Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Great Inversion

One of the pleasures of taking mass transit to work is that I can read. Quite a bit. While my commuting reading routine varies, I generally read the Economist on Mondays, the New Yorker on Tuesdays, and books on the remaining three weekdays. It has worked pretty well, and I’ve kept on top of my reading load this year, mixing up fiction with non-fiction regularly.

This past week I read Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. The Great Inversion came out last month, and is as readable as his other major work (The Lost City: Discovering the Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s, which looks at three distinct 1950s neighborhoods in metropolitan Chicago). Ehrenhalt’s readability is due in part to his career as a journalist and editor of Governing magazine, an excellent periodical which yours truly subscribed to for a number of years.

The Great Inversion argues that some American cities are becoming much more like European cities in terms of their spatial structure. That is, affluent elites live in the urban core and enjoy cultural amenities and easy commutes to their jobs, while poorer people live at the periphery of the metropolitan region, enduring long commutes to their jobs, and have few of the comforts that many of us take for granted. Ehrenhalt also argues that many immigrants are skipping living in historical gateway communities located in the urban neighborhoods surrounding downtown, and are instead living in exurban communities that generally provide excellent schools and readily available employment opportunities.

However, the inversion of American cities is dependent on three crucial prerequisites. First, any successful core city needs to limit the amount of employment sprawl and steadily increase the overall number of jobs in the metropolitan region if it is to control its destiny. Ehrenhalt notes that cities such as Chicago and New York have been able to do this, and this is due in part to the massive size of these cities. Both dominate a large geographic region, where cities such as Detroit and Baltimore cannot throw its weight around in the same way. Secondly, while transportation beyond the automobile is not a must, cities that give people an additional option to their use of a car are far more likely to succeed. The second prerequisite is why I don’t consider Philadelphia to be as doomed as Ehrenhalt does. Neighborhoods on the outskirts of Center City (such as University City, Northern Liberties, and Graduate Hospital) are well positioned for continued revitalization. Finally, strong central cities must have a local government that provides services in a cost-efficient manner. Philadelphia faces many problems on this final requirement, as its pension structure and archaic governmental institutions make its tax load enormous for residents and business to bear. The same would apply for a city like Detroit, which is perhaps the most fiscally pressed large city in the United States today.

Ehrenhalt also looks at how many suburbs are trying to change their existing spatial form to one that is more urban. I’d simplify things by saying that many communities are trying to increase their residential density, but have had limited success, in part because nothing has been done to improve job density. There are many factors that impact employers locating to one particular geographic region, but two of the major reasons are transportation accessibility and tax benefits extracted from various local governments.


I really enjoyed The Great Inversion, and immediately thought of how lessons from this book might apply communities past and present that I have lived in. Thinking about my hometown of Grand Rapids, the location of the Michigan State Medical School in the downtown core has gone a long way to improving the livability of the city. The same goes for the expanded mass transit network around the city’s core; while rapid bus transit is not as sexy as trolleys, they will do a better job at providing public transportation at a fraction of the cost. Downtown Grand Rapids (which I define as bordered by Leonard Street to the north, College Ave to the east, Wealthy Street to the south, and Seward Ave to the west), can easily handled another 50,000 residents, especially if new residential developments are done at a human scale that supports mixed use development and also includes the expansion of the city core’s existing greenway network. While it would cost a bit, moving the city’s Amtrak Station to drop passengers near the Grand Rapids Community College campus would also improve intermodal transit networks.


