I was delighted last week to be able to spend time in A Coruña, a seaside city in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern–most province. Galicia has long suffered from a dearth of attention, especially in comparison to Spain’s nearly mythic Mediterranean coast, from Barcelona on down; and despite lying just 100mi from the border with Portugal, A Coruña did not receive the bump in attention paid to Porto, Lisbon, and the Algarve when travel to the Lusophone Atlantic coast of Iberia came into vogue.
With this post, then, I’m going to try and make amends. This will be a by-the-books travel guide to A Coruña, including how to get there, where to stay, and what to do while you’re there. I had a blast with my time and I think you will too.
A Coruña lies in the northwest of Galicia, itself the northwest of Spain. Together with its suburbs, the city boasts a total population of about 400,000 – in US terms, its size is comparable to that of Asheville, NC, Santa Barbara, CA, or even Anchorage, AK.
Its weather and environs hew much more closely to the cities of the Pacific Northwest, which is why in the subhed I called it “Spain’s Portland” (and I mean Portland, OR); it’s intermittently rainy and cloudy a lot of the time, but rarely stormy or snowy, and heat in summer is softened by the breeze from the ocean.
Much of the city lies on a peninsula which extends into a leeward bay known as the Ría da Coruña – opposite the city across the bay lies Ferrol, once an important shipbuilding town. The Ría da Coruña is exemplary of the geography of littoral Galicia, with the verdant coastal land rising rather steeply and irregularly from sea level to form the surrounding hills and dales. Rías like this can be found elsewhere in the world – they are basically the same as Scandinavian fjords, with quibbles over whether glacier action carved the landscape – but were named for the first time on the Galician coast.
If population totals don’t mean much to you, I’ll add that the city feels bigger in terms of geography and smaller in terms of population than it seems. Taking in the sights required several 20k+ step count days, but in my time there I ran into a few repeat customers, including one lovely doña who introduced her 17-year-old dog and informed me it was her cat’s birthday the next Sunday, then showed me a picture of said birthday when I saw her at the cafe Monday.
The city’s name – A Coruña – may look odd to those familiar with Spanish, but that is because it is given in Galician, a Spanish dialect closer to Portuguese. To get its name in Spanish, simply switch the A for La. Since the democratic transition, the government in Galicia has promoted the use of their dialect, also called gallego. However, this should not be cause for alarm on the traveler’s part: everyone in the city speaks perfectly normal (and very clear, I thought) Castilian Spanish, and almost everyone speaks better English than your Spanish anyway.
A glance at the map of Europe, suitably adjusted to jolt our cognitive geography, is sufficient to stress that Atlantic Europe is a cohesive region. Its many promontories and peninsulas are linked by the ocean, while the flooded valleys of its ria coastlines provide sheltered waters reaching deep inland. The great rivers of France and Iberia flowing westwards into the ocean are arteries of communication binding huge swathes of inland territory to the littoral zone.
Cunliffe, The Celts
Cunliffe focuses on Atlantic Europe as the natural homeland of the Celts, an ancient people who lived down from the Algarve in Portugal through Galicia and French Bordeaux and Brittany all the way up to Ireland and Wales. This ancient cross-European cultural continuity gets some play in Galicia today – souvenir shops sell emblems and necklaces with goofy “Celtic symbols” to tourists – but the region’s Celtic roots are much less important to its history than what came after.
What – or rather who – came after was Julius Caesar and the Romans. Caesar came to A Coruña in 62 BC and established trade in iron with France and England around the Bay of Biscay, a pattern of intercultural communication which would repeat endlessly through Galician history. In the second century, Roman imperial administrators under Trajan or somelike set about building a nice big lighthouse at the end of the peninsula of Coruña – this is the Tower of Hercules, which stands today and is therefore the oldest extant lighthouse in the world.
After Rome, A Coruña’s status as a rich and well-connected coastal city opened it up for intermittent invasion by the Vikings, while its Romano-Iberian neighbors to the south fell eventually to the great conquest of Al-Andalus perpetrated by the Umayyads.
