Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

35 thoughts on “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends”

  1. I’m just old enough to remember that headline ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’. (After denying a federal bailout of NYC in 1970.) Expect to see more of that, sans headline. And how Earl Butz accelerated that big farm trend already underway.

    Curious how shrunken employment sectors like farming, manufacturing and mining continue to be endlessly romanticized. Especially for the first, my inner cynic suspects this is to drive huge subsidies to mega-corps, by pretending to help mom and pop outfits. Plus an illusory nostalgia for something more ideal than real.

  2. Super post… generationally we all want to be on a particular trajectory, start, middle, end, as these all take time and a lifetime at that. You mentioned the various acts that shaped patterns and I wonder about the new investment opportunity act, especially since you mentioned SF peak and it’s closeness to Oakland. Maps and such in this link…

    All things not being equal but also coastal it will be interesting to see how Newark infrastructure plays out wedged between NYC development and its own nearby NJ borough-itis and infrastructure (and what does infrastructure mean for all things “piped”: sewage, information, transportation, )

    I think most will be fine ( less the typical generational grudges as far as timing goes in that “we” weren’t born with optimal redevelopment / refinance luck – try to ride someone else’s target date fund) for the coastal / dense population locations. The other zones in the act though, up to 20 percent each state, I agree have no hope… their malls and fast casual food will keep shuttering.

    Though one last side ancedotdal observation…. where farming is moving vertical, literally, to urban locations that former land is repurposed for enormous logistics and distribution hubs much to my surprise than going fallow even if the immediate area trends down, eg. Eastern PA. Preserving open space or the downtown seem in opposition when allocating resources for payouts.

  3. Interesting commentary, as usual. Have even checked out a bit of your presentation, about 1/4 the way in. You’re engaging. So is Kotkin, of course. The others – not so much. Bearded academics of the Planning World. Even some of the men sported beards. Ha ha. I have little respect for planners, btw. Dreamers and utopians, mostly. And a distressing number fancy themselves “activists” of one stripe or another. And I LOATHE activists. (Seriously…the YIMBY “activist” shows up without socks? That’s not quirky. That’s just being a douchebag. )

    You set a very admirable tone in this week’s commentary. If I am paraphrasing correctly: I’m not trying to “save the world”, or even “do something”. Just doing what I can that makes sense to me in my life. If it’s worthy of succeeding, it will succeed. If it’s doomed to failure, it will fail. No need to push on it.

    (BTW – is the Tom Wolfe look going to be your signature? LOL)

  4. The problem is the beginning, middle and end are all paved. Yeah the overgrowth might break through the cement, but for one thing what grows there will be too contaminated to eat at a human, as opposed go geologic, scale.

    So perhaps the new beginnings should be in the places that are past their end. And if what they say about declining sperm counts due to plastics is true, we many not need as many of them.

  5. REAL doomers look at the potential for massive methane release in the Arctic, the potential for the Gulf Stream to “switch off” drought and famine in bread basket areas like the American Midwest (where the Ogwallah Aquifer is being drained dry), the increased chance of vector transmission for pandemics….and said doomer would say Johnny is downright pollyannish!

    Always interesting observations, Johnny. I do admit I have to…steel myself…to read your posts. And all that gardening and food preserving and…shudders…socializing…just makes me…tired. 🙂

  6. Borrowing from Kunstler’s notion that decline might even be a delightful liberation for some people. I would present some fodder to be filed under, “How to divest from the suburbs gracefully” (aka some ideas I’ve gotten from Johnny).

    Affordable housing – a few 2x4s and some drywall can be used to separate any single family home into series of suites. Don’t want to share the kitchen? Toaster ovens, two burner cook tops and microwaves can just be plugged into the wall.

    Farming – market gardening is a viable way to sell crops for cash. 1 acre is more than sufficient to create a working farm.

    Schools and Elder Care – Check your local zoning, most places allow for “home daycare” and some type of care for old people is probably perfectly legal. People pay for these services.

    Bakeries – All people want is some fresh bread. Most states have “Cottage Food” laws that allow for some type home bakery to be set up in a standard suburban kitchen.

