If we had gone to a family living in an American city in 1940 and told them that, in the next decade, they would sell their home for a lot less than it was currently worth and move to a field on the far reaches of the city, they would have thought us crazy.
They would certainly have informed us that their current home had been in their family for a couple of generations, that all those little additions had been built by their ancestors. They would have referenced their neighbors, their local church, the schools the kids attended -- the ones they had attended -- their job, their friends and all of the other complex social connections that bound them to this place. They would have been bewildered at the suggestion that a way of life they knew and understood would change so radically.
There is no way we are going to leave all this and move out to that field in the middle of nowhere.
Yet, within a decade, that is exactly what they did. In droves. And while we can ascribe all sorts of nefarious or ignorant motivations for this mass migration, if we don't overthink things, it is pretty simple to understand: Their current house was a bad investment -- it was declining in value in a neighborhood showing outwards signs of decline, all of which was structured around a way of life in decline -- and the new home was a good investment.
Everything about that home in the field was shiny, new and exciting. The migration had the power of massive state subsidy behind it, which was also perfectly aligned with the industries of the day. What once seem too wild to imagine became self-evident as more and more people pined for their own space in America's suburbs.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I had the honor of being able to meet with some of their editorial staff, an experience I cherished more than the usual editorial board interaction because of the storied history of that great paper. I'm still inspired by the work the Herald did in the 1997 floods -- work that won them a Pulitzer prize -- when they continued to publish a paper every day, even while the city simultaneously burned and flooded around them.
I also really like Grand Forks. While the edge was epically depressing -- superimpose the standard Americana strip development on the vast barrenness of a North Dakota landscape -- the downtown was really good, trending to great. There's way more life in downtown Grand Forks on your standard Thursday night than say...in downtown Kansas City. And in Grad Forks they are seemingly focused on all the right things. The president of their Downtown Development Association -- a guy named Jonathan Holth -- gave a great speech about their need to use underutilized space, to grow incrementally, to hit lot of singles and avoid the temptation to swing for the fences. Just perfect.
I had to smile a little bit last week when I was copied on social media with a link to the Herald's editorial that followed my visit. I loved it because, while it stopped sort of saying I was wrong, in true North Dakota fashion, it essentially intimated that my arguments failed the plausibility standard. In a less civilized part of the country they may have suggested I was full of human excrement or even said bad things about my parentage. Here's part of that editorial:
"When you spread out this much over a large area, everything starts to go bad over time," [Marohn] said.
Whoa, now. We asked Marohn if he's advocating contraction. After all, he was in Grand Forks to speak, and we all know our city's footprint is expanding daily. A few new houses probably have sprung up around the new south-side grade school just in the time it took to read this.
We told him we don't see his idea as realistic. And besides, where would one even start?
These guys were really sharp and caught on to the implications rather quickly. Here is a guy saying there isn't enough money to maintain all this stuff. If something can't be maintained, it won't be. Thus he seems to be saying that we're going to walk away from a lot of stuff we've built. Whoa, now.
Being very practical, they asked me how you would even do this. If the city wanted to intentionally contract to something financially viable, how could that even happen. I tried to walk them through the thoughts I had put into a post a couple of years ago as part of our rational response series. This is where, in retrospect, I should have channeled my inner politician (if I even have one) and stayed on message instead of trying to answer what is a massively complex -- and ultimately unanswerable -- question. Here's why.
His answer: Split the city into divisions — for example, downtown, the near-downtown neighborhoods and the outlying area. He said downtown and the core neighborhoods have potential to be very profitable.
But start with downtown, he said.
"To me, I don't let a street or sidewalk go bad there, and I would do whatever I can to get small, incremental investments that build on each other throughout those areas. ... The stuff just on the edge of that, if good investments were made and the neighborhoods expand and mature, they could also function in much the same way."
Yeah, that's certainly what I said, although it is not likely to resonate with those not already predisposed to agree. It also leads to the logical next question, which was also covered in the editorial.
What about those of us who live beyond those key areas?
"If people want to live there, great. But what should be off the table are subsidies (to live there). If you want to pay for that road out there, great. If you don't mind having a dirt road ... that's fine, too," he said. "And we probably cannot afford five-minute fire-protection service out there."
And this is where I think we humans struggle the most. These guys at the Herald are really smart. If they weren't, they would not have written an editorial that, I feel, got right to the heart of the problem: we're not wired to look at things this way. Here's how they honestly address that.
Actually, it's not so much that I disagree with Marohn; it's just difficult to imagine the contraction of services in areas away from a healthy city's core. Among other reasons, Marohn's proposals won't happen because so many decision-makers live in the very places he has declared untenable. It just isn't fathomable.
Downtown Grand Forks is a great place. After all, it's where the Herald decided to rebuild post-flood. And Marohn's approach is interesting, even intriguing.
It's just too wild and far-flung to imagine coming to pass.
It's just too wild to imagine. I respect that; he's right. It is wild to imagine that a continent of thoughtful people would throw away thousands of years of knowledge on how to build successful places, embark on a massive social, cultural and financial experiment, take on hordes of debt in the name of growth and then call it all the normal way things are done. Yet, that's what we did. It's also wild to imagine it coming to an end, to step back and ponder the ways in which what can't be maintained won't be maintained, what it actually means to correct a mistake made on such a grand scale.
I started out with the story of the 1940's family because we have a precedent here. If Detroit is too uncomfortable for you, or if you have hangups that keep you from seeing it as the canary in the coal mine, then envision that pre-war family who could not have imagined the change that was about to overtake them. Suburbanization looks like a fait-accompli today, yet it took place in slow motion over a couple of decades, the slow and unsure first steps of the pioneers eventually leading to a mass migration to a living arrangement that seemed like a better investment. For those that want to see it, the pioneers are with us still today. That we would follow their lead and eventually abandon places that aren't working -- bad investments -- should come as no surprise.
Just because something is too wild to imagine doesn't make it too wild to be true. What we don't have the money to maintain, ultimately won't be maintained, whether we want it to or not. Taking small steps now to make your place a Strong Town is a strategy with huge upside and very limited downside. Let's not make our inability to fully comprehend massive change -- that which cannot be fully comprehended -- keep us from doing what is prudent.