There are a lot of abandoned places in America. You can find them in big cities, small towns and out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes it makes sense. People build where they shouldn’t and then can’t find a buyer when they’re ready to leave, but when the best locations are abandoned, well, you have to dig a little deeper for answers.
There’s an old adage in real estate that the best places get developed first, and so on the surface it makes no sense that it is many of these same best places that are being abandoned in modern America. The house on the prairie where the well ran dry? That makes sense. A grand old building in the heart of the city…not so much.
So I’m grateful to the wonderful folks at the Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma in Norman for developing this fabulous little tool that makes the reasons for all of this so very clear. They show, in city after city, how the development of freeways ringing the urban core have isolated neighborhoods and turned the best locations into the worst locations.
This isn’t all new to me. While living in the Twin Cities in the 1990s, I’d read stories and talked to people who remembered St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood before it was cut in half and destroyed by Interstate 94. At least 94 was built below grade. It’s even worse when the freeway is elevated. In Indianapolis, the decline of once vibrant neighborhoods ringing downtown can be directly tied to the construction of Interstates 65 and 70 around the urban core. Once built, the only way you could access downtown was by passing under wide, dark underpasses. They might as well have built castle walls. Interstates 65/70 opened in 1976 when the population of the urban core was approximately 250,000. Today it is less than 145,000.
America has made a very bad deal with itself. We have marginalized our best locations while building up inferior ones. Fortunately, more and more Americans recognize this and are doing something about it. In Dallas, for example, they’re (seriously) talking about taking out a section of freeway and replacing it with grade level streets that would reconnect downtown with the Deep Ellum neighborhood. Seattle is replacing the elevated Alaskan Way viaduct that blocks access to Puget Sound with a tunnel. Boston did the same with the Central Artery/Big Dig. These projects create bicycle and pedestrian friendly spaces. They reconnect neighborhoods to the city.
When freeways are dismantled, cities heal. These locations become desirable again. People return and all sorts of crazy bicycle and pedestrian friendliness ensues.
We are in Ogden this week to buy a house in an old neighborhood, one of these best locations. We’re in our fifties so we can’t wait twenty years for this to happen where we live now. It has to be right now for us, and this city more than others gives us a chance to live this life.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen where you live. It can and it should. What man can destroy, man can also rebuild. My hope is that this sort of thinking will soon be the norm. It’s long past time for America to reclaim its best places and make them shine again.