Fifty-one years ago my parents chose to move their infant son and 9 year old daughter to a brand new neighborhood away from the urban core of San Francisco.
While not exactly a suburb, Diamond Heights was a neighborhood almost completely devoid of typical San Francisco-style amenities: an absence of corner markets below flats, no rows of restaurants lining major transportation corridors, and no Muni streetcars or electric buses rumbling along streets on their way to Downtown. Diamond Heights was a suburban-style neighborhood with large swaths of detached single family homes with two car garages. The planners had every intention for Diamond Heights residents to get into their cars and drive the few miles into Downtown for work.
My parents were not alone. In fact, for the next 40 years, most middle class Americans moved away from the centers of cities and into suburbs. Today, a lot of us are moving back.
My wife and I just moved into Little Tokyo, just down the street from Los Angeles City Hall, and a block and a half away from Police Headquarters. We don’t have any kids, but the maintenance costs of our vintage 1921 Silver Lake house finally got the best of us. We are planning to vacate the house, do some minimal repairs, and sell it. In the meantime, we decided to move to within walking distance of my work in Downtown Los Angeles to see if we like it. For children of the 1960s-1970s, the experience can be more than a little weird. For us, downtowns have always been for work and play, but not for living. As Chinese Americans, my parents purposefully moved away from San Francisco Chinatown in search of a better life for their children. When my wife’s grandparents immigrated to United States from Japan, they ended up in Little Tokyo, but moved away as soon as they could afford to do so. The irony is not lost on us, as we walked down historic 1st Street looking for a table in one of many over-crowded restaurants this holiday weekend.
Suffice to say, all the reasons that post-war families chose to move to suburbs is too complex and multi-faceted to cover in one post. But it is undeniable that the suburbs represented a “better” life for that generation. Owning a single-family home with land was out of reach for most Americans in the early part of the 20th century. The West Coast – specifically Southern California, with it’s seemingly endless supply of developable land – represented an unique opportunity to achieve the fabled “American Dream”. While the idea every family should own a single family home seems admirable, and even egalitarian, there are unintended consequences to trying to achieve this goal:
- Running out of land – As our population rises, the space for single-family homes dimishes. Vast areas of fertile farmland or natural landscapes are gobbled up to accommodate homes farther and farther away from the economic centers; many Southern Californians commute over 2 hours one way from home to job.
- Pollution – With Southern California transportation infrastructure centered around cars and freeways, the city’s air pollution is the worst in the country. Idle engines stuck in traffic for hours on end is a primary cause. The problem is exacerbated with more people commuting farther distances in heavy traffic.
- Social isolation – As we spend more time in our cars and live farther from the economic activity, we spend less time with the people who live around us. Real communities cannot thrive if we barely know our neighbors and our social circles are scattered throughout the region (causing us to drive even more!).
The Millennial generation seems to have intuitively sensed these problems and are now seeking to be closer to their jobs. They aim to spend less time in cars and have their goods, services, and entertainment within walking distance. All of these desires have guided developers to build sleek new dense housing, restauranteurs to open cafes and shops in the Downtown districts, and supermarkets to return to areas long abandoned. The demand for these amenities has been fueling a revival of Downtown Los Angeles for the last decade, with development only accelerating every passing day.
So, with that all in mind, my wife and I have moved Downtown last weekend. I’ll tell you how it goes…