Unvexing Virginia’s Flag

•May 14, 2020 • Leave a Comment

There’s been an unusual amount of flag drama lately, which is to say any at all. I suspect it’s related to quarantine; flags are one of the most visible and universal ways to assert affinity, identity, and community from a distance.

It got me thinking about Virginia’s flag, which is a bit shown up by more striking flags on three sides. Maryland has an iconic hot mess of heraldry, DC has arguably one of the best city flags in the world (up there with Amsterdam and Chicago); and North Carolina’s, while maybe not as evocative, does follow basic rules of flag design:

  • Keep It Simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  • Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  • Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors.
  • Be Distinctive or Be Related.
  • No Lettering or Seals.

This might be a failure on premise for me, as I am not about to give up Virginia’s seal. It’s evocative and honestly a bit daring, with bare breasts and murder and an explicit threat to kill oppressors. As a Virginian, I believe this is a legacy the commonwealth rarely lives up to, but should serve as a constant reminder of what our values should be. And there are other flags with seals and figures striking or cool enough – California, Wales, Zheleznogorsk – to break these rules and stand on their own, and I think our Amazon belongs in the club.

But… it can go off to the side a little.

They both present the additional state colors on the field – orange and maroon, in addition to blue. These are the UVA and Tech colors, incidentally, and I separated them with a white field in part as a visual buffer and in part because if you put the two school colors together directly I’d probably never hear the end of it.

But also, the triangle of three colors quickly represents the shape of Virginia and its geographic “grand divisions” in a roughly accurate way. Moving the seal to the canton emphasizes more of the triangle, whereas setting it as a charge on the right allows the triangle to emanate from the seal, as if the warrior woman had taken her stand against tyranny atop a summit – albeit at the possible expense of a symbolic Eastern Shore.

Both of these choices are very rough drafts, obviously. I would really like a more curved triangle, which would be even more geographically evocative and add more dynamism to the flag – not quite a swoosh, but implying a rising star.

I would love to know what other people think about this basic idea.

“The Future Is Not Retro”: Urbanist Realities and “Her”banism

•September 9, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The massively urbanized, but not entirely alienating, Los Angeles of Spike Jonze's Her

Alon Levy, an urbanist whose crunchiness I’ve greatly admired, makes a point I’ve routinely tried to make about the future of “urbanist” urban development:

If you want to see what 21st-century TOD looks like, go to the richer parts of East Asia, especially Tokyo, which builds much more housing than Hong Kong and Singapore. The density in Tokyo is anything but uniform. There are clusters of high-rise buildings next to train stations, and lower density further away, even small single-family houses fronting narrow streets far enough from train stations that it’s not economical to redevelop them. It offends nostalgic Westerners; the future often does.

via The Future is not Retro — Pedestrian Observations

Asian development patterns do seem to offend the West. A region whose rapid development, growth, and rise to affluence is most recent and thereby the most prominent bellwether for that of others has shocked international tastes to the point that there are pejoratives like “Bladerunnerization” thrown at these kinds of logistics by virtue of their existence.

But exist they do, and in a time of climate reckoning, exist they must. Media acknowledges these realities implicitly often by filming near-future settings in China, whose massive and recent cities (Shenzhen is not even 40 years old and has 20 million inhabitants in its commuter shed) are at once impressive, shocking, and unrecognizable to Western audiences.

This was the case with Her, the 2013 Spike Jonze joint about a relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and his digital assistant. In addition to being a fantasy about Millennials in midlife, it is also a vision of the future of urban development, as might be necessitated by migration and environmental realities. It is set in a massively densified Los Angeles, which does not play itself – Beijing and Shanghai largely stand in for this conceptual urbanism. It is incredibly vast, but in soft glow – a city of skyway piazzas connected by seamless and extensive rail transportation.

Ironically, this isn’t terribly different from the redevelopment of Tysons Corner underway as a consequence of the relatively recent Silver Line expansion – Tysons Corner Center built itself a front room in the form of a piazza opening onto a skyway and metro entrance, a seasonal lawn and/or skating rink lined with new entrances to its anchor stores, restaurants, and hotels. The mall was retrofit to accommodate the opportunities represented by the reality of its new logistics.

Western urbanists need to accept that densification, while necessary, will likely not take the form of either the town centers we’re familiar with nor the mid-century modernist megaprojects that gave us the likes of Pruitt-Igoe. It appears developers and planners will borrow richly from both, but create a new contemporary vision for urban life. It is the responsibility of planners to ensure that this vision not only meets the demands of the present crises of affordability and environment but represents the desires of the broader public.

“McMansion Hell” is Architectural Jargon Heaven

•September 5, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Everyone who loves architecture should read McMansion Hell. He occasionally drifts into the neotrad trap of putting the pictures in the wrong order, but he has a strong case for the three primary aesthetic failures of McMansions: they’re too busy, they’re cheap things pretending to be expensive things, and they fail to understand the vernacular styles they poorly mimic.

Anyway, she uses the word “McNub” for what I called a “Georgian ziggurat” – a mad, terraced roof line that’s haunted me ever since my teenage years had me drive by Pat Robertson’s CBN compound, wondering if the deal he made with a dark god had him build a Mesoamerican pyramid out of brick and cover it with cheap shingles. If I can muster up pictures, I will – that thing was galling.



Build It And They Might Not Come

•September 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Casinos (and even eds-and-meds) are the economic base equivalent of gnawing off your own limbs: desperate, and superficially nourishing, but….

Granola Shotgun

I have conversations with folks all across the country who are concerned about the state of their town’s financial status . They keep coming to the same conclusion. “We’re doing absolutely everything we can to make our town solvent, but it isn’t working.”

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Town X already has a premium outlet mall out by the highway that was supposed to generate loads of sale tax revenue. The beauty of an outlet mall is that there are no homes or residents to burden municipal services – only cash registers. That worked for a while. But now every other town on the highway also has some version of an outlet mall so the shops are languishing. In response, this same town just built three! shiny new clusters of big box stores along the same highway using the same theory of economic development. And this is a town that’s had a strict slow…

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•April 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Nation appears to have discovered Richmond:

In 2013, Richmond was the eleventh most unequal large American city (most of the cities populating the bottom tier of this collection are Southern cities). And it is ringed by suburbs which are largely inaccessible to city residents, thanks to a complete lack of public transport routes from city into suburb and by the toll-roads which were built on land previously lived on by black residents. Nearly 109,000 suburbanites commute into the city to work. Yet the city receives none of those workers’ tax dollars.

Out of sight, out of mind, Richmond’s poverty has festered for decades.

Is the Former Capital of the Confederacy Finally Ready to Confront Its Poverty—and Its Past? | The Nation.

Upcoming Event: Future of WMATA Panel

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I have made shamefully little comment on the slow collapse of WMATA (and still have some words on the “Millennial urbanism” of Tysons and the Silver Line upcoming), but there’s a panel next monday intimating what we might be able to do about it.

WMATA Wants a Circle Line

•December 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Faced with a serious existing core capacity crush – something that’s expected to get worse when the Silver Line spreads rolling stock even thinner, at least in the interim – WMATA has decided the best long-term solution for downtown is a circle line.

True to WMATA planning tradition, the maps make it look much more complicated than it has to be. Metro went thru periods in which each train color indicated a different direction of service in the early 1980s, and more recently proposed the current Rush Plus service changes as a bifurcated blue line that intersected with itself before better design prevailed on them. Deconstructing the diagrams, we can see that this is actually a jughandle circle line combined with what appear to be express tracks bypassing “Orangington“.

Because some idiot decided to describe this one long-term concept for heavy rail as WMATA’s “long-term plan”, there’s already been tons of outrage over its lack of connectivity to just about anywhere else – neglecting the Purple Line, communities east of the Anacostia, and any number of desired extensions to Centreville, Laurel, Fort Belvoir, etc.

On one hand, this is overstated. The concept ignores existing proposals for surface transit, especially levied by other agencies like the DDOT streetcars and the Purple Line (officially an MTA project). On the other, however, this does highlight that Metro doesn’t appear to find heavy rail connectivity EOTR to be of sufficient value or importance to plan for and/or consider funding on its own, and this is a problem.

Personally, if it were my fantasy, I would combine a plan like Neil Flanagan’s circle line and Blue Line to National Harbor with various existing light rail/premetro and streetcar plans, as well as much higher frequencies, more stations and thru-operation on MARC/VRE akin to SEPTA Regional Rail, which has historically set best practices for commuter rail service in America. But as long as I’m dreaming, I’d also like Blue Line service to Landmark and Shirlington, to solve some of their respective be-on-the-way issues:

Metro 2040

The Question Of Affinity, viz. Craziness/Smelliness

•September 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Why I talk about intersectional affinity sometimes when I talk about urbanism, from a friend. The last paragraph is golden, and addresses something I regularly have problems with, to be frank:

The question of ‘identity politics’ – whether there is any politics without ‘identity’ or whether the description ‘identity politics’ even marks out anything coherent – is much more interesting and complex. I find virtually all blanket denunciations of ‘identity politics’ to be, well, dunderheaded. They’re invariably from people who know a fair bit of Marxism but have read virtually nothing else in the history of political philosophy, so they’re arguing some kind of straw man. Yet there’s also something about the critique which gets at something real that I’m finding it hard to articulate….

‘What! You want me to ignore class, which is produced by material relations of production, and organize ourselves around class-posterior forms of subjectivity like sexuality and race! That just divides!’ Yeah, except nothing about that characterization is true of any politics I’ve ever heard of, because it’s absurd. Why would anyone recommend that?

There’s a moment I always had with students when they would finally get to the point of extracting a main idea from a text, and then they’d push it to some kind of mutant extreme and say to me, always in this same tone, ‘Why would anyone believe that?’ To which I’d always say, well, it’s really on you to figure that out. (By that, I meant on us, because this was a class, and it was a teachable moment, but in the privacy of your own home it probably is on you.)

Partly, it may be you’re missing what they’re really saying. It may also be you don’t get the context yet, or understand what the idea is trying to do. But you’ve missed something.

For all the problems of such a notion, there really does need to be a moment of interpretive charity – if the idea seems to you an insane dead fish, just lying there, crazy and smelly, please consider that you may actually have it wrong, and you should try to figure out why a smart person may have said this, other than that they’re a crazy asshole who wants to hurt you. That should not be your first recourse.

Sprawl or Ratchet: Prince George’s False Equivalency

•September 24, 2013 • 1 Comment

Westphalia is happening. Like Konterra, National Harbor and almost anything else that gets green-lit in Prince George’s County outside of the College Park corridor over the past twenty years, it’s in the middle of nothing, equally inconvenient to six distant and practically barren Metrorail stations that are ripe for development.

The charitable explanations for this are twofold: that land in this area, which supposedly will be “transit-oriented” but not in any kind of on-the-way sense, is very cheap; as such, it is more than worthwhile to the developer to provide a LRT line or busway to Westphalia. At the same time, we could argue, PG County is desperate for redevelopment in its southern tier and will approve anything.

Yet the leadership of Prince George’s doesn’t seem to be desperate enough to zone land around most of its 15 Metro stations to support high density. I’ve long believed that this has to do with PG County’s status as a nexus of black affluence, in which middle-class black Prince Georgians desire to conform to post-war white bourgeois norms of affluence, and driving and detached housing is one of them. While I’m not unsympathetic to this, clinging to the majority norms of a generation ago becomes neurotic when these norms actively work to stifle agency as a consequence of the evolving needs of a more sustainable and pluralistic society.

