Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What Does The Neighborhood Have To Do With Income?

"Welcome To Fishtown"
Philladelphia, Pennsylvania
Hello Everyone:

Here is an interesting question, does the neighborhood you live in affect your paycheck? Interesting question, that blogger had never considered until right this moment.  This is a subject that Richard Florida recently considered in his City Lab article "How Your Neighborhood Affects Your Paycheck."  Mr. Florida writes, "The part of town where you live-especially where you grew up-can profoundly affect lifetime earnings." It is not something that we readily think about [where we grew up] when planning a career but yours truly will venture a theory that the neighborhood you grew up in plays a strong part in the career choices available to you.

Tree line neighborhood in Portland, Oregon
Richard Florida starts off with a quote from economist Tim Harford recently published in the Financial Times, "[A] as I check off my list of privileges, I won't forget the biggest of them all: my passport."  Why is a passport such a big privilege in today's world?  In an increasingly tenuous world, where social and financial capital is clustered in specific places, "the country in which you're born obviously affect the opportunities you will be present with later in life."  We can further understand how place of birth affects what opportunities are afforded to you at the neighborhood level.  It sounds like an obvious thing, a person who grows up in an affluent neighborhood will be granted opportunities than someone who is raised in a less affluent or poor neighborhood.  The 2012 American Presidential election made this point abundantly clear.

Rudd's Trailer Park just off Jefferson Davis Highway
South Richmond, Virginia
Cities are not a single giant entity, they are a collection of neighborhoods.  Mr. Florida concedes the obvious, "And we know that the outcomes among children who grow up in poor neighborhoods, those with under-performing schools, under-prepared peers and less access to high-quality libraries or museums, are often very different than those who grow up in wealthier areas."  This schism can not only contribute to wage and income inequality, but also what Stanford University economist Rebecca Diamond refers to as "inequality of well-being."  "Inequality of well-being" describes neighborhoods that a greater percentage of high-skilled workers who not only have more money, but better amenities such as grocery stores and schools.  According to Ms. Diamond, the well-being inequality gap is "20 percent higher than what can be explained by the wage gap between college and high school grads."  This is something social scientists defined as a "neighborhood effect" and two recent studies illustrate how this works.

Fresh Meadow
Queens, New York
The first study was conducted by Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey and Jonathan Rothwell, a Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program economist.  The study examined how where you live for the first sixteen years of your life affects future income between the age of 30 to 44.  (  The paper was published in Economic Geography used information from the Panel Study of Income Dynamic gathered by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, which followed a national sampling of families and individuals since 1968.

There have been previous studies that accounted for the different ways in which parents have had a profound effect on the economic future of their children. Nevertheless, Messrs. Massey and Rothwell speculate that "the characteristics of neighborhoods have an effect on future earnings independent of the well-established roles of factors like parents' income or education."  Their results were startling.  Messrs. Massey and Rothwell found the neighborhood effect accounted for "50 to 66 percent of the effect of parental income."  They wrote, "growing up in a poor neighborhood would wipe out much of the advantage of growing up in a wealthy household."  Startling indeed.  They call this finding the "million dollar neighborhood effect," revealing that "lifetime earning are roughly $900,000 higher (or $730,000 net present value terms) for those who grow up in the richest 20 percent of neighborhoods than for those who grow up in the bottom 20 percent, even after corrected for parental income."  This results in as big a difference in the wage gap between high school-only graduates and college graduates, estimated by the Census Bureau to be about "$1 million dollars in lifetime earnings."

Predicted difference in lifetime earnings
 By neighborhood
This effect becomes more stark when Messrs. Massey and Rothwell take into account the cost of living.  There is more 'bang for the buck' in Des Moines than New York City.  Thus, the researchers built in a local price index, using residential rental prices and rolled the numbers back through their intergenerational mobility models. The results are presented in the chart on the left, from the Brookings Institute.

Richard Florida points out, "Of course, the neighborhood effect is also associated with a host of other variables, race chief among them."  The authors used two Census tract-based to indicated data points that determine the neighborhood effect based on race.  They found that both variables and specific neighborhood effect alone are significant predictors in future earnings.  However, they also found that the neighborhood effect is the clearest explanation of the three.  The authors note, "It thus appears that the lower intergenerational income mobility of African Americans can be explained by their disproportionate segregation in poor, disadvantaged areas."

Renovated brownstone
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
The second study was conducted by Richard Florida's colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute: Charlotta Mellander, Keving Stolarick, and José Lobo, which looks at how the location of a neighborhood affects income.  This paper looked " the effects of residential neighborhoods and workplace neighborhoods on individuals' incomes in Sweden between 2002 and 2011." Why Sweden between 2002 and 2011?  The Scandinavian country had "unusually detailed micro-data that enable the researchers to study the connections between, firms, neighborhoods and individual earnings over time in a systematic way."  The information included about 22 million observation of the ten-year time period.  (

King Street-Meeting Street corridor
Charleston, South Carolina
The study employed the idea of "neighborhood effect" somewhat differently: Whereas sociologists focused on the ways one's early neighborhood environment affected life outcomes, Ms. Mellander and her co-authors analyzed the was the locations where a person works and lives affect current incomes.  Vastly different.  The goal of their research was to, "examine which social community most affects an individual's productivity."  The models they used looked at effect of neighborhood location and workplace on the income of higher skill knowledge and creative workers and less-skilled blue collar and service workers, while controlling factors such as education and gender.

The big, somewhat obvious, takeaway: "Neighborhoods have a very different effect on the incomes of blue collar and service workers as compared to knowledge and creative workers."  Residential neighborhoods have a bigger impact on blue collar and service worker incomes.  The researchers suggested that "This...may be because these workers are more likely to 'network' with friends and neighbors to find good jobs."  Meanwhile, residential neighborhood locations has less of an effect on knowledge and creative workers, whose incomes are more affected by their workplaces.  Further, creatives and knowledge-based employee received an income boost from working in a creative cluster location, perhaps "because these clusters are also where 'they can change jobs frequently and where firms compete for some talent.

The two studies cited in this article sheds light on how the powerful role of neighborhoods affects income.  Most of the findings seem obvious but what is groundbreaking is that the research is crucial to understanding why certain locations experience growth while others do not and how segregation and other divides can resonate in the future.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The de Blasio Gambit

Winter Storm "Hercules" slamming New York
photograph courtesy of Shutterstock
Hello Everyone:

I would like to give a shout out to everyone from southern New Jersey to Maine who are about to be buried under the coming blizzard.  Stay warm, stay safe, stay indoors.  Meanwhile, those of us on West Coast can take particular glee in the relatively benign weather.

Is affordable housing possible in New York City? Can gentrification be the solution to the city's affordable housing problem?  This is the paradox that Henry Graber explores in his article for Next City titled, "Inside the Gamble That Could Make or Break Bill de Blasio."  In the waning weeks of his twelve year tenure, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg insensitively expressed this thought, "Somebody said that there's not enough housing.  That's a good sign...That will bring in investment for people to build for all income levels, different kinds of housing."  Maybe.

New York City housing project
From an Economics 101 point of view, demand should generate demand.  At least that what blogger remembers from Economics class.  Mr. Graber writes, "New York City added 180,000 units of housing between 2002 and 2011-more than the 167,000 it added between 2000 and 2010-and the vacancy rate has risen slightly."  However, the average apartment rent went up by 75 percent between 2000 and 2012, while real income dropped. Thus, Mr. Bloomberg's "filtering" theory-a sort of housing version of trickle down theory-housing construction boom would alleviate the housing crises has not held up.  The more progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio avoided Mr. Bloomberg's sledge hammer-like rhetoric in his first year of office but despite his pro-worker stance, Mr. de Blasio has a deep like for the real estate industry.  Thus, Mr. de Blasio is banking on "new, market-rate construction to alleviate the housing crisis as much as Bloomberg was."

"Housing New York"
In 2014, Mayor de Blasio announced an ambitious municipal housing plan, "Housing New York," designed to remedy the lack of affordable housing in the city.  The 117-page plan offers solutions for a wide range of problems, some the city's own issues and some not.  The essence of the plan is leverage, "having investor contributions triple or even quadruple the city's own financial stake."  Increasing the city's financial stake is one reason why building affordable housing is economic issue.  The job of overseeing this task belongs to Alicia Glen, a former Goldman Sachs executive and early mayoral appointee.  Ms. Glen is the first deputy mayor for housing and economic development.  At times, Ms. Glen comes off like former Mayor Bloomberg, "rents are rising, the market's hot, it's great," she declared at a conference this past autumn.

Given this perspective, gentrification flows from the "reserve of pent-up demand who financial power was not properly harnessed during the Bloomberg years."  Ms. Glen told Mr. Graber, "Had we had the tools at the time...we would have gotten a lot more affordable housing out this boom.  May New Yorkers would feel less, quite frankly, pissed off by the fact that's all this luxury housing and not so much affordable housing."  Now, the tools have finally arrived.

New York City brownstone
The toolkit includes a new set of requirements and incentives all intended with bold goal of inducing the "private sector to build about half of the 80,000 new affordable units" promised by the mayor.  On a broader note, the de Blasio administration hopes that private funding will buttress public investment by a factor of at least three.  The city will commit $8.2 billion to the enterprise, as well as $2.9 billion in state and federal money.  Both Ms. Glen and Mayor de Blasio hope that the private sector will add $30 billion.

"The plan incorporates cross-subsidization more than any plan I've seen in the country," Andrew Ditton, the managing direct of Citi Community Capital share with a group of architects, planners, and developers at conference in October 2014.  Affordable housing and real estate developers?  Sounds strange in the same sentence.  However, Mr. Graber points out, "...this is conventional wisdom in high-cost, capitalist cities like San Francisco and London.  In New York too, the wagon of affordability will be hitched to the engine of high-end development.  It's an efficient use of public dollars.  But does it work?"  At the moment, interest rates are low, demand is up, and there is a political consensus regarding the immediacy of New York's affordable housing crises.  Mr. Graber speculates, "If the plan falls far shot of its goals, it won't just be a setback for New York's progressive mayor.  It will go to great length toward disqualifying the dominant municipal philosophy of affordable housing which eschews widespread regulation in favor of leverage, incentives and a hearty embrace of real estate power."  Therefore in order to solve the affordable housing crises, a plan must be implemented to "stoke the fire that created it."

New York City affordable housing development
An "Urbanist Asset Class"

The New York City affordable housing crisis is one of the biggest on the planet.  Citing a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, Henry Graber writes, "the cumulative distance between what New Yorkers should pay for housing (30 percent of income is most common metric) and what they do pay for housing is $18 billion.  No metro area in the world has a larger 'affordability gap' than New York."  The burden is greatest on families making less than 50 percent of the area median income.  In fact, over eight of ten families are "rent-burdened."  It is not just families below the area median (under $40,000 for a family of four) that are "rent-burdened,"  this problem continues up the economic scale.  Over 60 percent of the families at or above the area median income ($42-$67,000) are also "rent-burdened."  Over 30 percent of New York renters spend over half their income on housing.  A family applying for the affordable housing lottery in Manhattan has a 400 to one chance of getting a new residence.

"New York City Preserves Public Housing"
The "Housing New York" plan was released in May 2014, calls an additional 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next ten years: 80,000 new units and 120,000 "preserved' units not permitted from leaving the city's subsidized housing programs.  What makes this plan different from the current plan-reliance on the public sector-is its reliance on the private sector. The  post-war housing program in the five boroughs was a response to an estimated shortage of 430,000 units in 1950.  This created a two-fold problem.  First, it resulted in clearing dozens of "slum" neighborhoods and the building of almost 150,000 public housing units.  Second, the state of New York inherited jurisdiction over the federally imposed rent control, which covered a staggering two million New York City apartment units in 1950.  With the current plan's emphasis on leveraging public investment, the appointment of Alicia Glen with her background in finance, is no surprise.

