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Bridges 1811At the time of its adoption, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 envisioned the eventual urban development of all the raw land that would become Central Park. Intersections that would never come to be — like West 64th Street and Sixth Avenue, or West 109th Street and Seventh Avenue — were surveyed and marked on the rural land of New York County.

Recently, some physical evidence of the preliminary grid-platting has, quite literally, come to light in the right places. In a recent New Yorker article, Marguerite Holloway describes the discovery, and explains the origin of the mysterious markers in Central Park — as well as why they had disappeared and remained buried for nearly two centuries:

So the grid plan sank below the park, largely lost to the sculpted waves and undulations of landscaping. Just a few white marble pillars remain, marking a forgotten aspect of Manhattan’s original street plan, and evoking a wilder, emptier landscape in which white stones stand like cairns.

Stones once set off private property. Photo: John Fielding. Used with permission.

Stones once set off private property. Photo: John Fielding. Used with permission.

In a piece called, “This Land Is Your Land. Or Is It?” Justin P. McBrayer uses the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a jumping-off point to question some of the most pervasive assumptions about private property, including how it comes to be, and the moral standing of one’s claim to ownership. Challenging the idea that history illuminates claims, he writes:

What are the chances that the money you used to buy your phone can be traced backward through your employer, your employer’s customers, and so on back through history without passing through the hands of a serious injustice? Slim to none. The same can be said for the seller’s side of the transaction. Chances are excellent that your phone arrived in your hand only after the exploitation of workers, abuse of the environment, theft, fraud, human trafficking, or any number of deal-breaking injustices.

This is true. It is especially true of currency, which passes through so many iterations of title, often in short periods of time. But even with tangible or intellectual property, and especially with land, a good number of today’s titles were created or have changed hands since their creation via some form of trickery or theft. Knowing this to be the case, one of the major challenges of property law is to determine when, if ever, the law should throw its weight behind a private claim to ownership. One could make the argument that the presumption ought to be against such claims; that the burden of proof should fall on the person in possession who seeks to claim anything more than mere possession. To some extent, this burden already exists. Buyers take title at their own peril, hence, the need for title insurance. But the burden could be greater. Good title, itself, could have to be proven against the presumption of historical wrongs, before it could vest. That is to say, the moral rationale that underpins legal title could have to be proven by the one claiming ownership.

One inevitable result of such an approach would be to have much more property in common ownership. That is to say, such a burden would be so difficult to meet that, were it to be established as a requirement, nearly everything in private hands would default to the commons. From a socialist viewpoint, this mass erosion of title might seem desirable, providing as it would a basis for tearing down claims to private property that are undoubtedly dubious, but that nonetheless, because they are supported by legal presumptions, provide the basis for real economic and political power in the present time. But, as with most attempts to legislate an ideal, such a structure would present its own host of difficulties through its intrinsic conflicts with human nature. The human propensity to fight over property creates powerful incentives for the law to sanction and settle who has title to what, without necessarily examining the immemorial chaos that has gotten us to the status quo. By decisively recognizing titles, and presuming that possession can be equated, in most cases, with recognizable ownership, the law averts an infinite number of potential conflicts, and creates incentives for individuals to acquire wealth peacefully, rather than by force.

This compromise, like most law, remains both logically and morally imperfect. But, so what? If, as Holmes famously remarked, the path of the law is experience, not logic — that is, if there is no perfect answer to the power struggles that characterize life within civilization that can be reconciled with what we know of human nature — then why shouldn’t practicability have the last word on these matters, at least when what is most practicable is not in direct conflict with any fundamental moral consensus? From such an angle, the current system of private property titling is actually quite defensible, so long as there is sufficient opportunity in the marketplace for those who act legally and peacefully to acquire enough private property for the system of incentives to work. With this caveat, the system largely keeps the peace and provides incentives for individuals to work, invest, and improve their property. The practicable imperative, therefore, is not to divest a large number of economic stakeholders of their admittedly dubious but nonetheless socially stabilizing claims; it is to ensure that enough economic opportunities exist for others, still in line, to ensure that existing claims do not become the obsessive objects of jealousy and scrutiny.

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Here’s a three-dimensional, color map of Los Angeles, in 1909. It’s interesting. You can see the urban core that was beginning to take shape: the concentration of zero-lot line buildings, the canyons of concrete, the traditional green squares, the grid of warehouse blocks near the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the interruption by history — motor vehicles, modern zoning — a more traditional big city might have evolved there.

Here are a couple of surviving examples that I found of urban fabric in the core of Los Angeles, from which you could kind of envision an alternate pattern of how Southern California might have developed:

Broadway / 7th Street, Los Angeles.

Spring / West 4th Streets.

Just north of the urban core is Bunker Hill. You can see it in the bird’s-eye view, above, where the land rises behind the dense grid of streets, and the structures transition from commercial to residential. Most of what was once there is gone today. Here’s an old photograph, looking across Pershing Square:

Downtown-LA-1900

Raymond Chandler described the late stages of the neighborhood’s decline in his 1942 novel, The High Window, as only he could do:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.

