“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” —Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. As Detective William Somerset in the film “Se7en,” Morgan Freeman delivers the first two-thirds of this line by Hemingway, but adds “I agree with the second part.” I’m inclined to agree with Morgan Freeman. But especially with the part he doesn’t quote.
My last brush with economics was an undergraduate course fifty years ago: ECON 151; “guns or butter” and all that. Economics had certainly changed since then; indeed, universities have eliminated economics departments altogether, replacing them with “bidness” schools hawking the wares of Capitalism. Each academic year I have at least one class in such a building; each year I ask when their course offerings will include Marxist perspectives and each year I grin inside while they process a query clearly heard wrong. [I am sincere, by the way, and would welcome an opportunity to learn Marxist theory in detail.]
Reading between the lines—catching snatches of conversation among undergraduates passing between classes or deep in discussion over coffee or lunch—the shadow of trickle-down theory lurks in every corner and cranny, shading the entirety of the place and its profferings. Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” have been completely discredited, yet governors like Brownback, Jindal and Snyder live out the definition of insanity: repeating an action but expecting a different result. Will North Dakota soon go down that path?
Sadly, I read widely but am not well read. So it was that the notion of trickle-down urbanism came to me, without any recollection that I’d seen it in print. It is a corollary, I think, of the New Urbanism, which is, as far as I can tell from the iconic examples presented to us again and again, a failure and a fraud. Seaside is familiar to me only through documentaries and the film “The Truman Show.” But while the æsthetics of the place are admirable, Seaside’s economics are rarely explored.
In theory, the malt shop on the corner as community rallying point is admirable. And in theory, also, the soda jockey behind the counter or slinging burgers on the grille is supposed to live in the efficiency apartment just upstairs. But look at Seaside through the lens of Zillow or Redfin and there is a drastically different picture:
I randomly chose a picture of Seaside and located it on Zillow. These seven houses line the west side of Odessa Street, numbers 73 to 13; beyond the cross street are the really pricey homes along the waterfront. Of the seven houses shown—some of them more prominently than others–none are on the market, but Zillow estimates their values from $1.5m to $2.23m. What is especially mind-boggling is that these are, in all likelihood, second homes, places to avoid the winter (and the riffraff). Is Seaside an incorporated municipality? [Wikipedia says no.] Does it have a police force or private security? Do any of that police or security force actually live in Seaside?
OK, I may have chosen unfairly. These homes are well above the median price ($432.900) for ZIP code 32459. But that number may have been brought down by the many other homes in Santa Rosa Beach, the larger community that Seaside is part of.
Among the homes currently offered is #35 Tupelo Street [above], a three-bedroom, three-bath 1,356 square foot single family residence. Its asking price is $1.595m [that’s $1176/square foot, by the way], but Zillow knocks about 40k off that number. And given that #35 has been on the market for ninety-six days, there could be a bargain in the offing. You may wish to bookmark the listing.
The notion of a broad-based demographic for Seaside is even less likely around the Central Square, where condos start at $1m, with an upper end of $2.3m. This is where the soda jockey, hair stylist, or grocery delivery boy lives. My guess is that the person tending the flower shoppe or trimming the hedge lives in a mobile home fifteen miles up or down the coast.
If the current political rhetoric tells me anything [indeed, it tells me far more than I wanted to know], we’ve never been a homogenous society, nor are we likely to become one. The embrace of the New Urbanism in the 1990s has hopefully loosened its grip. What is still with us, however, is the insidious legacy of trickle-down urbanism: the idea that our cities and towns need only the young and proto-affluent, the “Creative Class”; and that cash flow from their “lifestyle”—I loathe that word—will percolate to all levels and benefit the entire society—in the long run. “Build the condos and they will materialize” has proven true, especially when there are purveyors of scented candles and infused oils nearby. Whence goeth the people who once occupied these neighborhoods, you might well ask.
Thirty years ago or more, I canvassed my center city [from Sixth Avenue North to the N.P. rail line and from the river to Tenth Street], putting lists of candidates on door knobs. Working from 9:00 to 5:00 I was unlikely to actually run into an actual resident; they were all at work. What astounded me was the number of people—primarily single, unmarried or the elderly—who called the CBD their home.
It comes as no surprise that my precinct is consistently on the “blue” end of the political spectrum. Our ongoing gentrification may change that; may actually homogenize the voter base. But, in the meantime, I wonder what became of those former residents, whose rents [no one owned their own home] have risen well beyond their means. I know from having been a resident of this neighborhood for thirty-five years that property you couldn’t give away in 1985 will cost you dearly today. With a mortgage long since paid off, we may be able to endure the rising price of real estate. In fact, we have to, because prices elsewhere are well beyond our means. Others were not so fortunate. But where did they go?
On social media sites like Arch Daily and DeZeen, I see innovative, well-designed social housing, and priced for people on the fringe of gentrification. Trickle-down urbanism hasn’t affected them yet. In our market area, I wonder when it will.
I was about to apologize for this borderline rant. But, no.