Back to the Future: New Poor, New Slums

A strange part of the US real-estate boom is the housing construction boom. Across America, brand-new housing developments are sprouting up like kudzu vines, tearing down forests and farmland to build new housing as fast as possible. Behind this are many factors: immigration, ongoing white flight from the cities, the growth of suburban sprawl, the emergence of technology boom towns, and other geographic and economic factors.


The dominant architectural style of this new growth has an overt “country” look, a kind of caricature of 19th century quaint Americana: gabled roofs, whitewashed siding, twisting rolling streets with absurdly Anglophilic names like “Greyswallow Terrace” and “Cedarpost Square” (names obviously generated by a computer program, as they have absolutely no relevance to the actual landscape or history of their location), plenty of grassland (although, generally, a sad lack of trees). They stretch across the landscape as far as the eye can see, and the consistency of their style strongly evokes the conformity of the 1950’s Levittown housing model.

Sometimes they are single-family standalone dwellings (“McMansions“, the fatter and more ostentatious cousin of what I’m talking about here), sometimes they are multiple-unit buildings with a single-family façade. Occasionally these “homes” (they never call them “houses”, always “homes”) will have a slightly-urban “townhouse” feel, with splotches of red brick and perfunctory sidewalks, but even these units will generally be topped off with the requisite white siding and pointed roofs.

The general style seems, I think, to be a hybrid of the country estate and the urban housing project, marrying the illusion of landed aristocratic luxury with the logistical efficiency of cookie-cutter subsidized apartment life.


Unfailingly, this housing trend always reminds me of the movie Back to the Future Part II.

In the second part of the BTTF franchise, Michael J. Fox finds himself driving the DeLorean into an alternate timeline wherein his beloved home town housing development (called “Hill Valley”, an oxymoronic joke that is not in the least bit far-fetched from the real names of these neighborhoods) has been transformed due to bad governance by the villain, Biff, into a burnt-out crime-ridden slum not unlike the post-apocalyptic Bronx as portrayed in Bonfire of the Vanities.


What had previously been an idyllic 1950’s community, into which people could escape the violence and poverty of America’s crumbling cities, had found itself, by 1985, plagued by the very same societal problems the residents had hoped to escape. (For context, here’s a little reminder of where (or when) this plot twist occurs in the movie, via someone named RustedChainsaw over at Something Awful)

What’s fascinating to me is that this dystopian future does not seem absurd or fanciful at all when you look at the fragility of the whole situation: America’s growing gap between rich and poor (George W. Bush does kinda remind me of Biff), the shoddy construction of the majority of these buildings, the precarious “boom town” nature of many of the regions and economies in which this construction occurs, and of course the real estate bubble largely driven by exponentially increasing debt. It’s not at all hard to imagine the same fate befalling many of our newest developments.


A recent study has shown that the suburbs are no longer the homogenous middle-class safe havens from crime and poverty that most Americans still think they are:

“As Americans flee the cities for the suburbs, many are failing to leave poverty behind. The suburban poor outnumbered their inner-city counterparts for the first time last year, with more than 12 million suburban residents living in poverty, according to a study of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas released Thursday.”

Conversely, the myth of the inner city being a den of crime and drugs is also starting to fall apart. Here in New York City there is virtually no crystal meth problem (besides in the gay club kid scene), whereas throughout the rest of the country, especially in the heartland, it seems like meth has become the suburban version of crack, tearing families apart and turning normal law-abiding citizens into armed robbers and rampaging murderers.

Speaking of which, crime-wise, things are changing, too. Another recent study has shown that many of America’s most crime-ridden cities are, in fact, small middle-American cities like Gary Indiana (10th most dangerous), the kinds of places we used to think of as somehow fundamentally different from the big coastal megacities like New York (227th most dangerous!). Hell, even divorce rates and teen pregnancy rates are lowest in urban-heavy blue states and highest in rural and suburban red states. The stereotypes fall like dominoes.

