Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Five migrations in gentrification

In a recent post I noted that the demand driving up rents and prices ("gentrification") in big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago is a result of at least three distinct migration streams. Thinking about it now, I can identify five major streams. It's important to keep them straight, because they do not have the same cause, and thus the actions we can take (if any) to reduce or redirect the flow of migrants is different in each case.

The best and brightest have been migrating to cities since time immemorial, seeking fame and fortune. So have rural misfits – heretics, gender and sexual minorities, people with mixed ethnic, religious or class backgrounds, people with disabilities, anyone who has been shunned by small, close-knit communities. Some of them migrate from small cities to larger cities, searching for a better opportunity, more anonymity, more tolerance.

Immigrants often wind up in cities, because that is usually where the entry points and crossroads are, and where there are the most opportunities. They come through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport, across the Rio Grande at El Paso or San Diego, and find their way to East Los Angeles or Chinatown or Washington Heights. Maybe they eventually wind up in a small town, or even start out picking berries in the Central Valley or tobacco in the Coastal Plain, but many families spend at least a generation in a big city.

Those two migration streams – the best and the misfits, and international migration – have been going on for as long as we’ve had cities and nations. Recently, what’s been capturing a lot of people’s attention is the white return – the repudiation by Anglo, Jewish, German and others of their parents’ search for comfort and tranquility in the suburbs, supposedly safe from the nonwhite people they feared and hated. I’m part of a similar migration, Back to the City, where the children of hippies and beatniks realized that communing with nature isn’t quite as spiritually uplifting as our parents thought – and it’s not all that great for the environment, either.

The fourth big migration stream that has been getting attention is the move of the white-flighters and back-to-the-landers themselves. Baby Boomers and other people who are now elderly have realized what we knew when we were fourteen: that life sucks in Amityville or Great Barrington if you can’t drive wherever you want to go. They’re buying small apartments in the city themselves, many of them in neighborhoods that they couldn’t afford in 1972.

There’s a fifth migration that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the small city exiles. These are people who are not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic (I learned about this last one from Sally Flocks), or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

This is why rents and prices have been rising so drastically in New York, Washington and San Francisco, and to a certain extent in Boston and Chicago. In addition to the eternal migration of the ambitious, the misfits and immigrants, we’re on the receiving end of the White Return and the Back to the City – both the old and the young. On top of all that we’re getting the moderately bright and kind of weird who can’t make a home in the small cities.

Any solution to the problems of rising rents and prices will have to address all three of these new migrations. We can build more big city for them: taller buildings, more transit, upzoning around transit. But the returning retirees and the small city refugees don’t need big cities. They’d be perfectly happy if we could make the existing pedestrian and transit infrastructure of Scranton and Pueblo and Fort Smith work for them again, rebuild what was lost and thrown away, and find a way to make those towns relevant again. They’d be happy if they could live in prewar suburbs like Bethpage and Whiting without having to own a car for every adult family member. This is what the Strong Towns movement is about, and what Duncan Crary says about Troy.

You may say that it’s a tall order, that these towns are never coming back. But I ask you: if we rebuilt the rail connections, rebuilt the housing and shopping and offices where now there is just parking, and tore down the bypasses that made those downtowns irrelevant, don’t you think some of them would start to sputter back to life? Is that really any harder than trying to build whatever mind-numbing amount of "affordable housing" we need in New York to accommodate all these people, and the subways we will need to move them around once the elites admit that “Bus Rapid Transit” will never suffice?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

21st Street and Astoria Boulevard

In a recent post I argued that the Astoria elites no longer have the same opposition to extending the N train that they did just seven years ago. This extension would not only connect to LaGuardia, but it would be able to serve parts of Astoria east of the current line. But Astoria is so big that even an extended N train and the existing R and M service on Broadway leave large stretches of it unserved.

For this map I used the half mile circles that are so standard in transit planning that Jeff Wood named a blog after them. They're not always the best tool for estimating transit coverage, but my previous apartment was just inside one of these circles, and taking the train was frustrating but doable, so it's about right for this job. I even think that some people would walk into LaGuardia Airport to catch a subway.

