A reply to Clarkson FlatBed

This was way too long for Blogger:

I’m replying to the posts by “Clarkson FlatBed” on October 31st on this post:

Some of this is overly uncharitable (but then ‘they did it first’!) but, just look at it all – I’m not going to bother editing it now!


I doubt you remember Jacob’s book and can accurately articulate and details from it. Do you remember the proposal she suggested as an alternative to public housing? I thought it was interesting, even tho I think it would suffer from a lot of the same problems of misaligned incentives as does current public housing and rent-regulated housing.

Her book was also surprisingly concrete. Can you name one or several of the concrete proposals she mentioned repeatedly throughout the book? There are a few she really loved to mention over and over.

I just recently read the book but before I did I suffered from what I suspect you’re suffering from now – not knowing in detail and specifically what it is she actually wrote. She is so influential, and controversial, that it’s basically impossible for anyone interested in the same topics to not ‘know’ something about her or what she – supposedly – advocated or thought.

Yes, civil rights was a big issue. Even granting that it was the biggest issue in the ’50s, that still doesn’t imply that her book must have grappled with it, especially directly. I was surprised that she didn’t address it more directly. I only remember a few oblique mentions. But I think she was wise to not address civil rights. What she did write about was important and interesting too and her legacy would be very different, and worse in my opinion, were her ideas to have been drowned out, as I’m sure they would have been, were she to have tied them into civil rights and the larger surrounding movements and ideologies.

It’s inaccurate to write that she was an “early advocate for urban planning”. Urban planning is much older than her and much of her book is a critique of specific schools of urban planning, e.g. Radiant City. In fact, her book is arguably a (very practical) manifesto of a new school of urban planning.

I suspect, tho I haven’t researched this directly, that she felt that urban planning was an inadequate instrument to address housing discrimination. I think she was right. And not because it shouldn’t be addressed, but because, historically (and currently), those practicing the discrimination were much more powerful politically and economically and they would not have accepted or acceded to any actually effective ant-discrimination policies.

I’d also love to know what exactly you think should be done about housing discrimination now. I suspect that spending more money to prosecute offenders would be unlikely to be very effective because the people still engaging in that discrimination do so because they believe that there are large economic benefits to doing so and, because other people also believe the same thing, there are real large benefits to be gained, and because the benefits are so large, these people can afford to vigorously defend themselves legally. Is that not an accurate summary of the current state of affairs? It is a sad fact about the universe that housing discrimination is still (currently) a relatively low-cost crime.

How would you alter those incentives? Would you suspend the usual and typical legal protections to landlords so that they could be more easily prosecuted for these crimes? Would you raise taxes, or cut spending, to spend more money prosecuting landlords? Do you think the current prosecutors and investigators are inept? Is there a specific change you would make in their procedures?

Or are you just upset and confusing your anger for a possibility for something better, without cost (including the opportunity cost of solving a more important problem that can be more efficiently addressed)?

You’re right that her book was “a lot about safety”. And that was something that wasn’t really addressed by the city, in any real fashion, until decades later! And everyone living in NYC suffered from being unsafe and I think her insights pertaining to safety were mostly correct and could have been fairly easily addressed. One thing that she mentioned over and over in the book was the a ‘diversity of uses’ was probably the best thing about streets or neighborhoods in terms of making them safer. And indeed, having read that, I now think that this is absolutely correct. Walking along streets with (open) commercial establishments is much safer than walking along quiet sleepy residential streets. Were I to be mugged walking along one of the latter I’d be helpless. Nowadays, it’s probably extremely unlikely that I’d be mugged walking along one of the former in the first place.

Incidentally, that’s one of the worst features of a lot of public housing – particularly what I think a lot of people think of when they hear or read “public housing” – there isn’t a sufficient diversity of uses so there aren’t people constantly coming and going. Lots of public housing have explicitly posted ‘no loitering’ prohibitions. Jacobs’s point is that public housing would be much safer if the buildings contained shops, stores, and restaurants so that people would be ‘loitering’ naturally, and for benign purposes.

Yes, we disagree. I’m pretty sure we make them the same as always. But I’ll readily concede that ours is a bespoke disagreement if it pleases you.

I added the documentary you suggested to my viewing list.

And now we come to some things for which we do not disagree.

You wrote:

There was also a lot of really, really poor people living in sub-standard housing that was dangerous and deadly – fires were common, services non-existent.

Yes, you’re right! But let’s also add to the tally that, in the initial displacement of the people living in the areas that were demolished so the public housing projects could be built, a lot of those people didn’t get to move in to the new projects. It seems unfair to punish a group of people, maybe especially when they’re poor, to benefit some smaller subset of those same people. And some of those same people refused to live in the projects. Even if you think they were a major step up – and I agree they were! at least in some ways – it’s fucked up to think there’s no cost or no reason to worry that some people are imposing their preferences on others violently.

Yes, of course they have huge waiting lists! Of course they remain to this day! They’re subsidized housing in one of the most in-demand places to live in the country and the world!

But I must dispute that they serve a crucial ‘need’. One of the reasons why I object to subsidized housing is that it is an inefficient way to help others. Do you think it would be sensible to seize all of the prime real estate bordering Central Park, or Prospect Park, raze all of the existing buildings, and build giant public housing projects? No? Why not? Ignoring that it’s impractical or implausible, what’s your true objection to such a plan? I suspect you might not have a true objection to such a plan! My objection is that the cost of such a plan, in the protracted legal conflict, or the armed conflict were the city or state to try to just seize the buildings via police forces, would be an awful terrible waste of our limited resources. Much better would be to just build public housing somewhere cheap. Or just give people money and let them decide whether they want to spend it on expensive housing in NYC.

Yes, it’s great that elderly people get to die with their family nearby, or next door. I’m not arguing that that’s not a wonderful thing or that it’s not something that we could ideally provide for everyone. But it’s not free, there are real and significant costs to providing that to anyone, and there are many many many more people that get nothing similar and that’s unfair.

Stating or believing that public housing, or subsidized housing, isn’t worth its costs isn’t ‘pathologizing’ poverty or sick. Maybe it’s wrong; maybe the consequences of those things are, overall and in the long term, better than the alternative uses of the resources needed to provide those things. But maybe you’re wrong and maybe everyone would be, overall and in the long term, better off without either. [You seem to admit as much later.]

I was wrong – you didn’t write or call her the worst kind of person. You wrote “Jane Jacobs was racist …”. I responded initially as-if you had written “Jane Jacobs was a racist”. I’m sorry! But maybe you don’t agree that ‘being a racist’ is the worst kind of person today anyways; it sure seems to be the rough consensus to me.

I’m hoping you were being sarcastic, and not despairing, when you wrote “Clearly we’ve made zero progress.”. It’s certainly not literally true.

I’m not arguing that public housing, or subsidized housing, is affordable to residents. But ignoring the costs of providing either doesn’t mean they’re zero. Some taxpayer somewhere is paying for both; including other poor people otherwise eligible for affordable housing but just unlucky to have not gotten to the top of a waiting list.

Or, we let the market do its thing and truly unregulate ALL housing. That might actually be better than the system we have now, frankly, and fairer. But that ain’t gonna happen.”

It seems about as likely as a return to the big public housing projects of the last century. But it is better than the system we have now – we should advocate for it! It could happen! Not all at once, but incrementally.

Building actual affordable housing – i.e. public housing – is one of the only big ideas we have left. They needn’t be huge or even ugly. But there would need to be consensus that such housing is truly necessary for a decent city to survive.

It seems like the new ‘big idea’ is to ‘integrate suburbia’ so the current status quo is likely to persist, at least roughly, for a long while to come.

One of the most insightful and interesting ideas in Jacobs’s book was about the success of cities, of particular neighborhoods and areas in her writing, and how success itself is often self-defeating. The hip cool neighborhoods kill themselves off because they’re successful and because un-hip and un-cool outsiders end up displacing the previous waves of residents responsible for the original success. I didn’t find her specific proscriptions to be likely effective, and I don’t have any real ideas myself, but surely this is the real problem, or kind of problem, we should want to solve. I’m skeptical that public housing has any real role in helping.

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