Sunday, March 6th, 2011

The Rupture

Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers….your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell…you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure. I, the LORD, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end. – Numbers 14:20-23, 34-35 ESV

There are any number of generational archetypes out there. The notion of a heroic “elder days” for example. But among the most enduring and one of continued relevance to us every day is the notion of the “generation gap,”, the idea that between one generation and the next there can sometimes seem to be an unbridgeable gulf.

This is of course best known in the generation gap between the baby boomers and their parents. Though I’m Gen-X, it is easy to see that there’s something very real to this. I can talk and relate easily to baby boomers, even though many of them are pushing retirement age like my parents. It’s not that we share the same experiences or world view on everything, but we can sit down and engage with each other as adults and friends. But when I talk to people even a few years older, I always notice that it’s like talking to someone in code. There’s just some unbridgeable gap or barrier that exists. The difference between talking to my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ is profound. I suspect it is often easier for a 65 year old baby boomer to have a dinner time conversation with a 25 year old Millennial than with someone 75 or 80.

I think part of this is due to the major rupture to their existence that the pre-baby boomers experienced. Those previous generations experienced the Great Depression and/or World War II. Those had to have left an indelible mark on them that is in some way missing from subsequent generations, something that rendered their life experience too alien to be fully understood, and in turn rendered them incapable of understanding.

This is the pattern we see repeated. There’s some sort of involuntary rupture that hits a generation, and they are simply unable to transcend it, nor anyone else to fully comprehend it. It’s no surprise to me that the Israelites who fled Egypt never got to enter the Promised Land. The rupture of leaving the only life they’d ever known behind simply rendered them incapable of fully enjoying what was beyond that, no matter how many miracles they witnessed. Similarly, one could argue that we’ve yet to overcome the multi-generational rupture resulting from the great ill of slavery.

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the generation gap in how the urban cores of our cities are perceived. When I talk to people in various Rust Belt cities about how they perceive their urban cores, there’s a clear generation gap in evidence. As a Gen-Xer, I am close to the fulcrum of this, so I see it clearly.

Gen-X and the Millennials have a much more optimistic and positive views of urban areas than baby boomers and previous generations. I think this results from the rupture that those earlier generations experienced when our urban cores declined. If you read a newspaper interview of someone in that age bracket, you always here the stories about the wonderful things they did in the city when they were younger. It was the land of good factory jobs, the downtown department store where their mothers took them in white gloves for tea, of the tidy neighborhoods, the long standing institutions and rituals – now all lost, virtually all of it. Unsurprisingly, this has turned a lot of people bitter. Many people saw everything they held dear in their communities destroyed, and they were powerless to stop it. These people are never going to be able to enter the Promised Land.

For people about my age or younger, it’s a very different story. None of us knew any of those things. Our experience is totally different. We’ve basically never known a city that wasn’t lost. Gen-X, which Jim Russell views as the heartland of Rust Belt Chic, is a generation defined by alienation, so the alienated urban core suits our temperament perfectly. The Millennials of course have a very different attitude towards cities.

I don’t see any signs of the older generations getting through the grieving process and moving on. This makes me think that for us to fully embrace a true urban policy, even in city government itself, it is going to take generational turnover. The baby boomers are already starting to age, but they’ll be with us a lot longer. Alas, they have historically been the most suburban generation, and not shy about imposing their values, so I suspect we’ll be dealing with that legacy for a while. Still, as time goes on, we’ll have more and more people seeing the city with fresh eyes, and only knowing it when there’s reason for hope and optimism. That by itself will be a building force for change and new directions over time, until the true changing of the guard arrives.

Topics: Urban Culture

40 Responses to “The Rupture”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    To be honest, I don’t know that this is really why cities are coming back, for the following reasons:

    1. If you believe Strauss and Howe (who I’ll admit to not having read myself), then the generation gap is cyclical, and Millennials are in some ways similar to the GI Generation.

    2. The resurgence of global cities is happening all over the first world. Those countries’ generational gaps are not necessarily the same as in the US, and the cities didn’t always deindustrialize, and often did maintain a continuity of social institutions.

    3. The cities most likely to be trending up right now never declined all that much. Pittsburgh is an obvious exception, but compare New York, San Francisco, and Portland to Cleveland, St. Louis, and Baltimore. New York seemed pretty bad in the 1970s, but it was still doing way better than the rest of the Rust Belt – and San Francisco was at the time the city of gay rights activism more than anything negative.

    4. The movement for abandoning the cities began long before deindustrialization. It was in full swing by the 1950s, when the big manufacturing concerns seemed invulnerable, and its political origins are much earlier.

    To be honest, I’m not sure I can explain a global trend. But in the US, it looks like disaffection with the suburbs and the old order imposed by previous generations. There are a lot of parallels between this and the disaffection of the original advocates of garden cities, urban renewal, etc., with the cities. The most pertinent is that just as the original anti-urbanists wanted to build suburbs to let people move back to the country while also maintaining the benefits of cities, so do today’s gentrifiers want people to move back into the city while also maintaining the benefits of socially uniform suburbs.

  2. marko says:

    While a back to the city movement is visible, it is no way displacing the suburbs – yet. As long as gasoline is relatively inexpensive, houses relatively larger, and schools relatively better, the masses choose the burbs, Chicago’s recent census results certainly show this. The same basic comfort conveniences that drove their grandparents are still driving the young ones. Its all relative of course, but if Fannie and Freddie can no longer subsidize the 30 year for average Americans and the cost of car ownership becomes too great, the next generation may end up right back in the same cities the Lost Generation lived in in a density by necessity, or run off to Paris and to heck with it all.

  3. DaveOf Richmond says:

    Alon and Aaron, I think your two arguments together tell much of the story. Suburbanization was indeed starting much earlier than the 1950’s, but I think the main initial thoughts were for the suburbs to be places to live, with the cities still there for work, and perhaps shopping and entertainment. When the cities went into their deep decline in the Sixties/Seventies, that’s when attitudes hardened in the WWII generation, as Aaron suggests, and the cities became good for nothing, not even business, in their view. That’s my understanding and remembrance anyway.

    I remember during the looting in NYC during the 1977 blackout, the parents (WWII gen) in my suburban neighborhood in NJ did not ask “Why are those people so desperate” or “how can we fix this”, they shook their heads and said “thank goodness we got out”. They had written the cities off, and almost all of them had started out in cities (Newark, in the case of my parents – you can imagine what they thought about it by the late Seventies).

    As for young people moving back, I think the trend is undeniable, and it will be interesting to see how long they stay, especially the ones who have kids. I don’t believe high gas prices will send that many back to the cities, I think people will just turn in the SUV for a smaller car and stay in the ‘burbs. Marko’s point about Fannie and Freddie may have more impact than gas prices.

    Finally, on some of the points about Chicago, St. Louis and others losing population in the last ten years, a good chunk of that was blacks moving out. I wonder how much of that is due to “anti-city” beliefs, vs. how much is part of the larger “reverse migration” of blacks back to the south? I wish someone would do a study on where these folks are moving, it may be that many are just taking advantage of cheaper housing and warmer weather in the south, like many whites did earlier.

  4. Richey says:

    Had a recent post I wrote that had similar sentiments, using the analogy of a sudden death that disallowed baby boomers the chance to see with fresh eyes as you put it

  5. Wad says:

    There will be movements every which way. The U.S., with what wealth still remains, will still move in many directions. The cities are just one of them.

    One other trend that will still hold is people bigsorting themselves. Bill Bishop wrote, alarmingly, that human movements are anti-diverse and settlements will be based on humans who look and think alike out of choice rather than necessity.

    There is a noticeable “back to the city” movement. Census data will also show hyperactive growth in some rural Southern and Mountain states. Demographics will likely reveal that these resettlers came from large metropolitan areas, particularly the Northeast, Northwest and coastal California. These areas are seeing a large influx of could be described as “diversity refugees.”

    Areas that will likely continue to suffer are rural towns. The Los Angeles Times wrote a report on early census figures that showed population growth in rural areas was driven by Latino immigration. Areas that saw Latinos come in had grown — in people and in earnings — while those that were bypassed continued to stagnate.

  6. Rod Stevens says:

    I am a Baby Boomer, and went through both the decline of the city and its rebirth, so I tend to look back and forward on this, like the two headed dog. My older brother remembers the street car tracks being taken out of the city, and I was able to take the bus downtown, alone, at the age of seven or eight, to take swim lesson in the old YMCA. Later, in college, in the early 1970s, I toured South Park in San Francisco, one of the birth places of the modern urban workplace, and saw designers and engineers there working together, even as sections of the Western Addition continued to sit silent because of large scale urban ‘redevelopment’.

