The Texture of an Economic Downturn

The evidence of tough economic times is abundant, and most of us could probably cite numerous statistics or events as examples: An official unemployment rate that is over 8 percent (double digits here in California—we’ve always been trendsetters!); enormous companies entering bankruptcy or limping along with subsidies (sorry, make that “capital injections”) from taxpayers; tent cities forming on vacant land; friends or family members who have lost work or been subject to mandatory unpaid days off; commercial districts in cities and exurbs alike becoming ghost towns; irreplaceable local institutions like the Parkway Theater closing forever.

We Love You Too

In addition to those much-noted signs of recession, I’ve been wondering recently how our economic troubles will manifest themselves in less obvious ways: in our public spaces, in our daily habits and routines, in our civic engagement. I’ve long been intrigued by the look and feel of cities, and in the ways that small, seemingly insignificant aspects of the urban fabric can have big consequences, but my specific interest in the visual symptoms of economic collapse was prompted by a discussion in the comments to a previous post.

A commenter wondered what I was seeing with my own eyes that “reflected the country’s current ailments,” and I realized that I didn’t have a very clear notion of what I would expect a deepening recession to look like in a city such as Oakland. I see more empty storefronts around, and more signs in front of foreclosed homes (although I feel as if I see fewer than I did six months or a year ago), and perhaps more people out and about during the traditional working hours.

I realized, however, that in a city which has always had more than its fair share of blight, poverty, and unemployment, the signs of a worsening economic situation are probably less glaringly obvious than they are in, for example, exurban developments in the central valley or the Mojave Desert that have gone from boomtowns to ghosttowns in just a few years. Ever since that discussion, I’ve had the question in the back of my mind, and I’ve been taking note of small local indicators of economic trouble that might not show up in a statistic or a news article.

During Depression Only

Since I’m trying to be attuned to these symptoms as I roam the streets (i.e. walk the dog, bike to work, etc.), and since I still have a very limited mental image of what a deeper, prolonged downturn might look like in the modern world (will we see more “Hoovervilles” and bread lines, or will our age have its own different, less obvious manifestations of hardship?), I would be interested in hearing any other thoughts readers might have about subtle ways that the recession is affecting the look and feel of our cities.

Assuming that things continue to get worse before they get better, might we see a strengthening of neighborhood ties as people becoming increasingly concerned about property crimes? Or will people in fact become more isolated, because they will be more fearful of crime in the streets, and will have less money to spend in local restaurants and the like? Will the physical environment deteriorate dramatically, as public services and private investment continue to dwindle?

I don’t have any well-formed answers to these sorts of questions, and obviously much depends on just how bad things get, and for how long, but I’m curious — and more than a little nervous — about how further economic collapse might show itself in our streets, parks and sidewalks.

23 Responses to “The Texture of an Economic Downturn”

  1. ng says:

    Here in the Northeast, after a particularly rough winter, many potholes unfilled, the physical decay most obvious to a bike rider. (Makes me wonder about bridges, etc.)

  2. nnyhav says:

    I think the rents in the fabric will be more evident in the suburbs & exurbs, and tend more towards isolation than community feeling (although the prominence of some community activists will be enhanced by their dealing with the effects of the downturn). The infrastructure is more fragile there (if even complete) and displacements more profound (as services are more thinly spread; policing also more diffuse, so potential for increase in crime greater). In cities I think that the effects will be more in terms of pre-existing trends (e.g. slower gentrification rather than de-gentrification; faster decline in declining rustbeltbuckles).

  3. eric says:

    I keep imagining that there is less traffic on my morning commute. I also imagine that there is a bit more sense of community (neighborliness, etc.). I think I may be delusional, though. I still see a lot of mansions being renovated here in cambridge–but two of them that I ride by daily were having geothermal systems put in… Empty storefronts are the most obvious sign, though.

  4. wordnerd says:

    The Parkway Theatre should have been the last place to be affected: Cheap entertainment (New York Times canonical example: Tootsie Rolls) becomes a serious need in a depression. What happened?

