Saturday, October 11, 2008

KC's Degringalade

This French word "degringolade" means a quick deterioration, things suddenly falling apart...So I appropriated it for myself as "degringalade", a little pun on gringa , that's me.

Are things really falling suddenly apart? I get that feeling often now. How often have we seen our fearless leader's latest inf0-mercial? It seems like every few days in recent weeks. After 8 years of no contact this feels like a relative who suddenly asks you to wire money. These days I feel a migraine approaching when I hear the President is going to give the nation a little pep talk.
I don't feel reassured at all, if anything, it has the opposite effect.

And living in Phoenix adds to my general sense of disruption. After the S&L crisis, suddenly, following years of stagnant growth, there was real appreciation in home values here. Finally. Many of us who lived here for the last several decades thought the rise in property values was long overdue. Compared to neighboring California Phoenix was still dirt cheap.

Then, just as suddenly, the gains vanished. Homes in my downtown 'hood were selling in the 400s to 450s in 2005 and in 2008 started dropping to 300 and sinking lower. These are really nice dwellings, older homes with character, many with tree-lined streets, large yards, and located near the Capitol.

While the downtown had started to experience some resurgence
the housing developers found more profit in creating little Potemkin villages on the outskirts of Phoenix metropolitan, turning the desert into Shangri-La for working families. For many the city was seen as a risky place to live. A woman in Scottsdale once said to me when I told her I lived downtown, "Oh, yes, all those artsy types!", spitting the words with utter contempt. The conventional wisdom believed the far Valley was a safe choice to buy.

If you've lived here long enough you know the desert quickly consumes any dwelling that is neglected for more than a week. Dust covers every surface, creosote supplants century plants and mesquite trees in no time, after a monsoon storm jagged cracks appear in the surface stucco, and when the earth sighs, the freshly laid concrete foundations of new homes begin to tear apart. Degringolade, indeed.

The new homes were built quickly and many communities appeared overnight.
The people who bought these structures soon began to complain of shoddy construction. In some towns developers promised to build schools that never materialized.

Today if you drive around far Queen Creek or Florence you can find almost new two-story homes that are now for sale in the low 70s and which sold a few years ago for 3 0r 4 times that much. I thought, perhaps we should look at these "bargains", might be good for retirement someday. So we drove out to the far East Valley one Saturday morning. And drove. And drove. What were people thinking I wondered? Who would ever want this kind of commute? It cost us $30 in gas and that was just one round-trip.

The houses we saw were very typical, two-story, stucco, stacked very close to each other, five feet to the property line in most cases. That's too close. You will hear every argument, every TV as if it were in your own living room. Many people were using their garages as porches sheltered from the withering sun. As a result cars were parked half on the streets, half on the sidewalks. Children darted out into the street, where they preferred to play rather than in the pocket park that lay at the far end of the development.

An evacuated wasp nest, the kind you find fallen to the ground in autumn, has a homier feeling than these places. Empty wasp nests have served a purpose and do not reek of despair. My take on these developments is that they depend on strict enforcement of home owners covenants to keep up appearances. If cars are kept parked in the driveway it is less obvious that the streets are too narrow. If weeds are kept under control and the fake lakes kept filled it is less obvious that they occupy the relentless desert.

I'd like to see Phoenix create a strong core in the central city. I'd like to see people live closer to where they work. A long commute is brutal here, even when gas costs aren't skyrocketing. Huge SUVs and truck are popular in Phoenix because the big engines provide better air conditioning. Sitting in traffic at rush hour when it is 117 degrees takes a toll.

The biggest mistake people make when moving to Phoenix is thinking they are somewhere else.
The earlier generation of developers thought they could mold Phoenix into an image of Iowa. The latest model was Southern California. Neither fits the reality of this climate or ecology.

It's become pretty clear that we can't let the leaders mind the store while we live our lives. I'm worried that the bailout is "grab and go" money for the elite. Some days it feels like the rest of us are locked in the hold
of the Titanic. I doubt things are really that bad but the rude awakening is real: the people at the top want their profit today and don't care about our tomorrow.

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