Travel Update: I’m Going To Puerto Rico

Miami, FL

1. My three Forbes articles this week are about a proposed 1,200-foot skyscraper for Brooklyn; about the murder spike that has inflicted post-riot Baltimore; and about a new Houston-based think tank founded by Joel Kotkin called the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

2. But the real fun begins next week, when I conclude my Miami stay with a 4-day trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s ironic that while in Miami, there were two Caribbean territories just a short flight away that were in the center of the news, and that I will get to see during their major national transition periods.

One of them, of course, was Cuba, which recently normalized its relations with the United States, highlighted by the reopening of the U.S. embassy. This doesn’t mean that Cuba’s government should now be viewed as reasonable—far from it— but the normalization, if conducted properly, should benefit the people themselves. Opening up trade and travel between nations has always been a path to economic liberalization, which, in hand, enriches citizens and diminishes dictators’ power. Hopefully this will happen in Cuba, with the extreme poverty that I witnessed (documented here and here) reaching its peak before globalization kicks in–although many in South Florida remain skeptical…

The story in Puerto Rico, meanwhile, isn’t so positive. Ever since President Alejandro Garcia Padilla announced in June that the island’s $72 billion debt was unpayable, bond prices tumbled and there were talks of default. On Monday this finally happened, when it could pay only $628,000 of a $58 million bill. The default resulted from decades of poor management both internally, and from Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth, which ties it to certain backwards federal policies. First for the internal struggles:

  • The Wall Street Journal blamed it on “excessive borrowing, anti-growth policies…and the refusal of local politicians to address the failure of entitlement state politics,” highlighted by three pension funds that account for nearly half of the debt.
  • Another factor is the culture of corruption—which trails only New Jersey—including by the police.
  • Puerto Rico’s tax policies, while sometimes more lenient, still charge similar rates as the U.S. mainland, without creating equal service value. This is partly the federal government’s fault—in 2006, it ended the island’s special tax breaks, which caused many corporations to leave. Puerto Rico has been in recession ever since.
  • This decline, marked by 13.7% unemployment, has caused people to rapidly leave, furthering the economic troubles.

Among the problems imposed upon Puerto Rico by our federal government include:

  • The federal minimum wage law, which is impractical, says the Washington Post, given the island’s far lower labor productivity and economic development levels.
  • The Jones Act, which “mandates that ships must be built, owned, registered, and crewed by American citizens or permanent residents in order to ship goods between U.S. ports.” According to the Manhattan Institute, this raises prices throughout America, but especially Puerto Rico, given its reliance on shipping.
  • Federal entitlements have provided a disincentive to work, offering $600 more monthly than a minimum-wage job for a household of three.

What none of these articles provide, though, is the human face behind the government failures—which is why I’m visiting. I want to see how Puerto Ricans themselves have been effected by a decade of recession and ultimate default. What is their standard of living? What are the streets like during the daytime when only 40% of the labor force works? And what do the people themselves think of it all? Thus my San Juan trip, like the Havana one, will be a study of the working-class barrios. Stay tuned!

 

Who Are America’s Progressive Developers?

Miami, FL

1. I delved into finance this week for Forbes, writing articles about how Chicago’s junk-bond rating is already causing higher borrowing costs; and about how Dodd-Frank, 5 years after passage, is killing community banks.

2. Starting in a few weeks, and continuing for as long as I’m on the road, I will occasionally add to a new Market Urbanism series called “America’s Progressive Developers.” This will profile different developers who have either built, or are planning to build, interesting projects that enliven their city. The articles will include interviews, renderings, photos and perhaps video tours of each project, so that MU readers can get an inside look at the urban construction process.

One purpose of this series is to help change the negative perception towards developers. As readers know, anti-development sentiment within U.S. cities has for decades created numerous problems, including high housing prices, poor job growth, and environmental harm. These are problems that even liberal urban activists, who have driven the sentiment, are starting to recognize. For example, Gabriel Metcalf—president of the San Francisco-based planning think tank SPUR—wrote a CityLab essay yesterday about how NIMBYism has pushed out the city’s poor. But this does not mean that attitudes towards developers themselves have changed. Many are still seen as greedy and imposing, and their buildings as monuments to crass consumerism, by the very residents who benefit from proximity to such buildings.

It was not always this way; many large-scale developers were once seen as visionary city builders. For example, Coral Gables, the Miami suburb where I’ve stayed, is a master-planned community that was built in the 1920s by real estate mogul George Merrick. Its downtown became a tasteful mixed-use neighborhood that turned him into a local celebrity, and now one outside area has been named after him. Other developers during this period in America were lauded for building advanced skyscrapers, mansions, shopping centers and civic spaces. Many developers still build such things, but are nonetheless vilified because of the altered public sentiment, which is often rooted in class and racial conflict. This is something that I would like to change, by documenting how America’s developers have helped cities.

