Tag Archives: urbanism

Crossroads

28 Aug

So often the places we visit become fixed in our minds in a certain instant. No matter how often I go back to them, I’ll associate Madison with early childhood, Washington D.C. with college, Minneapolis with grad school; I see Mexico City is a 20-year-old, and New York as a teenager. There’s an exception to the rule, though: I go to Chicago often enough, and for diverse enough reasons, that I see the city through different eyes, over and over again. It’s home to one side of my family, a tourist and business destination, and a waystation on journeys across the country. I’ve never lived there and likely never will, but Chicago has become a central city within my life, a crossroads for travels both literal and metaphorical.

As a young child, Chicago was a frequent destination for family visits and cultural enrichment, and one of the few places outside of Minnesota or Wisconsin my family ever went unless someone else was paying. My early elementary school writings included a memorable lament about the traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway. I also have fond memories of the city’s excellent museums the view from the top of the then-Sears Tower when it was the tallest building in the world. (The Willis Tower, somehow diminished with a new name that accompanied the decline of its former namesake, no longer cracks a worldwide top 20.) As a child, Chicago was big, gaudy, and also a bit scary. I remember my parents always switching drivers at the Elgin toll on I-90 because my dad, who otherwise did all the driving, wanted nothing to do with Chicago traffic. I also recall my parents locking the doors and rolling up the windows even as we drove through certain neighborhoods, something we sure as hell didn’t need to do in Duluth or in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

Later, the trips into the mess of the city decreased, or at least seemed to in my mind; our visits instead came to consist of long meanders by car through suburban subdivisions, an exercise that always left me exhausted and peevish. Perhaps my inner urban planner was born on these journeys. These annoyances found their counterbalance in baseball, my favorite teenage diversion. The bleachers at Wrigley were always the highlight of any trip to Chicago, where I somehow always managed to catch memorable games, like the 90-some degree game with the Mets that at the time set the record for longest nine-inning game, Roger Clemens’ failed crack at a 300th win, or the game in which the Cubs lost when a ball bounced off the top of Aramis Ramirez’s head. But I’d settle for the White Sox as well, and this most recent visit reminded me what a delight it is to be in a place that actually cares about one of my favorite sports. (Sorry, Twins fans: the difference in passion is night and day.)

In my undergraduate days, I’d often have a layover in Chicago as I made my Amtrak journey from Minnesota to DC and back. Sometimes I’d try to connect with family or high school friends who went to college in the Windy City, but sometimes I’d just wander it myself, meander down to Buckingham Fountain or pass out on an outdoor bench beside the Art Institute. In this era, another side of the city opened up to me: hangouts in Wicker Park or Pilsen, those neighborhoods that were once ethnic enclaves but are now getting overwhelmed by those awful young white professionals who like elaborate food and urban living. And as I came to recognize the importance of family in my own life, the allure of the strong ties I have in that city pushed aside any grumpiness over long drives.

My urban planning education painted Chicago in a completely different light. Machine politics, racism that sometimes called worse than that in the South, Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green: the hubris that stuffing poor people like sardines into projects would somehow improve their condition, and the perhaps even greater conceit that knocking down all those projects with no follow-up plan would somehow make it all better. Chicago is perhaps the most American of cities, emblematic of both remarkable wealth and beauty and misery and squalor, all living side by side. Nowadays, its politics of the past century look more like a predictor of the future instead of some relic from a bygone era.

On my most recent visit, I came on business for the first time, and had a window into Chicago as the financial capital of the Midwest. I marched down downtown streets in a suit, the capable guide for those in my traveling party less familiar with the city. I passed through security checks and up elevators in towers with magnificent views, and schmoozed in a box at a baseball game and over dinners and drinks paid for by other people’s corporate cards. Suddenly, Chicago was a world of opportunity that put old Duluth to shame. As I basked along the Riverwalk during a break between meetings, I was consumed by a rush of rightness, a sense that I’d made it that I hadn’t felt since my early days at Georgetown. An insatiable ambition was, momentarily, appeased.

I know I tend to come off as a diehard Duluthian, of being as deeply committed to my city as anything in my life. But it would be a lie to say I don’t waver, and waver often. Part of me could be very happy in Chicago, and at my core I’m probably more at ease in Logan Square or Oak Park than I am in small towns. But I am, maybe paradoxically, most content in a place where I can easily inhabit both extremes, and any number of places in between. I experience the world far too vividly to cut off any edges in pursuit of comfort. I’m a lover of cities and people, but they are still just one side of a whole. The hellacious traffic, lack of topography, and relative lack of green space in Chicago—or even relatively convenient escapes to large areas of green space—would grate on me in time. And while I have family there, my connections for work purposes aren’t exactly robust.

But the visits to Chicago will continue, with three more slated for this year alone. It will continue to inspire, confound, and shed new light on different stages of life. It will always be a home away from home.

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The Case for Small Cities

30 Dec

Many talented people around my age or slightly younger are drawn to large cities. It only makes sense: they’re interesting places filled with interesting people, with easy access to cultural amenities and excitement that just don’t come around in suburbia or small towns. I’m skeptical that this supposed millennial “back to the city” movement will endure once my generation (or, rather, the highly educated fraction of my generation) starts having kids en masse, and even now, suburban growth still outpaces urban growth. I’m certainly not going to rain on the progress made in cities in recent years, many of which have enjoyed renewed life after decades of declining populations and disinvestment.

