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Dead ends: Euphemisms hide our true feelings about growth

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. Vicky Hallett also discusses the book in today's Express.

Ben is giving a book talk on Tuesday, April 22nd, 5:30 pm at APTA headquarters, 1666 K Street NW. Afterward, GGW is cosponsoring a happy hour at the Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW, at 6:30pm. Stop by for just the talk, just the happy hour, or both!

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee "that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they."


Photo by Michael Patrick on Flickr.

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don't want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise.

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

Land use disputes thus come before the public veiled in a thick fog of evasion, euphemism, and flat-out falsehood. From this miasma rises a plague of obscurity that infects the language itself. Terms devised to conceal reality become so familiar that they are uttered without thinking. Critics find themselves unable to question received dogmas for want of words to express their thoughts.

A tour of this vocabulary must begin with compatibility. The concept is at the heart of land use regulation. In the narrow sense, incompatible uses are those that cannot coexist, like a smokehouse and a rest home for asthmatics. But the word has taken on a far broader meaning.

Compatibility, in the enlarged sense, is often thought of as a sort of similarity. But if two things are similar, they are both similar to each other, while with compatibility it is otherwise. A house on a half-acre lot is compatible with surrounding apartment buildings, but the inverse does not follow. An apartment building is incompatible with houses that sit on half-acre lots.

Compatibility, in this sense, is euphemism. A compatible land use upholds the status of the neighborhood. An incompatible one lowers it. Rental apartments can be incompatible with a neighborhood that would accept the same building sold as condos.

The euphemism is so well established that the narrow meaning has begun to fall into disuse. Neighbors who object to loud noises or unpleasant odors just lay out the specifics; incompatible has come to mean, "I don't like it and I'm not explaining why." The word is notably unpopular with New Urbanists. Faced with such an obvious case of incompatibility, in the literal sense, as a parking lot in a walkable downtown, they call it a "disruption of the urban fabric" or a "wasteful use of land."

Compatibility may be the most pervasive linguistic deformation, but it is hardly the only one. Homeowners will complain about the impact on their neighborhood when basement apartments are rented out or high-rises are built nearby. This word conflates purely psychological desires, among them the wish to keep away from people with lower incomes, with physical detriments like smell and shade. Its value lies in its vaguenessobjectors can make a case without saying concretely what their objection is. ...

Another slippery phrase is public use. Here the word use conveys almost the exact opposite of its common meaning. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a definition: public use space is "space devoted to uses for public enjoyment, such as gardens, plazas, or walks." A common example is the empty plaza that sits between an office building and the street, elevating the status of its surroundings through the display of conspicuous waste.

The operative word in the definition is not "use" but "enjoyment." In other words, no productive work can be done in the space. By this definitional sleight of hand, disuse becomes a kind of use, and indeed the only kind allowed. In one case in 2011, the planning board forbade the placement of a barbecue in a public use space when a neighbor complained that it would encourage the public to use the space. ...

Our linguistic tour would hardly be complete without a visit to the greedy developer. The key to decoding this phrase is that the word "greedy" lacks semantic content. Antipathy to developers has no relation to their degree of avariceif anything, non-profit builders of low-income housing encounter more hostility than the truly greedy. The ostensible target is the wealthy entrepreneur who builds new houses. The real one is the people who will live in them.

The builder stands accused, often enough, of the sin of manhattanization. When first used in San Francisco in the late 1960s by opponents of downtown skyscrapers, this was a vivid and descriptive coinage. But just as the developer's first name lost its connection to avarice, manhattanization became unmoored from New York City. The term, in current usage, can refer to almost any structure that rises above its surroundings.

A campaign against manhattanizing Menlo Park, California, objects to two-, three-, and four-story buildings around the train station. The movement's leader explains her goals by asking "Are we going to remain a small town, with low-density development, or are we going to be more like Redwood City and Palo Alto?"

Manhattanize might seem an odd choice of word to convey the meaning of "make it look like Palo Alto," but stale metaphor, as George Orwell pointed out years ago, does a service. It releases the speaker from the need to explain, or even figure out herself, exactly what she means to say. The premise of the argument against density is left unstated and thus immune from challenge.

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," Orwell warned in his famous essay Politics and the English Language. For a half-century and more, deformed language has made it hard to think clearly about the communities we live in. Our system of land use will be the easier to understand, the more we use words that say plainly what we mean.

Last minute gift ideas for urbanists

If you're a responsible adult, you've already finished all your holiday shopping. If you're like me, you've still got some to do. So here are some gift ideas for the urbanists in your life, all from brick-and-mortar stores in DC that you can visit today or tomorrow.


Fare card trivet, the Bible of urbanism, DC earrings, and SimCity computer game.

Get a book

You can't go wrong with books, and most large bookstores have a shelf or two dedicated to architecture & city planning. The four urbanist books I always recommend are:

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It's the Bible of urbanism, the seminal book on what makes a good city, and the singular most essential book in any urbanist library.

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. By far the most accessible description of how suburbia happened, why it seemed to make sense at the time, and why it ultimately proved a disaster.

Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Like Death and Life, but more contemporary, and beautifully illustrated with simple maps & diagrams that help make the point.

Walkable City by Jeff Speck. Speck is a DC resident, a GGW contributor, and one of the best urbanist writers today. He collaborated on Suburban Nation, and then with Walkable City presented the hard data that backs up his claims.

Go to the National Building Museum gift shop

The National Building Museum focuses on cities and architecture, and has great gift shop. It's open until 5pm Monday and Tuesday. They have DC street map earrings, Metro fare card trivets, city map ties, foldable paper Metrorail train cars, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

Get SimCity

If the urbanist you love is under 40, odds are he or she has played and loved the SimCity family of computer games. You can buy the latest version at any electronics or video games store.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


Little-known quarry played a big role in DC's rise

The city's historic structures were built from materials as unique to their age and as varied as the architectural styles used to mold them into buildings. Those materials often have their own rich stories to tell, as Garrett Peck ably demonstrates in his lively new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry.

Seneca sandstone has a lot going for it. In addition to its rich, dignified color, it also has the unique property that it is relatively soft and easy to cut when it is taken out of the ground but hardens after the cut stone is set in place, making for an excellent building material. It's a wonder that more DC buildings are not made from it.

