Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
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.
Tuesday, January 27th, 2015
[ With the New York portion of the widely touted blizzard turning out to be a bust, I thought I’d dust off this 2009 piece I did for New Geography on cities, blizzards, and what the response to them says about the urban culture – Aaron. ]
January 1979 saw one of the worst blizzards in city history hit Chicago, dumping 20 inches of snow, closing O’Hare airport for 46 hours, and paralyzing traffic in the city for days. Despite the record snowfall, the city’s ineffectual response was widely credited for the defeat of Mayor Michael Bilandic in his re-election bid, leading to Jane Bryne becoming the city’s first female mayor.
In January 1978, a similar blizzard had struck the city of Indianapolis, also burying the city in a record 20 inches of snow. Mayor Bill Hudnut stayed awake nearly two days straight, coordinating the response and frequently updating the city on the snow fighting efforts through numerous media appearances. Nevertheless, the airport closed and it was several days before even major streets were passable. But when it was all over, Hudnut emerged a folk hero and went on to become arguably the most popular mayor in city history, serving four terms before voluntarily stepping aside.
While major snow is much less frequent in Indianapolis than Chicago, and Hudnut’s response certainly bettered Bilandic’s, these twin blizzards illustrate a powerful difference in citizen expectations between these two cities, reflecting two of the broad approaches to urban service provision in America today.
People in Chicago expect and demand high quality public services. Chicago is the “City that Works”, and woe be to the mayor when it doesn’t. That’s why every mayor since Bilandic has treated snow clearance like a military operation, deploying a division of armored snow trucks to assault the elements at the merest hint of a flake, often leaving more salt than snow in their wake. If Chicagoans pay relatively higher taxes than the rest of the country, at least its citizens know that they are getting something for their money, whether it be snow clearance, garbage collection, street lighting, landscaped boulevards, or bike lanes.
In Indianapolis, by contrast, public services are not the main concern. People gripe if snow is not cleared, but are not outraged. No Indianapolis mayor ever lost his job for failing to deliver good services. Rather, taxes have always been the primary issue. Nothing illustrates this better than the most recent mayoral election. Buoyed by an emerging demographic super-majority, a large campaign war chest, and the support of almost every establishment figure of both parties, Mayor Bart Peterson confidently raised city income taxes by 0.65 percentage points shortly on the heels of a major property tax jump. In the fall, however, he lost his re-election bid to political neophyte Greg Ballard, who ran on a taxpayers first platform. Ballard won without significant backing from his own Republican party, supported only by a collection of grass roots activists, bloggers, and his own relentless door-knocking campaign.
The divergent citizen and policy preferences of both cities continue to the present, amply illustrated by this very winter. Mayor Daley, facing a recession-induced budget gap, decided to save money by ordering that residential streets not be cleared by workers clocking overtime. Citizen unhappiness over the state of the streets during December snows led even the widely popular Daley to backtrack on this experiment, reverting to the traditional all out assault for the balance of winter.
In Indianapolis, after 12.5 inches blanketed the city this January, crews took several days to clear its snow routes and, as per its standard operating procedure, did not plow residential streets at all. The local media carried tales of people’s laments, but ultimately the city government knows that the response to the snow will be forgotten soon after it melts. Higher tax bills, by contrast, are long remembered. In an inverse situation to Chicago, people in Indianapolis sleep at night knowing that, if services haven’t been all that great, they at least have more money in their pockets.
While both cities have long seemed happy pursuing their respective courses, storm clouds are gathering over both strategic models of operation.
Backing down from a high service stance in government is almost impossible. Government spending only ever seems to go one way. Faced with that logic, and the clear expectations of its citizens, Chicago in effect decided to double down. With the much celebrated resurgence of urbanism, Chicago put its chips on a soaring Loop economy driven by an emerging status as one of the top global cities, a real estate boom, and a series of tax and fee increases. It embarked on a civic transformation epitomized by community showplaces like Millennium Park, miles of top quality streetscape improvements, a new terminal at Midway Airport and the start of a multi-billion dollar O’Hare modernization, one of the nation’s best bicycling infrastructures, and perhaps most ambitiously, a bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.
This model is increasingly showing signs of strain, however. Many taxes and fees, including the nation’s highest sales tax at 10.25%, appear to be close to maxed out. The real estate crunch hit hard at Chicago’s transfer tax revenue, another key source of city funds. This, in combination with a weak economy, has hammered the city’s budget, leaving Daley with tough, often unpopular choices to make. The CTA recently raised fares. City parking meter rates will be quadrupling under a privatization plan recently signed, hopefully plugging operating budget holes – something Daley had previously resisted. As with New York City, Chicago may be faced with the cold reality of both service cuts and tax increases.
More importantly, as with the dot-com bubble before it, there are real questions as to whether the financial and real estate driven economy that fueled Chicago’s boom will come back in full force any time soon. In the meantime, the economy and cost of living in the city are squeezing the middle class harder by the day, and despite perhaps America’s biggest condo boom, the city’s population is slowly shrinking. All this leaves Mayor Daley, although still very popular, with perhaps the toughest leadership challenge of his tenure.
Meanwhile Indianapolis faces problems of its own. It too has budget challenges, just as years of deferred investment are finally catching up with the city. Indianapolis has a $900 million unfunded backlog of curb and sidewalk repairs alone. It is the 13th largest municipality in America, but has the 99th largest transit system. And, more troubling, the city now finds itself outflanked by its own suburbs.
