New New Urbanism? Or Just Hard Work?

Brian Slattery photoOn a recent sunny morning, journalist and editor Philip Langdon sat at a table at what was formerly Lulu’s European Coffehouse and is now East Rock Coffee. For Langdon, it was the epicenter for work that transformed East Rock starting over 20 years ago — and made it a living example of how urban neighborhoods can thrive.

The terms for that work still buzz in the air. Gentrification. Urban development. New urbanism. They have their proponents and their detractors, in a fight that can sometimes get pretty bitter. But what do the words really mean?

Langdon’s new book, Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All — about which Langdon is giving a talk at the New Haven Museum Wednesday, June 7 — gets past the jargon by telling the stories of six neighborhoods scattered across the United States that can be considered successes in community development. We visit Center City in Philadelphia, Pa.; Brattleboro, Vt.; Little Village, a neighborhood in Chicago, Ill.; downtown Portland, Ore.; the Cotton District, a neighborhood in the college town of Starkville, Miss.; and New Haven’s own East Rock, where Langdon has lived since 1983.

Distinct patterns emerge in the course of reading Within Walking Distance. As the title implies, it starts with geography. All of the neighborhoods have what might be called good bones — a dense stock of interesting, usually pre-World War II housing and other buildings. The street layout is scaled for walking, not for cars. When Langdon’s account picks up their stories, the communities have fallen into various stages of decline, but Langdon makes clear that it’s not over.

The second common thread among them is a vision of development, though to Langdon’s credit, here is where things start getting complicated. In Philadelphia and Portland, the initial push came from local real estate developers working with the city government. In Brattleboro the energy came from an organization of downtown merchants, tapping into a long history of civic engagement. In Little Village, Chicago, the engine for redevelopment was a network of community organizations, large and small. In Starkville, the first source of change was a single man with a singular architectural dream for what the town could look like.

Langdon shows how the above efforts from disparate parts of each city’s societies had a way of snowballing, leading to the familiar story of urban development in the past few decades. People move back downtown. The retail sector flourishes. More green spaces are created or cultivated. Street life becomes more vibrant. And real estate prices go up.

East Rock fits snugly into this pattern. When Langdon moved into the neighborhood in 1983, he saw that there was a “long history of shops on Orange Street. Some of them were good. Some of them were really lethargic,” he said.

In Langdon’s telling, the spark for the neighborhood’s revitalization was lit by Louise deCarrone, who opened Lulu European Coffeehouse in a tiny spot just off Orange Street in April 1991. She “really made this into a gathering place,” Langdon said. As her clientele grew and Lulu’s place became a social hub, she sought to create outdoor seating.

“She was the first to say, ‘why don’t we go outside?’” Langdon said. Though according to his research, she got resistance.

“We don’t want to promote opportunities for drive-by shootings,” a staff member in the New Haven City Plan Department told her. “You don’t belong in East Rock,” said another employee in the city business development office. “You are taking the shine away from Chapel Street.”

But deCarrone persisted. She persuaded her alder, Cameron Staples, to convince the City Plan Department to let deCarrone build a patio. She saved up money and developed her patio. And people used it. Soon a couple other businesses along Orange Street followed suit. In the late 1990s, Kathleen Wimer of the Ward 10th Ward Democratic Committee, architect Melanie Taylor, landlord Joseph Puleo, and others formed the Upper Orange Street Neighbors, which worked with the city to develop a program that, from 2003 to 2007, gave matching grants of between $20,000 and $30,000 to Lulu, the Orange Food Mart and Orange Liquor Store, and Romeo and Giuseppe’s (now Romeo and Cesare’s) to develop patio areas outside their stores. Bike lanes were put in. The pharmacy on the corner of Orange and Cottage was saved by a new owner who stayed true to its community focus, and even maintained the post office inside it. 

“I think there’s been this transformation in the atmosphere of Orange Street,” Langdon said. Alongside that transformation, East Rock became more prosperous, and property values went up.

