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Going back to teaching has me reflecting on Ferguson and waking up

I have always considered it my job to a) learn and b) teach.

Teaching justice in the aftermath of Ferguson has me in tears this morning. That’s all I got.

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Italo Calvino on why we should read the classics

As regular readers know, I am dubious that we book snobs influence much of anybody, let alone oppressing the legions of people who read bestsellers, both exceptional and mediocre, with our book snobbery and elitism. There simply aren’t enough of us to make a dent in all that. That said, I’m rather fed to the teeth with the backlash directed at Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate: Against YA. Her point: yeah, sure it’s fine to read young adult books as an adult, but you should want more from reading, and expect more from yourself, than simple escapism every time you open a book. This thesis prompted entirely predictable outrage and stomping of the feet and meany-meany-meanpants elitist accusations, a lot of which I strongly suspect comes from people simply affronted at a woman daring to suggest that she was better at something than they are. I’m smart! They yell and scream. I’m totally smart and what I choose to read is none of your beeswax! Stop judging, you judgey person! I’m a zillionaire I-banker and that proves I’m smarter than you! I’m a brain surgeon who can play flight of the bumblebees one-footed on the zither! Totally proves my smartness. It does it does does does DOES!!!

Among the better criticisms of the idea that edification through the classics comes from Tim Parks here. There are many fine points to his argument including this:

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, yes, yes, fine, but 1) progressing through different difficulty levels of any type of education may not be linear; it may be a looping; you might go back and forth between books of varying quality, or sprints, or scales, or lots of other to-and-fro-ing even if your general trend is towards mastery; 2) announcing that class is the basis for advantage in any activity is a bit of no-brainer when you really think about it, and 3) there are elite practitioners of just about any activity, both pro-social and not, and status hierarchies within, both earned and unearned. I belong to vegan groups on Facebook because, for reasons of compassion and health, I am trying to eat less meat. The people who dominate in one group are among the most strident, boring, elitist people you’ll find anywhere. I am not equal to them. My foodling efforts and fatness are hardly praiseworthy compared to their dedicated and elite practice. They post in outrage about things, like Trader Joe’s vanilla-flavored coconut milk, with Puritanical zeal about how wrong and horrible and bad and calorie-laden and planet-killing the product is, and I all I can think is: I wants it, my preciousness. Sounds yum.

People who really put effort into something do have some entitlement to take pride in accomplishment–at least some, don’t you think? Education and reading are no different. If you choose to read to escape, sure, that’s your choice, but…am I really obligated to do backflips over your minimal efforts? Nobody running marathons is patting me on my head for going out for an amble. Some days, that amble is all I can bloody do. But let’s not fool ourselves. It ain’t much compared to running 190 miles to cave dive for kale smoothies.

Italo Calvino wrote a lovely essay on why we ought to read the classics. The takeaway? Reading the classics allows us to a break from the immediate pressures of the modern world without, simply staying in the shallows, the way pure escapism does. It’s a break from the quotidian, instrumental demands of everyday life, and a chance to explore big questions we may not encounter in our own experience. What is so very wrong with evangelism around that?

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Sweet cracker sandwich, people!!

From a story over at The Wire, in a recent poll 46 percent of respondents agreed with the latter sentiment: “Which of these two statements comes closest to your own point of view about Watergate — it was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration or it was just politics — the kind of thing that both parties engage in?”

Sweet bloody cracker sandwich people. It wasn’t ‘just politics’. For one, just about everything involves some form of politics (read Aristotle) and…um….ELECTION RIGGING. No, both parties do not engage in what Nixon did, and it was unprecedented amongst the GOP. Goldwater was appalled if you remember, and he should have been. It wasn’t a problem with conservatives or the Republican Party. It was a problem with a guy who could never stop himself from going a bridge too far to get what he wanted, and his loyal circle of friends who helped him.

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ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 #16 Katrin Anacker

Today I am going to write about Katrin Anacker at George Mason, whose home page can be found here. I first met Katrin when she was a post-doc at Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, and it was clear even then that she is, simply, one of the brightest folks working in planning right now. It’s hard to chose to something to highlight, as she has a long cv already, and she contributes interesting things to both queer urbanism and housing, but I always think her contributions regarding spatial change and suburbia are the most useful to a general urban audience.


