Thursday, October 25, 2012

Because the rich can afford cosmetic surgery.

While most evidence suggests that the future of the American metropolitan area will hinge upon further decentralization—after all, it has continued unabated for the last seventy years—most large metros have a few suburbs that buck the trend.  A few years ago I featured Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, which largely matured in the middle of the 20th century as an affluent enclave just a few miles from the city center.  Fully built-out and benefiting from highly rated school systems, Bexley has always been an comfortable suburb, and the passage of time hasn’t changed this: its population has remained primarily stable over the years and it continues to be one of Columbus’ most desirable addresses.

University City, Missouri, the focal point of this blog, has played a more complicated role in metropolitan decentralization.  One of the earliest streetcar suburbs to St. Louis, it sits directly to the west of the city limits and includes part of Washington University within its municipal boundaries.  Such close proximity to a prestigious university would presumably encourage a desirable housing stock for the academics and staff who work there.  And it has helped University City—part of it, at least.  The southern portion of the city offers high-quality Georgian revival and colonial revival architecture from the 1910s and 1920s along gently hilly streets with a mature tree canopy.  Yet University City has lost one-third of its inhabitants since its peak population of slightly over 50,000 in 1960.  The northern portions of the community, further from the University but closer to some of St. Louis’s most distressed inner-ring suburbs, have a fraction of the income density of southern University City.

Thus we have a fractured community: across its less than 6 square miles are extremes of wealth and poverty, sometimes cheek-by-jowl.  But if a visitor stays south of Delmar Boulevard, he or she would never know that University City is anything but affluent.  Most of the residential streets look like this:
The University City School District has managed to retain a relatively good reputation despite the extremes of incomes it serves, which puts it in a rare minority among metropolitan suburbs.  It’s no Bexley, nor does it rank as highly as top-rated St. Louis suburbs like Ladue, but it certainly hasn’t suffered a collapse of its reputation akin to St. Louis Public Schools.  Thus, the aging but high-quality housing stock in the southern portion of this suburb commands a very high per-square-foot price.  I know this without having to investigate any real estate transactions.  I don’t even need to compare University City home values spatially (to other St. Louis suburbs) or temporally (before and after the real estate bubble burst of 2008-09).  I can tell that this stretch of University City is expensive just by looking at how people treat their houses, and it’s not merely a matter of upkeep or good landscaping.  It’s the subtler details, like this one:
This seems like a pretty conventional house for the neighborhood: all brick, a parcel/lot that is less than a quarter acre, and a garage in the back.  But check the rear end of that house a little further: is it a different color?
It’s a completely different type of construction.  Perhaps it’s a granny flat; perhaps it’s an addition.  Either way, it’s an increase in the overall square footage of livable space on this small lot.

Older neighborhoods like this, however desirable they may be, typically look somewhat different than they did when they were emergent suburbs.  By 21st century standards, these houses are small for the income level they would hope to attract.  In most regards, the homes in this part of metro St. Louis offer a potent counterpart to the pejoratively labeled McMansions popping up in the distant exurbs.  Both housing types attract households of similar income levels, but clearly those who choose University City value proximity to the city center, businesses within walking distance, and mature trees much more than they need spatial separation from neighbors through large lots—and enormous homes to stretch over those lots.  Some homeowners are no doubt comfortable with the smaller houses here, but the fact that they are made of brick imposes a far greater barrier to expansions or modifications than if they were primarily out of wood.  This homeowner with the obvious expansion clearly weighed the options and decided to sacrifice more of an already tiny back yard to boost the square footage.

Meanwhile, a neighbor just a few houses down on the opposite side of the street has apparently chosen a more radical option:
The gap between these two houses—the site of the bulldozer—almost definitely indicates a teardown.  My suspicions are that the house that previously stood here fit the same typology of the 1920s streetcar suburb that all these other homes display.  But it wasn’t good enough for the buyer.  Most likely the new house will be bigger, hugging the lot even more tightly than its predecessor.  Many urban planners call this approach wasteful, since the previous home, whatever condition it might have been in before it faced the dozer, was indubitably built to last the same amount of time as the surviving neighbors.  But this deep-pocketed buyer decided that the desirability of the location in southern University City transcended the shortcomings of the house—but not enough to retain the house itself.  The question becomes what is more wasteful: destruction of a viable house, or the willful bypassing of existing homes to build a much larger house in a greenfield?

For many observers, the answer to this question may arrive in a year or two, when this new house will most likely be complete.  Will it blend in with its neighbors, or will it seem oversized?  Chances are strong that the answer will be the latter of the two.  After all, if the previous house simply suffered from outdated engineering systems, a cramped floor plan, or deferred maintenance, it would possibly have been cheaper to address these issues without complete demolition and new construction.  Barring a concentrated effort from the neighborhood association to enforce conformity in the new construction (quite possibly through pursuit of Historic District status), the new house will stand out, either because the construction materials will lack patina, or it will consume more of the lot—and probably both.

Aside from the wastefulness, planners often harshly criticize the trend toward teardowns because they promote a jarring non-conformity in comfortable, stable (typically urban) neighborhoods.  I’m not as cynical.  After all, plenty of affluent homeowners are perfectly happy building their 6,000 square foot homes in the exurbs where they can buy a lot more land at a much lower price.  If it weren’t for the teardown opportunity, these homebuyers would simply contribute to further decentralization through a McMansion in the hinterlands.  Teardowns typically embody an uncomfortable collision of taste cultures: the bigger (and newer) is better mentality up against an idyllic domesticity substantiated by conformity toward a shared nostalgia.  A community like University City, fractured through its disinvested north and aristocratic south, needs as much reaffirmation of its “good half” to offset its persistent population loss in the other half.  And, even if this new house looks ridiculous, it won’t be alone: across the street is a neighbor with brown brick in the front and red in the back.


Tucker said...

Your post reminds me of the relationship between the University of Chicago and the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood. I remember reading a book a few years ago by Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh called “Gang Leader for a Day” where he talks about the poverty research he was involved with as a graduate student at the university. There’s a scene at the beginning of the book where he takes a survey they designed and walks to a nearby high-rise housing complex to find some respondents. While there, he gets taken hostage by a gang who has other interests besides participating in sociological research! It leads to a long-term relationship between Venkatesh and the head of this gang, which is detailed in the book (and also in another book called “Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor”, which is a fascinating investigation of the relationships between neighborhoods gangs, residents, and police, and of the ways residents made money under the table from activities like auto repair, hair styling, in-home cooking, etc.).

I was curious why neighborhoods like University Park have such a sharp rich/poor distinction. Why don’t they become gentrified like the Philadelphia neighborhood you profiled a few weeks ago? Is it because most of the university resources are used within the campus and don’t spill over into the adjacent neighborhoods? Do affluent neighborhoods near metropolitan universities like Washington-St. Louis mainly attract university staff/faculty, where urban professionals looking to live close to downtowns choose other neighborhoods? What do you think?

AmericanDirt said...

Interesting observations. I wonder if that "high-rise housing complex" that your book referred to was the Robert Taylor Homes, which have since been completely demolished. The informal sector (probably a euphemism for "underground economy", though I usually only hear it used in the context of developing countries) manifests itself all over the world, and can range from daycare and piano lessons to ticket scalping. It isn’t always illegal if the gross income is below certain thresholds, like a teenager who babysits. Otherwise, it constitutes tax evasion, and since the informal sector comprises sometimes 75% of employment in developing countries, those governments have a continued struggle at providing basic services like schooling because of lack of revenue. This is a broad generalization, but you know what I’m getting at.

With University City outside St. Louis, I'd guess that over 50% is "gentrified". It is the St. Louis equivalent of Cleveland Heights: an early, walkable streetcar suburb from the 1910s and 1920s in close proximity to a major school. In the 1950s and 60s, when white flight was at its worst, University City/Cleveland Heights first started seeing an influx of African Americans, at a time when segregation was still de jure across the country. These two more liberal communities didn't high-tail it like they did in, say, East Cleveland (or Jennings, MO, another St. Louis suburb that is now impoverished). Both University City and Cleveland Heights are more successfully integrated than other parts of their metros, even though there are some clearly all-white and all-black sections to both. In the census, both come across as moderately well-off areas with some (but not a lot) of poverty. But you and I know that those moderate numbers are more a reflection of an extremely rich section that is offset moderate or lower income pockets. I'd guess that what gentrification could take place has already happened, in the older, walkable, trendy commercial main streets that both suburbs have (which were probably pretty dowdy in the 1970s and 80s when strip malls were king), as well as the old but well-maintained housing nearby. Otherwise, the neighborhoods more likely to gentrify are in the central city, much closer to downtown (like Ohio City and Tremont in Cleveland, or Tower Grove South in St. Louis) before they'll hit these older, inner-ring suburbs. Feel free to disagree with me, but I don't see East Cleveland gentrifying any time soon...same goes with the struggling suburbs that directly touch impoverished northern St. Louis.

Tucker said...

The “high-rise housing complex” was Robert Taylor Homes, and actually the last chapter of the book was about the closing of the complex and the residents’ struggles in dealing with the Chicago Housing Authority and finding new housing. Your comments about the informal sector remind me of a book called “Methland”, which is about the effects of meth and the drug trade on a rural northeast Iowa town. Toward the end of the book the author discusses the concept of failed states (I don’t think he uses this term but that’s basically what he was talking about), and talks about how on the one hand rural America is connected and integrated with the rest of the country (e.g., our chickens and bacon in New York and LA come from places like Ft. Wayne, IN, or Liberal, KS) but on the other hand is a place where state control is weaker and other actors assert themselves (transnational drug gangs is his example). I think of Venkatesh’s book in the same light as he describes the negotiations for control of the Chicago neighborhoods he observed between residents, gangs, and the police. Like you, I usually only hear of these things in relation to other countries, and find it illuminating to apply them to the US context.

AmericanDirt said...

I can't help but think that the display of socially deviant behaviors often differs in rural or urban places, and that much of it has to do with density population. Your mention of Methland is telling, because the manufacturing of methamphetamines tends to thrive in rural areas. It's not so much that rural people have radically different taste in drugs than urban; instead, it's the fact that meth labs produce a pretty foul smell and are much easier for neighbors to detect in a densely populated area. It's much easier to get away with the manufacturing of meth when the lab is comfortably far from anyone who might rat the "cooker" out. I don't know that much about gang economies, but I would think that, because the drugs used to enrich leaders tend to be produced and refined elsewhere, a densely populated area helps facilitate the communication necessary for importation and distribution--which is why certain other drugs tend to thrive in cities.

These are obviously glittering generalities, but they probably hold some truth--and where they would fit within a judgment of "failed states" is probably best left to someone more qualified than me! Thanks again for your contributions, regardless.