In a globalised, digital world, with expensive inner city housing and commuting nightmares, surely we should all just live AND work in the suburbs? Work online, or in little local community working co-ops? Save ourselves all that expense and travel time? And yet we don’t. Something draws us back to the inner city, in ever-greater numbers.
The last few decades have seen a counter-movement away from suburban life, as young educated people and skilled migrants return to live in the inner city. These middle class knowledge-workers, identified as cosmopolitans by Robert Merton and Herbet Gans in the mid-twentieth century – outward-oriented, mobile, highly educated, networked professionals, students, artists, intellectuals and bohemians –now dominate inner urban environments. Richard Florida calls them the ‘creative class’, and notes that congregations of these workers appear in particular areas and particular cities (e.g. New York, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – and in Australia, inner Sydney and Melbourne). They attract both businesses AND other creative workers, because they give the business a competitive advantage in the ‘creative age’, and because the diversity they bring to an area – culturally, technologically, ethnically – is attractive to other creative workers.
They have changed the inner city. Sharon Zukin notes how the cosmopolitans have not only changed the mixture of people in the inner-city streets, but also changed the character – and costs – of the streets themselves. Carefully considered consumption choices have lead to the urban renewal of housing, shopfronts and amenities, with cafes, bars, food and clothing outlets and farmers markets selling organic, free-range, ethical products now a staple of inner city living. As Zukin notes in ‘Consuming Authenticity‘:
“Often the same men and women are shopping for fresh goat cheese, supporting fair trade coffee, and restoring old brownstone houses in these socially ‘marginal’ areas. Just as they take pleasure in choosing alternatives to mass-market products – ‘pure,’ original, ethnic, fresh – so they are willing to take risks in choosing where to live. But in the process of developing alternative consumption practices, they contribute to changes that make these spaces more desirable” (2008, p725)
However, there are problematic elements to this renewal. ‘Desirable’ is synonymous with ‘expensive’. This is not only manifest in the spiralling prices of houses and rentals in inner city areas, but in the rampant inflation of organic, ethical, and ethnic foods sold to creative types searching for ‘authenticity’ in their consumption choices, which as John Oliver notes in a recent satire of the American Whole Foods chain, sometimes borders on the ridiculous.
At a more serious level, the consumer driven gentrification wave has lead to the displacement of the working-class and migrant workers who have traditionally inhabited the inner city for many decades. In looking at the differences between cities and regions, Florida notes that as business compete to attract the creative class, the cream of the gifted middle class and skilled migrant workers are sucked into the largest ‘creative’ global cities and spaces, leaving many home countries and cities to suffer from ‘brain drain’. In looking at the differences within the city, Zukin points out how existing, long-term working class residents and unskilled migrants are displaced in inner city areas of high migrant, middle-class intake, via increases in the cost of housing and living. And Kathleen Dunn notes how even the production chain and public space of traditional migrant workers working in the humblest of jobs – such as NYC street vendors – is being coopted and displaced by the wave of middle-class hipster food trucks sweeping the inner cities of America (and Australia).
Each of these factors points to widening inequality; between different global cities, between the inner and outer cities, and within the inner city itself, often between older and newer migrant groups. They also raise concerns over the long-term sustainability of such expensive living arrangements, the maintenance of diversity and authenticity if the poor are driven out, and the stability of neighborhood social cohesion.