So what do I mean by developers who are “progressive”? This is a word that has become loaded, but I will use it to describe those who are forward-thinking, innovative, and whose work demonstrates an appreciation for cities. In this respect, almost anyone who develops in a city is somewhat progressive, by creating jobs and improving lots. But my column aims to profile those who are taking the extra step. This could include developers whose structures are architecturally interesting, integrate well with public space, emphasize historic preservation, present a new consumer option, or have advanced environmental technology. I could also cover projects that have had an outsized impact in revitalizing neighborhoods, even including large corporate ones. And I am not above profiling suburban developers, if they are doing something interesting. All of these development types can play important roles in any metro area.

Along with hopefully changing the perception about developers, I am also doing this series simply because I like meeting city builders. There have been countless times when, like other urbanists, I have walked through a city, seen an interesting project, and wondered—“how did this get here?” I aim to answer this by having the developers behind such projects explain how they did market research, attained financing, overcame political hurdles, and ultimately got something built.

This series will be interconnected with my cross-country trip, so I’ll seek out these progressive developers in every place I visit. If you are following my travels, and know of someone I should meet, drop me a line!

Havana, Cuba–Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them

[My second in a two-part series on Havana, Cuba. Here’s the first article.]

Havana, Cuba

Before taking my trip to Havana, one thing that I was curious about was how a half-century of Communism had affected the built fabric. While there are obvious disadvantages to economic stagnation, I figured that it would have at least created a charming-looking city. There are, after all, a handful of U.S. cities, and numerous European ones, that have resisted growth, modernization, and the automobile, only to remain quaint and historic. But it didn’t take even a 10-minute cab ride from the airport to realize that my assumption about Havana had been naïve—even if it is still held by many of the city’s blissfully uncurious tourists.

In fact, very little about Havana has been “preserved.”  Instead, everything in the city is merely old, and because little gets produced, nothing is replaced. This applies to the automobiles, furniture, hand tools, manufacturing equipment—and most certainly the buildings. Collectively, this stagnation has destroyed the look of the city, with a physical blight that stretches nearly every block from downtown to the outer slums.

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If I could define in one statement what Havana looks like, after four days of extensively biking and walking through, I’d call it the Latin American Detroit. It was a once-great city that declined because of bad policies, and its pervasive ruination serves as a constant reminder of this. The houses themselves, while large and ornate, are almost uniformly inadequate by U.S. standards. If they have not crumbled to the ground altogether, many are caving in. The foundations are crooked, full of holes, and marred by broken windows and doors. Because of Havana’s European roots, stucco is a common material, but on most buildings is falling off, or in some cases has disappeared. Almost every building has dirt and grime, while some are covered in it.

And this is for Havana’s nice parts. Once I began biking out of the central neighborhoods and into the slums, I found that symbols of past wealth disappeared altogether, and were replaced with what in the U.S. would be considered shacks. These structures were usually patched up with knotted wood, metal scraps, and thatching. One gentlemen who lived in the poor neighborhood of Cerro, and who I spoke with at length, described his area as akin to a Brazilian favela—which I found believable. The two pictures I took below were from his front porch, and mirrored the aesthetic of such areas.

So what is it like to live and work in these buildings? As one might expect, the outside decay permeates to the inside. The best access I got was through a 24-year-old working-class woman named Indira. I met Indira on my first night in Havana when stopping to ask directions, and after noticing that she spoke good English, took her to dinner. We became friends, and she invited me into her downtown apartment, where she lived with her mother and father-in-law. The apartment was roughly 150 square feet—far smaller than a typical New York City micro-unit. Because it had a high ceiling, the family had built a horizontal wooden floorboard halfway up the wall that served as the second floor, and built a makeshift staircase leading up. This upstairs “room” was for the mother and father-in-law, while Indira lived in the main room below, sleeping crammed against the kitchen.

Even in such a small space, there were numerous malfunctions. There was no hot water, either for cooking or showering. In fact, the shower did not even work, meaning that the family instead took scrub baths. Because the toilet didn’t flush, they had to pour water into it each time after use to accelerate the draining. The built-in wooden floorboard was clearly sagging under the weight of the upstairs furniture, raising concerns that it would one day collapse. As for the actual roof—it had been crumbling for years, and was fixed recently by a neighborhood handyman. To pay for the work, the family had to spend over a year saving up $150.

 

The main story of Indira's apartment.

The main story of Indira’s apartment.

 

The second story, upheld by a wood board

The second story, upheld by a wooden board

 

Public Infrastructure

Just as peoples’ private houses were crumbling, so too was the public infrastructure—again, much like Detroit. The public spaces, while well-used, were typically full of trash, overgrown weeds, and broken objects. Many parks, for example, were defined more by concrete than grassland. Streets, if they were even completely paved, were filled with potholes and had such poor drainage that, after it rained, they would gather huge puddles.

A water-less pool

A water-less pool

 

I wasn’t able in my short time there to analyze the underground infrastructure. But if it is like everything else in Havana, I would assume that it, too, is crumbling. For example, contrary to what tourist brochures say, Havana’s tap water is considered undrinkable by locals, and I was routinely offered bottled water to avoid catching chlorida.

Indeed, the substandard nature of Havana’s built entities were so common that after awhile I stopped noticing. For example, when I attended a rainy futbol match at a renowned Havana stadium, I sat underneath a roof that leaked constantly, getting soaked alongside other fans. Can anyone imagine this being tolerated at a U.S. arena? When I used bathrooms even in nice establishments, I would find that there often weren’t toilet seats, door locks, or (you guessed it) toilet paper. Schoolyards had swimming pools without water and basketball hoops without rims. And on it went.

This is how life is in Havana. And I soon realized, given this, how buffoonish it would have been to go around looking for examples of “historic preservation.” Such preservation is an aesthetic notion from the First World, driven by those who are willing to pay more to retrofit attractive old housing. But in a city of extreme poverty, preservation is the pragmatic steps people take to prevent their roofs from caving in.

a public park...

and a public waterfront

So How Does Havana Compare To…San Francisco?

Have you ever read an article that was so hilariously wrong that you wanted to pick your laptop up and chuck it across the room? This was my reaction to one article I read several days after returning from Havana, with the city’s horrific conditions still on my mind. On June 8, MarketWatch.com published an article by columnist Therese Poletti called “New Tech Money Is Destroying The Streets Of San Francisco.” Poletti explained that a flood of wealthy executives were moving into San Francisco, buying old homes, and altering the interiors.

It is now hard to find a Victorian home for sale that has not been gutted, its architectural details stripped and tossed. And owners or developers — looking to sell at a premium in the frenzied real estate market to “techies with cash” — hope to appeal to the tastes (or lack thereof) of current buyers, by turning once-charming homes with detailed woodwork, built-ins and art glass, into clones of Apple’s minimalist retail stores.

This trend has been developing for several years, but it seems far more prevalent today, with construction sites sprouting across the Bay Area and especially in San Francisco. And in addition to the remodeling frenzy, older buildings appear to be disappearing at a scary pace.

Before even addressing Poletti’s point, let me just set the record straight: San Francisco is not being “destroyed.” I can testify from having lived there in 2012, and visiting several times more, that the city is an architectural gem that has largely stayed in character since being rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. Much of the city—including almost the entire northeast portion—is an oasis of historic Italianate, Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Art Deco construction. These buildings roll along the hills flanked by clean, well-paved streets, and small, impeccably-landscaped yards. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, San Francisco surpasses any other major U.S. city, and perhaps any European one.

The reason for this is two-fold. San Francisco has expansive historic preservation laws that make it difficult or illegal to alter thousands of structures. Compelling arguments have been made that the city takes this preservationist impulse too far, to the detriment of adding new housing supply–although such laws help maintain its unique character. But the other factor—to which Poletti seems oblivious—is that the city has a large professional class with the financial wherewithal to maintain these homes.

I would argue that this second factor, more than the first, has preserved San Francisco. You could put a historic overlay designation across Detroit, and it wouldn’t change much. The Motor City suffers from decay because it has undergone six decades of depopulation, and this has left no one around to preserve its own large historic stock. But the Bay Area has been flooded with capital during this period, and this has strengthened its culture of preservation. Maintaining a historic home, after all, can be an expensive endeavor that requires ripping out floorboards, replacing pipes, and other structural changes. It is usually done by educated, well-off households who have either the money to fund repairs, or the time to dedicate sweat equity. Perhaps not every family preserves their homes precisely to Poletti’s specifications, and I don’t blame them, since it is difficult to live in a floor plan that was laid out a century ago. But she should not miss the broader point, which is that San Francisco has remained as it is because of the demographics it attracts.

Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation. But a fair-minded look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at America’s most notable historic neighborhoods–the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston–a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth. Meanwhile, there are numerous cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland—that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.

