Our January cover story, "A Tale of Two Cities" by Jen Pilla Taylor, has generated much discussion. The story exploring the growing urban/suburban divide in Charlotte by focusing on two families, one that lives in Plaza Midwood and one that lives on the N.C./S.C. state line.
But a sidebar to the main story has generated even more feedback. Titled "Suburban Slumming," the short piece looked at Waxhaw, and a new subdivision called Millbridge in particular, as a potential example of what noted urban planning thinker Chris Leinberger has taken to calling "suburban slums." In fact, he coined the term for March 2008 article in The Atlantic titled "The Next Slum?" that cited a different Charlotte subdivision in the second paragraph.
In our piece, Leinberger said that Waxhaw’s location southeast of the city would help it recover, but the hour-plus commute could be a problem. [Note to the several upset Millbridgians who wrote us: This may be a fine point, but we did not actually call your neighborhood a slum. We merely pointed out it shares traits with other neighborhoods that Leinberger says may develop into ‘suburban slums’ if things don’t turn around. It really does seem like a nice place to live, despite all the empty lots.]
Yesterday, Timothy Egan wrote an essay called "Slumburbia" for the New York Times website. His piece focused on the West, where foreclosure rates are among the highest in the country. It began on a dire note, with this passage somewhat near the top:
"Take a pulse: How can a community possibly be healthy when one in eight houses are in some stage of foreclosure? How can a town attract new people when the crime rate has spiked well above the national average? How can a family dream, or even save, when unemployment hovers around 16 percent?"
To be sure, that, as far as I know, does not describe any part of the immediate Charlotte area. But it’s close enough to make one pause. Later, Egan strikes a more hopeful tone.
"Yes, huge developments are empty, with rising crime at the edges, and thousands of homes owned by banks that can’t unload them even at fire-sale prices.
But through it all, the country churns and expands, unlike most other Western democracies. That great American natural resource — tomorrow — will have to save the suburban slums."
He wraps the piece by pointing out that areas with stricter development codes are the ones recovering the quickest, while "the developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls — Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley — are the most troubled, the suburban slums." (Somewhere, Mary Newsom is smiling.)
It’s a case of be careful what you wish for. You want rampant, unfettered development — sprawl taken to the extreme — so that growth comes easy? Fine. But when times go bad — and they will — there will be consequences. And waiting for tomorrow can be a long wait.