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Thread: Kotkin redux

  1. #1

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    Kotkin redux

    Can't resist calling attention to friend Joel Kotkin's recent anti-city piece in the Wash Post:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...072202248.html

    See also some of the useful commentary that the article elicited (such as the point that a closed city isn't a city at all, at least not one worth living in):

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...072201038.html

    For those who don't care to register at the WP, the following excerpt captures most of his main points:

    "While modern cities are a long way from extinction, it's only by acknowledging the primacy of security -- and addressing it in the most aggressive manner -- that they will be able to survive and thrive in this new century, in which they already face the challenge of a telecommunications revolution that is undermining their traditional monopoly on information and culture, and draining their populations.

    "As businesses and industries escape the urban core to operate in small towns and even the countryside, demographic surveys show that the population is going with them. After a brief, welcome surge in inner-city populations in the late 1990s, most older American cities have lost more people than they gained since 2000. Families, retirees and immigrants, all the key sources of new population growth, are largely deserting the urban core. This is true not only for perennial loserssuch as Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Detroit, but also places that enjoyed a brief resurgence in the last decade, like San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago."


    The London subway bombings give him the opportunity to proclaim, yet again, the imminent end of cities. I can't see how saying the obvious over and over again is worthy of publication (i.e. Boston is unaffordable and unattractive to families, Baltimore isn't what it used to be, Detroit is a basket case). But what I find most striking is that his answer to the new threat to cities, that of terrorism, is the security state. No consideration at all of how sprawl just might be, in effect, fueling terrorism by increasing our dependence on Saudi oil, or any mention of how a changed foreign policy just might have the effect not only of mitigating the terrorist threat but also perhaps might help revive our cities. Instead, more about how the cities have, seemingly of their own initiative, simply failed.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    His doom and gloom vision for cities strikes me as off chord simply because of the certainty with which he repeats himself. If anything, it strikes me that the need for security will result in a larger need for cities... secure compounds. The serfs will assemble around their lords, while the countryside will be relative chaos (as it has most often been throughout history). The people may flee now but they will return one day - those that are able or so inclined. Joel Kotkin annoys me.

    Do not place your trust in Kotkin. Place your trust in regression to the mean.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    hmmmm

    While this gentleman obviously has a rather large ideoligcal ax to grind, I wouldn't dismiss his base arguments out of hand.

    Security (mostly from ordianry crime, rather than terrorism) is one of the key issues. When you wrap that into its broader social history context, the deposition of the upper middle class from its leadership of the community the effect is devastating. 'Urban hipsters' and other wannabes like myself and most of the posters on this site may think that weird and wonderful 'authentic' (gritty, dangerous, diverse) downtowns are the bee's kness but most people will stay away.

    His point about telecoms/air travel also reducing the need for physical intellectual agglomeration is undeniable, if overstated. Cities may resist 9a few very itneresting ones) as playgrounds to the childless hipperati and a few adventurous, wealthy empty nesters. But then the 'lifestyle centers' can compete with taht at the low end of the scale.

    If you love/need cities as much as I do, rather than poke fun at this chicken little character, do what you can to support a robust civil society in your city...and that doesn't mean lots of touchy-feely neighborhood talking shops; it means effective ('tough') policing, clean streets and people knowing their realistic place in the scheme of things.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  4. #4
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    I wrote a response to this in my blog last night, but it's got some horrible structural errors in it that I can't fix until tonight.

    http://hafd.org/~jordanb/pyblosxom.p...7-25-2005.html

  5. #5
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    I cleaned it up:

    Securing the Pundit's Pulpit

    Move over David Brooks, there’s a new kid in town, and he appears to be so good at conveniently missing the point as to make the bobo author look like an amateur. I am, of course, talking about Joel Kotkin, who manages to do something our favorite conservative could never quite pull off: repeat himself in a novel way every article. He does this, simply enough, by glancing at the front page—thereby discovering the newest piece of evidence that New York is dead and the future lies in Phoenix (after his artful interpretation, of course). It should therefore come as no surprise that the London attacks spell, according to Mr Kotkin’s percipient pen, the end to everything that doesn’t involve an attached garage.

    Why? Well of course! Automobiles are, like airplanes, terrorism proof while trains are, as London and Madrid have demonstrated, not. Of course people will flee any city that can’t protect them from invaders so New York and London are as good as dead. That’s the thesis of his article, at any rate. And that is where Kotkin really shows himself to be a true master of the editorial page. His point here is both mind-numbingly obvious and terribly wrong at the same time.

