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On Not Living The American Dream

Dante's 10th Layer.

This Washington Post article and this piece got me thinking about the “American Dream” again.  I no longer own a car. I do not own a house.  Since I sold my car in June, trips take a bit more planning, but I feel a strange peace without the prospect of gas/insurance/repair expenses looming on the horizon. As far as a home, I rent a rowhouse the size of which would make most people who live in a detached single family house laugh.

The fact that I can bike or take a bus to work and not sit in 40 minutes of traffic makes me more content than a bigger home ever could.  But this wasn’t a concept I was brought up with. It came from actually living in places where the only means of getting anywhere was to drive. When the car was in the shop, a massive rescheduling of my life occurred which involved friends, family and neighbors taking me where I needed to go – not to mention the hassles of getting to and from the repair shop and the hostage situation where the mechanic tells you some bullshit about your flux capacitor needing a new solenoid hyperdrive.

My point is that our traditional metrics of success are outdated. They frame ideas about contentment around material goods.  Lifetime employment at a single employer is a thing of the past. New opportunities or a sudden layoff may require you to relocate across the globe with a few months notice. Your car, once thought of as a beacon of freedom and possibilities, is now recognized as riddled with negative health, safety and environmental externalities. Other things, like having a park around the corner, a tight-knit, social neighborhood, a shorter commute, or a grocery store within walking distance have more power to improve my life than a 4th bedroom ever could. The average 100 hours a year spent commuting (Baltimore has one of the highest rates of “extreme commuting” of more than 90 minutes each way) could be better spent even if you just tied your shoe laces over and over again during the time it took you to drive.

Baltimore lost 400,000 people in half a century.  Some of these people left for the American Dream. I’m willing to bet a subset of this population found the dream somewhat empty.  Selling Baltimore as a place where one could be free of car ownership would offset our huge property tax burden for owners. Renters, on the other hand, would find the city way more affordable than the suburbs. Being free from the steel chains of cars, both renters and owners wouldn’t have to deal with nightmare parking situations in places like Federal Hill and Canton.

This all depends on employment location, though. As I’ve said before, keeping and attracting new jobs downtown and in our neighborhoods makes transit systems way more efficient.  Dense employment centers have huge transportation benefits as they are more accessible by rail, buses, and are walkable/bikeable from adjacent neighborhoods. Not to mention the creative benefits that come with having complimentary and/or diverse skill sets in one place (see “Clustering“). The diffusion of employment out to the counties was another hit the city took as it hemorrhaged people through the decades.

As Bob Dylan said, the old road is rapidly agin’.  And the American Dream is shifting to something less definable and material than a 4 bedroom house and an Oldsmobile.

Update: Author James Kunstler, though his acidic style grows tiresome, has a presentation on TED. I think the viewer comments below the video are more interesting than the presentation itself.

**Thanks for the Mobbie nomination in the Baltimore Sun!**