    Home Business Licenses – You can do all sorts of stuff in your garage or the empty rumpus room legally with a home business license.

    Clubs in lieu of Commercial – Good luck getting a corner store or wine bar approved in your cul-de-sac. But there are lots of under the radar ways to share a bottle of wine with your neighbors or set up a “buying club” that looks a lot like a corner store.

    None of these activities are going to match the high profits and grift that are required to finance the New Urbanist Main Street with the $200 yoga pants and the $11 craft beers. I think these are the tools for a poor man’s village life. The software that runs this thing is actually knowing your neighbors. That’s my best guess for the next stage of adaptation.

    1. There may be some “decline liberation” at the national level too. After the US stops trying to be world cop while constantly intervening elsewhere to support corporate interests with a hugely bloated military. Just go back to doing our own thing like Canada, which takes better care of its citizens without offending anyone.

  7. Gilded Ages, Gold Rushes, Tech booms… everything has a beginning and an end as you eloquently point out. A thought: maybe San Francisco will turn out like Athens or Lisbon, a disheveled but charming port town respected as one hit historical wonder, but relegated to beta status forever more when the cultural and economic tides shift. By the way, don’t voice these thoughts at work happy hour. People will look at you like you’re batshit crazy 🙂

  8. I find it hard to believe that anybody is seriously suggesting building SFH at the metro edge in Los Angeles to address affordability. Commuting in to the job areas from places like Lancaster or Banning is an awful life and on top of that affordability is starting to get wobbly again even out there. I can imagine some builder shill saying that but I’d think they’d be laughed off the stage.

    1. The meme I hear over and over again is that California is incapable of reform so people, production home builders, and jobs are migrating to places like Texas. My response is that California had its era of suburban growth when I was a kid and is now dealing with the unintended consequences of past decisions. I expect Texas will have the same struggles in thirty years when it too hits the same wall. Does that conversation have any traction today? Nope. Shrug.

  9. Great post! The theme of beginnings, middles and ends resonates with me. I would like to add .. new beginnings … I’ve lived in and around Pittsburgh, PA for the last 60 years. If Pittsburgh could survive and thrive after the 1980’s then I think anything is possible! I really enjoy your blog and its POV. Keep up the good work!


  10. My ‘solution’: Find a nice small town urban place that’s stable with a good urban form that accommodates car and car-lite/walking transportation and get a decent enough job or make one in the same place. Easier said than done, you think? Not really, actually.

  11. Johnny – longer response:

    I really, really liked this piece. I think you are doing a great job of expanding on your core viewpoint and it resonates. There’s an awful lot that I agree with.

    One are that I do diverge (and it’s nitpicking) is that it won’t be the Millennials that establish the new path. It’ll be those of us in the mayonnaise (which is a good thing). If you trace back your epoch changes, my guess is you’d find that it was a group already in positions of leadership and power, but not vested in the previous ways, that made the structural changes. Then, the next generation benefited and took it up a notch. For example, while I love to pick on Boomers as much as anyone, they didn’t create our current big systems. Those were all created by the generation that won WWII. That cadre of people who won the war basically ran the country until the early 1990’s, when the Boomers took over. But what they did was created a world for their kids (the Boomers) – suburbia, corporate America as we knew it, our social safety net, interstates, etc etc. The Boomers lived it, benefited from it, and now have exhausted it. They are mostly incapable of changing it, b/c it is wrapped up totally in who they are.

    People of our age are the ones who grew up seeing the flaws and failures of the current system. Along with being largely ignored by the media and demographers, it explains why we are all so jaded. I include myself – I am quite jaded, and see little hope for most of our big, democratic institutions. What it all changes into – I have no idea, but I expect it will be people of our age group that have to make the changes. Then, the millennials will benefit from those changes and we wash, rinse, repeat.

    The shred of hope that I hold onto is to give some optimism and ideas to our Gen X colleagues, especially in the parts of the US outside the 6 or 8 metros I described last week. In a few of those places, a critical mass of people will be able to make adjustments and prepare for the next cycle successfully. The vast majority will not, and will find themselves in the dustbin of history. But I want to try and give some ideas and direction to the 5 or 10% that give a shit and will act.

