Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Why Are America’s Three Biggest Metros Shrinking? (theatlantic.com)
50 points by prostoalex 33 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

Cause major metros are expensive as hell, they usually soft-ban children and parenting, they are openly hostile to quick/reliable transportation, and generally depend on lots of labour from other slightly-poorer non-local people to remain viable.

If you carefully curate your life in such a way as to have very few responsibilities or needs, city living can be a lot of fun. I get why people like it, I liked it too. And if you are wealthy, you can buy your way out of a most of these problems.

But for regular, average people, making regular average wages, city living is mostly just a long list of painful drawbacks, and most regular people couldn't afford it even if they were willing to put up with all of that.

> soft-ban children and parenting

Could you elaborate on that? My experience thus far as a parent of small children in one of the 3 metros listed in TFA has only strengthened my resolve to not move to a small city. They're just so far ahead of the smaller cities I've looked into on so many things - activities, parks and playgrounds, free public pre school, ease of locomotion for kids who aren't old and wealthy enough to drive a car. . .

I'm pretty sure the only thing other places have on us is the square footage of the house. Which, with so much cool stuff to do out in the world, we don't really end up making too much use of the square footage we have, anyway.

We go visit the grandparents in a metro of only half a million people, and by the end of the visit the kids are half crazy from lack of opportunities to get out of the house.

Roughly speaking, San Francisco has approximately as many children aged 0-6 as they "should" given their adult demographics, and half the older children. The likely culprit is public school desegregation policies, which result in schools that are excessively far from home. Parents have to choose between making their children endure an hour or more of commuting each way, homeschooling, or moving out of the city.

I don't blame them at all for moving out at that point.

It's also worth noting that San Francisco is not one of the metro areas mentioned in the article.

> They're just so far ahead of the smaller cities I've looked into on so many things - activities, parks and playgrounds, free public pre school, ease of locomotion for kids who aren't old and wealthy enough to drive a car.

My guess is that you're not in Los Angeles.

LAUSD is among the worst-performing school districts out there, and manages to outrank peers only on two metrics - the numbers of worker strikes / walkouts, and the rate of losing students.

Then there's an elementary school student stabbed by a homeless person every now and then http://www.ladowntownnews.com/news/metro-charter-student-att...

Could you elaborate on that?

Not the OP, but can share my perspective.

Say, I want to take my 7 yo daughter to the Natural History Museum in London. The process looks like this:

- walk to the train station

- take a train to London Bridge station

- walk to the tube station, take a train, then another one.

By the time we get there she doesn't want anything. She wants her hot chocolate in the cafe and get back home.

The same process in the US outside of big city:

- drive to the museum

Large U.S. cities are very different from big cities in rest of the developed world. I live in NYC. I've spent a lot of time in places like London, Tokyo, Sydney, etc.

London has a higher standard of living in many respects. The Tube is cleaner, operates more efficiently and you don't run into homeless and crazy people as often. Public spaces are more respected.

NYC has garbage all over the place outside of Manhattan and major social problems (homelessness, racial disparity issues that lead to resentment and crime). The school situation is horrible compared to the suburbs. These issues stem from America's historical racial problems. American's don't want to invest in public transit because many people think public transit will bring crime and underrepresented minorities. Schools in cities are bad because of a history of segregation. Garbage is strewn about the streets since public services are cut and people don't respect public spaces.

However, if you're rich and live in Manhattan you can largely avoid these issues by sending your kids to private schools and living around other rich people. Streets are cleaner, even subway stations are better.

Ugh. I'm not sure what are you talking about.

Manhattan, especially the midtown, is probably the dirtiest part of New York City. Better subway stations in Manhattan? You must be kidding, right?

New York had its share of democratic mayors. New York had a black mayor. I doubt they all were trying to keep non-white people at bay.

Racial issues do exist and they do affect many parts of American lives, but they should not be used to explain all the problems of American society.

