Friday, June 7, 2013
Piranesi In Exurbia: Political Geography in America, Part Two
Political Geography in America, Part II
Piranesi in Exurbia: Rotting Utopias at the American Edges
In the fall of 1991, Washington Post writer Joel Garreau released, in book form, a version of his Post feature series on the rise of a new form of American landscape. Not city, not country, not suburban, these edge cities, as Garreau named them, were located in previously underpopulated areas, within a reasonable distance of a major metropolitan airport, but otherwise forcefully independent of the older American geography that saw cities as the locales for industrial and manufacturing economies, suburbs as the place where the luckier members of the meritocracy lived, and the areas beyond given over to agriculture, scenery or resource extraction.
What Garreau noticed first were planned communities springing up along major outer-ring traffic corridors; simultaneously, corporate office parks and research centers would occupy a swath of former farmland, even as a combination of suburban-style subdivisions and new-urban townhome communities would appear, almost instantly, off nearby roads. Both forms would be marked by their isolation. The office parks would be ringed by camouflage plantings hiding electronic fences with one, two, at most three entrances, guarded by gatehouses occupied by security officials who monitored incursion, or by unmanned security gates activated by corporate employee identification cards. Similarly, the subdivisions would often take the form of so-called “gated communities” (privatopias, my friend and colleague Evan McKenzie named them, in an important premonitory book, published in 1994), in which internal regulation and contract bound the individual community occupants together, but isolated them from the financial, social, or political life outside their walls or fences, in the guise of protecting them from outsiders.
Garreau’s interest was in those edge-city clusters in the Northeast Corridor, from Washington, DC, to the Massachusetts-Vermont border. They’re striking, and their fates deserve the attention we’ll give them in later essays. But to see the picture in sharpest outline, we might begin with a Midwestern example, not least because it’s so easy to observe its shape, thanks to Google Maps.
Abbott Laboratories is a global pharmaceutical company; relatively early in the edge city movement, it moved its corporate headquarters out to the largely underpopulated Illinois farmlands far north of Chicago and west of the older, super-affluent lakefront suburbs of the far North Shore. Theirs is a relatively unsophisticated version of the more sprawling and heavily landscaped “campuses” of places like Sears Holdings in nearby Hoffman Estates.
Start by googling Abbott Laboratories, Lake County, IL, though, and you’ll get a false site, a small office down in Lake Forest, one of those older, super-affluent suburbs where wives pick up their husbands at the train station in their Mercedes SUVs still wearing the jodhpurs from their horsemanship lessons. Instead, you’ll get your fastest hit if you googlemap Abbott Park, IL. It’ll come right up. But notice that the google entry on the left lists Green Oaks, Illinois as the municipality where the lab is located. That can’t be: Abbott employs more than 15,000 workers within Abbott Park, and the village of Green Oaks only had a population of 3,855 in 2010. The village doesn’t even list Abbott Labs among the businesses within its boundaries. Somewhere along the line, though, Abbott declared itself a separate metropolitan location—it just happened to sit atop little Green Oaks.
Of course, you already know that there aren’t any green oaks in Green Oaks—that old joke that Americans name their communities after the picturesque feature they’ve destroyed to build: it applies here. As landscapes go, Green Oaks is a bit of a wasteland, a Midwestern desert. There are some forlorn water features, the rigid linearity of their outlines indicating that they were at one time, or perhaps still are, artificially made, meant to drain off the ground water in the surrounding agricultural land, or to serve as industrial or agricultural waste ponds, or both. One forms a lovely triangle that you’d swear you’d remember from high-school geometry class if you remembered anything from high-school geometry class. Another, visibly choked with algae from the runoff of industrial-strength fertilizers, is hopefully named Shady Lane Resort Lake. It’s bordered to the south by the railroad tracks, on the west by the Illinois Tollway, on the north and east by no-longer-arable industrial farming wastes. There’s no resort, no lane; there’s no shade, either, unless you’re small enough to huddle under some marshy scrub that runs along the older farmfield divisions.
Almost due north of that, though, is Abbott Park, a picturesque greensward if you’re on Waukegan Road driving past it, with grassy knolls, ornamental trees, clumps of shrubbery, hiding what’s behind. From above-- that is, via googlemaps-- you see that it’s really just sham parkland; the vast preponderance of land behind the screen is taken up with warehouselike utilitarian structures surrounded by parking lots full of upscale sedans—sunroofs galore, not a pickup truck or rusting minivan to be found.
