There’s a building in my neighborhood that has intrigued me since before we moved here. It’s an exceedingly simple structure: a small, one-story rectangle with a flat roof and few windows. Every school day last year, my daughter and I would pass it on our way to drop her off. I find it interesting because it’s a corner store — a small commercial building surrounded by single family homes — an arrangement you’re unlikely to find in any neighborhood built in the postwar period.
The building has obviously been renovated. There’s a beautiful storefront that houses a bakery. A patio on the side makes for an appealing place to enjoy the beautiful weather this time of year. Thanks to the magic of technology, we can actually see what this building looked like only a few years ago.
I trust you can see why I’m so interested in this building. Only a few years ago it was a wreck. A completely dilapidated, vacant hunk of bricks. When I saw what had been done to fix the building up I knew this neighborhood was worth taking a look at. No one does that in a place they don’t love.
In my previous articles about Spokane, we’ve talked about patterns of growth and decline. We discussed a soft default — the way cities cheat on their obligations as a way to stave off difficult financial decisions. And we’ve looked at the relentless math behind the challenges our cities face. This corner store, the neighborhood around it, and the city’s efforts to foster more infill development embody so much of what we talk about here at Strong Towns. I had to find out more about it. I’ll share some more specifics in a post tomorrow. In the meantime, I wanted to consider this corner store as a stand-in for the overall Strong Towns message.
A few months ago, I came across a local story that struck me as the mirror opposite of my corner store. A mansion built many years ago is now being managed by the estate of the original owner. The estate is unable to sell at a favorable price; the house sits vacant, and has done for many years. Its only hope for renewed life seems to be a long shot attempt at rebirth as a bed and breakfast with event facilities.\
The neighbors, meanwhile, are none too happy at the prospect of increased traffic and noise associated with having an event center in their backyard. They didn’t sign up for that when they bought in. And think about what that will do to their property values! Unlike the corner store, which has probably had a positive impact on nearby property values, a commercial enterprise in this neighborhood would be a veritable scarlet letter, an indelible stain on the neighborhood for would-be buyers.
I’ve asked myself what I would do if I inherited a mansion like that. The utility costs alone must be enormous — certainly more than I could afford — not to mention the taxes ($185k annually) and upkeep. In all likelihood I would be bankrupted by suddenly finding myself the owner of a mansion.
Our National Inheritance
Such a perfect metaphor for the predicament we find ourselves in. The mighty suburban mansion, built with singular purpose under the assumption of an ever-expanding economic pie, sits empty while its owners bicker with neighbors over noise and traffic. It is unproductive and unloved, having seen its best days at the time of the ribbon cutting. Sure, there’s more life there. Perhaps the owners will eventually cave and sell it off at a steep discount. It will soldier on for a good while yet, likely with mounting deferred maintenance. No one with the kind of money needed to keep the place up indefinitely is going to settle for that house; there’s always a prettier view and a shinier neighborhood a few miles down the road.
Meanwhile, the corner store has been reborn. Having suffered decades of abuse and neglect, it is now a real asset to the neighborhood. Our society has thrown virtually every effort into sucking the life out of these places in favor of megadevelopments and big box stores, and yet they persist — a testament to the enduring wisdom of our ancestors. In a twist of fate, this simple, unassuming building, built by poor people in a simple, unassuming neighborhood, persists with new life while the gaudy mansion languishes.
In our metaphor, the corner store stands in for the neighborhood around it. The West Central neighborhood is among the poorest in Washington State. For more than half a century, we’ve lived under a cultural consensus and accompanying policy regime that has been virtually hellbent on destroying this neighborhood and others like it, not out of malice but out of neglect and the pursuit of the shiny and new. We’ve consistently invested in growth at the edges with new highways, utilities, and urban services while core neighborhoods rotted from disinterest. We’ve been blind to the enduring value of such places.
The mansion, on the other hand, stands for the suburban experiment. While our allies and enemies rebuilt from a devastating worldwide war, the United States enjoyed a period of unrivaled economic expansion. We used our vast wealth to dramatically improve quality of life for many citizens. Our cities expanded horizontally at a staggering pace as the burgeoning middle class sought the idyllic life of the peaceful countryside married with the convenience and high wages of urban life. In terms of infrastructure, virtually every inhabited place in America has inherited the equivalent of a mansion for which there’s never been a full accounting of the carrying costs. And we no longer enjoy the unrivaled economic power to keep the lights on, the lawn mowed, and the swimming pool cleaned.
Most of these places built under the suburban experiment still have life in them. They’ll keep chugging along. Human nature being what it is, we’ll even continue to build more of them. These places enjoyed their peak when the ribbon was cut. The decline is usually slow but steady — because there’s always a newer, shinier neighborhood only a few miles down the road.