The reverse of the rush

July 28, 2008

Not many have noticed, but our cities are changing:

Thirty years ago, the mayor of Chicago was unseated by a snowstorm. A blizzard in January of 1979 dumped some 20 inches on the ground, causing, among other problems, a curtailment of transit service. The few available trains coming downtown from the northwest side filled up with middle-class white riders near the far end of the line, leaving no room for poorer people trying to board on inner-city platforms. African Americans and Hispanics blamed this on Mayor Michael Bilandic, and he lost the Democratic primary to Jane Byrne a few weeks later.

Today, this could never happen. Not because of climate change, or because the Chicago Transit Authority now runs flawlessly. It couldn’t happen because the trains would fill up with minorities and immigrants on the outskirts of the city, and the passengers left stranded at the inner-city stations would be members of the affluent professional class.

In the past three decades, Chicago has undergone changes that are routinely described as gentrification, but are in fact more complicated and more profound than the process that term suggests. A better description would be “demographic inversion.” Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city–Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center–some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white–are those who can afford to do so.

Developments like this rarely occur in one city at a time, and indeed demographic inversion is taking place, albeit more slowly than in Chicago, in metropolitan areas throughout the country.

What’s happening is that the outward rush from cities is over, for a lot of reasons. De-industrialization took away the noise and dirt that many people tried to escape. Young people are changing in what they want, and older couples are looking for walkability and smaller spaces. Gas is $4 a gallon.

This has been the obsession of urban planners for decades, and they have tried every gimmick in the book to get more people downtown to create the kind of traffic needed for the amenities that create a “vibrant” downtown.  Now it’s happeing naturally and organically because of accumulated conditions and people’s responses to them. Things like Harrison Square might speed the process along a little, but it can’t create urban excitement out of thin air.

It might even frustrate the organic process. It substitutes one thing — baseball, condos and shops in that one place — for all the choices people might have made on their own in returning back to the core of the city. 

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3 Responses to “The reverse of the rush”

  1. Bob G. Says:

    I agree with you Leo…for the most part.
    Now if only we can move the slum areas out of the city, and change blighted neighborhoods back around.

    If you notice, the near-burbs around such cities as Chicago and Detroit are the “new” crime-ridden areas.

    B.G.

  2. alex Says:

    As a recent ex-Chicagoan, I was there throughout the inversion. In fact, I got priced out of the inner city, which is why I moved here where things are dirt cheap. (And when I hear hoosiers bitching about their property taxes, I’m always pleased to tell them they don’t know how good they really have it.)

    It may be a long time before the reverse migration trend takes hold here, if it ever does. It’s happening in cities where the downtown business districts have remained strong despite residential migration to the ‘burbs. Indianapolis is a prime example. Fort Wayne is not.

  3. Chris Hedges Says:

    My wife and I know several people — at least three — who have bought second residences in Chicago and travel from Northwest Indiana to their Chicago residences for the weekend.

    In the old days, people used to travel from the city to the suburbs to get away from it all. Now the opposite is happening — people are traveling to the city as a way of unwinding from their busy work days at their suburban workplaces.


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