You Weren't Born to Love the Suburbs

January 30, 2015

I went to a meet-up and now I'm an expert on society's infrastructural troubles, so here's the deal: modern America is a moneyless suburban desert of hopeless isolation and we made it this way in less than 100 years without ever checking to see it wasn't working. The meet-up didn't exactly focus on solutions, so I left with a bit of a pessimistic outlook.

It was a Friday night in Austin and around 30 people gathered to introduce themselves in Edie's beautiful Dutch colonial revival cafe on Main Street. Ha, just kidding, duh. It was a sterile, white room near the top of the most economically standard eyesore beside a failed shopping mall parking lot.

But look... trees!

I always get clammy in unfamiliar public speaking situations. "My name is Grace, I recently downsized from a 1200 sq.ft. house to a 540 sq.ft. apartment, I feel good about it, and I'm here because I'm interested in hearing more about how the tiny house movement could affect Austin." Armpits: damp, but.. Being: intact. Fine after all. Moving on...

The meet-up was a mish mash of groups: Imagine Austin, Tiny Houses, and Strong Towns. The speaker, Jim Kumon, is co-founder of the nonprofit organization, Strong Towns , which sounds mighty republican, but which actually works towards reversing what the suburban sprawl model has done to community and wealth (and nature's beauty and any passion one might have been born with but which has been slowly sucked away by consumerism and the relentless rat race). On a related note, studies have shown that fewer people turn to religion in areas that are naturally plentiful. To quote this article, "When a person hikes in a forest to connect with the sacred, she or he may not feel the need to affiliate with a religious organization because her or his spiritual demands are met." I can maybe see the association between the suburbs and Baptist stadiums:

You may be thinking, "Yikes!"

I like the tiny houses, but I went to the meeting because I find interest in the question of, "How on earth is Austin going to adjust to all this rapid growth?" I love living here, but will I be able to afford doing so in the areas I want to for long? Central Austin is largely made up of neighborhoods, with houses on large lots for plenty of yard space. There is only so much space to fill within the city, packing us in like sweaty friends four across in the back seat on lake day. Urban populations are growing and people like their space. As with carnivorism, it's hard to see that changing.

Still, (actual knowledge incoming - not just opinion) then Kumon revealed in his presentation why cities are going broke: property taxes for a sparse block of land with a Walmart filling it are worth a fraction of what they could be if more businesses existed in that same space. Let us collectively scowl for a moment in remembrance of the whole "Walmart employees on welfare while the Walton's remain richest family in country" thing...

So stop blinking for a sec and let this make you a little sad.

Where charming main streets used to be are now expanses of parking lots and megaplexes. Shop owners do not tend the sidewalk in front of their stores. That's the city's job. A man can no longer work his way up from the cheese counter at his local grocery store to owning the place himself. No, not even that jolly cheesemonger awaiting your inquiries at the fine comptoir à fromage at Whole Foods has a guarantee of aging as pleasantly as his delectable products. It is unlikely he will ever even meet the owner of his store. You won't save your boss from drunkenly poor business decisions and he will not be giving you a bonus for it.

The day of the successful rural town is over because those personal businesses have been replaced by the big, corporate ones everyone must drive to and where those at the helm remain detached atop their velveteen tuffets, planning vacations exclusive to only those who withhold the right amount of money from those beneath them. None of this is NEWs, but dang.

He went on to somewhat briefly touch on the efforts being made to counteract these effects. For example, a business man in Dallas has built a small, old-fashioned strip mall with attached housing. Each piece can be rented and lived in by each shop owner, who can eventually own and rent out the place themselves. It's a grand investment in a community. But is it enough???

For that matter, why does everything have to be so homogenized? Why is it so bad to build new structures that are a little more inspiring? Strip malls are called that because they strip civilization of its potential to awe with beauty. That's probably true. The buildings along the Galveston strand are infinitely nicer than any strip mall. They are also half empty. Business is apparently better off in the uglier periphery. I don't get it, but I wish I could go back in time and see these places in their heyday.

Look at timeless Galveston, such a novelty now.

Another facet of our wonky ways was what Kumon referred to as "stroads" or street/road mixtures, the effectiveness of which he compared to futons; they make an uncomfortable bed and an uncomfortable couch. Streets should be pedestrian-friendly and navigable on foot. Roads should be fast highways. Instead of hopping in your car and pulling a u-turn, we should be able to walk across a street to another business. Remember Judge Doom from Roger Rabbit? Well, it's like he was real and he won. He murdered all the cute animated toons in dip and replaced their wonderland with freeways, billboards, and homogeny. Jesus lord.

As I write this, I'm sitting in Starbucks in the Mueller development, looking out the window at port-a-potties and construction barriers and it is u-g-l-y. Mueller, however, will be a sustainability-minded, transit-friendly community and it seems like an optimistic move in a new direction. I hope so! I also hope Austin will adopt a gondola system (the ski lift kind). In such a small city, I don't feel like I should need a car.

Regardless, Austin is a gorgeous town and I'm happy to see it being developed further. It's just in its awkward phase of chicklet teeth and over-sized feet, but it'll even out eventually. I wish the meet-up had gone into a comprehensive discussion over how Strong Town's principles could come to fruition in Austin, but it did leave me with one impression: the suburbs suck and I was right all along.

A particularly clean, sunny picture of my apartment I love and hope to continue living in affordably thankyouverymuch:


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