My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

It's Still the Sprawl, Stupid

David Brooks is a very annoying man, but his observations in today's New York Times are important and deserve attention. Since the cheap bastards make you pay for stuff after 7 days, I'm going to excerpt it rather than link to it because it's important enough to linger over for a few days:

About six months ago I came out with a book on the booming exurbs - places like the I-4 corridor in central Florida and Henderson, Nev. These are the places where George Bush racked up the amazing vote totals that allowed him to retain the presidency.

My book started with Witold Rybczynski's observation that America's population is decentralizing faster than any other society's in history. People in established suburbs are moving out to vast sprawling exurbs that have broken free of the gravitational pull of the cities and now exist in their own world far beyond.

Ninety percent of the office space built in America in the 1990's was built in suburbia, usually in low office parks along the interstates. Now you have a tribe of people who not only don't work in cities, they don't commute to cities or go to the movies in cities or have any contact with urban life. You have these huge, sprawling communities with no center. Mesa, Ariz., for example, has more people than St. Louis or Minneapolis.

In my book I tried to describe the culture in these places - the office parks, the big-box malls, the travel teams and the immigrant enclaves. But when it came to marketing the book, I failed in two important ways.

I couldn't figure out how to tell the people in exurbia that I had written a book about them. Here I was writing about places like Loudoun County, Va., and Polk County, Fla., but my book tour took me to places like downtown Philadelphia, downtown Seattle and the Upper West Side. The places I was writing about are so new, and civic life is as yet so spare, there are few lecture series or big libraries to host author talks. The normal publishing infrastructure is missing.

. . . I realized there are two conversations in this country. I was in the establishment conversation, but somehow I needed to get into the Rick Warren conversation and I could never find a way.

That's why I'm so impressed by Karl Rove. As a group of Times reporters demonstrated in Sunday's paper, the Republicans achieved huge turnout gains in exurbs like the ones in central Florida. The Republicans permeated those communities, and spread their message.

A lot of the "news" coming out of last week's election isn't really news at all. Nearly a quarter of the population of the United States in white evangelical Christians. 33% of the population describe themselves as "conservatives" while only 21% describe themselves as "liberals." Gay people aren't real popular in Ohio outside of the Short North and Victorian Village neighborhoods of Columbus (basically anywhere in walking distance of the Coffee Table). None of this is news to anyone who's been paying attention. What's going unreported is that every community built on what was farmland ten years ago went for Bush, overwhelmingly. America is decentralizing, segregating in fact, with the Lexus SUV crowd withdrawing more and more into their their disneyfied little la la lands. Of course they don't have libraries, Dave, new ideas are exactly what they are running away from. Our Mr. Brooks continues:
. . . I couldn't get most of the people I spoke to really fascinated, even in an anthropological sense, by these new places. That's in part because I was struggling against a half-century of stereotyping. Movies from "The Graduate" to "American Beauty" have reinforced the idea that the suburbs are bland,
materialistic, ticky-tacky boxes in a hillside where people are conformist on the outside and hollow within. The stereotype is absurd, but it closes off fresh thinking.
No, Dave, what limits fresh thinking is living in a big-box mini mansion miles from the nearest real library or live theater or real sidewalk and doing all your shopping at strip malls with big parking lots and not meeting anyone on the street because there is no street and only talking to people like yourself and only reading the newspapers and web sites you already agree with. And don't tell me about how absurd that stereotype is, because I grew up there, Dave, and it's worse than those movies tell it. You want to learn about Ohio sprawl from a movie, you gotta watch Heathers.

The other problem I had is that I didn't adequately describe the oxymoronic attraction these places have for millions of people. On the one hand, people move to exurbs because they want some order in their lives. They leave places with arduous commutes, backbreaking mortgages, broken families and stressed social structures and they head for towns with ample living space, intact families, child-friendly public culture and intensely enforced social equality. That's bourgeois.

On the other hand, they are taking a daring leap into the unknown, moving to towns that have barely been built, orking often in high-tech office parks doing pioneering work in biotech and nanotechnology. These exurbs are conservative but also utopian - Mayberrys with BlackBerrys.

No Dave, running away from society's problems is not courageous. Solving those problems would be courageous. In point of fact, people have been fleeing established communities for new ones for three generations now. The reason is that new communities, through the magic of exclusionary zoning, are able to limit the number of people of limited means who can live there. As a result, tax rates can be low, schools can be good and so on, because a community of means can fund big projects with fairly low rates of taxation. Cutting-edge businesses can thus locate there because of low taxes. Meanwhile, older communities with a disproportionate number of poor and elderly citizens to care for, must raise taxes to do so and as a result tend to lose jobs to the new exurbs, and get still poorer over time. Mr. Brooks' analysis assumes there is no relationship between the new communities and the old ones, when in fact they camp out at the outskirts of established communities like giant bloated leeches and suck the life out of them. They take advantage of economic and social infrastructure put in place to serve the old cities, without bothering to pay their fare share. This is precisely the reason why conditions tend to be worse in the older, settled areas. The exurbanites aren't running away from urban collapse, they are causing it. Then these people have the nerve to imply that their tax money goes to the city, when usually the opposite is true: the population density of suburban sprawl is usually too low for the residents to be able to fund the roads and sewers they will need, this is done with state and federal funds from urban taxpayers. New York City pays $11 billion dollars a year more in federal taxes than it receives in federal spending. It has a similar problem with Albany, to the extent that suburban and rural voters are entirely responsible for the city's budget problems. If they returned the money they have been pickpocketing, NYC would be on sound footing indeed. In short, these exurbanites are being subsidized to develop a less efficient, less productive lifestyle which is still economically viable only because they are able to externalize costs by shifting the responsibility to care for the poor and elderly onto other communities. This is the genious of localized American government, the ability to reap the benefits while some other guy the next town over gets to pay the costs.

