Misreading Malthus – The Life and Death of Family Planning Policy in China

An era has ended – the Chinese government has capitulated on its near-half-century-long attempt to restrict the growth of its population. Following the release of results from the most recent decennial census, the CCP has told families that having as many as three children is permissible – this from the same organization that promoted in 1978 the slogan “one is best, two at most”. Hand-wringing has already begun as to whether this relaxation will end up having any positive effects. I find it more curious why China’s government embarked on this quixotic errand in the first place.

The writer Sui-Lee Wee has been the New York Times‘ reporter of choice in covering this topic. In a recent series of stories covering the census and its policy impacts, she has updated and typified the discourse around Chinese family planning – focused on the mothers of today either stymied in their desire for more kids or completely overwhelmed by the cost of rearing their single child, Wee’s writing offers the perspective that the Party’s fretful back-pedaling on population planning will end up too little, too late.

That the Party should be worried at all is noteworthy – their fear validates at least in part a sort of pat wisdom now commonly shared about the hegemonic prospects of modern-day China, namely that China as a country got too old before it became rich.

Western countries are not unconcerned about similar matters. South Korea & Japan are quite a ways ahead of the Americans and Europeans in terms of staring down the barrel of the developed country demographic transition, worrying about plunging birth rates among alienated city dwellers. But at least the OECD countries are rich; China, as The Economist notes, still only has per-capita income about one-quarter of the US’.

This is a tension not totally explored in Wee’s stories – in centering the individual women whose lives were and are altered by the policy, this approach paints a valuable picture of daily life in modern China. Yet at the same time, this close portraiture understates the larger dimensions of the one-child policy, its logic, its implementation, and its effects. In fact, I can’t find any more useful way to conceptualize the 1CP other than as the one of the most tremendous acts undertaken by a totalitarian state upon its own citizens in the whole brutal 20th century.

The basic chronology of family planning is worth noting here: Mao is dead in September 1976. Following a short period of intramural combat, the reformists under Deng Xiaoping take power at the December 1978 party plenum.

Moving in parallel to the power politics in the Politburo, a group of scientists and doctors concentrated in Tianjin began to circulate writings through 1978 which asked the state to embark upon a formal policy of population control. A short CCP document advocated “one is best, two is most” the same year, and though it remained merely a party suggestion, some provinces began then to implement 1CP.

In 1980 it became law at the highest levels of policymaking, with a September Open Letter from the Secretariat of the Central Committee announcing “one-child per couple” to its people. Loopholes opened rather quickly – in 1984, the CCP allowed local governments some leeway in administration of the 1CP, mostly to relax requirements for the most rural localities.

And yet in this basic form it endured for more than thirty years. Xi Jinping took the premiership in 2013 and moved as part of his reform plan to loosen family planning policy, declaring in 2014 that couples in which one party was an only child should feel free to have two. In 2015, a two-children policy became the law of the land.

That the one-child policy arrived so late in the difficult history of the People’s Republic is jarring; the whole point of Deng’s regime was to remove the heavy yoke of Maoism from the administration of the country. It was in the fall of 1978 that the pioneering reforms in Xiaogang began, and early in 1979 that the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen was opened.

Deng pledged “reform and opening-up” at his ascension at the December plenum. His plenipotentiary in Shenzhen, Yuan Geng, became famous for the phrase “time is money, efficiency is life” (时间就是金钱,效率就是生命). The new socialism with Chinese characteristics was a tremendous success, with real gross output rising twelve-fold and extreme poverty being eradicated.

All the while, however, Deng’s lieutenants in the provinces were enforcing 1CP with zeal. This dynamic is typical of Chinese political economy, where the key to a successful political career is leading a provincial government to outperform its targets and peers. The human toll was terrible: official party estimates claim some 400 million births were prevented by the policy.

This is a shocking acknowledgement in its own right, and yet it loses its vigor upon recognition of the crimes committed along the way. Reports abounded of infanticide after unexpected pregnancies, most victims girls. Preferences for boys among Chinese families led to a black market where girls commanded low prices. One NGO claims that the average Chinese woman could expect to have several abortions through her child-bearing years, many of which forced on them by the state.

The tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were spurred by one of the 20th C.’s worst madmen trying to enforce rule by personal cult over the planet’s longest-lived and largest civilization. And yet in 2020, the number of births actually matched the nadir of the great famine in 1961. What possibly could have driven the CCP to implement such a policy?

The Foundations of the One-Child Policy in Midcentury Catastrophism

The Chinese government’s goal since liberalization has been to become rich and powerful – less than a year into his reign, Deng was already referring to this as the goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会), a slogan which has endured through Xi’s massive reworking of CCP ideology.

Keeping this goal in mind makes the 1CP even less sensical than it might seem prima facie. To make your society richer, you can increase the amount of workers or you can make more valuable the work they do. This is mere mechanical accounting: keeping per-capita incomes equal, levels of gross domestic product increase with population, as do rates of economic growth increase with rates of increase in population.

We have to conclude that China’s leadership in the late 1970s was convinced of a more radical idea: that unchecked population growth would actually block them from the successful completion of their goals. This is indeed what happened, and stranger still, most of the intellectual force of this notion came from the advocacy of one scientist, Song Jian.

Song, who yet lives, was trained as a missile scientist in the early 1960s. He survived the Cultural Revolution only through the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai, who named him to a list of fifty indispensable scientists. At the dawn of the Deng era, Song was part of a small cohort of scientists asked to convert from the study of military science (principally missile technology) to the study of economic growth.

Key to the history of the 1CP is a trip to Helsinki taken by Song in 1978, where at a conference of the International Foundation of Automatic Control, he was introduced to the ideas of a book called The Limits to Growth. The book, which first appeared in 1972, was the result of a collaboration between an NGO called the Club of Rome and a group of MIT scientists they commissioned to develop a model for long-term resource use. The basic conclusions of the book were alarming:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

The Limits to Growth, pg. 23-24

Underpinning these conclusions were a set of models which displayed the exponential rate of increase of human population and consumption, and in contrast, the linear rate of increase of resource availability, namely food and industrial metals. Acknowledging the imprecision in their forecasts, the team responsible wrote, “precise numerical assumptions about the limits of the earth are unimportant when viewed against the inexorable progress of exponential growth.” (p. 51)

In order to forestall the worst consequences of this dynamic, Limits to Growth recommends “a nongrowing state for human society,” one in which “the birth rate equals the death rate”. The book even goes so far as to warn its readers against waiting for natural phenomena which might ease population pressures to occur, writing, “we cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control…Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible.”

Song Jian returned to China equipped with Limits to Growth and began working on population control diligently. “In the West, the Club of Rome work had provoked an outcry from social scientists concerned about the application of cybernetics’ mechanistic models to the solution of human problems. Song apparently did not encounter such critiques,” writes Greenhalgh in her 2005 article on Song.

Moreover, population control was a topic ripe for the picking by an ambitious and brilliant scientist – “throughout the 1970s population was a weakly institutionalized sector, with few institutions or standard operating procedures for processing policy issues. In this context, policy entrepreneurs [like Song] would have room to exert appreciable influence over the policy outcome.”

Song was able to use his privileged place as an “indispensable” defense scientist to access Western science like in Limits to Growth and also to become a leading voice in a narrow field. His approach worked – after about a year of workshopping, he presented his paper to a leading journal in January 1980, equipped with the recommendation that adopting a one-child policy was an “extremely urgent strategic duty”. By February 1980, the Central Committee was talking population targets, and in March they allowed Song to go wide with his research in the People’s Daily. From there, there was no looking back.

Misreading Malthus and the Errors of Degrowth

But let us return for a moment to the work that undergirded Song’s push – in Limits to Growth‘s contrast between exponential human growth and linear resource growth, readers should be reminded of the work of one man: Thomas Malthus. Indeed, the Club of Rome does that work for us, counting him among their antecedents, as well as such notables as Plato, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.

Malthus was the author of a remarkable work which appeared in 1798 called An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he discussed his thoughts on exactly that, why population rose and fell and what it meant for national wealth. Early on, he explains his thesis in terms of differing growth rates:

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, &c. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, &c. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13; and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.

Malthus, Chapter II

Sound familiar? The rest of it remains a strikingly modern read – keep in mind that Adam Smith had only published Wealth of Nations about twenty-five years prior – and full of great discussions. Today, however, Malthus’ name is deployed almost exclusively in the service of discussing the above dynamic. This phenomenon sometimes is called the Malthusian Trap, one where poor societies are unable to become rich, as rising incomes lead to higher populations, which then necessarily lead to lower incomes in the future.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Malthusian dynamics like these did retard the ability of societies to achieve launch velocity and become what we think of today as developed nations. What’s important to note here is that even in his work, Malthus recognized this as a natural dynamic, an ebb and flow of society. Malthus has been received in modern times by the Club of Rome and others as an advocate for population control, but this seems drastically, unbelievably wrong to me. He was not pushing in a normative sense for policymakers to intervene and stop the cycle before it took its natural path; he was instead documenting a general phenomenon about human life in a descriptive way.

He says as much a little later:

The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased…The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

This sort of oscillation will not be remarked by superficial observers; and it may be difficult even for the most penetrating mind to calculate its periods. Yet that in all old states some such vibration does exist; though from various transverse causes, in a much less marked, and in a much more irregular manner than I have described it, no reflecting man who considers the subject deeply can well doubt.

Malthus, Chapter II

The “periods” of Malthus’ “oscillation” represent the key to his whole theory – increases in population don’t lead to some Mad Max style disaster zone; they lead to rising food prices, which induces a rational response by the next generation of parents to wait a little longer before having kids. This is a far cry from Limits to Growth‘s urgency. The only rub for Malthus is that he thinks the length of these cycles is too hard to discern – “difficult even for the most penetrating mind,” as he puts it.

Luckily, modern economists and their analyses turn out to have rather penetrating minds themselves, and a recent paper from Bouscasse, Nakamura, and Steinsson updates the literature on pre-industrial growth cycles. “Our estimates imply that Malthusian population dynamics were very slow,” the authors write. “[A] doubling of real incomes led to a 6 percentage point per decade increase in population growth.” This dynamic held from the Black Death through to 1650, after which things changed – the economy transitioned “from Malthus to Solow,” and increases in productivity couldn’t possibly be swallowed by increases in population: England was getting more productive too quickly.

The Club of Rome read Malthus to say that unless populations were reduced, poverty would result. They had it all backwards. What’s worse, this belief was based in the worst intellectual error one can ever commit: confidence in predictions about the future. Yes, they were right to be concerned about climate change, although it appears Exxon was not too far behind them, on much better evidence. Other parts of the book stress about chromium consumption, which does not rank very highly in a recent study’s concerns about resource usage. They worried also about the potential for the Mexican population to reach 130 million by 2060. Mexico contains 127 million people today, and I am willing to bet that the addition of 3 million more will not suffice to bring on civilizational collapse.

Song Jian and his colleagues bet the farm on a policy motivated by the errant reasoning of doomsayers like the Club of Rome. The strength of modern society is in its ability to constantly transform, to always seek a new answer to an old problem. Growth is an inescapable good – this is the crux of industrialization, and just as there was no reason to doubt this dynamic had changed in 1978, there is still no reason to think so now, though saying so raises the hackles of a minor debate about sustainability and population control now ongoing in the US.

One side of this debate calls itself degrowth, and exhorts us for the good of the planet to abandon economic growth, arguing that the current model of perpetual increases in GDP is merely unsustainable. “Huge chunks of our economy are totally irrelevant to human wellbeing. We must ask ourselves; do we really want to pursue aggregate growth if it’s going to put our planet — and our civilization — at such extraordinary risk?” asked Jason Hickel, its foremost prophet, to CNBC.

My reaction is that all this has been tried before and found to fail. As above, economic growth requires either more people or richer lives. Degrowth, therefore, can really only come from one of two things: fewer people, or poorer lives. I find this degrowtherism to be cowardly, uninventive, a pearl-clutching sky-is-falling fatalism about what we can expect from future technology.

Instead we need to take a different tack, and recognize the limitlessness of human ingenuity. Andrew McAfee wrote admirably about how we’re already solving the problems degrowthers say we’ll never solve. Elsewhere, writers like Matt Yglesias, Lyman Stone, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Noah Smith, among others, have taken up the pen, advocating not for fewer children or smaller economies, but larger nations full of revitalized population centers, bursting with new ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit to take down the challenges of climate change in a positive way.

Malthus’ Last Trick: The Demographic Transition

Ultimately, the voices of those authors are needed because even without encouragement, the growth of the human population is slowing down. Sure, in developing countries, we expect a boom in population to continue until well into mid-century. But demographic transition has occurred in rich countries without fail, leaving large populations of retirees supported by smaller bases of prime-age workers.

