Last updated: September 8, 2013 5:53 pm

America’s heart is in the city once again

An entertaining journey through the demise of US suburban sprawl and the surprising renewal of its urban centres

The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, by Leigh Gallagher, Portfolio Penguin, RRP$25.95

 

My former Brooklyn home was once almost demolished to make way for a baseball stadium. Walter O’Malley, the former owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, drew up plans to raze a couple of hundred townhouses and plonk a new stadium on top. When refused by Robert Moses, then New York’s legendary city planner, O’Malley moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

That was in 1957, when the Dodgers’ Italian-American fans had started to abandon Brooklyn and move to the Long Island suburbs. O’Malley thought if he sited the stadium by the Long Island Rail Road station at Atlantic Avenue, it would be an easy journey. It was at the start of the decline of New York that culminated, amid street crime and urban dereliction, in near bankruptcy in 1975.

These days, of course, no one would think for a second of knocking down several streets of brownstones in Park Slope (the Barclays Center basketball stadium has since been erected on old railway yards nearby). Young families are not heading eagerly to Long Island and New Jersey any more – they want to remain in hipster Brooklyn if they can afford it.

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John Gapper

New York’s astonishing urban revival since the 1980s, culminating in bankers with children transforming Tribeca into “Triburbia”, has turned Brooklyn neighbourhoods such as Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Fort Greene into the new suburbs. For millennial parents, commuting into the city from a detached house in Westchester is a poor second best.

Whatever happened to the suburb, the postwar phenomenon that made the US a country of low-density housing, suburban sprawl based on driving instead of walking – an archipelago, according to author Leigh Gallagher (a child of the suburbs), of “little marching bands and soccer leagues, bake sales and PTA meetings”?

The “inner city” – once a sinkhole of deprivation – is the place well-off professionals want to live. When Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, advocating the virtues of high-density living and little shops, it was a rearguard action. That fight is over.

There are still swaths of suburbs (and, beyond them, the “exurbs” of Orange County, California or Phoenix, Arizona). There is also Detroit, whose inner core faces demolition for want of a better idea. But the US is becoming positively European in its enthusiasm for high-density living.

Gallagher, a business journalist most at home discussing the economics of city dwelling and quizzing housebuilders, never quite answers the question of why things changed but does provide clues. One is that the suburbs went too far – Brooklyn Heights, one subway stop across the East River from Wall Street, was once considered a suburb but some Orange County commuters slog through a three-hour traffic jam to work.

Demographics also changed the calculation. In the New Jersey commuter town where Gallagher’s parents lived, it was common to have four or five children. Now, the US relies on immigration for new workers – today’s young parents settle for one or two kids, and do not require huge yards and pools. By 2025, families with children will form only a quarter of US households.

Perhaps because Gallagher wants to keep the book light and entertaining, which it is, she has little to say about “white flight” and the ways in which some suburbanites in the 1970s were not simply seeking a little slice of heaven beyond the city but were abandoning neighbourhoods as black and Latino residents moved in. US development is far more fluid than in Europe because there is more space to move outwards, and ethnic and racial segregation has financial effects. In the past, the exodus drained property tax revenues from inner cities, causing downward spirals into poverty and crime. Now, they are spiralling in the other direction.

Gallagher identifies the 2008 bust as a turning point – when homes in desirable city neighbourhoods held their values much better than McMansions in Florida and California. But subprime sprawl was also a symptom of people being forced to venture ever further to find affordable housing. “Please tell me it has a happy ending,” the chief executive of a suburban developer pleads to Gallagher. She does her best to provide one – after years of angst about the death of the US city, the corpse has sprung to life and is looking sprightly. City living is healthier, more sociable and more environmentally sustainable.

But when prices rose in US suburbs, you could always build another one. Despite the “new urbanist” movement to build city-like suburbs, there is only one Fort Greene, or Center City, Philadelphia. The new renovated shining city upon a hill is awfully expensive.

The writer is the FT’s chief business commentator

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