Whenever I’m in a new town in a different part of the country I like to wander around on foot and by bicycle. It gives me a more intimate perspective than zipping by in a car at fifty miles an hour. And I enjoy interacting with the people I encounter along the way.
Here’s a new public library designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern. Next door is a municipal aquatic center of equally impressive quality. A new performing arts school is currently under construction in the same complex. This town is investing in serious buildings for the long term betterment of the community. This is good stuff and the town is rightfully proud.
But here’s where that expenditure fails from a dollars and cents perspective. Directly across the street is a neighborhood of modest 1950’s single family homes. This is the kind of neighborhood that’s on the edge. It could decline as people migrate to new subdivisions out on the periphery of town, or it can be reinvigorated if people have a reason to stay. In theory, being in direct proximity to such ambitious new public amenities should boost property values. However, here the opposite is happening.
The buildings aren’t the problem. It’s the land use and transportation pattern that’s at odds with the nearby homes. The side street between the subdivision and the new municipal complex is still technically a two lane affair, but it’s been widened in accordance with the Department of Transportation standards as well as the fire marshal’s requirements. The increased traffic from the new civic buildings makes these homes less rather than more desirable. The town has spent a tremendous amount of money and actually made the immediate neighborhood worse. At the same time newer homes farther away are the beneficiaries of the new facilities, the widened roads, and the ample free parking.
The city noticed the problem and changed the zoning so these homes could be converted to businesses that are more compatible with the widened road. I see this all over the country and the results tend to be too thin to be jelly and too thick to be jam. These businesses are scraping by, but the long term trajectory is clearly not good. I can imagine the city someday paying for a redevelopment project that removes these properties in order to install landscaped berms.
Here’s the multi-deck parking garage across the street. It’s another handsome brick building. It’s top of the line. It has two elevator towers. There are generous accommodations for the handicapped. There’s a covered walkway connecting the parking garage to the civic buildings in case it rains or the sun is too strong. It’s perfect for people driving in from all across the county.
Each individual parking space in this structure cost $50,000. I’m going to guess there are about three hundred spaces in total. Let’s see… $50,000 multiplied by three hundred… That’s real money. If you drive in to this complex you and your car get first class treatment free of charge courtesy of the taxpayers.
On the street next to the parking garage is a bus stop. Oooooo. They really went all out didn’t they? A bench and a trash can. Fancy. I’ve long insisted that providing public transportation in this kind of environment is a complete waste of time. The buses take forever to arrive. They stop running entirely after hours. They’re even slower or nonexistent on the weekends. They don’t go to most of the places that people need to get to. And there’s a tremendous social stigma associated with taking public transit here.
I was in this town for a few days and on three different occasions motorists pulled over and asked me if I needed help. I was a middle aged white guy who didn’t appear to be homeless so they assumed my car had broken down. On the one hand I thought these folks were incredibly kind and I thanked them. On the other hand, I encountered a number of black people on foot as I wandered around and I chatted with them. I asked if anyone had ever pulled over to offer them help. Let’s just say there’s a demographic component to this phenomenon. I wouldn’t call this racism as much as a cultural expectation that it’s normal for many black people to manage without a car.
While I was riding the bike I stopped to take a few photos. Would you voluntarily ride a bike in this spot? Would you let your kids? Would you expect anyone to do this? When I was younger I lived in a nearly identical town and I was pulled over by the police all the time in places exactly like this. Being a cyclist or pedestrian – particularly at night and in bad weather – was “probable cause.” It just looked weird. Clearly I was poor. Poor is correlated with crime. So I got the usual treatment. “What’s in your backpack?” “Where are you heading?” “Where do you live?” “This is just a warning.” How did this make me feel about the police? Not good. I can only imagine how things might have played out if I had been a bit darker.
This town’s values are on display. We know who’s important and we know who doesn’t count. This is the standard in almost every location across the country. I’m not a social justice warrior. Poor people get the shaft. Big surprise. I take a slightly different perspective. This town is going broke spending money on infrastructure and long term liabilities that they will never be able to maintain from the tax base of disposable tract homes and strip malls.
I’m also thinking about the ever larger percentage of overly leveraged borderline middle class white folks who think they’re “haves” who are increasingly becoming “have nots” as the economy shifts and they continue to fall behind. They’ve spent so much of their emotional energy fortifying themselves from “the wrong element” that when they slip down the ladder themselves they discover a world of their own design that doesn’t serve them well. So be it. But there is a better way.