Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Joy of Clutter

The Joy of Clutter: What Marie Kondo Got Wrong
We’re in danger of Marie Kondo-ing our way to empty lives. An artful pile of meaningful objects can be richly autobiographical. But you need a good eye—or these tips from design pros
I AM AN UNABASHED magpie; tchotchkes dot the hill I will die on. They’re mostly vacation mementos, like the silver, Victorian, mussel-shaped “match safe” that I splurged on in a Rome antique shop with my newly minted fiancé. I keep other dust-collectors at hand for a reason. My husband and I are trying to eliminate most of our screen time at home, and having books and playing cards within reach makes it much easier to resist our phones. Besides, the cards are beautiful and graphic.
Yes, some of my knickknacks spark joy, the quality that Japanese organizing dynamo Marie Kondo demands one’s possessions trigger to be deemed worth keeping. But, though I’m sure her 2014 book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” has helped many of the millions of people in 42 regions and countries who’ve bought it stave off hoarding tendencies (now a bona fide mental-illness diagnosis), I’ve always found the bar she sets a little lofty and specific.
My silver mussel certainly conjures the romantic high that buoyed my husband and me through Rome after we became engaged. But other items, with which I feel no less connected, evoke more-nuanced emotions that could hardly be called joy. In that category: the kaleidoscope that my late Aunt Linda made out of stained glass and a marble when she was saddled with MS. I’m nothing but wistful when I look at it. Or the matches I swiped from an Oklahoma restaurant I visited with my dad when I was reviewing it undercover for the New York Times. My hard-won assignment left him teary-eyed with pride, and when I look at the matches I feel a sense of achievement, nostalgia, gratitude—take your pick.
Clutter gets a bad rap. Researchers have found that a muddle of objects can actually jolt creativity. Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, conducted studies in which people were led into a spotless or cluttered room, then tasked with imagining inventive uses for a surplus of ping-pong balls. “The people in messier rooms came up with more creative solutions,” Ms. Vohs said. Their ideas included turning the white plastic orbs into earrings or popping them on chair feet to protect floors. “People in tidy rooms wrote things like, ‘You could use them for Ping-Pong.’”
When she discusses her findings with her students, Ms. Vohs references images of the disheveled office of Albert Einstein, who famously asked, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Other disorganized world-beaters: Mark Twain, Frida Kahlo, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan Sontag and Steve Jobs. Yes, the man who transformed personal technology from mundane, clunky devices to elegant, minimalist machines was the dude with the pigsty desk.
Americans acquire a lot of junk we don’t need. In a study of 2,000 people commissioned by Slickdeals, a website that crowdsources bargains, the amount spent on impulse buys averaged $450 a month. And that soulless schlock you giddily carted home after a rainy afternoon at HomeGoods can undo your décor. As Los Angeles designer Kerry Joyce declared, “If the objects feel personal or collected, they will not feel like clutter.”
Especially if they’re artfully displayed. That’s where the counsel of designers comes in. New York-based design pro Thomas Jayne, for instance, advised that amassing your mess within one designated piece of furniture tricks the eye into seeing it all as one. “I like small treasures and the tales they tell but not on the loose,” he said. In his New Orleans home, an old bookcase with glass doors holds the random bits from life there—a golden mask from Mardi Gras, a cannonball from the Battle of New Orleans. “Because they’re all in a display cabinet, they form an interest in their randomness.”
As if in testament to the timelessness of quality clutter, millennials are picking up the vitrines and curio cabinets their grandparents had sloughed off. Los Angeles designer Oliver M. Furth has installed half a dozen vitrines in the last few years, including a 1940s Queen Anne cherry-wood display cabinet that’s now a tidy, dust-free domicile for his millennial client’s inherited heap of Blue Willow porcelain. “For a long time there was a movement away from what our parents or grandparents had. Now I think that people are adopting pieces of furniture that maybe made sense,” he said. Meanwhile, these bibelot corrals come cheap: A rosewood 1960s Norwegian Curio cabinet on resale site is on sale for $750. A simple, 6-feet-tall vitrine with curved-glass sides sold on auction site for $75. “People don’t want bitty things all over the house,” he said, “but they still want to have things, and [a vitrine] serves that purpose well.”