The first quarry to be used heavily in constructing early Washington was the Aquia Creek quarry near Stafford, Virginia. Peter L'Enfant purchased that quarry on behalf of the government to supply stone for the Capitol and White House, but the pale Aquia Creek sandstone discolored easily (one reason why the White House was painted white in 1798), and better sources of stone were sought out. The cliffs along the Maryland side of the Potomac at what is now the small village of Seneca offered superior stone.

Robert Peter (1726-1806), a Scottish immigrant who became a prosperous Georgetown tobacco merchant, purchased a large tract of land in Maryland, including the sandstone cliffs, in 1781. The first small amounts of stone were quarried there some time in the late 18th century. Peter's son Thomas built the regal Tudor Place mansion that still stands today in Georgetown as one of the city's best house museums. Thomas also built a distinguished country house on the land at Seneca, but it was not until Thomas's son, John Parke Custis Peter (1799-1848), inherited the property that the Seneca Quarry started to figure prominently in DC construction.


South side of the Castle. Photo by the author.

John P.C. Peter made a daring lowball bid in 1846 to supply the stone for the new Smithsonian Building to be constructed on the Mall. The iconic structure could have been made of pale Aquia Creek sandstone, white New York marble, or gray granite, but at a below-market 25 cents per square foot, Peter's Seneca red sandstone got the nod from the building committee.

The eccentric Romanesque Revival building, designed by James Renwick, set the stage for the Victorian era of red Washington architecture. While many red Victorian buildings would be made primarily of brick, Seneca sandstone was prominent as well, often used in water tables because it was considered waterproof.


The water table and belt courses on the old Agriculture Building are of Seneca sandstone. Image from the author's collection.

Renwick used the stone as trim for the original Corcoran Gallery of Art building (now the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery) as well as the chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Just to the west of the Castle, the original Agriculture Department building, designed by Adolf Cluss and completed in 1868, had a Seneca sandstone water table and belt courses.

Other Seneca buildings past and present, as cataloged by Peck, include a number of C&O Canal locks and houses, the McClellan Gate at Arlington National Cemetery, the Luther Place Memorial Church facing Thomas Circle, and many private houses. Although he hasn't found evidence to confirm it, Peck tells me he suspects the trim and belt courses on the striking National Security & Trust building at 15th Street and New York Avenue NW may be Seneca sandstone as well.


It's possible that the trim on this building is Seneca sandstone. Photo by the author.

But Peck's book goes beyond the buildings to delve into the fascinating stories of the people behind the stones. John P.C. Peter died unexpectedly in 1848 after scratching his thumb on a rusty nail and contracting tetanus, but the quarry continued to prosper without him. It was the site of a skirmish during the Civil War and a scandal afterward, when it fell into the hands of robber barons during the corrupt years of the Grant administration. Peck fills in all the details of these episodes and paints a vivid picture of quarry life, including the role of African-Americans who did much of the stone-cutting.


Ruins of the stonecutting mill. Photo by the author.

The quarry shut down around 1901, having exhausted the best of the redstone that was readily available. By that time Washingtonians had decided the city's old red architecture was bad-bad-bad and should be replaced by the imperial white marble and limestone piles envisioned by the McMillan Commission.

The forgotten quarry site gradually fell into ruins. Today it lies in densely overgrown parkland just east of the C&O Canal at Seneca. In winter months, when the undergrowth is dormant, Peck leads tours of the site.

Though the quarry and its various related structures stand on parkland, none are marked with interpretive signs, and there is no marked trail through the site, so Peck's extensive knowledge of the old quarry is essential. The ghostly ruins of the old stonecutting mill, with initials carved in the sandstone by workers of yore, are particularly poignant.


Quarry master's Seneca sandstone house. Photo by the author.

It would be a great addition to the cultural resources of the Washington area if the Seneca Quarry site could be turned into an historical park, as Peck envisions. He closes his book with an engaging discussion of the individuals who have saved parts of old Seneca, like the Kiplingers, who own Thomas Peter's country mansion Montevideo, and the Albiols, who have restored the old quarry master's house.

Peck argues for a modest investment to clear the brush from the stonecutting mill site and other key spots, lay out a marked trail through the park, and install a few key interpretive signs. It would make for a unique memorial to a distinctive aspect of 19th-century culture. With publication of The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry and fresh interest in the site, perhaps the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission might take action.

Architecture


Beware the starchitects, beware repetition

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

We've come a long way since the seventies, when every city endeavored to build its own version of Boston's fortress-like City Hall, a structure that only architects love (yes, I love it). This style of architecture was called brutalism, supposedly after Le Corbusier's beton brutrough concretebut the name stuck for other reasons.


Photo by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML on Flickr.

It was characterized by walls so abrasive they could rip your arm open. Happily, this technique is no longer in vogue, but many architects, especially the starchitects, still build blank walls where they least belong.

My old professor, the Spaniard Rafael Moneo, is probably the leading blank wall composer, a veritable Copland of Concrete. In his studios, like all of my architecture-school studios, nobody ever talked about how buildings need to give life to the sidewalk.

We did discuss such things as a faade's thickness and depth"sickness and death," in Moneo's formidable accentbut these were architectonic qualities, not practical ones. Most architecture schools still promote an intellectual and artistic sensibility that has little patience for such mundane questions as whether a building will sustain pedestrian activity.

This issue was the subject of a now famous exchange that took place at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival between Frank Gehry and a prominent audience member, Fred Kent. Kent, who runs the Project for Public Spaces, pointedly asked Gehry why so many "iconic" buildings by star architects fail to give life to the streets and sidewalks around them. Gehry, who was once quoted as saying "I don't do context," claimed to be above this criticism, but Kent didn't buy it. I wasn't there, so we'll let The Atlantic's James Fallows tell the rest:

But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he saidand waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferioragain, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.
Gehry was clearly having a bad day, but his imperiousness is worth recounting as a metaphor for some of his worknot all, but some. Kent was no doubt recalling his son Ethan's visit to Gehry's masterpiece, the Guggenheim Bilbao, an experience he describes in the Project for Public Spaces website's "Hall of Shame." After failing to find the front door and taking note of the treeless, depopulated plaza, Ethan observed a mugging, something he later learned was common there. He adds, "In the span of 10 minutes that we spent around the museum, I witnessed the first mugging of my lifeand I've lived my entire life in New York City."

