Monday, May 12, 2014

The state of the economy: street level

Eight years ago my wife and I were doing a little paper route. It was for one of those local community weekly's. We did it for some exercise, certainly not for the money. We were fortunate enough to have the route in our own neighborhood. To set the stage this is a very very middle class neighborhood in the outskirts of a central city in a large metropolitan area. The average home was (at the time) probably worth about $160,000 and I'm guessing the average household income of $50,000.

This was a walking route with door to door delivery so we got up close to each house as we moved along. I remember remarking to my wife how nice almost all of the houses were, well kept up, fresh paint and little to no junk laying around. As we walked along we'd get ideas for landscaping and home improvements. There was nothing extravagant, it is lower end housing stock compared to the glittering suburbs just a few miles away, but it was nice.

Fast forward eight years. We now take our walks or ride our bikes through the same neighborhood for our exercise and fresh air. My how things have changed - and not for the better. Before when there was maybe one house per block that looked a little run down - or empty - now there are three or four at least. It's as if all home improvements/upkeep just stopped eight years ago. This spring there was a garage that literally collapsed under the weight of snow. It was probably a 50 year old garage, no different than mine in age, but mine is not anywhere near collapse. In addition to peeling paint and collapsing fences there are numerous piles of junk in some of  the yards.

There are numerous houses that sit empty, apparently abandoned. No doubt victims of foreclosure and job loss. Obviously these lawns are not mowed, snow never shoveled and sit in a general unkempt state. There are also many more immigrant families in the neighborhood and due to cultural differences or poverty these houses are often strewn with junk and abused. Where there has always been a problem with junk houses that mess was always inside the walls, these eyesores are outside for all to see.

Even worse is the city has stopped bothering to maintain the streets. In our neighborhood alone there were four water main breaks this past winter. Most of them are still pits in the ground, barely patched enough to prevent major frontend damage if your car should fall into one. Approaching mid-may now and we still have not had any potholes repaired.

As a measure of how the economy is doing it's like night a day. This is the kind of neighborhood that could permanently turn over and never come back to the state it was in eight years ago. This is how whole cities are lost - Detroit, Gary Indiana, East St Louis for example. There are already several neighborhoods in this 160 year old city that are beyond hope of ever returning to the condition my previously nice neighborhood was in less than a decade ago. If too many - pardon the expression - lowlifes invade or immigrants without American cultural sensitivity take over this neighborhood is toast. Young intact families will not move into the neighborhood to revitalize it. I for one will not be happy if that happens. The whole city will suffer.

The bottom line is if this moribund economy continues for even a few more years this is a scenario that will repeat in other currently vital big cities too. This particular city has escaped much of the urban decay that has ravaged the east and south over that last 40 years, but that's likely to end.