Of patterns for street-names

If there’s anyone who hasn’t yet discontinued their feed for this now-dormant and never-very-interesting blog, here’s a reward: most of the chapter on street-naming from the delightful Names on the Land by George R. Stewart. Enjoy!

First, the owners of the land had it surveyed, and from the survey a plat was drawn up, showing the plan of the streets. Then the owners petitioned the Legislature for incorporation under a certain name, and filed the plat. Generally the streets formed a checkerboard after the model of Philadelphia, and there were seldom fewer than ten each direction, though they might exist only on the plan and still be unbroken forest or a muskrat swamp. Usually from the beginning, these streets bore names. Thus every new town — and there were hundreds of them — required some twenty new names for streets.

No one passed any laws about naming streets, or even wrote a book of advice. As often in democracy, however, the result of complete freedom was not complete chaos. The town-planners tended to repeat traditionally, with slight variation, what was already familiar. So arose the four basic patterns of American street-names, more or less associated with different great cities, which served as models.

First of all, there was the pattern which might be said by paradox to be no pattern. The streets running in both directions bore names, and these followed no system. Boston furnished the model in the farther north. Most of the New England towns copied the Boston names, so that the typical pattern included State Street, Federal Street, and Congress Street, and probably Summer, Winter, Spring, Pleasant, and Commercial.

The older South also named its streets in both directions, taking its chief model perhaps from Baltimore, which became the first large southern city. But, even more than New England, the South held to itself, state by state, and even county by county. So no special series of names ran through the new southern towns. Instead, they more often named their streets for local heroes or plantation-families.

The most truly American pattern, however, remained that of Philadelphia — to have streets designated by numbers in one direction and by names in the other. The Philadelphia pattern spread west into Ohio and Kentucky and beyond. It followed down the Mississippi through Memphis, and took over many of the American-founded towns of Louisiana. It had outposts in New England — Bangor, New Bedford, Pittsfield, and others. It encroached strongly upon Virginia and Tennessee. Even in the farther South it furnished the pattern for many towns, such as Charlotte and Macon.

Like all systems of naming, it offered some problems. Where, for instance, should First Street lie? With a town on a river or lake, the conventional solution was to put First Street along the riverfront. Even so, time might bring difficulties. Often the shallow water was filled in, and First Street was no longer the first. These new streets were conventionally called Water or Front, again the Philadelphia pattern. On the other hand, a town laid out on a riverbank might find First Street caving into the water. Sometimes the river took the whole town, but sometimes only a section, so that perhaps Fourth Street became the first street, as in St. Joseph.

If no body of water was available to give a natural starting-point, First Street was merely placed along one edge of the plat. Then, if the city grew across that line, that part of it had streets which were outside the pattern.

Penn used his cross-streets the names of trees — “that spontaneously grow in the country.” Many founders of towns blindly followed his lead, using Chestnut, Walnut, and Mulberry, without any thought as to whether those trees grew there naturally. The trees, however, gave no indication of the succession of streets, and no order every became conventional. The followers of the Philadelphia system, in fact, never solved this difficulty. In certain regions of Ohio and the states north and west, many towns used the names of the first five Presidents in order. Any American might be expected to know that Monroe was the third street beyond Adams. The election of a second Adams, however, spoiled the system, and the intensified of party strife at the end of the Era of Good Feeling made some of the later Presidents too unpopular.

The planning and naming of the national capital offered a third model for new towns. The whole city was split by two main axes into four sections, designated by the half-points of the compass. East and west of one axis the streets began with First, and so continued. North and south of the other axis the streets began with A Street and continued through the alphabet. Broad diagonal thoroughfares, called avenues, bore the names of the states. The avenues and the alphabetically designated streets were the important innovations.

Although a plan of Washington was published in 1792, its building proceeded slowly and its influence was delayed. Richmond, Indiana, platted in 1816, followed it. In 1821 Alexander Ralston, who had helped with the laying-out of Washington, was appointed to survey the site of Indianapolis, also to be a capital city. He consciously imitated Washington, but in the end Indianapolis showed little of the name-pattern except for a few diagonal avenues named after states.

The Washington plan and name-pattern, both usually simplified, spread on to an occasional Illinois town, across the river to Iowa, and thence north and west. But it was nowhere dominant. The Americans simply did not like it.

One detail only of the Washington-pattern became popular. The French avenue, meaning usually the tree-bordered approach to a country-house, had been used in English for some time. It had even attained rhetorical usage, as when a Revolutionary orator cried out: “Oppression stalked at noon-day through every avenue of your cities!” But let oppression stalk where it might, no American had Avenue as his address until after the founding of Washington. Even the later popularity of Avenue may be partially credited to New York.

