Claim: liberals love cities due to “snobbery, graft, and politics”

Glenn Reynolds argues liberals like cities for self-serving reasons:

The snobbery comes from the fact that most media are headquartered in big cities and the people who work there are the kind of people who like big cities — often people who, as one of Taylor Swift’s songs has it, move to a “big ole city” in part as revenge on the places they come from. As Kotkin notes, the writers, pundits and academic types who write on the subject of cities tend to live in big cities; suburban and rural people are treated as losers, or just ignored, despite the fact that most people don’t live in big cities. And there’s a class thing going on, too. As Robert Bruegmann noted in his book, Sprawl: A Compact History, nobody minds when rich people build houses in the country. It’s when the middle class does it that we get complaints.

The graft is probably more important still: Big developments mean lots of permissions, many regulatory interactions and, of course, big budgets — all of which lend themselves to facilitating the transfer of money from developers to politicians. Frequently they’re government subsidized, which allows that money to come, ultimately but almost invisibly, from the pockets of taxpayers…

Finally, there’s politics. Politicians like to pursue policies that encourage their political enemies to leave, while encouraging those who remain to vote for them. (This is known as “the Curley effect” after James Michael Curley, a former mayor of Boston.)  People who have children, or plan to, tend to be more conservative, or at least more bourgeois, than those who do not. By encouraging high density and mass transit, urban politicians (who are almost always on the left) encourage people who might oppose them to “vote with their feet” and move to the suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily good for the cities they rule. Curley’s approach, which involved “wasteful redistribution to his poor Irish constituents and incendiary rhetoric to encourage richer citizens to emigrate from Boston,” as David Henderson wrote on the EconLog, shaped the electorate to his benefit. Result: “Boston as a consequence stagnated, but Curley kept winning elections.”

A quick response to each of these claims:

  1. I think there is indeed some urban snobbery among academics. Comparatively, there is little attention paid to suburbs even though a majority of Americans live there. Yes, it is convenient to study cities as many research schools are in large cities but to look down on other areas – usually viewed as conservative, backward, and less cosmopolitan – is not good.
  2. Cities do indeed have a lot of regulations. This is almost inevitable given their complexity. Think of cities with power laws rather than linear relationships; doubling the population doesn’t simply create twice the complexity but rather four times. As conservatives have pointed out recently, pretty much all major American cities are run by Democrats and there corruption scandals keep emerging. Yet, conservatives are not immune to such city scandals – see the example of Big Bill Thompson in Chicago. How about a different explanation: big government invites opportunities for malfeasance for all (and Democrats happen to be in charge of most big cities today)?
  3. This is an interesting argument as much as has been made in recent decades about the negative effects of white flight as well as efforts by many cities to attract younger, wealthier residents. Did big city mayors really try to keep conservatives out of cities? Take Chicago again as an example. The mayors and residents did as much as they could to stem the movement of non-whites into certain parts of the city and were fairly successful for decades. But, when their tools disappeared and demographics changed, many left. Did Mayor Richard J. Daley want this? At the same time, Daley made deals with black South Side politicians to have a reliable voting bloc. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the argument; cities really don’t want suburbanites or suburban living. Yet, David Rusk has argued for years that elastic cities – those that have been able to capture suburban growth (mostly in the South and West) – are more successful ones. So, are cities spiting themselves simply to keep a party in power?

Of course, these three reasons ignore other reasons for liking cities: economic opportunities (which both cities and suburbs can benefit from), diverse neighborhoods and public spaces, people watching, and physical and social features not found elsewhere (from skyscrapers to symphony orchestras). Even though suburbia may be more self-sustaining that many give it credit for, imagining a world of suburbs where Americans can live free without having any major cities is very difficult to imagine.

