Wednesday, May 5, 2010

[Mythos XIX] What Goes Around Goes Underground

With apologies to HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Charles Stross. Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Perhaps you'd like to jump back to the previous chapter?

Ah, springtime.

The vegetation bursts forth; flowers are everywhere and then suddenly the leaves of the trees unfurl as the bitter sunshine of March yields through treacherous April and into verdant May. All seems right with the world, unless of course you live in Aspen Hill, Maryland.

Aspen Hill, Maryland is a neighborhood in partial decline.

When the various subdivisions were built over about a 10 year timeframe and sorted out into neighborhoods, the place was brand new, built on former farmlands. Housing was affordable to, and in fact defined, the Middle Class in those days. Later, of course, the Middle Class was studiously and intentionally pressed to the edge of extinction; for much of the interim, Aspen Hill was the sort of place populated by young-but-rising government-worker families, blue-collar Union workers in thriving local industries, people of the type who owned their own successful small business such as a radio-and-TV sales and repair shop, and the sort of doctors and dentists who had comfortable practices in their basement home offices.

Of course, that was in the period from roughly 1960 to roughly 1980, the predictable life of a suburbia. The arc of development, population, and a generation passing entirely through the schools and either heading off to college or military service -- or perhaps to apprentice in the family business -- is something that can be planned for, and local governments across the nation had got it down to a science.

The science was, unfortunately, the economic model of Colony Foundation; when you invade and populate a land where the indigenous people have been largely eradicated by imported disease, everything there is wide open and there for you to take, and with any transportation technology less than commercial air travel, it takes a long time to move even a small fraction of one continent to another. Most of the settled parts of North America were settled not so much by immigrants, as they were populated by natural increase, and the former Europeans settled here and with decent diet and room to move, their daughters were fertile indeed and their men were excellent providers, generally speaking. As fast as kids could be raised, they headed West to pioneer and claim land that was either free for the taking, or so inexpensive as to be nearly free.

This part of Maryland was never thickly settled until after the Second World War and the immense expansion of postwar centralized government. It may have had something to do with the very rocky soils and it as likely had much to do with the mosquitoes which are fierce and hungry in the warm season. Yet as the government expanded as did dependent businesses from contractors to restauranteurs and other service industries, all of those workers needed housing. With the government's hiring practices being what they were, with a preference for veterans regardless of their origins, the grandsons of the pioneers returned from the settled frontiers and the farms and towns and cities in the provinces and generally bought or rented cozy little bungalows in places like Bethesda, or cottages in Old Silver Spring, tottering Victorians in places like downtown Rockville... and when all of those were full up, they settled in the new neighborhoods such as Twinbrook, and later in Aspen Hill and Strathmore and Olney and Brookeville and finally Montgomery County was just plain full. Apartments rose and in the core suburbs neighborhoods came down and high-rise towers went up and the earliest neighborhoods vanished, and it was known with the certainty of a 20-year Treasury note that in roughly the order they were built, the rest of the older neighborhoods would also tend to fall under the bulldozer blade of the re-developer.

If you're looking to acquire an elder suburb and re-develop it, ideally you'll find or make a way to keep the price down so as to maximize your profit margins.

Traditionally, this has been done by fostering a policy of "benign neglect" in the local political establishments, conveniently mis-labeled "progress". Simply stated, you see that a neighborhood is over 50 years old, and if it isn't a bustling business district that densely generates a significant revenue stream via taxation, you just leave the infrastructure increasingly unmaintained and at roughly the 70-year mark, the houses are mostly falling apart and the streets are about back to the state of cow-paths, the city water and sanitation pipes are getting to the point of needing total replacement. Of course, by this time, it's likely that the original affluent people have moved up, moved on, moved out, and if the same family still owns the property, they probably rent it out and probably the renters aren't even on the middle rungs of the economic ladder. Just let the schools go to hell, so to speak, and you've got a nice inexpensive ghetto to condemn and buy at bargain-basement prices. Then bulldoze it all, build lots of new-and-shiny, sell it to the noveaux-riche and social climbers with decent incomes, rinse-and-repeat as necessary ad-infinitum. It's called "post-colonial urban recycling and regeneration" in some schools of thought.

There's also "blockbusting", in which real estate agents and building developers meant to encourage white property owners to sell their houses at a loss, by fraudulently implying that racial, ethnic, or religious minorities — Blacks, Hispanics, Jews et al. — were moving into their previously racially segregated neighborhood, thus depressing real estate property values. By the 1980s, the practice had been pretty much abandoned, due to the results of the Civil Rights activism and associated changes in law. Still, if you can't use racism as a way to encourage the current owners of valuable properties to vacate and sell at far below the rates they'd get if they weren't in a hurry to leave, there are other ways. Simply stop enforcing the housing and safety codes, let the schools go to hell, don't pave the streets, and encourage law-enforcement to turn a blind eye to all but the most newsworthy and egregious violations. Pretty soon, most folks will move out, once it becomes clear that -- like much of Aspen Hill -- their neighborhood is sliding into rapid evolution into deep ghetto.