L.A. designer Jeff Andrews suggests rethinking your display now and then; even significant objects can lose their charge when they’re static. “If I get really bored and need a change, I’ll take everything off different surfaces in an entire room and redistribute them,” he said. “You’re looking at the same stuff but seeing it differently, and you appreciate it again.” It’s also vital to build in some breathing room. “It starts to look hoardery if there’s something on every surface,” advised Portland, Ore., designer Max Humphrey.
Clutter can be a pressure point for cohabitating couples, especially when one prefers the life ascetic and the other can’t pass up a bargain or a beckoning collectible. The husband of one of Mr. Andrews’s clients finds resonant meaning in KISS memorabilia, “and she hated it, clearly,” he said. The solution: turning his master closet into a dressing-room-cum-KISS-shrine, hidden from her view.
“My husband was really opposed to the idea of having a lot of stuff in our bedroom,” said boho Los Angeles designer Justina Blakeney. “He wanted to feel relaxed, and people can feel sort of stressed by too much stuff around.” Their compromise: lining their bedroom with wallpaper she designed that features bold, gold palm leaves. The pattern satisfies her hunger for maximalism without triggering his anxious response to objects that need dusting and just-so arranging.
When Gloria Vanderbilt said “decorating is autobiography,” she was likely referencing the sort of memento that insurance broker Patti Weinberg wanted to display. Ms. Weinberg and photographer Scott Frances wed at age 50 and had to fuse decades of (literal) baggage from separate lives into their Sag Harbor, N.Y., home. Though neither smoke, she clung to a blue-enamel ’60s ashtray she’d inherited from her parents. “It actually brings me comfort to be surrounded by their stuff, because they’re no longer with us,” Ms. Weinberg said.
Ultimately, a bit of decorative messiness can make a space feel homey, said Ms. Vohs. “It’s like when people have beach hair—it’s well done but has a little bit of muss to it, so you know the person is fun to hang out with.”
Law & Hoarder: How to Do Clutter Right
Aerate Your Collections
Los Angeles designer Kerry Joyce takes his clients’ collections very seriously. In this Manhattan dining room, he hung the homeowner’s cocktail party of portraits from the 1860s to the 1920s. But he kept it (relatively) buoyant: “We painted the room a pale aqua color—which brightened what would have been a rather dank room since it had only one window and faced a shady courtyard.” The designer then interspersed the paintings with light-catching antiqued restoration glass in shapes as varied as those of the paintings but uniformly framed in simple frames painted a matte Gustavian gray. “The mirrors were the perfect way to lighten the ambience; had it all been portraits, the effect would have been too heavy, and perhaps serious.” Mr. Joyce advises hanging only what you honestly love. “Filler art will show right away.”
Ask Your Treasurers to Tell a Story
To turn her detached garage in Los Angeles’s Frogtown neighborhood into a hangout “casita,” Justina Blakeney installed rounded niches with reclaimed wood shelves into the walls, lending an Old World feel, then stocked them with loot: among other things, an Indian hand-embroidered bull figurine from the Rose Bowl Flea Market, a bowl she bought at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, a burro’s-tail succulent in a ceramic pot. “For me, [clutter has] always been about storytelling,” she said. “When you’re cooking, you use certain flavors to enhance other flavors, like pairing basil with tomato seems to make them taste better. The same thing can work with a visual conversation—it helps all the elements look their best.” Fellow Angeleno designer Betsy Burnham also sets up a narrative with diverse materials. “To offset glossy, chunky pottery, I have something wicker or rattan or wood to give it an organic vibe, or something shiny, new and hard-edge.” Ms. Blakeney noted cohering strategies as well: The items take up the same amount of visual weight, and the repetition of terra cotta on each shelf ties the horde of objects together.
Loud, Proud...And in the Other Room
When Thomas Jayne and his husband, food stylist Rick Ellis, moved into their SoHo loft in Manhattan, they fashioned a separate space for their many collections, inspired by the Kunstkammers (or, cabinets of curiosities) of 18th-century Germany. Their lifetimes’ worth of finds—including Renaissance bronzes, German deer antlers, whale vertebrae—become a de facto museum, visually balanced by the two windows, the daybed flanked by identical arm chairs and a symmetrically placed pair of 1870s cast iron plant urns. “I call it calculated chaos,” Mr. Ellis said. Added Mr. Jayne, “The Dutch chandelier and big metal urns are centering devices.” Spreading lots of little bits about the loft would litter the place. “Massed together in concentration, everything looks good,” he said.
Invite the Eye to Wander

“You’ve got to think about things in terms of a skyline,” said Max Humphrey, a designer in Portland, Ore. “Your eye wants to travel around the room and be starting and stopping and moving up and down. If everything’s on one level, it looks like Washington, D.C., which is no good,” he said, referring to the capital’s legendary restriction that no building be taller than the federal buildings there. Atop a credenza in this living room of a 1910 Georgian-style house in Portland, Ore., Mr. Humphrey placed lanky mercury glass vases alongside squat, hexagonal brass candle holders and books laid on their side. To the left, cloud-shaped ceramic “wall pillows” by New York City artist Stepanka Summer ensure that the symmetry doesn’t get too formal and finicky. They also draw the eye up, as does the framed movie poster. Said New York stylist Hilary Robertson, author of the newly revised “The Stuff of Life: Arranging Things Ordinary & Extraordinary” (Ryland Peters & Small), “Varying scale is really the key to having things on your tables. In all fashion photographs, they always have something that’s a little off—the play of big and small.” She recommends using an oversize item, like a vase, plant pot or stack of art books, as a grounding element.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Housing Crisis? Not so fast…

Housing Crisis? Not so fast…

Posted on August 16, 2019

Here in California we are bombarded with news about our “housing crisis.” State politicians have used the housing crisis as justification for removing local control of zoning and handing carrots to developers. We are told that the Bay Area is the “epicenter” of the housing crisis.

Politicians and pundits who use this overblown language should review some of the reports available from state agencies and business sources. Those reports paint a far more nuanced picture.

The reports show:

1) San Francisco is not the epicenter of the affordable housing shortage. The opposite is true.

2) The state does not have a housing crisis. It does have a severe shortage of affordable housing for our lowest-income residents. This is due a combination of a physical housing shortage and simple poverty. There is not a shortage of market-rate housing.

3) 2018 population estimates show that population growth has slowed dramatically statewide, but the decline varies from county to county. Factors including fires, expensive housing, and the search at the urban boundaries for cheaper housing. Housing projections need to take these new figures into account.

4) Hundreds of thousands housing units have been proposed in California—more than enough to meet growth in housing demand statewide since 2010. While some projects are working their way through local government approval processes, most of them have been approved. For most of these projects, the construction phase is the bottleneck, not local government.

5) Growth is not an act of God. The jobs/housing ratio in the Bay Area is out of balance. The trend toward the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco has been fought sporadically for decades, and is now back on the agenda. There needs to be a serious, competent, open and democratic planning process for growth, both at the regional and state level.

This analysis is based on the following four widely available reports. However, the data has been combined to tease out some conclusions that are not well understood:

1) HCD report: California’s Housing Future: Challenges and Opportunities, Final Statewide Housing Assessment 2025. California Department of Housing and Community Development.

2) LAO report: The 2019-20 Budget: Considerations for the Governor’s Housing Plan. Legislative Analyst’s Office.

3) DOF report: E-5 Population and Housing Estimates for Cities, Counties, and the State, 2011-2019 with 2010 Census Benchmark. State of California Department of Finance, Demographics Research Unit.

4) CIRB report: New Development in California 2018. California Homebuilding Foundation, Construction Industry Research Board.

San Francisco is not the epicenter of the housing crisis

Under the standard definition, any household that spends more than 30 percent of its gross income on rent is considered rent-burdened. The chart below displays the percentage of low-income households that are rent-burdened in California. The chart is taken from the LAO report, but the graph has been truncated to save space. The original chart on page 7 of the report lists several more highly cost-burdened California counties.

Source: LAO report, p. 7.

Note that the least burdened county is San Francisco (which is both a city and a county). Low-income San Francisco residents on average have a rent burden that is lower than any other California county, and lower than the rest of the United States. This is probably due to a combination of low-income residents hunkered down in rent-controlled apartments, while highly paid techies are paying market rates.

'New Left Urbanists’ Want to Remake Your City

'New Left Urbanists’ Want to Remake Your City

It’s about control—using infrastructure to make the masses conform to one vision of how to live."