Naperville responds to the claim it is a snobby mid-sized city

Movoto recently named Naperville the 4th snobbiest mid-sized city in America. Here is their short description of the suburb:

If this place seems like a bit of an odd man out on our list, don’t be fooled. Naperville had the second highest household income, and over 66 percent of locals had a college degree, so these are some world-wise and wealthy people. Plus, they’re able to congregate together in their seventh place country clubs, probably to sample wine and discuss recent stock market trends.

This city may not have the highest ranking in refined restaurants, but it does have a somewhat refined palate. If you don’t believe me, you can try the cuisine at Morton’s The Steakhouse and you’ll know for sure you’re in a place all about class. Just be sure to bring a well packed wallet, these savory steaks do not come cheap. Who ever said the best things in life are free? It definitely wasn’t Naperville.

And here are two responses from Naperville residents:

1. Naperville Mayor George Pradel said:

Longtime Mayor George Pradel, considered by many to be the city’s most ardent booster, took a glass-is-half-full approach to news of the city’s snob ranking.

“I’m taking a positive attitude toward that. Actually it puts Naperville on the map again,” Pradel said. “Naperville is a great city. I think we are very fortunate to have us be recognized.

“If you look at their statistics, the background, homes, income, education, one could assume that this could be a snooty area. But it’s not until you actually get out in the community when you find out that’s really not what’s happening here,” he said. “That’s just kind of looking at it on the surface. You find that this is a very, very friendly city and people care about each other.”

Pradel echoes a claim a number of city leaders have made over the years: Naperville may be large and have money but what really sets it apart is its community spirit. Often invoked is the community’s efforts to build Centennial Beach in the early 1930s and then the volunteers that started the Riverwalk in the late 1970s. In other words, Naperville still has the spirit of a small town even though it no longer looks like one.

2. A Naperville resident wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune that took a different tack:

To those of us who know the real Naperville, this is character defamation. Naperville, now a bustling suburb, was filled with rows of corn and old barns just 20 years ago. I’m in my late 20s, and the Naperville I grew up in was open land peppered with old strip malls and newish subdivisions. There is now less open space and there are more McMansions, but the Naperville I know is still comparable to most Midwest suburbs — packed with minivans, soccer practices, block parties, well-manicured lawns and chain restaurants.

Naperville isn’t North Shore affluence. Many label Naperville as “new money” — and this seems at least partially true. A majority of my classmates and friends from Naperville had parents who came from humble beginnings and worked hard to achieve their place in an upper-middle-class income bracket. This sounds more like the American Dream than snobbery…

Movoto ranked only “midsized cities.” The top snob list only includes towns with populations of 120,000 to 220,000 people. That means Chicago suburbs such as Hinsdale, Winnetka, Lake Forest, Glencoe and Barrington weren’t contenders in the competition. Just saying.

Also, Movoto is on a ranking spree. The site has ranked the happiest, most exciting, safest and most creative cities in America and is now doling out these individual rankings state by state. It recently dubbed Rolling Meadows and New Lenox as the “most boring” towns in Illinois. Well, who crowned Movoto as the all-knowing king of rankings? Not fair, I say. I bet people in New Lenox have fun sometimes.

Instead of appealing to the great community, this op-ed applies a scattershot defense. First, Naperville isn’t really that different than many suburbs because it still had open land nearby several decades ago. There may be some truth to this – as late as 1980, Naperville had just 42,000 residents so much of the explosive growth has happened since then, particularly by 2000 when the suburb had over 128,000 residents. Second, Naperville isn’t like old-money snobby Chicago suburbs, whether that is small North Shore suburbs or other pockets west of the city. Third, one could question the methodology of determining whether a suburb is snobby.

All together, I would suggest Naperville is unusually large and wealthy for a suburb. Traditionally, wealthier suburbs have been small, geographically-restricted areas where residents can protect their zoning and community character. But, Naperville has both size (around 144,000 residents over 39 square miles) and wealth (median household income over $108,000), drawing upon white-collar businesses and research facilities that moved in or nearby after World War II and annexing a lot of land. But, whether all of this makes a community snobby is much harder to measure. On the ground, suburbanites have perceptions about which communities are more or less snobby and as the op-ed above suggests, Naperville residents might often look to other suburbs as more snobby.

Just to note: this isn’t the first time such claims have been made about Naperville. I remember seeing one response to similar claims a decade or so ago that asked whether it was so bad that Naperville residents just wanted the best in life and in their community.

Once residents become more “architecturally aware,” they won’t choose McMansions

An Australian architect says more residents in Perth would avoid McMansions once they become “architecturally aware”:

Designer homes are popping up across Perth as the city becomes more ‘architecturally’ conscious.

Aspects such as strong horizontal lines, cut outs and bold rectangular features are increasingly popular in new residential homes.

As Perth’s architectural style grows up, McMansions will be out and clean, simple modernist designs will be in, according to David Karotkin, the WA President of the Australian Institute of Architects…

“In more recent years there has been an increased awareness of architecture in Perth,” Mr Karotkin said…

“There’s awareness about the importance of the designs and the buildings we live in, work in and play in – it’s all architecture.”

There are several ways such statements might be interpreted:

1. Perth residents are finally becoming knowledgeable about architecture and are rejecting architecturally-deficient McMansions. There is an element of snobbery here: McMansions are for the less knowledgeable while the more educated pick homes designed by architects.

2. Perth is developing its own architectural style. Building styles might be drawn from other cities or countries but a new Perth School might be emerging. Having common design, particularly if it is recognized by outsiders, can become a mark of pride.

3. Architects are looking to increase the number of homes they design. In the United States, most homes are designed by builders and architects have just a small slice of the market. Educating people about the benefits of designed homes means more money.

I wonder what this architect would think if there are still some people who choose McMansions even with higher levels of education.

Argument: use of the term McMansion in Australia usually about snobbery

An Australian commentator argues the use of the term McMansion in his country is generally out of snobbery:

IS THERE any more snobbish word in the Australian vocabulary than ”McMansion”? This nasty term describes the big, new houses out in suburbs with names like Caroline Springs and Kellyville. McMansions, their nickname suggests, are the McDonald’s of housing – they’re super-sized, American and mass produced.

Australians build the largest new houses in the world. The average size of a new freestanding home is 243 square metres. That’s 10 per cent larger than the average new American home. Naturally our big houses have critics. Sustainability advocates say McMansions are bad for the environment. Yet there’s more going on here. Because even the most high-brow academic critiques of McMansions seem to focus less on the houses and more on the people who live in them…

That sort of sneering contempt is not uncommon. The word ”McMansion” is usually deployed not to appraise a type of house, but an entire way of life. It is all about culture – the inner city world trying to understand their strange, alien suburban cousins…

Even if you don’t put much stock in income statistics, the size of our houses is – by itself – evidence that Australia is well off. Prosperity is about more than GDP data. Money isn’t everything. Anybody who has lived crammed into too few rooms knows living standards and adequate space are closely related. In rich Australia it’s understandable that many people desire extra living and storage space.

This seems to bleed through in some of the American use of the term as well.

However, I’m not sure we should go the route this commentator suggests and welcome McMansions because they are a sign of our wealth and some individuals want to purchase them. While some do look at McMansions and McMansion dwellers with disdain, McMansions are also not inherently good. They are somewhat indicative of our the resources available in the United States and Australia (though wealthy societies could choose to spend this wealth in other ways) but there are certainly trade-offs in building McMansions, just as there are in building other kinds of structures. McMansions reflect our cultural values: we emphasize private space (even as family size is shrinking), the need for homes that are more than just dwellings (whether they are meant to impress or are to fit out psychological needs), and a suburban lifestyle which is an adaptation between city and country, is based around driving, gives homeowners a little bit of land and space, and is linked to ideas about the American (or Australian?) Dream and “making it” in life. We can discuss whether policies should limit McMansions but it seems that both the United States and Australia have made the choice to allow builders and homeowners to pursue larger homes.