Homo Economicus?

I’ve seen debates between two schools on where things are heading. The first, exemplified by Thomas Piketty and his Capital, is that capital is increasingly locked into the hands of a few, leaving the many less well-off as they roll back the gains labor has achieved in the Industrial Revolution. The second, espoused by the Modern Monetary Theorists, suggests the exact opposite: that labor is going to become more powerful. Obviously, both can’t be right … or can they?

There’s a wild card here, and that is automation.

Consider this: automation will gobble up almost half of all available jobs. Obviously, a human who is unemployable has a labor worth that, while it may not exactly be zero, approaches it asymptotically, and is below the cost of employment. Why would Starbucks keep employing liberal-arts-degree’d baristas when BaristaBot2000™ can do it for pennies on the dollar? So, for this class, Piketty is ultimately right: they’re being locked out of the means to conduct their affairs.

Meanwhile, the other half, the ones who build and maintain the machines, who teach them how to think, who have fine skill and motor jobs that the bots cannot hope to replicate, who can fill custom niches … their labor value goes up. By a lot. Not only are they employable, they’re highly employable, and they’ll be able to command salaries that will shock and numb the unemployable class. For them, access to capital has never been higher, and upward mobility is, like, a real thing.

We can already see this today. Skilled coders in Silicon Valley are worth $150,000 minimum … I’d be lucky to land a salary that makes even a third that, before my landlord finally kicks me out. It isn’t just a rift between rote labor work and skill work: it’s what kind of skills you have, or more precisely, got while you were in college. Can you do higher math and code? Congrats, your labor is worth 2x that of someone who’s a gifted wordsmith. (After all, the bots are coming for low-skill journalist, PR, and media relations jobs anyway.) It’s a huge part of why the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing.

Extrapolate that, and we can see a three-classed society: the control class (the 1%), the valued-skill class (~50%) who have access to capital, and the devalued-skill and no-skill classes (~50%), who have no access to capital, the ones who are fundamentally unemployable.

But wait! you say. Aren’t you forgetting something? What about new work? After all, we don’t have very many horse shoers or sail makers anymore. Their jobs didn’t just go away. They were replaced.

And that brings us to the second problem, the reason why automation creates class stratification.

See, there are two major forces acting on labor worth. The first, innovation, creates new work and therefore increases net labor worth, as more work to do increases a worker’s value. The second, efficiency, slowly acts to reduce necessary inputs on known outputs, and in so doing, decrease a worker’s net value. Think about it this way: a company that used to have three workers doing a job they now have one worker doing is getting the work done more efficiently, and therefore is getting more bang for their labor buck … but the two workers that aren’t needed anymore are shit out of luck.

Let me here introduce the concept of replacement. The idea here is that the change in labor value (let’s call this Δv) is differentially dependent on two variables — that of labor efficiency (let’s call this ε), which squeezes work out of the system, and that of innovation (let’s call this I), which creates new work in the system. However, if the rate of change in labor efficiency (i.e. Δε) were to perfectly match that of innovation (ΔI), v<0, as natural increase adds fresh bodies to the system needing work. So that is also a value, P.

For replacement to be perfect, that is, for the amount of new work in the system to perfectly match the labor needs caused by old work leaving it as well as natural replacement’s increase in warm bodies, we can set up the simple system: where Δv=0, Δε=PΔI. But of course the system rarely works like that, and instead we’ll find inequalities: if Δε>PΔI, Δv<0; and if Δε<PΔI, Δv>0What this means is, of course, if we want the value of labor to go up — that is, if we want the work people do to be able to afford “comfortable” lifestyles, the rate of change in innovation times the factor of natural increase must always exceed that of efficiency.

We kind of understand this relationship … it’s why we understand at a gut level that universities are important (they’re innovation factories!), but efficiency is easier to see and measure than innovation, and so historically economics has attached undue importance to it. There still isn’t really a good direct measure of innovation: Jane Jacobs suggests “breakaways” would have worked as an indirect measurement in Victorian Birmingham, in The Economy of Cities; that translates to small-business creation in the United States today. Our understanding about how to model innovation remains all but nonexistent (whereas efficiency is well-understood), and yet, when it comes to being able to afford stuff over the long term, grokking innovation is even more important than grokking efficiency.

