walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

How _Cheap_ Oil Destroyed Suburbia and "Restored" City Life

This will be long. I'm just saying.

I am not asserting that oil is cheap now. It is not. What I am asserting is that, contrary to all the doom-and-glooming about oil being so expensive, the suburbs were a rotting corpse _before_ oil rocketed to the moon. Expensive oil just ended the noisy (and morbidly fun) wake and passed out shovels to the party-goers.

Once upon a time, people walked everywhere. Then a few people got some horses or asses or dogs or whatever, and got to ride on the horses, asses, dogs, whatever, or some sledge or cart pulled behind same. With the added muscle power (and just plain the added everybody), people took up earth moving as a hobby -- or as an emergency measure to better control limited/excessive but definitely undesirable water flows in service of horticulture, agriculture and (more) reliable food production. Now we're done with part one of the History of Us.

Living in settlements (villages, towns, cities, etc.), people were still, by and large, walking everywhere, which encouraged a certain style of urban development, which is to say: small, dense -- crowded. Everyone living on top of each other. Literally. At one point, as the whole floating around on the water with stuff got good enough to cross an ocean, diseases transported from one really dense area to another area led to the second area being really un-dense for a few generations. Because some of the aforementioned beasts of burdens were early occupiers, there was a lot of available not-having-to-walk for later arrivals from the really dense area. Now we're done with part two, in which Europeans came to the not-quite-but-almost-U.S. and thoroughly misunderstood what had happened.

Because land was plentiful and seemingly untenanted, and there were free horses, a much larger fraction of the human population had non-walking-around choices and arranged their living spaces accordingly. Because they got used to this, when the beast/human thing started being a lot more like where they came from, they were motivated to develop alternatives, which is to say, street cars and rail lines powered by fossil fuels, and now we're done with part three, in which White People Continue Moving Away from the City Core. Just for reference purposes, we're probably looking at 18something about now, NOT the white flight of a hundred plus years later.

As roads (rail and other) and stuff to run on the roads (horses, rail cars, horseless carriages, etc.) underwent technological improvements, and as the cities grew larger in people and in space, specialization led to the rise of a managerial class which sent the men off to work in the center of the city (managing) and left home life at the periphery (being middle class, which is to say, having servant(s) do much of the work), with the women in a highly ambiguous and unstable position in which she is not to have too many children (which would torpedo the lifestyle gains), nor is she to work outside the home (because the servants and stuff require supervision), etc. Because of the whole periphery thing, the home life is kinda weird: nice, treelined streets filled with what would ultimately be called the problem which has no name. Nevertheless, the kids seemed healthy and happy and fewer of them died so everyone else wanted the same deal. Because we arrange things nominally as a democracy, and the managerial class has no particular vested interest in keeping it all to themselves, technological change enabled more and more people to participate, hollowing out the center city and expanding the periphery. Also, immigration shut down, so internal migration brought a lot of people up from the south and there was a lot of conflict over skin color and people who might otherwise have stayed in the city did everything in their power (including complaining at the ballot box, which they had rigged to keep the other people out of) to get out of the city by having the government loan them money to move to the periphery. And now we have arrived in the 1960s, Brown v. etc., White Flight, etc. And I have been born. In what are now called the suburbs, NOT city neighborhoods, and the people surrounding me will fight tooth and nail to avoid annexation in order to avoid being subsumed in the school district associated with the city.

The aforementioned technological gains were sponsored, subsidized, made possible by the letter O, which is to say, Light Sweet Crude from Texas. But that last round of exiting the city (will the last person out please turn off the lights) exhausted the seemingly limitless supply and gave control over the price of oil to some people halfway round the world who said, _finally_ we get a say in how this all plays out. Antics ensue. And it should be noted that already at this point, some people were either staying in the city, or moving to the city for the first time. Think Greenwich Village. Think Haight Asbury. These people did not have cars and in the city, they didn't need them. They shared their poverty with the folk who never left and very little else (okay, probably a shared love of certain kinds of food, and definitely a shared love of certain kinds of music). At the same time, there was a wave of migration way out into the country to take up what could be described as subsistence farming, but wasn't, because that would have been drastically unappealing. The subsistence farming did not last. The return to the city, interestingly enough, did. But very slowly, because people left again when they had children (for the most part) and those who stayed were highly marginalized, one way or another.

After a minor detour into solar panels and cardigans which was followed by public mockery of same, lots of power plants and so forth were built. Because the solar panels and cardigans were accompanied by dramatic technological change (okay, pretty undramatic -- but fridges got way efficient, and cars improved a lot), the power plants weren't particularly necessary and had the effect of blasting away at any remaining price support for fuel. The people halfway round the world cried in their, well, they don't drink beer as a religious thing, and toddlers who grew up listening to their elders complaining about how that didn't go the way it should have grew up to try stronger measures the next time around. We're up to the 1980s. Reagan. Words fail.

Right about now, the managerial classes who had dominated the suburbs prior to Brown v. have been surrounded, infiltrated and pressed all about by the folk what moved following Brown v. with public assistance, er, changes in housing policy at the federal level, er, whatever. The country clubbers in principle, knew the Correct Response: Move Further Out. Unfortunately, the rabble (my kind -- the people who didn't have college degrees but wanted their kids to) had already done that, because oil was really cheap again and cars didn't use as much of it. And further out meant a longer drive and still fewer amenities and just sucked all 'round. So the country clubbers stayed put, incorporated their town (if it wasn't already) and got stuck doing a lot of city like urban development, which they loathed and tried very hard to pretend wasn't happening, in part by zoning out of their area all the poor people and not allowing services that would permit poor people to live their (like, say, public transportation). Unfortunately, this made it Even Harder to Get Good Help. Also, their offspring were old enough to have taken over the mall, which was okay at first, but after they didn't move but stayed in place a second generation, the older offspring didn't want to shop at a place swarming with what they wanted to forget being like, so they invented the outdoor walking mall, the faux downtown, thinking maybe that will fix our problems, especially if we surround it with a sea of parking. Parking garages. But they needed more stores, and eventually, public transportation was reborn, and they were going, why the _hell_ are we living in a city designed by a bunch of people who hate the city. Let's go move somewhere else.

What about a _real_ city? And, we can pick a section, buy it up, and make it nice the way we like it with parks and bistros and coffee shops and High End Retail Experiences and really _nice_ _pretty_ _European-style_ public transportation and, okay, maybe I'm feeling a little negative about Paul Allen, Vulcan and South Lake Union. Once enough of them got onto the idea and they started building their faux downtowns in the middle of a real city (surrounded by cheap(er) help and more extensive, realistic public transit options), they all realized that with adequate soundproofing, good ventilation systems and LOTS of square feet, living here wasn't all that bad, and instead of a yard they have to mow, with a crappy playset, they can have a park with an indoor playspace and _make everyone else pay for it, too_. Maybe this whole public infrastructure thing is okay after all. Can I have a stadium, too? Two? And get rid of all that industry and make it parkland. But no skate parks. *shudder*

This would be sometime in the late 1990s. When the Economist was saying the oil was never going to end, and it would always be cheap (never mind the tightness of supply even then, and the now 20 and 30 something folk what weren't crying in their beer but were instead cuddling up to the AK-wtf and contemplating blood and destruction because this is _NOT_ the way it was supposed to go). All those beautiful new big homes and townhomes and luxury condos and etc. had to go somewhere, which meant the last folk still in the city because it was too cheap to leave/too expensive to go anywhere else were given Section 8 vouchers which would put them in a Classy Grassy Neighborhood Away from The Violence (conveniently cheap to rent in/buy into, because of the musical houses process in play). Also, apartments were sold and razed. Old houses were bought up on the cheap and renovated. You know. Gentrification. The last of the poor city folk were shipped out to the furthest exurbs with exotic home loans and Dreams of a Middle Class Life At Last. In a heavily discounted guzzler. To a place with few or no public transit options and crappy amenities.

And this all happened when oil was cheap. Short form: rich people with choices will move away from the poor people. Generally, that had meant away from the center city, until cheap oil enabled other people to leapfrog them. At that point, the folk with the choices went _back_ to the center city. And _then_ oil skyrocketed.

You could start to wonder about a conspiracy. I think that would be uncalled for. There's a lot of loose talk from the punditry about how this is going to make Murrican cities more like European cities, in which poor people live in the suburbs (like Paris! because somehow, booting the poor out of the middle of town will make your town Paris, too). All I can say is, the folk saying that are really _hoping_ that happens, because otherwise, where is there left to move to?
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