Sunday, July 25, 2010


I'm disappointed in my neighbor (who I don't know). Walking home today down Carroll Street, I came across a bike with a grammatically-challenged letter taped to it:

The letter is from our councilman, Steve Levin. It reads:

Under the councilman's signature, in thick black marker, the neighbor scribbled "PLEASE REMOVE YOUR BIKE FROM THE FRONT OF MY HOME."

This letter is especially galling because there is not a single bike rack on Carroll Street. If this biker can't lock his or her bike to this sign (or one like it) what is he or she to do?

And why does my neighbor care so much? Shouldn't we be making a bigger fuss about how much space is given over to street parking? Or double parking? Or how much traffic and pollution is generated by searching for parking? (Here's an idea: establish a "NO-CRUISING" zone to crack down on drivers who circle around the block in search of a parking spot). It's hard enough being a biker in New York City: do we really need to make bikers' lives harder by enlisting our councilmembers to enforce a law that, if regularly enforced, would make biking next to impossible?

Anyway, it's hard to imagine a reason why a bike locked to a traffic sign would bother someone so much. Why is a sign inoffensive when it benefits cars, but offensive when it benefits cars and bikes? It's hard not to think of RESIDENTIAL PERMIT PARKING here, which Margaret Crawford wrote about for our IABR installation. Something else that comes to mind: FIRE ZONES (which I wrote about earlier on this blog), and FIRE HYDRANTS, which you sometimes find a surplus of on beach-front blocks. All of these weapons are weapons that restrict access by prohibiting parking. All three create a "resident's only" environment in places that are otherwise public.

However, why someone would want to exclude bikers from Park Slope is beyond me. Does it have something to do with the Prospect Park West Bike Lane?

Sunday, July 18, 2010


On September 10, 2008, a popular playground at the Stadium Place YMCA in the Waverly neighborhood of Baltimore was burned to the ground in what was almost certainly a senseless, cold-hearted act of arson. Eight months later, in a touching expression of community solidarity, thousands of volunteers came together to rebuild the playground, which, I'm happy to report in July 2010, appears active and healthy. (My girlfriend's house is about 300 yards north of the playground, so I pass by it often, and feel an attachment to the neighborhood.)

That there is such a large, popular playground in Waverly, and that so many people volunteered so much time and hard work to its erection is a much more important story than the one I am about to tell. Nonetheless: on a recent walk past the playground, I was disturbed to find that the playground is protected by not one, not two, not three, but FOUR fences.

My camera isn't good enough to capture all four of them, but here are three:

The question I would like to pose is: does this make the playground any safer?

Obviously, fencing off the playground was done in the name of safety and security, and, when we consider that the playground was recently burned to the ground by vandals, this design decision seems at first very sensible. How do we keep the park safe? We keep out the vandals! How do we keep out the vandals? We build a big fence (again, actually four fences). However, I'm going to take a William Whyte / Jane Jacobs / Christopher Alexander view of the situation and opine that this line of reasoning is flawed, and that especially when we take the long view, it does not promote safety and security because it does not promote use. A better line of reasoning would be: How do we keep the park safe? We keep out the vandals! How do we keep out the vandals? We make sure that lots of different people use (or at least watch over) the playground. How do we make sure lots of different people use the playground? We make it easily accessible (by people and people's gaze), and combine it with other programs that attract other kinds of people.

The problem is that the designers of the playground sacrificed accessibility, visibility, and diversity for control, when it is the former three qualities that create safer environments. What we have is a fortress that is thoroughly disengaged from the everything around it, and that discourages all but the most dedicated park goers from making use of the space. To access it from the north or the west, one has to circumnavigate the YMCA, and walk behind the building to an interior parking lot. And while the playground is surrounded by the YMCA, an elementary school, an assisted living facility, and a neighborhood street of attached rowhouses, it does not "talk" to any of them. (A new baseball field that is being built by Cal Ripkin over the former Memorial Field where the Oriels used to play looks like it will be similarly disengaged.) In sum, the playground is a fortress (a fact that is nicely mimicked by the playground's architecture, which makes use of castle motifs):

Again, the bigger story is that there is a playground here. But a safer, better-used one could have been built with a few less fences.

Oh, and the highly-reflective glass on the YMCA doesn't help to de-fortress the space!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Here are two pictures of a L.I.R.R. platform in Garden City, Long Island. Can you guess what's wrong with these pictures?

The fact that there is not a single seat of any kind in this train station proved even more aggravating because 1) we arrived thirty minutes before my train did, and 2) we had just spent the day talking about how to "build a better burb," as jury members for a competition of the same name. Well here is a good place to start: don't be so afraid of loiterers, homeless people, and other "undesirables" that you are willing to deprive visitors to--and residents of--your preposterously segregated island of a place to sit down and wait for the train.