This is the great doom of population control efforts, one the Chinese government unwittingly walked into. Their population growth was going to slow down anyway as the country got richer. 1CP only hastened the transition and made the increase in dependency ratio much more rapid – whereas in 1980, one prime-age Chinese worker had to support the income of 1.47 retirees, today that figure stands at 2.5 retirees to every worker. In the US, the same figure is 1.8 retirees to every worker.

At its core, the Malthusian dynamic describes the response of families to the cost of child rearing. In pre-industrial societies, that was easy to understand – kids were mouths to feed, and so Malthus could ask of the desirous but penniless family man, “May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them?”

Today, the pressures on parents are much different, but no less potent. The continued decline in the US birth rate, for example, is sometimes explained as a free and equal choice by women to live childlessly. “There turn out to be a large number of surveys asking about fertility preferences,” Lyman Stone wrote in rebuttal of that idea, “and no matter how creatively it is sliced and diced, no matter what data source is used, women have fewer kids than they say they want, desire, intend, expect, or consider ideal—for themselves or for society on the whole.”

Eric Levitz, writing for NYMag, continues the line of reasoning: “in meritocratic, capitalist societies, middle-class expectations for the amount of time and financial investment a child requires have grown so high, only a radical economic reordering can make larger families feel broadly attainable.”

This same attitude turns up in Sui-Lee Wee’s articles about the changes to family planning. She quotes a 26-year-old Beijinger as saying, “No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive…I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”

Wee phrased it more strongly in another article – ending family planning policies “could also founder amid broad cultural changes. Anxiety over the rising cost of education, housing and health care is now deeply ingrained in society. Many Chinese simply prefer smaller families”.

In seeking to head off a mostly imagined civilizational collapse, the side effects of the one-child policy proved to have the greatest staying power of all. For their latest trick, the Chinese government will have to find another way out.

Re: The NYT Piece on Extended Stay America and Modern SROs

Mya Frazier has a blockbuster of a piece out in the NYT Magazine covering the people who live in long-term hotels, a group one of her sources refers to as the “precariously housed”. It’s a very well-balanced read, taking the proprietor of one chain, Extended Stay America, to task for outsized room fees and brutish eviction practices while also lambasting high growth regions like Columbus and Atlanta for blocking the building of new housing. Taken as a whole, this piece (including the asides about revolting check-cashing fees) presents a crystal-clear accounting of the “high costs of being poor”.

I wrote on Twitter that I see the key culprit here as being lack of new housing, which I am wont to do. The piece also highlights the decline in single-room occupancy hotels, which were once a robust part of the lowest-income housing market but were regulated away to death. But for her part, Frazier focuses more on the role of credit scores in denying many poor Americans access to the rental market.

The criticisms are all spot-on here, including a nice piece of grapeshot fired at the chancy figure of Richard Cordray, who in 2012 became the first boss of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after Elizabeth Warren decided to forgo leading the agency she’d molded and remain in the Senate. Cordray left the agency to go lose state-wide for the second time to Mike DeWine in the 2018 Ohio gubernatorial race but apparently landed on his feet in Biden’s Dept of Education, running student loan claims.

In her piece, Frazier describes how the former director helped the credit-report triumvir of Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax pivot their businesses after the housing crash to peer deeper into the lives of poor people. They began to include “‘alternative data,’ such as rent and utility payments, into credit reporting…Cordray saw the push as good public policy — a form of ‘financial empowerment.'”

Credit reports have a shallow history – they were only used for the first time in 1989 – but as everyone knows, they control more than just prices for credit, the interest rate borrowers face; for people with bad credit scores, their score can lock them out of credit entirely or be used as a proxy rationale for institutions to enter into non-credit transactions with them.

Case in point: the usage by landlords of credit scores for offering apartments. There is no prima facie reason why a landlord should be able to deny you an apartment in February because they worry about your payments in October – if October comes and you can’t pay, you leave and it’s on the landlord to find a new tenant.

It’s kookier still to believe that that February rent should depend on credit mishaps from years prior. But that’s how the industry has developed – landlords have been able to impose on renters everywhere the 12-month lease as a technology of brutal repression, making a simple payment for services into a loan-like contract.

(One line of counterargument might emphasize that there are benefits to renters for this long-term contract, but I’m skeptical: when times are good, you can probably get a raise, so you could afford higher rent; but when times are bad, you lose everything, so you can’t afford the prior level of rent anyway. Paradoxically, longer maturities benefit the creditor here.)

This point leads to two further and alternate observations. The first is that we should abolish credit scoring. This is seductive, but wrong-headed, because as the Frazier piece points out, credit scores were a technology that facilitated broader access to borrowing: “Credit scores…stratified credit markets. If you had a low score, you paid higher interest rates; once the process was automated, decisions that used to take days or weeks were made within hours.” That improvement in lending decision speed was useful, and shouldn’t be thrown away.

The second observation is on sounder footing: if we must be stuck with a minority precariat, long-term leases, and predatory credit reporters, then credit scores must be reformed to move faster. If you get a new steady job, the weight of your prior credit should fall sharply. Entries in your credit history should stick around for a couple of years at most. Landlords should be steeply disincentivized against declining because of credit score, and instead should be biased towards green-lighting applicants unless something is incredibly wrong.

Siegel Suites, the business operating the hotels where the piece is set, has carved a middle way through this dilemma by ignoring credit histories and offering short-term rentals. This is a good thing: for lack of Siegel, the women profiled in Frazier’s piece would be flat-out homeless, as indeed her first subject was until she and her father learned about Siegel’s offering.

However, by being the only game in town willing to take on these higher risk renters, Siegel is able to charge exorbitant premiums above market rates. Of her second subject’s budget, Frazier writes, “For about five months, Green and her partner managed to cover the initial daily room rate of $44.99, which would add up to more than $1,300 a month — almost twice the fair-market rent of $717 for an efficiency apartment in Columbus, as calculated by HUD.” Renters at Siegel Suites, started by a one-time NoHo body-shop owner, and the better-known Extended Stay America, deserve more competition in this space, which would drive down these painful premiums to rational levels. These landlords deserve some extra profit from the risks they’re taking, but not very much.

(As an aside, I’ve been curious about the model for the landlord decision to evict, prompted first by the closure of the Cinerama theater. When is it more advantageous to evict and reenter the tenant search market, rather than restructuring payments in arrears [even at 100% haircuts] and allow the current tenant to return to normal payment schedule? The fact that it took a CDC order to prevent evictions during the pandemic suggests landlords are quick to evict, a tendency too strong to be fully rational.)

I criticized a recent story from a trio of NPR reporters which tried to account for the large racial homeownership gap by means of credit score discrimination, because I really don’t believe that it’s responsible for driving much of the variation in the purchasing process. But I am much more inclined to believe Frazier’s account, that recourse to the three-digit number in rental markets has gone too far.

At the end of the day, you need a house over your head at whatever price you can afford, and it boggles the mind that the market for housing is insufficiently thick to provide that. More public investment is likely the answer.

Notes Towards a Biography of Martin Van Buren

I’m in the middle of the rightly much-lauded How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr – expect a review shortly. Importantly, although Immerwahr has unimpeachable credentials when it comes to academic history, Hide an Empire is not meant to overturn our understanding of belle-epoque American imperialism; it’s a popular work, briskly written, with at least a few passages that have made me gasp out loud. It’s great! And it has got me fiddling with my own American history passion project, a biography of our 8th president, Martin Van Buren.

I came to be fascinated with Van Buren from the facts of his childhood. Born Maarten Van Buren in Kinderhook, NY, he spent many years before speaking a word of English, the only president so far to pick up the language later in life. He singlehandedly reinvigorated partisan politics in the Monroe administration and schmoozed his way to the top job through decades of party politics. Other salient interesting features include:

  • His ancestors left Holland amid the Dutch Golden Age and came to be part of a large section of Dutch families in New York, whose impact is of course endemic throughout the city and state
  • He was the first one-termer not named Adams, and played dirty politics following his 1840 defeat with presidential nominations
  • Between him and George HW Bush, no vice president would take over the reins from his termed-out predecessor
  • The Panic of 1837 began barely 60 days into his administration, an economic crisis without parallel until the Great Depression
  • His vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was the only one elected under the provisions of the 12th Amendment
  • His foreign policy had to deal with Indian wars, Mormon wars, Upper and Lower Canadian wars, the Amistad, and Texas
  • As regards slavery, he was in modern eyes, “on the right side of history”. He lived until 1862 and strongly backed Lincoln’s efforts to persecute the war against the South

&c., &c. Anyway, if there are any desirous publishers out there, please don’t hesitate to send me over a wad of cash. You’ll get a nicely padded biography for your efforts. I can’t promise it’ll become a best-seller, but I am very interested to pursue it!

Local Notes No. 4 – Civic Architecture on Sunset Blvd

I have been stymied for some months now in my attempts to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. The massive structure, inspired by pre-Columbian art and architecture, sits atop a hill named Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz.

Photos: Joshua White / JWPictures.com
Detail of the Hollyhock House with view to the west (I think).

It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 and is an irreplaceable entry in Wright’s Los Angeles oeuvre, whose other entries comprise probably the most interesting architectural body of work in the area. (The City has closed Barnsdall Park for COVID-19 reasons, but transmission of the virus is much reduced in our little slice of heaven, and at any rate it is an outdoor park, so I remain miffed.)

Luckily, LA contains multitudes, and so by piloting yourself just a smidge further west, you can come across the two buildings I’d like to write about today: the headquarters of the International Cinematographers Guild and the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

Sorry for the picture quality! Those weird columns in the foreground are palm trees.

The two buildings straddle Genesee Ave and are just about equal in size, filling up the corner quarter-acre on each block. They also do what they say on the tin, housing the offices of the union locals which represent the crews that make Tinseltown run. In today’s age of atomized labor, the idea of a powerful, rich union making studio heads quake in their boots from showy modernist offices may read like science fiction. But the history of organized labor in film is long and rich – recall that Ronald Reagan, who ushered unions out of the modern workplace when he broke the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike in 1981, first made a political name for himself as President of the Screen Actors’ Guild. As the boss of SAG, Reagan led his actors on the first strike in film history and got the studios to cave to paying residuals.

reagan moneypenny ap images 615.jpg
The Gipper in 1947 presenting a SAG card to Lois Maxwell, who would later star as Moneypenny in several James Bond films.

David Fincher’s wonderful Mank sets itself right at the intersection of Hollywood and the drive for labor organization in the 1930s, though some of that action is backgrounded in favor of the drama of Upton Sinclair’s abortive gubernatorial run. These days, tens of thousands of industry workers carry a union card, and their actions continue to shape film and TV history – as an example, Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad was set to be killed off by the end of the show’s first season, but the notorious 2007-08 strike gave Vince Gilligan time to reconsider and rewrite the character for the long haul.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/3CXmuv2l_NM?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

The Int’l Cinematographers Guild (ICG) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) are both locals under the umbrella of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, show business’ most storied union, with origins dating back to Vaudeville theater. The ICG, housed in the westernmost of our two buildings, is Local 600 of the IATSE and represents anyone who touches a camera, including big-name DPs and cinematographers like Roger Deakins. The MPEG, meanwhile, is known as Local 700 of the same mother union, and represents both film and sound editors, as well as other editorial staff.

The battle to build these organizations was mighty, but well-rewarded in the years following the Great Depression. Membership rose as the guilds secured better wages from the studios, who were themselves navigating the new landscape being forged by the emergence of television. By the late 1950s, the ICG and MPEG were on sound enough footing to construct a new set of offices down the block from their first headquarters.

This plaza at Sunset and Las Palmas, funnily enough named the Crossroads of the World, was home to the MPEG starting in 1937.

Internet records of the construction of these buildings are sadly scarce – if I were a more dedicated reporter, I would’ve gone into the Records desk at the city Dept of Building and Safety – but my sleuthing indicates that they were likely constructed as a pair beginning in 1959, under the design of the architectural partnership of Douglas Honnold and John Rex.

Motion picture cameramen & film editors unions building, 7715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 1959 : News Photo
Still of an architectural drawing of what was to become the MPEG headquarters.

Writing on the work of Douglas Honnold often mentions that he passed up on an opportunity to design the McDonald’s Golden Arches, which I find a bit unfair. Buildings he did actually design included the William Morris Agency building, several of a coffee chain known as Coffee Dan’s, and the Valley Plaza Tower in North Hollywood, one of the first true skyscrapers in Los Angeles (a 150-foot city height limit was scrapped in 1957, and Honnold & Rex struck quick).

The Valley Plaza Tower sits just of the 110 in North Hollywood, and dominated the skyline of the San Fernando Valley for years.

