14.10.09

WHY YUPPIE HELL HAPPENS.

To the west of Cold Spring Shops headquarters is this row of houses. From the rear, they give the aspect of a large Executive Box house (that's a term I learned in the late 1970s, which at that time referred to a standard two-story, four bedroom house that could be put up just about anywhere). From streetside, these have the gables and columns that have become more popular of late, and a perusal of the real estate listings (a number of these being on the market at distress prices) reveals that many have the atrium configuration that has also become more popular today. There are two or three floor plans among these houses. Decks are an extra-cost option and the ones you see went up at different times over the last two or three years (some of these houses being older than headquarters, where the deck was part of the plan from the beginning).


I was under the impression that contemporary builders of tract houses offered a limited variety of floorplans in order to amortize architectural costs and take advantage of learning curves (until a recession approaches: that's the time to talk about optimizing your basement for a train room) and that a subdivision would contain houses of comparable designs in a narrow price range as a consequence of those supply-side incentives.

From Next Stop, Reloville: Life Inside America's New Rootless Professional Class, the subject of Book Review No. 39, I've learned that there's a demand-side incentive as well. That rootless professional class comprises people who give up any sense of place in order to achieve promotions more rapidly. We've had such people with us for as long as improved transportation has made national and global corporations possible (The Organization Man being an early study of their lives, and the Executive Box reference coming in the context of relocation-for-promotion of about 30 years ago) and interchangeable houses help employer and employee arrange career moves, by simplifying the task of the specialists the employer retains to buy and sell houses for people it transfers, and by allowing the employee to move the same stuff into effectively the same house if at a different address. Alpharetta, Georgia becomes Fishers, Indiana, becomes Woodbury, Minnesota, becomes Plano, Texas. The soccer fields and tennis clubs and swimming pool in the subdivision, which might be a gated community, are also there. The striving middle managers get sent to the $250 K to $500 K tract, and the soon-to-be vice presidents get sent to the $1 million to $5 million tract. Author Peter Kilborn suggests that the value corporations place on willingness to relocate contributes to sprawl, because no soon-to-be-transferred-and-promoted homeowner (if holding an interest-only mortgage in the expectation of an equity gain at the next transfer qualifies as ownership) will do much by way of planting a garden or building a deck or performing maintenance, and the relocation assistance companies prefer to place clients in new houses. Thus some of the Executive Box tracts of the 1970s (the $85 K to $125 K equivalents of the $250 K tract of today) have fallen into disrepair or become home to the kind of owners (clotheslines! trucks parked outside overnight! fuchsia trim!) that were once proscribed by zoning codes or homeowner association rules.
The book focuses on the experiences of relatively few families, which make efforts by Mr Kilborn to generalize suspect. There are, all the same, possible areas of more systematic inquiry. Much of the reporting takes place in Alpharetta, a place where there are no commuter trains, and the traffic congestion is terrible. But perhaps the use of places such as Alpharetta as stopovers for families destined for Winnetka or Scarsdale enables sprawl. People do not stay in such communities long enough to become active in local politics and take an interest in the infrastructure. (Perhaps the builders of those oh-so-economically-segregated tracts also place the most expensive houses in such a way that the one exit from the subdivision, cul-de-sacs and curved roads being inimical to a grid, gives residents a right turn into the principal direction of travel on the arterial street or mile road, reducing the griping about traffic from potentially the most influential gripers.) The school districts, police, and fire protection, might rely on people who have to live at a distance from the Upgraded Executive Boxes and McMansions that change hands among the transferees. As long as the test scores are high, and the athletic teams competitive, Curriculum Wars are probably infrequent, and silly zero-tolerance policies unchallenged.
There's a related post at Congress for a New Urbanism, recommeded by The Political Environment. Again, what happens if there's a collection of fancy houses, but no bike trails or sidewalks, and nobody there long enough to notice?

Mr Kilborn also suggests that frequent relocations can be difficult for children, and for the trailing spouse, usually Mom, that is, if the marriage has survived the moves and the office politics. There's probably a lot of social science waiting to be done (or brought to my attention?) on the effects of a corporate culture that is still old-school in many ways in the presence of increased labor force participation by women and under the influence of second- and third-wave feminism.

Or not? He also suggests that most of the residents of Reloville have degrees from "public universities of the Great Plains and the Midwest" (see page 217), or, more accurately, from the land-grant football factories of the old Big Eight and Big Ten (but he doesn't specifically mention Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, which feed workers to Chicago and the Twin Cities in the same way the Ivies supply the Northeast Corridor, and his Illinois examples might be outliers) located in states without major cities or major corporate headquarters. And the principal interest of many of the Relos he interviews, male or female, appear to be running and playing tennis and watching football. Perhaps we're seeing a new form of Babbitts, no longer confined to Gopher Prairie, but with no reason to take an interest in the quality of life of whatever Upscale Prairie they are inhabiting for the next two years. Perhaps, also, those land-grants do not have to fret either about a comprehensive academic mission (entry-level job preparation is sufficient) or about a brain drain as long as the football programs are successful. That's clearly a topic for future research.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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