I am, however, going to make a case for the cities that I think are the best for young adults. These are what we might call the second tier cities: metropolitan areas between 100,000 and 500,000 people; places that stand alone as their own functioning economies, but will never capture the national imagination of our biggest cities. They may not be as glamorous, but the opportunities they provide young people are second to none. They are also the cities that need injections of smart, talented young people who can carry them forward and keep them thriving. Big cities will have that no matter what, but these smaller cities can face more complicated futures, and their ability to adapt to the 21st century economy could well make or break this country: are its benefits confined to a few scattered enclaves, or can it reach across the country and include these supposed flyover towns that have suddenly become a source of political angst?

And so I will make my case for smaller cities, as someone who has just gone home to a small city after spending six of the past eight in large cities. The target audience here is well-educated white-collar millennials, but I think these can be tweaked to apply to other groups, too. Here are 12 things they have to offer that larger cities don’t:

  1. The cost of living is much lower. Sure, the starting pay also may be lower, but the overall financial picture often works out well. My savings in rent alone since coming to Duluth are probably equal to about $3,000-$5,000 in annual salary compared to Minneapolis; if I were in DC or New York or San Francisco, we might be talking tens of thousands of dollars.
  2. Commute time: nonexistent. Do I really need to elaborate? I live a few miles from work, yet it literally takes me longer to walk from my car to the office than it does to drive from home to the place where I park. The savings in time and mental anguish are remarkable.
  3. Access to positions of influence is significantly easier. In a few locations, good old boys’ networks can act as gatekeepers, but for the most part, anyone who wants an in can have it. Most of these cities love seeing fresh young blood come in to serve in leadership positions. For the politically inclined, reasonably talented people can win elections in their 20s, and don’t need to raise tons of money to do it. Provide some basic initiative, and you’ll be well on your way.
  4. As one gets older, those interesting things about cities that drew one in at the start become less important. Good restaurants, cultural opportunities, big dating pools…most people come to have less time or need to explore these things as they age, and as other family-related commitments arise. A small city will still have enough of these to keep most people going, too; don’t underestimate the amount of creativity a small place can produce.
  5. Speaking of family commitments, smaller cities are great places to raise kids. Access to reasonably good schools doesn’t cost an arm and a leg in real estate, and even the bottom end of educational options is probably a lot higher than in most big cities. Sure, the top end might not provide the easy pipeline to elite colleges that you see in wealthy suburbs, but if a kid comes from a strong home environment, the sky is still the limit. Factor in family-friendly neighborhoods, where crime and speeding traffic are negligible concerns, and it all adds up to a pleasant home life without trying very hard. Moreover, these places are small enough that even “wealthy” schools will give kids access to a fairly broad socioeconomic range. There’s much less of a bubble effect when everyone is thrown in together.
  6. Access to nature is so much easier. You need not be a tree-hugging hippie or a backwoodsman to appreciate this: free space means clean air and escapes from crowds and their annoyances, and facilitates everything from an adventure in the wilderness to an easy drive along picturesque country roads. This is refreshing for everyone.
  7. In smaller cities, it’s much easier to escape political or social bubbles. Even if the city itself may be a bit of an island, it’s probably surrounded by something else, and again, things are small enough that you’ll have some interaction with everyone. This may not always be fun, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on in several different swaths of the country. It’s hard to do that in the suburbs, and even in a large city with lots of surface level diversity, it’s very easy to cloister oneself, intentionally or not, and only interact with like-minded people.
  8. You can do more for the place you live, immediately. The utility of adding a talented new person to a small city is much greater than adding a new one to a metropolitan area. Being one of twenty people with an Ivy League degree in your small city provides way more influence than the 1,000th in a large one. Band enough of these people together, and you’ve got yourself a movement. A small core of committed people can completely turn the tide for an entire city. (Sidebar: not every local leader needs to go off to some elite school. It’s valuable to have some who do, so as to provide perspective, but it’s equally valuable to have some lifers who really get all the details. People who have seen the outside world are conversant in a common language and culture that’s useful in dealing with national issues, but credentials from distant schools say nothing about a person’s professional or political talents, or ability to harness them.)
  9. If you start a career in a smaller place, you’re highly unlikely to be pigeon-holed into one task or job function. You’ll probably be in an office that’s small enough that forces you to take on a variety of tasks, some of which will probably get you out of your comfort zone and make for a great learning experience. Jobs are far less likely to be “safe,” and that’s an excellent thing for résumé development, and generally just for enjoying one’s job.
  10. At the same time, though, people in smaller cities value work-life balance. There are no 100-hour-a-week slavish jobs here, unless you enjoy it so much that this is what you actually want to do. And if that is what you want to do, people will probably respect that.
  11. People like stories of converts or prodigal children, and anyone who can make that outsider’s case for a place is going to be compelling to outside audiences. Small cities need this so as to make their appeal clear to people who aren’t already singing along with the choir. Move to one of these places and accept it as it is, and you’ll have a chance to be its champion. Big cities don’t need such champions; inertia provides this on its own. But in choosing to take a different path, you instantly become a leader of sorts.
  12. You get to say you are actually “from” somewhere, instead of pretending that your suburban childhood connects you with a larger center city that you visited only for sports and museums when growing up. Sure, there are some mild quirks that separate most middle-to-upper-end suburbs, but for all intents and purposes, they’re the same. People may not know what it means when you say you’re from Duluth, but you do, and other people who are also from Duluth get it. If you value a sense of place, that’s huge.

I won’t pretend it’s all easy. Moving to a smaller city takes a conscious rejection of the easy trends for most young people, which push them to familiar networks and the largest paychecks. If you’re not from a place, it can take a little while to break in. And yes, the dating pool really is smaller. (Sigh.) But there is so much wealth to be found here, and these cities are practically begging for ambitious young people to sweep in and leave their mark. Take the jump. It’s worth it.

Orfield v. Goetz

12 Apr

The University of Minnesota is the home to two high-profile housing scholars who are highly articulate, impassioned advocates, and hate each other’s guts. In one corner of the great housing debate is Ed Goetz, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and head of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. His sparring partner is Myron Orfield, a law professor who served in state congress for twelve years who heads the U of M’s Center on Race and Policy. I’m the sort of person who can be entertained by high academic drama, so I’ve spent a chunk of the past year exploring their dispute, from participating in an abortive effort to get them to debate in person to settling for taking both of their classes at once. Today, Goetz’s class finally fleshed out their debate in full, giving me a chance to be accused of being a “closet integrationist,” among other things. (We were assigned sides, and being myself, I was trolling pretty hard.)

In its simplest form, the Orfield-Goetz debate boils down to this: Orfield’s acolytes believe that the most effective way to create opportunity for low-income populations and people of color is to scatter more affordable housing throughout a metropolitan area.  An agenda of full-scale desegregation is the most effective way to improve educational and economic outcomes, and policies that further concentrate low-income people in center cities or declining suburbs only reinforce cycles of poverty. Goetz’s backers, while not opposed to scattered-site housing, believe it is overly paternalistic to speak of moving black people to white neighborhoods so that they can benefit from living around white people. Goetz claims there is an affordable housing crisis in all parts of cities, and that we can’t be too picky about the siting; abandoning work in currently distressed areas will only make them worse.

The main point of contention appears to be Orfield’s treatment of community development corporations and other affordable housing developers that do the bulk of their work in already distressed areas. He calls out these developers for perpetuating inequalities, marshaling social science data to show the clear improved outcomes for low-income individuals living in “neighborhoods of opportunity.” Goetz counters by noting the extreme political obstacles to desegregation, a lack of evidence demonstrating success when programs are implemented, and the troubles left behind when investment pulls out of areas that are already struggling. He also questions the data and methods Orfield uses to arrive at his conclusions.

I can posture easily on either side, and it’s easy to toss about charges of racism or segregationism here and there. In this blog post, however, you’re stuck with me, so you’re going to get an unsatisfying and complicated answer. In writing this, I’m making some gross over-simplifications to reflect general perspectives in a debate; both scholars are considerably more complicated than this. Goetz in particular seems to appreciate a good argument wherever it comes from, and just finds Orfield’s lacking.

Orfield is something of a persona non grata in the urban planning program, but I’m still glad I sought out his class this semester, and doubt my planner colleagues would be as dismissive of him if they heard his in-person pitch. His perspective is a unique one, and he brings in new dimensions, such as schools. Urban planning, for reasons I do not entirely understand, rarely discusses education policy, and yet it is perhaps the biggest driver of residential choice out there. Case in point: both Orfield and Goetz, along with a whole host of U of M academics, live in Southwest Minneapolis, the one corner of the city with strong public schools. As someone who spends a little too much time over-thinking how I’ll handle this sort of decision when I have kids of my own, I can’t fault them at all. One’s own children are often where ideals go to die.

Goetz won’t dispute education’s potential, though the two can wrangle over the details. Still, one of the most striking things about this argument is the amount of common ground that these two share. Both seem to have fairly similar politics, are well-versed in the major literature and court cases around the issue, and infuse plenty of nuance into their arguments. They know housing policy doesn’t operate in isolation. In their debates, they tend to agree on 95 percent of things. And yet somehow that other five percent has become deeply personal, to the point that they won’t appear on stage together.

Both make the argument that the other side wants to limit choice, with the Orfield vision forcing people out into suburbs they may not want to live in and the Goetz version preventing people from any access to the potential perks of higher-income communities. (Neither one will work alone; both acknowledge this.) Both views appear overly idealistic in their own way, as Orfield puts his faith in the glacial tide of Fair Housing Act enforcement to create meaningful anti-segregation measures, while Goetz’s side would like to think that investment in long-suffering neighborhoods will somehow flip trends that have seemed so intractable for so long. (Fair points on both sides.)

Goetz’s most powerful counterpoint to Orfield’s skepticism of focus on already distressed areas has its roots in history: the current situation in inner cities is the direct result of decades of disinvestment, both public and private, and pushing people to leave will only further the decline. These places aren’t going away, and people will continue to live there. The only response here is deeply cynical: how can anyone in the housing world, knowing what has happened over time, trust that politics won’t continue to reinforce these divides? Better to hedge one’s bets and build things where wealthy white people will continue to live, as these areas will continue to do well, say Orfield’s people. The courts, at least, can push through a pro-integration agenda while being somewhat shielded from public opinion. The dreams of serious investment in distressed areas won’t work barring a political revolution, and even then, it threatens to degenerate into an us-versus-them dynamic that ends poorly for everyone.

Orfield is perhaps at his most radical when he attacks self-segregation by people of color: in his view, an all-Somali school in Minneapolis that seeks to empower its students is an unacceptable obstacle to integration. The question, then, is whether the right to self-determination and the bonds built by such concentrated schools and neighborhoods trump the social science that shows questionable outcomes. What’s the real goal here, the freedom to choose one’s own way, or a cohesive and fully integrated nation-state? As Orfield would ask, can separate schools and neighborhoods truly be equal? Or are we content to measure “success” on each community’s own terms, with no relation to the other?