Honnold was a skilled residential architect, too. He built an estate for Samuel Goldwyn, now owned by Taylor Swift, and participated in a contest run by the magazine Architectural Products to produce a set of “Research Houses”. This contest was in naked imitation of the famous “Case Study” effort launched by Arts & Architecture, many of whose designs became classics of the mid-century modern style. The Research Houses never ended up with such fame, but Honnold’s entry has endured – Meryl Streep ended up owning the place before passing it on to Alex Rodriguez, who in 2019 sold it for a cool $4.4 million.

An ad for a later Research House – Honnold built his in 1954.

Honnold & Rex together were part of an enduring clique of forward-thinking, hard-working architects who had their finger on the pulse of jetset-era Los Angeles, a city hurtled into the future we live in today via an influx of modernist thinkers and builders, eager for a postwar landscape they could leave their mark on. I admire their designs for the ICG and MPEG headquarters so much because they manage simultaneously to be pristine examples of the mid-century corporate style as well as to express their intended function with absolute clarity.

In the facade of the MPEG building, the interplay of the exposed steel beams and the glass-paned wall behind it creates a resemblance to a film reel, frames of office life perceivable through the shutters – an invocation of the very stuff the building’s inhabitants spent their careers tenderly cutting and pasting together, or else leaving on the cutting-room floor.

7715 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046 - Property Record | LoopNet.com
Another view, this time from the southwest.

Meanwhile, in the ICG building’s case, Honnold & Rex deftly carved mass atop mass to create apertures out of their walls, sculpted quadrangles conjuring an association to the camera’s own eye. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window had come out just five years prior, and its conceit resonates here – both the camera technicians indoors and we as passers-by outdoors cannot venture outside of the frame given us by the architects to view the world. To paraphrase Scorsese, the design of the ICG building is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.

A view of the building from the southwest. Credit Elliott Cowand 2017.

Local Notes No. 3 – The Brock & Co Jewelers Building in Downtown Los Angeles

Happily, I got to go to Dodger Stadium yesterday to watch my Nationals lose the third of a three-game series and slink back east, well and truly swept. The loss didn’t bug me too much though, as going to Dodger Stadium means going downtown and going to downtown Los Angeles means getting to see some really excellent architecture, still standing from a different era of Angeleno development.

Anyone who’s been by the famous Olvera Street is familiar with the fact that Los Angeles used to consist entirely of what we today call downtown. Land speculation in the areas surrounding the old pueblo during the 1880s brought a mass of migrants, swelling LA’s population from its pre-American norm of ~10,000 people to 100,000 by 1896. In the twenty years that followed, the many-tentacled development of railways throughout the Southland would give the city more rail mileage than New York.

The North End of DTLA in 1894, as drawn by Bruce Wellington Pierce; sadly, almost all of this neighborhood was leveled to make way for City Hall.

At the center of all that iron and all those people was the Historic Core of downtown, where booming economic fortunes spawned arcades of department stores, great canyons of banking houses, and a jewelers’ district, where George C. Brock set up Brock & Co. jewelers in 1903. By the 1920s, Brock was doing so well in the diamond trade that he signed a 99-year-lease at 515 W 7th St, and there asked the architects Dodd and Richards to build him a new corporate headquarters.

PCAD - Brock and Company Jewelry Store, Downtown, Los Angeles, CA
515 W 7th in three-quarter view.

515 W 7th is a stunning building, even sitting squat as it does at only four stories tall. Indeed, its height sets it apart somewhat from its immediate neighbors – I find that its stature enhances the presentation of the whole thing, like a sprinter leaning forward to edge his opponents out at the finish line. Starting at bottom, the impression of iron frames and glass storefront is rather utilitarian, artfully set away from the shock yet to come above street-level. As we move up past the awning and into the mezzanine, with its lovely bronzed patina, we run for the first time into 515’s complicated web of columns and windows, inset into its facade as a painting into a gilded frame.

Màs Malo from “Scandal” – IAMNOTASTALKER
A frontal view of 515 W 7th.

The three stories of curvy pilaster breaking the glass space is striking, reminiscent of what others call the Churrigueresque style – others still refer to it merely as “Ultra Baroque”. The sinuous broken pediment which forms the top of the facade offers one last thrill for the eye, reveling in the full gaudiness of its curves.

The man responsible for the building’s design was William J Dodd, an architect of Midwestern extraction who was trained in the offices of William LeBaron Jenney, builder of the first skyscraper. Dodd spent a remarkable quarter-century in Louisville, there and through other states back east building beautiful houses in the Beaux Arts style.

The Major LW McKee House in Lawrenceburg, KY, built by Dodd in 1886.

In 1912, he quit Kentucky for Los Angeles. In truth, no one may be more responsible for the way the south end of DTLA looks than Dodd – for the next twenty years he would have his fingers in most of the city’s developing cookie jars. In 1917, he built an addition to the famous Brockman Building, then built Coulter’s department store a block east.

Advertisement for Dodd’s Coulter’s department store, which sat among the other great shopping stores on 7th St downtown.

His Henning Building went up right next to Coulter’s, and the Huntsberger-Mennell Building popped up the same year on the 400 block. He finished his annus mirabilis on 7th St with the construction of the great Ville de Paris department store.

Dodd’s Ville de Paris under construction.

Dodd had a hand, early in his California period, in helping the great architect Julia Morgan to build William Randolph Hearst a new home for his Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Works like the Herald-Examiner Building show off some of the decorative flair Dodd would bring to the Brock building.

The Herald Examiner Building, completed in 1914.

That decorative urge seems to have been everywhere in the SoCal air at this time – the revival of the Ultra Baroque in California is in fact credited to the architects responsible for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow. The pair chose a decidedly more Spanish style both to honor the history of San Diego, where the fair took place, as well as to stand apart from the Beaux Arts monuments so common of other fairs going on at the time. Think of Daniel Burnham’s White City in Chicago, home of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and you’ll have a good feeling for what the organizers were rebelling against.

The Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego, erected for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Exposition helped revive the Baroque style in LA architecture.

Funny enough, it was at that Panama-California Exposition where the modern history of San Diego was set out: Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, gave a press conference from Balboa Park where he described the new naval base set for construction in San Diego Bay. While their permanent structures were under construction, the Navy would use some features from the Exposition still standing, as would the San Diego Zoo, which cobbled together some poor leftover critters from the exotic corners of the fair to use for their first exhibits.

For all these reasons, Dodd was a natural architectural call for the jewelry shop to make. Headquarters in hand, Brock pere went on to make his little concern Los Angeles’ biggest diamond dealer. Celebrities of a species we’ve all forgotten now, like Mary Pickford, frequented its 7th St halls.

Coquette Poster
Pickford won 1930’s Best Actress award for Coquette, advertised here as a ‘100% talking picture’. I bet it’s a great movie!

Ad men combined Brock goods with great copy to make timeless ads like the one below. Per one source, Tiffany’s actually approached Brock with the intention to merge their businesses, but the deal fell through.

Brock & Co even had a minor place in California legal history, as they sought to have a 1937 tax assessment reduced, arguing that much of their valuable stock was not in Los Angeles but actually in Hawaii and therefore not subject to the duties set by the LA County Board of Supervisors. They lost at the California Supreme Court.

1937 Ad Brock Jewelry Company Los Angeles Ring Diamond - ORIGINAL FTT9
$535 for a diamond ring – good deal

George Brock retired in the 1960s and the Clifton family, who ran a network of popular cafeterias, bought the building out from him to install one of their franchises. Clifton’s Silver Spoon Cafeteria operated until 1997 – Jack Kerouac mentions eating at one of their LA locations in On The Road.

A diner carries a tray in Clifton's Silver Spoon. 1981 photo by Shelley Gazin, courtesy of the Gazin Archive.
Shot from a 1981 story about the Clifton Silver Spoon

After that, the building briefly fell into disrepair, victim of the utter hollowing-out of DTLA in the years following the 1960s. History picked it back up as part of the vaunted Downtown LA revival in the late aughts, when a restauranteur refurbished its second floor and opened Seven Grand, a whiskey bar. Heads swiveled apace as young creatives poured into the watering hole, and a buzzy Mexican restaurant, Más Malo, followed the whiskey bar into operation a few years later. Network producers apparently liked the old styling of the Brock building’s interior too – Scandal and Parks & Rec both have scenes filmed there.

Más Malo met an abrupt end sometime in 2018, and the pandemic has meant that Seven Grand and Bar Jackalope, its speakeasy, have been shut for some time now. But I have faith that the life contained within William Dodd’s otherworldly Spanish terra cotta and marble creation, dropped into the middle of what was once an old pueblo by the mid-century California king of diamonds, will rise again.

Local Notes No. 2: Clyde Hill, WA’s Coin-Flip Mayor

On one unseasonably warm day in December 1975, two candidates vying for the mayoralty of Clyde Hill, WA, a 3200-strong suburb sandwiched between Seattle and Bellevue, met in the office of the King County Superintendent of Elections. Against all odds, the normal course of count and recount in the scheduled November election had exhausted itself and the true result seemed to be a tie.

It’s probably more symptom than cause of anything in particular, but I find it hard to ignore the ways in which close elections, and the mechanisms used to finally decide them, have become critical historical focusing points of late. Among the notables:

But set that all aside for a second and put yourself in the mind of a Pacific Northwest voter in late 1975. Richard Nixon had only a few years prior taken 49 states to win a second term, including your own of Washington, where an incumbent Governor Daniel Evans cruised his way to an 8-point reelection.

Elsewhere, Saturday Night Live had premiered, Queen had released “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Bill Gates had written down the name “Micro-soft” for the first time, and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had just sank in Lake Superior, though you’d have to wait a few more months to hear a killer ballad about it.

Close elections were not really part of your world – Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman could even easily fend off a recall election brought that same year by disgruntled city unions. Such thinking is probably what led Miles Nelson, one of the two would-be mayors in the Superintendent’s office that day, to asses that his would-be constituents “didn’t know there was a choice. They didn’t vote intelligently”. Probably for the best, then, that it was Nelson who called “Heads” while the flip was up and won the gavel in Clyde Hill.

Incumbent head honcho Liberino Tufarolo, who had called “Tails,” was despondent after the loss was settled, and slipped out of the room “quietly commenting that maybe it was time for someone else to take over.” New Mayor Nelson was all smiles, picking up calls from media colossi like the New York Times, NBC News, and People magazine as well as from local dailies in Maine and eastern PA.

Political History of CH

In a way, this story has a fair ending, since neither man tried his hands at Clyde Hill politics again – Nelson followed his predecessor into retirement after finishing his term in 1979. But I think the story resounds today for what it has to say about the media and local government.

No one votes in local elections, then as much as now. Certain future President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat representing 700,000 New Yorkers by dint of a primary election in which 27,700 votes were cast. Los Angeles once had to resort to issuing cash prizes to those who voted in Board of Education elections. Zoltan Hajnal, a political scientist at UCSD, pegs the number of voters who participate in municipal elections at around 25%, but that still comes off too optimistic to me.

Dr. Hajnal has an easy partial fix to this phenomenon: aligning the scads of important but boring municipal elections on the calendar with the important and exciting presidential elections. And while I’m sure that’s a prudent and effective way of engineering higher turnout in critical local votes, I’ve got a better idea: make the TV trucks show up.

By way of example, the 94th District of Virginia represents Newport News, a stone’s throw from where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. In 2017, the election of a representative to the state’s House of Delegates was decided – you guessed it – by the drawing of lots from a film canister.

A Republican, David Yancey, won what ended up being quite the consequential draw, for it allowed Republicans to retain control of one chamber of the state legislature. Amid the frothy media blitz which covered the drawing, and the two Trump years which followed, Democrats pressed enough interest into normally low-turnout House of Delegates elections to take the majority, securing trifecta control of Virginia politics for the first time in twenty-five years. Shelly Simonds, who had drawn the short straw in 2017, beat Yancey by 16 points in their rematch.

We are without a doubt in the midst of a crucial realignment period for both parties and politics more broadly in this country, with no one really sure who is calling the shots anywhere. These battles will be fought less in the normal battlegrounds of Florida retirement communities or Rust Belt suburbs and increasingly in the loci of dynamic change like Seattle, paired with Denver as the two fastest growing cities north of Tennessee.

The population of metro Seattle has already increased by 300% since Miles Nelson’s election as Mayor of Clyde Hill. As the city continues to add residents in perpetuity, voters in these after-thought municipal elections will end up wielding significant power. So much of success is just showing up – future you doesn’t want to find yourself quoting Fry from Futurama:

Image result for futurama fry forgot to vote

On the other hand, maybe the lesson is less “go vote in local elections” and more “maybe random processes aren’t so bad at picking officials”. The Athenians did it, and the French are trying it out as a means of fostering more public trust in the COVID-19 vaccine. It even has a cool name: sortition. Tim Dunlop, an Australian writer, included the practice among his list of “big audacious ideas for a better world”.

Consider me unconvinced, however. Usually the combo of a funny Greek-derived word and random sampling is enough to win me over, but I find it sort of solving the problem downstream to do away with elections entirely. There’s not a lot any one of us can do to change the course of our country, or save the planet, or arrest some giant machinations of capital and illicit power, but your neighborhood is just the right size for you to make an impact in. Even as we turn the page from a contentious election and look forward to going back to brunch, please, remember to vote.

Local Notes #1: The Experience of Economic Change in Central Maryland Since 2000

This essay is the first in a new series I’m calling Local Notes, where I’m excavating the hidden stories driving life all around us. These posts will appear first on my Substack, which you can visit here. Though this post focuses on Maryland, we are not limited in our geographical scope and so look forward to posts from points further abroad in the future.

The builders have picked up their shovels in Maryland. Cajoled, at long last, by the recent bounding pace of economic growth in the state between D.C. and Baltimore, these planners, developers, architects and contractors have brought something not seen in quite some time to the Old Line State – a renovation of the built environment, new neighborhoods, lecture halls, office parks, and glitzy, pedestrian shopping centers presenting a bold vision of what a suburban built environment ought to be. And now this rolling stone of bricks and draft plans presents me, whose vision of Central Maryland was frozen in the lows of recessionary apathy, with a jarring experience of coming home again.


As in the rest of the country, the years between 2015 and the outbreak of the pandemic were quite the economic boon for Maryland – jobs, wages, homeownership, and employment all ticked up smoothly.

This phenomenon was no less present in the low-scale urban, suburban and exurban areas of Central Maryland, which for the purposes of this piece I’ll describe as a rough rectangle finding its southwestern edge at the border with Washington DC, its eastern edge on the Chesapeake Bay (and in particular the seat of Annapolis in the southeast), its northeastern border on the exterior of Frederick, MD and its closure around Baltimore in the northwest.

Fair Maryland, where we set our scene

I lived most of my life as a kid within the interior of this imaginary polygon, though this is not an unusual circumstance – construed liberally, 75% of Maryland’s population can say the same. And today, many of the friends who grew up here with me have dispersed themselves within this shape to start their adult lives.

I have friends in new build high-rises in the inner ring of booming Frederick; friends in the legacy core of high-profile Bethesda, profiting from a commercial mix tilting more and more towards our tastes; friends roosting in the good, old bones of Baltimore’s neighborhoods; and friends in Takoma Park and Silver Spring and Columbia and Annapolis and Ellicott City. My parents gave up the exurbanity of Fairland Road, where my sisters and I were raised, for the newfound vitality of Laurel, where developers have erected a new town in a shockingly small amount of time.

The former Macy's store is the first building to be demolished at Laurel Mall.
A shot from the demolition of old Laurel Mall. In 1972, segregationist George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, was shot and paralyzed while speaking here. A quarter-century later, another terrorist was walking the grounds – Mohamed Atta used an ATM located in a nearby Giant Food while plotting the 9/11 attacks. Source: Baltimore Sun

It was not as a matter of course that these new high-rises and renovated shopping districts would be available for the generation of Maryland millennials aging into their prime years of household formation. Rather, it was only the sustained pressure of a half-decade of post-Recession economic growth that would force builders back onto their job sites in a major way.

I think that surveying the structure and distribution of this growth, and particularly of its impact on the built environment, is a worthwhile exercise. That’s what I’ll attempt to do in this essay – give a sense for what’s changed about incomes and labor, how, and what it’s meant.

I’ll pay special attention to housing, a topic so dismaying in Marin County and Cheviot Hills and the Upper West Side which obtains an entirely distinct valence in Central Maryland: housing as opportunity, independence, mobility, deliverance.

I want also to convey in this piece the true Unheimlichkeit that this economic growth has foisted upon me, by now an itinerant visitor stopping by semi-annually, on remand from the coastal cities where I’m doing my best to ply a trade and build a career.

That pretentious German word was used most famously by old Freud, best translated for his purposes as “uncanniness”, but I’ll take advantage of its literal meaning and translate it as “unhominess”.

Plastercast death mask of Sergei Pankejeff (the 'Wolf Man')
This image is the one the highly esteemed Freud Museum of London has chosen to convey his idea of Unheimlichkeit. Who am I to say they’re wrong?

It’s that unhomey alienation which crops up every time I take a familiar left turn and run for the first time into a pristine, pedestrianized shopping center, full of fast casual eateries and breweries.

It appears when I end up on a night out at one of the casinos never found in the state before 2011, towering like they do in Macau over the rest of the low-slung environment.

It manifests every time I lay my head down to sleep in a cozy family home whose foundation was for many years mere fallow field, the road thereto previously little more than a dead end.

Hitting Rock Bottom

After the turn of the millennium, the economy of Maryland grew like the rest of the nation’s, with real state-level income growing from $251bn in 2000 to a peak in 2008 of $316bn.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Critical to this Goldilocks 3% annual GDP growth, as elsewhere, was a red-hot housing market. The first half of the below chart illustrates the effect of that red-hot housing market on home prices.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

What did everyday homeowners do in response to this major shift in the market for their largest asset? To understand that, we need to look towards one curious feature of the Bush-era economy, namely the outsized influence of an unfettered financial capitalism.

Loosed from its regulatory shackles in the 1980s, the industry’s traders and structurers in Manhattan were by the turn of the century releasing truly creative financial products into the world. Case in point: the home equity line of credit.

HELOCs, as their friends call them, allowed existing homeowners to profit from this bubble in home prices by borrowing against the juiced-up value of their own homes. HELOCs distinguished themselves from more prosaic products, like second mortgages, by allowing the borrower to open a revolving line of credit, like a consumer credit card, with a credit limit equal to the value of their home.

The greater acceptance of HELOCs by homeowners and banks nationwide constituted a tremendous expansion of credit to consumers, an expansion which attained the heights in 2005 of financing $3 out of every $100 of household consumption. As HELOC usage grew, so did the dependency of the whole domestic economy on the continued strength of the housing market. That’s the tough thing about collateralized debt – the value of the collateral ain’t everything, but it’s the only thing.

This is basically my favorite chart in finance, and really the only way to make sense of how kooky the Bush-era economy was. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

On the other side of the equation, the years-long rise in housing prices naturally impacted the companies whose work consisted in building houses. One of the more remarkable testaments to the strength of the residential real estate market in the early aughts can be found in the annual reports of NVR, Inc.

The folks at NVR are the nation’s fifth-biggest homebuilder and, under the banner of Ryan Homes, have historically made about one-third of their revenue in Maryland.

Model home murder: Worker found dead in Hanover
This image comes from a sad story titled “Model Home Murder”!

In 2005, NVR reported “the most profitable year in the Company’s history,” making $698mm in profit on $5.3bn in revenue, all the result of “the largest ever volume of new orders and settlements.”

Fortune, a one-trick pony magazine if there ever was one, ranked NVR’s equity as the best investment among the list of Fortune 500 companies over the preceding decade. Times were good for Ryan Homes and its managers.

By the end of 2006, however, the company was cautiously less ebullient, understanding a cyclical shift that economic and financial commentators would take many more years to fully chart out. NVR wrote that it found itself “confronted with the challenges of a marketplace where increased demand and strong price appreciation of the last several years gave way to more difficult market conditions.”

From the 2006 Annual Report of NVR, Inc.

As elsewhere, the parabolic swing up in home prices was met with the rowdy pop of the housing bubble. Already unstable by the end of 2006, growth in home prices evaporated and in 2007 and 2008 a distinct decline took over.

And while homebuilders (and their investors) are used to weathering the cycles of modern capitalism, this time was different: indeed, the years following 2010 were the worst in Maryland for new housing starts since the 1950s.

Source: the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission

NVR managed to turn a profit in 2008, the only publicly traded homebuilder to do so, but the effects of the downturn are easily heard in the tone of the introduction to their annual report:

Potential homebuyers were faced with several headwinds, including tighter lending standards, higher unemployment rates, dwindling investment balances, and news of a deepening recession. As a result, consumer confidence fell to historic lows and the demand for new homes weakened significantly. In addition, the housing market continued to experience high inventories of both new and existing homes, as well as high foreclosure rates. All of these factors contributed to the downward pressure on housing prices in all of our markets; and consequently, downward pressure on our profitability.

from the 2008 Annual Report of NVR, Inc.

Meanwhile for Maryland’s homeowners, you can extract from the chart of home prices above their experience as the crisis ebbed on pretty clearly – a distinct feeling of hitting rocks all the way down.

No less acutely felt was the impact of all those outstanding HELOCs in a regime of sinking prices – in September of 2008, Louise Story could already write for the NY Times a gauzy piece about the excesses of the lending market titled “Home Equity Frenzy Was a Bank Ad Come True”.

“Little by little, millions of Americans surrendered equity in their homes in recent years as home prices seemed to rise inexorably from one peak to the next,” she wrote.

By 2012, the nadir of home prices in the state, CoreLogic reported that Maryland’s proportion of mortgages underwater was 9th highest in the nation, within the same realm as the infamous Nevadan housing market.

I graduated high school and skipped town in that year of bottoming out, unaware except in a peripheral sense of what was happening to the lives around me. Many of my friends’ parents were employed in the federal government – for them, shutdown shenanigans and raise freezes would be the most keenly-felt impact of the recession, at least for the time being.

(To go long on a parenthetical, the biggest news stories I remember from the recession years are the Tim Tebow playoff game, the BP oil spill, and the Bin Laden raid. A ruder, fuller awakening would only come about once my childhood home had been lost to the trauma of the recession, my parents taking one of the few available bad options to get out of a bad mortgage.)

The same suburban built environment in which I had come of age, I had to assume, would persist – all Reagan-era malls, fast-food franchises, and unending corridors of subdivisions.

This is not to say that there was no commercial development in the decade approaching the Great Recession. In 2005, a developer razed 8.5 acres of a light manufacturing district immediately off the vital US Route 29 and built Westech Village Corner, there siting 12 “retail commercial businesses,” including an IHOP, a TGI Fridays, and, critically for your correspondent, a Panera Bread. When a Chick-fil-A arrived a few years later, it caused a sensation.

WesTech Village Corner in Silver Spring Sells for $27.9M
Locals called the new shopping center Tech Road, after the street which ran along its longest side.

In elementary school, we debated, along with the rest of Maryland’s chattering class, the merits of infrastructure development under the guise of new highways and new transit lines. And when the corrections came, Maryland’s government took the shovels out – I can recall the installation of an overpass at Briggs Chaney Road, and my mighty alma mater, Paint Branch High, was torn down and replaced over the course of my time there. Ours was the last class to graduate from the old building of nooks and crannies, which had opened to serve freshmen for the first time in 1969.

But I hope by the enumeration of these examples to illustrate the meagerness of these changes – one shopping plaza, more parking lot than anything else, a new high school, some highway construction, all over the course of a long decade.

I imagine this pace to be pretty typical of exurban/semi-rural non-residential construction – the settled patterns of low intensity comings and goings around Central Maryland never necessitated a crush of new building. Prudent administrators could look 5 years out, pick the handful of projects most useful, and steadily apply their hand to the completion thereof.

This two-track approach – a volatile, hot residential market partnered with a smoother, slower business and infrastructural construction market – suited the labor market, anyway. Construction employment rose by 50,000 jobs after 2000, accelerating as the housing bubble blew bigger and bigger.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Construction employment didn’t stop crashing until home prices did, and even then, the lows stuck around longer than they did in the housing market.

We have then in the first 15 years of the century dynamics similar to those going on around the rest of the country. Economic growth

Emerging from the Rubble

Among the first movers in the wave of new building which came over Central Maryland following the worst of the Great Recession was the University of Maryland. Wielding remarkable power over the town of College Park, home to the state system’s flagship college, UMD’s administrators directed the expansion of the campus through the recession.

Legacy infrastructure, generally dating back to the post-GI Bill expansion of the 1950s, was remodeled and renovated. New residence halls opened in 2011 and 2014, breaking a streak active since 1968 of no new on-campus housing.

In the pre-recession years, a handsome and cavernous hall known as the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, devoted to the music and fine arts departments, had been the campus’ major addition. In the years following, however, expansive new academic buildings, all glass and steel cantilevers, opened to house departments of journalism, computer science, and biosciences.

At the opening in 2019 of the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering, luminaries including the Governor and head of the Maryland Senate came to toast the new spirit of construction which had taken College Park by storm.

Iribe Center wins AIA Virginia's Award of Merit | UMD Department of Computer  Science
The Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering opened in 2019.

Crucial to the university’s larger impact, however, was the East Campus Development Initiative. Promulgated in the university’s 20-year facilities master plan, released in 2011, the initiative set to wholly make over the area of campus east of high-traffic US Route 1. East Campus, per the plan, would “undergo more changes than any other [area] on campus.”

The lands and properties of the flagship campus of the University of Maryland, located in College Park, MD, along with its surrounding territory.

The plan, devised in partnership with the city and private developers, was to “transform” what was then an “industrial, back-door service area” into “the new face of the campus”. Boosters from across the DC Metro area got their wishes granted as the University vowed to put new housing and mixed-use building at the forefront of the redevelopment efforts.

The university tapped Southern Management to raise up the diamond of the new East Campus, the Hotel at UMD. They broke ground on the project in 2015 and on the occasion of its opening in September 2017, the reporter Jon Banister wrote of the changes sweeping College Park:

Looking out from the terrace, one can see multiple signs of College Park’s transformation that extend beyond the hotel. 

On the edge of campus across Route 1, construction is underway on the Brendan Iribe Center, a $31M gift from the Oculus VR founder. The 215K SF computer science facility is expected to open next year.  

In the parking lot behind the hotel, a nondescript one-story brick building will soon be home to a WeWork co-working space, the company’s first Maryland location. Ulman said he will soon announce a Fortune 100 company opening a 7,500 SF innovation lab in College Park.

That the efforts of the highly resourced, highly motivated leadership of UMD were critical to revitalizing building in College Park is unsurprising, and moreso part of a common pattern. James and Debra Fallows, who set out in 2012 to chronicle changes in small town life all around the states, cited the presence of a major research university as one of their ten leading signals of civic success.

“Research universities have become the modern counterparts to a natural harbor or a river confluence,” wrote James Fallows for The Atlantic in 2016. “In the short term, they lift the economy by bringing in a student population. Over the longer term, they transform a town through the researchers and professors they attract: When you find a Chinese or German physicist in the Dakotas, or a Yale literature Ph.D. in California’s Central Valley, that person probably works for a university.”

Certain others of the Fallows criteria are characteristic of the College Park boom, namely the presence of real public-private partnerships (#3), a culture of openness to outsiders (#9), and big plans for the future (#10). And indeed, the future these signals forecast came into being sooner than could have been expected.

A healthy mix of new commercial and residential development hit the city of College Park in the years following the university’s push, mostly concentrated on that key US Route 1 corridor.

The Alloy - Hines
Hardly the exemplar of small town Maryland apartment design, the Alloy opened in winter of 2019.

New multifamily housing sprouted like weeds to the north of campus, with buildings like the Mazza Grandmarc, the Varsity, University View, the Alloy and the Enclave at 8700 catering to the swelling student population. German grocer Lidl picked College Park to be among its first US expansion sites in 2017 and made good on the plan in 2019, opening a large retail space adjacent to a new Korean BBQ restaurant. The grocery, which helped alleviate the town’s former designation as a “food desert,” was also compelled to add stations supporting College Park’s bike-sharing program to its parking lot. Augmenting the capacity opened up by the Hotel at UMD, Marriott and Hyatt brought in new builds of their own, a process which the indispensable Hyattsville Wire had to describe in November of 2019 as an “Upscale Hotel Boom”.

And in the case of a parcel known as the Cafritz development, named for a Coolidge-era Russian émigré who ended up a Maryland landholding baron, development finally came to what once was the largest undeveloped property in all of surrounding Prince George’s County. That changed when a new shopping center anchored by a Whole Foods Market arrived in 2017.

The vaunted developmental benefits of the Amazon subsidiary were lost neither on local politicians nor the Washington Post, who ranked the successful completion of the Cafritz development among the broader surge of building up and down Route 1:

‘This opening is the realization that the county is competitive with the region,’ County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said. ‘It symbolizes change.’

The opening means Prince George’s, the most affluent majority-African American jurisdiction in the United States and one long ignored by big-name chains and businesses, is no longer an afterthought, Baker said…

The Riverdale Park store’s opening follows the December debut of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino resort in the southern part of the county and a wave of redevelopment in its northern end in Laurel. New residential and commercial projects are in the pipeline for New Carrollton, in central Prince George’s. And the Route 1 corridor, where the Whole Foods is located, is experiencing a construction boom from the District line to the Capital Beltway.

– from “Whole Foods debuts in Riverdale Park, another symbol of Prince George’s progress,” by Luz Lazo, Apr. 2017

What’s more important for our story is that this construction boom did not remain limited to the Route 1 corridor. Instead, this new ethos of concrete, steel and glass spread in a creep all over Central Maryland, radically changing the built environment and the experience thereof, remapping the contours of settled, suburban daily life.

Should Cafritz Development Traffic be Embraced or Feared? [Poll] |  Riverdale Park, MD Patch
I find it telling that this mock-up of the plans for Riverdale Park’s expansion were found in a post titled “Should Cafritz Development Traffic be Embraced or Feared? [Poll]“.

The New Build

Breweries in Columbia

Columbia, MD is a fairly well-studied place in the history of urban design. Its Wikipedia page boasts that it was among the first planned communities in the US, which is true; the town is the brainchild of James Rouse, a visionary builder who caught on quick to the potential of Edina, MN’s new “weather-conditioned shopping center”. He opened the nation’s second shopping mall in Glen Burnie, MD in 1958 and only a few years later struck on the idea of building a whole town from scratch, which was sort of a thing at the time. In 1963, after buying up some land in pastoral Howard County on the low, Rouse presented his plan for Columbia to the Board of Commissioners.

Rouse would no doubt have read of the efforts of the remarkable modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, who was charged by President Juscelino Kubitschek with the development of a new capital for Brazil – Brasília, in whose metropolitan area 4.25 million live today. Yes, it looks like an airplane.

Fast forward a half-century, and Columbia routinely ranks around the top of those “Best Cities to Live In” lists you read in the magazines at dentists’ offices. In Central Maryland, its main pull is the Mall at Columbia, which began a period of rapid expansion in 2014. Hewing closer to James Rouse’s initial vision for a true town center, Howard County execs tapped GGP, Inc to build out a pedestrianized expansion, which opened to great fanfare.

An early plan for Columbia.

Across the way, however, there were stirrings of divergences from Rouse’s master plan, a rebellion of business activity spurred by – what else – local legislative decisions to loosen alcohol laws. A month before the Baltimore Sun covered the expansion at the Mall at Columbia, the paper covered a topic whose import would be more speedily and broadly felt in Columbia – “Your Guide to Howard County’s New Breweries”.

“The state,” wrote reporter Julekha Dash, “now allows breweries to sell pints and growlers of beer to take home. Before, breweries could only sell four sample beers that had to be consumed on-site. Howard County also modified its zoning regulations to allow breweries to operate in industrial areas, unleashing pent-up demand for craft brews.”

Would-be brewers and customers alike rejoiced, spawning a new industry in and around the planned community. Jailbreak Brewing was toed up on the starting line in 2013 and hence claimed first-in-the-county status; within a year, they had to double their square footage to accommodate demand, and by 2017, they were confident enough in their prospects to open an adjoining kitchen at a cost of $500,000. By that time, other breweries were joining the battle for craft-thirsty customers, and the market was hot enough for a whiskey distillery to enter, like Gustavus Adolphus striding into Breitenfeld atop a company of Swedish lancers, opening its doors late the year prior.

Breweries in Maryland, courtesy of the Brewers Association of Maryland. Howard County, home to Columbia, follows Baltimore City & County, Montgomery County, and the dynamo of Frederick County in brewery count.

Journalists and commentators remain curiously incurious on the source of the newfound millennial taste for craft beers. Recall the Fallows’ commentary on the importance of breweries for the future health of a city: “A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young (except for me) customers. You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.” But whence such interest?

Was it like the famous case of brussels sprouts, where actual changes to the germ line made them tastier? Or was it something else entirely, something uncaptured by changes to the DNA of hops, barley, wheat, or malt? Why would Anheuser, Busch, Coors and friends maintain a stranglehold on the whetting of American thirsts for a century and relinquish that grip the minute a hazy enough IPA entered the market?

Brussels Sprouts Mandela Effect
An all-time XKCD.

Reviewing a smattering of trade and trade-adjacent publications on the subject reveals that the institutional brewers themselves have no clue. I think the answer lies in mere timing. The millennial coming of age was different from the one experienced by our Generation X parents, for whom the essential 20th-century structures of American life remained in ganzen und größen in place: college, marriage, family, suburbs, etc. If revolutions (of any kind) are precipitated by the broken expectations of elites, there wasn’t much expectation-breaking on offer in either the Clinton boom years or the 9/11 years to seduce the young Gen X’ers away from their well-trodden paths.

The Great Recession changed that. The experience of our parents was an often ruinous one, but for young millennials, who had little to ruin, the experience was culturally freeing, a smashing of the conformity cemented into place by the Reagan revolution. Economic cataclysm may have even been the first actor in this drama – when incomes and career progressions were depressed enough to make family formation a less and less appealing option (especially in the eyes of the highly-educated cohort of millennial women), extended adolescence appeared as a matter of course. Twenty years of spendthrift television production shifting to the cities didn’t hurt, but there was now truly wider room for new tastes, a cosmopolitanism whose greatest expressions gave us Portland, OR and Williamsburg, NYC and Ballard, Seattle and Austin, TX, four cities whose common amenity would be hard to pick out if it weren’t so obvious: the ability to easily drink creatively concocted and marketed beers among similarly desirous young people.

I was walking in Denver’s River North Arts District, an exemplar of the kind of thing I’m talking about, when I realized that capital had caught on to this revolutionary trend in tastes fully. I stood in a reclaimed industrial space whose floorage had been parceled out to local artisans – jewelers, clothiers after an irreverent mold, rugmakers and knick-knack peddlers. A women’s World Cup final had just concluded, which meant that it was a simmering July heat which filled the air, the kind that primed my fellow twenty-something tourists to don e-scooters and see the city at a breezy, 15-mph eye level. Through the hot air pumped surgically chosen pop music and down the street waited four or five watering holes boasting food trucks and stouts and sour beers and farm-to-table whiskeys and in my mind I, examining without intent a crafty pen or paperweight, recognized for the first time that I was being pandered to. And I went on happily shopping and sipping and eating the whole rest of the day.

DENVER NEIGHBORHOOD SPOTLIGHT: RiNo (RIVER NORTH) ARTS DISTRICT — MEN'S VOWS
A shot of Our Mutual Friend in Denver’s RiNo district.

Brewers in Columbia caught hold of that trend in 2014 and haven’t looked back. In 2019, the Maryland Assembly voted to open yet more room for the expansion of the local craft beer industry. NPR, covering the changes, wryly remarked on the deeper history of beer in Maryland:

There’s something strangely ironic about the arbitrarily low cap on craft beer production and sales in Maryland, especially if we examine the state’s historic defiance to Prohibition. Maryland was the only state to resist all attempts by Congress to close off and dry up the flow of alcohol around the country. The city of Baltimore played a major role in the bootlegging era. Maryland’s moniker “The Free State” was born out of this insubordination.

One hundred years later, major shifts in Maryland’s political structure and leadership, coupled with the rapid growth and influence of the craft beer industry, have fueled the changes being seen today in the Free State.

– from “New Beer Laws In Maryland Mean More Craft Beer In More Places,” by Esther Ciammachilli, Dec 2019

The changes involved in that 2019 law are minor, procedural, but they are representative of the mood.

What does this expansion feel like, on the fingers of the would-be Yelp Elites and Google Local Guides? A better reportage than I could put together was given by the writer Nicole Dieker, who described for Vox in 2019 the experience of moving from Seattle back to Cedar Rapids, IA as “the best $5,929.10 [she] ever spent”.

I especially love, in a way that makes me laugh when I think about it, that I am currently living out my teenage dreams: the industrial-chic apartment, the coffee shops and literary festivals, the rehearsal rooms. I thought I’d have to leave the Midwest to find all that — but I only found my heart’s desire, to borrow from another famous Midwestern story, when I came back to my own backyard.

– from “The best $5,929.10 I ever spent: moving back to the Midwest,” by Nicole Dieker, Mar 2019

I find that similar feelings accrue when grabbing a growler of something delicious from Crooked Crab to share at home with my parents, to whom the taste of an IPA is alien. It’s a happy, urbane surprise resting on the back of titanic capital movements over the past decade, each of which conspired to attract and keep in Maryland its population of potent young people. It’s working.

Frederick, the Newly Millennial Town

Frederick, MD is growing new millennials at a rate double that of the rest of the state. From 2010 to 2018, the town’s stock of millennials increased by about a fifth, while Maryland’s grew only by about a tenth.

It’s worth stopping here to ask ourselves what we might expect the downstream impacts of a change like that to consist of a priori. What are the salient features of millennial life, and thus, by generalization, of millennial populations?

To start at the beginning, per the Institute for Family Studies, it was in 2018 that the proportion of US births by millennial women peaked – 88 out of every 100 new babies that year were born to millennial parents.

The cohort forming and expanding their families is in the market for good jobs to work at and comfortable places to live. And it was to the provision of those needs that the boosters of Frederick decided to devote their attention. The rewards are plain to see in the transformation of what was once a sleepy town far away from the main thoroughfares of the Northeast Megalopolis.

