The Gentrification of Americana
The pandemic has triggered de-urbanization in the US as residents with financial means seek to decamp the hyper-density, high cost and increasing violent crime of urban areas to a more tranquil and safer landscape facilitated by the magic of remote working.
The Unmasking of the Glamour of Urban Living
During the 2000s and 2010s urban living was viewed as the new long-term future as Smart Cities would offer all the promised conveniences of modern 21st century living. Mass transit was aggressively promoted as environmentally friendly to reduce the carbon footprint supported by the conversion of many downtown streets into walking plazas, and construction of new buildings and conversion of old buildings into green offices and residences. Finally low crime rates made this decision a no brainer and powerful allure for newcomers, domestic and international, rural and suburban.
The model works quite well under ideal economic conditions but frays rapidly under stress. The pandemic has shattered the model because urban density facilitates the virus’ ability to spread. Large protests against corrupt & incompetent governments, and aggressive law enforcement applying sometimes violent and discriminatory tactics degraded the urban quality of life turning even upscale urban areas into cauldrons of chaos.
Even with the development and distribution of a safe vaccine on the horizon, urban citizens are decamping to small urban cities because successful full-time remote work – encouraged by their employers - eliminates commuting expenses and time-consuming hassles. Those left out are essential workers whose on-site presence is required.
This sudden exodus strongly infers that most urban dwellers not only lack the confidence of a positive near-term future in urban living but perhaps never liked living in the city in the first place. Certainly there are many urban dwellers who have the financial wherewithal to leave at any time but they’ve decided to stay.
This trend bodes badly for large urban cities because regardless how they reinvent themselves they are unlikely to woe back the departed nor approach their pre-pandemic glory for at least a generation. The pandemic has broken the reset button enabling an economic rebound to return the urban areas to their former glory.
Channeling George Carlin | Revitalization vs Gentrification
As thousands of urban dwellers decamp to small cities and towns, the description provided by the media smacks of double-standard.
George Carlin’s classic soft language skit described how bygone expressions which are today considered ‘politically incorrect” have been replaced by language that offends few but confuses all.
Why is it called “revitalization” when mostly Caucasian residents of a higher socio-economic status enter another mostly Caucasian neighborhood which raises real estate prices? Wouldn’t that be considered “gentrification”?
But the word “gentrification” is often used when Caucasian residents of a higher socio-economic status move into a rundown (never described as “shrinking” or “dying”) neighborhood with mostly residents of color?
The difference between the two words can be described as “displacement”. In a revitalized phase no one is displaced while during gentrification longtime residents are displaced (“priced out”) by higher rents or higher taxes for homeowners that they can no longer afford.
Classical case studies in NYC are the neighborhoods of Harlem, Bed-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg and Fort Greene, to name a few which, in which gentrification did not raise the financial fortunes of the multi-generational “indigenous” residents. Homeowners were few and far between because their low-paying jobs made it difficult to get a mortgage, even during the pre-gentrification period of pre rezoning depressed prices. For those that want to remain, considerably higher real estate taxes make remaining in their neighborhood difficult.
The irony of this migration into domestic self-exile from the big urban cities is that small town and city residents couldn’t afford to live in the large cities are now having large city residents come to them. For this reason real estate prices – renters and new homeowners – are rising exponentially creating greater population density and subsequent pressure on public services against modest municipal budgets.
In addition to an economic shift, lifestyle tensions will rise between the newly arrived and long-time residents as big city residents consciously or unconsciously impose their sophisticated lifestyles on the small city citizenry whose lifestyles are far simpler. Seeking to recreate big city services with a small town vibe, demands for vegetarian/vegan restaurants and exotic coffees don’t fit the daily or aspirational culinary lifestyle of a small city resident. Welcome to the gentrification of Americana.
Surely there will be elements in their new medium-term paradise will have a nostalgic yearn for urban life when the economic situation stabilizes and becomes far safer, not necessarily pre-pandemic safe, but at an acceptable level.
Psychologically urban dwellers may get bored after living in a quieter environment and crave the social and professional “rush” and dynamics of the big city. This is particularly true as fall weather approaches with winter not far behind with its shorter days and shorter daylight against the possibility of tighter restrictions or even future lockdowns as surges occur worldwide. This exposes the harsh reality of the limits of technology to sooth the human soul. Robot dogs may not poop on the carpet but they can’t love.
Political Shift to Violet
The other element is the subtle and slightly noticeable shift politically as blue state residents enter red states and visa-versa creating a grayer political landscape and change in voter profile. In fact by mixing the colors blue and red you get violet resulting in an organically grown third political representation in districts which cannot be readily classified Democrat or Republican.
The exodus from large, dense urban areas will continue short to medium-term as the trends of mass employment, increased homelessness, rise in crime, fewer urban public services and overall degradation of quality of life.
Nonetheless these same trends in the urban areas will eventually adversely impact smaller urban and even rural areas to where the exodus have fled. A deep recession or depression whose negative elements, like a virus, tend to eliminate sanctuaries which adheres to the old adage, “A person meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”
Copyright 2020 Cerulean Council LLC
The Cerulean Council is a NYC-based think-tank that provides prescient, beyond-the-horizon, contrarian perspectives and risk assessments on geopolitical dynamics and global urban security.