Buffalo is Older Than New York City and Other Fallacies

Buffalo, New York
So I’m doing my regular reading of Internet planning sites and last week I find that Wendell Cox of Newgeography.com has a post on America’s oldest cities.  Starting with the premise that profound changes in the way we build cities became apparent after 1940 (which I also believe to be true), he looked at the percentages of pre- and post-1940 residential construction for the 51 U.S. metro areas with more than one million people.  His data source was the 2007-2011 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
What followed was a bunch of data and analysis that made me go, “huh”?  Taken from his piece:
  • Boston is the oldest with 35.7% of its residences built before 1940. This varies from 55.6% in the historical core city of Boston to roughly 32 percent in the suburbs, which are the oldest themselves in the country.   
  • Nearby Providence is the second oldest metropolitan area, with 33.1% of its dwellings built before 1940. The city of Providence is also the second oldest among historical core municipalities, at 58.8%. Providence overall share of pre-1940 housing stands at 30.2%. It is notable that the Office of Management and Budget now considers Boston and Providence to be in the same combined statistical area (consolidated metropolitan area).
  • Buffalo is the nation’s third oldest metropolitan area with 30.5% of its residences preceding 1940. The core city of Buffalo is the oldest historical core municipality, with 62.8% of its housing predating 1940. Buffalo suburbs, however, are considerably newer, with only 20.1% older than 1940.
  • New York is the nation’s fourth oldest metropolitan area, with 28.9% of its dwellings having been built before 1940. The city of New York has a much lower prewar housing percentage than the top four, largely because of the substantial amount of green field housing built in the more distant sections of Queens and especially in Staten Island during the 1950s and 1960s. New York’s suburbs, which have accounted for nearly all of the growth in the metropolitan area have a pre-1940 housing share of 18.9%.
  • Rochester is the nation’s fifth-oldest metropolitan area, with 28.8% of its housing prewar. The historical core municipality of Rochester has a high 58.1% of its housing in prewar stock, while the suburbs have a 21.1% share.
From my perspective, any list of the oldest metro areas in the nation that does not include New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC in the top five (along with Boston) would seem to have a flaw in the data.  Buffalo?  Rochester?  In the top five?  Really?
Rochester, New York
A quick Google search reveals Buffalo was founded in 1789 but its growth didn’t really take off until the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.  By that time New York was already well established as our nation’s largest and most important city.  Rochester followed a similar path, having been founded in 1803 but with growth really starting in the 1830’s, again with the Erie Canal. 
That compares metro areas to metro areas.  Again using Cox’s data, let’s look at the core cities of New York, Buffalo and Rochester and see what they reveal.  His data shows that 41.3% of NYC’s housing was built before 1940, placing it 12th out of 51 large metros.  Buffalo’s was 62.8%, making it first overall, and Rochester’s was 58.1%, making it third.
How exactly did that happen?
Well, according to Cox, the growth of post-war housing in outlying Queens and Staten Island brought the overall “age” of New York down, as it “suburbanized” on its periphery.  There’s actually some merit to that.  But there’s also a big gap that requires explanation.  Let’s say that Manhattan, particularly Midtown, got rid of thousands of units of late 19th and early 20th Century tenements and replaced them with Modernist 1950’s and 1960’s towers.  That, too, would bring the overall age of housing down when comparing pre-1940 homes to post-1940 ones, but that would be a change that occurred at the core of the core city.  The city didn’t get any younger; it was redevelopment on the same development template that was established more than one hundred years earlier.
Now let’s look at Buffalo and Rochester.  Both cities have tons of housing built prior to 1940.  But is either city noted for its redevelopment efforts since?  Both are classic “shrinking cities”, and neither brought in new development in the same way that NYC has remade itself over the decades.  So Buffalo and Rochester have older housing stocks, but are far from being older cities than New York.
What’s even more confounding is that Cox uses the data to make the following point:
The bottom line is one different than one tends to hear in the urban-core-oriented press. In most of America the detached house predominates and virtually all development since 1940 has been suburban, both inside and outside the historical core municipalities.

How exactly did he come to that conclusion?  To me, there are too many subtleties and nuances that are overlooked.  I mentioned Manhattan redevelopment as one possibility for changing New York’s data; how many other cities have had similar redevelopment?  Buffalo and Rochester are not unique in their lack of growth over the decades; does that make them older than New York?
Overall, very confusing and confounding.
In the near future, I’ll be doing a series on development eras in American history, and I’ll be looking at factors that will more accurately describe the age of cities and metro areas, and look at what exactly their city and metro ages mean for their respective futures.

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