The big gap between the current circles for the #7 train and the potential circles from stops in and near LaGuardia Airport corresponds rather neatly to a cluster of red dots on this map made by the Pratt Center in 2008:

This is a map of the homes of people commuting more than an hour to jobs where they earn less than $35,000 per year. Many of them live in the Astoria Houses and western Astoria generally, but there is a large concentration in East Elmhurst and northern Jackson Heights, where a long walk or a slow bus ride to stations fairly far out on the #7 train makes for a tedious commute.

There is a potential solution, and it's not the battle for "BRT" on Junction Boulevard that the Pratt Institute recommends, but is not going to fight. As the Hub-bound Travel Survey showed, there is capacity in the 63rd Street Tunnel for more trains. The Sixth Avenue local tracks are shared with the M train, but they run about 22 trains in the 8AM hour, leaving space for 8-10 more trains.

What service could we feed into the tunnel? The city examined this question 75 years ago, and their answer still makes sense today. The line would run north on Twenty-First Street, then east on Ditmars and Astoria Boulevards. It would turn south on 108th Street and east along Horace Harding Boulevard, which is now the Long Island Expressway.

At this point the demand for new housing is so high that any improvement in access to Manhattan is likely to fuel concerns about gentrification. In other words, we would build a train for the poor people in East Elmhurst, and then the rents would go up and no poor people would be able to live in East Elmhurst anymore. To allay those concerns, I propose building it as an elevated train. It would probably also be easier to build it elevated along 21st Street, so that it will be well above the water table. If the people on Ditmars complain, we can put it underground there.

Since there is only room in the Sixth Avenue tunnel for one additional service, we can't run express trains. It's not clear that there would be demand in Glen Oaks or Fresh Meadows for an all-local train to Manhattan via East Elmhurst, but it should probably serve Queens College at the very least.

Should this be a priority? Maybe, maybe not. The projects mentioned in Alon's recent posts all have a lot of merit to them, and at this point I don't have a good way of judging. If you pooh-pooh this idea, though, I want to hear what your alternative is to make use of the spare capacity in the Sixth Avenue local tunnels.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Unpacking gentrification

Transit advocates, pedestrian advocates, urbanists and in general all the people who are trying to improve the quality of life in cities need to talk about gentrification. Not because improvements to transit or walking or urban quality of life lead to gentrification, but because some people think they do. Others, bizarrely, are scapegoating the people moving to urban areas, as though their migration were the result of either nefarious conspiracy or a spontaneous coincidence of individual greed. Some of these demagogues are willing to attack the transit and quality of life improvements, the people promoting those improvements, or the migrants themselves, in a desperate attempt to prevent this change.

The fact of the matter is that the transit and quality of life improvements are largely the effect, not the cause, of the move back to the cities. The suburban growth ponzi scheme and the hippie back-to-the-land fantasy have run out of money, and the jobs are leaving. As the jobs leave the suburbs and the country, the quality of life goes down, and people flee for the cities.

These migrants may be a bit insensitive, but they are not conspiring amongst themselves to take from city dwellers, and they are not acting out of greed and jealousy; rather, their own dislocation from their homes deserves as much sympathy from anti-gentrification activists as that of the people they are displacing.

This migration is much more powerful than the anti-gentrification demagogues. Even if they manage to keep cities as inconvenient as they are, people will keep coming. The only way they could stem the tide is if they somehow manage to bring the cities down to the level of the suburbs. Short of bringing back the crack epidemic and setting the South Bronx on fire again, I just don't see it.

The demagogues may not succeed in stopping the migration to the cities, but they can do some damage, and make cities, suburbs and country miserable places all around. Fortunately, some of them are motivated by a heartfelt desire to help others that has been twisted to scapegoating and destruction. They may be amenable to reason, and that is why we need to be prepared.

Really, it is the concept of "gentrification" as a thing that leads to this misradicalization. Gentrification may seem to be a neat, easily identifiable phenomenon - uh oh, there's a new coffee bar over here, and a vintage record store over there! - but the effects that people complain about are hardly that simple.

Even though some people may complain about restaurants and "hipsters," these are not the substantive concerns that others take seriously. The worst effects of gentrification are (a) rising prices and rents, which squeeze the budgets of old-time residents and businesses whose incomes have not risen, (b) displacement as those residents move to cheaper areas, (c) loss of services as the businesses close or move away, and (d) disconnection as people and businesses that are displaced may move to different areas and have difficulty keeping in touch.

In general, I'm not really swayed by the loss of services argument. I may mourn the passing of Big Nick's Burger Joint or Shakespeare and Company, but I actually think the Shake Shack burgers and the browsing experience at Barnes and Noble are better than their predecessors.

I'm also not troubled by displacement in itself: migration is a fact of life. The idea that the children of African Americans or Puerto Ricans who moved to the neighborhood forty years ago have more of a right to it than the grandchildren of Jews and Italians who moved there eighty years ago is just bizarre. The problems come when the displacement is too fast and too extreme, and scatters people who otherwise want to be together.

The real question is not whether to avoid or stop "gentrification," it's whether we can slow or ease the displacement, and make it so that when people do get displaced, they wind up in places that are almost as nice as the places they left.

In order to do that, we need to further unpack "gentrification." This migration is not a simple one: in fact, it is at least three migrations combined, and not all of them equally necessary. We need to do what we can to reduce that inmigration. The displacement is not automatically necessary: we need to increase the amount of housing and jobs in the city, so that the old-timers can live alongside the newcomers instead of being forced out. We need to make sure that poor city dwellers aren't simply being displaced to the same dangerous, unpleasant, disconnected suburbs that the middle-class migrants are leaving behind - with less ability to afford cars.

Will this convince the misguided radicals who see gentrification in black and white terms? Hard to tell. Will it help me feel better promoting transit and urban life? Yes. I'll talk more about these issues in future posts.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Along the Chemical Coast to Staten Island

People seem to be captivated by the unused stretch of the Staten Island Railroad along the North Shore of the island. It makes sense to do something with it, because it's the part of Staten Island with the poorest population and the lowest car ownership. But the whole discussion is pathetic, ranging from the sorta reasonable (restore the Staten Island Railroad passenger service to Arlington) to the mildly faddish (light rail!) to the moronic (bus rapid transit!). For some reason, people love the idea of extending the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail over the Bayonne Bridge and connecting it to either the North Shore line or the West Shore line.

Hardly anyone looks west across the Arthur Kill to Elizabeth. That makes some sense, because I'm guessing that most of the people who are commuting outside the borough are going to jobs in Manhattan. But it's short-sighted, because it ignores the fact that there's a railroad bridge that was restored to full functionality in 2007.

Back in 2008 I talked about running the trains to connect to the Northeast Corridor in Elizabeth or Newark, but then you're still only in Elizabeth or Newark and you have to change trains. Fortunately, there's another train to connect to, and a right-of-way with plenty of room to connect them.

Right now there are PATH trains from 33rd Street to Hoboken, from the World Trade Center to Hoboken, and from the World Trade Center to Newark. But the train from 33rd Street west stops at Journal Square, presumably because there isn't enough ridership to run the trains all the way to Newark.

This train can be extended to Staten Island - or else it can be extended to Newark, and the trains from the World Trade Center can be extended to Staten Island. How would they get there? On the Chemical Coast.

The Chemical Coast Line is a freight railroad with a wonderfully evocative name, originally part of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Like the Arthur Kill Lift Bridge, it is lightly used. We wouldn't want the PATH trains to share tracks with chemical tank cars, but there is plenty of room in the right-of-way and on adjacent properties for two tracks of dedicated passenger service.

The single-track Arthur Kill Lift Bridge sees three freight trains a day. The main concern is how often the bridge would need to be raised to allow ships to pass under it. The current PATH train to Newark runs every four minutes during rush hours and every fifteen minutes off-peak.

The key is that the trains would go express for the nine miles from Journal Square to the Jersey Gardens Mall in Elizabethport, just like they currently do for the five miles from Journal Square to Harrison. Given that it takes 25 minutes to get from the World Trade Center to Newark, it would probably take at most 35 to get to Elizabethport, and under an hour to Saint George. Compare that to the time it takes to ride a bus to the ferry and walk to the office, or to sit in an express bus on the Gowanus Expressway.

In terms of capital costs, we're talking about rebuilding the North Shore rail line and making it flood-resistant - part of it washed away during Hurricane Sandy. Then we would probably have to build a new connection with the Chemical Coast line and run new track up to Port Newark. From Newark we would probably have to build some new track, a new bridge over the Passaic River and a new junction with the existing PATH line. I don't know how much all that would cost, but could it be more than the billion and a half that the Port Authority wants to spend on the useless extension to Newark Airport?