Sunday, August 3rd, 2008
The New Republic is carrying a lengthy article by Alan Ehrenhalt on the demographic inversion of many American cities. What they mean by this is largely the re-population of the central city by affluent whites while blacks and other minorities are pushed to the periphery or inner ring suburbs. Their poster child for this is Chicago, where vast tracts of formerly ethnic and working class neighborhoods have become gentrified into homes for yuppies.
This is something that has been noted for some time now. I’ve written about it myself before (here and here, for example) and it has been covered elsewhere extensively. Think of it as the “Europeanization” of American cities. Americans are used to thinking of a still thriving but dull after dark small downtown, surrounded by miles of blighted “inner city” areas, surrounded by prosperous suburbs, largely racially segregated. What you see in Europe is a historic core populated by the economic and intellectual elite (which American tourists visit), surrounded by inner rings of soulless housing blocks (which they pass through in their cabs on the way in from the airport), surrounded by the middle classes in europrawl developments (which tourists rarely see). American cities, at least some of them, are starting to take on this cast, as downtown becomes a 24×7 live/work/play environment and surrounding areas become home to the new creative class. There’s no place for minorities or poor people (or often even middle class people) in this new geography, so those groups are forced to the inner rings suburban areas.
The TNR article provides some interesting facts. Here is their take on NYC:
Before September 11, 2001, the number of people living in Manhattan south of the World Trade Center was estimated at about 25,000. Today, it is approaching 50,000. Close to one-quarter of these people are couples (nearly always wealthy couples) with children. The average household size is actually larger in lower Manhattan than in the city as a whole. It is not mere fantasy to imagine that in, say, 2020, the southern tip of Manhattan will be a residential neighborhood with a modest residual presence of financial corporations and financial services jobs.
Incredible as it seems, even Manhattan is getting converted into a strollerville. What has been driving this? The article posits a number of potential reasons. Among these, de-industrialization eliminated much of the noise, dirt, and other pollution that drove people out of the city in the first place; horrible traffic and high gas prices are driving people back to the center; urban crime is largely confined to gang warefare that bypasses the elite; and Generation X and Y have a very different living preference than Baby Boomers did.
The places this is happening may surprise you. If there’s a poster child for the back to the city movement, it actually isn’t Chicago, it’s Atlanta. Altanta is on is way to becoming a majority white city in short order, something that seemed inconceivable just a few short years ago and which is causing consternation among black leaders. Atlanta had added 67,000 people to its population base since 2000, or 16% in just seven years, without annexation. By constrast, despite its gigantic condo boom (it is adding about 14,000 housing units per year in the city alone), Chicago has actually lost 56,000 since 2000, though obviously on a far larger base.
But what is clear to me, and which the article implicitly illustrates, is that this trend is most noticeably in the largest cities, especially those with “world city” aspirations. I would argue that the trend of globalization and the resulting “spiky world” is driving convergence across world cities, whether they be in Europe, the US, South America, or Asia. Increasingly we see the same demographic patterns, the same cultural attitudes, the same type of built environments, etc. I believe it is part of the expression of the development of a homogenous transnational elite that while nominally diverse when it comes to things like race and sexual orientation is in fact pretty much alike in all the things that matter. I have been fortunate enough to get to travel to various cities around the world and while there is always some degree of local flavor (tango in Buenos Aires, bullfighting in Madrid, for example), and some sort of a unique vibe to a place, I often notice just how similar so much of the feel is, particularly among people in the intellectual, creative, and business fields. You see this illustrated very clearly when you pick up something like the Wallpaper city guides and see pretty much semi-identical international hipster jet set elite places touted for every city. The only thing distinguishing most of these guides is the city name on the cover. I argue that this is leading to the creation of a dangerous “urban monoculture” that is weaking the intellectual and creative core of the city and leaving it vulnerable to unexpected shocks. This is related to the “big sort” phenomenon, and there will be a forthcoming posting on this soon.
Also, as we’ve seen white upper class families become predominant in city neighborhoods, they are importing their values along with their strollers. This has led to the ever increasing suburbanization of the city. This includes everything from rows of semi-indentical production housing (witness the thousands of cheaply constructed by highly priced cinder block condo buildings in Chicago), ever more big box chains with “lifestyle center” type architecture in the city, and the demise of gritty, artsy independent businesses in favor of the boutique of the week. The city often sides with these new residents in forcing out clubs and other non-kid friendly venues. In effect, the real creative class is getting squeezed out as the wealthy accessories such as financiers, lawyers, and such move in. Mayor Daley of Chicago has actively tried to make that city more kid friendly, spending millions on Navy Pier as a family attraction, cracking down on traditionally rowdy festivals, harrassing music clubs with ridiculous licensing requirements, and even trying to cram a children’s museum into Grant Park where there is only supposed to be open space.
On the flip side, some suburbs have radically improved themselves. This is not your father’s Naperville with nary a coffee shop to be found and where the best dining alternative was Chili’s. Instead we’re seeing the top suburbs up their game with better shopping, better architecture, better dining options, their own real downtowns, etc. While some inner ring suburbs suffer in poverty, there is less of a gap between the best suburbs and an ever more suburbanized inner city. Again, as with the urban monoculture, we’ll see the long term effect this has.
What’s more, I’m troubled that the new inversion appears to be less than fully market driven. It has been helped along by city governments eager to cater to the moneyed classes and with writers like Richard Florida providing the intellectual justification for doing so. I noted previously that I strongly speculate that Chicago deliberately ran many of is former CHA residents out of town when it demolished the projects. I’m convinced there’s a Pulitzer out there for the reporter who can dig into where the former residents ended up and how they got there, and blow the lid off this.
So stay tuned to see what happens here. What will the long term bring for Chicago, Atlanta, etc? Will this trend really fully make it to the smaller cities like Indianapolis? (It is interesting to note that in Indy Center Township appears to have stablized in population and has even slightly increased in the last couple of years. Is this an inflection point in the making?) I don’t think anyone knows, but this is clearly a trend to keep tabs of and to figure out how to respond to. While the renaissance of city living as been almost universally praised by progressives, it is not without its downsides.
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