Great minds think alike. And so it was that this weekend the country’s two most prestigious daily newspapers both brought us stories of how sleepy, prosperous suburbs of their respective cities are developing hip downtowns with all the accoutrements of a gentrified urban neighborhood. Out with the chain store surrounded by parking lots, in with the yoga studio and “vintage” clothing boutique on Main Street.
The New York Times reports that hipsters are fleeing Brooklyn and Manhattan’s East Village for towns along the Hudson River. “You no longer have to take the L train to experience this slice of cosmopolitan bohemia,” the Times claims. “Instead, you’ll find it along the Metro-North Railroad, roughly 25 miles north of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the suburb of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a story about Montgomery County, Md., a collection of leafy, wealthy suburbs, that, in the hopes of appealing to young professionals, is making plans to build pedestrian-friendly downtown areas and seeking trendy stores to fill them. “For all its prosperity and family-friendly suburban appeal, Montgomery is in the throes of a midlife crisis,” the Post writes. “That angst has led to a new item at the top of the public policy agenda: a yearning to be hip.”
The Times piece was widely mocked. As Slate’s Jessica Grose pointed out, young parents with children leaving their cramped apartments for spacious suburban homes is as old as the suburbs themselves. The only difference is that until recently, the vast majority of young artists and professionals in New York City lived in Manhattan and went straight to suburbia from there without stopping in the outer boroughs.
Blogger Dana Goldstein observed that the demographic inversion pricing the young white creative classes out of Brooklyn neighborhoods that their ilk would never have set foot in 20 years ago is actually driving far more minorities and poor people than rich white people to the suburbs. (Case in point: Just last week, in a little-noticed article, The Brooklyn Paper reported that many residents of mostly black sections of central and southeastern Brooklyn are moving to the Poconos, the Pennsylvania region 90 minutes from New York City.)
The blogosphere ignored the Post story, but it contained some actual news: “County Executive Isiah Leggett wants to make Montgomery more competitive with the District and Arlington County for the coveted millennial demographic, or ‘Generation Y’ — roughly defined as those between ages 18 and 34,” the Post reports.
That’s different than the married parents of small children, in their 30s and 40s, who are moving to “Hipsturbia” on the Hudson because they can afford a big Victorian house with a yoga studio nearby.
Despite their differences, these stories are two sides of the same coin: The young and highly educated, even though they overwhelmingly grew up in the suburbs, want to be able walk to an independent coffee bar, passing other people with tattoos, order a soy-milk chai latte and vegan pastry, and crack open their Macbook to enjoy some free public wi-fi. As they outgrow the city, like generations before them, they go looking for the same amenities in a more suburban setting. Some areas will attract these people naturally; others are going to have to work for it.
That the Hudson River towns would be the most popular suburbs among that cohort makes intuitive sense. They were settled relatively early as independent villages, so they have railroad stations, walkable downtowns, and a handful charming old buildings. That is why they have character, that elusive quality that D.C.’s suburbs — sprawling, 20th-century autopias — are trying to insert ex post facto.
From both stories you can take the same lesson: that the suburbs with the best prospects will be those with walkability and transit access. Cool stores and good restaurants, which often depend on walk-in traffic, are actually a symptom, rather than the cause, of such vibrancy. The interstitial step isn’t to attract funky stores, but the people who would open and patronize them.
But a careful reading of these stories raises more interesting questions about the future of inner-cities than of suburbia. As Ariella Cohen explains in Next City, the urbanist hope for gentrification was that it would not just turn formerly working-class minority neighborhoods into temporary playgrounds for wealthy whites for the decade or two between their graduation from college and procreation. Rather, the goal is to create cities, and transit-accessible inner-ring suburbs, that are economically diverse and integrated, commercially vibrant, and ecologically sustainable.
The subjects of the Times piece, although they praise their new homes’ ample charms, mostly emphasize that they gave up on Brooklyn because they could not afford a sizable enough home in a neighborhood like Greenpoint. But why didn’t they venture deeper into the borough? There are areas of cheaper, ungentrified Brooklyn where they could afford a brownstone for the price of a similar-sized detached home in Tarrytown. Why do they choose a town on the Hudson over Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, or Sunset Park? Is it because crime is still a concern? Are those fears statistically justified? Are New York City public schools still perceived as vastly inferior to their suburban counterparts, and is that accurate? Or is it just because, at some very basic level, many young people still want the comforts they grew up with, like garages and lawns and large, separate houses?
Whatever it is, the suburbs still call to many Americans, and the smart ones are rebuilding for a new generation. And cities? If they want to retain their new residents into middle age, they’ll need to face these questions, and also address the spiraling cost of housing. Loosening zoning regulations and other development restrictions, such as D.C.’s building height limit, will help supply rise to meet demand. And if New York doesn’t want the gentrifiers of Crown Heights and Ditmas Park to push every longtime resident out to the Poconos, it will have to create more units of affordable housing.
The Times and Post stories show that is that there is a demand for a future with healthier cities and less sucky suburbs. But getting there won’t just happen on its own: Policies that both remove obstacles and invent solutions will determine the fate of all our communities.
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