The Great Good Place — Roy Oldenburg

The Great Good Place is often dated but still interesting, and it’s highly congruent with Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression; Hari argues that one reason so many of us are anxious and depressed is that we’re spatially disconnected from other humans, and Oldenburg explains how that came to be—and how the physical space we inhabit affects us. Online life is a very poor substitute for in-person life, it seems, and articles like “Teenagers are growing more anxious and depressed” appear routinely. Friends who teach school say kids seem less able to handle their own lives and make independent decisions than the used to. While some of this may be “kids these days” grousing of the typical kind, at least some data indicates otherwise, and it may be that smartphones are bad for many reasons, like deleterious effects on relationships (an essay I wrote in 2012)—yet few of us will give them up or even significantly restrict usage. I have a smartphone too and annoy friends by being disconnected from it. Expected response times for texts seems overly low to me, but that seems to be the way the culture is moving. We’ve let phones replace places, and that’s not a good trade-off.

Our biggest barriers to good human space were and are legal and regulatory:

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy.

We take wealth and burn it through hellacious commutes: “The purchase of the even larger home on the even larger lot in the even more lifeless neighborhood is not so much a matter of joining community as retreating from it.” There are solutions, but they’re grasped tentatively and only with tremendous, pointless resistance. We can do better and choose not to.

Some challenges have gotten worse. Oldenburg anticipates the noise plague in today’s bars and restaurants:

Whatever interrupts conversation’s lively flow is ruinous to a third place, be it a bore, a horde of barbaric college students, or mechanical or electronic gadgetry. Most common among these is the noise that passes for music, though it must be understood that when conversation is to be savored, even Mozart is noise if played too loudly.

Vox says restaurant noise levels are climbing; excess noise seems to kill conviviality. Shouldn’t restaurants have figured this out? Or is Oldenburg, like me, just too far outside the mainstream for his view to matter? What should we infer from it is, rather than from what I want to be? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I pick restaurants and bars based on noise, or the lack thereof.

To me, the most interesting chapter concerned German beer garden versus Irish taverns. In the late nineteenth century, there were two major models for what might now be called bars: German beer gardens that served low-alcohol beer (usually around 3%) and Irish taverns that served potent whiskey. The former catered to families and whole communities while the latter catered to men alone:

Yet it was the Irish model that eventually prevailed. America adapted itself only to the German national beverage; it kept the beer and dropped most of the amenities with which the Germans had surrounded it. The nation never seemed able to allow the concept of a good tavern, and people who cannot envisage good taverns are doomed to have lesser ones.

German beer gardens are probably the better, pro-social model, but they didn’t prevail, and I’m not entirely sure we know why, although Prohibition seems a major culprit.

Another section on the French cafe describes a largely solved problem: Starbucks, along with innumerable specialty coffee shops, solved it. What was a problem when The Great Good Place was published has become a business. Parking and zoning are still serious problems, but a dearth of coffee shops is not.

Third places are overly-idealized in this book (one could write a counter-book about why they’re bad), but it remains an interesting book with a useful set of concepts.

What Santa Barbara says

Among Paul Graham’s many interesting observations is:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message

Since reading that I’ve been more attentive to what a city says. I was just in Santa Barbara, which is beautiful but also shockingly boring and sterile. Virtually nothing has changed in it since the 1970s; sometime around then, the city used zoning to freeze its built environment. Today, Santa Barbara feels more like an artifact than a living place. Intellectually and technologically, it’s a dead city. It’s very beautiful, and its message seems to be: you should be rich, beautiful, and relaxed. But the first item and third are at odds. Few buildings are more than two stories. No wonder hotel rooms are crazy expensive.

I didn’t spend much time in San Francisco, but the most immediately apparent thing to me is just how many cars, car lanes, drivers, and parking exist there. For years, I’ve been reading about the city’s environmental pronouncements and commitments. The lived experienced on the ground, however, is one of traffic, cars, and the smell of exhaust. Some parts of the city, like the new transit center, are shockingly beautiful. But the cars on the ground contrast so much with the rhetoric on the Internet. I recently heard the term “performative environmentalism,” and it applies to SF.

