The decay of west-coast big-city downtowns
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
(Disclaimer: this post is based solely on our subjective impressions during our road trip, we have no statistics or objective measures to support these impressions)
Inevitably, our current road trip leads to a comparison with our previous long road trip across the USA almost twenty years ago. The greatest difference observable is the shocking decline of the big cities of the west coast and especially of their downtown area. As we travelled through Portland, Seattle and now Los Angeles, a recurring scheme appears: the downtowns are semi-deserted of their “natural” inhabitants, the “white-collar” people working in the offices downtown, presumably mostly due to the COVID pandemic/rules/panic. As a result, many of the surrounding businesses such as restaurants and shops close due to lack of clientele. Into this vacuum flows a huge stream of homeless people who occupy the sidewalks and parks of the downtown. This leads to a vicious cycle making the downtowns less hospitable for their previous inhabitants and their avoidance of the area. The current result of the process seems like a prelude to Paul Oster’s famous novel “Land of the last things” depicting a physically and morally decaying city.
As an outside observer the most shocking and disturbing part of this process is the way that it appears that the middle- and upper-class Americans are handling the situation. Their approach seems like the classic “doublespeak” characterized by Orwell in his seminal work “1984”: on the one hand they condemn (rightfully) violence towards the homeless people such as forceful eviction and on the other hand they do not demand any minimal requirements from them. Thus, resulting in sidewalks with people lying around fully knocked out by alcohol or drugs, naked men and women with layers upon layers of dirt sitting or walking numbly, and constant shouts and acts of aggressive behavior. However, since no active action is “possible” when taking the no-violence, no-requirements approach the average middle-class person takes is the “doublespeak” approach of avoiding the reality and forming a bubble to avoid it. Thus, Americans avoid restaurants since there are homeless people sleeping at their entrances or such people may come shouting into the establishment, instead opting for drive-throughs which enable avoiding them, they do not enter the downtowns or their parks, instead flocking to the suburbs. They do not seem to fight to keep the culture hubs of the downtown such as theaters and museums open but instead consume culture each one at is home. The classical ostrich approach: If we do not see the problem, and do not acknowledge the problem, it does not exist, right? Moreover, it seems that the establishment/government on all the levels federal/state/city are not willing to fight for the cities, there are no policeman around and each shop or restaurant that with to stay open have their own private security guards.
The situation in the big cities is in stark contrast to the one in the small cities that we visited: St. George, UT, Bend, OR, Snoqualmie, WA and many others have a beautiful city centers bustling with people walking around with kids and enjoying the parks. The city budget is used to buy sculptures, hold public concerts, and establish a public environment inviting the residents to hang out. An even stranger more personal observation are the running and biking trails which are in great use in the smallish cities and are deserted in the large cities of the west. Is the decline of the huge cities reversible? will the people of those cities stop ignoring the problem and try to address it? I guess that we will find out in the next road trip…