Back to the City — Not What I Imagined


I’ve been working as an urban planner for more than twenty years, and I’ve devoted my career to the revitalization of cities.  I view cities as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and also view the way our nation turned our backs on that in the last 70 years will be judged negatively by future generations.

But today, by most measures, cities are at least on equal footing with the suburban landscape that proliferated for three generations.  I should be happy, but I find myself dismayed and disillusioned.

Let’s look at the evidence of the shift.  The New York Times recently lauded the reordering of our society and suggests this is a long term trend.  In a statement tantamount to the U.S. Census’ declaration that the American frontier was “closed” in 1890, blogger Alex Steffen claimed “cities won” and that we’ve reached “peak gentrification”.  Studies abound that city growth is now outpacing suburban growth.  Spike Lee decries the changes taking place in his beloved Brooklyn, but the backlash was immense.  San Francisco’s “Google Bus” controversy pits affluent tech employees against affordable housing activists.  More and more, people are suggesting that the problem in our cities is a lack of housing supply — in SeattleSan FranciscoNew York, and Chicago, among others.

Clearly, this is not the same built environment landscape that existed when I entered planning in the ’90s.  I see our nation at an inflection point not unlike when global climate change was first seriously debated twenty years ago.  Signs pointed to ongoing climate change; denialists sought to shift attention away from it, until overwhelming scientific evidence gathered over the ensuing two decades proved its existence.  That’s where we are now with our back-to-the-city movement.

Yet I remain dismayed and disillusioned.  Why?  On the front lines of the movement, where gentrification is taking place, there seems to be an undercurrent among new city inhabitants.  There is a sense that longtime inhabitants “had their chance” at revitalization and that their time is up.

I’m dismayed because cities did not “win” as much as the benefits to those who once shunned it now exceed the costs.

I’m dismayed because there are calls for more affordable housing units in upscale neighborhoods, even as lots languish in pockmarked neighborhoods just a few miles away.

I’m disillusioned because whether it’s ChicagoNew York, or other cities, we’re establishing starkly divided two-tier metropolitan areas — one side full of opportunity, the other notable for its lack.

I’m dismayed because there seems to be an implied indictment of longtime city inhabitants, often minorities, of poor city stewardship, when the tools for revitalization were never fully available to them.

I’m disillusioned because this is the natural outcome of 75 years of de facto urban policy at the federal, state and local levels.

The nonprofit journalism outfit ProPublica produced a fascinating series over the last 18 months that shows that what we have today is not coincidental; it’s by design.  The entire series is worthy of your attention, and has far more than I can quote in any coherent fashion.  But, if I were to summarize our nation’s de facto urban policy since the Great Depression, particularly for America’s northern industrial cities, it would be this:

  • Capital was squeezed from cities, by not providing insured mortgages for homes in city neighborhoods and blockbusting techniques.  
  • Transportation policy was designed to pull people from cities into suburbs, and destroyed intact urban neighborhoods.
  • People were further displaced through federal urban renewal programs.
  • Residential integration has been stymied at the federal level despite the 1968 Fair Housing Act, because enforcement of the Act has been nonexistent.
Indeed, as the New York Times pointed out, there is a reordering going on, and increasingly longtime city inhabitants are out of the mix.  This has a devastating impact on minority communities, in particular the African-American communities of America’s Rust Belt.
In many respects, what’s happening today is akin to buying up a stock whose value was allowed to bottom out.  What happens to the previous owners of the cheap stock?  They buy new stocks, presumably more expensive and returning less, ultimately making them less wealthy.  As values shoot up, the low buyers win.
Growing up in Detroit, I remember family discussions at holiday dinners talking about the future of our hometown.  For the most part, my family members said that Detroit would not rebound until all value was extracted out of it, and people with means would be attracted to absurdly low prices.  We see that happening now.

One thought on “Back to the City — Not What I Imagined

  1. Just saw this, as it was mentioned in Aaron Renn's piece on corruption (which didn't acknowledge a lot of my writings on the issue but whatever), I have a piece from a few years ago called “revitalization in stages” which makes the point that people don't realize how long it takes to achieve critical mass so that the inflection point wrt improvement/revitalization becomes evident.

    In DC, people attracted to urban living post-white flight (from the 1950s) were putting in their time on neighborhood stabilization for many decades (also see the innovation diffusion curve out of the work by Everett Rogers) and it took until the late 1990s to begin to achieve critical mass, aided by the construction of the Metrorail system and the continued steady employment and contracting engine of the federal govt.

    But like you mention the people who say the people who had been there “had their chance” most of the “newcomers” don't acknowledge all the work that was done by others, that they are taking advantage of (and building upon), especially historic preservation. People bitch about it, and yes, historic preservationists haven't figured out how to respond to the 21st century when the city is capable of growth, rather than still shrinking, but the reality is that historic preservationists preserved neighborhoods with good bones, and now that we are adding population (multiunit mostly) and population turnover the neighborhoods are becoming attractive again.

    But it's that the trends began to favor urban living in a big way (I attribute this in part to tv shows like Friends and Seinfeld, which showed cities, NYC specifically, in a relatively positive light), the “newcomers” are taking all the credit for a process within which they are only one phase.

    Note that Suleiman Osman's book on the “brownstoning of Brooklyn” covers the same type of phenomenon.


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