Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Defending Suburbia

Richard Murdocco at The Foggiest Idea, his site about land use on Long Island, posts a concise, controlled rant about preconceptions about suburbs that get in the way of clear vision of what's happening on the ground. While dome-headed planners despair of ever "fixing" the suburbs' thirst for sprawl, Murdocco argues, market forces—the price of land, the foreclosure crises, lenders' preference for multi-family homes—are inducing developers to create precisely the kind of walkable downtown neighborhoods the planners say suburbanites are too barbaric to adopt.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Suburban Patch: Q&A with Dante Chinni

Dante Chinni is project director of Patchwork Nation, an effort, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor and the Knight Foundation, to understand the United States not as a collection of regional or political entities, but as a set of diverse communities. Looking at the 50 states county by county, Chinni has identified 12 broad community types that share demographic and economic traits, regardless of whether they find themselves in the Southwest or the Northeast, Florida, Washington or Arizona.

One of Chinni’s dozen communities is the “Monied Burb.” We had a conversation with him about how he defines suburbia and what he’s found there.

One of the dozen or so community types in Patchwork Nation is the Monied Burb. What makes a county a Monied Burb?
All the types in Patchwork Nation are identified by clustering the counties around a sets of demographic data: income and occupation, religious adherence and racial breakdown, consumer information. For the Monied Burbs, the markers that stand out are income and education. They aren’t terribly diverse places, though they aren’t far off the national averages in their proportion of different kinds of people. And they are not as dense as the big-city counties we call Industrial Metropolis.

How many communities like this are there among the country’s 3,142 counties?
There are 286 of them, and they contain about 69 million people. Mostly they are scattered around big cities, but some are just sprawling counties that cover a medium- or small-sized city and it's burbs.

Obviously, not all burbs are monied.
Not all burbs are monied, but the counties just outside of big cities tend to be wealthier than average than the county the city is in. And there are clearly some suburbanites we miss, in the inner ring burbs in Industrial counties and outer ring burbs in the Boom Towns.

Where did you grow up?
Macomb County, Michigan, and it makes for a good example of why we call them Monied Burbs. The part of Macomb County I grew up in was not Monied, but Macomb stretches very far north from Detroit, and ther are some higher incomes and bigger houses out there. Also, keep in mind that we tend as Americans not to consider ourselves, our environment, well-off. So we look at the town next door and say, "We're okay here, but over there, they are rich ones." Well, yes and no. When you compare your suburb not to the richer one next door but to the statistical "average county," you'd be surprised how well most burbs are doing.

These days you’re looking at how your communities are faring in the recession, and what they've gotten out of federal bailout funds. How are suburban communities doing by these measures?
Last time we looked, on a per capita basis, the Burbs were pretty far down the list -- about $848 per head through January. Seven of the 12 community types did better than that. The big city Industrial Metros scored almost $1200 per head.

But we also looked at where the TARP funds went, which is the bailout. The Burbs scored very highly there. About half of the bank branches in the burbs were affiliated with TARP banks. Those places also took more advantage of government aid to those who lost their homes. So one can't simply say the Burbs didn't get their fair share.

In a recent post on PN, you say that the soccer moms and soccer dads, which are really just euphemisms for the suburban majority, are not on the deciders this election season. What changed?
We'll have to see, of course, but when I look at the numbers—Obama’s approval and anxiety about the economy--the Burbs aren't especially unhappy. The stock market is up. Their 401(k)s look a lot better. They've been teetering between Dems and Republicans for several elections, but fell heavily to Obama in 2008.

I suspect the Republicans will do better in the Monied Burbs in 2010 than they did two years ago, but because those places feel a little better than they did in 2008, they are likely to stay Democratic. Other types, like the Boom Towns and the small own Service Worker Centers, lean Republican and they have a little more to be unhappy about. Of course if Europe collapses and drags the Dow down with it, all bets are off.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brookings Report: The End of Black-and-White Urban Planning

White flight may be over. But when it comes to our ideas about suburbs vs. the city, the picture is still all black and white.