    The thing that was lost, that was mourned by my parents generation and those born soon enough after WW II to experience it, was the “oneness” of the city, of downtowns that brought everyone in the region together. Perhaps this spirit is best captured in that famous photo of Times Square immediately after WW II when everyone jammed Times Square and the GI is kissing the girl he didn’t know. Downtowns then were the living rooms of the city, the place everyone came together. There was a Norman Rockwell element to all of this, that we were supposedly one big happy society and, nominally, this showed in the civility of public places. Even as late as the early 1980s, you were supposed to dress up if you went to Union Square in San Francisco. It wasn’t just a reflection of social standing, it was considered that you owed that respect to the place.

    I believe the other big change, much more after the 1960s than the 1950s, was the loss of the “separateness” of places. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Beaverton, which was always the major suburb, still had hints of being distinctively apart, of their being fields and farms between the outskirts of Portland and downtown Beaverton. The suburbs still had their downtowns, and they still had their edges. Perhaps the real loss in the last ten or 20 years, with commercial development running up and down every interstate, with Targets and Walmarts even in the countryside, is that there are now no hinterlands to the cities. Between Olympia, WA and the Canadian border, a distance of about 150 miles, there are probably fewer than 20 or 50 miles that do not have some kind of generic commercial development along them. Take a look at a map of America sometime from before WW II, pre-interstate America, and you will find an America connected by rails instead, and it is rather disconcerting to look at. The towns then were much more distinct, but within a given place, more unified. That, I think, is the real difference in the perception of cities that has come about. If anything, the Millennials seem to have more of a Road Warrior/ Mel Gibson attitude to them, that they are going to pick up the pieces and rebuild it where they can, very, very locally, even while they are surrounded by aging sprawl and, in some places, aging communities with many, many vacant buildings.

  7. Tim says:

    Aaron – and all of the commentators here – really, really great to see deep and meaningful questions about our urban condition through the eyes of human, personal experience. I’m getting very sick of prescriptive urbanism of whatever brand or form and this approach has to be part of the antidote. Cities represent massive numbers of individual’s stories, all of our hopes and aspirations, dreams and fears. When it comes to actively shaping our cities then surely we should be basing our vision on an understanding of our collective stories and desires for the future, not some formula premised on a singular understanding.

    Dave – very true about the parallel movements. Joel Kotkin talk about antiurbanism, which is still very real in certain mindsets, just as urbanism is very real for others.

    Rod – I think there are some deep issues of what we generically call ‘place’ in what you say, which affect us more significantly than we think. I’m fascinated by the landscapes in the book Drosscape ( and wonder what will become of these apparently non-places. One a related note, another post today musing on Gen-X’s current motivations and interests:

  8. Wad says:

    Tim, thanks for sending me that link about Gen Xers. I was fascinated by it, but not because I agree with it. I think its biggest flaw is to apply a sweeping conclusion to an age cohort, as though when we were born gives us a collective experience.

    Does Scott Doyon’s message hold true for blacks living in the ghetto? What about Generation X Native Americans living on a reservation? The same question applies to whites. How are Gen X whites living in isolated small towns and rural areas coping with the modern world?

    Doyon’s message may ring true for people who lived in the same kind of metropolitan environment and shared a common experience (pop culture, education, etc.) as a white guy in his 30s-40s.

    We’re really talking about a very narrow demographic, and broadly, his observations miss more than they hit.

  9. Ironwood says:


    As a boomer, I connect to what you say about the generation gap between myself and my parents vs. myself and people younger than me. With people older, the gap is there, with people younger, I don’t feel it (and don’t sense they do, either, unless they’re being profoundly patient and polite).

    BUT, I do want to qualify your further observations about the gap between boomers, X’rs and Millenials when it comes to optimism about the cities.

    Let’s keep in mind the biggest, most optimistic urban guy you could find is Richie Daly — a boomer. And Let’s not forget the back-to-the-city movement in the 70s was driven by post-college boomers. And now empty-next boomers are a significant component of the demand for inner-city housing.