Kings Theater
Flatbush, Brooklyn,  New York

While at Goldman Sachs, Ms. Glen ran the Urban Investment Group, an program that directed investors towards inner-city projects, neglected by banks.  The UIG also played an important part in financing several New York-area projects such as the $90 million restoration of the Kings Theater in Flatbush, Brooklyn. One of the group's big success was the creation of an "urbanist asset class."  According to Ms. Glen, "It's become sort hip and trendy to talk about this...but ten years ago, when I started all this, that was not much in the nomenclature."  Ms. Glen's function in the de Blasio administration, in one respect, continues her previous work at UIG: convincing the private sector (i.e. businesses, developers, and investors) that there is money to be had in New York City, including in less affluent neighborhoods and on unconventional projects.

This is particularly important for the residential construction industry, which has recovered more slowly in New York City, then other places.  Moving ahead, any housing project wishing to take advantage of neighborhood rezoning or seeking rezoning change will have to include affordable housing units.  The program, "mandatory inclusionary zoning," is meant to improve on the meager stock under the Bloomberg  administration's optional inclusionary zoning program, which yielded a paltry 2,700 units in ten years.  The current administration, which expects 20 to 30 percents of privately financed units to be affordable, will surpass the Bloomberg 10-year total every year.

Boricua Village
 The Million Apartment Question

Like almost every municipal affordable housing scheme, the New York City plan is split between preservation and development. Despite lopsided numbers, the emphasis is very much on preservation.  The rental stock, subject to rent stabilization, could be smaller in a decade.  Mayor de Blasio's preservation goal is modest improvement over former Mayor Bloomberg's minuscule achievement.  However, the largest amount of New York City's affordable stock is something beyond Mayor de Blasio's control: the remaining one million rent controlled apartments.

Bronxdale Houses
AP photo/Bebeto Matthews
In the last twenty years, the city's rental stock has grown and changed.  For example, in 2011, the number of rental units covered under the rent stabilization ordinance was 47 percent, a twelve point drop from 1991.  Some of this decline could have been the result of new market-rate rentals. Nevertheless, the decline in rent stabilized units has been big.  To quantify how big is big, New York City endured a net loss of over 150,000 rent stabilized units between 1994 and 2012.  That is equivalent to the entire housing stock of Cincinnati, Ohio.

From the beginning, rent stabilization has been the enemy of property owners, real estate developers, and economists who argue "that their subsidy for longtime residents stunts the continuing evolution, strains landlords and distorts the city's housing market."  Blogger remembers hearing this argument in economics class and the uproar it caused in yours truly's oh-so-liberal college.  Truth be told, rent stabilization does little good for new arrivals to the city.  As blogger understands it, a person can live out their entire life in a rent controlled apartment, then pass it down to a family member, thus keep a perfectly viable unit off the open market.  The consequence of this is a newcomer's housing costs go up.  However, New York State's twin rent control program, with an average tenant income of $36,000, is the single most potent guardian of New York City's economic diversity.

Affordable housing in Brownsville, Brooklyn

Through various unit exit opportunities, the available rental housing stock has dramatically shrunk the city's portfolio.  While Mayor de Blasio has been aggressive in trying to wrest rent stabilization control from the majority Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, the prospects for the Mayor accomplishing this feat have diminished.  Barring any late breaking miracle in Albany, the program's reach will also continue to disappear, placing a great deal of pressure on New York City's ability to retain as much affordable housing as it can.

Benjamin Dulchin, the executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development said, "As much as it's important for the city to build, because there are so many New Yorkers coming, it's also true that we can't build our way out of an affordability crisis...The Bloomberg administration said that by creating all the new development opportunities and by allowing all these market-rate units to be developed, that would relieve pressure on the lower end of the market.  It's pretty clear that it didn't happen."  With barely any room to expand the preservation programs, Mayor de Blasio has to hope that developers can take up the slack.

Atlantic Yards B2 Tower
Brooklyn, New York
The Point of No Returns

In early 2014, the de Blasio administration reached an accord with Forest City Ratner, the developer of the Brooklyn area project formerly know as Atlantic Yards.  This deal was one of Alicia Glen's first major affordable housing negotiations, giving the de Blasio administration reason to celebrate, but not everyone was jumping for joy.  The reason, back when he was still Councilman Bill de Blasio from Park Slope and the project was still in the planning phase, Mr. de Blasio insisted that the maximum income for affordability qualification should be $80,000 (income for a family of four).  By blogger's own estimation, even in 2007 New York City, if someone is making $80,000 a year they can afford a small place in a decontrolled apartment building. For further reading see  Currently, about half of the designated affordable units in the first two towers will be rented to families with incomes of up to $138,000.  The brain reels at the absurdity of it.

Richmond Place
Queens New York
Henry Graber concedes, "Critics have a point: The metropolitan 'area median income' measurement, which determines which projects qualify for Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, is ill-suited for urban neighborhoods."  To illustrate this point, Mr. Graber cites "Staten Island is the only one of the city's five boroughs with a median income that surpasses the area median income."  The Bronx, where the majority of affordable housing projects have been built, the majority of the residents have an income of less than 40 percent of the AMI.  This means that the affordable apartments, which are geared toward residents earning 60 percent of AMI, are out of reach. Therefore, equating degrees of subsidy often does nothing more than puff out the affordable housing records of politicians.