How refreshing it is for urbanites — who’ve had to endure decades of malignment by our suburban countrymen, characterizing us as depraved, ignorant, and worthless, and cursing us for our poverty, crime, and physical decay — to imagine the suburbs as crumbling burning slums with skyrocketing murder rates, meth labs on every corner, and crammed full of kids from broken households beheading and shooting each other for a hit of crank.


12 responses to “Back to the Future: New Poor, New Slums”

  1. Fantastic post! The analogy between George W and the alternate world Biff is spot on.

  2. Courtney Centner Avatar
    Courtney Centner

    The increase of suburban poor is surely of note to those of us who have consistently chosen the city over the suburbs, even while suburbanites continue to say, “But where will your kids go to school?” and “But they don’t have a grassy backyard.” This was long before I even had a two-year-old.

    While I lived in Australia, I saw the transformation in the late 1990s. Of course, the drawbacks to this transformation are significant. We chose our inner-city neighborhood of Abbotsford because we loved the architecture and the diversity of its residents. That diversity is diminishing quickly, with older residents, budding artists, and recent immigrants from the neighboring Vietnamese community selling up or not able to afford the rent. The cultural landscape that drew us to the neighborhood is the same thing that is chasing it away.

    This is not a new idea in the US, but it’s one that is happening more slowly in the smaller cities. I see it happening now in the Mexican War Streets area in Pittsburgh where I moved to recently. I love the massive Victorian rowhouses, its location near the river, the creative residents who move in from other big cities, the fact that the house next to me is still boarded up, and that my neighbor who has lived there for as long as she can remember. But, again, my love for its rawness and potential will be the same good intentions that send its current low-income residents to the new slums of the suburbs.

  3. I often wonder if the architects/town planners who design these ‘home for the masses’ would ever care to live in them themselves. I somewhat doubt it.

  4. the red brahmin Avatar
    the red brahmin

    Economic segregation is the word for this. The rich have taken over the sea coasts with their luxury condos and mc mansions. Cities like Boston, Baltimore, DC. and San Francisco have been so gentrified that they cannot maintain a working class to service them. oN CAPE COD many of the summer rich bemoan the fact that they cannot hire servants to cook and clean for them (poor things). i despise rich white trash. viva Che Guavera who said that a man does not work for his own aggrandizement but for the benefit of his fellow man. i said that a man is not measured by the thickness of his portfolio but by the weight of his social conscience.

  5. @ red brahmin:
    I agree that economic segregation is a problem in America, but I don’t think that’s what I was talking about. What I’m talking about is the sad desire on the part of the working and middle class to have the superficial trappings of wealth (escaping from the cities to a white-sided house on a street with an Anglo-sounding street name) without actually being wealthy enough to actually afford such things. So instead they go into extreme debt to buy poorly-built housing in neighborhoods with no history or social cohesion.

    McMansions are detestable, I agree. But here I am arguing against McMansion “wannabes”, the idea that the working class feels like they should buy little McMansions in a sad imitation of their gaudy, wealthy neighbors.

    I’m going to fall smack-dab into a limousine-liberal stereotype here, but the thing I am really complaining about here is the middle class pretending to be richer than they actually are.

    The coasts, as much as they are inhabited by rich people, are also very much occupied by working class Americans as well. I dispute your perhaps unintentional use of the false stereotype that the coasts are havens of the rich — we are not. Yes, the richest Americans live on the coasts, but they are surrounded by millions of working class, middle class Americans, not to mention most of the poorest Americans. I mean, half of all New York households don’t even have bank accounts.

    And while I am hardly an expert on Baltimore, my understanding is that as much as it has experienced some economic and crime improvement recently, is still a crime-addled city with a crumbling industrial infrastructure, and can hardly be described as a place where the poor are being screwed by the rich.

