The effect of zoning restrictions on the life of the artist

Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life delivers what it promises: a description of the beauty, importance, and pleasure of learning and doing for their own sake: “If human beings flourish from their inner core rather than in the realm of impact and results, then the inner work of learning is fundamental to human happiness, as far from pointless wheel spinning as are the forms of tenderness we owe our children or grandchildren.” David Perrell just interviewed Hitz, and she observes what many of us have felt: that the zoning laws that impede housing development cost us spiritually, not just in terms of dollars:

I spent a semester a couple of years ago in South Bend Indiana. That’s where I actually wrote the book. And I was astonished at what a difference it made to be in a place where the real estate was relatively cheap, for how people lived.

So for instance, I think there was this couple, they ran a nonprofit jazz club and got pianos out of the landfill and redid them and gave them to schools. Now, again, that’s not the kind of life you can lead… And they lived off of donations, as far as I knew, maybe they had some income from one place or another.

You can’t live that life on the Coasts. You’re always scrambling for your rent or your mortgage or whatever it is. The cost of housing is so high that it crushes people’s imaginations, people’s ways of thinking about their lives. And ironically, in places… I mean, in California, it breaks my heart because I’ve been out here for a little while, visiting family, and it’s so beautiful. There’s so much contemplation to be done in California.

The idea of living out here and wasting all your time making money so you can pay your mortgage is horrifying. You’re in one of the most beautiful places in the world, take a walk and think about things. So I think that’s really true. I think we don’t think enough about how really concrete this all is. If your real estate is too expensive, you’re not going to live as good a life. And I think that should change the way that we live, but how that’s going to work out in the long-term, I’m not really sure.

That’s a long blockquote, but it’s germane to the larger point. Having spent time in L.A. and New York, the difference between those places and lower-cost places is palpable: virtually everyone, except perhaps the few with inherited wealth, feels, correctly, they need to hustle to make it. And we’ve deliberately voted for societies in which that’s the default, by making the cost of housing so high through supply restrictions—and it is supply restrictions driving costs: see the research cited in this piece, for example, for more on that subject. But the debates about easing zoning rarely talk about the real improvements to human life that such policies can bring.

Hitz also says:

So the United States, for instance, very wealthy in the 1960s you look at what people’s lives were like in say, my parents’ generation, that’s the baby boomers basically. And it didn’t cost anything to live in LA, you could have a part-time job in a coffee shop and live in LA or San Francisco, and have plenty of time to read and do what you wanted. And that’s just not a reality anymore the economic situation has changed dramatically.

I’d love to have more time to read and do what I want. And I have some: I don’t want to pretend I don’t. But housing costs have dominated a lot of my existence. In the 1950s, when building new housing was largely legal, rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan were about $530 a month. Since COVID struck, rates have fallen, but they still appear to be about $3,000 per month, or about 5.5x what they were in the ’50s. The life of the mind is hard to live on the coasts, although many programmers also have brilliant minds whose tendencies are well-rewarded.

Hitz’s book touches the same themes as her Perrell interview:

San Francisco in the 1970s was a strange place for many famous reasons, but its basic commitment to leisure is clear to me only now that we have passed into a far less leisurely age. Reading and thinking for their own sake went along with outings to the stony beaches and dark mountain forests of Northern California, without a clear object or specialized skills or expensive equipment. (2)

I’ve been part of this change: I’d prefer to spend fewer hours working as a grant writing consultant and more hours writing novels: but one of those activities pays far better than the other, so it gets the majority of my time. I’m symptomatic of my generation: rents and student loans have squeezed my life in a particular direction.

We’ve legislated ourselves into working relentlessly to support the assets of landowners. This is insane, stated this way, and yet it’s how the political system has evolved. Parking minimums lead everyone to need expensive cars, because buildings are so spread out that biking becomes impractical (places like Phoenix, or L.A.’s Inland Empire, are the apotheosis of such policies). Maybe we should reconsider both, and consider what life could be like if we’d prioritize lowering costs, rather than forever working to inflate asset prices and have to buy and maintain cars.

One slight caveat to Hitz’s generalizations: I do think a lot of people, including tech people and the philosophers who do tech, read and think for their own sake. “For their own sake” or “for their own sake” also conceal much: true uselessness seems rare. It’s difficult to predict what will be “useful.” My favorite example of this is Tolkien: inventing imaginary languages and mythologies didn’t seem terribly “useful” relative to his work as a philologist and professor. But those useless activities turned out to be essential to writing one of the great imaginative works of all time. “Useful” is hard to predict.

Santa Monica requiem: Reflections as 2020 drifted into 2021

My father, Isaac, wrote this.