Frederick’s origins date back to 1745. Roger Taney, who decided Dred Scott, is buried in a cemetery downtown. The city was briefly the locus of the famous struggles by Abraham Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, as secessionist assemblymen fled the statehouse in Annapolis for the presumed securer site in Maryland’s northwest. The trick didn’t work, and Lincoln tossed them (and a sitting Congressman!) in jail as a consolation prize. But that was sort of the end of history for Frederick for a while – the town’s population wouldn’t crack 40,000 until 1990. In the thirty years since, however, the citizenship has nearly doubled again, for want of the sort of jobs attracted by Frederick’s peculiar brand of infrastructure.

Habeas Corpus Suspension Act | Civil War on the Western Border: The  Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865
The great Senator Thaddeus Stevens wrote Lincoln a law to go after quisling Maryland legislators who had holed up in Frederick.

Give credit to the town’s developers for being clear-eyed about where they came from: they admit, in an article titled “Why Frederick is Turning Investors’ Heads,” that their beloved burg has grown “from a sleepy small town to the second largest city in the State”. A powerful biomedical industry, powered by federal funds, has been key to this renovation.

Fort Detrick, a sprawling governmental campus lying in northern Frederick, is charged by the US Depts of Agriculture, Defense, Health & Human Services, Homeland Security, and Veterans’ Affairs with applying “biotechnology in pursuit of health protection and medical advances”. To that end, the Fort employs 10,000 highly educated professionals, by whose labor the successful operation of programs like the National Cancer Institute is achieved.

More to the point, Fort Detrick, which was founded in the 1930s and used to host the US’ biological warfare program, anchors a regional economy dense in biomedical and pharmaceutical businesses. AstraZeneca, ThermoFisher Scientific, and Kite Pharma are among the blue-chip pharma names demanding thousands more well-educated researchers in Frederick.

In this slide, the local economic development office of Frederick, MD, makes the case to investors that the city’s growth in ultra-desirous biomedical and pharmaceutical jobs will continue.

Among a certain stratum of economic and urban commentators, this is basically a dream scenario. “Biomedical” has been a watchword in urban (re)development for the length of the 21st century, the idea being that this subsector of the economy will be so powerful in its demand for just the perfect employees, so alluring in its capacity for installing an educated tax base, that would-be Austins and Portlands and Madisons would be foolish not to prioritize its needs in planning for the future.

Why 'Marge vs the Monorail' is the best ever episode of 'The Simpsons'
The hallowed potential of biomedical industrial growth was never too far away from resembling the salesmanship of Lyle Lanley, who convinced Springfield to buy a monorail in “Marge vs the Monorail”. Somehow, Frederick made good on this pipe dream.

Frederick is reaping the fruits of its investments in biomedical industrial development. High-value-added manufacturing and businesses of other adjacent subsectors are piling in as well, stoking the fire of economic growth, and, more importantly, bringing more millennials to town. Where to put them all?

Most of the answer lies in new construction. In 2018, the county’s housing stock grew more quickly than any other county in the state. Prices rose at a good clip too, growing 4% year on year. Most of this construction growth came from multifamily developments, a situation which local officials felt noteworthy enough to distinguish to the Frederick News-Post.

Brick Lane, a development company, pressed the trend further when they opened a new apartment complex, designated The Bottling Plant, in early 2020. The complex backs onto the grounds of Rose Hill Manor Park, where slaves once toiled on an estate dating to the 1790s. Its colorful name derives from the building’s former life as an actual bottling plant for Coca-Cola.

A precious crucible of growth, however, lay in older beams. Washingtonian looked at Frederick’s growth in 2016 and, in an otherwise thrillingly gossipy article, attributed it to older millennials returning to a cheap urban core ready for move-ins.

Today the city seems to have hit a cultural sweet spot, appealing to a mobile young workforce that puts a premium on quality of life—a 20-minute drive from the Appalachian Trail, the county also boasts a long network of bike paths. ‘Just look at how people want to live,’ says Gardner. ‘If you want a bikeable, walkable community connected to an urban core, the city of Frederick is the place to be.’

Walking Frederick on a summer weekend can give anyone struggling to keep a toehold in the District a case of rowhouse anxiety: A six-bedroom Civil War–era house with crown molding and hardwood floors recently sold for less than $300,000. ‘I’ve told friends from high school, “Come back or you’re going to miss it,”’ says Brennan Gmeiner, 25, who returned home after college to work for a financial-services company.

– from “Frederick Could Be an Urban Suburb of DC–Unless Its Good Ol’ Boy Past Gets in Its Way,” by Miranda Spivack, Sep 2016

Frederick and Columbia found a pathway towards small-town urban revitalization in appealing to millennial tastes. What lessons does this successful strategy offer to the rest of Maryland, and other similarly situated places in the US? Look out for the conclusion to this Local Note, and hopefully an answer to that question, in Part IV.

Triumph of the New Urbanism

It was in Fulton, MD, that a generation of Central Maryland band and orchestra students picked up their first instruments; there in that town could be found the only Music & Arts store for miles, the natural home for the rental of violins, clarinets, and, appropriately for your correspondent, trombones as well.

Image result for music and arts fulton md
An outpost of Music & Arts in Rockville, since the Fulton location is too parochial to merit good photos on the internet.

Music & Arts, for its part, was founded in 1952 by an enterprising Marylander of Bethesdan stock named Ben O’Brien; it never aspired to much more than East Coast expansion but, in 2005, was bought by Guitar Center, the national instrument retailer, who themselves filed for Chapter 11 protection from their creditors just in November of last year.

Guitar Center’s origin dates to 1959, when its founder, Wayne Mitchell, bought a home organ store, the Organ Center.
Sad!

Fulton, a western-lying drag along US Route 29, was apart from its instrument rentals distinguished mostly by the presence of a tremendous water tower, prominent in a very rural sense above the flow of cars pumping south from Columbia and north towards Baltimore. This is altogether to say that in Fulton very few people lived. Even in 2010, the Census could only find 2000 souls living in its borders.

The decade following 2010, however, brought dramatic changes in population growth to this southern slice of Howard County. The agent of that change was largely the developer Greenebaum Enterprises, who began work on the land that would become Maple Lawn, Fulton’s major development, all the way back in 1986. The development of 600 acres of lush, empty Howard County hillside into suburban sprawl became a long game; it was only in 2004 that the first homes in Maple Lawn were completed.

An artist’s rendering of the vision for Maple Lawn, as presented in a brochure. Who precisely the intended audience for this aerial drawing was, I cannot say.

That incubation period allowed a distinct architectural flavor to filter into the eventual developments at Maple Lawn, one which privileged narrow streets, a denser core, and walkable connections from residential neighborhoods to commercial developments. In this respect, Maple Lawn was emblematic and even quietly representative of the push towards the New Urbanism of the late aughts.

New Urbanism is a sort of architectural movement so privileged in the minds of its adherents as to deserve a Congress. The Congress of the New Urbanism, who do terrific work, describe their mission as one of championing “walkable urbanism”.

We provide resources, education, and technical assistance to create socially just, economically robust, environmentally resilient, and people centered places. We leverage New Urbanism’s unique integration of design and social principle to advance three key goals: to diversify neighborhoods, to design for climate change, and to legalize walkable places. We build places people love.

– from “Who We Are,” Congress of the New Urbanism, accessed 2/8/21 (emphasis original)

The core tenets of this architectural movement can only be understood in opposition to those which flourished in modern cities in the post-war period, the dreaded car-centric planning of new western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles and eastern renovations like urban renewal. Where a strain of modernist planning thought in the mid-century believed we’d all be happiest taking our cars from our residential zones to our office zones and in between to our commercial zones via highways of beton brut and rebar, the New Urbanism, by contrast, “focuses on human-scaled urban design” – “walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces”.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/sOaXfc9MuKc?start=535s&rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0

What’s tough about executing on the undeniably attractive elements of New Urbanist design is the extent to which its antagonist features are embedded within the developmental institutions of modern American life. Ask any urban planner on Twitter and you’ll be treated to a standard litany of curses: parking minimumsminimum lot sizes, setbacks, and the truly detested “neighborhood character” stipulations. Each of these are legalistic notions privileged by existing planning processes which serve to deter the kind of human-scaled urban design New Urbanists see as key to the healthier development of our cities and towns.

Therefore all the greater the surprise that a few of Central Maryland’s latest developments have managed to buck institutional constraints and densify construction, introducing New Urbanist principles into popular, well-traveled new builds along the way.

Case in point: in 2014, a developer named Federal Realty finished up work on one of their biggest projects, a 24-acre build-up known today as Pike and Rose. The new plaza was eventually to offer high-scale shopping and eating amenities in close quarters with high-rise urban construction – today REI and Target anchor a center self-identifying as the “premier destination for shopping, living, dining, and working in North Bethesda, MD”.

Bark Social is sort of the epitome of New Urbanist development – a walkable, pet-oriented, mixed-use, alcohol-forward, millennial-catering institution. Can’t wait to go!

Federal Realty broke ground on the development in 2004, contravening some traditional timelines of New Urbanist work as being entirely post-Recession; still, the Washington Post acknowledged in their review of the new center’s opening the debt it owed to the changing tastes of a generation:

If strip malls represent the zenith of the American love affair with the car, new walkable urban-suburban communities exemplify the new love of walking, biking, ride-sharing and relying on public transportation. The replacement of acres of parking lots and shops with ‘surban’ developments is more than a fad; it’s a re-imagination of how people prefer to live.

Transforming the former strip malls along Rockville Pike in North Bethesda into the Pike & Rose development may seem like a natural outgrowth of the contemporary taste for citylike neighborhoods, but Rockville-based developer Federal Realty Investment Trust, owner of the property since the 1980s, began planning the redevelopment more than a decade ago.

– from “Pike & Rose: A community grows on Rockville Pike,” by Michele Lerner, Oct 2017

Image result for pike and rose
The other benefit of New Urbanist development like Pike & Rose is that it comes out looking quite handsome, especially when surrounded as it is by low-lying mid-century strip malls.

Similar developments cropped up elsewhere around Montgomery County, most notably in Wheaton, MD. Previously distinguished by an escalator deemed the longest in the Western Hemisphere, Wheaton got some high-rise, high-density build of its own in 2013, when Patriot Realty united plans for the introduction of a new Safeway grocery store with the addition of 900 residential units into a 17-story megastructure towering over southern Maryland.

For natives and long-term residents of Central Maryland, the development of Wheaton ranks highest among the New Urbanist changes in terms of shock value. These are big buildings!

When developers tried to run the same play with Maple Lawn, they were met with consternation. A group of existing homeowners, fearful of what growth would bring, got together under the name Smart Growth Fulton to broadcast their grievances on a larger scale, a form of organization usually referred to by its critics as NIMBY-ism – that is, “not in my backyard”. In one of the worst justifications for opposing the project, Katherine Taylor, the lawyer representing the NIMBY interests in pre-build Fulton, got the Baltimore Sun to credibly quote her saying that somehow “high density [was] typically less environmentally friendly” (for the record, there is nothing less environmentally-friendly than single-family housing). The Iager family, stewards of hundreds of acres in the region since the Van Buren administration, beat Smart Growth Fulton’s challenges back in court and were finally able to rezone the land up to levels sufficient for actual development.

Fitting with the New Urbanist ethos, an early brochure for Maple Lawn boasted the goals of offering to residents “an eclectic mix of local, high-quality dining establishments, boutique shops and service retailers…without the congestion of traffic.” Maple Lawn’s residential architecture, freed from the minimum lot size requirements which breed a stultifying similarity among usual-build subdivisions, diversified rapidly. Among its most popular incarnations was the flavor of home construction led by Williamsburg Homes, who built “Victorian-looking townhouses and estate houses with mansard roofs reminiscent of Second Empire 19th-century France architecture”.

If I’m being perfectly honest here, I can’t detect any of the so-called Second Empire tradition. I appreciate their call-out all the same, though.

One Washington Post story was so enamored of Maple Lawn’s approach as to declare that “if it weren’t for the 21st-century sedans and minivans, the houses in the Howard County planned community of Maple Lawn could be mistaken for another era’s.”

More to the point, this radical shift in (sub)urban planning has yielded the communal benefits desired. Today, Maple Lawn – a community wholly non-existent before John Kerry’s presidential run – “hosts the Maryland HalfMarathon, a music festival in October, and a large street festival in July”. Shed your cynical lens a second and recognize in this kind of organizing the end, desired effect of higher-density building – that is, the disabusing of a pattern of thought present in the mentalities of many suburban dwellers, that living close to your neighbors was ever a bad thing.

No, I and those leading the New Urbanist wave in Maryland must say to that thinking – close quarters breed familiarity, friendliness, and, eventually, family out of sometime strangers. New Urbanism won its way into Maryland through the action of ideological partisans with points to prove about urban planning and zoning reform. It’ll win its place for good by the undeniable effects of its good government.

