The Ghost Towns of 2100


Originally uploaded by Thomas Roche

There is a very interesting article in Forbes called Ghost Cities of 2100. In it, they address what large cities of the world are likely to be deserted or mostly deserted by that date. I generally find city-specific apocalypticism rather offensive… and yet I’m obsessively drawn to it. I love cities; I actually like cities more than people, so cities’ misfortunes fascinate me.

Among the at-risk cities discussed at Forbes are Venice (which is sinking), Timbuktu, Mali (subject to desertification), Banjul, Gambia (falling victim to rising sea levels), and Mexico City, which seems to be simultaneously exhausting its water supply and sinking into it. All these cities are at risk of being lost, says Forbes.

Yeah, probably… but some of Forbes’ choices are considerably less sound, and actually kind of insulting. And most insulting of all is their obvious omission.

I can’t speak for Ivanovo, Russia, a former textile industry city that is quickly being abandoned, but its American sister city in the lost-industry, lost-population sorority is Detroit, Michigan. Detroit also appears on the Business Journals’ list of 10 Poorest Cities in the US, with a per capita income of $13,977. (Where’s New Orleans on that list? See below for my thoughts on that.)

With the shipping of industrial jobs overseas, Detroit has lost a third of its population, but putting a postdated toe tag on it is premature. Such an act ignores the phenomenon of urban revitalization, which the US has a recent history of — to a fault. Urban centers across the country that once housed vibrant working class communities become playgrounds for the unfocused bourgeois, who attempt to have long conversations with me about their house hunting expeditions. Maybe that’s not happening yet in Detroit, but it will sooner or later.

It’s depressing considering Detroit in the context of my two years (so far) in Oakland, an equally great (if smaller) city that, because of corruption, incompetence, and whatever else, just can’t seem to get it the fuck together. Oakland and Detroit both languish, but I don’t think they will for long. If there’s one place without a shortage of unfocused bourgeois, it’s Califuckingfornia.

The battle will ultimately not be about industrial jobs, but the competition between the young middle class’s flight to the suburbs and its need to own property. The flight to the suburbs is likely to lose, because it takes a swift kick in the nuts every time gas prices go up.

Does that mean I’m stoked about living in cool urban areas with people who would just as soon be living in Walnut Creek? Not really, but he who’s without Velvet Underground albums and a fat corporate paycheck should be the first one to urinate on the door handle of an SUV. And the planet will be much happier the more people live closer to the center of the existing infrastructure; environmental impact is less when people live in big cities. I believe the cities, rich with history and cryptic cultural myths, will always rebuild. It’s the suburbs and exurbs that are going to die.

Speaking of rich history and cryptic cultural myths, what about the American city most at risk: New Orleans, which does not appear on either the cities-at-risk or the poorest-cities list at Forbes? It seems exceedingly likely NOLA would have appeared on the poorest cities list before the levee failures — but I’ll cut Forbes some slack there, because things have changed. NOLA’s not appearing on a subjective list like “Ghost Towns of 2100” just goes to show how much Forbes has forgotten their recent history. If this article was written in 2004, NOLA would have been on that list, I guarantee it. Now, it’s like they’ve just checked the place off and have moved on to their next speculative apocalypse. Their sole comment on New Orleans in the article accompanying the list? “Some might argue that city dwellers will survive and rebuild, although the fate of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80% of the city in 2005, offers mixed lessons.”

Mixed lessons? What lessons are mixed about corruption, poverty and governmental incompetence being infinitely more damaging than nature could ever be? NOLA, as ever, serves here merely as a useful shorthand for non-New Orleanians to speculate on what might happen to their cities. For a sci-fi wankfest like this, it appears, we’ve completely forgotten that the real disaster is public policy, and there have already been casualties. Writing New Orleans off a list like this is tantamount to forgiving the Bush administration for its failings there, or pretending that NOLA has recovered.

Meanwhile, also pissing me off is Forbes’ inclusion of San Francisco on the list. Why? “Researchers at the University of California, Davis, forecast a 75% chance that San Francisco will be struck by a major earthquake of magnitude 7 or above by 2086.” Yeah, no shit, Sherlock… but I lived through a 7.1 in 1989, and while I’m not signing up for the next one, consigning SF to the scrapheap because there might be a shimmy-shake down the road is like telling me it’s going to fall into the ocean when the big one hits. There will be a quake on the San Andreas and the Hayward Fault and every other fault in California. There will also be wildfires in Los Angeles and tornadoes in Kansas and floods along the Mississippi and heavy snowfall in the Sierras that strain the levees of Sacramento, and severe winters in the Northeast — and, not to put too fine a fucking point on it, hurricanes in the Gulf. If any of those destroy major cities like San Francisco or New Orleans, the people who throw up their hands and say “Well, what did you expect?” will be the people who dodged the bullet by living somewhere that didn’t get fucked this time.

But whatever region is hit, this will not be the unpredictable attack of Mother Nature; we’ve been dodging Mama’s bullets, and getting almost wiped out by them, for tens of thousands of years. Dead cities don’t come from natural disasters; they come from politicians fucking up. If — when! — another major American city gets hit, any citywide catastrophic damage will be a failure of human infrastructure, just like it was in New Orleans. The culprit will be the corruption, the indifference, the migration of dollars upstream, the movement of money from societal infrastructure into the bank accounts of the moderately wealthy and the very wealthy, the dependence on rebate checks being spent on iPods to generate the illusion of economic recovery. Susie Bright wrote about this eloquently a few months ago in her post about the Big Sur fires: we are stretched to the breaking point.

Cities like New Orleans, and natural treasures like Big Sur, are at risk because we as a people don’t have the balls to build the society anyone would want to live in. We haven’t maintained the infrastructure that’s allowed the US to be a relatively comfortable place to live for a certain percentage of its citizens, and therefore that percentage is going to get smaller. Instead of building the new century’s levees and schools and hospitals, we’re busy letting our corrupt politicians write us, and their BFFs, checks for iPods that our grandchildren are going to have to cover.

If any of our cities die, I hope they come back from the dead and kick our collective ass.


2 Responses to “The Ghost Towns of 2100”

  1. Susie Bright Says:

    THanks for writing this, Thom, I think like you do about it, too. ALl those “poor cities” on the second list could have been added to the Ghost Town list. I went to St. Louis and Albuquerque in the past few months, and it was eerie. NO one downtown. No downtown period. Any industrial city, of course. Stockton, Modesto, lots of places in Central California.

    I think the earthquake and volcano alert is bs. too. That’s not the big risk. New Orleans facing Hurrican Gustav right now must be so tense.

  2. thomasroche Says:

    Hi Susie! Thanks for swinging by, good to see you.

    Yeah, there are so many cites like this all over the country. It’s scary.

    I am on pins and needles waiting to see what happens with Gustav right now.

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