We recently ate lunch in an area that I dubbed a “Yuppie Trap,” located on the West side of the intersection of Strawberry Lane and Gallows Road in Fairfax, VA. The satellite image at that Google Maps link doesn’t really do it justice. While sitting in the restaurant, looking out the window and people watching, I had a gut feeling that something was different here, something distinguished this location from a typical suburb or urban development. My wife and I tried to tease out a more conscious explanation, so here goes.
The Yuppie Trap is an alien block of moderate to high density urban life set down in an otherwise low density sprawling suburb. It’s designed to pull young urban professionals out of the city by replicating a patch of the city in the suburbs. It’s a translation of Boomer-style suburban sprawl into the Millennial demographic. I’m generally a fan of urban concentration for the environmental, social, and technological benefits that come with it, but I have to admit I had some misgivings about this Trap.
To explain them, we came up with this notion of a continuum to represent the patterns of settlement and power that much of the US population lives within. On one side you find what could be called the traditional urban neighborhood, one where the residents, owners, and workers all tend to overlap. This is the neighborhood of the family owned bookstore or restaurant, or the small production shop. The capital tends to be local.
Past this you get the suburban sprawl model, where tracts of lower density housing are developed and more concentrated services (chains, big box stores, widely spread factories, etc.) are deployed for them, often in malls. This model decouples ownership from the residents and has a tendency to also decouple labor as well, with this latter tendency being highly dependent on the wages paid at local jobs vs. the average cost of living in the neighborhood. This model has flowed inwards to some city centers after having established itself on the periphery. But even in this model, the stores, services, factories, etc. tend to be positioned to take advantage of existing neighborhoods and communities.
The residents are still the demographic being served in the above types of development. They are still the anchor.
As this model is developed further, it eventually passes a threshold where the community being serviced by development is no longer the households and residents but instead becomes the businesses. The extreme case of such development is well documented and has historically been called a company town, where every business and every home is developed primarily in service to the needs of a company. The whole town is built to generate profits for the company.
We decided that the Yuppie Trap we observed is somewhere past the above-mentioned threshold but not quite out at company town status. The Trap had a variety of upper-middle end businesses: Boutique shops, gourmet restaurants, cafes, a movie theater, and even a few big anchor stores to round things out. But the apartments and condos were built to provide income for these stores. The business proposition was not to build stores and service an existing community. It was to build stores and import residents (and, more importantly, their incomes). This model fully decouples owners, residents, and workers while maintaining a “free market” atmosphere that company towns cannot. In an established urban setting, such a development would be called gentrification and would replace an existing community with a new one in the name of commercial profits. The alien feeling that I had was probably because I’d never seen “green field” gentrification before.
In this Yuppie Trap, the people are now the imported products that drive the profitability of a consumer goods and service complex.
PS: There is more complexity involved here. I’ve left out the incentives local and city governments have to generate tax revenue through this process and have also completely avoided discussing home builders and developers themselves in favor of concentrating on the businesses that come to be established within and near their developments. I’m not sure there’s much to explore on that which isn’t already widely known, but I’ll think on it for a while.