Can’t Talk About Residency Patterns Without Talking About Prices

(cc photo by jaywphotos)

Ben Adler, reviewing Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York makes the excellent point that you can’t discuss the social underpinnings of these trends in isolation from the economic fundamentals of supply and demand:

Osman writes engagingly for an academic, but he does lapse into jargon, throwing around undefined sociological terms like “Fordist” and “gemeinschaft” with abandon. Osman’s narrative also focuses excessively on the cultural shifts that drove gentrification rather than the raw economic fundamentals. As many of his quotes and anecdotes illustrate, gentrifiers often did not want to discover the next neighborhood; they simply could not afford the last one. Osman writes: “Rather than seeking race and class homogeneity, middle class beatniks, radicals, settlement workers, and gay men pushed into poor districts in search of diversity.'” Seeking out diversity was certainly one factor, but so was the simple fact that the beatniks could no longer afford to buy brownstones on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Osman acknowledges as much only pages later: “In some cases, white-collar professionals offset their anxiety about racial mixing with their desire for attractive, affordable central city housing.”

And the reason for this price surge is an important story, which Osman largely neglects: The government has favored suburban sprawl over walkable, mixed-use urban environments. So while one-third of Americans have stated in surveys that they would rather live in an urban environment, only 10 to 15 percent of housing fits that description. This in turn means exorbitant prices for the precious few urban neighborhoods, even ones that just a few years earlier would have been ignored by the wealthy precisely because they had a little too much “diversity.”

Neighborhoods are, in part, expressions of specific historical moments. You would never build something exactly like “Brownstone Brooklyn” or Paris or Amsterdam or Cambridge, MA or Georgetown starting in the 21st century. Anything you build after the invention of the automobile is going to be more oriented around automobile usage than a neighborhood built before the invention of the automobile. But instead of saying “given that cars exist and people like that, market-oriented development of new neighborhoods will probably be more auto-oriented than old neighborhoods” the country has been engaged in a decades-long experiment in car-focused industrial policy. We’ve had large scale investment in moving cars around combined with widespread adoption (even in New York City!) of regulations mandating the construction of lots of parking alongside all new buildings. Having made traditional walkable neighborhoods illegal to build, it then turns out that many of the existing ones become prohibitively expensive. Since you have to be somewhat eccentric to want to pay a premium for walkability, the neighborhoods can then come to be defined by the idiosyncratic tastes of their residents while the policy-favored suburbs are associated with conformity. But in a level playing field market place you’d see less of a price differential, and urbanism would be both more common and more “normal,” though still a bit of a minority taste.