Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 7, 2014

Rebirthing NYC Neighborhoods

By David Reiss

One can imagine Mayor de Blasio thinking about his ambitious housing plan with one voice saying “Density!” over one shoulder and another voice saying “Preservation!” over the other.  But which voice is the angel’s and which is the devil’s?

Peter Byrne has posted a short essay, The Rebirth of the Neighborhood, to SSRN. The essay represents the voice of Preservation and engages with Edward Glaeser, a voice of Density. Byrne argues that

new urban residents primarily seek a type of community properly called a neighborhood. “Neighborhood” refers to a legible, pedestrian-scale area that has an identity apart from the corporate and bureaucratic structures that dominate the larger society. Such a neighborhood fosters repeated, casual contacts with neighbors and merchants, such as while one pursues Saturday errands or takes children to activities. Dealing with independent local merchants and artisans face-to-face provides a sense of liberation from large power structures, where most such residents work. Having easy access to places of sociability like coffee shops and bars permits spontaneous “meet-ups,” contrasting with the discipline of professional life. Such a neighborhood conveys an indigenous identity created by the efforts of diverse people over time, rather than marketing an image deliberatively contrived to control the perceptions of customers. At its best, a neighborhood provides a refuge from the ennui of the workplace and the idiocy of consumer culture, substituting for churches (or synagogues), labor unions, and ethnic clubs that structured earlier urban social life. (1596-97)

Byrne argues that the “three chief legal tools for neighborhoods have been zoning for urban form, historic district preservation, and environmental protection.” (1597) In criticizing Glaeser and his ilk, Byrne writes that they often complain “such “laws destroy or take private property.” (1603) Byrne replies that “historic district regulations enhance property values by protecting the setting within which any urban property sits and from whence it derives most of its value.” (1603)

I am not going to resolve this debate in a blog post, but I will make a few points. First, a lot of these assertions are not self-evidently true and should be empirically tested, if possible. Second, the perspective of the Essay is that of the “new urban residents” who actually make up a small proportion of the total residents of a city.  Those “old urban residents” are more likely focused on the affordability of their own homes, the quality of their children’s schools and the safety of their streets. Third, it is possible that Preservation and Density can work together intelligently as we rework the urban fabric.

As Mayor de Blasio struggles with the implementation of his housing plan, it is worth remembering that Preservation and Density can each be an angel, can each be a devil. It is the Mayor’s job to make both of them listen to their better natures.

| Permalink