• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Eye in the Sky

Changing communities.


August 20, 2018

Technological progress has been great for nostalgia. Anyone over 40 (maybe 30?) knows the experience of going down a rathole on YouTube, seeing clips from shows you watched as a kid and having the uncanny sense of vague recognition combined with abject horror that you once thought they were good. Spotify does the same thing for music; the songs my parents played a lot when I was a kid are sort of familiar, but when I hear them now, they often register differently.

This week I discovered that Google Earth can do the same thing, but with places. I harnessed the eye in the sky to look anew at houses I grew up in, or frequented as a kid. It didn’t go as planned.

The house in which I spent ages 2-13 looks about the same, except that the trees are bigger. But doing the 360 degree view, I noticed that the house across the street is boarded up. A quick look on Zillow confirmed that it was foreclosed on a couple of years ago, and now sits opaque, with a menacing-looking red X on one of the boards.  That was...odd.

The house my Dad lived in for a few years after the divorce is also boarded up. It, too, was foreclosed on a few years ago. I felt bad for the folks in the house across the street with its “for sale” sign up.  Good luck with that.

The house my grandparents lived in for most of their lives, the single consistent location throughout my childhood, is empty now and, yes, foreclosed on.  The listing on Zillow suggests that prospective buyers bring a flashlight.

Coming on top of each other in relatively rapid sequence, the effect was jarring. The middle-class worlds of my childhood, in which I formed my sense of how the world works, are crumbling.  

Part of that is geography. The first two houses were outside of Rochester, New York, the economy of which took a beating as Kodak downsized. The third is outside of Detroit, the economy of which has taken a long series of beatings. Those inland cities don’t support the scale of middle-class life they once did. 

Meanwhile, here on the coast, there’s a pattern of young people leaving because they can’t afford to live here. The Chronicle features an article this week about New Jersey trying to reduce the number of high school graduates it exports, which is the highest in the country. It spends a lot on K-12 education, with NAEP scores consistently among the top three states in the country, but then does a relatively indifferent job of supporting public higher education. And that has been true for decades. (I’ve even mentioned it before here.)

Richard Florida’s work on the creative class suggests that places that attract lots of talented young people will thrive; those that export them, presumably, will not.  Rochester did a great job of exporting talent; nearly everyone in the honors classes in high school got the hell out as soon as they could. Now, it’s struggling at a level that would have seemed implausible back then.  Detroit’s struggles are well-known, but the contrast with Ann Arbor is hard not to notice.

I’m concerned that if New Jersey (and Connecticut, and Vermont, and…) doesn’t realize what’s happening, it’ll wind up in a similar spot, and faster than it realizes. 

If the eye in the sky looked instead at, say, Austin or Seattle, I’d bet that the impression would be different.  Instead of boarded-up houses, it would see growth. And that growth came from smart, ambitious, educated young people either staying or returning because they found it welcoming.  They didn’t sense stagnation and bolt.

It may be counterintuitive to warn the state with the highest population density in the country about people leaving.  But the folks who graduate a strong K-12 system and head off to the Stanfords of the worlds may not come back, and we aren’t doing a lot to attract new ones.  And as challenging as density can be, it’s much worse when combined with decline.

Yes, there’s obvious self-interest in advocating for a really aggressive move by NJ to build its higher ed sector and try to keep and attract the talented young.  I’ll admit that. But I’ve seen what happens if you don’t. It isn’t pretty, and the eye in the sky has pictures to prove it.


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