Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Urban Planning Fail

Kathmandu, Nepal before and after the earthquake
Hello Everyone:

By now we have all seen the devastating pictures and video of Saturday April 25th, 7.8 earthquake in Nepal.  Nepal is a landlocked country, sandwiched between China and India. Nepal is best-known as home, along with Tibet, to Mount Everest in Mahalangur section of the Himalayas.  The scenes are horrifying: whole "...City blocks collapsed, century-old monuments were reduced to rubble and apocalyptic cracks ran through the roads." These are the scenes described by Tanvi Misra in her article for City Lab, "How Urban Planning Failed Kathmandu."  Ms. Misra's article looks at how urban planning amplified the disaster in Kathmandu and ponders what comes next.  In describing the Kathmandu she visited years ago, Ms. Mirsa laments, "The city I walked through all those years ago no longer exists.

Large crack in the pavement
Kathmandu, Nepal
Eye-witnesses tweeted and posted the tale of destruction.  It is impossible to truly grasp the massive scale of loss done at the hand of the earthquake.  Thus far, more than 5,200 people have died ( and thousands more have been injured.  Rescue operations continue amid the powerful aftershocks.  Earthquakes in this region are not particularly novel to this region-Nepal lies on the Indus-Yarlung suture zone which experiences a magnitude 8 earthquake about every 75 years.  Therefore, in geological terms, this past Saturday's earthquake occurred right on schedule, 81 years after the last major temblor in 1934.  (  Of course, this is no comfort to the people who lost family members.

Nepalese soldier walking through the rubble
However, as Tanvi Misra writes, "But haphazard urbanization around the Kathmandu Valley amplified the fatal force of the the disaster."  An April 2013 World Bank report, "Urban Growth and Spatial Transition in Nepal: An Initial Assessment" by Elisa Muzzini and Gabriela Aparicio summed up the issue:

Unplanned urban development in the Kathmandu Valley has led to rapid and uncontrolled sprawl; irregular, substandard, and inaccessible housing development; loss of open space, and decreased livability.  It has also increased vulnerability to disasters, making Kathmandu on of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world. (

Drone images showing the damage in Kathmandu

Citing the report, Ms. Misra continues, "According to the report, Kathmandu city has been one of the fastest-expanding metropolitan areas in South Asia." Be that as it may, the majority of the growth has not been planned or regulated.  For example, "In the rural areas, satellite town have grown without much guidance from the government," Ms. Misra writes, further citing the report.  If unchecked sprawl was not bad enough, commercial, retail, residential developments built within the city proper have not followed safety codes that would protect human life during an earthquake.  Robert Piper, former resident coordinator for the United Nations in Nepal told the Thompson Reuters Foundation, "The building code is a serious issue.  In a place like Kathmandu, a new building pops up every day which is not building to code." Oddly paraphrasing the over used National Rifle Association maxim, "Buildings kill people, not earthquakes." (

A young monk at "The Monkey Temple" (damaged)
Kathmandu, Nepal
 Sad to report that city's predicted vulnerability has come true.  However, this situation is not unique to Kathmandu-the Thompson Reuters Foundation reports that several rapidly urbanizing South Asian cities also demonstrate similarly dangerous growth pattern.  Case in point, New Delhi, India. (Ibid)  D.K. Paul, professor emeritus at Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee's earthquake engineering department told The Hindustan Times, "Not only is Delhi densely populated but there is a complete lack of enforcement by authorities concerned to ensure that building codes and structural safety norms are followed." (  According to Prof. Paul, "if the epicenter of Saturday's earthquake had been near New Delhi, half of the city-which is so much bigger than kathmandu in population and size-would have been leveled to the ground.  Scary thought. Tanvi Misra concludes on an optimistic note, "Hopefully the present tragedy, and the prospect of future ones, will force cities to reassess their urban planning efforts before the next natural disaster hits."

Monday, April 27, 2015

It's More Than Dollars and Cents

Downtown Athens, Georgia
Hello Everyone:

Today we are revisiting a favorite topic on this blog, "Why Do Old Places Matter?"  Tom Mayes, the author of this series, has presented a series of enlightening posts about why we should care about old places, as if we needed any more reasons.  Today, this last post of the series, Mr. Mayes shares with us old places matter because of economics.  He writes, "Old places support a sound, sustainable and vibrant economy."  This statement is not a new idea for this blog.  Mr. Mayes's reasons for saving economics for last is , "...the other fundamental reasons for keeping, using, reusing and preserving old places are given short shrift, and professional preservationists often jump right to the argument that saving old places is economically beneficial, assuming that the economic argument the only one decisions-makers will want to hear."  Truthfully, using economics as a starting point for arguing why old places matter immediately puts the decision-makers on the defensive, as if that is the only reason.  As Mr. Mayes writes, "...if old places are only worth keeping for economic reasons or they can justify themselves economically.  And often the economic justification is assessed by narrow and limited economic measurements that don't fully take the broader economic-and other-values of old places into account." (Licciardi and Amirtahmasebi, eds; 2012)

Werne's Row 4th and Hill
Louisville, Kentucky
Before we plunge into a discussion on the economics of old places, let us review why old places are so beneficial to people.  Old places are beautiful and awe-inspiring.  They give us a sense of identity, continuity, and belonging. They are a living document of our history, ancestry, and learning.  Old places "foster healthy, sustainable communities."  Not all of these "non-use values" can be measured by any economic index, despite people's best efforts to do so.  Retaining old places is a good thing for the above stated reasons, even if old places cannot fully pay from themselves or if they require public funding and support.  The good news is that growing interest to measure and consider "non-use values," the phrase used by economists use for not easily quantifiable values.

Tudor Revival house
Buffalo, New York
Randall Mason, chair of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, authored a study on preservation and economics for the Brookings Institutions in 2005.  In the report, Mr. Mason wrote,

  Historic preservation is organized primarily to sustain and create cultural values, like historical associations, sense of place, cultural symbolism, the aesthetic and artistic qualities of architecture and the like.  Studying the economics of this (or any other part of the cultural sector) amounts to calculating the incalculable, or pricing the priceless.  Economic analyses con easily determine partial or proxy values for the full value historic preservation, but what do these tell us?  Are they sufficient or even useful?(; Accessed by Tom Mayes Mar. 29, 2015)

This statement is an indication of just how commercialized American society has become, that we must justify saving old places that give a sense of identity and belonging by demonstrating its economic value.

Historic King Street location
Charleston, South Carolina
However, we must justify old places.  Blogger agrees with Tom Mayes when he says, "...I don't think we should lead with economic rationales, we still to have them in the toolbox for those who won't accept the others reasons that old places are beneficial."  Donovan Rypkema, real estate consultant and principal of PlaceEconomics puts it,

The good news is historic preservation is good for the economy.  In the last 15 years dozens of studies have been conducted throughout the United States, by different analysts, using different methodologies.  But the results of those studies are remarkably consistent-historic preservation is good for local economy.  From this large and growing body of research, the positive impact of historic preservation has documented in six broad areas: 1) jobs, 2) property values, 3) heritage tourism, 4) environmental impact 5) social impact, and 6) downtown revitalization (Cheong and Rypkema, 2011)

Historic re-enactment
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The National Trust for Historic Preservation website lists twelve reasons why preservation is a good thing. However, Mr. Mayes reviews six of the key reasons why keeping and reusing old places is great for this economy.

  1. Jobs, income, state and local taxes.  Rehabilitation of older buildings produces higher-paying jobs than new construction and the money tends to stay in the local economy.  Because rehabilitation of historic buildings generally requires a higher skill set, wages produced with rehabilitation generally higher, and remain in the local economy more.  As the FY 2012 annual report report on the economic impact of the rehabilitation tax credit states: "Numerous studies conducted by Rutgers University have shown that in many parts of the country, a $1 million investment in historic rehabilitation yields markedly better effects on employment, income, GSP, and state and local taxes than an equal investment in new construction of many other economic activities (e.g. manufacturing or services). ( Accessed Apr. 5, 2015)
  2. Heritage Tourism.  Whether people go to old places to experience the awe of the sacred or transcendental beauty, for incomparable opportunities to learn, to spur their imaginations or
    Three Arts Club
    Chicago, Illinois
    simply to experience a place that has maintained a sense of distinctiveness, old places are destinations for tourism, and have been so for millennia.  The economics benefits of heritage tourism are unparalleled.  As Donovan Rypkema has said, "Wherever heritage tourism has been evaluated, this basic tendency is observed: heritage visitors stay longer, spend more per day, and, therefore, have a significantly greater per trip economic impact."
    (Rypkema, Keynote Address, May 5, 2007)  The World Bank report, The Economics of Uniqueness, emphasizes that heritage tourism is an important economic development strategy, particularly because "tourism development...requires less capital, infrastructure and skilled labor."  (Licciardi and Amirtahmasebi, Eds. 183, 2012)  And there's the sustainable benefit-for everyone-of saving a community's sense of history, distinctiveness and identity.
  3. Revitalization.  For decades. older communities have used their historic buildings and streetscapes as assets for revitalization, providing a greater diversity of income and cultural background in neighborhoods, increasing property values, increasing job opportunities. (See
    Jane Jacobs was right.
    Donovan Rypkema's discussion in The Economics of Uniqueness, 125-38).  As the website for the Main Street program says, "the cumulative success...of the Main Street program on the local level has earned a reputation as one of the most powerful revitalization tools in the nation." (; Accessed Apr. 5, 2015
  4. Attracting talent and investment. According to the World Bank report The Economics of Uniqueness, "[heritage-related projects] contribute to urban livability, attracting talent, and providing an enabling environment for job creation."  As Richard Florida and others have emphasized, creative people are the talent that drives the new economy, and creative people are attracted to places that have authenticity.  Businesses located in places that are perceived of as good places to live, with a sense of authenticity, have
    So was Richard Florida
    an edge in attracting talent and investment.  Or as the World Bank report puts it: "...heritage is differentiator that attracts talent to cities."
    (The Economics of Uniqueness, xxiii)
  5. Property values.  One of the main purposes cited in preservation statues as a rationale for historic preservation is that it stabilizes and supports property values.  Studies throughout the United States show that historic districts maintain their value during times of real estate devaluation, such as the recent recession and recover more rapidly. (; Accessed Apr. 8, 2015)
Business incubation.  As the Preservation Green Lab report Older, Smaller, Better recently
Older, Smaller, Better report cover
concluded, older smaller buildings are critical to the incubation of small businesses that are primary job creators in the U.S. economy. (

This just a brief summary of the economic benefits that older places have to offer, yet as Tom Mayes writes, " makes a powerful and forward-looking case for the economic benefits of keeping and reusing old places."  Blogger could fill bookcases with studies and reports that support and provide anecdotal evidence for these conclusions.  When combined with all the other benefits-including hard to economically quantify benefits-the deep need for keeping and retaining old places is a given.

