Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Walled-In Bunch of Houses Is Not a Community

Correspondent J.B. submitted this interesting chart comparing "per capita" retail space in the U.S. with European countries:

Please go to www.oftwominds.com/blog.html to see the chart.

What's striking about this imbalance is that European cities have plenty of retail. If you wander around a city like Paris, you'll find ground floor shops are the norm along major streets. Even small residential streets near thoroughfares support neighborhood shops. Walking down a side street in the 16th Arrondissement (near the Exelmans Metro station), you find a small grocer, a bakery, a cafe, a tabac and a larger grocery store. Just a block away, the Avenue de Versailles is lined with restaurants and small retail; an open-air "farmers market" operates every morning on a small plaza.

There is no shortage of retail space in European cities, nor shopping opportunities, and so you have to wonder if the U.S. really needs 7 times more retail space than Europe.

As for over-building, correspondent S.S. submitted this apt observation:

"Funny you should mention "mall after mall" on your trip. My 14 year old son even noticed all the empty strip malls going up in the SW Chicago suburbs. He calls them "space available malls."
And lest you think this insanity is only a U.S. phenomenon, correspondent Mega filed this report from the U.K.:

"Not just America for MEGA shopping mail projects, here in Liverpool building is busy! WE are rebuilding the city centre to make one of the biggest shopping centres in Britain.... Just as everyone is switching to shopping on line/overseas!

Also we built loads of Apartment blocks....We call them flats....which nobody wants!

Only tonight one of our pop stars (Ex) was raided by a gang of thugs who smashed their way into said apartment and robbed her and her boyfriend. For years people have been queuing up to buy rebuilt flats from areas of Liverpool you NEVER want to be in. One block (where I used to buy drugs from) is in the middle of a "Free fire zone"....Yet they are now talking of £1 Million flats!!!!

Or....You could buy 170 miles away in deep country side a very nice period home, in 5-10 acres of land almost ZERO crime, nice people etc for half that!....Go Figger!

Today I had YET another sale lit drop on my table at work wanting me to buy industrial units (Workshops)....Everyone went out and bought land and built Shops, Workshops, Flats etc.... without wondering about the market. Now with Oil rocketing thus inflation (yes they can't hide it now) rates are going to rocket.

Recession, I bloody well hope so!"

I would also like to offer a first-hand account of living in a "gated community." Despite the desperate pleas of her three surviving children, my Mom bought a brand-new house in a gated community near Phoenix, AZ about a decade ago when this "self-selected imprisonment" trend really started to take off. (Your kids--what do they know? Nothing!)

Although her decision mystifies us to this day, I think she "bought into" the propaganda that this was a "safe place" that locked the big bad world outside; I also reckon she was seduced by the amazing square footage being offered (a mere three bedrooms in those misbegotten days; now you get four or five, which is astoundingly better.)

On our first visit to this middle-class American Heaven--at least that is how it was presented-- my Mom's first action was to notify Security about our car. The problem: it was parked in the driveway. This is unsightly, and therefore verboten. (There were no exclusions offered to Jaguars or other luxury vehicles, so it was very evenly enforced.) However, residents with visitors were allowed a few days grace.

Next: ah, it's evening, let's take a walk. Hmm, there are no sidewalks. The vast stretches of pavement are for vehicles only. So we walk in the street, spotting a very few other residents walking their dogs or getting a bit of exercise. After passing block after block of carefully manicured front yards with no evidence of human habitation or individual character--you were proscribed from doing much more than posting a name placard or hanging a wind chime--we reach the Community Center.

This was a truly Orwellian touch, for there was almost no one there but paid staff. Now it is true that many units in this subdivision were owned by Sunbirds, folks from Northern climes who only live there in summer, but the sales reps had carefully noted that the place was sold out and mostly occupied by fulltime residents.

What greeted us inside the "Community Center" was a vision of the lonely corner of Hell. Though Sartre was undoubtedly correct in observing "Hell is other people," (from the play No exit), this description only covers the ghetto districts of Hell, where miscreants are either shouting angrily or breaking into your house, crazy people are mumbling and cursing at all hours, pathological criminals are wandering around at night stabbing people--in other words, my urban neighborhood here in sunny carefree California.

But there is another corner of Hell, the Lonely Quarter. Here, a large, lifeless room with a bar and overstuffed chairs is devoid of life. True, the television is on, blaring the current mind-numbingly idiotic offering of a 24-hour sports channel, and a tired potted palm clings to life in its glazed pot, but the only occupant of the cavernous space is a lone elderly man, sitting alone at a table. He may be watching the TV, or staring off into space; it's hard to tell. But my spirit sank into the deepest gloom at the scene, for this was the exact opposite of Community.

Yes, there was the requisite bulletin board neatly announcing various classes and outings which had been scheduled by a paid staffer: a painting class, an exercise class, etc. But did any unsalaried resident care whether you lived or died? No one would even know you were dead or alive. You never saw your neighbors, much less got to know them, as there was no human activity in the "community" other than these artificial "community events" at the "commuity center."

The "community" had all the charm of a low-security prison, which is basically what it was. My Mom sold out for a loss a few years later--of course the developer was busy building Units 5 and 6 across the 8-lane highway, so supply always exceeded demand--and moved to Sante Fe.

Consider by way of contrast a company town. We happened to pass a company town on our camping trip, one established by a large electric utility decades ago for the employees of its hydo-electric plant. A company town must be livable, lest your employees flee. This town had a single street of well-tended houses, and a school and a general store. It was a small town, no more than a few hundred residents, roughly equivalent to a gated subdivision, but the feeling was the polar opposite of a lifeless gated Hell: people were out washing their truck, or tending their yard; it was a lived-in place, not a place tended by paid staff and inhabited by unseen owners.

Developers don't build communities--they build secure blocks of dwellings. There is a difference between the two, conceptually and in the lived-in experience. I hate to disillusion those of you who have bought in a gated community, but they are not communities, and therefore they are fundamentally sad, artificial places.

I lived in a company town as a teenager: Lanai City, island of Lanai, State of Hawaii. The company: Dole Pineapple. It was and remains a very livable community with an actual center. You know who your neighbors are because you see them on a daily basis, and know what kind of vehicle they drive, and you see them at the high School basketball game (go Pine Lads!) or in the store or post office. (There's no mail delivery, so you will go to the post office.) You will notice if someone is ill or out of town, and you will ask or be told without special effort. You won't necessarily like your neighbors, but you'll be friendly, and you'll pitch in for the reason that they are neighbors.

We in America have busily constructed countless lonely corners of Hell, and told ourselves it is Heaven. But being told a lie, and believing a lie, is not the same as living a lie.

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