Anacker, K. B. (2013). Immigrating, assimilating, cashing in? Analyzing property values in suburbs of immigrant gateways. Housing Studies, 28(5), 720-745. doi:10.1080/02673037.2013.75824

This paper looks at whether suburban home values are holding for immigrant owners in American suburbs. Home-ownership, as I have noted many, many times here, is a means of wealth-building, particularly in the United States, and one of the big questions, following the housing bust, is whether that will continue to be true. Plenty of suburban homeowners got soaked, and Anacker here examines where immigrant with language barriers are locating. This an in-depth analysis that poses three questions using commonly used typology in the literature that breaks immigrant gateways into different types, ranging by whether the gateway was historically important, continues to be, or seems to be becoming a gateway ((1) former gateways, (2) continuous gateways, (3) Post-World War II gateways, (4) emerging gateways, (5) re-emerging gateways, and (6) pre-emerging gateways). Anacker uses American Community Housing data to ask:

  1. Are there differences in the median values of owner-occupied housing units?
  2. Are there differences in the changes in the median values of owner-occupied housing units (2000 to 2005/2009)?
  3. Are there differences in the factors that influence the median values of owner-occupied housing units?

So first, it seems as though there are pretty different groups of immigrants flocking to gateways within the typology, and that falls along inner-city and suburban gateway locations. In general, though, values were higher in suburban gateways, and those gateways did retain their value from 2000 to 2009, despite the downturn. Part of this reflects the comparative success of gateways on the coasts and coastal markets.

For the second-order question regarding changes in value, Anacker finds that pre-emerging gateways tend to have lower values, which she attributes to their location in regional south and southwest rather than coastal markets. It also seems to me that emerging gateways are likely to serve people who may not be entering into housing markets via family connections of established immigrants, as would likely happen less in places that were already established gateways. The lower prices would also be helpful to new arrivals.

The last question finds that median values really depend on the type of gateway, with:

Re-emerging, emerging, continuous, and Post-World War II immigrant gateways had a positive coefficient, indicating their locations in metropolitan areas that are characterized by overall economic success (e.g., Washington, DC, Portland, Seattle, Boston, and Los Angeles). Former immigrant gateways had a negative coefficient, confirming their location in the Rust Belt, with its falling incomes, high unemployment, and the decreasing importance of manufacturing (e.g., Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit).

p. 732 in the original.

There is some nice modeling work here in the analysis, and takeaway is that whether immigrants are building wealth via suburban homeownership really depends on what you mean by suburb–which suburbs, which immigrants.

According to her cv, she is also working on edited volume due out here in 2015: Anacker, Katrin B., ed. (2015). The New American Suburb: Poverty, Race, and the Economic Crisis. Farnham: Ashgate, so that’s to be looked forward to.

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If you have time to worry about this crap, you ain’t got enough to do

Ok, I hope–I really hope–this bit from Hillary Kelly in the New Republic is satire because if it is not, it really signals a new, Slate-esque future of trivial crap to come from The New Republic. The piece is not very long, but it’s an utter waste of time, so it’s hard for me to suggest you read it, but its tone is so  pretentious, you really should read it, just so that if you ever catch yourself writing something like this, let alone put it out on a high-profile platform like TNR, you stop and don’t do it. If you have written an essay and “I” appears in it as often as it does here, particularly in claims about what you value, you think is awesome (yourself), your this, your that, just don’t.

For urbanists, I suppose stuff like this is good news: it means that urbanity is, at least in this writer’s mind, superior to those bad, bad, low-class burbs, and that people are sufficiently unreflective about this superiority that they think writing in this manner is somehow, socially obvious.

For all the rest of us: Jesus Christ, would you get a real problem? I often say I am from Iowa. Why? Because there is a chance–albeit not a good one–that people may know where the state is because they sure as hell are not going to know where the town is, even though (gasp!) it’s a LIE! Because no, I am not from the entire state of Iowa. Her husband’s ‘little’ town of 2100 people is roughly 4x the population of the town I come from. I say “Iowa” because it’s a faster and easier, and nobody really gives a rat’s fanny. In dealing with snots like this writer, saying “Iowa”  gets us to the conclusion where she can decide I am from “flyover country” and thus, not worth knowing more quickly. Isn’t efficiency worth having?

The politics of place are real, but 1) nobody is entitled to the information about where you are from to begin with and 2) don’t mistake conversational shorthand for “aspiring” to be urban. Yuck all around.

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Goodbye to Sir Peter Hall

So back in 1997, I asked my planning theory instructor for book recommendations on planning history. I had taken his class on planning history and theory, and he is an exceptional theorist, so the class was heavy on theory. He suggested Leonie Sandercock’s Towards Cosmopolis and Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the 21st Century. My dear instructor hinted strongly that Sandercock’s work was great and Hall’s was not. I felt, and still feel, differently. Both were wonderful, and his suggesting them together was brilliant. It made for a marvelous few weeks’ reading. Sandercock’s work centered on the social and political uses of history, of showing how dominant narratives about history reinforce oppression. Cities of Tomorrow, however, was a book I wish had written, and while every urban historian I have ever met says they “have problems with the book”, I’ve never lost my affection for the long days reading that long book. Of course historians have a problem with it: I’ve never encountered a historian yet who has ever really accepted “a history of ideas” as set in stone.