As some influential Prince Georgians would see it, suburban sprawl, like patriarchal attitudes, represents a graduation to respectability, away from land use patterns they see as “ratchet” or associate with the “ghetto” from which they may have fought very hard to escape. Unfortunately, as the auto-dependent squalor of south Los Angeles or large swathes of regional Atlanta and Houston or even Iverson Mall would suggest, sprawl, wealth and security aren’t really highly correlated at all. But the ability to pay to drive around everywhere, even if it means you ultimately have to, is as much a signifier of wealth here as it is among the Buick drivers of China.

This emotional relationship between car-dependent sprawl and the signifiers of respectable black affluence, however, might in part help to explain the remarkable backlash against criticism of PG County’s development strategies, such as they are: that they’ve fought for and earned the right to make the mistakes that Loudoun County continues to make. But they are mistakes, and even if familiarity breeds contempt, Prince George’s does not have the excuse of unfamiliarity Loudoun does in continuing to plan for the prior century’s land use. It does, however, have a great opportunity to create something better than the notion of living in someone else’s dream.

The Rise Of The New New New New New New New New York

•September 13, 2013 • Leave a Comment


I’ve read “The Rise Of The New New Left”, that Peter Beinart essay that’s been going around. It’s fascinating, and I do believe Millennials have definitely moved leftward, but I think Beinart’s analysis is a bit flawed, especially after reading it in the context of Charles Stross’ own generational analysis. For one, I think he uses the term “political generation” to refer to what I’d think of as “political realignment” in the context of U.S. electoral politics. Usually this refers to geopolitics but it can mean demography as well (these things interrelate). This isn’t to say that there isn’t a generation gap – 30+% shifts in opinion about Occupy are quite something, and this does a lot to explain the Gen-X resentment of Millennials, which often seems asymmetrical – but it probably means a larger systemic rebalancing act is in the works.

The article partly focuses on the New York mayoral election as a bellwether: as Koch was contemporary to Thatcher and presaged Reagan, so it apparently is with Bill DeBlasio. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but DeBlasio was the only mayoral candidate I’m aware of that was both Not Quinn (i.e. by extension Not Bloomberg) and also was not threatening to rip up transportation infrastructure to pander to a nebulous anti-hipster vote. But the presumption on the part of, say, Anthony Wiener that every bicycle rider in New York is a white, young, affluent and able-bodied hobbyist is another issue; DeBlasio also ran on the platform of generally being less racist and more class-conscious, which drove Bloomberg insane and made him more electable in the end than Quinn.

(Speaking of New York mayors, tho: “Ed Koch [was] liberal on many cultural issues” except for that part where he let tens of thousands of New Yorkers die horribly of a treatable and debilitating plague so no one would think he was gay. And this amidst a protracted debate about New York’s AIDS history. I honestly have no idea how to respond to this; it’s like a money quote of myopia. LOL unto death.)

I do think Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul are setting up the eventual political future. I’ve often felt the Democrats, once the DNC finally collapses, should brand themselves more explicitly as social-democrats (like we see in Minnesota, as the Democratic Farm and Labor party in their case). And a lot of young voters are willing to put up with neoliberal economics and even incidental racism from the GOP as long as they’re serious about reducing the military- and prison-industrial complex, which I think the very youngest Republicans are. (Like Charles Stross, I think Millennials and post-Millennials have very complicated opinions about the surveillance state.)

I think Beinart misunderstands, at the very least, my opinion as a Millennial about Social Security: I don’t want it privatized, necessarily, I just want it now. As it stands I’m pretty resigned about it not existing in any fashion when I’m “retired”, which I’m not expecting to be able to actually do. I hope someone will have the balls to try to reform it into a guaranteed minimum income, which would give us a lot of, well, social security and the kind of economic flexibility we need in the face of the “sharing economy” and its ongoing casualization of work – but I don’t think they’d be able to talk about it on the campaign trail. Boomers love two things most of all: maintaining the status quo in the Social Security system and pulling up the ladder behind them to access it.