Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Big Aspirations Aren’t Just for Big Cities Anymore

My latest column is available in this month’s issue of Governing magazine. It’s called “Big Aspirations Aren’t Just for Big Cities Anymore.” In it I talk about how smaller cities – which in my view are metro regions between roughly one and three million given my focus on major American cities – have dramatically upgraded their game in the last decade. That’s not to say that they are on the same level as places in San Francisco or New York. Or that they have even closed the gap with those places. Rather that objectively speaking they have raised their game and as a result now have a much greater “addressable market” in terms of upscale residents and business – at the same time those larger places are becoming progressively unaffordable.

Here’s an excerpt:

Back in 1992, as a fresh graduate of Indiana University looking for a job, I met with recruiters for a position in Chicago. They pitched me on the city by telling me that it had this hip, new, uber-cool coffee shop. They were talking about Starbucks. If you were around in the ’90s, you may remember that those magazine “coolest-cities” lists often used the number of Starbucks as a metric. A city that finally got Starbucks thought it had hit the big time.

Today, of course, you can get Starbucks between the gas station and Motel 6 on the interstate. But back then it was a different story. The difference between Chicago and a city like Indianapolis, where I also interviewed, was night and day. Compared to Chicago, moving to Indianapolis would have been like getting sent to Siberia. It was all but impossible to get good coffee or a decent meal in Indy back then. While the city had already made many improvements, it was still pretty bleak.

Click through to read the whole thing.

I can’t find it online, but a few years back Chicago Magazine did a retrospective on their top ten restaurants list from circa 1995. It was pretty hilarious. I don’t remember them all, but Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba was one of them. How things change.

I think it’s pretty clear that for a whole slew of items, places like Nashville or Columbus now are at a higher level than even Chicago was a couple decades ago. That’s not true of everything, but it’s true for a lot of things.

I believe this change in the competitive landscape is one of the reasons Atlanta took a big hit in the 2000s. Atlanta used to be the only game in town for major corporations in the South. Now places like Nashville, Charlotte, and Raleigh are viable alternatives.

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Topics: Arts and Culture, Economic Development, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, Indianapolis

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Viva Havana!


Photo by Scott Beyer

With pending changes in US-Cuban relations, there’s been a flurry of attention turned towards Cuba and Havana. I want to highlight a few articles on the topic. Firstly, Scott Beyer posted a two-part series over at Market Urbanism. It’s part policy analysis, part travelogue, and his large numbers of photos are a must-see.

His first piece is “City of Scarcity.” Here’s an excerpt:

I found myself unable to buy basic things. For example, during my first night in Havana, I didn’t realize–until it was too late–that the B&B landlord had not provided toilet paper. In America, this would be a glaring oversight, but in Havana, I would discover, is normal. This forced me to navigate my neighborhood at 3am, offering pesos to the many teenage boys still standing outside, to bring out “papel higienico” from their houses. Every time I tried this, they would each explain, in rather comical fashion, that none was available. Finally I found a teenager who spoke passable English, and asked him how this could be. After sending his little brother in to find something, he explained that “in Havana, toilet paper is a delicacy–like chocolate,” and that most residents don’t just have any sitting around. So how did people cope?

“Here in Havana, we have a saying,” he quipped. “We say, ‘Cubans have a good ass. Our asses work for all kinds of paper. Toilet paper, newspaper, book paper–any kind of paper’.”


Photo by Scott Beyer

His second piece is called “Stagnation Doesn’t Preserve Cities, Nor Does Wealth Destroy Them.” He uses the example of Havana as a counter-point to the anti-gentrification narrative in which investment in a city destroys is character.

Instead, she claims that these groups are “destroying” the city. She is thus spouting the same myth that is advanced about historic preservation by urban progressives, who seem to think that wealth and gentrification works against preservation. But a fair-minded look at U.S. cities demonstrates the opposite. If one looks at America’s most notable historic neighborhoods–the Back Bay in Boston; Capitol Hill in DC; the French Quarter in New Orleans; much of northern San Francisco; much of Manhattan and northern Brooklyn; downtown Savannah; and downtown Charleston–a unifying feature is that they have great residential wealth. Meanwhile, there are numerous cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland—that have a similar number of historic structures. But many of them sit hollowed-out because of decline.


