Gentrification Proof?

Don't worry about our McMansions—fear for the townhouses

Empty houses, overgrown lawns, and "for rent" signs replacing the "for sale" signs: As the foreclosure crisis continues to unfold across the nation's cul-de-sacs, the reports coming sound strangely familiar. Like so many folks who fled the inner city for suburbia over the years, the physical and fiscal decay that traditionally defines the inner city seems to be following. So far, in Knoxville, things haven't quite reached panic proportions. Builders aren't yet running ads offering $100,000 off homes they're desperate to sell, but sales, according to the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors, did plummet 27.8 percent last month. Prices are likewise slipping, with large homes, four or more bedrooms, showing the biggest drop: 10 percent.

This is where, as an urban advocate, I should sagely nod and predict that West Knoxville's McMansions are destined to become tomorrow's slums: sliced up into apartments, housing the poor and all but abandoned by society. And, before you write that off as preposterous, consider that the original "West Knoxville," an incorporated bedroom community on the city's western fringe, was the neighborhood we now call Fort Sanders.

Unlike some commentators, I don't get giddy at the prospect of suburbia's demise. I don't want to see Farragut descend into squalor—or the rest of suburbia, for that matter. As recent events have illustrated, our overall economy is inexplicably intertwined with suburbia. In short, unless we take up subsistence farming, few of us are truly "recession proof," particularly if the current crisis settles in to stay.

Let's say, for a moment, that it does. What if the doomsayers are right and suburbia is destined to come unglued like so much delaminating plywood? What will the recovery look like? For a clue, perhaps, check out this Sunday's "Spirits of Park City" home tour in Parkridge. The neighborhood's made a surprising turnaround in the last few years, reversing a long, slow decline that started during the Great Depression. That's when our old house on Washington Avenue, in many ways the Victorian-era equivalent of a McMansion, was first divided into apartments. (It's on the tour, by the way.)

Grand Victorians, however, are only a small part of Parkridge. Other than two-condo units in Park Place, the converted school at the center of the community, smaller bungalows dominate this year's tour, illustrating the wide range of housing types available in the neighborhood, one of Knoxville's original streetcar suburbs. Rare is the modern subdivision that would offer smaller, more blue-collar houses interspersed among its more "upscale" offerings.

Not that, other than size, there's much that separates Parkridge's smaller homes from their bigger brethren. Even the tiniest '20s bungalow features hardwood floors and, typically, a handsome fireplace and maybe even a built-in or two. It's an overall level of quality that, in addition to distinguishing historic homes from new, may have interesting implications for suburbia's post-slump future. "Gentrification," writes architect and New Urbanist Andres Duany, "is essentially the value of real estate seeking its proper level."

"Places that gentrify," according to Duany, "are good enough for the gentry. Places that resist gentrification are those where the housing is of poor design." As an example, he cites two government-built housing projects in Bridgeport, Conn. One, solid brick townhouses built during the First World War for munitions industry workers, "is still in good shape, much of it having gentrified over the years." The other, a typical shoddily designed and built HUD housing project from the 1960s, although half as old "and despite being less than a decade away from its last renovation, is again trashed." So trashed, in fact, that HUD eventually demolished it as part of its HOPE VI program.

In that light, should West Knoxville hit rock bottom, it's not the McMansions of Gettysvue I worry about. They, if anything, will eventually gentrify. It's the townhouses and vinyl-sided "starter" communities that will have the hardest time.