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If William Penn could revisit Philadelphia today, he would surely feel disappointed that the Greene Country Towne still hasn't materialized. Even a century after Penn's real visits, Philadelphia at the time of the Revolutionary War still nestled East of Fifth Street. There have been many conjectures about this, perhaps fear of Indian attack, perhaps lack of firewood, desire to be near the port, perhaps a number of things. Let's examine whether it's just the nature of a successful city to organize itself the way it does.
Ancient Athens, for example, was a nice warm place without much rain, which possibly accounts for the miserable little hovels where people lived, contrasting with the magnificent Acropolis, Parthenon, Stoa and other public buildings. It has been speculated that the architecture created the social system, not the other way around; the same contrast between big stone temples and little wooden huts is also seen in the Mayan cities of Yucatan. Hong Kong certainly isn't poor, but it's built like that. Japan cannot claim that lack of land forces the citizens to live in tiny apartments. It's hard to say whether the lowly social state of Japanese women accounts for the contrast between where they live and where their husbands spend most of their time, because it's just as easy to believe the proposed cause is really an effect.
The more you look around the world, the more you wonder if it isn't the American suburb that's out of step with the world. When they can afford it, hardly any of the world seems to want to live in suburbs; their homes are seldom their castles. There's New York City, of course. New Yorkers seem to like living in high-rises.
An architect friend makes short work of construction economics as a driving feature. According to him, it is unduly expensive to live in a high-rise. Just a pointless ego trip. The cost per square foot of usable floor space just keeps going up as the building gets taller, requiring more elevator shafts, more elaborate HVAC. That's heating, ventilating and air conditioning. Everything has to be built with a derrick, the traffic congestion at the base is horrific, high winds can break the window glass. The list rapidly grows convincing. Why does anyone pay all that extra money to live high in the sky? Not my idea of something to do, says Cole Porter.
Notice there is a major difference between sleeping in the suburbs as they do in Japan, and sleeping in apartments right near the center of town, as they do in Budapest, Berlin, Prague and Vienna. The Orientals are staying close to work for longer hours, while the Central Europeans are staying close to the cafes and theaters to which they flock the moment work is over. Just what to think of the Spanish siesta system isn't clear, but it seems to have the main effect of bringing people back into the center of the town at night. You can't live very far away from work if you have to commute twice a day.
The Lord only knows where everybody in New York is going every Friday night, with return traffic jams in the other direction on Sunday night. The weekly exodus suggests they don't really luxuriate in their penthouses or flock to their entertainment district on weekends; apparently, a cabin in the woods is beckoning. As, by contrast, the empty nesters in the suburbs eventually look around for retirement villages to live, repeating the endless complaint about the nuisance of maintaining a big house and garden. Pennsbury looks like a comfortable place to live, but even William Penn seems to have tired of it. One really does have to wonder whether heart's desire in architecture all too frequently leads to heart's discontent in lifestyle. Philadelphia appears to be trying a new approach; the suburbs are moving back downtown.
We'll eventually see if it changes our character and lifestyle, so somebody can write sociology books about it.
Slum creation, while occasionally deliberate, is most typically caused by an area's abandonment by previous owners, at lower prices, to bargain hunters. When a large employer moves or closes, the employees seek work elsewhere and sell their houses for what they can get. When the influx of new ethnic groups threatens to weaken real estate prices, panic may be created that waiting too long to sell may find the property worthless; nobody wants to be the last one out the door. During the 20th Century, the driving force in Philadelphia was the flight to the suburbs by people who found better value in suburban schools, shops and neighborhoods. All of these processes create slums, almost invariably with a net loss of value in the community. Take a look at those deteriorating mansions on North Broad Street, where the Civil War millionaires used to live. In today's terms, they were once worth several million dollars apiece, but in today's real estate market, they are next to worthless. Value disappeared. The community as a whole is poorer than it was. From the Mayor's point of view, the area has lost its tax base.
Of all these forces, the flight to the suburbs is probably the least destructive to the region, particularly if it is reasonably slow. Out in the suburbs, value is being created as cornfields turn into suburbia, and that added value must be set against the reduced value of the abandoned slum areas. Viewed from the Mayors' perspectives, however, we have a zero sum. The city loses its tax base, the suburbs gain, and local politics soon degenerate into warfare between the suburbs and the city. Not a nice situation, and it cries out for a new civic design. The city politicians have dreamed for a century of city-suburb consolidation, but Philadelphia tried that in 1850. It didn't cure the problem, and it may have created new problems. In any event, suburban politicians live and die on their anti-city rhetoric, and everybody's behavior in the Legislature deserves no kinder description than -- savage.
Because this issue has been the underlying theme of the Pennsylvania Legislature for two centuries, it repeatedly surfaces in ways that are surprising unless you understand the mechanics of suburban sprawl well enough to see the connection. For example, nowadays a real issue is the three-car family.
During the 19th Century, multi-acre estates spread out along the Main Line of the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, with the coachman and horses taking plutocrats to the station. Smaller houses, for people who walked to the station, clustered nearby, but you didn't have to go very far from the station to find the gated estates. Suburban development spread out in linear and predictable fashion from the city, along the Main Line. The advent of the automobile freed commuters from the tyranny of railroad station orientation, and middle-class residents could flee the city to areas of the suburbs that were fairly far from the railroad and its stations. But not too far, because there was the problem of the lady of the house, who had to get to the stores. To free her up, the family had to have two cars in the garage. Suburban shopping malls helped her problem, somewhat, but the railroad station was still a magnet.