Image via the Guardian

Meanwhile, the Guardian also ran a take on the city, calling Havana “one of the world’s great cities on the brink of a fraught transition.” It’s very different to say the least.

Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in Cuba’s capital, and Havana today can be a jarring collision of the antique and the nouveau. While I was there, the Havana Biennial was bringing in cutting-edge artists and art dealers from all over the world – yet turn the television to one of the state-sponsored channels and one is immediately transported back to the time of Soviet-era propaganda, of shrill declarations and low production values. In contrast, Venezuela’s TeleSUR (now accessible to Cubans), which generally maintains a line favourable to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his allies (of whom the Castros are two), is positively electric and full of flashy visuals and news from the outside world.


Photo by Scott Beyer

Last Spring, City Journal ran a piece on the city by Michael Totten called “The Last Communist City.”

Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.

The maximum wage is just the beginning. Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money; they’re hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.” Perhaps the saddest symptom of Cuba’s state-enforced poverty is the prostitution epidemic—a problem the government officially denies and even forbids foreign journalists based in Havana to mention. Some Cuban prostitutes are professionals, but many are average women—wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers—who solicit johns once or twice a year for a little extra money to make ends meet.

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Hooray For the High Bridge

IMG_1714

My latest article is online in City Journal and is a look at the restoration and reopening of the High Bridge in New York City. Part of the original Croton Aqueduct system that first brought plentiful clean water to New York, portions of the High Bridge are the oldest standing bridge in the city. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.

Click through to read the whole thing.

Here are some additional pictures I took. First, the High Bridge peeking through the trees from the Manhattan heights. You can see both the original stone arch spans and the longer steel arch span.

Looking south:

Embedded seal in the bridge pavement with historical info. There are quite a few of these discussing various aspects of the project.

The neighbors are fans:

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Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Why Are US Rail Transit Construction Costs So High?

It’s no secret to readers here that US rail transit construction costs are far out of line vs. other countries. David Schleicher, a law professor at Yale, recently co-authored an article examining some potential reasons why. I crossed paths with David last week and recorded this short podcast with him delving into the matter.

If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

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Topics: Public Policy, Transportation

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Small Regions Rising

In the last 25 years there has been a huge change in the level of competitiveness of smaller urban areas – by which I mean the small end of the major urban scale, or metro areas of about one to three million people – that has put them in the game for people in residents in way they never were before.

I recently gave the morning keynote at the Mayor’s Development Roundtable in Oklahoma City and talked a bit about this phenomenon, as well as how these generally younger and sprawling areas ought to be thinking about their future.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on You Tube (my segment starts at 4:36).

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

Kay Hymowitz on Brooklyn

Kay Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and probably best known for her work on family and gender issues such as the book Manning Up. But she does a lot more than that, including some great writing on her home borough of Brooklyn.

The current issue of City Journal has a great piece by her called “Made in Brooklyn, Again” that is a look at the manufacturing renaissance ongoing at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard. Here’s an excerpt:

The Yard is now home to 330 small to medium-size manufacturing firms employing 7,000 workers—double the total of 15 years ago. Many of the companies are traditional or “analog” in their approach, but firms emerging out of the local north Brooklyn design, crafts, and tech scene—or the “maker movement,” as it’s sometimes known—come to the Yard every day looking for vacancies that don’t exist. Local officials have their fingers crossed that the Yard’s rise from its smokestack ashes will reverse decades of manufacturing decline and make a real impact on the persistent joblessness that troubles nearby, mostly minority, parts of Brooklyn. But in part for reasons related to that 5 Axis router—as well as to New York’s costly regulatory climate—they should be careful not to hope for too much.

There’s more where this came from. Last spring she wrote a piece about the largely Fujianese immigrant community in Sunset Park called “Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers.” Everybody first thinks of Flushing, Queens when they think about the Chinese in New York. But Sunset Park is home to an even bigger Chinese community. This one is poorer than Flushing’s, and made up of many people from Fujian, a linguistically diverse and largely non-Mandarin speaking province in China. An excerpt:

What started with a few hundred Fujianese pioneers a few decades ago is now New York City’s most populous Chinatown—considerably larger than Manhattan’s and bigger even than Flushing’s. Sunset Park bustles with Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and stores selling dried shrimp and scallops and a staggering variety of gnarly ginseng roots, medicinal herbs, oils, and powders. One rarely sees a non-Asian face there. Though official city numbers are considerably lower, Paul Mak, president of the Brooklyn Chinese American Association, estimates that Sunset Park and adjoining sections of Bay Ridge and Borough Park are home to at least 150,000 Chinese.

For all their gumption, the Fujianese don’t entirely conform to the model-minority image. Take, for instance, the way they come to the United States. Long-term visas are nearly impossible to get, at least for those without family already here. Among New York immigrant groups, the Chinese apply for the most asylum visas, many based on trumped-up complaints. Other Fujianese turn to smugglers, or “snakeheads,” to create fake papers and guide them through a nightmare journey that often involves dangerous weeks in the airless holds of barely seaworthy ships, long stretches in safe houses in Thailand or Guatemala, or treks across the Mexican desert. The grueling adventures can cost them $50,000 or more. (Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2010 book, The Snakehead, offers a powerful depiction of the multibillion-dollar Chinatown-based smuggling business.) A large number of Fujianese who come to New York these days do so through Canada, using the passports of relatives; they rely on border guards not being adept at distinguishing Chinese faces. There’s no precise number of the undocumented Fujianese who’ve arrived in New York City since the early eighties, but estimates run as high as half a million. Kenneth Guest, an associate professor of anthropology at Baruch College, says that as many as half the Fujianese in the city are here illegally.

In 2013 Kay took a look at “Bed-Stuy’s (Unfinished) Revival.” She observes:

Of all the changes that I’ve witnessed in Brooklyn since settling there 30 years ago, none has surprised me more than the blossoming reputation of Bedford-Stuyvesant, now the fastest-growing neighborhood in New York’s fastest-growing borough. For decades, Bed-Stuy’s nickname, “Do or Die,” perfectly captured the spirit of the place: it was a neighborhood of entrenched black poverty, mean streets, meaner housing projects, and a homicide rate that had reporters using war metaphors. Nowadays, Bed-Stuy has become the latest destination for young professionals and creative-class whites on the prowl for brownstones, tree-lined streets, and express subway lines to Manhattan. Artisanal coffee, prenatal yoga classes, and Danny Meyer–inspired restaurants (one, called Do or Dine, serves foie-gras doughnuts) have followed close behind.

And in 2011 she took a checkpoint on the Brooklynization of Brooklyn in “How Brooklyn Got Its Groove Back.” An excerpt:

Unlike their predecessors, however, these grads are not only artsy; they’re tech-savvy and entrepreneurial. Don’t confuse them with the earlier artists and bohemians who daringly smoked pot at Brooklyn Heights parties. These are beneficiaries of a technology-fueled design economy, people who have been able to harness their creativity to digital media. In a 2005 report, the Center for an Urban Future estimated that 22,000 “creative freelancers”—writers, artists, architects, producers, and interior, industrial, and graphic designers—lived in Brooklyn, an increase of more than 33 percent since 2000. The Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation has dubbed the area from Red Hook to Greenpoint the “Creative Crescent.”

The new gentrifiers have also, surprisingly, re-created Brooklyn’s identity as an industrial center, locating commercial kitchens, artists’ lofts, and crafts studios in retrofitted factories in Sunset Park, Gowanus, and downtown Brooklyn. If they have to commute to work, they want to ride their bicycles, which is easier to do if you don’t have to cross the East River. (Brooklyn may be one of the only places in the world that occasionally offers valet bike parking.) Many have started their own boutique firms. In its report, the Center for an Urban Future also noted that “freelance businesses have been a faster growing part of the Brooklyn economy than employer-based businesses.”

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Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Safety, Talent Attraction, Technology, Urban Culture
Cities: New York

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

A Chicago Model for Global Cities and a New Rhode Island Model For Transit

Last week I linked to an article by Kris Hartley about a Chicago model for global cities. I wasn’t planning to analyze it, but Greg Hinz over at Crain’s did a short writeup, so I decided to share a few thoughts.

Where I’d disagree with Hartley is that I don’t think Chicago is in fact pursuing industry dominance. What’s I’d say is that it’s acting like it already has it. That’s part of the roots of its financial challenges as Chicago’s spending big without the economic base to support it.

Where I agree with Hartley is that industry dominance is only one aspect of global cities. Another crucial part is what economic and other networks a city participates in. I think this network based view is pretty aligned with Sassen too. The idea in Hartley’s piece is that Chicago should identify and cultivate the global networks in which it competes, and build a model based on that. I think Hartley offers a pretty pretty positive take on the city, saying that Chicago doesn’t need to dominate an industry to thrive. In any event, I agree that Chicago should built its own model since it is a different kind of city. Less Big Spend, more networks.

On another topic, Ted Nesi from Providence’s WPRI-TV wrote a two-part online series on the badly botched ridership estimates for the commuter rail extension to Wickford Jct. The first part covers the ridership gap (and how project champion Sen. Jack Reed is still defending this white elephant). The second part is about the high and going losses that will need to be subsidized in perpetuity to keep this thing going. Not only did Rhode Island build an expensive line to a sprawly/ruralish area, it also built a huge parking garage that will cost a ton of money to operate.

Back in 2013 I wrote a piece at Greater City Providence challenging the philosophy of expanding rail to far flung areas where there is no market, and instead said that the state should focus on improving connectivity from Providence and the urbanized north of the state to Boston.

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Topics: Globalization, Regionalism, Transportation
Cities: Boston, Chicago, Providence

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Urbanoscope

Here we are once again with a roundup of a few highlights from places where I’m a contributor.

First the Guardian, which published a longish interview of Ed Glaeser by Simon Jenkins. Here’s an excerpt:

“You can’t stand in the way of progress” is indeed a really crappy argument – there are times when you can, and you must. But let’s go back to our friend Jane Jacobs, who I actually admire enormously. She was certainly right that Greenwich Village was a magical space, but think of her chapter in Death and Life about how cities need old buildings because they need cheap space … Well, now those townhouses in Greenwich Village start at $8m. Which shows there are real dangers in shutting off the supply valve everywhere.

They also posted a look at the bad old days in New York.

City Journal

Myron Magnet rebuts bus drivers’ demands to be exempt from a crackdown on driver who kill pedestrian in “You Work For Me, Mac!” An excerpt:

Never was there so perfect an emblem of public employees’ public-be-damned attitude than the outrage of New York’s Transport Workers Union over the February arrest of veteran bus driver Francisco DeJesus for running down a 15-year-old girl legally crossing the street in a crosswalk. The seriously injured girl, who had the “walk” sign in her favor, was on her way to school. Bus drivers, the union whined, are being treated like “criminals.” Henceforth, the union demanded, cops must exempt its members from arrest for failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. After all, why should they be treated like other motorists under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program to reduce pedestrian traffic fatalities and injuries? How can anyone expect them to be “perfect”?

Paul Beston also wrote about the state of boxing in the context of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.

Governing

Scott Beyer talks about how to make pedestrian malls that work.

A look at the tough challenges facing Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo.

New Geography

Wendell Cox takes at look at Central Business District employment. There was very strong growth in select cities, with NYC, Chicago, SF, and Boston combined accounting for 2/3 of national job growth. Here’s the not unsurprising chart:

And Kris Hartley talks about a Chicago model for global cities.

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Friday, May 15th, 2015

Suburban Migration In Baltimore

One unique aspect of Baltimore is that it is a so-called “independent city” that is not part of any county. Because of this, migration data from the IRS allows us to look specifically at the city of Baltimore. So I wanted to take a quick look at migration between Baltimore and its suburbs.

As you might expect, there’s been a net outflow of people from the city for quite some time. From 1990 to 2011 (the most recent year the IRS has released), Baltimore lost almost 151,000 people on a net basis to its suburbs. Here’s the chart:

You see here that Baltimore had an accelerating net loss of people, but then showed a steep drop in net loss through the 2000s. This is consistent with county level migration I’ve seen in other regions.

When people leave, they take their money with them. Baltimore’s cumulative net loss of annual income to its own suburbs from departing residents is about $2.75 billion from 1992 to 2011. (Income data isn’t available for 90-91 and 91-92 movers). That’s annual income, so this loss in effect recurs every single year. That’s a lot of money. Here’s the chart on adjusted gross income loss (in thousands of dollars):

What was a small post-recession bump in the people numbers is a more sizable one in the money figures.

Since we can, let’s also look at the individual flows of people leaving and people coming in. Here are people moving from Baltimore to the suburbs:

And here are people moving from the suburbs to the city of Balitmore – and yes, lots of people do that:

Here we see that the decline in Baltimore’s net loss was driven both by a decline in the number of people leaving and by an increase in the number of people coming in. This is similar to what I’ve seen in other similar places. The uptick in the recession is due to a drop off in the number of in movers.

There are some pretty dramatic movements in the early 90s, which were an interesting time in urban America to put it mildly. I’m not familiar with the specifics of Baltimore in that era. Some other regions I looked at – including St. Louis, which is also an independent city – show higher early 90’s migration, but nothing like the swing in Baltimore.

We will have to see what happens in post-2011 years. The IRS is delayed in issuing data, and has been trying to kill off this data program entirely, so who knows when more data will be available. 2012 data should in theory be out right about now, but we are some years away at best from finding out what impact this year’s riots might have had.

I should caveat this data by noting that it is based on tax returns that can be matched from year to year, so there are some movers who aren’t captured. As you can see, this is a pretty large data set, however.

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Topics: Demographic Analysis
Cities: Baltimore

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Libertarians of Convenience

My latest piece is online at City Journal and is called “Libertarians of Convenience.” It’s a pretty tough take on too many progressive urbanists’ highly selective approach to deregulation. Many take a pretty radical libertarian view when it comes to things like blowing away zoning codes to permit more building. But in too many other areas urban progressives are calling for ever more regulation. Here’s an excerpt:

Left urbanists also decry zoning that requires city developers or businesses to include a minimum number of parking spaces before moving forward on a building or an opening, rather than leaving that decision to the market. Streetsblog decried parking-space mandates as “absurd.” The Walking Bostonian commented on high minimum parking requirements at, of all places, bars: “It’s almost as if there’s a kind of sickness which seems to get into city planners’ heads whenever the topic of parking comes up, and it causes all common sense to fly out the window.” Greater Greater Washington sarcastically observes that Steve Jobs, by founding Apple in a garage, “broke the law by building computers in required parking spaces.” As liberal urbanist Payton Chung sums up, “A parking minimum demands that the rest of us subsidize one economically infeasible land use above all others.”

Other aspects of housing regulation have also come under scrutiny, including minimum unit size: “The fanaticism of neighborhood groups opposed to microhousing is hard to fathom,” says the Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly. On height limits, “It seems like a no-brainer for D.C. to at least ease the Height Act to promote some growth,” says the Next City website. Even historic districts seem to have gone too far for some liberals, becoming a kind of “neutron bomb zoning—preserving the buildings but driving out the working class communities,” according to MoreNYC.

The immediate critique I’ve already gotten of course, is that there’s no inconsistency. The call is to regulate things that cause harm and deregulate things that don’t. But virtually every activity harms someone somewhere, or has some risk. The question is always what risk is acceptable to take on, and what externalities to attempt to control. In these cases it’s clear the posture is really not about the appropriate response to harms or risks or externalities, but rather the principle is whether the underlying activity in question is one urbanists like or don’t like.

I should note that SF bookstore Borderlands apparently got a one year reprieve on closing thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign they completed after we went to press. This is hardly a viable model generally, however.

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Topics: Public Policy

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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