By the early 800s the kings of Asturias had reestablished a beachhead of Christian rule in northern Spain, including Galicia. Then around 814, Alfonso II (there would be eleven more Alfonsos ruling Spain) learned that some peasants had found bones supposedly belonging to Saint James the Greater, one of Jesus’ Apostles. Seizing upon the opportunity to up his status as a defender of Christendom, Alfonso II affirmed the identity of the remains and declared that a great cathedral be built on its site – this became the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the pilgrimage to it the Camino de Santiago.
While Coruña was not the ultimate destination of the Camino, the Camino changed it as well. Pilgrims on the Camino came from all Christendom as part of a large network of pilgrimages active in the High Middle Ages – Ken Follett’s indescribably popular 1989 novel, The Pillars of the Earth, dramatizes this well in one of its later chapters. But most of those pilgrims ended up coming from France, and the development of the overland routes of travel through northern Spain influenced Coruña and Galicia greatly. Monasteries sprouted up all over Galicia and grew rich and powerful from the income of the pilgrims; the monks began to grow wine, leading to the division of varietals handed down to us today.
The resumption of cross-cultural communication in Galicia in the High Middle Ages would deal a nasty sting to the region as we turn to the early modern; the Black Death arrived in Iberia at Galicia, via those Biscay-based water routes established by the Romans. But for all the suffering the Galicians survived in the 1400s, the birth of empire in the 1500s led to better times. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, built their Royal Audiencia in Coruña, and their successor Carlos I (Charles V to his subjects in the Holy Roman Empire) established one of his Casas de la Contratación in the city as well, this one devoted to the spice trade.
The Spanish Armada departed from Ferrol in 1588. After that lucky storm wrecked it, Francis Drake raided Coruña in retribution in 1589, but was repelled thanks in part to the efforts of a brave woman known as Maria Pita, whose name adorns the city’s main square today.
When Napoleon invaded Spain in the Peninsular Wars, the Coruñeros fought back again, this time aided by the British. The 1809 Battle of Corunna was a Dunkirk moment 130 years before the one we know today in Normandy took place, as 26,000 British troops out of an expeditionary force of 35,000 escaped back to their ships in the Bay of Biscay. Sir John Moore, commander of the British forces in Spain, was wounded and died in Coruña; the Jardin San Carlos in the city’s Marina is devoted to him.
Fast forwarding a bit more, Francisco Franco was born in Ferrol in 1892. He would go on to lead the Right in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, after which he would rule Spain singlehandedly for 36 more years. Franco took as his country home the Pazo de Meirás in the hills outside Coruña; oddly enough, that specific home had previously belonged to one of Spain’s most celebrated modern novelists, Emilia Pardo Bazan, who was born there into a noble Coruñero family in 1851.
After the transition to democracy, Galicia was promoted to the status of autonomous community, making it co-equal to Catalonia, Andalusia, the Basque Country, etc. The local government has since promoted the use of Galician, which is why you’ll see it on signs and hear it on the street occasionally.
Inditex dominates the region’s economy. Its headquarters, in rural Arteixo, employs 5,000 designers who are shuttled out from the city daily. You can’t go more than a couple blocks without seeing one Inditex store or another, including its crown jewel, the Zara flagship, which lies at the intersection of the Calle de Sanchez Bregua and the Calle Compostela, one block from the ocean.
Zara brought modernity and industry to the city, attracting designers and models from all over the world, who went on to demand big-city amenities. Couture boutiques like Iamnue Store sprung up in its wake, as did fine dining of various cuisines, helping diversify the Galician diet away from its traditional reliance on mariscos.
This novel modernity has made A Coruña a very lively place. Professionals of all stripes walk its streets and crowd its bars alongside Erasmus students from across Europe. If there’s a baby bust plaguing modern Spain, you couldn’t tell by looking at Coruña – almost every young couple I saw had a baby in tow, and the playground of the Plaza Pontevedra in the city center was filled daily with shouts of playing kids.
Life is good in A Coruña, which also engenders a certain chill among its inhabitants. People were very happy indeed to spend their days at big restaurant tables, taking cañas of Estrella Galicia or bumming out on their lovely beaches like Riazor or Santa Caterina. For travelers more accustomed to the haughty monuments of Madrid or the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast, A Coruña’s different pace of life has a lot to offer.
