The financial collapse is giving us a sneak-preview about what might eventually happen to many of our nation’s suburbs. Half-finished new developments have been abandoned. Waves of foreclosures on existing homes are crashing against the shoals of millions of shattered dreams. Desperate people are just cutting their losses and leaving. Most of the tragic stories are taking place in the newer outer suburbs where the deal on the mortgage loan was as misleading as the home’s actual value, which was as poorly built as its location was wrongly designed. People are leaving partially because the homes and the communities weren’t worth fighting for. Underneath the surface, there never was much real value. This was always true, but it took the complete unraveling of a hyper-connected Ponzi scheme for the truth to become so startlingly evident.
There’s a whole lot of talk now about what will happen to the suburbs. Richard Florida examines the topic in much detail in an excellent article in Atlantic Magazine, How the Crash will Reshape America. In his view, the suburbs are surely doomed and will have to be reconfigured in most cases, and perhaps even abandoned in others.
Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.
But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, and the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs.
Florida is convinced there will be a redistribution of the population, morphing toward density, coalescing toward connectedness and efficiency. It can be resisted, but it’s likely he’s right about there being certain inevitability to a transition that fits the opportunities and constraints of our era.
Allison Arieff has a good discussion on her blog, By Design, on the same topic. Along with authors Ellen Durham-Jones and June Williamson (Retrofitting Suburbia), she imagines suburban areas being essentially remodeled to increase their density and create more localized mixed-use possibilities. These are hopeful, helpful ideas. Remaking what we have is the best possible outcome.
But there will be a storm before the calm. We’re getting a glimpse of that now. We don’t change our habits easily. It takes something like a convulsive shock for us to give up our fantasies.
As fantasies go, we can do better. Suburbia is not the best definition of the American Dream.
Many years ago, I worked as a framing carpenter, helping to build suburban tract homes on Colorado’s Front Range. While I got some satisfaction from slinging my big hammer, my heart was already convinced that the suburbs weren’t a sustainable concept. I knew it because I had intimate knowledge of what little they were made of and how poorly they were put together. I knew it because I drove out to the remote construction sites in a borrowed car, burning fuel that I couldn’t afford even when it was 1960’s cheap, having come from my home in the old central city area where I could get to anything I needed to do on foot. I knew it because everything about the suburban areas I worked on were inauthentic concoctions, propped up by dreams that were hard-sold on promises grabbed from thin air at will, and inflated as necessary. With the hyped deal, all the buyers got a spectacular view, unlimited privacy, perfect neighbors and happiness that would flow as surely as cascading Rocky Mountain spring water.
I didn’t have a particular vision for how the demise of the suburbs would play out, but I didn’t have to go far to see some of the historical possibilities. I grew up not far from the very visible, but long-abandoned remains of Colorado’s gold rush era. For my parents, hauling us off to visit the ghost towns left over from the late 19th century mining boom was the perfect parental trifecta: cheap entertainment containing both fascinating history lessons and potent morality tales. I am one of eleven children, so the cheap entertainment part was critical. We went often to places like Cripple Creek, Victor and St. Elmo.
Those were mysterious and eerie. You could pretend to inhabit what was left of the houses, imagine what it was like to be in the tiny jails, or conjure the raucous crowd inside a saloon that by then had no roof and a crumbling floor. But to really get in touch with the allure that brought tens of thousands of people to make their way to those high-mountain towns; you could catch a touch of their gold fever just by poking around in the slag piles at the mouth of every mine hole. Even as I child, I could feel the urgent hope-against-hope that caused so many to suspend rational behavior for a thin dream about easy money.
In the space of about 10 years at the end of the 19th century, Cripple Creek grew to a city of 35,000 people. Victor’s story is similar and it grew to a population of over 18,000. Only a few people actually got rich in these towns; for the rest, it was usually a dreadful bust. So the fall of these mining towns was even quicker than their rise. Just like the homes being abandoned today, when the jobs disintegrated and the hope of wealth disappeared into someone else’s bank accounts, people just left.
The gold rush towns were built furiously fast because of the blind hope for heaps of money, not to enrich life with quality and beauty, and those priorities showed by the time I walked their empty streets with my young siblings. They were once big, sprawling towns with houses, barns, stores, saloons, and more (not many churches, though), but much of the physical evidence was completely gone by the early 1960’s, which was actually quite fortunate. The buildings were flimsy and mostly made of wood, and since they generally didn’t even bother with masonry foundations, thousands of buildings just moldered back to earth.
If you’re going to build badly, it’s best if the ruins are biodegradable.
As a young carpenter, I had all of this to think about as I drove nails into wood to build homes that couldn’t last. I’d seen flimsy buildings and the very same framing methods in the mining towns. What we did in building the tract homes wasn’t greatly different; they just had more finish materials to help hold them together. I tried to overcome the circumstances and do good work, but I couldn’t help but envision the fate I had seen in the ghost towns.
But what about the ruins? With all the concrete, plaster and synthetic materials, we’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do, or history will judge us pretty harshly. Like quality, ephemeralness ought to be a commitment.