southern california bubble apocalypse?

Alas, it’s been a while since I’ve updated. Between repeated trips to the GSD to lecture, a difficult and still incomplete server transition, and final reviews at Columbia, time has been scarce. Moreover, I’ve been waiting on word on some projects that I’ll be running from this blog, working behind the scenes on NetLab material (the launch of our office is just around the corner!), and waiting for Blue Monday to appear en masse in the states (try later this month).

And, as happens when I don’t post for a while, the opening post seems all-too-important. The stakes rise. I begin to ponder site redesigns and it is that time of year again…these usually happen in May (hint: reader feedback wanted).

Then smaller topics don’t get posted. And all the while you, dear reader, begin to wonder if I have passed on, or if I’ve finally tired of the longest running individual blog in architecture, or if you should just hit the delete key in your favorite RSS reader…

So, how better to start than with a heady dose of doom and gloom?

There’s little question that the real estate bubble is starting to come apart across the US. It’s a slow implosion rather than a fast pop, but things are starting to look grim in the overpriced landscape of the coasts. If under postmodernism, the most autonomous processes of architecture were colonized by capital (translation: the drawing became capitalized in shows like Houses for Sale and galleries like Max Protetch) then under early network culture the built domain has been thoroughly removed from reality by pricing that bore no relationship to reality and ever more irreal financial instruments (you didn’t get that 5 year adjustable interest-only balloon-payment mortgage with 0% down, did you?).

But even the most advanced delusions ultimately have to come down to earth.This is something I’ve been pointing out for a while, but here is more grist for the mill. The Orange Country Register reports that job growth is slowing and suggests that the declining real estate is responsible for this. 16.7 percent of OC jobs are in real estate, construction, or related financial fields. The construction industry has ballooned by 148% in the 14 years since the bottom of the last cycle. The statistics in Los Angeles are little different.

Construction is the new factory job, highly paid work for unskilled labor. Illegal immigrants and cash workers are far more common than in other industries (in Southern California, Home Depot has begun to institutionalize the lines of day laborers in front of their centers).

How much of the much vaunted decline in crime has to do with the fact that you can get great pay and a good lifestyle legally in construction as opposed to risking your neck in crime? What will happen to the legions of unskilled laborers, many of whom have no papers and no command of English, as the bubble continues its downward trend? As these jobs go bust, crime will rise as it always does. As family bread-winners who have been employed in an industry subject to cyclical downturns find themselves without a job—and in many cases face foreclosure of loans given under criminal terms—their reaction will be, understandably, not pretty.

On of my current projects is a book on Los Angeles during the last decade. Even as it tells the improbable story of the recovery of Southern California, by the time it is published, the region’s economic landscape will likely resemble Mike Davis’s City of Quartz once again. If you look at the demographics for the area since 1940 (!), each decade shows Southern California being divided more and more into poor regions worthy of the developing world (note well: the amount of terrain devoted to these grows every decade) and insanely rich mountain and coastal communities. The City of Quartz may be back, with a vengeance.


Another option, of course, is that the immigrant workers just head home, as the Washington Post suggests. But that would pose problems of its own for the poorer inhabitants of those communities who can’t afford to go home and all the businesses dependent on these workers.