    Fresh off of writing a 256 page global history of the city, Kotkin now feels expert enough to bring history in to make his point. Now let’s take a step back for a moment. I have on good authority that Kotkin’s book is mostly a summary of Lewis Mumford’s 720 page The City in History, minus the condemnation of suburbia at the end (Mumford calls the suburbanite a member of “the lonely crowd”.) I’ve read Mumford’s tome, and it’s a very good book. But I’ve not read Kotkin’s retread—nor do I intend to—but if the history is nearly as selective and inaccurate as the history in the above referenced Washington Post article, it would appear that Mr. Kotkin should have followed Mumford much more closely.

    It is true that Rome declined after the fall of the Roman empire, for instance. And it is true that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire was marked by a de-urbanization of Europe. What doesn’t hold is that people left the cities out of fear. After all, that was before the time of airliners and dirty bombs so what better protection was there than the city wall? The truth is that Europe de-urbanized because the city-based portions of the economy shrank. Most people became sustenance farmers and there simply wasn’t the economic need for markets enough to channel goods through an Empire any longer.

    Mr. Kotkin also mentions South America. It would so happen that I have studied Peruvian civilization (at least) and can say that his assessment doesn’t add up. He claims that most pre-Inka civilizations in Peru fell due to invasion. Not quite. Yes, there are a few civilizations that we know fell for that reason, mainly the ones invaded by the Inka (Chimú, for instance). But for civilizations like Chavín, Nasca, Moche, and Tiwanaku, archaeologists tend to favor environmental explanations (in particular, especially bad El Niño weather inversions.) It is now believed that the cause of the downfall of the Maya was hardly invasion but rather, deforestation of the rainforest caused by their mass-producing plaster to build their terraces and walls.

    And good for the Chimú, as they made out a lot better than the Moche or the Maya. Weather or an abused environment are much harsher mistresses than a foreign invader. The Inka left the Chimú kingships intact as local governors, and the Spanish chose the Inka capital city of Cuzco as the seat of their imperial government. Kotkin mentions the Aztecs and fails to note that their capital city, Mexico City, is now the capital of Mexico and the largest city in North America—some say the world.

    Sometimes invaders do try to destroy a city. In 146 BC, Carthage was defeated by Rome, its population massacred, its buildings burned to the ground, its harbor destroyed and, reportedly, its fields salted. Yet Carthage rebuilt, and within a few hundred years it was second only to Constantinople in the western Roman Empire.

    The point is that security is rarely an impetus for the city. Cities exist for other reasons. They exist to provide markets, to be seats of government, to facilitate that free-flowing, unplanned, and unrestricted human interaction that is necessary to maintain great civilization. In return, cities have been ravaged by war, or disease, or disinvestment, or by the forces of nature, but it is only the last of those that can truly destroy a great city.

    Now in the 1950s, the US government feared WWII-style strategic-bombing raids on American cities. They advocated dispersal. The interstate highway system was built to allow rapid evacuation and to open the suburbs to development. Then thermonuclear weapons were invented and it became a futile gesture. But we did succeed in dispersing, and in doing so became the most wasteful energy users on the planet. Is it any wonder that the Arab world—the very place that breeds the terrorists—also produces the oil that makes supposedly “safe” cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles possible? Moreover, what of the environment? We are set to become, not the next Chimú, not the next Carthage, but rather, the next Maya. So I have to ask, is the plaster really worth it?

  6. #6
    Member japrovo's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    I cleaned it up:

    Securing the Pundit's Pulpit

    Move over David Brooks, there’s a new kid in town, and he appears to be so good at conveniently missing the point as to make the bobo author look like an amateur. I am, of course, talking about Joel Kotkin, who manages to do something our favorite conservative could never quite pull off: repeat himself in a novel way every article. He does this, simply enough, by glancing at the front page—thereby discovering the newest piece of evidence that New York is dead and the future lies in Phoenix (after his artful interpretation, of course). It should therefore come as no surprise that the London attacks spell, according to Mr Kotkin’s percipient pen, the end to everything that doesn’t involve an attached garage.

