The Democratic National Committee asked fifteen cities to submit proposals to host its 2016 convention, and among the obvious contenders one is raising eyebrows: Detroit, Mich.
Conventions bring more than passionate partisans in funny hats. When delegates descend, they bring with them millions of dollars in revenue. (And occasionally some really awful pick up lines. A GOP delegate in New York tried to get me excited by saying, “Ester? That’s an old-fashioned name. I like old-fashioned women.”) Sometimes they revitalize the local sex industry! It can be a big deal to a struggling metropolis.
Is urban design really powerful enough to make or break happiness? The question deserves consideration, because the happy city message is taking root around the world. “The most dynamic economies of the 20th century produced the most miserable cities of all,” Peñalosa told me over the roar of traffic. “I’m talking about the U.S. Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by cars.”
Charles Montgomery, the author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, has an excerpt of his book in The Guardian, which argues that the happiest cities are the ones where people don’t have to drive as much. “Driving in traffic is harrowing for both brain and body,” Montgomery writes. “The blood of people who drive in cities is a stew of stress hormones. The worse the traffic, the more your system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the fight-or-flight juices that, in the short-term, get your heart pumping faster, dilate your air passages and help sharpen your alertness, but in the long-term can make you ill.” Walkable, bike-able cities tend to make people happier because they’re also less socially isolating, Montgomery argues.
My subway line was having some trouble this morning, and we all tried to cram ourselves into crowded cars so we could make it to where we needed to be. “That’s what we get for voting for Bill de Blasio!” a man joked. Some of us laughed. Some of us remained agitated. It was certainly not socially isolating, but, squeezed against some strangers, I sort of wished I had a bike to hop on to ride downtown (there are no Citibikes in my neighborhood yet).
Photo: News Oresund
Earlier today Mike concluded that “Singapore is not the answer” but I don’t know, Mike, are you sure? Yeah, it is authoritarian-socialist, not democratic-socialist, like the warmer and fuzzier Scandinavian countries. Artists and gum-chewers alike may find themselves feeling creatively stifled. Normal people can afford to live there, though, in part because housing is considered a right, not a privilege:
Singapore seems to have handled massive urbanization while keeping things relatively affordable. The country also is generally well regarded for its emphasis on urban design.
What does Singapore have going for it? Massive public investment in housing, at levels that are frankly unthinkable in North America. More than 80 percent of the population live in their version of public housing. Which, since it’s occupied by the large bulk of the middle class and not just the poor, doesn’t carry the same connotations as public housing does in North America.
Dream Hampton’s essay about her childhood home in Detroit, and her neighborhood’s evolution (devolution) from family block to blight, is a small but important look at a changing American city: “We bought the house on Newport the summer before I began first grade, from a white family in flight.” It might perhaps leave you wondering what happened to Detroit, and so perhaps you should watch this short video) called: What happened to Detroit?
Cord Jefferson has written a lyrical, lovely, and charged essay about growing up black in mostly white and Latino Tucson, Ariz., and also about Tucson itself, where his childhood was defined first by and then against its specific idiosyncrasies:
The sun beat down on us relentlessly in Tucson. The flora was thorny and the fauna was unsociable. And yet there we lived and thrived, going about our days in the hard-baked rocky desert, laughing about the triple-digit heat. In a scene in Lawrence of Arabia, Mr. Dryden tells Lawrence, “Only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods.” We were not Bedouins in Tucson, and so we must have been the latter.
I remember getting my first fake ID, which said I was 18 so I could go to bars in Mexico. We found a check-cashing store south of the Tucson Mall that issued its own ID cards for customers who couldn’t obtain anything else. “We don’t verify any of the information you put on these,” a woman said from behind bulletproof glass as she pushed the paperwork through a slot. “Write whatever you want.” That’s how my friends and I ended up with slips of laminated paper that listed our addresses as “420 Weed Ave.” and “666 Satan St.” In my photo I had a wispy mustache that curled upward with my nervous smile. My name was “Tony Montana,” like Scarface.
Especially if you have ever felt ambivalent about where you come from, and then guilty about that ambivalence, go ahead and read the whole thing. It’s pretty marvelous.
P.S. — Wanna about your hometown for us and how you feel now looking back on your childhood there? Email me! Ester AT thebillfold DOT com
San Francisco has the least affordable housing in the nation, with just 14 percent of homes accessible to middle-class buyers, said Jed Kolko, chief economist at the real estate website Trulia. The median rent is also the highest in the country, at $3,250 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
“Affordable housing projects are constructed, and the money set aside for that purpose is used, but the demand is just far greater than what can be supplied,” said Fred Brousseau of the city budget and legislative analyst’s office. Evictions under a provision of state law that allows landlords to evict rent-controlled tenants if they convert a building for sale have more than tripled in the past three years, just as they did during the first tech boom.
To Yelly Brandon, a 36-year-old hairstylist, and her boyfriend, Anthony Rocco, an archivist, the obstacles to finding housing became clear when they spent two months searching for an apartment. At open houses, they said, they were competing with young tech workers, who offered more than the asking price and cash up front.
“People were just throwing money in the air,” Ms. Brandon said.
In the Times, Erica Goode and Claire Cain Miller report about the “backlash by the bay”—how the middle- and working-classes are increasingly being pushed out by tech workers with big bank accounts. Neighborhoods like the Mission District, a once heavily Hispanic working-class neighborhood, has seen a dramatic change. But some of the changes are less about luxury apartment buildings and moneyed residents like Mark Zuckerberg buying homes in the area:
And they grumble about less tangible things: an insensitivity in interactions in stores and on the street, or a seeming disregard for neighborhood traditions. The annual Day of the Dead procession, meant to be solemn, has turned into a rowdy affair that many newcomers seem to view as a kind of Mexican Halloween.
Kevin Starr, professor of history and policy, planning and development at the University of Southern California describes the biggest problem with pushing middle and working class families out of the city: “You can’t have a city of just rich people. A city needs restaurant workers, a city needs schoolteachers, a city needs taxi drivers.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons