A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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“Out With the Poor, In With the Rich: The Landlord’s Guide to Gentrifying NYC,” Simon van Zuylen-Wood, Bloomberg Businessweek
In the summer of 2002, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, bought a couple of adjoined Beaux Arts town houses on East 72nd Street just off Central Park. He paid $26 million for the pair—a vast markup, it might have seemed, from a comparable purchase made earlier in the year. That March, a Manhattan landlord named Steve Croman had scooped up a six-story, 19,000-square-foot manse across the street for only $5.5 million. Croman’s town house came with a problem: It wasn’t a private home, but an apartment building of 23 below-market units, classified by New York state as rent-stabilized. That meant he could charge his new tenants only gradual, minor upticks in rent. But what might have appeared to be a dead-end investment was in fact an audacious, buy-low proposition. If Croman could get his tenants out, the building’s value would soar.
Croman’s plan revolved around a little-used clause of the state rent-stabilization code that allows a landlord to evict tenants if he claims a building as a personal home. Almost immediately after buying the property, he served residents with lease termination notices and approached them with buyout offers. Alarmed, the tenants, who were paying as little as $844 a month in a neighborhood where studios tended to rent for three times as much, lawyered up and agitated to stay. Samuel Himmelstein, an attorney who represented several of them, argued at the time that the personal-use clause was meant to cover a few apartments at most. “I’ve never seen anything on this scale,” he told the New York Times.
As legal proceedings unfolded, 12-14 E. 72nd St. became less and less livable—a tactic, tenants were certain, to get them to capitulate and accept buyouts. Bob Leighton, a criminal defense attorney who lived in the building for 35 years, says Croman tried something new practically every day: “He would remove the washing machines. He tried to close the front door, make everybody go through the basement. He got rid of the super, then had a part-time super who did nothing.” Another former tenant forwarded me a 15,000-word document detailing four years of tribulations: No hot water. No cold water. Rodents. Severed phone lines. Holes in ceilings. A fire. “He was taking the building apart, bit by bit,” says Malcolm Kirk, a photographer who paid less than $1,000 a month for a third-floor studio he shared with his wife.
“The New American Suburb: Diverse, Dense, and Booming,” Patrick Sisson, Curbed
American suburbs are far from a static set of cookie-cutter housing developments, the rows of infamous “ticky-tacky little boxes” popularized as soon as the postwar housing boom started. But a forthcoming new report, Demographic Strategies for Real Estate, suggests that this archetypical part of the American landscape, which has constantly been evolving, is in for some massive changes over the next decade that will reshape planning, land-use, and the real estate market.
Compiled by John Burns Real Estate Consulting for the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the report lays out a vision of suburbia at odds with the Betty Draper stereotype of the ‘50s. Powered by social and demographic shifts involving young workers, immigrants, working women, and retirees, suburbs will get denser, more diverse, and more urban.
While the urban renaissance that has reshaped U.S. cities isn’t stopping, a massive move by millennials in family mode to more affordable suburban markets will create a upswing in household formation. Suburbs will need to get denser, in part because demographic shifts forecast for the next 10-15 years will bring many new arrivals. Millennials will begin to form households in masse, millions of Baby Boomers will retire and seek out multi-generational neighborhoods, and immigration will continue to grow and evolve.
“To Rescue Democracy, Go Outside,” Alex Pentland, Nautilus
When I see a liberal writer’s description of Donald Trump, or a conservative writer’s views of Hillary Clinton, I am embarrassed for them both. I wouldn’t let a 5-year-old child make such impolite and obviously extreme statements—and yet, today, extreme views are often applauded. They are a sign of an increase in polarization and political fragmentation that is happening across the United States.
The Pew Research Center has documented this shift over the last two decades, and shown that Democrats and Republicans have less and less in common with one another (see Drifting Apart).
These changes are visible in the social media sphere, too. There, fragmentation can be measured by identifying the political alignment of users and postings by how much they draw from familiar left-wing and right-wing sources (like Fox News on the right or The New York Times on the left), and then looking at how ideas and facts are shared across the ideological divide. Facebook researchers have found that most of their users are quite polarized, and don’t have many Facebook friends with opposing political views. Politically aligned users of the site also share very little in the way of news or opinion with those of opposite persuasion (see Let’s Not Talk).
“Beasts of a Nation: Rebuilding the Kabul Zoo in a Time of War,” Ruchi Kumar, Pacific Standard
Nestled between two hills, the Kabul Zoo is a massive oasis of green in a war-torn city that continues to be increasingly compartmentalized into a maze of concrete blast walls and concertina wires. The zoo, once the frontline for Kabul’s bloodiest conflict, has found itself caught between deadly crossfires far too often as the Afghan civil war left most of the historic city in rubble and ruins.
Today, however, you are more likely to find idyllic young men sprawled on its lawn taking in the afternoon sun, children huddled around a merry-go-round set up in what used to be the elephant’s enclosure, and families huddled in awe and amazement around the cage of a lonely Chinese pig — believed to be the only one in the whole of Afghanistan. And if you look closely enough, you will even spot quite a few young couples, many of whom find an unusual refugee for romance among the sparse wildlife Afghanistan has to boast of.
The zoo and its tenants have a most unlikely story to tell. “What remained after years of battle was a crumbling enclosure a few monkeys, two vultures, and one lion named Marjan, who was blinded with a hand grenade by an angry mujahideen,” says Aziz Gul Saqib, the director of the Kabul Zoo, who employees largely credit for rebuilding the zoo back to its semblance, if not former glory. “In 2001, we started with nothing. There were no systems or procedures for us to follow; we created our own systems,” he explains.
“City of Women,” Rebecca Solnit, The New Yorker
s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is a song James Brown recorded in a New York City studio in 1966, and, whether you like it or not, you can make the case that he’s right. Walking down the city streets, young women get harassed in ways that tell them that this is not their world, their city, their street; that their freedom of movement and association is liable to be undermined at any time; and that a lot of strangers expect obedience and attention from them. “Smile,” a man orders you, and that’s a concise way to say that he owns you; he’s the boss; you do as you’re told; your face is there to serve his life, not express your own. He’s someone; you’re no one.
In a subtler way, names perpetuate the gendering of New York City. Almost every city is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered; women are anonymous people who changed fathers’ names for husbands’ as they married, who lived in private and were comparatively forgotten, with few exceptions. This naming stretches across the continent; the peaks of many Western mountains have names that make the ranges sound like the board of directors of an old corporation, and very little has been named for particular historical women, though Maryland was named after a Queen Mary who never got there.
Just as San Francisco was named after an Italian saint and New Orleans after a French king’s brother, the Duc d’Orléans, so New York, city and state, were named after King Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York (later King James II), when the British took over the region from the Dutch. Inside this city and state named for a man, you can board the No. 6 train at the northern end of the line in Pelham Bay, named after a Mr. Pell, in a borough named for a Swedish man, Jonas Bronck, and ride the train down into Manhattan, which is unusual in the city for retaining an indigenous name (the Bronx was said to be named Rananchqua by the local Lenape, Keskeskeck by other native groups). There, the 6 travels down Lexington Avenue, parallel to Madison Avenue, named, of course, after President James Madison.