Tag Archives: Lewis Lehe

“The Wire” Tour of Baltimore

A Preface

I love TV’s The Wire. When I heard about this self-guided, Wire-themed tour of Baltimore, I thought, “That’s the self-guided tour of Baltimore I’ve been waiting for.” But I read something a few days later that paralyzed my ambitions. Christian Lander, author of the blog and book “Stuff White People Like,” explained in an interview:

When and how did you get the idea for the site?

January 18th. A friend and I were having an IM conversation about The Wire. He said, “Not enough white people watch The Wire.” I said, “Don’t worry, they do.” We started talking about what they’re doing instead of watching The Wire : therapy, getting divorced, going to plays…

Thus The Wire is not only Stuff White People Like but the inspiration for the whole series.  Since I’m a white person, this discovery made me uneasy about my Wire tour, the way a Pakistani person must feel about a genuinely promising opportunity in the convenience store industry. And shortly thereafter, The Wire was parodied on Disney’s iCarly.

In the end, I just decided that Americans of all colors and creeds would love The Wire, if they saw it. The Wire transcends boundaries. Norman Rockwell has beaten me to the punch here with a painting I really think captures the sentiment:

In summary, don’t let your friends’ rolled eyes inhibit your pilgrimage to the greatest city in America to celebrate The Greatest TV Show in America.

The Tour

I arrived in Baltimore at about 1PM with three friends in the car. From the Interstate, Baltimore looks like scattered red legos. It was my first time in Baltimore, and I have never seen more red brick buildings. We pulled off at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd exit, which is a reliable exit to take for a tour of the ghetto in most American cities. Up close, Baltimore resembles both the Birmingham, Alabama where I grew up and the Pittsburgh where I live now. Baltimore has Birmingham’s African American majority, boarded-up buildings and ubiquitous vegetation. It has Pittsburgh’s pedestrian presence and row houses. I really liked seeing Baltimore’s famous benches.

The tour divides Baltimore into seven districts. We started out on the west side, thinking it would contain the most shooting locations. That was wrong. As the guide explains, “The directors found East Baltimore’s relatively treeless streets much easier to film in, as they could film throughout at least three of the seasons without losing seasonal continuity.”

It was most fascinating to circle the McCulloh Homes housing project, the location of the “low rises” that DeAngelo presides over in season one. We peered between two buildings from the car and discerned “The Pit,” where DeAngelo, Wallace, Poot and Bodie hung out. Housing projects were prevalent throughout West Baltimore, and they seemed very clean and new from outside. I hope someone can help me understand a question that occurred to me: “Why did cities build housing projects rather than supplementing the Section 8 program?” Questions like this one will ignite in your head throughout the tour.

Outside the McCulloh Homes, we passed several women and children picking through an overturned garbage dumpster. I stared, wondering if a kid had thrown away his retainer. In my retainer days, I picked through many a trash bin. A lady glared back and started waving her hands at me, pointing at the garbage angrily as if to say, “If you’re gonna stare, why don’t you come down here in this garbage?” She triggered a sobering transition—one second I related to the little kids; the next second I remembered my childhood had about 3% in common with theirs, and they probably do not see an orthodontist.

I realized then how strange our Wire tour must seem to locals: three white guys and one African African American girl (a 6’3”Nigerian), pointing at empty corners excitedly, cruising very slowly, snapping pictures. Unfortunately, I think there is no cure for your glaring touristness. You had better embrace it. The only thing worse than four suburbanites pointing at everything in the ghetto is four suburbanites acting like they belong in the ghetto. I wondered constantly whether the locals knew we were on a Wire tour…how often people came through taking pictures and talking loudly.

Then we headed to North Central Baltimore. Here we saw Bubble’s Garage, Bodie’s Corner, Greenmount Cemetary, and North Ave Motel and other attractions.

One difficulty of The Wire tour is that the sites are so mundane that it can be hard to tell if you’re on the right spot. As a matter of fact, here I am at a corner cattycorner to Bodie’s corner. I was so sure this was the right corner that I pointed out where the guy who shot Bodie was definitely hiding.

