“The New Urban Blight Is Rich People”

Here is a popular magazine treatment of the debate between New Urbanism and Richard Florida against opponents and Joel Kotkin:

Many cities, in consequence, have become “Floridian,” with “loft districts” rising from industrial ashes in Cleveland and Raleigh, hipster enclaves in Chattanooga, a gayborhood in Philadelphia, reclaimed waterfronts in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Much of this work preceded Florida—but there was socialism before Lenin, too. Florida gave the New Urbanists the vision they wanted of themselves, as saviors of the American city emptied by suburban sprawl, champions of creativity and ingenuity who were going to make Indianapolis the Paris of the 22nd century.

But any intellectual movement must encounter a backlash, and the one to the New Urbanism is only growing, in part because it’s now mature enough for us to see its effects. On the face of it, the New Urbanism is very pretty: Court Street in Brooklyn looks splendid, as does San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The aforementioned travel section of The New York Times has a column, called “Surfacing,” that frequently resorts to profiling some forlorn, blighted neighborhood suddenly graced by taxidermy shops that double as yoga studios. I am, as a matter of fact, writing this from a Whole Foods in West Berkeley, California, a formerly industrial district that was recently “Surfaced” in the Times. The coffee I am drinking was roasted about 20 feet away from my Apple laptop. How’s that for local?

Problem is, surfacing is usually whitening: Gentrification by any other name would taste as hoppy, with the same notes of citrus peel. There is really only one strike against the New Urbanism, but it’s a strike thrown by Nolan Ryan: It turns cities into playgrounds for moneyed, childless whites while pushing out the poor, the working-class, immigrants, seniors and anyone else not plugged into “the knowledge economy.” Right around the time that Michael Bloomberg was remaking Manhattan as a hive for stateless billionaires, I saw a slogan that captured perfectly the new glimmer of the city: “New York: If you can make it here, you probably have a trust fund.”

You could accuse me of writing a faux-populist diatribe, but the numbers are on my side this time around. Jed Kolko, a Harvard-trained economist who was, until recently, the chief of analytics for Trulia, has found that from 2000 to 2014, more Americans moved out of urban centers than into them. Using data from the U.S. Census, he concluded, in a recent post on his blog: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.” The people who continue to move to cities, he concludes, are “increasingly young, rich, childless, and white.” These are the creatives, the hipsters, the pioneers, who fled the countryside for the big city, where cultures would clash and ideas foment. But all they did is turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into Minnetonka.

So what? I posed this question to Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and demographer based in that decidedly suburban setting of Orange County, California. Author of the forthcoming The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin defends the suburbs, which is nearly as radical as an evolutionary biologist defending creationism. Kotkin argues that suburbs are where middle-class families want to live, and middle-class families are, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, “the bedrock of the Republic.” A city hostile to the middle class is, in Kotkin’s view, a sea hostile to fish.

What is the answer to this debate, which like many others, have become politicized (Republican visions of small towns and suburbs and Democratic visions of thriving cities)? Could both sides have some merit to their arguments – New Urbanists regarding aesthetics and community life and Kotkin et al. with American’s continued interest in suburbia? One possible solution is to introduce more New Urbanist developments and communities in suburbs. This would allow people to have their suburban life but at higher densities and with planning that might encourage more street life.

At the same time, neither New Urbanists or Kotkin really address issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. Both do so indirectly, suggesting that their models offer better options for non-whites. But, what if the larger issue was really residential segregation, which can occur in New Urbanist communities as well as in suburbs?

Additionally, I cannot imagine too many city or suburban leaders would turn down or discourage wealthy residents moving to their community.

Older workers left behind when companies move back to the city?

As some companies choose to return to the big city, are older workers left behind?

After decades of big businesses leaving the city for the suburbs, U.S. firms have begun a new era of corporate urbanism. Nearly 200 Fortune 500 companies are currently headquartered in the top 50 cities. Many others are staying put in the suburbs but opening high-profile satellite offices in nearby cities, sometimes aided by tax breaks and a recession that tempered downtown rents. And upstart companies are following suit, according to urban planners. The bottom line: companies are under pressure to establish an urban presence that projects an image of dynamism and innovation…

For longtime employees, however, corporate moves to the city mean longer commutes and disrupted schedules and family life. And the corporate quest for youth and innovation can leave some workers feeling slightly unwelcome.