The news coming out of Brookings Institution's massive new report, "The State of Metropolitan America," is that young educated, white workers have headed back into the cities in the past decade, looking for job opportunities and a lively social environment. The suburbs, meanwhile, are getting poorer and more diverse.

At least that's the takeaway from urban-based outlets, always ready to pit lily-white suburbs against the true grit of the cities. "Suburbs Losing Young Whites to Cities," crys the headline on the AP story that ran on Huffington Post. "Bright Flight: Affluent Leaving Suburbs, Moving to Cities" seconds the Wall St. Journal's blog "The Juggle." Told this way, the story sounds like the burbs are getting their comeuppance.

The situation the Brookings report describes is somewhat subtler. Young whites have been moving downtown since the 1990s, lured by better infrastructure and the drop in crime. What Brookings says is that the "bright flight" accelerated in the 2000s (to the inner-ring burbs as well as the urban core) because of the recession and the collapse of the housing bubble. The jury's still out on whether the recent migration to the cities is a long-term reorientation or a recession-based "bounce."

Meanwhile, the growing poverty in the burbs is not a white/minority "switcheroo" as the eco-blog Grist has it, but a rechanneling of immigration patterns during the suburban boom of the previous decade: lower-class, unskilled workers have streamed to the suburbs because that's where their jobs were, and for the most part still are, as manufacturing firms left the cities.

The sum effect is not a simple reversal of white flight, but a blending of city and suburban reality that's been going on almost since white flight began. For years, Brookings analysts have been calling for a smarter, less balkanized approach to urban planning and management. Says the Brookings report, "governance must begin to transcend the parochial 18th-century administrative borders that frustrate shared approaches to increasingly shared challenges."

Suburban authorities have begun breaking down their municipal barriers, forming regional planning committees to solve common problems. The next step is for cities and suburbs to overcome the mindset neatly summed up by Grist's tidy but insufficient recommendation that "let's half of us fix the cities and half of us fix the suburbs."

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Can Car Sharing Fly in the Suburbs?

Car sharing has made serious inroads in cities, where a lack of parking, plenty of public transportation, and general walkability make renting a car for an hour or a day far more practical than owning. Zipcar and other car sharing companies find their services are economically unsustainable in the suburbs, where conditions are just the opposite: walking is rarely a choice, getting to their cars often requires a car, and there's parking everywhere you look.

A new concept in car sharing makes it possible for suburban car owners to capitalize on their parked cars--literally, by renting them to strangers. Relay Rides, now operating in the Boston area, allows car owners to rent their vehicles during those hours when they aren't using them. Owners post their car's availability and location on a website where renters sign up for drive-away and return times. Relay Rides installs a push-button device in each car that gives the renter access--no key-swapping necessary--and tracks the car. The company also provides insurance for duration of the rental and checks on the driver's safety record.

Environmental advocates love the idea of car sharing because it reduces the number of cars in the world. So far, the personal carsharing model has been limited where it's needed most because in several states, like California, renting a noncommercial vehicle automatically invalidates the owner's insurance. Yesterday, a bill pushed by California assemblyman Dave Jones changed that, clearing the way for Spride Share, a car sharing company in the San Francisco area, ready to jump in with a system similar to Relay Rides.

By matching renters with cars sprinkled across the burbs, instead of at Zipcars central locations, car sharing companies may now map the Internet's fluid, multiple-node network onto the suburbs' troubling traffic patterns. The question now is whether suburbanites are willing to be that democratic--and capitalistic--about their rides.

photo by Andrew Currie

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Times Square Bomber Gets a Crumbling Surbuban Facade

As they grope to make sense of Faisal Shahzad, the alleged failed Times Square car bomber, the newspapers are going with the "suburban time bomb" angle, playing on the fact that Shahzad owned--and left to foreclosure--a house in Shelton, Connnecticut, a former factory town on the Housatonic River north of Bridgeport. (photo by Professor Bop) This narrative line nicely ties together paranoia about the placidity of the suburbs--"it's quiet out here, a little too quiet--with the ravages of the real-estate boom.

The New York Times' front page sets the tone with the headline, "A Suburban Father Who Gave No Warning Sign," though there's little in the way of suburban angst in the story that follows. Instead, realty-obsessed New Yorkers get a rundown on the property's descending fortunes. Shahzad bought his new-construction, single family home in 2004 for $273,000 with a $218,000 mortgage, the Times reports, before kicking at the alleged mass-murderer for trying "to cash in on the real estate boom." Listed for $329,000 in 2006, the house finally sold within the past year for $284,500.

By that time, Shahzad had long since abandoned suburban life. In June of 2009, he stopped paying his mortgage and moved his family to Pakistan, where he may have gotten some terrorist training, according to reports.

This isn't the usual route to the heartbreak of foreclosure, but that doesn't keep The Danbury News Times, presumably with better local sources, from spinning a deeper tale of suburban desuetude: "American Dream faded quickly for accused terrorist" reads the paper's headline.

The NT's contribution to the real-estate story is that Shahzad bought the home four years before he married--just one of the 52 percent of singletons choosing the burbs over city life that Coldwell-Banker has been touting in recent weeks. The local paper also turns up a $65,000 home equity loan taken on the property in February 2009, leading a University of New Haven professor to speculate that Shahzad was struggling to keep up with the Joneses. "Maybe he was starting to see the hopes of living the good life in America die and he began feeling like a failure," says clinical psychologist and criminal-law prof James Monahan.

Maybe. Or perhaps the frame of suburban economic and spiritual shipwreck doesn't fit the picture. Maybe three months before he left for Pakistan, Shahzad was already turning toward terrorist activity and was looking to suck funds out of a property he was intending to walk away from. We'll never know--that's the way it is with these mild-mannered suburban madmen.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

Suburban Immigrants Feel Arizona Heat

On Long Island, native residents have an ambivalent attitude toward immigration. Though they employ undocumented workers by the thousands--New York state harbors a greater percentage of illegal aliens than Arizona (five percent versus four percent of the national total from 2000 to 2006)--Long Island has become a flashpoint for anti-immigrant protest.

In 2005, the town of Farmingville was the site of one of the most controversial day-laborer shape-ups that have raised suburbanites' ire. On the exurban frontier of eastern Long Island, a tense court case recently wrapped up with the conviction of a teenager who knifed a man while "beaner hopping"--targeting Latino immigrants as a violent lark. Last week, an SUV was spotted in Nassau County with a homemade bumper sticker that read, "Go Arizona."

Yet Long Islanders who support Arizona's new immigration bill often cite not the current influx of foreigners, but their own family histories. "My grandfather was an illegal from Ulster," someone wrote on a Long Islander's Facebook recently, adding, for the record, "He left and came back legally. Plenty of people wait years to get a green card, why should other be able to cut in line?" A woman with an Italian last name wrote on the same thread about her grandparents. "Not only did they come through this country legally,but they got jobs, contributed to the economy, built lives and raised children who respected the country that afforded their families the opportunities for education and a decent life."

Nevermind that the implication here--that today's immigrants don't contribute to American society--have repeatedly been proven false. The grandparents of today's middle-aged homeowners were for the most part not legal immigrants, at least not in the sense that they secured green cards before stepping ashore.

Before 1924, when the first mass immigration measures were enacted, visas were not necessary to enter the country (unless you were Chinese, in which case you didn't come in). Even after quotas were imposed, those who were allowed in simply showed up. This system lasted until Ellis Island closed in the mid-1950s, and as immigration lawyer and Hofstra Law School professor Patrick Young points out, "If that system was in place today, there would be no illegal immigrants."

