The Big Sort

Last week’s Economist contains a provocative discussion of The Big Sort. Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. I’ve long been interested in the phenomenon of demographic clustering. See for example, the essay that I co-wrote with Anne Friedberg for the Networked Publics book. According to this model, mobility is leading individuals to cluster in communities of other like-minded individuals. In Bill Bishop’s book, and the Economist article, the concern is with the consequences of such clustering for politics. Americans increasingly don’t talk to people with political views unlike themselves. Instead, we live in liberal urban environments or conservative exurbs or whatever community turns us on. I don’t suspect Europe is going to do much better. The EU has changed dramatically in the last two decades and, with the freedom of mobility that Europeans enjoy, old ties like language and family are going to dissipate over time, in favor of a similar clustered world.

The consequences for politics are relatively clear, if distrubing, but this "big sort" also has consequences for urbanism since politics is such a huge part of thinking about cities. So when we think of dredging up Jane Jacobs yet again for models of thinking about the city, let’s remember the ideological context and the larger complexities of such situations.

Read more

posturban transformation

The May 29th issue of the Economist finally came today and it has one of the most intelligent articles about suburbs that I’ve read lately. It comes back to one of the key issues for my Network City project. Cities, as Lewis Wirth pointed out in his seminal article, Urbanism as a Way of Life, had traditionally been places of difference, places in which individuals from rural backgrounds were deterritorialized (to use Deleuzean terms) to become new, urban beings. But something strange has happened over the last two decades.

The Economist piece "An Age of Transformation" talks about how minorities, immigrants, and increasingly, gays and lesbians are leaving cities (one staggering statistic: at current rates of departure, there will not be a single African American in Los Angeles by 2050). As the global city becomes increasingly homogeneous, today’s advocates of the creative city may seem as backwards to us as Corbusier did to Jane Jacobs. 


Read more

the creative class

If the creative class is now the dominant target for advocates of urban growth who argue that it is the engine of future economic growth, where does that leave the avant-garde? I’m such a Hegelian, but doesn’t this mean we’re done with the avant-garde once and for all? 


Read more

so long, wireless cities

I have always been deeply skeptical of the wireless cities idea. The business models of cities teaming with ISPs to give away free access to the Internet via city-wide wireless networks never made sense, the idea always seemed incompatible with the desires of law enforcement for tracking and surveillance, and the need to upgrade routers every couple of years seemed insurmountable (oh, you live in an 802.11b city…). Moreover, having lived in a dense urban area for a decade, I can attest to the difficulty of having wireless cross one floor of an apartment building, let alone an entire city block. Given current technology limitations, there is just too much interference in dense urban environments to make the wireless city a reality. The most naive ideas suggested that giving away wireless services in cities would somehow lead to economic booms. But urban boosters are given to such ideas (remember the Bilbao-effect?), so it’s no great surprise. 

So now it’s over, at least in the United States. Read this article at the New York Times. 

Read more

on the city as growth machine and its enablers

A couple of days ago, I mentioned that the New York Times expressed deep confusion that a real estate bubble had taken place. I wondered aloud why the Times didn’t see the real estate bubble for what it was when, in contrast, the Economist had expressed concern years earlier? Is it that the Times hires reporters straight out of college or is there something more? Maybe it’s that the population of Manhattan has always increased?*

Well, the answer came this week when I gave the students in my spring Network City course Harvey Molotch‘s seminal essay "The City as Growth Machine." Molotch’s analysis is of the way that certain industries—primarily the finance and real estate industries—dominate urban politics with the intention of expanding their businesses. These interests promote a naturalized view of growth in which we are simply not to question that cities will always get bigger or that they should always get bigger.

But Molotch also points out that newspapers encourage the growth machine as a way of expanding their subscription base. Moreover, foreshadowing the argument of the rather naïve creative cities movement, arts organizations such as the symphony, opera, and art museums are also beholden to the model of the city as growth machine. I’ll leave it to you to imagine where architects are in all this. 

So much for objectivity then. I suppose that we can forgive the Times for playing its structural role (not having a single urban base, the Economist would find little benefit in playing urban booster) if we really have to, but in rereading Molotch’s essay (and it is available at that link above) it seems crucial to me to ask what the broader consequences of such allegiances are and what architects might do to be critical of them. Certainly not things like this (e.g. OMA in Dubai…note that Delirious New York was written at the lowest point in that table below). 