Robberies are no longer very common in New York, but the same goes for Bilbaoexcept for certain problem places. That one of these places enfronts the Guggenheim is partly Gehry's fault, the outcome of a landscape (more of a landscrape) conceived as a tabula rasa to show off the building to its best effect. Gehry is actually perfectly capable of contributing to attractive, engaging landscapesas he has done in Chicago's Millennium Parkbut he rarely does so with his buildings, most of which do not reward proximity. His Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, has about 1500 feet of perimeter, perhaps 1000 feet of which is blank wall of the most slippery sort.

But it's a concert hall, you say. . . it needs to have blank walls. Well, take a stroll around the Paris Opera, or even Boston's Symphony Hall, and let's talk again. These older buildings' facades are awash in engaging detail, so that even their blank walls don't feel blank. Walking next to them is a pleasure.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderful set of drawings by Leon Krier, in which he shows two buildings side by side from three different distances. From far away, we can see that one is a classical palace, the other a modernist glass cube. The palace has its base, middle, and top, while the glass cube is articulated with the horizontal and vertical lines of its large, reflective windows.

As we get closer, the palace reveals its doors, windows, and cornice, while the glass cube remains the same as before: horizontal and vertical lines. Zooming in to just a few paces away, we now observe the palace's decorative string course, window frames, and the rafter-tails supporting the eaves. Our view of the glass cube is unchanged and mute. We have walked a great distance to its front door but received no reward.

Krier presents these drawings as a powerful argument against modernism. But this is not merely a question of style. Any architectural styleexcept minimalism, I supposeis capable of providing those medium- and small-scale details that engage people as they approach and walk by.

The high-tech Pompidou Center, by celebrating its mechanical systems on its exterior, gives life to one of the most successful public spaces in Paris. What matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all. Too many contemporary architects fail to understand this point, or understand it but don't care.

But a preponderance of human-scaled detail is still not enough if a streetscape lacks variety. However delicate and lovely a building faade, there is little to entice a walker past 500 feet of it. As Jane Jacobs noted, "Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial."

Getting the scale of the detail right is only half the battle; what matters even more is getting the scale of the buildings right, so that each block contains as many different buildings as reasonably possible. Only in this way will the pedestrian be rewarded with the continuously unfolding panorama that comes from many hands at work.

This fact seems to be lost on the vast majority of architects, especially the big names, whose unspoken goal is to claim as much territory as possible for their trademarked signature, even if it means a numbingly repetitive streetscape. It is rarely taught in architecture schools, where there persists a deep misunderstanding of the difference between city planning and architecture, such that most urban design projects are seen as an opportunity to create a single humongous building. Design superstars like Rem Koolhaas, in their giddy celebration of "bigness," have adopted this confusion as doctrine.

To be fair, egotism and the desire for celebrity are only partly responsible for this orientation. It also comes from an insistence on intellectual honesty. Just as a building supposedly bears the obligation to be "of its time," it must also be "of its author." For the designer of a large structure to pretend to be many different designers is to falsify the historical record, especially since the modern myth of the genius architect insists that every designer's personal style is as unique as his fingerprint.

I still remember (how could I not) the critic at my architectural-school thesis final review who said, "I don't understand: your two buildings seem to have been designed by two different architects." My fantasy-world response, twenty years after the fact: "Why, thank you, sir."

Speck's book came out on November 13. You can order it on Amazon. For more from the book, see also our first and second excerpts. Speck will also be appearing at Politics & Prose this Saturday.

Public Spaces


What makes a place "walkable"?

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. His new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time comes out on November 13. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from the book.

We've known for three decades how to make livable citiesafter forgetting for fouryet we've somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.


Photo by p medved on Flickr.

Certain large cities, yes. If you make your home in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, or in a handful of other special places, you can have some confidence that things are on the right track. But these locations are the exceptions.

In the small and mid-sized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse.

This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. The planners were so wrong for so many years that, now that they are mostly right, they are mostly ignored.

This past spring, while I was working on a plan for Lowell, Massachusetts, some old high school friends joined us for dinner on Merrimack Street, the heart of a lovely 19th-century downtown. Our group consisted of four adults, one toddler in a stroller, and my wife's very pregnant belly.

Across the street from our restaurant, we waited for the light to change, lost in conversation. Maybe a minute passed before we saw the pushbutton signal request. So we pushed it. The conversation advanced for another minute or so. Finally, we gave up and jaywalked. About the same time, a car careened around the corner at perhaps forty-five miles per hour, on a street that had been widened to ease traffic.

The resulting near-miss fortunately left no scars, but it will not be forgotten. Stroller jaywalking is a surefire way to feel like a bad parent, especially when it goes awry. The only consolation this time was that I was in a position to do something about it.

As I write these words, I am again on the road with my family, this time in Rome. Now, the new baby is in a sling, and the toddler alternates between a stroller and his own two feet, depending on the terrain and his frame of mind. It is interesting to compare our experience in Rome with the one in Lowell, or, more to the point, the experience of walking in most American cities.

Rome, at first glance, seems horribly inhospitable to pedestrians. So many things are wrong. Half the streets are missing sidewalks, most intersections lack crosswalks, pavements are uneven and rutted, handicap ramps are largely absent. Hills are steep and frequent (I hear there are seven). And need I mention the drivers?

Yet, here we are among so many other pedestrianstourists and locals alikemaking our way around Trastevere. ... on our toes, yes, but enjoying every minute of it. This anarchic obstacle course is somehow a magnet for walkers, recently selected by readers of Lonely Planet travel guides as one of the world's "Top Ten Walking Cities."

Romans drive a fraction of the miles that Americans do. A friend of ours who came here to work in the US Embassy bought a car when he arrived, out of habit. Now it sits in his courtyard, a target for pigeons. This tumultuous urban landscape, which fails to meet any conventional American measure of "pedestrian friendliness," is a walker's paradise. So what's going on here?

Certainly, in competing for foot traffic, Anatole Broyard's "poem pressed into service as a city" began with certain advantages. The Lonely Planet ranking is likely more a function of spectacle than pedestrian comfort. But the same monuments, arranged in a more modern American way, would hardly compete. (Think Las Vegas, with its Walk Score of 54.)

The main thing that makes Romeand the other winners: Venice, Boston, San Francisco, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, and New Yorkso walkable is what we planners call "fabric," the everyday collection of streets, blocks, and buildings that tie the monuments together. Despite its many technical failures, Rome's fabric is superb.

Yet fabric is one of several key aspects of urban design that are missing from the walkability discussion in most places. This is because that discussion has largely been about creating adequate and attractive pedestrian facilities, rather than walkable cities. There is no shortage of literature on this subject, and even a fledgling field of "walkability studies" that focuses principally on impediments to pedestrian access and safety, mostly in the Toronto suburbs.

