The current trend toward suburbanization of poverty is worth examining. It is incontrovertible that on the whole, the American poor are moving to the suburbs. Simultaneously, city centers are gentrifying, seeing large increases in income, with an influx of rich and upper middle-class people. This could lead to a French-style geography in which the rich live in central cities and the poor outside them. It’s not my intention to doubt that this trend is happening; my question is whether it represents a break from the past.
On the one hand, the consequences of such a trend clearly do represent a break from the past. We’re already seeing demands from business-oriented groups for more transit investment, and a new focus on urbanism in elite magazines. However, this by itself does not mean that the reasons for this trend are at all new. In fact, in one way, we’ve really been seeing the same trend for fifty years, in which both the inner and the outer limits of poverty are pushed outward. What we saw last decade was just a tipping point in which the expansion of the gentrified core was by itself enough to offset the wealth loss coming from the expansion of the ghetto.
The best example for this is New York, whose regional income distribution is arguably more regularly donut-shaped than that of other Americans metro areas, with less of a favored/ill-favored quarter geography. Furthermore, in Manhattan, there is a sharp color line between the Upper East and West Sides and Harlem, which is relatively easy to discern if you’re a resident. Mad Men contains multiple citations establishing Manhattan north of 86th as a bad area, and based on the geography of the 1970s, Joel Garreau placed the boundary at East 86th and West 96th. By the 1990s, we see citations putting the line at West 110th Street; moreover the Upper West Side has joined up with Morningside Heights, itself gentrified, moving the color line up to about West 123rd. This is a decades-long trend, rather than a recent development. Conversely, the boundary between the poor South Bronx and the middle-class North Bronx has, too, moved north over the decades, and is still moving north as the black middle class leaves for greener pastures.
In general, a similar story played out in the first-ring suburbs of many Rust Belt cities, especially in ill-favored quarters: the places that people used to flee the city to are now cities that people flee.
This is not to say that nothing has changed. Harlem and the South Bronx of today are richer than Harlem and the South Bronx of 1980, leading some people to think that they (especially Harlem) have gentrified far more than they actually have. People are no longer abandoning the Bronx in droves. But in terms of relative geographical income across the metropolitan area, we’ve really just witnessed an expansion of the donut going back to at least the establishment of the first modern suburbs in Westchester and Long Island, nearly a hundred years ago.
What we see is therefore inconsistent with the usual story of suburbanization of poverty. The exurbs are not terribly rich, but the Rust Belt exurbs are a far cry from their housing bust-stricken Sunbelt counterparts. Poverty is suburbanizing from the inside out rather than from the outside in, just as wealth and the upwardly mobile middle class did fifty years ago.
Although this implies that suburbia is unsustainable, the way it implies it is different from the usual explanation. It’s not that the future is bad for low-density settlements and good for high-density ones. It’s that the American urban form and political geography, especially but not only in the suburbs, are fundamentally unsustainable, and require constant growth to persist. Greenfield sites have an inherent advantage with respect to pensions, debt, and fossilized community relations;the debt-fueled system of growth in the US encourages moving on to the next tract rather than maintaining what exists. Thus today’s boomburb is tomorrow’s decaying eyesore. This can only be countered in persistently favored quarters, but those by definition only hold a small proportion of the population; not everyone can live in the richest 15% of the region.
The thing to wonder then is not why suburbs are hollowing from the inside out, but why city centers are expanding and gentrifying so rapidly. One answer is that Jane Jacobs was right, and diverse city neighborhoods can resile from the shock of middle-class flight. Indeed, the only significant non-Jacobsian neighborhoods in the expanding cores tend to be projects, and those tend to significantly lag in gentrification (for example, see Stuyvesant Town – and that’s a project that was originally white-only, thus middle-class). On the other hand, the projects are protected by public ownership laws, regardless of urban form, so even if Jacobs was wrong, developers would only eye them after exhausting private buildings.
A second answer is that today’s gentrified cities are something like greenfield sites. It holds up well with the analogy between gentrification today and suburbanization a century ago. That said, this analogy is political and sociological rather than geographical or economic: cities still have to pay pensions, and the buildings that are now selling for a million dollars per apartment are often very old. On the third hand, the social networks of the newcomers are mostly independent from those of the older residents: for example, they rarely send their children to neighborhood public schools, or if they do, they organize a separate school in the same building as the established school; so on the social level they really are greenfield.
That said, in the future, the trend for suburbanization of poverty can accelerate and become different from what it has been since the 1940s, if it reinforces itself. Cities are getting closer to a tipping point of being richer than their suburbs, possibly even to the point of having better social services for the middle class. This is to some extent already occurring with crime, though we’ve seen an absolute decline more than a relative decline in central cities, and is occurring more slowly with schools. Although on the whole the trend among people who care about schools and crime is to move to the suburbs, if the suburbanization of poverty, coming about from movement of people with other concerns, gets to this tipping point, then a large mass of people will abandon much of suburbia in favor of the cities, as urbanist common wisdom holds that they already are.
At least, they will try. The number of people who can live in a city is bounded by the product of household size and the number of available housing units, and the number of available housing units grows glacially in brownfield sites. Here, gentrified cities cannot imitate the properties of greenfield exurbs. As a result, we can expect to see an acceleration of the current trend of demand for cities translating into high housing prices rather than population growth. In such a scenario, cities will not become middle-class, but rather turn into enclaves of the rich and upper middle class. Of course there’s a natural limit on how high rents can go, especially in New York, Chicago, and other cities with large city proper populations, allowing the middle class to be comfortable in their suburban neighborhoods. But a transition to a French urban geography will be very rapid and self-reinforcing, and the rents will take every penny the upper middle class can afford.