A place needs to be lovable

Charles Marohn asks, “If we’re not going to maintain what we have, then why bother building anything new?”:

It was Steve Mouzon who first told me that a place needed to be lovable, that we only maintain that which we love. I never learned anything about “lovability” in my undergraduate course on concrete structures, and I know of no engineering manual that references it, yet I’ve found Steve’s insight to be an undeniable truth.

I love my house—and have deep respect for the resources that went into building it, as well as the amount of effort it will take to retire my mortgage—and so I maintain it. I don’t wait for concrete to fall apart before patching it. I don’t wait for the siding to rot before repainting it. I don’t wait for the roof to leak before maintaining it. …

Local governments suffer from a dual set of challenges when it comes to maintenance. The first is that most of what we’ve built is not lovable, at least not broadly lovable. The asphalt cul-de-sac has some functional appeal to the people who live on it, but the broader community is not going to demand it be maintained. The same with those DOT-specified streetlights the city purchased in bulk. The plastic park equipment may be sanitized and safe, but even it is unlikely to endear.

For the most part, the Growth Ponzi Scheme has put our cities on a path of quantity over quality. We build a lot of stuff, all of it to a finished state. That stuff then sits and rots—perhaps with some nominal maintenance from time to time—until it falls apart, at which point we put together a huge project to replace it with something new built to a finished state. …

What this means is that nearly all public investments—infrastructure, buildings, parks and other facilities—have a predictable life cycle. Initially they are shiny and new. Then they start to wear, fray, and show signs of decline. Then they start to fail to various degrees, finally followed by either a complete failure or a major reconstruction project (generally using debt financing).

Throughout this process, the public grows used to decline and decay—almost comes to accept it as normal—while the world around us becomes less and less lovable each day. This is, for example, how the richest cities in North America—New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C.—suffer with escalators on their transit systems out of service for years. These things are not difficult to fix when maintenance is prioritized, but when it’s not, just wait for the next large maintenance bond and fix it all at once. …

This enables the second challenge local governments face, that of low expectations. …

This is part of what I was trying to speak to when I asked, “Who’s responsible for a place like this?

New Columbia

Since moving to Washington, I’ve been loosely following the push to transform the District of Columbia into America’s 51st state.

I think it that making the District a state would be bad for both the District and the country, and that if the status quo is unacceptable, it would be simpler and better for the District to be absorbed back into Maryland, just as the District’s western fringe was absorbed back into Virginia.

David Schleicher wrote “Welcome to New Columbia: The Fiscal, Economic and Political Consequences of Statehood for D.C.” in 2014, and I saw it after Tyler Cowen recently shared it. It’s worth checking out if you’re following this topic:

This Essay sketches some of the long-term economic and political consequences of making Washington D.C. the 51st State. The statehood debate has overwhelmingly focused on the same set of issues: the impact of statehood on the federal government’s structure. But if D.C. becomes a state, the most impactful change in its citizens’ lives would not be their new ability to elect members of Congress; it would be the dramatic shift in economics and politics that would come with the transition to having a state rather than city government. On the day “New Columbia” enters the Union, it would bear a constellation of features unprecedented in the nation: the only state wholly part of one metropolitan region, the only state without local governments, and the only wholly urban state. These features have deep implications for the advisability of statehood when compared to the alternatives of retrocession or the stateless status quo and also furnish a blueprint for steps to mitigate the risks and exploit the benefits that statehood would offer. Part I of the Essay will discuss the special fiscal and economic conditions that New Columbia would face. On one hand, statehood would better allow D.C. to take advantage of periods of economic success. In particular, a state of New Columbia would likely be free of the restrictive confines of the Height of Buildings Act, allowing for greater growth when demand for living in D.C. is high. Moreover, the District would likely also gain greater taxing power (although it would lose some forms of generous federal funding). Yet such benefits come at a price: as a single-city state, New Columbia would face drastic risks in times of downturn. The fact that New Columbia would be entirely in one economic region, and the fact that it would exclusively be the center city of that region, would mean almost necessarily that the state would face substantial financial risks in the case of regional and urban-form related shocks. This pro-cyclical effect makes the case for retrocession stronger, and also suggests reforms like a mandatory rainy day fund if statehood is achieved. Part II discusses the implications of New Columbia’s unique internal politics. As noted, New Columbia would be the only state without local governments. The absence of separate spheres for local and state elections would have at least two major implications for New Columbia’s politics and policy. First, as a state composed of an overwhelmingly single-party city, New Columbia’s elections would likely be decidedly uncompetitive. Even in the status quo, this absence of party-level electoral competition is a likely cause of many of the pathologies in D.C. politics, from excessive restrictions on growth to its persistent problems with corruption. To ensure the state of New Columbia does not share these defects, any move towards statehood should include reforms aimed at introducing more political competition. Second, and more optimistically, the unprecedented marriage of a city and a state government offers a powerful change for innovation. Historically, the relatively circumscribed legal power of cities has prevented them from pursuing a number of effective policies because such powers are the exclusive province of states. Further, big cities are often losers in state political fights. In this context, New Columbia’s fusion of city and state would provide many opportunities for policy flexibility and discovery unavailable to most big cities.