Above: the corner that Bodie would have ostensibly stared at

At the North Ave Motel, we pulled into a narrow parking lot, and I correctly identified the general area of the room where Omar shot brother Mouzone. As I posed for pictures, a bewildered guy on the upper balcony smoked two cigarettes while watching me. A woman dressed characteristically like a prostitute entered a room with a man.

There was a Mercedes Benz parked in front of Bubbles’ garage. This invited speculation.

Then we headed to East Baltimore, where the standout attractions were Marlo’s Hangout and Hamsterdam. The guide made a cautious suggestion: “Look immediately on the right for Marlo’s Hangout. Hop out of the car and into the square (Faith Ln) to take some pictures if you like, but bear in mind that this is a legitimately rough neighborhood.”

We parked and crossed a small patch of grass to access the concrete space where Marlo dispatched Chris and Snoop to dispatch people. The space’s former use is ambiguous. It looks like the ruins of a skate park/dolphin show. Across the street, a group of young men motioned for me to approach but I declined. This was the closest I came to the drug trade, and I’m only speculating.

There were no corner boys anywhere in Baltimore that Saturday afternoon. I would guess that the show exaggerated the daytime drug trade because it’s easier to film in the day. The light is cheaper. And you can’t film fictional drug dealers at times when real drug dealers need to use the very same corners.

As the day passed, we saw many other sites until wrapping up at the abandoned building that is Major Crimes HQ, located down by the port in southeast Baltimore. Every season of The Wire ends with a retrospective montage. In my own head, the projector played a retrospective montage of our day—shot on 8mm film, because that’s how people remember things. In the quiet peace of the empty port, we said goodbye to Major Crimes HQ and headed out.

Editor’s note: This post come from Lewis Lehe, maker of the famous congestion pricing video. If you’d like to take the same tour as he describes in this post, it is online here.  Lewis will soon be heading to the University of Leeds for graduate studies in the economics of transportation. We wish him well!-KG

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Filed under Crime, Good Ideas, Race Relations, The Media, Urban Poverty

Fed Research Shows Positive Trend for Pittsburgh

This post was written by contributor Lewis Lehe. -KG

Stephan Whitaker, a research economist at the Cleveland Fed, has noticed two salubrious trends in RustBelt demographics:

1) between 2000 and 2008, college graduates rose sharply as a share of the work-force in several urban areas

2) in the future, the graduate share will keep rising as older, less-educated workers retire

This news is good taken at face value, because research by Ed Glaeser and other urban economists suggests cities thrive as idea-generating centers. When educated people interact face-to-face, they breed businesses and insights.

Educational Attainment of Working-age Adults in Fourth District Metro Areas

Working-age adults (2008) Degree share 2000 (percent) Degree share 2008 (percent) Change (percent)
Erie 151,718 22.5 28.2 5.6
Akron 386,990 26.1 31.6 5.4
Pittsburgh 1,235,251 28.1 32.7 4.6
Columbus 896,440 32.3 36.9 4.5
Lexington-Fayette 161,486 37.1 41.5 4.4
Mansfield 67,839 13.1 17.4 4.3
Youngstown-Warren 306,892 17.5 21.7 4.2
Cleveland 1,223,369 26.0 29.2 3.2
Cincinnati 863,150 28.6 31.7 3.1
United States 167,282,883 26.5 29.6 3.1
Canton 226,427 19.1 20.8 1.8
Lima 80,257 14.9 16.6 1.7
Hamilton-Middleton 195,416 25.9 27.4 1.5
Dayton-Springfield 508,775 24.4 25.8 1.3
Toledoa 419,227 21.6 22.9 1.3

Things I thought were interesting

Whitaker finds that Pittsburgh stands out in both trends, because we are gaining lots of graduates (mainly PA locals and international immigrants) and because our older workers are very uneducated—probably because they grew up in a city with steel mills. He speculates: “If the highly educated cohorts in Pittsburgh continue to phase in, the city will eventually have a workforce like a university town rather than a former industrial center.”

