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Not your mother's cities

My mother grew up living a city lifestyle in an ethnic enclave in Buffalo, NY, a daughter of immigrant parents and a little older than the baby boomers. She did not even have a drivers license until she was in her mid-20's. When my parents bought their house in Silver Spring off the Beltway, many Americans were moving to the suburbs. The American Dream was to own a house in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts and commute by car to a job in the city. Owning a car meant mobility, and mobility meant freedom. It meant choice. It meant privilege. Today, owning a car does not mean the same thing.

The Adams Morgan Day Festival. Photo by valkyrieh116 on Flickr.

Owning a car means still means mobility, but that is no longer a privilege for many young adults. It is a necessity. As this generation ascends into the business world, we are greeted by office parks in exurbs, located off freeways with acres of surface parking in front of them. To many in this generation, the movement back into the city is most favorable. In the city we trade mobility for accessibility.

Rob Pitingolo poignantly elucidates some of the generational differences in our relationship with automobiles. Pitingolo doesn't mention gas prices even once. He points to the drastic rise in college tuitions, outpacing income growth, and the way most college graduates join the workforce with immense debt. Purchasing a car often means even more debt. Auto magazine Ward's writes,

The children of Baby Boomers do not aspire to vehicle ownership like we did. Instead of daydreaming about buying a Ford Expedition they can use for camping trips with friends and family, many Millenials may want to rent the big SUV for just the camping trip, Pipas explained. The vehicle is just another element of the experience, not the foundation for it. The next weekend they might rent a canoe.
Young people in Japan, a nation whose economy depends on car manufacturing, are eschewing car ownership at even higher rates than in the US. Where unlike in previous generations, they "scoff at the sportscar-idolizing culture of the older generation [and] see cars as nothing more than a tool, much like a vacuum cleaner, not a reflection of their identity, tastes or income level."

These starkly different cultural differences certainly could explain Americans' ingrained societal desire for the status quo of highways, strip malls, office parks, and homogeneous neighborhoods. For decades, this was sold as the ultimate goal. But suburbanization and the age of mobility did one very good thing for society.

Suburbanization occurred at the same time as the Civil Rights movement. Highways, if nothing else, were public works used by all demographics. Mobility, combined with the passage of civil rights laws, integrated society somewhat. Most development and infrastructure still happened in wealthy areas, but immigrants, minorities, and the poor could at least drive (a longer distance) to the new shops, using the same rest stops and gas stations. At the same time, suburbanization increased the physical separation of different social classes with podded single use developments, often utilizing highways and freeways as very effective social barriers.

Now that this generation is moving back into the city, they different cultures and social classes are living closer together. Mixed income neighborhoods are unheard-of in suburban sprawl, but they weren't too common in the pre-WWII cities, either. Anacostia, for instance, was founded with restrictive covenants excluding anyone of African or Irish descent. Nowadays, as the new generation moves back into the cities and historically homogenous districts, Chinatowns, Little Italys, ghettos, barrios, and the like are being reborn into mixed-use, mixed-income, multi-cultural neighborhoods.

As for my mother, she lived in the suburbs just long enough to raise her children in the great suburbia. Now that she is an elderly widow living by herself, she has relocated back into the urban setting, setting up camp in a condo in downtown Silver Spring. Only unlike the Sicilian ghetto where she was raised, her new digs are located in one of the most diverse locales around.

Dave Murphy is a Geographic Analyst for the Department of Defense and a US Army veteran. He is also a part time bouncer. He was born in Foggy Bottom and is a lifelong resident of the DC area. He currently resides in the Eckington neighborhood of Northeast. 


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This was a great read. I've had plenty of discussions with older folks who are very skeptical when I bring up this point. I think someone lambasted me for it when I mentioned it in my earlier post about my Purple Line hearing testimony. I usually get told that I'm just young and naive and I "haven't lived around her long enough."

If the car manufacturers notice what should be conventional wisdom (but isn't because Conventional Wisdom is usually either wrong or outdated), there is clearly some truth to it.

I worry that it will be too late by the time there is a changing of the guard with regards to political leadership. By then we'll have trillions more in new highways, lots of shiny new empty strip malls, a worse oil addiction and no few new train lines in the sprawl-villes that need them the most. Meanwhile, the cities that were laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries will continue their development of transit infrastructure, which breeds economies and social vibrance. The newer cities will be abandoned due to lack of jobs and resources. If only Le Corbusier were still around to see this...

by Cavan on Dec 30, 2008 11:37 am • linkreport

And cue "19th century" comments from Lance in 5....4.....3....

by Justin on Dec 30, 2008 11:39 am • linkreport

Cars are bad. We get it. Every post on here and BeyondDC essentially boils down to that premise. It gets old.

by Economic Geography on Dec 30, 2008 12:10 pm • linkreport

@Cavan, global warming and climate change were generally considered conventional wisdom back when the auto makers were still vehemently denying any responsibility.

@Dave Murphy, gasoline prices often seem to be more of a psychological issue propped up by constant media attention whenever prices rise. It doesn't take long for a recent college graduate with tuition debt in the tens of thousands of dollars to realize that not owning a car at all could save thousands of dollars per year (well beyond what would merely be paid for gasoline).

by Rob Pitingolo on Dec 30, 2008 12:26 pm • linkreport

The abandonment of city centers after WWII definatley provided for a lot of unintended affordable housing. I wonder if a lot of the ex-urbs that don't get a rail link will become the new affordable housing. Unfortunatley, since these houses are in the boondocks, I doubt that lower income people will be able to afford the cars it takes to survive way out there.

Economic Geography: Car's aren't bad, it's the planners and zoning officials who still think everyone wants more of the same that are bad (for the environment).

Keep up the great work GGW!

by Thayer-D on Dec 30, 2008 1:46 pm • linkreport

I thought that this was an interesting read.

I agree with the overall premise of what was stated.

I do think that while retirees and young people are moving into cities, families are not.

The schools in DC are awful, and are unlikely to improve anytime soon.

I lived in DC for almost 10 years.

When it came time for them to start school I moved to Bethesda.

by dddd on Dec 30, 2008 1:50 pm • linkreport

"...but we don't want the Irish!" - Olson Johnson

by EdTheRed on Dec 30, 2008 2:21 pm • linkreport

Thayer - I think you're on to something. It's already happening to some degree. You drive a couple of miles, park your car, take the bus to Shady Grove, Vienna, or Springfield/Franconia, and get on another bus to your office park - or if you're lucky you get on the Metro.

Last summer, overloaded express buses were bypassing the Urbana Park and Ride, leaving people to wait for an hour or two until they could get a bus to Shady Grove.

The only real infrastructure change this involves is building a lot of small local park and rides instead of a few big ones.

by Ben Ross on Dec 30, 2008 2:40 pm • linkreport

I have no doubt that the pressed-board exurban homes of today will become the affordable/less desirable housing of tomorrow.

Heck, in many parts, tomorrow is already here!

by Drew on Dec 30, 2008 3:03 pm • linkreport


you just put words on a lot of things that I feel.


by david on Dec 30, 2008 4:30 pm • linkreport

I agree with dddd.

As long as the gentrification of DC does not include middle-income families (of all ethnicities), suburbia will remain a strong and vital place no matter what gas prices are.

I'm already concerned about my baby's education -- as much as I love Capitol Hill, I may have to move to outside-the-Beltway Fairfax County so that he will not be educated with poverty-stricken, under-achieving kids whose parents don't value education.

(and yes, we're in the lottery for the charters...)

by mike capitol hill on Dec 30, 2008 4:30 pm • linkreport

I would disagree that the car/suburb culture helped with integration at all. In fact, the first phases of suburbanization from the 20s onward were very explicitly racist and segregationist in many places, and the level of segregation was loudly and publicly advertised as a feature of suburban developments. And highways keep people apart much more than they bring them together, letting people stay entirely in their own suburban enclaves and hiding the rest of the city's diversity behind highway soundwalls. Finally, while highways themselves don't discriminate, that doesn't mean that cops don't stop people for "Driving While Black" all the time.

by anonymouse on Dec 30, 2008 8:20 pm • linkreport

'poignantly elucidates'?

in the big scheme of things, not a big deal, but i was hoping we could keep from going all haughty, so most of america could get the impression that we actually care what they think -- whether or not we actually do.

by Peter on Dec 31, 2008 1:19 am • linkreport

haughty and speaking with polysyllabic words are not the same thing.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 9:01 am • linkreport

sayzz hoo!

by Thayer-D on Dec 31, 2008 10:23 am • linkreport

It does seem like most of the topics here are about the evils of cars.

Like it or not, DC ain't NYC or Paris. We have public transit, but for many it simply can't replace a vehicle for all uses. Especially as long as our taxi system sucks so bad.

Public transit in DC is fine if you live very close to a metro stop, are single with no kids, don't own your home that requires maintenance, and in good physical shape.

For some of the rest of us, it's a bit harder. It's very hard to shop by Metro, and many DC bus lines are a very unpleasant alternative (although some are fine). Cabs are unreliable (especially trying to call one to your home/business or trying to hail one off the beaten path), and many are filthy and an unpleasant experience at best.

Many of us that are getting older simply aren't willing to walk fifteen blocks to our closest grocery or hardware store. And we aren't willing to stand in the freezing rain for an hour trying to catch a substandard cab.

Yes, more transit is great. I'm all for it.

But as it is, the anti-car crowd in DC is being dominated by a few very shrill voices that demonize anyone in a car, and that really pisses the rest of us off.

Case in point..... I was recently driving a friend with a very real but not obvious injury. I pulled up close to a fast food joint on H St NE, only to have an entire crowd of hipsters nearby start cursing at us for driving and 'ruining the planet'.

Little did these little shits know that my passenger was unable to walk far, I myself had a temporary physical problem, and I'm a bit sensitive about walking in high crime neighborhoods for half a mile after dark, having had a gun held to my genitals in just such a situation.

So please try to put yourself in someone else's situation before you go demonizing anyone that finds they must use a vehicle in DC.

by Hillman on Dec 31, 2008 3:21 pm • linkreport


Not trying to be haughty, but I am trying to break the stereotypes about the community college-educated Prince George's County resident.


As a person who currently lives an almost completely car-dependent lifestyle, I am confused by your characterizations of my post here. Demonizing drivers would be demonizing myself. My only qualm with driving is that I currently have no other choice, period (unlike most of the other contributors to this site). I am all for the construction of new transit AND new roads. I don't think ether of them should be constructed at the expense of the vitality of the community, nor do I believe that trains should replace cars or vice versa. This post was not proselytizing on the "evils of cars", more over looking at the generational gap in how we approach completely car-oriented lifestyles. My mother, though she lives near a Metro station, owns a car and uses it daily. She is in her late 60's, and you're right, walking everywhere just isn't an option for many people. But like you said, I was attempting to put myself in other peoples' shoes here. I strongly encourage you to have a little faith that I (and as far as I can tell, the other contributors to this site) are in no way like the jerks who berated your injured friend.

by Dave Murphy on Jan 1, 2009 3:48 pm • linkreport

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