    About 1/2 the time, I ask myself: why bother? I would likely be much happier just doing a few, cool and funky little projects of my own and tune out all the rest. And I may just do that eventually. But I also want other people to be able to do projects, too, and I feel an urge to help try and fix things where they can be fixed. It’s a disease.

    Keep up the great writing –



    1. Kevin – I didn’t specify which generation would be making the decisions and organizing the transition to whatever comes next. You and I tend to agree that it won’t be the Boomers because they’re too invested in the status quo and it won’t necessarily be Millennials since they’re still a bit too young to be in positions of authority. So that leaves us… the Xers. As you’ve pointed out, the numerical differences in each of the generational cohorts is not that great, but the attitudes of each group drive perception.

      I personally don’t feel the need to “do something” to make things better. A lot of bad stuff needs to fail. Failure is part of the cure. Let dysfunctional things fail passively all by themselves. We need a lot more failure to occur in order to make space for something better to come along. Will anyone really miss the old Jiffy Lubes and dead Kmarts?

      On the other hand, most of the beneficiaries of change will most likely also be passive. At the end of the Great Depression as WWII set in the best property investment was cheap rural land on the edge of town where suburban growth was about to explode. Who would have thought Arizona desert wasteland on the fringe of Phoenix or Florida swampland near Orlando would have become so valuable? A whole new set of opportunities is in the cards over the next generation for people who are paying attention. It just won’t look like the past arrangements.

  12. One more quick comment: While reading this I was reminded of a documentary I watched a few years ago, Demographic Winter. One of the main points was that population is actually either in decline or headed that way. The tie-in here is that those young people of the new generation will have to do the heavy lifting and be well rewarded – but there will be less of them and it will feel really heavy.

    Perhaps this is one of the possible trajectories you were referring to.

    1. With a restricted immigration policy that’s almost certainly coming and a low birth rate the U.S. will experience a demographic squeeze. I know several smart, well educated people here in San Francisco who have casually mentioned that they would be comfortable taking new opportunities in other parts of the world if things got funky in the U.S. So the young – particularly ones with the right skills – might be taxed to support the old, but the young might vote with their feet.

      The population of the earth will peak at around eight billion-ish by 2040 and then go into gradual decline. Japan and Europe have already peaked. South Korea and China, are next, followed by places like the U.S., Canada, and Australia, then Latin America and a lot of other places around the world. Africa will continue to grow and it’s population will double from one billion to two billion, but the entire world population will still decline over the coming century. That’s going to mean a completely different distribution of younger poorer workers and older richer retirees.

      1. There are knowledgeable demographers predicting outcomes like that, but the median UN forecast is now that the population will continue growing through 2100, with an eventual peak well over 10 billion. The main driver is that fertility in sub-Saharan Africa is not declining the way it was expected to as the continent develops. Admittedly that probably won’t change the population dynamics in the US much as I find it implausible that the US will allow millions of Nigerians, Ethiopians, or Congolese to immigrate.

        1. I’ve been studying demographics and population growth for years. What I’ve noticed is that each research group focuses on a particular trend at a specific period so it looks like the population will rise to X billion by Y year. The interesting part for me is to go back and examine past predictions from thirty, forty, or fifty years ago and compare them to what actually happened. In general the population has been lower than expected. So the world is on schedule to reach about 8+ billion by 2040 – give or take. Rich countries have (or will soon) level off and enter permanent population decline. Medium income countries (Latin America much of S.E. Asia) will level off, while really poor countries (Pakistan, most of Africa) will continue to grow. But this is before things like famines, disease, wars, and other events are factored in. The U.S. will either seal its borders or welcome immigrants. But the biological trend is to level off over the next twenty years, then contract.

  13. Johnny,

    I can see why your speeches sometimes go over like a lead balloon. (grin) I believe everything you said, but many of your posts give alternative solutions only for the little guy. If city visionaries and planners were listening in, what would their takeaway be? What can they do besides watch it all fall apart?