    I’ve been visiting relatives on Cape Cod every summer for 25 years, and I feel your pain. The megahouses dotting the shorelines are repulsive. But isn’t part of the problem on the Cape not just the rich, but the overcrowding in general, by the middle-class as well? I mean, the strip malls and big-box stores which (I think) are destroying the Cape are there not for the rich residents, but for the middle and working classes.

    I’ll admit that Cape Cod is an ethical paradox for me: I liked it better 20 years ago when it was much less densely populated and less commercialized — but how could the population growth have been prevented without resorting to laws and ordinances that would have discriminated against the working class? Isn’t preventing population growth inherently discriminatory?

    This is where I become a middle-class snob: I think that ugly, poorly constructed housing spreading across pristine coastlines and farmland is a tragedy, and that the working and middle classes shouldn’t be so uppity and think that they deserve pseudo-country estates, but instead should be content to live in modest traditional row-house or single-story suburbs, or high-occupancy apartment houses in suburban or urban areas.

  6. Um, I didn’t see where you addressed the rate of population expansion and your solution to house the numbers of people who weren’t here when a downtown city could *hold* everyone.

    Your self-proclaimed middle class snobbery just doesn’t jive outside of your own world. A modest, traditional rowhouse is exactly what the people who bought the *pseudo-country estate* just sold to move up when they started having kids and Junior needed room to ride his bike.

  7. Dixon: There’s plenty of room in cities and suburbs. New York City’s population hasn’t changed in over fifty years. Many US cities have decreased in population in that time. There are literally tens of thousands of vacant buildings in Baltimore.

    Anyway, I’m not just talking about cities, either. I’m talking about the suburbs, too. This housing I write about above isn’t even truly suburban — I should have been clearer about that term. I was really talking about the “exurbs”, where the development no longer bears any tie with a vital urban center as true suburbs do. There is no center of gravity.

    I love cities, suburbs, small towns, and country life. The exurbs, however, feel like cemetaries to me.

    It’s true that the nation as a whole has grown and that new housing must be built. It’s just that I think that (a) the new housing should be of higher quality, both materially/structurally and aesthetically, and (b) the new housing shouldn’t in general be built more 50 miles away from existing urban/suburban communities and economies.

    (It probably doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to see that this entire opinion is driven in large part by my anti-car-culture stance).

    Both of these design decisions (making cheap replicas of country houses, and putting them miles away from the teeming masses in the urban cores) are intended to give the new resident the illusion that they have become a country gentleman and/or lady, when in fact they have often simply moved into the 21st century equivalent of tenement housing, but with shoddier building materials and a higher degree of removal from interaction with other human beings.

    Finally, kids have been riding their bikes around the block — and around parks — in cities and suburbs forever.

  8. Interesting… Perhaps it’s unwise to read too much more into what’s been discussed here, but let me indulge myself in a few random thoughts.

    These new housing developments (21st century equivalents of tenement housing) seem to reflect something new about the WB times. In contrast to the gated communities of the 1980-90s in Los Angeles, the “exurbs” seem to carry out developmentally a line of flight (let’s stay and fight in Iraq, but not in our suburbs and cities). So I’m picturing Bush/Biff in flight from the suburbs, perhaps on his ranch, eating shit while the boys fight real good. This is the real stuff, where the only centre is “born again”, oil-free trade-security-Iraq style. In the exurbs, the middling classes can become nineteenth-century gentlemen or ladies and enjoy a freedom without the limits that mark out the gated communities; they can now mime openness, freedom in rolling green hills, with only the hint of a slave plantation in the south-of-the-border gardeners. Ahh, smell the serenity… No need to gate off this community and purge the cack addicts and spray the homeless off our lawns…
    Everyone wants to live a simpler life, none more so than the middling classes, whose capital doesn’t need a centre because they never gather around anything except their own flight from power and reality into the mirage of economic security. Work from home has become the new sheik, and with all the complex social problems and moral conscience-raising sights of sub-urban life, it’s a temptation to flee to a new centreless centre, where no one ever gathers (who wants to bump into people you don’t know and have a real encounter? Who wants to meet the old Biff from the future? ). A land of green rolling, tenement house on the prairie awaits… But, with the rise of a new homelessness, in which the cities have turfed out the poor, and the poor have been suburbanised and exurbanised, it will be important to “watch this space”—i.e. the spaces of the new exurban developments. Sadly, I think that utopia will never come for the middle classes in their stucco mansions. You might disagree of course.

