The Ghost of Mamie Eisenhower

34 thoughts on “The Ghost of Mamie Eisenhower”

  1. Just caught up with your blog. Re: the 3/30 “Mamie Eisenhower…” – I recognize mostly Cincinnati images here. I’m sad that local bureaucracy led to your abandoning your project
    here, but glad you had time to discover what’s positive/negative here. The quality of cultural options here is comparable or better than many larger cities, which adds greatly to my family’s (two daughters, two grandchildren) also returning from other regions.
    Cincinnati has been an industrial center since the mid/late 19th century. That heritage has allowed an architectural base which is, IMHO, much more interesting than most other peer cities.
    I was born in Cincy in the late ’30’s, lived in Lancaster PA during WWII and post-college in Pittsburgh for about four years. Returned here in late ’60’s, after exploring the east coast for more employment options. Your view of the Coasts (too-costly-for-most-to-relocate) was my experience way back then. I agree that many cities in fly-over world are fine, affordable options. Truly appreciate your encouraging others to explore these options. You do a fine service to them in your blog, which is always of significant interest to me. Thank you! And best wishes (as possible in the Trumpian-Dystopian Era.) – Bill O’Neil

    1. I still like Cincy and I’ve persuaded various people from San Francisco to relocate there this past year. My problems with the city administration were no different than anywhere else in the country. The Rules…. They stopped being about public health and safety a long time ago. Now agencies and departments exist largely to perpetuate themselves and serve freaked out political and cultural imperatives. Shrug. Next time I’ll know to only buy property that doesn’t require engaging with the authorities at all. A little paint, maybe some replacement windows, some gardening… But an addition or new build? I’d rather put a gun in my mouth.

  2. I pretty much see the same possibilities, as I wrote here.

    The one problem I can see is that the aging, original suburbanites with their retrograde attitudes could stand in the way of things evolving in a better direction. You have a bikeable rather than walkable density, for example, but that’s a risk if they insist on running you over.

    I saw something today that one might want to put out in the yard.

    If the locals don’t pass an ordinance against it.

    A libertarian is a liberal who has been mugged by a co-op board or homeowner’s association.

    1. In many locations the actuarial table will do all the heavy lifting. In others… the same old same old will drag on for the duration. Happenstance. Winners. Losers. “Whatever.”

      I left my hometown of Toms River, New Jersey because as a teenager I got stopped by the police a few times a week. Probable cause? Being a pedestrian or cyclist. “What’s in your backpack? Can we see some I.D.? Where are your heading?” I got out of town as soon as I possibly could and never looked back.

      1. My wife grew up in the Levittown School District, in a development with slightly larger homes (ranches designed for dormers to be added later). The early post-war suburbs were designed to be bike able. She was able to bike to the store, and to the Levittown Public Library. The ones before WWII were built around a train station.

        Things really went off the rails in the 1980s, with places where you have to drive somewhere to go for a walk and yet have another house right next to yours. Plus no sidewalks, to save money.

      2. Back to Detroit and many other Cities, as long as there was money they flourished. They were surrounded by farms and small towns, then the money went away. Detroit was a labor camp as is San Francisco now. How many great minds have tried to solve this problem.

  3. Johnny,
    Very interesting. Great data. I like the photos illustrating your points. But, I am always curious about the locations of the photos in your posts (particularly Big Box Jesus). I live in California and some of the photos look like they could have been taken here. Any chance you could provide a general location with the photos?

  4. Hm. Dropping by via Susan’s at phantsythat, and after reading all (post plus comments), I do get the feeling although being most lazy when it comes to commenting I ought to at least leave a short com(pli)ment: Thank you.

  5. I actually grew up in a neighborhood kind of like that!

    My folks have always loved older more traditional neighborhoods My dad’s first home was a bungalow in a streetcar neighborhood in Colorado Springs, which he put some sweat equity into in the late 80s, early 90s.

    The house I grew up in was on a full acre lot, with a ranch style home and no HOA in an inner ring suburb. My dad had a 15 min bike ride to work, we had a small orchard 15ish trees, grape vines, a berry patch, and a large garden. We usually kept sheep or goats for the “pasture” out back and had chickens or rabbits most of the time. We even had our own well.

    I was a 20-25 min bike ride from downtown Boise, which is great for a teenager.

    I know for some hard core urbanists this would be an unacceptable lifestyle, but I honestly think they we had a lower carbon footprint than some people living in the Northend driving hybrids. And everything else aside, my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford the size of house we would have needed in a more traditionally urban area.

  6. Last year my daughter (a government attorney) and her husband (computer support staffer) bought one of these 1950s tract houses, which had been bought new and owned by the same family for almost 60 years. Over the years, the kitchen and bathroom were updated, central heat and air added, and the carport turned into a family room and office. The place was meticulously kept and has a a covered deck, as well as a large fenced-in yard that backs onto a greenbelt that leads to the neighborhood elementary school. The state’s largest public university is 2 miles away. However, the house doesn’t fit today’s looks or fashion so they got it for $86 a square foot (this is Oklahoma). They look forward to paying it off, raising their two children there, and owning it as long as the previous owner. I think one thing that holds back buyers who would be interested in such homes is that they often need updating (such as wiring) or repairs that elderly owners could not afford. Financing or doing such updates/repairs can be daunting. Instead they choose new under the incorrect impression that new means won’t need repairs for awhile. Fortunately, my son-in-law is handy, and they had some savings because the little tract house ended up needing a new water heater, air conditioner, and sewer line within six months of moving in (the first two were caught on inspection).

    All that said, Johnny, I love these old houses because they are built on raised foundations — easier on the joints than the slab homes typically built today in Oklahoma. Give me crummy hardwood floors over carpet any day.

  7. This piece makes me think of my neighborhood. My partner and I live in the Denver metro area. When we were looking for a home to purchase in 2014, we basically followed the mantra “drive until you qualify.” We ended up in a 1946 home in the East Colfax neighborhood ( Originally, according to my retired school teacher neighbor who has lived here since 1978, these homes were built for officers who were stationed at the nearby Lowry Air Force base (now a “New Urbanism” neighborhood).

    Many of my more conventional friends would never live in this neighborhood. Crime is higher. Transients are often around, coming off Colfax. The neighborhood is more diverse by any measure. But for us, it’s great. And we have a lot of similarly-minded neighbors. It’s on a grid, we have a nice plot of land relative to our house size, no HOA rules, and many amenities are close by within biking distance (if not walking distance). Restaurants, grocers, breweries, you name it. It may not be the closer-in, Capitol Hill home we would like but could never afford, but it’s a great compromise and we love the area. I think these neighborhoods have a lot to offer. As for the houses themselves, it’s amazing what a fresh coat of paint and a little upkeep can do.

  8. The neighborhood I grew up in was right next to the northern borderline of Chicago. Lincolnwood, IL was largely built up in the 1950s. The houses were often custom made, solidly brick, one story ranches. The families who lived there were headed by men who owned small business, manufacturing, restaurant supplies, building management. It was a prosperous area.
    And it was also predominately Jewish, with some Irish, Italian, German, Swedish as well.

    The schools were considered excellent.

    Bell & Howell and other light manufacturing firm supplied “rateables” and the property tax rate was quite low. Of course, all that is gone now.

    Today it is a mostly Asian town, with a large Korean and Indian-American population. Some people have knocked down the small 1940s and 50s houses and built big, ugly McMansions that take up the entire property.

    Lincolnwood has no downtown. It has no train station to Chicago. It is, however, easily accessible to the city, and to the rest of the north side suburbs. It is neither charming, nor broken down, dense or spacious, it is almost an island of what it has always been: non-violent, quiet, serene and smug. What do you think the secret of its success is?

  9. Ooh, that’s been my hope for the longest time, that the old-downtown and “main street” areas would get a facelift and be revived, and the smaller homes around it would get a shot.
    That’s one thing I hate about all these new suburban neighborhoods–no yards, and too many damned rules when you DO have a yard. There’re some towns/cities I’ve driven through where I found more Homeowners Association vehicles than cop cars driving around.
    How the hell did that homeowner’s association crap get started, anyway? Some of ’em make the nazis look tame.

