Skip to main content

Demise of the Global City

Gentrifiers suffer from gentrification as rising housing costs push people out of their first- and second-choice neighborhoods.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Gentrification in the U.S.: The North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the "Warehouse District" of condominia for artists and entrepreneurs. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Gentrification in the U.S.: The North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the "Warehouse District" of condominia for artists and entrepreneurs. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

London is dying. The big city used to be a place where the ambitious Creative Class could find upward mobility. No longer:

Our neighbors Lauren and Matt and their kids moved out of London to Cambridge the other week. Bibi, Andy and their two left for Bristol in June. Another of my 8-year-old’s classmates and her family are heading out after Christmas.

In my book this is a trend.

The moves are not examples of the life cycle of the striving middle classes. Nor are they examples of middle-class folks being thrown on hard times by the sluggish British economy. The families moving out had good incomes.

Gentrifiers suffer from gentrification. Bristol or Cambridge is not a bad place to land. Can't afford London? Not a problem:

Much has been written about the North-South divide (or, more accurately, a distance from London divide) but there is also a gap opening between the larger cities and the smaller towns, especially those that were once industrial centres. ...

... In other words, although salaries and property were cheaper in the old industrial town, the lack of skills and the social problems of the area meant that there would be a hidden overhead to setting up there. In the shiny regional capital, with its universities and colleges, there was a pool of keen, well-educated people who would be a much more productive much more quickly.

You can see the effects of this in the regions outside the South-East. Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle have their stunning new developments and you can tell there are people there with plenty of money just by walking around. Go a few miles up the read, though, and you will find blighted and boarded up small towns. It doesn’t matter how cheap they are, employers are avoiding them. The worse they get, the less likely firms are to relocate. The lure of cheaper property and wages only goes so far. It may tempt organisations away from the South-East but only to the larger regional capitals. Small town Britain is a step too far.

"Larger regional capitals" benefit from London's talent exodus. Universities, outside of the favored South-East, position themselves as nodes in global innovation. A creative in Bristol can do London one better, greatly improved quality of life at a fraction of the cost.

One can see the same trend of economic convergence in the United States. Connecting the exodus from London to San Francisco real estate refugees slumming it in Oakland puts this Atlantic Cities analysis in an unfavorable light:

The rise in housing costs is having big effects on the broader region as well. We should be thinking about San Francisco in the context of the rest of the urbanized Bay Area as we look for ways to make life more affordable. As people get priced out of their first-choice neighborhoods, they move to new ones, and they in turn make it safe for subsequent waves of gentrifiers. This process has now moved from San Francisco to Oakland, and perhaps other parts of the Bay Area as well.

Whether the gentrification process is good or bad for neighborhoods, and for the lower-income people who live there, is something that can be debated endlessly. But what is strikingly different about the Bay Area in contrast to a place like New York is the fact that New York has so many more walkable, pre-war neighborhoods located on rail transit, within easy commuting distance of Manhattan. When New York neighborhoods like Soho and the Village got too expensive, for example, the Lower East Side became a major center for artists and other members of the cultural avant-garde. When the Lower East Side got too expensive, people went across the East River to Williamsburg. Next came Fort Green, Dumbo, Red Hook and other neighborhoods in Brooklyn that were still cheap. But as every spot in Brooklyn with a good rail connection to the city gets more expensive, there still is Queens, the Bronx, Newark, the towns up the Hudson — walkable neighborhoods in every direction.

As expensive as Manhattan is, and as far along into the gentrification process as the many surrounding communities are, there are still many places to go within the New York orbit to have an affordable, urban way of life.

Gentrification is often framed as a local or regional issue. This is a huge blind spot in urban planning. Gentrification is the result of global forces, the impact of international political economy. Priced out residents of Brooklyn end up in Fishtown (Philadelphia), not Queens. I've met numerous people priced out of San Francisco now living in Fort Collins, Colorado. Portland, Oregon, is another popular landing place. The scale of gentrification is national:

Between 2005 and 2009 the nation’s biggest county-to-county migration was from Los Angeles County to San Bernardino County. These counties are both in Southern California, but they’re sufficiently far apart (sixty miles) that they constitute separate labor markets. Before the recession, unemployment in San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties was about the same. After the recession hit, unemployment in San Bernardino County rose higher, topping out at about 15 percent compared to LA County’s 13 percent.

Moving from LA to San Bernardino would not have improved your chances of finding a job. We’re talking about a city that declared bankruptcy last year. Nor would San Berdoo be the place to escape big-city crime; after it laid off cops in droves, it experienced a 50 percent increase in its homicide rate. Among the white population aged sixteen to twenty-four, 18 percent are neither in school nor have a job, a number that rises to 19 percent for Latinos and 25 percent for African Americans. Yet a huge flow of migrants continues from LA. Why? Mainly because housing is cheaper. Gloria Santellan recently wrote on the Facebook page of the Victorville Daily Press, a local paper, “I was paying $750 for a studio in the San Gabriel Valley area, and out here I was in a two-bedroom for $25 less!”

Cheaper housing drives a lot of migration, and not just in San Francisco. Everywhere. However, as the story about the United Kingdom makes plain, there are winners and losers in the outmigration from global city game. The quality of the talent flow matters. Follow the geographically mobile gentrifiers and trace the diffusion of globalization.