Not that second- and third-generation European-Americans shouldn't be proud of their forebears. And they are. The 2000 U.S. Census showed that Italian-Americans in particular are increasingly claiming their heritage. This trend is no doubt the result of the success of their group in American life. Or possibly today's Italian-Americans have finally recovered from the intense prejudice that greeted their grandparents when they arrived half a century ago.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Inside the Beltway Thinking on AIDS

More than 5,500 individuals in Prince George's County, Maryland are infected with HIV/AIDS, according to a study of AIDs in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, released this week (pdf). Of those, more than 600 are not receiving treatment. The study, which blamed a lack of a coordinated response to the spread of the virus, prompted suburban officials to step up diagnosis and treatment, and promote awareness in schools, as has been done in D.C.

The study didn't focus on Prince George's--it had the same advice for all the Washington burbs, which harbor 46 percent of those in Metro D.C. area. But let's stick for a moment with Prince George's, which is home to nearly a million people in 10 cities, 17 towns, and more than 50 unincorporated areas. Comparing this glut of community types, governing bodies, school districts and legal jurisdcitions to D.C.'s unified hierarchy is not even "comparing apples and oranges," as Dale Schacherer, program manager for HIV client services in neighboring Montgomery County, called it. It's comparing one apple tree to a field of grapes.

The study, funded by the Washington AIDS Partnership, is a followup to a 2005 survey of Washington itself, which proved a critical tool in fighting infection rates in the city. "We were able to provide a blueprint for action," says the partnership's executive director, Channing Wickham. But one blueprint won't serve all of Prince George's County, much less the six counties and four cities that surround our nation's capital.

Photo by wyfurasko

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Friday, April 23, 2010

The Art of the Suburban Arts Center

The proper function of the arts is to impale the bourgeoisie. With the arts thriving in the city centers and the majority of the bourgeoisie living in the suburbs, the arts' ability to scandalize those who need it most has atrophied.

Slowly, however, the arts are making their to the suburbs. The Minneapolis suburbs recently added its third suburban theater and art space, the $20 million Performing Arts Center in Burnsville, joining the Center for the Arts at the Bloomington Civic Plaza and the Center for the Arts in Hopkins.

The key word is "slowly." The Burnsville theater/gallery complex lost more than half a million dollars in its first year, prompting the Star-Tribune to ask, "Is it worth it to have a multi-use arts center in your suburb?"

The answer, according to the centers' directors and local authorities, is yes, but it requires the right mix of public use, stable programs, and patience.

How much patience can vary. After six years in operation, the Bloomington facility is already "active and viibrant, 16, 18 hours a day," says a Bloomington city councilman. The 27-year-ol Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wis., just east of St. Paul, took "a good 10 years to hit its stride," according to its executive director.

The secrets to success, say experienced programmers, are a stable line-up of resident companies willing to produce a diverse range of events, a size that fits the community (800 to 1,000 seats seems to suit the Minneapolis area), and the willingness to be a community center, including a rental space for weddings and other private functions.

The most hopeful sign is that the Burnsville's theater group, Chameleon, has been running a successful musical revue titled "Suburbs," an exploration of the rites and rituals of "the world of the lawnmower, the barbecue, and the mall."

Ibsen it may not be, but the impalement of the bourgeoisie always begins with a little light skewering.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Landscaping the Wright Way

Robert Wright is a smart guy. He writes books, he has spent a lot of time at Princeton University, and no doubt that is why, even when he's talking about lawncare, he explains things like this: "I think it’s possible in principle to engineer a new ethos that allows us to fight chemical negative externalities without creating aesthetic and hence financial ones."

In other words, if suburbanites could learn to love the look of unkempt lawns, we could save a lot of money, and pollute less. Or in fewer words, a little laziness about lawn care might be a good thing.

The tyranny of the suburban lawn has been an issue at least since Rob Petrie, on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," refused to join a vigilante group to rid his neighborhood of crabgrass. Since then, we have more reason to take a live-and-let-live attitude toward weeds: we've become conscious of the environmental cost of a manicured greensward. Chemical fertilizers and herbicides find their way into the water supply, and eventually into the oceans, where they choke sea life. Lawnmowers cause air and noise pollution.

This is how Wright, who lets his lawn go, justifies his weeds. There are, he recognizes, eco-friendly lawncare products (though even some organic weed suppressants contain byproducts of corn, one of the most rapacious crops), but he claims he's too busy to educate himself about "greening" his lawn. Probably best not to bother introducing him to xerophytic landscaping.

Wright's solution, typical of a big thinker, is to tinker with our cultural presumptions. "Maybe someday suburban neighborhoods will consist of lawns that look like mine," he writes, "and everyone will admire them." This isn't an entirely revolutionary thought. As Rob Petrie says in defense of an offending neighbor, "He happens to like the look of crabgrass."

But it's a thought that will take a revolution to promulgate. What many suburbanites don't realize is how much weed control is a matter of simply doing less. Mowing rarely and leaving the blades longer when you do gives grass a competitive advantage over weeds. Planting bushes or ivy that needs trimming once a year or so reduces the size of a thirsty, hungry lawn, and yields more time to laze about.

In Wright's case, Burb recommends a move to a less uptight suburb. Since the dawn of suburbia, lawns have functioned as a kind of code about what kind of people live in a house, a neighborhood, or a town. The sight of grass gone to seed can be a symbol of freethinkers, or long-term illness; the howl of leafblowers toted by phalanx of landscapers is the sound of the American Dream in action.

In other words, Mr. Wright, every homeowner deserves the lawn he's saddled with.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Making Sense of the Cost of the Commute

Economists have revealed that living in the exurbs costs more, when you count in commuting, than you might save in cheaper housing. A study by the Urban Land Institute shows that exurban commuters in the Boston area pay as much as twice what close-in workers pay in tranportation costs. "The report shows "affordable housing" in the exurbs really isn't--if it also means unaffordable transportation," says an ULI researcher quoted on NECN, a local news channel.

In the Boston area, commuters spend 35 percent of their household income on housing and 19 percent on transportation. But transportation costs range from more than $14,000 in communities along the I-495 beltway, like Billerica and Franklin (above, in a photo by shersteve) to $6,540 for workers hopping across the Charles River from Cambridge.

The Urban Land Institute argues that the difference, put toward a mortgage payment, could allow workers to afford a house worth $40,000 more in Cambridge, say, than, Franklin. One problem with this argument is that the median price for a home in Cambridge is more than $80,000 higher than a home in Franklin, according to Trulia.

Let's say for the sake of argument, however, that a homebuyer can find a place in Cambridge equivalent to a place in an outer-ring burb for just $40,000 more. The economists tells us that, taken as a group, we're all rational actors, even us suburbanites. There must be some reason some Boston area residents prefer coughing up a quarter of their income to sit on a commuter train, which, money aside, takes its own toll in hassle. (The institute has done a similar study on San Francisco that yielded similar differentials, and yet some folks are choosing to commute by air from Portland, Oregon, to beat the Bay Area real-estate prices.)

Do people not do the commuting vs. home price math for themselves? Or is there something else driving people out into the burbs and beyond? The answer to that mystery may be more illuminating than identifying the phenomenon itself.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rethinking Surburban Seniors

Marian Knapp got her Ph.D. last year, at the age of 70, in environmental studies. Unlike her fellow students concerned with whales and egrets, Knapp studied the elderly in her hometown of Newton, a suburb of Boston. Her dissertation, "Aging in Place in Suburbia," is a group portrait of Newton women adapting to a new life as elderly residents in a place built for young families. Now a member of Newton's Council on Aging and a consultant to local agencies, Knapp talked to Burb about the issues facing the half of Americans over 65 who live in the burbs.

