I have a peculiar theory about where the next generation of counter culture folks are going to set up shop. You know… artists, musicians, small scale entrepreneurs, gays, refugees, and whatever passes for the political and economic fringe in the future. When I look back at these locations from the past there’s a clear pattern. The two primary ingredients are 1) Cheap real estate and 2) A relatively unregulated environment.
If you wanted to drop out of mainstream society in the 1960’s and 70’s you either moved to a dilapidated farm far enough from civilization that there weren’t many neighbors, or you lived in an abandoned industrial warehouse in the inner city. As time passed many of these experiments failed outright, as the Hippie communes demonstrated. But the colonies that did succeed created a cultural environment that ultimately transformed cheap rural villages into expensive resorts. Provincetown, Massachusetts. Key West, Florida. Guerneville, California. The lead and asbestos ladened cold water walk-up industrial artist lofts became multi-million dollar luxury condos. New York. Toronto. San Francisco.
The above photos are from the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia. Cheap. Mostly ignored by the authorities. These folks chose to live in bohemian surroundings for $400 a month – that’s $200 each – in order to have the freedom to do their own thing. There was no HOA. There were no NIMBYs. But Kensington is rapidly gentrifying and prices are rising as $300,000 condos and upscale brew pubs emerge. These guys have already moved out of Kensington in search of greener pastures. But it was great while it lasted.
Here’s where I think the next Mecca of the creative class is most likely to emerge. This is the kind of rapidly declining suburban landscape that is in evidence all across North America. It isn’t leafy and tranquil like the better suburbs. The schools are crap. But it isn’t vibrant like the best urban locations either. This spot is too far from the city to easily access good jobs, but it’s just close enough to receive the undesirable overflows from the greater metroplex. Tax revenues are evaporating just as legacy public obligations really start to roll in. Property values are dropping like a stone. The authorities are already quietly withdrawing in an attempt to maintain the better parts of town. Perfect!
Are you an artist looking for a place to paint, sculpt, weld, or otherwise do things that would trigger eviction? Don’t care what happens outside your walls so long as you’re left in peace? Do you want to live in the same space as your business endeavors in a manner that is illegal under zoning regulations? Do you want to own rather than rent, but you’re not keen on a $3,000 a month mortgage? I’d like to direct you to this cinder block beauty in a failing suburban wasteland.
Want to get together with a few friends or family members and form an intentional community? I know. I know. It looks pretty hideous at the moment. But so did the rotting barns in the rural villages and grungy industrial lofts a few decades ago. Remember. You’re pioneers. And you’re broke. So get creative.
Here’s what can be done with such buildings over time – depending on your individual proclivities. I think it might be fun to live or conduct business inside an Edward Hopper painting – halfway between kitsch and nostalgia. It’s the Mid Century Modern version of restoring an old Victorian. Get enough of these clustered in one neighborhood and you might just start a revival. If not, you still have an affordable place to hang your hat and do your own thing. Pick a subculture. Mormons. Vietnamese. Retired school teachers. Urban permaculture gardeners. Whatever. The trick is to establish a critical mass of like minded individuals that support each others’ productive activities.
(All photos taken by the author)