Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Other Part of the Story

(photo credit Tyler Wright)

For those not familiar with recent American historical scholarship on urban history over the past two decades, the book that defined the field was Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crsis: Race and Inequity in Postwar Detroit. Sugrue’s Origins launched a reconsideration of the standard narrative of America’s post-war urban decline. In this influential work, Sugrue documents the spatial and racial tensions within Detroit after 1945 that created fierce battles over housing, employment, and space, which led to a white conservative city leadership that drew support from white neighborhood groups and downtown business interests. However, the city’s leadership was unable to stem the massive deindustrialization that occurred within Detroit over the next twenty years, as manufacturing firms moved to modern facilities in the suburbs smaller cities, laying off numerous workers whom were predominately African American. As city residents adjusted to rising economic insecurity, residents struggled to define spatial boundaries of race, leading to ferocious grassroots activism from white neighborhood associations against African American residents seeking residential and social mobility.

By pushing the start date of “discontent” with growth liberalism back to 1945, Origins allows for a broad understanding of growth liberalism’s tensions, especially between African Americans seeking economic security and whites seeking property security within the confines of the New Deal coalition.

The ideologies of grassroots racial and individual liberalism formulated in Origins remains somewhat incomplete. Were members of these coalitions motivated by economic and property interests alone? Such a limited definition reduces the powerful role that religious conservatism played in developing the rise of individual liberalism in Michigan, especially amongst white ethnics whose sense of place was dominated by spatial religious boundaries. At the same time, racial liberalism was also strongly influenced by a rising religious ideology of liberation and social justice theology that replaced the cautious religious conservatism that marked much of the African American leadership.

If Origins focused on the dismantling of “growth liberalism” (ie New Deal liberalism) through the forces of spatial segregation, deindustrialization, and political fracturing in places like Detroit, Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York looks at another story that began in the midst of the old order shattering. Osman’s work, which came out in March, provides a stunning addition to the literature on post-war urban America and fully deserves the status acclaimed to Sugrue’s work. Both Origins of the Urban Crisis and Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn are books well worth adding to your summer reading list.

As its title suggests, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn looks at the gentrification of the brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were largely built between 1830 and 1910. These neighborhoods are now familiar to a generation of hipsters, as places such as Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Fort Greene seem to provide a level of urban authenticity that may children of a suburban nation seek to reshape their identity. Yet this present day understanding of Brooklyn as a patchwork of distinct neighborhoods is largely a creation of the new residents who arrived in the post-industrialization of Brooklyn, residents who were overwhelmingly whiter, wealthier, better educated, and closely identified with the grassroots urban rebellion best exemplified by Jane Jacobs. In order to create a sense of place, both to establish their communities and identify their neighborhoods as marketable places for other potential likeminded homebuyers, these residents researched their neighborhoods, using history to create an identity in the urban wilderness, often using geographic identifications that predated the industrial metropolis.

A resurgent localism is a hallmark of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. The local neighborhood, having been freed from being part of the working class urban wilderness, was reclaimed as an organic and authentic neighborhood that rested in historical value. The new residents rejected the growth liberalism of Robert Moses that stressed new highways, new buildings, and the Corbusian model for the city in the garden, and instead pushed for “the ballet of the street” that Jane Jacobs spoke elegantly about in The Death and Life of American Cities. This localism was also expressed in political identity, as the new residents rejected the ethnic Democratic “machine” politics and instead joined reform Democratic organizations that eventually gained political prominence.

If Origins of the Urban Crisis focused on the conflict between ethnic white and African Americans, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn finds that a three-way battle occurred between the white-collar whites, the ethnic whites, and African Americans. Much as in Anthony Lucas’ Common Ground, the bitterest conflict was often between the ethnic and white collar whites, the latter who tried to identify and work with African Americans, but at the same time helped bring an economic revitalization of neighborhoods that pushed out these residents with high real estate prices.

Does Osman’s case study of Brooklyn fit in the larger context of urban America? In certain other northeast metropolitan regions like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even Chicago, what happened in Brooklyn is similar. On a much smaller scale, this is what happened in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill and Wealthy Street neighborhoods. However, the post-industrial centers such as metropolitan Detroit and many other declining Midwestern regions, it would be hard to a similar situation unfolding. While the Midwest as a whole has struggled economically, I would think that the twin factors of economic decentralization and the resulting job sprawl limits the possibility the feasibility a Brooklyn-like revitalization occurring.

