Suburban Abandonment

This Will Kill…West Knoxville?

Over on the irreverent Internet forum KnoxBlab, the phrase "This Will Kill Downtown" is something of a running joke. It's sort of an all-purpose punch line prompted by some people's always imminent expectation of downtown's demise once the tax money/drug money/trendiness (take your pick) runs out. The tongue-in-cheek statement has also been a testament to downtown's resilience, as the district repeatedly weathered setbacks such as the Wests' property seizures, the McClung, Crimson and Phoenix fires and, of course, 50-some odd years of disinvestment and suburban development. Face it, downtown's the architectural equivalent of Rocky Balboa: No matter how many times it's beaten to a pulp, it somehow staggers back to its feet.

In light of that, am I the only one who took a certain sadistic pleasure in the week-before-last's Ear to the Ground blurb reporting the rumor that "four to five West Knox County developers may not survive" the current housing slump? The news is hardly surprising. Nationally, new home starts are down to 1991 levels. The inventory of unsold homes is high and the list of homebuilders filing for bankruptcy grows longer every day (including, earlier this month, a major middle-Tennessee custom homebuilder).

Then there are the foreclosures. The number of defaulting mortgages in Knox County is certainly troublesome. But, in some areas of the country, homeowners associations hoping to keep up appearances all but have their hands full mowing the uncut grass around repo'd homes. And, in others, things are getting downright grim. The March issue of The Atlantic Monthly contains an article, "The Next Slum?" about struggling neighborhoods full of vacant houses where "vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire…where drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in."

Elsewhere in the article, the writer visits a community where "one in four houses stand empty," and "in the first half of last year, residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies by 58 percent." To a long time inner-city resident, these stories sound strangely familiar. But it's the setting that's truly strange. The copper thieves are pulling pipe and wiring in "Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, N. C.," and the scary statistics come from suburban Fort Myers, Fla.

The forces rippling through the country's cul-de-sacs seem oddly familiar because they're nothing new. The cycle of inner-city abandonment and suburbanization began before the turn of the century, and in the automobile suburbs of the 1920s acquired many of its later attributes; but it was during and immediately after the Great Depression that the true tipping point occurred. Money was tight. The big, old houses in town were increasingly cut up into apartments and boarding houses as owners struggled to make ends meet. Maintenance was deferred and things became rundown to the point that once things revived post-war, few people bothered to stick around. Instead, they headed out to the 'burbs and began building homes that were, at least at first, more modest than what came before.

Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Leinberger points out that a shift in housing preference likewise predates the current deluge. Bargains brought the earliest "urban pioneers" back to the city, but today urban living often carries a price premium—nationally and in Knoxville. Meanwhile, out in the 'burbs, builders are increasingly turning to "town centers" and other ersatz-urban development.

The shift in taste, along with the tightening economy and rising transportation costs, leads Leinberger to wonder whether today's McMansions might become tomorrow's equivalent of Fourth and Gill or Old North Knoxville circa 1970: cut up into apartments, housing the poor, and all but abandoned by society. Maybe he's right. I don't know. But should his scenario come to pass, I do wonder one thing: Unlike those old Victorians, today's tract houses are mostly vinyl, chipboard, and glue; will they survive long enough to someday re-gentrify? m