What inspired you to get your degree?
I had a lot of family members who lived to be really old. So part of it was asking myself, what am I going to do with the next 30 years? But I was also influenced by being a caregiver for these older people. When I read what the current literature says about aging at home, I was troubled. If you type "aging in place" into a search engine, it defines staying at home as having services brought in. That was not my life, or my relatives' lives. Their lives were a lot more complicated. I'm trying to reframe the image of elders in suburbia.

How is that image different from reality?
The house is really important to seniors, but it's not their whole life. The women I interviewed talked about nature, about their neighborhoods, about Boston, and about the world, which was still very much a part of their persona, and how they viewed their lives.

So aging in place means being actively involved in the broader community. The image we have is an old person sitting there, very needy, and that the alternative is going to a nursing home. We have to change this idea so we can engage these people in a meaningful way.

How do you do that?
I've been working with the Department of Senior Services here in Newton on a survey of what's going on outside the walls of the senior center. We've produced a demographic map of the town, color coded to show where the elders are, so we can match programs with where they live. We're trying to get the community to focus on needs, but also existing assets. If there are gaps, then we want to fill those gaps.

One challenge here is transportation.
The elderly need transportation not only to get to the doctor, but to stay connected to people. In Newton we've recently restored a transportation system that gets them to appointments, but also to houses of worship, so they can get to religious services. The question with transportation is, who's going to fund it?

You talked earlier about the elderly connecting to nature.
For many people, nature was a very important part of moving out of the city. When they were younger, these people would go walk in the woods. Now some women find a place in their house where they can see the change of the seasons. They feed the birds, or garden. It's a very positive thing we should be paying more attention to.

We think of activities for seniors as playing bingo and cards. Is this what do they really want to do?
The senior center here knows it's in a transition period. So it does have bingo, and serves lunch. They have to maintain those sorts of things. But it also has computer classes. art classes, music, art and French language classes. The next generation of elderly still want to be involved in technology and cultural things.

Do the elderly only want to socialize with other elderly?
Not at all. In fact, there's some self-imposed ageism going on, people who say "I won't go to the senior center. They're all old." There are efforts going on to bring people together in their neighborhoods. I'm not sure how successful they've been. People are wrapped up in their daily lives and they're not thinking about the neighborhood piece.

How do we need to rethink our approach to elderly in the suburbs?
A lot of this work is defined by professionals, so we have these silos of services--transportation and housing and medicine. And even when they get together, they have a clinical perpsective--they ask, "How can we work professionals together?", not, "How can we see the whole person?" Communities need to think about the whole person, and how we can help seniors continue to be a whole person.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Better Homes for Imperfect People

Marianne Cusato excels at elegantly practical responses to housing dilemmas. Her Katrina Cottage, above, won acclaim as a emergency housing solution for victims of the hurricane in New Orleans, while her Home for a New Economy, a virtual model home she designed for the National Builders Association's 2010 convention, has been dubbed "the most innovative home never built." As a critic of the excesses of the late building boom, Cusato charges that designers forgot to address homely questions, like "Where do I have my morning coffee?"

But ask Cusato for the vision thing, as Forbes did for their recent "Life in 2020" special report, and she loses her footing. We're with Cusato when she gives concrete examples of retrofittting the suburban ring for mixed use, like Stapleton, Colo., where a redundant airport was converted into a walkable downtown. We'll even go along with her point that hard times for the homebuilding industry in the past three years have been a "creative disruption," one that will lead the United States to a sustainable recovery.

But when discussing the future of the single-family home, Cusato resorts to predictions that are more pie-in-the-sky than blue-sky. By 2020, Cusato says, "homeowners will crave fewer symbols of gratuitous wealth. Americans will stop trying to keep up with the Jones [sic]." In her zeal to eradicate superfluously grand entryways and "gables for gables sake"--her code words for McMansions--Cusato has stepped out of futurism into fantasy. We can't revolutionize suburbia by reimagining human nature. Better to design eco-friendly castles than to wish away a man's desire to live in one.

