Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What Will Become of Us?

I haven’t felt like doing this bike blog lately. I bike almost as much as ever. I have to get where I’m going. But the bike muse doesn’t sit on my handle bars like she used to. Instead my mind has been trying to muck its way through this thing called “the economy.” Like many of you, no doubt, I’m wondering intently what will become of us.

Like practically everyone else, my husband and I found out we’re going to be a bit poorer than we planned in our advancing years. We’ll have to cut out our frivolous travel hobby. We’ll have to stay home more and lead an even simpler life than we already do. Meanwhile every night after I park my bike in the basement and head upstairs, I will keep breathing a prayer of thanks that none of our kids has yet joined the teaming multitudes of the unemployed.

But the big concern for me now is Othello, not the Shakespearean play. It’s the neighborhood where I live. I’m pretty invested in the place, heart and soul. Some people have jokingly dubbed me “unofficial mayor” of Othello. Actually, I think of myself more as the wife of Othello. I’m married to the place. So maybe they should call me Desdemona.

What I have invested in Othello is about a dozen years of neighborhood organizing trying to make sure we get a pedestrian friendly town center built around our new light rail station. Up until October 2008 our neighborhood dreams appeared to be coming true with bravado. Riding the wave of the great real estate bubble, new urbanist developers who had also fallen in love with Othello were planning mixed use commercial and residential buildings around the station. Their beautiful drawings and models exceeded our hopes and dreams. Then in October 2008, the economic bubble burst. The now familiar phrase is that development is, for the most part, “on hold.”

Not the light rail. That appears to be moving along. Sleek modern cars run up and down the street every few minutes cheerfully ringing their little test train bells as they pass in and out of the pretty wrought iron station. I throw them kisses as they pass and picture how in July when they start picking up passengers, my bike and I will be among their most loyal customers. But to attract enough ridership to really keeps it going we’ll need more people and shops and stores. That’s where this thing called “the economy” comes in.

I’m not one of those gullible types that sit around watching the news and waiting for the economy to start “growing” and get back to “normal” again. I don’t believe in that. This isn’t “Econ for Dummies Made Easy.” What it looks like is that past economic booms were just big Wall Street casinos where rich people gambled with our future using paper monopoly money. This notion that we should praise the god of “economic growth” makes no sense in terms of the real world. Economic growth depletes the world of its non-renewable resources, most notably oil. Besides, there are already six billion people on a planet that was probably built for about two billion, and it was the abundance of cheap oil that made possible the population bubble in the first place.

So I see these hard economic times as not just a cycling down that will swing back up again. I believe capitalism as we know it (meaning the big stock market casino) is over. What I imagine taking its place will be a poorer, simpler time. There will be fewer people, more of whom will be riding bikes and trains. Instead of eating packaged supermarket food shipped from California, they’ll be growing food in places like (my favorite fantasy) the power line green belt along the Chief Sealth Trail right in my neighborhood, Othello. Instead of living in big houses on great polluting lawns sprawling out into infinity, they’ll be living in small apartments in places like the Othello town center, chatting with their neighbors and walking in Othello Park. They’ll use trains and bikes for transportation, not cars. That I hope is what will become of folks like us who have invested our hopes and dreams in a simpler form of city life.

But what will become of I-5 and other big freeways in the USA? Maybe poor street vendors will spread out their wares for sale on them like in India. As for the big houses way out in the suburbs, new urbanist, James Howard Kunstler projects they’ll be slum tenements housing several families who cultivate the lawns for food. Bleak as this sounds, it’s better than more big phony economic bubbles pumped up by greedy capitalists and waiting to burst again.


Lucy said...

I agree with your analysis but want to change one concept. You say we will have a poorer, simpler life. I once heard a quote (anon.) "'poor' people are rich people who have no money." So let us say we will have a richer, simpler life. We will be so much richer when we return to neighborliness, community arts, sports, care just as you are doing in Othello. I'll bet you are richer for all the people you have met and collaborated with as you have invested yourself in designing such a great urban village. Lucy

MimiTabby said...

I like your dream but I'm afraid I-5 will have plenty of cars on it for some time. In Rome, the cost of gas is upwards of $8.00 a gallon and their streets are still full of cars!
- a fellow cyclist