The trouble here is that the “black community” (or any other racial or ethnic group, including white people) is not a monolith. Some people want to live around people who look like them, some actively want to live in diverse places, and plenty of people outside of academia or in certain chambers that react directly to it (where racial issues are always lurking under the surface even when not explicit) don’t care a whole lot. We have results from racial preference surveys that show that, for example, blacks and whites have different ideal “racial mixes” for their neighborhoods, and these dynamics, barring outside forces, will trend toward re-segregation. Still, all of this seems a horribly crude way to think about public policy and the people involved. Goetz points out that we often blur the line between whether housing policy focuses on places or people, and how one deals with that has serious implications.

When a couple of students discussed the debate with Goetz at the start of the school year, he expressed discomfort with two white men in their respective ivory towers deciding the fate of residents of low-income housing. It’s a fair point, and one consistent with his broader argument: the people who live in these places should be driving these decisions. For Orfield, on the other hand, higher ideals overpower the choices of individuals, which may on the whole create collective action problems as everyone acts in their own sorry self-interests. It’s an ancient debate, one that hearkens back to Aristotle observing the world around him while Plato looked to the sky in search of the perfect vision.

I started planning school because I was pulled by the instincts that guide Goetz: to build communities from the ground up. I still tend in that direction, though I’ve rediscovered some sense of ambition and a few crosses worth dying on, to say nothing of disgust with the bureaucratic morass that has pulled out my inner Robert Moses at times. My decidedly unsatisfying conclusion is to preach patience: collect more data, run more studies on what works, let different places experiment with different approaches to see what they can achieve. And whichever direction we go, invest more, period.

I’m glad both Goetz and Orfield do what they do, because these questions don’t have easy answers, and this sort of honest debate is exactly what future planners need to wrestle with. As proud as we may be for seeing the light and coming to this program with our visions of how the world could be better, we still should be in awe of our own ignorance and inability to “solve” things with a few easy ideas. That ignorance should not inspire sadness at our smallness in the face of the world, but relish: we have a problem to attack here, and we need to get to the bottom of it. This is what graduate school is for, and these are the debates I hope we continue to have even after we head out into the world and become real people. This is the challenge to which we’ve devoted our careers, and it won’t get any easier beyond the halls of the academy. We’d better learn how to enjoy the ride.

Mexico City, Revisited: Exploring the Giant

9 Aug

My last post tells the clichéd study abroad story: fun host family, mediocre foreign university, basic navigation of a different culture. I would like to think that my time in Mexico, however, goes beyond the most basic of study abroad tropes, and it owes that difference to the city I lived in. Mexico City is so gigantic that no one can dream of making their way through it in four months, though I managed to visit practically all of them on the day a pair of old high school Spanish teachers swung through the city on a visit. No East grad’s journey through Mexico is complete without a day on the canals of Xochimilco with Mrs. Bergum and Mrs. Melchert.

My university, the Ibero, gave its exchange students an easy way in via a Friday “class” that took us to sites around the city. The first trip with tour group took us straight into the city center, where a kindly but long-winded gringa used a bevy of props to lead us through some of the city’s more famous attractions. She knew her stuff, and we followed her across the great plaza known as the Zócalo—every Mexican city has one—and into the Metropolitan Cathedral and finally to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the centerpiece of the old Aztec capital, rediscovered only during excavations by the national electrical company in the 1970s. But as we meandered through the site museum and the guide droned on and no promise of lunch came forth, a friend and I bailed. With a few quick steps out a side door, we left behind the self-conscious curation of Mexican history and entered the Mexico of today, a cobblestone street lined by small shops and teeming with the seamless ballet of urban life, as the shoppers stop and start and flow along down the avenue. We disappeared into a taquería, came out with some streetside delicacies, and, two days later, came down with diarrhea.

Leaving aside long nights on the toilet, the journey down the side street kicked off my many unguided wanderings of the city, and the Zócalo was a natural place to revisit. The Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, the center of the great imperial city that rose to glory under the Aztecs and became the seat of Spanish power in the northern hemisphere. At its center, a massive Mexican flag, the eagle on the cactus lilting in the breeze. The government, the church, and those Aztec ruins all spectate from the sides, but this is a living plaza, always the center of the action. Often a protest, sometimes a concert or a party, though never more novel than during my final visit in early December: a skating rink! This Minnesota boy could have watched for hours in delight. The rink featured at least a hundred uniformed attendants, all there to help out the poor Mexicans as they shuffled about the rink, clinging to the walls in desperation. Further along the intrepid city government had devised a mini snowman-building station, and an artificial sledding hill made an appearance as well.

Mexicans on Ice!

Mexicans on Ice!

The rink was one of the more lavish flourishes of mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s urban vision. Ever since it gained home rule in 1997, the Federal District has stayed firmly in the hands of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a left-leaning party that has been decimated in the rest of the country thanks to the egotistical handiwork of Ebrard’s predecessor to the top spot in the Federal District, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. To be fair, López Obrador’s administration helped push Mexico City’s urbanism toward the vanguard, and under PRD rule, the city has had a renaissance of cultural life and chic vigor. A large urban elite allows for a center-left party to flourish, and even if it’s not on the cutting edge of the war on poverty, it runs a fairly clean and efficient ship, which is no small miracle south of the border. But Ebrard lost out to the more ruthless López Obrador in the 2012 succession battle, and the PRD split into two, its moderate core left only in Mexico City. The result: a city whose governing vision has more in line with New York or San Francisco than it does with the villages just beyond the Valley of Mexico.

If the Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, then the Alameda, some six blocks to the west, is its soul. Or so I thought when I first laid eyes on the great Diego Rivera mural back when I was in high school, the one that showed the whole of Mexican history promenading down its leafy walks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. On one of my first Sundays in Mexico City I walked from my place in Polanco up Paseo de la Reforma to the mural. I sat before it for a while before venturing into the square itself. The Alameda of 2010 had no great politicians or artists striding up its walks, but there was a complete cross-section of the country: the wealthy on parade, young lovers in the bushes, beggars, the inescapable rows of vendors, protesting leftists, break-dancers, and every possible shade in between. And on a bench in the middle of it all, a dreamy American kid, enmeshed in that urban fabric and in love with it.

A dreamy Sunday.

A dreamy Sunday.

The rest of the center city has chaotic but ordered streets, and is well-serviced by the packed but slick, highly subsidized, rubber-tired subway system. The urban grid conforms to the Spanish colonial Laws of the Indies, with churches and government centers grouped around plazas of varying importance. There’s a bike share system, a number of pedestrian streets, and little monuments or plaques at every turn. The architecture impresses, from a gilded post office to the Casa de los Azulejos, the original home of the Sanborns owls that now roost about the city on the department store’s logo; from the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts to the iconic Torre Latinoamericana, long the city’s tallest building. To the North is Plaza Garibaldi, perfect for one’s mariachi rental needs, and unrepentant debauchery once the sun goes down.

Paseo de la Reforma is the artery that feeds the body of the beast, a grand avenue that belongs on a short list with the Champs-Elysees, the Rajpath, Broadway, and Las Ramblas. Every major intersection brings a traffic circle and a monument, the statues ranging from Columbus to Aztec emperors to Roman goddesses to the city’s most famous icon, the Angel of Independence. It’s wide enough to handle hordes of both cars and pedestrians, and on Sunday, the whole thing shuts down for bicycles. The neighborhoods along it to the west of the center are the trendy and artsy core: Roma Norte, the gay-friendly Zona Rosa (under Ebrard, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009), and La Condesa, the D.F.’s answer to Williamsburg. The streets in each neighborhood have themes, with national heroes and dates in the city center, European cities in Roma, and Mexican states in La Condesa. La Condesa is at once the most happening and perhaps the least Mexican place in the city, a cosmopolitan neighborhood filled with fusion restaurants and clubs for travelers from afar. It was a popular home for the European students at the Ibero, and I spent many nights in its apartments and parks, dining or heading for the Pata Negra, the club where all twenty-somethings’ paths seem to cross while in Mexico.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

West of La Condesa sprawls Chapultepec Park, a giant green space that makes Central Park look quaint. It hosts many of the city’s great museums and monuments, from modern art to anthropology to Chapultepec Castle atop the hill. Below Chapultepec is the monument to the Niños Heroes, six boys who wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves from the ramparts rather than risk capture when the American army sacked the palace in the 1840s. Los Pinos, home to the Mexican president, is here as well, but so are the unavoidable vendors, brackish lakes, and price-gouging toilets. There is no such thing as a free leak in Mexico.

North of Chapultepec and Reforma, beyond the Parque Líbano, lies my old haunting grounds. Polanco is densely urban, filled with apartment towers and shopping streets, though it’s statelier than La Condesa, and the streets are so robed in trees that it seems sheltered from the oppressive crowds downtown. The streets here, all named for great philosophers or writers, make one want to stroll to a café and discuss some great work with other learned people. I meandered its placid streets whenever I needed to get out of the apartment and breathe, stopping for an ice cream or touring the Tianguis market on Fridays, perhaps flagging down the tamale bicycle. At its heart is the Parque Lincoln, a quaint monument to the American president, who gazes across the street at Martin Luther King. A few blocks north is Presidente Masaryk, Mexico’s swankiest shopping street; a few blocks south, the Campos Elíseos: Champs-Elysees, Elysian Fields, one of those streets that just basks in presumption, playing host to embassies and luxury hotels.

Street corner in Polanco.

Street corner in Polanco.

Further up the hill the men of letters give way to mountains, and the lanes loop around walls that guard the estates of Lomas de Chapultepec. I myself lived right on the line between Lomas and Polanco, on Monte Elbruz, a short wedge between two highways that still managed to fill the obligatory quota of 7-Elevens and Starbucks on a Mexico City block. My tower overlooked the Periférico, the ring highway that loops about the center of the city. At night I’d gaze down from the picture windows as the traffic weaved along the canyon below, threading its way through a small regiment of financial and corporate towers. The cool mountain air poured in through the slits beneath the windows, breathing life back into the giant’s lungs.

To the north, a pyramid, a church, and the State Department share a square. It’s the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, still better known as Tlatelolco. This was once a booming native market town, but now this name recalls a different memory, the moment that ripped the mask off the PRI regime. In 1968, the government gunned down scores of student protesters here. The regime ruled ably for forty years, overseeing an economic miracle that pulled Mexico to the brink of the first world. The 1968 Olympics were supposed to prove that greatness, and celebrate the “perfect dictatorship,” the system that seamlessly transferred power from one party boss to another, all the disparate factions of Mexican society united within one machine. Instead, they kicked off a national nightmare.

The next thirty years saw a slow but steady decline. The party couldn’t buy off the far left the way it could with other groups, and its patronage machine went from competence tinged by low-grade corruption to a downright bloated bureaucratic cesspool. The nation’s fortunes rose and fell with oil prices and presidential terms, and after a stolen election in 1988, the PRI was in crisis. It held on for another twelve years, enough time to oversee the lurching implementation of NAFTA and a privatization scheme that simply put state agencies into the hands of wealthy cronies rather than fostering genuine competition. To the credit of President Ernest Zedillo, he was willing to hand off power when the PAN won the 2000 election. The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012, but it is a shell of its former self, with the El Chapo jailbreak showing the bankruptcy of Enrique Peña Nieto’s pretty PR machine. The ghosts of Tlatelolco have come home to roost.

Further north Reforma splits in two, and the Calzada de Guadalupe and the Calzada de los Misterios lead the way up to the Basilica of Guadalupe. The current basilica is an unfortunate modernist thing, but all the beautiful old churches and chapels on the hill at Tepeyac are still there, and one can still mount it for a view of what a sixteenth century miracle has wrought. The shrine marks the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself to Juan Diego, and the image seared on his tilma became the foundation of a nation. Mexico is a fractured place, filled with hundreds of indigenous tribes and regional cultures, and riven by stark mountain ranges. Many of its Catholics practice something that my Polish and Irish grandparents could never recognize as their own.

Juan Diego's tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

Juan Diego’s tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

But the Virgin courses through all Mexican life, and the flag hanging around the framed tilma drives the point home. While the southern Latin American countries killed their natives and the Andean and Central American ones still live in serious racial tension, Mexico approximates a blended nation. Reality still shows stark divides, but ever since its great revolution in the 1910s, Mexico’s official narrative has aspired to a blended mestizo identity, the raza cósmica that takes pride in both its indigenous roots and its Spanish inheritance. The PRI, for all its failures, built a country around that vision. It is no small victory, and while some racial divides endure, the rest of the world has something to learn from Mexico.

In the far north lie the ruins of Teotihuacan. The name means ‘City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl; the story claims that the Aztecs, still in their exodus phase and wandering the Valley, stumbled through its ruins and figured that no man could have built them. Sitting atop the Pyramid of the Sun today, it’s not hard to see why: its base rivals the Great Pyramid in Egypt. But if the Aztecs aspired to godlike status, they found it soon enough. They found that sign they’d awaited, the eagle perched on a cactus, and build a city to rival Teotihuacan in the center of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan stunned its Spanish conquerors with its size, beauty, and cleanliness, though that did nothing to stop them from slaughtering the lot of them and filing in the lake.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Today, the only living remnant of the Aztec imperial city is on the far south end, in Xochimilco. These canal-filled gardens sum up Mexico simply: a historical artifact kept alive by a raucous party on boats, with vendors paddling along the rented trajineras peddling food and flowers and booze. The traffic is just as hectic as the Mexico City streets, the oarsmen worryingly young, yet no amount of social scrutiny can dim the festive atmosphere. Here Mrs. Melchert showed incredible poise under pressure, earning applause from the Mexicans as she maintained her balance after our trajinera got rammed just as she was leaning out to take a picture.

The south side of Mexico City has more wealth than the north, and it is here that one finds the sprawling campus of the national university (UNAM), home to over 250,000 students; the giant Estadio Azteca is here as well. A little ways further north are two charmingly gentrified neighborhoods with cobbled houses and colorful streets and histories as well. San Ángel features a flower market, a Diego Rivera studio, and a monument to some Irish-American U.S. soldiers who turned on their new county and joined the Mexicans during the U.S. invasion. They all got slaughtered, but they still remember them in San Ángel, and I happened to visit on the day of a remembrance parade that included the Irish ambassador. Better known is Coyoacán, Mexico City’s Greenwich Village of yore, home to the famous blue Frida Kahlo house, where one can learn of all her eccentricities. Just up the street sits the Trotsky museum, where budding little Marxists shepherd the tourists about the bullet-riddled rooms of the exiled revolutionary’s final home. The bullets from Stalin’s henchmen all missed their marks, but later, an ice axe did not.

Not wanting to cause my host family or the university and undue ulcers, however small the real worry, I never ventured on foot into the far eastern reaches of Mexico City. As the city climbs up out of the valley, there in the shadow of the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, the city degenerates into row upon row of concrete housing. The largest slum in the world is here, beyond the D.F.’s border with the State of Mexico, and there’s a ring of badly built homes creeping its way up the mountains on all sides of the city. They’ve come here in search of something more than subsistence farming, the countryside drained of peasants by a growing economy. It is a zone of misery, though Mexico has nothing on the poorest of the poor; in fact, thanks to a growing economy, there are now more Mexicans heading back south across the border with the U.S. The American immigration crisis these days comes from Central Americans, who endure a hellish journey across Mexico to the border. This journey usually avoids the insanity of the capital and instead works its way up the Atlantic coast.

Mexico City faces many issues, perhaps the most worrying being its need to suck up water from all across the country, but otherwise, its problems have solutions. Yes, the mountains that ring the city hold in the smog, though it’s not as bad as it used to be; methods to clean up the sky lurch along. My lungs had no trouble adjusting to the Mexico City air during my workouts, as many past travelers had suffered. The soft former bed of Lake Texcoco, filled in by the Spaniards, causes some structural problems, and leaves the city vulnerable to earthquakes. But the government can and does take steps to stabilize these things, and it’s hard to foresee a catastrophe. The once-worrying taxi system has been cleaned up some. And the drug violence that plagues some parts of Mexico doesn’t really appear in the Federal District: it is just too large and sprawling, and the state has too big of a presence, for any of the cartels to move beyond the run-of-the-mill crime operations found in any big city. At the time I traveled, Washington D.C.’s murder rate was over three times the D.F.’s. I can’t recall a single crime, even minor theft, befalling one of my fellow foreign students—and we weren’t always the most self-aware or cautious bunch.

