Friday, June 25, 2010

Venangoland's Housing Clutter

(News-Herald, June 24) Why all this clutter in my house?
First, the things I can’t part with because I might want them some day. Cardboard boxes, pieces of wood, assorted doohickeys—they are all perfectly good and the day might come in the future when I want them. So they stay.
Then there are things that I keep because I’ve always had them. I have a small black desk that I bought at Dave Beals’ yard sale for five dollars sometime around 1970. I’ve had it with me every place I’ve ever lived, but it has been thirty years since I actually used it for anything. But it has always been in my home, and so I can’t quite bring myself to part with it.
There are things that belong to my children. This includes furniture that their mother gave them, stuff of mine that I imagine they might want some day, and their own memorabilia (in my daughter’s case, that means basically everything she has ever touched since she was an infant).
It’s not just people that can have a clutter problem. It can happen to cities, too, and for many of the same reasons.
For the last month or so, users of craigslist (the most ubiquitous of internet classified ads) have been offered a chance to buy an entire city block in Oil City. For $29,900, you can have four conjoined buildings, including the old Brody’s site. 35,000 square feet, 48 offices, and low taxes. Prospective buyers might be turned off by the condemned sign on the old Brody’s door, but perhaps someone will see this as a great opportunity.
It’s not just business locations, though Venangoland has plenty of those (the Galena building in Franklin, anybody?) When a population shrinks, it leaves a lot of excess housing. Let’s crunch some quick numbers from the US census.
2009 population estimate: 54,183. 2000 population estimate: 57,555. 2008 housing units: 27,267. Households in 2000: 22,747.
So, right now, we have 4500 more housing units than we needed ten years ago, back before the population dropped 3000 people. We have more than one housing unit for every two people. We have too much housing.
In no place is the issue more evident than in the metro Oil City area, where the most recent study found 500 “problem” homes. What do you do with these sorts of problems?
It’s easy to fall back on clutter rationale. My kids, or someone, might want it some day. This building has always been here; the place wouldn’t feel the same without it. And there’s another problem that household clutterbugs don’t have.
It would take bales of money to save the Brody block. But it would also take a lot of money to demolish it. Demolition is pricey anyway, but then you add the various regulations surrounding old building materials which often require special handling. We can thank, for instance, the lobbyists for the asbestos removal industry, who years ago got legislators to insure that every building that touched asbestos would become a ridiculous, expensive nightmare.
There’s only one low-cost choice for people who own these white elephants—stand back and let nature take its course. This is, of course, a lousy choice for the community. For commercial property, it means large, dangerous eyesores. For residential properties, it means not only eyesores, but free housing and business space for drug dealers and other blights.
There is one large city that has a plan. Detroit has now lost about two-thirds of its peak population, and their housing blight problems are epic. Their mayor intends to demolish 10,000 houses over the next four years. This has some broadbased support, particularly among faith-based groups who are tired of watching their neighborhoods descend into guns and drugs.
It’s tough to do that kind of urban purging. You have to make sure you don’t replace old ugly with modern ugly (yes, Franklin’s 13th Street, I’m looking at you). You have to get people to let go, and you need leaders who can articulate a vision of your destination beyond “knock down excess ugly buildings.” And government needs to help, not so much with money, but with clearing the many bureaucratic hurdles. There are cheaper ways to get rid of Brody’s-like buildings, but they require government permission.
The payoff? When you cut off a diseased tree limb, you save the tree. And when you clear out the clutter in your home, you make space for new and exciting things to take its place.

1 comment:

Cornelia said...

I love this. Was your thinking about this partly spurred by the facebook post I made about Detroit's urban planning? If so, I am delighted. It's what I love best about social media--the passing on and transmutation of ideas. Also love the packrat metaphor as I try to rid myself of some things I have carried around with me for 30 years.....

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