Morality Plays

25 thoughts on “Morality Plays”

  1. Have you run across any communities that welcome *anyone* or maybe just go less out of their way to try and keep out ‘the riff raff’? Moving to a place like that would certainly be easier for people looking for a place to live now than waiting for building and zoning codes to stop being enforced somewhere else.

    > There are larger economic forces at work here that can’t be addressed by local regulations.

    But are there any localities that aren’t making things worse by even bothering trying to fight the larger economic forces? I like Brooklyn, but I’d be willing to move somewhere that lets in anyone if it also meant I was free to repurpose the built environment to serve my needs and desires.

    Contra adamtaunowilliams, I don’t resent what anyone else has done. I resent that they won’t let me or anyone else try something else.

    But if NYC and SF can refuse to enforce federal immigration laws surely a city, town, or other municipality can do the same with respect to building codes. Do any states in the US even regulate zoning? Maybe it’d be harder to prevent the relevant county from doing so, but perhaps not.

    1. Kenny,

      There’s a continuum. On the one hand I’ve come across places that accidentally allow people to do their own thing. They fall in to two broad categories: remote rural locations, and urban neighborhoods that have failed catastrophically. See these two links:

      On the other hand, there are a great many places that let you do a fair number of things so long as you’re either very discreet/well loved/aggressive/wealthy/scary enough that people leave you in peace or change the rules in your favor.

      1. Tangent – is there any way to subscribe to *comments* here? I think other WordPress blogs offer a ‘Notify me of new comments [on the current post]’ option.

        Yeah, you’ve blogged about all the kinds of places where one can ‘get away with’ creative use of the built environment. I really really would like to not just ‘get away with’ it but be *encouraged* by the community. I guess that’s just unlikely given that property owners are almost always the most conservative members of their community (with respect to the built environment at least).

        But what about even weirder possibilities?

        What about starting your own city? Johnny for mayor!

        Or what about ‘guerilla urbanism’? The (relative, possibly ephemeral, most definitely and potentially temporary) success of Uber and Airbnb make me think that there might be some kind of way to bypass, undercut, or just ignore the rules in a large enough mass to overwhelm ‘the system’ and drastically improve the odds that they’ll change the rules in your favor.

        But construction and renovation – anything pertaining to buildings really – are uniquely vulnerable to ‘predation’ by The Man. There are assets that are easily seized and (almost always) cannot be moved; certainly not easily or inconspicuously. Maybe there are corporate forms tho that could minimize these vulnerabilities.

        What would happen if a developer just went ahead and built a larger building than the one for which they were approved by authorities? What if you’d built the building you wanted as you described in your last post? I guess it’s pretty obvious that wouldn’t have been a sound investment. And if that’s true, the only ones that can work around the rules will be those too desperate to care about official punishment.

        Or what about ratting everyone out? Given that so many people are already (discreetly) violating the rules, wouldn’t there be a good chance the rules would be changed if that fact was publicly exposed?

        1. First, I would never choose to be mayor of anything. Not my bailiwick.

          Guerrilla urbanism works reasonably well in places that already have good bones, but just need a little fresh life breathed in to them. Turning a couple of parking spaces into a parklet on Main Street in a traditional pre-war neighborhood is one thing. But putting a similar parklet in the 23 acre parking lot of a dead 1970’s Kmart? Meh. Converting an old industrial warehouse into artists lofts in an environment where no one really notices or cares is one thing. Attempting the same thing in the dead Walmart in a suburb where such things are culturally verboten… Not so much.

          Second, the idea of starting a new town from scratch is bad, bad, bad. Too expensive, too complex, too likely to fail, and ultimately too unnecessary since there’s so much stuff already out there. I’ll do a post on the pragmatic alternatives.

          Ratting everyone out is coming sooner than anyone things. Municipal governments are broke and there are precious few new sources of revenue. So they will turn to fines and penalties for non-compliant situations. Private companies will provide towns with no-money-up-front drones and algorithms that will detect buildings and use patterns that are not officially registered and approved. Then the town and the company will split the revenue generated from offenders. The big ugly stuff that poses a genuine threat to health and safety will be exhausted quickly. Then the bullshit “Your garden shed doesn’t conform to the required setback and is nine square feet too big based on the code” will creep in. People will be picked off one by one starting in the poor part of town, of course.

          1. My real worry and reason for hesitating to engage in guerilla urbanism is the financial, and legal, liabilities to which I’d be exposing myself, and my loved ones.

