Mini vs Mega Burbs
[Edit for clarity: i'm visiting Chicagoland this weekend, but I no longer live in IL, and when I did I lived in South Side Chicago proper. I currently live in a suburb of MI's capitol city of Lansing. Sorry for not making that more clear in the post.] I'm on the road this weekend, but I thought I'd post some thoughts I've had while spending a lot, and I do mean a lot of time in the car. I really wish I had the opportunity to travel more, because I'd like to get more support for this thesis with my own eyes.
I'm here in the very farthest outer 'burb of Chicago, way way down I-55. You may know, 55 is one of the freeways that lacks an attendant Metro line connecting this area with the city proper- and that's on purpose. Last night I spent an hour and a half driving just under 40 miles on this freeway in bumper to bumper traffic- at 8pm on a Friday night. When I lived in Chicago, driving horror stories like this were what kept me living in the city, always. I remember how annoyed I'd get the few times I'd travel out to the 'burbs for some reason, and how I'd always think, "what the fuck is wrong with these people?" in the sense that I could never understand why they didn't expand on the city and some of the more progressive 'burbs rail lines. Who in their right mind would want to spend 3-5 hours a day in the car on commute, and at these gas prices?
The answer is of course: racists, and stupid people who believe that by doing... something out here in the 'burbs, they'll somehow someday become very rich and be able to buy the Cubs, a loft downtown next to Oprah's place, and an even bigger ticky tacky McMansion but in a closer, more "elegant" subdivision. The same people who drive SUVs as big as a living room, and appointed with all the same comforts (why not, if one is going to be in it for 5 hrs a day?). The same people who refuse to admit that this is utterly unsustainable, or to see that what they've built out here is already falling apart. And they span for miles and miles, I'm always shocked by how huge these developments are.
It's strange. I complain about the condition of my home a lot, in the sense that I can see how a developer in the 60s cut some corners and I'm making up for that now in sweat equity. But despite my home's age (and I do live in a subdivision, more on that later), it's not coming apart at the seams. I can't say that for the ten year old home I'm in right now. And it's not my friend's fault or because of his laziness either. It's simply that these are the Wal-Mart version of "single family residences." Everything here was mass produced in a factory in Asia, out of the flimsiest of materials, under construction standards corrupted by lax oversight and abused undocumented labor... you get the drift. I know this isn't news to anyone here, but it's very, very obvious in this particular part of the American Dream(tm). All of this is going to come crashing down, and soon.
Snapshot of this post: while on the freeway in the middle of the slow traffic, I heard a gangster style car stereo booming. With country and western music.
I'm also dogsitting, so I had a chance to take the puppies around the block a few times. Always informative, that. The vacant houses that lack for sale signs, the few that do have for sale signs, and the signs of vacancy rushing up to meet homes barely being held on to by the current occupants. The banksters are trying very, very hard to maintain the illusion that this area is a 'vibrant' community, but in truth it's little more than a larger, more vulgar version of what used to be near-urban housing for the working class. In my father's day, people like this lived in 2 bedroom homes in the "white" part of town, and commuted a short distance to the factories, squeezing lots of kids, a big vegetable garden, and whatever else they could on medium sized lots. Today's working class folks, (for despite what official reports say, where I am at is not really "middle class" anymore if it ever once was) are forced to drive farther and for less pay, squeezed on every level for rents. Rent for the car, the home, the furniture that fills it, the gas, the insurances, the HOA conformity rules... all while priding themselves about the "low taxes that make suburban living so much better than the high-cost city life." This is me, rolling my eyes.
Anyway, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but I thought I'd contrast this place with where I live. Hoss and Joe are always pissing me off with their Superior Dense Urban Hipster Lifestyle posting, and that's because some of us are old and tired and really don't want the bustle of the dense urban life anymore. If I have to downsize to apartment living again, I'll do it with regret. So I often counter posts like that with reports from where I live, which seems to me like a sustainable compromise. The only problem with where I live is that it's been abandoned completely by TPTB and truly is and has been in a Depression for some time now. But... perhaps it is for that reason that it strikes such a strong comparison to where I'm at now, the last bastion of Midwestern liberal wealth and power. For despite the ring of heavily Republican suburbs, Democratic Chicago proper is and will always be the engine of the economy here.* The Republican suburbanites are sort of basically parasites on the body of Chicago, and the wealth Democratic policies have created there. 'Cause let's face it: ain't nobody gonna come out where I am at for "tourism." Goddess no, that's never going to happen. Especially given how utterly corporate-chain *everything* is here. I'm sure the Mob has put in a good restaurant or two somewhere out here, but the rest of it? Total Corporate Consumerist World.
Anyway, here's what I think works about where I live. We have great bus service. The 'burbs and city work together, and all the buses look the same and run on an integrated grid that services everywhere. There was a burst of McMansion development for a while in the early 00s, but that never really got going for the reasons mentioned above. The pattern of development in the middle part of the last century was mostly maintained, which is to say that most developments where I live abut a natural and undeveloped area of some kind. There are still prosperous farms near by. Walkability is stressed in most areas; although most folks drive and have cars, more and more people are walking and taking buses. That's probably due to spreading poverty, but still. There's also a pretty serious energy/environmental streak in our communities. The muni board meetings I've attended normally have either board members or citizens agitating for river clean up, more efficient lighting, monumental public art to encourage walking, home/lot ratio size restrictions/anti-"Bigfoot" requirements, wildlife preservation... I'm not saying I live in a progressive Utopia, but I do notice the difference when I visit a place like this. Everything about where I'm at this morningscreams "conservative conformity" and "fuck you, I got mine!"
So my thesis is that smaller is better, and communities working together is the only way to get to the future. Atrios wants to destroy all suburban communities like the one I'm in this morning, and I'll say to him this: don't bother. They'll collapse all on their own, and sooner than the people who live here think they will. But the communities that will thrive will be the ones that recognize that by working together with each other and with the urban center, they may have a chance to survive the coming collapse. The blatant hostility and willful "we're not like you people"-ness that drives this suburb will only lead to its faster demise, as will the insistence that a 'burb like this can somehow raise no revenue, commit to no common resource sharing and preservation, etc., is what is going to destroy these places. Because I can easily see a time when cities like Chicago will impose residence requirements for employers and employees, the better to raise and keep tax revenue that pays for the things there that make life possible. Suburbanites need the city, not the other way around.
*If Rahm becomes Mayor of Chicago, I expect everything good that Daley has been doing (greening city spaces, living wage requirements for employers, etc) to be undone, and fast. IMHO he's coming to Chicago for the specific purpose of destroy liberal and labor power there, so it can no longer influence the national scene. Just as the Shark finally came to Maui-Covenant**, so too have the Republicans finally come to Chicago.
**See Dan Simmon's "Hyperion Cantos." All Corrente should read that, for we are Siri.