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Hard Times In The High Desert


By Joel KotkinSeptember 14 2009

Appearing in: 
Forbes.com

The High Desert region north and east of Los Angeles sits 3,000 feet above sea level. A rough, often starkly beautiful region of scrubby trees, wide vistas and brooding brown mountains, the region seems like a perfect setting for an old Western shoot 'em up.

Today, it's the stage for a different kind of battle, one that involves a struggle over preserving the American dream. For years, the towns of the High Desert--places like Victorville, Adelanto, Hesperia, Barstow and Apple Valley--have lured thousands of working- and middle-class Californians looking for affordable homes.

Now, like other exurbs in the U.S., the area suffers from sky-high foreclosure and unemployment rates. Rather than elicit sympathy, however, these hardships have delighted a growing chorus of planners, environmentalists and urbanists who believe that such far outer-ring communities are doomed to becoming America's "next slums."

Such dismal future prospects have gained an air of plausibility with devastating speed. For much of the past century, the High Desert was a rough-hewn region of small farms and mines, its economy largely dependent on military bases.

But since the 1980s, the area has flourished, adding over 120,000 people in the first seven years of the decade. Most people came because of housing costs--as much as a third less than those closer to the coast. Today the largely middle and working class population stands at over 350,000.

You don't hear much good about people in places like the High Desert. Like many exurbanites, they do not fit the hip categories of "knowledge workers" or "creative class." They work with their hands--in construction, driving trucks, in factories and mines--or run small retail businesses. In the High Desert, 60% of residents have never attended college. Many commute over the 4,100-foot Cajon Pass to blue- and pink-collar jobs as far as Los Angeles, more than an hour and a half away.

"This is one of those places where the women have more tattoos than the men," joked one long-time resident over drinks at Chateau Chang, a well-appointed local hangout owned by Chinese immigrants.

For many, the rapid decline of housing prices since 2007 has been devastating. Newcomers bought homes at the top of the market, when median prices scaled over $300,000. Some did so with adjustable-rate mortgages. Today, the median price is closer to $100,000, leaving a large percentage of homes underwater.

The real estate collapse has also hurt employment. Construction, warehousing and manufacturing--linchpins of the local economy--all have been pummeled by the recession. Unemployment now stands over 16%.

Similarly bleak conditions plague exurbs throughout the country--from central Florida to the outskirts of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Sacramento and scores of other onetime boomtowns. Shuttered factories, empty stores and abandoned lots contribute to an often depressing landscape.

These reverses have led some pundits to assert it's time to let such places die--and the sooner the better. Greensheet Grist recently held a competition about what to do with dying suburbs that included ideas such as turning them into farms, bio-fuel generators and water treatment plants.

Such post-apocalyptic views are popular with architects, planners and environmentalists, as well as in the mainstream media. But these people never liked conventional suburbs much; many considered exurbs atrocities whose residents indulged in unspeakable acts of overconsumption.

Yet what about the residents of these places--and the many who likely would care to join them? The fact is exurbs are popular: Between 2000 and 2007, 3 million Americans moved to exurbs, and while the recession has slowed this growth, it has not stopped it. Indeed, now that housing prices have fallen, home sales have skyrocketed in some areas. In the High Desert, for example, existing-home sales more than tripled in the past year, to the highest level ever.

Most demographic estimates suggest this exurban population growth will continue; the High Desert is expected to receive another 200,000 residents by 2025. The key driving force, notes Redlands, Calif.-based economist John Husing, remains the deep-seated desire to own a small piece of ground and enjoy some privacy and a middle-class way of life that is no longer affordable closer to the urban center.

For most exurbanites, moving back to the city--the preferred option of planners and urban boosters--is not an attractive option. These people could never afford a charming townhouse in Portland's Pearl District or a loft in New York's SoHo. For them, the "urban option" means the prospect of a dreary blocky apartment complex in a noisy, crowded, less-than-genteel section of Los Angeles or another large city.

This preference should not be confused with racism, as is sometimes alleged. Like many exurbs, the High Desert has become increasingly multi-racial. Over half of the 23,000 students at the sprawling Victor Valley College, for example, are minorities--nearly 30% are Hispanic. Cruise the shopping center, and you are as likely to find a family-owned Mexican, Vietnamese or Korean restaurant as you would a hamburger chain or pizza shop.

To my mind, harboring ill will toward the aspirations of exurbanites is hardly "progressive," at least from a social democratic point of view. Yet many on the so-called left feel that what is generally considered upward mobility needs to be curbed so that the hoi polloi can better live according to the prescriptions of their more enlightened, usually higher-educated and more affluent "betters."

In contrast, a more humane, and fundamentally democratic, approach would be to find ways to help these communities thrive. The first step: local job creation. Even without the excessive prices associated with "peak oil" theories, gas prices and car expenses do place a considerable burden on many exurbanites. Developing more economic opportunities closer to these communities would relieve this financial burden, while also cutting energy consumption.

Experience shows that suburbs that develop their own economies have suffered far less from the recession than those that depend on long-distance commuters. Ontario, a suburb 40 miles east of Los Angeles where I have worked as a consultant, for example, has developed a strong airport, industrial and office economy and a thriving locally based retail sector. Average commutes there are roughly parallel to those in neighborhoods close to downtown Los Angeles.

Although hit hard by the recession, Ontario suffers a foreclosure rate that is one-third of the High Desert's. It continues to attract businesses from Los Angeles and the rest of the world by offering a more enterprise-friendly environment and a well-maintained infrastructure.

Places like Ontario could provide something of a role model for places like the High Desert, notes local real estate investor Joe Brady. Like many other local leaders, he recognizes that basic job creation--not real estate speculation--holds the key to the region's future.

But it's not all doom and gloom for the High Desert. Some prospective new industrial investment has come to the area. And Husing believes the High Desert will play an expanding role as a warehouse area for products shipped from the massive Los Angeles port complex. The converted former George Air Force Base, now the Southern California Logistics Airport, has created 2,500 jobs and could generate another 35,000 within the decade.

Yet creating many more jobs in the High Desert will not be easy. Though most local cities are pro-business, business consultant Larry Kosmont notes they are still saddled with regulations imposed by the state of California. These could discourage business attraction and development.

There's a bit of an irony here. Local job growth would save energy and cut emissions by reducing commutes and making these communities more environmentally sustainable. But some coastal "progressives" may discourage new industrial or warehouse facilities for emitting too much greenhouse-gas.

In the end, only fostering a strong locally based economy can make these places economically viable. Whatever their aesthetic and design problems, exurbs will continue to appeal to millions of Americans searching for what they define as a better way of life. That alone should make them intrinsically valuable, and definitively worth saving.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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