Like Tom Mayes, blogger rejects the idea that everything in life has to be reduced to dollars and cents.  However, let us, for a moment, consider the possibility that these reports could capture full value of the positive affects of older places on people: "...the sense of identity and belonging, the awe of beauty, the creativity and imagination."  Priceless.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Lights, Camera, Movie Museum

Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Museum
Renzo Piano
Los Angeles, California
Hello Everyone:

Our birthday girl, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is about to get a new neighbor the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The prospect of a museum dedicated to all things movies is particularly apropos for Los Angeles, the cinematic epicenter of the planet.  Film programming at LACMA is an ongoing commitment which will not end once the new museum is open.  Our birthday girl museum the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is seeing stars in her eyes.  Rebecca Keegan's article "LACMA sees the big picture as Academy moves in next door," for the Los Angeles Times, looks at the potential impact of putting a movie museum next to a capital-A art museum.

May Company Building then (1939) and now (2013)
Albert C. Marting & S.A, Marx
In 2012, the AMPAS announced that it found a home for its proposed Academy Museum, a mere iPhone's throw away from LACMA.  No sooner did AMPAS open the envelop and reveal the winner of "best movie museum site," the old May Company building designed by Albert C. Martin and S.A. Marx, museum director Michael Govan began fielding concerns from colleagues.  Quoting Mr. Govan, Ms. Keegan writes,

Many people said to me, You're crazy to invite a movie museum next to LACMA, given that the movies are the thing in Los Angeles...Don't you think that all the donors are going to fund the movie museum and that you've just ruined your future?

An optimistic Mr. Govan believes that when the movie museum opens in 2017, "both institutions will benefit from their proximity and from the eventual creation of an arts hub beside a subway stop scheduled to open in 2016."  Mr. Govan continues,

What together we're doing is creating this anchor for Los Angeles...That is critical mass.  The largest film museum in the world and the largest art museum in the western U.S.  We're bending toward each other programmatically.  The idea is that, in the middle of Los Angeles, the big cultural offering is art and film.  No one else has that."

An arts hub dedicated to art and film is something that blogger could see spending time.

Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Museum TheaterSection drawing
Renzo Piano
Construction on the AMPAS Museum is expected to begin this summer at the venerable May Co. building.  Renzo Piano, the architect of the Resnick Pavilion on the LACMA campus, designed an dome-shaped, 1,000 seat theater addition to the Streamline Deco landmark ignominiously dubbed "Death Star."  Ms. Keegan describes the museum, "The museum will contain more than 290,000 square feet of galleries, exhibition spaces and movie theaters." AMPAS Museum Director Kerry Brougher has declared his intention to offer programming to film scholars and regular movie fans.  Mr. Brougher has not specified exactly what plans to exhibit, however his resume provides some clue about his interests.  Ms. Keegan writes, "As interim director at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, director at the Modern Art Museum Oxford Museum in Britain and curator at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art from its in 1983 to 1997, Brougher organized exhibitions on directors Alfred Hitchcock and Steve McQueen and organized shows on experimental work by filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow."

May Company Building under construction
 Both museums will be separate institutions, but they will be connect by more than sharing the same site.  The AMPAS Museum signed a $36 million, 55-year lease for the May Co. building and adjacent land from the art museum.  Accessioning the land was the culmination internal discussions regarding the need for a museum dating as far back as 1929, according to AMPAS Chief Executive Officer Dawn Hudson.  Citing Ms. Hudson, Rebecca Keegan writes,

This museum was a long-held dream for the academy...It wasn't until this building, that the opportunity presented itself.  It represents a lot to us, on a campus where there are already a million visitors coming to LACMA.

An earlier plan to build a movie museum in Hollywood fell through after the stock market crash in 2008.

A scene from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
"Haunted Screens: German Cinema In The 1920s"
September 21, 2014-April 26, 2015
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art already has film programming in place, including a recent Stanley Kubrick retrospective and the current "Haunted Screens: German Cinema In The 1920s," mounted in conjunction with Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies and AMPAS's Margret Herrick Library.  (  The art museum would continue its film program. Michael Govan seemed vague on whether or not his museum would steer clear of the AMPAS Museum' s territory.  Quoting Mr. Govan, Ms. Keegan writes,

We have no intention of not programming film here...We see film as a growing commitment at LACMA.  You've seen it in our exhibition program...There's room.  Hopefully the academy will continue working with us on exhibition programs, and we'll have the opportunity to do an occasional event in their theater.

From the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at LACMA
According to Dawn Hudson, "...the academy, which is engaged in the city's public approval process, has raised more than $225 million of the $300 million it needs to build the museum."  Large gifts were presented to the movie museum by David Geffen, who also acquired the naming rights to the theater, as well as Chinese business conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, Dolby Laboratories, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Although most of the funding comes from its annual awards telecast, museum fundraising is new territory.  In another sign of interweaving of both institutions, Walt Disney Company Chairperson Bob Iger is in charge of the fundraising campaign and his wife, journalist, Willow Bay is on the art museum's board.  Citing Ms. Hudson, Ms. Keegan writes,

I don't think of fundraising for the arts as a zero sum game...When you develop a culture of philanthropy, it only encourages more philanthropy.  More giving leads to more giving.  Generous donors lead to generous donors.  There's been a lot of support of sciences and medicines in Los Angeles, but seeing our art form as an art and a history that needs to be supported is new for our industry.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Happy Fiftieth Birthday Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Hello Everyone:

Another native Los Angeleno is celebrating a fiftieth birthday-the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  A big Happy Birthday to the museum in my backyard.   Fifty is a good time to step back and consider the period that LACMA was born.  The year 1965 was pivotal year in social-cultural history.  The cultural epicenter was beginning to shift westward, away from the established center in New York.   Today, with the help of Christopher Hawthorne's article "Consider the social-architectural context of LACMA's 1965 design," for the Los Angeles Times.  The campus opened in April 1965 on Wilshire Boulevard, designed by prolific local architect William Pereira.  Coincidentally, the museum's book-printing arm, published Architecture in Southern California by David Gebhard and Robert Winter, the first field guide to Los Angeles architecture in almost ten years.

The Ahmanson Building at LACMA
In Architecture in Southern California, Messrs. Gebhard and Winter included two projects by the late Mr. Pereira, the brand new LACMA was not among them.  The reason for this was,

...partly an expression of editorial independence from a pair young architectural historians.  It also summed  up quite neatly the prevailing wisdom about the LACMA when they appeared: that in their proper, boxy, and beige late-modern dress they were dignified at best and stolid and self-serious at worst.

In a telephone interview with Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Winter said that excluding LACMA was intentional...We thought it was so ugly.

As the museum hits the half century mark, the debate rages on about museum director Michael Govan's plan to replace the William Pereira buildings and Hugh Hardy additions with a, for lack of anything better to say, a new wing by Peter Zumthor.  Whether you think the new wing is an architectural masterpiece by a Pritzker Prize winning architect or the work of a mediocre undergraduate architecture student, it is worth looking back at how the new museum was originally greeted and a few ideas about Los Angeles in the mid-sixties.

Wilshire Boulevard postcard c.1960s
Christopher Hawthorne writes,

Museum boards make conservative architectural choices all the time, of course, and the buttoned-up competence of the Pereira  buildings would have been less meaningful in the historical scheme of things if not for one fact: Los Angeles in 1965 was a place which an entirely and singular way of thinking about architecture, and city-making was beginning to emerge.

Conservative architectural choice is not how blogger would describe the Zumthor scheme.  A fanciful vanity exercise is a more apt description.  The mid- to late-sixties was period of social unrest and growing generational divide, politically and culturally.  The Watts Riots Riots would explode in a few months and freeway construction was at its peak, with its bright promise of regional connectivity.  However, this new shining promise of connectivity came with a dark side, "...painful dislocation."

Johnny Rivers on stage at the Whisky c.1960s
The late Richard Lillard, inspired by feeling that the Southern California landscape was undergoing a radical transformation, nearly completed his book Eden in Jeopardy in 1965 (  The book is impassioned tome against Los Angeles's love of demolishing, subdividing, road making, migrating, building, changing, improving.  Two years later, William Bronson's book How to Kill a Golden State (1967, made a similar argument.  However, if one California was slipping off into the sunset, a new one was taking its place.  A new generation of architects-younger architects and critics-were poking at the modernist corpse, subverting and looking further afar than Mr. Pereira was willing to attempt.

 A 1965 book of selected essays by architect Charles Moore, You Have to Pay for the Public Life (, pondered a range of monumental architecture in the Golden State. Like Architecture in Southern California, Mr. Moore's book omitted the new museum, focusing on, off all places, Disneyland.  With a big smile on his face, the architect referred to the Magic Kingdom as the most important single piece of construction in the West in past several decades. Irony alert.

Santa Monica, 1964
The undermining and moving past the modernist philosophy was taking form among fine artists working in Los Angeles.  The Fergus Gallery, propelled to prominence by Ed Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, et al, had peaked of its influence.  The next generation of artists and architects were beginning to set up shop near the beach, far west as they could get from the Hancock Park elite and LACMA as they could get.  Architect Frank Gehry's studio for Lou Danzinger was completed in 1965 on a non-descript section of Melrose Avenue.  The building was clad in the blandest spray-on stucco Mr. Gehry could lay his hands on, "a deadpan celebration, far more carefully composed that it let on, of the postwar, car-dominated L.A. streetscape."

Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965)
Edward Ruscha
If Frank Gehry's Danzinger Studio was a three-dimensional celebration of the postwar car culture, so was Ed Ruscha's photography books on the City of Angels, including the 1965 series Some Los Angeles Apartments.   (  The gulf between this subversive attitude and the William Pereira museum would soon manifest itself as an actual subject for Mr. Ruscha in his 1968 painting Los Angeles County Museum on Fire.  The same year LACMA mounted an exhibition, designed by Mr. Gehry, on Mr. Bengston's work.  The Gehry designed installation used his now signature plywood and corrugated-metal walls as a way of tweaking the nose of the pretentious Pereira architecture with the same efficacy as the Ruscha painting.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1968)
Edward Ruscha
 In 1977, David Gebhard and Robert Winter published a second edition of their architecture guidebook.  They did make room for an entry on LACMA, albeit dismissively, writing The architecture is not much.  This remark seems more of a reaction to William Pereira's diligent, instead of imaginative, approach to design. The design of the museum campus indicated that the architect was not fully ready to break with the orthodoxy of modernism.  This almost sounds as if Christopher Hawthorne is trying to regain some of his lost enthusiasm for the Peter Zumthor design.  Try a little harder.  However the fault does not lie entirely with the architect.  Some of it falls at the feet of the LACMA board of directors who were not entirely comfortable with breaking with the modernist canon, in favor of something more imaginative.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art c.1965
It is this context, the hesitancy to try something novel and expressive, we can look at LACMA's much analyzed romancing of modern movement giant Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, the German architect working in Chicago.  Had the museum selected Mies Van der Rohe, it would have been a choice based on good taste rather than daring.  Principal donor, Howard Ahmanson, preferred Edward Durrell Stone, who manner of design was similar to William Pereira but more decorative.  Mr. Hawthorne writes, "If Pereira wasn't ready to break from the Miesian model in any radical way, he seemed (as Stone did, even the LACMA board must have by the time it settled on a final choice) the growing restlessness among architects and critics with orthodox modernism."

Lou Danziger Studio
Frank Gehry
West Hollywood, California
In an essay on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, published by the Los Angeles Times in March 1965, William Pereira emphasized the logic of his design.  It, after all, was a public building and he wanted to let the readers know it would not be some fanciful vanity exercise, unlike the Zumthor scheme.  In the end, Mr. Pereira took the middle ground, holding up an aging movement and suggesting something beyond it.  Mr. Pereira's three buildings are set back from Wilshire Boulevard, atop reflecting pools and accessible via a pedestrian bridge, wrapped, as the Times wrote in 1965, by colonnades of slender concrete columns [and] faced with thousands of split-faced Cipollino marble tiles, all individually hand set.  There are some decorative and playful element, carefully calculated.

It is no coincidence that both the Music Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art were born within months of each other.  Their births signaled a direct challenge to New York City's cultural primacy.  How unlike the youthful rebellion during the sixties.  The restless youth challenging the staid adult.  The Los Angeles of the sixties was a city of the young restless spirit. Both the Music Center and LACMA was the city's forceful bid to establish itself as a cultural epicenter, on par with New York City.  Until the determined efforts of Dorothy Buffum Chandler and Howard Ahmanson, Los Angeles was looked as a cultural backwater.  In building two places, dedicated to bring capital-c culture to a city on the western edge of a continent, Los Angeles was looking to challenge the East Coast cultural orthodoxy by introducing places where artists could come and practice with little constraint.  In a way, this was Los Angeles in the sixties, a place where a person could come and just be.  Happy Birthday Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Here's fifty fabulous years and fifty more years.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Unintended Positive Consequences

Postcard Los Angeles and Mount Washington Railway
Hello Everyone:

Can gentrification be good for an ethnic neighborhood?  This is something that Los Angeles-based Héctor Tobar ponders in his opinion piece "Viva Gentrification!" in the New York Times.  Mr. Tobar and family have lived in the Mount Washington area of Los Angeles for years recalls traveling "...into the flatlands of the Latino barrios that My wife, Virginia Espino, who is Mexican-American, knows these neighborhoods well, especially the community called Highland Park."  Ms. Espino grew up in Highland Park during the sixties and seventies, when it was still a multi-cultural neighborhood, before "white flight" firmly took hold.  Mr. Tobar wistfully recollects, "In the decades that followed, Spanish-language ads took over billboards, and the complexions of the locals became almost exclusively cinnamon and café con leche."

Highland Park, Los Angeles, California
Barrios have a certain charm.  Barrios also have their of "highly visible urban dysfunction, including a brick tenement where groups of young men gather.  Police cruisers aggressively patrol against alleged neighborhood ne'er-do-wells, who are often arrested in full public view."  These days, Highland Park is changing, for the better or worse depending on your opinion.  There is vegan restaurant parked near a very vegan-unfriendly armada of taco trucks.  The bodegas sell espressos and expensive bottles of wines with corks, not twist-off caps, on the same aisles has homemade salsa and phone cards. Quoting his wife, Mr. Tobar writes, "I saw them all move out," referring to the neighborhood's Caucasian residents.  "And now I'm watching them move back in." An ironic circle.

Florist on Figueroa in Highland Park

In Latino neighborhoods like Highland Park, gentrification has produced a little noticed but undeniable situation: ending decades of de facto racial segregation.  Who would have thought that for all the hand-wringing over how gentrification destroys established communities, pushes long-term low-income residents out, makes property values zoom through the roof, that it could end de facto racial segregation.  Mr. Tobar muses, "It's possible to imagine a future in which 'the hood' passes into memory.  Racial integration is on the upswing; for that, a cry of 'Viva gentrification!' is in order."  Indeed it is.

