The Next Slum?

Every time we quote James Howard Kunstler, we get comments like " He's a man who loves to rant and hyperventilate with grisly scenarios. Unfortunately none of what he predicts ever comes to pass." Unfortunately, when it comes to the economy and the real estate meltdown, he nailed it years ago, suggesting that the entire economy was composed of giving cheap credit to build houses and stores full of stuff made to fill the houses. Now Christopher Leinberger picks up the story in the Atlantic.

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community's 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son's bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who'd moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, "I thought I'd bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen."

It is an important article, describing how the suburbs came to be after World War II, how the cities emptied in the sixties and seventies, (remember the great John Carpenter movie Escape From New York? That was the vision of the future then.) and how now, people are moving back.

"Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C."

Leinberger suggests that suburban houses will not survive as well as older, urban structures did.

"This future is not likely to wear well on suburban housing. Many of the inner-city neighborhoods that began their decline in the 1960s consisted of sturdily built, turn-of-the-century row houses, tough enough to withstand being broken up into apartments, and requiring relatively little upkeep. By comparison, modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up."

Leinberger concludes that in 25 years American cities will look very different from the way they look now, with vibrant urban cores surrounded by suburbs where the houses have been broken into flats and where the poor crowd multiple families into former McMansions.

"About 25 years ago, Escape From New York perfectly captured the zeitgeist of its moment. Two or three decades from now, the next Kurt Russell may find his breakout role in Escape From the Suburban Fringe." ::Atlantic

Tags: Cities

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