Suburban slums

Interesting (perhaps overwrought?) article in The Atlantic on how foreclosure-ridden McMansion subdivisions are slowly turning into… well, not what they were intended to be.

Again, like so many on the subject of exurban vs. urban living, this article pretends that there is no middle ground between the lifestyles at all, and that old-growth suburbia does not exist – except in a sort of negative “white flight” way:

Many inner suburbs that are on the wrong side of town, and poorly served by public transport, are already suffering what looks like inexorable decline. Low-income people, displaced from gentrifying inner cities, have moved in, and longtime residents, seeking more space and nicer neighborhoods, have moved out. But much of the future decline is likely to occur on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core. In other words, some of the worst problems are likely to be seen in some of the country’s more recently developed areas—and not only those inhabited by subprime-mortgage borrowers. Many of these areas will become magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.

The only solution to this is that people are going to have to settle for less space – or to think about space in a different way. That can be tough. I personally don’t think I could hack high-density urban living (even as I’m sure there are many people who would really, really like it and just don’t know it yet). I need “my space.” I am simply not happy always being in someone else’s company, hearing their noise all around whenever and wherever — it isn’t a comfort to me 24 hours a day, no matter what urban planners insist is mankind’s natural state of grace (and if it was mankind’s natural state of grace, we wouldn’t have suburbs, or the desire for big estates when we get rich, or wars over territory).

However, it’s painfully clear that balance is required. There’s no reason why suburbia can’t be re-thought, and exurbia discouraged; I just am disappointed that old-fashioned suburbia is never seen as a stepping stone to new solutions. But architects and social planners seem very enamored of idealized Cities these days, and it’s hard to get them to examine suburbia as just another legitimate aspect of the overall beehive. It’s just all or nothing with a lot of these thinkers – the conversation is about little else. [ /grump]

5 thoughts on “Suburban slums

  1. sean

    the mcmansion bit makes me think of the way faulkner described old southern mansions, and their surrender to moss and decay, in ‘absalom absalom.’

    some inner-ring suburbs do better than others. geddes and dewitt seem very solid, with neighborhoods akin to what many of us knew as children. a place with a tougher time is, say, mattydale, which i love because it is home to the same kind of working folks i knew growing up. many of the houses there, as the locals will tell you, were built quickly – in a spartan fashion – to accommodate the swell after world war II. that’s 50 and 60 years ago now, and age is beginning to show in those structures. the question becomes: what do you do? tougher yet for mattydale is that it suffers a bit from the upstate syndrome; it is a place, we all know it is a place, and it has its own community … yet it is part of the larger town of salina, and thus less able to make distinct choices about its own future.

    one other interesting thing about mattydale, which i’ve mentioned before. many of the people who went there weren’t fleeing the city. they were north siders who came home from the war to find out there was no room in the city – and thus, on bare-bones budgets, had to build homes for their families just beyond the borders.


  2. Ellen

    that’s 50 and 60 years ago now, and age is beginning to show in those structures.

    Yeah, but I’d be willing to bet that those jerry-built homes in Mattydale are STILL better constructed than a lot of the McMansions built in the past five years.

    The houses on my street are all in the 50-year-old range. My house had an expansion that was done in the late ’70s and guess what, it’s the part that has always had the most trouble (leaks, cracks, whatever). I shudder to think of the problems that newer houses are going to develop in a shorter period of time.

    You can always upgrade the inside of a house – new wiring, appliances, bump out a wall or two, put in bigger windows (or do things to make them more energy-efficient). But if the basic construction is crap, there’s not a whole lot you can do. In about 10 years, if not sooner, a lot of Americans in newly built homes are going to be finding this out.

    Also, I don’t know if this was typical of a lot of new homeowners of that era (and the 50’s)… but this was my grandparents’ house and my grandfather did the whole “slowly renovating it myself” thing for years, until they broke down and hired a contractor to finally finish the work. He did pretty solid work himself and I suspect the people in Mattydale did, too.

  3. Robinia

    I think that the flimsiness of construction in our era is a much bigger deal than people’s supposed change in preference from exurban McMansions to trendy urban lofts. You can not get quite all the fashionableness or good schools you want, and still be basically ok, but if the community’s commercial building and residential housing stock is not built to last, well, that can be a source of real privation.

    Add to the general flimsiness frequent moves (and the attitude that deferred maintainence can be left for the next owner) and a society-wide inability to do much in the way of do-it-yourself house maintainence and improvement…. Well, at least we will have good stories to tell our progeny about the real estate bubble, while we are huddled in inadequate shelter.

  4. Phil

    I think the national stories on suburbs devalue inner-ring (or old growth) suburbs because of the gentrified cities at the core of the growth. Places like Chicago, NY and Boston have become unaffordable for most low to middle income families. They are forced out into suburbs that have inherited the social problem, but none of the resources of larger cities.

    They don’t write about ungentrified cities such as Syracuse, places that hoard the poverty and dysfunction, allowing most suburbs to, if not fluorish, at least be functional.

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