I stayed at the new the Proper Hotel in Downtown Santa Monica (“SaMo” to the locals) at 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard over New Years: any hotel during COVID-19 is surreal; this was the first time I’d returned to SaMo since decamping from LA for Scottsdale in June. It was also the first time I experienced with profound sadness what has become of SaMo after ten months of rolling COVID-19 lockdowns, the permanent scars left by the protests/riots in late May, the omnipresent shadow of homeless everywhere, and, perhaps most striking, the air of apprehension obvious among the few non-homeless on the streets. Call this post a requiem for a lost SaMo that may never really come back.

I first saw SaMo as an 18-year University of Minnesota sophomore in December 1969, when visiting my brother Jerry, who lived there. He picked me up at LAX in his British Racing Green MGB, and I felt like I was, somehow, home; SaMo immediately struck me as the California Dreaming myth I developed from watching movies and TV shows, and listening to the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the “Laurel Canyon sound” on transistor and AM car radios as a teen in the Great Frozen North.

SaMo had a beautiful beach and beautiful people in the sunshine, with the charming pier, pastel houses and low-rise apartment buildings threaded by the boulevards of small shops with the names I knew from sitcoms, movies, and Raymond Chandler novels. Chandler fictionalized SaMo as “Bay City” in his novels and as soon as I saw the pier, I recognized it as the Lido Pier from The Big Sleep. “Bay City” can still found as part of business names, including Bay Cities Italian Deli; the Deli was looted during the riots, and, while it’s open again, the joy of waiting for your Godmother sandwich with dozens of others in front of the enticing deli case and scouting for obscure Italian jams is gone. Grabbing a to-go sandwich is a soulless experience and obviates the point of neighborhood institutions.

I lived in SaMo twice: first for two years at 23rd and Wilshire in a townhouse I owned with by brother in the early 80s and again for about three years, starting in 2013, in an apartment downtown at 7th and Broadway. When Jake a little boy, I knew the the SaMo City Manager, who recruited me to apply to be the Assistant Manager, but I came in second, as the City Council wanted to hire a woman. If I’d gotten that job, Jake might have grown up in SaMo and I would’ve been responsible for the redevelopment of the pier, the 3rd Street Promenade, and the mid-rise housing developments that transformed the formerly sleepy Downtown in the 90s.

Until the late 80s, like much of LA, SaMo was still relatively affordable—at least for the parts of the city south of Wilshire Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard. Since then, and particularly with the rise of “Silicon Beach” a decade ago, SaMo has become unaffordable, expect for the few living in a subsidized or rent controlled apartment or the upper middle class and the one percenters. Like San Francisco, Manhattan, and Seattle, there is essentially no middle class left in SaMo. The population was 83,249 in 1960 and just 90,401 six decades later in 2020—essentially no growth, despite a near-doubling of the United States. When you choke off the supply of housing in an otherwise desirable area, you’re also committing to high prices. San Francisco reportedly now has more pet dogs than children, and that’s likely the case in SaMo. The median household income is $96,570 in 2020, which is high compared to the US, but not remotely high enough to afford the average sale price of a house—$1.27M—or even the average monthly rent of $3,851.

I drove around downtown before going to the Proper. Boarded-up windows and vacant store fronts are common; in the Before Times, vacant store fronts in SaMo were rare. Downtown SaMo has always been one of LA’s few true walkable districts, but, while there were a fair number of cars on the streets, in the middle of a beautiful sunny Thursday New Years Eve day afternoon, there were almost no pedestrians, and the 3rd Street Promenade was ghostly. A friend of mine had already told me that the Bloomingdales Department Store, which anchored the Santa Monica Place Mall at the southern end of the Promenade, had closed permanently. The homeless, however, were out in force.

Since the late ’70s, the city has more or less embraced, or one might say encouraged, homelessness. But, and this is a big but, the SaMo homeless generally hung out in parks and a few well-known areas, and they weren’t aggressive. When I lived downtown in the mid-2010s, I felt perfectly safe walking, even at night.

When I parked, I talked over the walking issue with the young valet, and he said about walking around, “No way brotha, I know the bad homeless dudes around here but you don’t.” He also told me to stay away from Reed Park, just across Wilshire from the hotel. Since I had my 95-pound Golden Retriever with me, who needed a walk, I figured it would be okay to walk to the park—but it was filled with homeless and tents. The city has created a nice-looking tot lot and children’s play area behind high fences in the park, but there wasn’t a kid or mom in sight. I walked around one side of the park and retreated to hotel, which is essentially a fortress.

New Year’s Day morning, I went to Sidecar Donuts, where three or four moms in Lululemon leggings and guys in skinny jeans were in line, but there was a palpable nervous feeling: everyone there seemed to want to get our donuts and get back into cars or, in my case, the Proper. No small talk and zero sense of community. With the ongoing COVID recession and general malaise hanging over SaMo, I don’t think Sidecar and similar places will survive long.

Decades ago, SaMo was one of the first cities to adopt the strategy of “Community Policing,” which involves foot and bike patrols and assigning the same cops to the beat so that the community comes to know them and they know the community. When I last lived in SaMo, I regularly encountered smiling cops on foot or bikes. During the two days I spent there, I didn’t see a single foot or velo cop. Community policing was developed to replace the former “Fort Apache” style of policing, in which the cops stay in their station and cars.

A place’s vibe is delicate and hard to describe, yet pervasive when you’re there. SaMo’s vibe has changed radically in the last year, in a way that’s hard to appreciate without being there.

I’ve worked the last 45 years in and around urban issues, first for cities in economic development and then for the past 27 years writing grant proposals. The SaMo of my memory, or maybe my dreams, no longer exists. Maybe it will again in a year or two.

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America — Conor Dougherty

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America is up there with The Rent Is Too Damn High, where it foregrounds what should be if not the top, then one of the top policy issues in the country. “Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build Build: When California’s housing crisis slammed into a wealthy suburb, one public servant became a convert to a radically simple doctrine” is an excerpt that gives much of the book’s flavor. While I personally like books and papers that use abstract reasoning to make their points, most people don’t, and need stories to understand the world: “Build Build Build” uses Steve Falk’s story to explain why even liberty-shy Californians are sometimes coming around to letting the state change a bit. Most importantly, a baby boomer like him began to see that his own kids’s lives were being constricted by the odious zoning monster that almost all municipalities in California have fed:

Mr. Falk began his career on the local control side of that debate. But somewhere along the Deer Hill odyssey, he started to sympathize with his insurrectionist opponents. His son lived in San Francisco and paid a fortune to live with a pile of roommates. His daughter was a dancer in New York, where the housing crunch was just as bad. It was hard to watch his kids struggle with rent and not start to think that maybe Ms. Trauss had a point.

New York and San Francisco are strangling their young, and even their middle-aged, in ways that many local politicians aren’t adequately grappling with. Golden Gates expertly surfaces ideas about what is or should be “normal” and whether those things should be normal:

Patterned on the American mind, in ways we rarely stop to notice, are layers of zoning and land-use rules that say what can be built where. They are so central to how American cities look and operate that they have become a kind of geographic DNA that forms our opinion of what seems proper and right.

But what is perceived as normal—what is “patterned”—may not be “proper and right,” even if what’s regarded as “proper and right” gets unfairly mapped to normal. The “layers” of zoning and other rules occur at the neighborhood level, city level, sometimes the county level, and sometimes the state level: each veto point chokes off potential projects and creates a kind of suffocating conformity that has drained cities’s vitality, without many people noticing. Somehow, preventing anyone from doing much of anything almost anywhere is said to increase vitality: instead, we get suffocating rents, millennials who are now themselves reaching into middle age and yet often feel they can’t afford to have kids, because who’s going to pay the rent, let alone the health insurance and the student loans?

We need more freedom and greater liberalization—or at least that’s the framing that I’d choose, using the thinking behind George Lakoff’s work on the language of political ideas. Oddly, though, the most reactionary groups in local housing fights tend to frame themselves as preserving freedom—the freedom from having other people make any changes in their neighborhoods. The result, as Doherty writes, is that “In effect, we shattered urban regions into a constellation of smallish cities and reactionary single-family house neighborhoods whose influence over local land use decisions give them an astounding amount of control over how much shelter we build, where, and at what cost.” The problem goes back decades—”City planners started documenting the urban housing shortage in the 1970s, and in the decades since economists have shown that many of the country’s highest-income regions have become so expensive that they have all but gated out middle-class jobs and people”—but problems that compound enough over time become enormous and menacing.

Housing can’t be both a good investment and an affordable place to live. Preferring one goal intrinsically compromises the other. For the last five decades, we’ve tried to make housing an investment that yields above-market returns: consequently, it’s now incredibly expensive in many productive cities. Perhaps the biggest way we may see changes in this dynamic is through changes in the composition of renters versus owners. Invitation Homes is now one of the largest landlords in the country, and it specializes in buying single-family houses (or “oneplexes”) and renting them out. That’s it. The company has realized that the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon is also a business opportunity. Airbnb exists in part because most cities forbid hoteliers from building sufficient hotel capacity—so renting private housing units is an arbitrage on those rules. Canvas Co-Living is a startup that is working to allow “facilitated shared homes.”

Golden Gates’s best story may be that of Sonja Truss, a woman who was tired of the Bay Area’s relentless housing cost increases—so she decided to do something about it:

But for a young adult with no obvious signs of intoxication to show up at a midday city meeting to say she was just generally in favor of housing because San Francisco didn’t have enough of it? That made no sense. Nobody attended eight-hour city meetings if they didn’t have to, and while the planning commission was a place of arguments and strange behavior, it was also a place where people at least knew where each other’s lanes were.

She decided to scramble the lanes, by arguing that the problem isn’t too much housing but too little. She finds herself in weird ideological waters, because many people who proclaim their progressive bonafides are more conservative, in many ways, than the current occupant of the White House. Labeling one’s opponents is a big deal in Bay Area politics: “Only in San Francisco would a gay man who opposed the death penalty and marched in the local BDSM festival in leather straps have to argue he was truly of the left.” There are lots of racial politics involved too: many of the kinds of people who want to proclaim themselves to be opposed to racism nonetheless support housing and development policies that are racist in practice and effect.

Another chapter discusses Factory_OS, a company that’s trying to do modular building. Housing is expensive for many reasons, with zoning at the top of the list—but the actual cost of construction is high, and, in many high-cost metros, the zoning drives up the cost of construction. Why? As zoning artificially restricts housing construction, the construction workers who build new housing have to pay more for existing housing, which means that they have to be paid more by anyone trying to build housing. One gets a kind of perverse ratchet that, again, ends with absurdities like San Francisco. Modular housing, like cross-laminated timber, promises to reduce the cost of building. Unfortunately, building a housing factory is expensive up front, and the returns are spread across many years—leaving a wide space for bankruptcy. Previous efforts at modular housing have tended to fail when the market turns and the maker goes out of business. Dougherty points out that a recession could doom Factory_OS and its competitors. As of this writing, we’re already likely in the worst recession since 2008, and that was the worst since the Great Depression. What happens with the COVID Recession remains to be seen (the recession is made worse by many laid-off people being stuck with expensive leases and mortgages, due to decades of failure to build enough housing). One of the best ways to be successful in business is to start while a rising economy naturally lifts your company. Many business geniuses are really people with lucky timing—which isn’t to knock them: I’d love to have lucky timing too. As of July 23 2020, it appears that Google has promised to invest more money in Factory_OS, so the company is still presumably alive. But it has an ominously small number of mentions in the media over the last year.

One major thing might break the zoning logjam: by now, intellectuals and investors know the single-family zoning racket and know that single-family zoning is designed to enrich property owners. It’s not hard to figure out how to profit from above-market returns, as Invitation Homes has: buy the asset. But as investment funds buy single-family properties, the composition of renters versus owners will change, and more renters will be part of the voting pool. If renters can figure out how supply and demand work—a big “if,” given anti-market bias—they’ll vote to expand the supply of housing. So far, we’ve not seen much of this dynamic, but, as the costs of housing continue to increase, we might see more of it as people go looking for answers. Voters can ineffectively blame landlords and “greedy” developers, or they can effectively look for solutions. Golden Gates is part of the solutions firmament, if enough people read it and change their behavior based on new knowledge. That’s a big “if,” however.

To me, it remains strange and interesting that many people who are superficially interested in lowering housing costs won’t believe that the obvious solution, known for centuries—since the time of Adam Smith—to high prices is greater supply. Any solution that is not “more supply” will entail shortages. We can’t legislate away supply and demand. Yet a common urban trope involves blaming the people attempting to respond to price signals with more product for being “greedy.” The ineffectiveness of this response is obvious, but until recently there’s been no organized political response to the problem. Dougherty is chronicling that response—and telling the stories of the people responding.


A review in an interesting venue. There should be bipartisan support for zoning reform.

Maybe cars are just really bad, but they’re normal, so we don’t pay attention to how bad

In the United States, 30,000 – 40,000 people are killed by and in cars every year; hundreds of thousands more are maimed. Think of ten to twelve 9/11s, every year—yet the issue gets little airplay, despite its importance. Perhaps we ought to be working a lot harder to build a society that is less dependent on murderous cars. Almost everyone knows someone who has been killed or maimed in a car crash. But, for whatever reason, most of us don’t think about the sheer amount of death and destruction attached to cars—maybe because the numbers are too vast. So I’ve decided to foreground the issue by listing some of the car crash victims whose names and/or stories I’ve come across. I’m not looking for them, but I keep noticing how many writers casually mention death in and by cars. Right now, today, it’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed:

John sighed. He asked Margo to look at the caller ID and tell him who had called, but she shook her head and turned away. John reached for the phone with his right hand. Then they collided with a black SUV coming straight at them.

