Monday, June 22, 2015

One Way to Put a Neighborhood on the Skids

I’ve previously told two stories about an evening tour through Pittsburgh this past spring.  The driver was an old friend who had grown up there.  The evening began with a pub chat that led to insights about the costs to run a city.  Later in the evening, my friend and I strolled through a plaza I likened to Middle Earth.

My friend had put together a good route.  But our time was limited.  The sun sets early during April evenings in eastern Pennsylvania.  My friend showed me places that made me wish I had a week to kick around the city, riding the new subway, checking out the museums, wandering the college campuses, and enjoying the neighborhoods undergoing an urban rebirth.

But that extended visit must await another trip.  For now, I’ll conclude my thoughts on the Pittsburgh visit with my best answer to a question that my friend posed, a question that has been haunting my urbanist thoughts since then.

As my friend told the story (and he is encouraged to correct me in the comments below if I’ve made too many misstatements), in his youth he and his brother would often spend summer Saturdays with their grandparents in an urban neighborhood a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh.  One of their parents would drop the boys at the nearby high school where the pool was open to the public.  (I saw the high school.  It remains a dignified presence that adds value to its surroundings.)

After a swim, the boys would walk a couple of blocks to their grandparents’ house.  From there, the grandparents would take them shopping, on foot, in the retail area that served the neighborhood.  With a bit of cash slipped to them by the grandparents, the boys could even make a purchase or two.  It was a comfortable urban experience that left my friend with memories he still treasures.

After telling me the story, my friend drove down the street where his grandparents had lived.  The row house that had been their home was gone, razed along with all but one of its fellow row houses. Most of the rubble had been hauled away, but some remained and was gradually being covered by the creeping vegetation on the now vacant lots.

Nor were there healthy buildings on the opposing side of the street.  Many of the doors into what appeared to have light manufacturing plants were covered in plywood, graffiti was everywhere, and there were few signs of economic activity.  The few people to be seen also seemed burdened with despair.

My friend then showed me a parallel street only a short block away.  Although the small single-family homes seemed of the same vintage as the first street, these homes were nicely maintained and showed pride of ownership.  It wasn’t an upper-end neighborhood, but it seemed friendly, comfortable, and stable.  It gave a very different feeling from the first street.

My friend then posed a question.  Why had the two streets evolved in such dramatically directions?

The simple and most truthful answer is I don’t know.  An evening drive-by couldn’t begin to provide the facts to understand the history.  Perhaps there had been a fire that started the first neighborhood on a decline that couldn’t be arrested.

Or perhaps many of the homeowners had worked in the same Pittsburgh factory, a factory that had become a victim of Pittsburgh’s difficult years, and the resulting widespread unemployment had undermined the neighborhood.

Or perhaps crime, particularly the drug trade, had gotten its hands around the throat of the first neighborhood with a grip that had strangled the life from the street.

Any of those was possible.

But I offered another possibility, one that I’ve often noted as I’ve looked with a critical eye at land development practices.  The first neighborhood was monolithic, from the now mostly departed row houses on one side of the street to the plain brick walls of light industry on the other.  The second neighborhood was more differentiated.  Although the homes all seemed to date from a similar era, they seemed to have been constructed by multiple builders.  The sizes, architectural styles, and footprints had a pleasant variation.  Each home had its own character.

Something happens when homes have little differentiation.  They’re all compared to each other.  Their values are expected to track each other.  Perhaps one home was trashed by former homeowners while another homeowner has done an extensive kitchen and bathroom remodel.  But appraisers rarely incorporate the full value of the differing conditions, lenders won’t loan on the difference, and buyers are loathe to invest in the difference for fear that they won’t later find a buyer willing to pay for the difference.

If a homeowner’s long-range financial planning includes extracting the value of improvements made to a home, then the homeowner is disincentivized from making improvements.  And if all the neighbors are disincentivized from doing periodic updates, then the only possible direction for the neighborhood is downhill.

I certainly don’t know if the monolithic nature of the first neighborhood was the reason for its decline.  There’s a good chance that it was something else that I couldn’t discern from a car window.  But the possibility I offer is consistent with the facts I could see and has impacted other neighborhoods elsewhere.

This effect on neighborhood stability has numerous implications on urban and suburban neighborhoods.  I’ll explore some of those in my next post.

(Given our expedited progress on our Pittsburgh tour, I wasn’t able to collect any photos of the two neighborhoods, but have found photos from my archives of North Bay neighborhoods that illustrated greater and lesser degrees of differentiation.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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