In 1807 a Commission was appointed to lay out a plan for the as yet unbuilt parts of Manhattan Island — “The leading streets and great avenues.” On April 1, 1811, the map was finished and filed. It presented the basic plan and name-patter of midtown and uptown New York which by the prestige of the city have become familiar to the whole world. The cross-town streets were numbered, after the Philadelphia fashion. The broad north-south thoroughfares were called Avenues after the Washington fashion; but, again after the Philadelphia fashion, they were numbered successively from First along the East River. The bulge of the island below Twenty-third Street, however, lay east of First Avenue; the Commissioners accommodated this geographical difficulty by the Washington device of using the letters of the alphabet from Avenue A to Avenue D. All the elements of the New York pattern were thus borrowed from Philadelphia and Washington, but their combination was something essentially new. The device of having numbered avenues cross numbered streets avoided the lack of system in the Philadelphia cross-streets. Yet the pattern was simpler than that of Washington.

Americans had been familiar with the Philadelphia pattern for nearly a hundred and fifty years before the New York adaptation even got on paper, and many more years elapsed before the midtown section became important. By that time most of the towns east of the Mississippi had already named their streets. The New York pattern was to be of influence in a few newer eastern towns, and in the newer sections of older cities, and especially in the farther West.

In naming their streets, the Americans were obviously torn between two basic emotions. First, they were a practical people, and vastly admired themselves for being so. Numbered and lettered streets thus attracted them greatly. One writer declared that a good street plan was incomplete:

unless there exists an orderly and methodical system of suitable names, so arranged as to enable the resident and the stranger within its gates to ascertain for themselves and without needless trouble or delay the relative positions of the different highways through which they might be called to pass.

Boston and Baltimore failed entirely to meet this requirement, and were rejected. Washington raised undue complications, and tended to defeat its own object. New York was the ideal of practicality, with the result that of all great cities it remains (with the exception of its downtown district) the easiest for anyone, resident or stranger, to find his way around in. Philadelphia was a compromise.

Its strength lay in that very fact. For, besides being practical, the Americans were like all peoples in having a strong tinge of sentiment in association with names. Names may be poetry; they readily become symbols of patriotism, achievement, or love of home. Numbers and letters sometimes attain symbolic value, but less easily and often.

The Philadelphia pattern allowed sentiment along with practicality, and its success fell little short of an overwhelming triumph. More than half of all our towns, perhaps three-quarters of them, have a system of numbered streets. The numbered avenues, after the model of New York, fail to appear in more than about one in six. About one town in ten shows the Washington pattern of lettered streets. The New York device of Avenue A makes a negligible showing. The repetition of individual street names tells the same story. Chestnut Street is far commoner than Pearl, and Pennsylvania Avenue is hardly in the running.

The last 16 years of Minneapolis bikeways in one seizure-inducing gif

I posted the following map on streets.mn today, which I’d made from a powerpoint presentation to the Transportation & Public Works committee a few weeks ago:


It’s amazing to look back at 2001, when I started riding, and see how few lanes there were. We got by somehow, but it wasn’t easy or much fun at all. I made extensive use of all the contraflow lanes that used to be downtown, on Marquette & 2nd and on Hennepin. The former worked pretty nice actually, and in a lot of ways were better than the current Marq-2 configuration (in that there was actually accommodation for bikes). But the Hennepin lanes, which I guess you could call an “on-street, unprotected cycletrack”, were among the more terrifying facilities I’ve ridden. If you were heading towards the river you would nearly always overtake a car waiting to turn left, proceeding on a wing and a prayer that the driver was paying attention to what was behind them as well as what was in front of them. Even the pathetic green lanes are better than that, and the 1st Ave protected lanes are mostly much better.

Today’s network is much more impressive, especially on the Northside and around the U. But still much of the city has merely nominal facilities, like Linden Hills and Far Southwest or Northeast, and Nokomis and Longfellow have none at all. Additionally, most of the lanes are unprotected and the MPD shows little or no interest in enforcing them, so riding in a lane means frequent detours into general traffic lanes. On a recent Monday afternoon (not yet rush hour) ride on the 1st & Blaisdell facilities, I encountered six obstructions in about two miles. At that point you fail to have useful facilities.

Minneapolis has devoted a lot of wind energy (i.e. words) to making Minneapolis a great biking city, and these maps could be used as evidence that the plan is succeeding. But the conditions on the street don’t show significant improvement from 2001, and unless either the protected bikeways goal is vastly exceeded (30 miles represents only about 15% of the current, inadequate total bikeway mileage) or Minneapolitans get a lot nicer about respecting bike lanes, biking in Minneapolis will remain a much better talking point than a lifestyle.



The Turmoil

Just finished The Turmoil, a fierce roar from a hardened lamb named Booth Tarkington who with it attempted to to take down the American heartland of 1914 and very nearly succeeded. For us transpo dorks, it contains fascinating descriptions of a society coming to grips with its recent surrender of safety, community and sanity to its new overlord automobile:

There was a heavy town-fog that afternoon, a smoke-mist, densest in the sanctuary of the temple. The people went about in it, busy and dirty, thickening their outside and inside linings of coal-tar, asphalt, sulphurous acid, oil of vitriol, and the other familiar things the men liked to breathe and to have upon their skins and garments and upon their wives and babies and sweethearts. The growth of the city was visible in the smoke and the noise and the rush. There was more smoke than there had been this day of February a year earlier; there was more noise; and the crowds were thicker – yet quicker in spite of that. The traffic policemen had a hard time, for the people were independent – they retained some habits of the old market-town period, and would cross the street anywhere and anyhow, which not only got them killed more frequently than if they clung to the legal crossings, but kept the motormen, the chauffeurs, and the truck-drivers in a stew of profane nervousness. So the traffic policemen led harried lives; they themselves were killed, of course, with a certain periodicity, but their main trouble was that they could not make the citizens realize that it was actually and mortally perilous to go about their city…

There’s something sort of naive and juvenile in his determination to make this charging, heaving, American machine take a breath and a look in the mirror, but he does it with a passion that’s charming. Worth a read.

ps he’s the guy who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles later filmified.

