In Praise of Housing Diversity


I live in the apartment in the background.

I live in an old neighborhood, by Minnesota Standards. The West Side dates back to the territorial era, the flats were settled back then and a few homes were built up on the bluff, though the “city” remained distant from booming 19th century Saint Paul until at least the 1870s when the toll was finally taken off the Wabasha Bridge.

But because of the age and the relative lack of modern day real estate pressure, the housing stock on the streets around my apartment are extremely diverse.

The craziest example is across the street from where I live. Here are two buildings that are next to each other on West George Street (according to Zestimate):

The first is a huge Victorian mansion that’s been turned into a B&B: 4,600 square feet.


Right next to it is a tiny post-war home: 925 square feet.


They’re right next to each other.

(Note that they’re not that disparate in property value, but in age and size, the gap couldn’t be wider.)

That’s an extreme example, but smaller examples are everywhere in my neighborhood, cases of run-down duplexes next to lovingly restored 2500 sq. ft. Victorians next to 40s ranch homes next to a 1915  3-story six-plex next to two 900 sq. ft. 1910’s era workers houses next to a set of four 1890’s row houses. That’s par for the course for the neighborhood.

And it’s one of the reasons why the West Side offers such a porous sense of idenity. There’s no one group that dominates the neighborhood, no one class or type of housing. Things are really mixed up, and it’s kind of wonderful.

I often wish that other neighborhoods had a similar kind of housing diversity, because it can be a tremendous asset towards building cultural, economic, and ethnic tolerance. My criticism of suburbia isn’t personal, it’s not related to the people that live there. It’s all about the way the built environment functions to isolate people from each other and minimize the kinds of social and physical relationships we can have with each other and our surrounding world.

levittown PA

Levittown of course. (The PA one.)

And one of the biggest problems is the lack of housing diversity. On almost any suburban street or neighborhood, the majority of the homes fall within the same prince point range. It makes sense because for most of these neighborhoods, all the homes were built within a few years of each other. This kind of homogeneity probably plateaued and peaked in the 60s through the 90s, but even in the newest suburban developments, the ones that include town homes or 2- or 3-story apartments, the buildings remain remarkably monotonous and segregated.

(Again, that’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but it’s an effect of how they were built.)


The “transect” for the Congress for New Urbanism.

My recent Minnpost column about the “Missing Middle” gets at the need for fine-grained diversity in Minneapolis’ relatively diverse neighborhoods, how we need to embrace Jane Jacobs’ mantra of thinking small. We need to be able to build buildings that are unlike each other, embrace the kinds of stylistic and functional friction that generate new ideas and new relationships. These frissions are what make cities great, and while it’s not always heaven to live next to an apartment building, this kind of juxtaposition forms the origin of open-ness.

We need diverse neighborhoods. We need diverse homes. We need places that embrace all ages of people, all ages of buildings, at all incomes. It’s so lovely when it works.

[Examples of “juxta-houses”, which is what I call homes or buildings that are quite different in age or size, but next to each other.]

juxta-houses-3 juxta-houses-4 juxta-houses-5 juxta-houses-6 juxta-houses-7 juxta-houses-8 juxta-houses-10 juxta-houses-11[One of these is from the West 7th neighborhood, but the rest are from the West Side of Saint Paul.]

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.