This fundamental ignorance of the connecting variable, innovation, leads to Piketty and the MMTs both being right. Automation is a creation of efficiency — it’ll lead to Δε going up, and in a world where we already see that Δε>PΔI, which naturally means that Δv crashes. Over the broadest possible scale, Piketty is right. Meanwhile, however, in the sectors that automation does not affect, ΔI<0 — because much of the work needed to control the bots does not exist yet. Here, we see labor value rising quickly, as there is plenty of new work to be had. Here the MMTs have it right … but very, very fragilely so. And that sectoral ΔI is simply not enough to satisfy the work demand across the entire system … just among the small subset of those whose skills are automation-proof.

From there, it’s a hop, skip, and jump away from a rigidly unequal class structure. That has to happen, because without mass disenfranchisement of the have-nots, this system collapses in on itself. There are just too many people locked out, demanding work, otherwise.

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Residential Vernaculars

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Brick vernaculars pervade the American northeast. Here, see the spread of brick vernaculars associated with the Mid-Atlantic (white) and elsewhere in the Northeast, mainly New England (red).

Nothing says “Mid-Atlantic” quite like the brick rowhome. The standard residential architecture of the region, it pervades both large cities and small in the regions dominated by Philadelphia and Baltimore — cities like Trenton, Easton, Lancaster, York, Harrisburg, and even Martinsburg, VW. Outside of this region, it is rarely found at all, stick-built wooden architecture being much more common. Or at least … so goes the stereotype.

This is … not entirely true. Actually, the Mid-Atlantic rowhome is unique in that, of the antebellum urban vernaculars (these were almost exclusively masonry, for very practical reasons), it achieved the furtherest spread. Where the Boston rowhome is limited to central New England, where the New York brownstone is limited to the New York region, where neither the Charleston, Savannah, or New Orleans vernaculars spread inland to any great extent (or perhaps any extent at all), the Mid-Atlantic rowhome was the progenitor of early urban vernaculars throughout the Ohio River valley and even as far south as Richmond, Va.

Why was this? Historical factors are clearly at play here. While the Mid-Atlantic rowhome spread far, its spread was ultimately checked. Stick-built residential construction proliferated in the Midwest, especially after the Civil War. Vernaculars in towns like Galena, Ill., show this transition: some plots have rowhomes; others, stick-builds. Yet, for a period early in American history, the Mid-Atlantic brick rowhome would have looked like it would become the standard American urban vernacular. To understand why this didn’t happen, we’ll have to understand two major factors — first, why the Mid-Atlantic vernacular traveled so far so fast, and second, where the stick-built style came from.

The Erie Canal: Not the Only Trade Route

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The Mid-Atlantic region (blue) was antebellum America’s most important center of early trade routes. Here we can see the Great Wagon Road extending from Philadelphia into the Shenandoah Valley; the C&O Canal from D.C. west; the overland trade route that ran from New York to Richmond; the Pennsylvania Canal & Portage Railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh; and the Ohio River trade route from Pittsburgh to St. Louis.

In American history classes nationwide, we emphasize the importance of the Erie Canal, and the role it played in linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes through the Mohawk Valley, the lowest and widest gap through the Appalachians. But the canal was hardly the first major transportation route into or through the mountains.

In fact, at the time it was built, Philadelphia was perhaps the nation’s biggest hub of major trade routes into the territories. The Great Wagon Road led from Philadelphia down through the Shenandoah Valley to Roanoke, and branches led deep into the North Carolina Piedmont and the Kentucky hills. Trade routes along the fall line directly linked Philadelphia with Baltimore and Richmond. Canals and turnpikes knitted together piedmont Pennsylvania. And of course, the Pennsylvania Canal ran up the Juniata River and down the Conemaugh, with the early rail portage across the Allegheny Front between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown. Pennsylvania, not New York, not Maryland, not Virginia, had direct access to the Ohio Valley.

This, in turn, affected early settlement patterns. Pennsylvania’s frontier region was settled mainly by Scots Presbyterians, whose friction with Philadelphia Quakers drove the state’s early politics. Scots populations migrated down the Great Wagon Road and into the Ohio Valley, setting up shop in the highlands, and developing the roots of modern Appalachian culture; meanwhile, traders developed market towns and cities along the trade routes — the major roads and rivers. The Ohio, relatively more direct, connected with the Mississippi, and located in a climatically warmer region, was more accessible for early Midwestern settlement, and naturally more favored in the first waves of westward expansion. And so, developed by Philadelphia traders and financed by Philadelphia finance, cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis quickly took root. Indeed, the trajectory of these more Philadelphia-centric cities can be tracked simply by following which early Ohio River cities favored rowhomes … they are almost completely absent in Louisville, a handful of examples remaining in riverfront neighborhoods east of the downtown, but are instead pervasive in, for example, St. Louis.