Christopher F. Rufo

America’s big cities are almost all dominated by the Democratic Party, but the politics of urban development are far from monolithic. In the past few years, a new faction has emerged across the country. Call them the new left urbanists.
These activists have big dreams. They want local governments to rebuild the urban environment—housing, transit, roads and tolls—to achieve social justice, racial justice and net-zero carbon emissions. They rally around slogans such as “ban all cars,” “raze the suburbs” and “single-family housing is white supremacy”—though they’re generally white and affluent themselves, often employed in public or semipublic roles in urban planning, housing development and social advocacy. They treat public housing, mass transit and bike lanes as a holy trinity, and they want to impose their religion on you.
“The residential is political,” wrote new left urbanists David Madden and Peter Marcuse in 2016. “The shape of the housing system is always the outcome of struggles between different groups and classes.” By dictating how cities build new housing, the logic goes, urbanists can dictate how people live and set right society’s socioeconomic, racial and moral deficiencies.
One widely circulated left-urbanist plan from April 2018 comes from the People’s Policy Project, a crowdfunded socialist think tank. The authors, Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper, envision the construction of 10 million “municipal homes” over the next decade. The proposal imagines local governments building more housing units than the private construction industry and becoming the largest landlord in many cities.
The abysmal record of public housing in the U.S., from crime to decay, makes no difference to these urbanists. They rebrand “housing projects” as “municipal homes” and assert that new units will resemble neighborhoods in Stockholm, Vienna and Helsinki, rather than Detroit, Newark and Oakland.
Activists are concerned not only with the quantity of new housing but also with who builds and lives in it. New developments must be government-run and tick off the boxes of identity politics. In San Francisco, some activists oppose all private housing construction. A 2017 essay in the San Francisco Examiner called advocates for more market housing part of a “libertarian, anti-poor campaign to turn longtime sites of progressive organizing into rich-people-only zones” and compared them to white nationalists.
One might dismiss this as radical posturing, but public-housing advocates have seized real power in city halls. They’ve learned how to use the zoning and permitting bureaucracy to stanch private development. In San Francisco’s Mission District, laundromat owner Bob Tillman had to spend $1.4 million and nearly five years to gain permission to convert his business into an apartment building. Activists and their enablers in City Hall claimed the laundry business was “historic” and that development would displace minority residents. At one point the planning commission hired a “shadow consultant” to assess whether the shadows cast by the proposed building could cause harm to the community.
In New York City, progressive urbanists have focused on public transportation. The subway system was designed mostly in the early 20th century to serve the practical needs of New Yorkers, but today’s activists see it as a grand instrument for cosmic justice.
In the Straphangers Campaign’s 2018 “Transportation and Equity” report, the advocacy group begins from the premise that “the most vulnerable New Yorkers suffer disproportionately from high fares, long commutes, polluted air, and dangerous streets.” It ends up estimating that an additional $30 billion in tax revenue would be needed for its desired overhaul: upgrading 11 subway lines, building 130 new accessible stations, and purchasing more than 3,000 new subway cars, along with nearly 5,000 new buses, over the next 10 years.
While state and local leaders haven’t signed up for this ambitious plan, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other local politicians have expressed support for some of the activists’ funding proposals, including congestion pricing, a “millionaire’s tax,” a marijuana tax, a stock-transfer tax and even a $3-a-package tax on Amazon deliveries.
There’s a reasonable argument for congestion pricing in traffic-glutted Manhattan and for more investment in mass transit. But the Straphangers’ long-term vision involves elimination of the automobile, which remains a middle-class staple in the outer boroughs. Their plan would restrict curbside space for cars by building “protected bike lanes on all major arterial streets across the five boroughs,” “giving developers incentives to contribute toward sustainable transportation over private vehicle usage,” and eliminating parking requirements for new housing.
Activists use euphemisms like “transportation alternatives” and “transportation choices,” but at heart their vision is about control. They want to remake the urban infrastructure in their own image: green, moral and in solidarity with the masses—at least as those masses exist in their imagination.
The new left urbanists’ fatal mistake is to view cities as collections of buildings, roads, tunnels and bike lanes. Urbanists can demolish and rebuild physical environments, but they can’t pave over the people. Life in a metropolis is simply too complex, too variable and too ephemeral—it will evade even the most careful planning. Making cities better and more beautiful requires bringing neighbors, developers, employers and governments into the conversation. Thriving cities are built through cooperation, not compulsion.
Mr. Rufo is a contributing editor of City Journal, from whose Summer issue this is adapted.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Marin Voice: Legislature should recognize that housing is a right, not a Wall Street commodity

Marin Voice: Legislature should recognize that housing is a right, not a Wall Street commodity

Artist rendering of the Victory Village housing project in Fairfax. (Courtesy of RCD)

August 14, 2019 at 10:19 am

We remember the pain and dislocation brought about by the housing melt-down of 2008, when foreclosures spiked by more than 81% and more than 3 million people lost their homes. It was precipitated by deceitful, predatory loans, subprime mortgages, and fanciful financial tools like derivatives.

Many individuals never recovered, but banks, developers, and real estate investors scored big. While property values have largely recovered, an ominous trend has occurred: a shift from individual home ownership to corporatized housing.

The language has shifted, too, from “home” as a safe abode where a middle-class family could acquire a significant asset to “housing unit” where investors could acquire a commodity to produce return on investment.

