After a busy winter doing a lot of things other than writing (mostly a temp copy-editing job and applying to graduate school), I’m back at my day job.

Five pieces in the pipeline right now. Here are the first two:

1. For my debut article in Gothamist, I wrote about NYC’s subway countdown clocks. The system is set up in a weird way—about a third of the system has clocks installed, and the rest doesn’t. It’s been this way for about five years. I always wondered why this was the case, so I looked into it, and it has to do with the subway’s antiquated signaling system.

http://gothamist.com/2015/03/09/the_countdown_to_countdown_clocks.php

2. A couple weeks ago I went to a great panel on rent regulation and real-estate tax abatements in NYC. It’s going to be an extremely busy summer for housing advocates—NYC’s rent laws and a number of important real-estate tax loopholes expire within days of each other, so there’s a full-court press in Albany to try and salvage some scraps. I wrote about what’s at stake for The Baffler.

http://www.thebaffler.com/blog/irrational-exuberance-nyc/

More to come soon!

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The consensus view on 2014 is that it was bad, or in the parlance of our times, a “garbage year.” But bad news makes for good #content.

I started out the year as a newly minted (and terrified) freelancer, covering a number of topics—the millennial generation, media, U.S. politics, and urban planning. By the end of the year, I had basically moved entirely into the urban-planning realm, which is mostly where I intend to stay. I really enjoyed meeting so many tenacious, talented folks this year. And I’m especially grateful for the editors and outlets I’ve been able to establish consistent working relationships with. So with all that in mind, here are a few pieces I wrote this year that I was particularly proud of.

“To set profit as the goal of any transit system … is to fundamentally miss the fact that public transit should be conceived as a public good.” We begin with The Baffler and an article on New York’s Citi Bike program, which was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in early April. I wrote about its money troubles and why Bloomberg’s vision of a privately-funded transit system was a flawed one.

“If a group of well-spoken, well-connected, wealthier-than-average professionals are the nerds, then who are the popular kids?” Again in The Baffler, the weird, disingenuous spectacle of the D.C. press corps calling its annual gala “Nerd Prom.”

“Upworthy liberalism cannot process problems whose solutions are more difficult than ‘Convince people that they need to do the right thing.'” When it looked like Upworthy was about to take over the internet, I wrote about viral media’s brand of liberalism for Al-Jazeera America. Sure, viral news websites lean left…but how useful is liberalism when liberals can only talk in platitudes?

“The problem with a “coolest city” ranking is the way it takes things any city ought to be proud of…and attaches them to a polarising sociological identity.” Just after Forbes named Washington, D.C. “America’s Coolest City,” I wrote for The Guardian about some local city-planning fights that became proxy battles over whether D.C.’s “cool kids” were welcome. Lists like Forbes’ may get clicks, I wrote, but they don’t actually help anyone build better places to live.

“The truth is that people live where they can afford to live.” In The Baffler, I responded to “Liberalism and Gentrification,” a Jacobin article that I thought seriously missed the mark on how and why Washington, D.C. became gentrified. While liberal yuppies may be an easy target for blame, they’re playing the same rigged game as everybody else.

“This city was built on the oyster. In order for them to survive and do their thing and help the harbor, we need people to come in and watch them.” For my longest piece of the year, I profiled the Billion Oyster Project for BKLYNR. An initiative to plant a billion oysters in New York Harbor is raising critical questions about public access and ecological literacy along the Brooklyn waterfront. New York has never done a good job ensuring citizens’ access to its waterways—can restoring a local bivalve change that?

PLUS: “The divide between the two shows isn’t ideological; it’s generational.” Thanks largely to a retweet from Chris Hayes, I had a sleeper hit this year with a piece that wasn’t about politics…and wasn’t actually published anywhere at all. I wrote on this very blog about House of CardsThe West Wing, and different generations’ ideas about what it means to be seduced by a career in D.C. politics.

Other things I wrote, edited, and curated this year can be found here — and of course, I’ll be updating the Work page with every new piece I write in 2015.

And that’s a wrap. This has been pleasant and professional.

 

My most recent blog post, on Forbes’ “America’s Coolest Cities” list and the backlash to the “coolification” of Washington DC, got picked up by Guardian Cities and ran there in a slightly edited/condensed form. I already got a commenter asking why my piece didn’t take a position on Scottish independence, but I’m pretty sure they were joking.

 

Link is here: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/aug/29/the-big-problem-with-coolest-city-lists

I wrote something on Forbes‘ “Americas Coolest Cities” list, which came out last week and put Washington D.C. in the number-one spot. I think lists like it are sort of silly but also have the potential to cause a backlash and take people’s focus off of what’s really best for the whole city. Some stuff that’s happened in D.C. over the past year is an example. Sorry…it’s sort of long (1300 words, edited only by myself).

