GM is set to officially open its “Factory Zero” plant near Detroit at an event with President Joe Biden – Copyright AFP William WEST
The Rust Belt is a sort of institution. The Rust Straitjacket now stretches nationwide. It’s everywhere. It’s the result of the end of local manufacturing, generations of technological change, different costing, and above all, social dysfunction on a massive scale.
I’ve been doing a bit of a study of this mess. I’ve now watched hours of videos like this one and of course I’ve been watching the asteroid strikes covering various American social disasters for years. It’s very much an acquired taste. Some of these videos are pretty horrendous. (Note: I’ve used videos from a guy called Nick Johnson as links, but there are many more. Johnson just happens to have put in an ungodly amount of time in his research, and his stats are benchmark, reliable.)
The Rust Straitjacket and everything about it has one common factor – Every American I know hates the way things are now with a vengeance. They hate thinking about it, looking at it, and having to live anywhere near it.
The big problem isn’t just coast-to-coast useless buildings. It’s hideous environments, demotivational “living spaces”, (“Living”? You have GOT to be kidding), and objective-less future planning.
(Professionals please excuse what will look like over-simplifications. In this case, a synopsis makes far more sense than any level of in-depth analysis. I’m trying to define a constructive perspective here, not write an encyclopedia.)
The hideous anonymity of the Golden Age of Suburbia is a gigantic problem. The old buildings are high maintenance in many cases. It was, after all, 70 years ago that many of these places were built. They were originally beautiful, if samey. There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon of a woman giving her name and asking her mailman where she lives, against a backdrop of miles of winding roads and identical houses.
Then they became, rightly, Americana. Now they’re in need of expensive TLC, and nobody can be bothered because the economic environments have changed. A lot of cities are letting old residential areas “return to nature” (love the cynicism) because they’re unfixable.
There’s a wince-worthy footnote to this. A lot of people don’t know that society, the American Dream, actually physically existed. In the past, Americans would use where they came from as a reference to themselves. It’s still done but in a very negative way. It’s more like “Which hellhole do you come from?” these days unless you’re irrationally rich.
The final bullet for residential America came, predictably, from Wall Street. Corporations took up mega-slum overlordship after the big crash in 2008. They took over tens or hundreds of thousands of homes as people defaulted on the sub-primes scam. There were literally long lines of people standing in queues waiting to take over mortgage debts for peanuts. They wanted to make money, and they did.
What they didn’t do was fix anything. The residential black hole of costs and basic theft in higher rents did the rest. Maintenance was out of the question. Hence the mess. There are also a vast number of much older homes that date back to at least the early 1900s, charming but derelict and falling to bits. They’re like sad architectural ghosts.
In the commercial property area, it was a lot quieter and much worse. The obvious rot created by deconstructing the manufacturing sector wasn’t the whole story. It created a vast area of unusable, unjustifiable, costs for owners.
No thought at all went into this. The guys doing it didn’t need to care; they were paid to deliver cost savings, not find a niche for huge unworkable industrial spaces. They weren’t paid to think about the omni-destruction of communities, either. The resulting unemployment and massive dislocations of the workforce also weren’t their problem. Same result.
This lack of thought is astonishingly expensive and comes with some real issues to address. The Industrial Revolution is now a remote thing. Nothing needs to be manufactured specifically onsite anymore. Transactions don’t involve physical actions anymore. The original purpose of cities as hubs of human activities dating back to medieval times has expired.
The time factor
Time is working against America in managing these issues. Social dysfunction may be normal, but it’s also highly destructive and anti-future. The Nomadic American is pretty much a fact of life. Americans move house far more than other Westerners. The trouble is that this mobility takes huge amounts of money with it, even at lower income levels. The economics are easily as brutal as the Rust Corset looks. Revenue bases get trashed. Businesses dry up.
This is real-time destruction of capital, and it’s continuous. Time is expensive in ways it wasn’t before, and dealing with the issues takes time, too. Communities need time to either adjust or run away.
Detroit is the Pompeii of America in many ways. It’s frozen in time with relics of the past right there onsite. The glorious past is mocked every second. Despite the stubborn efforts of the community to reinvent Detroit, (to be fair, with a few successes), the big empty shell remains. What do you do with all that space? What are you supposed to do? The gigantic areas, the projects, you name it; the spaces are the problems.
A solution; but it’s tricky and needs to focus on multiple issues
Let’s face a few facts here:
- That sort of land use is no longer required.
- Residential needs are at an all-time high.
- The property market is ultra-expensive unless you want to take the risks of going to disaster areas and buying cheap.
- Space needs have changed forever. Future generations can’t and won’t live, or do business, or have jobs like then, or even now.
- The need is for repurposing of spaces to allow for residential and business needs.
- Empty space is easier to manage and much less expensive. It can be beautified, made functional for occasional use, and otherwise remove itself from the long list of maintenance liabilities.
- Infrastructure doesn’t need to cater to heavy logistics the way it did then.
- Lighter infrastructure is also a lot cheaper.
- Creating worthwhile living environments which aren’t hated on principle is relatively simple with more available space.
Wealth? There’s wealth, now? Or equity? Or sanity? There IS a way out.
The wealth and homeownership divide issue in America has caused a lot of heat but no action. This is the no-brainer of all time. In Australia, we got a stat a couple of years back from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It said that people who own their own homes are seven times more economically productive than those who don’t.
If that number is even half right, it would mean that a ballpark number of 200 million Americans with little or no equity would be the economic equivalent of 600 million Americans with equity. Someone looking for a brain? You might get lucky.
The economic imbalance is more than adequately reflected by the Rust Straitjacket. This is the indictment. This is the huge load to try to carry.
Or to put it another way – To hell with that. This huge socioeconomic “omni-hernia” has to go.
…And it’s happening, here and there. You wouldn’t think Texas and rural Minnesota would have the obvious fixes, but they do have a lot going for them. New developments and infrastructure in Austin include a LOT of good space management.
- Nobody’s committing to ridiculous, unnecessary density levels.
- Major distributors aren’t routed through people’s living rooms.
- They’re future-viable because they use space a lot better.
- There are “islands” for practical commercial uses, not vast commercial deserts.
- The surrounding areas are basically empty, not cost threats to revenue.
- Environmentally, even these big developed and redeveloped spaces are casting smaller footprints simply because of the economics of using simpler structuring. One footprint instead of, say, New York’s ultra-complex older many footprints.
Older cities do have the issue of being designed in ways that wouldn’t even occur to anyone now. They need to be disentangled. Freeing up space will help, reduce costs, and maybe allow for practical commercial use and revenue generation on a U-Haul basis.
This is the way out. It’s not simple, it needs planning, and it MUST be done right to work at its best. …But it’s doable.
…So do it. You have nothing to lose but something you loathe.