The Other Side of the Tracks


I tend to fixate on certain places – sometimes because I love them, other times because I can’t help but stare at twisted wreckage. Lancaster, California has always been 30/70 leaning toward wreckage, although it does show signs of ongoing reinvention so I keep going back. Lancaster is highly representative of most places in suburban America. If Lancaster can successfully adapt to changing circumstances then there’s hope for the rest of the country. I’ve already written several blog posts about the place hereherehere, and here.

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Recently Mayor Rex Parris has been in the news suggesting that the MetroLink commuter rail station should either be shut down or moved to the far edge of the city limits. Why? Well… Lancaster is a typical suburb. In fact it’s a far flung exurb with a self-selecting population who left the city in order to escape certain things and particular kinds of people. You know where I’m going with this right? The proverbial “wrong element” whispered by terrified white people who are nervous about their property values and crime. I have no idea what Mr. Parris himself believes one way or another, but he’s genuinely good at representing the concerns of his constituency. In this instance the electorate felt that the wrong kinds of folks were taking the train from downtown Los Angeles and showing up in Lancaster where they proceed to loiter in a disagreeable manner. These weren’t “our kind of people”. After a period of review between the mayor and various agencies it was announced that the MetroLink station would remain, although there were hints at new procedures and assurances of an unspecified nature.

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This got me thinking about the neighborhoods immediately around the train station. To the west of the tracks is an eight block commercial strip referred to as The BLVD. It was once a floundering half dead Main Street that was completely revamped by the local planning department in 2010 and has enjoyed remarkable success on multiple levels. The adjacent streets of single family homes have gotten a boost in popularity and higher property value while the rest of the Antelope Valley is still struggling unsuccessfully to recover from the 2008 crash.

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But then there’s the east side of the tracks… These photos look like an Edward Hopper retrospective: bleak, empty, soulless, and unloved. No one has spent ten cents on this part of town in decades and it shows, yet it’s only a block from the beginning of The BLVD. and it’s pressed up against the back side of the train station. In another kind of town this might constitute prime real estate, or at least a place that had a little something going on. After all, the commuter train gives you direct convenient access to everything greater Los Angeles has to offer from jobs to culture. But in Lancaster it’s mostly vacant land, underutilized parking lots, semi-occupied warehouses, and marginal low value businesses. That’s not to say that people don’t live, work, attend church, and go to school in the nearby blocks. They’re just doing so without the benefit of any viable civic infrastructure.

There may be good reasons why extending The BLVD east to the other side of the tracks won’t work. Aside from any physical or political limitations Lancaster may not be able to absorb much more in the way of upscale dining and discretionary shopping. I’ve had conversations with locals who say they can’t afford a $25 Italian dinner or a $6 beer at a trendy brew pub. Maybe eight blocks of good quality brick and mortar establishments is all Lancaster can handle at the moment. I’ve also heard that developers think the local real estate market might be able to absorb another fifty urban style condo/apartments near The BLVD. But five hundred? They just don’t know since this is terra incognita for them and their traditional business model. But the east side of the tracks might be the perfect place to establish an entirely different kind of environment at a lower price point that actually works for the people who already live nearby. Yucca Ave. runs parallel to the railroad tracks rather than perpendicular like The BLVD. More importantly, it’s an area the theater and chardonnay crowd never sees and doesn’t care about so it’s a great place to do some low cost, low risk, potentially high return experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t.

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The city of Lancaster spent $10.5 million on the redevelopment of The BLVD, plus some state and federal funds. Personally, I can’t see the city mustering the political will to scrape together that kind of money to transform Yucca Ave. in a similar fashion. Instead, I see the back alleys and vacant parking lots as incubators for local micro-entrepreneurs who will interact with the people who live next door and down the street. It’s less about making everything “pretty” and more about making the place vibrant and productive at a scale that works on a tight budget. Yucca is just too big and wide and needs too much major help to be saved at the moment. But the backs and sides of these commercial buildings actually have a human scale and can be connected to the smaller more domestic streets and buildings they face across the alley.

