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JONATHAN L. WHARTON

Suddenly the suburbs are popular in Connecticut. But they have been for generations of Nutmeggers.

It’s largely outsiders (especially New Yorkers) relocating during a pandemic that has led to a suburban resurgence – and likely a temporary one. Our state has been a destination for that textbook suburban lifestyle where largely middle class and white Americans settle down after leaving large cities like New York.

With this sudden interest, though, our state’s former industrial-centered small towns and struggling cities – with their ongoing political, economic, and social problems – also need attention.

For more than a generation, most Americans (particularly Millennials) lived and have been drawn to “mega” or large cities. In fact, Richard Florida and other urban specialists argue that the allure of mega cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles has been significant because they offer many Millennials and empty-nesting Baby Boomers multimodal (public transit, car sharing, walking, and cycling) options. These mega cities also have mixed-use development projects where newly constructed housing and commercial spaces are plentiful.

At the same time, many corporations left suburban office parks for these mega cities. Remember when Bristol Myer-Squibb and General Electric left Connecticut for the Boston area?)

This partially explains many people’s disinterest in living and working in suburbs, particularly since Connecticut does not have a mega city of its own. We are an overwhelmingly suburban state, especially along our shoreline. We lost out on this migration wave as many with disposable incomes and high-paying white-collar jobs headed to big cities. Connecticut was, and arguably remains, an unfriendly business climate.

It was only last year that there were angry social media comments and letters to the editor about people leaving Connecticut because of our anemic economy, high cost of living, and costly taxes. After all, according to the Wall Street Journal, “no state fared worse” at rebuilding itself after the Great Recession. Our Gross Domestic Product rate never rebounded from the last recession (we lost $12 billion, more than any other state) and our population decline has been significant. Plus, many of our cities hardly recovered from the recession of the early 1990s.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, thousands of New Yorkers (nearly double the number from last year) are looking to live in suburbs, where they can get more space as they work remotely. It’s no secret that various parts of our state have access to New York City, and we are not far from Boston. And Connecticut has some picturesque suburbs, if one can afford to live in them. No surprise then that brokers are faced with more rental demands and real estate agents are seeing more bidding wars. House sales under contract are 30% higher than this time last year. And some state officials are hoping for a 5% increase in the labor force for a tax revenue increase.

But will this latest surge help address our economic and budgetary problems?

Some say Connecticut will continue to underperform for several years as we try to get out of our long-running economic slump. As an economic development specialist, I believe this period will be short-lived and could increase economic stratification.

We cannot forget that Connecticut is not just suburban, but also urban and rural. Many of these locales have stubbornly high unemployment rates and they have experienced significant deindustrialization. One only needs to go to Naugatuck valley towns and cities like Waterbury and Bridgeport to see what they have faced for decades.

If there is going to be a sudden interest in Connecticut because of its suburbs, there has to be a focus on our former industrial small towns and urban municipalities as well. They should not be overlooked by newly arriving residents, nor ignored by our elected officials.

Rusting manufacturing centers remain in many of our smaller towns and few Connecticut cities have experienced an urban resurgence in decades. Stamford remains an anomaly because of its location and corporate base, and New Haven is unusual because of its “meds and eds” collegiate and hospital institutions. But there must be a focus on Connecticut’s small towns and urban areas, especially since many of our suburbs are significantly wealthier and will be increasingly so with newly arriving New Yorkers.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent guest on WNPR’s Wheelhouse radio show.

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