‘Nail houses’ serve as monuments of resistance to planners
KERRY JACKSON | OCTOBER 13, 2023
Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck famously has said that outside of bombing it, rent control is the best way to destroy a city. Though not nearly as efficient as either of those, both planners and the abuse of eminent domain laws can wreck a city, as well, twisting development in unnatural ways, and stripping owners of their property rights.
On occasion, however, people challenge the authority of planning boards and commissioners. Stark examples of this defiance are the “nail houses” of Japan.
They are best described as standalone buildings, “usually a residential property,” says the Lonely Robot Theme, an anonymous Substack writer, that continue “to stand amidst rapid urban development despite facing pressure from developers and authorities to vacate or make way for new construction projects.”
In some instances, the structure will be in the middle of a roadway. Or surrounded by centrally planned development. It might be a seemingly ancient home or shop darkened by the shadows of modern buildings around and above it. The homes earned their label because they are “like stubborn nails refusing to be removed from the ground,” according to the writer.
Whatever the name, these unyielding holdouts are a sharp stick in the eye of planners, at times inflicting enough pain to “lead to changes in urban planning and development,” the Lonely Robot Theme adds. Dogged “opposition from determined property owners” has sometimes convinced authorities to “reconsider their plans and strive for more balanced and sustainable development.”
What can follow is “a dialogue between citizens and decision-makers,” after which planners – hopefully – respect locals’ desires rather than running over them. The writer traces nail houses to China, where they “have become a potent symbol of resistance,” then rapidly spread to other Asian nations.
But they can be found in the United States, as well. A small townhouse, now a retailer, stands at 1258 Sixth Avenue, New York, New York, next to the NBC Studios entrance at Rockefeller Center. It’s there because nearly a century ago the owner refused to sell the property for the planned complex.
On the south side of Rockefeller Center, at 49th Street and Sixth Avenue, there is another building that looks out of place. The property owner sold the parcel to Rockefeller, but the partners who held the lease and ran a speakeasy out of the rear entrance wouldn’t leave unless they were paid $250 million – which they didn’t receive.
Fifteen blocks away on Broadway sits a five-story building next to Macy’s that is not owned by the retailer. Competitors bought the property and building at the corner of 34th Street when they learned Macy’s was moving its flagship store from 14th Street and forced contractors to build around it. Macy’s never bought the building, but has instead used it as a billboard, “buying advertising that turned the small holdout into a massive 2,200 square foot shopping bag, which proclaims Macy’s as ‘The World’s Largest Store,’” says the New York Post.
Rather than being lost to the past, deserted and ultimately razed, each of these buildings became part of New York City’s unique, sometimes quirky, and often rich architectural and historical tapestry. The speakeasy became a favorite pub for NBC employees, and was eventually connected by a direct passageway to the Rockefeller complex. The 1258 property later was bought by Columbia University and leased to Rockefeller Center. The “Million Dollar Corner” next to Macy’s has become a rather curious and recognizable landmark.
But events would have unfolded far differently had the properties simply been taken from their owners through eminent domain. Today, a hardline refusal to sell would likely – and unfortunately – be countered by the power of eminent domain laws.
Fueled by the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s Berman v. Parker decision, governments have justified the practice of seizing private property through eminent domain by claiming they are rooting out urban blight. The court’s 2005 Kelo v. City of New London decision allowed cities to use eminent domain to seize properties and hand them to private developers for redevelopment projects – although the court encouraged states to pass laws restricting such use.
As a result, planners launch practical affordable housing projects and build common-good infrastructure, and private companies promise to fill the gaps by developing commercial properties for the benefit of all. While the property rights violations abetted by eminent domain laws have been well documented (and yet the abuse seems to continue unabated), the practice also has harmful effects on cities’ characters.
In one particularly egregious instance, 83 homeowners (whose houses were well-maintained) and 16 businesses on roughly 160 acres in Toledo, Ohio, had their property condemned in 1999 to make room for an expanded DaimlerChrysler assembly plant.
The larger factory was to employ 4,900, which made it more important to the public interest, according to Toledo officials, than the lives and livelihoods of the families and business owners whose property was seized. As it turned out, though, the plant did not employ 4,900 but 2,100, and an entire neighborhood was uprooted, and its history virtually erased in return for far less of the “public good” that was promised.
On a much larger scale, the Boston Redevelopment Authority razed most of the city’s West End in the late 1950s. More than 10,000 residents, unable to fight the powerful BRA, were forced to leave their homes to clear space to create a “New Boston.” It was hardly a shantytown that needed to be bulldozed, though.
More than four in 10 housing units were in good condition, says City Beautiful, while a “later mayor of Boston flat out said the neighborhood was a ‘typical neighborhood’ and not blighted.” Author Jane Jacobs said that by the time the wrecking crews arrived, the West End was in the process of “de-slumming.” The city promised the displaced that they would be moved into comparable housing, yet nearly a third found themselves in substandard housing.
“Perhaps more importantly, residents just loved living there,” says Dave Amos, the Cal Poly planning professor who makes the City Beautiful videos. As many as three-fourths liked their West End neighborhood while only 10% disliked it.
“The irony here is that if a place like the West End had been allowed to survive, it probably would have been totally gentrified by now and filled with the wealthy residents the BRA was trying to attract in the first place,” Amos says.
Instead, the West End is now home to the architecturally hideous brutalist-style City Hall, which is more of a blight on Boston than the homes of the old West End ever were.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.