Monday, December 6, 2010

Yet More Living Arrangements

Winter seems to have come a little early to the nation this year, with much of America in the time-worn cliche of the "Deep Freeze."  The weathermen/women/eunuchs are happy to talk about snow and bitter cold, because it's bad news that people can't get yelled at for delivering.  I think that most people who work in the media have to bite their tongues from time to time when talking about economic recovery, crowded shopping malls, and so on.  With the exception of a half-hearted Black Friday, the malls and stores don't look all that busy from what I've seen.  A lot of shelves that would've been empty by now in years past are still mostly full.  People seem to be putting up fewer Christmas lights.  No one's giving holiday greetings.  While I prefer not to exercise conspiracy-minded thinking as part of the Leibowitz Society, I am suspicious of rosy sales figures in a time when close to twenty percent of the nation is either unemployed or working two or three minimum wage jobs to subsist.  Anyone who asks "Cui bono?" should look directly to politicians who don't want to have to explain away bad news, a media which is founded on advertising or stock traders who know people will shy away from throwing their money into a market that is built on quicksand.

Getting away from current-day commentary, I've been thinking lately about our housing patterns and where/how we'll live.  Suburbia is really not viable in the long-term as a dwelling place.  Consider that most subdivisions, for example, are as spread out as a small-to-medium size town, but not as logically structured.  Most small towns in the past grew organically outward, with workplaces logically located within a reasonable walk of dwelling places.  There was fresh water usually available centrally and the entire community was surrounded by agriculture lands.  In other words, using a comparison to the natural world, it was a complete social ecosystem with balance and interaction.

Modern-day suburbia is a complete contrast.  If a small town was an organic ecosystem existing in the wild, then the subdivision is the equivalent of a zoo -- people are packed at regular intervals into houses which are flimsy, require a lot of upkeep and energy to keep them maintained and occupiable.  While a lot has been made of this in recent years, I think it bears repeating.  For example, people really need to cars to exist in suburbia, because markets are not nearby.  Most people work the equivalent of half a day's walk from their homes.  The houses themselves are not designed to operate without electricity -- most require fan-blown warm air to be habitable.  There is no pump in the backyard for fresh water.  And so on. 

As we slip into the new Dark Age, it seems clear that living space is going to have to be considered.  People will be changing where/how they work, as well as what they are producing.  Many will be going back to mass labor-intensive agriculture, while some work as craftsmen and a few work as doctors, teachers, or other specialist occupations.  The old small towns still have many buildings that, while they may need repair, are still more habitable than the modern suburbs.  Think of them, if you will, as being hollow trees or caves in the forest that currently have no creature in them.  They are ready for people to move in, to fix them up, to make them home once more.  While I don't offer investment advice, I foresee a time when people start purchasing blocks of nearly-abandoned buildings in small towns, that have been forgotten in favor of vinyl and plywood shacks, and start creating viable living and business space out of them once more, not just for antique galleries or photo studios, but real stores and crafting facilities.


  1. I came here through your link at Kunstler's blog. This post and the prior two encompass things that I have been thinking about for close to 18 years. Like Kunstler, I was a fan of New Urbanism and advocated it in my capacity as a real estate officer for two large pension plans. 12 years or so ago, I realized that "New" urbanism suffered from low quality construction as you mention in the post. I would like to see society advance and infrastructure-wise I am pulling for something that looks like this:
    Come visit me at:


  2. Matt,

    Thanks for the links.

    I think we're looking at a "velocity problem" in modern society. We have all this motion and energy committed in the direction of perpetual growth, expanding markets, etc, so much so that we have passed the point where we can come to a safe stop before going over the edge of the canyon road. So, it seems clear that we're going to crash before we are able to readjust our direction, regardless of any kind of small corrections that can be made.

    Eventually, I think the model will shift back to smaller communities, even if at some point we restart the process of building a high-tech world sometime after the dust has settled. People will probably look back and be like "Wtf were you all doing wasting all that space on lawns you had to mow and having to drive two hours to work every day?" and so on. Really, there's not going to be much of a choice in the matter.

    I should state that the purpose of the Leibowitz Society is still to preserve and protect the best of our accumulated knowledge for the future. I do spend a lot of time looking at where we're at now, but I would encourage you (and all other readers) to start looking at the knowledge areas and giving some feedback on what you think should be added or modified in the lists, so that work can begin on actually writing out the "Codex" and building lists of works to store for people.


  3. More on the value of "mobility" that you touched upon earlier, where by "mobility" I am referring to the relative value of renting your domicile as opposed to outright ownership.

    Case-in-point: Detroit - even during the boom years of the 50's and 60's, someone who owned something in Detroit metro saw the value start to plummet - and now most metro Detroit residential homes are very nearly worthless.

    During the collapse-to-come, many areas of this country that are now considered "nice" can and will VERY QUICKLY become "no-go-zones" - with the respective homes within these zones worthless. And the real problem is that it is hard beforehand to predict where the no-go-zones will be, and where it will remain "safe"/"nice".

    So why purchase? Maybe renting makes more sense for everybody (of our mindset)? It allows for mobility - once the lease is up, you can just move - and if it gets really bad where you are renting - just break the lease and/or walk away?

    Thanks much for this site!

    Scott in Bucks County

  4. Scott,

    I think it's a real mixed bag as far as ownership vs. renting goes. With renting, as you point out, it's easy to pick up and go in a hurry. The flip side of the coin is that renting can sometimes be expensive and does leave you at the mercy of whoever you're renting from (i.e. if they decide the property is best used in another way, then they're going to revoke your occupancy quickly, especially without any kind of eviction process operating).

    My general feeling is that if you at least nominally own a property, then it's possible to say "well, my name's on the deed and it's not likely that the bank is going to come back and take it back if the bank is no longer in business and/or can't find anyone to do the job." (assuming the collapse is well and truly under way at that point)

    IIRC, in Argentina, having a piece of property and being able to hang onto it turned out to be a vitally important thing.

    I think that, as time goes on, we're likely to see groups of people start buying up bundles of properties and redeveloping them in "shared interest" living spaces. Obviously, no one in their right mind would buy land in Detroit if they expected to move as an individual and set up shop in a house in the middle of a run down neighborhood. In a semi-abandoned city, it's not inconceivable that a few dozen people might make a crack at this same process with a different result.

    There are arguments on both sides and advantages and disadvantages of each approach. I think one golden rule at this point might be to not buy any piece of conventional property which is conventionally priced (like a suburban McMansion for $300,000). The artifact of bad real estate deals is still with us for a while, at least until things really start getting out of hand.

    Thanks for the comments -- the feedback that people provide is invaluable.


  5. Was there a gleam of hope in that last line? The part where people reassume structures to create things and sell them?

    There's nothing for me to disagree with here. I would like to add that as an employee of a property management company in Los Angeles we are seeing vacancies of businesses that as you say will NEVER come back. One is for the Getty Museum where they housed tons of literature. Considering technology today, storage of "stuff" is less and less necessary. We need solutions to that problem.

    I think this post speaks to a necessity of balance in systems. Personally, my blog is designed to end the offensive of placing the words "women" and "Moms" within political and economic ideas. Our system is way out of balance when a huge portion so reliant on resources is fundamentally ignored.

  6. Well, I am ever hopeful and optimistic in life -- there's enough pessimism and gloom to keep us all in a chronic state of despair for the rest of our lives. If I didn't have at least some hope, I wouldn't have founded the Leibowitz Society or continued to write about it -- really, I promise, I'm not drunk right now. :)

    I've been shocked, too, at the commercial real estate vacancies here and there -- it's amazing the places that are empty around here. I guess when times were flying high back in the 80s, and there was plenty of free capital to go around, people though it made sense to expand the way they did.

    I took a look at your blog and you have some good things to say. I've been forever irked by the tendency for people to be labeled "consumers." I didn't think much about the pink ribbon exploitation until you pointed it out, though. "Awareness" seems to have become a code word for "buy stuff with a picture of a pink ribbon on it" lately.


  7. Thanks for visiting my site and giving me your feedback. An optimist writing about the next Dark Age? I'm going to continue tuning in!