Thursday, December 29, 2005

Death of a Suburb

Levittown, NY, the nation's first suburb, is dying. There are plans afoot to save it: "In the 70's there was the death of the cities, and we're 20 years away from the death of the suburbs. But we can avert that, we can fix the problems and have a renaissance." Build this glitzy thing, add that currently popular type of shopping experience, and everything will be well again. Call it the single-bullet theory for top-down real estate development.

Real Estate is to a large extent about perception rather than quality: cashing in on human vanity and selfishness, the latest trend and favorite stereotypes. Exurbs lure in the middle-class slob and his vain wife with promises of exclusivity, styrofoam Georgian Pediments over the front door, and good schools. Urban areas draw in chic yuppie looking for a trendy 'industrial loft' amidst other trendy, young, sexually active Boho's. How do old-stock suburbs with their small aged (expensive) houses, ageing populations and mediocre schools win this popularity contest? Chances are, they dont.

Levittown does have some natural advantages over newer exurban paradises further out the interstate. Buildings are of better quality, its closer to the city, and existing infrastructure can be repaired at less cost. By providing adequate mass transit, providing a walkable environment, diversifying housing stock and providing government insured home/business improvement mortgages, Levittown might stand a chance. Will the resultant renewal face the same political roadblocks faced in urban areas in the 70's: whitey shouting down diversity of income and race in his neighborhood? Will it ultimately be billions in public and private dollars flushed in another failed government foray into real estate? Will HUD finally be drawn out to the 'burbs to buy out devalued mortgages?

From East Liberty, the whole thing sounds painfully familiar.

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