What Goes Around…

(cross-posted from United States of Jamerica)

On his blog earlier this week, Ryan Avent made a really insightful point about the legacy of the Baby Boomer’s attitudes towards urban/suburban design:

But the really interesting point to me is that the Boomers have also screwed themselves. The policies mentioned above — forcing developers to pay for infrastructure improvements, draconian limits on new taxes, strict constraints on new supply — have made California decidedly unfriendly to seniors. The Golden State would be a great place for one’s golden years, if only it were remotely affordable, and if one could get around without a car. But California is having a devil of a time financing new transit and rail infrastructure, and the few places that are transit accessible and walkable are the ones that have held up best amid the housing crunch; those 50% price reductions are coming in places that are useless for those unwilling to hop on a freeway.

You’re going to see this all over the country. A generation that worked very hard to build an urban geography suited to a nuclear family with young children is now getting old. What are they supposed to do with all these four bedroom homes that are a 15-minute drive from a cup of coffee and a newspaper?

Because we spend a fair amount of time commenting on racial politics, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the racial dimensions of the Boomers’ passion for big lawns, big houses, “draconian limits on new taxes” and “strict constraints on new supply.”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that you can see where this is going.

There were two major periods of African-American migration in the 20th century.  The first “Great Migration,” began in 1910 and saw approximately 1.6 million African-Americans migrate out of the South and to industrial centers throughout the country, ending around the time of the Great Depression.  And while that resulted in some white out-migration from areas where blacks settled, it paled in comparison to the “white flight” which occurred during the second Great Migration.  Between 1940 and 1970, almost 2 million African-Americans left the deep South for the cities, lured – as migrants usually are – by the promise of better jobs and opportunities for their families.

The resulting economic pressures (tight housing markets and such) along with robust federal subsidization of roads and suburban housing developments, pushed many white families to the suburbs.  What’s more, is that there was a tremendous sense among white Americans that their new black neighbors would negatively impact the value of their homes and neighborhoods.  And so, suburban townships and communities around the country adopted measures like exclusionary covenants (restricting landownership to a particular race) or redlining to prevent African-American migration to the suburbs.  Indeed, some communities even went as far as using roads to isolate black neighborhoods (where automobile ownership was far less likely) from goods and services.  The older suburban/exurban model of isolated neighborhoods connected by roads and strip malls owes its existence – in part – to a desire to keep African-Americans out of the suburbs.

Of course, as Avent notes, this has come back to bite the Boomers and their parents in the ass; the downside of designing neighborhoods in an exclusionary fashion is that it makes them virtually unlivable for someone who doesn’t own a vehicle or who because of age or infirmiry, can’t operate one.

5 thoughts on “What Goes Around…

  1. Molly May 15, 2009 at 10:55 am Reply

    how weird…when I think of baby boomers I think of social radicals and hippies living in primarily urban areas…I guess it is just different cultural reference points…

  2. geo May 15, 2009 at 1:53 pm Reply

    i have never heard of federal subsidies funding suburban housing developments. do you know which programs or how much money has been allocated to suburban housing? this is very interesting to me.

  3. Steve May 15, 2009 at 4:12 pm Reply

    I’ve been saying for a while that boomers have done so many things that are compromising them now…and of course, who has to pay for it? us. I wouldn’t be surprised if voting patterns shift politically in 10 years or so toward a boomer vs. younger divide.

  4. […] By Guest Contributor Jamelle, originally published on United States of Jamerica and PostBourgie […]

  5. Leigh May 21, 2009 at 1:02 pm Reply

    It’s odd – and misplaced to an extent – that this is blamed on “Boomers,” considering that suburbanization has been happening since the end of WWII, and was made really stimulated in the early years by the GI Bill, a federal-level program that black veterans were routinely denied. Slum clearance and urban renewal followed in the 1950s, the majority of public housing was built in the 1930s and 1940s, segregated initially with projects for whites and projects for blacks. All of this was done as the earliest generations of baby boomers were born. Ditto the Interstate Highway System that came about under Eisenhower.

    The roots of urban-suburban segregation precede the Baby Boomers. Where I think Avent is correct is in suburban NIMBY-driven local zoning efforts that may have followed in the 1970s and 1980s, but by then, this racial and economic spatial segregation was well defined.

    I’d also recommend Dolores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution, which talks about the gendered, patriarchal design of suburbia, as a place to “protect” and enclose women and children.

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