04 April 2008

Suburban Midlife Crisis

These kind of suburban decline articles are popping up more and more. This one is recommending a three part revival focused on housing, active citizenry and community development groups:

Until recently DuPage County had been one of the big winners during the forty-year decline and imminent collapse of Cook County. Major corporations fled Chicago’s failing downtown and moved to DuPage’s open spaces and tax-friendly towns. Working class homeowners on the west and southwest sides of the city sold their bungalows and bought ranch houses, Cape Cods, and new town homes in Wheaton and Naperville and Downers Grove. Families troubled by the city’s public schools happily sent their children into shining new facilities and well-equipped classrooms. County government prided itself on its lean budgets and effective service-delivery.

By the date of the meeting, however, the developers who had helped double DuPage’s population in just 30 years had run out of land. The income generated by their construction efforts had dwindled to a trickle. Education and public safety costs continued to climb. Scores of specialized local districts and commissions—water, sanitary, and others —absorbed hundreds of millions of dollars that never made it into the general operating budget of the county and were subject to little, if any, scrutiny or oversight. And residential real estate taxes—the backbone of the county’s budget due to the long-standing agreement to attract and retain business by keeping commercial taxes low—soared.
DuPage is not alone, of course. ...in almost every mature suburb in the northeast and Midwest and mid south, families face these same conditions. A Roman Catholic pastor I met in Nassau County described it as suburbia’s midlife crisis. It may be part of America’s midlife crisis as well.

A sample good comment after the article:
The pattern in DuPage is clear - reliance on residential taxes works for about 40 years because the continued growth shields existing businesses and residents from the real costs of shared services. Once land runs out, the Bronx starts burning. The Atlantic article suggested that the next step for many of the areas is to get denser - just as urban areas did by chopping homes into 2-flats or 3-flats or more. I live in a mature suburb with rapid transit (34% black by the way, and richer and nicer than it was when it was 12% black) where building densities have increased in the last 15 years although population is still lower than the 1970s but that is a function of how much space we now use per individual and smaller families. Like Chicago and New York, our town filled its borders, unable to expand after about 1960. This led to decline, but then our town, like Chicago and New York, figured out a new pattern of growth that would allow it to thrive.

Turning a farm field into a subdivision or home center is the jellyfish of economic development - as primitive and dumb as you can get. DuPage County is now faced with evolving, as places like New York did before, and become a creature that performs economically without dumb development. This evolution is not an even process and local and county governments are often the last to acquire a backbone. My lovely diverse town has real estate taxes that consume a fifth of my income, (that number roughly corresponds to what I would spend on private schools in the city), and the county is nearly broke. But like Manhattan, I don't need a car where I live and the real wild card in this discussion is automobile subsidies. All of these places, especially DuPage, were built in a 40-year window of low gas prices and massive federal automotive subsidies (especially roads) that won't return. DuPage is already angling for tons of new public transit, which they will need if they alter the business-subsidy tax structure, and given how things are going, they will.


hellogerard said...
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hellogerard said...

I found this part most interesting.

"the real wild card in this discussion is automobile subsidies. All of these places, especially DuPage, were built in a 40-year window of low gas prices and massive federal automotive subsidies (especially roads) that won't return."

I would agree with that. The oil and auto industry have bent American transportation to their business interests for the last 80 years. Since then, how many good transportation ideas have been squashed in favor of roads, highways, a car for every driver, hour-long commutes, etc?

Anonymous said...

I think this is true on a micro level as well. My experience as a suburbanite is that 30 years is also the point at which ricky-ticky houses start to need serious repairs. My house and I are both middle-aged: we're starting to show our age, we're starting to develop chronic conditions that can be managed but not cured.

It occurs to me that, to push this analogy further, exurban McMansions are equivalent to trophy wives. They're young and flashy.

Blue Ash Mom

CityKin said...

^I like the house analogy. That gives me an idea for an old sturdy brick house vs newer stick house post. Vinyl windows and siding have a limited lifespan, and furnaces and kitchens often need replacing by then too.