This isn’t aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it’s the kind of environment that, growing up in quiet, affluent, white suburbia, you instinctively learn to avoid. In some cases, though, there’s nothing malign going on; there’s just no particular reason to go to these places. (I frequented a thrift store and international supermarket along here in grad school, but lots of people didn’t, and most of them didn’t have offensive reasons not to.) This isn’t to glorify it either; this community does have an elevated rate of poverty, dangerous highways, lots of traffic, and a very old housing stock.
But while I might once have just seen run-down buildings through my windshield and kept on driving, now I see people doing what they can with what they have. It’s not perfect. They don’t think it’s perfect. But it’s better than abandonment and blight. Many hold the impression that the working-class immigrants who often own and patronize these businesses are to blame for the physical decay. But they’re simply buying or renting what’s available, often from commercial landlords who are speculating on the land. (Maryland’s Purple Line light rail project is expected to drive some revitalization as well as gentrification here.) What’s more, suburbia doesn’t physically age well. Most of the structures along here, and many throughout the whole area, are well past their “design life.” I see people trying to make this landscape into something better, something it wasn’t designed for, and to find a way to blame them for its shortcomings strikes me as cruel. If it didn’t look like this, what would it look like? Not like how it began. That’s baked into it from the start.
There’s a tendency to view this kind of informal reuse of once-pristine suburban landscapes as sort of akin to “downcycling,” a term that denotes the reuse of something in an inferior manner to its original use. It codes as decline, poverty, disinvestment. It suggests crime. Or maybe just a little unchosen and occasionally fraught human interaction, like busking or begging. Or unlicensed food carts.
We’ve come to have a low tolerance for chaos and disorder. We expect things to be neat, organized, clean, frictionless. This expectation is ironic, because we glorify our country’s rough-and-tumble entrepreneurial history, yet we often look down on people who embody it today, and on the commercial landscapes that result.
Back in 2019, I attended Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns book talk, fittingly in the nearby DC suburb of Greenbelt, Maryland. He may not have used the word “chaos,” but he argued that affluent suburbanites were basically wrong in their expectation that we were rich enough to buy our way out of that rough and tumble, the need to be constantly productive, and the certain messiness that comes with it. In reality, it’s more like we’re living on accumulated capital that we’re no longer producing.
Even a couple of years ago, this wasn’t something that would have occurred to me, until I learned more about these issues. It was at most an intellectual proposition. Now it’s a part of my everyday perception. I hope others can see things like this differently, too. And next time, I’ll go thrifting at lunch time and try the tacos.