Sunday, September 8, 2019

Housing Stock, Human Stock

Mecklenburg County subdivision-aerial 2010

I was flying over Charlotte in route to RDU and it struck me that much of Charlotte is planned like an overgrown Brier Creek, with single family subdivisions organized by Toll Brothers for miles and miles. Generic, without authentic aesthetics, these homes draw dwellers that want the privacy and comfort of a family home within a short driving distance to Target or Chili's. They are unbothered by the contradictions of living in an artificial community.

In Durham, the chorus of disenchanted voices has increased in the past two years as cranes perpetually hover over development sites, erecting faceless, homogeneous apartment complexes that have come to represent gentrification writ large.  Click on the link below to see:

These developments come from a master diagram by builders who are not based in Durham, and have no investment in the community. Their contribution to the housing stock is one motivated simply by capitalism; a formula (repeatable drawings) allows them to maximize their profit. Aesthetically, they are bland at best, behemoth eyesores at worst. The speed at which developers can erect these structures reminds me of the vast strip-malling of America in the 1980's that hollowed out local business communities and made ghost towns of downtown business streets. Like mountaintop removal for coal mining, generic apartment development shears a community of its character and vitality. City Council is quick to decry the perils of gentrification and the host of governance limitations imposed by an authoritarian State on regulating development, but my personal opinion is that we could be doing more to limit the influx of these developments or at least have more community input on their impact to the urban landscape.

The reason why I care is not only for my own well-being, but I believe that the human stock of a city mirrors that of its housing stock. If the housing stock is generic, without character, transitory, and essentially cheap on aesthetics, we will be drawing new Durhamites that are either blind to or actually find solace and comfort in those characteristics. I walked into the new Oak House recently on Main Street and it felt like setting foot in a Starbucks in a larger city with white well-groomed people on laptops and devices. One of the great worries I have is that developers see Durham as a reasonably blank slate onto which could be grafted the next Raleigh, or Charlotte. Two of possibly the most stutifyingly boring cities I've ever visited.