And then, the majority of married women became working wives, confronting the problem of kids getting to the confounded school. The highly questionable solution of giving the kids a collective car as soon as the oldest got a license, made the oldest kid proudly take the role the coachman used to have, and it caused a lot of teen age turmoil that need not be described here. The point to be stressed is that the three-car family sent home-building into cornfields that were not even close to a main road. Since land gets cheaper the further you get from the city, an economic incentive is created to enter uncongenial social environments, and adopt unexamined attitudes about the environment that are ultimately flatly contradictory.
When the kids leave home, the exurban pioneers no longer need the third car, and think about returning to city life. So far, however, they have been returning to Center City, not the residential neighborhoods they used to call home.
When the City of Philadelphia turned into the County of Philadelphia (or vice versa) in 1854, the area had about 150,000 residents in 1850 but 500,000 in 1860. It qualified as one of the largest cities in America at the time, but what we today call middle-sized cities are about that same size. As a generalization, when a thriving American city approaches a size of about half a million, the business community often gets the idea that the city should expand its limits by annexing the neighboring districts. And, as a further generalization, the metropolitan newspapers are simply ecstatic about the idea of expanding their market reach, while the working classes of both the city and the region it proposes to swallow, are violently opposed. Since the business community typically feels that expansion would be good for business, labor unions are subdued. Leadership of the conservative middle-class rebellion is therefore generally led by the police and volunteer firemen, who are the most organized groups within the combative working class in a metropolitan region. Many citizens of all classes are of course quite indifferent about the matter. As history has turned out, only one such proposal in five will be successfully adopted, but it is almost unheard-of for a successful amalgamation to be reversed once it happens. In recent years, this general pattern has been followed in Indianapolis, Lexington, Jacksonville, Nashville, Baton Rouge, and Louisville. In countless other cities, the effort has been defeated by the voters.
It requires thriving prosperity for the business community to become politically dominant in a city, so the political context of these circuses amounts to a contest between the business "elite", often augmented by "carpet baggers from out of town" threatening comfortable lives within settled neighborhoods by merging them with culturally discordant residents in suburbs or countryside. On a political level, professional urban politicians favor expansion, because increasing the electorate generally makes it more expensive for an outsider to raise the funds to defeat them in an election. Exceptions to this rule occur when the two merging regions have different political parties in control, or when working class city districts are so opposed that urban politicians fear to anger them. A symptom of this conflict for control of a city machine can be observed in the seemingly unrelated issue of a city charter with a "stong mayor" design. Cities with a strong city council generate greater ability to defeat the machine, and are hence more reluctant to see mergers with suburbs. Nevertheless, the attraction which the business community can offer to the politicians is a larger tax base, although in the surrounding suburbs the dynamic is exactly the opposite. In the suburbs, it is the local businesses and professions who feel threatened, and who attempt to agitate the suburban politicians to protect their tax collections.
Although campaign rhetoric in these battles tends to exaggerate or distort the probable economic changes, academic studies find that the actual effect of city expansion is generally of modest subsequent growth, with modest increases in taxes. These effects seem comparatively weak since a metropolitan region is unlikely to produce a successful merger unless the economy is already growing fast enough to generate expansionism, and that vigor is likely to persist after the merger. These political uproars talk a great deal about economics, but in fact the issue is primarily political. One commentator calls them "chess games pretending to be circuses", and the real force at work is usually an elaborate variation of gerrymandering. Urban minorities who usually vote Democrat can be swallowed up by suburban majorities who usually vote Republican. Or else a thwarted inner city business community hopes to replace the urban machine with a more favorable suburban set of attitudes. There is seldom a uniform political gradient as the city border is approached from either side, so the chess game takes these patchwork population variants into detailed consideration. It is often argued that crossing a political boundary is unworkable, but since the thriving city of Atlanta is located in two different counties, that must not be a dispositive argument.
In their most elemental form, these expansion efforts have to do with political boundaries. It is therefore not surprising that the people most concerned are politicians. The battle cry is often to create a city without suburbs; failure to act leads to suburbs without a city. In fact, the underlying agendas are much more prosaic.
|Consolidation Map 1854|
Philadelphia is still referred to as a city of neighborhoods. Prior to 1854, most of those neighborhoods were towns, boroughs, and townships, until the Act of City County Consolidation merged them all into a countywide city. It was a time of tumultuous growth, with the city population growing from 120,000 to over 500,000 between the 1850 and 1860 census. There can be little doubt that disorderly growth was disruptive for both local loyalties and the ability of the small jurisdictions to cope with their problems, making consolidation politically much more achievable. A century later, there were still two hundred farms left in the county which was otherwise completely urbanized and industrialized. For seventy five years, Philadelphia had the only major urban Republican political machine. By 1900 (and by using some carefully chosen definitions) it was possible to claim that Philadelphia was the richest city in the world, although this dizzy growth came to an abrupt end with the 1929 stock market crash, and the population of Philadelphia now shrinks every year. In answering the question whether consolidation with the suburbs was a good thing or a bad thing, it was clearly a good thing. But since Philadelphia is suffering from decline, it becomes legitimate to ask whether its political boundaries might now be too large.
