Monday, May 30, 2011

Parking Lessons

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Before the opening credits had finished rolling, I exclaimed that "The Parking Lot Movie" (see also The Parking Lot Movie web site) is a geography movie. By the end of this quirky documentary, I was convinced it was one of the best movies I have seen. Confining the lens to a tiny parking lot -- and the people who attend it -- this film has a lot to say about cultural and economic geography.

As soon as I realized that the film is about parking lot attendants, I was reminded of something I think about quite a lot. All kinds of enterprises that employ people perform a miraculous kind of alchemy, as the value generated by the business is converted into the things its employees or owners purchase. For example, a dentist's office might convert a tooth filling into a pair of shoes for the hygienist's daughter. Enterprises -- be they public, private, or non-profit -- generate economic activity that creates an unknowable variety of outcomes.

This was all flashing through my mind during the opening credits because in this case, attendants are trading labor for livelihoods, but most of the value arises not from the labor itself but from the land rent. A rent cone describes the tendency of land values to be greater toward the center of urban areas, where demand for use of the land is greatest. Interestingly, the term is not "value cone," which would suggest the total wealth represented by a piece of land. Rather, the word rent is used, connoting the stream of revenue that is represented by the same piece of land. In open markets, land owners tend to put their land to uses that will earn the prevailing rent for each location, so that higher-earning uses such as office towers tend to be found where land rents are highest.

In the case of a parking lot, the land rent is earned more literally, essentially by subletting the land on a temporary basis and in very small quantities. A rent that might usually be expressed in per-acre-per-month terms is now earned on units less that 0.004 acre, for periods measured in increments of around 0.001 month.

Of course, the act of collecting those rents is labor, and the best insights of this film are into how we think about labor, and especially the relationship between labor and education.

Because higher education often allows people to earn more money, many people have come to assume that the main purpose of higher education is access to higher-paid work. Few remember that higher education itself was once considered a benefit of having wealth, rather than a means to gaining wealth. The owner of Central Parking Lot employs people he meets through his own social networks, which include a lot of graduate students, graduates, and even professors at the University of Virginia (which also provides many of the lot's customers). These attendants are either assumed to be uneducated or, if educated, to have wasted that education by not turning it into more remunerative employment.

Given their generally high level of education in the humanities and social sciences, the attendants are rather keen observers of the social implications of higher education. They recognize, for example, that many of their most obnoxious, drunken customers are likely to return in the future as business and political leaders, because in some powerful circles higher education is more about networking and belonging than about actual learning.

We noticed that all of the dozen or so employees shown in the film are male, almost all white. This may be explained by the lot owner's reliance on his social network as a source of applicants, but it does cause us to wonder whether the total population of employees (said to have totaled about 100 since the lot's opening) is as homogeneous. I have written to the film's producer about this, and will update this post if I receive an answer.

1 comment:

  1. From the epilogue of this film we learn that being a parking lot attendant can be a stepping stone to anything! Former lot attendants have become, among other things, a librarian, a geography professor, and a coffee barista!


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