Urban decay is often blamed on social causes. Working class whites fleeing the inner city for the suburbs. Manufacturers closing down large production facilities that were the lifeblood of cities. Increasing poverty and failing schools are usually cited as well. I prefer to go political, blaming the election of Democrats to run cities for decades and in some cases centuries. But the biggest reason cities rot from the inside out is because we no longer see the greatest force in economic redevelopment in history anymore: Fire.
No factor has been greater in allowing cities to rebuild rundown sections of themselves than fires sweeping through entire neighborhoods. New York, Chicago and San Francisco were set upon the path toward becoming major metropolises by huge fires that cleared decaying areas of the cities and allowed for construction of more modern facilities. You can see that even here in Oshkosh. The beautiful cream city brick and masonry buildings along North Main Street and the surrounding blocks were not built because developers got tax incremental financing or community development block grants. They were built because the structures that stood there before burned to the ground.
But advances in fire fighting equipment, fire suppression techniques, the increased use of non-flammable construction materials and building code improvements have meant fewer big fires that wipe out old, delapidated buildings–preventing new construction in its place. I was thinking about that this week as the Oshkosh Common Council discussed ways to spur increased new home construction within the city. The housing stock on the east side is old–and is filled with a large percentage of renters–who fill up decaying buildings that have really outlived their expected use.
It doesn’t help when efforts to demolish or gut those homes are derailed by historical societies and preservation commissions that demand it be kept in its original condition because it was “the first Oshkosh home built in such and such style”, or it is the “last Oshkosh home built in such and such style”. And Development Director Allen Davis even admitted that the City doesn’t have the money to condemn and demolish that many blighted properties–or provide incentives to people to remodel those old structures into modern homes in which people would actually want to live.
So a large percentage of Oshkosh homes will continue to grow older and less-desirable–and efforts to revitalize those areas will become more expensive. At least we’ll have a bunch of senior living units to look at along the Fox River–instead of big, beautiful homes.