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How Cities Happen(ed)


October 25th will be on me soon enough, so it’s none too early to strategize the Agincourt exhibit theme.

Both previous exhibits (2007 and 2015) created Agincourt, rather than having been about creating it. The blog, which came along in 2010, was an effort to record the process before it fades any more from memory. Now it seems exhibit #3 may combine these in a penultimate self-reflective moment.

How Cities Happen(ed)

Much of what’s going on around me, what I walk and drive through each day, is a laboratory in urban design. I watch it emerge and wonder, How did this happen? but have no ready answer. Indeed, I’d be suspicious if anything did quickly come to mind. For the time being, I’m allowing the present to stimulate my thinking about the future, the direction that cities (the one where I live, particularly) seem to be developing, and also how in hell we got ourselves In this predicament.

There is a recent phenomenon called “The New Urbanism” which at first encounter smote me with its nostalgic wand. It portends to replicate or, at minimum, build upon those aspects of pre-WWI town-planning—small scale, neighborhood-ing, “Father Knows Best”—to create new communities like Seaside (used as the setting for “The Truman Show”) and Celebration, both in Florida. They have been financial successes for their investors, but on further exposure I’m suspicious of their demographic footprint.

Some New Urbanist communities have been sociologically self-selective. Ave Maria, also in Florida—is there a theme here?—has been consciously oriented toward conservative pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics: it has one church, the center of community life, and will never have another—non-Catholics need not apply. I have neither argument nor track with restrictive communities, but at least Ave Maria is up front about it. A place like Seaside, however, is another matter altogether.*

“Organic” is a word often used to suggest the way that cities develop. [Notice I did not say “grow”, because it may well be that contraction is involved.] But biologists will surely correct any suggestion that organic growth is freewheeling and open-ended. It ain’t. Nature plays by a set of rules even more rigorous than pinochle. Patterns of growth are contained within the seed before it leaves the pod and falls upon the earth. If conditions are appropriate, it will germinate, take root, and yield its own offspring in turn. Human intervention may enhance its success rate, because Nature is impassionate about such things.

Alys Beach

I’m not an economist and neither are you, I suspect. In fact, you can’t become one at my own institution of higher learning, because they eliminated that department a dozen years ago. [Ask me why, some time. Because Capitalism is the commodification of everything and economics provides a framework for understanding and beginning to question that reality.] So I looked at Alys Beach, a “New Urbanist” community also in Florida.

A large portion of Alys Beach is already occupied and there seems to be an effort to market property, both lots and houses, on a drip feed to maintain market stability and growth. A visit to their website—find it yourself; I’m not on their payroll—shows ten or twelve available properties. I chose one nearer the beach—all their listings indicate which side, north or south, of Route A30 the offering is situated—and made note of the following:


AC24 Sea Castle Alley is shaded in the center foreground. There will be other building sites between it and the beachfront.

  • property address: AC24 Sea Castle Alley
  • lot size (it is currently vacant, as are its neighbors): approx. 2500 sq.ft. (that’s 50 by 50)
  • price: $2,834,000 (about $1,133/sq.ft. or just under $8.00/sq.in.)
  • deed restrictions are probably embedded elsewhere in the website, but, as they say, if you have to ask you can’t afford it; looking at some of the homes for purchase, however, a reasonable guess would be a construction cost 1.5 to 2.0 times the cost of the site. So be prepared for a $7-8M resale price tag when it comes on the market.

The median price home in Florida in 2017 was $288,000/$213,400 (asking versus purchase price), or about $163/sq.ft. for a considerably more modest home than you’ll find at Alys Beach. To put that in perspective, a median priced home in these United States in 2014 was $188,900. At Alys Beach, that will get you one hundred and sixty-seven square feet of the almost-beachfront lot I mentioned above—not even enough to accommodate a single-stall garage; barely enough to camp on.

86 South Charles Street and its 4-bed, 7-bath, 4789SF will set you back a cool $5.85M

Alys Beach is among the newest iterations of New Urbanism, so it may not have been modeled after the earlier community of Seaside. There, it was implied that a short walk from home or apartment condo would take you and the kids to the local Malte Shoppe, where the waitperson or the burger-slinger lives in the apartment upstairs—except that a visit to Zillow or Redfin reveals that one-bedroom rental is, in fact, now a condo selling in the vicinity of $900K. That waitperson or fry cook is actually living in a trailer park ten miles up or down the coast.

If all this betrays my politics, then you don’t know me very well, because I am a Democratic Socialist and have admitted that here and elsewhere. And my choice of Alys Beach or Seaside or Ave Maria and any of the other examples of New Urbanism may have stacked the deck to favor my point of view; there certainly are other more modest applications of NA ideas, away from expensive beachfront property and in dense urban areas. I just haven’t found them yet. Nor am I the only one who finds the NA notion offensive.

So a potential theme for Agincourt #3 might well be titled “The Old Urbanism, or where our cities went terribly awry”—as if I had a plausible answer.

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