    The cities that the X’rs enjoy just plain weren’t there for the boomers. The X’rs grew up to see cities that had been significantly improved and rebuilt by boomers after the boomers’ parents fled the cities in the 50s and 60s, and the boomers returned to some pretty beat-up neighborhoods to start making them (or at least part of them) liveable again. And I’m just talking here about mainstream college-educated white kids. There was also a couple of generations there of blue-collar white folks in the bungalow belts who stayed the course, loved their neighborhoods and never wanted to leave the city, even when the option presented itself. And I’m not even talking about the most optimistic and ornery or all — the boomer African Americans who fought to end red-lining and organized to build renewed sense of community in largely African-American neighborhoods. And then there’s U of C and how it fought to keep Hyde Park alive and safe and viable (yeah, I know its strategies are subject to criticism, and rightly so, but the boomers and their elders at U of C were definitely optimistic about the city back then, too.)

    For the boomers who reminisce about first-run movies in the old Chicago loop, there’s others who can talk about having bought a three-flat in the now unaffordable DePaul neighborhood in the 70s, and having to call the cops to clear the gang members off the front stoop before they could go in their front door. If that’s not city-love — optimism about the future — what is?

    And, even among the boomers’ parents, were a hard core of people who re-inhabited Old Town in Chicago in the late 50s and early 60s, and created a template for what happened in the next 20 years for many other chicago neighborhoods. True, they were in the minority, but they were the real optimists.

    Let’s also remember that X’rs who come to the city after college tend to race out to the burbs as soon as their kids are school-age. (I’m not blaming anyone; I understand the motives. I’m just being descriptive.)

    So, I wonder if what you’re observing is something a little more fine-grained. Or maybe I’m just being too Chicago-centric

    I’d encourage you to write more about inter-generational differences in how we view our cities. This is a fertile topic. But I think we’d all benefit from a more fine-grained analysis.



  10. Ironwood says:

    Further to my last comment …

    I hope I didn’t leave the impression that I was setting up a competition between boomers and X’rs regarding who loves cities more, or coming across as one more self-congratulatory boomer who doesn’t respect or value what X’rs have to offer, compared to all the wunnerful things the boomers have done. That way lies madness. And anyway, it would just be inaccurate. The exciting thing is that there doesn’t seem to be a huge gap between the two generations, which means we can COLLABORATE on developing cities that come closer to fulfilling our common vision. I, for one, wish we’d had both the innernetz and a blog like this back in the 60s or 70s, and recognize that the Urbanophile is a X’r creation. The fact is, if we plan on growing a generation of successful cities, especially in the Midwest, we’re gonna have to work together. And since the X’rs and Millenials are probably going to be around a lot longer than the boomers, they have more at stake.

  11. While what we’ve experienced is not as difficult as WWII and the depression, the last decade hasn’t been easy for us either. My mind is warped.

    I’ve genuinely wondered if my money was safer in a mattress than my bank. Not because they’d go under, but because they’d take it and refer me to my account agreement. When the government stepped in they’d have to stop taking, but not return what they took.

    I was dumb to be holding consumer debt in 2008. In addition to the usual interest etc. my debts were used against me to steal additional money.

    I’m so burnt from dealing with financial companies that I avoid contracts like the plague now. Even my cell phone is month to month.

    I wonder how my grandchildren will perceive my behavior when I’m 70.

  12. John Morris says:

    Great post.Assuming this is true; which I do, the question is what to do about it. Is there a general policy response or structure that would help?

    It’s a big problem in that so much of the wealth is locked in the older generations. A structure of greater openess to those people who do seem interested in cities is needed based on incremental change and experimentation. We seem too interested in the attitudes of people who will not change and ignore many others who want to do things because they don’t meet our conceptions.

  13. John Morris says:

    What I mean in plain English is we need to be- A) More open to groups like students, immigrants, small businesses and a broad range of groups outside our stereotypes of the middle and “business class”.

    B) We need to be much more accepting of gradual change; alternate land and building uses etc…

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, having just spent a weekend in the company of a multi-generational family gathering (part of the time in a car full of Boomers where I joked that 4 of 5 were AARP eligible), I’d quibble a little. Maybe it’s because I learned “keyboarding” on a typewriter and lived half my life in the pre-PC era, but I can identify with the folks’ ignorance/fear of the connected era just as well as I can identify with my kids’ adoption of new tech gadgets. You’ve seen my phone, and you know I still use it mostly to talk. :) The only rotary phone my kids ever saw was in my mother’s kitchen; I’m sure my current cellphone will look that way to my grandson.

