Starting a life in London

Converted lofts and Victorian townhouses, or tiny working-class homes that “needed fixing” are ideal starter homes for young couples looking to move to London.

Such places produced the “return” a certain type of household: a predominance of young singles and older couples without children at home. But rarely did families find such retrofitted environments suitable to their lifestyles and needs for space and convenience. Several decades of rebuilding in central cities brought some areas of some cities back to prosperity, but not without the help of federal and state governments and not, more importantly, without the eventual return of middle class patronage in the form of suburban commuters and culture seekers. Urban renewal, urban homesteading, and a much-celebrated gentrification movement helped to turn the tide to the point that most American cities are no longer losing population today. Yet the social and fiscal problems of central cities have continued to increase. Not unrelated perhaps, is the fact that the suburbs have continued to grow as the unchallenged home of the middle class family, while few cities have been able to sustain any kind of sizable middle-class family population. Currently, therefore, the central city for many middle class families is simply not a desirable option. And yet, it is precisely in the absence of such families that the much-touted spin-off effects — social, economical, and political — are lost. The possibility of living in the city for middle class residents, is equated to no more than an interesting short-term experience. The possibility, moreover, for them to invest in the family home in the city, cannot be treated seriously. Such long-term goals for middle class family and home stewardship is reserved for suburbs.

Even setting aside the city’s social problems such as public schools, tax burdens, exaggerated cost of housing, and racial disharmony, there are certain problems which seem to lead from those of a design nature. The physical lack of space is one deterrent that even potentially-interested middle class families would consider before making the move to living in a central city. Likewise, there is not a diversity of housing stock available for middle class families in the central city. Although the sources and remedies of social problems in central cities such as crime and delivery of municipal services are broader than the scope of this discussion, central cities should not neglect the simpler capacity for enhancing physical aspects of living environments as opportunities to attract middle class families as residents. An approach which has been generally under-utilized is to provide among the central city’s residential options, a physical living environment which replicates the positive attributes of the suburbs. New masterplanned neighborhoods, particularly if developed from scratch on vacant or underutilized central city land, offer an opportunity to attract middle class families by targeting their design to the preferences of this group. Such an alternative approach has been attempted recently in the new neighborhoods built in several cities. Although, physically, economically, and socially there may be some differences among these examples, all are cases which show the elements of a hybridized suburban style, which have been created within the central city in order to attract middle-class families. Four case studies will be considered in which new masterplanned neighborhoods have been designed and developed in central cities with the expressed or implicit goals to augment or maintain a middle class family population. The cases studies will include Dearborn Park in Chicago, Harbor Town in Memphis, Otterbein in Baltimore, and Battery Park City in Manhattan. In each case study, the background of the central city’s particular problems and its goals for wanting as a policy measure to have middle class family residents in the central city will be reviewed, as well. From such information, this thesis seeks to move towards a theory which will unify these approaches through: 1) exploring and understanding the motivations of middle class family living environments and 2) analyzing some of the characteristics of case neighborhood developments which may be contribute to the success of future policy goals.

Delimiting a working description for the concept of “middle class” is a slippery task. For one thing, any definition in pure economic terms seems to change in time and by place and is based on the middle class’ role within a broader economic context. What was implied as middle class in the early nineteenth century, for example, was often an indication of moderate wealth relative to a particular locale. In this sense, salaried suburban professionals in nineteenth century New York were of different middle class profiles and shared social values than, say, a dry goods merchant in a Western farming community. However, both would have been described as middle class by their contemporaries. Similarly, a reliance today on narrower, perhaps even statistical definitions for middle class, presents another set of problems. Whereas in economic terms, middle class might be equated to middle income, this underscores the characteristics of middle class-ness identified in qualitative terms. Income descriptions are far too simple to capture the ideological sense of what middle class-ness implies. Another starting point would be to define what middle class is no t; for it is not simply the upper class with less money, nor is it a lower class with more. The upper class can be defined to be those who have inherited enormous capital and or have achieved great wealth through extraordinary lifetime circumstances.

The term “lower class”, despite its unpleasant ring, is descriptive for those at the far opposite end of the socio-economic scale. “Poor”, scarcely does better as a term, since its usual association is with quantity, as in “below a moderate income”. In earlier industrial societies, the poor, both working and non-working families were universally referred to as the “working class”. Yet this term cannot be of use not only because today, persons in every class work, but because the types of work available have become more segregated by barriers to entry, such as educational level and spatial mismatch of residence to jobs. This in turn has left a large number of inner city “workers”, unemployable in practical terms. In any event, the two terminological edges, will serve in helping to define the middle. Quite literally, the middle class can be said to be that broad social group between the upper class and the lower class, which constitutes every socio-economic variation in between. Not surprisingly, most Americans today consider themselves middle class. In poll after poll taken in the United States, roughly eighty percent of participants consistently place themselves in this category.

According to historian Loren Baritz, this is a phenomenon which has been observed throughout the twentieth century. Even during the late years of the Depression, says Baritz, when a third of all Americans had been for years unemployed and many had lost their homes, cars, and life savings, a Gallup poll in which a large representative sample of people were asked what “social class” they belonged to revealed that almost all of them — 88% — believed firmly, they said, that they were middle class. 1 This helps to illustrate the fact, that middle class can not be thought to be synonymous with middle income, since middle income alone does not define status, ideals, values, or affiliations. As Paul Fussell points out “..it is not riches alone that defines the classes.” In his book Class, Fussell describes two families with the same incomes who are living in adjacent houses in the same suburb. In one family, the head of the household is a garage mechanic; a blue-collar worker. In the other, the primary wage-earner is an employee of a publishing house: a white collar “professional”. After comparing the two families in detail from their domestic habits to their material possessions, he asserts that despite their identical incomes and residential locations, these families can be in different social classes. Social class, he concludes, “is less a function of money, than it is of style, taste, awareness and knowledge.”2 The Social Psychology of the Middle Class If such past and current polls are to taken seriously, then, a clear majority of Americans by their own description: 1) see themselves as middle class, and 2) apparently view a middle class status as something that is desirable to retain even when a low or complete lack of income and dwindling material possessions might indicate otherwise to an outside observer. Of course, it is also probable that, having similarly ambiguous definitions, many people naively over- or under-estimate their status.

Yet to err towards the middle raises no eyebrows. To be middle class in the United States is to belong to the collective nationhood. It is to be at least as good as everyone else; to be mainstream.


April 11, 2018

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