  5. nnyhav says:

    cf report from the hinterlands

  6. dc says:

    ng: speaking of bridges and depressions, I bike over a bridge on the way to work that was built in 1935 as a New Deal project. And they have been doing some work on that bridge in the past few weeks, although I doubt the current work is connected to any stimulus program.

    nnyhav: Yikes, that MoJo article is really a litany of misery from sea to shining sea, isn’t it? Many midwestern industrial towns and small cities, at least the one’s that I’ve visited, seemed to have been shrinking and sinking for decades, and this latest crisis has just accelerated trends that were already occurring. That makes for a very different experience than in towns in the west, where you often saw boom turning to bust in less than 10 years. I’m still getting my head around the idea of a town (Isleton, CA, about an hour from here) with a population of 817 and a municipal debt of $1 million.

    eric: I also sense more neighborliness and interest in community lately, but I attribute it to Oakland’s local traumas (BART shooting and aftermath, cop shootings last weekend, even closure of the Parkway) than to the wider economic picture. It probably depends how bad things get — if we skid along for a while and then things start to get better, then nnyhav is probably right that it will increase isolation, not community. If things collapse as dramatically as you seem to expect (still?), then maybe people won’t have any choice but to be more community-minded.

    wordnerd: You might think, but running a second-run movie theater in an mostly-ungentrified neighborhood off the beaten track — while charging $5 for tickets and offering in-seat dinner and drink service to boot — was probably a marginal business in the first place, and I’ve heard rumors for over a year that they were in danger of shutting down due to rent disputes with the landlord (the theater operators and the building’s owner are now in litigation). The recession was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. There’s a pretty vigorous grassroots effort to bring it back somehow, so we’ll see if there’s an Easter resurrection. I wouldn’t count on it.

    I saw, but didn’t read, that Tootsie Roll article. The article on Portland in Friday’s paper does a pretty good job of illustrating the domino and snowball effects of the slowdown.

  7. ruth gutmann says:

    We are walking on Brookline’s Beacon Street and its environs pretty much every day, and I have looked around for any signs of recession. Stores that have closed — according to the owner because people were no longer buying houses and the shower curtains that are needed in them — stay closed longer. A town that at least during my presence here has seemed obsessed with gardening, has hardly employed those crews so far this year. But that is less because people can no longer afford it than skimping on all non-urgent expenditures.

    As for that “community feeling”: I have long felt that cell phones take people away from paying attention to their immediate surroundings and the real people in it. None of those talking loudly on their phones has even the slightest interest in those sharing the street with them. They are in effect saying to us: “You don’t exist and I don’t care what you hear me say.” I cannot say whether this a superficial effect of being otherwise occupied or whether this is a deap-seated indifference. But sometimes I feel “at the receiving end” of it.

  8. eric says:

    Ruth: That’s funny–I have thought that one difference between your town and mine was that yours had fewer DIY gardeners and more guys with flatbed trailers and leafblowers. Maybe Brookline residents will do their own gardening in the future?

    As for cell phones: will people use them less, is that what you’re thinking? We can only hope.

    I’m also hoping, to respond to what DC said about collapse, that the collapse will be kind of gradual, and that we will change slowly to a more humane set of living arrangements: universal health insurance; fewer cars; more bikes and walking and mass transit; less workaholism; fewer and more humane prisons; less inequality; etc. And, I hope, more community…

  9. jabel says:

    Ruth how lucky you are to live in that area.My fraternity house(Northeastern) was at 255 St.Paul St. until Brookline gave us the boot back in the early 90’s.To cross Beacon on St. Paul and then turn left towards Northeastern was a beautifulwalk especially in the fall through that neighborhood of beautiful large old homes.

  10. dc says:

    Ruth: Just be glad that you live in a place where there are people walking on the streets at all! That’s more than we can say about a lot of places in the country. Interesting that you have perceived a decrease in gardeners—that’s exactly the kind of “fragmentary evidence” that I was wondering about.

    Eric: Those are high hopes. If only they were also our expectations, but I suspect that our expectations have more in common with our fears than with our hopes. (Ruth mentioned indifference, but I once read somewhere that “on earth indifference is the least/we have to dread from man or beast.” You can actually hear Auden reading that himself here at NPR, although I didn’t find it a very compelling performance.)

    Jabel: Did you know I have roots in Brookline? I did a lot of my growing up on the other side of Coolidge Corner from your old house, but I know your old neighborhood very well (little league baseball and then high school soccer at Amory Park, a birthday party for Tony Armas’s daughter at his condo around the corner from you, etc. etc. etc.). I googled your old frat house, and it seems to be affiliated with some kind of Catholic Church now. I would more have expected a BU frat rather than a Northeastern frat in that neighborhood, since it’s closer to BU. What years were you living there? I suspect that I may not have existed yet, and even after I began to exist, I was in Cambridge until the late seventies.