*Heavy sarcasm intended. Sure, Manhattan’s population has gone up lately, but like most American cities, this is only a small uptick after a sustained decline. New York City has continually expanded. Not so for Manhattan.

See the following figures, borrowed form Wikipedia. note that Manhattan was 1/3 more populous in 1910! 


1890 1,515,301
1900 1,850,093
1910 2,331,542 
1920 2,284,103
1930 1,867,312
1940 1,889,924
1950 1,960,101
1960 1,698,281
1970 1,539,233
1980 1,428,285
1990 1,487,536
2000 1,537,195




Read more

7km market

image of 7km market

[image by glueckauf from Flickr]

Are there other versions of Quartzsite? Although I am frequently asked about it, the planned nature of Burning Man doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is the 7km market in Odessa. 

In 1989 the Odessa city government expelled an impromptu flea market to a site some 7km outside of town. Since then the market has grown tremendously to over 170 acres in 2006 and does an estimated $20 million of business a day. 

See the New York Times for more

Read more

hollow city, empty suburbs

Over at the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher B. Leinberger suggests that suburbs are "the next slum." In his article for the March issue, he observes a massive oversupply in housing and suggests that Americans are moving, en masse, back to the city. The result, he concludes, is that the suburbs will be as eviscerated as cities were in the 1950s. 

Not so fast. Suburbs may have an oversupply of housing and older, inner ring suburbs are increasingly the first destination for immigrants, but cities have their own problems, not the least of which is a huge amount of purchasing by investors and global travelers who want an pied-à-terre in every major city.

See this harrowing article from the New York Times on life at the Plaza Hotel, recently converted to condos. In this scenario, reminiscent of Hollow City, the history of late 1990s San Francisco by Rebecca Solnit, cities become impossibly expensive playgrounds for a global élite with more ordinary individuals such as cooks, nurses, lawyers, dentists, doctors living on the periphery wearing T-shirts that say "Bring Back the Real NY."


Read more

log 11

cover image of log issues 11


The Winter 2008 issue of Log 11 is out.

In Žižek!, Slavoj Žižek states that everything he does is a spin-off from a book project. That is certainly an effective model for him and something I’ve been hoping to emulate for the last couple of years. As a consequence, of late my output of articles has a bit scant although I have three books slated for publication this year. 
In Log 11, however, I offer a teasing glimpse of some of my future work with the Network City book in a brief "Postcard from Passaic, New Jersey." Eventually I’ll post this, but for now you’ll have to get Log 11 to read it.
Note that a brief glance in the bookstore won’t suffice. Like any good naughty magazine, the issue is shrink-wrapped and if you unwrap it your fumbling efforts will be visible for all to see.



Read more

plug-in city

 photograph of ad in subway

I ran across this advertisement in the subway the other day. It brought to mind the last of Robert Sumrell’s three thesis proposals in 2001 and I was struck by how this project takes advantage of the existing conditions—bored passengers waiting for the train accessorized with ubiquitous white headphones—integrating media distribution to a particular place and time in the form of an ad.

What else can we leave out in the city?



Read more

in the blogs

Two blogs of note mentioned me recently. First, Régine at we-make-money-not-art had a two-part review of the panel that I moderated at the DLD conference.

I wish I had had more time to talk, but that’s the way conferences can be. For those of you who may be wondering what I said, here’s how I contextualized the panel:

Cities are communications systems. Media and urban environments impact each other and develop hand-in hand historically. When we began to live in cities, we deveolped writing to keep tabs of what went on in those cities. In the nineteenth century, the rapidly growing metropolis gave rise to the telephone and the telegraph, which allowed management at a distance, facilitating the business district, with its distinctive form of the skyscraper, the factory district, and the residential district. Could suburbs such as Levittown be conceivable without the substitute for urban culture provided by television? So if during the last two decades we are faced with an intense transition in media, what does that imply for architecture, for urbanism?

Speaking of urbanism, Bradley M. Swarts at East Coast Architecture Review kindly included on his list of top ten blogs on urbanism. It’s a great list and an honor to be included on it.  

On another front, if you haven’t heard the news, is now offering full-length albums on its site. This morning I’ve been listening to this one by Popul Vuh, Krautrock band founded by Florian Fricke (father of Johannes Fricke of DLD). It’s the soundtrack to Aguirre: The Wrath of God, one of my favorite movies. In my book, it’s the best soundtrack ever written.


Read more