Is the Entire City of Boston ‘Gentrifying’?

America's cities are sorting themselves by education level.

Forget Southie: Is the entire city of Boston gentrifying?

An interesting piece in the Washington Post this week argues that America is seeing its highly educated population and its less educated populations segregate themselves not just by neighborhood but by entire city:

“It’s easy to recognize this phenomenon in San Francisco, or even Washington. College graduates have flooded in, drawn by both jobs and amenities,” the Post’s Emily Badger writes. “Yet more amenities have followed to cater to them (luring yet more college graduates). Housing costs have increased as a result, pushing low-wage and low-skilled workers out.”

As the wage gap between college grads and non-educated workers has widened, those that could afford a more expensive standard of living actually sought it out in expensive cities, making those places even more expensive and pushing out those with less income. On the macro-scale that’s an unsettling trend. But on the micro scale, individual cities probably want to ask themselves, “Who wins this game, and why?” The Post has some answers:

Between 1980 and 2000, cities that already had a lot of college graduates increasingly became magnets for more of them … A city like Boston historically had an advantage on this front, but its advantage has only grown stronger with time

Managing the shift away from well-paid manufacturing jobs to high-skilled industries is also important. And there, Boston also seems to be doing well:

Good-paying jobs that didn’t require a college degree have been vanishing. Cities like Boston, meanwhile, have shifted their labor demand away from such jobs and toward college grads who now work in industries like biotechnology or medicine. Detroit, once a mecca of a good manufacturing jobs, has had a harder time with that same transition.

That said, reasonable people disagree about which cities are winning and losing the grab for highly skilled workers from year to year. Writing for The Atlantic’s CityLab, urbanist Richard Florida also pointed out a “big talent sort” with “the highly educated and highly skilled going some places and the less educated and less skilled going to others.” His analysis of the net migration from 2011 to 2012, though, found that “Boston is one of the few places attracting and retaining more unskilled workers than skilled ones, a perhaps unexpected trend, given its reputation as a center of education and knowledge work.” But his analysis of what draws the highly skilled workers to a city is the same as the Post’s. They’re moving to wealthier areas with a lot of arts, culture, diversity, tolerance, venture capital, and high-tech industry.

All that suggests that it isn’t low rents that attract the highly educated workers Boston wants. It’s good jobs and good amenities. (You hear this a lot when people argue that we need more late night transit, or better happy hours, or more liquor licenses.) Boston knows it has an inbred advantage because so many college students come here in the first place. If the city wants to stay on the upper end of the “big sort,” they’d do well to keep striving for those college graduates.