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All the Empty Spaces


“The trouble is, you think you have time.”



I bet a lot of people are doing the same thing since the historic flooding in Houston. I mean looking around to see what facilities might provide good shelter in an emergency.

I have sized up the gym where I work out in Santa Fe: two stories, very spacious and bright with many windows, three areas that could become private rooms, counters upstairs and downstairs with pseudo-kitchen equipment, a washer and dryer, and separate locker rooms for men and women with showers and toilets. It would be very comfortable in an emergency, even cheery with a view of what’s going on down a busy street. And you could exercise to mitigate stress.

So what emergency could Santa Fe experience? Wildfires are the primary concern in a drought-ridden region, but something could always happen 30 miles away at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, something like a leakage of radioactive material, an explosion, or an attack. On the whole, though, this seems like a safe area, so why even think about it? On the other hand, doesn’t the moment suggest that we consider how we need to change to accommodate the exigencies of change. Did that make sense?

Climate Change

The first and foremost problem nationwide is climate change. However, the debate over whether humans are in any way responsible or whether this is just a recurring pattern is distracting us from preparing for it wisely. We need a surge of leadership in this regard, but individual responsibility is also important. An AP article of September 2 reports that the number of flood insurance policies nationwide seems to have dropped about 10% since 2012. In low-lying Florida, the drop has been 16%. In Houston, with all its history of flooding, only 28% of the population has insurance.

Of course many people are struggling financially, and in some cases developers can be blamed for creating risk. However, it’s nice to hear about prudent people. Consuelo, an Olympic lifting champion at my gym, gave me an example the other day. A young male friend who has recently bought a home in Houston cut back on cable services to be able to afford $30 a month for flood insurance. Fortunately, he hasn’t needed it. Smart guy.

The Technology Factor

But as dangerous and unpredictable as new weather patterns are, we are also being flooded by change created by our tech-driven world. I’m thinking now about not only the jobs that are disappearing but also the businesses. New Mexico is currently in an economic slump, and everywhere you look are commercial properties for lease. At the same time, we have a huge shortage of affordable housing. Couldn’t some of those buildings be remodeled to provide reasonably priced dwellings and easy access to whatever work is available?

And why are so many businesses disappearing? Well, in some cases it is because the big ones like Whole Foods, Walmart, Home Depot, and Office Depot drove smaller entities out of business, getting tax breaks to do so. During my 16 years of close observation of Santa Fe, I’ve also seen how Amazon has helped scuttle a handful of book stores. Now with its expanded online shopping, it’s going after the big guys.

Just recently, we lost Sears and the Sports Authority at our big mall, but JCPenney and Dillard’s both look like they’re at risk. New big tenants are moving in as I write, but what are their prospects? After all, Time magazine published an article in July saying that “There are still about 1,100 malls in the U.S. today, but a quarter of them are at risk of closing over the next five years . . .” There go more jobs. Here come more empty spaces.

Micro Apartments in a Rhode Island Mall

One line in particular in that Time article caught my eye: “. . . for better or worse, the mall has been America’s public square for the last 60 years.” We all remember that–a community within a community. Maybe the mall can be redesigned to create housing, and with those high ceilings, floors could be raised way above flood plains. Perhaps creating a residential model would encourage the cultivation of the sense of community we’re losing in these new outlying suburbs where life indoors riveted on screens slows the development of neighborliness.

The Need to Rethink

Everything is different now and needs to become more different still. As I drive around Santa Fe in the summer and see all the empty schools, I wonder why we still have this long vacation that was necessary in the old days because everyone needed to work on the farm when it was warm. Now that women have become such essential breadwinners, couldn’t schools begin to provide something like a safe and stimulating environment for a longer day year-round? And with so many dysfunctional and single-parent families in impoverished areas, maybe these campuses could compensate by creating a healthy and supportive social environment.

Next year, the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, an accredited, for-profit, four-year university, will close due to the failure to qualify for federal aid. This is because the curriculum focuses on cinematography and film/video production and graduates are not finding jobs that pay enough to comfortably exceed loan obligations. There may be as many as 800 institutions nationwide similarly at risk. What could be done with the abandoned campuses?

Urban Gardening

What about all these empty spaces? What about all that empty land that owners hope to sell for more development? How about preserving it to absorb heavy rains or protect a little nature or provide for community gardening? And what about the idea that perpetual economic growth is feasible and that perpetual population growth should be encouraged to fuel perpetual economic growth? Is it time to restrain urban sprawl and turn around to focus on redoing that which was not well done in the first place and on repairing, improving, and re-purposing vacant or abandoned properties?

This is a long walk from the gym, isn’t it?  But maybe one of the reasons I’m there is the sense of a need to get ready, to think clearly and maybe creatively about flawed assumptions that have so long governed American life. The ideas we can no longer trust, the dying ways of learning and making a living, the assumptions about where home needs to be and what it should look like are visible in all the empty and damaged spaces. Maybe it’s easier to see in Santa Fe, a community of only about 84,000 people, but the signs must be everywhere if one just looks. I’m thinking of the signs that it’s time to become the thoughtful agents of change for the better.



6 Responses to “All the Empty Spaces”

  1. Maggie

    With all the displaced people and damage from hurricanes Harvey & Irma, there are many thousands more of empty (destroyed) places. As your comments already seem to indicate, we have a multitude of opportunities to help rebuild and fill these empty spaces. I was so impressed and heartened by one of the folks who commented Les Fenter who in a post to a friend in a hurricane damaged area simply said “What can I do?” I think, Ellen, you have posed this not only in this blog but in others. We have been a nation of hard workers and neighbor helping neighbor; now is our time again to be those people.

  2. Barbara McCarthy

    Thank you, Ellen, for your thoughts (which mirror mine) but are so eloquently stated. I will get back to you after I have absorbed all you have said and passed them on to my children and their children, who will have the task of carrying them out. Thank you again for so much to think about.

  3. Barbara McCarthy

    As usual, Ellen, you have mirrored many of my thoughts and expressed them so eloquently! I will get back to you after I have digested all your amazing thoughts and hopefully give an intelligent response. Thank you, again. Your words will be forwarded to my children as they will be the ones to carry out your thoughts and pass them on to their children.

  4. Orwell or Aldous Huxley? Les Fenter

    Love, love this thinking. It is TIME TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT! Can we finally admit that LBJ’s “Great Society” experiment has failed??? More and more public housing and all are filled with waiting lines. Let’s face it. As my role-model and mentor, Jesus, the Christ, was recorded as saying, “We will always have the poor among us.” That included the poor in health and poor in spirit. . .not just the poor in American riches. It is time to reconsider our “public housing” policies. We may have visited about it in July. How about we convert those empty buildings into dormitories? The dorms could have rooms with bunk beds for families up to 6. Each room could have a restroom, complete with shower. And the dorm would have community areas with TVs and reading materials. Also the dorm would include the cafeteria with nutritious meals served 3x daily. For those escaping the situation and working, a sack lunch would be available at breakfast. Security would be provided to keep residents safe and unhurt. The savings to tax-payers would be astronomical. And jobs for cooks, janitors, gardeners and security staff would become more available. Speaking of gardeners, each dorm could have a community garden. Fresh veggies! maybe chickens and eggs??? Let’s dream out of the traditional boxes.

  5. Karol Ryan

    Great innovative thinking – thank you Ellen !!
    As a teacher, however, I intimately know that most work their hearts and minds to the maximum and in order to maintain any balance we desperately need long breaks. The solution can be the year round school that is built, lets say, for 1,500 students but can educate 2,000 by rotating tracks and only 1,500 on the campus at a time. Loved the picture of the Rhode Island mall micro apartments. Right in alignment with the micro houses that many are attracted to in the more rural areas where they can exist.

    Thanks again. I love your blog.

    Karol Ryan

  6. Carolyn S-G

    Thanks for your insightful article,, Celery Ellen.
    I’ve often wondered why, with all the empty buildings– homes, warehouses, shops, offices– why we have people sleeping on park benches and in urban doorways in every city in this country.
    Does anyone have an answer? And don’t tell me the homeless prefer living on the streets. I’m not buying that.
    We can fix up these empty spaces. Community service. Every high school student in this country can help a homeless person sleep in a warm bed. Cook a warm meal. Wear clean clothes. Gain self respect. Not in high school anymore? How about an organization of citizens to FIX IT UP. We are all handy at something. Just a thought.