Gosh, I feel so guilty. As suburban sprawl is the only valid lifestyle, and as I live in a place controlled by wealthy elitists and evil government bureaucrats, I should just commit Hari-Kari.
Not to deny that there is a lot of interesting stuff here-but still, is the only valid definition of a successful city is exurban Las Vegas? Heck, Reno's success is as a parasite on the Bay Area, its not really the focal point of any real creativity.
Plus: one of the problems of the Bay Area was extreme job growth during the e-boom. We are still not caught up from that.
Still: are the "elite" coastal cities doomed? Are art districts and gays horrible extravanges that distract from rapid construction of WalMarts and pink stucco Rancho Relaxos? Is the only worthwhile city Boise?
I am interested in the quite diverse opinions of the Throbbing Brain on this little screed, published in The Weekly Standard:
American Cities of Aspiration
From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue: . . . and the decline of Euro-America.
by Joel Kotkin
02/14/2005, Volume 010, Issue 21
FOR MUCH OF THE PAST decade, Darik Volpa labored long and hard in the high-tech vineyards of San Jose and Boston. As an executive in the medical instrument industry, he earned good money, but could not achieve a middle class lifestyle in those pricey locales.
When Volpa decided in 2003 to open his own company, Understand Surgery, he chose to do it in far-more-affordable Reno, Nevada. His reasons--embraced by scores of other fast-growing businesses--ranged from the unfriendly business climates in places like California to the high cost of houses in many prominent cities. The need for affordable housing was especially urgent, given Volpa's desire to start a family.
"The Bay Area is exciting and has a great talent pool, but we would have minimal prospects there," explains the 34-year-old Volpa, whose five-person firm specializes in providing animations of surgical procedures. "For us, the issue is where do you start now, and where does a young person want to work. Reno is very attractive for that."
Now Volpa is ensconced in a large three-bedroom house he could never afford in the Bay Area. His odyssey reflects something more profound. It speaks to a chasm in America, separating two competing economic regimes, one that embraces growth and new opportunity and another that increasingly seeks to preserve its privileges and coveted lifestyle.
What differentiates these two Americas is not so much politics, but perspective on the future. Cities of aspiration like Reno accommodate job growth and attract young families who hope that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. They offer an environment that most of our forebears--wherever they might be from--would recognize as distinctly American. In the places people are leaving, what might be called Euro-America, the focus is on preserving older urban forms, cultivating refinement, and following continental norms in attitude, politics, and lifestyle.
Right now the demographic, economic, and political momentum belongs to the aspirational cities, places like Reno, Boise, Orlando, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City. They attract the most new migrants from other parts of the country, and an increasing number of immigrants from abroad. They have experienced some of the nation's sharpest increases in their numbers of new families.
Over the next quarter century, these areas are also projected to experience the nation's largest increases in the construction of new homes and industrial and commercial buildings. Equally important, much of the new growth they are enjoying is in those businesses--software development, medical manufacturing, high-end business services, to name a few--that increasingly define America's economic power. Meanwhile these same industries are a declining presence in such cities as Boston, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley.
Take an area like Lee and Collier counties in southwest Florida, among the nation's fastest-growing regions. Internet, software, and business service firms have found the lower-cost housing, more permissive business climate, and consistently warm temperature hard to resist. Financial and business services, information technology, and even manufacturing are all growing in this vast, and still largely affordable, corner of the country.
"We found we could expand our business and get as good or better people than we can get anywhere else," explains Rick Szatkowski, senior vice president at FindWhat, an Internet marketing company that relocated its 60-person headquarters from Silicon Alley in 2001 to Ft. Myers. "We have been able to grow and expand here in a way that would have been impossible in New York, where people can't afford to live and smaller businesses have a hard time operating."
The in-migration of educated people may prove the most important sign of the future vitality of aspirational cities. Boston may still be "the Athens" of America, but since the mid-1990s it and other Euro-American centers have been losing educated workers, particularly those over 30. Boston is one of the very few places that is now graduating fewer BAs than in the past decade. In contrast, the ranks of college graduates are mushrooming in aspirational cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, Las Vegas, and, most dramatically, the fast-growth regions of Florida, notably the region along the Gulf Coast.
EURO-AMERICA has always existed in pockets, most particularly among the East Coast's intellectual, cultural, and social elites. The strain can be traced from the old Tory opposition to the Revolution to the Hartford Convention, which considered New England's secession during the War of 1812. It found expression again in the Victorian sensibility of Henry James and, after World War I, among those disgruntled Bohemians who embraced Paris and the continent as culturally superior to their native country.