|Philadelphia Map 1762|
The possible legitimacy of this suggestion is easily demonstrated by a train trip from New York to Washington. The borders of the city on both the north and the south are quickly noticed out the train window, as the place where prosperity ends and slums abruptly begin. In 1854 it was just the other way around, just as is still the case in many European cities like Paris and Madrid. But as the train gets closer to the station in the center of the city, it can also be noticed that the slums of the decaying city do not spread out from a rotten core. Center City reappears as a shining city on a hill, surrounded by a wide band of decay. The dynamic thrusting city once grew out to its political border, and then when population shrank, left a wide ring of abandonment. It had outgrown its blood supply. Prohibitively high gasoline taxes in Europe inhibit the American phenomenon of commuter suburbs. The economic advantage of cheap land overcomes the cost of building high-rise apartments upward, but there is some level of gasoline taxation which overcomes that advantage. Without meaning to impute duplicitous motives to anyone, it really is another legitimate question whether some current "green" environmental concerns might have some urban-suburban real estate competition mixed with concern about global warming. Let's skip hurriedly past that inflammatory observation, however, because the thought before us is not whether to manipulate gas taxes, but whether it might be useful to help post-industrial cities by contracting their political borders.
|Philadelphia Map 1860|
Before reaching that conclusion, however, it seems worth while to clarify the post-industrial concept. America certainly does have a rust belt of dying cities once centered on "heavy" industry which has now largely migrated abroad to underdeveloped nations. But while it is true that our national balance of trade shows weakness trying to export as much as we import, it is not true at all that we manufacture less that we once did. Rather, manufacturing productivity has increased so substantially that we actually manufacture more goods, but we do it with less manpower and less pollution, too. The productivity revolution is even more advanced in agriculture, which once was the main activity of everyone, but now employs less than 2% of the working population. This is not a quibble or a digression; it is mentioned in order to forestall any idea that cities would resume outward physical growth if only we could manipulate tariffs or monetary exchange rates or elect more protectionist politicians to Congress. Projecting demographics and economics into the far future, the physical diameters of most American cities are unlikely to widen, more likely to shrink. If other cities repeat the Philadelphia pattern, the vacant land for easy exploitation lies in the ruined band of property within the present political boundaries of cities, or if you please, between the prosperous urban center and the prosperous suburban ring.
Many American cities with populations of about 500,000 do need more room to grow, so let them do it just as Philadelphia did a century ago, by annexing suburbs. But there are other cities which have lost at least 500,000 population and thus have available low-cost low-tax land which would mostly enhance the neighborhood if existing structures were leveled to the ground. Curiously, both the shrunken urban core and the bumptious thriving suburbs could compete better for redeveloping this urban desert if the obstacles, mostly political and emotional, of the political boundary could be more easily modified. But that's also just a political problem, and not necessarily an unsolvable one.
Byron S. Comati, the Director of Strategic Planning and Analysis for SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), kindly gave the Right Angle Club an inside look at the hopes and plans of SEPTA for the near (five-year) future. Students of large organizations favor a five or six-year planning cycle as both short enough to be realistic, and long enough to expect to see tangible response. If plans continuously readjust to fit the five-year horizon, the concept is that the organization will move forward on these steppingstones, even accounting for set-backs, disappointments and surprises. Furthermore, a serious level of continuous planning puts an organization in a position to react when funding opportunities arise, such as the sudden demand of the Obama Administration that economic stimulus proposals be "shovel ready."
|The Silverline V|
So, SEPTA is currently promoting five major expansions, based on the emerging success of an earlier plan, the Silverliner V. Silverliner is a set of 120 shiny new cars, built in Korea on the model of electrical multiple units, which are expected in Spring 2011 to replace 73 cars or units which were built in 1963. Obviously, 120 are more expensive than 73, but they are more flexible as well. And less wasteful; most commuters are familiar with the model of three seats abreast which unfortunately conflict with the social preferences of the public, tending to make the car seem crowded even though it is a third empty. When a misjudgment like this is made, it takes fifty years to replace it with something better. For example, there's currently a movement toward "Green construction", which is acknowledged to be "a little bit more expensive". The actual costs and savings of green construction have yet to become firmly agreed on, so there's an advantage to being conservative about what's new and trendy in things that take fifty years to wear out.
|Septa Regional Map|
Four of SEPTA's five major proposed projects are in the Pennsylvania suburbs. New Jersey has its own transportation authority, and Philadelphia is thus left to struggle with the much higher costs of urban reconstruction assigned to its declining industrial population. And left unmentioned is the six hundred pound gorilla of the transportation costs of new casinos. A great many people are violently opposed to legalized gambling, and even more upset by the idea of crime emerging in the neighborhoods of gambling enterprises. Even the politicians who enacted this legislation are uncomfortable to see the rather large expenditures which will eat into the net revenue from this development. Nevertheless, if you are running a transportation system, you have an obligation to plan for every large shift in transportation patterns, no matter what you might think of the wisdom of the venture. The alternative is to face an inevitable storm of criticism if casinos come about, but without any preparation having been made for the transportation consequences. At present, the public transportation plan for the casinos is to organize a light rail line along the Delaware waterfront, connecting to the rest of the city through a spur line west up Market Street; it may go to 30th Street Station, or it may stop at City Hall. That sounds a lot like the present Market-Frankford line, so expect some resistance when the cost estimates are revealed. Because all merchants want to have the station stops near them, and almost no residents want a lot of casino foot-traffic near their homes and schools, expect an outcry from those directions, as well. It would be nice to integrate this activity with something which would revive the river wards, but it seems a long stretch to connect with Wilmington on the south, or Trenton on the north.