Sometimes when I have to explain what the Arsenal of Exclusion is, I use the example of the "NO LOITERING" SIGN, because it is a clear example of something that restricts access to space, and delegitimates an activity--loitering--that is a perfectly legitimate, and in some cases desirable form of social interaction (if you don't believe me, read William Whyte's City: Rediscovering the Center).

Anyway, a student of mine alerted me to this most interesting "NO LOITERING" SIGN on Baltimore's North Avenue:

At the bottom of this sticker of a door--which has been applied to hide the fact that the rowhouse has been boarded up and lacks an actual door--is a "NO LOITERING" SIGN. That is to say that the archetypal, generic, lowest-common-denominator door--the kind of door that you make when you mass produce anonymous, two-dimensional, one-to-one scale door simulacra--is actually a door with a "NO LOITERING" SIGN affixed to it.

That's amazing!

Monday, July 12, 2010


In an ongoing effort to balance July 5th's post by calling attention to the things that Baltimore is doing (or has done) to make a more open city, I present a link to this amazing 1953 Encyclopedia Britannica film about The Baltimore Plan.

In the four years after 1949's Slum Clearance legislation but before 1953's Urban Renewal legislation, a radical idea was proposed: what if, instead of completely clearing slums and reverting the city to a tabula rasa, we held slumlords to task in the interest of actually maintaining slum buildings? In Baltimore, the tool that was proposed to achieve this was the HOUSING COURT. The Encyclopedia Britannica film is essentially a film about this housing court.

As the movie suggests, Housing Courts were started in the 1950s as dedicated arenas for legal issues of housing, which were often of a scale too small to be effectively heard in the broader jurisdiction of the circuit and the district court. As an organ of the mid-century urban renewal movement, these early courts often focused their attention on deadbeat landlords that were not complying with health and safety codes. Ideally, these courts contain themselves to the nuanced and often mundane issues that erupt between tenants and landlords. Despite its original moral center around tenants' rights, the decisions levied by the court helped pave the way for aggressive modernizations that, at the very least, disturbed old patterns settlement, and at the worst, eliminated opportunities for fair housing in city centers.

The creation of a housing court in 1947 by a crusading judge in Baltimore, Maryland paved the way for the Pilot Program, a large scale urban improvement project in East Baltimore. James Rouse, a groundbreaking real estate developer and civic activist, was the head of the Mayor's Advisory Council on Housing Law Enforcement and an early advocate of slum clearance. These institutions, along with other advocates like Yates Cook of the Housing Bureau, used the authority vested by the Housing Court to identify unhygienic, unsafe, and untenable housing within the Pilot Program's twenty seven blocks. The massive renewal program paved the way for big-time developers like Rouse to build new housing and infrastructure.

Today, most medium to large communities have Housing Courts exclusively to handle the issues that arise between tenants and landlords, and few, if any, operate with the mandate that Rouse gave Baltimore's in the early 50s. Their jurisdiction ranges from questions about zoning changes to nuisance problems that might affect neighbors within a neighborhood. This forum gives tenants without substantial legal or monetary means to fight unfair treatment by housing authorities. For example, New York City's Housing Court, which relies upon 50 full-time judges and 1000s of support staff, hears around 300,000 cases a year.

Housing Court is in the Arsenal of Inclusion because it gives under-served populations access to due jurisprudence. It keeps areas of communities, often characterized by older housing stock and heterogeneous populations, viable places of healthy living. At the same time, any institution that falls victim to labyrinthine bureaucracy or external influence can lose sight of its ultimate mission. As the East Baltimore program demonstrated, the Housing Court's rulings are played out in the city by a long list of actors with many competing motives.


At the risk of sounding like a Baltimore-basher, I thought I should devote a post or two to the things that the city is doing (or has done) to make a more open city. In the previous post, I mentioned that Baltimore was a laboratory for the development of tools of discrimination, but Baltimore has also done a fair amount of experimenting with social policies, institutions, etc. that foster--as opposed to restrict--access to space.

For example, Baltimore has a pretty impressive Housing Mobility program. The product of an ACLU-initiated lawsuit against HUD (Thompson v. HUD) whose court documents could be bound and marketed as an American urban history textbook, the program seeks to combat the concentration of poverty in minority communities by giving public housing families access to private market housing in low poverty and predominantly white neighborhoods (or what the Kirwan Institute calls "zones of opportunity"). A newish report on the program, published by The Poverty and Race Research Action Council and The Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign, notes that since 2002, the program has moved 1,522 families into wealthier, less segregated neighborhoods in Baltimore County (88 percent of families moved from the inner city to suburban counties).

