Belle Reve

41 thoughts on “Belle Reve”

  1. The transition from tent cities into shantytowns seems to be well under way in many US cities. These could be the new example of urbanism. As more and more people live in this arrangement, I wonder how authorities will continue to justify the plethora of codes and ordinances that keep official new housing from being built. The camping tents there are being replaced by slightly more permanent structures made from pallets. Will these be replaced by those sheds sold at Home Depot?

    1. You’re on to something here. I’ve got all sorts of examples of the American favela or gecekondu in the works. The key element is always a confluence of official and unofficial needs. A city requires a generous supply of low wage workers that are intentionally excluded from proper municipal services. But the middle and upper classes don’t want that segment of the population anywhere near them.

      Eventually a form of detente sets in. The steep hillsides and soggy floodplains are quietly allowed to go feral so the maids, gardeners, busboys, construction grunts, and call girls are close enough to commute, but far enough away to be out of sight.

  2. One problem is the concentration of jobs. One need only look to the frostbelt, from Upstate NY cross the Midwest, to find many places with the idea characteristics you love. But without enough income to replace major building systems — roof, HVAC, electric, plumbing, not to mention the infrastructure — when they fail.

    So not only are we not building more of them, we are losing the ones we have. Here is a small city distant from a any major metro area, unlike the metro Denver example. And located in a place where you are much better off being able to walk to work from December to March.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@42.5300295,-75.5236239,3a,75y,340h,100t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1suGKn5FkOS37gb3eZ1WdICQ!2e0!6s%2F%2Fgeo2.ggpht.com%2Fcbk%3Fpanoid%3DuGKn5FkOS37gb3eZ1WdICQ%26output%3Dthumbnail%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26thumb%3D2%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D340%26pitch%3D-10%26thumbfov%3D100!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    With regard to rebooting the inner suburbs, the question is what kind of collective cost are you buying into, as a result of past pillage of state and local government?

    I came across a house in a semi-suburban neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut. Probably mid-20th century.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@41.2529467,-72.8966,3a,75y,356.53h,88.14t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s_D8sQ-IpmI5bv6JG_kJKlg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    It was somewhere along this block. Unlike the rest of CT, it is a diverse neighborhood. A short walk brings you to a city park with a beach on the Long Island Sound. There is a bus to Downtown New Haven, and to an arterial with a wide range of shopping. Or, if you prefer, a 30 minute bike ride. Yale University and its affiliates provide more leisure amenities and quality health care than one would usually find in a place of comparable size. There is Amtrak to Boston, and Amtrak or a long ride on a commuter rail line to New York. For someone who could work from home, with an occasional visit to the employer in Boston or New York, what a great, affordable place, right?

    Someone had bought one of these and rehabbed it, and was trying without success to sell it for $250,000. There are lots of foreclosures around. The problem is New Haven, and Connecticut, are broke after decades of pension underfunding and inadequate infrastructure investment. What will happen to that park, that bus, that rail line, and how high will taxes have to go? You don’t know.

    What I do know is despite all those problems, the state just decided to exempt Social Security income, and retirement income up to $100,000, from state income taxes, to benefit the self-interested generations that comprise a rising share of the population. It was bi-partisan. So how much do you want to pay for their house so they can move to Florida? Bottom line, in many places that bubble popping has to drive prices low enough to offset all of these costs, but somehow now so low that you fear the whole neighborhood is going to collapse.

  3. Australian here with a quick comment re: the fires–definitely agree with Johnny’s friend’s take. i had to evacuate a holiday town in NSW on NYE myself. it’s very bad, tragic in many ways. That written, the fires have happened/are happening outside of major urban and suburban centres, primarily in and around small holiday towns (the fires immediately around Sydney are largely in national parks). Alot of the places that have been destroyed or are near the fires are small towns with maybe some high street shops and a few homes scattered around; the larger of these towns (Eden, for example) are already very walkable/liveable (if you can find work in them). i don’t see the fires starting a conversation around how we build out towns, mostly for the reason that these places are already predominantly small-scale. though it has also been somewhat morbidly fascinating to watch the current government here doggedly defend the status quo in all things, at all costs; so, any progressive conversations are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

  4. “imperfect people fueled by greed, frugality, and necessity can converge to create pretty good places that hold up over time”. This is Johnny, in a shot glass.

