The Rebirth of the Neighborhood

By Byrne, J. Peter | Fordham Urban Law Journal, October 2013 | Go to article overview

The Rebirth of the Neighborhood

Byrne, J. Peter, Fordham Urban Law Journal

Introduction    I. Zoning for Urban Form   II. Historic Preservation  III. Environmental Law  Conclusion 


Since 1972, American cities have lost political power and federal support. Large scale federal programs to reverse urban decline, such as urban renewal, public housing, and the War on Poverty, had at best checkered outcomes and their vestiges were largely dismantled during the Reagan Administration. (1) Legal reforms proposed to strengthen the economic or political position of cities, through such approaches as regionalism and enhanced city authority, also have failed to remedy such decline. Nonetheless, many cities have experienced phenomenal population growth and economic development over the past decade. Washington, D.C. has reversed a population decline dating to 1950, (2) and many other cities, from Boston to San Diego, and from Seattle to Miami, have seen renewed investment in residential, retail, and business real estate, often in areas recently blighted with abandoned warehouses and decaying housing. (3) While such developments have not progressed evenly either within or among cities, they project a hopeful future for urban living and social justice. What has happened?

There is no adequate microeconomic explanation for this development. Decline in industrial economy first drained cities of capital, but then created opportunities for reinvention and redeployment of singular assets. Macroeconomic changes eliminated urban manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs but engendered new employment in service and information industries for educated brain workers. (4) Some of this enlarged class came to seek a new residential form. People began to seek older housing in inner city areas with easier access to work and within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and cultural amenities. Many early ventures into real estate by "pioneers" depended on low prices, small loans, and self- help. Professional workers from large organizations, such as government, corporations, and universities, took over housing built long ago for tradesmen, skilled laborers, and small scale entrepreneurs. (5) In time, developers, architects, and financiers renovated multi-family housing and erected new apartment buildings, including "luxury lofts" evoking manufacturing buildings once converted to artist studios. The demand for urban housing meeting these aesthetic and lifestyle standards now often exceeds supply, pushing prices higher. (6)

What are these new urban residents seeking? This Essay argues that new urban residents primarily seek a type of community properly called a neighborhood. "Neighborhood" refers to a legible, pedestrian-scale area that has an identity apart from the corporate and bureaucratic structures that dominate the larger society. Such a neighborhood fosters repeated, casual contacts with neighbors and merchants, such as while one pursues Saturday errands or takes children to activities. Dealing with independent local merchants and artisans face-to-face provides a sense of liberation from large power structures, where most such residents work. Having easy access to places of sociability like coffee shops and bars permits spontaneous "meet-ups," contrasting with the discipline of professional life. Such a neighborhood conveys an indigenous identity created by the efforts of diverse people over time, rather than marketing an image deliberatively contrived to control the perceptions of customers. At its best, a neighborhood provides a refuge from the ennui of the workplace and the idiocy of consumer culture, substituting for churches (or synagogues), labor unions, and ethnic clubs that structured earlier urban social life.

What changes in land use law have contributed to or supported this transformation to neighborhood-based living? Several legal developments outside land use seem very important. Perhaps the most central legal development has been local government legal protections for gays, who often have been in the vanguard of the revival of urban neighborhoods. …

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