Archives for the month of: May, 2010

Kathryn Bohri is an undergraduate student at the American University in Washington, D.C. We crossed paths last year on Twitter, thanks to our mutual interest in the future of cities. Kathryn is on a quest to make her mark on Allentown, PA, the city where she was raised and to which she hopes to return after college.

Kathryn Bohri

“My god, I have missed the Valley. I love these people. I love this place.” This was Kathryn’s May 11th Tweet after she returned home for a visit.

The place she is referring to is Lehigh Valley, which encompasses the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. It is the third most populous region in Pennsylvania, behind the metro areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the 52nd most populous in the U.S. This area has the distinction of being cataloged as a part of the Rust Belt — a term that refers to a swath of old industrial cities around the Great Lakes, such as Gary, IN, Detroit, MI and Buffalo, NY. These cities are characterized by barren shells of once-robust manufacturing sites, dilapidated structures, crime, and job loss, and where the vestiges of this plight still remain.

Billy Joel’s infamous song has given Allentown a recognizable name, to the dismay of its sister communities Bethlehem and Easton. But there is a growing realization that espirit de corp between all three is critical to rebuilding the region. A town of 109,000, Allentown registers in as Pennsylvania’s most populous city. Among its attributes, it boasts a highly regarded farmers market and world class parks system. Bethlehem, still licking its wounds from the demise of the Bethlehem Steel factory in 2003, is known as the birthplace of Musikfest, the largest free music festival in the nation. And Easton, the smallest of the three cities, is the hometown of former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes, otherwise known as the Easton Assassin. Despite long-held vestiges of Rust Belt decline, population growth in the Leigh Valley has been brisk, attributed to the area’s distinction as a bedroom community to the larger urban centers of Philadelphia and New York.

But let’s get back to Kathryn. A sociology major, Kathryn is intrigued by the intersection between urban centers and people, particularly in her native Allentown. “Growing up, I lived in a suburban community on the fringe of Allentown. And being there made me realize how car-dependent we had become as a community. Sadly, if I had walked for an hour, the only place I would have eventually stumbled upon is a local fast food restaurant.”

Bohri said this led to her fascination with the role of “Third Places” in fostering civic connection. “In the more urbanized section of the city, I found a wonderful coffeehouse that seemed to serve as the gathering place for local residents. It was here that I began to ask myself, ‘Why are there so many people hanging out here?’ The conclusion I drew was that places like this represent key locales for conversation and social connection, with coffee itself being secondary.”

She has now become a big proponent of the New Urbanism movement, a concept that advocates the development of compact, walkable, mixed-use cities and towns. Attending school in Washington D.C. has further opened her eyes to what an urban environment can develop into. “I’m still very much a small-city girl, so I operate in a space between loving and hating D.C. On the one hand, I enjoy having alternative forms of transportation at my disposal — the wonderful metro train system, buses, and a bike route. However, the extreme variations of culture have been difficult to adjust to, particularly having been raised in an area where the very conservative Pennsylvania Dutch values predominate.”

Like many long-term residents, Kathryn Bohri is committed to the reinvention of the Leigh Valley. But many challenges exist along the path to shedding its history as a Rust Belt bellwether: a tepid job market, housing market downturn and other economic factors. Another thorn in the area’s side is the lack of commuter rail services for workers who trek into Philadelphia, New York, or New Jersey on a daily basis. This is notable because the Lehigh Valley is the largest East Coast metropolitan area, by population, without passenger rail service.

Matthew Turk is Assistant Director of the Allentown Economic Development Corporation. Before moving to Allentown, Turk had similar positions in Boulder, CO, Bellingham, WA, Philadelphia, PA, and Columbia, SC. “Historically, the Lehigh Valley has been a place where the 62 municipalities have taken an ‘every man for himself’ approach to community and economic development, but our organization has been steadily working to combat this mentality, and some cities are finally starting to get the message.” And, he adds, there are a number of trends currently surfacing for Allentown and the greater Lehigh Valley landscape. “When I look to the future for the City of Allentown, the two major influences are regional cooperation and a renewed focus on manufacturing.”

Turk notes that the current approach involves growing existing manufacturing businesses, with a goal of reestablishing Allentown as the manufacturing center of Lehigh Valley. “We are watching as manufacturers employ a different profile of worker, more attuned to urban living and creative class needs. We have also seen consumer tastes trend toward local production. Companies that offshored production in the 1990s are re-shoring production in this decade. There’s a renewed interest on the part of real estate developers and construction professionals in rehabilitating existing industrial buildings rather than building new in sprawling suburbs. Manufacturers are interested in developing a community of fabricators, and all of it coupled with a national policy of green/clean job development. This points toward a new era of manufacturing, and we believe that Allentown can be at the forefront of that trend.”

What would stand in the city’s way? Public perception. Turk says the local opinion is that Allentown is unsafe, has unsuitable building stock, doesn’t make things any easier. “Trying to stay in front of local word of mouth spreading around the world is a major challenge.”

Despite the obstacles, major progress is being achieved through collaboration between community partners and stakeholders. Working through the regional economic development corporation, these parties are jointly contributing to regional development strategy and marketing the city as a part of the greater Lehigh Valley.

Some believe that the biggest hurdle to reinventing the Lehigh Valley is its conservative nature. The ingrained Pennsylvania Dutch mindset encourages people to approach change very cautiously. This attitude is helpful when things are stable and going well, Turk says, but doesn’t work as well in a crisis.

