Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Old Cities and the Reverse-Commute Renaissance

 

It’s been 40 years since I moved into a third-floor studio apartment on Hancock Street in Boston. Street parking was wicked. You had to pay close attention to street-cleaning days or a towing operator’s bounty and a ticket were in your future. My rundown little place was dark, literally in the shadow of the statehouse. I was a young CPA working for a big downtown firm but I rarely visited the office. Mine was a world of commutes from Boston to various clients in and around New England, some as far away as Providence — even upstate Vermont. Had Holiday Inn provided frequent stay points in those days, I’d still be redeeming them today.

I was a reverse commuter. The traffic, for me, was usually tangled, but always in the opposite direction. I lived in the inner city because that was where the action was. I could easily walk to the bars and restaurants near Faneuil Hall or the North End. Fenway was a couple of stops away on the green line. The Garden was less than 10 blocks away. It was a fun place to live, despite the constant battle with various vermin. City life requires pesticide. The landlord kept a five-gallon can in the basement and provided free spray bottles for tenants.

As a reverse commuter, I was an exception. Most folks who lived in the city worked in the city. The city’s many ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods provided the labor that made the city work. Construction workers, cops, firemen, yardmen, dockworkers, cooks, bottle washers – they all hailed from Boston’s storied neighborhoods. The professionals – lawyers, bankers, brokers, and accountants – lived in Wellesley, Lexington, Newton, and the other tony suburbs. Middle managers lived in the less tony suburbs. That was just how it was in those days.

But that has changed.

My youngest graduated from college last year. She’s now teaching at her old middle school and living at home. (I insist, as I want her to save her money so she can go to grad school, buy her own place, and create a little rainy-day cushion.) One of her best friends, Megan, pursued an engineering degree and upon graduation was offered a job at Raytheon in their management training program in Andover, MA. She’s a very bright young lady, certainly deserving. I had earlier hired her as a summer intern to work in my employer’s engineering department and she did very well. Megan came to me, as she knows I’m originally from the Boston area, to ask about where she might live.

I told her that I grew up less than 15 miles from Andover; that it was a lovely community then and I’m sure it still is. Finding a place might be difficult as rental properties and apartment complexes are generally scarce in the suburbs, but I was sure that she could find a place to live in Andover or in one of the nice surrounding towns.

But Megan had no intention of living in or around Andover. She wanted to live in Boston – Charlestown, South Boston, the West End, the North End, Hyde Park, etc., or in one of the surrounding cities – Sommerville, Cambridgeport, Chelsea; that was where “everyone” lives. She wanted to reverse commute.

Then it dawned on me. Boston’s old ethnic neighborhoods are no longer home to immigrant and first-generation denizens; they’ve all sold out, cashed in, and been replaced by young professionals. Some of these new residents work in the city, but others, like Megan, reverse commute. This trend is not limited to Boston. In Denver, the developers cannot build their downtown condo complexes fast enough and young professionals flock to the city. Silicon Valley engineers prefer the San Francisco city life and commute to their jobs in the Valley. Even New York City’s neighborhoods are turning over as young professionals reject suburban life for an urban lifestyle.

I think that this can be seen as a part of another, different, and somewhat disturbing trend. Young professionals are deferring marriage and children in favor of careers and an urban lifestyle. The twenties and early thirties have become blurred, a sort of pre-adult time of self-discovery and indulgence. As biological clocks tick louder and it becomes clear that life should include a family with children, the suburbs become more attractive. In the meantime, many of our older cities are benefitting from a sort of renaissance. I suspect that as Boomers transfer their wealth to their urban-dwelling children, many of these people will use that wealth, at least in part, to settle down in the suburbs.

When Megan first came to me and asked about Charlestown, South Boston, Sommerville, I thought, why would she want to live in one of these insular, ethnic, crime-ridden areas? But it’s been decades and these are not the neighborhoods I grew up with. They’ve been transformed, some would say, for the better. Other folks, those who stubbornly remain, might not.

I have mixed feelings about it.

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There are 20 comments.

  1. MarciN Member

    I’ve been following and reading about an exact opposite trend being watched by the Wall Street Journal–young people moving out of the urban areas at a pretty good clip. See this Bloomberg article also. So I am glad to read your post.

    My daughter and her husband are living in the lower east side of Manhattan. My daughter is halfway through a three-year residency at the Animal Medical Center (AMC). She lives about a seven-minute walk away from the AMC. She loves it and the East River–she is just blocks away from the United Nations neighborhood. Beautiful area of the city. However, her husband Ricky works for Science Diet, so he is out and about in New York City all day long. He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and cannot wait to get out of New York City. Too much poverty for him. And trash. Manhattan is lots of fun, for sure. But the daily life wears on people after a while. I think life in a big city is something, as you said in your post, you do in your early twenties. After a while, it gets stressful.

