The FT ran a great analysis column this week talking about how American cities are now starting to more resemble European cities in one important way. Whereas in the past the inner city was decayed and the suburbs were nice, this trend is starting to invert as central cities gentrify and it is inner ring suburbs that now find themselves in decay.
I think the trend they note is a bit overdone, largely affecting only the largest cities – their big example is Washington, DC – and select other places such as Atlanta. But it is telling nevertheless. A similar but different dynamic has been underway in smaller cities that haven’t had the same level of central city gentrification, such as Indianapolis. Here older suburban areas are nearly at the end of their “useful life”, and residents are fleeing to new, more remote suburbs. This depresses prices and opens opportunities for central city residents to move out. I call this the pull model versus the push.
Forty years ago today, Washington DC witnessed riots that carved a path of destruction through the city, at one point coming within blocks of the White House.
Yet walk along the U Street corridor in Washington today, past new condominiums, restaurants and coffee shops, and it is hard to imagine the scene 40 years ago. The turnaround of formerly depressed areas is not limited to the District of Columbia. Since the mid-1990s, educated young people and baby-boomers have been returning to the cities, in search of amenities and cultural stimulation. Serious urban poverty has as a result declined by more than 40 per cent across the US, according to research by the Brookings Institution, a think-tank.
But the rejuvenation of inner cities is shadowed by another dramatic shift in the location of poverty in America. For as city centers fill with wealthy whites, the suburbs are increasingly seeing growing numbers of low income residents and more impoverished immigrants.
This is simply stating what has been known for some time: gentrification only affects buildings. The people still have to live somewhere, and increasingly that somewhere is the fringes of cities and inner ring suburbs. This is exactly the model of European cities, where we see a favored historic quarter inside a ring road, surrounded by miles of banlieus and the like that American tourists rarely see apart from cab rides to and from the airport.
Indeed, poverty in the suburbs now exceeds that in cities, according to Alan Berube, author of a Brookings report on the suburban poor. Among recipients of the earned income tax credit in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, 59 per cent – or 8m people – live in inner suburbs, compared with 41 per cent in the centers.
Wow. Why have inner ring suburbs been experiencing these problems?
One reason is that suburban housing stock is aging and losing its appeal, and is therefore more affordable. ‘The housing is not built to last 60 years,’ says Myron Orfield, a former Minnesota state senator. ‘They don’t age well and don’t gentrify – they are not beautiful old homes.’
Ok, that may be true some places, but it isn’t true in some of the examples they cite. For example, inner ring suburbs in Chicago such as Evanston, Cicero, Berwyn, and Oak Park are for all practical purposes built the same as the city neighborhoods they abut, but were never annexed. The claim of inferior housing stock is more true in the south suburbs. Some inner burbs have prospered, while others have declined.
The trend is troubling, according to experts, because suburbs often do not have sufficient tax bases to deal with poverty. Some inner suburban areas are struggling to come to terms with rising crime, strained public school systems and increased demand for social services. ‘A number of suburban communities are beginning to look like a caricature of inner cities,’ says Bruce Katz, founder of the metropolitan policy programme at Brookings.
The problem has been particularly marked around Chicago, where the demolition of large public housing projects beginning in the late 1990s led rising numbers of poor residents to move further out.
Whatever the cause, the continuing decline of the suburbs, whether inner ring in Detroit or DC, or brand new subdivisions in Charlotte, is an emerging trend to watch.