Cafe Oxy Plaza
Glassell Park, Los Angeles, California
This upswing in racial integration was driven home to Mr. Tobar when he, "...stepped in that same bodega and saw fair-skinned child of about 6 wandering past the stack of tortillas. It's one thing to see a 20-something white dude walking with freshly picked organic lettuce in his backpack.  But the presence of this girl in that small retail space, filled with Spanish chatter, pork rinds and other symbols of Mexican-ness, bespoke a deeper shift."  In one respect this scene at the bodega fulfills the dream of the Rev. Dr. Marting Luther King Jr. of children of all races and ethnicities walking hand-in-hand, living in peace.  Gentrification is supposed to be the "Great Satan" of the urban landscape.  Gentrification drives hard working- and middle-class from their homes by real estate developer; guilty of a type of "cultural murder."  Héctor Tobar agrees with the great Beat poet Lawrence Ferilinghetti, who denounced it as "'corporate monoculture' and skyrocketing rents that are turning San Francisco into 'an artistic theme park without artists.'"  While the social media sites bemoan encroaching gentrification, there is no similar fury over the growing racial segregation , in cities across the United States, with flourishing Latino populations.

Echo Park Lake
  In 2008 Héctor Tobar, with the help of a colleague at the Los Angeles Times, reported   "that about one million people in Los Angeles  lived in communities that were 90 percent or  more Latino."  East Los Angeles has the distinction of being the most ethnically homogenous community in the region-98 percent Latino.  The 2010 Census, confirmed "that Los Angeles was the country's most segregated major metropolitan area, in the distribution of whites and Latinos."  (

Downtown Eagle Rock
Los Angeles, California
Despite all the pride Latinos have in their barrios, no one actually wants to live in a racially separate neighborhood or go to a segregated.  There are volumes of scholarship available on effects of segregation on self-image, most notably by the psychologists used by attorneys arguing for the plaintiffs, before the United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education.  ( African-American and Latino communities have far fewer services and the schools offer less opportunities.  Last year, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study that concluded, "California has had an extremely dramatic increase in the segregation of Latinos, who on the average attended schools that were 54 precent white in 1970, but now attend schools that 84 percent nonwhite." (

City of Montebello, California banner
Héctor Tobar grew up in the communities of Montebello and South Whittier, California, which were integrated when his Guatemalan-born family moved in, but experienced 'white-flight" in the years that followed.  Mr. Tobar and his wife's Franklin High School (in Highland Park) yearbook are a document of what once was.  Mr. Tobar writes, " wife grew up alongside Asian kids, and blond kids with feathered haircuts and names like Koch and McDowell."  The new integration experience in Highland Park differs from the previous one.  The new residents are not working-class Caucasians and Asians, rather, they are millennials.  The New York Times described them as "young trendsetters in skinny jeans, flannel shirts and Converse high tops...patronize stores around York Boulevard."

South Whittier, California
Héctor Tobar describes about a walk he and his wife took on York, one night, which nearly caused her to burst into tears.  He writes,

The vibe and ethos of her old neighborhood had shifted before her eyes; from a place where Latino people scraped by and took pride in doing so, to one where newcomers practiced conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure.  Our local panadería underwent a major renovation, and jacked up the price of the Mexican sweet bread.  A beloved mural with kitschy Latino themes was painted over to make way for a French restaurant.

Sad is it not?

In the true spirit of gentrification as the "Great Satan" of the urban landscape, residents in the neighborhood beyond York are being priced out of their homes.  "Tenant groups have protested rising rents and last year The Los Angeles Times detailed how property-flipping investors targeted renters not covered by the city's rent-control ordinance."  Mr. Tobar suggests a deceptively simple remedy for this burgeoning problem, "Strengthen rent control laws, and develop new ways to fund housing for poor and middle-income people."  Quoting Rick Coca a spokesperson for City Council member José Huizar who district includes part of Highland Park, Mr. Tobar writes, "We need to make it so it's not just people with six-figure salaries moving in."

Elysian Park, Los Angeles, California
Rick Coca's statement aside, the demographics tell the tale of just how much of Los Angeles has changed.  Latinos are the majority in both the city and county-thus making it impossible for gentrification to completely erase Latino culture in Highland Park or similar communities.  Mr. Tobar concludes, "The new non-Latino minority will live, for the foreseeable future, in a majority-Latino community."  In the meantime, the disposable income the newcomers bring with them will benefit all Latinos.  Near the bodega where Mr. Tobar witnessed the little girl strolling through the aisles, there is a gallery run by Latino whose opening drew an ethnically diverse crowd.  The nearby Latino-owned cafes cater to this hipster clientele, the newest, Tierra Mía, serves a hipster-mexicano mashup drink "horchata frappé."  In planners-speak, we can use the word agglomeration to describe the benefits of the newcomers's disposable income and the location of these new businesses.

Highland Park is becoming a more integrated community and this is a good thing.  The community can grow and thrive in ways never imaged.  Sometimes change can bring about unintended positive changes.       

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gentrification And Wealth Accumulation

Corner Cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York
Hello Everyone:

It seems that everyday, in the United States, there is a fresh news item about race, income inequality, and public policy.  As each headline makes the media rounds, it becomes more evident that everyone has opinion about the subjects.  In his article for PlaceShakers and Newsmakers, titled "'Gentrification' Redux: Wealth, opportunity, community," Ben Brown writes that all the finger pointing and plaintive cries of "you just don't get it," really go nowhere.  Mr. Brown tells us, "We seem to keep picking away at the edges of problems, focusing on sub-issues that fit our predisposition and ignoring everything that complicates our perspectives."  Therefore, what exactly are we just not getting and how do we remedy the situation?

San Diego Trolly courtesy of REconnecting America
The conservative side of the aisle sound the alarm over the "moral hazard" of disrupting the wisdom of free markets.  There liberal counterparts wring their hands over how "the game is rigged to serve the oligarchs."  The debate goes around and around with no solution in sight.  Quoting New Yorker's Jill Lepore March 16, 2015 pointed analysis of this dysfunctional state, Mr. Brown writes,

The reason Democrats and Republicans are fighting over who's to blame for growing economic inequality is that, aside from a certain amount of squabbling, it's no longer possible to deny that it exists-a development that's not to be sneezed at, given the state of the debate on climate change.  That's not to say the agreement runs deep; in fact, it couldn't be shallower.  The causes of income inequality are much disrupted; so are its costs.  And knowing the numbers doesn't appear to be changing anyone's mind abut what, if anything should be done about it.

Werne's Row 4th and Hill
Louiville, Kentucky  
Ben Brown adds, "Kaid Benfield is probably overly charitable when he characterizes elements of the dilemma as 'the paralysis of imperfect choices.'"  Mr. Benfield and PlaceMakers writer Scott Doyon have been engaging in the general subject by grounding their persuasive arguments in "gentrification." (Mr. Brown's quotes, not Blogger's)  Mr. Benfield discusses realistic policy for easing the impact on less moneyed residents when new money disrupts the local economy and culture.  Mr. Doyon, intermittently, looks at the implied ironies " the whole discussion and calls for a little common sense and a lot of neighborliness."

Ben Brown sums up his colleagues's observations as "levelheaded and compassionate," while describing his observations as "way grumpier."  Why is Mr. Brown so grumpy?  He writes, "I'm old.  I grew up going to segregated schools in a city and region dominated by leaders who could be confident of business and political support by spouting inherently racist ideas, including variations on this theme:"

Segregation must be maintained because it "protects" African-American communities against cultural and economic disruption and African-Americans themselves against broader, more integrated society they aren't "ready for.

Right.  How did that whole "separate but equal' thing work out?

Waiting for a train
Stamford, Connecticut
Now those arguments are back, only this time they are being made by agonizing liberals and this is shocking, simply shocking.  What this translates to is "denying low-income neighborhoods invests in the name of preserving them, a strategy no white, middle class leader would advocate for places where they live."  More so, it is possible that the affluent members of society's tendency to separate themselves from the middle class poor rabble may indicate a more worrisome trend that we associate with gentrification.  Ben Brown points to the Washington Post' Emily Badger critiques of the current research on the topic (

Ben Brown writes, "My wife and I recently bought a cottage in Asheville.  It's in a walkable, eclectic neighborhood in a part of the city reclaimed from decay by the usual mix of artists, hipsters and small-scale entrepreneurs.  Now, similar to the cycle of neighborhood redevelopment Scott Doyon outlines...our future community has evolved for the 'risk-oblivious' to one for the 'risk-aware.'"  All the familiar gentrification-related tensions are present in Asheville.  While some of the long-term residents are making a profit on the spike in their property values and business opportunities, others who no longer can afford to live their neighborhoods are moving out.

San Francisco traffic
Ben Brown and his wife are caught in a vicious, yet ironic circle.  Their new home is being rented by millennials, who many in the community see as part of the problem.  However, when the Browns move in, they will be forcing these poor hipsters into the less affordable housing environment.  Ironic, no?  Yet, what is happening in Asheville and other cities, where the attractiveness of urban living is the driving engine behind redevelopment, is a rebuttal to the idea that a city or a neighborhood is a static organism.  Not news here.  Cities as dynamic organisms is something that Jane Jacobs reminded us but, quoting Scott Doyon's on target observation, Mr. Brown writes,

Fueled by the demographic bulk and emerging urban amenities of both the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, American cities-and city neighborhoods-are finding themselves attractive to outside investment.  Not necessarily because they're affordable (in many areas, that ship has sailed) but because they deliver the things people are looking for-walkable, car-lite or car-free convenience, neighborhood schools, and architectural charm to name but a few.

New York City Brownstone
Currently, the growing appeal or urban amenities is driving the market and will supersede effort to shield long-tern, low-income residents who have no means to adapt and perhaps profit from the market's effect.  Mr. Brown asks, "Wouldn't it be better, then, to direct policies towards expanding the adaptive capacities of those in the paths of inevitable change rather than wasting time and resources resisting the inevitable?" This brings us to a conversation on adaptive capacities. Essentially, it is about wealth.

When we say wealth, we are not necessarily referring to the fabled one-tenth of one-percent of the American population.  Wealth, in this case, means "resources in reserve to overcome unexpected setbacks and invest in a future."  For an average family, this means not only having enough money to meet daily and unexpected needs, but also reserves set aside for a down payment on a house, college tuition, or retirement.  Simply focusing on income inequality makes too easy to narrow the focus on jobs.  Sometimes we can overlook the fact that you can still work yet not be able to accumulate wealth, this is a fact with most Americans living at or below the poverty line. Mr. Brown writes, "An inability to accrue and leverage wealth is a severe disability when it comes to participating in America's economy and society."  This point is quite clear in contemporary times as those with a superior education, professional networks, and the capital can advantageously position themselves; mitigating the risk factors.

