Urbanism, Gentrification, and Romanticism

Yonah is bringing up neoliberalism as one reason American cities, in his case study Detroit, are building new showcase light rail lines while at the same time neglecting bus service. Quoting a study showing the same in Chicago, he explains that this creates an uneasy tension between transit advocacy and development for the sake of the elite.

Actually, I am not surprised, not because of neoliberalism, but because of the trend toward new urban romanticism in gentrification. The best way to understand gentrification today – and the construction of greenfield light rail lines is every bit as connected to gentrification as highway construction was to suburbanization – as the mirror image of suburbanization from the middle of the 19th century onward. The political forces at play can be summarized in the following table:

Suburbanization Gentrification
1. Initial trends Industrialization, rapid urbanization Globalization, suburbanization
2. Social problems Overcrowding, slums, industrial pollution Sprawl, fractured communities, car pollution
3. Romanticized past Preindustrial rural life Traditional (19th-early 20th century) urbanism
4. Proposed elite solution Suburbs, cars, home ownership, separation of uses Urban neighborhoods, transit, condos, mixed uses
5. Solution for the existing urban form Urban renewal: the city is turned into modernist towers and playgrounds for the suburbs None yet identified, but proposals include demolition and ruralization, and redevelopment

The best reference for the political forces – as opposed to the urban forces – is Nations and Nationalism, by Ernst Gellner. Gellner argues that modern nationalist culture, including urban romanticism for rural life, is an inevitable byproduct of industrialization. Industrialization leads to unprecedented mobility and a large increase in the size of the economic unit, from the village to the entire nation. This requires some measure of cultural uniformity, which the core imposes on the provinces often with great violence: in the 19th and early 20th century, France imposed Parisian French on provinces that spoke different languages, spanking schoolchildren who said a word in Occitan or Breton.

Although the resulting national culture is made in the cities, it has to romanticize peasants, who live in the vast majority of the nation’s territory. Gellner does not mention this, but in Israel, one can see even more: the most romanticized people are those living in or near disputed territories (for example, Sderot), since they form the basis for territorial claims.

The result of this romanticism is that although the elites live in the cities, most people living in the cities are ignored in favor of ruralism; this is still present today but in weaker form, in “Real America” epithets used by small towns against the cities.

Going back to transportation, this interacted with the real problems in rapidly industrializing cities, such as slums; those slums not only were and looked polluted, but also were hotbeds of cultures other than the national culture, for example immigrant enclaves in the US and cockney culture in London. The decision to build the subway in New York was not just about transportation, but also about transforming urbanites into proper Americans. Indeed, suburbanization happened in every developed country except Singapore and Hong Kong, which escaped this trend not because they are dense or incompatible with cars (as noted in Paul Barter’s thesis, Singapore wasn’t very dense in the 1960s and 70s), but because they are city-states and never had this rural nationalism.

Later, national highway systems (initially only for rural and intercity roads, not urban roads) built the nation, and helped people escape the cities for suburbs that were nothing like traditional rural areas. Part of this difference was fully intended: the urban reformers of the 19th century knew damn well that the rural areas had poor access to jobs, and wanted the suburbs to combine the best of both. But the larger part was not: the suburbs were never truly bucolic, could not offer truly bucolic life except to the very rich, and suffer from the same problems of traffic and social dependence (on homeowners’ associations rather than landlords) as the cities.

I contend that the exact same social trends are happening today, but with cities instead of rural areas. Urbanization happened sufficiently long ago that there’s an entire movement idealizing traditional cities. Real America is no longer just Hope and Crawford, but also Chicago’s South Side.

Under the new paradigm, People who railed against urban renewal, such as Jane Jacobs, become objects of romanticism by disaffected suburbanites, As Sharon Zukin notes in The Naked City, the authentic working-class culture of the West Village that Jacobs loved so much is long gone, but people still cling to its urban design and therefore the neighborhood is still in demand. The now-old working class is every bit an object of admiration today as the peasant class was in 1900.

The current trend for urban revitalization is easy to miss, since it’s only starting. It’s comparable to suburbanization in 1910, not 1955. But New York has had a building boom in the last 10 years, and has been growing faster than its suburbs since 1990 (see ACS data for 2009 here, and census data for 1990 and 2000 here). Since 2000 San Francisco has outgrown its suburbs as well, and in many less gentrified cities, such as Philadelphia, the core has had a population explosion even if the surrounding areas declined. What is more, the growing cores tend to be high-income, fueled by condos rather than low-income housing; this has happened in tandem with the suburbanization of poverty.

Since the current trend is as based on elite needs (in this case, globalization) as the previous trend of suburbanization, it’s not surprising that the infrastructure that comes with it is based on serving the elite: expensive airport connectors, development-oriented transit, bike lanes only for the rich, high-speed rail connecting revitalized urban centers, and generally deprecation of urban infrastructure used by existing residents who aren’t elite. Of course, it does not mean greenfield transit, airport connectors, bike lanes, and high-speed rail are not useful; transit advocates often support them independently of development potential. But it means that the elites like those projects independently of public benefits, and are thus likely to build boondoggles. Yonah himself has noted that,

Those who engage in [transit promotion] simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.

This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.

This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?