Like Grand Rapids, Dallas’s downtown could support many more residents. I will defer to Patrick Kennedy on the actual number, but I would think that the area within the Interstate 30/Interstate 35/Interstate 45/Highway 75/Woodall Rodgers Freeway loop could add 75,000 people and function quite well. The number of surface parking lots that could handle eight-story residential buildings that have retail on the ground level are simply astounding, and as Patrick recommends, setting up a split tax on land would improve the odds for developers. John Kromer’s Fixing Broken Cities showcase’s Philadelphia’s experience using property tax abatements to revitalize the downtown residential housing market. Dallas could certainly try to do the same, although it might not have as much financial flexibility as Philadelphia, as property tax revenue provides a much larger share of Dallas’s total revenue. Just converting every vacant parking lot into eight-story residential buildings would go a long way to revitalizing Dallas’s urban core, and lead it on the beginning of its own great inversion.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

2012 Michigan State House Prospectus

With the general election only nine months away, the time for determining a general sense of the Michigan State House contests is upon us. The state house experienced significant turnover in the 2010 election, as the Republicans handed the Democrats the worst drubbing in the state’s history since the mid-1870s. The GOP won 20 seats and brought their total number of representatives to 63, the highest the party has had since 1952. Gaining unexpected control of the State House in 2010 allowed the Republicans to control the redistricting process in the following year, a godsend for the party that had created one of the more effective remaps in the previous redistricting cycle in 2001. With the new map awaiting candidates, what sort of early analysis can be given nine months before November?

Using precinct level data for every election going back to 1996, I sought to answer this question. I recoded every precinct in the state to the new State House, State Senate, and Congressional districts. With this data, I used election returns from 2004 onward to determine the average Democratic share of the vote in the top of the ticket race (either Presidential or Gubernatorial), the State House, and the Democratic Baseline (which is determined by averaging the Democratic vote of the two State Board of Education candidates) races. Of the past four election cycles, two were decidedly Democratic years (2006 and 2008), one moderately Republican (2004), and one overwhelmingly Republican (2010). I then determined the average Democratic share of the vote in each of the three different contests. I classified the 110 state house seats into five different groups; Safe Republican, Leans Republican, Swing, Leans Democratic, and Safe Democratic.



Of the 110 State House districts, 23 are Safe Democratic, 19 Lean Democratic, 24 are Swing seats, 19 Lean Republican, and 25 are Safe Republican. The Districts are shown according to their classification in the map below.

The pre-2010 parameters of Detroit being a Democratic bastion and rural Michigan being overwhelmingly Republican still exist. However, the significant drop in Detroit’s population between 2000 and 2010 has reduced the number of safe Democratic seats. However, Detroit’s population decline may be a blessing in disguise, as the dispersal of Democratic voters to suburban communities in Oakland and Wayne County makes many of these districts more competitive for Democratic candidates. Indeed, the decline of Detroit and the dispersal of its population is the unspoken weapon that the Michigan Democratic Party has against yet another skillful Republican remap.

Each party is certain to lose one seat to the other side. The Democrats will lose the 42nd District, which was recreated in southern Livingston County, while the Republicans will lose the 55th District that was remade to be a Democratic leaning seat surrounding Ann Arbor. Two other Republican-held seats are Democratic-leaning districts; District 110 (western Upper Peninsula) and District 57 (Lenawee County), both seats had been held by popular Democratic Representatives who were term-limited and won by the GOP in 2010. In the past decade, the Upper Peninsula has become more Republican for top of the ticket races, but it much more Democratic in State House contests.

Of the 24 Swing State House seats, seven are held by Democrats, while 17 are controlled by the GOP. Interestingly, all 17 Republican held seats were won in 2010, meaning that candidates who were elected in the 2010 wave election might find that some voters might have remorse over selecting a GOP candidate the last time around. A majority of the Swing districts are located outside of metropolitan Detroit, although Districts 18, 21, 23, and 24 are all located in either Wayne or Oakland Counties.

If I had to select five seats to watch, I would pick the following:

1. 52nd District (northern and western Washtenaw County). The 52nd is currently represented by Republican Mark Ouimet, who ran strongly on Synder’s coattails. Synder pulled the highest Republican vote share for any candidate in Washtenaw County since John Engler in 1998, and Ouimet did his best to model his candidacy as Synder: a moderate businessman who would represent the district in a non-ideological fashion. Without Synder on the ballot in 2012 (and Obama on the ticket), it remains to be seen whether Ouimet will be able to hold onto this seat. The 52nd was made a bit more Republican in the 2011 redistricting process, losing the northern portions of Ann Arbor while adding some rural sections of southern Washtenaw County, but the seat still remains a toss-up district.

2. 91st District (northern and eastern Muskegon County). Republican Holly Hughes won this seat in 2010 after losing her first attempt in 2008. Hughes, who is a wealthy and well connected GOP businesswoman, got a new district that was made slightly more Republican. However, organized labor still has a strong pull in this district, and a strong populist Democratic candidate might find success against a Michigan version of Mitt Romney.

3. 108th District (Delta, Dickinson, and Menominee Counties). This swinging Upper Peninsula district went hard for Republicans in 2010. While the 110th district will be a much easier district for Democrats to pick up, it figures to be a good election night if the GOP is struggling to hold the 108th as well.

4. 76th District (Grand Rapids). The 76th District was modified significantly from its 2001 incarnation. Previously a district covering the west side of Grand Rapids, the new 76th covers the outlying portions of the city that were annexed after 1959, and tends to be much more Republican leaning than the core portion of the city. While Democratic incumbent Roy Scmidt is popular and will likely hold this seat, if he is in trouble in November 2012, chances of a Democratic takeover of the house will be pretty slim.

5. 23rd District (downriver Wayne County). Another working-class district that went Republican in 2010, the 23rd is certainly to be contested.

The Democrats need to pick up nine seats to regain the majority. While the presidential election should increase the Democratic turnout, whether this can translate into seats from a map by a skilled Republican redistricting plan remains to be seen. At this date, I would suggest that the Democrats will gain 7 seats if Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee. But, we still have nine months to go. Below are some relevant maps of the baseline status and current partisan control of existing house districts.









Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Book Awards


What a better way to start off the New Year by remembering all the books I read in 2011? As I sit and enjoy beautiful Texas weather (meaning sunny and seventy degrees on January 2), I looked again through my day planner, and noted that I read 91 books this past year. Of these, twenty three were fiction. The bulk of my fiction reading involved Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, which consisted of seven different books that amounted to over 6,500 pages of enjoyable historical fiction. This series certainly deserves the title of my favorite work of fiction in 2011. Incidentally, the worst book that I read this year was Dow Mossman’s Stones of Summer. This book was so bad I made myself finish it; although I should have known that it was a stinker as it was published by my old employer Barnes and Noble.

As far as my favorite work of non-fiction, five works stand out. Honorable mentions include Matt Dillinger’s Interstate 69 (which provides an excellent look at on unfinished section of the interstate system) and Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns that examines the tale of three participants in America’s Great Migration. My third place award goes to Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood’s Dream City: Race, Power, and Decline of Washington DC. Jaffe and Sherwood provide an extremely readable story of Washington DC’s decline between 1974 and 1994 under the leadership of Marion Barry, a fall that has been reversed in recent years by strong municipal leadership and a growing federal government workforce. Peter Goodwin claims second place with The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. I read this book on the plane and was hooked on this personal and detailed narrative decline of Africa’s most successful country in the past thirty years. The other 64 works of non-fiction were great, but Don Peck’s Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It claims the title of my favorite book from 2011. Some readers of this blog might have come across Peck’s essay in Atlantic from this summer, but do yourself a service and read his book. While a shorter work, Pinched does a masterful job comparing the current recession with similar periods of economic malaise. Peck argues that broader transformation of America from a manufacturing to service based economy has created a elite class Americans who are largely located in distinct neighborhoods in a few metropolitan neighborhoods. At the same time, the social stability of many middle class households is declining and exhibits many of the same woes that plague inner-city neighborhoods. While Peck’s solutions at the end of Pinched could use some more details, I couldn’t recommend a better book for people to read to better understand our current economic predicament.

