Tough getting up today. Nightmares follow me to work. Bored and barely conscious, I attempt to interview the giant invisible rabbit who has wandered into my consciousness from the pop cultural wasteland. I imagine he looks like the bunnies from the Flaming Lips video. I don’t even have MTV and I know what they look like. Must have been on a TV commercial. Sellouts.
Harvey: First of all, I ask the questions. Nobody interviews me, man. Some things should remain mysterious.
EG: Okay, what do you want to know?
HR: I’ve read your little blog thing. It doesn’t make any sense.
EG: How’s that?
HR: You’re a total yuppie. You didn’t even grow up here, you’re a carpetbagger. You act like you’re some kind of everyman, but you’re one of these sushi-eating latte-swilling elitists.
EG: I take my coffee black most of time, unless it’s old and burned.
HR: Whatever. You moved here because it was cool or something. Were you running away from yourself?
EG: I’ve lived lots of places, bunny boy. Suburbs of major cities, a tiny rural town, a college town, a moderately sized city, a big city. I like living in urban areas, traditional neighborhoods with houses close together, public parks instead of private lawns. Dense places. Where you can walk to stuff. And you’re right, I grew up around people who I didn’t want to be.
HR: You’re a gentrifier.
EG: The G-word is meaningless. It’s been used to describe so many different kinds of neighborhood change it’s an empty word, people use it to describe any new investment they don’t like. But neighborhoods change, they never stay the same for any period of time. People age in place, kids grow up, new people move in and old ones move out. All neighborhoods change.
HR: You identify suburbanization as a cause of America’s descent into madness. Yet you just wrote a big thing where you told people not to move here, to go to the ‘burbs etc. You can’t have it both ways. Either people live here, or they live out there. Which is it?
EG: what I’m really upset about is people who want the land but feel the neighborhood isn’t good enough they way they found it. These old neighborhoods are historically significant, most of these buildings be preserved. Brooklyn Heights, where my aunt lives, is a historic district, parts of Wicker Park – why not Bucktown, Ukranian Village, Bronzeville, a dozen other beautiful neighborhoods being overrun by ugliness? Anyway, as long as the land is valued according to what it would be worth to a developer, I can’t afford to buy anything? And where am I supposed to live? Competition from greedy developers is what drives up the price of a 2,000 square foot cottage to half a million dollars.
HR: Well, that’s the market for you.
EG: There’s no “market.” Real estate bears almost no resemblance to the perfect competition crap they taught you in Econ 101.
HR: Well, buyers and sellers agree on a price, for instance.
EG: Yeah, but supply is artificially restricted. Look, prices are crazy because they’re not building cities anymore. Most places, it’s illegal to build a dual-use building with housing above a storefront. There are separate commercial and residential zones. Minimum lot sizes and strip malls are mandated. You haven’t been allowed to build a city neighborhood or a traditional Main Street downtown for fifty or sixty years now. Many old neighborhoods are in trouble, half torn down and crime infested. Decent neighborhoods are in short supply, so it’s expensive to live there.
HR: If these neighborhoods are so cool, why are so many of them crappy?
EG: Redlining. The current landscape was created by two forces, zoning and redlining. After WWII, the US Government promoted homeownership by subsidizing home mortgages and new construction – but not rehabilitating existing housing. “Redlining” was a practice under which banks wouldn’t make loans for addresses in “declining” neighborhoods. Often that meant zip codes with even a few black residents. Partly this was pure racism, partly it worked that way because the programs were shaped to benefit the construction industry more than home buyers.
It was easier to get a loan in the new suburbs, where rigid zoning meant mostly single-family homes on what were, at the time, large lots. New municipalities like large lots because they bring in a “better class” of resident. Limits on the amount and location of multi-family homes keep poor kids out of their schools, keep the child population down, and secure adequate funding for schools and government services without high property taxes. Higher revenues, fewer poor people. It’s called exclusionary zoning. The result is a country that’s more segregated than it was before Brown v Board. This is an old story now. Read some Kunstler, Harvey. At some point I’m gonna put up a link to the Congress for the New Urbanism, for your edification.
HR: And your solution?
EG: Ideally we would build more good neighborhoods, until supply met demand and prices normalized. But I don’t know how to do that. Suburban governments have a lot of incentives to keep things the way they are, and homeowners tend to regard rising home values as a good thing, unless they have to pay taxes in Chicago. So building more moderately-priced housing would be unpopular among people who are counting on their homes to finance retirement. For now, the best option is to preserve and improve the neighborhoods we have, make them livable and safe, with good schools and fun stuff to do.
EG: Whatever, man. Look, I need a place to live, same as everybody else. And I’m not going to sit home and watch Survivor: the Bronx or whatever. I want to live my life. This week I’m going to an installation thing at the Cultural Center, visiting an artist’s studio, I have theater tickets, there’s gonna be a kick ass party this weekend, and except for a painting I’m planning to buy, I’m not paying for any of this stuff. I love this town. Call me a yuppie if you want to, what are you gonna do this weekend, chew on giant invisible kale?
HR: So, what about the diminished role of urban areas in political life?
EG: Actually, I think urban areas are spreading. Sprawl is a different issue from suburbanization. Lots of old inner suburbs are becoming more like the city, more diverse, more types of housing, condos and so on. Evanston, for example, is urban now. It’s not really about city limits, it’s about how the neighborhood is constructed and how life is lived. So politically, we are spreading into the suburbs. But not into the new construction sprawl. The issue is segregation, and the control of resources. Rich people at the fringes want to exploit the city, reap the benefits of metropolitan life while keeping their own taxes and cost of living down and avoiding poor people and minorities. If they succeed at this, they will starve the cities, and American life will be poorer for it. Basically, they must be made to pay, to share the costs of providing services to poor people. Health care, housing, education – these problems cannot be solved at the local level, they need to be addressed by state governments or the Feds, to stop people from moving across political lines to avoid paying their fair share. But we are a long way from achieving that goal.
HR: So straight up: Mayor Daley. Love him or loathe him?
EG: Never met the man.
HR: What I mean is, you said he should run for President. Then you turn around and criticize how he’s running the city.
EG: I never said he’d be a good President. I said he’d be a good candidate. We just ran a guy who would be a good President, and he lost.
HR: But do you support Mayor Daley?
EG: Look, I have to live and work here, you know? He’s done some things right: focus on schools, neighborhood beautification, improve policing. Selling the Skyway was a good move. But he’s got this idea that one big headline-grapping megaproject after another is going to save the city. Soldier Field. Millennium Park. Expand the convention center. A casino. A downtown Ikea. Privatize the airport. But there are three million people living in this city, most of us not terribly rich. The focus shouldn’t be on getting cash from outsiders, although it’s important to get revenue. But we’d still have revenue if we’d gone with a cheaper stadium option than the Soldier Field fiasco, etc. The focus shouldn’t be on “greatness.” It’s already a Great City. The focus should be on safer neighborhoods, better services, quality of life.
HR: Sounds great. So why are you sitting here talking to a giant imaginary rabbit. Shouldn’t you get to work and provide better services or something?