    I think Boston is beautiful, but I am biased. :-) My kids (a little biased too) have said that Boston has managed to remain a small town. I think some of the difference is simply size. Boston proper is tiny: about 90 square miles. Cambridge is only 7 square miles. :-) New York City is 300 square miles (about the size of Cape Cod), and Los Angeles is 500 square miles. In terms of managing municipal services, smaller is probably better.

    I hope your daughter’s friend enjoys Boston. The newly built Seaport Square area is gorgeous, I think. Beautiful views.

    • #1
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:41 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  2. Kephalithos Member

    As an architecture buff, I’m worried about this.

    One of the overlooked virtues of the suburbs is that they tended to relieve development pressure in older, established urban neighborhoods. Now that affluent Americans are rushing back into the cities, the need to build is mounting — and, with it, the urge to destroy. What will replace the old, humane nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings which currently dominate the urban landscape? Well, we all know: insipid postmodernism; rubber-stamped glass and steel boxes. Value-free designs for a value-free culture.

    Put simply, our cities are bound to become uglier. If we outsourced their design to the New Classicists, things wouldn’t be so bad. But that won’t happen.

    • #2
    • November 8, 2019, at 8:53 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  3. MarciN Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    As an architecture buff, I’m worried about this.

    One of the overlooked virtues of the suburbs is that they tended to relieve development pressure in older, established urban neighborhoods. Now that affluent Americans are rushing back into the cities, the need to build is mounting — and, with it, the urge to destroy. What will replace the old, humane nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings which currently dominate the urban landscape? Well, we all know: insipid postmodernism; rubber-stamped glass and steel boxes. Value-free designs for a value-free culture.

    Put simply, our cities are bound to become uglier. If we outsourced their design to the New Classicists, things wouldn’t be so bad. But that won’t happen.

    I agree completely. It’s a concern for me too. 

    • #3
    • November 8, 2019, at 9:14 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  4. OldPhil Coolidge

    Our son and daughter-in-law went to college in Boston, met there and got married. First condo was in Brookline, not exactly downtown Boston, but close enough for them to take advantage of it. Then to a condo in Salem, then one grandson for us and to a small house in Danvers, now two grandsons and to a bigger house in Topsfield. But their jobs are in Newton and Cambridge, so it’s a hell of a commute. And it’s a 9+ hour drive for us to visit our grandsons, dang it.

    • #4
    • November 8, 2019, at 10:01 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. Doug Kimball Member
    Doug Kimball Post author

    There are some interesting things going on, for sure. While people flee expensive, deteriorating, large cities, young professionals move in regardless, fearless and flush with cash. Then they discover the need to marry, start a family, tire of the fleecing and the filth, and move out. Some consider wholesale moves to less expensive places like Richmond or Phoenix. A thirty something consultant working on a project in my office who lives in Manhattan and just recently got engaged, is considering a move to Nashville with her fiance. Both have jobs that put them on the road most of the time, so they can live where they choose. In the overall scheme of things, especially in the South, Nashville is very expensive. But when compared to NY and its suburbs, it’s bargain basement luxury.

    • #5
    • November 8, 2019, at 10:01 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  6. Retail Lawyer Member

    I was a reverse commuter living in San Francisco for many years. The experience was less safe, convenient, and economical but more interesting and colorful than living in Silicon Valley. A downside not yet mentioned is what this does to the politics of the city hosting the reverse commuters: it makes them more progressive. The hipsters are not rooted in the city, it is a theme park for (young) adults, and they have great fun playing the part of SJWs when not waiting in line for 45 minutes to get into a trendy restaurant. Then they enter (some of them anyway) a more mature adulthood and move away to have kids or maybe stepping over bums to unlock their front door does not seem so vibrant after a few years. They are replaced with someone who is just like they were. Pretty soon you have San Francisco today – the oversubscribed yet unlivable city.

    • #6
    • November 8, 2019, at 10:03 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  7. Doug Kimball Member
    Doug Kimball Post author

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):

    I was a reverse commuter living in San Francisco for many years. The experience was less safe, convenient, and economical but more interesting and colorful than living in Silicon Valley. A downside not yet mentioned is what this does to the politics of the city hosting the reverse commuters: it makes them more progressive. The hipsters are not rooted in the city, it is a theme park for (young) adults, and they have great fun playing the part of SJWs when not waiting in line for 45 minutes to get into a trendy restaurant. Then they enter (some of them anyway) a more mature adulthood and move away to have kids or maybe stepping over bums to unlock their front door does not seem so vibrant after a few years. They are replaced with someone who is just like they were. Pretty soon you have San Francisco today – the oversubscribed yet unlivable city.