A Coruña has a small airport with mostly-daily flights to Madrid and Barcelona – according to Expedia, you can even get there from London-Gatwick.
If you’ve got the time, though, take the train. There are about 5 daily trains from Madrid’s Chamartin Station to Coruña via Renfe, the national rail operator. The journey takes 5-6 hours and lets you soak in the varied geography of Spain while also going through other Galician cities like Ourense and Santiago.
Sights to See
Large, pedestrian neighborhood entirely paved by cobblestones and hemmed in by tall townhouses which emerge occasionally into breathtakingly peaceful courtyards. Reminiscent of Venice in its breadth – you could spend your entire stay here.
Plaza Maria Pita
Large broad plaza at the narrow northern end of the isthmus, home to the Royal Audiencia established by the Catholic Monarchs. The statue at middle commemorates Maria Pita, a Coruñera who assisted in the defense of the city against the marauding British under the command of Francis Drake.
The best place in the city to see examples of A Coruña’s characteristic architectural motif – the galerias, facade-wide bay windows which imitate the aft walls of large galleys.
Beach on the western side of the isthmus, facing the ocean. At low tide quite rocky, but no less beautiful.
Monte San Pedro
Large park on the hilltop to the southwest of city center – can be accessed via taxi or via a cool funicular which takes you to a big observatory. Great restaurant up there too.
Tower of Hercules
Already mentioned, but site of the oldest extant lighthouse in the world, built by the Romans in the early part of the first millennium. Lovely park surrounding it, with the compass rose of the Celts and a statue of a Celtic king.
Home to Real Club Deportivo La Coruña, the city’s soccer team, which plays currently in the fourth league. At one time (2005) they were actually good enough to win La Liga championship, but people love them regardless and I’m sure catching a game there would be a tremendous experience.
Estrella Galicia Museum
The Museo Estrella Galicia (MEGA) is a baffling thing – an absolute corporate narcissism and meticulously detailed and curated museum of the history of beer at the same time. At one point, a theme park ride puts you inside a vat of barley as you become hops. The 25 euro ticket is worth it for all the free beer at the end, but this is a long tour.
The Museo de las Bellas Artes da Coruña was very well-equipped, with a great selection of portraits from the 16th century up to the modern era. Also had a lovely collection just of Goya sketches. Other museums focus on Pablo Picasso, who spent his adolescence in the city.
The Colegiata de Santa María del Campo, located behind Plaza Maria Pita, dates back to the 12th century, which is sort of incredible in its own right. Otherwise go for the Parroquia de San Jorge, which is about 100 years younger.
Eating and Drinking
As an addendum to this section, I’ve put all these great bars and restaurants in a Google Map, available for viewing here.
Bakeries, cafes and fruterías
Every block in A Coruña has its own bakery and its own frutería. While there are supermarkets, people rely on these local shops for their fresh goods, and how fresh they are. Upscale bakeries like Tahona offer truly scrumptious treats with the Scandinavian industrial-chic design affectation a New York-based traveler might already be homesick for.
Cab drivers in Madrid on the way to the train will tell you to eat the seafood in Galicia, and they’re not wrong. All of it’s good, but try taking the little tapas camarones at Os Tigres on Calle Galera. Very lovely.
Like I said earlier, there are a lot of kids and students in A Coruña, and they will absolutely mob bars along Calle Juan Canalejo basically every night of the week. Bars tend to close at 1am but there are clubs, lines for which you’ll see begin to form as the street-fronts close up.
Coruñeros shop for clothes like Americans shop for gadgets – when in Rome, do as the Romans and go shopping!
Definitely try the Inditex complex – any of the several Zaras, the Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, and Bershkas available in city center all fantastic.
Boutiques in city center are great as well, and it’s fun shopping at the David in the relationship when Goliath is worth 100bn Euros.
It’s worth heading for Marineda City, the giant mall built on the city outskirts in 2011. If you’re dying for it, they’ve got the region’s only McDonalds and Starbucks.
Coruñeros also prioritize chilling
Siesta is pretty well-adhered to most days – don’t try and go shopping or out to eat between 2pm and 5pm
Plaza Pontevedra always has kids screaming and skateboarding thanks to the Colegio which fronts it. Otherwise, Plaza Maria Pita is gorgeous, as are the Plaza de Galicia and Plaza de España. For a nice day trip, try going to Santa Cristina Beach in Oleiros.
Heading west from Santa Rosa, CA, out along the Russian River, there runs thirty miles of charming, bucolic country: a thick canopy of trees and hills and small towns with names like Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio, Jenner. Eventually, the canopy thins, the sea comes and you can go no more west, so follow the road and turn north – what will then open before you is the Sonoma Coast, an area of unbelievable beauty. Describing its vistas defies the words normally used for this kind of thing – dramatic, yes; stunning, yes; but even more than that, jarring and vertiginous and almost deadly.
New Deal funds led to the construction of a highway along the seaside in 1933. When I drove on it this summer, the good people of the California Dept of Transportation were hard at work shoring up its asphalt against the encroaching seaside. But long before these roads were laid down, before prospectors struck gold and before San Francisco became the Paris of the Pacific, a different, almost alien set of eyes took in the sight of this beautiful coastline – Russian ones.
In 1812, a shipful of Russians landed at an inlet they named Rumiantsev Bay, in honor of the empire’s Minister of Commerce at the time, the Count Rumiantsev, and founded an agricultural settlement they named Fort Ross. The expedition’s leader was one Ivan Kuskov, previously a paper-pusher at the Russian-American Company, the startup enterprise given royal imprimatur in 1799 to fortify the Russian presence in what was rapidly becoming a race between Britain, Spain, and the sixteen-year-old USA for control of northwestern North America.
(I will take the time here to note that my little note about Russian colonization of Northern California is not designed to downplay the lives and experiences of Native peoples who lived in the area before, during, and after the Russian presence. The presence of imperial Russian traders in California is notable for their complete foreignness, both then and now, as well as the ways in which they tried to make up for that foreignness. However, I would be not doing my part if I didn’t mention that there were large and active indigenous populations in these regions all along.)
Even before the Tsar’s ukase of 1799, Russians had crossed the Bering Strait in explorations mostly aimed after the economic object of nearly all tsarist expansion from time immemorial – fur pelts. From Ivan the Terrible on down, each tsar in turn sought more virgin forest to harvest yet more furs from the chicest of sources – beavers, sea-otters, sables, ermines, and even squirrels. This long process of Russian eastern expansion suffers from underdiscussion in the broader history of European colonization – although it never involved daring man-o-wars crossing oceans to find new shores, to the Siberians they encountered, the tsarist troops and profiteers were unstoppable marauders, forging their way with cannon and musket in a marshy semi-tundra whose sparse native populations, be they Tatar, Kirgiz, Samoyed, or Yakut, had before mostly concerned themselves with fighting each other.
By the turn of the 18th century, imperial boots were planted firmly in what we still today call the Russian Far East, and so it was that in 1725, Peter the Great asked for his bravest sailors to test the waters east of Kamchatka for whatever fur-growing mammals might be found in the land across the strait. A few shipwrecks later, Russian traders had figured it out and were engaged in a brisk business from a port like Kamchatka or Okhotsk to the Alaskan mainland and the Aleutian islands and back. According to Gibson, one successful summer’s hunt for pelts in the Aleutians could net between 10,000 and 30,000 rubles, doubling the money invested to outfit the expedition.
The capacity for such profit sparked a fur rush of sorts, with hundreds of voyages being launched from the middle of the century on. This had predictably tragic environmental consequences – otters were extinct in the Kuril Islands by 1780, and fading fast from the Aleutians by the next decade. In order to impose some discipline on the crush of trappers headed across the Bering, the Tsarina Catherine granted the first state licenses for otter hunting in the late 1780s, a system which was updated by her successor, Paul I, in his 1799 edict forming the Russian-American Company, which won the right to a strict monopoly on fur trading and bore the responsibility of creating more substantial settlements in North America.
Paul’s decision to grant the monopoly to the RAC represented a break from previous Russian imperial strategy and also marked the introduction of a dynamic form of corporate management – the joint-stock company. This new corporate form allowed individual shareholders the right to invest capital and own separate chunks of the business, as well as transfer those shares freely without impacting the existence or operations of the company. What’s more, early practitioners of the joint-stock form figured out they could limit their liability to only capital invested, a development which essentially turned them into modern corporations as we understand them today. And although the Dutch and British had had wildly successful joint-stock companies operating colonial enterprises since the early 1600s, most notably in their respective East India Companies, Russian exploration had for two centuries neither birthed nor adopted the same organizational model.
When they finally did, it allowed them to focus. Under the leadership of A.A. Baranov, the RAC founded two settlements, Pavlovskaya and Novo Arkhangelsk, which became the modern day cities of Kodiak and Sitka. After receiving intelligence that there were long stretches of the California coast to their south unoccupied by other imperial powers, Baranov dispatched his lieutenant, Kuskov, with instructions to leave some plaques claiming the land for the Tsar and also to set up camp and do some settling.
Walking the well-maintained grounds (thanks, CA Parks & Rec) of Kuskov’s krepost’, I found myself wondering what these outcast Russians must’ve thought about the new landscape they found themselves in. Homesickness is written into the very planks of the structures they built – one of the most striking details at the amply sized fort is the small Orthodox cross hewn in soggy oak standing atop the church.
Only the higher-ups and visitors actually stayed within the fort walls – most other Russians lived in smaller houses just outside the fort, while the indigenous Kashaya people who were more populous and integral members of fort life lived in another village a short distance to the south.
What did these people do all day? For starters, they didn’t actually end up hunting much fur – beaver and otter populations plummeted too quickly wherever the Russian trappers went to set up a real business. By 1834, the RAC’s leadership was so desperate to save something of their founding livelihood that they called for a twelve-year moratorium on all fur trapping and thereafter imposed a strict quota system.
Instead, the colonists at Fort Ross turned their attention towards other economic activity – Kuskov was a gifted gardener, and established farms of grain and barley with minimal success, but also of grapes, peaches, and pears which were modestly more successful. The Russians figured out ranching as well, grazing herds all the way down the bay to where modern-day road-trippers like myself make the turn out from Jenner onto the coast. They even tried their hand at shipbuilding, assembling California’s first windmill as part of a semi-industrial effort. This fizzed out after only a few attempts.
Truth be told, it seems that the Russians at Fort Ross, and especially the RAC higher-ups there, spent most of their time waiting for company resupply ships and thinking of life back home. A French visitor in 1828, A.B. Duhaut-Cilly, noted astutely that, “In the apartment of the governor are found all the conveniences valued by Europeans but still unknown in California.”
The possessions and house of Alexander Rotchev, the Fort’s last administrator, are still at the Fort today and in them you can see the truth of Duhaut-Cilly’s observation. Rotchev and his family spared no expense in attempting to live on the Sonoma Coast like the genteel Europeans they thought themselves to be – they kept a score of Mozart on the piano at all times.
Like any discerning Europeans of their time, the fort’s higher-ups investigated their California surroundings with a scientific eye. The first vaccinations in California were reportedly done at the fort in 1821. The reports of one Captain Golovnin’s stay at the Fort in 1818 include the first written mention of the native population intentionally burning large grasslands to inhibit future wildfires. Yegor Chernykh, a rancher at the Fort, kept systematic weather records for the first time beginning in 1837. Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii, a friend of Chernykh’s, left for a surveying trip in 1841 which led him eventually up the Sacramento River to the door of one unassuming miller named John Sutter.
