I don’t know if vindication is something I’m looking for most of the time when I put down my views here at RationalUrbanism since so much of what I express here is subjective. I don’t want my hometown to thrive because it’s demonstrably true that some fact or other makes it the rational outcome of a well reasoned process; I want it to thrive because it is a place which matters to me in a uniquely personal way. In the last few weeks though I have read and heard some things here and there which did support some ideas I had pondered on these pages, but in venues more widely respected and, in some cases, after some lengthy technical analysis.
Feargus O’Sullivan is a columnist at CityLab and writes that perhaps “livability” rankings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, that they assess more broadly what cities provide “clusters of amenities” to a certain percentage of people who already live in a particular place and have the means to take advantage of them. In my words, Cambridge and San Francisco might be super “livable” if you’re ultra rich, but they might suck if you’re not. In Springfield I can do so much more for so much less and spend more of my “life” doing and less time earning the money to pay for it.
It also re-affirms in its own way my very recent take on housing for the poor. In Feargus’ example perhaps Zurich isn’t such a livable place for the less affluent, whereas as I don’t see Westport as particularly livable for that same group. Just last week another public meeting got all out of control because a suburban town here in western Mass is looking at the possibility of some affordable multi-family housing being built on the site of a former strip mall. More than anything I enjoy the denizens of these communities straining for arguments to be against housing for the poor without just screaming “Poor people suck, and lots of them are Black and Puerto Rican!”
One person actually went this route: “Oh my God, the traffic!”
More traffic than the supermarket it’s replacing?
But it’s not a great place for affordable housing. The vacant land 5 minutes, two minutes away from Union Station, the primary transportation hub for the entire region and adjacent to one of the most walkable neighborhoods in all of western New England, that’s a great place for building housing which will be more affordable because it’s reasonable to live there without a car.
Daniel Herriges at Strong Towns uses a study by George Washington University to discuss just how little of our built environment would retain its value without the ubiquity of the automobile. It uses studies and analysis with charts and graphs; I just sat down right where I’m sitting now and thought about it. If we ever do end up being forced as a society to become less auto-dependent then that will occur at a time when we are also limited as to the resources we have to build new human environments. In that case most of what has been built in this country in the last 75 years will become visible as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world”.
As I wrote just weeks ago, should that day arrive, there will be a rush to the exits in suburbia, but the escape portal will become narrow indeed. Who will the buyers be and what value will be left in the soil of those despoiled places? And walkable land, like arable land, will have value because “they’re not making any more of it”.
This week my parental duties, as can often be the case, took me into places I wouldn’t normally go if left to my own devices. First, I was in the wealthiest part of the richest community in the entire region; in a residential neighborhood with near million dollar homes. I mentioned off handedly to Luna that Longmeadow was such a small community, both in geographic size and population, that its residents attended high school in Springfield until the 1950’s. My thoughts went back to my time in one of those high schools barely 20 years later when we were told how, at one time Classical High School was arguably the finest public high school in the United States and that a simple phone call from its principal could get any student into Harvard or Yale.
I assume it was right about the time that stopped being the case that Longmeadow-ites (Longmeadownians?) decided to build their own building on Grassy Gutter Lane. Being rich means you want the best, and if something stops being the best…well, you get something else.
Just a day later I was in what used to be one of the most run down and certainly one of the most violent neighborhoods in Springfield picking up a different set of Luna’s friends for a day at the beach; but, oh! How that neighborhood has been transformed! The developer used both historic preservation and affordable housing tax credits and restored a dozen or more apartment buildings to their turn-of-the-century splendor. Stunning, truly stunning. My guess is the per household income might be 10% or less of that of the neighborhood we visited in Longmeadow the day before.
We got back late from Ocean Beach Park and The Book Barn and so I found myself watering the flowers out in front of the house much later than usual. Two neighborhood characters, perhaps homeless, were wandering by across the street. One drunkenly screamed at the other to give him a light; but then, a moment later, he asked him to give him back his lighter. A brief altercation ensued, a little tussle and it was over. In this neighborhood. In this neighborhood of historic homes. In this walkable neighborhood where all of the region’s energy, transportation, water, sewer, and communication infrastructure is based.
Will the two knuckleheads arguing over a lighter be the inheritors of this amazing legacy? I really don’t think so. The great fear of the Zombie Apocalypse is that the lighter-fighters will swarm over the cities like a swarm of locusts. I think it’s more likely that, as things begin to crumble at the far reaches of the systems we have already put in place that the swarm will be coming from without. Those who occupied the far flung beautiful places will abandon them as soon as they cease being optimal environments for living, and they will once again occupy the beautiful turn-of-the-century places and get access to what they want and what they need.
I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which the wretchedly poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, and the drug addled have electricity, water, natural gas, Internet access, transportation services, and the like; all systems which flow out from this central location, but the wealthy have no utilities, and are reduced to getting water from trucks manned by the National Guard. That might happen in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but if it were to continue for any period of time the well-off would find new digs.
Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold, but more often than not things on the edge fall off, and the center is the one place that keeps it all together. In the end that is what makes the center, the center.