Links

Because it’s been so much Maryland to start at Local Notes, I wanted to share some of my favorite readings from the past few weeks on local goings-on around the world. Hopefully we’ll be able to visit some of these places in the near future and discuss them ourselves.

  1. The Squamish of Vancouver, BC, in possession of a prized satchel of downtown land, have decided to dramatically upzone their landholdings and build thousands of apartments in an area usually constricted by NIMBY interests to very limited new building. This is fantastic!
  2. A passel of local government actions seems to have mandated more residential construction over crisis-plagued California, from San Francisco to the South Bay and Beverly Hills to Santa Monica. Here’s hoping the groundswell for action continues in whatever form of gubernatorial administration endures into next year.
  3. Rep. Marcia Fudge is the Biden administration’s pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and this article from the unsurpassed CityLab presents some of her ideas for what she’d like to get done upon confirmation. If she can get even one of President Biden’s major initiatives passed, the result will be massively advantageous to the state of housing in this country. Here’s hoping!
  4. This Economist article is worth it for the description of would-be real-estate tycoons in Hegang, China, located in the deserted border zone with Russia, trying to flip new developments on the quick. If any readers of Local Notes have heard of Hegang prior to this article, please let me know – I’d be shocked.
  5. Not a Local Note, but a clip from the episode of Family Guy I watched after Patrick Mahomes got drubbed in the Super Bowl made me laugh, so I thought I’d share:

Until next time!

After “Vor dem Gesetz,” At Home, Oct ’20

He was sat in an obscure corner of the world, 
In Memphis (of late), and left alone to read
Obscure histories, of the fishing of sea-bream,
And grouper, of the proper ecological relations, 
Of sponge, tortoise, and the sunlight which scatters 
Thru the unlanc'd emeraldry of sea-skin,
Their holy bilayer. This curriculum 

Like most, went totally unfulfilled, unrepentant though he stayed 
Thereto. Power, charm, height were promised
Him at the outset of this, 
An odyssey in Aramaic, but the cashing-in thereof
Proved plus dificcile than expected,
And there is your general lesson. 

By whom were such promises forsworn, whose
Was the setting hand which him there
In prematurely (truly) aging Memphis him set?
Keen, but too late arrived. This door

Now shall close. For you alone stood it
Ajar and now nevermore shall its threshold
Suffer the calls of prostrating neighbors. 

Review: Peter Zeihan, “Disunited Nations”

If geopolitics ever found itself in need of a fabulist, it could do worse than to give Peter Zeihan a call. To be fair, geopolitics today does need a fabulist – one of the wittier passages in Zeihan’s recent book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, concerns the moment in 1990 or so when all notions of narrative were left by the wayside:

With the Soviet fall, American president George HW Bush sensed history calling. He used his unprecedented popularity in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the First Iraq War to launch a national conversation on what’s next. What do the American people want out of this new world? He openly discussed a New World Order, his personal goal being a ‘thousand points of light,’ a community of free nations striving to better the human condition in ways heretofore unimaginable. Bush’s background – he had previously served as vice president, budget chief, party chief, ambassador, House representative, and intelligence guru – made him the right person with the right skill set and the right connections and the right disposition in the right place in the right job at the right time.
So of course the Americans voted him out of office, and all serious talk of moving the Order onto newer footing for the new age, more relevant for the challenges and opportunities of the post-Cold War era, ceased.

Peter Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p. 14

Since that magical moment when the Wall fell, Zeihan argues, geopolitical thinking has cast about fruitlessly for a new framework to latch onto, foisting Thucydidean notions of rise and decline onto China and America, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Germany and Turkey. This, he holds, is foolish. “The Americans have changed their mind about their alliance and have turned sharply more insular,” he notes [emphasis original], contrasting the post-Soviet era to the period of hyperpower competition. The impact this disengagement will have is scarcely visible, yet of the utmost importance: “Without the global security the Americans guaranteed, global trade and global energy flows cannot continue.”

From this launching point Zeihan develops a global theory of novel national competition, assessing and assigning winners and losers country-by-country. His analysis is anchored in a startlingly broad reading of history and geography. Among his most admirable guiding notions is the one given above, namely that freedom of the seas eliminated the previously insuperable problems of food and energy security. Relieving these pressures enabled population growth in the Hejaz, economic integration in southeastern Brazil, and industrialization on the Pearl River Delta. Once the American guarantee is withdrawn, however, the fight for basic provisions will drive great powers to the brink.

Among the best determinants of success in a newly competitive world will be demographics, and Zeihan deftly weaves throughout an analysis of age and sex distributions to explain who will rise and who will fall. Another major factor is the degree of industrialization. The most industrialized countries with the healthiest demographic balances (lowest dependency ratio), Zeihan forecasts, will be the best equipped to handle the return of national competition. The final components of the success function are concerned with resource endowment and geography: proven reserves of oil and gas, fertile soil and navigable inland waterways all propel nations up his list. Most dramatically, a full reckoning of these factors leads Zeihan to anticipate a total breakdown of China as we know it.

Even as things stand today, Zeihan begins, China is militarily constrained by the First Island Chain, the set of landmasses including the Sakhalin Peninsula, the Japanese home islands, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and the Philippines. In the early modern period, following the pioneering missions of Zheng He, this geography was hostile enough to turn imperial China entirely inward, forestalling the development of a major ocean-going naval tradition.

China's Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower  - Yoshihara - 2012 - Asian Politics & Policy - Wiley Online Library
From Yoshihara, T. (2012), China’s Vision of Its Seascape: The First Island Chain and Chinese Seapower. Asian Politics & Policy, 4: 293-314.

Many of those conditions prevail today, preventing the Chinese from projecting force away from their eastern seaboard. Their contemporary attempts at the development of a large navy are mostly laughable, Zeihan assesses:

China is utterly incapable of shooting its way to resource security or export markets or a diversified domestic economy. Just as important, the country on the receiving end would not be the United States. The Americans are out of reach, and even a mild American counteraction against Chinese interests would utterly wreck everything that makes contemporary China functional.

Zeihan, p. 126

This is an old argument which holds up well – I myself was first taught it by Arthur Waldron at Penn. John Foster Dulles advanced it in the fifties.

Turn the clock forward past the end of the American guarantee, however, and Zeihan figures we’ll bear witness to the emergence of a new Warring States Period. He writes,

If the almost magical confluence of factors that enabled China’s rise shifts out of alignment, China will suffer a cataclysmic flameout every bit as impressive as its rise to power. And since those factors were always and still remain beyond China’s control, the question isn’t if, but when.

Zeihan, p. 103

China, he finds, simply got too old before it became sufficiently rich. “Demographically, China is in a state of not-so-slow-motion collapse,” he says. This, too, is an old and well-studied fear. What’s more, its riches are predicated on freedom of the seas and hyperglobalized capitalism, which will be the first casualties of the removal of the American guarantee. He even finds the potential for breakaway regionalism in Sichuan, in Tibet, in Xinjiang, and in Guangdong, leveraging arguments I found novel about the hushed-up discovery of oil in the Sichuan Basin.

BP, China's Top Producer to Develop Unconventional NatGas in Sichuan Basin  - Natural Gas Intelligence
Oil and gas in mainland China. Some attention is devoted to those deposits south of the Yangtze.

None of this is totally objectionable, even if it is sensationalistic. His bear China case counters some of the more pearl-clutching fussiness which has come out of intelligentsia publications like the London Review of Books of late. Zeihan’s other predictions, however, may beggar belief.

Sclerotic old Japan, he thinks, will prosper as the new East Asian hegemon. The Middle East from Tabriz to Kuwait is merely Turkey’s for the taking. Germany and Russia will enter a new period of intense and potentially hot conflict, leaving France to rule the rest of the continent, the Mediterranean, and West Africa. Brazil has peaked, as has Saudi. The real cheap buy is Argentina, which he bizarrely claims has “had a couple of decades to re-consolidate internally”.

Notably absent from this analysis are the minor states of India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. The utter blindness with respect to South and Southeast Asia is the book’s most obvious flaw. The reader is left to conjecture that, under Zeihan’s hypothetical assumptions, these countries devolve into mere poverty and irrelevancy, but it would be nice to see a mention thereof.

The next most obvious flaw comes out in Zeihan’s style, which I can only at the best of times describe as colorful. He is callous in reference to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, writing, “There is good reason Japan had to be nuked to be forced into surrender.”

He seems to delight in what will become of the Persian Gulf once the Saudis are left to fend for themselves against the Iranians and others, an arrangement which he holds as “the geopolitics of arson”: “In a straight-up land war, a coalition of the kids from Stranger Things and It would rip [the Saudis] apart…”

Discussing relations across the English Channel in the era to come, he writes, “Yet Britain is an experienced sea power that can apply diplomatic, economic, financial, and military pressure nearly anywhere it wants without fear of reprisal—and it has centuries of experience applying that pressure to Europe. Payback’s a bitch.”

He compares the governance of the Chinese Communist Party to “watching a game of drunken giant jenga,” and offers in this manner an assessment of China as a whole: “China fails on all counts. Allow me to detail the full unfurling fucking disaster.”

There’s no problem with a good dose of levity in world affairs: comparing the spending habits of the Greek economy pre-crisis to those of “a Saudi prince on Instagram” is well put. But prudence dictates restraint when discussing the Fat Boy and Little Man, and after 400 pages, his juvenile style grates even on the ears of your Twitter-obsessed reviewer.

Zeihan’s editors are also guilty of missing errors, both typographical and historical in nature. The most offending comes in one of Zeihan’s assertions regarding Turkish strength, which he explains through a kind of geographical impregnability. Couching this in the history of navigation, he writes,

Well-positioned locations that could also offer some semblance of security and shelter became crossroads. And Istanbul was the ultimate example of a secure crossroads…The city has fallen to hostile forces only twice in the past thousand years – once when the Crusaders sacked it in 1204, practically burning it to the ground, and again when the Turks conquered it somewhat more gently in 1453.

Zeihan, p. 267-9

This is incorrect: from 1918 to 1923, amid the end of the First World War and the raging of the Greco-Turkish War, the Entente held Constantinople. The Greeks, aided by the British, captured substantially all of eastern Anatolia, pushing the Turks to Ankara, which is where their capital remains today.

British forces at Karaköy port in 1919.

Other errors seem borne less of inaccuracy and more of an inadequately deep interpretation. About Germany, Zeihan writes, “For a point of reference, the whole Karl Marx and world wars thing was part and parcel of the German industrialization experience.” This is a minor beef, but Karl Marx did not live in Germany after 1849, when he was only about 30, and much of his writing was done in London.

About continuity, he writes, “The French have arguably the longest tradition of operating as a cohesive culture vis-à-vis their location of any people on Earth,” a statement I imagine would go unappreciated by the people of Tamil Nadu or the Yangtze River basin.

Zeihan commits a more lacunary error in discussing the Turks of the early modern period when he writes,

The sprawling [Turkish] empire became the largest on Earth of its time, and if a European coalition had not stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna during the Ottoman siege of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one power would have dominated all of Europe and all of the Middle East.

Zeihan, p. 269

I am as big a fan of Eugene of Savoy as the next guy, but especially given Zeihan’s focus on seapower, it’s surprising that the spotlight is given to Vienna and not Lepanto here, where in 1571 the Venetians at the height of their power began the rollback of Turkish Mediterranean gains.

The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese.jpeg
Veronese’s The Battle of Lepanto. Clearly he thought it was a big deal.

The typographical error I noticed is also minor, but funny to report: the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul is referred to as Mato Grosso do Sol, which I suppose should cheer the sunny dispositions of all two and a half million Sul-mato-grossenses.

A number of books I’ve read recently have engaged with many of the same issues. The human cost of the failure of marginal lands was a thrilling study in Geoff Parker’s Global Crisis. The national world tour made Gaston Dorren’s lively and lovely Babel a great read. The notion of the American guarantee as critical to geopolitical harmony is a core undercurrent of Adam Tooze’s magisterial The Deluge, while cool-headed reckoning with the fortunes and vagaries of demography was among the many strengths of Doug Saunders’ Maximum Canada. And lastly, the place of pride given to an analysis of international shipping was a powerful component of Pettis and Klein’s argument in Trade Wars Are Class Wars. That one book should fold all these elements in together is worthy of praise. More praise ought be given for the stance taken against the literature of the Thucydides Trap, exemplified by Graham Allison’s recent blockbuster Destined for War, to which Disunited Nations is most directly responding. Zeihan’s efforts help put those rather antiquated notions to bed.

