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The Long Road From Babylon To Brentwood: Crisis and Restructuring in the San Francisco Bay Area



This dissertation integrates policy analysis, archival research, ethnographic field work, GIS mapping and statistical analysis to build a broad geo-historical understanding of the role of planning, policy, capital and race in the production of the foreclosure crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area. It begins from the premise that an explanation of the foreclosure crisis that focuses solely on either finance capital or the action of homeowners misses the critical importance of history, geography and planning to the production of crisis. The specific and racialized historical geography of the initial wave of foreclosure in the Bay Area, which like in Southern California is particularly concentrated in newly built suburban and exurban areas which are exceptionally diverse, is evidence of the deeper role of two generations of urban development, regional economics and planning politics in what is too often cast as a `housing problem.'

This dissertation argues that thinking about the current problem as an urban crisis forces us to reexamine the dysfunctionality of planning politics at every scale and the reality of a metropolitan geography where hyper-diverse demographic and economic sprawl and geopolitical fragmentation is a historical fact rather than a pending reality. What emerges is an understanding of fragmentation which pushes beyond the state, forcing us to confront a deeper set of divisions based on race, class, environmentalism and capitalist development, divisions which have undermined the urban project that is California and raised serious questions about both resilience and citizenship in the 21st century.

The text is constructed in a way that the form itself works to develop a more holistic and grounded way of approaching the regional nature of urban development and the complex politics of regional governance. It begins with a historiography of the Bay Area, one that challenges conceptions of sprawl and fragmentation. It then examines the demographic restructuring of the region through a combination of census data analysis using GIS and ethnographic interviews, arguing that the changes in the region both blurred the lines of traditional American racial segregation which simultaneously producing a more "mobile" form of segregation on a megaregional scale.

From this historical and geographic foundation, the argument is built to mimic, in a sense, the scales of the crisis itself. Chapter Three begins a more intense focus on planning institutions, the politics of development and shifting urban economics to show the interaction between decisions and events in eastern Contra Costa County, a portion of the region that saw dramatic growth and a stunning collapse over the past thirty years. This chapter focuses intently on planning, both on the plans that were approved and implemented and ones that died before either approval or implementation, with an eye for the vastly different playing field that these communities faced compared with ones which developed during earlier eras. This focus remains in Chapter Four, which examines the often ignored scale of the county to better understand the production of "edge cities" in Contra Costa County, developments which both restructured the region's labor markets and helped contribute to the growing stagnation of the politics of development. Chapter Five returns to the regional scale, focusing on race and the collective failure of both regional and local institutions to adequately solve the problems of inner core poverty inherited from the postwar era, problems which provided the demographic push for much of eastern Contra Costa County's demographic growth. Chapter Six focuses on the megaregional scale beyond the formal confines of the Bay Area, a challenging level of analysis because of its physical and human scale and lack of political and planning institutions, but made necessary by the fact that this is where the growth - and the foreclosures - are most notable.

Finally, the conclusion examines the politics of race and development in the state of California, an analysis which illustrates and critiques the narrowed possibilities inherent to planning during this era. This scalar approach illustrates the broad collective responsibility for the production of crisis, where public and private, local and nonlocal, individual and collective actors all played a role in bringing the Bay Area to this point. It also points to three linked conclusions critical to the future of planning: the need to rethink the state-centered conception of planning, which has never held in the United States; the need to accept and work within the historically fragmented and multi-polar system of cities which has defined places like the San Francisco Bay Area since their founding; and the need to push for a broader and deeper conception of institutional responsibility, where institutions involved in the intentional production of space at all scales and in all sectors - i.e. planners - take responsibility for the "common purpose" that is urbanization and development.

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