    1. HOAs have always been about restricting the kinds of people who are able to live in a place. Once it became illegal to declare “No Negros, Jews, or Catholics” people found legal ways to de facto filter out “the wrong element.” Once that snowball got rolling HOAs became the preferred vehicle for micromanaging every aspect of how “respectable” people lived – all in the name of maintaining property values.

      In the years ahead we’re going to discover that once a place starts to lose value due to macro economic forces it simply won’t matter what the CC&Rs of an HOA are. We got a foretaste of that process during the 2008 crash when entire subdivisions went belly up. The sad part is that once a place has an HOA and restrictions on what color your curtains can be and a pre approved list of landscaping shrubs it’s almost impossible to remove those rules. It’s going to be really hard to reinvent these places along new lines once the old system fails. So be it…

  10. Given the lot size and low value of the homes, what are the prospects for redevelopment? Say, a pair of semi-detached townhouses, suitable for families to live in, and closer to the street so that they can have a large back garden. Well, that might require a zoning change. How feasible would getting that be?

    1. Zoning changes are really hard. Up-zoning and urbanization of suburbia is far less likely than simply having small single family homes become larger single family homes as property values rise.

  11. Great piece, Johnny. I agree that these older suburbs could have new life, and I especially agree with the no-HOA benefit. I also think school choice would go a long way to attracting families back into these neighborhoods. You may disagree.

    1. First the middle class leaves an area – then the schools decline. First the middle class rediscovers an area – then the schools improve. “Good” or “bad” schools (however you want to define that) are a social construct based on who attends the schools. The quality of instruction follows demographics and perception along with political will.

      1. The effect of schools declining or improving with the movement of the middle class would be lessened through school choice.

        So not only does this draw middle class to your sample neighborhood, but it also keeps the lower class from being screwed. So I’m with Mark on this.

        1. I’m neither for nor against school choice. Americans have a long history of wanting to solve their own particular problems without addressing the larger issues of social equity. So for some people in some situations school choice will be a benefit. But overall we’ll just see a reshuffling of where the good and bad schools are – and who gets to attend each. Just don’t pretend school choice is fixing “the system.”

          1. It makes sense that people care about their own particular responsibilities. My folks have 7 kids and we were all educated differently. I was home schooled and that worked great for me. I remember a teacher acquaintance complaining to my mom that the fact that I wasn’t enrolled in the local school system hurt their funding.

            I think that there is a hierarchy of responsibility. Those closest to you come first. Knowing myself, I’m confident that I got a better education than if I had gone to the local high school. My little sister worked best with the math and science charter school, she got a full ride to college for engineering.

            I’m not arguing that we don’t have responsibilities to society at large, we do, but you cant neglect the needs of those closest to you who you are best equipped to know their particular needs and do what is best for them. I absolutely support school choice.

            There never has been social equality, and never will be.

            1. No argument from me. I dropped out of school entirely at a tender age and went back to get my GED and worked my way up through community college ten years later.

              Here’s the point I’m making. When people have a genuine choice over schools (including home schooling, charter schools, catholic school, Yeshivas… whatever) “choice” works just fine. Some families have money. Some have educated parents with plenty of free time. Some have a deep community network to tap into (social capital.) Others live in a place with at least one really good school to “choose” from.

              But there are a whole lot of families that lack these personal resources and many geographic locations where the only thing standing between their kids and oblivion is a functioning public school. These are increasingly being dismantled. The result is often “charter prisons” to accommodate them. Society pays one way or another…

              I’m not a social justice warrior. I just want people to understand that at the end of the day there are costs for every path we take. Let’s be honest about those choices and their side effects.

              1. The problem is that the way public schools have evolved, our politicians and bureaucrats have decided to ask the parents with the most resources to help out the families who lack such by sacrificing NOT their resources, but their children.