    You are certainly on to something here. Twenty and thirty somethings have little real interest in government, and even less in politics. If they participate at all, it is likely an ill considered vote. Sad.

    • #7
    • November 8, 2019, at 10:10 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. Doug Kimball Member
    Doug Kimball Post author

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Our son and daughter-in-law went to college in Boston, met there and got married. First condo was in Brookline, not exactly downtown Boston, but close enough for them to take advantage of it. Then to a condo in Salem, then one grandson for us and to a small house in Danvers, now two grandsons and to a bigger house in Topsfield. But their jobs are in Newton and Cambridge, so it’s a hell of a commute. And it’s a 9+ hour drive for us to visit our grandsons, dang it.

    I’m a north shore boy myself; grew up in Beverly. I can’t imaging commuting from Topsfield to Newton. Yikes!

    • #8
    • November 8, 2019, at 10:12 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  9. cdor Member

    I believe the progressive need to control the “masses” informs much of the desire to populate urban areas and de-populate the suburbs. People living in single-family homes with lawns and SUV’s are anathema to the progressive, as these suburbanites are free to roam and control their own destiny. The central planner needs everyone squeezed into the confines of the city grid in order to determine where and when they may go and what they may do. 

    • #9
    • November 8, 2019, at 1:48 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  10. Kephalithos Member

    cdor (View Comment): I believe the progressive need to control the “masses” informs much of the desire to populate urban areas and de-populate the suburbs. People living in single-family homes with lawns and SUV’s are anathema to the progressive, as these suburbanites are free to roam and control their own destiny. The central planner needs everyone squeezed into the confines of the city grid in order to determine where and when they may go and what they may do.

    There’s a lot of utopian rhetoric among urban progressives (I should know; I live with them), but, for the most part, they’re motivated less by a desire to “control the masses” than by a desire to surround themselves with a cocoon of self-affirmation. They have a way of life, they understand that way of life to be aesthetically and morally superlative, and they can’t understand why anyone would disagree.

    Then again, it takes only a pinch of environmentalism to make an otherwise harmless urbanite into a foaming-at-the-mouth aspirational authoritarian (to borrow a phrase).

    • #10
    • November 8, 2019, at 2:45 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  11. namlliT noD Member

    Doug Kimball: It’s been 40 years since I moved into a third-floor studio apartment on Hancock Street in Boston.

    Boston, you say…

    Street parking was wicked.

    ‘Checks out.

    • #11
    • November 8, 2019, at 3:24 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  12. OldPhil Coolidge

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    Doug Kimball: It’s been 40 years since I moved into a third-floor studio apartment on Hancock Street in Boston.

    Boston, you say…

    Street parking was wicked.

    ‘Checks out.

    On one trip (from Virginia) some years ago, we had to venture into downtown Boston to find a specific destination and we were pretty much lost. I pulled into a firehouse and told the guy sitting in front we thought we were lost. “Aah, you’re not laahhst, you’re just in the wraahng state.”

    • #12
    • November 8, 2019, at 4:03 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  13. Zafar Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    cdor (View Comment): I believe the progressive need to control the “masses” informs much of the desire to populate urban areas and de-populate the suburbs. People living in single-family homes with lawns and SUV’s are anathema to the progressive, as these suburbanites are free to roam and control their own destiny.

    The self reliant cowboys of our age.

    The central planner needs everyone squeezed into the confines of the city grid in order to determine where and when they may go and what they may do.

    There’s a lot of utopian rhetoric among urban progressives (I should know; I live with them), but, for the most part, they’re motivated less by a desire to “control the masses” than by a desire to surround themselves with a cocoon of self-affirmation.

    Are people in the suburbs so different?

    • #13
    • November 8, 2019, at 4:22 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  14. Kephalithos Member

    Zafar (View Comment):

    The central planner needs everyone squeezed into the confines of the city grid in order to determine where and when they may go and what they may do.

    There’s a lot of utopian rhetoric among urban progressives (I should know; I live with them), but, for the most part, they’re motivated less by a desire to “control the masses” than by a desire to surround themselves with a cocoon of self-affirmation.

    Are people in the suburbs so different?

    Point taken.

    • #14
    • November 8, 2019, at 5:07 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. ShaunaHunt Member

    MarciN (View Comment):

    I’ve been following and reading about an exact opposite trend being watched by the Wall Street Journal–young people moving out of the urban areas at a pretty good clip. See this Bloomberg article also. So I am glad to read your post.