That being said, American University student and Allentown native Kathryn Bohri remains optimistic. “Allentown is a city that has changed me and saved me in so many ways. There is nothing like being in a small town and having close community ties. Where it takes you two hours to leave the grocery store because of all of the people you know. This is where I want to make a difference; this is where I want to be.”

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

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“Owning your own home made sense when people cold hope to hold a job for all of their lives. But in an economy that revolves around mobility and flexibility, a house that can’t be sold becomes an economic trap, preventing people from moving freely to economic opportunity.”

Excerpt from Richard Florida’s new book entitled The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post Crash Prosperity.


Earlier this month, my 19-year-old stepdaughter moved to her own apartment. As a parent it was a bittersweet moment: On the one hand, a sense of trepidation; on the other, the knowledge that all young people must undergo this rite of passage to develop and mature as individuals.

Once the dust settled from her move, I began to reflect on my own early apartment experiences, including noisy neighbors and a diet of top ramen noodles. My first rental was during my sophomore year at the Ohio State University. Three roommates and I lived in a rat-trap house just off campus. My portion of the rent was $69.13, which underscores the condition of the property. In the ensuing years, I rented two more off-campus apartments in seedy parts of town. Looking back, I consider myself fortunate to have lived to talk about it.

After graduating college and accepting a job that paid $18,700, I decided to upgrade my living accommodations to a fancy apartment on the northwest side of Columbus. Having not yet received my first paycheck, my mother cosigned on a $500 loan for me from Ohio National Bank — a move that not only covered my deposit and first month’s rent but also allowed me to establish my first source of credit.

For many years thereafter, I continued to rent my living spaces, bucking the often prescribed route of home ownership. And, despite the loss of tax advantages, this lifestyle has served me well by providing geographical flexibility and unencumbered career mobility. Nevertheless purchasing a home remains an alluring prospect — the proverbial American dream. That being said, we are not the savers we once were. Instead, we have become a nation of “homeloaners” versus “homeowners,” mortgaged to the hilt and susceptible to the whims of a nationwide home investment frenzy.

Today's Uncertain Economy Has lead Many Americans to Closely Examine the Risks of Purchasing a New Home

As growing numbers of Americans find themselves trapped and underwater compliments of the recent housing bubble, an interest in renting as a housing option has taken on new life. Paul Krugman and Edward Glasser are among the growing choir of economists who argue that more Americans should relinquish the prospect of purchasing a home in favor of a lifetime of renting.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are currently 38 million renters in the U.S., comprising one-third of all households. In California, where I currently reside, renting is in vogue, with approximately 45% of households renting their home, the second highest level in the nation.

The notion of a burdensome mortgage is one factor contributing to the uptick in renters. Another is that some states allow renters to treat all of their rent or at least a portion as a tax deduction or credit. However, according to the aforementioned National Low Income Housing Coalition report a family must earn $38,500 a year (or $18.44 an hour) to afford a simple two-bedroom apartment at the 2010 National Fair Market Rent of $959.00. According to housing advocates, this fact alone justifies the need for a greater supply of low-income units, as well as rent controls. To the contrary, free-market advocates such as Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell beg to differ, arguing that these practices place unfair market restrictions on the owners of these properties, at times to their demise.

Denver's LoDo District Has Seen Growing Numbers of Condo Units Converted to Rental Housing as a Hedge to the Tepid Real Estate Market

Perhaps the most controversial issue in the rental housing sphere is a concept referred to as section 8, where the federal government subsidizes rental payments for families with very low incomes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development serves as a funds distribution portal for local housing agency authorities—also known as public housing agencies—with rent prices regulated through a government-instituted standard called Fair Market Rent.

In light of increasing public scrutiny on the cost of the federal government’s involvement in social programs, politicians and society overall should consider a new business model for low-income housing residents. Frankly, the long-term sustainability of funding for low-income housing has a greater likelihood of success if the monies are used as a bridge to a better life versus just a resting place.

Similar to the Welfare to Work program championed by former President Bill Clinton in the ‘90s, residents should be permitted to rent for only a short duration, while they receive federally funded career training and dependent care services. The goal would be to encourage residents to pursue a self-sustaining lifestyle where they can reach a reasonable standard of living, allowing them a larger set of housing options over the long run.

While we’re on the topic of best interests, college graduates would also benefit greatly if they were to consider renting as a first option. Here’s why: Young professionals that pursue a path of home ownership prematurely can find themselves weighed down by a mortgage, restricting any career options that require a geographical move. Why not enjoy the freedoms inherent at this time in a young person’s life? Trade in the tired mindset of homeownership in favor of something more realistic. This generation’s new mantra should be: Go to college, get a good job, and rental sweet rental.

Actually, demographic trends suggest that young professionals will be the primary drivers of the rental surge. To this point, Harry Dent in his book “The Great Depression Ahead: How to Prosper in the Debt Crisis of 2010-12,” suggests that the needs of this demographic will be a major driver of apartment demand in the foreseeable future, a boom to developers in this area.

For now, though, the jury is still out as to whether more Americans will embrace the notion of renting as a legitimate housing option. On the surface it does make sense, as we have all watched homeownership develop into a nightmare for those who could not afford one in the first place. And amid today’s uncertain economic times, being able to relocate quickly without the shackle of a mortgage is a blessing in and of itself.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com