|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.