    One thing that comes to mind is to a) admit the state of things but then b) look for remake opportunities, perhaps like San Francisco did. I’m not sure they went looking but they at least embraced it once they found themselves infested by the investors.

    Did you give recommendations for them? Or just doom predictions? Or were they not among the audience of your talk?

    1. People so often accuse me of being a doomer. I didn’t depopulate rural Nebraska, cause industrial Detroit to fail, or force aging suburban commercial corridors to die. All I did was go out and photograph them and make some basic observations. There seems to be a rhythm to these things…

      If I described what might come next – a “solution” – I’d either be laughed at or ignored. If it were possible to correct things ahead of the crisis we wouldn’t need to have a crisis would we? Things are going to fail. It’s going to be painful. And a new generation of people will create a fresh set of institutions. That only sounds like doom if you like the current arrangements and don’t want things to change.

      1. I understand and agree; I just wondered if you had any advice for those in planning positions, assuming they would actually listen. No, by themselves they won’t be able do do anything to avert the crisis in the country at large, but are there things they could do for their own town/city?

        You’re doing a good job as a prophet of the coming crisis, and it’s a valid and necessary (if under-appreciated) role, but once EVEN ONE planner accepts your conclusions, is there anything they can do about it? Did San Francisco actively do anything about it or was their turnaround just a happy accident?

        1. It wasn’t as bad as the author states. It was more middle class and less extreme poor than many cities. It used to have a much larger black population. You can read data from the 1970’s less poorer than many parts of LA like Maywood and East La or Santa Ana in Orange County.

  14. “A new generation of young people will be asked to do the heavy lifting during the next crisis and they’ll be preferentially rewarded for their efforts by the new system.”

    My impression is that, more and more, the people that do the heavy lifting are receiving less and less rewards. The System has become so centralized and self-glorifying (probably not the right word but I hope it gets the idea across) that it now fails to see past its own (often excessive) profits.

    I think it is more likely that those doing the heavy lifting will find that they are forced, via forms of economic and social violence, to do it. All too often with little (“just enough”) reward at the end of the day.

    1. What you’re describing is an indication that the current set of arrangements is failing. The fact that you – and many other people – feel our present system is unevenly distributing burdens and rewards is a classic sign that a crisis is on the horizon.

  15. Johnny, I thought of you over the weekend when my husband and I went to a movie in south Oklahoma City. The 16-screen theater is marooned in the parking lot of a failed shopping mall that opened in 1974. I had just started college in a nearby suburb; I worked a Christmas vacation at Crossroads Mall, and many of the young men I knew had worked temporary construction jobs building the mall. For a few years, Crossroads Mall was the go-to shopping experience in metro OKC, until several malls opened around the area over the next decade.

    After the mall closed, it was re-imagined as Plaza Mayor. That failed, too.

    However, over the weekend, I noticed that, while the commercial stores were gone, one resident had not left the old Crossroads. A charter high school has moved to the old Montgomery Ward store.

    A beginning, middle, end, beginning …

    1. Diane – thanks for the great links and observations. Yep. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end… Oh, and I checked out the Google maps of the Plaza Mayor in Oklahoma. Looks just like the one in Madrid! (Not.)

  16. Thanks, really enjoy your posts even though I live in Sydney Australia.

    Interesting that here all our cities are pretty much like San Francisco – i.e. booming from the centre out. Real estate is so expensive here that there are no abandoned buildings anywhere (other than a few abandoned mining towns). We also have no rent control and a very open market with low turnover costs for real estate. Interesting how it can be so similar and yet so different.

    This latest post is somewhat unsatisfying as the only conclusion seems to be – change will happen but don’t know what. Can’t you at least have guess – we all know that predictions are always wrong but always interesting and useful to have a try.


    1. Peter – I’m reluctant to make predictions. No one knows how things will play out. And many people assume I’m a doomer for even suggesting that things may not continue as they are forever. Perhaps I’ll do a blog post on various trajectories. Stay tuned.

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