The report paints a rosy picture of the program, and for good reason. According to the report's Executive Summary, a survey of the families revealed that:

-Neighborhoods moved from were 80 percent black and 33 percent poor; those moved to were 21 percent black and 7.5 percent poor.

-Median household income in old neighborhoods was $24,182 and in new was $48,318.

-Eighty-three percent of settled participants (those who have been in their homes for at least 14 months) say their neighborhood is better or much better than their old neighborhood.

-In the new neighborhoods’ elementary schools, 69 and 76 percent of students scored proficient or higher on state math and reading tests, compared with 44 percent and 54 percent in the original city schools.

Those are pretty impressive results indeed. Stay tuned for some more pro Baltimore posts!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City

Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City is a great book. It is full of jaw-dropping statistics (i.e. in the 1970s, 83 percent of white growth was in Baltimore County, and 83 percent of black growth was in the city) uncomfortable truths (i.e. the Red Cross, on orders from the Military, turned away black blood donors at an emergency blood drive), seriously shady practices (Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson ordered real estate agents to report all sales to blacks to police), fascinating profiles (i.e. in 1964, a segregationist paving-contractor named George Mahoney ran for Governor on the Democratic ticket using the motto “Your home is your castle – protect it”), revealing anecdotes (i.e. in the late 1950s, when tens of thousands of single-family homes were being built in Baltimore County, zoning was allegedly done on napkins in the back room of a popular tavern), and just plain things I didn’t know (i.e. in 1944, Robert Moses was hired to do a plan for Baltimore).

It's a really important book that I highly recommend reading, even if you aren't from Baltimore. But the most important thing about it for this blog is the fact that it is full of new entries in the Arsenal of Exclusion. Indeed, Not in My Neighborhood makes a convincing case that Baltimore should be a prominent part of the American urban narrative, less because it was a large, bustling city that produced great culture than because Baltimore was something of a laboratory for the development of tools of discrimination. Indeed many of the weapons in this Arsenal of Exclusion, from BLOCKBUSTING to RACIAL AND RELIGIOUS COVENANTS to RACIAL ZONING were invented, honed, or most successfully deployed there.

Here are a few. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, as it only includes weapons of exclusion that weren’t in the original list of 101, or that were previously unknown to me. The book is full of insights about BLOCKBUSTING, MINIMUM LOT SIZES, RACIAL ZONING, RACIAL STEERING, RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS, SECURITY MAPS, and any number of other weapons that were on the original list of 101.

AIR CONDITIONER: Pietila makes an interesting, Robert Putnam-esque observation about air conditioning: “the arrival of whirring air conditioning units further insulated neighbors. The result was that even on balmy evenings, fewer and fewer people walked around the neighborhood or sat in porches, listening to radio and gossiping, as they had done in the early years.” (Pietila, 162).

ARCHDIOCESE: One of the truly terrible people Pietila writes about is Monsignor Louis Vaeth, from St. Bernadine’s in Edmondson Village. Like many leaders in the Catholic Church, Vaeth used the pulpit to deliver white supremacist sermons, and defend his parish against black infiltration. But Vaeth fell out of favor with the Baltimore archdiocese, who began to oppose racial segregation, and who, under Lawrence J. Shehan, insisted that it was the obligation of every Catholic to work towards racial equality. (ARCHDIOCESE is thus in the Arsenal of Exclusion and the Arsenal of Inclusion.)

CONDEMNATION: According to Pietila, one of the weapons pioneered in Baltimore was COMDEMNATION. In the early 1910s—almost a decade before New York City’s pioneering zoning code and almost 40 years before Urban Renewal—Mayor James H. Preston used condemnation powers to evacuate the entire neighborhood around Baltimore’s courthouse. His incentive? He wanted to prevent poor blacks from encroaching on fashionable, nearby Mt. Vernon. Another thing worth mentioning here is that he justified it with an appeal to public health. Pietila quotes Preston as saying that “The mortality rate among negros for all forms of tuberculosis is 260.4 per cent higher than that of the white race” (Pietila, 52).

DISCONTINUOUS STREET PATTERNS: Pietila doesn’t say too much about this, but does mention a 1970 Hearing of the United States Commission on Civil Rights that argued that African American areas in Baltimore County were “isolated from their surroundings and particularly from adjacent white residential areas by discontinuous street patterns.” Anyone who has ever had to get from east to west Baltimore knows that DISCONTINUOUS STREET PATTERNS are used in the city, too. A case in point is Greenmount Avenue, which divides one of Baltimore’s whitest, wealthiest neighborhoods (Guilford) from a low-income, predominantly African American one. When traveling north on Greenmount, it is impossible to make a left turn into Guilford: Underwood Avenue and Northway are one-way streets leading out of Guilford, and 35th Street is interrupted by a landscaped barrier. One street (39th Street) is a two-way street crossing Greenmount; however, the streets that branch off of 39th Street west of Greenmount lead you either directly back out or take you in a circle pattern around the section. It’s as confusing as it sounds.