At one time Indianapolis could comfortably decide to purchase bronze-level services while other cities paid more for gold. But now its own suburbs are offering silver, and at a lower price point in taxes than the city is selling bronze. Many of its suburbs today not only have better schools and safer streets than the central city, they feature fully professional fire departments, large park acreage, lavishly landscaped parkways exceeding city standards, and even better snow removal. In the recent storm, upscale north suburban Carmel finished plowing its cul-de-sacs before Indianapolis finished its main arteries. When people can pay less and get more just by moving to the collar counties, that’s what they do. Tens of thousands of people have left the merged central city-county in recent years. Only a large influx of the foreign born has kept Indianapolis from losing population.
The current economy is exposing the long term structural weaknesses of both civic strategies. Chicago and Indianapolis show that both higher service and lower service models face big challenges and that neither approach represents a safe harbor in the current economic storm.
This post originally ran on February 14, 2009 at New Geography.
Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
Time for another round of videos that I’ve had in my to-post list for a while.
The first is a short documentary piece on two skyscrapers in New York that were built specifically a telco switching points: the AT&T Long Lines Building and the Western Union Building. They are still in use today. If the video doesn’t display for you click over to Vimeo. h/t BLDGBLOG
The next is another installment in the “Time-LAX” series of LA timelapses. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to Vimeo.
Lastly a TV news segment in Indianapolis from 1978. It’s a look back at a 25-year futuristic vision of the city from 1953 that was featured in the Indianapolis Star. Lets just say the vision didn’t quite come true. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to YouTube. h/t We Are City
Sunday, October 12th, 2014
This post originally appeared on October 27, 2013.
If you look at the list of target industries for any given city or state, you usually find several from the same list of five common items: high technology, life sciences (under various names), green tech, advanced manufacturing, logistics. Take a few from this list, and add a legacy industry if there’s one or two where you are already particularly strong, and there you have it.
The problem is that everybody and their brother is now claiming to be a tech or startup “hub”, etc. And there’s probably some fairness in that. Starting companies is much easier than it used to be, and despite the so-called “20 minute rule”, venture capitalists seem very willing to travel to find deals where they can make good money. For example, payments startup Dwolla didn’t have trouble attracting top name backers even though it was in Des Moines.
So in a sense everybody can play right now. At some point though, there will inevitably be another shakeout of sorts. If you want to be a long term survivor, have a claim to fame that will make you stand out from the crowd, generate above average returns, etc., you need to have something that makes you distinct.
One way to do that is to be sub-specialized. “High tech” is an extremely broad category. A city could have a large number of nominally high tech companies that are totally unalike, and which do not form any type of real ecosystem, integrated supply chain, etc. This is a cluster in name only.
One way to stand out is a concept I’ve called “microclusters”. That is, rather than simply saying “We’re high tech”, you have some specialty within the broader tech industry where you can be a real national leader.
A couple of news stories make me revisit this with regards to the internet marketing microcluster in Indianapolis. Like most cities, Indy is targeting, you guessed it, high tech, life sciences, green tech, advanced manufacturing, and logistics. The main promotional organization for high tech is called Techpoint. (I should note this organization does double duty as a statewide group as well).
But somehow, organically, within tech generally Indianapolis had a lot of startups in the internet marketing space. There were something like 70 or so last time I saw someone who had made a list. One of them, Exact Target, was recently acquired by Salesforce.com for $2.5 billion. That’s a legitimate exit by any standards. Also recently, a content marketing cloud provider called Compendium was bought by Oracle for its own marketing cloud suite. (Terms not disclosed but surely much, much smaller).
When two tech bluechip names decide to go fishing in the same pond for companies in the same field, you start to think there’s something to it. (Salesforce and Oracle weren’t the first either. Terradata bought out a company called Aprimo for $525 million a couple years ago). Wanting to build on the momentum, Techpoint just held a big shindig called M-Tech to launch a campaign they are launching in an effort to boost the city’s marketing technology cluster.
What will this turn into? I don’t know. A news report about M-Tech noted potential challenges from competitors. What’s more, if there’s no pipeline of new companies, this sort of thing will fizzle out. But if money and talent continues to develop new solutions and companies in a place where there’s real domain expertise and a bona fide ecosystem, it will potentially give the city a niche where it can be a truly top tier player and not just another me-too startup hub.
On a more mature level, I wrote some years back about the motorsports industry cluster in Indianapolis. Everybody knows the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 500-mile Race, but Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway) in Brownsburg also happens to be home to arguably the top drag racing event in the US. It’s near Brownsburg predominantly where a collection of (as of 2008 when I got the last report) 400 motorsports companies, employing 8,800 people at average wages of around $50,000/year is centered. Thus this cluster is both a sub-industry (a type of advanced manufacturing) microcluster and a geographic one. (I might note it’s certainly not the only global location in this industry as places like London and Charlotte also have such clusters). People have actually moved to Indianapolis from as far away as Australia and England to start companies in this space, a pretty good indicator it’s a real opportunity zone.
Again, both of these grew organically, so I don’t want to suggest that you can conjure one up with an economic development program. But I suspect most cities have a few of these out there or in the process of developing. It just so happens I know Indianapolis well and so can name what’s there. Identifying these and providing institutional or infrastructural support (e.g., specialized community college training programs) is probably a worthwhile endeavor.