The planned expansions in the suburban Pennsylvania counties will probably encounter less controversy, although it is the sorry fate of all transportation officials to endure some hostility and criticism for any changes whatever. Generally speaking, the four extensions follow a similar pattern of building along old or abandoned rail lines, following rather than leading the population migrations of the past. When you are organizing mass transit, there is a need to foresee with some certainty that there will be a net increase in commuters in the region under consideration. The one and two passenger automobile is a much more flexible instrument for adjusting to the growth of new development, schools, retail, and industry. Once the region has become established, there is room for an argument that transportation in larger bulk is cheaper, cleaner or whatever.
The Norristown extension follows the existing but underused rail connections to Reading. Route US 422 opened up the region formerly serving the anthracite industry, but now the clamor is rising that US 422 is impossibly crowded and needs to be supplemented with mass transit.
The Quakertown extension follows the rail route abandoned in 1980 to Bethlehem and Allentown, although extension is only planned as far as Shelly, PA.
The Norristown high speed extension responds to the almost total lack of public transportation to the King of Prussia shopping center, and will possibly replace the light rail connection to downtown Philadelphia.
And the Paoli extension follows the mainline Amtrak rails as far as Coatesville.
All of these expansions can expect to be greeted with huzzas by developers, land speculators and newsmedia, but resistance will inevitably be as fierce as it always is. Local business always fears an expansion of its competitors; the feeling is stronger in the suburbs than the city, but local business always resists and local politicians always follow their lead. To some extent, the suburbs have a point, since radial extensions are usually much cheaper to build than lateral or circumferential transportation media; bus routes are the favored pioneers in connecting one suburb with another. Therefore, the tendency in these present plans remains typical by threatening the suburbs with a need to travel toward the center hub, then take a reverse branch back in the general direction of where they started, in order to go a short distance to a shopping center or school system. The two main river systems around Philadelphia interfere with the construction of big "X" routes from the far distance in one direction to the far distance in the opposite direction. Euclidian geometry makes the circumferential route elongate as the square of the radius. And jealousies between the politicians in three states create rally foci for the special local interests which feel injured. Since it seems to be an established fact that the proportional contribution to mass transportation by the surrounding suburbs of Philadelphia is traditionally (and considerably) lower than the national average, a political reconciliation might do more for the finances of SEPTA than any federal stimulus package could do. For such reconciliation, a few lateral connections in the net might pacify the suburbs enough to justify extra cost. Unfortunately, the main source of unjustified cost in regional mass transit is the high wage and benefit levels of the employees, a situation inherited from the old days when commuter rail was part of the stockholder-owned regional railroads. Just as featherbedding was the main cause of the destruction of the mainline railroads, health and pension benefits threaten the life of mass transit. In the old days, local governments acted as a megaphone for union demands. So the railroads just gave the commuter system to the local governments, and let them wrestle with the unions themselves. Since the survival of the urban region depends on conquering this financial drain, the problem must be gradually worn down. But it has been remarkable how long the region has been willing to flirt with bankruptcy rather than bite this bullet.
If anything, this friction threatens to get worse. In 2009, for the first time, a majority of union members in America -- work for government, the one industry which thinks it cannot be destroyed by losing money. True, SEPTA is not exactly a government function, but it has enough in common with a government department to arouse suburban voters, who regularly refer to it as an arm of the urban political machine. SEPTA isn't too big to fail, but there exists little doubt that government at some level would probably try to bail it out if it did.
Kiyohiko Nishimura is currently the Deputy Governor of the Bank of Japan (BOJ), and as such is expected to have wise things to say about finances, as indeed he does. Japan has a far older culture than the United States, and a botanical uniqueness growing out of the glaciers avoiding it, many thousands of years ago. But its latitude is approximately the same as ours, and its modern culture is affected by the deliberate effort of the Emperor to westernize the nation, following its "opening up" by our own Commodore Matthew Perry in 1852. Perhaps a more important relationship between the two cultures for present purposes is that Japan has been suffering from the current deep recession for fourteen years longer than we have. We don't want to repeat that performance, but we can certainly learn from it.
Mr. Nishimura lays great stress on the ageing of the Japanese population because in all nations, houses are mainly purchased by young newly-weds, and sold by that same generation years later as they prepare to retire. If a nation has an elderly population, it can expect a general lowering of house prices some day, reflecting too many sellers leaving the market at the same time. The buyers of those houses are competing with other young people, so the simultaneous bulges and dips of population at later stages combine to have major effects on housing prices. At the moment, younger couples are having fewer children as a result of women postponing the first one. Nishimura goes on to reflect that something like the same is true of stocks and bonds, although at age levels five or ten years later. One implication is that retirement of our own World War II baby boom is about to depress American home prices, which will likely stay lowered for 10-20 more years. Furthermore, our stock market will have its similar effect, stretching the depression out by as much as 5-15 years. The Japanese stock market has been a gloomy place to be during the past fifteen years, and by these lights might continue in the doldrums for another five or so. Meanwhile, our own situation predicts an additional generation of struggle while Japan is recovering. It's best not to apply these ideas too closely, of course, but surely somebody in our government ought to dig around in the data, at least telling us why we ain't goin' to repeat this pattern. Please.