Peter Hall died this week. Here is his obituary in the Gaurdian. It’s been nearly 20 years since I read Cities of Tomorrow.

H/T to Gerardo Gambirazzio for the Gaurdian link.

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Why I think the “funds aren’t fungible” argument is wrong

So the argument goes something like this:

Starry-eyed person who loves train project X: “Why can’t have this wonderful thing?”

Grumpy economist: “Because wonderful thing costs money, and the money is better spent elsewhere.”

Clever transit advocate: “But transport/transit/capital funds are not fungible, so opportunity cost logic doesn’t work here. So, teh Train!”

This has been the cycle for a few years, and I have to admit, I was impressed by the fanboys who finally thought of the “fungible” argument and actually used the word “fungible,” but I still don’t buy it.

Fungible means “interchangeable”. So the basic problem with economists is that they understand that things cost money. (I am kidding; the fact that they understand that things cost money actually make them really useful to public policy because far too many people do not think about costs.) When you gobble up resources for large-budget capital projects, you can’t use the money for something else. That’s the ‘opportunity cost’ argument. Both the opportunity cost argument, and its “not fungible” rejoinder have their limits.

For one, opportunity costs are entirely real; they are one of the few places where personal budgets do rather mirror public ones. So if you spend all your money on ice cream, you will not be able to buy any video games. Public budgets do not have the same constraints as personal budgets do: your salary is your salary, and while you can try to take on extra work or get higher wages, public budgets might be increased through higher tax rates, new taxes, making the base larger, etc. People who say opportunity costs are BS tend to argue that the public tax base can be altered to accommodate their programs and projects. But as recent decades have taught us in the US, it’s not a simple matter to levy new taxes or raid various funds, so that public budget and tax base constraints, while subject to politics, can also be real and binding.

One way the discussion typically goes is: “I personally would rather see the billions they want to put into HSR go to education.” The HSR advocate says “No, the money isn’t fungible, and opportunity cost arguments can always be made, and it’s not HSR’s fault if there isn’t enough money for education.” Well, some is, and some isn’t. Let’s break down both sides.

To some degree, the HSR advocate is correct on both counts. First, you can construct an opportunity cost argument for anything. “I know you’d rather pay your mortgage, but children in Farifistan need that money to eat.” There are worthy priorities around us, everywhere, all the time, and there is every possibility that there is something out there more worthy than the thing (in this case, education) that you thought more worthy than the original proposal. So the fact that there might be more worthy things out there does not necessarily win any arguments. It DOES, however, suggest a democratic preference, and expressing that preference via comparisons of things you would rather put the money towards strikes me as a perfectly reasonable way to express the fact that you think HSR would be fine to have, but it’s just not a priority to you.

Second is the fungibility question, and let’s get this specific to California. In one sense, some of the project funds are not interchangeable. Those are the funds awarded through the federal government–the ARRA funds, for the recovery act. California suddenly can’t say “well, let’s move those monies to education now.”

And now that Prop 1a did pass, the California money set aside for HSR via that bill is not fungible, either.

But it sure the hell was before Prop 1a. Prop 1a used general obligation bonds for the project. That’s money that, prior to getting the public to vote on it, could have gone anywhere. And to the extent that project encumbers state general revenues, it’s entirely possible that it will wind up displacing other projects out of the general fund. Prop 1a was *born* and made possible out of fungibility of general revenues.

So yeah, now we are committed, but it is not as though fungibility just locks money in. Yes, you can only use gas tax money for transportation, but you can stop collecting the funds tomorrow, let people keep their money to optimize as they like, or allow states to pass an increase in their gas tax money to slosh straight into their general funds to use for college funds for foster kids, dental care for seniors, or….their own bike lanes.

Just as ‘obligation cost’ logic both works and can undermine just about any investment, the ‘not fungible’ argument both works and is a bit of canard. One comes down to “I think this rail project too costly” and the other comes down “Now that I’ve won my pot of money, it can never be moved, no matter how worthy, and thus let’s just keep spending on my favorite things!” Both are useful enough concepts, but both can have an element of bullshitting to them, and I now officially call bullshit on the “not fungible” claim as so many have called bullshit on the opportunity cost claim.

Why? I’ve been watching politics and budgeting for 40 years. Arts funding was never “not fungible.” We’ve seen EPA’s budget get hacked to bits. These are political choices, not hard-and-fast-rules.

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#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #15: Alice O’Connor

This week’s entry was inspired by the lunch discussion at the Bedrosian Center on this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on reparations, and its follow up bibliography. The group of scholars at the discussion noted that Coates’ highlighted some work on Federal Housing policy that was essentially unknown. I objected and noted that while mainstream understanding of these issue may be new, housing policy folks have known for a very long time that HOLC and the US Housing Act of 1949 had extremely serious consequences for racial discrimination. The work that Coates cites in the article, Ian Shapiro, was published in 1995; he quotes objections to the policies from contemporary housing experts in 1955, like Charles Abrams. The research on zoning’s contribution to redlining goes back to the 1970s and 1980s as far as I know (and I’m not a specialist; I could be wrong; it could be sooner.) Zoning and redlining go hand-in-glove, and policy and planning can not beg ignorance on these issues. We’ve known this, or had it pointed out, for at least 60 years. Just like both white and black abolitionists with slavery, plenty of people knew that official public policies were wrong, and they hardly kept quiet about it. The choice to ignore or drown out those voices was a choice, not a mere reflection of a culture or a people that didn’t know better.

Nonetheless, it looks like Beryl Satter’s 2009 book on Chicago, Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America is truly a must-read. Going on my wish-list.

I personally learned the material in my MPL program from the brilliant Heather MacDonald, who had us read Alice O’Connor, a historian of US public policy. The piece that had a big influence on me was:

O’Connor, Alice. 1999. “Swimming Against the Tide: A Brief History of Federal Policy in Poor Communities.” In Urban Problems and Community Development, Ronald F. Ferguson and William T. Dickens (eds). pp. 77-109. Washintong, DC: The Brookings Institution.

This wonderful piece outlines federal policy involvement in impoverished communities throughout the United States from the New Deal onward, and it has a wonderful insight: that place-based initiatives tend to be lavish, efficient, and hidden for affluent Americans, but stingy, convoluted and high-profile when it comes to poverty:

“A [fifth] pattern is that in its treatment of poor communities, federal policy has operated within a two-tiered system of provision that marks U.S. social policy. In this system poor communities, like poor individuals, are assisted through an elaborate concatenation of means-tested programs, while their wealthier counterparts are subsidized throughout through essentially invisible, federalized, non-means-tested subsidies such as highway funds, state universities, home mortgage assistance, and tax preferences. Poor communities are targeted as places for public assistance–public housing, public works, public income provision–while the middle class is serviced by nominally private but heavily subsidized means.”

She goes on to write about how racial discrimination became encoded in community development policy–a nice overview for people looking to understand the differences in how the US provides social policy.

Brettany Shannon has written about this piece as it was anthologized in the Community Development Reader. Her review appears here, and you should go read.

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Frank Conroy on writing

I am reading Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations from Then and Now by Frank Conroy, having just finished, Mentor: A Memoir, by Tom Grimes. Both very lovely books, but this quote from Conroy’s book about the Iowa Writer’s Workshop struck me as particularly useful:

The workshop asserts that it is process that counts. All the work is necessary to move ahead, hence it is all valuable. Every writer creates weak, middling, and strong work. No one ever knows when lightening will strike, and are all, much of the time, waiting for it. But we are not passive. We write, we struggle, we take risks. We work to be ready for the lightening when  it comes, to be worthy of it, to be able to handle it rather than be destroyed by it. (Success has ruined more writers than failure.) Writing, sayeth the workshop, is a way of life. You either sign on or you don’t. p.119.

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A MOOC can not believe in you

The Gaurdian asks its reader to share stories of great teachers.

This is my favorite:

When i was in year seven my mother (a wheelchair user) was made redundant and my dad was unemployed due to a severe motorcycle accident a year before. I was caring for both of them and my younger sibling. We were due to go on an history trip but i didn’t have the £10 the trip cost. A few days before the trip my history teacher rang my mum and asked why we hadn’t paid yet and my mum explained that we had no money coming in at the moment. The teacher said to sign the permission slip anyway and she’d sort something.

the next day the teacher grabbed me at break and handed me a £10 note. “just give it back to me in class with your permission slip. You’re one of the best historians for your age I’ve ever met and if anyone deserves to go on a trip right now it’s you.”

I seem to recall bursting into tears all over her…

So what? Perhaps by the time you are in college, you don’t need emotional support. You just need and want content.

Perhaps. But I’m an old lady and I still need people to believe in and nurture me.

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