Over the past two years, I have had many opportunities to visit my ancestral home, New York, as part of a study out later this week by the Center for an Urban Future about the city's middle class. Often enough, when my co-author, Jonathan Bowles, and I asked about this dwindling species, the first response was "What middle class?"
Well, here is the good news. Despite Mayor Bloomberg's celebration of "the luxury city," there's still a middle class in New York, although not in the zip codes close to hizzoner's townhouse. These middle-class enclaves are as diverse as the city. Some are heavily ethnic, others packed with arty types, many of them more like suburbia than traditionally urban.
This New York is vastly different from the one that appears in most movies. It is more like the New Jersey portrayed in "The Sopranos" or "All in the Family" (set in Queens) than Manhattan-centric "Seinfeld" and "Sex and the City". Largely, this middle class stays in New York – despite the congestion, high taxes and regulatory lunacy – because that is where they are from, where they worship and where they are close to their places of work.
In many cases, they live in Bay Ridge, Bayside, Brighton or Bensonhurst, in the vast sprawl that is Brooklyn and Queens. New York's middle class is also highly diverse. In many areas, the descendants of Italians or Poles live cheek by jowl with newer groups such as Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Jamaicans, Russians, Israelis and Pakistanis. They stay and raise their children, in large part because of their extended family networks. As Queens resident and real estate agent Judy Markowitz puts it, "In Manhattan people with kids have nannies. In Queens, we have grandparents."
Some of the emerging middle class also cluster in places like Ditmas Park, a reviving part of Flatbush. The new population here is made up largely of information age "artisans" – musicians, writers, designers and business consultants who cluster in New York. They may have migrated there for the culture, but they stay because they find these neighborhoods congenial and family-friendly.
"It's easy to name the things that attracted us – the neighbors, the moderate density," explains Nelson Ryland, a film editor with two children who works part-time at his sprawling turn-of-the-century Flatbush house. "More than anything, it's the sense of the community. That's the great thing that keeps people like us here."
For these reasons, New York's middle class may be hard to displace, but they certainly are under considerable stress. Urban life may have improved from its nadir in the 1970s, but our findings show that net out-migration from the city, particularly as people get into their late 20s and early 30s, has continued.
The now-imploding economic boom did not halt this pattern. Indeed out-migration in the last few years has been greater on a per capita basis than that of the early 1990s, when "escape from New York" was a recurring media theme. The reasons: the nation's highest cost of living, poor public schools, inadequate transit, expensive housing, high taxes and lack of broad-based economic opportunity.
Much the same process is occurring in other great cities from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Chicago and Philadelphia. Indeed, even as gentrification brings in wealthy childless couples and students (often supported by their suburban parents) to urban areas, the number of middle-class neighborhoods has continued to decline, as demonstrated by a 2006 Brookings Institution paper.
This is true, for example, in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, where I live. Once overwhelmingly made up of home-owning, moderate-income earners, the Valley is becoming increasingly bifurcated between the affluent and a growing class of largely minority renters.
The hollowing of the New York middle class has been even more rapid. In 2006, Manhattan, the cradle of gentry liberalism, had achieved the widest gap between rich and poor in the nation. Overall, New York has the smallest share of middle-income families in the nation: The city's middle class – those making between $35,000 and $150,000 a year – fell to 53% between 2000 and 2005, while remaining steady nationwide at 63%.
Up until now, these trends did not much bother New York's media, business and political hegemons. Under its ruling Medici, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York has been shaped as a place for the masters and their servants. Such Bloombergian priorities as the Second Avenue subway, the taxpayer-subsidized construction of luxury-box-laden stadiums, as well as an orgy of a city-inspired luxury condominium construction and plans for ever more high-end office towers reflect this worldview.
Of course Bloomberg's "luxury city" is largely a Manhattanite vision, with a few tentacles spreading to the adjacent parts of the outer boroughs. It takes its sustenance from the enormous wealth generated by Wall Street as well as the presence of a large "trustifarian" class. This is very much the New York of The New York Times: fashionably liberal in politics, self-consciously avant-garde, and devoted, more recently, to "green" consumerism.
At the height of the boom – say two years ago – some imagined there were enough folks such as these to sustain the city. They would now constitute a de facto new middle class, except their bank accounts would have extra zeros. When Jonathan and I interviewed a developer, he bristled at us for suggesting that New York's middle class was shrinking. "Of course, there's a middle class," he stated flatly. "Why, my friend's son just bought a place here in Manhattan."
"Oh really?" I asked, a bit incredulously. "And how much was the apartment?"
"One and half million."
"And how did he pay for it?"
Now, with Wall Street's money machine in reverse and the Manhattan real estate market unraveling, the surplus capital to finance million-dollar condominiums for kids may well have evaporated. Similarly, the parade of top graduates from business and law schools could slow, now that the big bonus regime may be coming to an end. If you are going to be paid bankers' wages, why not live somewhere cheaper?
Yet despite the tough times, there is no real reason for New Yorkers to fear a return to the bad old days of the 1970s, as Reuters recently warned. New York used to have a diverse, middle-class economy that was remarkably recession-proof.
It could have such an economy in the future as well. A modern version may be less reliant on manufacturing, but focused instead on the talents of its citizens in such things as design, marketing and data analysis. Still, it would be a small business-oriented economy – one that could flourish outside Manhattan.
New York should cultivate such an economic shift and also turn its attention from the chic precincts to its middle-class neighborhoods. In the post-Wall Street era, the "luxury city" concept needs to be discarded just like other toxic manifestations from a discredited era.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.