    On another note, have others come across in the US real-estate developments that colonise prisons or mental asylums like Pentridge Village or Kew Asylum or the Commonwealth Game Village in Melbourne, Australia? Or is this an Australian invention; I’d like to know. This a whole other interesting indulgence, in which design is being used to invade the old symbols of power and control and make them inhabitable for the urbanites, and it’s appropriate that the real prisons are being moved far away from the cities and into the exurban or rural spaces without centres, along with the all poor and disenfranchised, where the David Hickses and co are left to rot, either speedily shipped away from the visible centres or never to be properly or speedily processed under law….

  9. What doesn’t help is that the new middling class need to flock to urbanized areas to find a job, but the rent is so high everywhere that they need not worry about tiny-sized row housing- they’ll never afford it unless they take a second job at a strip mall and save for 50 years @ 8 dollars an hour. Thus is my life in Fairfield county, Connecticut.

  10. Just a quick point of order. There’s not much of a Meth problem in NYC as compared to the “heartland” because meth makes it’s way from the West Coast (specifically from meth’s trade route along the I-5 corridor stretching from Mexico to Canada). There’s been a Meth problem in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles for many years.

  11. @John: If people in NYC wanted meth we would get it regardless of any “trade routes”.

    First of all, we currently get our drugs from all over the world, from Afghanistan to the Netherlands to Columbia. Basically importation distances are irrelevant.

    Secondly, meth can be made just about anywhere from raw chemicals — it’s not like most other drugs that require a crop of some kind to be grown somewhere. So even importing isn’t even necessary.

    The fact is that New Yorkers just don’t want meth as badly as middle Americans want it.

    If your point is that cities are not immune to meth problems, I see your point given the meth problem in a lot of west coast cities. I was simply observing that New York is comparatively free of the problem, even if other cities may still have it. Also, I should note that my overarching point was that the stereotype is that cities have drug problems and suburbs do not, when in fact this is no longer the case.

  12. Susan Few Adams Avatar
    Susan Few Adams

    Interesting premise concerning the new SLUMS. I live in the rural south. I should restate that, the redneck portion of the rural south in Arkansas just outside of Little Rock.

    Here, Meth production is the number one business for the truly upwardly mobile redneck user. Forrested areas around my community have been found to be the homes of rolling meth labs.

    It isn’t really safe to roam the uninhabited paper company land around my community in certain areas, you just might come away ventilated by buckshot or someone’s Glock 10 as they protect their lab. However, when the deer hunters are out in force, things seem to relax a bit. Even meth lab producers like to hunt around here.

    There are some in my community, when faced with knowledge of a house or trailor fire nearby, figure that someone’s meth lab just incinerated.

    The local discount chains in my community and county are the sources of much of the household cleaning chemical purchase for these rolling meth labs. Hence, there is a good supply of the necessary chemicals.

    When one encounters cat box aromas when approaching a domicile, it is always best to leave, for usually someone is boiling up a pot of meth somewhere on the property.

    If one wants to spot a meth user, it’s easiest to check out photos of that person from several years ago and compare them with present day photos. The changes in aging and shining intelligence from the eyes of those individuals is marked.

    The most alarming and heartbreak generating note of all is the use of meth by the young users in my community who develop into, eventually in short order, broken lives with broken relationships of tomorrow and robbed promise from their own selves, their families and their community.