EXPULSIVE ZONING: Pietila, after Yale Rabin, describes Baltimore County’s urban renewal efforts as acts of EXPULSIVE ZONING. The weapon is pretty simple: rezone black areas for business, and leave adjacent white areas untouched. Pietila’s example is Turner Station, home to Baltimore County’s largest concentration of African Americans. Pietilia writes that by the 1980s, so much of the neighborhood had been rezoned that the population shrunk to 3,557, down from 9,000 in the 1950s. A related tactic—also practiced by Baltimore County—was to rezone the area around African American areas for low density, thereby preventing neighborhood expansion (Pietila, 232).

(LACK OF) PUBLIC HOUSING: Pietila doesn’t say much about Baltimore’s notoriously segregated public housing program, but he does underline the fact that most suburban municipalities chose not to have a public housing authority. An interesting consequence, at least in Baltimore, was that the county’s needy ended up relying on the city’s overburdened social services. Write Pietila: “Each week, half a dozen county families applied for public housing in the city, which had no residency requirements, because there was no public housing in the county” (Pietila, 233).

LAND INSTALLMENT CONTRACT: As is to be expected of a book about bigotry in Baltimore, Pietila writes a lot about Blockbusting, which is one of those weapons in the arsenal that was really honed to perfection in Baltimore. For most blockbusters, the prevalent sales instrument was something called the LAND INSTALLMENT CONTRACT. A rent-to-buy arrangement, such contracts were, in Pietila’s words, “hocus pocus on pieces of paper.” They were not recorded, no deed changed hands, and there was no settlement. Titles remained in the sellers hands until “the purchaser accrued enough equity, usually 40 percent , to qualify for a mortgage.” The problem of course is that that day often never came. Sellers routinely evicted tenants for missing even one payment or for violating some obscure clause that was buried at the bottom of the contract. Sound familiar? (Indeed, it is impossible to read Not in My Neighborhood without thinking about how little has changed, despite how much progress has been made.)

MONTH-TO-MONTH LEASE: Pietila writes that the most cynical instigators of racial panic were owners of apartment buildings: “whenever a stable neighborhood began to desegregate, they bestowed a kiss of death on integration by simply evicting all white tenants, who were on monthly rents and leases. Landlords then jacked up rents, changed them to weekly payments, advertised their complexes only in the Afro-American, and rented only to blacks” (Pietila, 175). Pietila reveals an astonishing fact: in 1962 not a single multi-racial apartment building existed in Baltimore.

TELEVISION: Pietila makes an interesting, Robert Putnam-esque observation about television: soon after the first television station went on the air in 1947, people began living according to the television schedule. “ Tuesdays were no longer good for bowling or bingo; that night belonged to Milton Berle” (Pietila, 162).

MULTIPLE LISTING SERVICE: Before Zillow and Property Shark, there was the MULTIPLE LISTING SERVICE. Before that, there were CLASSIFIED ADS in the NEWSPAPER. In the latter two cases, separate listings existed for whites, blacks, and Jews.

NEWSPAPER: The Sun was pro segregation. The Afro-American was pro integration. Lots of people read these newspapers. Their reporting, opinions, and editorials were tremendously influential.

QUOTA: Pietila tells an interesting story about The Maylander apartment building, a 507-unit building near Johns Hopkins that was finished in 1951. Three years after the Supreme Court deemed restrictive covenants unenforceable in Shelley v. Kraemer, the management company behind the Marylander instituted a quota for Jews: until the building was 75 percent occupied, no more than 12 percent of tenants could be Jewish.

REAL ESTATE SIGNS: These are in the Arsenal of Exclusion for two reasons: First, Pietila writes about how signs typically announced whether a home was for sale to whites or “coloreds.” Second, the signs were used by blockbusters to spread panic.

TRAILER: Baltimore manufactured a lot of ships, aircrafts, and rockets for World War II. As is true of other manufacturing cities, Baltimore’s population boom in the 1940s has a lot to do with this fact: the factories needed labor, and people—many of them poor blacks from the south—settled in the city to meet with demand. A housing shortage ensued (thanks to RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS and other weapons, areas where blacks could live were severely limited), but instead of building more housing, housing officials recommended providing temporary trailers. Pietila quotes Senator Millard Tydings: “If more negroes are brought here they should be housed in trailers so that they can easily be moved out after the war is over” (Pietila, 80).