That is not to say that such an urban reinvention could not occur in the Midwest. Given the incredibly low cost of housing, one would think that regional or state-wide policies would be helpfully ingredients to add to the revitalization toolkit, including college tuition support, consolidation of duplicative governmental services, and increasing the costs of greenfield development while encouraging urban redevelopment to reduce job sprawl. Given the important of regional economic and housing strategies today, policymakers would be well advised to consider creating additional tools to ensure that both the local neighborhoods and regional employment base can thrive in a world ironically closer to the brownstone than to the assembly line.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

First thoughts on the new 3rd District


(Photo Credit T.J. Hamilton)

Lost in the middle of the extended Memorial Day weekend was the leaking of a draft Congressional District map drawn by the Redistricting Committee Republicans in the State House and Senate. Since the Detroit News and Grand Rapids Press have covered this story within their pages, I won’t go into greater detail about how the Michigan Chamber of Commerce was deeply involved with drawing the map. This map was confirmed when the Republican members of the Redistricting Committees in the State House and Senate released their maps last week Friday morning.

However, the newly drawn 3rd District deserves a closer look. While Terri Land thought otherwise in the Grand Rapids Press article (stating “we really have dodged a bullet for a long time here by not having Kent County split”), Kent County is split under the existing map, with the 3rd District encompassing the whole of Ionia and Barry Counties, and includes all of Kent County with the exception of Alpine, Solon, Sparta, and Tyrone Townships (which are in the 2nd District). Under the proposed map, the new 3rd District would include the entirety of Barry, Calhoun, and Ionia Counties, and portions of Kent and Montcalm Counties. Only a small part of Montcalm County containing portion Greenville City and Eureka Township would be in the 3rd, while all of Kent County with the exception of part of Byron Township, Walker, Grandville, Wyoming, and Kentwood would be in the new district.

The breaking up of metropolitan Grand Rapids into two Congressional Districts is a first-time occurrence since Michigan gained statehood in 1837. I consider metropolitan Grand Rapids to consist of Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Grand Rapids Township, East Grand Rapids, Grandville, and Walker. While moving the suburbs of Walker, Grandville, Wyoming, and Kentwood into the 2nd District might have been due to Republican leaders in Kent County wanting a member of Congress who actually represented his constituents, the new map also removes some portions of the metropolitan region that became increasingly Democratic over the past decade. In particular, Kentwood moved from being a Republican stronghold to a competitive (if Republican leaning) municipality. With the new 3rd District population at 714, 539 residents, this proposed district is 8,565 over the 705,974 congressional district size, meaning that a portion of Kentwood or Wyoming is likely to be assigned to District 3.

From a review of election data between 1998 and 2010 (as well as the 2010 census data), it doesn’t appear that the new map helps current Republican Congressman Justin Amash with reelection in 2012. The new 3rd District was made more Democratic to help preserve the seats of Republicans Tim Walberg (District 7) and Thad McCotter (District 11). 25% of the new 3rd District will have not been previously represented by Amash in Congress, while 24% Amash’s current district will move to the 2nd District. An overwhelming percentage of these new residents in the 3rd District will hail from Calhoun County, which has historically been a Democratic stronghold. Calhoun County had a population of 136,146 in 2010, with half of its population living in Democratic strongholds of Battle Creek (52,347), Springfield (5,189), and Albion (8,616), where the Democratic baseline has not fallen below 60% in the past five election cycles.

Looking at the new 3rd District from the past six election cycles, the data shows that it will take the right Democratic candidate to win this seat. Only two Democratic candidates have won the new 3rd District: Barack Obama with 50.4%, and Carl Levin with 54.2% in 2008. Granholm came close to winning the district in 2006 with 49.4%, and Stabenow received 48.9%. Democrats further down the ticket tended to under-perform, although the Democratic baseline for the district was 46.7% in 2008 and 44.3% in 2006. Democrats throughout the 3rd District did far poorer in 2010, and the Democratic baseline dropped to 42.3%

The Democratic strategy for within the new 3rd District would be as follows: Have at least a 25,000 vote edge from the city of Grand Rapids, win a majority in Kent County, win Battle Creek, Springfield, and Albion with a 7,000 vote margin, carry Calhoun County with at least 55% of the vote, and get at least 45% of the vote in Barry and Ionia Counties. A tall order, but certainly doable.