Yes, agreed, there are bad stations in Manhattan too, but the nicest ones are in Manhattan, especially on the new Upper East Side extension and 7 line.

I've overly simplified why American cities are the way they are. It's not just racial issues, but general lack of public funding, political reasons, etc. Having said that, places like London and Tokyo don't have the same overt racial issues as NYC. I often see homeless people and panhandlers in the subway who are down on their luck, often with psychological problems. They are frequently non-white and it's sad that the city isn't taking care of them. I don't see that in large international cities in other developed countries to the same extent. In London, for example, I rarely see non-white people in such dire circumstances in public areas compared to NYC.

My general point is that cities like London, Sydney and Tokyo are cleaner, nicer and have better public services. Personally, I would feel more comfortable raising a family in those cities rather than a U.S. city. In the U.S. with a family I think it's better to raise a family in the suburbs, but that's my personal preference.

In a rural environment, you could just kick them out of the house and tell them not to be back until dinner time

Probably not meaning to refer to the city as a whole but most of the things you might do in a city. There are parks and child care centers in a city, but there just aren't a lot of places to bring tottlers.

Swanky restaurant? Get the evil eye. On a bus? Get the evil eye.

And if the transportation is free that doesn't always mean it's convenient. If they gave me free bus access I still wouldn't use it as many area buses are 30-60 minutes off schedule. I don't plan my day with that much freetime to spend waiting on transit.

> Swanky restaurant? Get the evil eye. On a bus? Get the evil eye.

I'm very curious which city that is.

I bring my kids on public transit all the time, and rarely get the evil eye. I take the kids to a couple of the nicest restaurants in our neighborhood on a fairly regular basis. The staff know their names and people who aren't even serving us that time stop to talk to them. And yeah, one of them is a toddler.

Buses. . . I don't know LA that well, but NYC and Chicago are both "buses every 10 minutes" cities. If they're more than 10 minutes off schedule, it's because something happened. In some smaller cities I've lived, on the other hand. . . it's true, buses could get pretty late.

I'm glad you've experienced better. I've lived in probably 3-4 of the USA's top 100 cities and I have yet to find a place that does every 10 minute bus service, except for the most central parts of the city. Perhaps you live in the core? What is strange to me is that busses that aren't every 10 minutes aren't even GPS trackable on an app or something. If I could do that with a 10 minutes early alarm, that would make the public transit worthwhile again.

Top 3 are way, way, way different than top 100...

apartments big enough for a family can easily cost the entire sallary of a middle class person and more, and thats for a 2 bedroom shithole.

You could pay less somewhere else and get a really nice house on mortgage instead, and actually have something to show for the 40k a year you are throwing into a black hole

So, I don't deny that the housing prices are higher. But the number you threw out there strikes me as off the wall; we're paying a fraction of that for a well-kept 3 bedroom apartment in a 3-flat building across the street from a playground in a nice neighborhood.

That said, perhaps it's worse in other cities?

Yea, and now you have to have two cars (car payments, insurance, gas, car tax = $$$), and you have to worry about your kids getting hit by a car when they're outside of the house, even in their front yard.

Housing in other parts of the country is absurdly expensive too, unless you go to "low-CoL" locales, but then you run into the problem that there's no jobs there, or the jobs pay peanuts, so unless you banked a bunch of money while you were living in the high-CoL area, you're not going to be able to afford one of those nice houses anyway.

>car payments, insurance, gas, car tax = $$$

This is only as expensive as you make it (gas notwithstanding).

>and you have to worry about your kids getting hit by a car

There's a really simple solution to this. Don't worry. There's plenty of things to irrationally worry about in a city too if you want to do that.

>Housing in other parts of the country is absurdly expensive too,

Outside of places where rich people congregate they're really not.

>locales, but then you run into the problem that there's no jobs there, or the jobs pay peanuts,

So commute somewhere you can find a good job. When you're not stuck in bumper to bumper gridlock it sucks a lot less.