Atlantic Yards under construction

Atlantic Yards reflects an inconvenient truth about housing construction in New York City. Even the units affordable to residents who make comfortably more that city's median income are not built without subsidy.  This fact is not changing anytime in the near future. According to developer Jonathan Rose, even in the high cost markets, "the cost new construction is higher than the cost of providing affordable and middle-income housing.  To some extent, this has always been true," Mr. Rose added for emphasis.  Further, by using federal money to raze older neighborhoods and build public housing, New York has "subsidized private affordable and middle-income housing construction since the 1940s."  Cooperative buildings such as Penn South on Manhattan's West Side were put up with labor financing on land taken and donated by the city.  Nowadays, developers use the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to build new affordable housing.

Chrystie Place
Federal LIHTC standards-i.e. 50 to 60 percent of the AMI-assume that affordable housing is built for the truly.  In the case of New York City, the proportion of the population that needs subsidized housing is greater than this sum.  In the past decade, the percent of market-rate apartment affordable to individuals and families making less than the 50 below the NYC median income has declined from 6.2 to 4.4 percent.  While those making up to 80 percent of the NYC AMI has also dropped from 38 to 24.  The steepest decline in the city median income was experiences by individuals and families making the NYC AMI.  In 2002, 63 percent of New York City's de-controlled stock was affordable, however, by 2008m that number dropped to 42 percent.

Richmond Hill
The interesting thing here is in New York, affordable housing is not just for those in economic dire straits.  "It's all the people we deal every day," declared Housing Commissioner Vicki Been  at an Urban Land Institute conference in October.  This is due to the housing market being beyond the grasp of half the city and rapidly spinning away.  Despite the fact that the city can expedite housing, it cannot do much to hold down the costs of materials, land, or labor.  To give you an idea of the rising costs, "The average price of land in Brooklyn, the city's most populous borough, rose 25 percent between September 2013 and 2014.  In some the borough's neighborhood the increase was larger: Between January 2013 and 2014, land prices in Downtown Brooklyn...rose from $75 to $350 a square foot..."

To further complicate matters, the high cost of building and insatiable demand for high-end rentals is hampering the city's production rate.  The New York Building Congress forecasts that "residential construction spending will hit $12.4 billion by 2016, more than twice what was spent at the peak of the market in 2007."  Between now and then, the NYBC estimates that only 24,000 units will be built, less than three-quarters of the 2007 total.  To give you some idea of how this dynamic operates, the cumulative price of all 104 apartments in the luxury skyscraper 432 Park Avenue, opened in October 2014. totaled more than "all the residential real estate in Hartford, Connecticut."

77 Columbia Street and 321 8th Avenue
The current mayoral administration has looked at the variety of strategies to compensate for the structural imbalance and encourage more affordable housing construction.  Two possibilities: higher tax on vacant lots and mansions.  Other options: "A mandatory inclusionary program that allows for off-site construction.  Speeding the urban land use review process.  Reforming tax incentives.  Relaxing zoning restrictions."  Despite these ideas, many experts do not believe that the city is capable of fixing the housing market by itself.  Regulation is under the jurisdiction of the state.  Federal homeowner subsidies is about $175 billion versus the measly $25 billion in LIHTC and Section 8 vouchers combined.  As with any metropolitan areas, a disproportionate number of high-income households are in the suburbs.

Via Verde
Grimshaw Architects, The Bronx

 Pressure on Both Sides

New construction is one element the city can and does control.  An affordable housing development, based on private investment, sounds like a neo-liberal concept but it is a reaction to strong political restraints.  Bu forging a strong tie between market-rate development and affordable housing, the de Blasio administration is performing a balancing act.  Limiting the returns on residential investment could inhibit new projects.  Insufficient pressure, affordable housing goals will be forgotten in the dash to build newer high-end buildings.  The question becomes, "Who will leave New York first: real estate investors in search of higher profits, or the poor in search of lower rents?"

Dinkins Gardens
Like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City historian Kenneth T. Jackson also worries that the city risks losing its attraction to the wealthy and developers who cater to them. "Toronto is not that far away...There's a limit what you can do in the private sector." However, he adds that the public will feel the strain, "The problem is: How expensive can New York City become and still remain competitive with Houston, which is the now the poster child for the successful city?"  New York City has always cherished its identity as the center of capital accumulation and working-class progressivism and now, the former is displacing the latter.  "You don't do income inequality in a capitalist city," said David O'Rear, the chief economist for the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce at a Municipal Arts Society gathering last autumn.  "It's not the nature of the beast," he added.

What is emerging from all of this a New York City with a split housing market with a middle ground between apartments that subsidize and new units that are subsidized disappearing.  For New Yorkers who survived decades of disinvestment, the de Blasio gambit is worrisome because of the burden it places on developers.  Another concern is the "city's desire to stimulate new, market-rate construction will transform sections of working-class New York faster than corresponding new affordable housing can preserve them."  What is the consequence of a continuing affordability crisis?  In New York City, the affordability crisis coincided with increasing rates of suburban poverty and rapid displacement of long-term residents in newly hip neighborhoods.  The rental crisis was a major factor in Bill de Blasio's election.  Can he use it to remedy the affordability crisis or will it fall victim to politics?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Place And History

South Carolina Monument, Battle of the Crater
Petersburg National Battlefield
Petersburg, Virginia
Hello Everyone:

I hope you all had a chance to read and consider yesterday's post, Venting In The-Art Madhouse. Regardless of who you are, where you come from, or what you believe (or don't) believe, you cannot help but be affected by the events in Paris and their ramifications. It is sad to think that we have to parse our words and images so carefully, that we cannot fully express ourselves.  That being said, today we are going back to our usual topics of architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design.  Today, we are going back to Thom Mayes's brilliant series "Why Do Old Places Matter?"  The subject this time is ancestors and how old places connect this generation with the past.  For blogger, the place that connects the past, present, and future is Manhattan's Lower East Side.  It was there that blogger's paternal great grandparents first settled in the late nineteenth century upon arrival from Eastern Europe.  For others, it is the pueblos of the American Southwest, Salem, Massachusetts, or the Native American villages throughout the Mid- and Northwest.  These old places are not only great places to learn about history and culture, they are also amazing places that connect us to our family's history.

