Suburban Blight

Alternet, from what I can tell, is an Internet-based news site about fifteen steps to the left of Eugene Debs. Most of the articles read like they were written by a privileged white kid who just went to college, grew dreadlocks for the first time, and discovered that poor people exist. Serious glassy-eyed liberalism, even by my standards.

Nonetheless, there’s an interesting article on there that I stumbled across yesterday. The basic premise is simple — as urban living in denser, walkable communities becomes more popular among empty-nesters and young professionals, the urban poor that have been living in these neighborhoods are being forced out by gentrification. As a result, inner-ring suburbs are starting to become the next generation of slums.

I can’t argue with the premise; it makes sense. While Buffalo is still a poor city, downtown in particular is experiencing a serious housing construction boom. Luxury apartments are going up in waterfront neighborhoods that used to be nothing but housing project towers and grain elevators. As people with money move in, the bodegas and wig shops are moving out and gourmet grocers and upscale flower shops are moving in. It’s a complete turnover in the character of the neighborhood, and it stands to reason that the people who can’t afford to live there any more have to go somewhere.

I can’t argue with the conclusion, either. The inner-ring suburbs of Buffalo — Cheektowaga, Amherst, and Tonawanda — are starting to have “city-like” problems. Dropout rates are climbing, as is crime, and abandoned houses are becoming more and more of a problem. Unfortunately, most of the programs designed to help lower-income families are city-based, and the suburbs are pretty unfriendly to public transport.

It will be interesting to see where this leads in the next twenty years or so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see most cities develop a “poverty belt” in their oldest suburbs surrounding the city, as some people move back to the urban core and others are carried to the exurbs by white flight.

8 Responses to “Suburban Blight”

  1. Pitt says:

    This was becoming an issue in Baltimore too- inner ring suburbs like Glen Burnie and Catonsville were starting to have city-like issues while the inner city was becoming gentrified. Not really sure what the solution is- poor people have to live somewhere, and of course its a NIMBY sort of situation.

    Of course, DC and Baltimore had their own peculiar flavors and problems. The cities themselves were like chessboards- pun intended- and you could go literally from a nice, well-kept block of thriving urban dwellers to a slummy block with boarded up windows and crack dealers on the stoops. Very weird.

  2. matt says:

    @Pitt

    Another contributing factor is that the neighborhoods that are on the down slide tend to be 1940s and early 1950s tract homes, small enough that they don’t really sell in the current market. Sue’s aunt lives off of Genesee, near Union, and she says that the last house to sell in her neighborhood was on the market for two or three years.

    City stick frame houses, on the other hand, were designed for an era where people had lots of kids, so they’re much roomier and thus more attractive to a modern homebuyer. There’s just no closets.

  3. Pitt says:

    @matt,

    In DC, a lot of the older suburbs with those early tract houses were seeing the 1200 and 1400 sq. ft cape cods demolished and 3 story McMansions springing up on these tiny lots. That’s what happens when the land is worth more than the house that’s on it.

    I sort-of disagree with the author of the article in his fastiduous support of the “urban lifestyle”. Some of us like seclusion, privacy, and the relative safety of living far away from concentrations of people. However, “Suburbia” makes me vomit a little in my mouth- rows and rows of similar houses in neighborhoods with few distingusihing features. A friend of mine lives in a development, and trying to navigate the roads there is a hair-pullingly frustrating activity. There’s a Rosebud Court, a Rosebud Terrace, a Terrace Terrace, Devenger place, court, and street….its maddening. Not to mention all the dead ends and cul-de-sacs.

  4. matt says:

    @Pitt

    Yeah, I agree that the tone of the article was a little too much “I’m a hipster who lives in the city”, but it was a lot more readable than most of the angsty Rage Against The Machine stuff elsewhere on the site.

    I think it’s pretty safe to say that the suburban sprawl building methodology has proven to be a lot more problematic than expected, so people are looking for answers. The only problem I see with living in the country, for those who prefer it, is that you always end up with a bunch of neighbors who want things to be more convenient, so strip malls and Wal Marts start springing up, and soon your sleepy little country town has turned into Cheektowaga or Henrietta and you have to move out one more ring.

  5. BrianN says:

    @ Matt

    Ha, that’s true,

    When we were in school, there was nothing in Webster but houses and empty fields. Every time I go home they have built a new mall with a huge parking lot.

  6. matt says:

    @BrianN

    Believe it or not, when I was a little kid, there was almost nothing in Henrietta. Then they built the Marketplace Mall, and the strip malls, mattress stores, and car lots started building up around it like arterial plaque. Now the whole town looks like Miracle Mile.

    Here in Buffalo, we’re seeing it in the suburbs. People used to move to Cheektowaga from the city, but that’s getting crowded and sliding downhill economically, so people started moving to Lancaster. (Town motto: “Sprawl? Never Heard Of It.”). Lancaster is so overbuilt that things like the water distribution infrastructure can’t take it, to people are moving out into Elma and the other third-ring suburbs, which I imagine will force the current Elmanians out into Angola and Derby and such.

    Oh, well. At least gas prices are coming down, and since everyone in this country seems to have ADD, that will make the long-ass suburban commute paradigm look viable again.

  7. Pitt says:

    @matt,

    Yeah, I did a little poking around on Alternet after lunch to see what you were talking about. Fun stuff. I had just gone out to lunch (Thai) with a coworker and was forced to listen to RushBo on the drive there and back. (No one lets me drive anywhere, very odd…possibly because my commuter car is approximately the size of a large dog) So anyway, the contrast was interesting.

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