Today’s economy doesn’t have one plant employing 10,000 people. But a good microcluster can be as impactful if not more so. Obviously the smaller your metro, the bigger a splash something like this will make. What’s more, specialization and a true integrated ecosystem can produce what Warren Buffett calls a “wide moat” business that can be defended against upstarts. Also recall that Jack Welch at GE famously didn’t want to be in a business if he couldn’t be #1 or #2 at it. It’s not realistic for smaller cities to ever think they’ll be #1 or #2 in tech generally, nor even have the large tech scene of a New York or Chicago. But they can find particular areas where they can punch above their weight. And as the recent Indy acquisitions show, generate legitimate big dollar exits.
Update: Richard Layman posted some additional thoughts on his blog.
Monday, September 29th, 2014
Some folks asked me to comment on Ferguson, MO. I don’t have anything to add to the massive amount that has already been written, but it did get me thinking about my own neighborhood and the racial dynamics that exist in America.
I live in a mixed race neighborhood on the North Side of Indianapolis called various names, including South of Broad Ripple (SoBro) and Keystone-Monon. It’s a racially diverse area, mostly featuring wood frame 2-3br/1-ba worker cottages built around wartime. It’s likely always been working class or starter home housing as the smallness of the homes limits their value in a city where there are near infinite tracts of similar building stock.
If asked to guess at the racial mix, I would have said 70% white/30% black. Clicking into the NYT census viewer, I discovered that my census tract is actually 49% black/42% white. Here’s a screen shot (click to enlarge):
As you can see, my tract lies along a diagonal transition area from predominantly white to predominantly black areas. The tract immediately north of me is 82% white. The one immediately south is 62% black, and south of that black population percentage runs upwards of the 90s. It’s easy to see how difficult it can be to eyeball the makeup of the area.
Just to the west is Meridian-Kessler, one of the city’s most desirable residential neighborhoods. About a mile and a half north is the core of Broad Ripple, a commercial district known for its nightlife aimed at the 20s set.
One might think this area is primed for gentrification, but that’s not the case. As it happens, those more desirable neighborhoods I mentioned themselves have had a lot of challenges such as abandoned homes and commercial vacancies. There’s virtually nothing that could be considered gentrification in Indianapolis generally, and certainly not at extensive scale.
Because of its city location proximate to desirable commercial nodes, the area has seen an influx of young families, often in their 20s with one young child. Some savvy rehabbers have also purchased. But the backbone of the neighborhood remains the black and white working class, often homeowners.
Because there’s longstanding integration and little gentrification pressure – and because unlike Ferguson this area is embedded inside of a large and diverse municipality, I haven’t sense much in the way of racial tensions. People seem quite friendly to each other to the most part. Personally I think it’s a great neighborhood and love living there. So does everyone else I’ve talked to.
On the surface, this would appear to be a successful integrated neighborhood, by American standards especially. But everything is not as it seems.
I’ve only lived here about eight months, but what I observed is similar to what I previously saw in Fountain Square, a type of parallel societies. In Fountain Square I called this “Artists and Appalachians.” In that case both groups are white. They share the same neighborhood geography, and even patronize some of the same establishments such as Peppy’s Grill and the Liquor Cabinet, but there was little social interaction between them apart from surface pleasantries.
I see the same here, only with a racial dimension. Blacks and whites get along, and even patronize some of the same stores, but there does not appear to be much in the way of real social capital that has developed between the two groups. This leaves the neighborhood extremely vulnerable to racial divisiveness if anything goes wrong.
This was illustrated to me by our local neighborhood group on the Next Door platform. This app is very popular in my neighborhood. However, judging from the avatar photos, it appears to be overwhelmingly white people who use it. Here’s an application that is building social capital in the neighborhood – I used to it meet my neighbors at the corner when I needed to borrow an extension ladder – but which has developed along racial boundaries. It seems to be spreading by word of mouth, and since existing social networks seem to be predominantly intra-race, it’s no surprise the online manifestations of them are as well.
There have been some property crimes in the area recently. This is sadly ubiquitous in all urban neighborhoods these days. My building (especially the garages) in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood was burglarized many times and we had to spend a lot of money to install high security doors and locks to try to stop it. My aunt and uncle just had their car stolen in the heart of Lincoln Park and even before that happened they told me theft was out of control there. These are two of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago. Even in my rural hometown theft is a common occurrence.
In short, I have no reason to believe the activity in my area is that unusual, either compared to other neighborhoods, or maybe even compared to the neighborhood’s own past. But thanks to apps like Next Door, we now know about every single incident of anything that occurs, whereas before that we would all have just gone about our business blissfully unaware of a lawnmower theft a couple blocks over unless it was we ourselves or someone we knew personally that got hit. (A neighborhood old timer posted a thread on Next Door to this very effect, saying that this ebb and flow of theft has been happening since he moved in during the 1970s)
As it happens, various neighbors believe believe they identified the culprit behind many similar incidents. As it happens, he’s an 18 year old black man from the neighborhood. I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, but apparently there’s a warrant out for him and he posted pictures of himself on Facebook pointing a pistol at the camera and such.
While people were zeroing in on their culprit, I noticed some started viewing any young black guy pausing too long in front of their house as suspicious. This was only a brief blip until such time as the specific person of interest was identified. However, this adds an instant racial dimension to matters, like it or not.
This wasn’t motivated by racial animus, but rather fear of being burglarized in a place where such burglaries were in fact occurring and where there was evidence that a particular black male was committing it. People in Lincoln Park and Lakeview can afford to take a philosophical view of theft. They are wealthy enough that having say a bicycle stolen is more annoyance than threat.
