Sunday, February 15, 2015
America's Sprawl Albatross
One of history's greatest values as a practice is that it explains how the world we live in came to be. I have been reading up recently on suburbanization and its attendant politics, and that history has a lot to tell us. Most people tend to look at the ways our metropolitan areas are structured and laid out and assume that the the suburban sprawl and urban cores just happened to form that way naturally. Of course, our built environment is in actuality the intentional result of reams of legislation and trillions of dollars.
Decisions made in the recent past are currently having a massively deleterious effect on the present, when it comes to our cities and suburbs. The automobile was elevated to an exalted throne where neighborhoods and treasure would be sacrificed to it, rail transport left for dead, economic and racial segregation ruthlessly enabled, and sprawl encouraged from sea to shining sea.
The bill is coming due. The millions of car exhaust pipes spewing carbon monoxide now threaten the very existence of life on the planet. The roads and bridges built to handle the cars are crumbling while the political will to raise the taxes necessary to fix them has disappeared. Neglected mass transit systems can't pick up the slack, and have their own infrastructure nightmares. In cities like New York gentrification is pushing residents into the Sprawl and making urban housing increasingly less affordable. (Which is one reason why I live in north New Jersey, and why practically all the new people I meet in my town moved here from Brooklyn.)
The giant swaths of sprawl surrounding our cities are becoming a dead weight that cannot be shed. To maintain the current system would be insanely expensive and destructive, of course, but hardly anyone in positions of power is willing to completely upend the current system that rewards sprawl and punishes concentration. That would mean dethroning the car and promoting mass transit at moon shot levels of commitment, something that will never happen. Instead we'll just keep on muddling through in yet another chapter in a future volume about the downfall of an empire that in a moment of supreme hubris willfully destroyed its own cities.
Every now and then my wife and I drive into Newark via Springfield Avenue, and I look around at a city that was abandoned by the state and by white New Jerseyans only fifty years after it had been so dramatically built up. What has happened to Newarkers since the 1950s is a brutal injustice, but it has been a tremendously wasteful one at that. A perfectly fine city was gutted by "urban renewal" and its people left to the wolves while the highways that ripped neighborhoods to shreds were used by white suburbanites to speed on through from the suburbs to Manhattan without having to so much as stop at an intersection in Newark. That failed, wasteful, and unjust social experiment has yet to be repudiated, and sixty years later remains an albatross around this nation's neck.