Trace Adkins and Jim Lighthizer
Civil War Tomb of the Unknowns
Arlington National Cemetery
Thanks to websites such as; television programs such as: Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are, interest in genealogy in the United States as grown.  These forums provide a space for ordinary people, of all backgrounds, to find out who they are and where they came from.  In the process, "...information is discovered, recovered, and new ties are forged between themselves and their  ancestors."  Mr. Mayes cites a 2005 poll by Market Strategies, Inc, on, that revealed "73 percent of Americans are interested in their family history." ("Americans' Fascination with Family History is Rapidly Growing," accessed Dec. 22, 2014) When searching for their family's past, the location is extremely important to people and being there is a deeply moving experiences.  Quoting musician Trace Adkins in the Civil War Trust magazine, Mr. Mayes writes,

I was able to look across the battlefield and see it the way it looked when my great-great-grandfather was there.  Words cannot describe what a spiritual moment that was for me, and it was only possible because of the preservation of that hallowed ground.  ("Trace Adkins Forges Links to the Past, Hallow Ground Magazine, Summer 2013, access Dec. 22, 2014)

Somerset Place Plantation
Creswell, North Carolina
Dorothy Spruill Redford, the author of Somerset Homecoming, wrote of her journey to Somerset Place Plantation through genealogy. Ms. Spruill Redford wrote,

People need that, they need tangibility.  They need something they can touch, that they can hold, look at, point to.  Why that's so important, I don't know, but it's honest-to-god necessary for people to feel something with their fingers, not just with their minds.  The past is that way-the house you used to live in, the tree you used to climb, the doll you used to take to bed.  These are all tactile trigger that fire the emotions in a way mere memories can never do.  The day I first stepped onto the ground of Somerset, I felt a tangibility more intense than all documents and records I'd collected. (Redford, 1988, 209-10)

Ellis Island Reception Hall (date unknown)
New York City
Historic preservation and genealogy go together like peanut butter and jelly.  In fact, many people involved in early preservation efforts were motivated by the desire to preserve the places where ancestors lived. (Weyeneth, 2004, 275) This motivation focused on honoring the accomplishments of their ancestors and reinforcing a strong identity between people and their past deeds.  Mr. Mayes cites the example of the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose membership is predicated on genealogical connections to someone who participated in the American Revolution.  Part of the DAR's mission statement is the preservation of American historic sites and they continue to support historic places throughout the United States. (

Angel Island, site of Asian immigration to the United States
San Francisco, California
In the present day, the field of genealogy is finding appeal with people of diverse backgrounds, however, Mr. Mayes speculates, "I don't think the field was always as welcoming as it is today.  Many may still feel that genealogy is tainted by the reality that people have used it to establish a sense of superiority over other people."  Classic example, is the descendant of the Pilgrims who uses their Mayflower ancestry as a claim of superiority over those whose ancestors came to America in the nineteenth century.  Historic preservation was not immune to claims of ancestral superiority, as a means of telling a selective history of the United States.  Mr. Mayes opines, "I think that's why preservationists haven't always felt comfortable in recent years fostering the connections between family history and the preservation of old places."  He credits the 1977 mini-series Roots with a dramatic change in the way genealogy was embraced.  Further, "It seems to me that it may be time for people who care about old places to welcome and foster the connections that family history can forge between people and old places.

Somerset Homecoming
Creswell, North Carolina
Thom Mayes spoke to Brock Bierman, senior director at regarding the connection between ancestry and old places.  Mr. Bierman is a strong supporter of the "power that genealogical research and knowledge can unlock."  His view on link between uncovering your ancestors and old places:

It's very important for you to not only know who your ancestors were, but also where your ancestors were from.  Where did they come from?  How did they end up where they did?  People want to know the journey-the journey is important as the family history.  It gives you roots, it gives you an association with where you're from, how you're connected not only to your community, but to the very country you live in, and to the society you belong to.  It makes you feel very appreciative of the sacrifices they made, but also a sense of pride-that your ancestors helped build this country. (Interview with Thom Mayes Dec. 19, 2014)

Familial connection to a place may be the result of an ancestor just living there-not as the building owner/builders or through the history books.  Mr. Mayes quotes an anecdote from the Somerset Plantation website of the experience of an elderly African-American gentleman visiting the site:

Somerset Homecoming (date unknown)
Creswell, North Carolina
What had been unnamed before was pride in the craftsmanship and the skill his ancestors brought to the place and left there.  What had been unrecognized was his tangible connection or place in the history of America: his inherent and historic value.  Regardless of circumstances under which they labored, the existence of the plantation house symbolized all that his ancestors created and at that moment in time, instantly connected him, in a culturally affirming way, to his past. (Somerset Homecomings, accessed Dec. 6, 2014)

Thom Mayes suggests, "If people listened to what the genealogical record actually has to
Vesuvius Furnace
Lincoln County, North Carolina
say, and follow that to the places of their ancestors, they can learn a far more interesting, deeper, and nuanced story of their own past and the past of America as a whole."  Mr. Mayes cites his own family's connection to a log cabin in South Carolina, a farm farmhouse in North Carolina, and a Presbyterian church.  He knew those places throughout his life.  However, it was through his own genealogical research that he discovered that his ancestor Bartholomew Thompson was both a farmer and ironworker at Vesuvius Furnace.  Vesuvius Furnace and the owner's house still survives in Lincoln County, North Carolina.  Having that tangible place gave Mr. Mayes a three-dimensional document that connects him to his ancestor.

