recivilization: notes on american city-building

271 the monster

Why should there be so much pressure to expand on the fringes? Governmental subsidies for sprawl, significant as they are, can only be a part of the problem. The road to the answer lies through another question, in another part of town. Why should neighborhoods deteriorate? What is so special about the United States that makes it the world leader in community degeneration? Americans have come to think it's normal, a part of life just like the aging process in our own bodies. It begins with 'the neighborhood's going down', and ends in 'you can't go there anymore.'

In Europe, or Canada, a neighborhood might suffer when the factories close, or when poor immigrants move in, but the kind of physical decay and abandonment we take for granted is almost unknown. Even Britain, a nation with a natural gift for creating slums, can produce very little on the scale we have here. (There are a few exceptions-central parts of Palermo and Catania in Sicily can keep up with any American slum, and there are many rough bits in the industrial towns of the former East Germany. But these are special cases.)

In the American musical-chairs style of city building, all communities start off as something desirable, a place to escape to. After a decade or two of glory, they're all alone in a dangerous world, a place where life carries on. In the end, their decay and eventual dereliction is guaranteed. Unfortunately, we have perfected this machine of development to such a degree that it has to be repeated with each generation. Once our neighbors begin to move out, there is nothing left for our children but to hope they can get something for the house, and escape someplace else themselves.

Anyone who has studied planning or sociology will be familiar with the 'ring model' of American urban growth, first proposed in Robert Park, Ernest Burgess and R. D. Mc Kenzie's The City (1925). Our towns grow outward in a pattern of concentric zones: increased density towards the center, increased status toward the periphery. Homer Hoyt and Robert Park, in The Structure and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities (1939), perfected the model with the idea of 'sectors', corridors along which classes or ethnic groups of people tend to move gradually outwards.

This model showed us the 'wave of decay' that spreads slowly out from the center. Fashion flees ever outwards, with slums on her heels; the city decays in concentric rings from the inside out. And it gave us the idea of 'vacancy chains', how the well-off towards the fringes hand down their fancy homes to the middle classes, and eventually to the poor, to be subdivided into apartments and boarding houses. While essentially correct, the model's influence made bankers and federal planners feel justified in redlining the inner city, and so ensured that the process it depicted would perpetuate itself.

The concentric zones described by Hoyt and Park can be seen today, with some important differences. Recapitulating our look at the zones in our cities today, we could head outwards from the center on a radial avenue and pass through rings that look roughly like this:

downtown: no longer the unchallenged political and commercial center; the atmosphere ranges from the booming and vibrant to the dear departed, from Manhattan to Saginaw. Most, however sad they may look right now, have a future.
the downtown fringe: Since Homer Hoyt's day this has become a band of largely low-density, underutilised land; in the future it will be the new frontier for expanding centers. In fortunate cities, this band also includes close-in residential neighborhoods that survived the Catastrophe intact.
the 'inner' inner city: here, on average, only one half to two thirds of the lots are still built, and population density may have declined to the level of some fringe suburbs. Closer to the center, often squeezed between rail-industrial corridors, you may find areas that have reached a state of total abandonment; some cities have contiguous square miles of them (in parts of Detroit men hunt pheasant, and one enterprising inner-city farmer has assembled a 10-acre spread). Other neighborhoods show visitors a grim facade of rotted-out commercial strips that conceal streets of well-tended homes behind them.
the inner-city fringe: a special little world of decent neighborhoods within the city limits, just on the edge of decay; as the corrosion spreads outwards, their number is in constant decrease. Where an inner city has employee residency requirements, these neighborhoods will have large populations of policemen and firemen.
first-ring suburbs: some of these differ only slightly from the inner-city fringe neighborhoods; others might be tenaciously surviving old top-shelf neighborhoods with plenty of big trees, or tracts of postwar bungalows. All are under varying degrees of threat. Some are 'going down', and a few have already rotted out.
second-ring suburbs: the one broad band of normality, while it lasts. Some pockets of poverty exist, often at the cores of older villages and towns swallowed up by city growth, but in general the area is reserved to the middle and upper classes through restrictive zoning. This is still Leave it to Beaver country, and in its varying moods it charms us with outsized colonials, ranch houses, split levels or brick-and-half-timbers. There's a wide choice in neighborhood shopping, though you'll need a car.
sprawl zone: the vicious fringe contains perhaps 10-20% of the city's population, and occupies at least half of its land area. This is the zone of dispersed cowboy development, including the newer concentrations of 'edge city' commercial development. It is where most of the city's development action takes place, and where most of the money is; consequently it has a disproportionate influence in local (and national) decision-making, which it uses deftly to its own benefit, at the expense of all the inner zones.

Robert Park and his colleagues, though masterful analysts, were no prophets. They did not see very far into the future of their concentric city, and they could not have anticipated the extreme twists their model would soon undergo: the loss of density at the center, the half-empty zones, the acceleration of the process due to automobiles. As sociologists of a pronouncedly deterministic bent, they also assumed they were describing a natural process.

But when the older cities of Europe underwent industrialization at the same time, they did not follow the same rules as ours. In most, upper-class districts survived and grew at the center, while less exalted uses got pushed out to the periphery, where the railroads and factories were. In a long-established city, land at the center was already too dear for industrial uses; in Paris and Rome, even the grand passenger stations could not reach within a mile of the center. While Chicago was growing slums at its center after 1870, Paris's saw vast gentrification. The wonderful descriptive tool of the Hoyt and Park model is not a model of a normal city, but of one kind only-a young American city.

So part of our urban problem is in a sense 'structural', an accident of history; when unplanned cities grow up rapidly from nothing, as ours did, the rings start to appear. Another part of the picture is our persistent theme, the push for class-based exclusivity and self-segregation. There's no reason to believe Americans are bigger snobs than anyone else, rather it was this strange convergence of urban form and societal mores that made all the difference. Exclusivity and geography intertwined.

Sometime in the 20's, quite by accident, the process fell into the vicious circle of peripheral growth and core disinvestment. Planning and zoning confirmed these tendencies, and in the 30's the New Deal's housing and investment policies set the process down in concrete. The resulting decay in inner neighborhoods only increased demand for new development on the edge-the monster is good for business.

Take Chicago: from 1963 to 1973, 175,000 more housing units were built in the metropolitan area than the city's population growth required. Most of these were in the suburbs. That implies another 175,000 units were lost, nearly all of them in the inner city. In the U.S . as a whole, from 1960 to 75 for every new household in the population, 1.3 housing units were built; that .3 surplus is much greater than would be necessary under normal conditions to replace lost housing units. It indicates the rate of abandonment at the center, balanced by new building on the fringe.

Side effects appear, and they tend to reinforce the vicious circle. On the inner edge, property values decline while demand for services rises. That is how inner cities became paupers, and it is happening to first-ring suburban governments now. How vicious is this circle really? Pittsburgh, a relatively intact inner city, had 37,000 vacant lots the last time anyone counted; its old industrial suburbs could probably add several thousand more; that is room for at least 100,000 people. Within the Detroit city limits, 40% of all land lies vacant, room for half a million.

Another side-effect was the the proliferation of independent suburbs. As these become established, more and more they take on the attitudes of the Puritan New England townships of old. Each carries its hope to remain a protected enclave, and retains control of its own zoning. That will be predominantly low-density zoning, which makes the sprawl wider. Most of the suburban fiefdoms rely on property taxes for their revenues (for schools especially), and this results in cutthroat competition among them for new development. Landing a shopping mall, or even a car dealership or a big-box retailer means hitting the jackpot. Where states share sales tax revenues with localities, as in Utah or California, the effect is magnified.

This helps suck commercial uses ever outwards: promises of cheap land, maybe some technical or legal assistance, maybe a tax break. This movement has become so big, that the commercial now seems to be outpacing the residential in the rush outwards. Now, people move further out to keep up with the shopping. Our commercial areas, which should be the hearts of stable neighborhoods, have become little more than gypsy camps, spreading their asphalt and their brick-veneer sheds for a decade or two over any convenient patch of cornfield near a major road intersection.

The sheer volatility of the commercial market is astonishing. In the 70's malls seemed to be destroying everything in their path. Today, at any given moment some 2,000 of them will be standing empty, victims of the big boxes and power centers a mile or two further out. Wherever chain stores dominate, mildly profitable locations close in will be moved further out, to places where the corporation thinks it will get a higher return.

The biggest side effect, perhaps, was the creation of an economic complex to feed the monster. President Eisenhower's 'military-industrial complex' was a memorable phrase because it captured a truth about the way our society operates. It opens the door to an examination of other kinds of 'complexes' in our economy-mutually supporting constellations of businesses in a particular sector, along with the governmental bodies that set the rules for their operation, and the set of assumptions and practices that result from their interaction.