The best laid plans

Last week the Transportationist noted and reposted the Comprehensive LRT System Plan for Hennepin County, a 1988 vintage addition to the Twin Cities’ sky-high stack of written-and-forgotten plans.  This particular collection of fantastical fireplace fuel was posted on the official site for the Southwest Transitway, presumably to display their staff’s inability to use a scanner (a deficit I share as you’ll shortly see).  The Transportationist concluded his post with a call for a map of the routes planned in the “1970s ‘Regional Fixed Guideway Study'”.

At last an opportunity to share the fruit of my many hours of sequestration in the Minneapolis Stewart L. Central Library!  I’m not sure if I have exactly the map he’s looking for, but I do have a few items that likely will be of interest.  The first comes from Rail Rapid Transit, a report produced by Vorhees & Associates for the MTC in 1969.

The other is the Fast Link System, which I got from a doc called Fast Link Rail-Rapid Transit for Minneapolis, produced in 1972 by Don Fraser’s City Coordinator IIRC in a desperate effort to influence the Met Council and the Legislature (aka the decision-makers) to choose a transit policy that would actually benefit the city.

I believe, based on the references I’ve stumbled on occasionally, that the Fast Link plan was the one that had the most support, as opposed to the Vorhees plan.  It’s kind of hard to tell based on the scan that I made a few minutes before the library closed, but most of the Fast Link plan was proposed to be subway, with a few aerial segments.  As the 70s slithered on, this plan seems to have evolved into an option that had PRT-like segments through the downtowns and at the University, and curiously split into two one-way segments in St Paul, one of which was proposed for University and the other for I-94.  This iteration appeared in the Met Council’s 1975 Automated Small Vehicle Fixed Guideway Report along with a more traditional subway plan.

I have to admit that I didn’t have a chance to read through this one in detail, so I’m not sure if these were plans that were being seriously advocated for or if they were merely sacrificial lambs.  This is the report that set high-quality transit back for decades in Minnesota, as it was forwarded by the Met Council to the Legislature, which promptly banned the study of fixed guideway rail transit (as will be seen later).  These rail plans were compared with the Met Council’s adopted transit policy, which favored a network express buses with possible people mover systems in the downtowns.  According to the report, the rail plans would somehow not have serviced non-downtown locations as well as express buses, and the non-PRT plan wouldn’t even have served the downtowns well.  35 years later we know what hooey that was, as anyone who’s attempted to take one of the routes in today’s highly developed express bus network anywhere besides Downtown Minneapolis or Downtown St Paul.  But I concede it’s possible that at the time they really didn’t know that people would be willing to walk a bit further in exchange for reliable, fast, frequent transit, just as they didn’t know that gently suggesting that cities not allow non-sewered large-lot development wouldn’t contain sprawl.  On the other hand, the apparent lack of effort to develop a true bidirectional express bus network for the next three decades is also compelling evidence that this “Report” was utter bullshit, designed to funnel state money into highways.

Anyway, my sense is that by this point transit advocates were feeling a sense of panic and despair comparable to that I imagine is currently being felt by the GOP, at least at the MN level.  This can be gleaned from the timeline provided in the 1988 Hennepin County LRT plan, which I would really love to have been able to just copy and paste:

Planning for a variety of fixed guideway transit systems has proceeded almost continuously in the Twin Cities since the late 1960s.  [Here I would have added “to little or no effect.”  -Alex] Some of the major events of that history include:

  • MTC sponsored analyses of various technologies, early 1970s
  • MTC – Small Vehicle Study, 1974
  • Minnesota Legislature prohibition of fixed rail planning, 1975 [! -Alex]
  • University of Minnesota Transitway, 1976
  • St. Paul Downtown People Mover, 1976-1980
  • Minnesota Legislature lifts prohibition of fixed rail planning, 1980
  • Light Rail Transit Feasibility Study, 1981
  • Hiawatha Avenue Location and Design Study – EIS, 1979-1984
  • I-394 High Occupancy Vehicle Roadway, 1982
  • University/Southwest Alternatives Analysis, 1985 (draft)
  • Metropolitan Council/RTB identify LRT as preferred mode in University, Southwest and Hiawatha Corridors; University is the priority corridor
  • LRT Implementation Planning Program, April 1985
  • Minnesota Legislature prohibition of fixed guideway planning, 1985 [This is not an accidental duplication – it apparently happened again.  How did this get past Perpich? – Alex]
  • Transit Service Needs Assessment, Regional Transit Board, 1986
  • A Study of Potential Transit Capital Investments in Twin Cities Corridors – Long-Range Transit Analysis, Metropolitan Council, December 1986
  • Minnesota Legislature lifts prohibition of fixed guideway planning, 1987
  • Comprehensive LRT System Planning for Hennepin County, 1988