Inattentive, however, to the pioneering exploits of their scientists in California, the Russian-American Company had decided by 1840 to call time on their outpost at Fort Ross. None of their attempts in hunting, farming, or industry had ever panned out, and by the late 1830s, they were spending some 40,000 rubles per year just to keep the colony afloat. Rotchev, the administrator, asked around if any of the surrounding great powers were interested in taking over for the Russians; when both the British and Mexicans declined, he went up the river and knocked on Mr. Sutter’s door himself. After 30 years of trying, Tsarist Russia unceremoniously sold away its most distant outpost in North America to a miller better remembered today for the gold others found on his property and the rush it inspired. Rotchev and his patrician family got onto the same boat as the other hundred or so farmers, ranchers, and would-be shipworkers who called Fort Ross home and sailed for RAC headquarters at Sitka. Russian California was no more; before another 30 years were out, Russian America would be gone too, sold to the American government at William Seward’s request in 1867 for $7 million.
What can we learn from the Russians’ experience in California? Plenty, not least of which the important lesson that for all the incalculable transformation wrought by other colonial enterprises around the world, we have to remember that none of them were ever sure things, and indeed very many of them did fail. I wrote my senior thesis about another, earlier attempt by a German banking family to establish a pearl fishing colony in Venezuela – that one ended with everyone dying in the jungle, either from horrible disease or a machete to the head, so the Rotchev family was probably better off having just taken the long boat ride up to Alaska.
Another lesson is the variance in interactions between colonists and indigenous peoples: the cossacks who conquered Siberia swept over unprepared peoples with ease, while Baranov was a butcher of a colonist, slaughtering native Alaskans and building Sitka on the bones of a Tlingit town. By contrast, it seems that the colonists at Fort Ross like Kuskov and Rotchev worked hard to maintain cordial and mutually respectful relations with the Kashaya and other groups of indigenous people in the area. Some sources claim the indigenous groups even played their own imperial politics, preferring the Russian approach to the heavy-handed Spanish, and balancing one against the other.
Lastly, we can’t forget about the environmental impacts of extractionary colonial economies – those extinct Kuril Islands otters aren’t coming back – but nor should we pat ourselves too much on the back, lest we think we’ve got all the answers. The RAC tried moratoria and quotas beginning nearly 200 years ago. It will likely take more than that to save our fish.
Fort Ross is today an interesting curiosity and a great state park lying on one of the prettiest stretches of coastline on the planet, but for a quarter-century it was the nexus of imperial hopes and worries from Moscow to Sitka and including London, Washington, Paris, and Mexico City. Not bad, I say, in the end for a bunch of promyshlenniki.
The writer Michael Hobbes had an excellent thread on housing and homelessness the other day:
As Hobbes continues to say, “Every American city that sees a boom in incomes and employment also sees a spike in homelessness. Our deranged housing policy has made equitable urban growth a thing of the past.”
The relationship is indeed causal. The poster children for the current housing crisis in America are precisely those cities where high amenity construction and an influx of college-educated workers has not been followed by sufficient homebuilding – San Francisco, Boston, New York and Austin; to a lesser extent Los Angeles and Seattle too. With no other alternatives, these new high-income workers bid up the existing housing stock – this is the gentrification process – and research by Zillow has found that future increases in homelessness is well-predicted by what comes next, i.e, increases in average rent. While the natural solution to an increase in the demand for housing in a place is to increase the supply for housing in that place, the issue has instead festered and spawned a kaleidoscope of groups all pushing their own solutions, each with a worse tradeoff than the last.
In a classic case of strange bedfellows, some NIMBYs and pro-homeless activists have pointed out that in fact there is no housing crisis, since the national housing stock is more than capable of housing the unhoused, with there being more vacant homes than homeless people. This is true, but subject to an obvious critique: since extra houses in Detroit can’t be moved to Culver City, the only option remaining is to move some of the people out of the crowded cities into these extra homes. And while there are thoughtful approaches to this (like pursuing geographic redistribution as a tool of federal policy), more often than not proponents of this approach end up advocating for a deep and modern form of segregation.
As it happens, the mismatch of homes and jobs is not a uniquely American problem. China, amid its stomach churning rise to middle-income, has been groaning under the weight of a similar problem for decades. I want to compare the restrictions on mobility imposed by local control of zoning in the US with the top-down system used in China – the hukou, which is a form of census and identification strategy that maps each Chinese citizen to a region and determines their eligibility for legal residence in other regions. Obviously, hukou is a rather more domineering way to control the movement of a population. But the effects of local control of zoning are no less severe; rather remarkably, the natural whims of homeowners in Marin County and the Upper West Side have come to align with the technocrats at the CCP.
