Dream Town Houses

The New Urbanist dream goes something like this: People will give up their sprawling, inefficient suburban homes on half-acres of land and embrace the joys of compact living in places served by public transit and convenient walkways to schools, parks and stores.
July 2003
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

The New Urbanist dream goes something like this: People will give up their sprawling, inefficient suburban homes on half-acres of land and embrace the joys of compact living in places served by public transit and convenient walkways to schools, parks and stores. Just one problem, critics say: Nobody wants to live that close to their neighbors. Au contraire. Town-house construction is booming across the country, and in Minneapolis-St. Paul it has reached a milestone: In the first quarter of 2003, more than half of all building permits issued in the region were for attached houses, up from about one-third in 2000. "It's just crazy," says one builder. "Town houses have taken over my business." What's behind the boom? Empty-nest baby boomers who want more freedom to travel and less upkeep. Also, the kinds of town houses built today hardly resemble the tacky units of the early 1980s, when they were cheap starter homes. Some Twin Cities town houses sell for upwards of $1.5 million.


Threaten to pull your professional football or basketball team out of a city, and it would be front-page news. But if your symphony orchestra goes out of business? Lucky to get noticed on the metro page. These days, a lot of orchestras are going silent, victims of deficits, dwindling audiences and, to put it charitably, not having the greatest of business minds at the helm. The New York Times estimates that a dozen orchestras are either dead or near death, including those in San Jose, San Antonio, Colorado Springs and Savannah. Those in Houston and Baltimore have laid off musicians or sharply cut wages and benefits. What's the problem? Slow economic times and myopic management. Says the head of the American Symphony Orchestra League: "During the great economy of the 1990s, orchestras perhaps expanded faster than they should have. I believe that in really good economic times orchestras should not spend up to their revenues and should instead go for a surplus and keep a cushion for the future. I wish I'd believed that 10 or 15 years ago." There's also the broader problem: It's hard to market Mozart in a hip-hop world, and most orchestra boards aren't up to the challenge. But it's important for them to try. Why? Because, as a Houston business leader explains, symphonies are important to cities' images: "We realize that to attract business, to attract broad-minded, innovative, creative people, we have to offer more than just a job."


In the 1990s, an astonishing thing happened to poverty in America's big cities: It moved away. That's the finding of a Brookings Institution study of U.S. Census Bureau data, which reports that, in a dramatic reversal of trends, poverty dispersed from the inner city in the 1990s. "Concentrated poverty, the share of the poor living in high-poverty neighborhoods, declined among all racial and ethnic groups, especially African Americans," writes the study's author. In the 1970s and '80s, poverty grew more concentrated in inner cities; the study is more proof that the 1990s were a turning point for urban America. In the 1990s, the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods declined by 24 percent after roughly doubling in the two decades before. What caused the trend to reverse in the 1990s? A lot of factors, including a strong economy, welfare reform, the demolition of a number of high-rise public housing projects and middle-class families gentrifying old neighborhoods. So where have the poor people gone? Many have moved to older suburbs. This was particularly true for Detroit, Chicago, Dallas and Cleveland. Cities did not benefit equally from the dispersal of poverty. Biggest winners: Detroit (a 74 percent reduction in concentration), Chicago (43 percent) and San Antonio (70 percent).


These have been anxious times, and many explanations have been offered for our angst: a poor economy, the war in Iraq, government deficits at all levels. We have a simpler explanation of what's made us feel bad lately: New York's pizza slice-subway fare connection had been broken. But cheer up. With a recent subway fare increase, the connection is being restored. The pizza slice-subway fare index was born in 1964, when a reader pointed out to the New York Times that a slice of pizza cost precisely the same as a subway token, and that when one rose in price, the other followed. In 1964, a ride on the IRT cost 15 cents; same for a slice from a sidewalk pizzeria. In the mid- 1970s, both were 60 cents, a few years later, both were 85 cents, and so on, in lockstep. But as the New Yorker magazine noted, the pizza slice had inched ahead in recent times; most slices cost $1.75 or $2 now while a ride on the IRT lagged at $1.50. "The discrepancy was troubling," the magazine added, "because it forced New Yorkers to wonder if pizza, like coffee and college, had become a ripoff." Not to worry. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has raised subway fares to $2, forging again the connection between pizza slices and subway fares.