So next time you’re feeling proud of Minnesota’s history of relatively sane governance, remember that the Legislature managed to interfere in what should be a technical decision not once but twice.  And lest you think that these poxes on transit are just a product of overreach by Republicans on the rare occasion that they gain complete power, the 1975 Legislature was overwhelmingly DFL, and Wendy Anderson of St Paul was in the Governor’s Mansion.  Of course, in 1975 it wasn’t necessarily an anti-transit attitude that was prevalent; more likely it was a misunderstanding of the nature of urban systems masqueraded as futurism in the form of People Movers and PRT.  This same Legislature, after all, further empowered the Met Council, which itself is a culmination of the suburban experiment – the failed idea of the Broadacre City, made more palatable in its rationalization of the overdelivery of infrastructure that’s inherent in such an individualistic urban form.

Anyway, in the above timeline is included the 1981 LRT Feasibility Study, which was produced by an apparently repentant (or possibly begrudging) Met Council.  This is available in a form that patrons of the Stewart J. Central Library can check out, which I did last summer, resulting in these atrocious scans:

West LRT

Southwest LRT

University LRT

Northeast LRT

And a summary sheet indicating that the fully built LRT system (including a Northwest line, which I didn’t scan for some reason but was probably pretty similar to the Bottineau LPA) would serve 32,900 more weekday passengers than an existing or minimally improved system, and would actually turn an operating profit of $4.8m a year.

With that, I’ll close the vault for now.  If you liked these and want more, don’t worry – I spend a lot of time at the library, and unlike our transit system, the archive of old transit studies is almost limitless.

To a mouse.

Drunk Driving & Other Delights

George Smith… A name that will live in infamy…

1897:  Officers make first drunk driving arrest

On this day in 1897, a twenty-five-year-old London taxi driver named George Smith became the first person ever arrested for drunk driving after slamming his cab into a building.  Smith later pled guilty and was fined twenty-five shillings.  In the United States, the first laws against operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol went into effect in New York in 1910.  In 1953 Robert Borkenstein, a former Indiana state police captain and university professor, invented the Breathalyzer.  Easier to use and more accurate than earlier devices, the Breathalyzer was the first practical device and scientific test available to police officers to establish whether someone had too much to drink.

From my History Channel page-a-day calendar today.  Btw, apparently 25 shillings in 1897 would be £114.27 in 2011, or $182.87 at current exchange rates.  Luckily the penalty is a bit steeper these days.

How the neighborhoods got their shapes

In an undated photo from the HC Library, Herman Olson makes a convincing case for tearing it all down and building a freeway

Once upon a long, long time ago, Minneapolis didn’t have any neighborhoods.  Well, of course the city had neighborhoods, but they were the sort of organic shorthand referring to important intersections, like Cedar-Riverside or Chicago-Lake, you know, the kind of place that in the old world would have been called a square and given its own name.

In this amorphous pre-neighborhood era, all planning was handled by a grumpy old man named Herman Olson.  He spent his time thinking about where to put public markets and how to cram more cars into the downtown, but no one really put much stock into his recommendations, because no one could remember why he was qualified to say where stuff should go except that he had worked for the city for decades.  Since the City had plenty of other employees who’d also worked there for ages, Olson was frequently ignored.

And, in the late 50s, he was finally replaced.  The colleges of the day were churning out urban planners and giving them a scientific veneer and an interest in something called comprehensive planning, and Minneapolis received a typical product by the name of Lawrence Irvin.  No one really knew what comprehensive planning was, but the new planners were very insistent on doing it, and they got cracking by working on the Official Plan that was to be published in the fall of 1960 and to be heavily dependent on the concept of neighborhoods.

The earliest introduction to Irvin’s conception of neighborhoods that I can find is in a document with the amazingly dated title Minneapolis in the Motor Age, basically a book-length argument for why we need to subvert our lifestyles to accommodate cars.  He* starts with the reasonable observation that streets can “unify or divide related activities.”

Blobs are the answer

The idea that streets can unify or divide seems a platitude when you consider that depending on placement, any physical object can unify or divide any number of other objects.  So it’s a pretty big leap when on the next page Irvin declares that one of the “functions of importance” of streets to land use is to “provide a means to define Neighborhoods” (emphasis in the original).  What he’s after is the consolidation of vehicular traffic onto arterial streets, and he uses a cool chart to attempt to portray the severity of the problem of car-choked side streets:

Not too different from today, with our freeway, lower population and higher motorization rate

Irvin goes on to explain that arterial streets should not go through communities and neighborhoods because neighborhoods and communities “must not be divided by major physical features in such a way as to prohibit effective internal circulation” (emphasis again in the original).  Besides its circularity, this argument is notable because, in the midst of a document that proposes building wider and faster roads to accommodate the needs of the motor age, Irvin is acknowledging the ways that roads actually inhibit mobility.  But hey, he comes up with a far out map of a “hypothetical” community to illustrate his point:

North Anywhereville

Finally, Irvin drills down to the level of the neighborhood, sketching a almost kibbutz-like concept that can “support”  (he probably means justify) an elementary school and a park within a half-mile walk, includes a few stores but “separate[s] residential and non-residential districts.”  There’s a conceptual neighborhood drawing, too, but greyscale this time.  It shows street concepts like cul-de-sacs, diverters, and “safety walks”, but the only text about streets in neighborhoods is the now-repetitive admonition to route “Major streets around, not through the neighborhood” (emphasis yet again in original).

No room in the budget for some industrial brown?

After using all those pages and three full colors to illustrate his concept of communities and neighborhoods, Lawrence Irvin did not yet see fit to actually unveil how it would apply to the actual city.  After reading Minneapolis in the Motor Age you know you’re not supposed to route arterial streets through neighborhoods, but where are the neighborhoods you need to avoid?  Luckily Irvin didn’t wait long, as a couple months later The Official Plan – the city’s first comprehensive plan – was published, and included a map of communities and neighborhoods.

As you can see (if you squint enough to make sense of my terrible scan), Irvin came up with something pretty similar to today’s neighborhoods.  Note that the commercial intersections that heretofore had been the only differentiated points on the map are excluded altogether from the shading that denotes neighborhoods.  Despite the somewhat elaborate setup in Minneapolis in the Motor Age, the neighborhood boundaries weren’t Irvin’s creation but rather mostly reflected contemporaneous attitudes in the planning field.  They certainly had little to do with Minneapolis’ history as a streetcar suburb, and in many cases reflected an aspirational conception of which streets would become arterial (consider the extension of 36th St across South Minneapolis, despite the fact that it is only intermittently a collector east of Bryant and creates awkward boundaries near Powderhorn Park, later rectified).  In fact these aspirations created conflict with other city departments, specifically the transportation department.**

The plan came up with two stated purposes for inventing these neighborhoods – to serve as a conveniently small unit for planning and to be a platform for “citizen action” – that they were to fulfill in the major zoning overhaul that Irvin was shortly to launch, and they still fulfill them more or less to this very day.  And that is how the neighborhoods got their shapes.

City of parkways and freeways

*Irvin had a staff that was actually writing these documents, but it’s more convenient to my narrative to attribute it to him – and anyway, he as Director approved the plans.

**As told by Alan Altshuler in his classic The City Planning Process, which I’ve leaned on heavily for the outline of this history

Cross-posted at streets.mn.

Departing Barmi, next stop San Rafael

Barmi in the 6th century, from Jordi Ballonga's website

For better or for worse, children are the future, and that’s why it’s important to get them started thinking about cities now.  Just like many children are unaware that meat comes from animals, many children are unaware that suburbs come from cities, or that many cities were once suburbs, or of numerous other urban paradoxes that seem to perplex even many adults.

My interest in cities was kindled in my youth by a series of books primarily written by a professor at the University of Barcelona, Xavier Hernandez, and primarily illustrated by Jordi Ballonga, “a specialist in the illustration of urban subjects”.  Barmi and Lebek tell the story of two cities in southern and northern Europe respectively from their founding to the present (well, the late 20th century anyway).  Measuring a good 9″x12″, the books depict every phase in the development of these cities in an amazingly detailed birds-eye perspective splashed over two pages.  You will never see Barmi and Lebek on an e-reader.

A detail of a cathedral in Barmi from Jordi Ballonga's website (alas the book is black and white)

As a child, I spent hours following the two cities on their journeys through time, with each era illustrated in such incredible detail that I seemed to never run out of new unnoticed details.  (Reopening the books many years later, I see that I apparently added my own details in the form of pencil-marked walls or buildings in places.)  Perhaps less linger-worthy but no less fascinating were the pages between the birds-eyes, which gave a narrative history of the era depicted and had detailed cut-away drawings of specific buildings or infrastructure, such as cathedrals, skyscrapers, or subways.

Barmi was the first book I got, and today it is the most yellow, worn and pencil-marked.  Sometime later I got Lebek, but I never was able to find the third book in the series, San Rafael, which tells the story of a fictional city somewhere “in the region that lies south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and north of Guatemala’s Sierra de las Minas, an area that includes the Mexican state of Chiapas, Guatemala’s central region, southern Belize, and western Honduras.”  Finally I got around to digging in the children’s nonfiction stacks at the Minneapolis Central Library, where San Rafael lay waiting for me after all these years.

Uaxacmal thrives in the 4th century

While the Central American city obviously represents a history far removed from those of the earlier two books, it has the same familiar format, including the gorgeous two-page birds-eyes alternating with narrative history and details of certain buildings.  San Rafael’s story begins in 1000 BC, when a small village of corn farmers cut into the jungle on the banks of a large river, and continues through the late 20th century, by which time the small village has been replaced by a sprawling metropolis centered on a Spanish colonial center and a cultural park of preserved Mayan ruins and ringed by factories, housing projects and slums.

