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TORONTO, Ont./Troy Media/ – Every generation tends to think it invented popular trends – and many did, or at least reinvented them.
During the Summer of Love, in 1967, the Grateful Dead and countless other young people famously lived in clapboard homes in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Many fixed up these homes, mainly with a coat of white paint. Hence the term white painter before gentrifier became popular. Check out Harry Reasoner’s CBS item on this. He did a good job of capturing the summer, if not the love. Read Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem for a take on how it was not summery and not lovely.
But I digress.
People have been fixing up homes and neighbourhoods ever since cave drawings brightened up a drab place, and nomads moved on. Brooklyn Heights is often cited as one of the first gentrified neighbourhoods. But it’s difficult to tell if people are talking about now, the 1970s, the 1950s, the 1820s or some other period.
I certainly claim to have invented urban living when I moved from Regina to Toronto. Even in Regina, I lived a jog from my work downtown in the nice old Cathedral neighbourhood. Having lived through two oil embargoes, and having been influenced by the founding of Greenpeace when I had lived in Vancouver, I vowed not to tie my future to the automobile in the big city. So I lived on the subway line in Toronto, and bicycled to work or walked to work. And when I went into business for myself, I bought an office a walk from home and then one in the same building – just down the hall.
But according to my father, Harold, it was actually he who invented downtown living by supervising construction and leasing of Cantlie House, the apartment hotel at Peel and Sherbrooke Streets in Montreal. It was very popular during Expo 67 and gave a discount on car rentals for tenants. Tenants included bachelor Pierre Trudeau, who gave my father the cold shoulder for a week or so for not storing the top of Trudeau’s vintage Mercedes.
But I digress.
These days, tens of thousands of young people can claim to be reinvigorating city cores, if not inventing city living (again).
Wall Street Journal writer Laura Kusisto recently documented the trend. She notes that young, educated, relatively high-earning workers are flocking to many American cities at a rate not seen since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking such data in the 1970s. Downtown homes cost more than ones in the suburbs, so many of these workers are becoming long-term renters – as are many Quebecers, and Berliners and other Europeans. Rents are higher downtown but easily offset by less reliance on cars.
This trend may be rescuing cities that have lost most of their population. In the last 60 years or so, Chicago and Philadelphia have lost about 25 per cent of their population. Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis have lost more than 60 per cent.
When I was dining in the German Town district of Columbus, I experienced all this first hand. My host casually mentioned that he’d bought one or two blocks of the trendy area a few years back. That’s blocks, not buildings. The cost was $5,000 – for a block, not a floor or a building. Now my guess is that a single building is worth 10 times that purchase price.
Kusisto notes this phenomenon in statistics befitting the Wall Street Journal. Some home values have gone up 800 per cent. Some vacancy rates for offices and shops have plummeted up to 40 per cent. The supply, demand and capacity explains this, with incomes in some neighbourhoods soaring from $23,000 to $93,000.
The next time you talk to one of these young people who are reinventing and reinvigorating our cities, remember, they invented it.
Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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