Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reinventing America's Cities

Some have asserted that today's economic situation presents an opportunity to reformulate the usual means with which the country's infrastructure is paid for and the focus of the improvements. The very physical structure of our country may again need to be shifted. Indeed, there is no doubt that the way things worked last decade is now outdated. As stated by Richard Florida in the article I linked below,

But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America’s tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix—that is, with housing and suburbanization—the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what’s produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.

Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.

But that was then; the economy is different now...

Along these lines, the NYT ran this fascinating article outlining some visions for reinventing the city in America. Using four examples, in New Orleans, Buffalo, LA, and the Bronx, ideas for rebuilding, reformulating, and reinvigorating our cities are examined. Using good planning and smart design, these changes can not only bring rejuvenation to an individual city, but collectively to our country.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The U.S. Economy Does Not Exist

So says the headline on this short snippet describing a study that claims,

The United States is not a single unified economy nor even a breakdown of 50 state economies. Instead, the country's 100 largest metropolitan regions are the real drivers of economic activity, generating two-thirds of the nation's jobs and three-quarters of its output. The sooner we reorient federal economic policies to support this "MetroNation," the quicker we can fix the mess we're in.

It's an intriguing idea, and one that actually makes sense. Chicago, for instance, would be the world's 18th largest economy if it were a country, right after Turkey and before Sweden. And with the economic climate the way it is, there is little doubt that the 'crisis' will affect different metropolitan areas in varying ways.

Richard Florida examined this idea in a fascinating article called How the Crash Will Reshape America. He observes,
The crash of 2008 continues to reverberate loudly nationwide—destroying jobs, bankrupting businesses, and displacing homeowners. But already, it has damaged some places much more severely than others. On the other side of the crisis, America’s economic landscape will look very different than it does today. What fate will the coming years hold for New York, Charlotte, Detroit, Las Vegas? Will the suburbs be ineffably changed? Which cities and regions can come back strong? And which will never come back at all?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Our Past

I've spent some time over the past few years working on my genealogy. It's fun, but definitely some work. No matter who we are, I'm pretty sure most of us have some pretty interesting stories in our families' past. Part of the fun tracking down our ancestors is learning their stories.

Since I have some of that interest, I had a soft spot for this fantastic story that ties together a family's immigration story and Chicago.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Iceland Melts Down

Michael Lewis has written a fantastic article documenting the downfall of Iceland's financial system. I fully expect this piece to be in his upcoming book, and it is well worth reading to further understand the global interactions that led to the place we've come to.

He observes,
An entire nation without immediate experience or even distant memory of high finance had gazed upon the example of Wall Street and said, “We can do that.”

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Abandoned Real Estate

One of the byproducts of the big real estate slowdown is that many homes and buildings for which the owners can no longer afford payment are being foreclosed upon. Subsequently, they are abandoned. There's probably no more visible display of the downturn than neighborhoods filled with empty buildings.

Mint's blog has done a great job documenting some of these locations in this post. Kind of eery, really. And for a more extensive treatment of the issue, this weekend's NYT magazine features an article on the abandoned homes problem in Cleveland by one of my favorite authors, Alex Kotlowitz.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Robinson Crusoe

Did you know Robinson Crusoe was based on a real man?

Generations of children have been spellbound by Robinson Crusoe's exploits, but few are aware of the real-life figure who inspired the classic. Now, 300 years after he left his island prison, scientists have pieced together how the real Crusoe managed to survive.

Meet Alexander Selkirk.

Monday, March 02, 2009


As you can see at the right, I'm currently reading a book called King Leopold's Ghost. It's a fantastic and educational book telling of the genocide around the turn of last century in what today is Congo. The chilling stories and abuse are heartwrenching even today.

And it becomes even moreso when we see evidence today of the continuing suffering the people of this region are experiencing. The excellent blog, The Big Picture, has documented over the last few months some of the difficulties there.

Entry #1 (the most moving picture to me-- #19)

Entry #2 (#4 and #5)

Entry #3 (#33)