Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Five migrations in gentrification

In a recent post I noted that the demand driving up rents and prices ("gentrification") in big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago is a result of at least three distinct migration streams. Thinking about it now, I can identify five major streams. It's important to keep them straight, because they do not have the same cause, and thus the actions we can take (if any) to reduce or redirect the flow of migrants is different in each case.

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?


The Amateur Transporter said...

Will just rebuilding the smaller cities bring the jobs?

Tal F said...

Ah, yes, but how? Many of these cities don't WANT to go back to the way it was, or at least the majority doesn't.

Ted said...

In some cities like Scranton that have hollowed out their downtowns, suburban housing divisions have been built that will not readily facilitate walking, biking, or transit to bring people to the city. You have a constituency that will fight tooth and nail to prevent the development of 'their' downtowns, and the elimination of their connections to it, in reduced road and parking capacity. If they have enough influence over planning in the core city, there isn't much you can do. And even if you are able to overcome their opposition, you will be accelerating migration from those small city suburbs, so the net housing available for those you wish to divert from big cities will be reduced.

Cities like Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton face the same problem.

There are growing small cities that (at least so far) have not sprawled out into oblivion where growth could be better encouraged. However they face their own problems moving forward.

Take a look at Boulder, CO. They tried to limit sprawl and have placed a lot of land in the public trust, creating a greenbelt around the city, and the hiking trails are a great amenity for locals. But they have also limited growth within the city, which has led to the growth of commuter suburbs beyond the greenbelt, where walking, biking, and transit have much less potential, and beyond the municipal boundary, beyond the control of Boulder, as the growth of jobs within the city has far outpaced the population growth the last few decades.

And now every time the city needs state cooperation to reduce the impact of motor vehicles, there is a suburban constituency to fight them.

Or look at the Ashland-Medford area in southern Oregon. A growing region with much potential, but a lot of recent growth has been far from the downtown areas, which all already have busy state highways running through them. They have posted speed limits as low as 20, but perhaps one car in ten follows that. The number of people who will be unwilling to go about their day without a car is growing, limiting the future development of the downtowns as pleasant places, necessary if you wish to divert people to there from big cities.

Better regional planning agencies will be needed for the successful development of these small cities. Some of them may be former kings of industry. However I think more often than not that will not be the case, that the once great cities have sunk too far to be rebuilt to their former glory.

Capn Transit said...

Will rebuilding the cities bring back the jobs? Not by themselves, but a city that's strategically located at rail and water transportation nodes is likely to gain jobs if the state doesn't keep dumping money into roads that go around it.

Tai, the elites don't currently want to go back to the way things were, but I don't think they necessarily represent the majority opinion, or the future opinion. Ted's more nuanced take is useful.

Ted, that may be true, but that won't necessarily last forever. There is also the potential for making common cause with big city residents at the state and/or federal level. I don't have much hope that regional planning agencies will help.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Scranton is one of those happy places that was able to avoid having downtown carved up by interstates, they carved up the trolley suburbs surrounding downtown instead. It may not be the best example.

People whine endlessly about how hard it is to park in Albany. "hard to park" is very subjective. It usually means "there isn't off street parking there and I have to park half a block away. ON THE STREET!" and "it has meters and they gouge you 25 cents an hour for it". They whine endlessly about the congestion. That means their 20 minute drive on Interstate grade highway slowed to 40 MPH in places and took 25 minutes. I've only been in downtown Binghamton twice. It's the same in Binghamton. I've been in downtown Rochester many more times. It's the same in downtown Rochester. It's the same in downtown Santa Rosa. And downtown ...

People out here in the woods complain that it's too hard to park in Glens Falls and there's too much traffic. I've been able to suppress the giggle.

Cars are too cheap and parking is too easy once you get outside of the big cities.