>so unless you banked a bunch of money while you were living in the high-CoL area, you're not going to be able to afford one of those nice houses anyway.

This is pure BS. The people that live there afford the houses somehow. Considering that mortgage lending is fairly standardized at the high end it still shouldn't be any harder to afford a local house on a local salary, if it were nobody could get that loan.

> Housing in other parts of the country is absurdly expensive too

No, this is easy to refute with a cursory look at the data.

Nationally, US median household income is 63 K (source: https://www.sentierresearch.com/pressreleases/Sentier_Househ...)

Nationally, the current US median house value according to Zillow (2019) is 229K (source:https://www.zillow.com/home-values/). This includes houses not up for sale.

The median value of houses listed for sale is about 290K, and the median value of houses sold was about 240K. This discrepancy is because higher priced houses languish on the market and cheaper houses sell more quickly, thus there is divergence between the median price of listed houses and the median price of sold houses.

Let's take the midpoint of that and say a household plunged into the housing market should expect to pay 265K. That's a multiple of 3.9. Let's say this household pays 10% down, then their mortgage payments would be about 1400 (use a mortgage calculator) or about 27% of the median household income of about 5.25K/month. This is affordable.

This is the same for specific areas. Take a look at Phoenix metro, the nation's fastest growing area. Median household income in 2017 was about 52K (source: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/phoenixcityariz...)

According to Zillow, median house prices in Phoenix in 2017 was about 200K. (source: https://www.zillow.com/phoenix-az/home-values/)

This is also about a 3.9 ratio.

But now, let's swing over to NYC. Median household income in NYC is higher than Phoenix, but not by that much. It's 61K. (source: https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/income-taxes/med_hhold_i...). But the median house price in NYC in 2017 was absurdly high, about 600K (source: https://www.zillow.com/new-york-ny/home-values/). That's a multiple of 10.

So your choice is paying a multiple of 4 versus paying a multiple of 10. No wonder that people are moving out if they value owning their own home.

We can also look at home ownership rates. In the U.S. the home ownership rate is about 64%. In NYC, 30% of the units are owner occupied and 70% are renter occupied (source: https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/hpd/downloads/pdf/about/2017-hvs...). In Phoenix, 53% are owner occupied and 47% are renter occupied (source: https://www.towncharts.com/Arizona/Housing/Phoenix-city-AZ-H...) Nationally, about 36% of housing units are renter occupied and 64% are owner occupied (source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=oPyK)

So it's not true that wages are so much lower in the rest of the country that housing is equally unaffordable. Median household income is usually less than 10K higher in the expensive areas, but housing costs are 1/3 to 1/2 of what they are in the high priced areas. That explains much higher home ownership rates outside of the expensive areas.

Hear hear! The City of Cape Town nearly ran out of water a couple years ago. We all learnt to use much less water. People invested in rain harvesting water tanks and grey water systems. Well as a reward for saving so much water the city has now imposed a "water tax" [0] to cover up for the revenue shortfall because we are not using enough water. Parking bays that have been around in the city for over 100 years are now require you to pay a hefty fee to park. Cities are just becoming too expensive and my own personal gut feeling is that there probably to many city managers wanting to earn bonuses by increasing revenue collection.


With you up to the conspiracy theory at the end. Doesn't take a conspiracy; just a need to pay for what things are costing.

I guess in Africa we always suspicious of public officials. Agree with you, I presented no evidence on the conspiracy but we do have loads of examples of corruption at spectacular scale.

Careerism doesn't require a conspiracy

Government official salaries (and bonuses, and stipends) are costs, though.

The point I was trying to make which I didn't do so well is I might object to private companies such Apple or MS increasing prices. I can always opt out of their products. When it comes to services such as water I don't expect government to want to make a profit. I don't have an alternative water supplier. The rate at which the prices of such services is increasing is higher than the rate at which our salaries are increasing.