By contrast, in my working class area, not everyone can just whip out their debit card every time something goes wrong. In a response to an NYT piece extolling the virtues of minimalism, Tumblr writer Vruba suggested that living with minimal possessions is luxury for the well off:
Wealth is…having options and the ability to take on risk. If you see someone on the street dressed like a middle-class person (say, in clean jeans and a striped shirt), how do you know whether they’re lower middle class or upper middle class? I think one of the best indicators is how much they’re carrying….If I were rich, I would carry a MacBook Air, an iPad mini as a reader, and my wallet. My wallet would serve as everything else that’s in my backpack now. Go out on the street and look, and I bet you’ll see that the richer people are carrying less.
In a neighborhood where some people are only a few rungs up on the ladder that provides stability in life, vigilance over your stuff is important, because it’s not easily replaced. Only half of American households could come up with $400 in an emergency. Replacing a lawn mower probably means going into credit card debt (or more credit card debt) for them.
Nevertheless, what this illustrates to me is the potential racial powder keg that lies under the surface of even seemingly placid and well-integrated communities. Race is simply an inescapable subtext to any interaction that crosses the color line, no matter how much we try to avoid it, and it adds contingent risk to social stability.
Why do I say this? Because I believe there’s little to no interracial social capital in these places that can withstand a hit to neighborhood cohesion. There’s no genuine solidarity that comes from genuinely living life together in a way that goes deeper than everyday pleasantries. Thus the risk that racial tensions can end up erupting in some way is ever present.
This is not unique at all to my neighborhood, which, as I said and want to stress again, is a great place full of great people. For example, a couple weeks ago I had drinks with someone in Cincinnati whose neighborhood had nearly identical demographics and dynamics, right down to the use of Next Door. We have tried to solve racial problems in America through institutional solutions. As important as many of those are, they are not a substitute for the human connections that allow us to weather the vagaries of life together.
How do we create interracial social capital? It’s not easy. Earlier this year I had dinner with a resident of Over the Rhine in Cincinnati who wanted to create a personal connection to his black neighbors, but wasn’t sure how. Frankly none of us at dinner had any great ideas. I suggested perhaps joining a local black church, but that only works if attending church is something you do.
As the Next Door case shows, the path of least resistance doesn’t work here. Our default pathways for building social networks follow the color lines. And heck, books have been written about the decline in social capital within white America itself. Crossing the color line is even more difficult and requires a high degree of intentionality.
I spent some time in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, NC last week. Walltown is a historically black neighborhood adjacent to Duke University. While gentrification and university encroachment are issues, again the housing stock type limits upside on pricing. There has been some influx of white resident as well as Latinos, but a strong black presence is still there.
I visited with people from a black church there as part of a tour led by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, a white resident who co-founded Rutba House, a Christian intentional community (their term is “new monasticism”). Half of their spaces are allocated for those in need of transitional housing (the homeless, ex-offenders, etc), mostly people of color. I’d guess Jonathan is to the left of your average Boulder resident. He named Rutba House after a town in Iraq he was at during a private 2003 peace tour of the country during the war, which should give you an idea.
A big part of what the various faith groups there are doing is trying to do is figure out a way for blacks and whites to actually exist together in real community in Walltown, not just live in the same geography. I think he’d be the first to tell you that they’ve had at best partial success. This shows the difficulty, even with lots of people of various races committing to make it work.
What’s the answer? I don’t know, but I do believe a big part of the problem is lack of social capital at ground level. Again, this isn’t necessarily solely a matter of race, as the Fountain Square example illustrates, but in multi-racial neighborhoods the racial dimension is always present to some extent and certainly amplifies things. So it shouldn’t surprise us that even in places where everyone does appear to get along, it doesn’t necessarily take much to set things off. I think most Midwest cities could easily have social unrest with the right triggering incident. While there are some unique aspects to Ferguson such as the political geography of St. Louis metro, no city should feel superior just because it didn’t happen there.
While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I think we ought to spend some time thinking about the ways technology can actually make things worse. Not only does social media fan the flames of every debate – Twitter and Facebook may be great for many things, but substantive discourse isn’t one of them – but apps like Next Door that are designed to create social capital may actually have the unintended side effect of deepening racial divisions. This despite the fact that the one person I know who works for Next Door is passionate about creating the kind of interracial social capital I’m describing.
This perhaps should be a cautionary tale when it comes to technology-centric views of solving urban problems. There’s no app for solving America’s persistent racial gaps.
PS: I will be aggressively moderating comments or disabling commenting on this post if necessary.
Sunday, August 10th, 2014
[ I’m doing a three part mini-series this week on sacred space and architecture. I start off today with one I wrote last year based on remarks I have at a conference in Anaheim – Aaron. ]
This post originally appeared in New Geography on June 7, 2013.
Suburbs are often unfairly maligned as lacking the qualities that make cities great. But one place that criticism can be fair is in the area of sacred space. There most certainly is sacred space in the suburbs, but usually less of it than in the city both quantitatively and qualitatively. In fact, the comparative lack of sacred space is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the suburb that makes it “sub” urban, that is, in a sense lesser than the city.
Lewis Mumford put it this way:
Behind the wall of the city life rested on a common foundation, set as deep as the universe itself: the city was nothing less than the home of a powerful god. The architectural and sculptural symbols that made this fact visible lifted the city far above the village or country town….To be a resident of the city was to have a place in man’s true home, the great cosmos itself.
Mumford was onto something here in positing how great temples and such distinguished the city as unique.
What Is Sacred Space?
Mumford also hints at what makes something truly sacred space. We should clearly distinguish between what is merely public space and truly sacred space. The key to sacred space is the linkage to the transcendent. That is, sacred space connects us to something beyond or bigger than our surroundings, our present existence, and even ourselves.
Here are three ways sacred space can do that. It can:
- Connect us to a larger spiritual or religious reality, as in our Mumford example. This is the most obvious case.
- Serve as a locus or repository of the culture and traditions of a people.
- Be a temporal connection between the present and the past and/or the future.
As one example, consider the Indiana World War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis.
This building is of course a symbol of the bedrock American values of that community and the willingness of its people to die to defend them yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Thus it is both a cultural repository and a temporal linkage.
Also note the use of neoclassicism. The use of neoclassical architecture anchors Indianapolis and Indiana firmly within the 2,500 year history of Western Civilization, as a link in a chain of peoples connected by shared, timeless values and extending backwards and forward throughout time, thus achieving a sort of immortality. This building is a statement of the permanence of this community, its people, and their values.
We can also think of a radically different space such as Times Square, and how it has played host to so many civic celebrations and traditions over the years such that it has become not just a local but a national repository of our culture. The ball dropping on New Year’s Eve is an obvious example. But consider also this iconic photo.
This is one of the most famous pictures from the war era and I don’t think it’s any surprise it was taken Times Square.
How Suburbs Are Comparatively Lacking in Sacred Space
Let’s apply the definition of sacred space to the suburbs. Yes, suburbs do have war memorials and culture and traditions and churches, but in general these are qualitatively different from what is found in the city core. Here are three reasons why.
1. Suburban traditions and spaces are often ephemeral and generational. When I was in high school, everybody liked to go to a place called Down Home Pizza in Corydon on the weekends. And that was something kids from every high school in the area did, not just those from mine. Today that place is long gone. And the kids are doing something else, whatever that may be. In fact, it’s amazing how many of the places and traditions from my high school days are already gone after only 25 years because of physical and economic changes in the community such as restaurants and stores going out of business.
This happens in the city too, like when the department stores went under, taking their white-gloved tea rituals and the like with them. But to a much greater extent than the city, suburbs rely on commercial establishments as focal points of shared experience, and by their very nature those tend to come and go. And suburbs have not to nearly as a great a degree established truly trans-generation rituals and spaces.
2. Lack of transcendent scale. This is also something Mumford hints at. The “human scale” is a big buzzword in urbanism today. Contrary to what many say, the suburbs actually do a pretty good job of the human scale, especially from an automobile era perspective. But a unique essence of urbanity and often of transcendent experience itself is what we might call the “anti-human scale.” British writer Will Wiles put it this way:
The “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, this can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole.
The sheer scale of something like the Indiana War Memorial, which is a very imposing structure inside and out, renders it qualitatively different that your average small scale suburban memorial. This is true not just physically but also in terms of the humanity represented. That memorial stands for an entire state, not just a single town. Which is the same reason there may be more suburban school kids who have visited their state capital or the US Capitol than their local village hall. There’s a reason the US Capitol and Lincoln Memorial and such have such powerful resonance. They represent an entire nation and a vast sea of humanity. Cities also participate in this scale effect.
3. Low quality religious architecture. When it comes to the most obvious category of sacred space, the religious building, the suburbs also fall flat. That’s because Protestant Christianity, the largest suburban religious strain, has itself become unmoored from the transcendent. This is clear, for example, from the rise of what has been dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as a dominant worldview, especially among the young.
The average suburban megachurch is an architectural horror show. The best of them generally rise to the level of an upscale corporate conference center. The worst are like “That 70’s High School”.
Someone once said that all sin results from failing to believe one of the “4 G’s” about God, namely, God is great, God is good, God is gracious, and God is glorious. Applying that to religious life generally, in modern Evangelical churches, God may be very good and gracious, but He’s doesn’t seem all that great, and He’s certainly not very glorious. This is religion that can inspire good works, but not great ones. There’s no trace of the overwhelming glory of God in nearly any of these structures. There’s no longer a faith like the Lutheranism of Johann Sebastian Bach that can inspire the greatest works of human artistic achievement. Because modern suburban church architecture is so poor and so disposable, it diminishes the impact of sacredness in the space.
The recent stories about the sale of Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral, designed by Philip Johnson, brings to mind an exception that proves the rule.
Unsurprisingly it was the Catholic Church that bought it. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism has always had a theology of place. And they’ve always used architecture and art as a way of telling the story of the gospel. Though obviously not in this case, they’ve also used Gothic sort of like neoclassical architecture as a way creating a sense of permanence and linkage to an everlasting, eternal church.
So sacred space is one area where the suburbs really are deficient versus the city. But how important is this? Metropolitan areas today are mosaics. In an ever more complex and competitive global economy, every part of a region, city and suburb, needs to know its role on the team and bring it’s A-game. Just as there’s no need for every job to be located downtown, there’s no need for every major piece of sacred space in a region to be replicated in every suburb. Downtown does just nicely. However, this is one reason that while economically the core may no longer dominate a region, a healthy center still plays a key role in overall regional vitality. That’s because it remains home to things like the major pieces of sacred space such as war memorials and cathedrals that bind a region together and give it civilizational permanence, meaning, and purpose beyond the mundane.
This article was adapted from remarks at the No Place Like Home conference on June 3, 2013 in Anaheim, CA.
Monday, July 21st, 2014
I was briefly back on the homefront earlier this month to check out the now fully opened Big Four Bridge pedestrian path across the Ohio River in Louisville. While there I spent some time in NuLu, a retail and restaurant district centered on Market St. just east of downtown, and had dinner at a French bistro type place called La Coop. This place focuses on what I’d call the basics – it’s not trying to be a super high end kind of place. But I’m not going to lie, the undistinguished frites aside, the meal was spectacular front to back, and my date agreed.
