The Teardown People

On Baloghblog I found this Upstate2050-esque fragment of the future entitled “Walkaways”. It’s a vision of a future in which the housing crisis gets so bad that people just walk away from their oversized, overmortgaged exurban homes, to destinations unknown. This phenomenon is currently happening sporadically in some really depressed housing markets; the lenders’ term for it is “jingle mail” – that is, foreclosed homeowners simply walking away from the debt and sending back their keys in the mail. Some of these neighborhoods, where just a few years ago the spirit of the home ATM was dancing, have become virtual ghost towns of increasingly worthless abandoned properties with “For Sale” signs. No one’s buying.

But in the areas closest to BosWash (which includes but is by no means limited to NYC), wealth grows ever more concentrated; the wealthy are drawn to NYC like a magnet even as the poor and middle-class are being priced out. And down in Connecticut (i.e, suburban NYC), not only are they still buying the houses, they’re still buying into a supermutated version of the American dream in which huge new homes are not only beautiful, but are the best uses for the land — more efficient wealth-generators. Here’s a NYT story all about the proliferation of “teardowns.”

I personally find it strange that the same people who are eager to tear down older, right-sized properties and replace them with larger ones — people whose way of wealth depends on homes-as-objects — are often the same ones who bemoan a “lack of community” in America at large, and nod approvingly at political candidates who incorporate “community” as a buzzword. To me, this moaning makes no sense.
Community is wealth. Houses in today’s economy are merely profit-generators. And when you stomp all over perfectly good old houses and overbuild communities until they become enclaves for people just like you (sending older community members fleeing), so that you may add to the profit-generating potential of your big new house, you are squandering the more enduring wealth — that is, community-based wealth. How can you have the community you long for when you are moving all over the place in search of house-based profits; buying and flipping homes in places you don’t live in? I mean, this is a no-brainer, to me anyhow.

The first wave of colonial settlers saw New York State’s beautiful lands and strongly believed that the indigenous people living on those lands were committing an affront to wealth and progress by not cutting down the trees and polluting the lakes with industry (and hence had to be removed, for their own good and the good of Manifest Destiny). It appears that this new wave of colonialism doesn’t even think modest homes are good uses of valuable land. Destroying these old homes and changing the nature of these communities is not just fiscally smart to them, but economically good and right. And so what if the poor and middle-class get pushed out? They can either play the new colonists’ game, or they can just flee to somewhere else.

Sound familiar? It’s also one way of looking at the NYRI issue, which was in the news again last week now that NYRI has demanded that the New York State Public Service Commission declare “by what authority” it has to decide where power lines do and do not go in this subject province of the federal government. After all, Downstate is about to experience an urgent power crisis, partly because of the proliferation of teardowns in suburban NYC — bigger homes mean bigger energy bills.

A lesser-seen story, however, reveals that of the various states currently up in arms about NIETC designations, New York has a weaker protest movement in terms of complaints filed – compared to other states like Pennsylvania or West Virginia, also facing NIETC sentences. Unless New York’s anti-NYRI movement manages to join some sort of united interstate anti-FERC movement, this is somewhat alarming news. It was the fragmentation of Native American groups (through disease and persecution, but also through their own inability to strategically join together in new alliances once it became clear that treaties would not be honored by the colonists) that helped give us “our” country as it is today. (Or was.)

Some of the more powerful Native peoples of the Northeast, genuinely believing they were acting in their best interests at the time, used diplomacy and power plays (with the French or English) to skillfully deflect colonial settlement pressures into the territories of smaller and weaker Native nations — until their time also came. And when the federal government — which increasingly represents the interests of the teardown people — feels like renegotiating with the states, the stronger anti-NIETC movements will undoubtedly try to deflect powerlines onto the territory of the weaker movements.

Whether you like it or not, generally speaking we’re all indigenous people around these parts now, regardless of the color of our skin or what language our ancestors spoke. The process of colonization — with its attendant culture clashes and potential for exploitation — is happening again, and the NYRI dispute is only a different sort of manifestation of it.

As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Will the people of this region be fooled twice?

5 thoughts on “The Teardown People

  1. wild turkey desire

    makes ya think. tear it down to only build it back up again, yet even bigger? thought you might these comments from the recent essay:

    “New York State Plans to Buy Hemlock and Canadice”

    “The question remains, how much does it cost to preserve something so vital for all? How much does it cost to stop capitalism from “developing” in areas rich with natural resources? To answer this, it is important to look at the past. For starters, one may want to consider how a lot of this land became property under the current system.”
    “So here is something controversial – what if, the City of Rochester in a miraculous gesture of good will, decided to give the lands known as Hemlock and Canadice Lakes back to the the Seneca Nation, “the keepers of the western door”? I doubt it will ever happen because of the exact presence and importance of the fresh water lakes, but why hasn’t anyone mentioned it yet?

    Now a days, folks talk about buying property, building houses, working jobs, owning things – their stake to life in this modern age. Property – what are these places worth to you and me? Are these areas priceless or worth the millions and millions of dollars that could possibly be paid for them? What is success? And, how do you put a price on life? ”


  2. Ellen

    Wow, that’s a wonderful post (and very current). I hadn’t heard about plans for the DEC to take over those lakes. Thanks for the link.

  3. Romehater

    This reminds me of the much anticipated bioterroism center where Rome was looked at (because who doesn’t want Ebola Zaire played with in their backyard?). Although we blamed Teddy Kennedy and his senority for Boston getting it, the fact is that the high paying jobs movieing to the area were attached to people who found the area culturally lacking compared to Baa-stan.

    Now, this can happen anywhere. When rich people move into a small community because it’s quaint, they eventually get bored and move their big town activities to those places. And you get that kind of economic expansion with an attractive low tax base.

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