why cities are so great today

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my concerns about today’s urban boosterism. Many american cities, we are told, are in a new golden age, witnessing an influx of trendy architecture, trendy stores, trendy people, and trendy ideas. Suburbs are the (not-so-)new evil, ungreen, untrendy, unloved by academics. 

But what’s really happening is a fundamental shift in the city that makes burb-bashing (of this sort, for example) increasingly questionable.

Some strange things are afoot. First, there is an overall demographic trend of the middle class moving out of the cities. See Michael Barone’s The Realignment of America in the Wall Street Journal for more. White flight takes place on a country-wide level as middle-class whites (and middle class African Americans too) move out of coastal cities such as New York or Los Angeles (yes, this is happening, please pay attention) to interior megalopolises. Much of this is happening at a metropolitan scale. In other words, many of these people are moving out of suburbs in coastal cities to suburbs in the interior megalpolises (what you thought that the kids who grew up in the Valley were all in Silver Lake now?).

Something else is happening within major metropolitan regions such as Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. In these places, for the first time in many decades, white flight has virtually stopped or even reversed itself. See this article on The End of White Flight by Conor Dougherty, again from the WSJ. Instead of undoing segregation, we are seeing a new condition. Forced out by rising rents, taxes, and the cost of living, poor African Americans as well as immigrants are moving out of cities to older inner suburbs (often left by the white middle class moving to the country’s interior). Being smaller, these impoverished suburbs have little political clout and even less revenue for schools or services. A downward spiral begins.

Are cities so great today? We hear a lot about how cities are diverse and suburbs are not, but what is diverse about fancy boutiques selling doggie clothes and organic take out? Does your neighbor from Switzerland who speaks better English than you do and lives off a trust fund make it diverse?

I’m not so easily convinced. I lived my first twelve years in a neighborhood in Chicago that was diverse. There were poor African American families, middle class whites, weird bohemian artist Eastern European refugee families (mine, and the only one in that area), Mexican families, Jewish survivors of World War II Germany, Greeks, gays, Indians, and many others. There was even one rich family. They lived in a penthouse on top of a residential hotel across the street. Urban homesteaders seemed like part of the diversity. They were not. In the decades after we left, that neighborhood got turned into yet another unaffordable hipster heaven. That kind of experience seems increasingly uncommon in cities today.

So a call to action for urban planners and writers about cities. Stop with the Jane Jacobs already! It’s been nearly 50 years since she formulated her theories. 50 years!!! Everything has changed since. And through away your Situationists. Their corpses have long since been infected by hipster real estate agents.

Let’s take a cold, hard look at cities and suburbs as they are today.


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