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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.