Skip to comments.Are you seeing what I am seeing? (economic decay in wealthy Montgomery County Pennsylvania)
Posted on 09/17/2012 8:32:18 AM PDT by dennisw
Is it just me, or are the signs of consumer collapse as clear as a Lowes parking lot on a Saturday afternoon? Sometimes I wonder if Im just seeing the world through my pessimistic lens, skewing my point of view. My daily commute through West Philadelphia is not very enlightening, as the squalor, filth and lack of legal commerce remain consistent from year to year. This community is sustained by taxpayer subsidized low income housing, taxpayer subsidized food stamps, welfare payments, and illegal drug dealing. The dependency attitude, lifestyles of slothfulness and total lack of commerce has remained constant for decades in West Philly. It is on the weekends, cruising around a once thriving suburbia, where you perceive the persistent deterioration and decay of our debt fixated consumer spending based society.
The last two weekends Ive needed to travel the highways of Montgomery County, PA going to a family party and purchasing a garbage disposal for my sink at my local Lowes store. Montgomery County is the typical white upper middle class suburb, with tracts of McMansions dotting the landscape. The population of 800,000 is spread over a 500 square mile area. Over 81% of the population is white, with the 9% black population confined to the urban enclaves of Norristown and Pottstown.
The median age is 38 and the median household income is $75,000, 50% above the national average. The employers are well diversified with an even distribution between education, health care, manufacturing, retail, professional services, finance and real estate. The median home price is $300,000, also 50% above the national average. The county leans Democrat, with Obama winning 60% of the vote in 2008. The 300,000 households were occupied by college educated white collar professionals. From a strictly demographic standpoint, Montgomery County appears to be a prosperous flourishing community where the residents are living lives of relative affluence. But, if you look closer and connect the dots, you see fissures in this façade of affluence that spread more expansively by the day. The cheap oil based, automobile dependent, mall centric, suburban sprawl, sanctuary of consumerism lifestyle is showing distinct signs of erosion. The clues are there for all to see and portend a bleak future for those mentally trapped in the delusions of a debt dependent suburban oasis of retail outlets, chain restaurants, office parks and enclaves of cookie cutter McMansions. An unsustainable paradigm cant be sustained.
The first weekend had me driving along Ridge Pike, from Collegeville to Pottstown. Ridge Pike is a meandering two lane road that extends from Philadelphia, winds through Conshohocken, Plymouth Meeting, Norristown, past Ursinus College in Collegeville, to the farthest reaches of Montgomery County, at least 50 miles in length. It served as a main artery prior to the introduction of the interstates and superhighways that now connect the larger cities in eastern PA. Except for morning and evening rush hours, this road is fairly sedate. Like many primary routes in suburbia, the landscape is engulfed by strip malls, gas stations, automobile dealerships, office buildings, fast food joints, once thriving manufacturing facilities sitting vacant and older homes that preceded the proliferation of cookie cutter communities that now dominate what was once farmland.
Extend, Pretend & Depend
As I drove further along Ridge Pike we passed the endless monuments to our spiral into the depths of materialism, consumerism, and the illusion that goods purchased on credit represented true wealth. Mile after mile of strip malls, restaurants, gas stations, and office buildings rolled by my window. Anyone who lives in the suburbs knows what Im talking about. You cant travel three miles in any direction without passing a Dunkin Donuts, KFC, McDonalds, Subway, 7-11, Dairy Queen, Supercuts, Jiffy Lube or Exxon Station. The proliferation of office parks to accommodate the millions of paper pushers that make our service economy hum has been unprecedented in human history. Never have so many done so little in so many places. Everyone knows what a standard American strip mall consists of a pizza place, a Chinese takeout, beer store, a tanning, salon, a weight loss center, a nail salon, a Curves, karate studio, Gamestop, Radioshack, Dollar Store, H&R Block, and a debt counseling service. They are a reflection of who weve become an obese drunken species with excessive narcissistic tendencies that prefers to play video games while texting on our iGadgets as our debt financed lifestyles ultimately require professional financial assistance.