These efforts are helpful, but inadequate. The same goes for urban beautification programs, such as the famous "Five B's" of the eightiesbricks, banners, bandstands, bollards, and bermsthat now grace many an abandoned downtown.

Lots of money and muscle has gone into improving sidewalks, crossing signals, streetlights, and trash cans, but how important are these things, ultimately, in convincing people to walk? If walking was just about creating safe pedestrian zones, then why did more than 150 Main Streets pedestrianized in the sixties and seventies fail almost immediately? Clearly there is more to walking than just making safe, pretty space for it.

The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability. Under the right conditions, this creature thrives and multiplies. But creating those conditions requires attention to a broad range of criteria, some more easily satisfied than others. Laying out those criteria in no uncertain terms, and showing how we can satisfy them with the least cost and effort, is the purpose of this book.

Interested in learning more about what makes a place walkable? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth at Politics and Prose on Saturday, November 17 at 6 pm for a discussion with Jeff. The event is free and open to the pubilc; no RSVP is required.

History


New book chronicles Frederick Douglass in DC

A statue of Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), the most famous African-American of the 19th century, will soon be added to or near Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol to represent the District of Columbia. It's a notable and long overdue recognition for both Douglass and the District.

John Muller, a journalist and Greater Greater Washington contributor, has meticulously researched the great man's comings and goings in our fair city for his new book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC: The Lion of Anacostia.

Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, escaped as a young man in 1838, and fled to New York, where he became passionately involved in the abolitionist movement. When his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published in 1845 it became a bestseller. White people marveled that a black man and former slave could write so eloquently, and they were even more astonished when they heard him speak.

Douglass became a powerful civil rights advocate and the embodiment of all that African-Americans could achieve in the face of truly daunting adversity. In later life, once he was famous and successful, he moved to the District and became a prominent city official, settling in to a charming 21-room country house atop a hill in Anacostia with a commanding view of the city.

Muller assumes that his readers know who Douglass was and, after a quick glimpse of his childhood, jumps quickly into the whirlwind of his life in DC. Douglass visited Washington during the Civil War to advise President Lincoln on the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army but did not settle here until 1872, following a fire that destroyed his house in Rochester, New York. Originally living in a spacious townhouse on Capitol Hill, Douglass acquired his mansion in Anacostia, called Cedar Hill, in 1877.


Postcard view of Cedar Hill, c. 1905 from the author's collection.

By that time, he was much embroiled in the city's Reconstruction-era politics. Muller provides a wealth of information about several pivotal moments, including his near election in 1871even before he had moved to the cityas a non-voting delegate to Congress and his subsequent brief appointment as a member of the legislative council of what was then the Territory of Columbia.

Douglass' prominence was due not just to his lectures and writings but to the newspaper he helmed, the New National Era, which had begun publication in 1870. Douglass by this time was an experienced newspaperman and he foresaw the financial challenge of starting up a newspaper for blacks in Reconstruction times, and, in fact, the New National Era lasted only a few years. Nevertheless it left an important mark on the city and on African American journalism in the years to come.


"Colored citizens paying their respects to Marshal Frederick Douglass" from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 7, 1877. Image from the Library of Congress.

Though he lost money on the newspaper venture, Douglass had plenty of other irons in the fire, including his appointment by President Hayes as US Marshal for the District of Columbia. Muller points out the irony of this position, given that Douglass had spent much of his early life evading the law, first as a fugitive slave and later as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Though his appointment was opposed by conservative Democrats, Douglass was confirmed by the Senate and served from 1877 to 1881, a tumultuous time for race relations in the nation's capital. Douglass subsequently also served as the DC Recorder of Deeds for several years.

Douglass was in great demand for speaking engagements in addition to his official duties and had other important commitments as well, including serving as the last president of the federally-chartered Freedman's Savings Bank, which closed in 1874. Despite his many commitments, Douglass was also on the Board of Trustees of Howard University, an institution he staunchly supported.

Equally important as his many public commitments was his family life in old Anacostia, then known as Uniontown. Muller fills in telling details about this thriving little community on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Navy Yard.

Clearly the most tumultuous event to occur in Douglass' life on Cedar Hill was the death of his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, in 1882. The loss for Douglass was heart-breaking, but two years later he married Helen Pitts, a white woman who had been his secretary when he was recorder of deeds. Muller describes how family, friends, and others in the black community were offended by this move, but the bonds of affection between Douglass and Pitts seem to have been genuine. The two were together until Douglass passed away 11 years later.


Cedar Hill in 1977. Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey.

They called him the Sage of Anacostia. He was a celebrity, well off and widely respected. Yet Douglass's story during his Washington DC years is one of ambivalence about his prominence, even occasional discomfort. There's no doubt that he sought positions of influence and, as Muller points out, was sometimes criticized for his political ambitions.

Yet he was prone to doubting his own abilitiesor maybe he just wanted to avoid being drawn too far into the system. He turned down an opportunity to run for the US Senate, as he did an offer of the presidency of Howard University. How could a man who never had any formal education be president of a university, he reasoned?

It's also striking to see his apparent perplexity about the backlash over his marriage to Helen Pitts.Had he not realized that his life was no longer his own at that point, that he was obliged to embrace the constraints of his public image rather than make his own personal choices? For a man who had so famously overcome slavery, the subtler bonds of his successful later years must have presented very real challenges of a different sort.

Cedar Hill is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service, and it is well worth a visit. John Muller's book, published by History Press, will be available on October 2.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

History


An attempted murder kindled DC's first race riot in 1835

The 1830s are not a well-known period in Washington's history. Too late for L'Enfant and too early for Lincoln, they are a mystery to most residents. But hiding beneath the quiet surface were rising racial tensions, as vividly described in Jefferson Morley's new book, Snow-Storm in August.

Morley brings the 1830s to life with an account of dramatic events that would ultimately contribute to the Civil War.

The book's title derives from the so-called "Snow Riot" of August 1835, when a mob of angry young white laborers vandalized a restaurant at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that was operated by Beverly Snow, a free black.

Compared to the large race riots of 1919 or 1968, the mayhem and destruction in 1835 was almost negligible. Nevertheless, it was a shocking event for many Washington residents, and the underlying tensions were as strong as at any time in the city's history.

