27 July 2006

Why Cities Should Fight to Keep Their Middle-Class Residents

I'm irate. I was just reading an article from last Sunday's Times called "Cities Shed Middle Class and Are Richer and Poorer for It," which conveys the not-very-new news that our major cities are becoming enclaves of the very rich and very poor, with the folks in the middle squeezed out and establishing homes in the suburbs or elsewhere in the country. This is a reality I've recognized (and bemoaned) about New York and other big cities for years—what made me irate are the remarks of some of the quoted experts.

Here's W. Michael Cox, chief economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, on the problem of laborers being unable to afford city digs on their smaller salaries: there is no problem—instead of letting them eat cake, let them work two jobs! Firefighters, for example, could benefit from "portfolio diversification in [their] income." Will someone fire this man, please? And then let him get two jobs so next time he's fired he can benefit from the diverseness of his night shift at the 7-11.

Right. Then there's a Harvard economist named Edward Glaeser, whose study of income inequality in cities in the 1960s and 1970s concluded that there's no reason to think they negatively affect housing price growth, income, or population.

Maybe I have a problem with economists, more than anything else. They talk as if all that mattered were growth. Sometimes you need to look past immediate benefits (rich folk move in, drive up prices, buy more products, pay more taxes), and think about the losses: what happens to society when people don't mix anymore—rich live with rich, poor with poor.

The miracle of cities, the energy of cities, the thrill of cities, come from their diversity, not from shiny commercial constructions that cater primarily to the very rich (e.g., New York's Trump Tower and Chicago's 900 N. Michigan). Such luxury super-malls can be (and are) constructed anywhere—in Sun Valley, Idaho, or Columbus, Ohio, and only serve to flatteringly reflect the rich back to themselves.

Cities are special for their ability to contain juxtapositions of glitter and grime, glamour and grit. The glue that holds those contraries together is the people at the middle of the economic spectrum, those who daily traverse the worlds of rich and poor, riding public transit to jobs that pay decently, buying groceries in cheaper neighborhoods, frequenting public parks and beaches, splurging at an expensive department store at Christmas, going out to a fancy restaurant once or twice a year for a special occasion. Without these folks, we eliminate any sort of connection between the extremes, because public amenities tend to deteriorate without their support, enforcing social as well as economic segregation, depriving the poor of hope for a better life, and limiting the rich to a narrow (private) set of activities, interactions, and destinations.

Meanwhile, the middle-class, living in the boonies among the enclaves of the super-duper-rich, become the most isolated group of all, commuting in private vehicles on suburban freeways, never interacting with anyone outside the circles of family, colleague, neighbor, or church. Safety is a value prized above rubies, and the city, with its crime and expense, exists as a place that the middle-class is lucky to be free of; its charms and satisfactions are forgotten, and notions of interdependence, cross-fertilization (of people and ideas), and public good are discarded.

(By the way, this is how Republicans are made.)

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kristine said...

I read your notes on the city with great interest. Having once lived in NYC I felt the same way. What will it take for the 59 mill to understand? I used to think people only see what is right in front of them or what impacts them directly. That doesn't see to be working now (Part D Medicare, pension fund, health insurance). I give up.

miss tracey nolan said...

Very interesting thoughts. While we are not immune to these problems, reading about the situation South of the border always makes me grateful for being a Canadian.