Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The inversion of American cities?

I'm a little late getting to this, but the trend is long-term and may not be fully established yet. Alan Ehrenhalt of Governing magazine had a fascinating article in the New Republic about a month or more ago. It argued, using Chicago as the first example, that it's just possible to discern a trend that rather reverses the U.S. urban pattern of the last half century or more. With suburbanization, we saw middle-class people move out of central cities (white flight, some called it) and the central cities becoming dominated by the poor and minorities. Ehrenhalt sees a pattern that resembles cities in Europe -- the affluent moving back into the central cities (gentrification squared), and the poor and minorities populating the suburbs, which works because that's where many of the blue-collar jobs are anymore. Deindustrialized cities become more attractive to affluent people, and something like the ideal of a lively urban life becomes more likely.

The trend seems most marked in Atlanta, and although Ehrenhalt cautions that the numbers are still relatively small, he thinks he sees a pattern. Maybe Jane Jacobs' ideal of cities that are really alive and people-friendly will happen eventually, years after her death.

I don't know. Urban patterns seem to happen in cycles as neighborhoods deteriorate and are gentrified and back again. But it would be interesting if cities became more vital at their centers. Even aside from the fact that I probably couldn't afford them, I'm not sure how tempted I would be. Maybe it's age, but a small town works nicely for me so long as I have plenty of bookshelves and access to the Internet.

1 comment:

Rebecca Bridgeford said...

Mr. Bock, thank you for bringing up this potentially important trend in the demographics of major cities. Living near Los Angeles, with its newly redeveloped Central business district with many lofts and condos I also see a change in the demographics of the inner city. I appreciate that you did not focus on the concept of "white flight" or its reverse. Although the numbers of non-Hispanic whites are up, it appears that the new demographic trend is more about the financial demographics than it is about racial issues. It is generally accepted that many whites have a higher income than non-whites, resulting in increased mobility, which, may be reflected in the higher numbers of people returning to the city, but I would like to see the data and compare the trends referencing income, and not simply race. I must, however, take issue with your comment that the influx of upper income whites may enable cities to be places that are "really alive and people friendly". Jane Jacobs argues that successful - or alive - cities were contingent on many aspects of diversity, both structural and demographic: mixed ages of buildings, mixed activates and the 24 hour street life. To base the "coming alive" of cities exclusively on the return of affluent and or "white" people to the inner city fails, in my opinion, to take into account that the vibrancy of the city is its diversity of economies, activities and function. In fact in Jane Jacobs most ardent defense of Boston's North End, there was not the level of affluence we see in Manhattan or Los Angels today but there was diversity of purpose that brought community to a low-income immigrant neighborhood. This type of community cohesiveness provides a partial answer to the question postulated by Mr. Ehrenhalt as to why people are moving back into the city instead of to the small towns that you enjoy. Mr. Ehrenhalt suggests many reasons for this mobile class to be move into cities, but a sense of community created through diversity may be one of the most significant amongst them. As you suggest, it will be interesting to see if cities are able to recreate vital centers, especially in light of the new real estate squeeze.