The same could be said when comparing Havana with Poletti’s San Francisco. Both cities have similar architecture and planning, but their differing economic histories have led to opposite preservationist destinies. Wealthy and growing San Francisco is a city where thousands of structures remain in superb shape, and where people grieve over minor alterations. Havana’s system has produced a crumbling city where the desire for preservation gets lost in a sea of basic needs. If Poletti really wants to see a “destroyed” city, she should visit the latter.

a public housing complex from the outside...

a public housing complex from the outside…

 

and from the inside.

and from the inside.

 

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Havana, Cuba–The City Of Scarcity

[My first in a two-part series on Havana, Cuba. Here’s the second article.]

Havana, Cuba

1. I’m now a week removed from my Cuba trip, where I spent 4 days in Havana biking through the city’s near-hourly mix of high heat and torrential rainfall, returning to my bed & breakfast each night covered in soot. My first few days back in Miami I spent sick and exhausted in a hotel, but managed in the latter half to pump out a Forbes article on Miami’s inequality. The piece was slammed the next morning by the Miami New Times–a local alternative rag–for making arguments that staff writer Kyle Munzenrieder found “structurally racist.” I sent an email asking him to elaborate on the racism charge (since he didn’t in the article), but haven’t heard back.

2. That said, my mind mostly remained in Cuba. It would be hard to summarize on this page everything that I learned there, since the nation has a complex history, and enforces a dizzying array of Communist-inspired regulations that would mystify Americans, and that has impoverished average Cubans. In coming weeks, I’ll explore these economic policies–and the effects of the U.S. embargo–in depth for other publications. But I’ll say a quick word here about Havana’s living conditions, peppered with a few of the more than 300 photographs I took.

While exploring Havana’s neighborhoods, the thing that jumped out was not the city’s poverty (although there was plenty of that), but its scarcity. Because Cuba’s government does not value or comprehend mass production–namely not for agriculture–there are shortages of everything. In America, we take for granted that any basic convenience is but a short drive away. But in Havana, running errands isn’t that simple. City residents have limited mobility: the bus system is cheap but unreliable, the newly-private taxi system is efficient but costly, and for most Cubans, owning a bicycle–much less an automobile–requires years of savings. So they must stick to neighborhood stores with minimal inventory, and even if they did all have cars, there would still be few outside options.

To understand why, just imagine a city where every store is literally 1% of what it would be in America.

A typical bakery in Havana.

A typical bakery in Havana.

 

While a U.S. pharmacy like Walgreens or CVS sells not only drugs, but numerous foods, beverages, household goods, etc., the average Havana farmacia has a few shelves with maybe 100 drugs–and that’s it. Modern U.S. grocery stores often exceed 50,000 square feet, and sell thousands of products. In Havana, different food types are sold separately in small, rickety stores that often contain one or two items. Mercados sell fruit and veggies; carnicerias sell meat; and many panaderias (pictured above) sell a low-nutrition roll that would be served as a side at a crappy American road diner. The typical gas station had not even one-tenth of what you would find in a 7-Eleven.

A mercado that sold only mangos and potatoes.

A mercado that sold only mangoes, plantains and potatoes.

 

Half of the available meat supply at a downtown carniceria

Half of the available meat supply at a downtown carniceria

 

This isn’t surprising, since most Cubans earn about $20/month, and thus have minimal spending power. But the scarcity effects all income groups. For example, as an American tourist, I was considered massively wealthy by Cuban standards. That said, my expenditures were mostly limited to my B&B, my bike rental, bottled water, cheap cafes, and cab fares. My one splurge was taking a local couple who I had befriended out to a restaurant that, by Cuban standards, was exquisite, but that didn’t exceed the quality or cost of an Applebee’s. Over 4 days, all this cost $360. Compared to the few other U.S. tourists I met, this was an extremely economical budget–but was still more than what many Cubans spend annually.

Yet despite this, I found myself unable to buy basic things. For example, during my first night in Havana, I didn’t realize–until it was too late–that the B&B landlord had not provided toilet paper. In America, this would be a glaring oversight, but in Havana, I would discover, is normal. This forced me to navigate my neighborhood at 3am, offering pesos to the many teenage boys still standing outside, to bring out “papel higienico” from their houses. Every time I tried this, they would each explain, in rather comical fashion, that none was available. Finally I found a teenager who spoke passable English, and asked him how this could be. After sending his little brother in to find something, he explained that “in Havana, toilet paper is a delicacy–like chocolate,” and that most residents don’t just have any sitting around. So how did people cope?

“Here in Havana, we have a saying,” he quipped. “We say, ‘Cubans have a good ass. Our asses work for all kinds of paper. Toilet paper, newspaper, book paper–any kind of paper’.”

When his younger brother reemerged from the house, he was holding for me a single sheet torn from his school journal. I would later learn while interviewing impoverished Cubans that other “delicacies” included soap, meat, milk, cheese, and ice cream, not to mention the hundreds of gadgets and appliances found in a typical American home.

3. One thing I mentioned before leaving for Havana was that I wanted to see how urban street life functioned in a city suffering from 50 years of stagnation. I found much that was good and bad, but for the sake of brevity, will describe this week what was good.

Havana, both in downtown and the neighborhoods, offers a scintillating street culture dominated by people, music, and commerce (spartan as it may be). In many ways, it is an urban flaneur’s dream, as one can spend hours weaving through crowded streets full of friendly people who will spill their life details to a stranger. There are, in fact, few places one can go without finding numerous people on each block, and rather than ignoring one another, many are in perpetual communication, often yelling to each other from adjacent buildings.

Just blocks from the Capitol building.

 

A busy street in the southwestern Havana slum where I stayed.

A busy street in the southwestern slum where I stayed.

 

This atmosphere continues well into the early morning, as mostly teenagers stand on corners to laugh, drink and sing. For them, a rich gringo passerby is not a target, but a source for amusing dialogue, especially since they will bend over backwards to try overcoming the language barrier.

But this street life seems less rosy when you consider that it is rooted in hardship. Many Cubans are forced by poverty to live cramped together–sometimes 10 to a house, according to one person I spoke with–so naturally they would escape to the street. Because some cannot afford front doors and windows, much less advanced security, there is little privacy, and people treat sidewalks like their extended living rooms. Because so few people own cars–and because those cars run slower than in America–traffic is less menacing, allowing pedestrians to linger in roadways. Because parks are in such disrepair, sporting children instead compete in the streets. And the built fabric itself is so narrow because modern buildings are seldom constructed.

An equally fascinating aspect of Havana’s street culture, to be covered next week, was the physical decline. It was not difficult to tell that Havana was once a very advanced society indeed, defined by a merchant and governing class who had sophisticated urbanist sensibilities. At times while biking through Havana’s mild hills, I would get these weird flashbacks of San Francisco, when observing large, elaborate Spanish architecture that interspersed gracefully alongside pocket parks, public stairways and boulevards. But imagine if San Francisco had undergone 50 years of Detroit-style decline and neglect, and you’ll get an idea of the blight that pervades Havana. Many of the photos I provide next week will alarm you.

4. I could go on and on about other aspects of Havana’s street life, but here are a few tidbits that readers will find interesting.

– As might be expected from a Communist dictatorship, there were few religious symbols, but numerous political insignia celebrating the Revolution’s enduring strength. Ironically, many of these signs were in disrepair.

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Translation: "study, work, rifle."

Translation: “study, work, rifle.”

 

A celebration of CDRs, the network of neighborhood watchdogs tasked with upholding the Communist order

A celebration of CDR, the network of neighborhood watchdogs tasked with upholding the Communist order

 

– Cuba’s many old automobiles might be charming, but are terrible for the environment. Old age and poor maintenance mean that many spew out toxic exhaust that blows into pedestrians’ faces. In the central parts of Havana, where streets were narrow and buildings taller, the stench lingers, making life unbreathable.

They also frequently break down; it’s hard to bike 10 blocks without finding some car on the side of the road, hood popped.

– In America, farmer’s markets have become boutique destinations that sell products of greater quality and expense than what is found in a supermarket. Tables are often run by “gentlemen farmers” who view their activity as a hobby. In Havana, by contrast, such markets expose the desperation of the Cuban people, as many tables offer screws, dishes, spare auto parts, and whatever else a family may have scavenged.

– Street drainage is terrible after it rains.

– And more:

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Here I am with my host family

Here I am with my host family

 

 

Travel Update: I’m Going To Cuba

Miami, FL

1. My two Forbes articles this week included one about how inclusionary zoning has replaced rent control as urban America’s preferred housing price control; and one about how San Francisco’s housing prices are causing creative class exile.

2. There was another interesting recent housing story in San Francisco, when city supervisor David Campos–who represents the Mission District–proposed putting a 2-year moratorium on market-rate housing in the gentrifying neighborhood. While activists support the measure, even San Francisco’s establishment liberals have deemed it counterproductive. Here are formal oppositions published by the San Francisco Chronicle; from the local Democratic Party; and by supervisor Scott Wiener, a renowned affordability champion. Wiener includes in his Medium op-ed a statement that will hopefully one day be read, contemplated, and internalized by every anti-gentrification activist in America:

New residents aren’t moving to the Mission because of new development; rather, they’re moving to the Mission because of the Mission, amazing as it is. People who want to move to the Mission will move there with or without new development. And, without additional housing, they will put more and more pressure on the existing housing stock. Evictions and displacement are the inevitable result of that pressure.

To counter, here’s an editorial by Campos criticizing Wiener for “channeling the ghost of Ronald Reagan.”

3. And yes, you read that headline right–I’m going to Cuba! I’d been flirting with the idea ever since President Obama normalized relations with the nation (just earlier today he removed it from the state sponsors of terrorism list), and being in Miami seemed like an excuse to go. I’m slated to leave early Sunday and return Thursday, June 4.

Traveling to Cuba is still not easy, much less available to the broader U.S. A person must fit one of 12 categories, and they are rather narrow (I qualified as a journalist, and am expected to keep a record of my activities). Few U.S. airlines offer Cuba flights, and the ones that do leave only from select cities. While numerous Cuba travel agencies exist here in Miami, some don’t have a single staffer who speaks English, suggesting that they cater more to Cuban-Americans connecting with their families than gringos. But I wanted to see a country in the final throes of its half-century stagnation, before it inevitably changes from increased tourism and new-found access to U.S. banks. I plan to visit las ciudades de Havana, Trinidad y Santiago de Cuba, while exploring much of the countryside in-between.

I realize that much has been written about the effects of Cuba’s Communist system on its living standards. Two particularly illuminating articles I found were by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and global traveler Michael Totten, who described what life is like for the many citizens who live on their allotted $20/month. Other journalists have taken a more positive tone by noting that Cuba has full literacy, minimal homelessness, and a relatively efficient health care system. But I’ll suspend judgement until arriving, and don’t know how much I’ll add to the conversation anyway, since I’m only there for 4 days.

One under-represented thing, though, that I’d like to explore is the nation’s reportedly vibrant street culture–and the causes for it. As PlacesJournal noted in an extended essay, Cuba’s urban neighborhoods have not been disrupted in the last half-century by excessive urban renewal, automobile through-traffic, or change in general. This has prevented modernization, but helped preserve their historic character and walkability. Such neighborhoods may be poor, but, as I’ve read and heard from Miami locals, are clean, safe, and full of people, music, and well-defined civic spaces. One doesn’t have to embrace Cuba’s overall political structure to acknowledge that there are probably still design lessons to be learned from its cities, and I’m looking forward to seeing what those are. Hopefully I can report back next week with plenty of photos.

 

Happy Birthday Jane Jacobs! (Now Let’s Have A Debate)

Jane Jacobs

1. This week I wrote three articles: one for Governing Magazine about how to make pedestrian malls successful; and two for Forbes—about how Syracuse is squelching a driveway-sharing app, and the latest attempts from San Francisco NIMBYs to stop a Warriors arena.

2. Today would have been Jane Jacobs’ 99th birthday, and I know many of you celebrated by attending (or hosting) Jane’s Walks in your cities. Because of other obligations, I wasn’t able to attend the Miami one, which was hosted in Little Havana by local realtor Carlos Fausto Miranda. If any of you did, tell me how it went.

3. I hate to use Jacob’s birthday as an excuse to seem divisive, but there’s something about her writings—and the way they’re interpreted—that I want to explore:

The thing that’s always made Jane Jacobs’s work so refreshing is that it has ideological crossover appeal. But this has also caused different schools of thought to emerge about her.

The left-leaning among Jacobs’ fans emphasize her work on urban form. Jacobs’ favorite neighborhood was her home base of Greenwich Village, and living there inspired her vision for other neighborhoods. As she brilliantly explained throughout The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the ones that functioned best had traditional street grids, human-scale buildings and parks, a mix of old and new architecture, and pedestrian accessibility. These elements of her teaching have been embraced by New Urbanists like Andres Duany, who have built entire neighborhoods on her principles; and by “smart growth” planners, who take the next step by imposing historic overlays and “form-based codes” on urban areas. These latter moves are done to stave off modernization, which they see as threatening Jacobs’ aesthetic vision for cities.

But the right-leaning side of Jacob’s followers focus less on design, than on her economic teachings, many of which came in later works. They adore the woman who loathed central planning and land use controls, and who thought that the “organized complexity” of city life was best tackled through organic growth. Rather than advocating for new layers of regulation, then, conservatives view Jacobs as an early advocate of market-based solutions. This side is led by people like Edward Glaeser, a proponent of more skyscrapers. Although skyscrapers might be taller than Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood, he argues, they would be a Jacobian response to many cities’ housing shortages, and if designed properly, would generate the street life she described.