            Of course I’d expect any particular new town to fail. And, honestly, even with some kind of seemingly-ironclad ‘no one can restrict anyone else’s development rights’ covenant rule/law/etc., I’d expect future political entrepreneurs to discover some way to circumvent or ignore it. And, sure, practically, there’s lots of stuff that *could* be repurposed, if it was legal to do so (or illegal but the laws not enforced). But short of banding together with enough like-minded people and overwhelming the municipal politics of a small town, I’m drawing a blank on the likely form of any likely pragmatic alternatives.

            As for everyone being ratted out, I’m pretty sure I read somewhere about code enforcers making use of Google Earth; maybe on your blog (tho I couldn’t find it). I’m actually kinda, tentatively okay with cheaper ‘automated’ enforcement; even of laws I don’t like. I’m optimistic that, were the costs of ‘bad’ laws made more visible and more consistently felt, people would be more likely to repeal them or replace them with better laws.

            Something I think new towns might be able to do that existing towns seem very unlikely to do is to setup their *accounting* sensibly and do a much better job of matching revenues and expenses. It’s sad and frustrating contemplating how many bad policies and bad behavior are driven by short-sighted attempts at increasing revenues to prop-up otherwise-unfunded expenses.

  2. Many of these places have little salvageable building material. Maybe some scrap metal framing and wall panels in the commercial buildings. The roads, sewers, etc are too expensive to maintain, and it’s not feasible to live there without 1 car per person. Many of the rust belt cities are coming back, and have room for two to three times their current population. Just move to Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, Cincinnati, etc and leave these places to crumble or be colonized by off-the-grid people.

  3. “The solutions towns reach for are oriented around repelling what is believed to be the wrong people with an enforcement regime that mandates middle class appearances….Ever more regulations are imposed that micromanage the way buildings can be used and what can and can’t be built or modified. ”

    This is my professional life in a nutshell. And it’s what the vocal elements of our community demand. I wish I had been as frugal and intelligent with my money as our host describes.

  4. Johnny, what would happen if the local powerstructures, the people who want to micromanage everything and enforce tidiness, just gave up and let things happen without any intervention?

    Would that really be better than what you’ve just complained about?

    1. Back in the 1960’s and all through the 70’s and 80’s the old industrial cities emptied out. The Rust Belt was hit especially hard. Looking back, what could Buffalo, Cleveland, Youngstown, Altoona, or Rochester have done differently to save themselves from depopulation and insolvency?

      Go back to an earlier era when small farm towns emptied out as all the young people poured in to big industrial cities grabbing at good paying factory jobs with both hands. What could any of those rural towns have done differently to prevent the exodus? A few lucky places had a university or a medical center or were especially beautiful and reinvented themselves as tourist or retirement destinations. Everyone else… toast.

      Many of our suburban communities served their populations very well for fifty or sixty years. Now these places are aging poorly and the economy is leaving them behind. Some will be fortunate. Right place. Right time. Others? Not so much. So let the local authorities do whatever they can to hold things together. Some will be successful – more or less by accident. Other places will do exactly the same things and they’ll fail. That’s life.

  5. I take away so much from your photos and words. It is such a sin for America to have so much empty, decaying housing, when so many in the world are homeless. I wish we could bring all the refugees to these areas and say, “Look. This is yours, but we need your sweat equity”. Pretty naive, huh?

  6. Hmmm. If the more recent suburban homes are of a much lower quality than the older suburbs, that suggests that they have no chance of actually being rehabilitated. You can do something with a nice, low-road cinder block building. You can’t do anything with a house which has collapsed after a decade of no maintenance, except salvage whatever you can and clean up the site for farming. It doesn’t help that they’re be a good long distance away from existing cities…

    Though you might be able to do something with the strip malls and big box stores? Could they be turned into farmhouses and farming villages..?

    1. > Though you might be able to do something with the strip malls and big box stores?

      Nope; those big flat roofs left unmaintained for even a few years. The big boxes are utterly disposable. Churches occasionally try to move into one – they rarely stay – the maintenance cost being a one of the problems, in addition to “butt ugly”.

      1. Perhaps the big box stores aren’t an option then (though perhaps they could be used as giant barns? 😀 ), but what about strip malls?

        What I’m asking is, is there anything built in suburbia which can be used as a building, rather than having to tear it down and recycle the materials? Could we even extend strip malls to make actual villages, if a critical mass move in to them to warrant new buildings?

        1. I’ve long envisioned creative rural reuses for dead suburban buildings. I’m about to post a story showing what that might look like. The problem isn’t the buildings themselves. It’s the culture that isn’t ready to reinvent these places. So long as the obsession with preserving the old model is still in place – along with the desire to subsidize chain stores and fast food joints for “economic development” – these properties will remain in limbo.

          The parallel universe is the dead warehouses and factories of blighted inner city neighborhoods from the 1970’s that were colonized by artists. The successful reinvention of these places could only happen after the authorities stopped caring enough to do code and zoning enforcement. If we wait long enough dead suburban properties will fall off the official radar and could become really cool farms or whatever. But we aren’t there yet.

  7. Johnny… OK dude. In post after post you have a really good grasp of the national infrastructure failure, even religiously documenting it photographically week after week.

    Enough already…

    Now that you have this extensive grasp on the current situation, I would be greatly appreciative of your future positive commentary as to it’s remedy.

    It makes no sense to me to whine as you do and offer no alternative solution. From now on please temper your negativity with positive course correction possibilities… as you must envision them.

    Thank You for all you do,


    1. Fair enough. I get the “You’re a whiny little bitch” thing all the time. In my defense I think it’s important to understand where we are – collectively as a society. Most people just don’t see this stuff and it’s important to acknowledge reality.

      When I discuss “solutions” I get the same feedback. “Oh, that’s not realistic. No one will do any of those things.” But I believe we will do all sorts of practical things when circumstances compel us to. But since you asked for it… Stay tuned.

    2. I, in a way, completely agree with what your saying. These Despair-Photobombs are really popular in the StrongTowns crowd. But at some point one has seen enough of them – and I am only looking because I already know this is true; which is the nature of the Internet.

      But what if: there are no solutions. Sometimes the math doesn’t work – period. I look at these pictures and mostly I just want to ransack them for reusable building materials. Perhaps it is because I do not live in one of these places – it is hard to care about them all that much. Most of them were built to be disposable. The first and second ring suburbs – built back when things were still reasonably well built – have either already crumbled or been absorbed into their central city.

      Mostly I resent that these places were built in the first place. I grew up in a split family – urban and rural. No suburbs. I had great memories of both. At my grandparents [urban] I had a big troop of friends, we wondered the street, played games, ate all kinds of food I had never heard of [there were many refugee/immigrants in the neighborhood at the time]. And out in the rural space I had a pony I could ride for hours, go swimming in the lakes, before I had a drivers license I put a slow moving vehicle sign on the family Model-T Ford and I drove back and forth to the little village store. Both were awesome places to live. At the rural home we had our own wells, septic systems, grey water systems – I do recall that was a lot of work – these systems absorbed many a Saturday afternoon. But that was the trade off for all that space. Suburban spaces make me sad – and I genuinely wonder why anyone wants to live there – I suspect it is because they have never experienced living in a quality place. The suburbs provide the benefits of neither the urban or the rural, and the negatives of both [you trade Saturday afternoons fixing the pump for hours commuting – personally I would rather fix pumps]. And worst of all – that rural home I knew – has been overrun by suburban crap; the trails, the woods, etc… are mostly gone, lost beneath irregularly spaced houses and “No Trespassing” signs. All inhabited by people who want to live “in the country” – who now live in silly subdivisions. If those places fail – and they will – it is hard to care.

    3. Aaron:

      Johnny has posted ideas on how to fix run-down urban infrastructure in his blogs. If you have been following along you’ll have observed by now that the problem is not with the infrastructure itself per se, but with society’s attitude(s) towards it. What Johnny has been trying to do is to get us to see the world we’ve built from a different perspective. Only then can new ideas take hold. Those who read this site regularly are (perhaps) starting to understand better, but there are a lot more people to reach, you know? Hence the repetition…

      – Jim A.

    4. Given that the vast majority of people DO NOT understand many of the realities that Johnny illustrates so clearly, I am not sure his task really is done yet. The vast majority of people, especially middle class older people and “the gubmint” don’t understand these situations at all.

      Plus, not to answer for him, his posts are full of hidden gems as far as “solutions”, leavened with a dose of “some places can’t be saved”.

    5. Aaron: I’ve come to see the type of work that Johnny does in documenting the insane attitudes and ways of building “places” as the most important work in creating real change. I’m sure Johnny has some positive ideas, and he’s posted some in past articles. Why is this the most important work then you ask? I think it is the most important thing to do until the majority of people in the U.S. recognize that the suburban pattern of development is insane and demands real change. The common people in this country need to intuitively understand this and they are a long ways off from understanding it. Only then can the real solutions start to come out from a wealth of different places. That is the most significant hurdle to beginning to fix everything and the one that will help usher in an era of more traditional style of development that creates and maintains wealth for everyone. What gets built is embedded in our culture and a true cultural change will change everything. That takes a remarkably unpredictable amount of forces to happen.

      The thing that gets me very excited is that finances are already and will increasingly be a large driving force behind this change. When we literally can’t afford to prop up these places anymore, then that communicates what we can build so much louder than any words.

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