In It Together

Lydia DePillis complains a bit about the “city divided” frame:

Alex’s beef is basically that by rehashing these tropes that we all know to be true, and grapple with every day–Columbia Heights has both modern retail and poor folks! Gays hang out on U Street now! Sometimes people can’t afford to live where they used to!–the project further divides the city instead of illuminating how we often face similar problems and need to think about city-wide solutions. I agree.

I agree with that. But more generally I think people oftentimes miss the extent to which it’s the “divided” nature of many of the world’s large cities that makes them engines of economic opportunity. Narratives about gentrification — a preexisting low-income community and more prosperous incomers — have a degree of truth to them on a neighborhood scale. But if you think about modern metro areas as a whole over time, this pattern is sort of backward. What happens is that you have an aggregation of professional work — banking, government, legal services, advertising, etc. — and then poor people show up because all these rich people mean there’s low-skill service sector work to be had. The result is a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs economy but it’s not clear what the alternative is.

This isn’t the only kind of city that can exist in the world. The main alternative, though, is the industrial cluster city where a bunch of factories are located near one another thanks to agglomeration effects, and then people work at the factories. You might have a handful of rich bosses here, but in general both rich people and menial service work will be marginal activities in a factory town. But these industrial agglomeration effects have been declining in rich countries for decades, over and above the way manufacturing employment in general has declined. So if you look at American cities, you basically see the “city divided” option or else a Detroit-style downward spiral of decline.


That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about improving the economic opportunities available to low-income residents of cities like Washington. But the tendency is for people who move up a bit to leave:

Pedro Alfonso, co-founder and head of Dynamic Concepts, a telecommunications firm, said that as soon as an employee begins earning “reasonable money,” they leave the District in the hope of buying a home at a more affordable price. Residents with jobs in the District become nonresidents, he said.

There’s really nothing wrong with this. Poor people get education or training, get decent jobs, and leave the city. Then new people come in — often from foreign countries — and do low-end work. With luck, their kids do well in school and many of them will leave. Simply put, if you draw a chart of “appeal of city living versus income” you get a dual-peaked curve. The result is a city divided. But it’s still really one city. The opportunities of the poor city are directly and inextricably linked to the fortunes of the rich city. And the key quality of life issues about crime, traffic, and all the rest impact people on both sides of the divide.