We’d Rather Have the Iceberg than the Ship

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Blighted buildings had been replaced with a new fire station, middle school, city offices, and a new police station. And there are plans for infill development once financing and enough vacant parcels are aggregated to accommodate modern buildings (i.e., Texas Doughnuts). My sense is that they’re jumping on the city planning fashion bandwagon twenty years too late.

What I see for the future of this spot is a variation on things I’ve seen elsewhere around the country. A sliver of Ye Olde Towne is preserved for sentimental reasons and turned into a de facto themed strip mall. In this location, with the prevailing culture and economy…I don’t see this being much more than a mediocre collection of cosmetic patches that will limp along half-assedly until the next fad arrives in another twenty years. It’s not a terrible situation, but it’s not “transformative” or “catalytic” either. I gave these officials my usual blunt assessment. (They didn’t like my tone.)

So here’s the big picture. All of America’s institutions are focused exclusively on churn. Crank out new stuff, sell it fast, cash out, and move on to the next project. Blighted neighborhoods aren’t an accident. They’re baked in to every facet of how we do everything. Successful individuals and savvy investors know this instinctively and keep moving every five or ten years to the next new, better place. This is also true of municipal officials and private consultants who continually hopscotch from job to job, leaving behind districts that have peaked in favor of ones that are still growing.

I’d love for people to stop pretending otherwise and just be honest about the situation. You get a really good run for a few decades. Then things slowly turn to crap as the vinyl siding and synthetic stucco start to peel off. We’re going to continue to do this until we simply can’t anymore for one reason or another. Then we’ll have no choice but to start re-inhabiting the dregs that were left behind. Some places will be more worthy of salvation than others. Shrug.

I’m reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Imaginary Iceberg” which begins, “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship, although it meant the end of travel.” That’s how I feel about the North American development pattern. It’s ephemeral. In the long arc of history, no one will miss any of these places. Future generations will be busy doing entirely different things with the landscape they’ll inherit. I’ve made my peace with that reality.

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