Great Reversion: Boomers and millennials are coming back to urban America
By Tom Condon
May 02, 2012
Not too long ago, the streets of downtown Hartford were largely empty after business hours. As my pal Jack Dollard put it, you could roll a bowling ball down Main Street after business hours and not hit anything. It wasn't necessarily scary, just dull and depressing. How in the name of heaven could a downtown McDonald's close? McEnnui?
But things slowly are a'changing. There are now people out walking dogs and going for coffee. Downtown is waking from the dead. It's not Times Square, but it is better than it was. And that is the case in cities across the country, according to one of the nation's most lucid students of urban affairs, Alan Ehrenhalt.
Ehrenhalt, a longtime editor and (outstanding) columnist for Governing magazine, has written a new book, "The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City," that tracks the return of middle- and upper-middle-class residents to the centers of Atlanta, Washington, Chicago and Boston, among others. He writes on the same topic in the April issue of Governing.
The "inversion" is the reversal of the pattern of the last half of the last century, when affluent people were moving to the suburbs and leaving the poor in the inner cities. Now, the haves are coming back and, at least in some cases, poor people are moving to the periphery — the pattern in many global cities in the 19th century.
Here, it isn't just the Bostons and Chicagos. The trend is obvious in downtown Stamford and New Haven, and getting there in Hartford. According to the U.S. Census, the population of downtown Hartford increased by 65.7 percent from 2000 to 2010, to 1,852 residents. That is still a modest total, to be sure, but one that is unmistakably headed in the right direction.
The downtown denizens are 56 percent white, an increase of 99 percent; 15 percent black, an increase of 110 percent; 15 percent Latino, a drop of 33 percent; and 12 percent Asian, an increase of 400 percent, according to the census.
The attractions of downtowns are businesses involved in the global economy and entertainment — bars, clubs, restaurants, coffee houses, etc. Those being attracted include active boomers, who no longer need and are happy to relinquish the house (and yard!) in the 'burbs, and some of their kids — the so-called millennials or Gen Y, born roughly between 1980 and 1995.
Though the research isn't unanimous, Ehrenhalt is persuaded that a lot of millennials, weaned on "Friends" and "Seinfeld," want an urban choice. Broader trends — smaller families, later marriages, decisions not to have children, a general drop in urban crime since the 1990s, more mixed-use zoning — support his thesis.
This doesn't mean that the outer suburbs are going away. After decades of intense suburbanization in Connecticut, the suburbs are where most of the housing is. Interestingly, some inner-suburban town centers such as West Hartford's, have acquired urban characteristics, suggesting Greater Hartford may be evolving into a polycentric urban setting.
Also, the move back to the cities hasn't solved the problems of urban poverty.
What it does mean is that things are changing. It is interesting to speculate how the new alignments will change urban politics; whether the old racial/ethnic blocks will collapse or whether cities will be able to assert themselves as the centers of metropolitan regions.
Ehrenhalt senses a move in the direction of bustling 19th-century European cities. I'd be happy with 21st-century European cities, with crowded streets, new streetcars, bicycle paths and bus lanes.
Hartford is adding downtown housing. The next step should be recapturing some of the city from the car to make it easier to walk and bike. Why not have bike and bus lanes instead of additional lanes of traffic, as many European cities do? Why not put buildings on some of the surface parking lots?
Finally, with the new public safety complex almost ready, the city should ratchet up planning for the blocks north of I-84, to re-integrate them into downtown and make downtown bigger.
In any event, we are seeing a positive, smart-growth, energy-saving trend. Let's help it along.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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