“We joked about the older suburbanites being excluded from the new [business] model,” said Jon Scherf, age 42, a marketing professional who left Hillshire shortly before its December 2012 move to downtown Chicago. “They would’ve been happy to have me but they’re also happy to bring in new blood.”…

For longtime employees, it has been a more complicated switch. Melissa Napier, treasurer and senior VP of investor relations at Hillshire, bought a house in Downers Grove in 2007 and lives there with her husband and two sons. While she now attends more social and networking events downtown, her commute, once a 10-minute drive, now gets her home at 7:30, an hour later than before…

But the employers that sought them out in the city are unlikely to follow them back to the suburbs, said Mr. Phillips of the Urban Land Institute.

Now that I think about it, I don’t remember Richard Florida, known for analyzing the young creative class that wants urban amenities, discussing the possible impact on older workers. I suppose the argument could be made that attracting young workers, wherever they might work, would help raise all boats. But, as long as the perception continues that suburbs are better places for raising families due to their schools and safer spaces, this divide between younger/urban workers and older/suburban workers may continue.

Is a bohemian lifestyle still possible in New York City?

Given the high cost of living and the other changes in society, can residents live as bohemians in New York City?

Is it still possible to be a bohemian in today’s New York City, where average rents now surpass $3,000 a month? Or are the rents just too damn high? And — if they are — what does this mean for the future of artists and intellectuals of the sort who have long been as much a part of the natural order of the city as pigeons and locust trees?

These are some of the questions provoked by an article in the Spring issue of N+1 magazine on “Cultural Revolution” signed by “The Editors.” There’s far too much Trotsky in the piece for my taste, but it does raise some interesting points about the arts and the way we think about social class. The piece is the latest item in a long New York tradition of articles describing the status anxiety and actual difficulties of people with top-shelf educations who are among the minority of their college classmates to take on risky individual creative ventures that are not particularly remunerative…

I’m not saying any of this is good, only that it is hardly new. This great New York Times piece on Gabby Hoffman growing up in the Chelsea Hotel illustrates perfectly the great class disruption of life in bohemia, where high culture meets low incomes.

Of her childhood, Hoffmann says now: “We lived in a classless society. We’d spend a summer at Gore Vidal’s house in Italy, but we were on and off welfare” when she was a baby.

Or read Patti Smith’s Just Kids. God was she poor when she came to the city. “New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling,” Smith told the New York Observer in 2010. “New York City has been taken away from you … So my advice is: Find a new city.” Her recommendation then is now back in the news: Detroit.

I wonder what Richard Florida would say about this. While he pushes a sort of modern bohemia idea through his concept of the creative class, that group is not lower-class in the same ways as bohemians. They may be creative types but they are primarily white-collar workers with means who have found ways to translate their creative expression into a certain professional lifestyle.

This could be extended to a broader question: is there much room in most global cities for those with less means, whether they are bohemians or immigrants or lower-class? And then going further, if there is some room for them, how much can they really participate in city life and influence decisions that affect them and the entire city?

Silicon Valley to eventually lose out to cities?

An urbanist argues that Silicon Valley will die out because workers want to be in cities:

Why is Silicon Valley in Silicon Valley?

“You’ve got Stanford, you’ve got federal expenditures, and you’ve got an ecosystem” of start-up mentors and established institutions, said Bruce Katz, the founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. But Silicon Valley’s stranglehold on West Coast innovation is in danger, he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Friday. The main problem?

It’s no fun to live in Silicon Valley.

“What’s happening now is workers want to be in Oakland and San Francisco,” he told Walter Isaacson. Young workers want to live in a city — somewhere they can ride bikes, shop locally, walk to their favorite restaurants and bars, and live in a dense urban or urban-lite environment with nearby amenities. But Silicon Valley isn’t like a city. It’s like a suburb. “Silicon Valley is going to have to urbanize,” Katz said. “[There is a] migration out of Silicon Valley to places where people really want to live.”

This sounds like Richard Florida’s arguments about the creative class: a younger generation of educated workers want to be in thriving urban environments. However, I’m not sure Katz’s arguments are consistent – at least as presented in this article. He suggests that groups of politicians and business leaders help create certain environments. Hence, an area like Silicon Valley exists because there was a concentration of investment and infrastructure. Yet, Florida’s argument emphasizes more the individual desires of the creative class (or perhaps some sort of class consciousness). If Silicon Valley was indeed losing workers to cities (not just the Bay Area but places like Austin or Chicago or Manhattan), it could respond by creating more urban environments. This is a popular idea these days in more suburban settings: retrofit older developments like strip malls, shopping centers, office parks, and tract home developments into something denser and mixed use. Young workers may want a certain kind of environment but business leaders and politicians can help create and develop such areas, whether in Silicon Valley or somewhere else.

Another interpretation of Katz’s arguments is that corporate efforts to build all-inclusive work campuses (like with Facebook recently building a Main Street) just isn’t as appealing as the more “authentic” urban life.

Smart Midwesterners flock to Chicago?

An excerpt from a new book about the Rust Belt looks at why Chicago attracts so many educated Midwesterners:

The North Side of Chicago is such a refuge for young economic migrants from my home state that its nickname is “Michago.” In 2000, a quarter of Michigan State University graduates left the state. By 2010, half were leaving, and the city with the most recent graduates was not East Lansing or Detroit but Chicago. Michigan’s universities once educated auto executives, engineers, and governors. Now their main purpose is giving Michigan’s brightest young people the credentials they need to get the hell out of the state.

In the 2000s, Michigan dropped from 30th to 35th in percentage of college graduates. Chicago is the drain into which the brains of the Middle West disappear. Moving there is not even an aspiration for ambitious Michiganders. It’s the accepted endpoint of one’s educational progression: grade school, middle school, high school, college, Chicago. Once, in a Lansing bookstore, I heard a clerk say with a sigh, “We’re all going to end up in Chicago.” An Iowa governor once traveled to Chicago just to beg his state’s young people to come home…

As Chicago transformed itself from a city of factories to a global financial nexus, its class structure was transformed in exactly the way globalization’s enemies had predicted. “Many Chicagoans live better than ever, in safe housing in vibrant neighborhoods, surrounded by art and restaurants, with good public transport whisking them to exciting jobs in a dazzling city center that teems with visitors and workers from around the world,” wrote Richard C. Longworth in Caught in the Middle, his 2008 book on the modern Midwest. “And many Chicagoans live worse than ever.

I look forward to reading the more complete argument. This excerpt suggests the changes that have made certain Chicago locations so attractive, places like the Loop, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, Bucktown, etc., come at a cost as other areas of Chicago have seen little improvement.

This also seems related to the ideas of Richard Florida and the creative class. Florida tends to rank all US cities on his creative scale indexes. Could there be regional creative class cities? Chicago isn’t at the top of Florida’s rankings but it might attract a sizable number of the Midwest creative class. A city doesn’t necessarily have to attract the creative class from throughout the United States to experience some of their influence.

It would be helpful to see data on this. Who exactly is moving to Chicago? For example, looking at a place like Michigan, where do college graduates and other young adults go if they leave the state? Or, looking at the Chicago area itself, do they tend to stay in the metropolitan area at similar rates to other major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Philadelphia, and others (and there could be very different patterns going on in each of these major cities)?

Correlations that get at why big cities lean toward Democrats

Richard Florida discusses several reasons, based on correlations, why big cities now so clearly lean toward the Democratic party:

Density played a key role in the metro vote. (To capture it we use a measure we of population-based density, which accounts for the concentration of people in metro). The average Obama metro was more than twice as dense as the average Romney metro, 412 versus 193 people per square mile. With a correlation of .50, density was an even bigger factor than population (where the correlation is .34). The reverse pattern holds for the share of Romney votes; the negative correlation for density (-.51) was significantly higher than that for population (-.33)…

The chart below plots the relationship between a metro’s share of college grads and its share of Obama votes. The line slopes steeply upward showing how the share of Obama votes increase alongside metro density. The share of college grads in a metro is positively correlated with the share of Obama votes (.42) and negatively with the share of Romney votes (-.44)…

The chart above shows the relationship between the share of the creative class and the share of Obama votes across metro areas. The line slopes steeply upward, indicating a considerable positive relationship. The share of creative class workers is positively correlated with the share of Obama votes (.40) and negatively with the share of Romney votes (-.41)…

Republicans may still be the party of the rich, but most of the country’s more-affluent metros lined up squarely in the Obama camp. The correlation between the average wages and salaries of metros and the share of Obama votes is positive (.50) and it is negative for Romney votes (-.51). This makes sense too, as larger metros have greater concentrations of knowledge-based talent and industries and are wealthier to begin with. (The associations we find are even more substantial for metros with more than one million people, with the correlations increasing to .71 for Obama and -.72 for Romney.) This follows the “Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State” pattern identified by Andrew Gelman of Columbia University, who infamously found that while rich voters continue to trend Republican, rich states trend Democratic.

Florida argues this is evidence of class-based differences in American life, specifically, differences between the creative class and those in knowledge industries compared to the rest of the United States.

However, this raises a few questions:

1. The analysis here seems to be done across metropolitan areas while some of these voting patterns break down as we compare cities versus suburbs. For example, there are those who suggest it is really about cities and inner-ring suburbs that vote Democratic while more further flung suburbs and exurbs vote Republican. See earlier posts about the analysis of Joel Kotkin – here and here.

2. Making claims with correlations with tricky. Florida acknowledges this before he rolls out the analysis: “As usual, I point out that correlation points to associations between variables only, not causation.” But, then why stop the analysis at correlations here? Looking at the relationships just between two variables at a time ignores the complex relationships between factors like race, class, location, jobs, and more. Why not quickly run some regressions?

3. If this analysis is correct (and we need more in-depth analysis to check), why are Republicans so bad at appealing to the creative class?

Richard Florida argues “class decides everything”

In an excerpt from his new book, Richard Florida argues “class decides everything”:

But numerous indicators and metrics suggest that class does structure a great deal of American life. America lags behind many nations – from Denmark to the United Kingdom and Canada – in the ability of its people to achieve significant upward mobility. America’s jobs crisis bears the unmistakable stamp of class. This past spring, for example, the rate of unemployment for people who did not graduate from high school was 13 percent, substantially more than the overall rate of 8.2 percent and more than three times the 3.9 percent rate for college grads. At a time when the unemployment rate for production workers who contribute their physical labor was more than 10 percent, unemployment for professionals, techies and managers who work with their minds had barely broken 4 percent…

As fallible as Marx might have been about some things, his focus on class (not to mention his analysis of the tendency of capitalism to sporadically lurch into crisis) was eerily prescient. Marx was the first to see that class was deeper than income or education, or where different groups of people lived or what they could buy. It stemmed from their relationship to the economy, or as he referred to it, “the social relations of production.” Capitalism had only recently overturned the old feudal order of the agricultural age and replaced it with a distinctive class structure of its own, defined by two principle classes. Marx identified the bourgeoisie or capitalist class as those who owned and controlled the means of production; the proletariat or working class was comprised of those who performed physical labor. The rub, of course, was that members of the working class were only paid for a portion of the economic value they created. The owners’ profits were derived from the workers’ “surplus value” — the value they created but were not compensated for…

Three classes now predominate. In addition to the Working Class, which makes up just one in five workers (down from more than half in the 1950s) are the 40 million plus members of the Creative Class, who use their creativity in their work, roughly a third of the workforce; and the 60 million plus members of the Service Class who prepare and serve food, perform janitorial functions, take care of children and old people, and perform routine clerical and administrative functions. The Service Class accounts for some 47 percent of the work force.

These new class divisions undergird virtually every feature of American life.

I detect some ambivalence here: does class really decide everything or is that the interpretation of the headline writer? Perhaps more importantly, how do the effects of class stack up in (substantive) significance compared to other factors like race, gender, educational attainment, and where people live? This goes back to some older debates in sociology involving scholars like William Julius Wilson: is it really race or class that drives outcomes?

This excerpt also does not make clear all the classes into which Florida would place Americans. Three are mentioned here (service, creative, and working) but they would make up roughly 150 million people (hard to figure exactly from this cited paragraph), leaving out over 150 million Americans. Of course, Florida has some interest in the doings of the creative class so I wonder if his analysis is equally adroit in assessing the other categories.

All that said, I assume sociologists would like that another voice with some clout is reminding people that class matters whether some Americans want to believe it or not. It will be interesting to see, however, how many people buy Florida’s larger analysis and claims or whether they would prefer to stick to the creative class ideas which have proved popular.