It may be that the symbols of gratuitous wealth ten years from now will be slickly sensible structures--the real-estate's equivalent of the Prius. (On the very high end, where zero-carbon new construction is still in the experimental phase, you could argue this is already the case.)

But the housing stock in the inner-ring won't likely be retrofitted to offer rank-and-file homeowners uniformly efficient, right-sized homes by the end of this decade, even if they wanted them. Even in a world of $5-a-gallon gasoline and electric-bill surcharges, homebuyers will balance space and comfort against how far they can stretch their paychecks.

Cusato seems to have even this basic economic calculation backward. "Cost per square foot will be abandoned as a metric," she writes. "Homeowners will instead weigh the total monthly costs of living in a home."

Outside the urban condo market, of course, most buyers already talk in terms of monthly payments, including mortgage, taxes--and energy costs. ("What's it take to heat that monster?" is the commoner's initial response to a commodious barn he or she can't afford.) That omnibus figure drops when mortgage rates go low, making large, inefficient homes too readily affordable. If we're to make suburbia sustainable and immunize housing from the ills of cheap credit, house shoppers will have to adopt a closer measure, like cost per square foot, to see which homes are truly dreamy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What's a Better Burb Look Like? Ask the People Who Live There

Long Island, stretching 125 miles east of Manhattan, has one stresser other suburbs do not: the Atlantic Ocean. Having water on all sides gives the suburban crisis on Long Island the effect of a slow-moving disaster, in which longtime residents are exiting while they can. "The older people are moving to Florida and the younger ones to Dallas," Columbia University urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson told The New York Times in 2005.

Like other suburbs, though, Long Island has another immoveable object: the public. Besieged as they are by their own sprawl, Long Islanders fear that changing the thrust of development will destroy the island's unique character as an overgrown beach community.

Hoping to overcome these fears and foster smart development at the same time, the nonprofit Long Island Index has created the "Build a Better Burb" challenge, which recruits the public to come up with ideas for improving Long Island's 156 mostly underutilized yet highly developed downtowns.

Many of Long Island's downtowns are ideal platforms for suburban hubs. Centered around a Long Island Rail Road station, the majority of town centers boast vast deserts of parking lots, empty big-box stores and other space available for infill development--8,300 acres of it, according to the Build a Better Burb website. By opening the challenge to anyone with a viable plan (though they recommend partnering with a draftsman), the Indexers seem dedicated to reconfiguring hearts and minds as much as the "underperforming asphalt."

Small projects focused on existing transit and shopping centers may serve as a palatable precedent than the large-scale visions put forward by former Nassau County executive Thomas Suozzi. With computer magnate Charles Wang, Suozzi pushed for the creation of a suburban hub in Uniondale, on the edge of the sparely developed Mitchell Field, a former Navy airbase. Suozzi hoped the complex would combine residential and commercial buildings, nestled against a refurbished Nassau Coliseum, owned by Wang. Suozzi lost his re-election bid last year, and the proposal has been assigned for further study by the Town of Hempstead.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Michelle Obama: Desperate Housewife?

The Burbist doesn't ordinarily rise to defend suburbia. As Gregory Rodriguez's fuzzy broadside in the Los Angeles Times last month shows, attacks on the suburban mindset usually misplace the blame for vaguely defined wrongs, like a guy kicking the cat after a bad day at work.

When Michelle Obama told Fox News in February that her household is "news free," Rodriguez, a Times op-ed columnist, took out his frustrations on the suburbs. "Her statement ... represented the culmination of the suburbanization of the American mind," Rodriguez wrote. Why he thought is so wrongheaded as to invite a reply.

The First Lady's admission, on Mike Huckabee's show, came during a discussion about her "Let's Move" initiative, aimed at raising awareness about children's fitness and diet. After a commercial break, Huckabee asked Mrs. Obama whether she watched Fox News. "I try to keep home kind of a news-free zone," she responded.."When you work above the shop, you can't just bring work home."

Rodriguez doesn't say exactly how the White House is representative of the suburbs--despite its spreading lawns, it stands dead center in our 27th largest city--or of any typical American lifestyle. Rodriguez says that Mrs. Obama's no-news policy exhibits a slightly paranoid suburban tendency to think that "members of the single family unit are their only allies." This nails, no doubt, what it must be like to live in the Washington bubble. But the dynamic has little to do with life in an anonymous suburb, where, if anything, family cohesion is atomized by commitments outside the home, Mom's work schedule and book group included.

Rodriguez's complaint is not only with our emotional state, but with that of our minds. Suburbanites' physical remove from the city, he writes, is paralleled by an intellectual distance. He blames a mentality of "escapism"--a notion he borrowed from a Harper's magazine article from 1946. Ergo, we avoid bad news.

Nevermind that most suburbanites today have escaped from nowhere but are, like Rodriguez, suburban natives; his evidence that we are becoming a "newsless" nation comes from a 2008 Pew Research Center study that found that a third of Americans under 25 get no news during a typical day. There's no indication that Pew's young people are primarily suburban. Indeed, the suburbs, given the predominance of elders among both newspaper readers and homeowners, are likely to consume news at a higher rate than urbanites.

Not that reading the news these days qualifies as an intellectual pursuit--not as long as trash-talking is passed off as serious argument.

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Friday, April 09, 2010

New Jersey's Zero Sum Gamble

Any real-estate agent can tell you the immutable law of suburban real-estate: the value of a home is directly proportional to the quality of the local public school system.

Don't take my word for it: here is Sharon Alva, an agent in Alameda, Calif., with the relevant studies: "UCLA economist Sandra E. Black calculated that parents are willing to pay 2.5 percent more for housing per 5 percent increase in test scores," Alva wrote in a local paper recently. Nor are test scores the only factor home buyers are willing to pay for. "Proficiency tests, expenditure per pupil, pupil-to-teacher ratio, teacher salary and student attendance rates are 'consistently capitalized' into housing prices," notes Alva.

This fact of suburban life is what makes the current debate in New Jersey over property taxes so painful to watch. In his state budget announced last month, Governor Chris Christie proposed cutting state aid to localities by $800 million, at the same time pushing for a cap on increases to local property taxes.

In New Jersey, some 53 percent of local budgets go to education. Simultaneously cutting back aid to municipalities while boxing out new revenues from homeowners will certainly mean pushing back teacher pay, expanding pupil-to-teacher ratios and lowering expenditures per pupil, as an similar cap in Massachusetts did in the early 1980s, until the state government made up shortfalls with direct aid.

Those who support Christie's plan say there is fat in school budgets that can be trimmed to cover the half-million dollars or so that a typical small town would lose. They point to "extra layers of administration" as well as pay raises for teachers of 4 percent and more in the middle of a recession. Christie has promoted the view that teachers are overpaid by offering to restore some aid to school districts that agree to a salary freeze.

The alternative to the cuts, some New Jersey legislators say, is to restore a special income-tax surcharge on those making $400,000 or more annually that expired last December. Christie has vowed to veto that measure, or any tax hike, saying that wealthy residents will find someplace else to live.

This is not simple read-my-lips Republicanism. Christie's campaign against property-tax increases is a heartfelt response to real pain felt by homeowners: an annual tax bill of $20,000 on a house already costing $800,000 is not uncommon in the northeastern part of the state, near New York City. The question for New Jersey suburbanites is whether they will end up paying anyway--if not in higher taxes, then in lost real-estate values over the longer term.

Photo of Chris Christie by Hoboken Condo

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