There is not much to do about the trend for gentrification – like the trend for suburbanization, it can be partially managed, but not attacked. However, in the realm of transit, transit activists should be vigilant and prevent becoming useful idiots for developers and urban boosters. The elites can be powerful allies for change if they support the right kind, but it’s imperative to make sure they work for us instead of the reverse.

Update: a similar point was made six weeks ago by Linda Baker of Portland Urbanista, only she was more concise.


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  2. tehgreengrass

    Interesting mirroring of the two trends. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out over the next decades. And as someone who grew up in the suburbs and much prefers going to the cities for stuff, it’s definitely cause the cities are where all the interesting ideas and things are. And probably always were.

    • Alon Levy

      Thanks. I’m pretty sure it’s going to play out the following way: the US will build a large national network of high-speed rail, light rail lines, and other things that are sexy. The FRA will do small piecemeal reforms, but still demand special things so that off-the-shelf imports are impossible. It’s going to cost at a minimum twice what the same length of track would cost anywhere else in the first world, and the ridership is going to falter because fixing organization (i.e. fare integration, schedule integration, etc.) has no opportunities for photo-ops and commemorative plaques whereas pouring concrete does. The poor will be squeezed into auto-oriented suburbs into buildings past their intended lifespan, with no ability to afford a car and no decent transit services.

      And this is still much nicer than the future that awaits Bangladesh, Nigeria, and other countries with large flood-prone coasts.

      • Nathanael

        In the US, that means the big question is *how will the poor get to work*?

        This is the reason why the poor can’t be squeezed into auto-oriented suburbs willy-nilly, at least once the poor can’t afford cars — how do they get to work? If they aren’t working at all — perhaps likely given the current Great Depression II policies — that creates a whole ‘nother order of magnitude of social problems — how do they eat? Trucks and trains bringing in the wheat ration to be doled out? That will create an interesting slum-based urban form.

  3. Steve

    Alon, while Yonah’s points are well taken, I think the major flaw in his argument is that he seems to think of the situation in either/or terms rather than both/and terms. As in: either public transit is accessible to the poor or to the elites (with the implication “but not both”)…on the other hand, the fractal nature of poverty suggests that destination-and-access may well be the better way of looking at things. Airports, being at the outskirts of town, are natural destinations–but the lines leading to them also need intermediary points of access in both richer and poorer neighborhoods.

    To do this we need to ally with the destination-increasing interests (developers and such) but still build access-oriented public transit. Salt Lake’s system is really the role model here.

    • EngineerScotty

      Some transit systems do practice what I’ll call “transit apartheid”; designing routes which pass through (but don’t serve) poorer inner-city neighborhoods. Many commuter services (though not all) fall into this category, connecting well-to-do suburbs with downtown but skipping over parts of town that are viewed as not nice. No transit official will admit that a selling point of commuter lines is that patrons are less likely to have to share seats with “scary” people (often minorities); but it seems whenever a new MAX line opens here in Portland, generally resulting in the closure of the parallel commuter bus, there’s a small-but-vocal cohort that denounces the project and proclaims that henceforth, they’re driving. (Unfortunately, the current president of Metro’s wife is part of this crowd).

      Commuter service (bus or rail, particularly rail) can be a useful tool in managing peak-hour loads, and in covering longer distances for which even high-end rapid transit would take too long–but in many places where it’s deployed, it seems to focus on upper-income cohorts in terms of route selection.

    • Alon Levy

      Of course it’s not always either/or, but there are situations that are. In addition, the situations that are not either/or are often good for serving existing density, of all social classes, rather than new development. For example, take Second Avenue Subway: phase 1 serves upper middle-class sections of the Upper East Side; phase 2 serves East Harlem, the poorest neighborhood in Manhattan; phase 3 serves the rich East Side and the gentrifying East Village (but not St. Marks, annoyingly); phase 4 serves working-class Chinatown and the Financial District. However, instead of funding this line, New York is funding the 7 extension, which serves speculators.

      You shouldn’t really view the elites as just people who happen to make 6 figures. Elite status is about both money and political connections; your average upper middle-class schlub who makes $100,000 a year writing software for Google doesn’t get anything from speculative development. He might take a train to the airport more often than others, but even then he has other transit needs he probably values more – in general, business travelers demand premium airport trains but rarely use them, leading to ridership shortfalls (see e.g. the BART to SFO and AREX disasters). The airport is a natural destination if there are things in between it and the center of the city, but building dedicated airport transit, as Richard M. Daley wanted, is almost never worth it.

      • Joseph

        New York is so weird. Why are they so into building cookie cutter rich people apartment and condo buildings. Well, ok, it makes lots of people lots of money. But ug. Better serving the neighborhoods is such a better use of your time as a city. Few places have the opportunity to better serve their citizens these days, NY is blowing a huge chance if they’re just going to enable even more development of sterile condo towers.

        • Adirondacker12800

          because it doesn’t make a whole lot sense to tear down low rise multi family residential buildings to replace them with low rise multi family residential buildings. If you are gonna tear down the very very expensive New Law tenement you have to build something that makes that worthwhile.

        • Adirondacker12800

          … and sterile condo towers, since the condo towers don’t have helicopter pads on the roof, are filled with people who walk to the places that make the neighborhood walkable….

          • Alon Levy

            You’d think, but there are very few pedestrians near Providence Station. It’s as if all the people in those condos drive, and only walk if they need to take the train into Boston.

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