  5. I don’t deny a word you said here, except “sturdy”. All through the first third of the post I, a Californian who lost a chimney in ’89, was thinking, “unreinforced masonry, unreinforced masonry…” One little shock above Richter 4 and those sidewalks would be knee deep in loose brick.

    1. Sturdy means different things in different situations. Denver doesn’t have earthquakes so unreinforced masonry buildings aren’t a problem. The same buildings in California would be bad.

  6. That bike path would make an excellent vagrant camp. Up here, vagrants have siezed 3 linear miles of bike trail and seceded calling it their “Rebel Camp.” There have been pitbull attacks, violence, explosions, and needles. Given the rat explosion, there will soon be pestilence. Perhaps cholera will accompany the human excrement.

  7. I really enjoy your posts and thoughts on this site. This post is the reality of the situation in virtually all places in the USA. People need to be practical and pragmatic when considering what can be done in an existing urban environment. There are many thousands of square miles of the “low grade post war auto-dependent” development that would be far too expensive to demolish and start over with. With the thought on adapting and infilling in this environment, I’m wondering if you have ever come across or had any thoughts on whether a modern take on the boarding house concept would be possible. Perhaps 200 sqft rooms with small bathroom facilities, hot plate, microwave, dorm fridge but have the laundry and main meals handled by boarding house staff as it was back say in the early 1900s in mining areas, etc. There are many more single person households in this day and age than in prior decades that do not necessarily need a full apartment.

    1. That concept probably worked better in large Foursquare houses from the 1920s-1940s adapated postwar to accommodate returning servicemen.

      A small first-ring suburban ranch is probably no more than 1200sf, and many are closer to 1000sf, with a single full bath and maybe a half bath. If on a slab, adding drains would be prohibitively costly.

      1. One of my uncles once told me that after graduating from college around 1950 he accepted a job with an oil company that brought him to San Francisco, where he initially lived in a boarding house. When I was that age right out of college I don’t think they existed. I certainly never heard of anyone living in one but apparently they were still around in the ’50s.

        1. In 1950 there was still a very real housing shortage due to war rationing. Nowadays boarding houses are called hacker houses. My 24 year old niece just spent the summer living in one.

  8. I observed the same set of conditions, coming to the realization that 4-over-1 podiums are probably going to be the preferred tool of urban growth for the next couple decades. So I might as well find a neighborhood where that type of growth is fairly coherent.

  9. “The beautiful dream is just slightly modified.” Wise words. Our dreams and narratives about the Good Life drive these decisions.

    I would that say that most Americans are striving for “Beverly Hills” of one regional flavor or another. A cousin of mine recently built her dream house on the outskirts of Pluegerville, TX, walk score 21. Subjects like incremental development are so far out of her mental model of the Good Life that it might as well be a foreign language and a suspect one at that. She pities my little house in California.

    My idea of the Good Life is more “Florence, Italy.” This vision kept me tethered to the Bay Area as it requires some combination of weather, lifestyle and a historic urban core. I’m not exactly living the Dolce Vita. Instead, I’m in one of those 1950s inner ring suburbs, within a bike ride of civilization, making do. And because of my biases, I’d be more likely to move to Australia than the plentiful urbanism on tap in the Midwest.

    My point is that these narratives are really important in driving land use decisions over long periods of time. Short of gas and/or electricity prices shooting to the moon, I’m doubtful that even a small fraction of the inner ring suburbs will get the stealth urbanism treatment you describe. Portland, for sure. Denver, probably. St Louis though? With American’s preference for “New” at all costs, it seems more likely we’ll build from scratch – https://culdesac.com/ and https://www.daybreakutah.com/ -and let the old stuff rot back into farmland.

