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What’s happening to New York City is a microcosm of what’s happening around the country—the hollowing out of the U.S. city.
It was an April 1st headline, but the statistics were no joke. "People are fleeing New York at an alarming rate," the New York Post announced. And indeed, they are—sort of.
For starters, a bit of terminology. The Census Bureau tracks two sorts of American movers. First, there are “domestic migrants,” who move from one U.S. county to another. Second, there are “international migrants,” who move from a foreign country to America. Somewhat confusingly, the latter definition does not mean “all immigrants.” A Guatemalan-born woman who lives in Houston for two years and then moves Dallas is considered a domestic migrant, since she’s moving between American cities.
That sounds like some methodological mumbo jumbo, but it’s critical for understanding what’s happening to New York and the rest of America’s largest cities.
Net domestic migration to New York City metro area (which includes the five boroughs plus slivers of New Jersey and Pennsylvania) is down by a whopping 900,000 people since 2010. That means that, since 2010, almost a million more people have left New York for somewhere else in America than have moved to New York from another U.S. metro—more than any other metro in the country. This is the “fleeing” that the Post finds so “alarming.” But the New York metro has also netted about 850,000 international migrants since 2010. That number is also tops among all metros—more than Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, combined.
So, that’s the story of New York City, today. It is an extremely popular first-stop for immigrants. It is also a popular destination for young, upwardly mobile Millennials who have graduated from top colleges and don’t yet have families with children. But since it’s expensive, chaotic, and mostly lawn-free, it’s not a great place for middle class families who dream of an affordable house, car, and yard.
In this regard, New York is a microcosm of the American city. Population growth in big cities has now shrunk for five consecutive years, according to Jed Kolko, an economist and writer. While well-educated Millennials without children have concentrated in a handful of expensive liberal cities, the rest of the country is slowly fanning out to the sunny suburbs.
It’s the revenge of the past, in a way. In the housing boom of the 1990s and 2000s, Americans moved south and west. Then the housing crash happened. For a few years, it seemed as if America might be experiencing a great rewinding, as the exurbs and ex-exurbs collapsed, and some families moved back to the largest, most prosperous cities.
But that rewind button was really a pause key. Gas prices spiked, and then came back down. Population growth in the densest urban areas—places like Manhattan and San Francisco—has been falling each year since 2010, and it’s the sparsest suburbs that are seeing the fastest growth. In the last few years, the winners have shifted from the southwest to the southeast. Out of the ten fastest-growing large metros in 2016, seven were in the Carolinas and Florida.
One can see glimpses of the rise of low-density suburbs even in non-housing data. On Monday, Ford’s car sales fell 24 percent in March, while F-Series pickups rose by double digits. GM’s latest sales growth was similarly driven by crossovers and trucks, not little cars. Maybe families want to live in denser areas but are being priced out, moving to the suburbs, and buying larger vehicles rather than a small car that can be parallel-parked on a crowded city block. Or maybe America suffers from a unique residential claustrophobia, where its residents naturally seek to fill out America’s bounty of land with ever-larger homes, trucks, and lawns.
America’s largest cities have so much going for them. They are rich, productive, and pulsating with culture and life. So what happened to the great urban revival? “America’s cities have domestic net out-migration because they’re not affordable,” said E. J. McMahon, the founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “For many, New York City is a temporary portal. The Baby Boomers retire to Florida. The middle-class Millennials move to Long Island for a house. The woman from Slovakia comes to Queens, lives in her second-cousin’s basement, gets her feet on the ground, and gets a better apartment in West Orange, New Jersey.”
It leads a great hollowing out of the city. “There are lots of new immigrants and rich people in New York, but there are fewer dead-center families,” McMahon said.
It was hard to hear this and not think of the political consequences of dense cities becoming a home for everybody-but-the-native-born-middle-class. Urban agglomeration—the theory that wealthy and productive areas naturally attract more wealth and productivity—has a dark side within America’s variety of representative democracy. It makes cities critical contributors to GDP and national tax revenue, yet nearly pointless in national voting, since the city becomes a mass of redundant liberals. Hillary Clinton won Brooklyn by 461,000 votes; that’s about seven times larger than the critical margin by which she lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, combined. Rural areas are naturally punished by an economy that prizes density and proximity to large urban metros; yet, they’re rewarded, by design, in representation.
Urban planners and economists focused on creativity and networks have been singing the praises of the city-living since the Great Recession (or, perhaps, since forever). But local housing policy, limited family finances, and American geographical abundance—not to mention the pro-rural laws of U.S. representative government—are powerful centrifugal forces that push Americans ever-outward into suburbs with lawns, trucks, and cul de sacs. The last decade was a dream. It’s 2006, again.
Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where this article was originally published.