Today the embrace of European values and perspectives also reflects profound economic and social similarities between Euro-America and the continent. Like many of their European counterparts, many, if not most, major American urban centers are at best demographically stagnant or even losing population, which is also the case in Paris, Milan, Rome, and Amsterdam. Indeed, since 2000 San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Philadelphia have all lost population, while growth rates have dropped precipitously in many other cities.
Another similarity can be seen in economic performance. As the European Central Bank recently observed, the E.U.'s potential rate of GDP growth may be little more than 2 percent, half that of the United States. Much the same may now be true of Euro-America. San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and many other American cities have been losing jobs since 2000; New York has fewer private-sector positions today than it did in 1969.
Yet neither Europe, nor its American simulacra, should be dismissed. Resting on the great accomplishments of generations past, they enjoy a near monopoly in major media and top universities, and still direct those powerful economic functions, notably financial and professional services, that siphon off much of the cream from the global economic crop. This has allowed them to maintain large concentrations of wealth even as they fail to create opportunities for their working and middle classes.
These pools of wealth, combined with difficult regulatory environments for home-building, have pushed the price of real estate in these areas to near catastrophic levels. In the Bay Area, for example, it now takes an income of over $125,000 to own a home; barely one in ten households could now afford to buy in the area.
On the other hand, high housing prices have made those that were lucky enough to purchase homes in the 1980s and 1990s, notably baby boomers, wealthier than their counterparts elsewhere. In places where the median home price approaches the high six figures or even a million dollars, whether in London or Boston, the affluent, professional middle class has now been turned, on paper, into a kind of landed gentry.
These conditions have allowed the Euro-American cities to weather the post-2000 downturn in remarkable style. San Francisco, among the most consistently leftist of American cities, also boasts the highest percentage of income stemming from dividends, rent, and interest. Like Paris and London, many Euro-American cities have become favored places for wealthy nomads from abroad and around the country; as many as 80 percent of the occupants in some new Manhattan luxury high-rises, according to industry sources, are people who aren't city residents, many of them from Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
In such cities, rentier liberals keep the trendy shops and restaurants lively while providing patronage to the arts and culture. The very low birth rates in both Europe and Euro-America exacerbate this "wealth effect." Seattle today has roughly the same population it did in 1960, but barely half as many children. Childlessness, in the short term, often translates into higher per-capita wealth, since it means parents don't have to share their goodies with any troublesome little tykes.
These factors explain the relative lack of concern about slow or negative job growth in Euro-America. Perhaps nowhere is this disconnect more evident than in Massachusetts. The property-owning elites in the Bay State have, by some measures, never had it so good, even though their state is hemorrhaging younger people and suffers from one of the worst rates of job growth in the nation. The only state to lose population in 2003, "the granny state," as one commentator called it, Massachusetts has become a graveyard of middle class aspirations but a favored playground for well-heeled Euro-American elites.
"The sad fact is that there is little room for upward mobility here," suggests Doug Fisher, director of development for Northeast Utilities, a Hartford-based utility which covers much of western Massachusetts. The state, Fisher adds, "is becoming an economic development cul-de-sac and a lot of people like that."
Economic development experts like Fisher are particularly alarmed by how Massachusetts and other Euro-American strongholds are responding to the increased competition from abroad and the American hinterland. Rather than streamline their municipal welfare states, they increasingly embrace such socially "progressive" policies as "living wage" ordinances and "inclusionary zoning"--regulations that force developers to build low-cost housing. Unwilling to challenge powerful teachers' unions, they have all but given up on improving education for middle class families and instead pitch themselves to the "creative class" cultural elites, singles and gays.
The divisive 2004 election further exacerbated the political, social, and economic estrangement of these cities from American norms. In the past, cities may have voted heavily Democratic but their residents remained, to a large part, culturally attached to their less urbanized countrymen. No more.
In the wake of John Kerry's loss to George Bush, a widely circulated editorial entitled "It's the Cities, Stupid" in The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, called on Democrats to adopt a politics that excludes countryside, suburban, and exurban constituencies. Democrats "are the party of urban America," the paper proclaimed, suggesting a political approach catering to city-dwellers at the expense of those living in "the soulless sprawling suburbs" and in rural America.
The highly urbanized Kerry voters, we were told, represented "the real Americans" who reject "heartland 'values' like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia." The suburbanites and small-town denizens came from places where "people are fatter and dumber and slower." "Let them have the ****holes, the Oklahomas, Wyomings, and Alabamas," the Seattle paper raged. "We'll take Manhattan."
Urban sophisticates' longstanding disdain toward the suburbs and sunbelt cities is developing into an aggressive hostility. Author James Howard Kunstler now wows Euro-American audiences with dire predictions of an energy-driven apocalypse that will leave the sprawling aspirational cities and their suburban hinterlands in ruins. Kunstler, for one, is so thrilled with the prospect that he says it's time "to let the gloating begin."
Given their contempt for much of the country, it is not surprising that Euro-Americans seek inspiration from abroad. For many, European cities, with three times the density of their American counterparts, are to be hailed as role models. New urbanists like Roberta Brandes Gratz look across the Atlantic and see our urban future. Americans, she concludes, "want what Czechs have," that is, highly concentrated, expensive cities of apartment-renters like picturesque Prague.
On an arguably more serious note, some Democratic theorists also advocate adopting European-style economic and social policy. Back in the 1980s, Robert Reich, for example, suggested the United States adopt the kind of "industrial policy" then de rigueur in Germany and France. Recently, other leftist writers--from the American Prospect's Harold Meyerson to environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin and Euro-enthusiast T.R. Reid--have embraced European approaches to Kyoto, land use, immigration, and technology.
To the denizens of Euro-America, John Kerry's obsession with "global tests" and appealing to the E.U. were not misplaced or ill-conceived. The American dream, Rifkin tells us, is failing, economically, culturally, and politically. "We need Europe," Meyerson writes in the American Prospect, "to save us from ourselves."
CONSERVATIVES AND REPUBLICANS have reasons to celebrate the conflict between a slowly declining Euro-America and the cities of aspiration. Yet the future may not be so easy to predict. Success, defined as increased jobs and population, has a way of turning cities of aspiration toward a more European worldview.
This has already occurred in places like Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, where public employees have made common cause with wealthy environmentalists, resulting in a kind of one-party, status-quo politics. Over time, this phenomenon could spread to today's aspirational cities. As places like even Phoenix, Houston, and Reno grow, become congested, and attract refugees from Euro-America, a powerful lobby against economic expansion will start to develop.
These issues tend to gain currency as traffic jams worsen, schools get overcrowded, and the countryside recedes. And while conservatives offer bromides about the free market, open space grows more scarce, and infrastructure, including schools and roads, is neglected. This failure opens the door to liberals and Democrats, even in states such as Nevada, Arizona, and Florida.
Fortunately for conservatives, most modern-day Democrats have failed to develop a language that appeals to those living in aspirational cities. Many of them bring with them the worst prejudices of Euro-America. A powerful cabal of downtown landowners, new urbanists, and editorial enthusiasts at the Arizona Republic are urging Phoenix residents to expend hundreds of millions in public funds to develop a "hip and cool" downtown. The argument--contrary to the region's robust demographics--is that "smart" people won't move to a city without its own mini-SoHo.
Another attempt can be seen in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where new-urbanist and creative-class enthusiasts have taken over city hall. Some planners have considered urging the city to ban houses with backyards while making plans to subsidize yuppie apartments near the city's small downtown. All this at a time when many jobs and upwardly mobile people have been migrating beyond the city limits to sprawling places like neighboring Rio Rancho.
Much the same effort can be seen in places as diverse as Tampa, Sacramento, and Oklahoma City, where local business leaders have decided that, to compete in the future, they must emulate the nation's weakest job-creating regions. Some are bringing in "experts" from troubled cities such as Portland to direct their future development. Like an attractive young woman trying on grandma's '60s hippy dress, these dynamic areas wish to adorn themselves in ill-fitting hand-me-down patterns from the past.
Euro-American politics do not work in aspirational cities. Where and when such policies do become influential, companies, entrepreneurs, and individuals will seek their future elsewhere, in places where they don't have to subsidize fancy nightclubs, art galleries, gay bars, and yuppie lofts, or pay the freight for inefficient public-sector bureaucracies. If the contagion takes over Phoenix, these restless Americans will move further out, into the unregulated exurbs or deeper into the hinterland, to Boise, the Salt Lake Valley, or beyond.
The American future belongs to those places where people can most fully engage in their private pursuit of happiness. The party--and the politicians--that can appeal to these voters, wherever they are, will be the one likely to win political power.
"People I talk to and want to recruit seem more than willing to come here," notes Reno entrepreneur Darik Volpa. "It's a different feel here. It's more friendly, people open doors. In the Bay Area or Boston, it's get in line. Here it's still open to new people and new ideas."
Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow with the New America Foundation. He is the author of The City: A Global History, to be published by Modern Library in April.