Class is an inescapable presence in America, one that influences almost every aspect of our lives—from our education and employment to our income, our politics, and even our health.
Class is also inscribed on our very geography.
To better understand the relationship between class and geography, this report charts the residential locations of the three major workforce classes: the knowledge-based creative class which makes up roughly a third of the U.S. workforce; the fast-growing service class of lower-skill, lower-wage occupations in food preparation, retail sales, personal services, and clerical and administrative work that makes up slightly more than 45 percent of the workforce; and the once-dominant but now dwindling blue-collar working class of factory, construction, and transportation workers who make up roughly 20 percent of the workforce.
The study tracks their residential locations by Census tract, areas that are smaller than many neighborhoods, based on data from the 2010 American Community Survey. The study covers 12 of America’s largest metro areas and their center cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and Detroit. It examines these patterns of class division in light of the classic models of urban form developed in the first half of the 20th century. These models suggest an outward-oriented model of urban growth and development with industry and commerce at the center of the city surrounded by lower-income working class housing, with more affluent groups located in less dense areas further out at the periphery. It also considers these patterns in light of more recent theories of a back-to-the-city movement and of a so-called “Great Inversion,” in which an increasingly advantaged core is surrounded by less advantaged suburbs.
The study finds a clear and striking pattern of class division across each and every city and metro area with the affluent creative class occupying the most economically functional and desirable locations. Although the pattern is expressed differently, each city and metro area in our analysis has evident clusters of the creative class in and around the urban core. While this pattern is most pronounced in post-industrial metros like San Francisco, Boston, Washington, DC, and New York, a similar but less developed pattern can be discerned in every metro area we covered, including older industrial metros like Detroit, sprawling Sunbelt metros like Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas, and service-driven economies like Miami. In some metros, these class-based clusters embrace large spans of territory. In others, the pattern is more fractured, fragmented, or tessellated.
The locations of the other two classes are structured and shaped by the locational prerogatives of the creative class. The service class either surrounds the creative class, being concentrated in areas of urban disadvantage, or pushed far off into the suburban fringe. There are strikingly few working class concentrations left in America’s major cities and metros.
The study identifies four key location factors that shape the class divided city and metropolis, each of which turns on the locational imperatives of the creative class:
- Urban Centers: The concentration of affluent creative class populations in and around central business districts and urban centers, especially in larger and more congested metro areas.
- Transit: The clustering of more affluent creative class populations around transit hubs, subway, cable car and rail lines.
- Knowledge Institutions: The clustering of the creative class around research universities and knowledge based institutions.
- Natural Amenities: The clustering of creative class populations around areas of natural amenity, especially coastlines and waterfront locations.
The map of the modern metropolis thus differs substantially from both the suburban-oriented pattern described by the Chicago School and the back-to-the-city one of the Great Inversion. Today’s class divided city and metropolis no longer conforms to the traditional urban-suburban divide. Instead, these class divisions form a patchwork of concentrated advantage and concentrated disadvantage that cuts across center city and suburb alike.
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