I’m not here to say that one side is right or the other wrong. Both Jacobs’ economic and design teachings—and the way they’ve been interpreted—have been mostly beneficial for cities. But I will say that the New Urbanist side has gotten more representation. If you think today of what someone means when referring to a “Jane Jacobs-style neighborhood,” you picture a medium-density area with historic character, pocket parks, and niche coffee shops—places like Greenwich Village, The Haight in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Boston’s Back Bay. Meantime, large-scale neighborhoods—such as a typical downtown business district—are considered antithetical to Jacobian urbanism, and are frowned upon by planners.

I wish this perception would change, though, because high-rise neighborhoods play a role in cities that Jacobs would have appreciated. As I wrote on this site several weeks ago, the Miami neighborhood of Brickell—which is an overnight skyscraper zone that would have Glaeser beaming—is essential to the city’s economy, providing housing, offices, and recreation for the ever-important banking industry. It has also helped preserve surrounding downtown neighborhoods, by containing the city’s banking wealth to a small area, rather than having it inflict gentrification elsewhere. While Brickell doesn’t yet have great pedestrian infrastructure, the neighborhood’s sheer density has made it (as Glaeser would have predicted, and Jacobs would have liked) one of the city’s most active around the clock.

Yet I can’t imagine Brickell ever being the subject of a Jane’s Walk. There is something about the neighborhood’s sensibility—corporate, wealthy, glossy, neo-liberal—that doesn’t gel with Jacobs’ left-wing faction. However, Brickell and other skyscraper neighborhoods are essential in helping cities grow and stay competitive in a global economy. True fans of Jacobs should see the value of encouraging (or at least allowing) such neighborhoods, as a compliment to the more traditional-style ones.

 

Travel Update: Recent Articles On Housing

I wrote a housing-related article this week for Forbes, and in the process of research, came across several other interesting recent ones. Here’s the roundup:

1. My article discussed the connection between rent control and high housing prices. To my surprise, only 6 of America’s 50 largest cities still have rent control, as numerous others ended what they saw as a counterproductive policy. But those six remain among the nation’s most expensive, and I argue that rent control is a big reason why.

2. This didn’t prevent Seattle from trying to revive the policy this week, led by Socialist Party councilor Kshama Sawant.

3. While rent control is seen today as antiquated, this hasn’t stopped the rise of its close cousin, “inclusionary zoning.” Steven Greenhut writes for Reason about a California state court case that could determine the policy’s constitutionality. The case, he says, is “about whether cities have unlimited power to extract concessions from homebuilders for things that are not ‘impacts’ from the project. In other words, it’s legitimate for government to require new developments to pay to mitigate the effect of the new residents on local infrastructure (roads, sewers, fire service), but is it OK for cities to require affordable housing just because officials want to see more of it built?”

4. Michael Lewyn challenges the notion that Airbnb hurts housing affordability by taking units off the market.

5. Recently the New York Times published a short time-lapse video of lower Manhattan’s various developmental stages over 500 years. Daniel Bier at Newsweek points out something strange about the video’s last few decades: “The pace of change slows dramatically toward the end…because the city government has deliberately calcified New York City, encasing the city’s structures in a legal state of suspended animation.”

6. Emily Badger writes on Wonkblog about the rise of urban adult singles, and the way that cities’ housing stocks have failed to adapt–thanks to government regulation. Her piece is worth quoting at length.

Our housing stock wasn’t built for a society full of singles. Our communities instead are full of homes meant for the traditional nuclear family — two-bedroom starter homes, three-bedroom houses, apartments with more bathrooms than a singleton needs, full-service kitchens when 25-year-old bachelors now primarily dine by microwave….In New York, Austin and Denver, nearly 57 percent of adults were single in 2010 (although not necessarily living alone). In Washington, D.C., that figure is a whopping 71 percent. But none of these cities have anywhere near enough small-sized housing to accommodate them. That means that a lot of people are probably living with unrelated adult roommates who’d prefer to live alone (half you people in D.C. group homes?). And it means that some people who do live alone are likely paying more for space they don’t want in a large one-bedroom because there aren’t enough alternatives in studios and efficiencies.

Changes in demographics and social norms invariably occur faster than changes in the built world around us…[But] a lot of cities are also actively making it hard for the housing supply to adjust. The rise of singles calls in particular for more micro housing: apartments the size of studios or even smaller, and “accessory dwelling units” (think in-law cottages or garage apartments) that might be built in the back yard of existing homes. It also calls for a different model of housing where, for instance, four singles might share a communal living space adjacent to their separate units instead of each having their own living room. Neighborhood opposition and existing regulation make this kind of housing hard to build in most cities, though. Parking requirements, for example, often mandate that new housing come with new off-street parking spots, too. But that rule is impractical for someone who wants to rent a cottage in her backyard. And it makes projects financially unworkable for a developer who wants to build an apartment full of micro units next to a train stop for residents who don’t own cars. Other laws set minimum standards for how small a housing unit can be — in much of New York, it’s 400 square feet — making micro units effectively illegal.