But at what rate is the water cost increasing? The infrastructure can be a fixed cost. With decreased consumption (grey water conservation etc), fewer are paying for the existing water. So the price goes up. That part makes some sense.

Somewhere there is balance that the city must find. I don't agree that the reward for using less water is a higher price of water.

I think you're trusting the government too much. Even if they aren't exactly making a profit, how much of that money is just being wasted due to poor planning and/or corruption?

I don't think it's about the cost. It's about the quality.

A typical dwelling in the city costs about the same as a typical dwelling in suburbs. The city dwelling will be a two-bedroom flat with a homeless guy sleeping outside; the suburban one will be a four bedroom house with a backyard and a pool.

This article in one sentence: Housing is too expensive and there are now nice coffeeshops, bars, and restaurants in other cities across the country.

Hahaha. This is a much easier read, and yet, almost equally informative.

Another factor is shrinking household size. A house that before gentrification held a bunch of children, at least one parent, and often some grandparents or members of the extended family now is occupied by DINKs, retirees, or singles. Families with children of course still exist but as a smaller percentage of city households and typically with fewer children. The 2020 Census should yield some very interesting statistics on how much the average household in cities has changed just in the past decade.

I can’t really speak for NYC or LA, since I have never lived in either one for any appreciable amount of time, but in Chicago, it’s because of vastly unequal access to public transportation. Housing demand is skyrocketing in neighborhoods near L train stations, while the population is dwindling on the west and south sides of the city where train service is virtually non-existent. Nobody wants to commute to work via two 45-minute bus rides, and driving to the loop from those far-flung neighborhoods is cost-prohibitive for all but the wealthiest people (not to mention that it won’t save you much time, even if you can afford it).

West/South sides.

There is train access there. However, most people don't go because that's where the dangerous areas are. Also, the train gets pretty agressive in those areas.

> commute to work via two 45-minute bus rides,

That's pretty much what the north side of the city is districted for. It sucks, but the CTA is having budget cuts and the areas don't have that demand, and the politicians fail to understand quality infrastructure. Build a circle line, and I can guarantee you that the city will expand a lot. (Right now businesses/white-collar jobs are primarily locked into loop+west loop)

This is a bizarre take. Our transit system definitely needs expansion but the W and S sides are both served by train lines. There are large areas that are pretty far from train service but that's the case on the NW side, too. Maybe you're trying to pull a fast one on people who aren't familiar with Chicago, because I'm not sure why else you wouldn't mention that those parts of town are where most of the black people live, who predominantly make up the demographics that have been leaving the city. They are leaving as a result of the legacy of segregation, and yes, inadequate transit service is an aspect of that, but generally limited economic opportunity and high crime are what drive people to move.

I think the school situation is a big part of it as well. Just anecdotal but almost everyone I know that left it was to go to a better school.

Maybe it's because urban environments aren't really "nice". For all I hear about the joys of urban living, as espoused by others, I haven't enjoyed it much. Public transportation is crowded and smelly. Fat people take half of my seat (not nice to say, but I'm not sure how else to put it). Things are small, which for a taller guy like me, is pretty tough. As in, every thing is tiny. Living spaces, shops, streets. Streets often have trash strewn on them, and don't smell particularly good. I have to keep one hand on my wallet. Sometimes, hobos got aggressive. Not as much as an issue for me, but I'd hate to be a 4'9" lady. Keeping pets is hard. Cooking food is hard. I didn't have kids, but those I knew had a hard time with them. Things are very expensive. It's loud. There's a lot of traffic. Some times (all winter and some times in summer), it's bad weather for walking. I guess I shouldn't be complaining, since I at least didn't see much in the way of human feces.

This is not to say there aren't up-sides. I like the food, and there are interesting people. It's also much easier to find certain things; for instance, a few major cities still have serious "maker shops" with tons of electronic components. Smaller ones or sub-urban areas often can't accommodate them, as they are in low enough demand that serious density is required.