The workings of these complexes tend to be fascinatingly intricate and finely balanced. Government hardly stands aloof as an impartial regulator. In our system it is as intertwined with business as the Pentagon is with defense contractors. It shares the interests and purposes of the businesses, and its changing faces can be those of a tribunal, a facilitator, a traffic cop, a fountain of subsidies or a partner in crime.

Such complexes, in the form we know them today, were the creation of the industrial era, and the increasing sophistication of technology and markets. In our history of city-building, we could define a 'rail-industrial complex', made up of the railroads, street railways and private utilities, the banks that financed them, the industrial corporations that supplied them, and the land developers, along with city, state and national governments. Once all-powerful, and riddled with corruption, that complex eventually died out, morphing into a new complex based on oil and car companies and related interests of the highway lobby, a new class of large scale developers and a bigger, more intrusive and more bureaucratized government.

'Urban-industrial complexes' like these may be considered good or evil, or both at the same time, but that is not the point. It is important to see that they are inevitable in our system-we might think of them as natural, even organic. And for the purposes of the argument at hand, we must understand that when one of these beasts gets rolling, it isn't easy to stop.

Think of our current model of land development as an'urban-industrial complex', a subset, so to speak, of the wider complex that has grown around the automobile industry. No city or state possesses such a complex of its own. There is but one, and it is national in scope, and increasingly the product of a federal government that has assumed huge powers over all the rule-making, increasingly favorable to big banks and big developers that think and work on a national scale.

The model was born in frontier days, with a frontier mentality, ultimately based on Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1795, and all the state laws governing real property that followed it. It assumed continuous outwards expansion and the use of cheap land at the edge-the urban 'frontier'. When cities were new and booming, it did its job exceptionally well. People were pouring in from all over, and America found a way to provide them decent, spacious towns, and housing far above European standards of the day. Things changed a bit when the auto industry replaced rail as the technological motor of the complex. Once, streetcar companies sank their cash into suburban development; new lines and new subdivisions went hand in hand. The new auto interests had no incentive to enter land development, but they did dearly want government to build roads; so did developers, who needed access to cheap peripheral land.

When a city ends its boom period, as most of ours have, outward expansion should slow dramatically. But the process by which our cities grew left us with that extremely knotty structural problem. In theory, the 'vacancy chains' should be a virtuous phenomenon. They are the process by which people of whatever economic level 'move up', find a better place to live and, if they are homeowners, increasing their wealth by equity. By historical accident, our cities have grown into concentric bands of increasing housing values, so to move up almost always means moving outwards. The complex has found a way to accommodate this, and it does not worry about the consequences to the city as a whole.

No one would want to hurt the developers and their allies. The construction industry constitutes 8% of the GNP; add building materials and related industries, and it's 15%. And no policy maker would be so rash as to undo the whole monstrous edifice of auto-friendly public subsidy overnight. That subsidy has been conservatively estimated at 22 cents for every mile we drive; if cars paid their own way, gas would double in price. A well-entrenched evil like this can't be fixed cold turkey; it'll take some time.

But the monster must be cut down to size. Like so much in our economy, city-building has become a case study in pathology, addicted to the constant replacement of everything. Disposable houses and disposable neighborhoods have become an essential part of the machine, where homes and indeed communities have become commodities. We rush around our towns in a sort of eternal Alice in Wonderland tea party, where as soon as the old dishes are dirty we move around the table to another place.

In short, we have created an infernal machine of development that ruins cities instead of building them, one that supplies ephemeral and unsatisfactory urban environments for every race and class. This monster turns its bum to the city's heart; it gobbles down open land at one end and shits out slums at the other. Sprawl and decay are the two faces of a single phenomenon. Once the beast is rightly understood, it becomes clear that dismantling it is the imperative political goal for every city. It becomes equally clear that any attack on either side individually is likely to fail.

State and federal policies helped make this mess, and it is there that communities must start the fight. There is an opportunity for unity here. Of the seven concentric zones of the modern city, six have a deadly serious interest in putting a stop to it. And even many of the fringe residents would appreciate the chance of keeping their area from turning into parking lots and subdivisions. What is needed first is a thorough review and correction of tax policies, public subsidies and means of local government financing, all the public decisions that created the rules for the system we have now. Surely a machine that generates wasteland on such a vast scale cannot be in anyone's interest.

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