Your Town Is a Financial Time Bomb

17 thoughts on “Your Town Is a Financial Time Bomb”

  1. I was actually born in Salem, OR and finally made it back over 20 years later. Weird to see a town you only knew as a child, now with adult eyes. I currently live in Austin, TX, where there’s a TON of growth, a ton of ripping down old homes on the east side for giant overpriced homes and condos. I feel the identity of Austin slowly waning.
    Recently we’ve been discussing the move to Omaha, to be closer to family in the northern Midwest area. This town is similar to a lot of other towns I’d say. As you move west, you hit the mall, the Costco, the bigger homes. East toward the river, you get midtown, Benson, etc, where the homes were originally built.
    What amazes me is what we consider a reasonable sized home. I live in 1400 square feet with a husband, roommate, two dogs and a cat, and are perfectly comfortable. I see people here in Austin, who are couples, with perhaps a dog, purchasing homes that are 3000+square feet, worth upwards of $570,000. When did we decide we needed so much house? I read somewhere (and this isn’t accurate but ballpark), back in the 40’s, an average family of four lived in around 900 square feet, which is believable considering homes that were built around that time and earlier were much smaller than they are now, and yet, we’re having less and less kids.
    Part of this explains why we are in constant debt, stressed out, trying to find that job that pays just a bit more….

  2. “In contrast downtown – even in its long degraded condition – can still cover its own maintenance costs from its own immediate diminished tax base. The suburbs will burn in a pyre of insolvency as soon as the external subsidies stop arriving. They will never be economically self sustaining.”

    Ah, but can the downtown cover the maintenance costs of the suburbs? It seems likely that the cities will try to do so…

    1. When people see luxury homes in the suburbs they assume they are subsidizing the run down shacks in the older neighborhoods. It’s actually the other way around, and always has been. A local drove me around and said – half in jest – that it’s more important for the roads and sewers in the country club subdivisions to get what they need than anywhere else in town. Those are the folks who have the most influence on local politics and budget allocation. Back in 1950 or 1960 or 1970 there was still enough viable old stuff (degraded as it was) to subsidize a relatively modest amount of new suburbia. Now “urban removal” and exponential suburban growth means even a fully gentrified downtown won’t ever be enough to subsidize all the suburban areas. My expectation is the best suburban areas with the “important people” will continue to be maintained and subsidized while the best older parts of town become revitalized and productive again. That means that large portions of the not-so-great newer suburbs will decline and become the new slums moving forward.

  3. I haven’t been to Columbus, GA but your photo essay triggered a memory of a historic photo I put up on Pinterest.

    It shows a group of people waiting in line for polio immunization shots in Columbus, GA in 1961. What struck me about the image was the fact that this was in the Deep South….. and there is not a single fat person in the entire photo. This is in the land of fried chicken and fried pork chops, pies and sweet iced tea.

    When you showed these sprawling shopping centers, with their huge parking lots, and the car-centered lifestyle of mass consumption, fast food and little or no exercise, we have the answer for why we are so fat now.

      1. Oh. Not a suburb of Atlanta, which seems to consume a third of th state, the problem is they don’t have enough
        Hipsters or immigrants!

        1. Hipsters are the current whipping boy associated with urbanism (love them or hate them) in the same way Hippies were symbolic of the back-to-the-land movement decades ago. The more interesting thing about these cartoonish icons is what they say about larger social and economic shifts. This part of Georgia isn’t well supplied with immigrants, but a significant proportion of the population (black and white) is very poor. They are the people who fill the same ecological niche of immigrants – minus the potential for intergenerational upward mobility.

  4. This is as good an illustration of the “suburban Ponzi scheme” as I’ve seen. I”ll be sharing this widely.

    1. It’s actually a really nice place full of charming people. This town is in no way unique. It’s actually exactly like the vast majority of towns all over North America, which is why I think it’s worth examining. This is our default development pattern, but it has drawbacks.

    2. The promotional video is accurate. Columbus, Georgia is, in fact, a great place. I was particularly impressed with how kind and gracious the people are. But the video all takes place on the river and in the four blocks of restored Main Street that actually has real life to it. It’s a true image, but they skip the rest of the town outside the four block fun zone… Dedicated locals are working hard to revitalize the rest of the town and I applaud their efforts. But the overwhelming institutional and popular mentality is deeply, profoundly, relentlessly suburban. In the medium term (the next twenty to thirty years) downtown Columbus will be a wonderful little island of good urbanism that gets a tiny bit bigger and better year after year. But the tendency is to make it an amusement park to attract suburbanites and outside visitors and they’ll all need a place to park.

  5. I was just in Salem, Oregon’s sleepy capital about an hour outside of Portland. Exact same story line. There’s the typical decaying strip mall environment on the edge of downtown with a meth-y vibe. The outer ring, where my folks retired, has an all American prosperous feel to it. My dad absolutely loves it. It’s the kind of place people restore classic cars, leave their doors unlocked and throw 4th of July block parties like they mean it.

    The downtown is charming but small and kinda staid. Immediately surrounding are a ton of cheap (by West Coast standards, around 100k) bungalows and such. A lot of rentals. Pretty shabby though. Spanish is spoken. There’s a regional university & wineries nearby. Santa Rosa circa 1986, basically.

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