Imagine that you are in charge of creating an entirely new urban plan to develop the world. You could put parks everywhere, build freeways straight to your door, declare your birthplace a national monument. There’s just one catch: you have no idea, or control over, where you’ll be born or live. How would you design the world then?
Unfortunately, urban planning and public zoning does not take place behind a veil of ignorance.
If it did, perhaps NIMBYism wouldn’t be the driving political force it is today.
Southern California is a strong contender in the auditions for poster region for NIMBYism. The story of Los Angeles’s growth is the story of real estate developers selling a dream of white homeownership to dentists in Topeka and accountants in Peoria. They pushed the Southern California lifestyle as a product in and of itself, so that moving to Los Angeles became a tautological journey to somewhere where the main economic activity was convincing more people like you to move in too.
For those who had purchased the sunny, detached unit, West Coast lifestyle, protecting this investment became of utmost importance. What this meant, starting in the ’20s, but with no end in sight, was keeping out people with the wrong skin colors, religions, credit scores, lifestyles, or affinities.
Early Angeleno homeowners did this by banding into Homeowner’s Associations. These mandated, in addition to lot sizes and the minimum construction costs, the races and ethnicities of who was allowed to purchase homes. Many included provisions excluding non-whites, and sometimes, non-Christians, from living in their communities, except as domestic servants, of course. Through the 1920s, these “protective associations” rendered 95% of LA’s housing stock de facto inaccessible to Black and Asian would-be homeowners. In case this was too subtle, there was always the Klan, which overlapped in motive and membership, if not method.
The United States Supreme Court ruled against these restrictive covenants in 1948 (the California Supreme Court had upheld them in 1919), and California struck down its own law prohibiting non-citizens (but targeted at the Japanese) from owning or making long leases on agricultural land two years later. Where there’s a will, however, there’s usually a way to keep out people you don’t want to live among, and so neighborhoods started organizing exclusivity through the channels of geography, policy, and accessibility.
Geographically, many white homeowners simply left, creating new suburbs in the San Fernando Valley where developers could ignore legal mandates and continue to redline out whomever they didn’t want. It’s like the old saying, “if you don’t like somebody, move away from them into a gated community miles away.”
Politically, neighborhoods began incorporating as their own “minimal cities,” contracting out social services like firefighting and mail, and levying their own taxes as they saw fit. Deciding you are your own city is like playing a Libertarian expansion pack in SimCity. If renters or low-income residents are dragging you down, you can just zone them out. If unions crop up among your social services, you can simply terminate that company’s contract. And best of all, the larger, capital G government can never touch your property as a resource for redistribution. These Cities By Contract, like the charter schools that offer a micro model of their logic, are still gaining favor among residents of wealthy enclaves who would prefer to not be pushed into paying for services they themselves might not be in immediate need of.
This protectionist tradition in local politics is alive and well and living by the beach. Right before Thanksgiving, residents of Newport Shores, an enclave of wealthy Newport Beach, crowded a City Council meeting in an attempt to block a twelve-unit affordable housing project for seniors and veterans. One man (whose eponymous personal injury firm assures that “when life gets difficult, we are here for you”), said he objected to building what he referred to as “the projects of Newport Shores,” since the town already has enough affordable housing. “Newport Shores has effectively become the dumping ground for Newport Beach,” he continued, and his former neighbors in wherever he used to live before Newport Shores clucked in agreement (conjecture; stricken from the record).
It’s also seen in measures to block development of more homes near you because they might be ugly or bring in unsavory types. Now, I am of a split mind on development. There’s a reason the West Village in NYC is soooo charming and fun to walk around in (old, small buildings and Amanda Burden made everyone stop building up), but is it the same one (old, small buildings and Amanda Burden made everyone stop building up) that makes it the most expensive place in the universe? Further, how dense can you get before it starts taking a toll on residents? People get spooked when they feel crowded, whether it’s from around or above them. I moved to the other side of the country in part to escape feeling this way.
But to get affordable housing you have to do one of two things: 1. regulate existing units’ costs and/or 2. build more units and charge less or hope flooding the market knocks down prices. My hunch is that it’s gonna take a combination of the two. The question remains, then, where are these affordable units, whether built or regulated into existence, going to be? If you’re anything like the residents of Los Angeles, you’re not sure, but you would prefer not within eyesight, or perhaps your lifetime. A new ballot measure would stop any construction requiring zoning changes from proceeding without specific oversight. Its key backers, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, are headquartered next door to the two proposed apartment buildings they hope to block. I lived in between the ever-rising Barclays Center condos and the controversial Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project for over 2 years, so I get how annoying it is to be near construction, but that’s a bit suspect, especially for an organization focusing on a cause that traditionally includes housing as part of its mission. And if we’re going to develop anywhere, it should probably be in a dense, public-transit-adjacent part of the city. By blocking construction there, you really just push it outward, which increases commute times and with them, pollution.
But you don’t have to bother to legislate people away from your community if they have no way to get there. Wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods like Santa Monica and Beverley Hills, located on the western coastline of the city, simply pushed to prevent freeways from linking them to the more plebeian East Side. The freeways got built instead in poorer areas, where transportation developers came across less protest. Now, these same wealthy neighborhoods are trying to block construction of the Purple Line subway that would allow you to reach the beach with a single method of public transportation (currently, you have to drive or take a bus). According to Portland State University urban planning professor Sy Adler, “by keeping transit projects out, wealthy neighborhoods around the country have created de facto gated communities.” Laws are only as good as their enforcement, and your area is only as accessible as it is reachable.
The proposed Purple Line would bring the subway to the wealthy West Side. It is also the West Coast’s answer to New York’s Second Avenue Line. In talks since the 1980s, it finally broke ground just this year. “I’m determined we will have the last bit of this open before I die,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the ceremony, showing the drama and geologic timescale one doesn’t always expect from transportation projects. Current plans for this “Subway to the Sea” have it stopping 3 miles short of that goal.
White people in LA famously don’t take the bus, so when you block public transit from an area, we know who you’re blocking. But white people aren’t just avoiding the 10-mile-per-hour bus speeds, they simply live in sparser neighborhood where bus service doesn’t run or would drop them too far from their homes (“sparser,” of course, means, “nicer”– single family homes, lawns, long driveways.) It’s a Mobius strip of anti-transit development feeding anti-transit attitudes feeding anti-transit habits feeding anti-transit development.
Maybe this would all be okay if people you didn’t want to live near would just go live somewhere else, or magically disappear. But if you redline, out-price, and out-zone people, you don’t actually solve anything. You merely create a situation in which people build slums, crowd as many people as possible into homes, or simply leave entirely. As Woody Guthrie almost sang, this land is your backyard, this land is my backyard. Just because you got there first doesn’t mean you get to keep out people who don’t look like you, then expect them to travel far distances, without public transportation, to come clean your low density, single family, detached, sunny Californian house.
Note: Basically everything I know about Los Angeles is from City of Quartz by Mike Davis, which should help explain my dual fascination/horror at the place. While looking for sources to corroborate its facts and ideas, I mostly found more people citing it. So any fact you don’t see linked to a source, you can assume is credited to Mike Davis.
Another note: The Wikipedia article on NIMBY is really fun because it includes all sorts of acronym alternatives to NIMBY, like BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything/Anyone), SOBBY (Some Other Bugger’s Back Yard), NIABY (Not In Anyone’s Backyard [a kinder, more Kantian NIMBY]), and the satire of the environmental justice movement-coined PIBBY (Place In Blacks’ Back Yard).