The writing in San Rafael is concise and unadorned enough to avoid overwhelming younger readers, but not too dumbed-down or simplistic for adults (at least this adult) to enjoy.  Hernandez doesn’t shy away from more complex topics such as class conflict or religious persecution, but perhaps could have spent a bit more time on them.  But it’s not surprising that the focus is on the physical characteristics of the city that are so brilliantly depicted by Ballonga (with the assistance of Josep Escofet for this venture).

"The game of pelota has fascinated Central America's diverse peoples for centuries."

The depictions of Mayan life are probably the most interesting parts of the book to me as a result of my unfamiliarity with the topic, and so the lack of a bibliography is probably the most obnoxious intrusion of the characteristics of children’s literature.  Scenes of villagers in the act of constructing the famous pyramidal temples – “Stonemasons squared blocks with hammers fashioned from stone.” – will excite any adult with even a remnant of imagination.  The stimulating scenes continue through the Spanish military colonization and the American corporate colonization – I just can’t emphasize enough what a jewel this book – as well as the previous two – is to anyone with an interest in cities or history or human culture or life itself.

In the course of writing this blog post, I’ve found a fourth book in the series – Umm El Madayan, which apparently depicts a North African city and is not primarily written by Xavier Hernandez or illustrated by Jordi Ballonga.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the library to check that book out.  I promise to read it quickly – I don’t want to interfere with any younger readers who may stumble upon it, kindling their imagination and stoking a lifelong love of cities.

Cross-posted to streets.mn

The Suburban Mind of 1946

While looking for dirt on internment camp builder and tract home kingpin Del Webb, I stumbled on an essay called “The Suburban Mind” from the April 1946 issue of Harper’s.  It was written by a guy named Carl Von Rhode, who besides apparently being an exiled aristocrat from mitteleuropa, has somehow also “lived in the suburban and satellite cities of two of our leading metropolitan American centers.”  Which means he knows what he’s talking about.

Anyway, it amused me to read about the ways surburbia has changed or not in the past 66 years.  Von Rhode describes the Exurban Escapism Paradox:

…every suburb passes in time through three more or less standard cycles – rural, urban, and metropolitan. By the time the urban stage is reached, the best homes have been built-and the churches have gone deeply into debt for imposing community houses. Then comes a decline in property values; while the apartment dwellers are creeping in at the front door the “suburbanites” steal out at the back door. A few home owners remain to fight a losing battle against “encroachment;” but the young people, and those who can sell, retreat to the new “Waverly Hills” farther out.

The jargon is strange, but what he’s basically describing is the frustration of the early adopter, who moved to the edge of town to get away from the city, only to have a new subdivision pop up nearby after a few years.  Many continue to move outward, feeding and being fed by the real estate speculation machinery that has long fueled the American economy.  Those who stay try to control, and that was true then as now:

Building restrictions insure the uniform excellence of the dwellings, generally prohibiting apartments and two-family dwellings, and “undesirables” are often excluded by a common agreement not to sell or lease property to them even if they can afford it.  Though the suburbanite is unalterably opposed to governmental control, there is one kind of legislation he approves of thoroughly – zoning. He invokes every kind of building and housing restriction to maintain the social excellence of his section, and to keep it inviolate.

Suburbia having run quite a bit further down its course in our own time, it seems the barbarians have finally stormed the gates.  As such, images such as this likely strike the modern viewer as quaint:

Not only have the suburbs picked up a bit more diversity in the past 66 years, the train has long ago left the station.  If people use park-and-rides, they’re taking a bus.  But this image also reveals the fact that Von Rhode was talking about a breed of suburb that was about to be killed by highways and mass-produced housing:

The new houses of Suburbia, especially the “additions” built in the nineteen-twenties, exhibit a contemporary version of escapism in architecture, what with the English half-timbered cottage types, the Spanish villas, the Cape Cod salt boxes, and other habitations as remote as possible from our everyday American contemporary life.

You call that a suburb?

Interesting to consider that the suburbia he’s talking about is the same neighborhood that we in Minneapolis now call the city: that vast swath of the southern portion of Minneapolis and the western portion of St Paul that lies between lakes and vales and is dotted with the revivalist mini-castles that were the McMansions of the era.  Being from “our leading metropolitan American centers” the author was more describing railroad suburbs, whereas our provincial equivalent was spread by streetcar.  But both are a bit different from the suburbia of the contemporary mind, which is more the product of mass-production than the escapism that bothers Von Rhode, to the degree that he predicts widespread abandonment of “sense of civic duty”.  Nonetheless, he concludes with 40s optimism:

Americans are sprung from a pioneering stock which has always met the challenge of new frontiers. Our hope for the suburb lies here. When the suburbanite becomes fully aware that he is not “out of things,” as he fondly supposed, but at the center of things, he may rouse himself from his lethargy to play his full role in the development of the stimulating, labyrinthian culture of cities.

66 years on, I’m not sure how many suburbanites have been roused to meet the challenge of the new, old, urban frontier.

In the electric tram

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Tram and Rail, 1914

The New York Review of Books has published a new edition of Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, and they’re posting excerpts on their blog to promote it.  Here’s an excerpt of their excerpt of a story called “In the Electric Tram.”