And sometimes Zeihan can poignantly hit the nail on the head. He fits the word “thalassocracy” into a discussion of resurgent Japanese militarism. Reading contemporary French race relations against the American system, he writes,

In many ways, the French system takes the two types of racism most prevalent in the United States and applies the worst of both. In the American South, racism takes the form of, ‘We will mingle, but we are not equal.’ In the American North, it is in the vein of, ‘We are equal, but we will not mingle.’ In France, the targets of racism are out of sight and out of mind, consigned to ghettos and at the back of the line as regards government services.

Zeihan, p. 217

But in the end, this book is a mess. Zeihan is a writer who privileges animation at the cost of sober study, whose search after contrarianism yields unsupportable conclusions. I found it revealing that the first person named in his acknowledgements is a hedge fund manager. (I won’t mention just how silly it is to write “…there are very few direct [footnotes] in this book…if I cited every obliquely contributing thought, each page would have a book’s worth of citations.”)

While I’m sure the people of NMS Capital are smart as they come, hedge funders are structurally contrarian – there’d be no reason for their clients to pay them fees otherwise. This kind of thinking is well applied to small-scale medium-term subjects, like looking for mispricings in sovereign debt curves, but less so in the evolution of literally planetwide systems. I’ll applaud Peter Zeihan for attempting to handicap a future radically different from the boring fare on usual offer at Foreign Affairs and The Economist, but bold attempts do not great books automatically make.

Three Movies about Memphis, and the Death of Place in Recent American Cinema

I have been overthinking recently about place in movies, specifically American movies, and more specifically about the death of place in American movies. By what means was cinematic place killed? By my reckoning, it was the overweening dominance achieved of late by just two places, New York and Los Angeles, which have come in the cinema of today to stand in for all of the geographic diversity of vaguely urban American life.

I am as guilty as the filmmakers I malign – NY and LA are the two cities I have (thus far) decided to make my vaguely urban American life in. And while I understand my path to be typical of my generation’s trek back to the city, from which our parents and grandparents fled with such rapidity in the heady high modernist days of urban renewal and interstate highways, that typicality does not excuse the duty of cinema to show life in all its forms. This duty is being prorogued, and what we have instead upon us is a deluge of mediocre visions of boho-artistic or high-achieving life in inner ring Brooklyn or in Silver Lake, visions whose production costs swallow up all the air from the rest of the goings-on around the country.

(As an aside, the slimness of the novelties of this latest round of urbanization are noteworthy: when the teeming southern Europeans came, they built Pittsburgh and Cleveland and St Louis and Milwaukee. When the Sunbelt rose, Phoenix and Dallas and Houston and Los Angeles and San Diego were called into being out of nothing. What have we accomplished, with our aesthetics of gentrification? The Manhattanization of Austin? Of Boulder or Colorado Springs? Seattle? Maybe Boise will be our great legacy.) (As a second footnote, is Kate Wagner our first great millennial architecture critic? I think so.)

So as to be not totally unfair, I want to acknowledge the countless recent movies which take as their subject an unsung city. Lady Bird aches for Sacramento, even as the action of the film eventually takes its heroine away to Manhattan.

Lady Bird': Here's what the reviews are saying about Greta Gerwig's film |  The Sacramento Bee
From Lady Bird, dir: Greta Gerwig, 2017.

Last Black Man in San Francisco is deeply wedded to its eponymous setting, its other shortcomings notwithstanding.

Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on The Last Black Man in San Francisco | by  Nell Minow | Medium
From The Last Black Man in San Francisco, dir: Joe Talbot, 2019.

Silver Linings Playbook and Creed bring us back to Philadelphia, for which we have to be always grateful.

Historical Philadelphia Comes to Life in Silver Linings Playbook |  MovieLoci.com
From Silver Linings Playbook, dir: David O. Russell, 2012.

But the reader will note the easy parallel among all those movies – they are essentially fugues for the cities they depict, weepily elegiac for their long dead glories. Perhaps the only truly celebratory new take was Baby Driver‘s, which did not shrug away from an clear eyed vision of 2010s metro Atlanta.

10 things about Atlanta that Baby Driver got wrong - Atlanta Magazine
From Baby Driver, dir: Edgar Wright, 2017.

Instead we are besieged by visions of the twin coastal megalopoleis. Marriage Story is a bad offender in this trend but more symptom than cause. Funnily, it may have been another Baumbach feature, Frances Ha, that paved the way instead.

Another blaring symptom is given by Joker, so rooted in New York as to unblinkingly feature a whole scene on the Metro-North regional railroad. The shift in superhero depiction from the Gotham-cum-Chicago setting of The Dark Knight to the ebullient Queens-iness of Joker is a good illustration of the boot on our necks. Ebert touched on the placelessness of Dark Knight in his review, in 2008:

The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue.

Roger Ebert, “The Dark Knight,” July 2008

(And as to the assignation of blame? The Avengers, naturally, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with it. I think you can practically pick out Doctor Strange‘s Upper West Side apartment from the street signs.)

Doctor Strange: What His Apartment Says About The Character
From Doctor Strange, dir: Scott Derrickson, 2016.

Are there other movies besides comings-of-age and superhero films? Few, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood fits the bill. Despite centering on a character who rather prominently lived in Pittsburgh, the film is at least half set in the alleyways of Manhattan! Lulu Wang’s lovely, lovely The Farewell cannot shake the trend, nor can Uncut Gems. I will note that a common thread here is the semi-autobiographical nature of these movies, many of which are from young directors. This applies for Greta Gerwig as well as Lulu Wang and the Brothers Safdie. Baumbach, too, is a New Yorker by birth.

But this begs the question of why so many stories from New Yorkers are being privileged in film to the exclusion of stories about anywhere else. The Coens deserve commendation here – hailing from St Louis Park, they set Fargo and A Serious Man in their backyard. Moreover, they take on American regionalism with real zeal: their Western movies (Raising Arizona, less Buster Scruggs and True Grit) care about the West. O Brother Where Art Thou is inextricably Southern. And their NY/LA movies deal handily with their settings as well, whether the monumental studio lots of Hail Caesar or the cramped clubs of Greenwich Village in Llewyn Davis. It’s great stuff! (Is Kelly Reichardt the next one up in the regionalist film tradition? Maybe so, maybe so.)

What is it that we’ve lost? The ancien régime I long for is mostly represented by the filmography of John Hughes, which I spent this month watching in part. Of course, Ferris Bueller may be the greatest movie to sing the city in which it makes its scene, but all the rest of his movies quiver with a peculiar Chicagoland energy which we have lost. These are worlds which stitch between on the one hand, Michigan Ave and the El, and on the other, the leafy courts of Winnetka and Glen Ellyn. Families at work and at school and at home are represented, a far cry from the strange undomesticated childlessness which predominates in today’s films on New York. Pretty in Pink‘s country club and record store and high school are all easily slotted into the viewer’s mental model of the complete community on display.

How to Have a Ferris Bueller Kind of Day in Chicago | Condé Nast Traveler
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, dir: John Hughes, 1986.

When we only tell decline-and-fall stories about the whole of the country wedged between the Hudson and the Aqueduct, we do a disservice to the perpetuation of the national community. I was set off on this rant by seeing an ad for a recent animated TV series, Central Park. It concerns a park conservator and stars Hamilton luminaries like Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr and veterans like Kathryn Hahn and Stanley Tucci. Apple outbid Netflix and Hulu for the rights to develop it. Fred Armisen guest stars in two separate roles. It is also about the fifth-largest park in New York City.

Kristen Bell to No Longer Voice Mixed-Race Character in 'Central Park' -  Variety
Promotional image for Central Park.

Where are the quirky animated shows about Zilker Park, or Rock Creek Park, or Balboa Park? Who would not sing for Seattle’s Gasworks, or the Power and Light in Kansas City?

At any rate, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him, and want instead of bemoaning our modern cinema to highlight the different approaches towards one city – Memphis – taken by a set of films. I was turned onto Jim Jarmusch by Richard Brody’s June 2019 review of The Dead Don’t Die, and recently got the chance to watch his 1989 film, Mystery Train. Mystery Train‘s lovely conceit of foreigners visiting Memphis propels the story across an anthology in three chapters.

Mystery Train Is A Memphis Pilgrimage You Must Make : Trunkworthy
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

The first third, featuring a young Elvis-obsessed Japanese couple, luxuriates in its alienness. The perpetually mean-mugging boy smokes cigarettes and pomades his hair from the train station to Sun Studios to the mysterious hotel at the center of the film. His poor girlfriend helps him lug their suitcase with a makeshift bamboo handle around the city, arguing about which rock n’ roller was best. They have sweet moments holed up in the hotel – the boy likes to take pictures of the hotel rooms they stay in, because those are the parts he won’t remember, the girl lights his cigarettes and paints him with lipstick.

The latter stories are less compelling, but the hotel’s employees who recur are keenly felt. A fidgety bellhop in misfit uniform tries to carry on a conversation with the laconic manager, played by a massive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in an even louder red suit. All told, Mystery Train exposes us to the daily experience of life in a place whose time has passed, but through fresh eyes, unleavened by the common narratives we as Memphis-adjacent American viewers internalize.

Mystery Train (1989)
From Mystery Train, dir: Jim Jarmusch, 1989.

I do have to wonder if at the time of release the idea was as preposterous as it is today. Jarmusch cannot, of course, show a bustling town up on its toes, full of industry – even his Memphis is hollowed out – but in 1989, Elvis was only a dozen years dead. Imagine someone making a movie like this about Detroit, set as we are today nearly a decade from its legendary municipal Chapter 9 filing. What dissonances would arise in the minds of American viewers?

The other two films are more mainstream. John Grisham’s legal thrillers first hit the screen with 1993’s The Firm, where Sydney Pollack guided a red-hot Tom Cruise from Harvard to Memphis. Four years later, Francis Ford Coppola played a variation on that theme, breaking out Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor for The Rainmaker.

Review – The Rainmaker (1997, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)
Danny Devito and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker, dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1997.

Of the two, Rainmaker is more soulful, with a heartfelt story of an underdog seeking justice against a family wronged by a health insurance giant. Rainmaker‘s story resonates even a quarter-century later, testament to the paralysis of our politics. That Donny Ray, the sick young man whose case Baylor takes on, dies halfway through the movie is a heartrending development, but one deftly parlayed into raising the stakes of the more standard courtroom drama which follows. Claire Danes sparkles throughout, even if the violent scene between Baylor, Danes’ Kelly Riker, and her abusive husband beggars some disbelief. In truth, the many plot threads never come quite so neatly together, because there’s too much going on – we haven’t even addressed the FBI raiding Mickey Rourke’s office – but the whole thing works.

I don’t think Rainmaker overly cares about being set in Memphis, but it pays effective lip service – Baylor graduates from Memphis law in the first scene, and the Rays’ house, where sick young Donny is mostly confined, is appropriately Upper South. By contrast, The Firm goes full bore into being a Memphis movie. It gives all the flashy landmark shots you could want. Cruise’s Mitch McDeere and his wife Abby, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, are early on paraded through a lush patrician party set atop the Peabody Hotel. A critical sequence towards the end takes place on a funny piece of public transit, the Mud Island Monorail. There’s really effective contrast drawn between McDeere’s life in a cramped Boston tenement and the amply-acred Tennessee house he’s set up with once the action gets going.

The Firm at The Peabody Memphis - filming location
Tom Cruise and Hal Holbrook in The Firm, dir: Sydney Pollack, 1993.

The Firm is a giddy hook of a movie, which pulls you along somewhat breathlessly. An incredible performance by Gary Busey at the start of the second act winds the movie into its whodunnit phase, and while each and every one of McDeere’s machinations to stop the bad guys weren’t perfectly clear to me, the climactic scene between him and a fresh-off-Goodfellas Paul Sorvino delivers a scrumptious finale.

How to weigh these movies against each other? Perhaps we can take an archaeological approach and excavate the class relations each of these movies plays with. Mystery Train concerns itself with showing the ordinariness of life in a hallowed city – its characters are hotel managers, convenience store owners, tour guides, diner employees. Rainmaker is sympathetic to the lower class but occupies itself with the halls of power, and Rudy Baylor is successful insofar as he transcends his lower-class status and beats the moneyed interests in their own arena. The Firm could have said “greed is good” – there are offhand remarks about Mitch McDeere’s family poverty, but it’s unimportant, and the rewards to the work Bendini, Lambert, & Locke perform occupy the bulk of the movie. The battle in the movie is over the discovery of those gains being ill-gotten, not about the morality of the affluence in the first place.

What’s more, I don’t think The Firm has a single black character. Mere demographics usually present a hollow argument, but the population of Memphis today is undeniably 65% black. Rainmaker at least features a stellar (and uncredited!) Danny Glover as the sympathetic judge, while Mystery Train is replete with black figures making their way in the city. This is, I believe, a rather disqualifying assessment for Pollack’s movie, and Coppola’s Rainmaker scarcely better. Hopefully the next Memphis flick will do better.