Strapped in their booster seats were five-year-old Gracie and six-year-old Gabe. Irish twins, born just a year apart and inseparable. The loves of John’s life. Gracie survived along with John and Margo. Gabe, seated directly behind John and at exactly the point of impact, died at the scene.

Two paragraphs, one death. We need to do a “five whys” analysis on this. Part of the answer involves inattentiveness due to the phone, yes. But why is everyone in cars? Why are so many distracted amateurs operating these machines? Why is our society built around them? What would an alternate transit setup look like (one that valued human life)? These questions are almost entirely absent. The larger issues aren’t foregrounded. Cities that could help cut the car-based death rate refuse to do so. We have a bad strategy and our collective decision is to keep pursuing it. Despite the way death appears everywhere, every day:

* “Three years earlier, my husband, Eric, and I had lost our 22-month-old son, Seamus, when they were struck in a crosswalk by a careless driver.” From “When Sturdy Love Is What You Need.”

* “A few months later the young woman came to see me. She and her boyfriend had had a terrible car crash. He had died, and his family had turned her out of the house they had lived in together” (137). From The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a memoir by Catherine Millet. Everyone knows someone who has died this way.

* “About a decade ago, Derek Sarno, the elder of the pair at 48, was working as a chef and restaurateur in New Hampshire when his longtime partner was killed in a car accident.” From “The Vegetarians at the Gate.”

* “I was back in my hometown cruising the makeup aisles of a 24-hour drugstore around midnight on the eve of my sister’s funeral. I was 23 and my 22-year-old sister had died in a car accident five days earlier.” From “When Lips Speak for Themselves.”

* Miss France Hopeful Morgane Rolland Dies After Being Struck by a Tractor-Trailer.

* Interview with actress Anjelica Huston: “You were 17 and your brother Tony was 18 when your mother was killed in a car [crash] in France.”

* Kevin Hart reportedly able to walk after serious car crash. This one isn’t a fatality, but wouldn’t he have liked to not have been in a car wreck?

* Mother Dies After Halloween Crash That Killed Husband and Toddler. “Joseph and Raihan Awaida were walking home with their 3-year-old son on Halloween night when the entire family was hit by an SUV.” Maybe we should work harder to segment uses and discourage driving: one SUV kills an entire family.

* “Then, in her thirties, [Joanna Parfit] died in a car crash.”

* “In September 1996, after turning thirty-four years old, Paul [Simons] donned a jersey and shorts, hopped on his… bicycle, and set off on a fast ride through Old Field Road in Setauket, near his boyhood home. Out of nowhere, an elderly woman backed her car out of the driveway, unaware [Paul] was riding past. She hit Paul, crushing and killing him instantly, a random and tragic accident. Several days later, the woman, traumatized by the experience, had a heart attack and died.” (159) That’s from The Man Who Solved the Market, a biography of Jim Simons. The writer, Gregory Zuckerman, is not astute enough to realize that this was not a totally random event: it’s an event engineered by systematic choices made over the course of decades, if not a century, to prioritize car and car travel over life. The elderly should not be driving, yet we’ve decided to ignore their inabilities because cars are so woven into the urban fabric of life.

* “‘I’ve never felt such heartbreak and anger’: Toronto family mourns 23-year-old cyclist Alex Amaro, killed last week on Dufferin St.” The street is apparently notoriously and horribly dangerous, and yet Toronto has done nothing about it, despite the danger and deaths (plural).

* “Lars Vilks: Muhammad cartoonist killed in traffic collision.” This guy survived 15 years of extremist Muslims threatening to kill him, and then died in what appears to be a generic car crash.

Overall, we should all be striving for life after parking, however utopian that sounds today (getting everyone to quit smoking probably seemed utopian 50 years ago, but here we are). Unfortunately, absurdly expensive infrastructure costs inhibit the development of better transit systems. I’ve changed my view on this issue substantially between when I was younger and today. Housing and transit issues are tremendous determinants of the quality of human life, as well as the quality of our politics, and many of the screeds you read about “income inequality” (a term I dislike because we really want everyone to have a decent baseline quality of life, regardless of whether someone is super rich), education, and health are really about housing and transit—we just don’t think of them this way. Very few reporters or “intellectuals” (a word worthy of scare quotes) connect the dots. So I’m going to connect them here, even though others don’t, and keep adding to this list. Maybe it will personalize the idea that cars are bad in a way that the raw data does not.

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.

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