Perhaps because they eat so much rice and fish, the Japanese already have a longer life expectancy than Americans do, but in terms of outliving your assets, that's not wholly advantageous, the way a love of golf might be. The best our nation might be able to do is to examine some of our premises about housing construction. In Kyoto, most houses were built with paper walls, for example.
|Commodore Matthew Perry and Japan|
The house walls of the town of Kyoto were in fact made of waxed paper, which seems to work remarkably well. While no one now advocates going quite that far, we might think a second time about building the big hulking masonry houses so favored in our affluent suburbs. Such cumbersome building materials almost dictate custom building, and strongly discourage mass production. How likely are such fortresses to survive in the real estate markets of fifty years from now? Judging from my home town, not too well. Haddonfield boasts it has been around since 1701, and there are at most three or four of its houses which have survived that long. We favor great hulking Victorian frame houses, with a good many bedrooms unoccupied, and high drafty ceilings, very large window openings and little original insulation. The heating arrangements have gone from fireplaces, to coal furnaces, to oil, and lately to natural gas. The meter reader who checks my consumption every month tells me that almost all the houses now have gas heat, so almost all the houses are using their second or third heating plant, along with their eighth or tenth roof, and thirty coats of paint. This kind of maintenance is not prohibitively expensive, but just wait until the plumbing starts to go, and leak, and freeze, with attendant plastering, carpentry and painting. Our schools and transportation are excellent, so we have location, location, location. But when the plumbing, heating and roofing start to require financial infusions all at once, you get tear-downs. A tear-down is a new house in which a specialist builder buys the old house, tears it down, and looks for a buyer to commission the new house on an old plot of land. Right now, there appear to be six or eight such Haddonfield houses, torn down and looking for a buyer to commission a new house on that location, location. If we repeat the Japanese experience, there will be some unhappy people, somewhere. And that will include the neighbors like me, who generally do not relish languishing vacant lots next door, but fear what the new one will be like.
The thought has to occur to somebody that building the whole town of less substantial materials in the first place would be worth investigation, replacing the houses every forty years when the major stuff wears out. At the present, when a town of several thousand houses has five or six tear-downs, the neighbors would not tolerate replacing tear-downs with insubstantial cardboard boxes. Seeing what has happened to inner-city school systems, the neighbors would be uneasy about "affordable housing" built in place of stately old Homes of Pride. In time, that might lead to a deterioration of one of the two pillars of location, location -- the schools -- and hence to a massive loss of asset value. And yet when those houses empty out the school children, leaving only retirees in place, the schools will not be worth much to the owners or in time to anybody else. There's an unfortunate tendency for local political control to migrate into the hands of local real estate brokers, so you had better be sure any bright new proposal is tightly buttressed with facts.
The only real hope for an evolution in this obsolete system may lie in the schools of architecture, strengthened perhaps by some research grants. Countless World Fairs have displayed the proud products of their imaginative thinking, but mostly to no avail. Perhaps the ideas are not yet ripe, but since it would take more than a generation to create a useful demonstration project of whatever does become ripe for decision, let's start thinking about some innovative suburban designs, right now.
|Plays and Players of Haddonfield|
Harry Kaufman may not have started the Plays and Players of Haddonfield, but he certainly sparked it to a near-professional level in a town of 7000 people. The orchestra and the ballet company are particularly outstanding at the moment, the soloists on the stage quite good, although they never made the grand European tour which is thought to be the prerequisite for getting into the big time. Harry was the life of any party, and particularly good at composing little ditties, never quite getting around to stringing them together into a musical comedy until the 250th anniversary of the town. Even then, it is recalled he was shy and reluctant, and had to be pushed a little. Since The King's Road appeared shortly after Oklahoma! transformed, even revolutionized, American musical comedy, it was not only the model but the stimulus for a similar comedy celebrating the beginnings of our little state. The plot was a simple one of a conflicted love affair. The striking innovation of Oklahoma! was to crowd most of the show's songs into the first act, repeating snatches of their themes as sort of Wagnerian background commentary throughout the remainder of the play. The other innovation of what was originally called Green Grow the Lilacs was the addition of Agnes DeMille's ballet company to emphasize the real historical theme with light-hearted music. Since I was one of the original reviewers for Oklahoma! in its New Haven tryouts, I can remember the revolutionary impact of that play, very well.
Harry had to go to the Historical Society for authentic details of the conflict between attraction for Revolutionary aspirations for Liberty, and loyalty to the earlier sufferings of Quakers for their pacifist leanings. Some Quakers deserted their faith to join the Revolution, and other Quakers tried to convert the Hessian soldiers. And still others were loyal to the King of England. The Revolution was almost won at this moment, as the British occupants of Philadelphia had abandoned their supplies to attack, and had to get to the British fleet, bottled up in the lower Delaware River by fortifications at Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer on the Jersey side of the river. The Hessians had been sent to attack Fort Mercer from the rear, passing through Haddonfield and stopping one night before going on to what we now call National Park. While the Hessian officers were being entertained by John Gill with discussions of the futility of war, Jonas Cattell slipped out of town and ran to alert Fort Mercer of its danger. The guns of the Fort were turned around, and the defenders pretended not to notice the approach of the Hessians until they were ambushed and largely destroyed. If Fort Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River could have held out, the starving British might have had to surrender, but that didn't happen. In any event, the New Jersey Militia did its part, and little Quaker Haddonfield helped them in a sort of characteristic Quaker way. With a ratta-tat-tat and a fiddely dee, the rag-tag swallow-tail Jersey Militia got all the credit.