I also did my own comparison and found that the number of college-grad immigrants Pittsburgh gained exceeds the entire population of Bloomfield. I think this is a good thought comparison because Bloomfield itself is split between young college grads and old people. Here is a picture I took in Bloomfield that captures the tension:

These trends indicate Pittsburgh will probably become a better place for people like me to live. More college graduates will produce wider cultural variety, more startups, and less-corrupt politicians.  I’m excited about that, but I believe there’s another side to this coin: Pittsburgh’s graduate share will rise in part because it is not a good place for working-class men and women to move. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when you take the whole universe into account, though. After all, in order for some places to be good at attracting working class men and women, other places have to be good at losing them (or at least not gaining them). But it’s worth keeping in mind.

In contrast, I thought this was worth highlighting: “Columbus and Cincinnati both experienced large increases in their populations of unskilled immigrants. In Columbus, the nondegreed immigrant adult population increased from just under 30,000 to over 46,000, and the equivalent population in Cincinnati increased from 19,700 to 29,600.”

Since unskilled immigrants are the working class of the working class, I say hats off to Columbus and Cincinnati for providing an attractive place for these families to live. Doubly so for Columbus as it is also a highly-educated city.

-Lewis Lehe

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Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Education, Headline, regionalism

Cities…they’re like Happy Hour

Editor’s note: This post comes from contributor Lewis Lehe, and contains his trademark blend of straightforward economics and quirky humor. -KG

A question for the ages
Today I posed a seemingly obvious question to myself: Why do we care about saving the cities we live in?

Some of us care about carbon emissions, but people were concerned about cities before we knew about climate change. I like living in the city because I would rather spend an hour reading my Kindle on a bus than sit twenty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, but that doesn’t explain why I want other people to live in Pittsburgh with me. In fact, the more people, the more traffic.

One obvious answer is that cities are full of people, and people care about people. But the death of a city often means people simply moving to other cities. Why do I care about tipping people’s decisions towards living in Pittsburgh, where I happen to want to live? (The exception is when a city dies because Godzilla attacks it.)

A blinding insight
The real reason we care about dying cities, I believe, resembles the reason our coworkers ‘huphs’ if Kate or I skips happy hour. Partly, it’s because Kate and I are interesting, smartly-dressed, and fabulously wealthy; and to be seen with us confers a kind of status…a discerned worldliness typically obtained only by the possession of a rare violin or Oscar invitation. You could say our presence is “de rigueur.” But mainly it’s because happy hour is only happy with lots of people. If you see someone downing five beers alone at happy hour, they’re unhappy no matter how cheap the Iron City (or Great Lakes Elliot Ness) is.

Just like how happy hour requires a group to be fun, businesses require a critical mass of customers to earn profits. Try finding a gay bar in rural California, and you’ll have a hard time, not because it lacks gays or because the place is stiflingly intolerant, but rather because the population is so sparse that there are not enough gay people near any one spot to sustain a gay bar. That’s why there might be more (underground) gay bars in homophobic Tehran (population 7.8 million) than in San Francisco (population 815,000).

Living in a dense, populous place means there are critical masses for more types of businesses. I only eat Ethiopian food like once per year. I doubt most Pittsburghers eat it even one third that often. But there are enough of us that our occasional trips make the restaurant Abay viable year round. This gives me a really neat experience occasionally, and it’s a godsend for those who eat Ethiopian weekly. It’s usually the people, not the specific buildings, that make a place. This is why, time and time again, residents of Tokyo have rebuilt their tiny cardboard skyscrapers in the wake of a Godzilla attack.

The idea of the critical mass is related to an economy of scale. Restaurants, bars, museums, and even concerts have high fixed costs, and, to a point, low variable costs, so they need enough customers that the average revenue per customer exceeds the average cost per customer.

Usually we hear about economies of scale with giant factories, and that’s a useful analogy in a way: just like economies of scale make more experiences available, they can also make our experiences into better values. Bus fares would be way cheaper if more people lived in the areas where my bus runs. My commute from Shadyside to South Side Works is a pretty fixed cost–one bus, one driver, one insurance policy, etc. So if twenty people rode the bus with me, we could each pay one dollar instead of two. Some buses, such as those on the East Busway, run at capacity in the morning, so it might seem like adding more riders would not lower costs, since the cost can’t be diluted any further. But more riders would mean more buses running, and more buses running means more frequent trips…or even express buses that make fewer stops but go faster.

To summarize, living next to other people gives us more options and makes some of our options cheaper. That is why we want people to live in cities with us. When they move away, they erode the critical masses, and it’s as if we ourselves moved a little farther out into the country.

A bold vision
I think it’s important to define why we want people to live in cities with us in selfish terms like I have above, because young urbanists are sometimes characterized as do-gooders…as though we want people to live in cities because (a) we know what’s good for them or (b) we hate the crass materialism of suburbia. But actually, deep down, I think some of us want other people to live next to us because (a) we know what’s good for us and (b) we want to have more nice things for less money. In the American political landscape, you are much more likely to be taken seriously if you’re fighting openly for your own interest. (I also think that, in the climate change debate, an underrated argument is “I bought all this beachfront property and I don’t care about those coal miners if it means I lose money.”)

A new moral code
Finally, considering the scale economies behind the curtain of urban living casts many supposedly community-spirited actions in a different light. If you organize to stop a condo development in Squirrel Hill, then you’ve made my life in Shadyside worse: those condo-dwellers might have given the East End the critical mass needed for a sorely needed cheap southern restaurant…or an extra bus route. When people rally to stop new development, they presume a new building is the only thing we’re missing out on. They should actually feel they are snatching newer and cheaper experiences from residents citywide.

-Lewis Lehe

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The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Pros:
Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

Cons:
The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

Conclusion:
The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe

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Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

Come Live Here! Attracting Immigrants to the Rust Belt

Editor’s note: Attracting new immigrants is key for every Rust Belt city if they are to reverse decades of population decline. In this post, contributor Lewis Lehe examines why Pittsburgh has had a hard time attracting Hispanic newcomers. (If you enjoy this piece, make sure to check out Lehe’s last contribution to Rust Wire, these videos that explain congestion pricing.)-KG

Pittsburgh’s population has shrunk over the last decade, falling by 24,000 persons between 2000 and 2008. In the 2009 Democratic primary race for mayor, Councilman Patrick Dowd even made reversing population decline a signature issue of his campaign, (as you can see in this video).

We can get by without steel mills, but new residents are sorely needed to support the legacy costs of public servants employed when Pittsburgh had double the public to serve.

While Pittsburgh’s population dips, the U.S. Hispanic demographic drives American population growth and is projected to triple by 2050. Immigration accounts for recent trends, but projections also depend on higher Hispanic birth rates.

Last month, Bloomberg reported:

”Hispanic birth rates climbed 27 percent from 1990 through 2010, according to a Bloomberg analysis of yesterday’s Census Bureau estimates. That compares with a 7.5 percent decline in the birth rate of the overall population and an 8.3 percent decline for blacks.”

This could mean that Hispanic inflows to an area are also a good guarantee of future population growth. Already, Hispanics have transfused fresh blood into vacated corners of cities far from the Mexican border. In Birmingham, Alabama—the steel town where I grew up—a medley of Mexicans, Panamanians, and other recent arrivals peppered one stretch of blight with specialty groceries and flashy night clubs.

The University of Pittsburgh boasts a world-famous Center for Latin American Studies, so it always struck me as odd that Pitt students have to study abroad to actually meet Latin Americans. Pittsburgh slept through the last decade’s wave of Hispanic immigration like a drunk at a quinceanera. Of course, Pittsburgh won’t mirror El Paso, but even relative to nearby Rustbelt cities, the Steel City’s Latin flavor is pretty mild.

City Population Hispanic Pop Hispanic Share (%)
Pittsburgh 313,118 6,788 2.2
Erie 103,516 5,151 5.0
Cleveland 439,013 38,252 8.7
Buffalo 273,335 22,377 8.2
Toledo 316,725 20,399 6.4

(Source: American Community Survey 2009)

Compounding the sense of vacancy, Pittsburgh’s Hispanics don’t cluster in a neighborhood but rather occupy small pockets in Beechview, Brookline, Oakland, and the South Side. Saul Guerrero, owner of La Jimenez Mexican grocery stores in Beechview and Oakland, said most of his customers travel from surrounding counties.

It’s hard to say the City of Champions hasn’t made a good hustle, though. For a city with such a small Hispanic population, Pittsburgh hosts a large number of Hispanic organizations, including the Latin American Cultural Union, Pittsburgh Hispanic Center, Hispanic Family Center, Colombia in Pittsburgh, Salud Para los Ninos, Pittsburgh Hispanic Catholic Community, Pittsburgh Venezuelan Association, and Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Hispanic Center, in fact, was founded with the goal of bringing Hispanics to Pittsburgh. (This 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article chronicles some of the Hispanic Center’s challenges.)

The welcome mat is certainly welcome, but for many Hispanics an area’s strongest draw isn’t marketing so much as the presence of fellow countrymen. As part of my exhaustive research process for this post, I drank two pitchers of Yuengling with Cesar—a restaurant worker and occasional yard man—who has never been anywhere else in the United States except for Pittsburgh. He moved here directly from Mexico, because he knew someone who lived here. Hence, Pittsburgh faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma: you need Hispanics to attract Hispanics.

Plentiful jobs can ignite an upward cycle of immigration and growth, and Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate has stayed nearly 2% below the national average. But western PA lacks the poultry processing, endless suburban construction, and seasonal farm employment that often occupy Hispanic hands. The region’s flagship industries are health care, education and finance—not exactly promising lines of work for someone buttoning down a shaky grasp of English. Today’s trickle of Hispanic labor might continue to satiate the city’s restaurant, housekeeping, and landscaping industries.

I would like to believe Hispanics could reverse Pittsburgh’s population loss—partly because I like Latin cultures, but mainly because I like Pittsburgh. The evidence, however, suggests only slow growth in the Hispanic population. We can say gracias for what we have, though. The four Mexicans I interviewed for this piece all emphatically described Pittsburgh as refreshingly tranquilo. Samantha Guerrero commented, “One of the best things that can happen is that the [Hispanic] community remains scattered,” because exclusively-Hispanic neighborhoods can foster gangs and allow immigrants to procrastinate learning English.”

-Lewis Lehe

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What is Congestion Pricing? Is it Fair?

Take a look at these two quirky videos about congestion pricing by Lewis Lehe:

How do you price a road? Half res from Lewis on Vimeo.

Is congestion pricing fair? from Lewis on Vimeo.

“This series began as half of my senior thesis, which answered why it’s hard to visually show certain modes of economic thinking,” Lewis explained.

“I chose congestion pricing as an example, because it’s a policy that economists support and voters oppose, and because I care about transportation. By January, I’ll have finished a website with about six animations, links, interview clips, and FAQ’s about congestion pricing.

I’ve tried to make the material watchable by mixing the argument with surreal elements. Feel free to comment with any praise or encouragement. In ‘Is congestion pricing fair?’ there is a false ending.”

A bit of background about congestion pricing from Lewis: “Congestion pricing is close to free lunch. It raises money, lowers congestion, and improves efficiency (by letting individuals monetize their time). In the next ten years, many cities and counties will resort to congestion pricing, because (1) congestion is worsening, (2) infrastructure is collapsing, and (3) municipal pension plans are going totally broke. The biggest problem with congestion pricing is equity, but I am confident we can resolve it by using revenues wisely,” he believes.

About Lewis in his own words:
“After growing up in Birmingham, Alabama (‘the Pittsburgh of the South’), I studied math/econ at University of Pittsburgh, because I lose power if I go too far from an abandoned steel mill. Now I make charts and graphs for the steel industry. I learned After Effects partly at La FUC in Buenos Aires but mainly from online tutorials as I made this series. I get my equipment from Pittsburgh Filmmakers. I have been making movies for 7 years. My Dad is an urban/environmental planner.”

I like how these videos are funny and make a complex economic and transportation topic more understandable. What do you think?

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Editorial, Good Ideas, Public Transportation, The Media, Urban Planning