Once you’ve ridden a Bird scooter, as I did in L.A., any city without scooters feels deficient, like a city without sidewalks would. If we turned 10% of public parking spaces to scooter and bike parking spaces, we’d see a lot more people out of cars. Oddly, a lot of the rhetoric around Bird scooters concerns where they’re parking, but they weigh like 20 pounds and are maybe six inches by four feet. Seemingly no one considers the many astounding photos of dockless vehicles that currently litter our streets. Perhaps we ought to think more about the rules that apply to the one new things versus the rules that apply to the old thing.

California has an odd Red Queen effect going on, where half of the state is trying to draw people in (weather, tech, economic fecundity) while the other half tries to kick people out (zoning, Prop 13 (it’s crazier than you realize), inadequate mass-transit, traffic). New York has some similar challenges, but it feels more immediately vibrant than Santa Barbara, and similarly vibrant to LA. But without the Bird scooters. Yet. California and New York both feel post-artist, and I mean that in a bad way. We ought to be trying to build cities where everyone can live; sadly, we’re doing the opposite right now. Maybe, as the percentage of renters increases, we’ll see voters behave in ways congruent with their interests, just as homevoters have.

The Second Avenue Subway, opening day

We have entirely too few epic engineering projects; to finally get to ride one is fun! Today the Second Avenue Subway, a century in the making, opened:

second avenue subway

The subway stops don’t feel like typical subway stops because they lack the grime that usually marks them in the same way cold marks the winter solstice.

second avenue subway 2

The active part of this round of subway construction began in 2007; while the subway should’ve opened years ago, it is nice to see it open at all. One gets a sense of the sublime from epic engineering works, and, as Zero to One argues, we’ve collectively lost faith in our ability to build big things and tackle serious problems. The new subway is evidence to the contrary.

Still, one hopes the next phase of the line goes better. Matt Yglesias explains some of this phase’s problems in “NYC’s brand new subway is the most expensive in the world — that’s a problem: The tragedy of the Second Avenue Subway.” On a per-mile basis the Second Avenue Subway is the by far the most expensive subway in the world, and it’s by far more expensive than similar projects in crowded first-world cities like London, Paris, and Tokyo. We’re not getting much bang-for-the-buck and that needs to change.

New York has so far been “Slow to Embrace Approach That Streamlines Building Projects.” Management and labor have been eagerly lining each other’s pockets. That’s particularly unfortunate because the infrastructure is desperately needed and has been desperately needed for decades if not longer.

Second Avenue Subway 3

To be sure, the stations are much more functional than most others, and their mezzanine levels impress. One wishes, however, for fewer mezzanines and more total stations.

Second Avenue Subway selfie art

As you can see above, someone thought through the selfie-friendly art that lines the stations.

Today is still a historic occasion and one does not so often get the chance to participate directly and obviously in history. It may be churlish to note this, but my train spent five to ten minutes waiting due to “train traffic ahead of us” between 63rd Street and 72nd Street. Some things may be new but others are too familiar.

People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden

Two pieces about Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life say much about the blindness of some writers: “Stockholm Syndrome: Spotify threatened to abandon Sweden if the government didn’t address over-regulation and sky-high taxes” is poorly titled and more interesting than the title suggests, and so is “What’s So Special About Finland?” Neither says much about the book itself but both together say much about the U.S. media interest in Nordic countries.

Following the Nordic model would make large parts of the U.S. population worse off; that’s why people are moving away from Nordic-model cities and states and towards inexpensive, laissez-fair cities and states.

