In 1977, my parents moved us from Brooklyn to Long Island. It was a good time to leave the city: Son of Sam roamed free, the blackouts that summer led to riots, and while the Bronx was officially burning, Brooklyn wasn't exactly Shangri-La either.
But more than that, my parents felt like they were supposed to move to the suburbs - it was a sign of progress, a signal they'd made it. And while I couldn't wait to get back to the city, my parents and sister would tell you they enjoyed it. The world has changed a lot since then.
Two weeks ago, Aetna announced they were leaving their headquarters in Connecticut - an entire state predicated upon the suburban dream - to move to a new tower not only in Manhattan, but in the Meatpacking District no less. Their rationale was simple: the high talent, highly desirable employees they need to compete in a digital economy don't want to live in the suburbs.
That's a sign of a larger trend, at least in high cost, space constrained metropolitan areas where moving to the suburbs has gone from something you were supposed to do to show you'd made it to something you sometimes now have to do because the city just isn't affordable. It's gone from a symbol of success to, in many cases, a symbol of harder choices.
If the trend continues, at least around places like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, then many of the assumptions we currently make about the suburbs - and the policy decisions that come with it - will have to change too (to be clear, there will always be pockets of rich people who just really like the suburbs for a variety of reasons and will always choose to live there). Here's what it means:
- As gentrification and ever rising housing prices drive lower income people out of cities and into suburbs, we'll see more tension and conflict between newcomers and people who say "we were here first." That risks further eroding the image of the suburbs as a leafy, calm idyll and could drive even more people to then try to stay in the city, making urban housing even more expensive (which means urban real estate continues to be a good investment provided the seas don't ultimately rise and swallow our big coastal cities whole).
- Suburban politics will change dramatically over time. Democrats (assuming they can win some state legislative seats and have a say in redistricting) will pick up more and more suburban seats around the country as their districts become more and more diverse (despite running a campaign with no new ideas, Jon Ossoff came relatively close to winning in suburban Atlanta mainly because the trends and demographics are changing). That also means frustrated suburban whites (not counting the elites there by choice) may start to resemble frustrated whites in the Rust Belt, potentially making them receptive to demagogues from both parties (Trump's message of returning to a better time but also Sanders' message of screw the rich).
- The myth that all - or even most - suburban public schools are great will be shattered, bringing more charter school networks and education reform fights to the suburbs. Right now, when people spend 2-3 hours commuting every single day and pay high property taxes for the privilege of doing so, they can't live with the notion that their kids' schools are anything other than spectacular. But many of the challenges that plague rural and urban schools plague suburban schools too (and the mania over too much homework and too much testing in the suburbs will only hasten the decline), making the suburbs an even less appealing choice for some.
- Commuter rail systems will become an even bigger political hot button than urban mass transit. In New York, the Long Island Rail Road has gotten so bad, transit officials have asked people to start working from home. Political leaders will feel more pressure to allocate more and more funding to commuter rails, taking the current political divide in many states of rural areas resenting cities (the way downstate Illinois hates Chicago) and turning it into a rural vs suburban dynamic instead. This changes the nature of state politics but also probably helps expedite regulatory approval of self-driving cars (which has the potential to make commuting a lot less painful).
Could things turn bad in cities again? Sure. Crime could soar, teachers unions can keep blocking all attempts to make city public schools better, subways will continue to grow older and slower and the trend theoretically reverses. It's possible, but also unlikely because the social norms have changed. When people like my parents thought that moving to the suburbs said something good about them, it made them willing to put up with a lot of headaches in return for the internal and external reputational benefit.
Now, the perception has changed and it impacts everyone across the suburban socio-economic spectrum. More tension. Schools that may not be as good as you think. More fighting for scarce resources. More openness to demagoguery.
As more and more people choose to stay in cities and prioritize human contact over having basements and backyards, many suburbs are going to bear the brunt of that changing perspective. It's going to change their local economies, the way they fund their schools and communities, the way they think and the way they vote - for a long time to come.