    1. Florence is pretty but I’m not sure how liveable it is with the crush of tourists and students and all the Medieval streets. My idea of liveable would be a more modern northern European city like Copenhagen or Oslo with world-class public infrastructure and spaces along with modern buildings. And that is a more attainable model for American cities anyway.

      1. You may be right, but what I’m saying is that people have some kind of meme in their mind about the ideal home/neighborhood. Yours is “Copenhagen”, a city I visited once and loved, but most folks don’t even think about it consciously or rationally.

        Another one is “Soho Loft”, which 80s NYC artists pioneered out of necessity. This meme was so strong, however, that practically every urban development since then has aped the NY warehouse loft, totally out of context. It’s kind of dumb if you think about it, to have a drafty exposed space as your template for luxury living, but that’s the power of narrative.

        Johnny’s a great storyteller and it seems that “Walkable Main Street” is his template, with these post war neighborhoods as the attainable dream, given that said Main Streets are an endangered species. His writing has influenced me; Previously I was more of a “Skyscraper” promoter but I never thought about where that story came from, nor about the fragile and inhumane systems that make high rise living possible…

  10. imperfect people fueled by greed, frugality, and necessity can converge to create pretty good places that hold up over time.

    Unfortunately, the same people will tear them down on a regular basis. Oh well.

  11. When the rebuilding begins in Australia in towns burnt out 2019/20, I hope it’s used as an opportunity to rethink it all. Realistically it’s probably unlikely as local councils still have too much power and influence. Love to see some of the short-term housing solutions brought in such as in Paradise CA. Tiny houses and/or multiple dwellings on larger blocks. Can dream about it….

    1. One thing I noticed about the fires in CA, as bad as they were, were blown out of proportion by the media. How bad is it really in Australia? Is there serious talk of building differently (e.g. NOT single family homes down winding roads full of combustible fuel)? We certainly haven’t had an adult conversation about it here yet.

      1. I just picked up a friend from the airport. She was back in Australia visiting family for a month. She said the fires were worse than anything we saw here in California and worst than anything Australia has ever experienced. Her brother’s family had to evacuate from in New South Wales. All their neighbors’ homes burned for miles around. And the fires were only twelve miles from her parents home in Victoria.

        I asked her what the national conversation was like. She shrugged. There is no national conversation. Nothing is going to change….

        1. Yep, that definitely sounds worse than ours, and I was in the evac zone both times.

          What does it say about our consensus and cooperation when we’re unable to even discuss catastrophes?

          1. My standard line is simple. We aren’t going to address the structural problems in society. Instead we’re going to absorb the consequences of not addressing them. Having half your country on fire is one such consequence… Is it the end of the world? No. Change will come one way or another. It just won’t be voluntary or intentional.

  12. I thought I recognized your shots of Denver. Our daughter, Veronica, moved into an apartment on S Pearl Street with her fiancé about 8-9 blocks (other side of freeway) from some of your shots. These are wonderful old neighborhoods. Small ‘main streets’ within the larger context of big city urbanism. Preserving these current ‘built’ environments should be a priority across America. Perhaps some new urban developments can replicate these walkable neighborhoods on a slightly denser scale.

    1. While I like the idea of preserving existing older neighborhood I’m much more interested in creating new ones with the same qualities. What I see all over the country are communities where people fight tooth and nail to trap the existing building stock in amber while simultaneously forbidding identical new construction in the same form.

      1. Exactly – I am living this. Everyone loves our historic downtown so much that they hesitate to allow any change at all (including filling in parking lots…) but we have regulations (minimum lot sizes, more parking requirements, maximum number of units per acre, setbacks) that prevent the beloved pattern from being replicated anywhere else.

        1. Yep. Don’t expect this dynamic to change anytime soon. Enjoy the old existing stuff, and roll your eyes at the big new khrushchyovka buildings that infill the area. That’s the scale that’s now required. Sometimes they’re pretty good. Sometimes they aren’t. But that’s what’s possible.