    The boomers at the family gathering were joking about our kids (Millenials all) teaching us to text and use the current generation of phone/computer/camera/GPS devices and setting up our Facebook pages.

    But we taught our parents how to navigate ATMs, PCs, ISPs and email and cable TV and cell phones…in some cases, recently. :) True story: within the past 10 years, my Dad (a Depression-era baby) was visiting from out of town and needed cash. He confessed that he had never used an ATM before. Turns out he hadn’t activated the card; didn’t even know he had to.

    I don’t think “The Rupture” is quite as obvious, and I don’t think it’s inherent in technology or the urban/suburban divide. Those are in some measure symptoms.

    I think it’s historical: the distinction between Boomers and later generations is that we Boomers were all born and grew up in the Cold War…which ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We know what fallout shelters are, and recognize the signs that used to mark them. We know what “this is only a test” meant. We “knew” that the next war would be the end of the world. (And we stood slack-jawed when the bombs began to rain on Baghdad, conditioned to hide from missiles and unsure of the appropriate order of the day.) We came from a certain world order.

    The wall fell the day I brought my second Millenial son home from the hospital. I told an uncomprehending infant then that it would be a far different world for him. I was more right than I knew: he and his brother grew up with the first WTC bombing, OKC, 9/11, the era of global terrorism. They are both Marines, perhaps part of the “second coming” of “The Greatest Generation”?

    Will my kids and the majority of their generation settle in suburbs or cities? I don’t think we can know. But perhaps a coherent urban/metro policy would give them some direction. For example, would bigger VA or FHA incentives for urban infill or renovation tip the balance in favor of city living? Would a complete re-think of public schools do the trick? Or will they reject urbanity and density because of their overarching “life narrative” (recent history of cities as terrorism targets)?

    We do know the Xers have overwhelmingly chosen ‘burbs, and that urban flight continued unabated through the 2000-2010 decade by both white and black city-dwellers. “Back to the city” is an urban myth, a myth busted by the 2010 Census.

  15. George Mattei says:


    I think the huge technological changes that resulted from World War II also is a huge generation gap for pre-boomers. The Baby Boom generation was the first to experience the true power of modern technology, and it changed the way they view their world. Pre-Boomer generations grew up riding trolleys or horse carriages and reading the newspaper or listening to a radio. Boomers grew up zooming down highways in cars and watching news on TV. The experience changed them indelibly, opened their minds to new things.

    I have noticed here in Columbus that Baby Boomers are much more pessimistic about the City in general than younger residents. Despite what I see as a shift, or at least a significant modulation, in urban trends, I hear many Boomers pushing the same solutions they did 30 years ago.

    I also wonder if that, at a certain point, you don’t just get a bit calcified in your world view. It’s possible that 30 years from now I will be saying the same things I am today, but miss the changes that are coming down the pike.

  16. What same old solutions do the Boomers push?

  17. Thanks for the comments. I think I probably should have written this better and more clearly. I was less intending to talk about a return to the city movement, than the pitched battles we always seem to be waged between younger progressives who want a more urban environment in the city, better quality of space, etc. and the other pessimistic, anti-change crowd.

  18. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, it’s not necessarily “pessimistic, anti-change” to point out (say) that it’s just not a good idea to turn one of the US’ great shared spaces (Monument Circle in Indianapolis) into a ped-only space. Just because the idea is cast as progressive or urbanist by a bunch of youngsters doesn’t make it so, or make it workable.

    The fact is (I know this sounds curmudgeonly), the idea of closing Monument Circle ignores years of failed attempts to do the very same thing in other cities.

    George, even grumpy old men are right sometimes, even progressive in their own way. Think Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”.

  19. Most of the urbanist types I know (including me) have opposed turning Monument Circle into a pedestrian mall. The incredible focus on Monument Circle (which is already arguably the best urban space in the city) versus not even attempting to design decent sidewalks when doing a major replacement program shows the gulf in action.

  20. John Morris says:

    Will try to do a post about this myself.

  21. WIll says:

    As a millennial, I’ve often felt a smug coldness from the boomers, no matter their political persuasion. By and large, though, I just wonder where they have been the past 10-15 years as I sit in the center of an emptying city, everyday commuting to an office park 45 minutes west of one of the most forgotten of all the great 19th century urban cores. Still burning that oil, still have friends…over there. I guess I should feel lucky that I still have that job.

  22. WIll says:

    Also, I forgot to mention that my father is improbably a member of the Silent Generation, so, read into that how you may.

  23. Anon says:

    The destruction of the cities was a turning point for our nation. It was the war we lost, more than Vietnam.

    If you look at the pre-War cities, they were built for *forever*, especially the public spaces and public buildings. Their grandeur and expense could not be justified by the use of one or two generations. We thought they would be like Paris and Rome. 500 or 1000 years later, people still enjoy what was created there.

    When middle class Americans were driven from their cities, it changed their world view. Why build anything beautiful or lasting? You may have to abandon it in a few years. This is a big reason our suburbs are such artless, disposable wastelands.

    Is our generation big enough to recover what was lost? The short answer is no. Despite gathering young professionals from across the Midwest, we can only save slice of Chicago. Endless blocks on the South Side continue to be abandoned… returning to dust.

  24. marko says:

    “When middle class Americans were driven from their cities, it changed their world view”

    This is so true. It is a political and sociological question at it’s core. It seems however a third rail of disscussion topics. You can here the uncensored version at the next family gathering when my grandma and great uncles start talking about the old neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. They didnt want to leave – they were booted out, burned out and sold out.

  25. QwkDrw says:

    I have just come to this blog from over at “City Comforts, the Blog”. So much good discussion between commenters here. I will attempt to assert some personal cred to appreciate this general topic by mentioning my post, “Surburbs Diversify and Transform”, here:
    In that post, I may have identified and given some meaning to a potentially copyrightable term: ‘suburban senior’. But I’m talking about me too much.
    Ironwood (in comment #9), agreement here: “And now empty-[nest] boomers are a significant component of the demand for inner-city housing”. And if there isn’t the political will to retrofit the suburbs, the largest demographic (1946-1964 boomers) currently populating those areas will become an even greater component of the real estate market, I think.
    Urbanophile (Aaron), thank you for providing this thought provoking blog where many active and vital commenters interested in the built environment are heard with respect and dignity. I will be returning here many times to read and learn more. And perhaps share views again


  26. Wad says:

    Dave of Richmond wrote:
    Suburbanization was indeed starting much earlier than the 1950’s, but I think the main initial thoughts were for the suburbs to be places to live, with the cities still there for work, and perhaps shopping and entertainment.

    Mumford showed suburbanization can be traced back to early human organization. Note the prefix “sub-“. A suburb must always follow an urb. Without urban areas, it is impossible to have a suburb.

    Suburbs happen because there is competition for finite land. As an urban area becomes more in demand, it is inevitable that it will expand outward. Urban areas consume wilderness or lower value land and turn it into higher value land. That’s the suburbanization process.

    As for the latter part of Dave’s sentence, the compartmentalization of suburbs had to do with the exigencies of World War II and the postwar period. Most of us weren’t adults to experience that change personally, so we can only know but not fully understand.

    Continued …

  27. Alon Levy says:

    Wad, when we talk about suburbanization here, I for one am using it as shorthand for the urban form preferred from about 1920 to 2000, i.e. separate uses, single-family housing, and automobile scale. I’m pretty sure nobody in this thread is confusing Jersey City with Levittown.

  28. Wad says:

    … Continued from above.

    The reason why American life became so compartmentalized was a reaction to how life for the people of the 1940s was a living hell.

    Cities served as reminders of why life sucked. As children, you went to school were you were bossed around by teachers. As adults, you were bossed around by … well, bosses. And the rest of the time, you had to straighten up and fly right. Societies used to be obsessed with thrift, proper conduct and chastity — “small town” values.

    Urban areas offered an escape. This alarmed the predominantly rural America because on the one hand, young people had to go into the city to make something of themselves. On the other hand, urban areas offered so much temptation that they made people wicked.

    Suburbia was a reaction to that. It was an escape from the drudgery of having to look at a job that made your mind and body sick, but it was also a path to redeem virtue.

    I’m contradicting myself by using the very generational archetypes I claim as flawed in Post 8. I do think these points illustrate how dramatically cultures shifted that calling it a generation gap is an understatement. The generations might as well be two alien races.

    The beginning of the baby boom was marked by life with the cards that you were dealt. The end of the baby boom was marked by people having the right and the obligation to pursue their own destiny.

