Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Our Neighborhood

Check this out! Our neighborhood, North Oak Cliff, has been identified as one of This Old House's best places to buy in 2011!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Seaside and the Perpetual Motion Machine

The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width...the city is pure gold, clear as glass...its gates will never be shut by day-and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it...

Revelation 21:15-27


There has been a movement, referred to as the New Urbanist movement, that is starting to take hold throughout our country. The leader of this movement in name and spirit is a man named Andres Duany. His most celebrated work is a community on the gulf shore of Florida named Seaside, but I'll come back to it in a moment.

When I was in highschool, I learned that my grandfather had invested a small amount of money in a man who claimed to have created a perpetual motion machine. More than that, it generated more energy than it required to run and so it allegedly ran in perpetuity generating additional electricity. For years, the creator of this machine had obscured the details of its construction, and would only give the design away if it could be patented. Turns out, it couldn't be patented but plans did eventually leak out and it was discovered that the machine was stripping electrons from a common metal for fuel and that it actually consumed more electricity than it required to run, but simply contained an innovative power source.

What does this have to do with Seaside? Well, just as the perpetual motion machine appeared to defy physics and promise something too good to be true, I believe Seaside does much the same in defying the laws and realities of urban planning.

I have been to Seaside, and it is a wonderful community. Neighbors know each other, and the area is very walkable, even in the summer heat. The beach front properties are just homes, so a wall of massive towers doesn't obstruct access for the citizens of seaside. There is even a 'town square' with some works by the worlds best architects housing local businesses. (For popular reference, the Truman Show was filmed there).

In short, it is the perfect idealized town. It's everything my father used to tell me about old Downtown McComb in Mississippi and more! And unlike Kissimee or some of the developments in and around Orlando, nothing feels fake or contrived about the town. If one didn't know better when driving through, he or she might think that this is a town that was miraculously spared from the urban ills of the 20th century.

The perpetual motion machine could have worked if two simple truths could have been ignored: Moving parts in contact generate friction, robbing energy, and that one cannot generate more matter and energy than is present in the beginning. And so it is that Seaside has attempted to ignore a significant portion of the population, a rule that prevents this kind of thing from spreading to other larger cities and communities. It is this law that keeps our world in balance, and this sort of development in check.

When we look at the property values of Seaside, its plainly clear that a certain demographic dominates the town. Homes range from $400k to over $2 Million and I don't think that affordable housing is on the menu. Part of what makes a city work is the availability of a wide range of skills and talents. This isn't Good Will Hunting where a genius finds virtue in scrubbing the toilets in a public restroom. These tasks are generally performed by low skill, low paid workers.

So it begs the question, who collects the garbage? Who sweeps the streets? Who landscapes the town square? And most importantly, where do they live?

Umm...Not in Seaside...

Even better, I noticed an architect's office in the town square. Is there a secretary? Is he/she a citizen of Seaside, perhaps the bored spouse of a very successful professional or businessman? Or is this person from a neighboring city with a Walmart and sprawling suburbs?

It's probably fair to assume that some of the more menial jobs are taken by the young and innexperienced children of Seaside. But still, this is a question that needs to be answered.

The success of Seaside, and of New Urbanism, is the elimination of the elements of our society that are deemed a failure, and all of the attributes that go along with it. There are no poor or homeless to dirty up the streets. There are no lower class families with poorly maintained yards and junk on their porches. This is not a success on Duany's part but rather an evolved gesture to make your mess further away from your campsite.

So, why should anyone care? Well, new urbanism is beginning to enter the lexicon of our new neighborhood, Oak Cliff. The vision is of people in boutiques and shops sipping on coffee while reading the New York Times. The lesson to be learned is that this is entirely possible but only at somebody else's expense. The first and perhaps most visible of these will be the gentrification of the neighborhoods surrounding this new ideal development.

News recently broke that the area would be receiving a Walmart Neighborhood Store and the outrage has begun. This is of concern because Walmart brings an element that is bitter to new urbanism: lower class families opting for lower prices over boutiques and shops with more expensive goods. These developments are not walkable and don't deliver the experience that Duany champions.

Oak Cliff will be a true test for New Urbanism mostly because it has more real world problems to confront than Seaside, which descended from heaven and keeps the riff-raff out. It is my opinion that the rezoning of Davis street will transform it into something wonderful but not without a price to be paid by lower class families: First by rising property values and taxes, then by gentrification and finally by substantial relocation to areas more remote to the centers of commerce and employment.