What you cant ignore today is the number of vacant storefronts in these strip malls and the overwhelming number of SPACE AVAILABLE, FOR LEASE, and FOR RENT signs that proliferate in front of these dying testaments to an unsustainable economic system based upon debt fueled consumer spending and infinite growth assumptions. The booming sign manufacturer is surely based in China. The officially reported national vacancy rates of 11% are already at record highs, but anyone with two eyes knows these self-reported numbers are a fraud. Vacancy rates based on my observations are closer to 30%. This is part of the extend and pretend strategy that has been implemented by Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, the FASB, and the Wall Street banking cabal. The fraud and false storyline of a commercial real estate recovery is evident to anyone willing to think critically. The incriminating data is provided by the Federal Reserve in their Quarterly Delinquency Report.
I should probably be keeping my eyes on the road, but I cant help but notice the telltale signs of an economic system gone haywire. As you drive along, the number of For Sale signs in front of homes stands out. When you consider how bad the housing market has been, the 40% decline in national home prices since 2007, the 30% of home dwellers underwater on their mortgage, and declining household income, you realize how desperate a home seller must be to try and unload a home in this market. The reality of the number of For Sale signs does not match the rhetoric coming from the NAR, government mouthpieces, CNBC pundits, and other housing recovery shills about record low inventory and home price increases.
The Federal Reserve/Wall Street/U.S. Treasury charade of foreclosure delaying tactics and selling thousands of properties in bulk to their crony capitalist buddies at a discount is designed to misinform the public. My local paper lists foreclosures in the community every Monday morning. In 2009 it would extend for four full pages. Today, it still extends four full pages. The fact that Wall Street bankers have criminally forged mortgage documents, people are living in houses for two years without making mortgage payments, and the Federal Government backing 97% of all mortgages while encouraging 3.5% down financing does not constitute a true housing recovery. Show me the housing recovery in these charts.
Another observation that can be made as you cruise through this suburban mecca of malaise is the overall decay of the infrastructure, appearances and disinterest or inability to maintain properties. The roadways are potholed with fading traffic lines, utility poles leaning and rotting, and signage corroding and antiquated. Houses are missing roof tiles, siding is cracked, gutters astray, porches sagging, windows cracked, a paint brush hasnt been utilized in decades, and yards are inundated with debris and weeds. Not every house looks this way, but far more than you would think when viewing the overall demographics for Montgomery County. You wonder how many number among the 10 million vacant houses in the country today. The number of dilapidated run down properties paints a picture of the silent, barely perceptible Depression that grips the country today. With such little sense of community in the suburbs, most people dont even know their neighbors. With the electronic transfer of food stamps, unemployment compensation, and other welfare benefits you would never know that your neighbor is unemployed and hasnt made the mortgage payment on his house in 30 months. The corporate fascist ruling plutocracy uses their propaganda mouthpieces in the mainstream corporate media and government agency drones to misinform and obscure the truth, but the data and anecdotal observational evidence reveal the true nature of our societal implosion.
A report by the Census Bureau this past week inadvertently reveals data that confirms my observations on the roadways of my suburban existence. Annual household income fell in 2011 for the fourth straight year, to an inflation-adjusted $50,054. The median income meaning half earned more, half less now stands 8.9% lower than the all-time peak of $54,932 in 1999. It is far worse than even that dreadful result. Real median household income is lower than it was in 1989. When you understand that real household income hasnt risen in 23 years, you can connect the dots with the decay and deterioration of properties in suburbia. A vast swath of Americans cannot afford to maintain their residences. If the choice is feeding your kids and keeping the heat on versus repairing the porch, replacing the windows or getting a new roof, the only option is survival.
