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gentrification, sprawl and city failure

How about those for buzz words?

Gentrification is an object of hatred on the left because it is viewed as a source of added suffering for those already poorly off. While I agree that the byproducts of gentrification are certainly unfortunate, I think the gentrification opponents are wrong in identifying gentrification as a source, rather than a symptom, of a deeper problem.

(Related Jane Jacobs posts: the poverty trap, borders)

Gentrification, like city overcrowdedness in general, is a symptom of “the demand for lively and diversified city areas [being] too great for the supply.” The problem isn’t too much gentrification, it’s too little city. I’ll join Jacobs in stating, “The sheer supply of diversified, lively, economically viable city locations must be increased.”

The immediate response to this proposition would rightly be skepticism — why hasn’t city supply grown with demand?

Hypothesis: well-intentioned (giving the benefit of the doubt…) government intervention has stunted city growth over the past fifty-odd years, creating a large “city deficit.”

It’s economically advantageous to live in large concentrations, which is why cities evolved in the first place. Yet the wealthy left… Why?

One of the myths is that the wealthy turn and ran of cities because of a fear of black people, or something similar; this is mistaking cause and effect, the wealthy left because a large carrot was dangled in the suburbs, housing prices were then depressed, and in move poorer folks, including a large population of minorities. Just look at two of the signals the government sent post 1950:

  • Brand new interstate system: Made it cheaper to live further away from economic cores
  • Juicy government-guaranteed home mortgages: Rent in New York or own at a bargain price in a suburb? (I think this is the key…)

It would be incorrect to say that government-subsidized sprawl is a 20th century innovation. The West was settled because the government provided incentives (“you stand on it, you own it”) to leave the big cities.

The product of this sprawl has been a great deal of economically-depressed dead space. I won’t complain about how the earlier government subsidies played out — California, for all it’s crazies, has been a huge economic advantage and while it took a questionable Mexican War to obtain continental integrity, we likely spared a couple more wars by preempting the possibility of a European/Asian presence on the left coast.

But the 20th century subsidies are much more questionable. Beyond the city crunch, the reason we drive cars so much is because we have to, because everything is so spread out in the US. Don’t blame GM, blame the national sprawl.

Correcting deficits is never painless, and the dislocations brought on abrupt gentrification of city areas (UWS of Manhattan) and total city cleanup (is Newark a good example?) are the products of the market looking to correct what the government screwed up.

As Paul Krugman notes here, the fuel crunch is making our sprawl even more economically painful.

To conclude, greater concentrations of people are more productive than sparsely populated areas. Rather than help our cities grow, government planners have systematically driven individuals away from our economic hubs, lowering economic productivity, and greatly increasing the difficulty of managing overcrowded cities. Finally, I’ll add that before reading Jane Jacobs’ book, I agreed with the “widespread belief that Americans hate cities” — the dirtiness, poorly functioning transportation, etc. all bother me — but I’ve come to agree I, like most Americans, really only “hate city failure.” Presently, the city is like a company’s first store, which is filled with customers who want to use the store, but can’t even fit through the door. The problem isn’t the store, it’s that there isn’t enough store.

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