*The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City*

by on April 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm in Books, Economics, History, Law | Permalink

The author is the excellent Alan Ehrenhalt, here is one bit:

Walking the streets of the Financial District today, one can’t help but think that it is, indeed, a throwback to an earlier version of the city’s life.  But not to the Wall Street of a century ago: That was an economically segregated one-use neighborhood, with offices and virtually nothing else, no residents, hardly a place to shop, only a handful of restaurants to cater to the financial workforce.

But look back farther than that, and you begin to see a resemblance.  In some ways, lower Manhattan in the early twenty-first century has come to resemble lower Manhattan in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth: brokers, investors, and insurance agents who live in the neighborhood and walk to work; a social life that does not disappear at quitting time, the way it did twenty years ago; a modest but growing number of families with young children.  Ron Chernow offers a picture of this early lower Manhattan in his biography of Alexander Hamilton, who lived there both as a college student and as a young lawyer.

Recommended, you can buy it here.

ElamBend April 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Robert Bruegmann predicts as much in his book :Sprawl: A Compact History” and posits that is is the natural profession of any city, eventually forming concentric rings of wealth and not-wealth emanating from the center.

You can see the same in downtown Chicago (or even Cleveland). It can happen while the over-all city is losing population, too; like Chicago. Tens of thousands more live close to Chicago’s CBD than just a decade ago, even as the middle class has fled the city.

Doc Merlin April 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm

The middle class fled the city, due to bad law, corruption, and crime.

msgkings April 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Not sure which direction the causal arrow goes but the middle class fled every city when they invented the suburbs. The suburbs are ideal places to raise families, especially compared to the cities prior to the existence of suburbs.

The flow is reversing (some). Some folks like raising families in cities if they can afford it, and many cities are trying to make themselves more attractive to families.

Again, we can’t be sure what’s cause and what’s effect. And neither can you, Doc.

ElamBend April 26, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Bad public schools is/was certainly a big one. In Chicago, there is a definite price bump over the line of school districts that are considered good vs not so good. Crime certainly was another back in the day, but now crime has ebbed substantially. Price was another, though now as the suburbs have matured they too have grown expensive in both price and taxes unless you go far out. Cultural zeitgeist is another. People just wanted to be out of the cities. I’ve never lived in a suburb (but grew up rural), but I get the appeal of the space of a big house and yard, plus I wouldn’t have to worry about my kids getting run over by a bus or cab (a current worry).

Plus, I agree, a lot of it may have been a big who knows. Cities are organic (including their suburbs). Absent collapse a la Detroit, I would expect in-fil in the long run for empty portions of the cities. But even as the suburbs age, I expect they will densify.

Adam April 26, 2012 at 5:45 pm

Keep the time frame in mind. Were the public schools perceived to be bad at the end of 1960s through the 1970s, when so much of this flight was happening? Or were there maybe other things going on?

My guess, and it’s only that, is it had more to do with lingering industrialization, which meant that there was still dirty manufacturing, which is now largely gone, at the time of the exodus. Of course also subsidization of driving over the expanding road network was a significant factor. I’d guess also racial tensions of the era too.

Anyway, msgkings said above, it’s actually pretty hard to see what’s cause and what’s effect in what often gets discussed about this issue.

Anti-Gnostic April 26, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Were the public schools perceived to be bad at the end of 1960s through the 1970s, when so much of this flight was happening? Or were there maybe other things going on?

Title VII and bussing.

Major April 26, 2012 at 8:36 pm

The flow is reversing (some). Some folks like raising families in cities if they can afford it, and many cities are trying to make themselves more attractive to families.

The flow may have slowed in recent years, mostly because of the recession and the housing market, but I’ve seen no evidence that it’s reversing. New York City lost more than a million net domestic migrants between 2000 and 2010. Its population increased only because of immigration and births to recent immigrants, not because it’s attracting domestic migrants.

ElamBend April 26, 2012 at 10:39 pm

Chicago gained from 2000-2004. It was oft cited as evidence of urban rejuvenation all over. However, not only has the gain been erased, but the the city is down below 1990 levels of pop. BUT, the Central Business District is full of tens of thousand of new residents. My nabe has become an urban home of children. So the change is spotty.

Adam April 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm

And DC, and Minneapolis, and…

TheAJ April 26, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Exactly. Not everything has to be a case of X forcing Y to happen . . .

Many middle class people are in the suburbs because they like shit in the suburbs. More space, backyards, and cars. Good for them. How come people don’t talk about the government subsidies and incentives that also subsidize suburban living? Freeways, corrupt zoning laws, parking laws that Tyler has spoken about.

I live in the Financial District. because I’m young, can afford to, and most importantly, choose to. The median income for Manhattanites is around $70,000K, which is a lot, but I was under the impression that is about “Middle Class.” I like eating cool food, going to the parks and going out. Which is good for me. I don’t go around saying I was driven out of the suburbs by McDonald’s and Expeditions.

NAME REDACTED April 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm

‘Manhattanites is around $70,000K, which is a lot, but I was under the impression that is about “Middle Class.” ‘

Sigh, you people are so disconnected from reality. 70k a year puts you in the top 15% of income earners. Median Manhattanites, you aren’t middle class, you are rich.

80k puts you in roughly the top 10%
120k in the top 5%
250k in the top 1%

Ricardo April 26, 2012 at 11:13 pm

That depends on whether you compare Manhattanites to the median American or the median resident of the NY-NJ-PA-CT area.

If the former, I’m sure your numbers are right but that’s because they include vast parts of the country where middle class salaries are much lower because the cost of living is cheaper. However, median household income in the Census Statistical Area surrounding New York City is $64,800. Among households headed by someone between 25 and 44 years old, median household income is $71,000.

So one could say residents of the New York greater metropolitan area are lucky to be living in a place with such high income but then someone could counter that the cost of living is high enough (esp. housing) that material living standards are not that much higher.

msgkings April 27, 2012 at 10:25 am

Actually after the cost of living adjustment, the higher incomes in NY, SF, Boston and a few other cities make them on net more expensive to live than in more ‘balanced’ places like Houston, Chicago, Denver, etc. The ‘material living standards’ are lower, not higher, in Manhattan.

TheAJ April 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm

I think so too, but every time I listen to someone from Congress speak, the upper bounds of what is middle class grows and grows.

Dana April 27, 2012 at 10:30 am

That’s because in America, the fantasy that *everyone* is middle class is a key part of our national identity.

Wilmer April 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm

There are good reasons to empty the cities. A pandemic may make this all too obvious. Information technology has largely changed the neolithic basis of civilization and additional innovations will usher in a postcivil era of much richer human choice and sustainability. Postcivil society is coming. The transition will be rough. Empty the cities now to minimize human suffering during the transition.

With neolithic agriculture came civilization.

With the Internet and advances in shipping technology we can enter a postcivil era with social organization much closer to that of the Greek demes (kin-based agrarian populations of about 5,000) that gave rise to their Golden Age.

Not only can we enter such a postcivil era, we are entering it. The rate of evolution of human pathogens is much higher now. The availability of technologies that can destroy urban centers is much wider now. The population is much more concentrated now.

Postcivil society will be the result. The only question is how much human suffering can be prevented by taking action to empty the cities before they are forced to seek new abodes.

Decentralized production and local consumption of food is far more energy and capital efficient since it needn’t be transported to urban centers. This needn’t involve a return to old agrarian technologies—although from an examination of household leisure time remaining for most employees after work and other burdens of civilization, it is apparent that civilized jobs are little more efficient for food acquisition.

Moreover, the small residual needs for distribution of food to cover local shortage is far more viable now with “just in time” inventory systems based on efficient, decentralized and very robust communications infrastructure. For example, the trading pits are not a necessity—it can all be electronically distributed and decentralized with reputation networks.

