Red vs. Blue — was David Brooks right?

Was thinking about this the other day, in the context of the blue-state exodus from NY, NJ, and CA.

Maybe David Brooks was right.  Since generally speaking, large successful cities eventually become havens for the upper-middle-class (while the middle class retreats to the suburbs), and downtowns become characterized by things which cater to the wealthy — fine arts, high-end restaurants, boutique stores, etcetera, the “blue” areas will tend to have greater “wealth awareness” than similar “red” zones, as the cities more and more become places inhabited by two groups — those who have significant amounts of money, and those who cater to them.

This cultural divide is pretty old.  Even in the 1850s, antebellum society was generally divided between Republicans (who largely represented middle-class values and especially the urge to gain financial independence, much like any contractor or small entrepreneur today), versus the large inner cities, where the great magnates of the day (then, usually cotton) held sway over a large “working class,” with what we call the middle class conspicuously absent.

This inevitably leads to class conflict, because some people will pay 18 bucks for a hamburger….and the rest either does so as a treat (eating what the former regard as crap the rest of the time), or else live beyond their means to do so.  The folks who can’t justify a 40-dollar hamburger-tab-for-two are producing goods which are beyond their own reach, while others float serenely by, uncaring what the folks behind the counter think (and reasonbly so: how often do you care about your cashier’s life story?).

One group tends to value wealth, and looks up to lawyers, CPAs, stockbrokers, etcetera.  The other generally values independence, and values small to mid-sized industry guys, contractors, entrepreneurs, start-up mavens.

You can really see this in process in Dallas, which is a huge, sprawling city, but has a downtown that culturally is very much becoming a “blue” zone, where middle-class people may come in to work or to catch a sports event, but only the wealthy, the few tourists doing the restaurant thing, and the hipsters actually stay after 6pm.  Desire aside, nobody else can afford to do so.

What y’all think?

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  1. Mike

     /  January 29, 2009

    Sounds about right. A very similar thing happened in Austin back when I lived there. What had been a fun downtown with live bands, small clubs, niche stores and so on was gradually brought out by the weathy. The wealthy were usually the “new” rich types (in this case mostly computer types with some older money). And you could see the change happen before your eyes. Lots of clubs closed due to climbing rents. All the cheap downtown holes in the wall places to live were brought out and renovated into condos or studio lofts with price tags out of most price ranges. And the downtown people changed, more trendy look at me types who were rich or going into credit card hell to look it with lots of the original local types rapidly moving out or massively changing what they did. Band member? Move north or south dude. Shop owner? Hope your shop has enough “flavor” to it to survive and that you have enough backbone to swallow your pride in dealing with jerks. I can name several areas that are picture perfect examples of this. Andy’s sister had to move from her ideally located hole in the wall to way south Austin due to the place being torn down for a new apartment/condo building. My favorite Anime shop was driven out of business due to a condo project buying out its lease. The Dragon’s Lair (my favorite gaming store) has been forced to move twice by this combined with the fact that its customers have been forced to move north and can’t just walk over to the store anymore. My favorite movie theater was forced to move to cater to the tastes of the local neuvo riche (i.e. they brought in a “Cheesecake Factory” store, I like that place so mixed feelings). Stores that remain are often much changed. I forget the bookstore name, but it was abig independent bookstore located next to Whole Foods in central Austin. Lots of “Blue” money moved into the area and this store went from being a really nice place to a haven for coffee sipping, conservative hating “I just read THE book of the century (for this month anyway)” half-wits. They actually separted out the “conservative” from the “progressive” books like if they interacted we would have an explosion. And the history section moved from balanced to “Nazis bad, America bad except when fighting Nazis, we are sorry for everything we have ever done”.

    This is one of the reasons I went back active. Austin wasn’t as fun as it used to be. And I think this is a major reason why.

  2. That’s about right; during the dot-com boom we saw the same thing with newly minted money moving into new over-riced condos that were build on top of clubs, then have the cops cite the clubs for being noisy between 11pm and 2pm….

  3. Yeah, I remember that. I think it may explain the political divide, as well. The poor in blue areas are tied to large institutions and large job-providers in a way where the “getting ahead” story doesn’t sell well — because it makes no sense in a region where the middle class has had to flee.

