Planning on Shrinking

It’s time to understand that shrinkage is no longer somebody else’s problem.

Deserted places speak to us. They appeal to the photographer, the historian, the archaeologist, and the sociologist in all of us.

Images from the Plains that show its loss of population — the deserted barn or the screen door flapping in the endless wind — are iconic American images. The detritus in the buildings tends toward the nostalgic — the desks and primers of a one-room schoolhouse, the washboards or outdated washing machines, ancient farm tools, the creaky linoleum. They look like they belong in the local historical society. They spark empathy without asking much, since for the majority of Americans, the Plains doesn’t seem like an urgent contemporary problem. There aren’t many people in the region. And if you are one of them and don’t like the look or the feel of the place, many assume you should just go elsewhere, where things are happening.

We have these iconic images for urban decline too: a door bouncing in the wind, the shell of a building, the deserted structure, idle machines and factories, the vacant lot. Detroit, which has experienced the largest depopulation of an Industrial Age American city, looms large in our collective consciousness as an example of a shrinking city. Andrew Moore’s photographs in Detroit Disassembled (2010) show a deserted school and library with whole shelves still in place, not even worth pilfering. Hymnals get strewn about abandoned churches. On a tour last August of American shrinking cities, we found that the reality matched these images. The Motor City offers traffic-free streets, burnt-out skyscrapers, open-prairie neighborhoods, an ornate yet trashed former railroad station, and vast closed factories.

Once thought to be isolated in its effects, now many different kinds of places feel shrinkage’s effects profoundly. Shrinkage saps communities and people of income, housing, and a sense of security. It leaves them feeling discarded. The deserted buildings, whether clumps of 40-story, burnt-out skyscrapers or boarded-up, abandoned single-family houses with payment schedules to buy them posted out front, offer eerie reminders of how little we value what should still be important. These are places that have held people’s lives and still do, for despite decline, some remain, but with a sense of a future without possibilities.

It seems that the United States is waking up to shrinkage’s pervasiveness and grasping that decline is as American as growth. The New York Times greeted the first release of results from the 2010 Census with paired stories of losers and gainers, Detroit and Henderson, Nevada.

But even the story of gain was about shrinkage. Henderson is a large Las Vegas suburb where in 2006 banners advertised cut-rate deals on homes built on recent desert. A developer told The Times, “Prior to 2007, the underlying assumption was, build it and they will come.” Then the foreclosure mess hit and new developments like Vantage Lofts on Horizon Ridge Road lay abandoned in mid-construction. Wrote The Times, “A pile of exposed glass, plywood and cement, surrounded by chain-link fences, gave testimony to the hopes, and unfounded speculation, of developers. Indeed, many of the abandoned or underused housing, office and retail developments were built by speculators drawn by what once seemed the prospect of endless growth, the lure of Wild West development and the promise of an economic jackpot.”

Henderson, with its share of shuttered windows, mournful cul-de-sacs, and crumbling swimming pools, has no better clue than Detroit of what to do next, no more idea about how to reverse course or make itself a better community. The future may see dozens of Detroits and thousands of Hendersons. Shrinkage presents one of the century’s great settlement/housing issues.

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