Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Pop Journalism At Its Worst In The New York Times

Last Sunday's New York Times magazine section included an article on the New Urbanists attempts to rebuild Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina, and I posted this response in Planetizen:

Pop Journalism At Its Worst

This article about New Urbanism in Biloxi is by Jim Lewis, identified as a novelist whose last article for the New York Times magazine was about soldiers on R&R in Qatar. The writer obviously knows little and cares less about urban design: he sees it as an opportunity to make clever observations about the personalities involved (the same thing that I am sure he does when he writes about soldiers in Qatar or about anything else).

He makes two substantive criticisms of the New Urbanists, both of which are unfounded.

First, he says that Duany's proposes building affordable housing at $140,000 a home, which cannot be afforded by people earning near the minimum wage. He ignores Marianne Cusato's "Katrina Cottage," a mobile home that looks like a traditional cottage and that costs less than the permanent houses that Duany is talking about. Even more blatantly, he ignores the fact that new construction is expensive: before the hurricane, people earning minimum wage could live in older houses, but now that those older houses were destroyed, nothing short of a miracle could build new permanent houses affordable (without subsidy) to people earning minimum wage.

Second, he says that Vietnamese immigrants do not want to live in walkable neighborhoods, because they came to the United States to be able to drive. Of course, he is just getting their gut reaction to the phrase "walkable neighborhood," and he ignores the fact that the New Urbanist neighborhoods give people the option of walking but do not force anyone to walk rather than driving. He also ignores the environmental issues involved in building walkable or auto-dependent neighborhoods.

In both these cases, he describes the people involved and presents their reactions to the New Urbanist plan without bothering to think about their reactions. This is typical of his focus on personalities rather than issues, which goes the furthest in his descriptions of Leland Speed: the fact that one colorful Mississippi character says he had drunk the Kool-Aid obviously doesn't mean that New Urbanism is cultish, as Lewis seems to think.

There are obviously important issues involved in the redesign of Mississippi and Lousiana after Katrina. Many people have said that this is could be the tipping point that moves American towards building neighborhoods that are more livable and more sustainable environmentally. Katrina was so devastating because of global warming, and we are talking about designing neighborhoods that will help slow global warming.

It is a shame that the national discussion of these issues is polluted by this sort of pop-journalism -- which doesn't care about the issues and just sees them as an occasion for making clever comments about the foibles of the personalities that are involved. The easiest way to be clever is by taking cheap shots at the New Urbanists, and that is the road that Jim Lewis takes.

There is a link to the New York Times article at


Post a Comment

<< Home