Within Walking Distance shows that urban development can begin from any corner — from neighbors to community groups to developers to the city government — and potentially see success. And it’s refreshing to read about long-term urban development from the street level, to see the work on the scale of people doing things, rather than leaning into abstract terms like gentrification and community development, discussions of which can make neighborhood transformations feel more like forces of nature than human efforts.

But even as Within Walking Distance brings us to the present day, the book in some sense also only tells half the story. Property values have risen, and so have rents. “I’ve been shocked by how high some of the rents are in the three-story houses,” Langdon said. East Rock remains a relatively affordable place for people who have lived there for a long time. But it is less accessible to newcomers than it used to be. Can anything be done about that and still maintain the gains the neighborhood has made?

“We really need to think about how more people can move in, in a way that doesn’t threaten the atmosphere,” Langdon said. To start that conversation, he had a concrete idea: make more housing. “There’s this area on Nicoll Street which is kind of a newly-paved parking lot,” he said. “There’s probably something better to do with that.” One possibility would be “additional housing at a scale that fits the neighborhood — two to three stories, row houses.” Another possibility might be smaller houses arranged in a more dense pattern, a “bungalow court.”

A New Voice On The Subject

What else can be done? That subject is picked up in Caroline Smith’s Our City: A Little Book about New Haven. Written initially as a series of 12 blog posts that Smith, co-director of marketing at SeeClickFix and a community organizer, made into 12 chapters in the printed volume, Our City is a lighthearted yet incisive look at the questions Langdon’s neighborhood studies pose.

Smith wrote her blog posts in response to Douglas Rae’s mammoth work about New Haven, City: Urbanism and its End, which looms in the background of both Langdon’s and Smith’s books. Almost every chapter begins with a question — “where do you meet strangers in your city?” “why is local ownership important?” “what does it mean to become American?” — and appropriately for the changes happening in the Elm City, these questions as often as not lead to more questions.

The chapter entitled “who are the investors in your city?” begins with a provocation. “The book I dream of reading: A book that brings together the worlds of business and community,” Smith writes. “And it wouldn’t weaponize either world’s terminology — but instead use them to reveal shared shape, tools, and vision.”

Is it getting a little heady? That’s part of the point; where Langdon digs beneath the old jargon through concrete stories of people who had visions of their neighborhoods, Smith is interested in helping create new ideas for where neighborhoods like East Rock can go from here.

“Both business and community could not only learn a lot from each other — but must. And a place to start could be sharing language better — with a book (or many) that uses language common to both worlds, accessible to both groups,” Smith writes. “For example, take the word investor.

Smith then quickly pushes out the definition of investor to include not just those with financial capital to apply to the city, but “someone who builds a stake in the city…. We all own a piece of our city; therefore we are investors. And, perhaps by understanding ourselves as investors, we can see more clearly our value, our responsibility, and our stake.”

Lucy Gellman photoFor Smith, creating new visions for New Haven as it moves into the future ultimately involves finding ways to bring together and form relationships among people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, so that new ideas come from everyone. “Creating those spaces can feel hard — we’re working against decades of tension and history that go beyond our time in New Haven,” Smith writes. “But, at the end, these kinds of relationships are the greatest assets we have towards a shared vision for a stronger New Haven.”

And such a space just might be created Wednesday at the New Haven Museum, when Langdon is scheduled to give a talk on Within Walking Distance. Admission is free and a book signing follows. If you go, who knows you might meet — and what ideas may arise from it?

Philip Langdon’s Within Walking Distance is out now from Island Press. Caroline Smith’s Our City is available here. Langdon’s talk on Within Walking Distance is at the New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave., June 7, at 5:30 p.m. Click here for more information.


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posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on June 6, 2017  3:53pm

Great article, I’m interested to read these both, along with The City. Glad to see so much analysis on what makes Cities great—New Haven seems to be in a transition period and we have to be very careful not to make the same mistakes of the past in order to move our city forward.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 6, 2017  9:15pm

Here is a Better Book.

Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It .

