have to deal with it. It is not the end of the world, but it may be end of decades of treating oil as if it were tap water.
A controversy is fuming in Seattle over the future of a homeless advocacy group, SHARE, that takes federal and city money but is criticized for not spending much of it on direct assistance to homeless people. Raising social consciousness is the chief aim of SHARE, which has risked losing government funds by its refusal to comply with a information-monitoring requirement for city-funded programs.
The debate over the Seattle program and others like it challenges some shibboleths of both left and right over social policies to help the poor and the homeless. Leftist theories, informed by Marxism, holds that politicization should be a primary aim. On the right, free-marketers maintain that getting government out the way, and giving people personal responsibility for their progress, is the path to success. A more sober truth, however, may be that many homeless people are best helped by getting direct and firm guidance in finding a permanent indoor bed and taking care of their health, rather than in indirectly "empowering" them.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
In one battle of what should be called America's "Wal-Mart Wars," the retailer recently won a fight to open a new store in an affluent northeast suburb of Phoenix, after losing efforts to build in other areas of the Valley of the Sun.
As I've written before, it makes little sense to try to redress through land use law many of the oft-heard complaints over Wal-Mart's practices, such as its crafty employment policies and their supposedly sharp dealings with suppliers. Questions of labor and trade should be handled by labor law and trade law; the land use decision of a suburb of Phoenix is an ineffective way to legislate on these issues.
The story from Arizona also exposes some curious quirks of the Wal-Mart wars. Some of the quotations from a Wal-Mart opponent, reported in the Arizona Republic (and I know it's sometimes unfair to use quotes from one advocate to assess an entire movement), are quite revealing. The opponent both complains that Wal-Mart won't offer anything that isn't already for sale in the massive malls of east Phoenix and then complains that existing stores won't be able to compete. This is curious double argument often made about Wal-Mart - it's a lousy store and it will take away the customers from other stores. But it can't really be both, can it?
A dilemma for Wal-Mart opponents in places such as Phoenix is that they can't fall back on the argument of preserving the Main Street retailers, as opponents can in, say, New England. Suburban Phoenix, like much of sunbelt America, already contains miles of miles of strip malls and big boxes. So opponents are reduced to complaining, as the newspaper reports, about the supposed drawback of 24-hour traffic and bright lights. Traffic and bright lights? In metropolitan Phoenix? Are we reaching a bit here? Could it be that opponents in Paradise Valley simply don't like the idea of a Wal-Mart in their posh suburb?
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
One of the most popular and influential writers on urban life and policy, Jane Jacobs, died today in Toronto at age 89. (Here's the New York Times' article.) She was one of a rare breed: the non-academician who –- perhaps by her lack of being tied to an academician’s method –- writes successfully to change the minds and hearts of America.
When Jacobs in 1961 wrote her most famous work, “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” the traditional American distrust of cities had taken on new and ominous turns. Across the nation, urban neighborhoods were being torn down for freeways to speed suburbanites to and from their jobs. Both theorists and officials such as New York’s Robert Moses were planning and building huge new city projects that disdained the old urban grid for grandiose plazas and monoliths, such as those of Boston and Albany. And the city was rapidly descending in social status as a place only for the poor and for ethnic ghettos.
Jacobs played a large role in turning this thinking around. She may not have held many degrees or followed urban theories, but her bedrock arguments had tremendous power. Great cities were not created by enormous construction projects, she argued, but by the variety, spontaneity, and quirkiness of the human urban experience. Density and the messiness that it engenders are what make urban life thrilling and enriching. The details of the corner grocer's display and the flower pots on a tenement landing matter as much as a thousand tons of concrete. Urban neighborhoods, including ethnically identifiable ones, are not embarrassments but unique centers of joy and pride and creativity.
These were radical ideas in the 1960s. Thanks in large part to Jane Jacobs, these ideas are now part of mainstream theory and, increasingly, part of our law.
Monday, April 24, 2006
Traditional liberals are no doubt shaking their heads in dismay upon hearing that Nebraska’s legislature recently passed a law, then signed by the governor, that would divide Omaha’s public schools into three districts – one largely white, one largely black, and one largely Latino. Undoubtedly this is unconstitutional, they may be assuring themselves.
