My mother grew up living a city lifestyle in an ethnic enclave in Buffalo, NY, a daughter of immigrant parents and a little older than the baby boomers. She did not even have a drivers license until she was in her mid-20’s. When my parents bought their house in Silver Spring off the Beltway, many Americans were moving to the suburbs. The American Dream was to own a house in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts and commute by car to a job in the city. Owning a car meant mobility, and mobility meant freedom. It meant choice. It meant privilege. Today, owning a car does not mean the same thing.
Owning a car means still means mobility, but that is no longer a privilege for many young adults. It is a necessity. As this generation ascends into the business world, we are greeted by office parks in exurbs, located off freeways with acres of surface parking in front of them. To many in this generation, the movement back into the city is most favorable. In the city we trade mobility for accessibility.
Rob Pitingolo poignantly elucidates some of the generational differences in our relationship with automobiles. Pitingolo doesn’t mention gas prices even once. He points to the drastic rise in college tuitions, outpacing income growth, and the way most college graduates join the workforce with immense debt. Purchasing a car often means even more debt. Auto magazine Ward’s writes,
The children of Baby Boomers do not aspire to vehicle ownership like we did. Instead of daydreaming about buying a Ford Expedition they can use for camping trips with friends and family, many Millenials may want to rent the big SUV for just the camping trip, Pipas explained. The vehicle is just another element of the experience, not the foundation for it. The next weekend they might rent a canoe.
Young people in Japan, a nation whose economy depends on car manufacturing, are eschewing car ownership at even higher rates than in the US. Where unlike in previous generations, they “scoff at the sportscar-idolizing culture of the older generation [and] see cars as nothing more than a tool, much like a vacuum cleaner, not a reflection of their identity, tastes or income level.”
These starkly different cultural differences certainly could explain Americans’ ingrained societal desire for the status quo of highways, strip malls, office parks, and homogeneous neighborhoods. For decades, this was sold as the ultimate goal. But suburbanization and the age of mobility did one very good thing for society.
Suburbanization occurred at the same time as the Civil Rights movement. Highways, if nothing else, were public works used by all demographics. Mobility, combined with the passage of civil rights laws, integrated society somewhat. Most development and infrastructure still happened in wealthy areas, but immigrants, minorities, and the poor could at least drive (a longer distance) to the new shops, using the same rest stops and gas stations. At the same time, suburbanization increased the physical separation of different social classes with podded single use developments, often utilizing highways and freeways as very effective social barriers.
Now that this generation is moving back into the city, they different cultures and social classes are living closer together. Mixed income neighborhoods are unheard-of in suburban sprawl, but they weren’t too common in the pre-WWII cities, either. Anacostia, for instance, was founded with restrictive covenants excluding anyone of African or Irish descent. Nowadays, as the new generation moves back into the cities and historically homogenous districts, Chinatowns, Little Italys, ghettos, barrios, and the like are being reborn into mixed-use, mixed-income, multi-cultural neighborhoods.
As for my mother, she lived in the suburbs just long enough to raise her children in the great suburbia. Now that she is an elderly widow living by herself, she has relocated back into the urban setting, setting up camp in a condo in downtown Silver Spring. Only unlike the Sicilian ghetto where she was raised, her new digs are located in one of the most diverse locales around.