                It’s one thing to ask an upper middle class family to pay $15k a year in taxes to give a minority kid a chance to climb up a rung. It’s another thing entirely to ask them to send their own kid to a failing school.

                There are better solutions, but they require replacing most of the decision makers in our public school system wholesale.

  12. In Mountain View you have that area bordered roughly by Middlefield, Central Expwy, Rengstorff & Shoreline (Farley St area) that looked much like this back in the ’80s, but is in a great location and quite pricey now. I passed once on a house for which the sellers were asking less than $200K back around ’88 because the neighbourhood just seemed a bit too rasty. The downtown hadn’t been spiffed up yet either. It might have been the last place sold in Mountain View for under $200K.

    While I’m sure many millennials as they hit their ’30s, marry and form families, would love to love in the types of areas you describe, many that I know are looking around Tracy.

    1. The entire Bay Area is in a massive bubble. The high cost of housing has already choked out even many high income families. The process of breaking companies up into different divisions and sending them off to other cities is already well underway. Salt Lake, Phoenix, Nashville, Denver… They each get a little back office support satellite branch of a company nominally headquartered in Silicon Valley or San Francisco. Run that process out for another twenty years and the center of gravity of talent and industry connections won’t be Palo Alto or Cupertino. It won’t really be anywhere in particular. Add in the fact that most of today’s hot technology will be obsolete in twenty years… It’s the same exact process that drained Detroit of its mojo as assembly plants drifted off to Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Carolina year by year for decades.

    2. One of my co-workers recently bought a house in SF. A 800k Bayview-adjacent total dump fixer. They’re a high income, no kids, couple who’ve been here a year. They don’t know anything about the history of the neighborhood and don’t really care. They’ll just Uber to work.

      I tried to show him some historical data. How the houses in that neighborhood were <200k 20 years ago, high crime area, yada yada. But he wasn't having none of that Debbie Downer talk. He said he'll just flip it if the remodel comes out too pricey. Fools and money…

  13. I grew up in a little house that looked just like the ones pictured. You make a good argument that the houses might eventually become desirable.

    Might the unproductive commercial strip eventually become more desirable too? Change the zoning to “do whatever you want” and let the dirt-cheap buildings become the home to manufacturers, studios, service companies and any other kind of small businesses that are priced out of that historic district.

    A process like that is already taking place where I live (Knoxville Tennessee). Downtown has become trendy and rents jumped. New businesses of all kinds are now popping up in the cheap old warehouses and commercial buildings just outside of downtown, but close enough to walk or bike. Breweries, bakeries, fashion companies, performance spaces and all kinds of other stuff has taken root.

    Really cheap space without restrictions on what you can do with it is like catnip to creative people.

    1. I lived briefly in Knoxville for two years 26 years ago. I lived on weird little cul de sac called Morningside Terrace just east of the Metro Government Center. Now I think those once cheap apartments are all “Game Day” condos for Vol Fans. (Why do the Tennessee teams go by “Vols”? Because “Volunteers” is a three syllable word and is too complicated for the typical fan! Hardehar!)

      Was always amazed at the “bones” and basic structure of the downtown. Even then, there were the cool little clubs and tchotchke shops in the warehouse district north of Downtown Proper, but most of Gay Street was largely vacant. At least they didn’t tear it all down for Urban Removal and build even more concrete monstrosities.

      1. You wouldn’t believe what has happened to Knoxville. Gay Street and the Old City are totally gentrified now. There are new condos all over downtown. They tore up the Strip and are making it walkable. Fort Sanders is being converted to large apartment buildings — a huge amount of construction. And the University is also building like crazy — all infill.

        1. Wow. This is all new. I happened to revisit Knoxville about five years ago or so, and you could just see the bare beginnings of the trend you describe.

          Good for Knoxville! Like I said, always had great bones. My first apartment out of college was a bare bones boarding house (no heat in common areas, exposed wiring, run by a dentist as a hobby/money source…but damn it was CHEAP. Even for back then) in Fort Sanders, and I still remember how nasty the neighborhood was overall. Stepping around the trash dumpsters put right on the sidewalk and overflowing on the lawns. LOL.

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