The great challenge for a Democratic candidate would be to find money to advertise in the two media markets of Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Will the impact of television advertising is, at best, minimal on getting voters to the voting booth, it is still a required part of any effective campaign. A Democratic would also benefit from having a number of urban areas in the district (Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Albion, and Greenville) that are strong Democratic centers and also eminently walkable by canvassers. In order to have a candidate make a strong effort at cutting the GOP margin in rural Kent, Ionia, and Barry Counties, there needs to be a revitalization of the Democratic County parties to build a presence in these areas.

Given that Amash underperformed the Republican baseline by 3% in 2010, this district should be a potential opportunity for the Democrats to challenge again in 2012. Having a candidate like Mark Schauer would be a big coup for the Democrats, given that Schauer has consistently overperformed the Democratic baseline in every race he's been in since winning election to the State House in 1996. I've averaged the last six races Schauer ran, and it averages to about 4%. While this wasn't enough to save Schauer in the 2010 GOP wave, I wouldn't under estimate his ability to win in a new district. In many respects, the new GOP congressional map had to make the decision whether to through Schauer's home county of Calhoun in Walberg or Amash's district. It shows the State Republicans' dislike for the 3rd District Representative when they deliver him the unwanted gift of a potential Schauer challenge.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Where Things Went Wrong 50 Years Ago

(Photo Credit: PhotoLab507)

Since I have been very busy with work over the past few months, I have neglect writing on the blog. However, I had a GR Press reporter ask me a few months ago about my article about planning in Grand Rapids between 1949 and 1959. In particular, he asked what I thought would have worked better than the reformers' strategy to work with the business coalition and pursue downtown urban renewal.

As far as specific decisions go, the rejection of the 1959 consolidation measure by the voters was a blow, but I don't think it would have changed the underlying development of the GR region. If I were among the powers that be back in 1961 (and I'm not among them even in 2011), I certainly would have focused more on neighborhood revitalization strategies earlier than working on downtown renewal. The city lost almost 20,000 people between 1970 and 1980, although some of the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown were already losing people by 1960. However, the two biggest blunders that occurred this time period was 1) the siting of Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Allendale, and 2) the locating of GR Airport southeast of Grand Rapids.

(Photo Credit: Tyler Vogt)

GVSU was located in the farmland of west Michigan largely because the land was available and it was the policy of the state of Michigan to locate new campuses in greenfield developments. GR could have done something similar to what was done in Chicago with the University of Illinois-Chicago campus-put a new large institution on the edge of downtown to shore of the business district. I think locating the school somewhere on the existing GRCC campus, or to the west of Downtown where the Pew campus is now located, would have done a lot of creating a commercial base so needed in downtown. A thoughtful acknowledgment of the role a community college has in the region would move GRCC from its downtown campus to Calvin's old campus at Franklin and Fuller, and the creating of a new branch campus in Wyoming near the city's commercial core. Putting four different GRCC campuses in the larger metropolitan region (one in the urban core, one in "downtown" Wyoming, one on the west side of Grand Rapids, and a final campus in Kentwood) could have tied the metropolitan core closer together along educational and institutional lines.

The other single pressing mistake was the location of the airport in its current placement on the far edge of southeast Kentwood. The metropolitan region of west Michigan is the Holland/Muskegon/Grand Rapids triangle, and by all accounts the airport should have been located at some point on the west side of the Grand, most likely in Walker near the intersection of 96, Kinney, and Richmond. the later addition of Interstate 196 could have been easily moved Wilson Road to M-45, and then cut to downtown. This relocation would have made the west Michigan much more of a unified economic region and the west side of Grand Rapids would have been easily available for zoning as industrial, thus preserving the city's industrial fabric.

Finally, while highways are necessary but often done in a poorly designed fashion, I am a big fan of parks. The city had a master plan drawn up in 1917 that has some beautiful sketches of parkways along Plaster and Silver Creeks, as well as the Grand and Thornapple River. If we had developed a parkway system, as well as creating a greenbelt park system around the metro region as proposed by Fred Meijer in 2004 (before it was voted down). The broader Grand Rapids needs to have a land use policy that makes it stand out among other Midwestern communities. Right now it does not.

In his new book The Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser argues that the American city, long the whipping child for ever failing in American social policy since the Revolution, is much more environmentally sustainable and the hotbed of American economic innovation in the revitalizing economy. To continue pushing federal policies that subsidize sprawl, underwrites mortgages for large homes built in greenfield developments, and enforce euclidean zoning as opposed to form-based zoning is a recipe for doom.