Louisville is known for its many high quality restaurants. I doubt La Coop is tops on many people’s list, nor does it aspire to be. Yet preparing to drive back to Indy I was struck that La Coop is better than any restaurant in Indianapolis. My meal at La Coop was probably better than any one I’d had in Indy since L’Explorateur closed in 2009. And that’s a not uncommon occurrence when dining in Louisville. What’s more, La Coop was bustling by 8pm on a Tuesday night. While tables were certainly available, you can’t assume you can just walk in to a top restaurant there without a reservation, even on a weeknight.
Louisville clearly values fine dining in a way that Indianapolis doesn’t. Metro Indy is larger, better educated, richer, and much less provincial. Given that amenities generally fall along a size-wealth slope, by default you’d think Indy would do better on the restaurant front. But it doesn’t. Why is this?
Louisville clearly punches above its weight on restaurants. Part of this is due to the presence of a major culinary school. But that doesn’t explain the demand side of the equation. What does?
I see this as resulting at least in part from a cultural divide between the Midwest and the South, which seems to fall somewhere between these two cities. I argue the stronger aristocratic heritage of the South creates the conditions in which excellence is encouraged (or at least respected), versus the leveling democratic social state of the Midwest that anathematizes any distinctions between high and low and thus creates a climate in which excellence is disparaged (or distrusted at best).
Tocqueville is of course the best writer on the differences between aristocracy and democracy. Of aristocratic heritage himself, he recognized the overall superiority of the democratic state in uplifting the common man. The average condition in a democratic social state he would note, is higher than that of an aristocracy. He also saw clearly the many flaws of the aristocratic state. Yet he also realized that with the passing of aristocracy, things would be lost, especially in the realm of fine arts and refinement more broadly construed.
Tocqueville (among others) noted that the South was the most aristocratic region of the United States. That doesn’t mean he approved. In fact, he was not a fan of the US South, and wrote of its many manifest flaws, including the injustice of slavery and the many pernicious effects it had on the character of whites as well.
One of traits of aristocracy that seems to remain present in the South is the existence and embrace of an aristocratic class or caste. In many cases this is family based, such that, for example, you could never become fully part of the elite of Charleston as an outsider no matter how much money, talent, or class you have. But carpetbaggers and the nouveau riche are able to assimilate to some degree.
As with a feudal landholding, this aristocratic class exists as part of an integrated system with the lower classes. Thus the lower classes not only recognize the rights of aristocratic class to homage and such, the elites can even be a source of pride to ordinary residents of the community.
In this system, the upper class can cultivate high end tastes without incurring the opprobrium of the community. They are literally a class apart and are expected to depart from the average resident in terms of tastes and manners.
We see this clearly in the case of the so-called “Millionaire’s Row” at the Kentucky Derby. Actually, many Louisville locals never even attend the Kentucky Derby, instead attending the Kentucky Oaks, which is held the day before and is known as the race for the locals. (The Oaks itself attracts over 100,000 attendees). Most of them will certainly never visit the Derby’s more elite precincts. Yet, seeing the presence of celebrities and local elites in their finery on TV doesn’t produce resentment, but rather pride. The conspicuous consumption and lavish traditions of elite Louisville are something the average resident sees as reflecting well on their community as a whole, and hence to some extent even on themselves.
In terms of how this affects restaurants, Louisville’s elite can patronize high quality, high status establishments without shame. There is nothing seen as wrong in the community with them pursuing aristocratic tastes. Again, the high quality of Louisville’s restaurants can be a source of pride even to those who don’t patronize them. There are, of course, class tensions in Louisville such as the East End-South End divide. But class conflict itself implies multiple classes of people.
The situation is totally different in Indianapolis. In Indiana, the idea of an aristocratic type class would be viewed with hostility. There’s a democratic social state norm in which anyone who is viewed as too uppity is seen as having a moral defect. There’s only supposed to be one class of people. This has its virtues, but has debilitating effects as well. Take for example the classic line “He might have book learning but he doesn’t have any common sense.” You literally hear this in Indiana. Admittedly, in my case it may have been true. But the moral system underpinning it clearly explains why education is held in such low regard in the Midwest. It’s not just that education as such is viewed as not worth it; the pursuit of education indicates a type of moral deficiency.
So take a look at the traditions of the Indianapolis 500. Obviously US auto racing has a different culture than horse racing. But it still aligns with the social state. The 500 is a classic everyman’s type event, with a blue collar ethos, in which actual attendance by locals plays a major role. There are some celebrities of course, but celebrity/elite culture plays a very limited role there in contrast to the Kentucky Derby and certainly than international auto racing such as Formula 1. (The biggest personalities at the 500 are those with a particularly local traditional appeal – like Jim Nabors and Florence Henderson – versus contemporary celebrity star power).
This bleeds through into nearly every aspect of the civic culture in the state. I’ve long noted that there’s no culture of connoisseurship in Indianapolis. This is true for pretty much everything. Restaurants are but one example. While much better on average than they used to be, and certainly not bad by any means, Indy’s restaurants don’t measure up to Louisville’s with the notable exception of breakfast places. As the case with the aforementioned L’Exporateur shows, when Indy chefs do decide to put out a world class product, it isn’t patronized because it isn’t valued. It’s not about culinary talent, it’s about the customer base or lack thereof. The chef behind L’Ex opened a pizza place next. It should be no surprise that Indianapolis Monthly once had a cover story dubbing the city “Chain City, USA.”
My understanding is that there is a group of hardcore food and wine folks in Indy, but they do most of their consumption at private dinners and out of their private cellars. Public displays of refinement or luxurious consumption in Indianapolis are simply not acceptable.
This is but one example of how the pursuit of excellence in all varieties is disparaged and subject to active suppression in the state. This is hardly limited to Indiana and is a near universal Midwestern trait from what I’ve seen. Chicago offers the major exception, and I’ll exclude Minnesota as well for now since I don’t fully grok the culture there.
It’s been said pejoratively that “Indiana is the ‘middle finger of the South’ sticking into the Midwest.” And while it’s true that parts of Southern Indiana such as my hometown, being in Louisville’s orbit, have a heavy Southern influence, the state is not Southern in my view. It’s very different culturally and here we have one example. I easily see the same dynamic that exists in Indiana to various degrees in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
That this is a cultural value is most clearly seen in the exceptions that prove the rule, like Columbus, Indiana. Columbus is by far the most successful small industrial city in the state, and home to a world-renowned collection of modern architecture among other distinctives. In a major essay on that city, I noted that “in Columbus, excellence is not a byword.” This was perhaps imposed externally by local business magnate J. Irwin Miller, but appears to have been stamped to some degree on the character of the community. As local business owner Tony Moravec put it, “We do things first class here.” Whether the value will be retained or dissipate now that Miller is dead remains to be seen, but it’s still there for now.
But in a state replete with struggling communities, has anyplace ever looked to imitate Columbus? Has it been held up as a model? No. Why not? It’s because Indiana as a whole rejects the values that made Columbus successful. J. Irwin Miller famously said that “a mediocrity is expensive.” True, but that misses the point re:Indiana. Mediocrity isn’t an economic value in the state. It’s a moral value. People aren’t choosing mediocrity in the mistaken belief that it’s cheap. They think aspiring to better is a character defect. That sacralization of average is why many of its communities are willing to martyr themselves in its honor. And if a place tries to aspire to better, don’t worry. The General Assembly will soon be introducing legislation to make sure that doesn’t spread.
This produces an enormous cultural headwind that is an impediment to even the cultural elite in their attempts to create high quality things, from good architecture to good restaurants. The attempts are compromised both via the internalization of this value, and external forces expressing it. As Paul Graham put it:
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that.
The restaurants of Indianapolis are well beyond mediocre, but they have clearly been affected by this characteristic of the social state in which they are operating.
One exception to this rule about the pursuit of excellence is in sports, and it’s a telling one. Hoosiers and Midwesterners want to see their teams win, but they want to see them win the right way and with the right kind of people that reflect the character of the state’s residents. In the South they just want wins and they don’t care how they get them.
Do you think anybody in Kentucky cares about the Calipari Way as long as UK is racking up wins and championships? Is it any surprise that it’s North Carolina where athletes get A’s in fake classes? Nobody cares in the South as long the wins come and behavior doesn’t get so bad it brings national publicity.
By contrast, Big Ten schools by and large expect their players to get an education and graduate, to demonstrate good character, and there’s a lifelong commitment and bond between coaches, fans, and players. When IU tried to import a UK style into its program with the Kelvin Sampson hire, the fanbase rejected it almost immediately. (By the way, I’ll never consider Penn State a Big Ten school, and Pennsylvania is not the Midwest). It’s similar in the way that the brawl era Pacers saw their fan support vaporize.
In Indiana particularly, from Milan High School to Steve Alford’s Indiana Hoosiers, the self-effacing, fundamentally sound, clean cut, small town type of player and team had big success. (Oscar Robertson was a player in the same mold. Though he never got his due at the time thanks to racism, he shows that even black Indiana players exhibited the same character traits). This perhaps convinced Hoosiers that their preferred style of doing things would bring success as well.
Unfortunately that hasn’t played out much recently, either in sports or economically. This produces cognitive dissonance and a sense of bitterness about a world that seems to have gone wrong. As I wrote re:Columbus and about how that city’s embrace of excellence paid economic rewards in a world where cheap places to do business are a dime a dozen:
It isn’t just something that affects architecture….This is a place with high standards for itself. This pays huge dividends in the economic development sphere. In a competitive world, only firms that deliver excellence can survive the brutal global competition. Which workers are more likely to produce excellent products, ones that demand excellence in their own communities, or ones who disparage it? How can any investor believe that residents who tolerate a run down, mediocre community for their own family to live in will suddenly start taking pride in the products coming off their employers’ production lines? It makes no sense at all.
I’m not sure the Midwest understands this lesson, or would take heed of it if it did. Rather there is, I detect, a martyrdom complex. People in the Midwest believe they are entitled to success the way they used to enjoy it because they live the right way. But if they don’t get it, at least their communities can die with their values intact. If this is in fact the case, it’s impossible to gainsay the decision. It’s even admirable in a sense. I myself would never adopt the values of UK basketball no matter how many championships it would bring. But then again I’m a Hoosier so of course I feel that way.
In any case, as Richard Longworth put it in his book about the failures of the Midwest in the age of globalization, “The first task is to tell the truth.” Simply stating the obvious truth that Louisville has better restaurants than Indy may generate blowback. But the larger and more painful truth is that Indiana and the Midwest have embraced mediocrity as a value in a way that hobbles the pursuit of excellence there, and has terrible economic and other consequences that go far beyond restaurants. Unless and until that truth is faced and things change, which may require something like an influx of outsiders not wedded to the status quo, the enormous potential of this region and its people will continue to be squandered.