“Getting to Denmark”
First some accounting: every population on Earth has become more urban since the Industrial Revolution, but the Americans (beginning in the 1850s) and the Chinese (beginning in the 1970s) were really good at it.
It was only by 1920 that the US would become a majority-urban nation; today about 80% of Americans live in cities. The late 20th C. suburbanization is evident to see in the below chart as a break in trend, as is the great return of the millennials to cities after 2008; to a first approximation, however, it’s easy to see that urbanization followed a linear trend up for several decades before slowing at higher levels.
The Chinese have taken a much more volatile path to urbanization.
In 1949, the Communist Party took power in a country that counted 60 million urban residents, a mere spearhead compared to the 450 million living in the countryside.
Early on, they established the hukou, or “household registration” system, a tool of the command economy designed to help the party manage the vast Chinese population. Hukou were used to designate where residents would receive government benefits, like healthcare, schooling for their kids, and work eligibility. They came in two flavors, rural and urban, and while changes to hukou status were nominally allowed, in practice they were exceedingly rare: maybe something like 1% of all rural holders could have converted to urban status each year.
Even after the death of Mao and up through the 80s, modern megalopoli like the Pearl River Delta were agricultural, still covered in “rice paddies and water buffalo,” as one urban studies scholar puts it. Shenzhen changed all that. Amid the raft of economic reforms which opened up special economic zones from 1979 onwards was a crack in the armor of hukou that allowed for rural merchants to legally bring their business to cities distinct from their own.
Further reforms in 1992 would open more benefits and a form of legal residency to migrant laborers in a few cities; yet more reforms in the early aughts would finally tear down the rural-urban distinction, replacing it instead with a “regional” hukou. Those reforms have basically worked:
By the mid-2000s, poor farmers in the Chongqing hinterlands had it well within their rights to cast down their plows and pick up factory tools – but only in Chongqing. They couldn’t leave behind the farm as easily for one of the dynamos like Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing. And therein lay the rub.
Between countries, within countries
While overall urbanization stats tell a simple story, they hide the changes in mix between cities which has attained a greater salience today. Put another way, like the UN does in 75-year report on Inequality, “Income inequality between countries has improved, yet income inequality within countries has become worse.”
The below chart illustrates this well – taking the per capita personal income of the top 100 combined statistical areas in the US, we observe that the playing field has become much less equal. In 1969, the median CSA had personal income only 25% lower than the peak, in that year oddly enough represented by Reno, NV. In 2019, the median CSA had a personal income nearly 50% lower than the Bay Area’s.
This development has important implications for individual behavior and the study of urbanization more broadly. If, say, rural productivity in 1969 was equal to an index of 25 on the chart, then even someone moving to the poorest CSA at that time – New Orleans, LA – could have expected to nearly triple their personal income.
By contrast, say rural productivity was again at 25 for 2019, then someone moving to the 100th-richest CSA, Lexington KY, would only expect to double their income. That 2019 mover has to get all the way to Minneapolis to triple their income like the person who moved to the Big Easy in 1969.
Put simply, while the returns to urbanization were rather uniform in the mid-century, the distribution has skewed in our day. All urbanization is no longer created equal and the restrictions which prevent workers from moving to San Jose and Seattle and NYC and Boston are a club to the kneecap of broader American growth.
Two clever economists advanced this argument a few years ago and did the legwork too; they found that the increase in GDP from ending restrictive housing regulations and allowing greater mobility was astronomical – from 1964-2009, the total increase in GDP would’ve been +36% higher than it was in reality, worth an extra $3.4tn in 09 dollars (Hsieh & Moretti, the authors of that study, corrected an error caught by the economist Bryan Caplan, which had actually underestimated the theorized effects by something like $2tn dollars!).
Of course, for all this to work you have to believe that the increase in income inequality between cities has actually come along with a decrease in mobility to those rich cities. But that does seem to be the case – as above, we noted that these richest cities are ground zero for the housing crisis, places where housing costs are so high not only as to deter all the potential newcomers who don’t have FAANG RSUs as part of their compensation, but also to actually evict present residents!
The real economists have weighed in on this for a while too – the impacts of lower mobility are at the core of Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class. Davis & Haltiwanger (2014) found rates of job relocation fell by a quarter going into the 90s, while Molloy et al. (2011) declared internal migration to be at a 30-year low.
If that’s not enough for you, Brookings laid it out cleanly in a 2018 note called “Americans aren’t moving to economic opportunity” – more than half of migration out of “low vitality” counties was destined for other “low vitality” counties, and only 13% of migration from lowest vitality counties made it to highest vitality counties.
The Chinese economy has been no less susceptible to this phenomenon. The mid-aughts hukou reforms which got rid of the urban/rural split brought in new dividing lines, this time in the form of regional boundaries. This has caused its own chafing issues as poor rural residents want the gains from income possible in Shenzhen & Beijing and impossible in their local tier 3 urban area. Filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, who have made it out to the coastal superstar cities, pay testament to these inequities – the lives of a group of miners in remote Shanxi province are depicted in A Touch of Sin as being all sound and fury, bitter cold and hard labor for meager wages.
It’s no wonder that, as The Economist found in 2020, the smallest Chinese cities are actually seeing their hukou-compliant populations fall. Rural hukou holders have a certain “reservation” status, similar to job-seekers in a labor market, below which they will prefer to retain their rural status and forgo the social benefits of registration in the city in which they work. Xi Jinping, who wrote as a student about tinkering with hukou, has pushed a new initiative to spruce up these smaller towns and cities, with little word back on success.
Hukou today, as The Economist has it, is a game of three tiers: you’d love to but can’t get into Shanghai and Beijing, you’re ok with and can get into Chengdu and Xi’an, and you don’t even want to get into small cities like Dawan or Wuwei.
NIMBYism on the Pacific Rim
Nowadays the arguments for keeping strong hukou distinctions are weaker than ever. Faced with four years of Trumpian jousting, COVID-19, and a burgeoning demographic crisis, the party under Xi has been more and more active in tinkering with the rules and allowing for more migration, a strategy once referred to as adding a “new engine for the slowing economy”.
Where opponents of liberalization usually stake their claims is in arguments about the cost of providing for all those newcomers. In a very telling discussion, Fei-Ling Wang, a professor at Georgia Tech, describes the modern pressures on the reform camp:
Resistance to any proposed major reform now, ironically, comes from the urban people – not ironically, but expectedly I guess – and not necessarily from government planners. Government planners are hoping to speed up urbanization even in large cities so the economy can get a new driving force. However, urban officials, the local cadres, see this as compromising their current privilege. They see the rural folks as coming in to share their fruits. The urban-rural difference in China is horrendous – living standard, income, education, medical service, you name it. This great gap really makes the urban folks feel they are privileged and wonder why they should share the scarce resources with country folk. The local officials also worry about it [hukou reform], as it may get local people really angry or create a management issue.
There we have it – Chinese NIMBYism made flesh. What in the end distinguishes the ideas of those who were there first, either in China or the US, from those who would like only the chance to share in the fruits of high-productivity economies? Very little, except for a commitment to keeping the rest of us all a little poorer.
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 policyimpacts, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Amid a helter-skelter spurred by a poorly designed iPad app, Pete Buttigieg claimed an uncertain victory in the Iowa caucuses and punched his eventual ticket to the top of the Department of Transportation, which spends more in a year than Mitsubishi, Goldman Sachs, Cisco, or Pepsi earn in sales.
Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s embattled Secretary of State, made his staff recount the votes in the 2020 election by hand, a savvy bit of political theater which led to only the minutest change in the final margin of victory, as all recounts do.
Memes and forum-level jousting about the timing of ballot dumps in Michigan led, among other things, to a Trumpist insurrectionary siege of the Capitol just six weeks ago.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Reviewing a smattering of trade and trade-adjacentpublicationson 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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)
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 minimums, minimum 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”.
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
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.
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 Sunto 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.