It all began when Arthur Bowen, a slave belonging to Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, got drunk one night and seemed to be contemplating murder. He came home late that evening and entered the widowed Mrs. Thornton's bedroom carrying an ax. Maria Bowen, Arthur's mother, was also asleep in the room. She awoke and quickly restrained her son, pushing him out of the house through a back door.

Mrs. Thornton awoke as well and needless to say was terrified. She ran for help from neighbors, who returned to the house with her and heard, through the locked back door, the rantings of the inebriated young slave.

"I'll have my freedom," Arther shouted. "I'll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do."

These were dangerous words for a slave in Washington in the 1830s.

Anxiety was running high in those days among slaveholders and white society in general. Just 4 years earlier the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion had taken place in nearby Southampton, Virginia. Under Nat Turner's mesmerizing leadership, slaves rose up and killed some 50 or 60 whites before their insurrection was brutally repressed by the authorities.

Even more troubling for many whites was the seeming flood of anti-slavery literature arriving on a daily basis from the staunchly abolitionist cities farther north. William Lloyd Garrison's influential weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, had begun publication in 1831 and was soon being sent south to win over hearts and minds.

It was against this backdrop that the young ax-wielding slave, Arthur Bowen, had threatened Anna Maria Thornton. Mrs Thornton wasn't just anyone. She was the well-known and highly-respected widow of William Thornton, architect of the US Capitol.

It was plain to see, or at least so The National Intelligencer thought, that "incendiary publications" from the north were responsible for the "most ferocious threats" and "tissue of jargon" that Bowen had uttered. Bowen had initially fled in the night, but he was soon arrested. Crowds of angry laborers then gathered at the city jail demanding vengeance. It was these young white ruffians who attacked Beverly Snow's restaurant, smashing dishes and furniture. They later burned a black boardinghouse and several schoolhouses.

Morley's book evokes not just the tragedy of the Snow Riots themselves, but the complex stories of its key players, including Arthur and Maria Bowen, Anna Maria Thornton, and Reuben Crandall, a Georgetown resident with links to northern abolitionists who was swept up in the hysteria and accused of inciting insurrection.

It also brings to life Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. Key was district attorney for Washington in 1835, and was responsible for arresting both Crandall and Bowen. The prosperous scion of a wealthy slave-holding Maryland family, Key seems to have been torn between conflicting values. Though temperamentally disposed to ending slavery, he vigorously prosecuted both Crandall and Bowen.

It would be up to the juries and ultimately the president of the United States to determine the fate of the two men.

Perhaps the most entertaining character in this entire drama is Beverly Snow himself, the namesake of the Snow Riot. Morley begins his book with a vivid and remarkably detailed portrait of the young black entrepreneur, who opened one of Washington's first true restaurants in the early 1830s.

Snow had been born a slave in Lynchburg, Virginia and was granted his freedom when he came of age. He had learned the culinary arts at an early age but clearly had more extraordinary skills, including social dexterity, entrepreneurial drive, and ambition. He came to Washington to go into business for himself, and his Epicurean Eating House on Pennsylvania Avenue was highly successful.

Snow, of course, had no idea he'd be caught up in the fear-mongering that ensued from the Bowen incident. He fled the city after his restaurant was trashed and soon moved to Canada, where he started all over again in Toronto, with another restaurant that was as popular as his Washington eatery.

Snow's story seems at once tragic and hopeful. It's a shame that he was treated so badly in Washington, but inspiring in that he didn't let the experience ruin his ambitions. The vividly portrayed struggles of Snow, Bowen, Crandall, Key, and Mrs. Thornton (who never believed Bowen really wanted to kill her and fought to have him released from jail) all make for a powerful portrait of a lost era in Washington history.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

History


New book celebrates Congressional Cemetery's history

Once listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the most endangered historic sites in the country, Congressional Cemetery has come a long way, a shining example of residents taking guardianship of their built environment. A new book, Historic Congressional Cemetery, examines some of the history preserved in the cemetery.


Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing.

"A lot of folks who live right around here in Hill East don't recognize what a real treasure this is to the neighborhood," says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Flahaven. "There's so much history here, but it's one of the few places that's not over-run with tourists."

Historic Congressional Cemetery is an introduction to some of the cemetery's more notable, as well as infamous, grave dwellers. Photos are accompanied by a concise paragraph explaining its subject, setting readers up to explore the cemetery themselves. All proceeds from the book's sales go to the cemetery's restoration fund.

In the more than 2 centuries since stonecutter William Swinton became the first burial at Congressional Cemetery in 1807, the grounds have grown from 4.5 acres to a sprawling 35 acres with more than 55,000 interments. Co-author Sandra Schmidt has gathered information on nearly 30,000.

"It took me 18 years to go through every newspaper from 1807 to, well, now I'm up to 1945," says Schimdt. "I started out looking for obits, but then I began to recognize the names and now we have a good deal of information about them while they were alive."


Tomb of Elbridge Gerry. Photo by the author.
The history of the cemetery speaks even to much more recent events, like the heated redistricting process in the District last year. As plans threatened to cede one part of the Cemetery to Ward 7 from Ward 6, Flahaven couldn't help think of the legacy of Elbridge Gerry, who is buried in Congressional. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and 5th Vice President, Gerry is better known as the etymological inspiration for the term "gerrymandering."

When the dust settled, Congressional Cemetery remained in Ward 6, while Ward 7 instead absorbed the DC Jail.

Congressional is the second oldest cemetery still in the city. The oldest is Rock Creek Cemetery. Congressional is the only cemetery within L'Enfant's original plan.

"It's a very democratic cemetery," Schmidt says while walking the grounds. "It's not just rich people, it's people of every occupation scattered together."

Cemetery "residents" range from the notably broke dandy, Beau Hickman, to former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and journalist turned DC Mayor, Joseph Gales.

The scope and diversity of American history is well represented by famed Marine Band leader John Philip Sousa, Choctaw Chief Push-ma-ta-ha, and also the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court, Belva Lockwood. Congressional also holds the remains of the renowned Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, along with Lincoln assassination conspirator David Herold, and even famous Civil War era madam Mary Ann Hall.

A kind of after-life fashion trend can be tracked by the composition and presentation of the graves and monuments of Congressional Cemetery, says docent Kirsten Sloan. Initially, monuments were fashioned from sandstone, and later marble was in vogue. These days, most monuments are made from granite.

The sandstone and marble has not weathered well. Granite better stands the test of time, as evidenced by the nearly pristine Manigold family monument topped by a geographically accurate globe.


John Welsh Van Hook headstone. Photo by the author.
The funerary art of Congressional comes in all sizes and shapes. There are many examples of the traditional tablet that visiting families would often eat their lunches on. The range of styles is reflected in the sedate headstone of Uniontown developer John Van Hook, and the upended cannon monument of Navy Lt. John McLaughlin. The cemetery also contains more than one hundred Victorian-era obelisks, sometimes referred to as "Cleopatra's needle." Other than the tablet, the obelisk is Congressional's most common monument style.

Schmidt's co-author on "Historic Congressional Cemetery" is Rebecca Boggs Roberts, daughter of noted political correspondent, Cokie Roberts. Her late grandfather, the very colorful House Majority Leader, Hale Boggs, is remembered on one of the cemetery's 171 Benjamin Latrobe designed cenotaphs. The family, obviously, feels a strong connection to the cemetery.

When asked about Congressional's management plans, Roberts points out that the cemetery's history calls for something more than short-term plans.

"You don't even need a five-year plan here, you could have a hundred-year plan," Roberts says. "Even those of us who sort of count ourselves in the know are still discovering new things. And the people who still think of this as a secret cemetery they have years worth of things to discover. So there's no point in just thinking five years. We've been here two hundred years, let's think about the next two hundred."

If you're looking for trip back into Washington's and America's history, pick up a copy of the book and go explore Congressional Cemetery, one of DC's greatest hidden treasures, yourself.

Development


Live chat with Matt Yglesias

Please welcome Matt Yglesias, Slate Moneybox economics blogger, author of The Rent Is Too Damn High, and frequent commentator about how regulations limiting development affect cities.

 Live chat with Matt Yglesias(05/23/2012) 
11:51
David Alpert: 
Welcome to our live chat! We're excited to have Matt Yglesias on today and Miles Grant moderating. We'll get started in just a few minutes.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:51 David Alpert
11:54
Miles Grant: 
Thanks, David! Here's my summary of Matt's book setting up today's chat.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:54 Miles Grant
11:55
David Alpert: 
Matt is now here. Welcome, Matt!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:55 David Alpert
11:55
Matthew Yglesias: 
So glad to be here. GGW is an amazing site and a great community.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:55 Matthew Yglesias
11:56
David Alpert: 
Thank you so much! Miles is our moderator today, so I'll turn it over to him. Take it away, Miles!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:56 David Alpert
11:57
Miles Grant: 
Let's start with a few questions that were submitted in advance in the pre-chat post ...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:57 Miles Grant
11:58
[Comment From RobRob: ] 
If we accept the premise that density is desirable, how does building more housing units actually lower rents in practice? Housing is prohibitively expensive in Manhattan and it's also extremely densely populated, for example. Let's say we build more housing in DC's core by removing the height limit and the average rent in the metro area decreases; but rents in the core increase (due to higher demand for density) while the rents on the fringe decrease (due to greater overall supply of housing in the market). Has the policy succeeded because some housing in the overall market is now less expensive? Or has it failed because now the only affordable housing is the housing with the highest transportation cost?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:58 Rob
11:58
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think success and failure are relative concepts...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:58 Matthew Yglesias
11:59
Matthew Yglesias: 
In the scenario you're spelling out, we've hardly solved all of society's problems, but we have created a situation in which more people can afford to live in the region...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:59 Matthew Yglesias
11:59
Matthew Yglesias: 
And even if the cheapest housing continues to be in the places with the highest transportation costs, those costs would still be lower than the current cost of even-further commutes, even-more sprawl, or simply denying people access to the strong labor market and other amenities of greater DC.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 11:59 Matthew Yglesias
12:02
Miles Grant: 

There seems to be an all or nothing sense to some discussions of density - it's either status quo or Manhattan skyscrapers, density solves everything or it solves nothing. How can we defuse some of that tension?

