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Posts about Urban Stereotypes


Can pop culture push sustainable mobility?

Popular culture shapes our lives in countless ways, both directly and subconsciously. Since Leave It to Beaver, American popular culture has been deeply rooted in car-centered suburbia. That paradigm may be shifting.

Photo by Septuagesima on Flickr.

There was a time when being carless was tantamount to wearing head gear: totally uncool. Truth be told, that time is still now in many places, but there's a true shift beginning to take hold.

As young families, professionals and students eschew the surburban lifestyles many of them grew up in for transit-oriented city dwelling, popular culture seems to be catching on. And where pop culture goes, we can hope, so will the masses.

Back in July, Slate published an intriguing article, "How not having a car became Hollywood shorthand for loser," detailing the history of movie dweebs who walk, ride bikes or take transit, from Pee Wee Herman to as recent as Steve Carrell's character in The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Vanderbilt points out a mindset shift may be starting in Hollywood, though. 2009's (500) Days of Summer features two affable young professionals who get around Southern California using a whole host of travel modes, even using the train to travel to San Diego.

The fashion world may be catching on as well. Clothing mega-producer Gap recently introduced a new line of women's shoe called the City Flat. This "Walkable" shoe is designed for "the girl on-the-go." It doesn't take a market analyst to figure out these shoes aren't aimed at the 1980s-style career woman who drives from her Upper West Side condo to the parking garage in her Downtown Manhattan office building.

Yesterday, GOOD posted about shoemaker Rockport's new shoe line and ad campaign called WALKABILITY, centering on a commercial that features attractive city dwellers sitting in bus stops, passing up taxi cabs, and, well, walking everywhere. The very first image on the campaign's website, after all, prominently features streetcar tracks:

Photo from Rockport

In another video explaining the technology in this new line of shoes, the company targets "today's metropolitan professional," and again fills shots with young, diverse people walking about a city, day and night.

Even Las Vegas, the capital of unsustainable practices (Dubai, at least, has a metro), is catching on to the urban lifestyle, with its newest mega-development, CityCenter. A self-proclaimed "urban community," CityCenter features a departure from the kitschy architectural pastiche otherwise found on the Las Vegas Strip, and boasts LEED Gold certification.

While the hotel and casino complex is otherwise little more than the standard Vegas wolf in an urbanist sheep's clothing, the fact that taste-makers in this sprawling city have recognized the commercial appeal of urbanism can only bode well in the long run.

The latest chink in the mainstream, car-centered, American lifestyle came just last week. The New York Times published a profile of Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser, who lives without a car in auto-dominated Los Angeles. The article chronicles Kartheiser's commutes to the Mad Men set, describing vibrant scenes on LA's buses and subway.

"Instead of driving and being stressed out about traffic," Kartheiser says, "you can work your scene, you can do your exercises or whatever on the bus." While many transit advocates have been making this point for years, it helps when an actor on America's best TV drama says it in one of the world's most prestigious and widely circulated newspapers.

Photo from the New York Times

In a today's corporate-identity driven market, the American lifestyle is all-to-often shaped by TV and movies, pop culture and megabrands. A shift in the way the movies, media and pop culture depict car-light, transit-oriented and walkable lifestyles may help enshrine the need for mass transit and non-motorized infrastructure in the people and policymakers.

That said, in DC, politics is often inseparable from popular culture. If we want to see a true shift, not only in mindset, but in spending and outcomes, the political taste-makers need to do their part as well. It's one thing to hear Congress members or Ray LaHood or President Obama talk about more transit options, complete streets and road diets, but, as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words. How many lawmakers (besides Earl Blumenauer) do we have who actually walk or bike anywhere? Who take Metro?

Maybe that's the next paradigm shift.

Crossposted at TheCityFix.


The worst mainstream local articles of 2009

Yesterday, I highlighted reporters from the mainstream media who did a particularly good job of educating the public on urban issues in 2009.

Photo by Mark Beck.

Most of the time, the mainstream press either provides good coverage of local issues, or fills the rest of the space with fairly bland stuff that repeats press releases or each other's articles.

But every so often there is a real doozy of an article. A reporter or editor starts with some wrongheaded, ignorant, or even prejudicial idea, then runs way too far with it and fits every quote into a preconceived slant.

Here are 10 articles that rose to the top of the trash heap:

  1. To Be or Not to Be Fairfax County? by Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner, The Washington Post, July 5 (article, GGW commentary). Cliche after cliche exalts the tennis clubs of Burke while casting walkable places like Merrifield as creepy and "blighted." It's an ode to sprawl that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual issue, whether Fairfax County should incorporate as a city to better control its roads and taxes.
  2. Virginians See Bridge Closings As Dose of Northern Hospitality by Eric Weiss, The Washington Post, January 9 (article). The Secret Service closing bridges to traffic for the Inauguration was like the Civil War all over again, or at least so says AAA's Lon Anderson in a colorful quote Weiss is happy to turn into an inflammatory article. Weiss doesn't bother to note that the bridges would remain open to pedestrians and cyclists or the projections that large numbers of people would walk and bike to the Mall.
  3. Ride At Your Own Risk by Mark Segraves and Adam Tuss, WTOP, October 20 (article, GGW commentary). Segraves and Tuss do some good investigative reporting to get years of Metrobus customer complaint data, then fit it into a preconceived slant about how bad buses are, when in fact complaints have declined in recent years. They also stake out a corner to catch a bus rolling through a stop sign while ignoring all the trucks that do it while they're waiting.
  1. Free parking spots could sprout meters by Lisa Rein and Yamiche Alcindor, The Washington Post, October 20 (article, GGW commentary). Rein calls a remote apartment tower with lots of free parking "every renter's dream," exposing bias right off the bat. Then she says how Arlington's proposed parking rule changes would force all that parking to stop being free. But that's totally false, and the Post had to print a correction to the fundamental premise of the article.
  2. Tysons will need $15 billion -- 'with a B' by Lisa Rein, The Washington Post, October 30 (article, GGW commentary). Rein sees a PowerPoint with $15 billion worth of projects over 40 years and writes about how unbelievably expensive Tysons will be. Too bad that list includes projects that will happen regardless, projects developers would pay for, and even projects not really related to Tysons. The headline writer makes it even worse with a really stupid headline. The article prompts a very long rebuttal from Fairfax Chairman Sharon Bulova.
  3. The media frenzy over the Fenty bicycle rides, by various reporters, November 9-10. WTOP's Mark Segraves kicks it off by following Fenty's bicycle ride in a van, noticing some possible misuse of police resources. That's a reasonable story, but WTOP's headline focuses on the ride "clog[ging] traffic" which doesn't appear to be true, and subsequent press stories pile on with an anti-bike slant that misses the real story. Mike DeBonis notes that Bill Myers had the same story in the Examiner the year before; potentially inappropriate police utilization just wasn't sensational enough, but bicyclists forcing cars to change lanes was.
  4. That Street Sweeper May Soon Give You a Ticket by Tom Tim Craig, The Washington Post, May 22 (article, GGW commentary). A Bethesda resident is annoyed that she gets tickets when she parks illegally. AAA's John Townsend says DC is "trying to make the District a car-free zone." Craig doesn't bother to find anyone who appreciates getting illegally parked cars out of rush hour travel lanes.
  5. Picking Your Pocket series by Adam Tuss, WTOP, April 20-23 (articles 1, 2, 3, 4, GGW commentary). Every enforcement of a law is "picking your pocket," public safety benefits be damned, from speed cameras to street sweeping.
  6. Vote to Forgo I-66 Expansion Imperils Federal Funds, Increases Ire by Eric Weiss, The Washington Post, February 20 (article, GGW commentary). Continuing his gift for using war metaphors in transportation debates, Weiss says that a COG vote to delay I-66 widening "inflamed tensions" between inner and outer jurisdictions, but Weiss seems to be the one most irate overall.
  7. New transportation fines, fees leave many feeling pinched by Alan Suderman, Washington Examiner, November 29 (article). Yet another one-sided piece about a few residents annoyed when caught breaking the law, with quotes from AAA about how unfair it is. At least it's a tiny bit less one-sided than some of the others.
Why so much picking on the Post? It's simple: They reach a lot of people, and a bad article in the Post can do a lot more damage than a bad article elsewhere. Being the big kid on the block means you get the cheers and the jeers; the Post had three of the top four slots in yesterday's top ten as well. The Post does a great job of watchdogging Metro, but doesn't apply a similar level of scrutiny or investigative resources to MDOT and VDOT.

You'll notice that yesterday I praised reporters as individuals, but highlighted articles rather than people today. That's because excepting major investigative reports, most of the important news is not really big news, but everyday comprehension of small developments. But the really bad articles stand out like giant sore thumbs.

Also, just because a reporter writes something really bad doesn't make them a terrible reporter or a bad person. Maybe their editor assigned it that way, and the headline writer oversensationalized it. Even if not, anyone can have an off day. While writing a piece on this list disqualified a reporter from making our list of the best, these folks could well make that list for 2010.


Suburban stereotypes pollute Post, WBJ reporting

Journalists writing "news" stories strive to make their articles impartial, but hidden biases about suburbs, cities, traffic and transportation often creep in. The Washington Business Journal, for example, reported on the Eastern Market Metro Plaza proposals, and explained the options in a straightforward manner. Yet the first sentence reads, "In case Dupont, Washington, and Logan Circles don't have you in enough of a driving tizzy, Eastern Market may add yet another traffic roundabout to D.C.'s mix."

People who don't live like this aren't all miserable. Photo by cfinke.

Why are "you" necessarily driving through the area? This is a classic example of Entitled Driving Journalist Syndrome, where a reporter most likely drives from place to place, and sees issues from a "windshield perspective." Why doesn't the lede read, "If dashing across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Eastern Market Metro station has you in a enough of a walking tizzy ..."?

This week's grand prize for most knee-jerk anti-urban writing goes to the Washington Post, for Sunday's article on Fairfax County considering incorporating as a city. That plan would only change the county's legal status and relationship with Richmond, not any land-use policies. But the reporters, Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner, confuse the two concepts as the article slides back and forth between news reporting and repeating outdated anti-urban cliches.

The bias creeps in right at the start, which juxtaposes suburbs "where Washington goes to walk the dog and water the lawn" with something "many have tried to avoid: high-rise offices, blight, crime and housing that's more likely to have a balcony than a back yard." Most of our urban places, especially in Fairfax, are far from "blighted." And since when does all of "Washington" go to suburbs to walk the dog? Do Somashekhar and Gardner not consider the dog-owners with balconies part of Washington? Like the Business Journal article, this piece hinges on the unspoken assumption that suburban, car-oriented life is "real" living, and those people in Capitol Hill or Arlington are outliers.

A few paragraphs later, the reporters launch into another bout of rhetorical question editorializing: "What does Fairfax want to be? A giant urban expanse like many new Sun Belt cities? Or more of a residential suburb, with a handful of urbanized pockets sprinkled in?" Sun Belt cities are about the farthest thing from "a giant urban expanse." They're more like, well, Fairfax.

The article goes on to mention how more "Arlington County-style urban villages" are "quickly claiming the skylines," adding that "The Route 1 corridor and other pockets are increasingly marked by blight," though the reporters don't bother to define or explain this blight. Perhaps they consider any building taller than two stories to be "blight": in the next paragraph, they refer to "Fairfax's still-shining suburban glory," at a Swim and Racquet Club in Burke, VA, where a mother decries the loss of trees and her rising taxes.

While calling Tysons a "behemoth," Somashekhar and Gardner don't seem to realize that the growth in these denser pockets is largely what's keeping the Burke mother's taxes low, just as Arlington's strategy of concentrating development along commercial corridors allowed the county to increase its tax base significantly without developing many single-family neighborhoods. Also, as in Arlington, there's no reason that density in Merrifield and Route 1 means that suddenly Burke will turn into some kind of "blighted" "behemoth" itself. There are no plans to bulldoze the racquet clubs in Burke's "suburban bliss."