  11. jabel says:

    I was there from 78 through 81.After us it was a group home where people with Mental Disability but who could work lived which I argued at the time wasn’t much different than letting our frat stay.We were right across the street from the small park on St.Paul and Amory Park was a block and a half behind us. It was a great neighborhood and yes we were a lot closer to BU than Northeastern.On either side of us was an MIT frat that got kicked out their Natl for going Co-Ed and their Alumni house was on the other side of us.Our house was a three story victorian with a beautiful stained glass window on the first floor landing.

  12. jabel says:

    I just looked at our web site and we were at that location from 1953-1988.We were a local 1 chapter only known as NEZ(Nu Epsilon Zeta).In the mid late 90’s NU refused to allow locals anymore and after several years of nothing they signed on as the NEZ chapter of Alpha Delta Phi and the new group is leasing a house in Roxbury I beleive.

  13. ng says:

    Ruth — Did you mean individual gardeners or town gardeners? (It’s too early to know about either this year., but I hope that at least the individual ones will be active.)

  14. eric says:

    Jabel: I ride my bike past your old fraternity house nearly every workday. It’s been condo-ized, like everything else… Beautiful house, though!

  15. jabel says:

    Eric,thanks for the info.You sure it’s that address.That was what we at least managed to defeat when we were kicked out.Seemed one of the board of selectmen most eager to revoke our boarding house license had a brother who was in the condo conversion buisness.I put up a note on our alumni site asking if anyone has been by there.After we moved out there was a metal plate on a rock stating what years our frat had been there.

  16. dc says:

    jabel and eric: Now you’ve got me curious. I can’t get enough resolution via google maps to read the house numbers. Is it this one?

    Or this one?

    They’re both pretty damn nice. Is that a banner hanging in front of one of them, or just an American flag or something? (Do people even hang American flags outside their homes in Brookline? I see them on private homes in Alameda (a Navy town) a fair amount, but rarely in Oakland.

  17. jabel says:

    Dave,It’s the second one and a great picture!.It was white in my day.It does look awfully nice to be a halfway house so maybe it is Condos.The one on top may be the MIT frat that was next to us.I found out our house was leased then purchased from said MIT frat which explains why their alimni house was on the other side of us.That house was a red brick one as I recall.Many thanks for the photo which I will add to my small collection.

  18. dc says:

    Thank Google: All I did was download the images that were taken from one of their cars with the periscope-like cameras on the roof. You’re right about the house on the other side being red brick, by the way.

  19. jabel says:

    The third floor was originally servants quarters and there were stairs inside the house at the back which led right into the kitchen.The two window dormer on the left was a bedroom and one I spent my last year in.The one behind it though at the back had a firescape out the window which was a great cooler for beer in the winter and one which I also lived in.The other two dormers in the pic were part of the biggest room which sometimes held six roomies.The dormer to the left and back we used to crawl out and up in warm months to sun as there was a nice flat roof behind it which had a great view of Boston.You just did not want to look down while you were climbing out and up as it was a straight drop three stories if you missed.

  20. dc says:

    And I’m sure you and your frat brothers never, ever mixed the climbing out and up with the drinking of the beer, right?

    Glad I could trigger a Proustian moment for you. Proust never wrote about fraternities, did he? “The Remembrance of Frat Parties Past…”

  21. jabel says:

    Dave,yes indeed and I meant to say the two window dormer on the right was one bedroom.Most nights more than beer was in the mix for most of us and yes many thanks for the memories.

  22. eric says:

    That’s the one–google lists something called “St. Paul Condo Trust” at that address. I doubt there are 6 people in one room anymore–and I doubt they are having as much fun as you all had. The world is richer, but not necessarily more pleasant. There’s still a rose garden across the street, though.

  23. jabel says:

    Eric this gets even stranger.I googled St. Paul condo trust and the one link on the first hit page lists the name as a house of prayer.Is it a place where Condo people pray? I’m hoping one of the local alum replies to my post on our NEZ site.Heck I might have to make a trip to Boston just to see what gives!

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