But the Nebraska action also reveals some unusual turns that have taken place in American racial politics. Fifty years ago, it seemed clear to liberals that the practice of racial segregation hurt black students, who almost always received an inferior education and were led to conclude that they were second-class citizens. Today, however, the only African American in the Nebraska legislature was the leading advocate of the school separation measure. Today, the legislator sees giving the black community in effect its own school system not as abandonment but as empowerment.
Many Omaha whites supported the bill because it would decrease the chances of renewed school busing for racial balance in Omaha. The long-term response to Brown v. Board of Education was, of course, that many white families fled integration simply by moving to the suburbs, where they were much less likely to have their kids bused. The biggest era for suburbanization from the central city was not the 1950s, as commonly assumed, but the 1970s –- the era of busing.
Segregation’s renewed appeal saddens many of us, especially those who admire, to some extent, Singapore’s controversial policy that tries to maintain a rough racial balance in housing complexes among Singapore’s ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians. A rose-colored view is that the policy fosters racial understanding and harmony; a more skeptical view is that the majority Chinese use it as a way of avoiding enclaves of potentially disgruntled minorities.
If America is veering further away from racial integration as a policy and towards accepting empowerment to justify forms of segregation, might redrawing municipal boundaries be far off?
Saturday, April 22, 2006
It’s as inevitable as the tides: Whenever gasoline prices rise, the media fill with doom and gloom reports of how “working Americans” are suffering and politicians issue stern warnings about profit-craving oil companies and potential government responses.
Why this obsession with gas prices? It could simply be that the topic makes good “copy” for the media, in that it’s a human interest story that everyone can relate to, while politicians chase votes with oil-company-bashing (Were Exxon and Chevron less concerned about profit back in 1990, when gas was barely a dollar a gallon?). The social fixation also highlights a number of policy issues of transportation and land use.
First, the phenomenon of lamenting gas prices shows the shallowness of America’s claim to environmentalism. While environmentalists and even President Bush encourage curbing our addiction to oil, and while even moderate policy thinkers propose a gas tax to dissuade consumption, the average American, when push comes to shove, would rather complain about high prices and hear their politicians talk about intervention. (Six years ago, with crude oil and gasoline prices about half of today’s nominal figures, both President Clinton and supposedly environmentally friendly Al Gore briefly supported a plan to tap the national petroleum reserve to lower prices).
Moreover, America’s love affair with huge and gas-gulping vehicles shows few signs of abating. Here’s an interesting side phenomenon: When I was a kid in the ‘70s, the goal of every red-blooded young American male was, as it had been for most of the century, to buy a sexy sports car to whiz around corners in. What ever happened to the sports car? I think its disappearance relates to the fact that one can’t whiz around corners anymore; there’s simply too much traffic. In our sedentary culture, most Americans would rather just sink down into a cushioned SUV seat and take comfort in the fact that we’re riding high above the ground, even if we’re not moving very fast.
Gas is now approaching $3 a gallon nationwide; this compares to a nominal price of $1.35 a quarter-century ago in 1981 (a little less than $3 in inflation-adjusted prices). How does this compare with the price of automobiles? In 1981 the average price of a new auto was a little less $9000; today it is about $28,000 – more than thrice as much. A key factor in this rise is, of course, the size of today’s vehicles. If consumers are looking to assign blame for their big bill at the gas pump as they head to their exurb, a look in the mirror is a good place to start.
Friday, April 21, 2006
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature!” warned a capitalist in Paddy Chayevsky’s screenplay for the classic film Network 30 years ago. Today, libertarians warn us that if law meddles with market forces, it is likely to create unintended, and unhappy, consequences.
If law subsidizes something, we not only help those who get the assistance, economists tell us; we also encourage more people to do the things that get subsidized. This may be good for subsidizing solar-power generators, but bad for subsidizing the unemployed.
Consider Florida’s venerable Greenbelt law, which gives tax breaks to owners of “agricultural land.” The law is touted as helping farmers stay farmers and to slow the transformation of farms into built-up land. But for land speculators, it is also a way to reap tax benefits while waiting for development. The Disney Corp., which owns many acres of land in central Florida, reportedly leases land to farmers and gets more than $1 million in tax breaks. Other “farmers” may be even cleverer in taking advantage of the law. A member of the Florida legislature introduced a bill last month to revamp the law, asserting that some speculators in effect use a “rent-a-cow” service to fulfill the loose requirements of "agricultural land." Not surprisingly, the bill seems to have died for this term.
If the idea is to help the traditional farmer, a law surely could be crafted more tightly so as to subsidize only resident farmers who make most of their income from farming. Drawn as broadly as it is leads to the suspicion that the motivation may be less about helping farmers and more about simply slowing development. If so, subsidizing "agricultural land" seems like a rather arbitrary and costly way of limiting new construction.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
What if land use law required you and me -– the average household –- to limit our impact on the environment in the way that big businesses are regulated?
A straightforward and effective method of pollution control is the “best technology” approach, which is an application of the larger idea of “best practices.” If a factory someplace has developed a new way to limit pollution -– say, by a new filter, different raw materials, or a new chemical process – then all competitors in that industry must roughly follow suit.
What if “best practices” were applied to household land use? After all, the biggest culprit behind many environmental harms these days are not big factories but the average citizen. Consider three examples.
First, think about lawns. Americans dump thousands of tons of fertilizers and billions of gallons of potable water on their lawns, in the pursuit of suburban perfection. Commercials warn us of the evils of the insidious dollarweed and dandelions invading our acres of grass. What would be a “best practice”? Accept local climate constraints (no bluegrass in Utah or Maine), use water very sparingly (and apply only in the morning), use no fertilizer, and accept some weeds and bald spots.
Next, think about auto usage. Unless one got a variance for a physical infirmity, law could require citizens to walk or bicycle for trips of less than one mile. Indeed, all trips to the ATM or the convenience store might have to be made without a motor vehicle. Such a law would compel local governments to allow for the return of the corner grocer and would ensure demand.
Finally, think about air-conditioning. This April, where I live in Florida, the weather has been perfect -– highs in the low 80s, lows in the upper 60s. Yet I hear the annoying rumble of a number of air conditioners on my block every morning. Why? Because cooped-up houses experience the greenhouse effect to some extent –- radiant heat builds up during a sunny day and does not escape well at night; thus the median indoor temperature of a sealed house rises somewhat above the median outdoor temperature. A “best practice,” however, can easily solve this. Open the windows! By keeping the windows open at night, one can keep the temperature down (I have yet to turn on my AC this year). Yet many Americans can’t be bothered when the air-conditioning switch is so easy.
Can one truly be an environmentalist these days unless one follows best practices in one’s own household land use?
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
The 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake raises obvious comparisons with last year’s hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans. Watching a PBS documentary about the quake and reading about its aftermath, one is stuck by so many similarities -– the complacency of a government that should have prepared better, the inadequacies of the first-responders, the tens of thousands of people left homeless, and the headaches of creating temporary housing. I was disappointed that PBS’s discussion of the rebuilding effort ignored the land use laws that in effect banned brick construction in San Francisco and made buildings far more resistant to shaking. Did any property owner argue that this regulation had “taken” its property? …
A number of writers are comparing 1906 and 2006. Here are stories from Business Week, the New York Times, National Review, Planetizen, and academicians in California. One of the most opinionated is an essay by Russ Britt for marketwatch.com, who writes that the “attitude" of 1906 -- “do-it-yourself” and self-reliance -- led San Francisco to rebuild its structures, its economy, and its culture more quickly than New Orleans appears to be capable of doing. Just as important were San Francisco’s prominence as the chief center of business and trade in the West. Alas, New Orleans holds no such advantages in the early 21st century ….
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Suburban sprawl is blamed for environmental degradation, excessive energy consumption, and the disintegration of the social fabric. Now sprawl is linked to another problem: that America’s kids are too fat. See reports of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Public Health Association. A concern is that the low-density, automobile-based culture traps kids at home and encourages them to do nothing but play video games and munch on snacks all day.