The play does not emphasize that the State of New Jersey was founded at the Indian King Tavern during these commotions, or that General Washington starving at Valley Forge sent Mad Anthony Wayne to circle up and around Trenton to drive a herd of cattle back from Salem County, two hundred miles back to Valley Forge. The British sent Captain Simcoe down to Salem County to massacre the Quaker farmers who provided the cattle. These later developments are only mentioned in its anthem to "Generals Wayne, LaFayette and Pulaski", and every good resident of Southern New Jersey is supposed to know what that is all about.
The Quaker historian Rufus Jones established the enduring tradition that this split is what ultimately reduced the Quakers from the dominant religious group to a small religious sect in the three states once owned by William Penn, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Related to such turmoil was the claim that more battles of the Revolution were fought in New Jersey than in any other state; if you include the large privateer navy going to sea from the Jersey Pine Barrens, that is probably true. And every twenty-five years or so, we have to put on a revival of "The King's Road", and just show 'em.
IT was spoken hurredly, and I don't remember who said it. But the gist was that Philadelphia had been the richest city in the world in 1900. In the World, mind you. I can scarcely believe that, but the way it stuck with me shows it had some substance. Rather than comparing Philadelphia with London, New York City, or Paris, I must now compare that exuberance with the dirty, dejected, defeated old wreck of a Philadelphia I first encountered in 1948. Baltimore, Newark and a dozen old American cities sort of crumbled into dust after 1929, but Philadelphia briefly seemed to be picking up in 1948. Richardson Dilworth was getting ready to run for Mayor, and the town's newspapers even enjoyed the idea of a Philadelphia revival. But then the Pennsylvania Railroad collapsed, and after that we just struggled along, neither dying nor recovering. Some of both, perhaps, but more dying than recovering, and making it credible to believe that Philadelphia just never did recover from the 1929 crash. Just think of that; from top to bottom in thirty years. There just had to be some better explanation than bad management of one railroad.
Until recently, I had accepted the general wisdom that stock market crashes are followed by depressions. Perhaps I am a little slow, but there never seemed to be any question of that analysis, since all major crashes really were followed by recessions, going back to 1792 when Philadelphia had the first American version, and the first financier villain, someone named William Duer. Or maybe it was Robert Morris. Or maybe it was Thomas Mifflin, but in any event it was someone very rich who did something very reprehensible which toppled the stock market and plunged the rest of us poor victims into protracted suffering. In other scenes of carnage, it had been John Bull, or William Whitney, or Nicholas Biddle. Or J.P. Morgan, that monster. In the 2007 crash it wasn't so much one villain as one company, Goldman Sachs, or maybe Lehman Brothers. Since the recent crash was so recent, and news coverage so rapid, it might be easier to trace out who the villain was. But there was no one real villain, and even if we found one, it was hard to see why a few days of choked markets would still be causing unemployment seven years later. No one seemed to know, or at least no one wanted to tell me, why stock market crashes cause depressions. They are certainly followed by depressions.
And then suddenly I realized, or maybe someone just broke the news to me, that I had it all backward. Market crashes don't cause depressions, depressions cause market crashes. First, the markets get overheated, everyone gets uneasy, but everyone is making the most money in his life. Suddenly, someone sells out, like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, and everyone tries to get out the door at the same time. The catastrophe makes everyone see that stocks or real estate, bonds or tulip bulbs, had become ridiculously overpriced, so nobody will buy them at any price. But let's not get down into the weeds of market technicality; prices got disconnected from real values. We overproduced something, or even everything, and things wouldn't improve until somebody needed something he had stopped needing, several years earlier. Maybe there were villains, there are always plenty of villains. But we wanted somebody to blame, because otherwise everybody has to take some blame. We needed, in short, a scapegoat.
So let's ask the question again: what caused the great depression of the thirties? And the best answer to come back was, the First World War. Philadelphia was the arsenal of democracy, the maker of ships and gunpowder and uniforms. The great transatlantic ocean port, the embarkation point. If we weren't sending troops we were sending tanks and airplanes. The duPonts were sending gunpowder to France, a way of paying back Beaumarchais for sending gunpowder from France to the Battle of Trenton. After their wars were over, one Frenchman went back to making wristwatches and writing plays, and the other munition maker swore off gunpowder and concentrated on nylon stockings. That's far too simple. Philadelphia had expanded and expanded to exploit its wartime advantages. When the war was over the boom was over, but the roaring Twenties roared. They built mansions, clear out to Paoli and beyond. Movies were written about our heros, who left their jewelry in the vaults of the Girard Bank after the opera while they went back to the horse country at four in the morning. It seems a virtual certainty that no one who acted like that, knew what every MBA from Temple now knows: real estate is just about the only link for ordinary people between interest rates and consumption. All assets contribute somewhat to the "Wealth Effect", but real estate is usually the only channel the average person can find, as a way to translate major assets into consumer goods. And since a stock market crash will lower interest rates, the ensuing low cost of mortgages stimulates a real estate boom. Office buildings in the city, mansions in the horse country. But then the city loses its postwar boom, and soon loses a million or more population. Result: empty office buildings, empty mansions. Along Spruce and Pine Streets, people moved out of the grand houses and into the servants' houses in the back alleys. Easier to heat.
A friend of mine, whose occupation is locating real estate for businesses, tells me the startling news that land around Philadelphia is too expensive for factories. It seemed hardly credible that real estate could seem so hard to sell, with "For Sale" signs lining the curbs, and yet seem too overpriced for a company to locate here. Suburban Philadelphia house prices were depressed during the Depression so that a seven bedroom Main Line house couldn't find a buyer, but the land was still too expensive for a factory; and anyway the zoning wouldn't permit a business. Our suburban and exurban land got chopped up into residential real estate, streets were built, sewer lines were extended for miles, trees and ornamentals were planted. Schools and shopping centers were built, maybe some museums and hospitals. But none of that was attractive for a business, and you can't attract an executive to residential real estate without a place to go to work. The features attractive to his wife, were not enough to attract him and his business. He wants cheap open land to build factories and vast parking spaces for employees. He doesn't want to get fifty miles away from the port that made Philadelphia prosperous. And he particularly doesn't want to spend his time going to protest meetings about smoke and pollution, or go to court to defend his ownership of what someone else polluted, a century earlier. He particularly doesn't want to go to Planned Parenthood meetings with his wife, in order to be hassled about carbon fuels or greenhouse gases in China. Sorry, he's going to build his new plant in North Carolina. And the residential real estate couldn't be made cheap enough for that purpose without tearing down the house, and the schools, and maybe the shopping center. Once the land becomes dedicated, you have to choose: either a nice suburb, or a place favorable for a business.
A former President of a Federal Reserve Bank located a thousand miles from Philadelphia was recently here for a conference, and at loose ends for someone to chat with. To my astonishment, he exploded with rage when he contemplated Mr. Obama's refusal to sign permission to build a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. To him, it was obvious that the main thing holding back the American economy was a refusal of American businesses to invest in new plants and equipment. The banks were stuffed with money, but business refused to borrow it. The Federal Reserve was powerless to stimulate an economy that didn't want to expand, forever pointing to uncertainties of expanding in the face of a regulatory authority which seemed determined to thwart them, to browbeat and humiliate them in front of TV. It isn't personal, it is serious; because the quarrel is ultimately about important economics. A dollar in 1913 when the Federal Reserve was created, is now worth a penny, and there is every indication of administration eagerness to see the present dollar only worth a penny, far sooner than a century from now. The man speaking was obviously sincere and deeply upset, and what seemed to bother him most was the perception that "the environmentalists" are equally sincere, and thus equally unready to give an inch. The economist regarded the argument of the environmentalists as irrelevant to what was really important, just as surely as the environmentalists were heedless of any legitimacy in the arguments for savaging wildlife. Neither side saw this in terms of city versus suburbs, or agriculture versus commuters. Neither seemed to acknowledge that a city based on concentric rings had to break the ring pattern in order to maintain harmonious balance between living well and making a living. That is, until the two sides recognize they are talking about the same problem on some level, it will be a dialogue of the deaf, offering no possible resolution except war to the death. It's become a religious conflict, with both sides heedless of things vital to the other side.
They say the main function of real estate brokers is to maintain high prices for property values. But in the long run, if a region isn't prosperous, its residential property will lose value, not gain it.
|Benjamin Franklin 309th Birthday|
They changed the calendar in the Eighteenth Century, so it's always confusing to talk about the birthdays of the Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin for example was born on January 6, 1705, but by the time he got around to being famous, he was born on January 17, 1706. Scholars handle this awkwardness by saying he was born on January 17, 1706 [OS, January 6, 1705]. That's not all the problem, however. This year on January 17 he had his 309th birthday, unless you wish to say he had his 310th birthday on January 6. The novelty has long since worn off, and nowadays most birthday celebrants prefer just not to mention the matter. You might think Don Smith would think this is of vital importance, but he cheerfully brushes it off with a chuckle.
Don Smith is the current leader of the Ben Franklin Birthday Celebration, which is held at 9 AM every year, on January 17th [NS], starting at the American Philosophical Society's Franklin Hall on Chestnut Street, once a very substantially-built bank building. The constituent members are affiliated with one of the thirty-odd organizations which Franklin founded, although anyone interested is welcomed. On what usually turns out to be the coldest day of the year, the birthday celebrants gather for hot drinks and cookies, followed by one or two really outstanding lectures about Franklin. Sometimes the lecture's connection to Franklin is a little stretched, but all of them are excellent. At 11 AM, the group marches together to Ben's grave at 5th and Arch for a short ceremony, led by Franklin re-enactors and honest-to-goodness members in the uniform of the National Guard, which Franklin founded. He did so when the Spanish and French ships were bombarding the coast, and as the editor of the town's newspaper, Franklin called for troops to defend us. The Quaker government declined to be violent, so Franklin published an invitation for volunteers to bring their guns and join him. Ten thousand showed up, and Franklin's career in public life was established. He was a hero to everyone -- except Thomas Penn, who saw him as a threat. Much subsequent Colonial history revolves around this episode and its consequences.
|Paul R. Levy|
After the march, the group settles down for a good lunch, and hears yet another outstanding lecture. This year it was given by Paul R. Levy, the President of a planning organization called the Center City District. Steve's message this year was about how the streets of Center City Philadelphia were constructed for walking, or at most riding horseback. That is, they were narrow. They widened somewhat as they went West and had to accommodate a city of carriages. That was quite good enough through the Gilded Age, when Philadelphia could credibly claim to be the richest city in the world.
But then what happened was not the two World Wars, the stock market crash of 1929, or anything resembling that. What happened in Paul Levy's view, was the automobile. Hundreds, then thousands of autos filled the streets, scattering chickens and children, and eventually making the city impassible. Nothing would do but to move to the suburbs, which among other things provided the thrill of driving too fast and too carelessly, and reducing the pedestrians while increasing the business of accident rooms. There was certainly no room for bicycles, which were driven away without a tear being shed, and defying the efforts of city planners to find a safe place for them. Europe, good old Europe where we came from, was more successful in hounding the imposter autos off the bike paths of Amsterdam and Copenhaven. And preserving intercity high speed train service, at great taxpayer expense. Those Europeans really know how to live, in sidewalk cafes, unaffected by bicycles, preserving a much older collection of narrow city streets leading to empty cathedrals, in Germany, France, and Central Europe. That wasn't the American way, at all. We just pulled up sticks and moved to the suburbs, abandoning the dirty old defeated cities to their ethnic neighborhoods.
It's a novel theory, and maybe even a correct one. It could explain a lot, if Philadelphia is seen as a victim of Detroit, strangling on their mutual industrial excesses.
|R. Bradford Mills|
Brad Mills, a former Marine officer who now is a Commercial real estate advisor for Tactix Real Estate Advisors, was recently on the podium of the Right Angle Club. His theme was the Decline of the Suburbs, creating a return to Center City. Although some other cities have experienced an even greater change, his point generally corresponds to everyone's experience. If Stephen Levy is right that the automobile choked center city to death in the 1920s, this reversal of fortunes would seem to correct the migration of a century ago. The big question is whether it will continue, once an economic recovery, and cheap gasoline prices, make the auto popular again.
|Center City Scene|
The Center City scene at present is summarized by its rental prices: $100 per square foot for offices, $400 per square foot for top-level residential. So, naturally there are a number of office buildings being transformed into either residential or mixed-use. And about 20% of office space is unoccupied. The offices themselves are being transformed into a style which absolutely no one likes. Open space offices with insignificant partitions between them. Even the top officers are forced to abandon corner offices in order to show the rest of the employees they are participating in the new style, which as mentioned, everyone hates. Another statistic: the office space averages ten units per 1000 square feet, instead of the more luxurious 4 per thousand, and more often single offices. SEI carries matters to some sort of extreme: desks on wheels can be gathered together for conferences, pulled apart to talk on the phone. And to make things even worse, this seems to be following a European style. Ugh. For one thing, no American likes to appear European. No one likes it when office space is "hotelized", sharing a desk between someone in the office and someone else who is on the road, visiting the trade.
There's a lot of talk of Drexel showing us the future, but that's probably in the far future, when Drexel has to consider building over the West Philadelphia train tracks along the river, for dormitories or whatever. In time that may happen, but what's immediately in prospect is the second building Comcast is building next to the existing one. To a degree, the people who will fill the new building are already here, scattered out in vacant spaces around City Hall. When the building is finished, those people will move into it, leaving their existing space -- either empty, if the recession continues, or occupied with "secondary" offices if we recover from the recession in time. It's a time of anxiety for architects.
And the people? Well, we have a doughnut hole model. The top executives want to be in town, close to work, where the action is. And young couples want to save on commuting expenses, living close to work, using public transport, living close to other people their own age. Out in the suburbs, things are emptying out, prices are down, and "crazy money" from New York is moving in for what they imagine are bargains. It promises to be an exciting scene, full of action. But what's missing? School age children. It won't be much of a normal city without some kids, and to get them you need good schools, public safety, and a shift in taxes from that 19th Century wage tax, to the more modern real estate tax. Meanwhile, our speaker has his own individual office -- in Radnor.
|Posted by: Keli | Jan 3, 2012 5:51 AM|
A Few Rooms of Your Own
The way we live changes what we are.
Slum Creation and Urban Sprawl
Suburban sprawl leads to urban home abandonment. Nobody likes the process, but varying factors continue to promote it.
Merging Cities With Their Suburbs
When middle-sized cities are thriving and growing, they tend to want to annex neighboring districts. Their newspapers are ecstatic about it.
Philadelphia City-County Consolidation of 1854
Prior to 1854, Philadelphia City was one of twenty-nine political entities within Philadelphia County. After that, it became one big city without suburbs. Growth pressure now reverses toward suburbs without a city. Political boundaries should thus shift inwardly.
SEPTA's Long Term Planning
SEPTA is slowly making progress, but it's a struggle, every step of the way.
Ageing Owners, Ageing Property
From Japan, we get a fresh view of our assets. Kiyohiko Nishimura observes that the price of a house, even of a stock portfolio, has something to do with the age of the owner who is selling it.
The King's Road
It's only been performed fufteen or twenty times, but Hayyr Kaufman's musucal comedy captures the real spirit of Olde Haddonfield.
Philadelphia's Real Estate Gridlock
Earlier economic disasters may explain what is holding Philadelphia from recovery.
The Streets of Philadelphia, on Ben Franklin's Birthday
New blog 2015-01-22 23:44:26 description
River to River, Pine to Vine
New blog 2015-01-24 23:37:34 description