Likewise, huge central repositories of grain and livestock yards are inefficient inventory policies vulnerable to attack and sabotage.

Chicago can go.

Similar arguments apply to almost all other urban areas due to their existence as mere levels of abstraction atop the thermodynamics of food. The primary value of such abstractions remains via the distributed networks of communication keeping alive inter-cultural dialogs for those who choose it.

ElamBend April 26, 2012 at 10:35 pm

People like living close to people, it’s in our nature. Business, while facilitated by technology is still heavily reliant on personal relationships, this is easier when people live close. Yes, cities can and do empty out nearly completely, but more often than not they manage to reconstitute themselves (like Lodonium, Roma and Constantinople).

As for Chicago. I worry about high property tax rates (at county level) that are predicated on existing government structures first put into place for a higher population. The tax levels have become a real drag on some commercial properties, particularly outside the urban core. Also, although the local economy is fairly diverse, the downtown is heavily reliant on trading houses that could decide that taxers are lower and the weather is better in Texas.

Wilmer April 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm

As recognized by Control Data Corporation founder, William Norris, in his project to create small, energy self-sufficient farms, and as recognized by founding fathers of the United States such as Thomas Jefferson in his effort to make Yeoman Farmer Conservatism the basis of federalism, centralized population structure creates vulnerabilities.

The obvious vulnerabilities, such as pandemics, bioweapons attacks, nuclear attacks, due to centralization of population, central stores and transportation hubs, need not be elaborated.

How will this unfold?

This outflow of population to the areas of solar collection of their energy—photosynthesis of their food—to reduce total system complexity will necessarily be driven by the ecological structure of the food chain.

It will likely begin when a few catastrophes hit and cause millions of deaths rendering the apparent “safety” of urban areas a cruel deception. Since there have been no massive wars in the Western world since WW II, there has arisen a profound complacency which has just recently be shaken by the AIDS pandemic, the attacks of 9/11, the de-population of New Orleans and the on-going sacrifice of civil liberties for “homeland security” primarily due to the vulnerability of specialized, highly centralized, structures. The world’s population is far more vulnerable to pandemics today than it was in 1918 and there could easily be a billion deaths, disproportionately concentrated in highly civilized societies if cascade effects arise as they are likely to.

As this awareness rises, and people begin to look for genuine security and alternatives to urban lifestyles, it will become apparent that current social constructs aren’t working for people. People will no longer see contributing half of their labor to a government that is resulting in their deaths as a good deal.

Structures stabilized by bottom-up kin-altruism than top-down enforcement will become the obvious solution and people will naturally migrate to those most akin to themselves. Some people will continue to believe the multicultural ideology that maximum diversity within the smallest area is the best way to live and they—too—will find their “kin” as multicultural demes will certainly form near the former urban centers.

Initially, land will be a problem, not because there isn’t enough of it but because of the centralization of ownership.

Localized agricultural consumption, in present circumstances, under which land ownership is highly centralized, requires particularly high-density and low-capitalization forms of agriculture so that tenants can rent inexpensive land and make minimal capital investments (investments that will inure to the landlord as tenancy is terminated) in it while reaping subsistence over a very short period of time. Trophic losses dictate that any investment in such an agricultural system focus on highly efficient autotrophic sources with, at most, one highly optimal trophic layer prior to human consumption. (“Trophic losses” are the losses of food energy that occur in a layer of the food chain. “Autotrophic” means acquiring energy and materials for sustaining life from the inorganic environment—typically photosynthetic organisms that fix carbon dioxide and nitrogen, etc. with solar energy.)

Tod April 27, 2012 at 11:59 am

The First Tycoon by TJ Stiles presents a really vivid portrait of early Staten Island and Manhattan. Sounds quite nice and buisnessy except for the whole open sewer thing.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: