Saturday, August 21, 2021

But will it play in Peoria?

Growing up in southern Illinois, I heard many times the phrase, "Will it play in Peoria?" The wording originates from the late nineteenth century as a catchall phrase to gauge whether an idea or product or theme will appeal to and be accepted by some fictional, generalized version of "mainstream America." Thus, through no real effort or intention of its own, the town of Peoria, Illinois, has become a metaphor and a symbol for the entire country.

And, according to the Washington Post, the mid-size midwestern city has become a new hotspot for real estate investors. Many of the buyer have never seen the town, nor heard of its mythical reputation.

Most of the buyers had acquired their homes through online auctions. None had ever actually been to Peoria; nor did they have any plans to move there. And yet they bid by the dozens, if not hundreds, on homes throughout Peoria’s dying south end, drawn by the desire to own property, an essential piece of the American Dream that had eluded them in the places where they lived and seemed to grow more distant with each passing month. Somehow, they had found a version of that dream online — and in a place called Peoria — that seemed almost as good. “I felt like I had finally found a cheat code,” Culver said.

The story of West Lincoln Avenue’s bizarre summer land rush starts with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt, which had hollowed out Peoria’s once-thriving south end. It spans decades of growing inequality, which had turned America into a place of winners and losers with less and less in between. The trigger, though, was the pandemic, the recession and the recovery.

In much of the country this spring, low interest rates, bidding wars and pent-up demand had sparked a real estate boom. In California, the median single-family home price hit a record $818,260, up nearly 40 percent since the start of the pandemic. Utah prices surged 30 percent during the same period. By June, economists were using words like “unprecedented” to describe the rise and speculating that in some markets the dream of homeownership might be forever out of reach for most middle-class Americans.

I wish them all the best of luck, and my midwestern longings for the small town Illinois of my youth hope that this new land rush "will play in Peoria."

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