    My daughter and her husband are living in the lower east side of Manhattan. My daughter is halfway through a three-year residency at the Animal Medical Center (AMC). She lives about a seven-minute walk away from the AMC. She loves it and the East River–she is just blocks away from the United Nations neighborhood. Beautiful area of the city. However, her husband Ricky works for Science Diet, so he is out and about in New York City all day long. He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and cannot wait to get out of New York City. Too much poverty for him. And trash. Manhattan is lots of fun, for sure. But the daily life wears on people after a while. I think life in a big city is something, as you said in your post, you do in your early twenties. After a while, it gets stressful.

    I think Boston is beautiful, but I am biased. :-) My kids (a little biased too) have said that Boston has managed to remain a small town. I think some of the difference is simply size. Boston proper is tiny: about 90 square miles. Cambridge is only 7 square miles. :-) New York City is 300 square miles (about the size of Cape Cod), and Los Angeles is 500 square miles. In terms of managing municipal services, smaller is probably better.

    I hope your daughter’s friend enjoys Boston. The newly built Seaport Square area is gorgeous, I think. Beautiful views.

    Having been to Boston only a few times, I love it. To me, it’s a big city that feels like a small town.

    • #15
    • November 8, 2019, at 7:57 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. cdor Member

    Kephalithos (View Comment):
    They have a way of life, they understand that way of life to be aesthetically and morally superlative, and they can’t understand why anyone would disagree

    I am not sure the progressive can’t understand disagreement. They behave like little tyrants, infantile in many ways, but so certain of their belief system that they can allow no alternate suppositions. Possibly they aren’t so certain as they claim to be.

    • #16
    • November 9, 2019, at 8:15 AM PST
    • 1 like
  17. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    As an architecture buff, I’m worried about this.

    One of the overlooked virtues of the suburbs is that they tended to relieve development pressure in older, established urban neighborhoods. Now that affluent Americans are rushing back into the cities, the need to build is mounting — and, with it, the urge to destroy. What will replace the old, humane nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century buildings which currently dominate the urban landscape? Well, we all know: insipid postmodernism; rubber-stamped glass and steel boxes. Value-free designs for a value-free culture.

    Put simply, our cities are bound to become uglier. If we outsourced their design to the New Classicists, things wouldn’t be so bad. But that won’t happen.

    I wish that we could produce laws that relieve the demands on old building sellers/new building buyers to meet code – for the purpose of a ‘soft’ preservation. 

    • #17
    • November 9, 2019, at 8:18 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Doug Kimball (View Comment):

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):

    I was a reverse commuter living in San Francisco for many years. The experience was less safe, convenient, and economical but more interesting and colorful than living in Silicon Valley. A downside not yet mentioned is what this does to the politics of the city hosting the reverse commuters: it makes them more progressive. The hipsters are not rooted in the city, it is a theme park for (young) adults, and they have great fun playing the part of SJWs when not waiting in line for 45 minutes to get into a trendy restaurant. Then they enter (some of them anyway) a more mature adulthood and move away to have kids or maybe stepping over bums to unlock their front door does not seem so vibrant after a few years. They are replaced with someone who is just like they were. Pretty soon you have San Francisco today – the oversubscribed yet unlivable city.

    You are certainly on to something here. Twenty and thirty somethings have little real interest in government, and even less in politics. If they participate at all, it is likely an ill considered vote. Sad.

    People with no children are rarely grounded enough to vote wisely because they have no long term stake in the world. 

    • #18
    • November 9, 2019, at 8:21 PM PST
    • Like
  19. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Kephalithos (View Comment):

    cdor (View Comment): I believe the progressive need to control the “masses” informs much of the desire to populate urban areas and de-populate the suburbs. People living in single-family homes with lawns and SUV’s are anathema to the progressive, as these suburbanites are free to roam and control their own destiny.

    The self reliant cowboys of our age.

    The central planner needs everyone squeezed into the confines of the city grid in order to determine where and when they may go and what they may do.

    There’s a lot of utopian rhetoric among urban progressives (I should know; I live with them), but, for the most part, they’re motivated less by a desire to “control the masses” than by a desire to surround themselves with a cocoon of self-affirmation.

    Are people in the suburbs so different?

    They are. They are raising children. Instead of wandering around the city for amusement and expensive food they are keeping up their suburban property and cooking healthy meals for their children. 

    These are of course generalizations. But city people live in a bubble while suburban people construct a womb. 

    • #19
    • November 9, 2019, at 8:28 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    cdor (View Comment):

    Kephalithos (View Comment):
    They have a way of life, they understand that way of life to be aesthetically and morally superlative, and they can’t understand why anyone would disagree

    I am not sure the progressive can’t understand disagreement. They behave like little tyrants, infantile in many ways, but so certain of their belief system that they can allow no alternate suppositions. Possibly they aren’t so certain as they claim to be.

    In Buckley’s phrasing, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” 

     

    • #20
    • November 9, 2019, at 8:30 PM PST
    • 1 like