Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Sharks and Cacti in Suburbia

More from my on-going discussion of development in this part of Florida. Just FYI–Vlass is a development firm that walked all over a local plan. single person is responsible for the city’s downturn–even though elected officials presiding over it have the unenviable task of wearing failure–such is the nature of politics. Really though, the problems are very large and deep and historically rooted–and they are not unique to TT. For those who never considered the history of towns like these, you might want to read someone like James Howard Kunstler who has a very informed (though somewhat grim) understanding of the relevant histories. The long and short is that our kind of suburbia is an artificial creation–manufactured by federal government policy after WWII when there was a strong public desire to get as many families in tract homes as possible and sustained by preferential federal funding. Federal money fed mortgages and subsidized everything needed for suburban life from roads to the cost of gasoline. City turmoil in the 1960 accelerate suburban growth and by the 1980s firms were moving to “exurbs” since so much of the labor force lived there and found driving to be less fun than they had imagined. Federal funds for cities bottomed out (think NYC bankruptcy) as voters pulled those funds to the suburbs which only further accelerated the growth of suburbs. The accordion was stretching out its bellows. Suburban towns always had a hard time paying their way though and always looked to state and federal funds to infill. For much of the suburbs’ first 50 years of life, it was city dwellers who footed the bill so other people could have lawns.  But voters put in people who began to cut off Federal funds in the 1980s. Costs of running cities like ours piled up while the subsidies that made them possible dried up (think the Orange County Bankruptcy crisis). Taxes went down at the national level, but those cuts were more than made up for in new local taxes (the ones to infill the loss of Federal monies) and new “fees.” By the 1990s tax cutting in one arena made life more expensive for everyone through new taxes elsewhere and new fees all over the place–tax cuts always mean you will pay more for things–either in new taxes or out of pocket (think Lexus Lanes or the current Student Debt Crisis). Things like water had been seen as a public good and were funded that way. But by the 1990s these were increasingly seen as consumer choices–meaning the user bears the cost (which are always higher when privatized because someone must be making a profit–otherwise why do it at all?). As the quality of suburban life stagnated in the 1990s there also was a mass increase. Cheap land and mass development meant cheap homes for Americans whose real wages have not increased relative to the cost of living since 1970. In 1980 the minimum wage in today’s dollars was $16 and hour! New developments full of affordable homes exacerbated traffic and sprawl problems while the cost of living slowly went up and subsidy went down. In the 1950s, suburban life meant family and home–by the late 1990s it was two working parents sitting at the table fretting about how to pay all the bills. Children raised in this world wanted something else and they began to look with new eyes at the cities their parents and grandparents had abandoned. The accordion began to retract. In the 1990s it was suburbs that superseded cities in crime statistics and by the 2000s the drug problem was no longer an “urban” one, but one of the suburbs and even rural America (think meth). All the while, shrinking pools of government development and infrastructure monies went into cities as the gravity shifted away from the suburbs. Suburban dwellers who had been driven around for decades in a very comfy limo paid for by other folks suddenly had their driver stop, open their door, and ask them to step out of the car leaving them in a dry prickly desert next to a cactus. When the suburbanites said-“wait, I don’t know how to survive here….this was never the deal….?” the driver just tipped his cap, and said “not my problem buddy–pull yourself up by your boot straps,” closed the door and drove off. That is where we are. Having been built with outside support that support is now gone, we are forced to rely on skills and resources we never had. Every one of our structures still envisions a world manageable by gentleman amateurs who the voters ask only to allot the monopoly money. As Vlass and others have shown, in fact, we are minnows swimming with the sharks whose big friendly toothy smiles disguise what those teeth are really there for. On top of that–every similar city is in the same lifeboat and we are all glaring at each other waiting the chance to slit the other guy’s throat and scarf up that last can of water. Hockey players chip their teeth and politicians get blamed for things they cannot control–that is part of the job description and no one puts a gun to your head to make you take either job. But–we still need to grasp where we are how we got here if we are going to find a way to survive under this cactus.

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