The strange thing about all of this, though, is that the Erie Canal and settlement of the Lower Lakes should have favored the widespread propagation of a New York vernacular, one that would be difficult to distinguish from the Mid-Atlantic one. But it didn’t. Instead, the vernacular that spread — first along the Lower Lakes, then throughout the Midwest, and finally from coast to coast — is of a style that has no basis at all in any of the early urban vernaculars. (This is because wooden construction was either tacitly discouraged or actively outlawed, on account of it being a fire hazard. Masonry is fireproof.)

And that, in its turn, means that this vernacular had to have been innovated almost entirely from scratch, somewhere somewhen in America, before it could even begin to propagate. Where did this happen? And when?

Tracing the Stick-Built’s History 

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The stick-built first appears as an urban vernacular in Mohawk Valley cities developed alongside the Erie Canal. From here it expands into the Lower Lakes and Southern Tier; into the North Woods and central Midwest; and later even into New England (as the three-decker). By the 1920s, the only regions still building in their original vernaculars were the Mid-Atlantic (airlite rowhome) and Deep South (shotgun house).

The first places wooden urban construction in the modern style occur seem to be in upstate New York, particularly along the Erie Canal. The earliest development phase of central New England’s cities use the same (brick) urban vernacular being used Boston at the time — an example is Rational Urbanism‘s Steven Shultis’ house. Prior to the 1820s, the only urban American wooden vernaculars were to be found in the Canadian Maritimes, and even then, these were still primarily rowhouse vernaculars, more similar to Scandinavian wooden vernaculars than anything else.

Nor does this new Mohawk Valley vernacular take after the New England farm, despite both being executed in wood. The New England farm vernacular is actually quite distinct: a long, rangy compound that integrates house and barn, giving a warm winter space (close to the barn) and a cool summer one (close to the road). Further south, the Mid-Atlantic farm vernacular favors stone farmhouses where good stone is available, although wood frame is used for barns. (It would seem that, in the Mid-Atlantic vernacular, masonry is always the preferred building material.)

Interestingly, this house type, called a gablefront house, is noted for two things (at least, according to Wikipedia): 1. developing during the 1820s, and 2. coinciding with the Greek Revival architectural period. But I would here suggest a third, and much more essential, condition leading to its emergence. A stick-built gablefront house is cheap to build. Very, very cheap. It’s well suited to the Mohawk Valley of the era — a series of rapidly expanding small cities lying alongside the Erie Canal, an early wild west. Unlike rowhomes, which require established brickmakers and skilled bricklayers to construct, this new gablefront style propagated rapidly throughout the Mohawk Valley because you only really needed carpenters to put it together — carpenters that your town already needed anyway.

So, while brick was clearly regarded as a premium building material through the Victorian period — this Mohawk Valley innovation, the gablefront house, got carried west into the Lower Lakes region, and from there expanded throughout the Midwest, including into the Ohio Valley. And during the same era, a similar architectural style, the shotgun house, proliferated throughout the South. And in New England, developers innovated the multifamily variant of the Mohawk Valley vernacular into their iconic triple-decker.

But what really drove the gablefront and its derivatives from being a regional style to a national one was a major innovation that happened at the turn of the 20th century: the mail-order house. This innovation first developed in Michigan, and when it was included in the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, it made wooden houses the go-to for new residential development, nationwide. Only in regions with their own deeply entrenched vernaculars was this resisted (such as the Mid-Atlantic airlite). By 1920, outside of the Northeast, almost all residential construction was based on the Mohawk Valley gablefront vernacular that had emerged just a century prior.

The Rise of the Tract

Colonial and early American housing was all one-off. Farmers either built their houses entirely from scratch or expanded on their family compounds as need be. Urban houses were all custom or semi-custom; land was usually subdivided before it was improved.