Maybe this is just NYC. I didn't live there a really long time, and I guess I might have gotten used to it? Still, I like sub-urban living and empty green space. I can hardly blame people for moving out, if it's viable.

>Maybe this is just NYC.

Yeah, NYC isn't like the rest of the country. DC isn't nearly as bad in many ways. Public transit here is newer and generally nicer, though they really should run the trains more often and expand the system (this is a huge problem with NYC's MTA: it hasn't been expanded or modernized and it's hitting a brick wall). As for stuff being tiny, yeah, I saw that in NYC too: restaurant bathrooms the size of phone booths, for instance. Not in DC, or in other international cities I've been in even. There's hobos here, but I've never seen them be too aggressive. It's not as loud: NYC is special that way, because people are constantly honking their horns, and there's way too many cars. Go across the river to NJ, and you'll immediately notice that people don't honk so much, it's something that's unique to NYC. There's maker shops here too. And the streets aren't as dirty as in NYC. There's tons of people here in DC who moved from NYC, I've found.

Huge caveat: "among nonimmigrants."

The article is about white flight. LA and NYC's populations have grown over the past 2 decades, and Chicago's population is roughly the same over the last twenty years.

It's talking about a recent total population loss including immigrants. The article specifically discusses this.

Where do you get that?

"Third, the black population of both New York and Los Angeles peaked in the early 2000s and has since been in steady, and perhaps accelerating, decline."


"Chicago went from 4 percent black in 1920 to nearly 40 percent black by 1990. But this century has seen a “Reverse Great Migration,” as the metro black population is on pace to halve from its peak of 1.2 million by 2030."

I literally quoted the linked article.

The author has written a number of articles on white flight. He's just couched it in different language for this publication, because the Atlantic is left-leaning and the readership likely wouldn't appreciate that term.

Also, on a factual note: every single Google search and a review of Census data and other counts of population show that LA and NYC increased in size during the time period covered by the article, which contradicts the title and summary of the article. The growth rate for both cities has shrunk because there's not much more room for either of them to physically grow, and as the 2 largest metro areas in the US, large %-based growth is extremely difficult.

It's very easy for Bumpkin, Idaho to grow by 10% over a decade if it's only starting from 50,000 people. That would be a rounding error in terms of NYC or LA population statistics.

It's a very ingenious way of fighting income inequality in the city: make well-off people leave and - bingo, everyone is equally poor!

There are probably also some age-cohort demographics at play. As millennials start to have families, the suburban (or small-urban) lifestyle becomes more appealing. It's a big generation, so they pull the demographics around. Who knows, they might even drag some of their Boomer parents who were living the fun empty-nester-downtown-lifestyle back out of the big metros with them.

Because large cities smell, people urinate on the streets, the air quality is very low and to add to those cons, you have to pay more to live there. Suburb living is great, the air smells good, I can't hear my neighbors unless we have a party. I suspect those that are leaving value saving for retirement over renting an overpriced apartment in a chic neighborhood. Also there are no murders in most suburbs in any given year. If you live in NYC /Chicago chances are you are within a mile of a murder at least once per year. https://maps.nyc.gov/crime/

I'll give you that cities like NYC are stinky and expensive. But NYC in particular is a very safe place. We have about 300 murders per year with a population of 8.5 million. Yes, I might live within a mile of a murder, but I also live within a mile of 400,000 people. That's about entire population of Raleigh, NC, where I used to live.

> 300 murders

I don't understand. (I live in chicago)

I live in Baltimore. We have more murders at a population of 600,000.

I think we get 300 murders a month

At least that in the summer and spring time. Not so much during the winter.

Murder was just the worst example: rape, robbery, assault etc.

If suburb living is so desirable, why does it cost more to live in the city?

> If suburb living is so desirable, why does it cost more to live in the city?