In a way, my complaints about the traffic how easily it is to lead a comfortable life: the most serious inconvenience of D.F. life is a mundane problem that’s not much better in, say, Los Angeles. Large parts of Mexico City are placid if not downright lovely, which both makes life easier and makes one understand why the Mexican upper classes aren’t terribly bothered with the slums to the east. Their productive, comfortable lives can coexist with the extreme poverty around the city. Seen from the ground, the contradictions that form this city are easier to understand, its vast scale easily gathering it all in. No city did more to drive my fascination with the systems of urban life, and its allure will long endure, no doubt pulling me back before long. For good or ill, Mexico City is without equal.

Next time: Provincial towns and cities of Mexico.

A History of Twin Cities Urbanism, As Told by High School Hockey

18 Mar

Want to know the socioeconomic health of a Minnesota town or city? Look no further than its high school hockey teams.

The comparisons are almost too easy to make. The first high school hockey Tourney was in 1945, so the evolution of Minnesota’s sports crown jewel tells the story of postwar American urbanism as well as any economic study. The history of the Tourney and its participants is the same as the history of local economies, from manufacturing collapse to suburban growth to rebirth along economically segregated lines. This is my attempt to tell that story.

Hockey is an expensive sport, and even though Minnesota keeps things relatively cheap with its community-based development model and plethora of municipal rinks, hockey success still tends to follow affluent areas. Wealthy areas with growing populations are typically the places to look for waves of hockey success. The exception to this rule has long been small northern towns—though even here things still more or less line up, with the Iron Range falling off from its early dominance along with the decline in mine employment while towns with more diverse economies (Grand Rapids, Bemidji) or an anchor industry (Polaris in Roseau, Marvin Windows in Warroad) remain relevant despite their size.

To study these trends more properly, I divided all high schools in the state into several categories: (1) Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools; (2) First-ring suburbs—that is, suburbs built in the first wave of suburban migration, from the 1940s-1960s; (3) Second-ring suburbs—suburbs that were built up from the 70s-90s; (4) the urban “periphery,” which includes suburbs/exurbs settled in the past 20 years and small towns in that area that have become part of the Metro as it expands; (5) Twin Cities private schools; (6) small Northern towns; (7) northern city schools—that is, schools that are part of small metro areas such as Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead, and Grand Forks; and (8) the rest of Greater Minnesota, which I realize is a very large catch-all category, but fits together for our purposes due to its relative lack of AA hockey success (with some exceptions) unless given its own weak section.

From there, I looked at the number of State Tournament entrants from each region by decades since the Tournament’s inception in 1945. I ignore the Class A Tournament/Tier II tournaments that began in 1992, as their teams are not necessarily reflective of the strengths of teams in each section relative to the state as a whole. In a perfect world I would have studied teams’ records and ratings over the years—as any sports fan knows, the best team doesn’t win every year, and sometimes a single dominant team can hide the successes of other good teams trapped behind them in their section—but that data just isn’t available for the early years. I’ll present a line graph of each region’s Tourney berths by decade, and then sprinkle in maps of the Twin Cities Metro area by decade.

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Metro Area State Tourney Entrants,1945-1955. Number indicates State Tournament berths; numbers after semicolons indicate State Championships. Click images for enlargements.

In 1950, most of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area population lived in the Twin Cities themselves, though there was a growing ring of suburbs such as Richfield, Bloomington, Edina, Roseville, and South St. Paul. Minneapolis’s population peaked in the 1950 Census, with 521,718 residents; St. Paul’s peaked a decade later, at 313,411. At the time, the cities’ hockey conferences were highly competitive; while St. Paul Johnston established itself as the Twin Cities’ preeminent public hockey school and the one Metro team that could go toe-to-toe with the powers of the North, there was relative parity beyond that, and things were always competitive.

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1956-1965

The second half of the twentieth century saw the gradual hollowing out of the inner city. Minneapolis lost 29.39% of its population between its peak year and 1990; St. Paul lost a more modest 13.14%, but the damage was real, and the hockey teams reflected it. By the 1970s, the Minneapolis section had largely devolved into a 2-team race between two of the most affluent schools, Southwest and Roosevelt; similarly, St. Paul was largely ruled by Johnson and Harding. But not even they were safe. Southwest won Minneapolis’s last big-school Tourney berth in 1980; Johnson managed to scrape together two berths in the 1990s, though they came out of weak sections and did nothing once they got to State. All of the Minneapolis public schools now co-op into one middling program; three St. Paul public high schools field hockey teams, with Johnson the only one coming even remotely close to some rare playoff success.

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1966-1975

The first-ring suburbs were the early beneficiaries of the cities’ decline. Edina’s triumph in the famed 1969 title game, the one in which Warroad superstar Henry Boucha limped off hurt following an allegedly dirty hit, was the first title for a suburb, and ushered in an era of superb competition between the suburbs and the North. Alongside mighty Edina, South St. Paul established itself as a Tournament regular; Mounds View, Henry Sibley (of Mendota Heights), Irondale, and the Roseville and Bloomington schools all left their mark on the Tourney in the 70s and 80s.

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1976-1985

By the 1980s, however, things began to shift yet again. While Edina and the Bloomingtons often ruled the scene and the North had fallen off substantially, schools further afield in the Metro began to appear at State: Anoka, Apple Valley, and Minnetonka made multiple appearances, while Burnsville won back-to-back titles in the middle of the decade. That trend only accelerated into the 1990s, with Blaine and Eden Prairie joining the fun. There were even some berths for far-flung schools out on the Metro periphery, such as Hastings, Elk River, and Lakeville. Blue-collar South St. Paul, still one of the most decorated programs in state history, made its last Tourney in 1996 before dropping to Class A, where it has done little; Richfield, a title threat behind Darby Hendrickson in 1991, now struggles to field a team.