True rowhomes were the very earliest example of tract housing in the U.S., emerging in Philadelphia in the 1820s. Rowhomes could be built entire blocks at a time, purchased en bloc, improved, and then sold off; while this innovation quickly spread to other brick-vernacular cities, it was slow to develop in the emerging Mohawk Valley vernacular. Before the proliferation of the streetcar, these far-younger cities — still in their first phases of development — sold off parcels individually, to be improved individually. Even in the nascent streetcar suburbs, developers were mainly middlemen — buying the land, making improvements, and subdividing it into individual lots for homeowners. Construction services, while offered, would have been tangential to their core business at the time.

Richard Saunders of The Corner Side Yard has suggested that tract housing in the stick-built style didn’t really arise until the rapid expansion of Detroit in the early 20th century — a period when the city grew from a population of just over 200,000 (at the time, Cleveland was probably the eastern Lower Lakes’ beta city) to just under 2 million in 50 years, largely due to the attractiveness of the young auto industry. The only way developers could even hope to meet this demand was to build fields of housing, selling the house rather than the plot (as was more common in the early 19th century). The development of the mail-order house, quite literally a house that could be built from a kit with minimal skill, likewise occurred in Michigan at the beginning of the 20th century, likely as a response to the intense rapid growth of cities like Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Fort Wayne.

We can argue, then, that the orthodox narrative — that the modern subdivision is derived from the Levitt brothers’ towns — smacks of Northeastern bias. Actually, this bias is revealed when one looks at the history: the Levitt brothers were just one of several developers that innovated the same style in different parts of the country. California has its own distinct tract-development history, and it’s unlikely that the first developers there were influenced by the Levitts in any way. But they could have been influenced by the prewar Detroit solution — that is, selling a house in a subdivision rather than a plot — an innovation which changed the very face of how suburban development occurred in America.

Map file found here.

Optimizing Green Space in St. Louis

Optimizing Green Space in St. Louis

St. Louis has a history of demolishing city blocks for …

It all began innocuously enough. A city block was condemned and demolished for the Soldiers’ Memorial in the 1920s. Then a few others for park space. Looking at the city map, there was effectively no park space downtown at the time. Some green space existed around both the old and new courthouses, and around City Hall, but squares were noticeably absent.

Civic structures rapidly clustered around the park space, and in the postwar era, city leaders proposed a long mall extending all the way from the Old Courthouse to the north front of Union Station. And of course, there was the Arch plan, bankrolled with Federal dollars to give the city a visible new symbol and a large new greenspace. Remember, more than most cities, this was needed in St. Louis at the time, and even today. Unlike Cleveland, which had implemented a City Beautiful landscape plan during the 1900s, the only significant greenspace St. Louis had in its entire downtown ca. 1950 were those squares it had built in the 1920s, the ones the civic center had clustered around.

Like all postwar urban renewal plans, this had its share of ugliness. The Gateway Arch sits on the bed of an entire neighborhood, leveled flat for a park. St. Louis’ city leaders detested its brick vernacular and tiny blocks, seizing on every opportunity to demolish them. To this day, St. Louis’ city leaders don’t seem to care when landowners demolish willy-nilly, or that vast tracts of its urban fabric on the north side are just gone.

But the fact remains: St. Louis did need downtown green space, and in fact still does. The problem has been implementation.

It’s a stroke of the kind of aesthetic genius that usually eludes 1950s-era urban designers that the Arch is aligned with the downtown greenway. The Arch is aligned with the Old Courthouse; the Old Courthouse is aligned with the “new” one facing the civic square; both are aligned between Market and Chestnut (hmm, those street names sound familiar), producing a greenway that extends out to Union Station. Or it would, if St. Louis’ civic leaders hadn’t fucked up.

St. Louis’ civic leaders fuck up. A lot.

Anyway … for all its flaws (a big one that it divides downtown’s north and south halves), the greenway does provide downtown plenty of greenspace. Enough that buildings on the blocks nearest the network shouldn’t need open space requirements. Had the greenway been cleverly constructed and zoned, the return on private improvements (i.e. increased tax revenue) would have been able to pay for its construction. Of course, as we can see with parking garage blocks facing the greenway, this did not happen.

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Sketch of reconfigured park space in downtown St. Louis. The Gateway Arch’s size is reduced, allowing for high-value redevelopment along its edges. A long greenway visually links the Arch, Old Court House, and current courthouse; a second greenway along the same axis stretches in front of Union Station and the post office. A block of small parks between the two is surrounded by City Hall and other governmental offices. To the south, a new square is suggested at the main entrance to the Gateway Transportation Center. Finally, new development is proposed over the Metro embankment (a structurally easy overbuild) and reclaiming a former freeway path, now an oversized exit, dividing Downtown from the university neighborhoods to the west. Existing streets are in gray and new/rebuilt ones, black.

Three Actions With Lots of Impact

But that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, the western greenway sort of … just tapers off. Yes, the Gateway Arch’s park is too big. And yes, some idiot put a tower right between the new and old courthouses, completely fucking up the middle part of the mall. But the bones are in place to make for a pleasing civic-center experience in St. Louis. Here’s how.

(1) Shorten the Arch park. Right now, it extends all the way from the Eads to the Poplar Street bridge. This is clearly too much park — about 80 acres of it! Extending it to the bridges also means that there aren’t any active edges around the park, which keeps it a border experience. The Gateway Arch isn’t just the city’s gateway and main tourist draw, it’s also downtown’s primary and largest greenspace. That means it needs to be a part of downtown, not apart from it.

Re-plat the blocks between Washington and Locust (damn, these street names sound familiar) on the north side of the Arch, and between Spruce and Pine Poplar on the south — some six blocks. This gives the Arch active edges, as well as giving it more prospective users — right now, it’s little more than a tourist trap.

Yes, the rail line runs through the blocks closest to the river, between 1st and Leonor K. Sullivan, and that’ll make things interesting. But size isn’t everything, and a slightly smaller Arch is a better one.

(2) Modulate the greenspace on the west side. The civic courthouse is excellently placed — it does three major aesthetic jobs in the city. First, it forms the west end of the natural viewshed that extends from the Arch. Secondly, it helps frame the civic park area, along with City Hall and the other courthouses. And thirdly, it separates the greenspaces. That is, instead of being one amorphous blob, the civic courthouse makes the greenspace have an “east mall” chunk and a “civic park” chunk. These spaces, smaller, are more digestible and easier to design for. (Though malls are usually very formal greenspaces.)

This is not done on the west side. Here, the west mall just sort of flows into the civic park, exactly the kind of amorphous blob that the civic courthouse breaks up. And because it’s so poorly framed, the west mall feels less like a mall … and more like an oversized median. Which makes drivers on Chestnut and Market treat them more like extended offramps and less like streets.

So we modulate the space on the west side. Building a civic structure on the block bounded by 15th, 16th, Market, and Chestnut no, not Centre Square does that. Perhaps a new city offices building, setting up their current aging New Formalist digs just across the street for a gut rehab and a new use? The key is to make the building tall enough that it adequately terminates the vista for the western mall and handsome enough that it blends into the city, framing the civic park on its eastern side.

The other part of framing the western mall is to terminate its western vista, too. This calls for a new hotel building (although apartments and condos can do the same thing). By doing this, we prevent the mall from being a sort of placeless … thing, but instead make it a long, but clearly urban, city park.

(3) Get rid of the Peabody Building. It’s only been around for a little more than 20 years, which means that (short of St. Louis turning back into the region’s economic center overnight) it won’t reach the point where its mechanicals start to go for another 20-30 years. However, the Peabody Building is the only thing in the way of the sight lines between the courthouses and the Arch. It clearly stands out of place and ruins what should be one of the city’s signature vistas — the view from the east side of the Civic Courthouse, down an urban-canyon mall with the Old Courthouse’s capitol dome and the sleek glinting Arch hovering above at the end.

Probably the best way to do this is via a land swap — give the developer some underutilized public land (a set-aside parcel? a parcel that has just become available e.g. an obsolete highway exit? other strategies?) as an incentive to replace on that land instead of replacing or renovating Peabody. While patience is the name of this game, the payoff will be a great formal St. Louis mall.

The Results

Come off the riverside trail — a recreational path extending along the shores of the Mississippi. Cross Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and climb the steps up the bluff to the Gateway Arch. The park is pleasant — large enough that it allows its centerpiece breathing room, but small enough that you can feel the city surrounding you, towers that hem it in and give it a sense of place. And from the edge of the bluff, right over the railroad tracks, you can see the bridges across the Mississippi, the strings sewing East and West together. Off in the distance, the mounds of Cahokia.

Climb to the top of the Arch. Whether or not it’s still St. Louis’ tallest structure is immaterial — it’s still its most iconic. From its vista you can see the long green path of the Downtown Greenway parks network, a bustling city in every direction.

Climb back down. Walk past the Old Courthouse and you’re on the Court Mall, a belt of parks extending from the Old Courthouse to the Civic Courthouse, six blocks away. On either side of the Court Mall rise downtown St. Louis’ highrises, restaurants and cafés and bars and stores of all sorts at their bases. Bright and busy, the city entices you off the mall, into downtown to see what discoveries you can find. But there, at the end of the Courthouse Mall, is the city’s other great view, the wall of midrises flanking the mall, the glinting arch shimmering, like a mirage, over the Old Courthouse.

Pass by the Old Courthouse and you’re in the Civic Parks, several small squares, linked together by common theme. The city’s main civic and government buildings sit on the square’s south side; on the north, the Solders’ Memorial provides a focal point. Then the Library sits a bit further north.

Beyond the new municipal building, defining the Civic Parks’ west side, you’re on the Old Station Greenway, a handsome greenbelt setting off the Post office and old Union Station on its south side. At the end, a high-end hotel marks the back of the Downtown Greenway, and on its north side, the city is more sedate and residential.

This is a greenway that befits St. Louis, a park system that gives it a bit of that Boston feeling. Most of the skeleton is already in place — let’s see if they can fine-tune it and get the details right.

Some Arch City Thoughts

St. Louis is something of an odd city. It’s a beautiful city with a unique brick vernacular ultimately derived from the Mid-Atlantic one; its core has tiny blocks and narrow streets that might have influenced Portland’s layout; and it sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri, and near that of the Mississippi and the Ohio, putting it right at the continent’s biggest natural trade nexus — a nexus so profound that the largest city ever built in the pre-Columbian eastern United States, Cahokia, sits just east of the present-day city. From an outside perspective, St. Louis seems ideally placed to be a sort of Midwestern Portland, with its distinctive historic urban architecture, easy access to the Ozarks and points in every direction, and economic strength that comes from being the main city in the lower Ohio and middle Mississippi regions.

But at the same time, St. Louis is kind of languishing. Nearly all of its Rust Belt peer cities — Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like — are seen as more urban and welcoming, with reinvestments in their cores. In Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine only emerged as a destination in the last decade, and the Banks didn’t even exist yet. Cleveland has seen revitalization across a surprisingly broad swath of core neighborhoods, including Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit-Superior, and Little Italy, and much of its older downtown office stock is being repurposed to residential. And Pittsburgh — well, Pittsburgh has long touted itself as the Rust Belt’s greatest reinvention story (proving that branding and optics are more valuable than numerical data in the public consciousness). But what about St. Louis? Other than the Rams moving and the Ferguson protests … nada.

It isn’t like St. Louis doesn’t have the things it needs to succeed. The St. Louis metro remains Missouri’s most populous. The city is home to Washington University, something of a Midwestern Ivy ranked at the same level as the University of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University out in Cleveland. It’s chock full of small blocks, small investments are taking place throughout the outer neighborhoods, and it has tremendous assets like Forest Park. Yet the city continues to bleed population, and is subject to a tremendous perception gap. Almost all of the reinvestment in the core is in repurposing existing buildings; the only new construction in the last twenty years seems to have been parking garages.

Actually, I’d argue that the city and region are hobbled most of all by their politics and governance. While few (if any) American cities represent even a majority of their region’s populations, most large cities house between 20% and 40% of their region’s population. (For reference: New York City houses 40% of its metro, Philadelphia 25%, Chicago 27%, Denver 24%, Phoenix 35%, Houston 34%, Seattle 18%, and Los Angeles 30%.) But St. Louis houses just 10% of its metropolitan population, housing even less of its metro than even famously politically-fractured Boston (14%) or San Francisco (18%). And unlike either of those two, St. Louis failed to retain its position among its elite.

Break it further down and the absurdity of St. Louis’ fragmentation becomes clear. St. Louis County — home to a million people, a third of St. Louis’ population — has 90 distinct municipalities (as well as “unincorporated areas”), meaning that the average St. Louis County municipality governs 11,000 people — less than half a percent (0.4%) of the metropolitan population. This fragmentation leads to hyperlocalized land use policy, zoning designed to keep “those people” out (and in the city), simply by driving up the price points new construction can sell at.

