The Future of Unlikely Places

13 thoughts on “The Future of Unlikely Places”

  1. Bravo. Yes, when proximate to some larger wealth-creating entity, these do indeed seem to be the easy places. Cinder-blocks are some of the most under-appreciated building materials by aesthetistes: super-solid, stable, yes, but also more modifiable than other solid materials (as someone who lives in a granite stone house, I know these things) – you can run conduits, you can enlarge Windows — if you are embarrassed by the utilitarian look, you can skim some stucco, or something.

    Regarding old garages, I know a local architect who specializes in both historic renovation and adaptive reuse (a good combo for tax-credit work, which is very common around here) — he not only has his offices in an old cider block garage; he says he covets so many garages he sees, as he sees them as the ULTIMATE in easy adaptive office space.

  2. There are probably dozens of rust belt cities in the northeast with solid bones and cheap property values that can be colonized and eventually returned to life. Take Buffalo, for example. It’s very walkable, has a pretty good one-line grade-separated light rail (technically a subway because most of it is underground, a lot of vacant properties, a lot of very cheap properties, an ‘artsy’ district with pretty 19th-century houses, and a city government that will basically give away properties in targeted districts in return for a promise to inhabit them for a certain period.

    1. Yes, but. Much has been written about foolish money being thrown at Buffalo, starting with a seminal article by Edward Glaeser. One of Johnny’s first conditions was “a relatively unregulated environment” New York State is one of those places that will regard any successful venture that the authorities did not promote as a “Kulak” venture that they will loot if not crush.

      I’d like to add to Johnny’s list a other pre-condition: some kind of proximity to a large, prosperous locale. It is true that you can establish a truly independent intentional community nearly anywhere (though many are better than many others) and isolation is a plus —- but what MOST slightly alternative folks are looking for is a way to more independantly do their own thing while still prospering connected to larger society. There are some artists that just want to antisocially make their own art and support themselves without worrying about the art market, but most artists that are “serious about their careers” want access to the “rest of the industry” and hence a market. Artists have to deal with a whole host of vaguely parasitic and pretentious people who essentially regulate the branding, and those people don’t, can’t even, live any where near Buffalo. New Orleans, maybe.

      To me, the best example I can think of is what has been happening recently in Nashville. Aaron Renn wrote a really interesting article comparing what has been happening in the last ten years in Nashville vs. Indianapolis. He is a fan of both cities, but he points to a lot that he sees Indy doing wrong (if they share his goals) and Nashville right. One of the top things he mentions is TN’s low taxes and regulation. Another is a huge underclass sabatoging any progress like in Buffalo, Cincy or Detroit.

      My bet would be Pittsburg could be the “next Nashville”

  3. So many people I know in Portland have been planning their escape routes. Several mention Detroit but I think most of us here are a bit too “soft” for the reality of that option. Maybe half of my friends are in that awful rent burdened trap where they simply can’t afford to move but they can’t afford to stay either. The other bunch are homeowners that have a ton of equity having bought in gentrified ‘hoods long before they turned and are sick of the city and all the giant new development around them. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to live in a retro gas station like the one you’ve posted! So much more appealing than the bland shopping mall…although, with some bright new paint and steel trough planters with bamboo and tables and umbrellas in the former parking lot, it could be cute too!

    1. You should check out San Antonio. Seriously. So many of the interesting people from Austin are winding up there. There is a massive area of pre-WWII development which is kind of run down but safe, cheap, and full of character. Lots of cheap industrial space for rent. Downtown and King William have already “gentrified,” but as soon as you leave the downtown loop it is ridiculously cheap. Here’s your retro gas station BTW, now a tiny little craft beer dive,-98.4901378,3a,75y,257.43h,85.2t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s1OrzrZXVju_s_VczDu3w3w!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

  4. It’s an appealing thought, especially if you could break up some of that asphalt and plant some trees to reduce the heat island effect. From looking around, it seems like you would still need a “seed” to grow such a community around, such as a rail or public transit link to a major city, natural amenities like a state or national park, or an educational institution nearby.

    I went to school in Philadelphia and the continuing low prices for real estate are enticing, especially living in NYC. Kensington isn’t dirt cheap anymore, but it’s also not the next Williamsburg, price-wise, at least not yet. You could theoretically buy a row house and rent out the basement unit in any number of Philadelphia neighborhoods. Not sure about taxes and ongoing upkeep though, doubt that the $400 rent would be enough to repoint the masonry when that bill comes due. Your thoughts?

    1. The best “seed” for a crappy town isn’t a train station or university. Trying to induce success with a giant institution or chunk of infrastructure is expensive and not always effective. Most places that need love don’t have that kind of cash or political pull. Instead, the seeds that grow the healthiest landscapes are an odd collection of volunteers (weeds) that thrive on neglect while quietly assisting each other along the way.

      In the best case scenario buildings are continuously maintained and improved for centuries. I’ve been in 800 year old homes in China, Switzerland, England… Philly has a few homes that have been around for a couple of centuries. But Americans are a restless short term people. Old buildings typically get used (“depreciated” is the official tax term) at lower and lower price points until they simply stop being fit for habitation even by junkies. Then they’re either renovated at some expense if the market can justify the cost, or the buildings are left to revert to nature.

      1. I was more thinking what kind of legacy infrastructure would be a good “seed” for this type of development. Wouldn’t advocate for new money to be spent building these institutions, but the existing investment could be a good one to build from, since existing universities and public transit have enabled some walkable, bikable, and transit-friendly neighborhoods to survive the auto era with their street grids and density intact. My own old rust-belt neighborhood has survived this way as nearby areas have dipped further into neglect.

        You’ve probably seen the news at this point, but Baltimore seems to be throwing in the towel on thousands of homes that have reached the end of that path of depreciation:

        1. Yes, the row homes of B’More aren’t good enough for junkies anymore. And there’s no market justification for saving them. It’s sad – particularly since their replacements out in the cul-de-sacs of the county are made of compressed dust and plastic. They will turn to compost long before anyone even thinks of renovating them.

          Yes, places with good old bones do tend to survive with more grace. I’m just sensitive to any hint of the “build it and they will come” model. Convention centers. Casinos. Stadiums. Premium outlet malls. Aquariums. I just naturally recoil from any of that.

          My point with this blog post is that the worse places with the least charm are sometimes exactly where the counter culture needs to be in order to thrive. Ugly is good. Semi detached from the world is a benefit. Not worth regulating is a relief.

        2. “Sprawl is the problem”—- can’t stop laughing. Author of that article is living in the 1980s. Sprawl must be the reason why Atlanta and Houston have done so horribly these past 25 years. Maybe bad management/political culture is another place to look.

  5. An interesting thing about abandoned suburban “grayfields” is that the paved parking lots are perfectly serviceable footings for wood-framed or modular single-story buildings. With mobile homes, shipping containers, and some well-placed fences and potted plants, you can create a Japanese-style suburb with density to rival many a North American inner city in a defunct mall parking lot without having to dig foundations. The only complicated part would be water and sewer, but if it was treated like a European accommodation garden with centralized plumbing facilities then maybe it could work.

    1. The primary obstacles aren’t physical. Instead it’s a political culture that rejects anything that doesn’t conform to the code – and the code is a reflection of NIMBY sensibilities. I was recently at a county RFP (request for proposals) for temporary portable homeless shelters and the fire marshal insisted on sprinklers in each 120 square foot mobile unit. Short version: the homeless will continue to live under the freeway as usual.

      1. Sounds like the fire department cares deeply about the safety of the homeless population. I think they could accommodate a reasonable number of people in each of their fire stations, which would ensure that they are warm, dry, and protected by fire sprinklers. I expect them to announce this program any day now……

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