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1986-1995

The decline of the first-ring suburbs becomes even more profound when one looks at which first-ring suburban schools have been doing all the winning over the past 25 years. 9 of the 13 berths from 96-05 came from Bloomington Jefferson and Edina, and all 9 from 06-15 belong to Edina. Edina is the exception that proves the rule here, the one first-ring suburb that has used its long-established prestige to maintain economic dominance and continue to attract young, fairly affluent families. In the late 1980s, blue-collar Bloomington Kennedy and Duluth Denfeld were every bit as good as, and often better than, their white-collar counterparts, Bloomington Jefferson and Duluth East. A decade later, Jefferson and East were the state’s premier powers, while Kennedy and Denfeld were struggling to stay relevant. Even the west side of Bloomington, home to Jefferson, has undergone some demographic change in recent years, though the Jaguars remain a relevant program despite the lack of State berths. America’s working class has been hollowed out, and its once-strong hockey teams have felt the strain.

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1996-2005

As populations in Minneapolis and St. Paul have started growing again for the first time in 60 years, there have been encouraging signs for the inner city teams; Minneapolis and St. Paul youth programs are climbing toward relevance, and St. Paul Highland Park brought its dead program back to life in 2010. But the most important trend over the past 25 years in these cities and in the first-ring suburbs is the rise of private schools, which tend to be where most of these youth kids wind up playing in high school. (Most, I suspect, have gone to private schools their entire lives.) This might seem to throw off the whole theory, but on the contrary, I’d argue that this only underscores the divisions in 21st-century American cities. While the 1992 two-class split and the story of Greg Trebil (a wildly successful Jefferson youth coach who took over the Academy of Holy Angels in 1996 and brought several top Jefferson youth players with him) may also play roles, the 1990s saw the sudden appearance of the privates (excepting Hill-Murray, which has always been good). This trend fits in with broader narratives of a self-sorting society. Inner cities, while growing, are increasingly divided, with the ultra-rich and the mostly-minority poor split into different neighborhoods, and only a small “middle” class (often involving young people who have yet to start families) serving as a buffer in between. Hockey parents with the means to do so bail on Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, and often on schools in Richfield, St. Louis Park, or Brooklyn Park as well. There will be no hockey success for inner-city public schools until inner cities find some way to retain or grow their child-bearing middle class families.

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2006-2015

So, what might we predict for the future? The second-tier suburbs will peak at some point, with greater success in rising exurbs like Stillwater, Orono, Prior Lake, and St. Michael. Inertia and hockey culture will carry on in places like Edina, and perhaps in some other places whose leadership or natural amenities keep property values high. Communities that build a genuine sense of place, as Edina has, will prove more stable in the face of natural cycles of urban growth and decline. Places along lakes or rivers, from Elk River to Stillwater to Minnetonka, seem likely candidates.

Naturally, there are factors that have nothing to do with urbanism that affect who heads to the State Tourney. The manner in which the State High School League draws boundaries, to say nothing of great coaches or freak individual talents, all play a role. (How many more state berths would exurban Elk River have if it hadn’t been stuck in a section with Duluth East over the past decade?) Decisions to open and close schools or youth programs will leave their mark, and there’s some chance that the repopulation of inner cities might eventually manifest itself in some way. We’ll also have to see how private alternatives to community-based youth hockey progress, and how these might eat into the pools that high schools draw from. But the correlation is undeniable, and I don’t think any of the above trends will do anything to undermine this whole picture.

Statewide trends reveal a more straightforward numbers game, as power has shifted from smaller towns to larger metro areas. In most of the North, culture allows teams to stay relevant and even thrive with smaller numbers, so long as the economy is stable. Duluth operates as a microcosm of the Twin Cities, with “inner city” Duluth Central now closed and working-class Duluth Denfeld fighting to stay alive, while exurban Hermantown grows, private Duluth Marshall consciously moves to collect regional talent, and Duluth East looks to follow the Edina formula and ride the considerable power of past prestige to stay on top of the heap.

There is one last elephant in the room here that I haven’t mentioned: race. Due to its cultural origins in Canada and Scandinavia, hockey is an overwhelmingly white sport. And, as recently as half a century ago, Minnesota was an overwhelmingly white state. But that is changing, and hockey has been slow to follow. Minneapolis proper was 98% white in 1950, and is now 63% white; most first-ring suburbs are now following the same demographic shift. On that note, I’ll make a bold claim: whichever suburb, town, or neighborhood manages to get the most minorities on skates is going to be the model for the future of Minnesotan urbanism. It isn’t that hockey is some magical vehicle to social equity, but it does have considerable cultural cachet, and its adoption by new arrivals would imply genuine integration and social cohesion. If anything is going to resist the unending push outward and into greater self-segregation (or even the privatization of hockey training, a story for an entirely different post), it is to be found here, where there is still low-hanging fruit. Any high school that can get a group of talented minority athletes together on a successful hockey team is going to break down any number of barriers, and will almost certainly win the hearts of the state. Inertia can do the rest.

In the meantime, enjoy the continued rise of the urban periphery and the private schools, and the continued relevance of the old powers with enough economic vitality to keep their numbers going. For everyone else, take it as a challenge to buck the trends and prove that other, more subtle factors matter, too.