In City Journal, Joel Kotkin explores the sad decline of the city into slums or hipster paradise.
In the 1960s, sociologist Herbert Gans identified a growing chasm between family-oriented suburbanites and people who favored city life—“the rich, the poor, the non-white as well as the unmarried and childless middle class.”
That amply sums it up. Cities served as cradles in another time. And then they became the cradles for something else entirely.
The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class”—a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students—occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history. The development raises at least two important questions: Are cities without children sustainable? And are they desirable?
The cities are not entirely without children. Many of them have a large minority and low income child population that cannot pay for its own needed services. That is what happened in Detroit.
Part of the issue is simple living space. A family of more than two children is difficult to embed in a major city. And two children is sustainable level.
It’s mainly lower class families who are willing to squeeze sizable families into two-bedroom apartments. Or even one-bedroom apartments. One of my Orthodox Jewish friends growing up, managed the feat of putting five children into a one-bedroom apartment. But that’s nearly slum dwelling conditions.
If you think in terms of real estate going for a thousand per square foot, then calculate the cost of a family of five children.
But perhaps the most cogent formulation of the post-family city comes from the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark, who see the city, and particularly the urban core, as an “entertainment machine.” In their view, city residents “can experience their own urban location as if tourists, emphasizing aesthetic concerns.” Schools, churches, and neighborhood associations no longer form the city’s foundation. Instead, the city revolves around recreation, arts, culture, and restaurants—a system built for the newly liberated individual.
The city becomes an upgraded large-scale college campus. Which is what happened to parts of New York City. It makes a kind of perpetual adolescence possible. It allows 50-year-olds to try and live like they did when they were 20.
Many urban school districts—such as Chicago, which has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it had a decade ago—have seen enrollments plummet and are busily closing schools.
That’s more dramatically the case in Detroit.
Following the notions that Jane Jacobs advanced a half-century ago, contemporary urbanists argue that high density creates a stronger sense of community. (Jacobs once opined that raising children in the suburbs had to be difficult, somehow overlooking how families were flocking to those suburbs.) But that contention isn’t self-evident. The University of California’s Jan Brueckner and Ann Largey conducted 15,000 interviews across the country and found that for every 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of someone’s talking to his neighbor once a week went up 10 percent, regardless of race, income, education, marital status, or age.
Density actually destroys community. Excessive density requires erecting mutual psychological walls for personal space. Try riding a bus in the city and you’ll quickly get the idea.
Density also minimizes personal investment in a community because of the sheer scale.
In California, particularly, state and local officials push policies that favor the development of apartments over single-family houses and town houses. But by trying to cram people into higher-density space, planners inadvertently help push up prices for the existing stock of family-friendly homes. Such policies have already been practiced for decades in the United Kingdom, making even provincial cities increasingly unaffordable, as British social commentator James Heartfield notes. London itself is among the least affordable cities in the world. Even middle-class residents have been known to live in garages, converted bathrooms, and garden sheds.
Well why not. Socialism always has the same endgame.
A city that continues to be high-density and high-cost hasn’t necessarily signed its own death warrant. Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn, and much of San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and other amenity-rich cities—what Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella calls “kiddie deserts”—continue to flourish. But other cities, such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, can’t attract the same interest from young hipsters and the rich and are consequently less capable of withstanding the effects of family flight to the suburbs.
And what happens when the hipsters move on from the party cities? As I wrote before, New York is moving along the same road as Detroit. Bloomberg recently confirmed it.