This is the fundamental error of the article, and much criticism of development; as with transit vs. driving, it's not black-and-white. Not all places in the county must look the same. If some people like Burke, Fairfax can and will continue to have places like Burke. But it can also have urban, walkable places too for those who like them. From their writing, it appears Somashekhar and Gardner can't conceive that people might be happy in a dense environment.

Holden and others probably would be quite unhappy if they ventured about 10 miles north to Merrifield. There, two sleek new five-story apartment buildings rise from a weedy parking lot. The bottom floor of one building is taken up by restaurants, a jewelry store and a tailor. The sound of nearby traffic roars as workers in scrubs from the nearby hospital brush past women with strollers and groups of young men. It was in Merrifield that county leaders celebrated their newest "park" last month—a brick-lined plaza with a fountain and some benches centered between new apartment buildings.
What's with the "scare quotes" around "park"? A public space can't be a park if it has some benches between apartment buildings? Somashekhar and Gardner fill their description with loaded language, like calling the parking lot "weed-filled" and talking about traffic "roaring" past. Even the retail "takes up" the ground floors of the buildings, as though places to eat and get clothes altered were somehow spoiling the place.

The reporters do interview one area resident, who unsurprisingly is very pleased with the "awesome, vibrant" nature of the area, and quote an expert who argues that on its current course, Fairfax will only face more sprawl and more traffic. But then, they mistakenly tie these very hazards not to the low-density land use patterns of Fairfax's past, but the denser plans of Tysons.

Politicians, planners and nervous neighbors are acutely aware of the perils of building up: more traffic if commuting patterns don't change; higher taxes to pay for the massive foundation of infrastructure that must be built; and, eventually, blight if Fairfax's new urban spaces or overall economy don't thrive. So far, Fairfax has been fortunate to escape many of the downsides of urbanization.
Ah, that "blight" again, which continues to have no context, and that not-so-subtle insinuation that urbanization is mostly downsides. Actually, building a denser Tysons has the best chance to reduce traffic, by adding opportunities for people to live near their jobs instead of driving long distances, or to ride Metro. And they've got the infrastructure issue exactly backwards. Infrastructure in a dense area is cheaper, not more expensive.
The one typically urban issue Fairfax is grappling with is neighborhood blight. Old neighborhoods such as Kings Park along Braddock Road or Huntington along Route 1 have been struggling with decline. Unkempt rented homes and falling property values dot these landscapes. Some areas, such as the partly vacant mall in downtown Springfield, have developed such an unsavory reputation that several of the mothers in Burke said they do not allow their teenage children to go there.
Finally, Somashekhar and Gardner get around to talking about blight, though, except for calling it a "typically urban issue"—an antiquated cliche from a bygone era if there ever was one—they actually describe neighborhoods that are far from actually walkable. Kings Park is just as full of single-family homes and no transit as other neighborhoods. I'm not very familiar with that neighborhood in particular, but it's many inner-ring suburban neighborhoods that have become run-down, not the walkable urban areas that are experiencing such a renaissance. And just because a few mothers who frequent the racquet club in Burke won't go somewhere doesn't mean it's actually a bad place.

As we're seeing from Detroit and so many other Rust Belt cities, it's our nation's overbuilding of single-family homes, far outstripping demand, that's causing high vacancy rates in many areas. It's also a consequence of national policies that pushed families to buy houses they couldn't afford. And finally, press "articles" that romanticize the picket-fence suburb while pooh-poohing urban neighborhoods only feed the problem.

The high rents in walkable parts of Arlington prove that many people do want to live in such areas. The only obstacle isn't crime or "blight," but the black-and-white mindset of people like Somashekhar and Gardner, who refer near the end of the article to "the stereotype of the gritty metropolis."

Merriam-Webster calls a stereotype "a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment." It's too bad that Somashekhar and Gardner can call something a stereotype, but write 1,300 words about the topic without ever examining their own prejudices, and have that bias completely sail over the head of their editor.

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