Posts Tagged ‘cities’

Oak Park Sacramento

7 January 2018

Taking a visit to the Sacramento neighborhoods of Oak Park seemed like a good way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon. Guided by listings sent to me by a local realtor, I visited some houses in this area that have recently been for sale. I was on my bicycle, and took my time, seeing what these neighborhoods are like.

oak park sign

Palm trees grace a median strip housing a sign welcoming us to Oak Park.

From what I’ve been told, there is a definite push in this area to find new young buyers for houses in this older suburb just a little south of downtown.

And I’ve seen two main ways houses in this area are marketed: 1) Appeal directly to the end user, in which case the house will usually be totally cleaned up inside and remodeled (and cost more); 2) Sell to investors (also known as “flippers”) in which case the house will usually be sold as-is, and for less.

I saw some real dumps (not pictured). But most of the houses, though well-used, seemed to be proudly owned.

3343 32nd Ave

Typical small house in Oak Park.

This typical home was built in 1936. It is less than 1,000 square feet on a lot less than .1 acre. It has 3 bedrooms and one bathroom. The “garage” is detached and towards the rear. There are thousands of houses like this in Sacramento. Even those built in the 1950s or later follow this basic pattern. They were quite commonly built with no particular attention to heating and cooling, and were typically retrofitted with some sort of system later in their lifespans. It is also typical for there to be no basement; the house built on a slab or with some sort of crawl space underneath.

A house like this in those days might have cost $2,500 to build and $5,000 to purchase. Per inflation data online, it should cost $50-100,000 today, but other factors have made housing (mostly land) prices increase more than the average.

3629 9th

Orange tree graces one of the more attractive Oak Park homes.

I have seen many fruit trees in Sacramento gardens and parks. Today I even saw a tree with quite large fruit that could have been a pomelo or breadfruit. I have never seen any of these trees harvested (which is why they were planted). Why is that? Perhaps people don’t want to be bothered with picking fruit from a real tree. Seems a shame.

3839 13th

This house sits sideways on its lot.

I usually only see sideways houses on corner lots, but here’s an example. I can only imagine it was done on the builder’s whim.

3615 23rd

Charm of old-style long front porch marred by chain link fence.

One can tell by wandering around this area that security is a concern to many residents. And if you can’t afford a nice “permanent” fence you might go for chain-link. I would be embarrassed, though, to have this on my property. I would at least try to hide it behind shrubbery.

3531 24th

Front-facing brick fireplace is unusual for this neighborhood.

As a sort of test or experiment, I looked up this last home in Sacramento County’s Parcel Viewer application online. It tells me this house was built in 1941 and the land and house together are valued at $100,000. Asking price is more that two times that.

Issues

This little trip through Oak Park brings up several issues that I have become aware of over the years.

What is happening in our cities?

The most obvious answer to this is that someone decided they didn’t want to pay organized labor their negotiated wages any more, so found ways to get their products built in other places where labor costs are lower.

Even if a blue-collar worker retrains to run automated equipment in a yogurt plant (or something), the automation is likewise serving to keep labor costs down, which basically means fewer people employed. So we find people unable to keep their homes or forced to move to cheaper homes. And the land that working-class people used to live on is being recycled into business uses, retiree apartments, and “cool” housing for those who have survived the various crashes and work in banking, government, marketing, or tech jobs located close to that housing. The new residents can then feel good about saving energy on their commute, while the less fortunate serve them food, cut their hair, or take away their garbage, but drive to work from more distant locations.

This could be solved, but not by using the same assumptions and social structures that created the problem. The problem almost certainly has to do with our basic sense of competence. When workers organized, and the manufacturing managers of the modern world were forced to pay them better, things actually got better for everybody. But we didn’t change the fact that the managers preferred to deal with workers who were totally predictable, never talked back, and would do whatever they were told to do. Robots. So they busily set about creating such robots, and they are beginning to succeed. If you told them that they were selling out the human race, they’d tell you they didn’t care. They know how to manage workers who are totally obedient and just need oil and electricity. They don’t really know how to manage real people. People who do know how to manage real people – especially those who enjoy it – are the more successful (and happier) people on this planet. But, unless they know Management Technology, they don’t know how to train other managers to operate the way they do.

The fact is, to be successful today requires a level of confront and creativity that fewer and fewer people can easily attain. And that is, as far as I can tell, the more basic technical reason why things are falling apart. There is also an ethics reason for our problems, but if we could handle this technical factor with enough people, the ethics problem would diminish if not vanish entirely.

What is going on with housing prices?

People like Catherine Austin Fitts can tell you more about the details of this than I can. While the basic problem is discussed above, what seems to be happening in the case of housing is that some people saw the decline coming and indulged in unethical actions to benefit from it at the expense of others.

This trend was already rolling forward after the crash of the early 1900s that resulted in the various “New Deal” arrangements to encourage lenders to let more “ordinary” people into the mortgage market. This was basically done using government guarantees to protect the lenders from too many losses. The creation of a “secondary market” also freed up more cash to make loans with.

The market, however, responded to this cash infusion by increasing housing prices (the same thing that has happened to college tuition as a result of student loans). This gave lenders more income and borrowers more risk. The big problem, of course, comes back to reduced employment. If people can’t keep working, they can’t pay off their loans.

While working at HUD, Catherine spotted operations designed to deliberately trash neighborhoods (by injecting crime like meth labs into them), lowering property values and forcing good people to leave. The operators (criminals) could then buy up the land more cheaply. Revelations like this is what give Mankind such a bad name in this universe. I don’t think most people are involved in operations like this. Just enough to make it hurt.

Sustainability

I have listened to various people tell us that according to certain computer models, society can’t continue with its “usual” economic behavior much longer. It will become impossible to increase prices to keep pace with the costs of producing certain materials, especially fuel. They say we have just lived through a period where the profit margins were pretty good, but that can’t continue indefinitely. Production won’t crash because we run out of resources, but because the cost of production will rise too high.

I hadn’t heard this argument before. But it and related arguments are leading some to attempt to “exit the system.” Most people I know are not taking this approach. They think we can make it through by increasing competences and creative ability. They may be right. Meanwhile, others are learning to live in “houses” that measure maybe 20 by 20 feet, are made from soil (adobe) and other recycled materials for something like $500, and require almost no energy to heat and cool. On top of this, systems are being developed to sequester water in soil so that little or no irrigation of gardens or even grazing fields is needed. That harks back to an earlier way of living, but the people who are choosing it could survive in relative comfort while others are starving or freezing. Maybe.

I know that the kind of houses Sacramento is full of would not be livable in the winter months without heating. You could get by in the summer without cooling, but not without a refrigerator. However, there is enough land in Sacramento to probably sustain everyone living here now if they just practiced permaculture and stopped driving to work. Of course, the banks would not be able to make money on home loans, government as we know it would probably stop operating, and so might industry as we know it.

So one fear is that the cities would become lawless. They already are, but most of us are protected from the worst of it. I’m not sure how this would actually work out. Certainly there will still be beings who are unwilling to be honest and contribute real help to their community. Beings that know only fear of others and thus feel compelled to lie continuously. Would an economic collapse empower them more or shut them out? I’d rather not find out!

Will there really be radical changes in the near future?

Many people are operating on the assumption that things the way they are now can hold together indefinitely. They aren’t preparing for the future in any way, unless they have an extra money flow that they can save or invest. And that money may not be enough to protect them.

But it’s really hard for me to say. There are a lot of people alive who don’t want it to get worse and are very actively working on various strategies to prevent that. Most of them aren’t saying much or promising much. I don’t think they are sure their ideas will work. But I know they are out there trying. I sometimes wish I could be working with them more closely.

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San Francisco

28 September 2016

san_fran-20160927-311-transam-pyramid-south-side

Yesterday I went to San Francisco. My major destination was my church. To get there I walked from the BART Embarcadero station through the Financial District. I returned via Chinatown, hoping to find a shop selling the wooden “trick” boxes that I had loved when I was a child. Thus, I missed all the South of Market (SoMa) renewal projects (which were just beginning when I left the Bay Area in 1982 and continue to this day). Above, a view up at the Transamerica Pyramid, built in 1972.

Downtown

With the growth of electronic banking and securities-based banks, the Financial District has been transforming. Though the old buildings still stand, they are being put to new uses. Illustrative of this trend is the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange building.

san_fran-20160927-356-pacific-stock-exchange-crop

Built in 1930, by about 2001 the building was no longer housing any stock trading activities. FOr about the last ten years it has been a fitness club with a New Age angle for upscale Millennials.

The old Transamerica Building, at the triangle corner of Columbus, Jackson and Montgomery, was converted to its present use by my church in 2003.

san_fran-20160927-315-transam-bldg-west-side

Chinatown

I remember Chinatown in the early 1980s as a run-down and forlorn ghost of what I remembered from the 1960s. However, the process of urban renewal (sometimes know by the less-than-complimentary term “gentrification”) has probably helped to keep Chinatown alive. Though the center of old Chinatown is considered to be Grant St., I spent most of my time on Stockton. The northern part of Stockton is lined with food shops. Here is sold fresh produce and meats – especially seafood – cooked meats such as ducks and chickens, and dried foods of an enormous variety.

san_fran-20160927-330-stockton-market-dried-and-seafood

Many of these shops are very orderly, such as the one pictured above. All the signs are in Chinese; these food shops are for use by the local community or people who speak (read) Chinese.

The south side of Stockton is now lined mostly with upscale gift shops. This used to be the area my parents would take me to find decorated wooden “trick” boxes and other toys, and to gaze at the amazing jade and ivory carvings. This is still a major tourist destination.

These shops now carry mostly more expensive items – for adults, not children – and some cheap toys. One shop proprietor who I asked about this told me she thought that those old toys required too much hand work, and could no longer could be made inexpensively. She showed me her inventory of little hand-beaded purses. She told me she can no longer get these purses – these are her last ones.

BART

berkeley-20160927-358-inside-bart

The Bay Area Rapid Transit system began construction in the 1960s and was first opened in 1972. The cars use off-standard train trucks (the four-wheel assemblies you see on all trains) on steel rails fastened to a concrete bed on rubber shock-absorbing pads. In this system, electricity is delivered to the trains via a “third rail” which is actually up to one side of the ground rails. Most newer systems I have seen use overhead wires for this purpose, and use standard gauge rails and trucks. Per the Wikipedia article on BART, use of the wider rail gauge has increased maintenance costs. Standard American gauge rails will be used on at least one future extension.

I remember the trains being noisy when I rode them 35 years ago. But now they are VERY noisy.  And this is after a noise reduction program, completed last year. Before then, noise levels of 100dB, which is 8 times as loud as the 70dB “average,” were being reported at many points in the system.

Per Wikipedia this is because train trucks have straight axles (both wheels rigidly attached to each other) and so always screech, or slip, around curves. I can find no talk on the internet of redesigning trucks so that each wheel rotates independently. Straight axles are the tried-and-true design for coping with the weight bearing requirements of train trucks. Almost no one has considered that passenger train trucks should be designed differently than freight train trucks because of the sensitivities to noise of human cargo. A few light rail systems use special trucks with rubber wheels. But in most places the cost of these must have been considered prohibitive. It is too bad that so many have to suffer due to economic considerations. An urban train ride could be a delightful experience. Cost-cutting measures have reduced it to near-torture on BART.