Cross Waukegan—virtually, of course, as to do so on foot would be dangerous, indeed (in that regard, Garreau was spot-on: no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no walk-don’t walk appendages bolted to the traffic signals)—and you get a sense of how those who work within the buildings at Abbott live their off-work lives. The clustered townhomes look like idealized interpretations of the tenets of so-called New Urbanism, the sort that made itself famous with the Disney Corporation’s planned community, self-satisfiedly named Celebration. Here the ideals of the New Urbanists seem exemplified—essentially to turn back the clock and turn on the airbrush to produce a replica of an imaginary American town circa 1905, with manageable lawns to water, porches upon which to sit, sidewalks to walk from home to neighbor, friend, grocery or hardware store, or to the park, where the bandstand would feature a Sousaphone and a big drum surrounded by trombones and piccolos, pumping out patriotic piffle: God Bless America, followed, perhaps, by Joy to the World, Jeremiah the Bullfrog transliterated to the bass saxophone.
The townhome communities around Abbot Park aren’t so fully orchestrated; they cluster around a commons, they’re appropriately intimate but with sufficient common greensward to give the impression of gentility and spaciousness. Look carefully, though, and you’ll notice: the structures are modular prefabs, with faux clapboard fronts and brick-it faux stonework on the false chimneys. Each townhome is built around and above a two-car garage. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not so the earnest mental worker can drive a block or two to Abbott Park. The nearest supermarket is many miles away; much further is that hardware store, and the nearest public space is probably in the middle of Market Square, in Lake Forest, far to the east.
Market Square is the earlier type of edge-community planned development—it’s arguably the first planned shopping center in America (though Kansas City, Missouri makes a strong competing claim), set across from the Lake Forest commuter train station. If the parking lots in Abbott Park are filled with Lexuses and Infinitis, the small parking lot for the train station is populated by Porsches, BMWs and Mercedeses. It’s small, though, not just because it’s trapped in an older tradition of land use, but because it serves a very different social and cultural class, one in which wife collects husband at the station, still dressed in those jodhpurs we ogled earlier. Over at Abbott Park, the family units are most commonly two-worker professionals; in many cases, both of them work for Abbott, but if not, there are plenty of similar high-skill professional corporate and research campuses scattered about.
As Garreau pointed out, though, proximity is a highly relative matter out in edge city’s geography. To go from Abbott Park to, say, the Sears corporate office park in Hoffmann Estates, would take you just under an hour in regular traffic, close to two hours each way in traditional rush hour. You’d have to go down Interstate 94 to Interstate 294 and then over to Interstate 90 west, exiting at Beverly Road and winding into the Sears campus—along with close to 6,000 other workers entering or leaving that campus. What this means, then, is that the professionals who live in the vicinity of Green Oaks, Illinois, eunequally split their commute: on average, one worker is in transit less than 30 minutes a day, while the other is stuck in traffic on average 3 hours, 47 minutes, more or less.
This is the sacrifice that exurban edge city denizens make in order not to live or work in the dense core of the old American city. The reward is clear: median family income in Green Oaks is close to $140,000; since the median salaries at Abbott and Sears Holdings are in the $85,000 range, one can assume that double-income professional families are reaching close to $200,000 per year. And they live and work in environments that are comfortingly, relentlessly, homogeneous. In Green Oaks, 96% of the population is white or Asian. African-Americans constitute just .14% of the population. The schools, too, are considered excellent—Oak Grove Elementary School in Green Oak is rated A+ on the standard measuring metric. If you were among the 866 pupils there, however, there would be a better-than-even chance that you would never see a black face among your schoolmates.
Part of the reason professional families settle out there is encapsulated in those two telling facts about the school system: it is excellent, and it is astoundingly homogeneous.
But that implies a level of autonomy that is only found in the mythos of freedom-loving, adventurous, frontier-seeking America. The reality is that high-skills professionals go where the work is, and the work has been out there, where the absence of crumbling infrastructures needing costly repairs, underemployed citizens needing social safety-net support, environmental and safety regulations that might require costly remediation, and savvy political and social activists looking to require the full costs of settlement be paid by the incoming corporations—all those urban disincentives were (at least, back then) blissfully absent. Corporate planners made the decisions; high-skills workers moved out there for the jobs.
Of course, many of those high-skills, high-tech workers reveled in the bland homogeneity of the exurban environment. If you are working 18 hours a day, six days a week, and you need to prepare yourself to pack the moving van in a year or three or four to go to the next opportunity, the amenities of the sensual, emotional and intellectual life afforded by cities, older suburbs, or real rural communities don’t matter much.
If you’re a couple that shudders at the prospect of a life lived above a two-car garage, surrounded by people just like you, the nearest independent coffeehouse located more than forty miles away, the nearest independent bookstore located all the way down in Chicago proper, you might consider a different trajectory. You might decide to live in the city and commute out to your workplaces. In Chicago, this would probably mean that your double-commutes would continue to be dramatically unequal—one of you commuting by CTA or bicycle or walking to work somewhere in the inner-core city, the other trapped in the car on the freeways, listening to Marcia or Jim giving Traffic and Weather on the 8s, doling out, every ten minutes, your dolorous fate for the next one hundred minutes.