I have two strip malls within three miles of my house that opened in 1990. When I moved to the area in 1995, they were 100% occupied and a vital part of the community. The closest center has since lost its Genuardi grocery store, Sears Hardware, Blockbuster, Donatos, Sears Optical, Hollywood Tans, hair salon, pizza pub and a local book store. It is essentially a ghost mall, with two banks, a couple chain restaurants and empty parking spaces. The other strip mall lost its grocery store anchor and sporting goods store. This has happened in an outwardly prosperous community. The reality is the apparent prosperity is a sham. The entire tottering edifice of housing, autos, and retail has been sustained by ever increasing levels of debt for the last thirty years and the American consumer has hit the wall. From 1950 through the early 1980s, when the working middle class saw their standard of living rise, personal consumption expenditures accounted for between 60% and 65% of GDP. Over the last thirty years consumption has relentlessly grown as a percentage of GDP to its current level of 71%, higher than before the 2008 collapse.
If the consumption had been driven by wage increases, then this trend would not have been a problem. But, we already know real median household income is lower than it was in 1970. The thirty years of delusion were financed with debt peddled, hawked, marketed, and pushed by the drug dealers on Wall Street. The American people got hooked on debt and still have not kicked the habit. The decline in household debt since 2008 is solely due to the Wall Street banks writing off $800 billion of mortgage, credit card, and auto loan debt and transferring the cost to the already drowning American taxpayer.
He’s wordy, I’ll give him that. Still- his observations reflect what I see here in Central Florida, in the wealthy areas like Winter Park and the middle class towns as well.
Here’s what struck me the most:
With such little sense of community in the suburbs, most people dont even know their neighbors. With the electronic transfer of food stamps, unemployment compensation, and other welfare benefits you would never know that your neighbor is unemployed and hasnt made the mortgage payment on his house in 30 months.
The corporate fascist ruling plutocracy uses their propaganda mouthpieces in the mainstream corporate media and government agency drones to misinform and obscure the truth, but the data and anecdotal observational evidence reveal the true nature of our societal implosion.
Sounds like Yankee hell to me. It’s not like that here in our part of Texas.
Oh, but Dopey Ben, the Fed Man, has just promised to pump $40 BILLION into the economy EVERY MONTH “until the economy improves...” or the printing presses get so hot they explode.
Pres. Romney should put Dave Ramsey in charge of the Fed.
See those same signs around Monmouth County in New Jersey as well. Also, many home for sale signs have been going up lately. Every month the home values are dropping.
In MA, there are more vacant storefronts than I’ve seen before in my 50 years. The Carter years don’t come close. And homes are run down. Maintenance is being postponed indefinitely, even in wealthy neighborhoods.
Oddly, these days you cant drive three miles in any direction in a large Chinese city without seeing these exact same places.
The article rings true to me. In our area, the middle class is evaporating - fast. Part of it is a return to common-sense spending habits after decades of excess (which will be enough by itself to kill the US economy for years), but there is a noticeable absence of...people. In cars, in malls, at public events - they are just gone. I still see them in airports, so I can only assume there has been a lot of relocation out of the area.
Or otherwise, this is Obama's idea of a Rapture. :)
Wal Mart has always been a bell weather of econimic health to me.
I began noticing about 12 or 15 years ago, they re-arranged the registers and added a couple of those self-scanners.
A few years later the aisles widened and I could barely see a decrease in merchandise .. but I saw some.
About 3 or 4 years ago the aisles were noticeably widened and the costs inched upward.
The last 3 or 4 years show a decrease in the Saturday store congestion and parking lot.
Everything of the last 15 years or so, according to my WalMart barometer indicates falling consumerism with chill factor of about 2 degrees
The store personell seems to carry a core of about 8 or 10 (that I recognise and see often) with a change every two or three years in the cashier line(s) ... mostly middle aged ladies and weird teen/college types (tats, pirceings, hairdo's).
If aliens landed in WalMart and assumed it was a picture of America, they'd not plan any invasion ... just set up TV camera's and broadcast "Earth's funniest home video's" to the folks back home on Pluctura.
The real estate bubble has not yet burst.
I noticed this on a recent drive back from the nation’s capital. Once I got outside daily commuting distance of D.C. the landscape was littered with boarded-up gas stations, stores and hotels. Within the D.C. bubble it appeared to be a Golden Age though.
Rome getting its tribute from the provinces!
