My original intention was to write this post about ghost towns and how they might influence a writer to tell a good story, however, that intention has evolved into writing something that is more suitable for inspiring writers of a non-fiction bent. Through my research for the post, I uncovered some things that make me believe that the concept of ghost towns themselves should be expanded to fit some modern phenomena. I came across one of those things in a youtube video, and after speaking with the man who created and uploaded it, I have decided to dedicate the majority of this post to what I learned from him. Further discussion of ghost towns for use in a fictional capacity will be explored in a future post.
A lot of communities in America have been experiencing urban blight (also known as urban decay), and have done so for a long time– especially in older cities like Detroit or Pittsburgh. Buildings crumble, facades crack, doors and windows are boarded up, garbage and other refuse soil the streets, property values drop, and often, crime moves in. Why does this happen? There are a lot of reasons– apathy, poverty, lack of employment opportunities… these are but a few.
Normally, when we think of things like this, we think of them as being an inner city problem. However, I was enlightened by a nine minute and fifty-seven second video of a problem in a large Phoenix suburb twenty miles from the city, called Mesa. The gentleman who created the video, Mike Pizzo, is a former residential real estate broker and he noticed a trend in his community. A lot of big box stores and restaurants– (think of places like Circuit City, Costco, Bennigan’s Restaurant– not independently owned companies) were shutting their doors and abandoning their buildings, leaving behind ugly empty shells and sprawling parched parking lots, haunting reminders of what was once there.
In one case, even a whole mall that housed a lot of big-named businesses closed down. To make matters worse, if a large store went out of business in a strip mall, it often took down the smaller mom-and-pop businesses with it, as the anchor store brought a lot of traffic and without it, the smaller shops couldn’t survive. Mr. Pizzo chalks much of this decline up to human nature. Once entropy strikes a building, business, or community– i.e., the glossy new sheen wears off– people lose interest and move on to the next new thing. (The mall mentioned above was at least twenty years old). Businessmen and developers then swoop in and build the next big deal in another location, shifting boundaries and borders further and further away, until there’s no place left to build.
Sometimes, new structures were built that either never had any tenants at all, or only reached a fraction of their projected capacity. Some of these buildings were very nice, and what Mr. Pizzo refers to as “the Beverly Hills” of his community. In this sense, the issue is reminiscent of the modern “ghost cities” of China. The Chinese government continuously indulges in building new modern cities in order to support economic strength and growth, often at the expense of the poor who were the residents of old villages and cities that were torn down to make way for the gleaming new ones. These former residents are unable to afford the new housing at their exorbitant prices, and most of the time, the properties remain empty– whether commercial or residential.
I would like to think that the businessmen and developers who create properties that remain empty do so merely because of poor city planning– especially in the case of American businessmen/developers– but something tells me that isn’t always the case. I am reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode entitled Stopover in a Quiet Town, where a couple had been out drinking and partying the night before and found themselves lost in a strange, unpopulated community the next day. At first, everything seemed normal, but it wasn’t long before they realized the trees were props and the grass was paper mache.
Mr. Pizzo believes that the new urban decay in his community is indicative of a looming total economic crash and I’m not convinced that he’s wrong. I also agree with his belief that if such a crash occurs, it will be the worst we’ve ever seen, and all (or most of) hell will break loose. However, there is also hope in his prophecy. He feels that it will take a huge collapse for our economy to rebuild in a healthier manner– where small businesses are valued as much or more than big corporate ones, gardens are planted where parking lots used to be, and everyone has fair affordable housing…
One last thing. Mr. Pizzo mentioned that a new housing development called Eastmark had its grand opening in Mesa two weeks ago. A Scottsdale company called DMB paid $265 million to General Motors for its old proving ground, where cars like the Impala, Corvette, and GTO were tested when they were new. Eastmark boasts several parks, including a “Great Park”, community center, and even some mansions. According to AZCentral, DMB developed Eastmark, which will have 15,000 “dwelling units”, and promises “tens of thousands of high-paying jobs”, which as of yet, do not exist, as even a planned nearby factory sits vacant. But DMB dismisses this concern, banking on the fact that Eastmark is so special, that people will flock to the community anyway, bringing new job opportunities with them.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe it will be a thriving, heavily populated housing development.
And maybe not.