Mindy Thompson Fullilove,

They called it progress. But for the people whose homes and districts were bulldozed, the urban renewal projects that swept America starting in 1949 were nothing short of assault. Vibrant city blocks—places rich in history—were reduced to garbage-strewn vacant lots. When a neighborhood is destroyed its inhabitants suffer “root shock”: a traumatic stress reaction related to the destruction of one’s emotional ecosystem. The ripple effects of root shock have an impact on entire communities that can last for decades.Fullilove examines root shock through the story of urban renewal and its effect on the African American community. Between 1949 and 1973 this federal program, spearheaded by business and real estate interests, destroyed 1,600 African American neighborhoods in cities across the United States. But urban renewal didn’t just disrupt the black community. Focusing on three very different urban settings—the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the Central Ward in Newark, and the small Virginia city of Roanoke—Dr. Fullilove argues powerfully that the twenty-first century will be one of displacement and of continual demolition and reconstruction.

Battle for Brooklyn

Battle for Brooklyn is about eminent domain abuse and the development of a professional basketball arena in Brooklyn. Widely known as the Atlantic Yards project.

posted by: Eva G on June 7, 2017  8:54am

I am one of the people Phil Langdon interviewed in his research for this book, back in I think 2014. Since then, there’ve definitely been changes to the neighborhood, and as I write this I am listening to some of them happening. I’m someone with a long-term interest and investment (literal and metaphorical) in East Rock, and I can say with confidence that the parking lot on Nicoll he sees as a misuse, I see as a vast improvement to the neighborhood. Surface parking isn’t my dream; BUT, the lot HAD been an abandoned looking waste of space, and it is now being USED by the people going to mActivity, which has opened since Langdon interviewed me. Furthermore, as I write this, I’m listening to three apartments being built into an interior spot of a block of Anderson Street. There are people doing the kind of infill building Langdon speaks of. The Lehman Bros. building remains a problem, as does 14 Canner, but overall, I think people are developing East Rock (specifically Goatville) in just the way Langdon would want. The Corsair development, some apartments, some row houses, is another example of this.
There may be a better use for the corner of Nicoll and Canner than parking, but until the day no one needs to park their cars as they head to the gym, and the land is owned by someone else, the current use, which is a USE, is far preferable to what we had before.

posted by: Downtown Linda on June 7, 2017  9:49am

Give it a break 3/5’s.  Some of us want to live in a clean, attractive, safe, mostly affordable place.  Hooray for the people who work hard to make New Haven a better place.  It’s cheap and lazy just to criticize.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 7, 2017  1:12pm

Downtown Linda,

For those of us who have been here for a while, ‘Mostly Affordable’ is certainly up for debate…

posted by: Eva G on June 7, 2017  2:09pm

I do agree that the “mostly affordable” aspect of things is, let’s say, extremely relative. When I moved out to East Rock, my little back corner was filled with rock and roll dudes and people working part time jobs here and there, and they were living here because it was relatively safe and pretty cheap. Those days are, uh, over. The apartments that used to house rock and roll dudes now house lawyers with degrees from fancy schools.

So on the one hand I get what people are on about when it comes to gentrification.
On the other hand, it’s admittedly nice to not have my little wedge of East Rock be so rundown anymore. It’s not perfect but it really is a nicer place to be than it was when I moved out here in 1999.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 7, 2017  3:42pm

posted by: Downtown Linda on June 7, 2017 9:49am

Give it a break 3/5’s.  Some of us want to live in a clean, attractive, safe, mostly affordable place.  Hooray for the people who work hard to make New Haven a better place.  It’s cheap and lazy just to criticize.

And you do not think that the people who are being push out do not want live in a clean, attractive, safe, mostly affordable place?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 7, 2017  4:03pm

posted by: Eva G on June 7, 2017 2:09pm

So on the one hand I get what people are on about when it comes to gentrification.
On the other hand, it’s admittedly nice to not have my little wedge of East Rock be so rundown anymore. It’s not perfect but it really is a nicer place to be than it was when I moved out here in 1999.

The question is,How come the city did not put money into these neighborhoods before they started to run down.

posted by: Eva G on June 7, 2017  6:13pm

The city can invest to some degree in any given neighborhood (via working on public spaces/maintaining sidewalks/etc.) but it’s my impression that ultimately it’s up to private parties to own the properties and maintain them and create an attractive, pleasant environment.
You seem to be implying that the City of New Haven should just take all blighted buildings and fix them and—voila, all will be well? The City isn’t meant to DO that. What the City wants and needs is for private parties—owners of houses, owners of condos, owners of multi-family dwellings, owners of commercial spaces both large and small—to do right by those buildings. It can enforce codes to some degree when property owners don’t do those things; but they can’t MAKE a neighborhood suddenly become something totally different from what it was—with one big exception. It can, or could, demolish a neighborhood (cf. Lee).
But I never expected the City of New Haven to step in to clean up Goatville. Cops did what they could, but it was really private investors—people who said, “Well, we can live here, we can make this all right,” and did it—that made Goatville the place where people happily pay $1800/mo for a two bedroom apartment. NB: no one’s paying that for MY apartments, but that’s another story.
There are a TON of small-scale landlords like me who bought places in Goatville because it was all we could afford back in the day. Now we’re still here but some of us barely recognize the place. There’s an upside and a downside. But not everyone here is an Evil Gentrifier—some of us were totally ok with how it was before; we wouldn’t have MOVED HERE if we weren’t ok with it. And we didn’t expect City Hall to do anything for us; we just wanted a place to be. I’ll stay here as long as I can afford to, just like you, I guess.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 7, 2017  8:38pm

@Eva G

I am not implying that the City of New Haven should just take all blighted buildings and fix them and—voila, all will be well?My point is How come the city did not stop the blighted buildings before they became blighted buildings.Before buildings become blighted there are warning signs.Case and point do not pay your taxes on you car and see how quick you will find a boot on your car.You see the master plan was to let the buildings become blighted and then sale them off.

posted by: Eva G on June 7, 2017  10:37pm

3/5ths—thanks for the clarification, I’d totally misread you.
I really don’t know how the city handled (or didn’t handle) blight stuff back in the old days. I guess LCI was founded in the early 1990s because things had gotten quite bad—I get that. LCI does what it can but would ideally do more, have sharper teeth. I agree, if you don’t pay your car taxes, you get hammered; the same thing should happen with apartment buildings and so on. I don’t think it’s a nefarious scheme, though. If it WERE a nefarious scheme, 14 Canner Street would not have been the blight it’s been for as long as I’ve lived back here.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think City Hall’s well-organized enough to be as venal as you think it is :)
Someone may want to prove me wrong but I don’t see it—maybe in re: downtown, but not the neighborhoods. Not yet.

posted by: RobotShlomo on June 8, 2017  11:13am


How the city “handled” all those blighted houses in the old days (early 90’s at the dawn of the DeStefano administration) that had been boarded up, was to tear them down, while touting that New Haven was going to be reinvented as an “arts town”, and building up downtown, and largely ignoring many of the outlying neighborhoods. To this day in parts of Fair Haven you have empty lots with concrete stairs leading up to nothing. The city treated the symptom(s), but it failed to address the actual CAUSE of the problem, which was and is high property taxes. And the ones who are said to be “working hard” to develop apartments like Randy Salvatore, right now only appear to be ready to cash out before the coming crash.

As I keep saying, when the banks foreclosed on all those who bought houses in the sub prime mortgage market (and then turned around and bet on those loans to fail), they CREATED the conditions where rent now costs more than a house. And by forcing those homeowners out into apartments through foreclosure, it created artificial scarcity in the rental market. Now those very same banks are more than happy to loan money to build these “market rate / luxury apartments”. With everyone is looking to make a quick buck on the rental market now, they’re creating another bubble and inevitably they’re going to saturate the market. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the “free market” is incapable or regulating itself. The whole boom of ” the return to the city” was built on a myth, as Census data states growth is actually happening FASTER in the suburbs.

And now that the rock n’ roll dudes have been replaced by lawyers, is it safe to say that the vision of New Haven as an arts town has now been put to rest?

posted by: Eva G on June 8, 2017  1:15pm

RobotShlomo—nah, I’d still say it’s an arts town; just that Goatville is no longer the neighborhood where I assume all the rock and roll dudes are! (There are some still around though, honest.) (I think there was a migration trend toward Westville though.)