Now, the stereotype stands that the suburbs are about wealth and the cities are about poverty. The suburbs are white. The cities are black (or Latino or some other non-white group).
The reality has always been more complicated — cities have always had white populations, both rich and poor — but this is a question of our national shorthand, and I believe that in the next 20 years or so, that perception is going to change.
It’s going to have to change because reality eventually catches up to perception. Poverty is sadly surging in the suburbs, part of a wide diversification outside of cities, which, though still facing legacy violence and education issues, largely appear on a road of recovery. More poor people live in the suburbs than cities or in areas called rural, a fact that came true starting in 2005.
Simply put, in the next generation, the divide will be simply more about space: the suburbs will have space, the cities will not. Of course, it’s a simplification. I know homes in Philadelphia with big yards in the Northeast and northwest, homes with pools and driveways along the dense riverwards and deep in West Philadelphia. But that’s not the point.
The point is what the stereotype will be. And when crime, demographics and poverty aren’t the issue, what else could be?
And it’s clear, suburban communities everywhere are getting much more racially and socioeconomically diverse. As with white flight from the cities a generation ago, not far after the flight comes the fight. Suburban communities will face — are already facing — the problems of crimes, of drugs, of gangs, of poverty, of blight and the like.
We’ll all be forced to face the problems.
We won’t have solved our poverty problems in cities — secretly, I don’t think we ever will. We’ll just have moved those problems. Some of it will have been pushed to cheaper, inner-ring suburbs as those residents move farther out or come back to the cities. But much of it will be made more dense: in parts of our cities that are farther from the amenities that this new generation of urban dwellers covet, like transit, walkability and identity, we’ll find pockets of poverty.
Fifty years ago, white flight was the cultural unraveling of our cities by way of the pursuit of what was new, what was more spacious, what was safer and, perhaps, what was whiter. Now, increasingly in the minds of young people, cities are what is new, and there are new arguments for their sense in our society. They are, it seems, what is cool.
This might be the opportunity to do a better job of integrating communities of poverty, of tackling education issues or bringing back our smartest and most engaged Americans to the reality and the struggles of our fellow residents.
Indeed, rural America has some very real poverty issues, but when we can remain distant, we can ignore such problems. This is why cities are engines for change: they are hubs of collaboration. I’m passionate that if Philadelphia is more challenged than most, it can be a city more ready for big changes and big impact.
In the future, the concept of the suburbs will be different. I expect that the distinction will get so muddled that a new phrase will come into vogue — the ‘suburbs’ may seem too limiting 20 years from now — but surely its stereotype will not have the power it had over the new parents of the 1960s and 1970s.
That will mean a lot for cities, and so it’s an important reason for working to better our cities — we have visitors coming soon, and if we want to continue to create safer, smarter, more equitable places to live, we’re going to need all the help we can get.