  13. It will be interesting to see how CA’s newly enacted laws to encourage ADUs (or at least disallow their prohibition) change the post WWII picture.

  14. Honestly I think the best hope for what you are talking about is immigrants. In areas with substantial waves of recent immigrants I see lots of imaginative use of suburban spaces and revitalization of abandoned inner city spaces that were left for dead by the last waves of white flight. The white hipster urban pioneer types are MUCH MUCH fussier about the types of cities and urban landcapes they are willing to move to and invest in than are immigrants. I think immigrants are the only hope for much of suburban that isn’t conveniently located next to high priced and desirable urban areas.

    I lived for a decade in Waco TX where Hispanic immigrants have been moving in for decades and slowly bringing back to live older urban corridors that were left for dead by suburban white flight a generation ago. Without Hispanic immigrants there are large swaths of Waco that would probably today look like the abandoned parts of Gary Indiana.

    Now that I live across the river from Portland in the suburban Vancouver area it is a more eclectic mix of Asian, Hispanic and Russian/Ukranian immigrants who are bringing corners of suburban sprawl back to life in creative ways. They are also the first to repurpose large suburban McMansion homes into more creative multigenerational compounds. It just happens, no one asks for approval. And as long as there is no HOA to create hassles it is mostly tacitly ignored. My daughter’s best fried is the daughter of an Afghan immigrant family in the next subdivision over. They have at least 3 different families related living in their 3500 sf suburban home and have enclosed in a porch to add additional living space without getting into permits and raising questions.

      1. In addition to overseas immigrants, the immigrants could also be domestic. Like people who can’t get a foothold in the more expensive housing markets. After all, this is how Americans also used to live – multigeneration households with higher occupant/square-foot ratio than we do today.

    1. What are some of the trade-offs to importing immigrants? Your post sounds like they’ll solve all our problems. You mentioned one: they don’t care about permits. How about consensus and cooperation? How will they be achieved with this ‘eclectic mix of Asian, Hispanic, and Russian immigrants?’

      1. The new consensus may very well be that rules are observed mainly in the breach, leaving the orderly rules-loving residents fuming and sputtering about newcomers.

      2. Part of the reason they can work around the permits is by doing so in a way that is considerate of the community.

        Many of these immigrants are, after all, coming from places where there is little trust in authorities, where they relied almost entirely on the trust of the community.

      3. Consensus is often really not consensus but rigid conformity enforced by a certain older mainly white subgroup who are the only ones with the time, energy, and interest to engage in HOAs and town zoning meetings and all that sort of thing. As Johnny points out so frequently, nothing is ever static and change is constant. All that happens when you “freeze” a neighborhood in place is that you start the countdown to decay.

        Immigrants won’t “solve all our problems” but they will bring new energy and economic activity into many declining areas if allowed to. Not because they are necessarily far-sighted urban pioneers or anything. But more simply because those are (1) the areas they can afford, and/or (2) those are the areas where they are allowed to engage in commerce and small business.

        If you want to open up a Russian bakery or Chinese laundromat or Thai grocery you are going to do it in a nondescript suburban strip mall because that is what you can afford.

        1. It sounds to me that the older, “whiter” subgroups (I’ve noticed we all get ‘whiter’ as we get older) are going to see less and less support for their ideas as time goes on. What might that mean for our nation-state system of laws and social welfare assumptions? Will these immigrants want to pay into a System they so frequently circumvent? For example, are they likely to file 1040s or pocket the money owed in taxes? You seem unable to come up with any downsides or trade-offs to bringing immigrants here. Change! can be good, it can also be bad depending on the sign of the change. You seem to take only the absolute value of change. Economic activity! can be good or bad. Have you seen The Big Short? There were many examples of bad economic activity on display in that movie. I see myself as more than Homo Economicus so I’m skeptical of economic arguments which seem to be made to bless the desires and assumptions of the elites. Economists seem to serve the same function of the astrologers and priests of old.

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