Yet to the surprise of the urban planners, the New Urbanists, the corporate office-park designers, the upper-level corporate decision-makers and the exurban county economic development cheerleaders who made the edge city phenomenon happen, this is exactly what has begun to take place. The new American meritocrats are not dreaming of a townhouse with a small concrete patio in back, upon which sits a gleaming stainless-steel gas grill. They are, instead, the new hipsters, riding their fixed-gear bikes down Milwaukee Avenue from Humboldt Park to downtown. Given the choice between a job at Abbott Labs and one at a small startup in the West Loop of Chicago, they’re not even bothering to show up for the interview out in the picturesque parking lots of Abbott Park.
(Part of this concerns a more complex cultural phenomenon. The new generation of high-skills workers are not just information workers, or knowledge-workers, or even, more boldly, high-skills workers. They are, instead, minds; their skills are found in their ability to think critically, hold multiple conflicting ideas in balance while evaluating complex strings of possibility, push past the instruction to fabricate and instead push on to actually make. They are, in sum, creative workers. One important corollary of this shift is that these creative workers consider themselves the owners of their own value, portable engines rather than fixed information-assembly-line workers. Partly this is a consequence of the cybernetic revolution they entered at birth. When most high-skills mental work can be off-loaded to a bank of high-end servers in an air conditioned basement room—hell, when you can buy the computing power of the entire Cold War anti-ballistic-missile defense system and NASA and the nuclear war arsenal combined for less than a grand and put it in your backpack or fake Louis-Vuitton bag or your man-purse, programming it yourself while you’re on the subway or waiting for another beer at the Hopleaf—it doesn’t take much mental wherewithal to see that the shining path requires, rewards and promises adventurousness, intellectual risk, social and cultural flexibility. This generation doesn’t go hat-in-hand to Abbott Laboratories hoping for a white-lab-coat job modifying the molecular structure of a pediatric ear-infection drug like Omnicef so as to keep the corporate monopoly.)
This new generation is actually the second to reject the siren call of the edge city life. A decade ago, the commute pattern along Chicago’s freeway system tilted decisively: in the mornings, the roads were full and slow going out from the city. In the afternoons, they were packed with people escaping the edge city for the edgy one. These were people trapped by the decisions made decades earlier to uproot corporate life from the dense downtowns to the dispersed disaggregations of exurbia; they had to work out there but they were damned if they had to live there or, worse, raise their children in that zombie-land. This was the interim generation, cautioned by the dot-com bubble and crash, but not young enough to have grown up the wiser for it.
These days, the commute patterns are far murkier than traffic planners and urban designers ever thought they’d be. In city centers like San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh and the like, urban life has returned. In the early stages of resuscitation, these resurrected cities are decidedly youthful—colleges and universities have bought into underpriced downtown building stock, and their graduates are the ones comfortable enough with the complexities of the edgy city to hang around—after graduation, but also after six, seven, ten pm. As these reborn city centers mature, they draw empty nesters, who find the 24-hour street activity comforting rather than threatening, and the youthful energy on those streets rejuvenating. The result is, temporarily, a doughnut-hole demographic. What’s missing is the school-age-children cluster. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, and in San Francisco and other urban centers, that’s already shifting: that’s the hidden push behind charter schools in places like Chicago, and it accounts for the dramatic rise in alternative private and semi-private schools like Avenues in New York’s Chelsea, or the Manhattan Country School on the Upper East Side, or the International School for Peace, in Tucson, Arizona.
Avenues School is across the street from The Projects. At least, they were The Projects, 20 years ago. Now we live across the street from a park just a block north, a park that’s full of hipsters in hipster soccer and lacrosse and even kickball leagues. The project kids are playing basketball with 27-year-old VP-for-Product-Development types and 25 year old MFAs with their own edgy Chelsea galleries. To keep the creative workers commuting down to those Silicon Valley office campuses for a few more years—till they can be abandoned, that is, having served their economic purpose—companies like Oracle and Google are running private buses that pick up in the Mission and Pacific Heights and Noe Valley, breakfast on board and full 4G wifi.
Out there in the edge cities, matters are more forlorn, more dour. Communities like Green Oaks, Illinois, and the larger community of Libertyville that engulfs it, were swamped by the infrastructure demands and the municipal responsibilities that came with the influx of the corporate office parks and their privatopia housing communities. They had to build or expand schools and that required bond issues and long-term debt, swaths of new teachers with their salaries and their pension obligations, and curricula that were targeted to the demands of a new elitist constituency. Most of them didn’t plan well: they were so enthused by the short-term benefits of growth that they didn’t calculate the long-term costs of sewer systems, of streets and sanitation, of snow removal and school bonds. They usually built on the cheap and, two and three decades in, they are facing big repair bills. Meanwhile, those corporate campuses aren’t generous in ponying up the cash. Most of them got major tax abatements to start things off, and they’re grumpy enough at suddenly having to pay taxes at all.
Some of them are even preparing to pick up and leave. As Garreau noticed in his study of the just-maturing edge cities, the cultural environment of one is pretty much identical to the next, and the citizens of edge cities are not tied by the bounds of place. There isn’t any there there, so they have nothing to regret when they go. The corporate planners are working off much more sophisticated financial algorithms; those older campuses have lost their shiny luster, and they need anything from a major sprucing-up to a complete gut-renovation. At that point, a no-tax offer from some other uncomprehending municipality in, say, North Carolina, or Texas, or Indiana, can make it easy to pick up and leave. Two years ago, Sears contemplated abandoning that Hoffman Estates campus; the tax abatement deal that brought them out there was about to expire, and the numbers no longer added up.
That’s happening, sure. But it’s not the smart, the flexible, or the happening move. That’s occurring to the hottest and most savvy corporations; they’re looking for smaller but funky, interesting, sensual locations—Tucson, yes, or Austin, but also San Antonio, Pittsburgh. And they’re moving back into town—into the South of Market area of San Francisco, for example, or the old Center City of Philadelphia and the Loop of Chicago. Last year, Motorola Mobility abandoned a sprawling Libertyville corporate campus and took over three floors of downtown Chicago’s venerable Merchandise Mart, right on the Chicago River, surrounded by icons of architecture and bustling with energy-nodes, from the Art Institute Al’s #1Italian Beef to Buddy Guy’s Legends, arguably the best blues club in the country.
Motorola has 84 acres, complete with buildings, canteens, an employee gymnasium, and nicely maintained privatopian roadways (Technology Way circles the outside, separating the campus from the forested campus of St. Mary’s of the Lake Seminary). The sales agent, Binschwanger, Inc., says it thinks the 1.1 million-square-foot facility would be best for a single corporate entity—perhaps as a regional headquarters, or back offices. That last phrase signals the new trend: the real offices will be back downtown.
If you want to know what the edge cities might look like in a decade or so, you can drive in on I 94 toward Chicago and get off in Skokie. That’s where the high-tech exurbia of the Cold War years was located— where they invented, fabricated, and manufactured tape recorders, microphones, vacuum tubes, precision gauges, innovative gaskets for new-tech motors. They were made in sprawling factories in corporate parks that are now all but invisible behind the overgrowth of once-tidy shrubs and ornamental trees. The prairie is returning, and these modest masterpieces of modernist industrial architecture—derived from the famed factories you learned about in art history classes: Fagus factory, the Bauhaus—are hidden, their terra-cotta brick still shiny, only a few of their metal-and-glass lightwells and glass-brick curtain walls shattered by vandals.
Out there in Green Oaks and Hoffman Estates, the future in ruins won’t look so pretty. No Piranesi will draw fanciful exaggerations of these exurban campuses, crumbling grandly, bedecked by vines and explored by lovers. They were too quickly made, too cheaply built; their planners and designers and owners had no illusions that their institutions were destined or deserving to last more than the length of their tax abatements and a little more. They’ll be easy enough to demolish, though where to put the toxic waste of their construction and their production will be a conundrum for villages, towns and counties already saddled with the cash-flow problems once reserved for the deindustrializing cities.
Meanwhile, those cities are returning to full life. You can make fun of the hipsters of Brooklyn, of Hoboken and Jersey City, of Harlem and now the Bronx all you want. They have returned urban life to the entropic zones where deindustrialization seemed a permanent hammering of doom on the hollow drums of emptied factories and neighborhoods. Wicker Park and Humboldt Park in Chicago, but also Edgewater and the Pilsen: they, too, are places where the creative generation makes its mark.
Back up to the high-map satellite views of Google maps. Turn on the traffic feature. Watch the patterns over a day. Look closely at a Friday afternoon—maybe this early June in Chicago, when the Blues Festival is going on, or Manhattan when there’s a live concert on Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Observe the shifts of color and then, if you’re fully hooked, add the traffic camera sites. Then start mapping trajectories of movement, and watching how Google calculates the time-of-travel at different times of day (36.4 miles, 48 minutes; in current traffic, 1 hr. 28 min.). You’ll see the skeins of possibility, the ebb and flow of commerce and culture. You’ll fix your attention on one spot, then another, perhaps for weeks at a time.
Check back here. We’re going to look at some of those places over the next few essays. Malvern, Pennsylvania. San Jose, California. Danbury, Connecticut. Tucson. Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. There are patterns in them, and patterns in the patterns.