    The beginning was marked by taking an available job that you were capable of doing. The end was marked by having the choices of jobs that fulfilled the pocketbook, the self or both.

    The beginning was marked by a consumer floodgate opening for televisions, automobiles and airplane flights. The end was marked by these goods becoming so mature and saturated they constituted the baseline for a standard of living.

    The beginning marked the ascendancy of highly capitalized and organized corporations offering a challenge to independent businesses. The end marked the victory of the corporations in the marketplace.

    The beginning treated a college education as the mountaintop of personal fulfillment. The end made a college education the velvet rope, dress code and cover charge to maintain a standard of living above poverty.

    The beginning meant that people who didn’t work hard, then raise a family and go to church in their spare time, were regarded as social pariahs. The end meant that people who worked too much, went to church and didn’t pursue nonregimented leisure didn’t “have a life” and were social pariahs because they’re “uncool.”

    The beginning saw a relationship to be couples who had to be legally married, had an obligation to love each other and stay that way for life. The end allowed for society to acknowledge that a lover, a companion and a business partner (that would be the spouse) aren’t necessarily the same person — and it might take several tries to find the right balance.

    The beginning was true or false — life could be understood as making one choice or its opposite. The end was multiple choice — with fewer wrong answers.

  29. John Morris says:

    I guess I’m more interested in what can be done. Clearly, very large numbers of people don’t have these perceptions–how do we use and value them more?

    IMHO, the big problem isn’t so much that a large number of people think this way; it’s that cities have bent over to please them.

    Look at the area near Downtown Pittsburgh, the waterfront highway, mega stadiums etc… The issue isn’t do people want to live there? 70% of the land use was ordaned for parking and occasional attractions for others. Urban residents are left with the scraps of what’s left. Added to that, when finally some new residential was opened up, it was targeted at a tiny market of wealthy people.

    Only now, since it hasn’t worked has more effort been given to affordable student housing.

  30. John Morris says:

    OK, it might be 60% of the land. My point is that the primary focus is almost completely oriented around moving cars in and out with little thought or space given to those things city residents might want or need.

    In spite of the so called CBA, Hill District residents have very little say or control over the Consol Arena/Mellon Arena area.

  31. Quimbob says:

    Good post. It wasn’t poorly written but it could actually be a whole series of articles.
    As a late boomer, I was kind of thinking about what WAD was describing but I think the later boomers were not terribly happy. They didn’t get the promises the first wave of boomers got. Might describe the phases of boomers as:
    Bobby Darin
    Jim Morrison
    Johnny Rotten
    The Rotten phase, of course spilled over into Gen X.

  32. George Mattei says:

    I had a couple of people ask about my comment that I have had some Boomers advocating the same things that they were 30 years ago.

    First, I want to make clear that the comment was a gross generalization, and obviously many Boomers are thoughtful, flexible people with good ideas and valuable experience that can be a great benefit to our society.

    Having said that, our past affects our future. For most of the Boomer’s lives, people have been fleeing urban centers in droves. I have had many experiences here with Boomers who say things that make you realize they are seeing the world through the lense they have looked through all their lives. Many complain about investing in our downtown. Others declare with confidence that the far-flung suburbs will start growing just as they did in the 90’s and 00’s as soon as the economy picks up.

    They have meny good comments, and that experience of what works and what doesn’t is quite valuable. However, I still think that there are some macro trends that are shifting substnatially, and my sense is that many younger people are sensing this earlier than boomers are. Honestly I think we are lucky to have the seasoned experience of Boomers and the youthful energy of the Mellenials, plus the Xers like myself that have a bit of both. It provides balance to our society.

  33. John Morris says:

    That being said many boomers do have a issues with crime and often correct perceptions about inept, grasping and corrupt governments in many cities.

    Too often the concept of urbanism is tarnished by scarce evidence in the U.S. of well run cities.

    Even so, there does seem to be a shift. The market for “new urbanism”, attempts to fill desires for more dense, convenient places. It’s still an open question if the revival of interest in urban places, automatically means the return to the Cleveland’s, Detroits and Camden New Jerseys.

  34. Wad says:

    George, I agree that the younger generations are sensing the shift. I think it’s how they are adapting to what they see as the world ahead moreso than a desire to leave their imprint on society.