In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.

The urban fabric of Bunker Hill was almost completely demolished in the 1960s under a massive redevelopment plan. For a sense of what was lost: George Mann, a Los Angeles photographer, took this picture in 1959:

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Grand Avenue / 2nd Street. Photo by George Mann, courtesy of Dianne Woods and the George Mann Archives. (Fair use.)

NYC Zoning mapIn a Times piece called “Inequality and the City” about the competitive real estate markets in America’s affluent cities, Paul Krugman identifies the role that restrictive land use regulations continue to play in the chronic shortage of affordable housing:

But what about all the people, surely a large majority, who are being priced out of America’s urban revival? Does it have to be that way?

The answer, surely, is no, at least not to the extent we’re seeing now. Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward. Yet while there is something of a building boom in the city, it’s far smaller than the soaring prices warrant, mainly because land use restrictions are in the way.

Exactly. Thank you. In the last five years, we seem to have gone from a time when no one was even cognizant of the role that zoning laws played in the chronic shortage of urban affordable housing, to the beginnings of a left-right consensus about the inequitable and anti-competitive impacts of those laws — and the ways in which they are distorting the market. This is really a cause for celebration, and I think we should take a moment to recognize how far the conversation has come.

But we almost certainly have not come to the end of the line. This issue has been so far beneath the radar that even those who have benefited from distortions of the real estate market by restrictive zoning laws have made little political effort to defend the status quo. They have just assumed that it would go on forever. Now, as those with vested interests in the artificial limits to development — primarily, urban land owners — begin to realize that their gravy train could be in peril, the attacks on reform proposals will begin in earnest. Here’s a great example of what’s likely to be on the way, peddling the usual pseudo-leftist bullshit that appeals to the urban bourgeoisie:

We, the undersigned residents of New York City, call for an end to the violence that real estate developers have inflicted on our skyline, parks, public areas, and cityscape with the proliferation of dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the historic context of our city.

Translation: we paid a lot for the exclusive right to live in our neighborhood. We have just realized how precarious our investment could become if the regulations were changed, and people actually had housing choices in the same (or comparable) locations.

Keep an eye out for more of this nonsense in the near future. Of course there’s a role for design and aesthetics in development policy, and massing considerations may sometimes be a part of that role. But for now, I’m sticking with those who recognize the need to permit much more residential construction in places like New York City. Let’s keep the conversation going.

IMG_3278A few years ago, I wrote a short piece about the lost public baths of New York City. Built around the turn of the 20th century, the public baths were meant to address the lack of sufficient bathing facilities in areas with (1) high concentrations of old-law tenements and (2) no public beaches. They were concentrated on the east side of Manhattan.

This summer, I came across one of the bath buildings that still remains. Here’s a picture that I took on July 4th of the Free Public Baths at 23rd Street and the East River, which has now been converted into a public swimming pool. Still, the original inscription remains on the architrave:

FREE PUBLIC BATHS | CITY OF NEW YORK

The mix of tenements that once characterized the area — and which gave rise to the public baths — is long gone. The adjacent super-blocks are now occupied Peter Cooper Village (a formerly middle-income housing development) and the VA Hospital.

Here’s the structure, and its context, on Street View:

Mark Levine, a New York City Council member, has a bill in the hopper that would retain an attorney, at public expense, for low-income tenants facing eviction. In a Times op-ed authored by Levine and Mary Brosnahan of the Coalition for the Homeless, they cite some stark statistics:

▪ Only ten percent of tenants facing eviction in New York City have lawyers, while nearly 100 percent of evicting landlords are represented by counsel.

▪ Tenants represented by counsel are 80 percent less likely to be evicted than those acting pro se.

▪ Nearly 29,000 New York City households were evicted last year.

▪ Providing an attorney for a tenant would cost taxpayers about $2,500, but sheltering a homeless family in New York City costs, on average, more than $45,000.

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One New Jersey Supreme Court case, Cashin v. Bello, focused on a real estate matter this week. It was an unusually interesting case. The Star-Ledger explains:

The legal issue involves the grounds upon which a landlord can evict a tenant in order to occupy a home. Under New Jersey law, a landlord may evict a tenant from a building with three units or less if he or she intends to occupy the unit.

However, Cashin was prevented from evicting Bello for many years because she also owns an adjacent apartment building at 627 Washington Street with five rental units and both the apartment and the converted garage are listed in tax records as being part of the same property.

Bello has been living in the carriage house since 1973, and is paying just $345 per month under the Hoboken rent control law. Cashin — whose name seems apt in this case — has been trying to evict Bello since the 1980s. Now she can. The Supreme Court held that the lower courts had erred by treating the entire land parcel as a single building, containing more than three units, rather than treating the carriage house, alone, as a single, one-unit building. The temporary New Jersey Courts link is alive for now, but the original opinion will be archived next week at the Rutgers Law Library in Newark.

For your curiosity’s sake, here’s a look at the house: