Build it, but they won’t come


Thursday, January 12, 2012


Liza Williams, one of my old time heroes from the 1960s, once wrote "Everybody is afraid of the bomb, but who is going to save us from the builders?"
Building spurts have plagued America since before the American Revolution and, in fact, the need for colonists to invade the suburbs of the Ohio Valley, ripping off land from the American Indians, was one of the principle motivations for the revolution itself.
Americans went crazy after the Civil War, filling up the west like a plague, killing any Native American, who stood in our way.

But no spurt has been more since the end of World War II, when contractors – using new equipment designed to defeat the Nazis – declared war on the American landscape with the idea of building a new and better suburban America.

This was particularly true in New Jersey where mostly white families bankrolled by the GI bill and savings built up during the war years fled the cities in droves, partly because they bought the crap Madison Avenue was selling and saw sprawling homes with lawns and new kitchen appliances, new schools, new neighborhoods, fresh air, partly because they did not want to get stuck fixing up the deteriorating urban centers and partly because cities were becoming overcrowded, with baby boomers and African American families moving north from the deep south.

Robert Moses – who is my favorite modern day Satan – envisioned cities as centers of work and entertainment with people commuting in from homes in the suburbs. So he orchestrated the demolition of urban industry and urban neighborhoods, convincing the federal government to make the automobile the official mode of transportation and so managed to fund highway construction instead of mass transit.

With the baby boom sprouting ever increasing numbers, the construction trades had a field day, and began to build and build and build, plowing down farms and mountains with an energy that an army of ants would have envied.

Although conservatives like to blame city centers and welfare for the rise of property taxes in this state, pure greed in the suburbs has more to do with it.

Because residents are centrally located in cities, they are more easily served. Suburbs require much more effort and much more resources – new roads, new sewer systems, new power grids etc – which is even more money for the ever growing construction trades.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, suburban people discovered they were sitting on a gold mine and began to buy up as a kind of person investment, spiking the value of properties, also increasing the taxes everybody had to pay.

Construction trades thrived on the construction of new homes, not so much renovations, and as time went on, they were particularly focused on construction of luxury homes – protesting against any development that was even remotely called “affordable.”

Construction workers built houses they themselves could not afford to live in, and didn’t care as long as the developers kept expanding, and feeding the industry with jobs, and they could still go home to some community where they could afford to live.

But the baby boom died in the mid 1960s, and those who could afford to buy houses, eventually did, causing a drop in potential buyers, threatening to halt the ever hungry monster of new home construction. So banks got it into their greedy little heads that they would sell houses to people who could not afford them, offering up front discounts for the first five years with the vain hope that the buyers would be in a better position to pay their mortgages when the higher monthly payments hit later.

On went the construction trades, building even more new houses in even more pristine places, plowing down anything that got in their way.

When these mortgages went into default as they were bound to, the banks decided to hide these bad investments by bundling them with good investments so perhaps nobody in the financial industry would notice, and for a long time, nobody did, nor could they later sort out good loans bad loans, and the whole economy collapsed.

The bulldozers came to a grinding halt. Now contractors, who called affordable housing “socialism” prior to this, scrambled to find anything to build just so that they could feed their families and keep their own mortgages from default. Any project – even questionable gas lines – they would fight to get, regardless of whether or not it is good for the planet of the people living on it.

Like a junkie who needs his next fix, but can’t get it, the construction industry, turns it attention back to the cities, which because they were let to rot with white flight and because the children who fled the cities now ache for an urban environment which can provide services more easily, construction returns to the city.

Unfortunately, this change has to push the poor off this new urban landscape, just as the old Ohio Valley settlers pushed Native Americans out – and so those neighborhoods which once provided jobs in industry are now becoming new luxury housing for the influx of children from the suburbs.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg has a Field of Dreams mentality, seeking to bring in the most wealthy, not mere working people, needing to keep up property values and thus taxes. This week he spoke about another luxury housing development, claiming the city has already built a lot of affordable housing. Like Robert Moses, Bloomberg envisions a city that serves the rich. Working people are welcome as long as they can keep feeding the beast.

But as with the suburban movement, eventually, we will run out of rich people, unless, of course, Bloomberg intends for New York to have them all, and the construction trades will once more eye the world for virgin territory they can rape – little realizing that they, too, will sooner or later run up against the same problem: not enough people to buy all the houses they want to build.




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