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:02 Miles Grant
12:02
Matthew Yglesias: 
Right. I try to avoid mentioning New York when talking about other cities, because it's a unique case in so many ways...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:02 Matthew Yglesias
12:03
Matthew Yglesias: 
In terms of Washington, I think it's important to note that the structures in our CBD are really really really short...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:03 Matthew Yglesias
12:03
Matthew Yglesias: 
Not just shorter than the structures in Manhattan, but shorter than the ones in Richmond and Baltimore and Hartford and all kinds of places...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:03 Matthew Yglesias
12:04
Matthew Yglesias: 
More broadly, there's more to density and compactness than building height. I know people point to Paris and its lack of skyscrapers, which is very true, but Paris is a wildly denser city than DC. We're closer to Fargo than Paris.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:04 Matthew Yglesias
12:05
[Comment From VikVik: ] 
Can you tell us why you think an area like the CBD is a better place to lift the height limit than an underdeveloped area, such as Anacostia or Brentwood?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:05 Vik
12:06
Matthew Yglesias: 
There are a few reasons. First is simply that there are no "neighbors" in the CBD to be annoyed by changes to their views or whatnot in the same way that there are in residential areas so it might be more feasible...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:06 Matthew Yglesias
12:07
Matthew Yglesias: 
Second, is that a CBD is a unique areaMetrorail, MARC, VRE, and the buses are already set up to serve the needs of people trying to commute there and it's walkable from parts of the residential city....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:07 Matthew Yglesias
12:08
Matthew Yglesias: 
Third is that some of our depressed and outlying areas really need some new investments in terms of infrastructure, which is going to cost money, and that money could be most easily raised by allowing more development where the demand is highest and that's downtown.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Matthew Yglesias
12:08
Miles Grant: 
Thanks for the questions & please keep submitting even if you don't see them pop up right away, we'll get to as many as we can! Here's a big picture one ...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Miles Grant
12:08
[Comment From CharlesCharles: ] 
Matt, I was wondering if you could discuss the importance of regional governance and the problems with fragmented local governments. I know you touch on it occasionally but I was hoping to get your thoughts on it.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:08 Charles
12:09
Matthew Yglesias: 
The basic issue is that state borders in the US were drawn a long time ago for reasons that have nothing to do with present-day realities...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:09 Matthew Yglesias
12:10
Matthew Yglesias: 
Alexandria, DC, and Bethesda are all clearly part of a fairly intergrated metropolitan social and economic landscape that has relative little to do with events on the Eastern Shore and basically nothing to do with Norfolk or southwestern virginia...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:10 Matthew Yglesias
12:11
Matthew Yglesias: 
Unfortunately, it's not obvious to me what can be done about this except that local leaders need to actively try to collaborate, and Virginia politicians in particular need to think more seriously about the fact that Northern Virginia is the growth hub of the state....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:11 Matthew Yglesias
12:11
Matthew Yglesias: 
We could also try things like extending VRE to Richmond and Charlottseville and getting Amtrak service down to the Norfolk area that might produce better real-world integration....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:11 Matthew Yglesias
12:12
Matthew Yglesias: 
But the fact is that US federalism is just very poorly designed for the northeast's metropolises and I think we're stuck with it.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:12 Matthew Yglesias
12:13
Miles Grant: 
What are the chances of, say, DC, Montgomery, Prince George's, Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church & Fairfax ever deciding to throw out those old boundaries & form their own state? Could discontent ever go that far?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:13 Miles Grant
12:15
Matthew Yglesias: 
It'd be interesting to see them try. It's unconstitutional to split a state up without the consent of the state government so the odds aren't good. But I favor pie-in-the-sky schemes because you never really know. Maybe some unrelated constitutional crisis will emerge that allows for the redrawing of state boundaries, in which case whoever has the maps drawn up will win.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:15 Matthew Yglesias
12:15
[Comment From DavidDavid: ] 
Isn't the clearest answer for why it makes sense to lift the height limit in the CBD be that there is demand for higher buildings there, as expressed through really really high land prices?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:15 David
12:16
Matthew Yglesias: 
Yes, that's the simple reason! But some people feel that stifling CBD development is a good way to "force" development in under-built areas & I'm trying to lay out why I think that's an unnecessarily costly approach.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:16 Matthew Yglesias
12:16
[Comment From HankHank: ] 
You have mentioned before that you thought the streetcar was a bad investment. For someone that usually favors transit, that surprised me - why do you think it's a bad idea?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:16 Hank
12:17
Matthew Yglesias: 
It's not a "bad idea" per se, but H Street is already served by a pretty good bus, the X-2, that has high ridership and one of the highest farebox recovery rates in the whole system...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:17 Matthew Yglesias
12:18
Matthew Yglesias: 
So if you ask, "what could we do to improve transit on that corridor" the clear answer seems to be to take a lane away from cars or parking so the bus can move faster...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:18 Matthew Yglesias
12:18
Matthew Yglesias: 
If you want to go beyond that an upgrade the bus line to light rail, then so much the better...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:18 Matthew Yglesias
12:19
Matthew Yglesias: 
But spending a lot of money to run a train that'll be stuck in the same traffic snarls as the already-popular bus seems a little perverse to me, especially because we didn't get much upzoning of H Street in the bargain.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:19 Matthew Yglesias
12:20
[Comment From SeanSean: ] 
What do you think are the best practices for urban planning and community input and cooperation? So often, great plans are defeated or watered down bc of a very vocal minority.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:20 Sean
12:20
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think it's important for people to think harder about what the point of community input is...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:20 Matthew Yglesias
12:21
Matthew Yglesias: 
Presumably the idea is that you don't want outsiders who may not understand the situation to run roughshod over existing residents like in some of these urban renewal nightmare stories...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:21 Matthew Yglesias
12:21
Matthew Yglesias: 
But that means you actually want to get a valid sample of the population, not just whichever subset of the population happens to have the time and inclination to come to meetings...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:21 Matthew Yglesias
12:22
Matthew Yglesias: 
And you also have to listen to what people are specifically sayingare they bringing new information to light, or are they simply advancing very narrow interests...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:22 Matthew Yglesias
12:22
Matthew Yglesias: 
It's understandable that people who live near McMillan prefer more parks and less new housing at the margin, but that's a tradeoff between a local community benefit and some broader city-wide objectives. It's good to listen to everyone, but that doesn't mean you have to do what they want.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:22 Matthew Yglesias
12:24
Miles Grant: 
There's an assumption that people that are Democratic/progressive must be more open to urban planning solutions, yet DC's as blue as it gets & has extensive restrictions on development & new housing. What's the disconnect?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:24 Miles Grant
12:25
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think you see these restrictions all over the place, because partisan politics is organized around federal issues rather than local ones...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:25 Matthew Yglesias
12:26
Matthew Yglesias: 
But I find it frustrating in particular when progressives don't see the connection between very localized decisions about building permits and broad concerns about climate change and sustainability...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:26 Matthew Yglesias
12:26
Matthew Yglesias: 
I'm also fairly optimistic, however, that a lot of people simply don't understand the issues correctly and that as we debate them information will improve and things will get better...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:26 Matthew Yglesias
12:27
Matthew Yglesias: 
DC in particular also has what's obviously a big social and economic divide around race that's a little bit masked by the fact that almost all its residents are Democrats regardless of income or ethnic background.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:27 Matthew Yglesias
12:27
[Comment From GuestGuest: ] 
How do you factor geography in your thinking about rent and transportation infrastructure. I live in a large mid-west metro with no geographical barriers to sprawl. How, given the higher unit construction costs of transit in the short term, do you balance the tendency to sprawl with the higher long term costs of that sprawl?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:27 Guest
12:29
Matthew Yglesias: 
Things are different in the midwest, where land is plentiful and sprawl isn't really economically costly...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:29 Matthew Yglesias
12:29
Matthew Yglesias: 
We're talking instead much more about environmental costs that ultimately require national and even global solutions...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:29 Matthew Yglesias
12:30
Matthew Yglesias: 
If we had a reasonable gasoline or carbon tax or cap-and-trade plan or what have you, there'd be much more incentive for midwestern cities to think more seriously about the merits of a more compact urban form.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:30 Matthew Yglesias
12:30
[Comment From Michael PMichael P: ] 
One of the significant criticisms of increasing density is that the increase in population will result in parking or congestion issues. What's a good way to address these concerns?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:30 Michael P
12:32
Matthew Yglesias: 
Well ultimately you need to use pricing to control congestion and parking scarcity issues...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:32 Matthew Yglesias
12:32
Matthew Yglesias: 
But on parking in particular, I think there's a lot of opportunities to just buy off incumbents...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:32 Matthew Yglesias
12:33
Matthew Yglesias: 
We could lock all existing residents in to current parking permit prices, for example, and just mandate a large increase for *future* residents...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:33 Matthew Yglesias
12:33
Miles Grant: 
Buried in today's Post story about improving DC area traffic is that higher gas prices helped cut congestion. What would it take for an increase in the gas tax to overcome political obstacles?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:33 Miles Grant
12:34
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think it would take a change in national fiscal and economic conditions; right now a tax increase could have a really negative short-term impact on employment over and above all the other problems...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:34 Matthew Yglesias
12:34
Matthew Yglesias: 
But at some point we'll either need higher taxes, or big cuts to the kind of Medicare and educational programs that Americans have come to expect and I think the politics of a push for higher gas taxes will improve somewhat.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:34 Matthew Yglesias
12:35
[Comment From Eric H.Eric H.: ] 
Matt, your answers to Michael's questions about parking and traffic misses a point. I NOVA. My neighbors don't want density increases near our neighborhood because they don't want more people speeding through their neighborhoods. How can you buy those people off? It isn't just parking, it is the increase in traffic.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:35 Eric H.
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
Right righttraffic on local streets... I think I dodged that one because I don't have a very good answer...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
It's fundamentally true that denser-build areas have more noise and people and vehicles around and those with strong contrary preferences are going to be annoyed by it....
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:36
Matthew Yglesias: 
ultimately as a society we need to balance that against other goals and advantages, but you can't please everyone.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:36 Matthew Yglesias
12:39
[Comment From EricEric: ] 
I really enjoyed the book, Matt. One point I found especially interesting was the idea that typically "liberal" and "conservative" arguments in some ways lead people astray when it comes to urban development issus. To push on this a bit, what kind of strategic advice would you give to advocates of positions aligned with those of GGW? What "sacred cows" of ours should we reconsider? Who are some maybe unlikely allies we might identify and what kinds of arguments are likel to be convincing to them?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:39 Eric
12:39
Matthew Yglesias: 
I think progressives are going to need to learn to love rich greedy real estate developers...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:39 Matthew Yglesias
12:40
Matthew Yglesias: 
Not because rich greedy real estate developers are the greatest people on the planet, but because the fact of the matter is that things get built by businessmen looking to earn a profit...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:40 Matthew Yglesias
12:41
Matthew Yglesias: 
When we want to see more schools built, progressives don't say "well that's just a way for contractors to make more money" but we also recognize that the work is in fact done by contractors who are just looking to make more money...
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Matthew Yglesias
12:41
Miles Grant: 