____________

The jokes began immediately. When Forbes released its annual list of “America’s Coolest Cities” last week, Washington, D.C. took the top spot. For D.C.’s many fans, it was yet more evidence that the city has finally arrived as a world-class metropolis. For everyone else, the decision beggared belief. One New York journalist called it “next-level trolling,” and another said, “Being rated America’s coolest city by Forbes is sort of like…” The Times’ Josh Barro quipped, “Are we all going to Le Diplomate tonight to celebrate DC being America’s coolest city? Or are we doing Lauriol Plaza?” (These are two of the city’s most popular restaurants—respectively, a good but very unoriginal French bistro, and a really mediocre, yuppified Mexican joint.)

Though it’s impossible to reach any real agreement on what “cool” is, by the basic criteria of Forbes’ methodology, D.C. seems like a worthy winner. The magazine weighed six factors for its rankings: Cultural resources per capita; recreational amenities; local “foodie” culture; a city’s so-called “diversity index” (the chance you’ll randomly meet someone of a different race or ethnicity); the percentage of population aged 20-34; and the metro area’s net migration from 2010-2013. Washington is a young, growing city with lots of museums, local sports teams, music, and so on. It’s got lots of city parkland, and is close to a national park and large bay. It’s very segregated, but in the aggregate, it’s diverse. Check, check, check.

Even so, there’s something troubling about this list. It’s not that I think Washington is the wrong choice—I like D.C., though it probably wouldn’t be my personal pick for number one (it’s cliché, but I’d probably choose Portland, Oregon). The problem with a “coolest city” ranking is the way it takes things any city ought to be proud of—diversity, urbanity, art, energy, walkability, transit accessibility—and attaches them to a polarizing sociological identity. Most Americans probably don’t have strong opinions about multimodal transit, or bicycle infrastructure. But they do have strong feelings about snobbish urban hipsters.

In fact, as D.C. shines in Forbes’ eyes, the magazine seems to have missed the fact that a local backlash to the city’s “cool kids” is underway. Last summer, the city floated a plan to eliminate mandatory parking minimums from its zoning code (the Office of Planning is still in the process of rewriting the code, which dates to 1958). Parking minimums, which require builders to include a certain number of parking spaces in any new development, exist in most American cities. While the specific requirements vary by city and land-use function, what unites parking regimes across the country is their focus on the convenience of suburban commuters over the wellbeing of city residents. Minimums drive up the cost of development, incentivize private auto traffic over transit and walking, and require a one-size-fits-all approach to development that’s anathema to maintaining a healthy, livable city.

Washington, where an estimated 38 percent of households are car-free, was on the verge of ending parking minimums downtown and in the vicinity of subway, streetcar, and high-frequency bus lines. At the last minute, it backed down. It would be easy to caricature the victors of this battle as entitled, wealthy drivers. The loudest voices in favor of keeping the minimums, after all, tended to come from the city’s affluent, car-centric Upper Northwest. But their advocacy often came with a healthy serving of disdain for the “young people” behind the proposed changes. A local AAA flack, defending parking minimums, said that the move toward transit-friendly development just reflected the arrogance of youth.

The urge to associate young people with dense cities and a car-free lifestyle is reasonable. In the last decade, the most marked decline in vehicle-miles traveled has been among young people. It’s too early to tell whether this is more due to active choices or economic hardship, but it’s likely a combination of both. As Ben Adler has noted, the choice to travel by auto or transit is influenced by a web of incentive structures. If current trends continue, the incentives to go car-free will increase. For anyone who’s uncomfortable with this reality—either because they see driving as an American birthright, they’re resistant to change, or something else—the easiest thing to do is to link unwelcome changes in transit policy to a wave of young migrants who just don’t get how we’ve always done things here.

Of course, when it comes to hating millennials in D.C., no one can hold a candle to Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy. Milloy’s anti-bike screed from this July, which stops just short of endorsing vehicular homicide, is a prime example of anti-cool-kids backlash. Milloy, who casts himself as the voice of the city’s forgotten black middle class (despite living in suburban Maryland), hates entitled bicyclists who believe they have just as much of a right to the street as drivers. They slow down motorists and keep the elderly from exercising their most important right of all: free parking in front of church. And demographically, they are “newly arrived, mostly white millennials.”

Almost all of Milloy’s writing about new arrivals in D.C. relies on cultural code words that play to common stereotypes about young people. He dismisses the city’s young transplants as people who are “too busy tweeting flash-mob snowball fights and guzzling imported beers at urban sandy beach bars” to really care for their new home. He once tweeted, “The main reason I’m on twitter is to track millennials & find out if they do anything in dc other than party and gentrify.” This ability to rely on his audience’s dislike of those kind of obnoxious people, is what saves him the trouble of actually having to explain why bike lanes, dog parks, and fusion restaurants are bad things.

