Feb 20, 2008

McMansions Are The New Tenements

In keeping with this week's class warfare theme, there's a fascinating article in this month's Atlantic Monthly by Christopher B. Leinberger that posits that today's exurban McMansion communities are tomorrow's slums.
The gist of Leinberger's argument is that we are turning back to a preference for more urban living, which means that city centers and older, more affluent "railroad suburbs" (those with actual town centers built around a commuter train station) are going to continue to become hot; while isolated McMansion communities with lots of cul-de-sacs but few amenities, are on their way south. Leinberger's prediction is that as owners are unable to make their money back on their (shoddily built) McMansions, they will take to either abandoning them or subdividing and renting them, creating isolated ghettos far from the notice of the chattering classes.

In other words, American cities are all going to become a lot more like Paris, where the lower classes are isolated in housing projects in outlying banlieues

There are myriad implications for marketers if this shift happens, both in terms of the type of products desired by people in urban settings who rely on public transportation and in terms of the actual urban settings themselves, where people are able to actually walk places. Off the top of my head, that means greater emphasis on outdoor advertising (bus shelters and train station posters) and word-of-mouth.

Since the first part of the equation-- the wholescale gentrification of urban areas-- is already well under way (check out the number of poor people in Manhattan or San Francisco today vs. ten years ago) Leinberger may just be on to something.


Anonymous said...

It's a fascinating argument. I took away that it was not only about shifting demographics and preferences (although a huge role) but also about rampant over-expansion and overestimating demand.

Whole issue's great, per usual.

Anonymous said...


I probably say this too much. My age is my excuse. But here we go again. In the 80s, this argument was being made throughout the Southeast and the West Coast, and it was proving true. My point: Good ideas come back again and again. Bad ideas seldom do.

Anonymous said...

I always feel like Europe is a pretty good estimation of what the future beholds. We do have more land and resources, but it seems like when you live out of the city, you're missing one very important resource: Network Externalities.

Humans naturally benefit from being around each other. The closer we live together; the easier it is to work and speed up the progression of ideas. The internet has done a great job of bringing us together, but it can't solve everything.

I do wonder if our American mentality will really push more people to the city. Maybe our Nascar nation won't want to. Europe is more of an F1 country.

I'm appalled by the price of real estate in the city. Since we can build skyscrapers, the amount of real estate is endless. I see 3 or 4 story buildings and I feel like they're hogging up 20 or more potential floors. I would say buildings are overvalued everywhere, but some of the land closest to heart of the city (as expensive as it is) is probably undervalued.

Anonymous said...

Someone once said that the progress of civilization is directed toward the spread of privacy.
The someone who said it said it better than my bad paraphrase here.
But when my great-grandparents left 84th street in Manhattan in 1896 for the greenery of Brooklyn, and when their children, my grandparents, left the cement of Bedford-Stuyvestant for the lawns of Hollis Queens, and when my parents left 11423 for the joys of 11756 in East Meadow, LI, they were looking for a place that was theirs, even as when--after 95 years--I moved back to 84th Street, three blocks removed from where my grandfather was born.
Interesting piece in The Atlantic. Thanks for pointing it out. I let my sub lapse a while back and maybe it needs renewing.

Anonymous said...

You just described Boston in almost ever way.

Alan Wolk said...

@Yikes and Tom M.: Particularly good issue of the Atlantic this month. (I too had forgotten how good it was until Mrs. T. picked one up this week.) Nice article about L.A. public schools too by Sandra Tsing Loh.

@anonymous: Totally. I actually had a paragraph about Boston in there originally but cut it because I didn't think the particulars of Boston were that well known.

@Lewis: I suspect most of the McMansion burbs in question are in the Southeast and West Coast where, with a few exceptions, public transportation has long been an afterthought, one that's relegated to poor people.

@Ross: The author of the article goes into a lot of what you're saying, including changing demographics that make urban living more desirable.

Thanks all for some great feedback.

Anonymous said...

poverty, public transportation, and L.A.
following the famous watts riots of 1966...a book called
Rivers of Blood, Year of Darkness was written...
it was the longest, most painful book i ever read....i was living in l.a. in 1967 and I happened to mention to my boss that Watts seemed like a pretty nice place to live and I was surprised at the idea of rioting...
he was something of an old-style liberal and he told me to read the book...and I did since i was a docile employee then and always..
probably out of print now, but certain corroboration of a number of points made here....
the congresswoman there, maxine waters (whom I disagree with on just about everything else) is a brave attacker of the Kelo decision whose major effect would be bulldoze her constituents's homes in the name of increased real estate taxes....

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan Wolk said...

Actually John... there's quite a big of evidence this reverse migration is happening.

Have you been to Manhattan lately?

The entire island is being yuppified, gentrified, whatever-- I mean even Harlem is hot. And it's at the point where even solidly upper middle class families can't afford to live there anymore. So they're moving into Brooklyn and Queens and the burbs.

Your point about not wanting to live with people unlike them is well taken. But there are no more people unlike them left. Like Paris, Manhattan is becoming an island of affluent white people. Private schools in Manhattan can't keep up with demand and people are starting to turn to public schools, figuring the sheer number of upper middle class kids will turn the system around again.

Now this phenomenon may take a while to hit the rest of the country. But it's already happening in New York and San Francisco and Boston and other cities where there are affluent close-in suburbs with top-rnaked school systems on rail lines (e.g. valid alternatives to McMansion-filled exurbs)

And check out this article on how the Dallas McMansion burbs are taking a major hit while Highland Park, a close-in burb of the sort I just mentioned is not:


Think of it as a circle: poverty pushes the upper middle class out of the city, further and further away from the center until they reach a point where they are too far away. So then they start moving back into the city, push the poor people out to the exurbs and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Changing demographics, as Yikes mentioned, are a part of this: there are more young single people (Echo Boomers) and retired empty-nest Boomers around to move into the city centers and make them sufficiently safe and clean for upper middle class families. Because as you note, residential patterns are indeed all about living near people just like you.

Only this time the people just like you are staying in the city.

Anonymous said...

John makes a point. A little off, though, as far as New York City is concerned, especially about the desirability to live in the urban areas of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and some places in the other three boroughs.
I once read that the first racial flight in New York was when freed blacks in the 1850s left the Hell's Kitchen area because the cholera-ridden Irish immigrants were moving in. The former slaves went North and established Harlem.
A black writer, Louis Lomax, once defined an integrated neighborhood as a period of time--"from when the first Negro family moves in until the last white family moves out."
I used to find history a lot easier to read when it was boiled down and written in James Michener novel, especially Hawaii and Centennial.
Too bad, he didn't do one on New York and then I'd really know what I was talking about.

Anonymous said...

Think of it as a circle: poverty pushes the upper middle class out of the city, further and further away from the center until they reach a point where they are too far away. So then they start moving back into the city, push the poor people out to the exurbs and the whole cycle starts all over again.

You got it, TT. That's exactly what's happening in Atlanta. Not sure why John cited it as the opposite. The suburbs and communities that were part of the first wave of suburban migration in the 60's & 70's are facing new challenges as crime goes up and the quality of the school systems go down.

Anonymous said...

I should have said, "you just described Boston to a T."

Heh. I'm here all week. try the veal.

Anonymous said...

OK, many of those who agree have had a turn. I'll take the other side. What the hell.

Maybe it's just me, but the whole "the suburbs are going to fall into ruin" argument would sound more believable without the smug, self-satisfied tone.

As you've stated it TT, the author's idea that the "shoddily built" McMansions will now be abandoned and their neighborhoods turned into ghettos simply because many folks with money have decided they want to live in town again seems a little too easy.

It also sounds like a rationalization from someone who's paid way too much for way too long to live in the city and now feels vindicated in some way.

I love city life and will be the first to defend it over living in the burbs any day. But isn't this 'moving out then moving back" cycle the way it's always been? Hasn't every major U.S. city gone from desirable family place to live to undesirable then back to desirable and so on over the last 75 years or so (or longer)? Granted, certain cities may currently exhibit signs of being in "desireable" mode, but I don't see how that's indicative of anything other than folks with money feeling comfortable living near other folks with money, with all that wonderful money giving them the freedom to do so at will. Nothing new there.

So those who can are heading back into the city for now. The assumption, though, that this time they're staying for good, leaving nothing but dilapidated housing in their wake sounds more like the plot of an erotic sci-fi movie for neocons (god help us) than anything wide-spread or lasting.

No, despite how important and "pardigm-shifty" the wealthy and fabulous might like to think their snubbing of the burbs could be, the tightening of the mortgage lenders' purse strings for people without family money and perfect credit combined with the increasing tendency of many people to live beyond their financial means in order to "live the dream" seem like better explanations for suburban hard times to me. In New York, Dallas or anywhere.