Tearing Down the Wall

View of a housing development in Houston, TX.  Source: environmentalgeography.wordpress.com

Today I’m going to write something that’s a little more personal.

A recent article in Next City called “A Black Gentrifier Moves to the Suburbs” recounts the author’s move from Harlem to suburban Rockland County, NY.  It seems that while he was committed to a life in the city, events transpired at his apartment building (maintenance issues, noise, rent hikes) that made him consider moving.  Shortly afterward he realized that larger forces were shaping his environment:

Ultimately, though, the real menace holding my neighbors and I hostage might have been the Harlem Growth Hormone — Columbia University. I’d kept a close eye on its Manhattanville expansion, and had seen it grow from a 17-acre mound of dirt to one full-fledged river view edifice with much, much more to come. It didn’t take an urban planner to see my landlord’s larger vision: Columbia’s new campus would become the neighborhood anchor. Once it opened, money would flow in and rents would spike. Then, and only then, would the management company begin to take an active interest in building maintenance. In the meantime, middle-income earners like us would continue to get gouged for the privilege of remaining in what was still only a neighborhood in the early stages of transition.

Sadly, the first-gen gentrifier couldn’t survive the next and larger second wave, or at least its anticipation by property owners.  Sort of like the bohemian artists who move into and rehab vacant buildings, who get replaced by thirty-something hipsters looking for edginess, who get replaced by empty-nesters.  Something like that.

He’s settled into his new place overlooking the Hudson River now, and reflects on the decision to move:

I find myself looking at the Hudson, wondering what took me so long to come to my senses. The part of my life that revolved around the city — drinks after work, clubbing, being in the mix of things, even just walking the streets without a destination — ended long before we left. Why I insisted on drinking the overpriced Kool-Aid well past the expiration date is beyond me, especially now that it matters less where we live than how we live, since we all have access to what we want.

Many people who’ve come across this blog may see me as a passionate advocate for Detroit, and for all distressed Rust Belt cities.  And they’d be right.  But what they may not know is that I’m a resident of one of the more well-known, affluent and comfortable western suburbs in the Chicago area (one note: don’t count our family as one of the affluent; we still rent and we got lucky).  I don’t find my advocacy incompatible with the way I live.

How did I end up here?  First, I should mention that in the 26 years I’ve lived in the Chicago area, I’ve been all over — South Side, West Side and North Side, as well as the suburbs.  In all, I’ve spent about 16 years of that time in the city, and 10 in the suburbs, including the last five years.  I left the city for the suburbs due to my job, and I’ve stayed because of the quality of schools and the wider variety of inexpensive amenities.  I like where we are, and I’m still able to be passionate about changing places like distressed Rust Belt cities.

My relationship with the suburbs might not be like many who are squarely on the urbanist side of things.  I did not grow up in the suburbs.  I grew up in Detroit, albeit in a solidly stable, black middle class environment.  As a child, I never saw the suburbs as a place of stultifying soullessness or oppressive homogeneity.  I guess you have to grow up in them to view them that way.  I always viewed the suburbs as the other side of the new Wall, an escape from the messiness of the city.  I grew up a half mile from Eight Mile Road, Detroit’s northern boundary, and in the ’70s the differences between my side and the other side were pretty stark.  They still are.

But I also realized not all suburbs were created equal.  My father was born and raised in Inkster, MI, about 20 miles west of Detroit.  Inkster is a predominantly African-American community and has been since the 1940s.  Why?  Inkster is just west of Dearborn, MI, home to Ford Motor Company’s headquarters and the Ford Main plant, and black factory workers were not allowed to live in Dearborn.  Inkster was a viable living option for blacks seeking a better environment, but I was never under the impression that it was a suburb in the same way that, say, Bloomfield Hills was.  So seeing the suburbs as soul-numbing and less authentic has always been an urbanist’s conceit to me.  In fact, seeing cities as soul-enriching and more authentic is a conceit to me as well.  They both just are, with merits and flaws alike.

To me, the low-density nature of suburbs was just one aspect of the Wall.  It kept suburbs unaffordable so “undesirables” could not qualify for mortgages.  It made cars necessary, introducing another level of psychic distance.   But what I’ve found in the Chicago area is that there are clusters of suburbs in spots throughout the metro area that have some semblance of walkability, mix of uses, and mix of housing types that city living offers.  People are once again attracted to cities because of these things, but suburbs would do well to implement them to remain competitive in an ever-shifting economic and social environment.

I’ve always been more interested in tearing down the Wall than in tearing down the suburbs.

One thought on “Tearing Down the Wall

  1. I read Aaron Renn's blog regularly, and one of his philosophies is “build better suburbs.” He, too, has noticed the “urbanist's conceit,” as you put it, where everything has to be either intense urbanity or pastoral rural wilderness, with little or nothing in between. The problem is, things in nature diffuse. They tend to move from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration, which means that there's such a thing as too much density. I traveled to Hong Kong five years ago and saw the neighborhood of Wan Chai, and I honestly thought that it was just too crowded. Nobody had any space other than the rooms of their apartments, and everything outside was glass, steel and concrete. And if people think that post-World War II suburban tract housing is banal, they should get a load of all the residential highrises in Hong Kong that look exactly the same. “How do they know which house is theirs?” in the United States becomes “How do they know which highrise is theirs?” and “How do they know which floor is theirs?” in Hong Kong. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that there is some value to elbow room, and the suburbs offer enough of it to be appealing. Where the suburbs went wrong was in haphazard development with no logical layout and too many cul-de-sacs. The best suburbs are built on grids or something close to it, with sidewalks, a few main thoroughfares for commercial purposes, parks embedded in the grid, and at least one public transit option, even if it's a bus. That's how you build better suburbs.

    Speaking of urbanist's conceit and transportation infrastructure, they want everybody to walk, bike or take the train to work. How dare anybody drive. One aspect of urbanist's conceit that frustrates the hell out of me is the universal, reflexive and vehement opposition to all highway investment, even for existing and important highways. I-376 in Pittsburgh is functionally the same highway as when it was built 60 years ago, and it's so far over capacity that you could cut traffic volume in half and it'd still be over capacity. Even worse, many acceleration and deceleration lanes are dangerously short, and the inner lanes are no more than a foot away from the median barrier. Furthermore, due to the lay of the land, there are literally no other direct routes into the city from the east or west, and the highway itself passes through many undeveloped and undevelopable areas, only skirting the edges of a couple of neighborhoods in the city's East End, so it's about the most unobtrusive urban highway in the United States. Despite this, any suggestion of reconfiguring the interchanges to make them safer, or expanding the highway's capacity to six lanes from four, results in conniptions for the militant urbanists, It doesn't matter that the highway handles more than twice its designed traffic capacity, and that public transit options alone won't be enough to alleviate it; to them, it's a highway, and highways are evil and not worthy of any investment. I have no problem at all with investment in rail lines, busways or bike lanes — I favor investing in ALL types of transportation infrastructure — but keeping an obsolete highway obsolete simply because it's a highway is damn myopic.


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