    Why? Well of course! Automobiles are, like airplanes, terrorism proof while trains are, as London and Madrid have demonstrated, not. Of course people will flee any city that can’t protect them from invaders so New York and London are as good as dead. That’s the thesis of his article, at any rate. And that is where Kotkin really shows himself to be a true master of the editorial page. His point here is both mind-numbingly obvious and terribly wrong at the same time.

    Fresh off of writing a 256 page global history of the city, Kotkin now feels expert enough to bring history in to make his point. Now let’s take a step back for a moment. I have on good authority that Kotkin’s book is mostly a summary of Lewis Mumford’s 720 page The City in History, minus the condemnation of suburbia at the end (Mumford calls the suburbanite a member of “the lonely crowd”.) I’ve read Mumford’s tome, and it’s a very good book. But I’ve not read Kotkin’s retread—nor do I intend to—but if the history is nearly as selective and inaccurate as the history in the above referenced Washington Post article, it would appear that Mr. Kotkin should have followed Mumford much more closely.

    It is true that Rome declined after the fall of the Roman empire, for instance. And it is true that the period following the fall of the Roman Empire was marked by a de-urbanization of Europe. What doesn’t hold is that people left the cities out of fear. After all, that was before the time of airliners and dirty bombs so what better protection was there than the city wall? The truth is that Europe de-urbanized because the city-based portions of the economy shrank. Most people became sustenance farmers and there simply wasn’t the economic need for markets enough to channel goods through an Empire any longer.

    Mr. Kotkin also mentions South America. It would so happen that I have studied Peruvian civilization (at least) and can say that his assessment doesn’t add up. He claims that most pre-Inka civilizations in Peru fell due to invasion. Not quite. Yes, there are a few civilizations that we know fell for that reason, mainly the ones invaded by the Inka (Chimú, for instance). But for civilizations like Chavín, Nasca, Moche, and Tiwanaku, archaeologists tend to favor environmental explanations (in particular, especially bad El Niño weather inversions.) It is now believed that the cause of the downfall of the Maya was hardly invasion but rather, deforestation of the rainforest caused by their mass-producing plaster to build their terraces and walls.

    And good for the Chimú, as they made out a lot better than the Moche or the Maya. Weather or an abused environment are much harsher mistresses than a foreign invader. The Inka left the Chimú kingships intact as local governors, and the Spanish chose the Inka capital city of Cuzco as the seat of their imperial government. Kotkin mentions the Aztecs and fails to note that their capital city, Mexico City, is now the capital of Mexico and the largest city in North America—some say the world.

    Sometimes invaders do try to destroy a city. In 146 BC, Carthage was defeated by Rome, its population massacred, its buildings burned to the ground, its harbor destroyed and, reportedly, its fields salted. Yet Carthage rebuilt, and within a few hundred years it was second only to Constantinople in the western Roman Empire.

    The point is that security is rarely an impetus for the city. Cities exist for other reasons. They exist to provide markets, to be seats of government, to facilitate that free-flowing, unplanned, and unrestricted human interaction that is necessary to maintain great civilization. In return, cities have been ravaged by war, or disease, or disinvestment, or by the forces of nature, but it is only the last of those that can truly destroy a great city.

    Now in the 1950s, the US government feared WWII-style strategic-bombing raids on American cities. They advocated dispersal. The interstate highway system was built to allow rapid evacuation and to open the suburbs to development. Then thermonuclear weapons were invented and it became a futile gesture. But we did succeed in dispersing, and in doing so became the most wasteful energy users on the planet. Is it any wonder that the Arab world—the very place that breeds the terrorists—also produces the oil that makes supposedly “safe” cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles possible? Moreover, what of the environment? We are set to become, not the next Chimú, not the next Carthage, but rather, the next Maya. So I have to ask, is the plaster really worth it?

    Bravo! I wonder if we all just ignored people like Kotkin (or David Brooks for that matter!) he would just go away.

  7. #7
    Member japrovo's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jordanb
    I cleaned it up:

    Securing the Pundit's Pulpit

    Bravo jordanb! But I wonder if we all just ignored people like Kotkin he would just go away. Of course ther's always someone looking to fill column inches somewhere so chances are we're stuck with him.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    jordan b, your comments are very well written and I agree a little that Kotkin overly simplifies his points (missing them often).

    I have heard him speak live and am not sure why he is gaining popularity is some corners. Yes he is definitely conservative. But he ended his speech with the typical planner speak we have heard a million times...

    "we need to buld communities with a sense of place" yada yada

    But since we are calling to ignore other dubious pundits let's throw in the lunatic from Saratoga

  9. #9

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    Quote Originally posted by gkmo62u
    jordan b, your comments are very well written and I agree a little that Kotkin overly simplifies his points (missing them often).

    I have heard him speak live and am not sure why he is gaining popularity is some corners. Yes he is definitely conservative. But he ended his speech with the typical planner speak we have heard a million times...

    "we need to buld communities with a sense of place" yada yada

    But since we are calling to ignore other dubious pundits let's throw in the lunatic from Saratoga
    Hey! the Lunatic is much calmer this week as he went for a bikey ride in the pretty countryside.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    Nice job, Jordan! Also enjoyed the massive collection of Chicago pics on your blog. You've put a lot of work into it. Great how its organized by 'hood.

    I wonder if pundits like Kotkin are more motivated to produce a viewpoint that is contrary to whatever they think liberalism is trying to promote rather than a thoughtful, holistic analysis of the situation. It has the effect of an EG troll. Its purposely designed to piss people off.
    Adrift in a sea of beige

  11. #11

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    Well Stated!

    Jordan -

    Splendid and well reasoned rebuttal work on your part here; it's good to see Kotkin's excesses challenged in such a diligent manner.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Rant on/Why does the New York Times- of all newspapers- have such meathead Urban Affairs correspondents? Aside from Barnum and Bailey, err Brooks and Kotkin, wasn't there also a pretty flawed piece recently about some New Jersey suburban town epitomized the supposed emerging urbanity of the burbs?

    I think overall that the major media outlets in this country have no idea how to report on urban issues and are always given to hyperbole and ridiculous "trend" puff-pieces. it just seems that there are so many clowns on both sides of the political spectrum- from Kunstler to Kotkin.- that just spew bullshit. Makes me want to reconsider a career in journalism just so I can set the record straight. Well done Jordan, you ought to write a letter to the Times. Rant off/

  13. #13

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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller

    I think overall that the major media outlets in this country have no idea how to report on urban issues and are always given to hyperbole and ridiculous "trend" puff-pieces. it just seems that there are so many clowns on both sides of the political spectrum- from Kunstler to Kotkin.- that just spew bullshit. Makes me want to reconsider a career in journalism just so I can set the record straight. Well done Jordan, you ought to write a letter to the Times. Rant off/
    Well, you can always read about how some member of the trust fund class has just purchased the oh so chic apartment in Paris.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    Well, you can always read about how some member of the trust fund class has just purchased the oh so chic apartment in Paris.
    Yeah, and all the articles in the real estate section gushing over the Back Bay, Georgetown, and Soho. It's like porn for the lefty yuppies.

  15. #15

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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller
    Yeah, and all the articles in the real estate section gushing over the Back Bay, Georgetown, and Soho. It's like porn for the lefty yuppies.
    Well yesterday's feature was how affluent professionals benefitting from the pure speculative frenzy in Manhattan were SHOCKED, just shocked that the posher digs they expected to snap up with their equity lottery winnings had also experienced (steeper) price increases. the poor babies.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian AubieTurtle's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by gkmo62u
    But since we are calling to ignore other dubious pundits let's throw in the lunatic from Saratoga
    I was really surprised when I saw him in "The End of Suburbia". From his writings I expected to see him shouting and the veins in his neck popping out, but he spoke like a quite reasonable person. Maybe since it was made by Canadians they forced him to be polite.

    As far as cities being terrorist targets, one only needs to look at how our troops are dying in Iraq from roadside bombs to see the argument is dubious. A couple of them placed on the side of a busy suburban to city road like GA400 during rush hour would instantly terrorize the masses. They might not kill as many people but I bet the fear would be even greater since most people have no choice but to use those roads to go to work, get to the store, etc. And there are too many miles of them to police against this type of attack.
    As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. - H.L. Mencken

  17. #17
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    ^-- Not to mention the fact that it's not at all difficult to find places in the suburbs where you could kill around 80 people, like in the london subway. Say, any suburban mall. What would happen if they bombed the bay bridge toll plaza outside of San Francisco during Rush Hour? What would the economic impact be if they dirty-bombed the Springfield Interchange outside of DC? The fallacy that cars and sprawl are terrorism-proof is a point I only touched on in my response, but probably one that could be expounded upon.

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