Cities are very good places to live if you are very rich, and you might need to live there for certain work (commuting has a time cost, and doing it with a cushion for a job with long hours and strict on-time requirements can be prohibitive, for instance.) So, there are reasons why cities are desirable for some portion of the population

But price isn't just demand, it's the intersection of supply and demand, and the available land in a given radius of a point (say, a city center) goes up with the square of distance. So even if desirability increased with distance, it'd still be possible for price to go down.

Because density is inherently more complicated and expensive to build and maintain.

This is also why there aren't "cheap" skyscrapers in suburban/rural areas. Because even when it's easy and 100% legal to build by-right, any density above 2-3 stories is still inherently really expensive.

In a metro area like chicago that has 9.5 million people, the "cool and hip" urban areas fit about 300,000 people.

Plus jobs and traffic. If I could live in a middle rung suburb and have a 30 min commute, I'd do it.

A portion of the wages of the higher paying job you're theoretically commuting to are priced in.

Aka "it's what the market will bear" or "supply and demand"

There's (literally) exponentially more land available at greater distances from the urban center.

The area grows in proportion to radius squared.

That's not exponential, it's quadratic (still fast).

Squaring is raising a number to the power of two, an exponential operation. Growing in proportion to a power of two could be reasonably described as a quadratic rate of growth.

The pedantry obviously isn't relevant to the discussion, but just so you're clear why everyone is calling you wrong: "exponential growth" refers to a function of x that goes as C^x for some constant C, not one that goes as x^C. The latter is "polynomial" (of which "quadratic" is the term used when C is 2).

Exponential is a^x. Square is polynomial, i.e. x^a.

More jobs I guess?

This is especially true if you're part of a couple.

If one of us finds a job in New York, Boston, or Chicago, there's probably something nearby for the other too.

GE had some interesting R&D jobs in Schenectady, but unless they hired both of us, it would be a lot tricker for the other spouse to find something relevant. US universities, which are often located in small towns, sometimes offer "spousal hires", where they either create a new position for one person, or at least give them some preference when hiring. I've never heard of a company doing that, but it would certainly pique our interest (anybody need a neuro/ML guy?)

Jobs are often desirable. I suppose it's down to the individual to decide whether they care more to 1. optimize for avoiding the most undesirable situations or 2. optimize for total average desirability of where they live. My question would be: which strategy is more common in practice? Is there research on the psychology of deciding to live in a city?

Supply and demand.

maybe there is more suburban land available?

This seems to suggest that the crime gap is shrinking.


I wonder how much this is due to directives to under report. I have had issues where the police refuse to report, and I've heard of many others doing that as well.

I'd hate to disregard the numbers just because they don't match with my own assumed narrative. Considering this is looking at data from 1990 I'm sure there was plenty of impetus in the 90's to marginalize and ignore whole communities, so I don't know if we can assume that that is a new trend by any means.

Well, those three cities have in thing in common, bad governments. This Results in issues like huge homeless problems, greater taxes, and less services from the taxes.

Because the first generation who was essentially denied the ability to comfortably afford housing/living are now having families are having to look elsewhere to commit and start a life.

There, I spared you a click.

It's not just millennials, really successful people are starting to move to smaller metros so they can have big houses and less negatives.

There were a series of NY chefs that moved to Minneapolis to start restaurants so they could have a yard, a dog, and an interesting menu customers appreciated.

One underrated factor is that culture spreads so fast nowadays.

It used to be that New York or LA were way ahead of the curve in terms of food, fashion, art, music, design, etc. People in the major cities were just cooler. And it took a few years for the vanguard to diffuse, by which time the big city folk had moved on to the wave.

It still kind of is. But much less. We're all reading the same subreddits, blogs, and tweets. A hipster coffeeshop in Jacksonville pretty much looks, sounds, feels and tastes the same as its counterpart in Brooklyn.

Kevin Morby moved back to Kansas City

Let me guess - cost of living ?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact