How times change. Only a couple decades ago people had all but written off the city as a viable living arrangement. The prevailing view was typified by films like Escape From New York, which portrayed New York City as having so far descended the ladder of human depravity that the only solution was to seal it off and turn the entire place into a maximum security prison.
Today, astronomical rents and financial crises notwithstanding, people are queuing up at the gates, or at least the bridges and tunnels, to live in New York, and it's the suburbs that we're afraid are going to rack and ruin. This article in the Atlantic laid out the scenario a year ago, and that was before sky-high energy prices followed by collapsing housing values made it plain just how unsustainable the once rampant suburban mindset was becoming.
Now comes a spate of stories about the virtual abandonment of some of suburbia's farther-flung outcroppings, including this Times piece, complete with a slide show of yesterday's massively overpriced tract homes, now virtually unsalable and being rapidly reclaimed by Florida's subtropical version of the jungle, or the more in-depth treatment of the issue by George Packer in the February 9 New Yorker (unfortunately available online only to subscribers, and I left my copy on the train yesterday, or I'd invite you over to read it).
Of course people have always fled into the cities during times of decline and disorder, whether we're talking about pioneers on the prairie when there was an upsurge of Indian attacks, or the ancient British gentry abandoning their villas and retreating into what proved to be the illusory safety of Londinium when Roman troops were no longer able to keep a handle on rampaging bands of Saxons. Isn't is possible a similar fate could await emptied-out suburban communities once they're no longer able to raise enough tax revenue to maintain an effective police force or other basic service?
Apocalyptic fantasies are all the rage these days anyway, but America's shabbier suburbs had a Mad Max edge to them even before the current troubles kicked in. There's something particularly unsettling about abandoned buildings and cracked, overgrown pavements in the wide open spaces of suburbia; they feel more portentous and doom-laden than in big city slums, where we expect to encounter such things. And while a couple conscientious beat cops can keep a lid on a densely populated urban neighborhood, the same two cops, no matter how well equipped or mobile, are going to be hard pressed to maintain any meaningful order on several square miles of suburban wasteland.
The big problem facing suburban communities is money, i.e., the lack thereof, a problem which is only likely to get worse in at least the near term. Declining property values and rising unemployment will wreak havoc on tax revenues, and both these conditions will only be exacerbated by the suburbs' biggest long term problem: transportation. Or again, the lack thereof.
As long as a booming economy and cheap energy made it possible for even poorly paid working people to own their own cars and travel many miles to earn a living, the suburban lifestyle made a certain perverse sense. But as money and jobs dry up, and with little economic infrastructure accessible via walking or public transportation, those no longer able to afford cars will increasingly be cut off from society, leaving them with little choice but to either abandon the suburbs or go feral.
On the (perhaps too hopeful) assumption that our current economic troubles don't morph into the Great Depression II (or worse), we'll still get a chance to redesign and reconfigure our suburbs into a more realistic living environment. This will require increased density, greatly improved public transportation, and a diminution of the role played by the private automobile; one such scenario is outlined here. It will also require time and money, which, depending on the success or failure of Obama's stimulus program, we may or may not have.