Overcast on Dumbarton

I visited Epiphany for mass this morning on Dumbarton Street, and on the way home walked past this:

A green car on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown

Take a moment and put yourself in my shoes taking the photo—there’s without looking left or right, there’s no way to tell you’re not looking right into the past. This same scene could have existed nearly fifty years ago: same house, same fence, same car, same street, etc. And eventually, even when cars like this are converted to electric and homes are running off of clean geothermal or solar, the scene could still otherwise be the same, a little window for looking out into another time.

State College for six waking hours

I woke up around 7am in State College, Pennsylvania this morning at the Super 8 on South Atherton Street, went for a short run, showered, and headed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s second board meeting of the year. It’s hot out, and I left the window of my hotel room open and woke up to the Nittany Valley’s near-muggy air. I love weather like this partly because, whether walking or driving through town or the outlying countryside, you encounter the near-summertime in a sensual way—the scents, breezes, and verdant sights are right there for you, if you’re open to receive these gifts.

After the meeting, I drove to Meyer Dairy to pick up some cheese and lemonade, and then to downtown State College for a short walk. Penn State and State College have emptied out with the end of spring classes, and so campus and town are especially peaceful this Sunday morning:

I like solitary trips like this as both a way to think and as a way to go deep with audiobooks. I’m listening to Wilson D. Miscable’s “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh” and Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.”

I drove up from Washington last night for this morning’s meeting, and am heading right back to Washington for a dinner meeting tonight.

‘Bearing Witness’

I spent last night at the Catholic Information Center for “Bearing Witness: Nurturing a Culture of Life through Love and Encounter,” which featured Catherine Hadro and Mary and Bobby Schindler:

Join Catherine Hadro, host of EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, and Mary Schindler, co-founder of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, for an evening of prayer, remembrance, and hope.

Catherine Hadro and Mary Schindler will sit down for an intimate conversation on the topic of nurturing a Culture of Life through love and encounter. Mary Schindler will share positive and life-affirming stories from the fight for the life of her daughter, Terri Schiavo, a prominent victim of the culture of death. Catherine Hadro will speak on her experience as host of EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, sharing some of the most touching personal stories she’s experienced after hosting 100+ episodes of Pro-Life Weekly, and closing with reasons for hope amidst a culture indifferent to the intrinsic dignity of human life.

Bobby Schindler, President of Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network and brother of Terri Schiavo, will also be in attendance. All attendees will receive a complimentary copy of the book, “A Life That Matters: The Legacy of Terri Schiavo, A Lesson For Us All.”

The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network co-hosted “Responsibility to Care: What Euthanasia Victims Can Teach Us” at the Catholic Information Center last year, and last night’s “Bearing Witness” conversation followed in that tradition of life-affirming conversations.

Visiting Guiding Star

I visited Guiding Star yesterday as part of a day of service; my first service visit in a few years. Guiding Star is a refuge for mothers and children in North Philadelphia who want a choice other than abortion in response to pregnancy, and it’s a particularly vital place for mothers whose partners or family make choosing life an impossibility. Guiding Star and places like it around the country exist to serve women in a way that Planned Parenthood should be emulating, because Guiding Star and places like it represent real and life-affirming choice.