Dominic Pacyga, Chicago: A Biography
Alan Mallach, A Decent Home
Latimore et al, The Bogleheads’ Guide to Retirement Planning
Witold Rybczynski, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas about Cities
Robert Caro: The Means of Ascent: LBJ from 1941-1948
Matt Dillinger, Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway
Tom Wolfe, Bonfires of the Vanities
Randy Kennedy, Subwayland: Adventures in the World Beneath New York
WPA Guide to Dallas, Texas
Clyde Prestonwitz, The Betrayal of American Prosperity
Robert Harris, The Ghostwriter
Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones
Peter Hessler, Country Driving
Dallas AIA, Dallas AIA Guide
David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter
Ben Barnes, Barn Building, Barn Burning
Ruth Morgan, Governance By Decree
Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Michael Hazel (ed), Dallas Reconsidered: Essays in Local History
Dow Mossman, Stones of Summer
Terri Jentz, Strange Piece of Paradise
Cyril Paumler, Creating a Vibrant Center City
Peter Harnik, Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities
Vincent Bugolosi, Helter Skelter
Douglas Egerton, Years of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War
David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Between 1846 and 1861
Colleen McCullough, First Man in Rome
D Magazine, 30 Years of Great Stories
Al Greene, Big D: A History
Allan Jacobs, Looking at Cities
Colleen McCullough, The Grass Crown
Robert Fairbanks, For the City as a Whole: Planning in Dallas, 1840-1965
Colleen McCullough, Fortunes Favorites
Daniel Sharfstein, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White
Colleen McCullough, Caesar’s Women
Eric Pooley, The Climate War: True Belivers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth
Peter Goodwin, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe
Bill Minutaglio, The Hidden City: Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas
Colleen McCullough, Caesar
Peter Carr, A Month in the Country
Peter Goodwin, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
Steve Luxenberg, Annie’s Ghost: A Journey into a Family Secret
Colleen McCullough, October Horse
Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm
Jeff Greenfield, Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics
David Grann, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes
Colleen McCullough, October Horse
Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City
John Grisham, The Summons
John Grisham, The Associate
Sulieman Osman, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Kevin Harney and Bob Brouwer, The U Turn Church
Henry Boonstra, Our School: Calvin College 1875-2001
Richard Rubin, A Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
Michael Lewis, Moneyball
Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, Dream City: Race, Power, and Decline of Washington DC
John Grisham, The Confession
Ian Pears, Stone’s Fall
Luther Snow, Congregational Based Asset Mapping
Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflection on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
Peter Lovenheim, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street
Wendy Kopp, A Chance to Make History
Keith Meldahl, Hard Road West: History and Geology Along the Gold Rush Trail
Gil Rendle and Alice Munn, Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations
Don Peck, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It
Ben Cramer, What It Takes
Rick Perlstein, The Stock Ticker and the Super Jumbo: How the Democrats Can Again Become America’s Dominant Political Party
Ken Folett, Pillars of the Earth
Jack Rovoke, Original Meanings: Politics and the Ideas in the Making of the Constitution
Ken Folett, World Without End
James O’Shea, The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plunder Great American Newspapers
Winfried Gallagher, House Thinking: A Room by Room Look at How We Live
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Donald Stroker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the American Civil War
Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beats: Love, Terror, and an American Family In Hitler’s Berlin
Ian Frazier, Roads to Siberia
Buzz Bizzinger, Three Nights in August
Ken Folett, Fall of Giants
Jeffrey Eugindes, The Marriage Plot
Colin Woodward, American Nations
Ray Jacobs, Home Buying for Dummies
Jennifer Gantz, Gotham in the Shadows of Moses and Jacobs
Heather Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War
Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
Andrew Meier, Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall
John Mosier, The Myth of the Great War: A New Military History of World War One
Thomas Stanley, The Millionaire Next Door