I'm not gonna go look for it. The New York Times Magazine, back when the NYT Magazine published longish articles, had one about how Scranton was attracting Hispanics from places like the New York and Philadelphia. They could work at a minimum wage job and rent a one bedroom or they could move to Scranton and buy a three bedroom house along a bus line.

The immigrants being pushed out of neighborhoods is what happens in cities. The Europeans arrived and pushed out the the people already living there. The first wave of Europeans attracted other Europeans who ruined the neighborhood for the first wave. Who were replaced by a third wave. ( Think German neighborhoods becoming East European or Italian ) who then got pushed out by the black southerner or the Hispanics. Who are getting pushed out by the gentrifiers. Such is life.
..the upper middle class in Greenwich Village got pushed out by the Italians who got pushed out by the misfits from the hinterlands, gay men and women mostly, who got pushed out but the best and brightest from the hinterlands. Such is life.
... the immigrants living in those lovely New Law Tenements in what we now call Midtown got pushed out by the current iteration of Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station and 20 years later Rockefeller Center. Or Macy*s, Or the Winter Garden theater. All of that wasn't farmland in 1910.

It's what happens in cities.

Ted said...

Scranton isn't shrinking slower than the suburbs around it. Are any of the Mohawk valley cities shrinking slower than the suburbs around them? If not, then you don't really have much momentum to reinvigorate their downtowns. Though the NY cities have highways that get talked about being torn down. If you tear down some highways and connect the cities to each other, and south to NYC, or west to Cleveland and Chicago with a HSR line, you could get some momentum. But how much can the cities be helped if the locals, by which I mean the suburbanites outside the city, fight you at every move you take to make the cities livable? Maybe it'll still work out fine, but just take longer to rebuild their downtowns than it might elsewhere.

And for Scranton specifically, the median age is 37.9, older than in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Danbury, Waterbury, Hartford, New London, New Haven, Springfield, and Providence. The young people have already left Scranton. The others might have more to work with.

At least some of the cities in CT or Providence would be on a HSR line from Boston to NYC. Hartford an hour from Boston, an hour from Manhattan? That could give it some real appeal. And it would be cheap in the sense that you want a HSR line there anyway, so having some trains stop in Hartford would happen absent any concerted federal or state program to support smaller cities and rebuild their downtowns. A Springfield-Hartford-New Haven rail corridor already has some momentum going for it too. That corridor generally seems to be in a better position to grow than Mohawk Valley cities or Scranton.

Adirondacker12800 said...

In very round numbers metro Hartford, metro Albany and metro Scranton are the same size. They are the same distance from New York give or take 20 miles. Albany has twice the ridership of Hartford and Scranton has none because Scranton doesn't have any train service. Albany is growing faster than Hartford and Scranton is stable according to Wikipedia.
None of that changes that Scranton was able to avoid having downtown carved up by Interstates.

Alon said...

In Buffalo and Syracuse, the metro area population outside the central city is basically stable. In Rochester it's increasing, at a glacial rate.

Adirondacker12800 said...

At least they are not shrinking, ya want shrinking try North Dakota up until a few years ago.

Jake r w said...

Even without suburban meddling, nothing any single city does can revive cities in regions that are already not doing great. What it can do is lay the groundwork for a future, perhaps partial revival, like what is happening now in Cleveland, where downtown is reviving (but still not good) even as the city overall continues to shrink and exurbs grow. Just like people fled to the suburbs in the first place of their own volition, for good reasons and bad, people are coming back to the city for their own reasons. They can't be forced.

The port of Buffalo can't seem to get it together as far as containerized shipping, but that's no different than the rest of the US Great Lakes ports: http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/downtown-waterfront/nfta-pulls-plug-on-plan-to-sell-port-site-to-canada-furniture-maker-for-250-employee-plant-20140430

Jake r w said...

Actually, interesting news from last year on that front: http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2013/11/port_of_cleveland_seals_a_deal.html

neroden@gmail said...