“We’re in a whole new world of organized, global financial investment into the housing market,” Michael Storper, a professor at UCLA and London School of Economics, explained when asked what changed between 2008 and 2019.

He called it the financialization of housing.

Components of the financialization of housing include giant construction companies such as Florida-based Lennar which is behind the controversial San Francisco Bayview-Hunters Point housing project, and national and global private equity investment firms such as The Blackstone Group, with California offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Why does the financialization of housing matter? It is fueled by corporate greed, not civic values or care about community. Mortgage or rent payments flow out of the community, stewardship diminishes, and global wealth goes into unknown, gold-lined pockets.

In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council warned that the financialization of housing “undermines democratic governance, exacerbates inequality, dehumanizes housing, and causes displacement and homelessness.”

The UN report cautioned “unprecedented amounts of global capital are being invested in housing as security for financial instruments and traded on global markets, which is having devastating consequences.”

Against this corporate backdrop groups such as Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Team have curried favor with California legislators. They’ve created a simplistic narrative: We have a housing crisis. Cities are to blame. The state must assert itself with top-down, one-size-fits-all bills that undermine local control.

What they don’t say is that by reducing local control, global investment firms and national builders will gain easier access to community wealth, including individual homes, land, and public places.

Certain bills introduced by Sens. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, and Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco would weaken elected city councils’ planning authority and financial stewardship, and ultimately deepen the affordability crisis.

For example, a stripped-down version of Chiu’s Assembly Bill 1487 seeks to gain approval for a 2020 ballot measure known as the “San Francisco Bay Area Regional Housing Finance Act.”

It would provide a regional financing mechanism for affordable housing and would apply to all cities, including charter cities.

This new entity estimates an annual budget of $2.5 billion. It would be governed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, but identified as a separate legal entity.

Critics, myself included, are alarmed because a regional authority to raise, administer, and allocate funds is likely to reduce their capacity to raise local tax revenue for local projects. Small cities worry that big cities will rake off the majority of the funds, and they’ll be taxed for big city successes.

Supporters of putting the regional tax on the ballot try to quell opponents’ fears saying they merely want to give citizens the right to decide. However, imagine the unequal playing field.

The national/global corporations that stand to gain from the financialization of housing will invest millions in messaging, push polls, ads, and social media.

We have a housing problem, but the crisis is the loss of democracy brought about by the financialization of housing. When legislators become champions of the simplistic explanation that cities are to blame, they abandon critical thinking, their constituents, and their oaths of office.

Legislation that diminishes local control by expanding developers’ rights, investors’ profits, and regionalism will worsen the affordability crisis. Take a breather. Adopt a collaborative approach. Review housing policy and projects at the local level that are proving successful.

Susan Kirsch, of Mill Valley, is founder and former president of Livable California, She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Fluent in Bullsh!t



 THE OWL always takes her sleep during the day. Then after sundown, when the rosy light fades from the sky and the shadows rise slowly through the wood, out she comes ruffling and blinking from the old hollow tree. Now her weird "hoo-hoo-hoo-oo-oo" echoes through the quiet wood, and she begins her hunt for the bugs and beetles, frogs and mice she likes so well to eat.

Now there was a certain old Owl who had become very cross and hard to please as she grew older, especially if anything disturbed her daily slumbers. One warm summer afternoon as she dozed away in her den in the old oak tree, a Grasshopper nearby began a joyous but very raspy song. Out popped the old Owl's head from the opening in the tree that served her both for door and for window.


"Get away from here, sir," she said to the Grasshopper. "Have you no manners? You should at least respect my age and leave me to sleep in quiet!"

But the Grasshopper answered saucily that he had as much right to his place in the sun as the Owl had to her place in the old oak. Then he struck up a louder and still more rasping tune.


The wise old Owl knew quite well that it would do no good to argue with the Grasshopper, nor with anybody else for that matter. 

Besides, her eyes were not sharp enough by day to permit her to punish the Grasshopper as he deserved. So she laid aside all hard words and spoke very kindly to him.

"Well sir," she said, "if I must stay awake, I am going to settle right down to enjoy your singing. Now that I think of it, I have a wonderful wine here, sent me from Olympus, of which I am told Apollo drinks before he sings to the high gods. Please come up and taste this delicious drink with me. I know it will make you sing like Apollo himself."

The foolish Grasshopper was taken in by the Owl's flattering words. Up he jumped to the Owl's den, but as soon as he was near enough so the old Owl could see him clearly, she pounced upon him and ate him up.

Flattery is not a proof of true admiration.

Do not let flattery throw you off your guard against an enemy.