Of course, this doesn’t really work. The North County is rapidly downfiltering, leading to both an expansion of necessary services and a decrease in income, in turn leading to more unorthodox means of collecting municipal revenue, creating the conditions for protests like Ferguson to flare up. Keep in mind here that St. Louis’ North County is not the only postwar suburban region undergoing downfiltering; it is, however, in all likelihood the most municipally fragmented. But — it did appear to work for a time. Without an urban elite to buoy it, St. Louis city became a concentration of poverty, poor people walled off from suburban communities by layer after layer of increasingly strict zoning inflating land values and preventing income mixing. Offices and industry left; Clayton is now, for all intents and purposes, the center of the St. Louis metro, while the city’s old core is mainly inhabited by government, law, and financial services workers.

The future doesn’t really look good for the St. Louis region. The constellation of hyper-small municipalities means that — just as in Ferguson — when a municipality loses its tax base, it’ll flip from being “good” to being “bad” in a hurry. Philadelphia has a few examples of hyperlocal working-class communities. We call them the “Balkan Burbs” and they’re the biggest sewers of festering corruption this side of Mos Eisley, making even City Hall look like roses by comparison. And while the “great inversion” will almost certainly solidify the city’s middle class, corruption and racial problems will continue to animate the North County a generation from now. The only way this will be resolved will be by dissolving small bankrupt municipalities, but the larger ones will be just as bankrupt.

Worse still, the northward migration of St. Louis’ black middle class will lead to a racial concentration of poverty in the natural peninsula bounded by the Mississippi and Missouri rivers . Where in most other metros, African-Americans will finally achieve some semblance of physical integration simply due to the increasing fractalization between “black” and “white” areas in the inner suburbs (that is, as the population disperses, a “ghetto” becomes a “band” becomes droplets in the matrix), the St. Louis region’s geography pens them in, and gives the region’s middle class a large ghetto to deny funds to.

This is a pretty bleak note to end things on. I guess a positive would be that, as poverty in the St. Louis region migrates to the North County, urban development and the city core will look more attractive for redevelopment efforts again. But that subtly misses the point, somehow. I just can’t shake this foreboding feeling that St. Louis is going to get screwed over harder — not revitalize the way its peer cities are.

Housing Policy

There is a large body of research that concentrated poverty is an important factor when it comes to persistent poverty. On the surface, this makes sense: if you live in an area where everyone is poor relative to the regional, state, or national economic milieu, then the incentives for economic attainment are a lot weaker (because you see everyone around you eking existences on the margins, and prosperous people — especially prosperous people who’ve attained their prosperity by legal and/or ethical means — are distant from your community, there are few positive role models, and in fact, few opportunities to see what a lifestyle of even average prosperity looks like). That is, the physical concentration of poverty leads to a poverty trap.

We can all agree, then, that deconcentrating poverty — that is, having the relative economic affluence within neighborhoods reflect (to a degree) the relative economic prosperity of the city or region — is a good thing. At least in theory. When natural experiments are conducted, this is borne out (see this recent City Observatory article). Refugees from areas of concentrated poverty, even when they relocate to only marginally-more-affluent areas, see increases in economic attainment. Similarly, several studies over the past decade indicate that, instead of causing the feared “displacement” boogeyman, gentrification in most areas results in little outmigration of existing residents, while simultaneously improving conventional educational metrics. That is, economic integration is absolutely critical in avoiding poverty traps.

Historically, American communities were segregated mainly along ethnic lines. This neighborhood was Irish, that one Italian, the one over there Jewish, down there was the Polish neighborhood, and so on. This is important because something we often fail to notice is that they were also internally economically integrated. Yes, different areas might’ve been more working-class or middle-class, but segregation by class was relatively unimportant in 1920’s America, and even then, confined mainly to the uppermost classes, the only ones who could afford houses and land in the picturesque suburbs. And segregation by ethnicity but not class, while socially bad in lots of ways we recognize today, also created lots and lots of small-scale social infrastructures, all operating in parallel. This, in turn, created an economic climate dominated by small- and medium-sized businesses, as most daily activities would have been carried out between people who lived and worked in the same neighborhood, and more importantly, people who owned within that neighborhood as well. Franchises were basically unknown then.