Sooooo correct. The market for walkable smaller cities is pretty large, but:
- there are very few of them out there at this point;
- they have very little housing;
- they mostly lack rail service to big cities.

In order to attract commerce, business, and jobs, to smaller walkable cities, they need rail service to big cities.

And the second-best choice for people who'd prefer walkable smaller cities is big cities. So they end up in New York City when they might prefer to be in a walkable Syracuse, or an Ithaca where they could take the train to New York, or whatever.

To be fair to Scranton, which is walkable, its elected officials seem to understand that passenger rail service to New York City is really important... but they haven't been able to get together the funds to actually get it built. Partly due to lack of support from the hinterland and the state.

3sigma said...

This piece is misguided, in my opinion.

Transportation links, alone, won't make cities relevant. The idea of forcing traffic to go through old downtown area is no less hideous than abolishing express trains or direct flights. Actually, on late 19th Century, there were some quite bitter political fights over express rail service that bypassed many stations, some cities in the booming West even tried to pass ordinances against express trains that didn't pass there, directly or indirectly (by imposing mandatory stops), until the feds come cracking them down.

You also missed a critical distinction: cities/towns that declined in regions that were/are growing (internal displacement) and cities/towns that declined together with whole areas for wider and more systemic reasons (structural decay).

Places like Wichita KS, Alexandria MS or Decatur OH loss population and economic activity as their whole regions entered a period of economic depression due to major economic shifts, like the fact agriculture require far less jobs per thousand-acre cultivated or thousand-livestock than 50 or 70 years ago. No amount of rail service will on itself make these places boom and flourish again.

Other areas like Michigan Panhandle or Northern Maine started losing population even before, when wild fur trapping changed completely to fur farms and natural forest logging was replaced for planted forests. A high-speed rail to Marquette or tearing down I-95 in Houton wouldn't bring economic vitality to the area.

All these towns that are not on the accessible area of a larger metro area (even if not that of a daily commute) face difficult challenges in the long term. On the other hand, the virtualization of part of economic activity and the "horizontalization" of communications might help them up to a point: if most book reading is done on a Kindle and if you can buy any non-fresh product online, the burden of losing access to the World by living in Salina, UT is somehow reduced. Ditto if you can work as a programmer or online financial trader from your home office in Starkville, MS.

Capn Transit said...

3sigma, nobody's talking about "forcing" traffic. I'm talking about not forcing it to go around towns by building (and repairing, and rebuilding) big expensive highway bypasses.

How do you distinguish "structural decay" from a simple compounding of lots of dumb moves - for example, bypassing every town in the region with an expensive highway? Yes, there was a decline in agriculture, just like there will be a decline in unsustainable desert sprawl. But I'm not convinced there's anything structurally wrong with most of the Rust Belt.

Everyone talks about telecommuting, but I know very few people who do it. Most people need or want to have face time with other people who are doing more or less the same thing they're doing.

3sigma said...

capn transit, what happens with the Rust Belt is that it had its settlement pattern (many mid-size cities interlaced with hundreds of small towns) arose from an era of labor-intensive farming, typical of early homesteading. Later came a boom in likewise labor-intensive manufacturing. It is just an historical fact.

This means that many areas lack the centralities and "hub-system" that characterized the later settlement of California, the Southwest desert areas and even the Great Plains.

Then, agriculture became much more efficient and in the process shed millions of menial, dumb, brute-force farm jobs. At the time, industrialization was booming and these people readily filled up manufacturing and factory jobs. Yet, on this first wave of structural change, many cities entered a stagnantion and then decay, already on the 1910s, from which they never recovered.

This means, today, the settlement form, the lack of agglomeration effects and other characteristics of the are make it hard for a "comeback". Areas with few, but bigger, metro areas can amass the resources like college-educated population and scaled government that sometimes end up creating the conditions for new developments like formation of Silicon Valley as a tech hub, or rise of Phoenix as a major medical and pharmaceutical research center.