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The housing bust as seen through the planned community

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Kai Ryssdal: Go to pretty much any suburb near you and it’s more likely than not you’ll come across a planned community. Whole neighborhoods built from the ground up according to one master plan. They’re all over the place. And in the cold, hard light of the housing bust — they’re not without a certain irony. Today in our series “The Art of Money” — what artists and others see when they look at the economy — photographer Amanda Dahlgren and her pictures of the real estate crash in master-planned communities in San Diego, Calif. Welcome to the program.

Amanda Dahlgren: Thanks.

Ryssdal: How did it work when you started putting together the first of the three big portfolios you’ve done, the one called “Distressed.” Did you see these houses and something made you say I’ve got to have a picture of that, I’ve got to do that.

Dahlgren: It started with thinking about with what home really means and how we can get so wrapped up in thinking that the right house in the right neighborhood will kind of make us who we are or make us better in some way.

Ryssdal: We do the same thing here, right? We talk about house and home interchangeably, but really it’s not.

Dahlgren: Yeah and so this “Distressed” series was really looking at that we can end up in a place where home is really more of a nightmare and trying to show that house after house I would find on very public places.

Ryssdal: The thing about the pictures in this “Distressed” portfolio — it’s houses that are upside down on their mortgages, stuff like that. The pictures are actually upside down.

Dahlgren: Exactly. Yeah.

Ryssdal: Which I just love!

Dahlgren: That visual confusion. There’s a lot of kind of intentional visual confusion in the way that the houses are blurred on the edges. That really helps to tell the story of the intensity and all the emotion that’s tied up in that phenomenon of what’s happening.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you this, though, as you were going through these distressed properties, there was a theme here that popped up at you and that was that so many of them were in these master-planned communities, which gets us to the second portfolio, “Master-planned.”

Dahlgren: In a lot of cases, the short sales and foreclosures were in the same master-planned communities where they were still building. So you had this bizarre juxtaposition of people really in trouble within blocks of the same company still trying to sell. To me there’s such a stark difference between what they’re selling and the reality, I think because what you’re really going to be delivered is an empty shell. It’s up to you to make a life there. The life is not going to be what the marketing department is trying to sell.

Ryssdal: You are working on another portfolio and I don’t even know if you want me to ask about this one since it’s not up on the website yet. But I find the concept so interesting. The working title, I understand, is “Pre-abandoned.”

Dahlgren: Such a rich history in photography of people looking at abandoned spaces, houses that have been lived in for years and years and years, and the marks that have been made. And my kind of twist on that is looking at the beginning of that life cycle — especially at the master-planned communities. They’re sort of built to be disposable. So the idea of looking at the construction, especially the interiors, that’s never been lived in; it’s supposed to be so hopeful and so exciting, but knowing that it’s going to be abandoned.

Ryssdal: Do you own?

Dahlgren: I do. I do. It’s a nice house and the schools are not great. So when I had my daughter five years ago that was a huge concern. In a way I really get the idea of the master-planned community, where there’s tons of small children and there’s parks and there’s new schools and all that kind of stuff is appealing and I am kind of sucked in. For my daughter, especially, this would be a pretty good life for her. It’s just so… false in a way.

Ryssdal: Amanda Dahlgren. Her photography is on her website — click here. Amanda, thanks a lot.

Dahlgren: Thank you.

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