You can accelerate the slide easily; once the course becomes clear, prices decline or at least rise less quickly than elsewhere. Such "cost savings" or "value" or "bargain" housing makes for great subsidized housing for pre-release prisoner placement programs and mentally-ill welfare cases, not to mention the easily-overlooked gang-lair properties that will through "benign neglect" suddenly flourish on the back streets and in the cul-de-sacs where the decent folks will move out and leave the neighborhoods littered with overgrown and decaying housing decreasing in value and dragging down the prices of neighboring properties. A little jiggering with the tax and zoning codes to prevent reclamation through "gentrification", and the price of a larger and larger area becomes lower and lower, and even more undesirables will move in, and at the valuable commercial cores with their command of strategic intersections, even the most settled of long-term tenants such as whole-building leasing defense-contractors will up and move. There's just no point in taking a job as a well-paid engineer if there's no place nearby where you can walk for lunch without getting robbed. And there's no point in retaining a location where you can't get any good engineers because the facility is pretty much Fort Apache, safe as houses on the inside, but you can't drive your car through the neighborhood without passing hookers at the bus-stops and you can't ride the bus without getting abused or even robbed. Nope, time to move.

And with no major employer, the surrounding restaurants fold up in the absence of 400 lunch-hours a day, five days a week, the retailers next to the restaurants don't want to do business in a strip-mall that's half vacant, finally at long last the anchors -- the grocery and the drugstore -- take a hint and either demand heavy security grates or they vacate. Either way, first the housing goes down the tubes, the major employers hit the highway, services vacate the commercial core, and all you have is a residential ghetto that can be bought up wholesale and converted into commuting-friendly high-density high-rise with or without mixed-use commercial services... all paying top-dollar for the newness and above all for the extremely central location, which location of course was totally wasted on a ghetto.

The thing is, all of that latter part of the process takes time, and time is money, of course, even though it will cost you less in the end. So, press for more pre-release and mental-illness residential sites, crapify the schools even more, start rumors about gangs or actually let gangs get a foothold and let the foothold get deeper. Contribute massively, of course, to the campaign funds of individuals and parties who are willing to play along.

All of this can be planned for, but there are some things for which you just cannot plan. For that, you need serendipity.

I mean, how else are you going to get the process shortened from 30 years to overnight, other than serendipity?

How else will you get an infestation of zombies?

That, assuredly, will free up some real-estate.

In the tunnels underground, the zombies were mutating as fast as alien software could reprogram cellular machinery.

Aboveground, all seemed quiet, not surprising since there was nobody on the street other than a cordon of cops and the special forces starting to arrive.

When an electromagnetic pulse goes off, everyone notices. However, it may take a while to figure out exactly where it went off, as anything that might be listening for such a thing tends to either be a weakly-receiving detector that records an event but not a location, or a strongly-directional detector that detects the pulse with its own destruction. In this metropolitan area, powerful computers associated themselves to the telephone network and dialed a statistically valid random sampling of numbers for all local hardwire exchanges, analyzed the connections or lack thereof, and quickly generated a map of the outlines of the pulse-affected area.

Special response teams began to roll into the area on diesel-powered vehicles equipped with heliograph mirrors as well as modern digital radios. As they went, they dropped cement anchors attached to monofilament lines that were stronger than steel, tethering helium balloons that lofted radio repeaters. They got to the outer guard posts, sent out from the SWAT cordon around the infested facility, about the same time that special badges and ID were presented to the command center officers, and then the diesel-powered vehicles rolled back out, leaving behind them troops denuded of all telecom gear, and as the vehicles left, they retrieved and removed the balloon repeaters. As they departed, other special forces rolled in.

It didn't take too long for them to clean out the few obvious zombies still lingering near the surface. Getting down into the tunnels was a different matter. Eventually they had to resort to the only thing that seemed reasonable, given the unknown specifics of what was apparently something quite infectious. So they just brought in the industrial-strength flamethrowers and torched everything they could reach with the pressurized napalm streams.

They knew they had a bigger problem, though, when they noticed the dark smoke erupting from several hundred yards outside of the perimeter of the facility grounds, far outside of the SWAT cordon. They had managed to pump enough napalm into the facility to force some upstream through the 5-foot concrete pipe carrying an "undergrounded" stream, through which bank-vault heist crews had travalled to bore into the basement of the facility.

If they had been driving the zombies before them with the flames, some might have been driven this way.

An infestation of zombies would have been an excellent reason to simply burn the facility, burn it some more, and then explosively deconstruct the place once it cooled enough to send in a robot to plant charges, and then burn it again and cover it all over with concrete.

However, it seemed quite possible that this wasn't limited to the facility. Indeed, protocol decreed that they had to presume the neighborhood also to be infested. Considering that the infestation was believed to be infectious, anyone they encountered had to be considered to be either a zombie or probably on the way to becoming one.

There was another consideration as well: those of the "probationers" -- the people who had been locked in an underground mega-bunker since the Reagan Administration and only fairly-recently released to be re-acclimated to the outside world -- who had been trying to retreat to their former digs, probably many of those would have been burnt out by the napalm, as much as the zombies had been.

That wasn't going to produce much happiness among the roughly 10,000 of those who remained alive on the surface.