People do, after all, tend to get somewhat bored on such trips, which often require twenty or thirty minutes or even more, and what do you do to provide yourself with some modicum of entertainment? You look straight ahead. To show by one’s gaze and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with a quite peculiar pleasure. Now you return to studying the face of the conductor on duty, and now you content yourself once more with merely, vacantly staring straight ahead. Isn’t that nice? One thing and then another? I must confess: I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.

It is prohibited for the conductor to converse with the esteemed passengers. But what if prohibitions are sidestepped, laws violated, admonitions of so refined and humane a nature disregarded? This happens fairly often. Chatting with the conductor offers prospects of the most charming recreation, and I am particularly adept at seizing opportunities to engage in the most amusing and profitable conversations with this tramway employee. It pays to ignore certain regulations, and summoning one’s powers to render uniforms loquacious helps create a convivial mood.

From time to time you do nonetheless look straight ahead again. After completing this straightforward exercise, you may permit your eyes a modest excursion. Your gaze sweeps through the interior of the car, crossing fat, drooping mustaches, the face of a weary, elderly woman, a pair of youthfully mischievous eyes belonging to a girl, until you’ve had your fill of these studies in the quotidian and gradually begin to observe your own footgear, which could use proper mending. And always new stations are arriving, new streets, and the journey takes you past squares and bridges, past the war ministry and the department store, and all this while it is continuing to rain, and you continue to behave as if you were a tad bored, and you continue to find this conduct the most suitable.

But it might also be that while you were riding along like that, you heard or saw something beautiful, gay, or sad, something you will never forget.

Is Central so Essential?

Is the downtown revival real, or is it just Disney?

I suppose by now the 2010 Census is passe, or even denounced.  But I’m bit behind the times, so I’m still thinking about it, and it’s taken me this long to parse some of the results.  By which I mean I’ve made a list of the downtown populations of MSAs of 1 million or more as reported in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, along with the metro and central city populations.

Specifically, I was a bit skeptical of some claims that downtowns have been resurgent in the last decade.  The condo craze was an undisputed fact, mostly a result of cheap and easy credit, that mostly affected the central areas of cities.  But was it big enough to really have an effect on population?  And was it nationwide or limited to major cities like San Francisco or trendy cities like Portland?

The first two problems with answering those questions are both of definition.  First, the definition of the word downtown has shifted subtly over time, so that now it seems to have different meanings depending on the type of place it is in.  The word originally referred to the older section of the city, which was located down hill from the newer suburbs.  This was quickly supplanted with a meaning of referring to the main business district of the city, which is the definition commonly found in dictionaries.  Now, however, it is often used to refer to a relatively dense or mixed-use area, or an area with a New Urbanist form, which could be pretty much the same as any strip mall, only with parking in back.

Downtown or not?

So what counts as downtown?  In St Paul, the Upper Landing area was developed with a high-density urban form in an area close enough to the traditional downtown that it could be considered a new urban appendage.  But traditionally this area would not have been considered downtown, at least not since Little Italy was cleared.  So should its growth be credited to downtown or to the rest of the city?

I took the coward’s route – I tried to use local definitions of downtown.  First, if I could find a media report – blog or newspaper – that defined a city’s downtown, I let them do the work for me.  If I couldn’t find a media report, I used the municipality’s definition – most cities have an area within boundaries that they’ve called Downtown, even if just for economic development.  There were a handful of cities where I just trusted Wikipedia, because I couldn’t find a municipal definition.  Also some of the bigger cities I made up definitions of Greater Downtown Areas because the official definition was too small an area.  For example Chicago’s Loop is defined as south and east of the Chicago River, west of the lake and north of Roosevelt, making a bit more than half the land area of Minneapolis’ official inside-the-freeways, west of the river Downtown (1.49 sq mi for the former and 2.71 sq mi for the latter).

Once I had a definition of a downtown, I used the New York Times 2010 Census map to get the 2010 population and rate of growth, from which I extrapolated the 2000 population.  Because official downtown definitions don’t always follow the boundaries of census tracts, I just tried to approximate as best I could.  Feel free to download my data for definitions of particular cities and the actual census tracts I used.

Now that I’ve provided a convoluted introduction, let’s get to the results.  The answer is yes, downtowns nationwide grew in the last decade.  Only 6 of the metros with a million-plus population (hereafter referred to as MPMs, for Million-Plus Metros) had downtowns that didn’t grow in the last decade, out of 51 total.  Just when you thought we were going to get to some graphs, that brings up another peculiarity.  As Twin Citians know, some regions have more than one regionally important downtown.  In those cases I combined the populations of both downtowns to gauge the regional downtown population.  That of course involved calculating them separately, whereupon I found that in Riverside-San Bernardino, one of the downtowns grew while the other shrank (albeit by an insignificant 30 people).  So the combined downtown population grew by 5%, but San Bernardino grew by 9% while Riverside shrank by -.27%.  Both of them appear to actually be suburbs of LA anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s something to keep in mind when the graphs start flying.

Let’s kick it off with a straight up graph of population change, absolute and percent, in the 51 MPMs:

This graph is pretty hard to read because of some mega outliers, specifically Manhattan, which grew by 49,174 (the next greatest growth was LA 15,445), and Dallas-Fort Worth, which grew by 306% (the next greatest percent growth was Charlotte with 134%).

The average growth for all MPMs was 41%, which sounds impressive until you hear the average absolute growth, which was only 4,493 people.  That’s chicken scratch next to the average growth for the entire metro area across the 51 MPMs, which was 315,214.  So let’s look at that.  Here’s a graph of how downtown growth rates compared with metro area growth rates and central city growth rates:

I cut off the Dallas-Fort Worth downtown growth rate for this one so the other rates would show up better.  As you can see, downtowns had much stronger growth rates overall than metro areas and especially central cities.  However, that pattern isn’t across the board – around 10 metros on the left side of the chart had greater metro area and central city growth rates than downtown growth rates.  I classified the metros by census bureau region, and if you look at the average across regions, you start to see some different patterns:

This table doubles as an eyesight test

On this one, the weird result is the Northeast’s Central City, which shows a percent decrease but an absolute increase.  It’s all New York’s fault – because it increased by 166,855 people (the largest central city increase), it drives the average way up.  But for a city the size of New York, that’s only a 2% increase in population, not enough to offset the large percent declines of Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Rochester (-11%, -9%, and -4% respectively).  I guess that’s my warning not to read the percent columns as an expression of the numerical columns.

Anyway, the regional differences become clear.  The South had about twice the average rate of downtown population change of any other region, but it also had a much lower numerical change.  This likely accounts for the impressive-sounding rate of change for all cities, of which the South makes up close to half.  Still, it’s impressive that a region that had almost nothing that could be considered urban now has its first taste of city life. Conversely, the Northeast had the lowest average downtown population rate of change and the highest average numerical change, reflecting the higher existing populations in the downtowns of that region.

Looking at the average downtown population across regions seems to bear this theory out, as the South has the lowest average population in 2000:

And again the South comes out poorly when looking at the cities with the 10 largest downtown populations, with only Raleigh representing the vast region:

But Raleigh also exposes the methodological weakness of this whole venture, as does the top 10 table in general.  The only definition I could find of Raleigh’s downtown runs east to Raleigh Blvd, so it includes a couple square miles of streetcar suburb.  If I were to define Downtown Raleigh, the eastern border wouldn’t run past East St, so the definition I used is about twice the actual size even in my own estimation.

On the other side, you may have noticed that I used the entire borough of Manhattan for downtown New Y0rk.  You may disagree with that decision, and if so you’re not alone – I do, too.  The problem is that the part of Manhattan sometimes called “Downtown” actually has fewer jobs and office space than Midtown Manhattan, so each area would conflict with some definition.  Since even the northern tip of the island has characteristics that could be considered a downtown in any other American city, I decided to look at the borough as a whole.  That approach is probably unfair to other New York business districts, such as Downtown Brooklyn, that probably could have qualified for this study.  It also makes for a freaking huge outlier, although Lower and Midtown Manhattan are also outliers, with six times the 2010 population of the next biggest city, and 7,000-15,000 greater increase in population than the next largest increase (download my data if you’re curious about specifics).

Manhattan was the only city where I included a greater downtown area for comparison’s sake, although as mentioned above I did create them for Chicago, Miami and San Francisco – that’s the kind of inconsistency that comes from dealing with this much data in your spare time.  My policy of generously allowing cities to define their own downtowns created its own problems, especially when looking at the percent of metro area population that lives downtown, where four Southern cities appear in the top ten:

Note that New York has been omitted from the two above charts, and that while in general downtowns’ share of metro area population went up, it didn’t go up as much as the two charts seem to show due to my neglect to maintain the same scale for the right axis.

So after a decade that was widely hyped for downtown growth, only seven cities have downtowns that contain 1% or more of their metro’s populations.  While the ubiquity of downtown growth may have been exceptional, the growth itself may not have been significant, or significant enough to make a difference regionally.  Downtown growth mostly beat regional growth in the relatively sluggish decade (see the chart Downtown, Central City, and Metro Area Growth Rates above), and downtowns as generally small portions of metro areas maybe shouldn’t be expected to ever contain a significant portion of the metro population.  But central cities grew much less consistently (as we know here in the Twin Cities), with 21 central cities shrinking, and of the 30 that grew, only maybe a dozen did so without annexation or greenfield development.  Moreover, as I attempt to show on the most confusing chart I’ve ever made, the vast majority of central cities lost share of metro area population, that is, the suburbs grew faster than they did:

So while downtown growth was a national trend, we’re not talking about an overthrow of the suburban realm quite yet.  Still, even a small shoot of urban growth is encouraging in the vast mire of suburbanism that has festered for the past few decades.  Things change slowly in our litigation-fueled, Nimbyful society, and there are indications that demand for urban places exceed the supply.  The fringe still seems to be freckled with vacancy while apartments rise in the central city, which indicates a lot taller bars in the charts of downtown growth after the 2020 census.

If you care to dig through my data, here is the xlsx.  Feel free to dispute the downtown definitions – more likely than not I’ll agree with you.