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Here’s one possible model that Lancaster might try along Yucca. This is a crappy triangular parking lot in San Francisco sandwiched between a double decker freeway and a Costco. I can’t imagine a worse location for anything. But a clever entrepreneur decided to rent the parking lot, install a few port-a-potties and hand washing stations, set up some inexpensive outdoor furniture, and then charge a modest rent for parking spaces to a rotating cast of local food trucks. It’s been fantastically successful and unlike The BLVD it costs almost nothing to install. This kind of operation does best in a marginal location with no NIMBYs or brick and mortar competition. Food trucks are infinitely less expensive to buy and operate than a traditional restaurant so the bar to entry is much lower for small business people. If the bank says no to a modest loan it’s possible to get start up capital from an aunt or cousin. In fact, these are most likely to be collaborative family businesses. The food these trucks serve is radically more affordable and can represent the specific tastes of the community in a way that McDonald’s or Domino’s may not – and the profits stay local rather than being sucked out to corporate headquarters. All the city of Lancaster would need to do is keep out of the way and let small business people do their thing without an endless amount of code enforcement to gum up the works.

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Here’s a different approach that might work even better since I’ve never actually seen a food truck anywhere in the Antelope Valley. My guess is that they’re illegal and/or can’t find a hospitable spot to park given the relentless and pervasive “mall security” guarding the Taco Bells and Applebees. This is the Underground Food Market in Oakland. This is a pop up market that appears quickly and then melts away in a single day. Both the vendors and the customers are told the date of the next event, but only alerted to the exact location at the last moment in order to keep code enforcement people unaware long enough to actually conduct business for an afternoon. None of these people use anything more elaborate than folding tables and barbecue equipment and it all fits in the trunk of a car or a pick up truck. Does this sort of thing violate a dozen health, safety, and zoning regulations? Yep. Has anyone ever gotten sick or died? Nope. If Lancaster could find a way to legitimize this sort of activity they might discover a ready supply of people in the neighborhood who would bring their talents to bear.

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I want to get back to the idea of human scale and how the best parts of Yucca are the little spaces between and around the buildings instead of the big parking lots and super wide street frontage. Everywhere I go in the world I find some of the best streets are barely wide enough for a car to pass through – and that’s part of the magic. I could see stretching some sun shades over the top of these alleys in Lancaster and lining the blank walls with shallow market stalls. This is an economic incubator that costs pennies and could lead to bigger and more permanent local businesses. The trick is to get the entry cost for experimentation down low enough to engage people without much capital or credit. Will this sort of thing terrify suburban homeowners out in the gated communities? Yep. Will they care if it happens in the “bad” part of town that they never visit? Maybe not…

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Here’s another example of a reuse of an existing space with very little actual construction. Property values are so high and vacancies are so low in places like San Francisco that every crappy building in every marginal location is being pressed into service for things that no one would have envisioned twenty years ago. Lancaster could do exactly the same thing at a much lower price point. I don’t imagine the wine and cheese crowd being interested in Yucca anytime soon, but there are all sorts of other subcultures that would love this much space to tinker with for their legitimate enterprises so long as the local authorities cut them some slack. What most of these empty warehouses in Lancaster need is fresh paint and the right people to colonize them. The trouble with lone mom and pop operations in this sort of desolate location is that without community and other active participants they tend to wither. Lancaster desperately needs a well organized group to adopt this place. Koreans, Mormons, Armenians, Hasidic Jews, Guatemalans… it needs a La Raza, a Chinatown, or a respectable gay population – any cohesive subculture that can reimagine the place and add vitality in a focussed and concentrated manner. Would it kill city officials to hang out the welcome mat instead of freaking out when “They” appear at the train station?

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Here’s one last example of a seriously bad location that is starting to be transformed in a way that cost the city almost nothing. Flora Grubb was a successful business woman who rented a vacant lot in San Francisco’s Mission District back when The Mission was cheap and considered a bad neighborhood. Renting a vacant lot was one of the few affordable options back when she was younger and just starting out. She didn’t need a building or much infrastructure since she sold plants, garden supplies, and outdoor furniture. As The Mission gradually became fashionable (largely due to lots of cool people like Flora doing their thing) property values rose so high that she was asked to leave so her landlord could put up luxury condos on the site. But the landlord was a clever guy. He had another vacant lot in a different miserable part of town half a block from the sewage treatment plant. He arranged for Flora to set up shop there. She had enough of a loyal following by then that people were willing to follow her to the new location. Her current shop is an open air industrial shed and a former parking lot. The landlord owns other nearby properties and is leveraging Flora’s activities to boost those values. Flora is the catalyst for the transformation of an entire block.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Lancaster needs to become a mini San Francisco. That isn’t going to happen. But there are cost-effective techniques for jumpstarting a revival that Lancaster might consider in one of its least loved neighborhoods.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

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Other Side of Tracks

Sun Village to you.

(Sorry, couldn't resist).

This is everything wrong with urban theory

Where does one begin? I guess the most misguided comment in the piece is this one “a self-selecting population who left the city in order to escape certain things and particular kinds of people.” In most cases this would be an insinuation of racial animus among the backward, knuckle draggers of small town Amurica. But in this case it is not because a couple lines down we see this “terrified white people who are nervous about their property values and crime”. This can happen when you visit earth from someplace like San Francisco. The demographics of Lancaster, like many suburbs and exurbs is nowhere near as white as Mr. Sanphillippo would have us believe. In fact it is a minority white population (just barely but in a similar proportion to LA) with a substantial African American percentage. Three times as many African Americans as a percentage of population as live in San Francisco by the way. No need to check any facts when you are just throwing some nonsense out here on the internet I guess.
This would be just sad if it weren’t for the comic relief that shows up later in the piece. Our buddy John shows us pictures of streets in cities five, six, seven hundred years old cities and allows “Everywhere I go in the world I find some of the best streets are barely wide enough for a car to pass through.” John, that’s because there weren’t any cars when they built them. And I wonder if we should use the same urban planning techniques to create these kinds of streets in the US. Get some slave labor to chop the flora back, walk on it for a few hundred year, get some people to rape and pillage their way back and forth across the place for another couple hundred years and then maybe throw in a little stability and some hungry people that don’t have much choice about where they get to live anyway so that they will finally make it a nifty place for John to visit and put ridiculous pictures on in his brain dead blog.
Native people lived in and around the current site of Lancaster for hundreds of years in very small numbers. It became a place in the modern sense when the railroad came through 150 years ago. It has only been an incorporated city since 1977. You might need to give it a little more time John. And if, as you state in the opening paragraph, you are worried about places like Lancaster than I guess you haven’t been to Detroit or Cleveland or don’t recognize them for the gruesome abominations that they are. Lancaster will be fine, even better if you just leave them alone.
I read newgeography because I don’t usually have to read crap like this. The other people that write pieces that appear on this site provide thorough analysis and support for their writing. You come off as someone that simply has a little too much time on your hands.

Yes and no...

Mr. Bennett,

The primary focus of my blog post was to explore a fast low cost way to reactivate a declining neighborhood by reducing government regulations and bureaucratic restrictions so as to permit new investment and entrepreneurial activity. It was a profoundly conservative argument. Closing the MetroLink station and introducing new zoning, building, and use restrictions (what the "conservative" residents want) seems oddly top-down and heavy handed... almost... liberal and icky. "Lancaster will be fine, even better if you just leave them alone." Your keep-everything-exactly-as-it-is strategy sounds like a high regulation micro-managing NIMBY approach that is in the process of failing.

When people lobby the mayor to close the local commuter rail station for fear that unsavory city people might arrive in town that is the precise definition of terrified suburban white people. I stand by my earlier characterization. This is not the same thing as being racist, although race and class are often highly correlated. If the city people in question were orthopedic surgeons and Oxford dons I'm sure no one would have any objections.

Lancaster's population is in fact "self-selecting" in the same way that every town has a self-selecting population. San Franciscans routinely live in tiny ridiculously overpriced rented apartments because it's worth the trade off for them. Lancaster is full of people who prefer to own a five bedroom house with a front lawn and swimming pool, but they spend two hours each morning and two hours each evening commuting to distant jobs. Pick your poison... Is one group more "real" or authentically "American" than the other? I don't think so.

The real meat of this story is that the Antelope Valley was a predominantly (although not exclusively) white middle class exurb until about 2000. Then a dramatic demographic shift began with significant numbers of lower income latinos and blacks migrating to the A.V. According to the 2000 census Lancaster was 63% white and 16% black. In 2010 those numbers were 49% white, 21% black. Those numbers have continued to accelerate. That rapid influx of new black people triggered “white flight” within the Antelope Valley itself - from east Lancaster and east Palmdale to the southwestern area centered on Quartz Hill.

If you want to get into a pissing contest about which city is more or less white here are the numbers:
Lancaster is 49% white, 21% black, 4% Asian, and 26% latino.
San Francisco is 48% white, 6% black, 32% Asian, and 14% latino.
I'd call that a draw.

- John Sanphillippo


Mr. Sanphillippo-
I tend to agree with Mr. Bennett. My wife and I lived in S.F. for 11 years and headed for the suburbs and the detached house with the picket fence and free parking. Where our kids had a chance to be kids. They could run around and play in the streets or in someone's yard. They got into fights and played without any parental supervision.
We've 1800 sq. ft. on 1/16th of acre in a small subdivision and we love it. No fog or valley hear either and a nice lawn and garden.

In addition to the housing prices and the schools one less thing we have to worry about are the busybodies. S.F. seems to spawn the type of people who'll explain how your thinking is wrong and your choices are driven by some 'ism' or 'phobia. When in fact we are both grown up. I don't resent them but now we don't have to pay them any mind.
Good luck to you.

But this isn't about San Francisco...

I think I'm going to start describing myself as someone who lives in Joplin Missouri so I don't constantly get the "You live in San Francisco so nothing you say is valid" responses.

Again, my point is not that Lancaster or any other place needs to conform to a San Francisco standard. I made that clear. So one more time... my post explores a half empty long declined neighborhood in a failing suburban area. It is not likely to attract people who want a nice house with a yard and a pool and a good public school. So what can be done on a tight budget and with minimum government intervention to allow the private sector to reinvigorate the place? That was my point.

The current trajectory for Lancaster is for people with resources to migrate to newly constructed homes and shops on the edge of town or in other municipalities. Older subdivisions and strip malls fester and become "investment properties' and fall to slum lords. I'm looking for successful and replicable models that can reinvent such neighborhoods in a more productive manner.

Would anyone like to comment on that?

- John Sanphillippo

The good, the bad - and good ingredients toxic in the wrong mix

That is an interesting point - we know about the trend of urban evolution of the past, and even then the "planning" community tends to understand very little about it. There is an awful lot of nonsensical physical determinism bandied about, when it is actually the people that matter. There are good dense urban locales and bad ones. There are good suburbs and bad ones. And there are all kinds of locations in a transitionary stage from good to bad or bad to good.

I think it is fair to say as a general principle, that a reduction in regulatory distortions of a local economy, will help transition towards something genuinely having more utility.

But I would add to that, that there is a 180 degree difference between a nation or State with universal "anti auto based sprawl" regulations and one without. There are numerous beneficial effects from freeing up the market, foregone when the free market is still prohibited from changing land between systemically different uses: eg from rural use to housing use. That is really the FIRST inhibition of the free market that needs to be done away with if anything good is to happen to all sectors of society.

It is IMPOSSIBLE to systemically provide "housing affordability" otherwise. No matter how much rezoning, upzoning, and building "up" you do. The cost of a small apartment will remain stubbornly more expensive than a whole suburban house in Houston. The value of land per square foot, when the overall quantity of it allowed to the urban economy is rationed, will ALWAYS rise faster than residents trade off the consumption of square feet of land. In fact the causation that needs to be understood, runs the opposite way to what planners assume. It is as simple as this" the more people you cram in on a given map meshblock of land, the more "economic rent" you can extract from that meshblock of land. Economic rent attaches to PEOPLE, not land! If people can spread out, they are less of a target for the rentier class.

Ironically it is in cities like Houston, where the cost of a whole suburban house is lower than the cost of a small apartment in a land-rationed urban system, that small apartments stacked up DO end up an amazingly cheap option. This is because site rents in these markets do NOT inflate as people are added to the site - because the site rents are dictated by the "options" that exist in the whole land market. If you are theoretically minded, the concept of economic "differential" rent is ONLY a reality in cities where there is freedom to add low cost non-urban land to the urban economy. Absent this, economic land rent will be "monopolistically derived".

Someone somewhere needs a Nobel prize in economics for breaking through the theoretical nonsense that utterly fails to represent real life evidence in urban land markets.

I said above that there are beneficial effects from freeing up the market, as long as there is no prohibition on changes in the uses of land in most of the entire region/state/nation. In fact there are numerous socially-motivated non-free-market policies that are beneficial or toxic depending on this factor. In a city like Houston: first home buyer subsidies will merely increase home ownership, not force house prices up. Low interest rates will increase home ownership, increase discretionary income and stimulate the local economy, not increase house prices and debt. Immigration and population growth will stimulate housebuilding and lead to more economies of scale, not force house prices up. Tax advantages for landlords will lead to a good supply of good rental accommodation, not drive speculative manias in housing.

I have said it before and will say it again: "urban containment" policies could not have been better devised as a deliberate economic and socio-economic WMD, by agents of an enemy power acting as subversives in the area of policy advice and education.