    The adaptations are largely due to the economic and ecological environment imposed on them. Generation X was the first to not know what it’s like to have a career for life with one company. I don’t know what form the economic recovery will take, but I think millennials must be in the mind-set that they will be temps for the rest of their lives. Their work tenure will be measured by project length or fixed contracts, not continuous employment.

    I also think this might be the outside factor that tips younger people to urbanism. Suburbia was possible because a job for life made it possible to carry a 30-year mortgage. Younger workers may not want to be tied down for that long, or their jobs won’t be there to meet the mortgage payment.

    The bursting of the real estate bubble may also produce long-lasting attitudes toward and against home ownership.

  35. Chris Barnett says:

    George, I’m a boomer who has lately been very discouraged by the early-release Census data. I bucked the trend in the 80s, and really wanted to see the “return to the city” continue, but it didn’t.

    I might be one of those you see declaring that the ‘burbs will continue to thrive.

    If a recession, $4 gas, charter schools and massive HUD-funded urban revitalization didn’t drive or draw people back to the city, I don’t know what will.

    My own choice was originally nostalgia: I grew up in suburbs, but went to college in a big city. The neighborhood of Indy where I settled looked and felt very much like my grandmother’s neighborhood, a streetcar suburb of a Midwestern city

    I look at my two Millenial kids. They both grew up in the city. In the 2000 Census they were still at home. In 2010 one was abroad with the military and one was away at school. One is a likely suburbanite, one a likely urbanite. So in my family it’s a net loss for urban living…even with Millenials who know the advantages of city living and who have never heard a good thing from me about suburbs.

  36. George Mattei says:


    I agree and was not trying to make sweeping commentary about vast changes in the markets. I believe if anything we are in line for moderation of the past trends, rather than a wholesale shift in people moving back to urban areas. I DO see development occurring at a much slower pace in the future, as the cost of commodities such as oil, building materials and food as well as interest rates, taxes and inflation go up (all things many experts predict in the near future). This will likely create a shift in living preferences to smaller homes closer to job centers, whether urban or suburban.

    I think we have structural changes going on in the economy. I think, ironically, Generation X saw it in a sense 20 years ago. Grunge was essentially about the rejection of our vast materialism, powered by a sense that we were heading in the wrong direction. Of course, as people grew up and learned about the world, and gained material wealth, that sentiment modulated greatly (I recall the great sigh of relief from marketers & retailers when they realized that yes, X-ers DO like to spend money too). But still, I think the X-ers and to a greater extent the Millennials have been somewhat more focused than Boomers were on experiences over the accumulation of wealth. The current economic downturn will likely accelerate that trend, with an added dose of concern about basic economic security.

    Again, I’m not making sweeping commentary that Boomers are all materialistic and younger generations are all in some sort of modern zen trance, but I think a shift is occurring.

  37. John Morris says:


    What city in particular are you talking about? There really are huge differences.

  38. John Morris says:

    Oh sorry, I guess you mean Indianapolis?

  39. Here’s an interesting related article. Note the ages of the people who are opposing sidewalks in the neighborhood:

  40. Mister Booze says:

    A couple of thoughts on cities and youth:

    1. Cities in America grew more or less nonstop from their founding up until the 1950s. Big cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland all grew from the first census up until the 1950 census. After that they started to shrink. Have you ever stopped to wonder why? After all none of these metropolitan areas shrank.

    2. Not all cities shrank. LA and Houston have never lost population in any 10 year census cycle.

    3. If you are looking for any specific generation differences to explain why young people are moving into New York and Chicago I can sum it up in one word: racism. Just look at the numbers and see for yourself. When was Brown vs Board of Education? 1954. Right after that many big cities started to decline. The next big wave of city shrinkage happened after the Civil Rights Act.

    You live in Chicago, right? Just look at the demographics for neighborhoods like Austin or Garfield Park.,_Chicago

    Your thinking about this is very one dimensional and perhaps reflects your youth/lack of history. Young people don’t remember Jim Crow, race riots, or any of the urban issues from the 60s and 70s. So young people have no problem moving into big cities. And young people are also poor and must live like poor people (hence hipsters). Better to be poor in a big city than a suburb.

    4. Violent crime rates started to increase rather unexpectedly in the 60s and then decreased rather unexpectedly in the 90s. So people moved out in the 60s and back in the 90s. The most mobile group is young people because they typically have no equity.

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