Monday, July 28, 2008

What is "community," anyway?

The 2008 Southwest Colorado index tells us what we who live here -- really live here, and really endeavor to make a living here -- already know: It's really hard. In fact, the report from the Region 9 Economic Development District says, a staggering 72 percent of households here don't earn enough income to purchase a home at the median home price in Durango (which is estimated to be $350,000).

The Durango Herald's front-page story is here. The report itself can be downloaded as a pdf here. (Click on "housing.")

Hard to live here? Well, financially, anyway. Living here itself it pretty freaken' easy, all in all. On the day the Durango Herald ran their story on the report, I jumped on my cruiser and cruised our little town. The morning was a stellar blue and not yet hot, and the town seemed to sit there like an old dog in a cool shady nook. I rode through our downtown neighborhood, Sunday quiet and empty. crossed the historic (and expensive) Boulevard, aka Third Avenue, and down to the Animas River.

There I rode the bike path that follows the river from one end of town to the other. I passed other Sunday bike cruisers, roller bladers, and lots of walkers and strollers. I rode past the new not-yet-finished library that overlooked a team of rafts and duckies floating by on the river. I rolled along the little park behind the high school, and under the canopy of summer-shady cottonwoods behind the fairgrounds, where I could hear the hooting and PA system from some Fiesta Days event. Behind it all, the La Plata Mountains glowed green -- well watered by our recent summer monsoons -- squatting patiently like some granitic buddhas.

A couple miles of this kind of Sunday morning cruising brought me to another park, on the north side of town, where my wife and kids and some other friends were rigging a raft and some duckies to join in the Sunday floating -- riding our hometown river right through the heart of our town.

This is good shit. Very, very good shit. So is it an irony, then, that it should also be expensive as hell to live here? No. According to traditional capitalist theory, it would be completely natural -- what's good and desirable and somewhat rare should be expensive.

I cannot and do not dispute this. But I also don't think it's right. I don't think something so rare and fine and blessed should be easy, but I don't think it should be expensive. And I certainly think it's wrong that it's unattainable to those who need it most: Those who can't afford to jet around to beautiful, powerful places (and stay there in their second and third homes).

So, I ask, why is it so expensive to live here? Who is making it expensive. If three quarters of the residents in a place want to live there but can't afford it, that, I believe, is not the purpose of a community. That is the sign of illness, in fact, in a community. A community, I believe, should be a place to live, not get rich. And you shouldn't have to be rich to live there.

I've said it before, and say again: We control two things that can, without regulation or prejudice and in a completely fair manner, control growth and shape our community: infrastructure and promotion. And these are in the public domain. So, in response to this report, I'd like to once again offer a modest proposal. Call them Ken's Guidelines to Community Affordability:
  1. Keep infrastructure rough. Make it hard to get somewhere and get around once you're there. And herein I mean in particular mechanical transportation. (Gas prices are already helping with this.) It's public money that have put in four lanes from Durango to Albuquerque (and is well on the way to do that through to Salt Lake City). Beware a big airport, too ...
  2. Don't hoar your community. Growth may be hard to control -- but the promotion of growth is very much in our control. Celebrate, but don't prostitute -- they're two different activities. Shun the shillers who want to sell your town and its amenities to those willing to pay the most.
A town should be for living. But we have to make it that way.

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