Driving out to East Towne Mall the other day, I took Thompson Drive, where what used to be farmland has sprouted fields of three-bedroom houses in varying shades of beige. All of a sudden it hit me: This is over.
The collapse of the housing bubble means more than a slow real estate market; it is changing a whole way of life. The endlessly expanding consumer economy, the housing boom, a culture based on building out and buying more, is coming to an end.
In Madison, of course, we're lucky: We're not seeing the worst of it.
With the subprime mortgage market collapse leading to the bank collapses and then, like dominoes, the credit crunch and crumbling of the sales-driven auto industry, much of the Midwest is suffering unprecedented economic shock. But Madison exists in a university- and state- government-supported bubble, insulated from the frightening unemployment and bankruptcy in Janesville, Racine and the rest of the industrial Midwest.
When I took that trip out Thompson Drive, I had been speaking with Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio about home foreclosures in her district, and reading William Greider's latest book on the economy, so the financial crisis was on my mind. That stretch of road just beyond East Towne suddenly looked like a snapshot of a bygone era. Every driveway might as well have been sporting a Cadillac with tailfins instead of an SUV.
The whole neighborhood is a satellite of Space Station Madison. You can't get there without a car. You can't get anywhere else you might want to go without driving. Every business nearby is housed in a massive, cavernous, airplane-hangar-sized building, surrounded by acres of parking. What the layout says is cheap gas forever.
And then there are the big-box stores. East Towne itself is on the ropes because of those huge warehouses of cheap stuff that pours in from China. You can easily imagine the whole place going belly up, like those miles of abandoned subdivisions in Florida and Detroit. Low-density, sprawling development looks like crazy hubris now.
In his new book, Greider explains how globalization will ultimately undo America as we have known it. We are not going to be number one anymore.
Along with cheap gas and suburban sprawl, the American idea that our brand of capitalism will ultimately triumph - and that quaint, European customs like bank regulation and the welfare state will crumble - is out the door.
Greider is optimistic, however, that America will be okay. We will have to learn how to build an economy that's not based on crazy growth and that affords a decent life for people. We can't all live on cul de sacs and drive everywhere in SUVs.
Congresswoman Kaptur is hoping auto plants in her district will reopen to make a "Midwestern car." Our whole nation needs a rebirth of American manufacturing, she says. She's involved in all kinds of projects - from fish farming to green technologies to local textiles that could spur a more sustainable economy. She talks lovingly of local agriculture, and was delighted by the Dane County Farmers' Market.
Rebuilding local economies, making what we need closer to home, and trying to structure a life based on taking care of our whole community - these ideas are easier to envision on the isthmus than they are out by the big-box stores near East Towne.
Let's hope it turns out not to be that far from here to there.
Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive.