walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_New Life at Ground Zero_, Charles J. Orlebeke, not a review

I bought this when it came out, in 1997. I have a long-standing interest in cities, the built environment, land use, development, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. This is subtitled:

New York, Home Ownership, and the Future of American Cities

You can sort of see why I picked it up. Optimism about the future of cities and people living in them; it was really my thing then and it continues to be my thing now despite my extended, perhaps permanent, interlude in suburbia.

Anyway. This is "not a review", because I haven't and will not read it start-to-finish, page by page. I have a new project to go through the extensive sections of the library that I've never successfully read, not necessarily by reading them, but at least by understanding _why_ I've never been able to read them.

Orlebeke and the various people he worked with over the years and is writing about in this book are advocating for a particular style of old-school Republican housing policy: people should own homes ("decent" and "new" homes, specifically). Renting isn't good. Old homes aren't good. Density isn't so great, but if we're going to have Decent, Middle-Class people in the city again, we'll have to subsidize (because otherwise they will be too expensive and they'll just go out to the suburbs) "decent", "new" housing for them.

I did not understand any of this at the time I bought the book. Obvs, that strain of thinking about housing has never been strong and has since been mostly folded into the more-ignored parts of the Democratic Party, having no home in the current, smaller-tent version of the Republican Party. Equally obvs, private production of housing in NYC has always been more successful by virtually any standard, certainly since this book was published. Less obvious may be all the damage done by the ideals pursued by Orlebeke and the people he describes. You can see that damage in the two photos on the cover. The "decent", "new" housing on the bottom is low density, two story townhomes on streets populated by SUVs and station wagons, not buses, pedestrians and bicycles.

As a general rule, attempting to provision nice things for people of fewer means is not best done by supplying new things. New tends to involve a bigger markup, and people of more means frequently tire of their homes, cars, clothes, books and toys long before they've seen much wear at all. We all knew this growing up, and shopped at garage sales, bought used books and cars, etc., etc. If you run a taxpayer funded housing program focused on the middle-class, and on subsidized new housing, I just don't see how you create good land-use policy, foster beneficial development, improve the tax base, create social justice or meaningfully help those who actually need it.

I extensively sampled _New Life at Ground Zero_, and I only see more to convince me of what a bad idea this all was, especially in conjunction with some googling about What Happened in the ensuing decades. This is just another round of people with Bright Ideas who Don't Want to Negotiate, who Just Want to Make It Happen Fast, who are Convinced of Their Own Brilliance -- and who do damage wherever they are allowed to act. Which, fortunately, isn't that often.
Tags: not-a-book-review

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