How many New York City residents are refugees from Rochester's parking crater, winner of Streetsblog USA's Parking Madness 2014?
Image: Google Maps via Streetsblog.
The best and brightest have been migrating to cities since time immemorial, seeking fame and fortune. So have rural misfits – heretics, gender and sexual minorities, people with mixed ethnic, religious or class backgrounds, people with disabilities, anyone who has been shunned by small, close-knit communities. Some of them migrate from small cities to larger cities, searching for a better opportunity, more anonymity, more tolerance.
Immigrants often wind up in cities, because that is usually where the entry points and crossroads are, and where there are the most opportunities. They come through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport, across the Rio Grande at El Paso or San Diego, and find their way to East Los Angeles or Chinatown or Washington Heights. Maybe they eventually wind up in a small town, or even start out picking berries in the Central Valley or tobacco in the Coastal Plain, but many families spend at least a generation in a big city.
Those two migration streams – the best and the misfits, and international migration – have been going on for as long as we’ve had cities and nations. Recently, what’s been capturing a lot of people’s attention is the white return – the repudiation by Anglo, Jewish, German and others of their parents’ search for comfort and tranquility in the suburbs, supposedly safe from the nonwhite people they feared and hated. I’m part of a similar migration, Back to the City, where the children of hippies and beatniks realized that communing with nature isn’t quite as spiritually uplifting as our parents thought – and it’s not all that great for the environment, either.
The fourth big migration stream that has been getting attention is the move of the white-flighters and back-to-the-landers themselves. Baby Boomers and other people who are now elderly have realized what we knew when we were fourteen: that life sucks in Amityville or Great Barrington if you can’t drive wherever you want to go. They’re buying small apartments in the city themselves, many of them in neighborhoods that they couldn’t afford in 1972.
There’s a fifth migration that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the small city exiles. These are people who are not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic (I learned about this last one from Sally Flocks), or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.
Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.
This is why rents and prices have been rising so drastically in New York, Washington and San Francisco, and to a certain extent in Boston and Chicago. In addition to the eternal migration of the ambitious, the misfits and immigrants, we’re on the receiving end of the White Return and the Back to the City – both the old and the young. On top of all that we’re getting the moderately bright and kind of weird who can’t make a home in the small cities.
Any solution to the problems of rising rents and prices will have to address all three of these new migrations. We can build more big city for them: taller buildings, more transit, upzoning around transit. But the returning retirees and the small city refugees don’t need big cities. They’d be perfectly happy if we could make the existing pedestrian and transit infrastructure of Scranton and Pueblo and Fort Smith work for them again, rebuild what was lost and thrown away, and find a way to make those towns relevant again. They’d be happy if they could live in prewar suburbs like Bethpage and Whiting without having to own a car for every adult family member. This is what the Strong Towns movement is about, and what Duncan Crary says about Troy.
You may say that it’s a tall order, that these towns are never coming back. But I ask you: if we rebuilt the rail connections, rebuilt the housing and shopping and offices where now there is just parking, and tore down the bypasses that made those downtowns irrelevant, don’t you think some of them would start to sputter back to life? Is that really any harder than trying to build whatever mind-numbing amount of "affordable housing" we need in New York to accommodate all these people, and the subways we will need to move them around once the elites admit that “Bus Rapid Transit” will never suffice?