Demographic Divides Between Nonvoters and Likely Voters
 Blogger, like Ben Brown, is not surprised that those with wealth to protect are motivated to defend and perpetuate the status quo.  Older white with higher education and income (Blogger presumes that Mr. Brown is excepting himself) are more likely to vote and to contribute to political causes than younger, less affluent, less educated minorities.  This means that those put into office will likely make policy that corresponds to wealth building and protection.  These policies take the form of tax credits and benefits for investment income; first and second home mortgages; and inheritance.

There's nothing inherently evil with any of this, particularly if you subscribe to the "primacy of the individual and look with suspicion upon appeals to 'the common good.'"  Specifically, we are referring to taxes-taxes that people do not have to pay are considered threats to the American way of life.  They are likened to the reviled government "handouts" to the less wealthy, regardless if dollars saved or earned have equal value.

It is sadly ironic that both the affluent and less affluent behave rationally from their own perspectives; acting on their rationales, they increase the chances of remaining rich or poor.  From the affluent perspective, it is about influencing policies and programs; investments of time and resources to accomplish this goal.  The result is the rich get richer.  The less affluent perspective is less trusting and less likely to participate in a process that serves the wealthy and disregards them.  The end result is the poor remain poor.  Sounds a little like the definition of insanity-"do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results."

Rundown Detroit, Michigan neighborhood

It may be depressing to read this but it is also an unsustainable situation.  There is ample evidence to support Ben Brown's conclusion, "...excluding more and more people from meaningful participation in the economy and culture is not only morally reprehensible, it also increases the costs of maintaining the economy and culture."  Nothing lasts forever. This is a truism when we talk about transportation infrastructure.  It also applies to education, health, and other vital services needed by the disappearing middle class and poor.  Awareness of the situation seems to be making its way through the halls of local, state, and federal governments but will anyone be willing to set aside partisan differences and do something meaningful?  Unless there is a radical re-thing of the whole mythology of individualism, change will be policy in a similar manner as inequalities built into the system is guided by policy.  What of those policies?  At first, they will, at the very least, avoid all that ear-splitting screeching about "handouts" and racial preferences "by embracing wealth-building opportunities for all at scales beyond the household or even the neighborhood."

Southwest Detroit neighborhood
Could this mean more and better employment opportunities?  Why not?  However, not every job is the same.  Ben Brown writes, "Low-paying work that requires long hours and long commutes inhibits responsible parenting and depletes savings that build wealth."  What about affordable housing?  Sure. However, rent subsidies, such as Section 8, are pointless if they go toward housing that is "badly designed, badly located housing that further isolates and stigmatizes struggling families..."  This wealth gap was allowed to grow based a mix of bad ideal allowed to become something larger.  Everything Mr. Brown points is not news, especially to those who live in subpar housing and must navigate long commutes to just-above-minimum wage jobs.  Mr. Brown suggests "a more integrated approach to narrow it."

Colorful brooms in East Los Angeles
Photograph by James Rojas
Some of the suggestions he proffers are: more transportation options, dignified housing, better performing schools, quality childcare, access to affordable health care, more grocery stores offering healthy food, and places to exercise.  These are amenities typically built into tax bases and community wealth in urban infill areas and well-to-do suburbs. After all, wealth generation is a benefit of gentrification.  However, Mr. Brown points outs, "...right now, we're allowing the price for those advantages to be bid up to level that only a narrowing percentage of families can pay and still build wealth.  Why not invest in strategies that value in more equitable ways?  Why not spread out the costs community-wide?"  Why not, indeed.

Atlantic Yards project under construction
Sound familiar?  Well, yes it does because until right at this very moment any palpable sense of urgency and political will to shift funds and rules toward real wealth creation has been invisible.  A recent Urban Land Institute analysis, which studied wealth accumulation between 1963 and 1983 ( concluded:

* Families near the bottom of the wealth distribution (those at the 10th percentile) went from having no wealth on average to being about $2,000 in debt

*Those in the middle roughly doubled their wealth-mostly between 1963 and 1983

* Families near the top (at the 90th percentile) saw their wealth quadruple.

* And the wealth of those at the 99th percentile-in other words, those wealthier than 99 percent of all families-grew six fold.

Number of eligible Latino voters
 Finally, what about political clout.  Changing American demographics tell the story.  Ben Brown writes, "The combined 150 million Millennials and Boomers have within their populations voters unsettled by the diminished choices they have in their different stages of life.  Many feel priced out of opportunities for full community participation as aging citizens or as career and family-launching young people."  This translates to a lack of motivation to take part in the electoral process while the current participants continue skewing government policy toward those who have benefitted the most over the past two decades.

With next presidential election cycle looming large in the horizon, demographic trends show that there will be large number of young Latino Americans eligible to vote.  Latinos are natural constituents of the Democratic party, whose policies have historically tilted toward narrowing the wealth gap.  What Blogger finds particularly interesting is now that two Latinos (Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz) have declared their candidacy for higher office, how will this affect eligible Latino voters.  If the hammering the Democrats took in last year's mid-term election mean anything, according to the Pew Research Center, "Democrats won the Latino vote by a margin of 62% to 36%."  This bodes well but we will have to see what the next nineteen months bode.