As coarse as it may sound, the natural order of cities for thousands of years was to have a collection of affluent people living in places surrounded by poor people. The affluent lived close to the center -- within the castle walls, in some instances -- and the poorest lived on the edge. I’m not suggesting this was a particularly desirable state of things -- although, in most cases, there were benefits for all -- only that it was the state of things.
In the United States, in our continental-scaled Suburban Experiment, we spent trillions of dollars inverting this natural order. In the second half of the 20th century, our cities became -- and, again, excuse the coarseness -- poor people living in cities surrounded by affluent people. We give this transition names like “white flight” and generally lament it. That is, we wish it didn’t happen in the kind of way that we lament the death of millions of Native Americans from disease in the early days of European colonization: We wish it hadn’t happened, but it did, and since I didn’t create smallpox, please pass the pumpkin pie.
As we see the Growth Ponzi Scheme unwinding and the first decades of what journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has called The Great Inversion, Americans are experiencing a return to normal living conditions. In many ways, it’s a traumatic transition; who-moved-my-cheese on a continental economic scale.
The impact of suburbanization on poor people in the inner city is fairly well documented. Left behind in “urban slums” and subject to disinvestment except for the freeways that now bisected their neighborhoods, America’s poorest were subjected (and still are, in many ways) to decades of social experiments, from Urban Renewal to the War on Poverty. Still, these neighborhoods were generally coherent places. One could walk to a corner grocery store or take a bus to a job. I’m not pretending this was a wonderful state of existence -- especially in comparison to the suburbs that surrounded them -- but life could generally function, despite the decline and neglect.
Ponder what life will be like following another decade or two of inversion, with society’s arrangements -- no longer able to be propped up by an expanding state -- reverting back to a more natural alignment. Consider an America where the affluent inhabit our core cities and the poor are left behind on our suburbanized outskirts.
It’s hard to imagine a more despotic environment to be poor in than America’s suburbs. The ante of an automobile is required for a base existence, but we’re seeing more and more families struggle to afford one, let alone the two or three that a family with kids often needs. That means trudging miles on foot to the nearest big box store or gas station for employment or daily essentials, circumnavigating drainage ditches and screening berms on roads designed without any thought given to those outside of an automobile. Bikes are liberating in such a place, but only marginally so.
Our suburbs fall apart quickly when they are not maintained. The miles of asphalt and concrete roadway, the vast expanse of front and back yards, the facades of fake rock and supposedly maintenance-free vinyl… these all take immense time and spare resources to keep them in order. America’s suburbs are not financially viable, even with the affluent living in them. As the poor become more of a presence there, it’s hard to see how these places can keep from unraveling.
And it’s hard to see America not simply blaming the poor in response. When it takes the income of multiple families to maintain one suburban house, we’re going to see multiple families living in one house. This will occur on streets with several other homes that are abandoned and falling apart completely, thus reinforcing every stereotype of poor people and their willingness -- some contend desire -- to live sub-normal lives. It will be easy to write them off.
I’ve called this transition the greatest social challenge of our generation. At Strong Towns, we've examined and we continue to examine the complex issues surrounding suburban poverty through our unique prism. If you’re wrapped up in today’s divisive left/right politics, try to avoid knee-jerk reaction and/or gloating as you read and listen to our exploration of suburban poverty.
There are simply not enough Americans, and never will be, to maintain the vast space our metropolitan areas and small towns have now expanded into. The next generation of change will continue to have extreme winners and losers, especially so on our current trajectory. How do we use the best of who we are to create a society that is strong, prosperous and just? That is the question that suburban poverty confronts us with; help us answer it.
(Top photo by Daniel Herriges)