As Milloy likely knows himself, these are not bad things at all. (In fact, he gives away the game late in his piece on bikes, when he justifiably complains that bike lanes haven’t been built in the poorest parts of town.) Almost all the available evidence on bike lanes suggests that they are very beneficial for cities in terms of safety, quality of life, affordability, and sustainability. Making bike lanes part of a broader, multimodal approach to transportation is even better. But the wealthy residents of Upper Northwest and Courtland Milloy, even as they come from radically different backgrounds, have arrived at the same conclusion: You don’t need to argue the merits of urban policy when you can rail against the kind of widely disliked people who you assume will benefit from said policy.

When city officials capitulate to arguments like this, they engage in the same sort of policymaking-by-tribalism that has been so destructive on a national level. (Issues ranging from capital-gains taxes to teachers unions to the mortgage-interest deduction are now proxies for debates over what kind of people deserve to be the beneficiaries of government policy). And while the last year in D.C. has been marked by aggressive moves from those looking to make their city less “cool,” that’s just one town’s experience. A couple hundred miles north, Bill de Blasio’s pitch to bring the 2016 Democratic Convention to Brooklyn has a lot to do with playing up the borough’s youthful, “cool” image, and very little to do with providing tangible benefits to people who actually live here.

Those “tangible benefits” are the heart of the matter, though. And questions about those benefits are what people who study cities should be asking themselves. Not “Will bike lanes, farmers markets, and art galleries appeal to young, well-educated people?” but “Will these things, on balance, make our city a more affordable and diversified place than it was before?” When the focus of city governance shifts away from hunting for compliments from Forbes and toward providing useful services for as many constituents as possible—cool people, uncool people, and the vast, middlingly cool majority of us—the U.S. will have finally have the urban renaissance we’ve been promised.

 

Had a handful of articles published over the last few weeks, which I’m happy to share (and link) here.

1. “On ‘Density,’ the Most Slippery Word in Urban Planning.” I published this in The Baffler as a reaction to Bill de Blasio’s housing plan for NYC, and more broadly, as a look at the way that urban planners mobilize the idea of “city density” to achieve their goals. I am broadly in favor of laws that allow for greater density, but only if affordability is built into these plans.

2. “Ten Things That Are Just Like ‘Game of Thrones.'” Wrote this for the Washington Post’s new PostEverything vertical. A list of just how many journalists are using the HBO show as their metaphor du jour.

3. “Upworthy’s Unworthy Politics.” I’ve been thinking about Upworthy and its various partners in the viral mediasphere for awhile, and have always been interested in trying to figure out what ideology, if any, Upworthy represents. This, in Al-Jazeera America, is my attempt to describe what I see as the belief system underlying Upworthy, and explain why I think this soft, feel-good form of liberalism is unlikely to solve really intractable problems.

Good news and bad news…

Bad news first: I haven’t been updating the blog with my own writing too much.

Good news: I’ve had a handful of pieces published over the last month or so, so writing that would normally go here is instead being made more widely available on teh interwebs.

Stuff from the last month:

1. “In Defense of ‘Millennial'” for Al Jazeera America. People hate the word “millennial.” They REALLY hate it. So I tried to explain why I think it’s a useful word, and in particular how millennials can reclaim the word as a tool for generational organizing.

2. “On D.C. Nerds and Outsider Wannabes” for The Baffler. My reaction to the White House Correspondents Dinner, and in particular the “Nerd Prom” label that follows it every year. I came to realize when I lived in D.C. that conceiving of yourself as a “nerd” is a big part of the local culture for many people, even when you’re sitting near the most powerful man in the world. So I try to unpack that a bit.

3. “Jane’s Walk: How City Waterways Can Become Public Spaces” for UBM Future Cities. Last weekend I participated in Jane’s Walk, a festival in which volunteers lead over 100 free NYC tours about urbanism and architecture. I took one that looked the history of the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and wrote up some thoughts about how to best develop the space.

I’ve got a new article up at The Baffler, my first for that magazine/website. I wrote about the financial problems Citi Bike, NYC’s bikeshare program, is having. It’s losing money rapidly, despite its popularity with NYC residents, so I tried to look at why there’s no money and what could be done to improve it.

The Baffler is known for having a lot of pretty polemical lefty content, so in the spirit of the magazine, I place a lot of the blame on Bloomberg.

Link is here: http://thebaffler.com/blog/2014/04/how_to_make_a_bikeshare_fair