Urban Trends

Urban Trends April 20, 2020

In the latter half of the 1960s many U.S. cities experienced race riots. Plus, the exodus to suburbs that began in the 1950s accelerated in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Plus, industry left our Atlantic coast and Great Lakes cities, moving to the South or overseas. All of this made for the first urban crisis. Demographer Richard Florida details a second one in The New Urban Crisis (Basic Books, 2017). The new crisis is inequality. It is “the concentration of talent and economic activity in fewer and fewer places,” he writes. This “not only divides the world’s cities into winners and losers, but ensures that the winner cities become unaffordable for all but the most advantaged… Inequality in cities is on the rise…and in the long run urban inequality threatens economic growth.”

Florida’s list of “superstar cities” in the U.S. includes, in order, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington and San Francisco. There are some tech hubs and second-tier cities (Austin, Seattle, Portland, greater Miami etc.) that have similar characteristics (positive and negative) to the superstars, but to less degree. It is important to note that the divide between prosperous cities and the rest goes along with a divide within a superstar area. “The superstar [quality] of cities turns on a relatively small number of superstar areas within them,” Florida says.
This brings us to gentrification. This phenomenon is routinely decried for causing displacement and directly accelerating wealth inequality. It’s true, but simply denouncing gentrification is insufficient. In fact, as Florida argues, a rigid NIMBY posture makes matters worse.
Gentrification, in today’s worrisome sense, is only about 20-years old. Prior to this century downtown areas were mostly rundown. By the late 1970s young urban pioneers—artists, musicians and others—were rehabbing warehouses and lofts around the outer ring of select cities’ downtown areas. This activity was not causing massive displacement. Today the trend is more visible and it is driven more by developers than by artists. It drives up property prices in neighborhoods. For example, Florida calculates that the price of one apartment in NYC’s SoHo could buy 38 houses in Memphis, 30 in Cleveland and 26 in Cincinnati. In the 1970s I lived for a time in NYC’s Lower East Side in a walkup flat with the bathtub in the kitchen. Today, on that same block…well, “you can’t touch this.”
The “underlying motor” of this real estate trend, Florida repeatedly emphasizes, is “the clustering force.” A winner-take-all knowledge economy grows because of educated, talented, ambitious, networked people. They thrive when they cluster. Therefore, not all places can be superstar. It will not do to build a sports stadium in a place that is currently in the doldrums. It takes more than that; namely, anchor institutions like universities and research hospitals. It takes amenities like parks, river walkways, galleries, interesting bars and breweries, museums, concert venues and more. Plus to retain talented workers, it takes shopping districts, including groceries and good schools, often private or charter.
And now to the problem of inequality: Gentrifying neighborhoods in the superstar cities are often located right next door to non-gentrifying ones, Florida says. That is, the prosperity of Chicago or Seattle applies only to sections of town. The front yard looks great; the backyard is neglected. More to the problem, developers or even urban pioneers are not interested in the land occupied by the poor. Chicago’s south side and west side is about the same as it was in 1970, except that residents of those neighborhoods are relatively worse off because Chicago prospers. It’s called concentrated poverty and it is getting worse. Concentrated urban prosperity contributes to “chronic, concentrated urban poverty…which remains the most troubling issue facing our cities.”
The talented few need increasing numbers of service workers—bar tenders, grocery clerks, transport workers, grammar school teachers, janitors, women and men in the trades, clerks, nurses and more. It is in the interest of the prospering to retain good quality service workers. Though the wage gap between the creative class and the service class is wide, that gap at the moment still gives service workers more discretionary income in Boston or New York than in second-tier cities like Orlando or Norfolk. The same is true, Florida shows, for working class families. But the superstars will fall sooner or later unless they close the wage gap, retain or create some manufacturing and stimulate moderate-income housing.
To be continued with some positive examples…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

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