Later, national highway systems (initially only for rural and intercity roads, not urban roads) built the nation, and helped people escape the cities for suburbs that were nothing like traditional rural areas. Part of this difference was fully intended: the urban reformers of the 19th century knew damn well that the rural areas had poor access to jobs, and wanted the suburbs to combine the best of both. But the larger part was not: the suburbs were never truly bucolic, could not offer truly bucolic life except to the very rich, and suffer from the same problems of traffic and social dependence (on homeowners’ associations rather than landlords) as the cities.
I contend that the exact same social trends are happening today, but with cities instead of rural areas. Urbanization happened sufficiently long ago that there’s an entire movement idealizing traditional cities. Real America is no longer just Hope and Crawford, but also Chicago’s South Side.
Under the new paradigm, People who railed against urban renewal, such as Jane Jacobs, become objects of romanticism by disaffected suburbanites, As Sharon Zukin notes in The Naked City, the authentic working-class culture of the West Village that Jacobs loved so much is long gone, but people still cling to its urban design and therefore the neighborhood is still in demand. The now-old working class is every bit an object of admiration today as the peasant class was in 1900.
The current trend for urban revitalization is easy to miss, since it’s only starting. It’s comparable to suburbanization in 1910, not 1955. But New York has had a building boom in the last 10 years, and has been growing faster than its suburbs since 1990 (see ACS data for 2009 here, and census data for 1990 and 2000 here). Since 2000 San Francisco has outgrown its suburbs as well, and in many less gentrified cities, such as Philadelphia, the core has had a population explosion even if the surrounding areas declined. What is more, the growing cores tend to be high-income, fueled by condos rather than low-income housing; this has happened in tandem with the suburbanization of poverty.