Yet these sprawlville Republicans think of themselves as pioneers, as individualists, as winners who have made it through hard work and perseverence. Why do they think this way? Maybe because they have so much grass. Maybe because their house is so far away from their neighbors it's almost like homesteading, right? This far away from anything resembling culture, we must be roughing it!

This isn't about moral values and it isn't about the Rapture. It's about greed and segregation and fear of the Other, reified into a landscape of exclusion, intolerance, and willful ignorance. So is progressive America doomed? Is there no hope for those of us Left Behind in the ruins of pre-War America? Hell, I don't know. But I suspect that it's just not possible for a majority to join the privileged elite - it's not such a privilege, then. I suspect as new suburbs are built, old ones will have little choice but to band together with the city for survival.

I'll end with this thought on strategy: the conservatives claim to love the market and hate Big Government. But it isn't the Federal Government that is interfering outlandishly in the economy to distort market prices and produce a less efficient outcome - it's Local Government. It's zoning, and minimum lot sizes, and huge tax breaks enacted to get businessess to locate away from the more efficiently designed urban core. So if they love the market so much, make 'em eat it. Insist on a free market in development, and push for regional government, and end to burdensome zoning regulations such as minimum lot sizes, and an end to subsidies and tax breaks to lure jobs away from the unemployed. And make the bastards pay for their own roads, or go back to horses and buggies if they're so amped about being pioneers.


Wells said...

I so can't handle Bobo. Hey Bobo, what can't you do a book signing in one of those sprawlville malls? You wrote a book about them and couldn't find a fricken mall bookstore?! I'm sure he could have set up shop in a Wal Mart, if they didn't ban his book. Any fake nudes of the supreme court? Probably not...

I can't believe this guy writes for the Times!

Elwood, you should email him this.

Wells said...

I forgot to mention.


Trope said...

Feeling argumentative today.
miles from the nearest real library or live theater or real sidewalk and doing all your shopping at strip malls with big parking lots and not meeting anyone on the street because there is no street and only talking to people like yourself and only reading the newspapers and web sites you already agree with...Yo, isn't that what we do, too? I try to start conversations with people on my sidewalk, and don't manage to get to know anyone because (a) I'm too nice to their dogs or (b) they only speak Polish or (c) both. We are insulated in a different community than they are.

I should also mention that the biggest blight on the face of central Ohio, the Polaris Parkway, had its freeway ramps built by Polaris Corp. because Columbus didn't want to pay the expense. Now they've got the Ampitheater and their Fashion Mall and their freestanding ice cream parlors, and Columbus is begging for their tax money, while Northland houses crack addicts. Through negligence, the cities are often facilitating this sprawl.

Elwood Grobnik said...

Hey guys, you may have noticed the new blog is more about rage, rants and sarcasm than about consistency - but since a basic aim has been to get you guys to argue, mission accomplished!Steve, he may be a hack, but he's the only person I know of who writes about these issues regulary, for which I give him credit. The big changes in our society are suburban sprawl and deindustrialization. Anybody wondering about political and social changes who doesn't notice these things is blind.

Trope - I am looking at sprawl from a systemic perspecive. By deepening the segregation of the entire country, sprawl has changed our neighborhood too, as people self-select to be apart from one another. But we do have resources here where we can be exposed to new ideas, the Newberry Library, Chicago Public Radio, U of C speakers series, etc. We don't take advantage of them as much as we could, but even a couple times a year is good. And actually I spend a decent amount of time reading stuff I don't agree with, which is how I came to read Mr. Brooks here. He loves these places as much as I loathe them, but at least he's talking about them.

On Columbus - Polaris vs. Northland thing was a big issue when Michael Coleman first ran for mayor. Basically, Coleman said the TIF district was the best way to decrease the cost to the city of the unwanted development, and making Polaris pay for stuff was a big win. Columbus is an odd case because the city still has broad powers of annexation, which meant that Polaris, which was started on unincorporated land, was annexed and now they pay city taxes. On one level, it's a model that the rest of the country could look at, although what major city other than Cowtown is still surrounded by open fields? The big dissappointment with Coleman has been an inability to change the nature of what's being build on the outskirts, although he has mounted a major effort (with OSU and the mafia) to re-urbanize the central city along New Urbanist lines, for which he deserves credit. Coleman isn't perfect, but he's light years ahead of (former mayor and OSU football star) Greg Lashutka on these issues. I don't regret voting for him at all.

Trope said...

Was Steve saying that David Brooks was a HACK? I thought perhaps he was expressing his disgust, or coughing up a hairball. Hm!

Bob said...

Trope: The point is that the exurbs don't even realize that there are still people in this country who only speak Polish. Also, when you leave your house, when you make an attempt, then you by definition expand your universe beyond the twins and your overworked spouse that is, despite intentions otherwise, now commuting a full hour from Leesburg to DC so that you can park your Lexi side by side instead of one in front of the other.

Bob said...

from the King Street Blues menu in ALexandria, VA:

House-smoked shredded pork BBQ with coleslaw.

Don't know if you care about this, but there it is.

Elwood Grobnik said...

Smoked BBQ pork! And to think I was gonna settle for the lunch special at the Thai place. Fat Willy's here I come!

Trope said...

Argh! How can you go to Fat Willie's without me?? Pigs are friends, not food!
Hmph. You eat all the fun food when I'm not around.