 

Travel Update: A Tale Of Two Latino Areas In Miami And San Francisco

Miami, FL

1. The two Forbes articles I wrote this week are about New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to modernize the city’s courts; and a tech program under New York governor Andrew Cuomo that failed colossally in year one.

2. The highlight of my week, though, came at the tail end on Saturday night, when I explored Miami’s Little Havana, a Cuban neighborhood outside of downtown. What surprised me was how Cuban it actually was, despite abutting one of the nation’s booming financial districts. Almost everyone there is Cuban—save the few gringo tourists like me—and the neighborhood is rooted in their culture. Spanish is the first language, salsa music echoes through the streets, and retail areas are lined with Caribbean cuisine. It’s not unusual to find live chickens running though people’s backyards. The architecture reflects what I’ve seen in photos of Havana, and hasn’t been interspersed with condos and yoga studios.

This surprised me because, usually when I walk into such neighborhoods that abut rich areas, I find that they have been gentrified past the state of being “ethnic.” For example in San Francisco, The Mission District, historically the city’s Mexican neighborhood, is a shell of its former self. While it may have some streets dedicated to Mexican culture, there is literally a one-block demarcation from hipster Valencia Street, and the only thing keeping the old-timers around is rent control. San Francisco also has an increasingly diluted Chinatown and Japantown, and the decline of its black culture is well-documented. Meanwhile Miami’s “Little Havana” is still Cuban and historically-black Overtown remains black. Both neighborhoods are a stone’s-throw from downtown.

The fact that Miami is better than San Francisco at preserving close-in ethnic neighborhoods is surprising, because the cities are similar. Both have experienced a flood of new people and capital due, respectively, to their booming financial and tech industries. Both are warm-weather cities that attract tourists, artists, and the creative class. So how has Miami resisted gentrification? The answer lies in its downtown housing policies.

Rather than acting like they had no clue what to do with all these incoming rich people, Miami officials allowed them a place to go: Brickell. This is a neo-liberal mecca that several decades ago was a low-slung neighborhood. But in the 1970s, it began attracting small banks, and in the decades since has boomed into the “Wall Street of Miami.” It is now home to dozens of banks, and more than just a daytime work center, has evolved into a 24/7 skyscraper neighborhood, with a residential population that doubled from 2000-2010, to 27,000. A 2013 report found that 19 new condos were under construction, and another two dozen were in the planning stages. Along with this has come the fancy restaurants, bars, light rail, and walkable streets.

“If you’re a yuppie in Miami,” said a finance-industry woman who I went on a date with in the area, during a characteristically hopping Thursday night. “You’re going to live in Brickell.”

brickell

San Francisco, meanwhile, doesn’t have a Brickell-like area, and thus not a decisive place for its techies to live. The reason is politics. For one, Brickell’s ostentatious wealth displays conform with Miami’s culture, but would send San Francisco’s class warriors into spasms of outrage. Brickell also wouldn’t get built because San Francisco’s NIMBYs wouldn’t just allow a high-rise neighborhood to go up overnight—or at all. Even when something as harmless as a 12-story condo—8 Washington—is proposed in downtown San Francisco, it faces years of litigation. The stretch of land most eligible to become San Francisco’s Brickell would be the Mission Bay area around the Giants’ baseball stadium. But much of this land is government-operated, and all of it is regulated, leading to parking lots and low-scale buildings.

If this area were allowed to explode with high-end condos, it would be a natural destination for SF’s techies—just as Brickell is for Miami’s bankers. Many of America’s rich young professionals, after all, have shown a taste for the type of high-rise, upscale, security-laden condos found in Brickell. But because San Francisco lacks such development, yuppies there instead settle for older housing in low-slung neighborhoods like The Mission, Potrero Hill, and the Tenderloin. And this has brought chaos to those neighborhoods, as prices rise and established tenants are evicted.

All this, of course, suggests an ironic aspect of urban housing markets that is misunderstood by most government officials and NIMBYs: “if a city wants to preserve, it must build.” In other words, if a city is being flooded with rich people, then allow the market to build to their specifications, namely in under-utilized areas, and watch them concentrate there. That way, they won’t overwhelm the old-school ethnic areas, keeping prices down, and enabling those areas to function as they long have.