The post-urban future of cities.
What becomes of cities when the yuppies flee?
This feature on the future of American cities was occasioned by the release of the new documentary, Gotham: The Fall and Rise of New York.
Gentrification is the urban policy most closely associated with the neoliberal era. Though reports of neoliberalism’s death are greatly exaggerated, there is no question that policies such as free trade, deregulation, entitlement reform, and foreign intervention are now more on the defensive than 20 years ago. Gentrification may be vulnerable, too. Certainly, fertility decline and remote work pose threats to it. The smaller family sizes that have become normal in 21st-century America mean fewer potential urban professionals in the college-to-city pipeline. Those currents will be yet further stemmed by the increased share of white collar jobs done via Zoom.
Gentrification is, at core, an economic strategy. It aims at increasing the number of middle- and upper-middle-class people living in urban cores. There always were, and always will be, young adults who want to live in cities. Gentrifiers differ from Patti Smith types, because they’re respectable and promise quantifiable gains to the urban economy such as higher real estate valuations. They moved into housing previously occupied by people with lower incomes.
This strategy made sense. The best argument for gentrification is that no other model seemed to work. It’s one thing to nag former industrial cities to lay off their yuppie-hugging and get to work rebuilding the great American working class. It’s quite another to make that happen. The cookie-cutter aspect of gentrification—micro-breweries, Starbucks, people riding bikes to work for reasons other than a DUI or an inability to afford a car—is precisely its virtue. An urban policy “model” is something that can be implemented anywhere and does not require much in the way of charisma or talent in city hall.
Cities did try other strategies. Mayors must promise not only to grow the tax base but fix the schools and reduce crime. However, no one ever figured out a way to fix urban schools, at least not at scale. That failure ensured that gentrification would have to be limited to single adults, not families (San Francisco, famously, has more dogs than children). Cities met with more success in the case of crime, at least during the 1990s and 2000s. That was important for the many gentrifiers who, to meet their housing costs, rely on parental subsidies. Affluent parents in their 50s and 60s tend to embrace a suburban conception of safety and disorder.
But, like bad schools, rising crime (New Yorkers’ number #1 concern right now) isn’t completely fatal to gentrification. Single white progressive men have been among those most aggressively downplaying subway mayhem in New York, whose transit crime rate is up over 50% since the pandemic. That same demographic has contributed directly to ongoing crime and disorder throughout urban America via participation in riots and passionate support for the criminal justice reform movement.
The connection between gentrification and the distinct leftward lurch of cities in recent years raises the possibility that gentrification didn’t succeed in spite of failing schools and unaddressed rising crime—rather, it may have hindered attempts to conclusively address those problems. Certainly, single adults do create less of a sustainable constituency for school reform than families, and white progressives have more extreme views on criminal justice than the black working class.
Twenty first-century city political systems have experienced a version of the “Curley Effect.” James Michael Curley was an Irish mayor of Boston whose anti-Brahmin policies caused his political opponents to leave town, thus strengthening his electoral base. From a progressive perspective, the economic cost associated with an exodus of wealthy households is easily offset by the political gain of fewer people around to vote against you. A few years back, one New York political operative was castigated for saying “Kick rocks, billionaires.” But maybe he knew his business.
Extending the Sphere
Displacement has always been the most serious criticism of gentrification. Poor and working-class families who don’t own their housing, but rent it, still favor housing stability. When gentrifiers bid up rents, long-term residents find themselves forced to relocate at just the moment when neighborhood conditions are beginning to look up. As one Brooklynite, a recently displaced long-term renter, explained to the New York Review of Books in 2017: “I put up with these streets when you had to be half-crazy to go out to the bodega for a quart of milk after dark…I got rid of a rat infestation four years ago myself…We watched over this street, we cleaned it up. Why should we have to leave?”
Of course, gentrification handsomely benefits homeowners: it made many black families millionaires throughout brownstone Brooklyn. Displacement accusations were always overstated both because renters are going to move a lot, in any event, and because it turns out that gentrification is relatively rare. A neighborhood that was poor in 1970s is likely still poor now. To say that gentrification worked better than anything else is different from saying that this policy met with smashing success.
In coming years, we should expect the displacement question to lose valence, because (1) there will be less gentrification due to aforementioned demographic and remote work factors, and (2) mass immigration will shift urban political dynamics away from the dominant black vs. white paradigm.
The population rebounds experienced by formerly declining cities in recent decades have owed far more to immigration than gentrification. That’s been somewhat overlooked, because the recent arrivals have been less politically assertive than the black migrants who, back around mid-century, moved en masse from the south to northern cities and took control of city halls in fairly short order.
The Asian and South/Central American impact on city politics has been more modest thus far, because (a) different ethnic groups place different value on economic success vs. political power, and (b) many new arrivals are bypassing cities completely for the suburbs and exurbs. But the scale of current immigration is staggering. The foreign-born share of the population is now around what it was during the Ellis Island era; immigrants and their U.S. born children number almost 90 million. Thus, even if not all immigration is city-directed, enough will be to force changes to political systems long dominated by cities’ traditional black ruling class.
Already some political analysts are predicting declining influence for that class in New York as its base continues to leave the city. How immigrant politicians will engage the debate over gentrification remains to be seen, but perhaps they’ll display less personal resentment toward the idea than, say, Spike Lee (“We been here. You just can’t come and bogart.”)
What will replace gentrification? In the near term, maybe nothing. Cities change slowly, their reputation for dynamism notwithstanding. The future of gentrification is hard to discern, as is, in some ways, its past. The political and economic aspects of gentrification have been studied far more than its broader social and cultural effects. Urbanists celebrate “clustering” as economically essential. Clustering has sometimes also been beneficial in a cultural sense, as in the case of Harlem’s postwar jazz scene.
But not always. In our debates over free speech, polarization, and exclusionary cancel culture, clustering has a negative reputation. Was a more polarized nation the price we had to pay for reversing urban decline? If we think that less clustering of progressives on college campuses would have, more broadly, made for a healthier civil society, does the same go for less clustering in cities by progressives, post-graduation? If diffusion out of cities means depriving them of their erstwhile vitality and spreading it more widely across the country, perhaps that also means easing up a little bit on national tensions that might otherwise reach a breaking point.
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