- See more at: http://www.bloggerhow.com/2012/07/implement-twitter-cards-blogger-blogspot.html/#sthash.DO2JBejM.dpuf

Sunday, March 23, 2014

From Jobs to Junk

There may be no more depressing reminders of the structural imbalances in our economy than buildings like this:

This is a stark, physical reminder of the consumer economy run awry. Formerly an industrial building, it now houses a self-storage business. Instead of using our valuable urban real estate to employ residents to make the things we use, it is instead a repository for the over accumulation of a consumer economy that continues to buy things it rarely uses.
This particular building was once a bakery, or perhaps more appropriately a bread factory. It was itself a step toward a de-localized economy. Replacing the local bakery, which served residents in close proximity, industrialized baking plants like this distributed bread and other bakery items far and wide. The trucks were actually a hallmark of their marketing strategy.

As the logic of this logistically-driven business model has continued, we have been left with more trucks and fewer jobs. The goods we buy travel ever farther from production facilities through optimized supply chains. That is to say, optimized on the basis of cost. If carbon emissions or social equity were the primary criteria, producing goods with exploited workers in East Asian plants that lack pollution controls wouldn't seem so optimal.

I would also add my personal view that the contemporary American fixation on mass consumption comes at the expense of quality. Our infatuation with style and status, the penetration of marketing images and the use of shopping as a leisure activity, and underpricing of carbon emissions and waste disposal have all resulted in a culture of disposability. Rather than spending more on quality, we buy goods that won't last as long, which we can replace with the next new thing. Some of it never does get thrown out, though, and it ends up in a self-storage facility like this one. This is a poor way for the masses to invest our money, but it certainly serves the interests of those who sell the stuff to us. Fortunately, it seems there is a growing interest in craft products, improved methods for small production, and a general demand for customized products that may gradually grow together into a more sustainable and dignified model of efficient local production.

Of course, bread is still produced within metropolitan areas. You don't go down to the supermarket and buy a loaf of bread imported on a container ship from Taiwan. People aren't aren't buying cheap bread that wears out because they figure they'll just buy the new flavor next week. So, perhaps it is exaggerating to lump this former Bond Bread building into a discussion of disposability? While there are limits on the specific example when considered in isolation, it is very much connected as a matter of urban land use.

This building may have been vacated because the production of baked found another, more efficient location elsewhere in the metropolitan area. Yet the fate of the building the business left behind is very much the story of American deindustrialization. The building was not put back into industrial use because of an overall migration to cheap land that was accessible to trucks on the suburban fringes and then ultimately offshore. Moreover, it is likely that the new baking location that absorbed the region's demand for bread was easily available at an attractive price due to declining demand for industrial space.

Nonetheless, the self-storage business has filled a void. The building is not vacant and continues to be maintained (to some extent). There is still some remote chance that a change in policies and a shift in demand for more quality/customized products could result in buildings like this returning to productive use. As cities have experienced their highly-touted renaissance in recent years, however, it is becoming increasingly unlikely because of pressure to make immediate gains on housing affordability.

In response to a "housing crisis" and the continued vacuum of production, deindustrialized properties are increasingly under pressure for conversion to housing. While the desire for "affordable housing" is a genuine desire to help the working class, there is reason for skepticism in the outcomes. I believe the limited industrial land still remaining in metropolitan areas has the potential for a return to working uses that support well-paid workers who have the dignity of making the things we use. Every time we use one of these properties for a development that provides a few dozen affordable apartments, we sacrifice the potential to provide jobs that can make housing affordable for hundreds of families. The benefits may be immediate with affordable housing, but the opportunity to fix our economic structure is permanently lost.

At the end of the day, I am afraid we will just end up subsidizing a bunch of apartments for the underpaid service workers who are selling us more junk.

No comments:

Post a Comment