Nobody’s Home

Twenty years ago, during a pre-dawn drive through Los Angeles neighborhoods on my way to church early on a Sunday morning, I wrote notes on this subject.  It was my turn that day to help prepare the chapel for worship and as I drove to my first stop at a coffee shop, I noticed lights in a few windows and imagined early risers like me, with coffee or tea and the Sunday paper.


Turning a corner that took me into an urban area, the buildings grew taller and the lights inside shone only into empty offices and corridors.  Not a single person was there at this hour. Thousands of square feet of space remained empty all weekend and every night after workers went home.  Come Monday morning, freeways would be clogged with people driving to temporarily populate these work spaces. 


All of a sudden, that one Sunday morning, everything about this picture seemed wrong.


These notes come from the late 1980’s, B.E.  Before the Northridge Earthquake of ’94. In the aftermath of that quake, after crucial freeways collapsed, some employers set up satellite offices so workers could get to a space with computers. It was a swell solution but it didn’t last. 


These thoughts troubled me B.A.I.T.  Before millions of citizens began to embrace An Inconvenient Truth about the effects of global warming and how our present way of life contributes to it. But we still haven’t changed many bad habits.  


My notes are B.C.O.C.  Before the Current Oil Catastrophe.  Now that gasoline prices have reached a new obscene level, we’re hearing about more employers considering flex time and job sharing – ways for commuters to take care of their families and not go broke getting to work everyday.  But it’s not happening fast enough. 


Lately we’ve added the current housing market crisis. Twenty years after that Sunday morning, we’re still not close to solutions.


That Sunday, instead of listening to the sermon, I scribbled notes.  Recently I found them and the notes ask, Is it time for a real urban village?  Is it time to re-purpose office buildings? 


Within one tall building in any city, an entire village could reside, with shops and services and education and housing in all shapes and sizes.  A skyscraper could serve its original business, but with more people working from home, the need for office space is minimized.  With entire floors devoted to living, the commute for others is gone completely.  


What about the people who own those buildings?  How can they receive a return on their investment?  I don’t know as much as business leaders and politicians do about manipulating the economy, but I’m confident they’ll find ways to make money in any kind of market. They always do.


One approach to replacement revenue might be to use some of the subsidies that now go toward housing on a local and national level to defray costs.  Responding to the needs of this new urban community, services and stores inside the buildings would pay rent. Tenants would pay rent. 


I know people – some of them young and single, some retirement age, some families, who are ready for this kind of new village right this minute.  For the “show me” others, when it exists, it’ll be an option they’ll consider.    


It means changing dreams. The notion of a house in the suburbs, miles away from a city, relies on automobiles and gasoline. Instead of building more freeways to carry us to houses far away from work, we could make upgrading mass transit a priority.   


Money can buy options for many who won’t have to face changes, but for millions of people right this minute, downsizing is necessary. I won’t use the word “affordable” next to the word “housing” because so often it’s an insult.  How about “realistic” instead?   


Architects with skills and vision and heart can turn any existing tall building into a workable and lovely and sustainable small town.


Using what we’ve already got isn’t a new idea. Our ancestors did it.  The principle of re-purposing is something we heard about from our elders.  It worked for them.  If we’re smart, we can make it work for us. 


Ó Anita Garner 2008