We'll just go for a few more minutes, so submit your final questions now ...

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Miles Grant
12:41
Matthew Yglesias: 
By the same token, moving to a more efficient, economically sound and environmentally sustainable use of our scarce urban land requires structures to be built by profit-seeking businessmen.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:41 Matthew Yglesias
12:42
Miles Grant: 
I hope our readers say thanks for your time by reading your book and bookmarking your blog. What's the next topic you think deserves a big exploration - what aren't people talking about that they should be?
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:42 Miles Grant
12:43
Matthew Yglesias: 
Thanks! My other passion is monetary policy ... a very different subject, but also one that goes to the core of people's lives in a way that they often don't recognize.
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:43 Matthew Yglesias
12:44
Matthew Yglesias: 
Anyways, this has been fun and I hope if people are interested they'll check out the blog andof coursebuy the book!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:44 Matthew Yglesias
12:45
Miles Grant: 

Thanks for joining us, Matt - and thanks for all the great questions!

Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:45 Miles Grant
12:46
David Alpert: 
Thanks Matt for joining and Miles for moderating! The archive of the discussion will remain available and please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments!
Wednesday May 23, 2012 12:46 David Alpert
12:47
 

 
 
 

Development


Live chat: Matt Yglesias, Wednesday at noon

Are the very policies intended to sustain neighborhoods and preserve affordable housing paradoxically the same ones pushing rents up and families out to the suburbs? That's case Slate Moneybox economics writer Matt Yglesias makes in his e-book, The Rent is Too Damn High.


Photo by SusanAstray on Flickr.

On Wednesday at noon, Matt will join us to discuss the book and we hope you'll help us get things started with your questions in the comments.

"High rent is not a fact of nature," writes Yglesias. "It's a result of bad policy." Height limits, historic preservation and density caps intended to keep neighborhoods quaint, whether imposed overtly by official policy or subtly by zoning officials, act as supply caps driving up prices and imposing gentrification.

The conventional wisdom in community development is to preserve current buildings and fight redevelopment of existing low-cost rental units. But that's exactly what we've been doing for the last decade. Instead, the number of affordable units in DC has been cut in half since 2000. The low-cost housing that remains is often poor quality and far from public transit.

While much of the public debate about DC development policies today centers on the height limit, that's far from the only restriction on growth. Locals governments also impose mandated lot sizes, building setbacks, floor area ratios, and parking minimums that restrict the amount of housing and drive up the cost of building new development.

So what's the solution? Yglesias takes the economist's perspective, targeting supply and demand:

[W]e need to acknowledge that there are only two sustainable ways to reduce the price of housing. One is to lower demand by making a given place a worse place to live. Detroit features high crime, low-quality public services, and a bleak job market. The rent in Detroit is not high. [...] The other way is to increase housing supply.
Opponents of smart growth policies contend the suburbs have grown because of America's desire for a white picket fence and a two-car garage. Yglesias says that through policies that discourage additional housing units from being built in urban cores, we've given families little other choice but to turn their backs on urban cores in search of cheap housing. By easing restrictions on urban housing supply, some of those families could move closer to the core, cutting their commute times and reducing their carbon footprints.

Yglesias resists policy prescriptions, instead closing with a call for those on both ends of the political spectrum to let go of failed policies and take a fresh look at possible solutions. "Many on the Leftstarting with my inspiration, Jimmy McMillanare confused about the relationship between housing affordability, regulation, gentrification, and quality of life over the long term," writes Yglesias. "On the Right, the problem is one of myopia and identity-driven resentment." He also wants our public debate "to better distinguish between the price of land (a speculative investment commodity, like stocks or bonds) and the price of houses (a consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator)."

Yglesias has faced some pushback in urban development circles. In a reflection of how fast the online news cycle moves, we already have articles asking if the pro-density movement has gone too far, even though at last check DC's height limit remains alive and well.

At a time of political polarization, is it asking too much for liberals predisposed to distrust corporate developers and conservatives prone to distrust government solutions to come out of their corners? What processes in our systems of government and public debate could be better utilized to facilitate the discussion? Can a happy medium be found between opponents of DC's current development restrictions and the skyscrapers feared by their supporters?

Post your questions in the comments, and we'll try to ask as many as we can during the chat. And join us on Wednesday at noon for what should be a very informative discussion.

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