The Medium Apples
When it comes to urban policy, midsize cities have much to teach us. A response to Ben Adler.
All too often, students of urban demography report their findings impartially, as though millions of decisions about where to live arise from the alchemy of personal taste and market dynamics alone, unshaped by policy. In his review of Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion [Issue #26], Ben Adler agrees with the author that former suburbanites’ growing preference for urban living bodes well for the future of our long-beleaguered cities. But where Ehrenhalt is neutral about the “moral” significance of our shifting metropolitan demographics, Adler embraces the change wholeheartedly, and proposes bolstering it with public policy intended to secure both urban quality and socioeconomic equity. Adler’s perspective is refreshing. Yet by sharing Ehrenhalt’s focus on big cities, and ignoring small-to-midsize ones, he forfeits the chance to amplify his policy prescriptions and our understanding of today’s fledgling urban sensibilities.
Anyone who has spent time combing the large metropolitan areas to which Ehrenhalt confines his study is aware of the “Great Inversion” he so ably describes: the scramble to meet youthful, affluent, and generally white market demand for center-city living; the suburbanization of the black middle class; and the settlement of low-income immigrant communities in first-ring suburbs, priced out of traditional gateway urban neighborhoods. These geo-demographic shifts, some ten years in the making, reflect a new preference for compact, transit-oriented, walkable urban living among the knowledge and “creative” classes in the so-called post-industrial economy.
Even in the historically downtown-less cities of the Sun Belt and in suburbs strewn with dead malls, planners have been tasked with designing mixed-use residential-commercial corridors and town centers with Main Street aesthetics to accommodate this shift in taste. Meanwhile, leaving aside longstanding oases of affluence such as Brookline, Massachusetts, and Winnetka, Illinois, the suburbs (if not the exurbs) are growing down-market and unsafe—a reflection, perhaps, of worsening wage inequity and the evisceration of the American middle class. As this millennial-generation-fueled demographic inversion proceeds—and Ehrenhalt sees no reason to think it will not—the “future of the American city” will increasingly resemble the old cities of continental Europe, such as Paris and Vienna, where since the late nineteenth century affluent cosmopolitan elites have enjoyed the human-scaled public life of the boulevard and café, while low-paid immigrant service workers huddle in cheap suburban slums, commuting exhausting distances to their urban jobs.
“[F]or all its imperfections and inequalities,” Ehrenhalt believes, “demographic inversion ultimately will do more good than harm” in facilitating community “in and around many of our big cities.” Adler concurs, supplementing Ehrenhalt’s rich documentation of neighborhoods in cities ranging from Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to Phoenix, Houston, and Atlanta, with policy ideas intended to safeguard socioeconomic diversity and promote alternatives to automotive transportation. After all, cultural variety and dense, lively, walkable street life are the very qualities the young, the creative, and the affluent find appealing about city living in the first place.
Without local zoning reform and federal support for “smart growth” initiatives tying mass transit to affordable housing, Adler argues convincingly, today’s demographic inversion could deepen the geo-economic inequities it already reflects. He reminds us that, in spite of the Obama Administration’s initiatives along these lines, the radical-conservative hold on Congress does not bode well for policy reforms that might prevent the Great Inversion from becoming gentrification on steroids.
Adler might have also scrutinized Ehrenhalt’s concentration on large cities, but perhaps he too shares the metropolitan bias that has prevailed among urban theorists over the past 30 or so years. Its lineage extends back to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which explicitly excluded smaller industrial cities from consideration. Together with two later books on urban economics—The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations—Jacobs’s classic work of social criticism shaped the next two generations of urbanists, including, most recently, Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida.
Like them, Ehrenhalt has written an important, potentially influential book—and Adler, with his policy recommendations and richer appreciation of millennial-generation culture, fleshes out the utilitarian market analysis toward which the author leans. But both writers’ Jacobsesque preoccupation with the “Great American City” blinds them to significant geo-economic shifts taking place in smaller cities, particularly in the historically industrial Northeast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic states—shifts at variance with the big-city model. Taking these cities’ peculiarities into account is important not only because some 35 percent of the U.S. population resides in smaller metros, but also because these cities can play a distinctive, production-based role in our future low-carbon economy.
Had Adler and Ehrenhalt examined older cities of smaller scale—and I do mean cities of, say, 40,000 to 400,000, not small towns—they would have discovered different yet related demographic shifts, also full of promise and peril. For example, both authors observe that immigrants are no longer “landing” in cities but in suburbs. Yet many small-to-midsize industrial cities struggling with population loss in the wake of manufacturing decline have also become landing places for recent immigrants who now bypass traditional big-city ports of entry. Cities such as New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Allentown, Pennsylvania are home to Hispanic commercial corridors filled with independently owned stores and foot traffic that would be the envy of any New Urbanist were they not also low income. The second-largest Cambodian community in the United States is settled in Lowell, Massachusetts. Why? Because rent in these cities is still affordable. Many other smaller metros, mainly throughout upstate New York and in the Midwest (such as Syracuse, New York; Dayton, Ohio; and Muncie, Indiana), while also home to rising immigrant populations, have not seen significant demographic inversion at all but have retained the “doughnut effect,” with African Americans still concentrated in urban neighborhoods surrounded by leafy white suburbs.
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