I thought my little podunk part of Texas was doing fine but on the way to our one and only grocery store this morning, I was shocked at the amount of closed businesses. A cafe is closed, so is a beauty shop, a computer repair, a junk store and the strip mall is nearly all empty.
If you want on/off the PA Ping List, please freepmail me. Thanks!
What can’t be sustained won’t be sustained.
There’s your “sustainability” for you.
The author of the piece should go across the river to Camden and write about it, also!
How long has Camden been that way?
The minorities might prefer shopping at your WalMart (in a white area) because they feel it is better than the one in their neighborhood. It’s the same as poor people window shopping at a jewelry store. They want some of the riches to rub off on them (somehow). So maybe they get a psychological lift from shopping at your Walmart
The US history of white moving out of cities and into suburbs is that minorities will follow. Yonkers was a great white flight suburb 30-40 years ago. Now it is heavily minority that have moved out of the Bronx. Atlanta George will give even more examples of white flight then minorities (blacks) eventually following them
Thanks for the ping.
I travel Ridge Pike often.
Two of the biggest empty stores along that stretch are because Genuardi's supermarkets (owned by Safeway) closed up shop - some in the region were sold to Giant, but others simply closed.
Plus, Norristown is basically about the poorest section of Montgomery County.
Mighty interesting post, thanks.
The results of some dozen years of government to government trade agreements importing products and exporting jobs, factories and Treasuries. The seed corn has vanished. No reversal in sight.
More and more people visible around in normal business hours.
Since I've been laid off this January, I've never seen so many people in my subdivision ‘doing stuff’ around, (I live in an upper middle class area) or if I have to quick go to a store so many people around and cars on the road.
It could be that it was the case before I was laid off, but I don't think so.
I’ve noticed a lot of the same thing. Lots of small businesses closed, only the chain stores and fast food places are surviving. We have a new Ross store opening within the next month, and plans to build a Red Robin next to it. Their is a Buffalo Wild Wings going in where a Ruby Tuesdays used to be, but the Greek/Italian restaurant right across the parking lot closed in August. One thing that hit home when coming back from Winco on Saturday, all the bus stops have yellow bags over the signs, stating that bus service (Pierce County/Tacoma area) will stop on Sept. 30th. They are slowly cutting off the outlying areas here in Pierce County (Graham, Eatonville, Orting, etc). This is really going to impact the few kids that have jobs up and down Meridian at fast food places, etc. I know my son used the bus A LOT, but we are now working on getting his license, just in time apparently.
In my town in NW Florida the foreclosure and for sale signs have decreased in the past year but property values have not risen. I don’t know how that parses. Malls were pretty thinned out two years ago and have recovered to some extent though K-Mart closed one of its two stores which makes the remaining one look like it has a future, with a reasonable number of cars in the lot for the first time in 20 years. The empty spaces between towns in the county are still filling up with new stores. Hamburgeries are proliferating again after a couple of years of decline.
“The minorities might prefer shopping at your WalMart (in a white area) because they feel it is better than the one in their neighborhood”
And they would be correct. I’ve found that Walmarts tailor their merchandise mix for local shoppers. I see a fairly significant difference between my local Walmart that is apparently catering to a fairly sizable contingent of illegals, and Walmarts that are 30 minutes away in communities that have fewer illegals because the bulk of nearby neighborhoods are more upscale. Those distant Walmarts carry better quality, more expensive goods than my local Walmart.
A good travelogue documenting the suck of wealth from communities to the banks using the Feds as the mechanism.
These folks are all our enemies....regardless of how hard the Feds try to cram 7th century ragheads wrapped in a fan belt down our throats.
You keep calling this nightmare "an outwardly prosperous community." I don't think "prosperous" means what you think it means.
Grew up in Montgomery County, just farms, and small charming towns in the 50’s to early 70’s. came back in 81 it had changed so much. Farms gone and Hi class houses in their places!
I have relatives out there. Two income families are retiring and both spouses get SS and pensions and can take nice vacations, 300K homes paid off. Kids can expect to inherit something when parents pass on.
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