Lower East Side of New York City
Mr. Brock pointed Mr. Mayes to recent studies that discuss the impact of knowing familial origins.  The study was released this past September and "...draws a correlation between interest in family history-a group defined as 'family history enthusiasts'- and community involvement.  The study concludes that people who explore family history...perform more volunteer work, are more active in voting and/or public affairs, belong to more civic or veterans organizations..."  (Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, 2014)

Perhaps, more fascinating for Mr. Mayes, is a 2010 study by Emory University which revealed, "[c]hildren who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being...[f]amily stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world." ("Do You Know? The power of family in adolescent identity and well-being," accessed Dec. 21, 2014)  What strikes Mr. Mayes (and blogger) is the similarity between the sense of identity, continuity, and memory that old place fulfill in our lives.  They become apparent in the way people talk about being in a place where their ancestor inhabited.

Hester Street (date unknown)
Lower East Side of New York City
Earlier, yours truly shared that her paternal line landed on the Lower East Side of New York City.  The Lower East Side was home to the city's population of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who worked in the factories and sweat shops.  My late grandfather was a garment factory worker.  His family came from Poland.  Even though, the Lower East Side has gentrified, when you walk through, you can still sense the history of the place. The brownstones still tell the story of those who lived, worked, and died there.  For blogger, the connection to the Lower East Side comes through the stories my late dad used to tell me about growing up, going to school, playing stick ball in the streets, and spending time with his friends.  Those stories, combined with being there, gave blogger a tangible sense of history.

History is not just what you read about in the textbooks, it is about place and the connection to the place through ancestry.  This is powerful connection that gives one a sense of identity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Venting In The Mass-Art Madhouse"

The pencil is mightier than the gun
Hello Everyone:

Today blogger would like to take a break from from the usual subjects and spend some time talking about the massacre at the offices of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo.  It has been about two weeks since gunmen burst into the office of the newspaper, opened fired and killed a dozen people.  Now that the protests and the requisite hand wringing have subsided, yours truly thought it would be a good time to take a step back and look at the nature of satire itself.  With the help of Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight and his recent article, "At satire's forefront, cartoons press against hard lines," blogger would like to look at how cartoons have become serious forms of expression.

British Labor Party leader Ramsay MacDonald
Project Gutenberg

Here is a perfect quote from Mr. Knight, "Authoritarianism and cartooning are oil and water."  Rigid adherence to a particular set of beliefs and doctrines, the basis of fundamentalism regardless of religion, has historically been a ripe target for cartoonists. The late American Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell displayed as much when he sued Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, in 1988 over a salacious parody that presented Mr. Falwell committing incest with his mother in an outhouse.  Mr. Knight observes, "While not exactly a cartoon, the satirical Hustler graphic was in the same ballpark as the often tasteless comics published by Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten-a crude but thorough demolition of self-righteous thought police."  The lawsuit ended up going all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in favor of Mr. Flynt.

Costly and lengthy legal action is a far different weapon then a Kalashnikov rifle, Skorpian machine pistol, Molotov cocktails, and hand grenades carried by the aggrieved gunmen into the Charlie Hebdo offices.  What transpired was, to put it succinctly, an act of cold blooded revenge for cartoon insults against Islam.  As Mr. Knight puts it, "Acts of artistic vandalism were met with mass murder."

Roy Lichtenstein (1963)
In contemporary times, cartoons have become a form of artistic common language-high and low.  The cartoon mindset have long given life to new painting and sculpture across the globe. They have even risen to the level of veneration.  Citing a forty year-old quote by art critic Amy Goldin, Mr. Knight writes, "Mass art addresses its audience from a madhouse inmate to inmate."  Ms. Goldin wrote this at time when the cartoon sensibility, the essence of sixties Pop art, was beginning to make its way into critical respectability after a decade of academic resistance.  Ms. Goldin's essay "The Esthetic Ghetto: Some Thoughts About Public Art," (, published in 1974, parsed out "art's shifting relationship to different conceptions of a viewing audience.."  Quoting the essay, Mr. Knight says, "The decorum of mass art is thoroughly irresponsible, fragmentary and nihilistic...It's a form-breaker, (being) almost too senseless to bear."  The hard edged form that the Charlie cartoonists joyfully broke was a double edge.

Praise of Folly (1509)
"Folly Speaks"
Desiderius Erasmus
Satire, at its best, is brilliant and insightful.  At its worst, juvenile, xenophobic, racist, and intentional slurs against theological doctrine, evidenced by the Charlie cartoons.  They also deliberately violated the Islamic prohibition of any depiction of Mohammed-insult adding to injury.  Does this mean it was perfectly acceptable for the gunmen to kill and injure employees of Charlie Hebdo or four people at a kosher supermarket a few days later?  In one way, the tragic events in Paris symbolized a clash of two different iconoclasts.  On one end of the spectrum are those who oppose the veneration of religious image, the foundation of Islamic blasphemy,  At the other end of the spectrum are those, like the Charlie cartoonists, who take every opportunity to oppose this concept.

This point was underscored in the aftermath by the "agitated drawing submitted the day after the massacres to Paris' Libération newspaper by R. Crumb. An American cartoonist and longtime resident of Paris, R. Crumb has given a great deal of consideration to the relationship between cartoons and religion, as seen in
Chapter One of the Book of Genesis
R, Crumb
his illustrations for the Book of Genesis-exhibited at the UCLA Hammer Museum in 2009.  For the January 12 edition of Libération, he began by making fun of himself.  Given the offensive nature of the cartoon, blogger has opted not to post it but it is available online if any of you wish to see it.  The cartoon in question is a self-portrait titled "Cowardly Cartoonist," which presents a trembling cartoonist holding up a crude and derogatory sketch.  The speech bubble reads "my friend Mohamid Bakshi, a movie producer who lives in Los Angeles."  This is a likely reference to film maker Ralph Bakshi whose 1972 animated version of R. Crumb's "Fritz the Cat" was a particular favorite of the cartoonist.  This is something that Christopher Knight calls, "...a desecration of something deeply personal, you might say, that nonetheless did not result in bloodshed."

The Libération cartoon respects to the prohibition against rendering Mohammed's face while at the same time, it lambastes the gunmen's motives for their actions.  It scorns all claims, pro and con, of iconoclasm.  This is not a subject for debate.  A good measure of a civil society is knowing how to take offense.  Images are meant to be engaged, not feared.  Cubism's great master Pablo Picasso was a fan of the American cartoon the Katzenjammer Kids, launched in 1897 by Rudolph Dirks.  The "kids," twins Hans and Fritz, "...gleefully rebel against authority, personified by their bourgeois parents and their school's truant officer."  A little detective work could find some subject or stylistic similarities between the Dirks cartoon "and the fragmented linear planes of radical Cubist art...."

"The Katzenjammer Kids"
Rudolph Dirks
  Chances are, that Pablo Picasso just loved the   strip, empathized with the child's world view.   Mr. Knight characterized both Pablo Picasso     and fellow Cubist George Braque as "art's  Hans and Fritz, focused on dissenting from    their artistic elders and becoming truants from  the academy."

Their contemporary, Marcel Duchamp, followed close behind in sculptural form.  Fountain was the first of his readymade sculptures placed on exhibit in 1917.  Fountain was a public washroom urinal purchased at a plumbing supply store and placed upside down, signed "R. Mutt."  Marcel Duchamp explained "...that name alludes in
Fountain (1917)
Marcel Duchamp
part to 'Mutt and Jeff,' the first daily newspaper strip, created by Bud Fisher in 1907."  The urinal is a nod to the cartoon's earthiness.  The main characters were a racetrack gambler and his friend, a mental patient.  Marcel Duchamp took great pleasure in elevating meaning from lowly puns, thus taking on the role of "our Mutt."  Fountain was assembled for a New York exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists, which eschews the more conservative local art world.

The brochure of the organization heralds "No Jury-No Prizes."  Yet, irony of ironies, Marcel Duchamp's potty sculpture was deemed too vulgar even for the hallowed Society of Independent Artists and rejected for display.  Cartoons have been the source of inspirations for the Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists, Fluxus publishers, Conceptualists, Neo-Expressionists, graffiti arts and so forth-all of whom incorporated elements of cartoons into their work.  However, it was the Pop artist who elevated the cartoon to a
higher realm.  Cartoons began to edge their way forward in the fifties, most provocatively in a series of newspaper collages by
Tricky Cad
Jess Collins
courtesy of LACMA
Bay Area artist Jess Collins title Tricky Cad, a play on Dick Tracy.  The panels are composed of sliced up and rearranged images from the Chester Gould comic, intended " undermine an authoritarian image during a socially repressive time.  Tricky Cad pulls apart tidy police narratives, transforming them into darkly disordered nonsense poems."

Roy Lichtenstein pushed cartoons into a more sophisticated setting, undermining the firmly entrenched ideas of art culture.  True Romance and World War II comics were main foundations of inspiration for him.  After all, all's fair in in love and war.

In the nascent digital age when clipped images and unfiltered mutterings bounce through the social media at the speed of light into devices, the cartoon mindset lives.  It sustains itself with "rawness and lack of polish."  This is not implying that contemporary cartoons lack the cleverness that Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp admired.  The tragedy in Paris was senseless "in the extreme, fanaticism, venting in the mass-art madhouse."

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
The decision made by the surviving editor of Charlie Hebdo to print 3 million copies in five languages of their first post-massacre edition was a careful one.  "Venting in the mass-art madhouse has its uses, some more trenchant-and appropriate-than others.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Price That Home?

Detroit home
Hello Everyone:

Buying a home is always a daunting process. Whether you are buying a new or previously occupied home, the process is fraught with all sorts of challenges to try one's patience.  Now add having to evict the current residents into the mix and you have a whole new set of ethical issues that would drive even the most patient person insane.  This is the dilemma faced by young gentrifiers in the City of Detroit, Michigan.  Rose Hackman reports for The Guardian, in her article, "Detroit's young gentrifiers face a daunting task in buying $500 homes: evicting poor residents."  Buying a home for $500, yes you read correctly, sounds like too good a deal to pass up.  However, if it means having to evict a family from their longtime home, you begin to question if this house is really worth the bargain price after all.

Rundown Detroit neighborhood
Let us look at the example of Oren Goldberg, a Detroit-based filmmaker who had the opportunity to buy a previously owned house at auction for $500.  What stopped him from completing the sale was the prospect of having to evict the homeowner.  Mr. Goldberg has traveled this road before and hit a nasty bump. He made a previous purchase at an annual tax foreclosure auction but the purchase turned sour when confronted with having to remove the occupant for cost of $7,000, twice what paid for the house and half of what the occupant owned in back property taxes.

This experience has turned Mr. Goldberg away from purchasing anymore previously owned homes.  Quoting Mr. Goldberg, Ms. Hackman writes, "It goes into this long-term narrative of Detroit is vacant and empty and there's no one here.  So when you look at it and you think oh my god, we're going to develop this area, no thinks that you might be pushing people out."  Mr. Goldberg's dilemma is similar to the one facing many young, educated, mostly Caucasian gentrifiers.  Would-be property owners with a conscience.

Detroit Urban Meadow
It is estimate that 62,000 Detroit area properties will be facing tax foreclosure auction in 2015 unless their owners payoff their tax debt before April 1.  Over half of the properties are occupied, usually the previous owner, who has paid off the mortgage and whose family has resided in the house for a long time.  The result, many, predominantly, young, white, educated professionals and creatives who were lured to the city by tax breaks and incentives, are participating in Detroit's renaissance.  While the surface, this sounds exciting, participation in Detroit's "renewal" is at the expense of "...mainly black Detroiters, struggling with bills, are simultaneously-and silently-being shown out the back door."

Winter in a Detroit neighborhood
This trend is affecting a major portion of Detroit's small poor demographic.  This past autumn, the Wayne County treasurer handed out tax foreclosure notices to 62,000 property owners, who were at least three years behind on their taxes.  This totals to about over $709 million in back taxes and penalties, a series burden in a city where 39 percent of the residents are living below the poverty line. The mind reels at what could be done once the revenue is collected but this thought is tempered with a sense of empathy toward the property owners who are struggling to simply put food on the table.  To give you some idea of what this means, let us turn to Ms. Hackman:

Of those properties, 37,000 are classified as occupied.  With an average of 2.74 people per household, this means around 100,000 Detroiters are at risk of losing the current roof over their head. That is 1 in 7 Detroit residents, this coming season alone.

Detroit's Northeast Side, 2010
The above numbers should give you pause for real concern.  Say what you will about why 100,000 Detroiters are at risk of losing their homes but the bottom line is that home foreclosure will quickly happen unless the owners manage to workout a payment plan or pay of the entire amount in the next few months.  The first auction will take place in September, where the homes are sold for the amount of the taxes and liens owed.  The leftover homes from the first round go up for sale in the second round of auctions with a starting bid of $500.  According to a city generated reported, after a decade of this system, "Detroit has completed 125,000 tax foreclosures."

Detroit's Brightmoor Neighborhood
"It's different kind of housing crisis," writes Rose Hackman.  Jerry Goldberg, an attorney with Moratorium NOW!, lays cites the loss of one-quarter of the city's population between 2000 and 2010 " a direct result of both tax and mortgage foreclosures."  While Marilyn Mullane, the executive director of Michigan Legal Services, which works with Detroiters undergoing foreclosures, links the tax and subprime foreclosures crises.  The key connection is the lack of information.  Ms. Hackman quotes Ms. Mullane,

Low-income homeowners are eligible for tax exemptions.  While many residents would meet the requirements, they must file requests before their taxes are due, neither of which are readily known pieces of information...Owners can buy their homes back with debts cleared at auction for $500 as a solution of last resort...The payment plans are unrealistic for many Detroiters already desperately behind on their bill.  It is very disturbing because most homeowners want to keep their homes.  If only the treasurer were willing to take whatever they could pay.

Abandoned homes next to occupied homes
Delray neighborhood
To put it in simple terms, "The flow of information is unequal-asymmetric,...between the often wealthy buyers and the low-income residents who suffer foreclosure."  The real estate challenges before the city appear to favor outsiders.  For example, Trevor Epps, the chief of staff to a Michigan state representative found a tax foreclosure notice on the door of her house in northwest Detroit.  Ms. Epps took over the tax payments from her grandmother a few years and has been playing catch up since then.  Ms. Epps's grandmother had once been an active member of the community until Ms. Epps came to help.  By that point, renovations were necessary, expenses had to be cut, and debt to be paid.  Ms. Epps began making payments towards the property taxes but fell short.  She is looking into payments plans to address the debt and avoid foreclosure but the whole process has left her frustrated and ready to find an apartment for herself outside the city and put her grandmother in a home.

Southwest Detroit neighborhood
Leila Timmons, Trevor Epps's grandmother describes the block as previously being "vibrant."  Now all is silent-two thirds of the homes are empty.  Those still occupied are in similar situations with multiple generations living under one roof-"Grandfather homes."  The new buyers are not the "distinguished Detroit grandfathers.  Anecdotally, they are well-funded and relatively young."

One example is Darrin McLeskey who has been buying Detroit properties through the tax auctions since the age of nineteen.  When he began, he thought it would be a great idea to own a city block and wanted a stake in the city's future.  Presently, he owns five buildings, one of which he lives in, and nearly forty lots.  "Some of the lots had trees planted on them already," says Mr. McLeskey.  Over time, he found it best to purchase still occupied properties. Two of the buildings he owns were purchased from native Detroiters two year in arrears, just one year shy of foreclosure.  In the case of one couple who owed $3,000 in taxes and $1,000 in utilities, Mr. McLeskey offered them $8,000 on their house, which allowed them to pay off their debts and walk away with an extra $4,000.  Mr. McLeskey said, "These are residents who were planning on moving away from the city anyway.  Six of his former housemates have also bought property.

City Airport neighborhood
Thus far, the city and the Wayne County treasurer's office have turned a deaf ear to the plight of the homeowners struggling to pay their taxes.  Citing David Szymanski, Wayne County assistant treasure, Ms. Hackman writes, "the hardest part of his job is having to foreclose on people who have not paid their bills.  Those who cannot afford property taxes should consider renting."  Mr. Syzmanski says this so casually, appearing not understand that for some struggling homeowners, even renting is difficult.  Even those who rent to own-land contracts-are not shielded from tax foreclosures.  Under such contracts, the property owner replace largely absent banks and become the de facto lenders towards whom monthly installment payments are made.  At the end of the contract, theoretically, a property is passed from an owner/former landlord to a new owner/former tenant.

Historic Detroit neighborhood
Cornelius Washington, a single father, native Detroiter, and carpet-layer found out a few months ago that the house he and his four children had been living in under a land contract had be foreclosed and was going up for auction.  Mr. Washington suffers from job-related disabilities and works part time, thus not qualified for disability benefits.  Two years ago, Mr. Washington signed a land contract, agreeing to put $2,000 down and pay $400 a month for four years, after which he would outright own the house.  Half way into the contract, Mr. Washington contributed $12,000 and an additional $10,000 in renovations.  He attempted to bid on and buy his home at auction after all the taxes and liens were cleared in the second around.  Unfortunately, he was out outbid, the final price, $3,000.  He and his family have nothing but hope and prayer left.  He is hoping to to put the $1,400 he budgeted for the second round toward fully buying it back from the owner.  What else can he do?