Congestion would have also abetted this. Essentially, most of the subclass that was wealthy enough to afford prewar suburbia either worked or attended to business exclusively downtown, and it would have been easier to get downtown from surrounding neighborhoods in most cities than it was to commute between those neighborhoods themselves.

Today, we’ve gone far in the other direction. Economic segregation is pervasive across our metroplexes. There are still a few examples of ethnic segregation, mainly centered around actively immigrating ethnicities (and African-Americans), but after a generation or two most immigrant children wind up entering the American milieu. However, housing choices are obsessively sorted — this subdivision is in this price range, which attracts people of this income, that one in that attracting that, and so on — across vast areas, yielding conformity in terms of early associations on a truly massive scale. And of course there’s the ghetto — the area where the most disenfranchised (usually African-Americans) live, and often also one of the oldest parts of town. As Cortright points out, there are now twice as many persistently poor people than there were in 1970.

Some would argue this is unintended. I disagree. Modern zoning, the main tool in American land-use planning, is called “Euclidean” zoning after Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. It’s called that because of Euclid v. Ambler, the landmark case establishing its legality: Euclidean zoning sought specifically to exclude — here, industrial uses in an attempt to prevent its annexation by Cleveland. (Ironically enough, the parcel in question is an industrial parcel to this day.) What has happened is that land-use zoning and the attendant legal climate is exclusionary by creating excessive barriers to development where development has already occurred, driving nearly all of every urban region’s development demand onto greenfield land. More exclusionary zones in turn make properties harder to develop, driving up the sale prices needed to make the subdivision profitable, resulting in higher developer’s fees (if the fees are progressively scaled) and, the municipality hopes, higher property taxes; nobody wants to be the one left to house the poor people.

The combination of highly prescriptive, localized, land-use regulations and high municipal fragmentation leads to greater economic segregation.

Anyway … where was I? Oh yes, trying to think through Cortright’s ramifications.

Cortright brought up the second major urban migration phenomenon, the return of the middle class to the cities, the one both boosters and detractors call gentrification. But that, too, is only part of the picture. If our goal is economic integration, then we have to bring a lot of policy prescriptions to bear.

(1) Realize that what gentrification does (provide a middle-class tax base for city services) is fundamentally a good thing,

(2) Decide land use on a regional level, taking the wheels off of the current driver of economic segregation,

(3) Allow enough housing units annually to satisfy demand (which, again, maximizes the tax base, as well as freeing up enough units to naturally downfilter), and

(4) Ensure that affordable units come online at a rate that maintains an economic balance. Where the demand mismatch is so great that this does not happen via downfiltering processes, rent control inclusive zoning will be called for.

The idea here is to essentially manage an economic profile such that a social infrastructure can be provided — both via public resources (enough wealthy and middle-class people want to live there that you’ve got a tax base as well as improved economic prospects for even the very poorest people in your jurisdiction) and commons ones (people of many economic backgrounds live in the same neighborhood).

However, as The Corner Side Yard often brings up, we’re still missing something in this picture. Urban redevelopment has yet to really pierce the regions of most concentrated poverty in many American cities — North Philadelphia, Chicago’s South Side, South Central Los Angeles — and in cities where it has, such as New York, Boston, and the Bay Area, development pressure is so strong that the entire metroplex has become unaffordable. Working classes make do, but the more mobile middle class (“hipsters” and “yuppies”) often move to more affordable cities, cities that offer the lifestyle they’re looking for at a budget they can afford.

This is downfiltering on a truly grand scale, and is, in fact, the engine powering revitalization in secondary cities all across the country. This has been happening, to some degree or another, for a long time; it’s perhaps more obvious right now because in many Northeastern and Midwestern beta cities, the longtime inhabitants eschew the old city —  St. Louis and Ohio’s major cities, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, are perhaps the most extreme examples.

Is this a good thing? Well, that remains to be seen. Migration also means that skills can be propagated and localized. That is a good thing, because highly localized skill sets favor decreased economic centralization (New York solutions don’t work in a St. Louis legal climate, that sort of thing), and excessive economic centralization can stall out entire economies. But it can also be a bad thing, especially if migrant communities are all simply clones of one another. That drives a “city” culture vs. a “suburban” one, instead of a “Philadelphia” culture vs. a “Chicago” culture, and that’s definitely not a good thing.

Anyway. I’m so far off track I don’t even remember what I was planning to write when I started. But rambling is fun, and “fun” is something I haven’t had enough of lately!