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On the cusp of a new era of suburban doom?

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis April 14, 2010 11:11 AM

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OK, I will say up front I don't completely buy into it.

But University of Virginia Professor William Lucy, the latest prophet of doom when it is comes to the Great American Suburbs, certainly managed to get my attention.

I spent some time last night skimming through an electronic version of Lucy's Foreclosing the Dream on my laptop - what a miserable way to read a book. (Here's another review of the book that's worth checking out as well.)

For an academic, Lucy is a pretty lively writer - he's downright tabloid with his description of the outer suburbs as a "ring of death." It's a compliment - I worked as a business reporter for our local tabloid, the Herald, for years.

However, what really stuck out for me was Lucy's intriguing historical analogy.

Basically, we are at a tipping point similar to 1950, when the country was on the cusp of the great exodus from a host of aging industrial cities to the suburbs, he contends.

Except this time around, we are looking at a great migration back into many of the old cities our grandparents so eagerly fled out of out, Lucy contends.

His choice of 1950 is deliberate - it was a point at which many of the underlying factors setting the stage for the great urban exodus had quietly snapped into place.

Yet it was a period just before the dam broke when the trend, at least publicly, was still hard to spot.

And so it is the same today, Lucy contends, with many of the signs of suburban decay we are seeing now precursors to a monumental shift just ahead.

Here's what Lucy has to say.

"When a strong trend is in its early stage, it does not look
strong. Is that where city revival is now? I think so. The trend
line is similar for several indicators - including income, housing
value, race, and recently population - and in the direction
of city revival for each one. When suburbanization was well
under way after World War II, the 1950 census did not contain
clear evidence proclaiming what would happen during the
next half century. But an incipient trend became a wave, and
the decline of cities coincided with the rise of suburbs."

As he mulls over growing signs of trouble in the suburbs, Lucy zeroes in on the collapse of the exurbs, the hot new frontier for development back during the boom.

In many metro markets, the recession and housing market collapse have turned these once bustling communities on the outer ring into foreclosure ghost towns.

All that said, I think Lucy and other prophets of suburban doom too often skim over some inconvenient facts.

Sure, a lot of the older cities that were being written of a generation or two ago have certainly experienced a revival, with Boston leading the pack.

Yet there a shallowness to this rebound as well - so far it has produced a lot of luxury housing downtown for a relative handful of wealthy buyers.

Just a couple T stops away from downtown Boston in neighborhoods like Dorchester and East Boston, rampant foreclosures have left hundreds of homes boarded up and triggered a massive collapse in real estate values.

Nor does Greater Boston neatly fit into this model either, which seems to work better for Sunbelt cities where the huge boom-time explosion in suburban construction has boomeranged.

When you look at metro Boston, the heaviest clusters by far of foreclosures are in the poorer urban neighborhoods or in the old mill towns that dot the region.

The exurban distress that Lucy talks about is best seen beyond the 495 beltway.

Still, it's not impossible to see how a modified version of this may already be happening in Greater Boston, with a battle to get inside the Rt. 128 beltway that works like a pressure cooker on home prices the closer you get to Boston.

I guess that leaves me out here in my Natick fixer-upper on the edge of the professor's "ring of death." Oh boy.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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