It’s certainly true that auto-reliant suburbia makes it hard for some kids to walk or ride their bikes to school or the malt shop. I’m in favor of laws requiring sidewalks, encouraging pedestrianism, and creating bike paths.
But sprawl is not the the chief culprit here. After all, an attraction of suburbia is that it’s supposed to be good for kids, of course. The famous (or infamous) opinion of Justice Douglas in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas in 1974, upholding a town’s outlawing of group houses, included the striking passage that, “A quiet place where yards are wide …are legitimate guidelines in a land use project addressed to family needs…. It is ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quite seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people ….”
So why aren’t kids enjoying the outdoor blessings of the suburbs? Here’s an empirical test: Drive through a suburban neighborhood outside of school hours and take a look at the plentiful playgrounds. Chances are that you won’t see many kids playing. If you do, it’s likely to be a rigorously organized event with parents in attendance.
A bigger problem than sprawl, I suggest, is that today’s social and family culture discourages spontaneous play and exercise, in contrast to years past. Television and video games are more charismatic than pick-up basketball or splashing in the creek -– both in suburbs and in the city. And today’s parents are close-to-paranoid about letting their kids head to the park without adult supervision; many parents don’t even let their kids play in the front yard, out of fear of child-snatching or other horrors.
Sprawl doesn’t stop kids from keeping fit; people do.
Monday, April 17, 2006
[one of an occasional series entitled “Home at Ten: Are the New Urbanists Right?” on the 10th anniversary of James Howard’s Kunstler’s book “Home From Nowhere”]
Ten years ago, social critic James Howard Kunstler predicted in "Home From Nowhere” that “the regime of cheap gas is near its end.” Americans would return to living close together in small towns and cities, he predicted. Without a cheap-gas-and-automobile culture, laws would have to allow mixed land uses and foster greater interaction among various cultures.
Kunstler may yet prove to be correct. Some oil experts say that we have already reached “Hubbert’s peak,” at which world oil production is at its apex and starts to decline. (But it remains to be seen when whether oil scarcity won’t occur until after engineers figure out a way to run our cars and SUVs on hydrogen.)
But Kunstler’s broader prediction in 1996 of a decline of the suburban lifestyle appears to have been premature. He wrote at the beginning of the SUV craze, which would have astounded the dour prognosticators of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and which shows no sign of ending, despite the imploring of the new urbanists.
In fact, the relentless move to the suburbs -– indeed, to the exurbs -- is continuing unabated. According to new Census figures, millions of Americans continue to value a large yard and a cul-de-sac over proximity to culture and community. Ninety-minute auto commutes are becoming more frequent. And as jobs move further out, workers can move even further away from the city center. A demographer at the Brookings Institution, William Frey, was quoted in USA Today as saying that this is “the decade of the exurbs of the exurbs.”
Ten years on, therefore, Kunstler’s prediction of a move back to cities and small town seems to have been simply wrong -– as was the similar prediction of Columbia’s Kenneth T. Jackson in “Crabgrass Frontier” 20 years ago. Are these two harsh critics of suburbia victims of wishful thinking? Time will tell …
Saturday, April 15, 2006
The tall prairie grasslands that are now Chicago streets and the mangrove forests that are now Miami suburbs are gone. But Arizona is doing something to preserve its Sonoran desert plants. In one America’s fastest growing states, where golf courses spread across land that was once barrel cactus and ocotillo, the Cactus Rescue Crew delicately removes and preserve native plants just ahead of the bulldozer, so that they can be replanted elsewhere later.
What’s interesting for land use policy is that developers are encouraged to support the rescuers. Law requires developers in some locations to inventory native plants (this is reminiscent of reports that Amazonian biologists merely try to catalog rare insects just before their forest is demolished and the species are made extinct) and to save large saguaros -- the slow-growing, anthropomorphic marvels that are the symbol the Sonoran desert.
Our ecological land preservation laws typically have been all or nothing. If a resident species is listed as endangered, the developer often must take significant steps, including habitat conservation, before harming them. If a plant or animal is not so threatened, however, law typically allows destructive land use to go forward without many constraints. Flora such as the Sonoran plants are not endangered, but their habitat is shrinking. It would be wise policy to exact from developers more “impact” requirements –- such as requiring that they take steps to preserve and replant important native species before digging up the land for split-levels and dog-legs.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Infill! Density! These are the rallying cries of the urbanists and the battlers of sprawl. Encourage Americans to live in smaller housing units close to downtown, they say. But some residents of Houston’s close-in Third Ward have another name for the new attraction of their neighborhood: Gentrification.
A fascinating cover story by John Buntin in Governing magazine tells the story of how artists and childless middle-class couples are attracted to the Third Ward’s small houses just outside of downtown Houston. Most of the long-time residents are black; most of the new migrants are white or Hispanic.
A black legislator who represents the district in the Texas legislature has plans to try to stop the transformation. The desire to preserve a historically African American neighborhood raises a number of complex questions: Should law recognize some sort of “cultural property” that belongs to a particular group of current residents, or even a particular race? (In the Third Ward, this issue is complicated by the fact that it used to be a largely Jewish area until the 1960s.)
One of the legislator’s ideas is to have the government somehow impose restrictive covenants on the houses that would require that they be used only for rental housing – forever. Such a restriction would make the houses less attractive for white middle-class residents, who prefer to buy.
Concerns over maintaining black neighborhoods have a solid basis in history. When governments have looked for ideal locations for freeways and other locally unwanted land uses (LULUs), such neighborhoods have been targeted disproportionately, both because of the low cost of land and because of the lack of political power of their residents. The article in Governing quotes an economist as saying that gentrification actually helps social integration, but this may be missing the point; opponents don’t necessarily want integration, they want to keep the character of their neighborhood, just as suburbanites do. And it isn’t that opponents of gentrification merely want more low-cost housing someplace; they want to keep it where it has been located in the past.
Considering the history of government’s exacerbating many of the problems of urban neighborhoods, I am very skeptical of plans to use government to try to maintain a neighborhood’s racial makeup. Indeed, cities have been pressured to use their powers to foster gentrification (see the 2003 PBS documentary “Flag Wars” about Columbus, Ohio). Moreover, considering the market demand for the little close-in houses of Houston’s Third Ward, it may prove to be very difficult to keep newcomers out. Perhaps concern about those displaced by gentrification would be better channeled to encouraging a variety of laws to build and maintain affordable, convenient housing in various locations, rather than in trying to keep newcomers out of the Third Ward.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Leading the national news today is that FEMA announced its long-awaited guidelines for rebuilding homes in the New Orleans area. Although complicated by many details, the basic requirement is that new homes or those which were significantly damaged by hurricane Katrina probably will have to be raised three feet above the ground in order to qualify for federal assistance.
Three policy issues stand out. First, the relatively mild requirements show a federal recognition that it is catastrophic levee collapse, not intense rain or wind, that poses the greatest danger. If the levees are to withstand powerful storm surges – and floodgates like those proven to be effective in the Netherlands should do much to ensure this – even houses in low-lying areas would be safe from serious flooding if built three feet above the ground.
Second, the rules would make it feasible to rebuild in nearly all of New Orleans neighborhoods. Had the rules made it impracticable to rebuild in some districts, advocates would have howled that FEMA was discriminating unfairly against low-lying neighborhoods, which tend to be poorer than higher sections. Calming citizens is a goal of all governmental authorities today.
Third, the three-foot rule would apply even in districts above sea level, such as the French Quarter and neighborhoods near the Mississippi River that experienced little flood damage from Katrina. While it may seem unnecessary to impose the rule region-wide, the perception of being even-handed is as important as the requirements of hydrology.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
The town of Nantucket, Mass., voted last week to ban chain stores from its historic downtown. Once an isolated whaling port (see H. Melville, Moby-Dick), Nantucket is now one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive international resort destinations. (The typical home is worth more than $2 million.) Its downtown preserves some of the best examples anywhere of early 19th century architecture and rates an 11 on a 1-10 quaintness scale.
When Ralph Lauren moved onto Main Street last year (paying a reported $6 million for the site), however, residents were mobilized. The specter of the local ice cream shops, coffee houses, and woolen stores being replaced by upscale chains available elsewhere certainly would have impaired Nantucket’s unique ambience. (Chains are still free to locate elsewhere on the island.) Snobs like me admire old downtowns such as those of Annapolis, Md., and Carmel, Cal., which discourage franchises and retain local charm.
But Nantucket’s ban can also be seen as the imposition of one group’s values – 480 year-round residents voted at the town meeting last week – over the market-driven forces of the summer tourists who support the economy and the seasonal workers who paint the clapboards and clear restaurant tables.
Is the ban justified on social economic grounds? No. Am I happy Nantucket passed the ban? Yes, even if I can’t really afford to vacation there.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
One of the most compelling examples of the power of language to shape political thought is the terms used in the immigration debate. To many liberals, the required term is “undocumented;” after all, “illegal immigrant” seems to imply a tarring of the person’s entire existence. For many conservatives, “undocumented” sounds far too mushy; after all, it isn’t as if the papers are merely misplaced.
I suggest an entirely new term (just as most moderate commentators have jettisoned the tendentious “pro life” and “pro choice” in the abortion debate). What is needed is a term that both sides could accept. In 21st century America, acronyms are all the rage (Did your kids watch a DVD in your SUV on the way to KFC?). Here’s a modest suggestion: We should refer to an immigrant who is in the country without having followed legal procedures to be a “PHU” (pronounced “foo,” for “person here unlawfully”). Perhaps both sides would accept a reasoned debate over national policy concerning PHUs.
Is it possible to be concerned about the communitarian consequences of immigration and not appear to be racist? Many liberals are struggling to do so.
One argument is that immigrants increase the supply of those desiring to work at low-wage jobs, as Nicholas Kristof has written, citing a 2005 study by economists at Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research. Thus curbing immigration might help raise the wages of low-income American workers.
Another argument is that our current policy mishmash makes little sense: We make it difficult to enter the United States legally and stay, yet we do not spend the resources necessary to control the border or to crack down on those in the country illegally. It would be more coherent either to take the steps necessary to enforce the current laws or to accept a policy of open borders.
A third argument is environmental. Increased population means increased pollution and increased pressures on habitat and natural resources. Thus one can point to the environment as a justification for controlling both legal and illegal immigration.
The most problematic argument for a liberally minded thinker is the social consequences of immigration. After all, the xenophobic complaints about a flood of immigrants from Latin America appear to echo the complaints made 100 years ago about immigrants from eastern and southern Europe -– an migration that now is viewed as American as apple pie. So, is it foolish to be concerned over the social implications of today’s immigration?
I maintain that one can be concerned and not be racist. One difference is that 100 years ago we had a policy of assimilation; in particular, new immigrants were encouraged to learn English and nearly all did so. This assimilation was helped by the fact that we had immigrants speaking so many different languages. Today, the majority of immigrants speak Spanish and it is much easier to live almost entirely within a Spanish-speaking culture in cities such as Los Angeles. It is not racist to be concerned over the potential creation of two distinct cultures in the United States that do not speak the same language. There are very few examples in world history of nations with two separate linguistic cultures that did not suffer from cultural strife. Consider modern examples of the now-split Yugoslavia, the now-split Czechoslovakia, and even modern Spain, where tension still exists among Castilians, Catalans, and Basques. (Switzerland may be the best counterexample, but nearly everyone there is educated in more than one language.) Unless we adopt a national policy that results in all new immigrants learning English, I believe there is a serious ground for concern over immigration.
Monday, April 10, 2006
In an otherwise fine essay that debunks the supposed crisis of academic achievement of boys, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett wrote in the Washington Post on Sunday that a gap between girls and boys is noticeable only in rural areas and the “inner city.” I suggest that the term “inner city” should be given its walking papers.
Of course, “inner city” connotes a community of mostly poor urban African Americans (or today, perhaps Latinos as well). It is a racial and socioeconomic term and thus is clearly distinguishable from the “central city,” which is a geographic term referring to the entire city at the center of a metropolitan area. Where did “inner city” come from? I speculate that in the civil rights era of the 1950s and1960s, northern liberals conjured up the term as a way of avoiding referring specially to race. It enabled one to be somewhat critical without giving insult – one could refer to the “problems of the inner city.” A drawback of using surrogates and euphemisms, however, is that one loses clarity. Referring to the problems of the “inner city” implies that geography is at least in part to blame, which may or may not be part of the author’s point.
“Inner city” isn’t used as much as it once was. One obvious reason is that it simply doesn’t make much sense anymore. If we mean to refer to the black community, we should be aware that in metro areas such as Washington or Atlanta, more than half of African Americans now live in the suburbs. And as urban redevelopment makes close-in city living more attractive for the affluent, many geographically inner city neighborhoods are more affluent than outer city ones. Certainly this is the case with European cities such as Paris and London, where most poor members of racial minority groups live in inconvenient suburbs, while formerly poor inner districts such as Paris’s Marais are magnets for affluent young professionals.
The most important reason for eschewing “inner city” is, of course, that if one means to refer to race, once should not be skittish about referring to race.
Sunday, April 9, 2006
I flew to Baltimore/Washington airport this weekend and had to make my way to downtown D.C. The BWI airport is now the busiest of the three in the greater Washington area, even thought it's about 25 miles from the White House - further out than Congress-friendly little Reagan National and corporate-office-park-friendly Dulles. For an out-of-towner arriving at BWI, the question is: How to get to D.C? Conveniently, the Washington Metro system has a nonstop express bus that runs 15 miles to the Metrorail station at the Greenbelt suburb, where one can then quickly hop a direct train for downtown. The bus costs $3; the train about another $3. Alternatives include renting a car, having someone pick you up (there was a double-column of illegally parked cars in front of the "No Waiting" signs; I persuaded a middle-aged woman in a Hummer to at least leave the bus stop), or taking a taxi, which costs about $70 to D.C., including tip.
As usual, the express bus was mostly empty. I make this ride often, and this weekend's riders were typical - a handful of college students, a couple arriving from another country on vacation, and a few assorted others, including a disproportionate number of African Americans. As the bus whisked me toward Washington, I wondered: Why is such a comfortable, efficient, and very inexpensive means of transportation so unpopular? I number of factors contribute, including ignorance (America buses are poorly advertised), concerns over schedules (there was no posted schedule at the airport bus stop), and the nearly reflex notion that covering ground must be done by private automobile. In addition, author Jim Motavalli has written cogently about the cultural bias against bus riders - train riding is somewhat better - as "losers" in society. Poor people ride buses; if I ride the bus, I must be like them in some unhappy way.
Americans will learn to ride the bus, I contend, only if our bus systems become more efficient, cleaner, safer, and better-advertised.
Friday, April 7, 2006
The aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans poses a myriad of crucial land use and community development issues, of course. Bickering among state and local officials and an apparent waning of interest in Washington have exacerbated the problems. Here’s one of the latest in the seemingly endless wave of depressing news: Some neighborhoods in New Orleans are opposing the siting of FEMA trailer communities to house those whose homes were destroyed. This week, Mayor Ray Nagin sided with the residents of Algiers, a section of the city south of the river with many affluent families. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, FEMA was supposed to get “approval” from the neighborhood’s city council member before siting a trailer. They say it’s “not an issue of NIMBY.”
It is unfortunate that, in the aftermath of Katrina, neither the federal government nor Louisiana officials recognized the emergency need to put someone in charge, who would have authority to in effect decree certain land use decisions. Perhaps, alas, this would have been impossible.
Some residents fear that the trailers will bring crime. Residents can only be alarmed by reports that areas of Houston occupied largely by Katrina evacuees have experienced spikes in crime. The fact that crime may move with residents, and does not depend whether they live in rundown shotgun shacks, suburban Houston apartments, or shiny new FEMA trailers, is of course another reason to look back at naïve policies of the past that seemed to expect that removal of slum buildings themselves would significantly ameliorate the social problems of the city.