    At which point, who’s got your back but government?

  4. Mike

     /  January 30, 2009

    Bleah, this whole thing makes me ill. But as an historian I found it somewhat interesting. An example of the only thing that nevers changes is that everything will always change. I would have loved to see Austin “freeze” in time, but that never can happen. The south tried to do that and ther results were not pretty. They were able to hold change up for about 20 to 40 years, and then it broke through in a major, “you can’t ride this out without getting jacked” change.

  5. Zathras

     /  February 1, 2009

    HC, this is not the entire picture. The inner part of Dallas (as opposed to “downtown”) has an increasingly large number of middle class as well. These people usually move because of the old houses there. The area around Gaston is a good example of this. Almost every large town has an area like this. I’ve lived in the analogous area of Fort Worth (Southside neighborhood) and Lansing.

    And the number of people downtown is still fairly small. There is a lot more going on than just that demographically and politically. The City of Dallas voted 60/40 for Obama. The whole of Dallas County is blue now, so it’s affecting some of the suburbs as well.

  6. Zathras, you’re reacting to things I didn’t say. I’m using Dallas’ downtown as an explicit parallel to SF and NYC’s urban cores, but by no means has the middle class retreated from the entire city.

    Dallas county as an entirety may be officially “blue,” but culturally speaking, there are still some pretty big differences — read Brooks’ description of what makes the two regions tick? It’s not merely which lever folks pulled in the last snoutcounting.

  7. Fair enough.

    I would only add that the “hipsters,” as you call them, overwhelmingly outnumber the uber-wealthy in downtown Dallas. The wealthy in Dallas County are much more likely to be found in the Park Cities or Preston Hollow.

  8. Agreed. But hipsters outnumber the uberwealthy pretty much everywhere. Dallas is a little odd that way because of how Central cuts into the downtown. Given that it *does* service the folks who make things move, you can see how it tends to get maintained a heck of a lot better than, say, 30 or 45…

  9. controlledmess

     /  February 3, 2009

    First, fascinating (post as well as comments)

    Second, Dallas. I have to agree with happycrow when it comes to the Obama thing. The city of Dallas may have voted as a whole for Obama, but the richies (old money) were definately more for “the other guy”.

    The “hipsters” and the wealthy: I’ve noticed (and this is just me, but) the wealthy, if you were to classify them and therefore differenciate between these two groups, generally tend to be the older generation while the “hipsters” are the younger generation. Now, mind you, they pretty much have the same amount of money so basically the only difference is how they dress, their alcoholic beverage of choice, and perhaps a little phraseology here and there. So yes, maybe the hipsters do outnumber the wealthy in most places, but they seem to come together when it comes to getting the middle-class (which is a derogatory term in the rich or at least the “I’m in debt enough to act rich” world) out of their boundries, i.e. Preston Hollow is slowing expanding to places its inhabitants never would have gone before and those who refuse to sell their homes to the new money are forced to leave because of taxes that are so high even Satan feels bad for these people just so the newcomers can tear it down and build one so big they can sit down to afternoon tea with their neighbor just by sitting on their balcony.

    Refocusing on the red/blue zones, I agree.

  10. Yep.
    It came as a pretty big shock when Dallas’ consultants basically told the city “you’re in deep trouble, stop trying to take credit for all the stuff happening in the cities outside Dallas proper.”

    Got lots of discussion for all of two days before the commissions’ recommendations (which included ‘it’d help if there was something resembling middle-class life downtown’) were completely ignored.

  11. controlledmess

     /  February 4, 2009

    This trickles all the way down to why the economy is in such bad dumps. People want to save the world, just so long as they don’t personally have to do anything or give up anything. Yeah, give us a bailout or an “economic stimulus” tax refund. Don’t even bother with telling people to stop spending money or to give more money.

  12. Mike

     /  February 4, 2009

    Yeah, the personal aspect of this whole thing is the real kicker. Any moron can put on a bumper sticker, but not so many cough up cash or time or effort to actually make the change. Or in this case, actually NOT spend cash.


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