Let me elaborate. Partanen and most media people are not normal and have not normal needs, desires, and willingness to pay for big-city amenities. But most people aren’t willing to pay for those things that’s why sprawly cities, especially in Texas, are the ones that’re experiencing the fastest population growth in the U.S. People choose to move to them much more so than New York or L.A. or a handful of other media capitols. Partanen and her husband live in NYC as writers. I get the appeal, but they’re relatively low-earners in the second-most-expensive city in the country, and New York is in many ways least like the rest of the country. Partanen even says:

First of all, the taxes are not necessarily as high as many Americans think. One of the myths I encounter often is that Americans are like, ‘You pay 70 percent of your income in taxes.’ No, we do not. For someone who lives in a city like San Francisco or New York City—where you have federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, property taxes—the tax burden is not very different [than the tax burden in Finland]. I discuss my own taxes in the book and I discovered this to be true: that I did pay about the same or even more in New York than I would have paid on my income in Finland. I’ve talked to many Nordics in the U.S. who say the same thing.

So SF and NYC are already paying these crazy taxes… and apparently not getting much in return. Why then should the rest of the U.S. seek to emulate them? When I’ve said that I think Seattle is a much better value than NYC, in part because of crazy tax issues, people often respond, “So you don’t like public schools or fire fighters?” But Seattle, Austin, Nashville, and other similar cities seem to have those public services too, without anything like NYC’s cost of living. So the solution to high taxes and not-great services in those cities is to pay even more? If so, I’m not too surprised most of the US does not want to be more like Scandinavia (or SF).

To be fair, it would be interesting to see what happens if SF, NYC, and LA disempowered municipal unions and liberalized their zoning codes, both of which would lower costs substantially. For now, though, we’re seeing all three cities systematically drive people out. They’re choosing places that are not very Scandinavian.

Partanen and her husband are not very representative of the overall American experience. It’d be interesting to read a story about Finnish people who move to relatively inexpensive suburbs, don’t spend an overwhelming amount on housing, and basically like their lives. A European friend of mine, for example, has a sister who was born in a medium-sized European country and is basically doing that in Florida, and she seems to like it.

People who live in NYC are self-selected to be obsessive weirdos (who also often want to write books). Which is fine. I’m one of those people but I’m also aware that I’m atypical.

In short, revealed preferences show that most Americans prefer a non-Nordic model. They also show why state-level taxation is better on average than federal-level taxation, since at least people who don’t like state-level taxation regimes can easily move to another state. Score one for the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty world.

The real estate market is peaking:

My Dad met a woman in her early 60s who went back to work as a flight attendant on Jet Blue. Which is a fine and excellent occupation. But she also just got a real estate license, and her plan is to buy houses in Culver City for around $600,000 – $900,000, fix them up, and then flip them—for much more, presumably.

Maybe she doesn’t have the cash to pull off the purchases in the first place. Maybe she won’t be able to get the mortgages. Maybe it’s all hot air.

But maybe it isn’t. In the last two years a real estate frenzy seems to have built up in some markets. The flight attendant needs to find a greater fool before she gets crushed by the carry costs of the houses she’s buying or trying to buy.

Have you seen The Big Short, or read the book? History is repeating itself. The car loan market is already flashing warning signs. That woman’s whole financial life is going to fall apart if she starts trying to flip and the housing market falls.

People who bought real estate in 2009 – 2012 look like geniuses today. But by 2017, the people who bought from 2014 – 2016 might not look geniuses. I hear a lot of people around my age who want to buy stuff because they feel like they’ll be priced out forever if they don’t. That’s the kind of talk that makes me nervous.

In college all everyone talked about was art, drugs, ideas, sex, and parties. The shift to real estate and mortgages is a worrisome one.

Why did cities freeze in the 1970s?

Home is where the cartel is” says that “divisive hot-button issues like inequality and immigration ultimately derive from housing dysfunction.” Yet Waldman points out that the prescription many commentators, including this one, want—housing market rationalization—is unlikely to be attractive to the mass of existing owners/voters. The piece is not easily excerpted and should really be read in full before you continue, but here is one important point:

The libertarian “deregulatory” rhetoric by which market urbanists sometimes make their case is counterproductive. Telling people to think of their homes as a commodity upon which market forces should be brought to bear in order to ensure production of housing services at competitive prices is obtuse. People purchase property, rather than renting, largely to gain security and control, to escape the vicissitudes of the market.

If Waldman is right, I’ve been framing the issue incorrectly—if I actually want to persuade most people. I’ve been mulling the Waldman article since I read it a couple days ago and finally realized what bothered me: Extreme zoning seems to have really gotten started in the ’70s or early ’80s. NYC is still so dense because people from the seventeenth century up until the ’70s had a fairly easy time replacing existing buildings more or less when they felt like doing so. If markets demanded higher buildings, land owners tended to build higher buildings.

(This is a periodic reminder that the term “market” is just a shorthand word for something like, “mediating what a bunch of disparate people want, and how their varying bids for goods and services get aggregated.” It’s kind of distressing to need to include this disclaimer / definition, but hey, that’s the modern Internet world.)

An observer can literally see physical evidence of the housing freeze in places like Seattle. Both Capitol Hill and the U-District had, for decades, one twenty-something-story building each, which were almost landmarks. They were built just before Seattle comprehensively banned most high-rises—a ban that lasted until the 2000s. Had the market been allowed to function normally, single family neighborhoods would’ve gradually transitioned into duplexes, townhouses, or small apartment buildings, and areas with small buildings would’ve gradually seen midrises and high rises grow.

But, instead of that, Seattle basically froze the market. So did L.A. and many other locales. In 1970, L.A. was zoned for ten million people. In 2010, when our technology was vastly inferior to the 1970s, L.A.’s zoning was down to 4.3 million. That is odd and helps explain why L.A. used to be the  land of opportunity and is now the land of exclusion. Parking requirements, which can increase housing costs in L.A. by as much as a third, also explain why the city is now so expensive. We build more dwellings for our cars than our humans.

[Note to people who keep emailing me: saying technology today is inferior to the ’70s is a joke.]

What changed in urban planning and/or city politics in the ’70s? That to me is a key question and one I can’t really answer. The diffusion of Jane Jacobs’s ideas is one possible answer, but her answer still found fertile political and legal soil. Perhaps the backlash from the Robert Moses of the world was a part of the problem. “S” wonders if it was white flight.

Up until the Petaluma City Plan, growth was (relatively) unconstrained, especially in cities. After Petaluma, it wasn’t. In many parts of what we now think of as high-cost cities, the city feels frozen in time since… the ’70s.

Cities have always had rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, but freezing cities seems to have occurred relatively recently. So has the most vociferous talk of “gentrification.”

I primarily bring this up because if parochial land-use policies were only adopted in the last couple decades, they may be more reversible and less a part of human or political nature than is sometimes assumed. I don’t think human nature or human DNA has changed substantially since the ’70s.  But Waldman’s point about the politics of contemporary land-use controls remains and I don’t know how to overcome the dynamics he points out. Not all problems have solutions.

But we are all paying zoning’s steep price, to use the title of the paper at the link. It’s a PDF.

Jeff Fong has one excellent response and you should read it.

EDIT: Via Twitter, Dan Keshet suggests I read William Fischel’s Zoning Rules, which may answer the questions above. See also “When the Market Built Housing for the Low Income.”  That era was not long ago!

Fischel says that in the 1970s:

the growth-control movement was born and spread almost as rapidly as zoning originally did [in the 1910s and 1920s], though its effects were regionally selective. I argue that a combination of modern forces induced this change, but the most important was the 1970s period of inflation, which helped transform housing from a consumer good to an investment and thus gave rise to a political class I have called “homevoters.” (163)

Homevoters ensure that “zoning can go too far and prevent economically desirable increases in density and hinder what many people regard as the desirable mixing of socioeconomic groups within communities” (164).

If you see anyone arguing about what happened in the 1970s without even engaging in Fischel’s ideas, you know they a) aren’t thinking in terms of comparative history, b) don’t understand the history of the period, and c) likely don’t know what they’re talking about.

Guest post: The Match.com date NIMBY who’s intolerant of tolerance and Airbnb

My dad, Isaac, wrote this post.

Faithful readers will know that Jake is fairly obsessed with the impact of NIMBYs on increasing the cost of housing and generally mucking up urban development, no matter how beneficial new housing/development is to the community. Years ago, in a former life as a community development director for several California cities, I had plenty of experience running public hearings in which the Citizens United Against Everything would show up with pitchforks and torches to oppose anything new. Admittedly there were no literal pitchforks and torches, but they definitely had ever-present attorneys and demands for Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs). I agree with Jake that the whole NIMBY stuff is not only counter-productive but also gets tiresome quickly.

These days I find myself trolling Match.com and JDate in search of yet another “new life partner,” as those of us of a certain age say about the singles world. Most of my bad date experiences are typical of the online dating process and not worthy of your time to read about. One, though, shows the incredible hypocrisy of the NIMBY phenomenon.

I met my date, a banking executive, at a Beverly Hills wine bar. She was reasonably attractive and interesting, and the date was going pretty well until the conversation shifted beyond standard first date interview questions (like, “How is it that all three of your ex-husbands died suddenly?” or “I’m curious as to how it is that you remember watching the Liston/Ali fight if you’re actually 51?”).

My date said she owned a house in the Beverlywood adjacent* neighborhood, and for years she’s led neighborhood opposition to various development projects like group homes** and, of all things, the Museum of Tolerance (MOT), which was built a few years a years ago near her neighborhood. The MOT is affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an internationally renowned Jewish human rights organization, and it’s dedicated to helping visitors understand the Holocaust.

I was amazed when my date told me proudly that she led her neighborhood group in opposing construction of MOT and held up the project for three years at a cost of $3,000,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Given Mr. Wiesenthal’s work as perhaps the most dedicated Nazi hunter, it’s hard to think of an organization or project that deserves more support, rather than roadblocks, than MOT, particularly in a largely Jewish neighborhood. The date began to go downhill when I pointed out to her that her opposition to MOT made her “intolerant of tolerance” (and guilty of wasting good money).

I soldiered on, as I was increasingly fascinated by her amazingly strong NIMBY convictions. I ordered a second glass of wine so I could listen to more. Her current NIMBY passion is several nearby houses that are being rented out on Airbnb. In Beverlywood adjacent, like much of prime LA, the relatively modest post-WWII houses in her neighborhood are being torn down and replaced by McMansions, which means lots of empty bedrooms and huge mortgage payments. Since Beverlywood adjacent is handy to Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, UCLA and Santa Monica, and hotel rooms in the area can easily top $500/night, it’s a natural habitat for Airbnb, from both owner and renter perspectives. This somehow offends her and she’s trying to use the City of LA regulations to put a stop to the moral outrage that is Airbnb. So far she’s had no success in this curious crusade, which just makes her more angry in the finest NIMBY tradition.

While my date was busy complaining about Airbnb in her neighborhood, she also offhandedly said that she often uses Airbnb herself when she travels! The date ended quickly when I pointed out the inherent irony/hypocrisy of this absurd juxtaposition, which she’d apparently never recognized. But NIMBYs are rarely actually interested in the greater good—they want their neighborhood/city frozen in time like a bee in amber. This odd aspect of NIMBYs is true even if they moved into the neighborhood last week, as they invariably want to be the last one across the drawbridge before it’s raised.


* In LaLA land, it’s not usual for relatively modest neighborhoods to seek added cachet by adding “adjacent,” as in Beverlywood adjacent, Bel Air adjacent, Santa Monica adjacent and so on. This is often used in real estate listings, even if the property is miles away from the actual glittering neighborhood.

** Since I’m a former community development director, it was my sad duty to tell my date that group homes can be placed in any residential neighborhood in California, without any special permits, as long as the home has no more than six beds. The one she was concerned about is “sober living home” for recovering alcoholics, but it could just as easily be a half-way house for convicted murderers. She should count her blessings.

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