As far back as can be recalled, we’ve always heard of the “American Dream”. It was the idea that with hard work and being a productive citizen, anyone (supposedly) regardless of race, creed, color or gender can achieve prosperity here in the good old US of A. Part of that “dream” was home ownership-usually in nice (suburban) community where one can raise their kids and participate in the life of the community. However, for years since the birth of this nation, the American Dream was mostly for White heterosexual Christian males. It would be many years before women, non-whites, non-Christians, and those with different sexual preferences would be allowed at the table; and even now these groups are still fighting for their full share.
A byproduct of the above were the growth of suburbs and “exurbs” in the US. Fueled by the car (thanks to cheap gas-see my last post), Federally-funded highway construction, cheap land and the baby boom, the “bedroom communities” of Newark and Manhattan executives now became the home of a growing middle-class. This growth was also fueled by “White flight”-where Whites (fearing changes in their cities) hopped in their cars and migrated to these suburbs. In later years, we also saw a smaller flight of Blacks and Latinos with means seeking better in the ‘burbs as well. This fueled new home and school construction-especially in the 1960s (my high school-Summit (NJ) High was built around 1960-62 if I’m not mistaking). These towns-especially the higher income ones-had their unique cultures and exclusive amenities in boutiques, restaurants and cultural activities geared to the citizenry. However, in the meantime, we saw our cities suffer from lack of capital and jobs for years to come.
Afterwards we saw “exurbs” (or “extra-urban”) communities outside the suburbs that grew (especially in New Jersey) in the 1990s and early 2000s. These are communities that are made up of small development that attracted the middle and upper-middle classes that wanted to (in my opinion) get away from it all. These towns started to grow, build new schools, retail spaces and office parks-allowing the residents to do their daily routines without going into the center cities. In fact, you don’t see any public transit routes going to these exurbs, save the occasional privately owned commuter buses. But the saddest thing I saw was the farmland that was sacrificed (especially in Central Jersey) to build these communities. It’s unsure if any of this land will ever be usable in the future.
Another byproduct is the birth of the shopping mall, and it’s stepchild, the “box” store. We have a plethora of these all over the land (and God knows enough in New Jersey). The shopping malls-especially the bigger ones-allowed suburban/exurban shoppers to visit their favorite department store (or boutique) without going into the cities. Ample parking, shopper services, and the later food courts with a variety of restaurants made a visit to the mall preferred over a trip into Newark or Manhattan.
The box store (Home Depot, Best Buy, etc) were geared to people with disposable income. “Do-it-yourself” types, electronics junkies, home design types found their place in these stores that are big and “boxy”. Even a low-end, “everyman” box store like Walmart served people’s needs. These stores were found all over our suburban/exurban landscape.
For a while, we thought this would last forever. Money was flowing, house prices and values were going up, new developments were springing up here in Jersey, in Las Vegas, and in Florida. There was no end in sight…or so we thought.
Then came 2008 and the start of the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression. Americans woke up to find that their mortgages were now “underwater”-where the property’s worth less than what’s owed on the mortgage. We now saw companies downsizing and laying off workers-exiling them to countless months of unemployment. Retirement incomes were hit as the paper they were based on became worthless. We’re now watching a growing gap between rich (the “1%”) and everyone else (the “99%”) as the middle class is disappearing.
Get ready to mourn the passing of the “American Dream”. People are walking away from their “underwater” mortgages for rental space. Developments that were quickly going up a few years earlier have all but came to a standstill with houses frozen in their construction and turning their communities into semi-ghost towns. “For sale” signs are popping up all over communities-even in exclusive ones. I believe it won’t be until 2013-14 (if not later) we’ll see the falling prices slow down and stabilize. Even then we won’t return to the pre-2008 prices we once saw.
Young professionals and empty-nest couples are leaving the ‘burbs and moving into the center cities, where a cultural and financial resurgence is occurring. In fact, the documentary The End of Suburbia looks at the unpleasant fate of the suburbs. I’ve seen stores in suburbs close up due to lack of income, either replaced by another business or nothing at all. We may see our suburbs become “white picket fenced slums” (as I call it) as people unable to leave them try to eke out an existence. We may also see our exurbs become isolated islands in some future time as their populations dwindle.
Our malls may also suffer with decreasing revenues as people spend less on big-ticket (moneymaking) items. Box stores (even the successful Home Depot) will also take hits. We’ll see stores in our malls close up as people spend less. They too will soon become ghost towns of abandoned retail spaces and weed-strewn parking lots.
The “American Dream” as we know it will wither and die. In its place, it’s unknown what will spring up. However I do know what the future will portend will call for us to radically rethink our tired notions of entitlement that came with the American Dream and all that above. We will have to learn to come together and put aside our differences and the “rugged individualism” that divided this nation more than made it. We need to connect dying suburbs and exurbs with thriving cities and have a flow of ideas and solutions.
We’ll also have to begin to create affordable housing for those displaced by the mortgage mess-especially rentals. The days of home ownership are drifting away; we need to stop the “caste system” of owners-vs-renters and realize we’re all in the same boat.
We need to cut down our consumerism to manageable and sustainable levels. We consume too much, and now produce too little. What will we leave for generations to come? Do we really need McMansions, wall-sized LCD screens, or the latest (and expensive) fashion craze?
We need to create communities that will provide real “safety nets” for the underserved: the elderly, needy, disabled and young-that will include them in every area of community life.
It’s time to mourn the passing American Dream which needed to die, and welcome a newer global dream that could serve us all if we’re to survive into the future.