It was good to be at Guiding Star, and to spend time with some of those living there and some of those volunteering from across Greater Philadelphia. As a board member of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, which manages Guiding Star, I see financial statements and operational reports every quarter, but I rarely get the sort of personal experience of the place as I did yesterday.

Trocadero

The Trocadero in Philadelphia closed recently. Danya Henninger writes:

The Trocadero Theatre, a mainstay on the Philly concert circuit for nearly four decades, appears to be closing for good.

Even before ownership confirmed the shutdown, which was first reported by Philly Mag based on comments from promoters and staff, fans across city began sharing their laments for the gritty Chinatown venue.

Its most famous recent splash was as the site of a 2014 comedy show recording that became a key factor in the chain of events that led to Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault.

Originally opened in the late 1800s as the Arch Street Opera House, the theater hosted vaudeville and minstrel shows. It then became a popular destination for burlesque, and also showed movies. A century after it first opened, in 1986, the historically-designated space was remodeled and turned into a concert hall-slash-dance club.

Though it wasn’t ever the fanciest spot (or the cleanest), the Troc’s central location — right off the corner of 10th and Arch — helped it become a defining part of Philadelphia nightlife.

Bands who stopped there before blowing up include Guns N’ Roses, Bob Dylan and Die Antwoord. The main event stage and the balcony bar hosted everything from wholesome school fundraisers to psychedelic PEX parties, grungy tribute concerts and slick TV specials.

I had only been to the Trocadero maybe three times, and all while at Archbishop Wood. The first time I went, I was leaving from my grandmother’s house. When I told her where I was going, she raised her eyebrows and asked what I was planning to do there. I forget the concert. “When I was about your age, the Trocadero was a burlesque house.”

I would guess it’s likely to re-open at some point, but who knows.

Cafe Milano

I visited Cafe Milano late last year for a fundraiser and see it often when I’m walking home. I knew it had a history, but didn’t realize what a role it has played in Washington:

As the sun was setting one recent evening, two black Chevrolet Suburbans pulled up next to Cafe Milano, the Georgetown restaurant where some of the world’s most powerful people go to be noticed but not approached. Steven T. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, slipped out of one of the vehicles and lingered with his Secret Service detail in front of the restaurant’s wall of windows. His fiancée, the actress Louise Linton, emerged wearing a sleeveless blush-pink jumpsuit, as if this were Studio 54 by the Potomac.

On the other side of the glass at this longtime power-dining fishbowl, the mood was clear: This was dinner and a show.

Every town, no matter its size, has a bar or restaurant where the powerful gather to hold court. Washington has Cafe Milano. It has been a destination for high-ranking members of media and of governments around the world since it opened in November 1992, on the same day Bill Clinton, now a Cafe Milano regular, was first elected president. It is a place where diners can enjoy relative privacy as they dine on grilled calamari and velvety burrata. It is also the exact sort of establishment that President Trump might have disparaged as a candidate, when he emphasized that his leadership would mean that the cozy bonds forged among the capital’s elite would be broken. …

Franco Nuschese, the restaurant’s owner, became well known in this city for making high-profile people feel comfortable and guarding their privacy. …

Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan and a longtime fixture of Washington’s social scene, suggested that bipartisan behavior can sometimes rise above the fray at this establishment.

“If you have a relationship with someone,” she said, “it’s much harder to demonize them.”

I think places like this help literally to keep the peace, in the sense of serving as “release valves” from the tension and animosity and partisanship that dominate our politics.

Epiphany stations

Visited Epiphany on Dumbarton after work today for Lenten Stations of the Cross. We arrived just a moment or two before 7pm, and there were three of us for the half hour or so of prayer.

Epiphany is one of those places that brings you mentally to a simpler place; it feels like a place outside of time in some sense, in the way a sacred place should. There were only three of us there for Stations of the Cross. It’s not been a practice that I’ve participated in for years, but I’m glad to return to it.

Along Wisconsin

A view from a morning’s walk along Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown:

I took this on my way to work, headed toward Arlington. I’m grateful for this period of life, where the mornings include scenes as beautiful as this. What lends a neighborhood like this so much of its spirit is its general lack of the derivative and mundane. Even when there’s little activity, the aesthetic of the street is welcoming and lively, hinting at people yet to appear.