Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Trading places: cities and exurbs

It's not hard for me to believe the headline story in Alan Ehrenhalt's The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City -- I'm living in the middle of it. Ehrenhalt documents the choice by many contemporary younger people to move into central cities instead of fleeing to the suburbs as their parents largely did.

Increasingly over the past decade, both before and during the recession, people with the resources to live wherever they wished began choosing to live near the urban center --- just as Viennese, Parisians, and Londoners at the turn of the previous century elected to do. This will have significant social consequences, especially when it comes to daily communication and casual social life. Central-city dwellers who have the option of communicating with friends almost entirely by electronic device will also have the option of socializing on the street or in neighborhood cafes in ways that suburbanites do not get the opportunity to do. Many of them will be drawn to the urban center by precisely that opportunity.

So true -- explore San Francisco's Mission District these days and you can wander from breakfast spot, to hip cafe, to upscale ethnic restaurant, to neighborhood bar. The 'hood is full of new energy (and money). As a long time resident, I try to appreciate the newcomers rather than resent them. They are adding delight to the place, yet I have to wonder where my less affluent neighbors are going.

But, despite its title, Ehrenhalt's survey of cities is actually more wide-ranging and, to me, interesting than just a nod to contemporary hipster-villes. Who knew that Manhattan's Wall Street has become a bedroom community where office space has been converted to condos?

… In some ways, lower Manhattan in the early twenty-first century has come to resemble lower Manhattan in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth: brokers, investors, and insurance agents who live in the neighborhood and walk to work; a social life that does not disappear at quitting time, the way it did twenty years ago; a modest but growing number of families with young children. …It would be foolish to extend the analogy too far, but it's perfectly true to say that conviviality has returned to the Financial District. … this is a neighborhood, then, but is it a community? …it genuine -- or is there something artificial about it?

That is a question on which reasonable people may disagree. One can argue that the astronomically high average income of the people who bought residences in the Financial District mandates an inequality that will prevent it from becoming a true neighborhood in the sense in which most of us understand that term. The public school population in lower Manhattan does not mirror the public school population in other parts of the city. Or one can look at the growing vibrancy of the streets and decide that the rudiments of genuine neighborhood life are present, regardless of the economic imbalance of those living in the buildings. Street life is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the urban revival of the twenty-first century, and street life is not dependent on demographic equality. …

I have long noticed that people of color are settling in suburbs (I'm a Californian, ahead of the game, after all). That's where many of my former neighbors have gone. That is also where new immigrants go today.

In 1970, a majority of foreign-born newcomers to this country were settling in cities. By 1980, more were settling in the suburbs, although relatively few demographers were paying much attention. Today, the numbers aren't even close. In 2005, it is estimated, 4.4 million immigrants went to suburbs and 2.8 million to cities. …

Gwinnett County outside Atlanta is one such destination, a county of strip malls and striving Asian Americans.

One of Ehrenhalt's most interesting conclusions is that cities that have been hospitable to immigrants have been the most successful. Philadelphia serves as an example of a city where immigration didn't happen, in his telling due to tax policies that constrained property transfers.

Philadelphia was once a city of immigrants, attracting Irish and Germans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Italians in the early twentieth -- in 1910, a quarter of its population was foreign-born. But it did not become a magnet for immigrants in the years after immigration restrictions were lifted in 1965. While Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago were being remade during those years as multiethnic communities, Philadelphia remained through the 1990s a place where demography and politics were almost entirely a matter of black and white. …

And even though the numbers have picked up, what matters most is that during the years when the row-house neighborhoods were losing their original home owners, there was no significant immigrant cohort available to revive them.

All of this is fine -- but what happens to poor people? After all, the last decade seen a significant rise in the number of poor people? In the country of the Great Inversion, they may find themselves stuck without transportation or decent jobs in exurbs with little tax base, adjacent to the longstanding rural poor.

Reviews of this book tell me that Ehrenhalt developed his theories at least in part by spending ten years walking U.S. cities. It shows -- his story is vivid. Like watching the changes in my own neighborhood, it made me both happy and uneasy. Should I ever get a chance, I want to walk many of these places and feel for myself how cities are changing.


Kay Dennison said...

I moved from the 'burbs' about 12 years ago and haven't regretted it.

Theo said...

This shift is happening all over San Francisco, even in the Richmond, which is actually seeing a small bubble in families with school age kids and (mostly white) young urban professionals. In the Mission, the amount of development between Valencia and South Van Ness, 14th. and 16th. Street, is astonishing. A truly different neighborhood than what it was even three years ago. We have friends who rent at Valencia & 17th who are planning to move to Oakland. They can't afford the $3800 month rent for a two bedroom apt. in the Mission now that they have a baby.

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