Sunday, June 29th, 2014
This is the last of my entries prompted by my recent trip to Columbus. I’ve noted before that Columbus and Indianapolis are twin cities in many ways, though with some important differences.
One of those differences is that the civic discussion in Indianapolis today is heavily driven by the urgency of reversing the decline of Marion County as the city of Indianapolis increasingly loses out demographically and economically to its suburbs. In Columbus, by contrast, I didn’t sense nearly the same concern about suburban competition. While again I only have limited data points to go by, what conversations I did have if anything suggested to me that the city of Columbus thinks it’s holding most of the cards in the region. I suggest letting Indianapolis be a cautionary tale, and that Columbus should be much more focused on how to manage future suburban competition than it presently seems to be.
By the late 1960s Indianapolis had, like most cities, been steadily losing ground to suburban development. The response was a city-county merger called Unigov* that in effect annexed all important contemporary suburbs are well as most of the empty land that would be urbanized in the next two decades. This allowed Indianapolis to capture that suburban tax base and avoid many of the problems that plagued other older cities during the 1970s.
Fast forward to the present and it’s clear that the Unigov model is out of gas. Marion County is now largely full apart from some areas in the southern parts, and has a fairly flat growth curve in population. Most the growth is now in the collar counties. What’s more, there’s been a huge employment shift as well, with the city losing 41,000 jobs since 2000 and the suburbs gaining 78,000. I gave an overview of the dynamics in a previous post.
Today Indianapolis has a serious problem on its hand. How did this happen? It’s pretty simple. Unigov bought he city 40 years. But what did it do with that time? It built up its downtown to one of America’s best, a legitimately impressive and important accomplishment. But beyond that it was basically business as usual. Unfortunately, the 5.5 square miles of downtown can’t carry the rest of the city’s nearly 400. The city should have been aggressively preparing for the day when Unigov would reach exhaustion. But it did not.
Columbus utilized a similar technique to Unigov by aggressively annexing suburban development. And it had fairly similar results, doing well and avoiding the problems. But it seems to be widely accepted in Columbus that the city is nearing the end of its growth by annexation phase. While unlike in Indiana, Ohio makes it fairly easy to annex across county lines, and Columbus extends into multiple counties already, annexation has slowed to a crawl. In part I’m told that they are now reaching into territories that have other sources of water than the city of Columbus water utility, and thus the city has less leverage to annex than before. While technically not hemmed in, Columbus has less room for growth than before. This raises the question of when the dynamics of decline will set in within the newly stagnant city.
Columbus appears to be in better shape than Indy right now. I’d say this is for a few reasons. First, Franklin County, Columbus’ home base, is geographically bigger than Indy’s Marion County, giving Columbus a larger area of natural historic dominance. Columbus is also home to newer office/retail suburban development than Indianapolis. For example, Indy’s Keystone Crossing area is based on edge city and power center templates that are dated, while the corresponding Easton area in Columbus is newer and built to a lifestyle center type template that’s a bit more up to date. Columbus similarly has the relatively new Polaris area inside its borders.
What’s more, Columbus’ suburbs are comparatively underdeveloped and thus aren’t rivals as of yet. Indianapolis has five suburbs with more than 50,000 people – two of them with more than 80,000. Columbus has none. Only Dublin, which has 43,000 people, 9.5 million square feet of office space, and major downtown development ambitions, appears to be a full scale competitor at this point. Most other suburban municipalities are much smaller (e.g., New Albany has less than 10,000 people) and/or enclosed by the city of Columbus and thus limited in growth. Favored quarter suburban Delaware County has 185,000 people (some of which are in the city of Columbus) vs. nearly 300,000 for analogous Hamilton County, IN. What’s more, Hamilton County is far ahead in infrastructure vs. Delaware County. Delaware County has next to no upgraded east-west or “crosstown” arterials. Two reservoirs there make developing them difficult, with one of them separating I-71 from the developed parts of the county. Thus the county is even lacking in north-south “radial” movements.
These factors and others have essentially kept Columbus from facing any significant suburban competition. But unless the city wants to somehow double down on annexation and try to restart that engine, at some point these dynamics will change and the city of Columbus will find itself physically constrained and competitively disadvantaged vs. newer and now more powerfully developed suburban entities. Dublin is likely a preview of coming attractions.
I don’t have any particular policy suggestion in mind here, nor am I saying that anything the city is doing is necessarily wrong. But given what has happened in Indianapolis, I would certainly encourage the future prospect of suburban competition to be top of mind. The city of Columbus should be aggressively scenario planning for how this will play out, and use the runway that it has left to be preparing for the era of more intense intra-regional competition to come. Better to err on the side of paranoia, because the risks of waiting until you’ve got a serious problem on your hands are too high to ignore.
* Unigov also ensured a white majority in the city
Thursday, May 22nd, 2014
I’ve long argued that the real reason sprawl, or suburban development as we’ve been practicing it, is a problem isn’t because it’s ugly, environmentally damaging, racist, or some other form of evil. The more fundamental problem is that it’s a long term financial loser. The numbers just don’t add up over the long term when you take a lifecycle view of it.
As I outlined in “The Power of Greenfield Economics” and elsewhere, new suburbs look attractive for a number of transitory reasons: everything is new, state of the art, and exactly in line with current market tastes; no legacy costs; no legacy institutions, deals, political dynasties, etc; few low income residents and thus low social service costs; deferred infrastructure development; the efficiency of large lot development; and scale economics in public service provision in a growth environment.
Eventually though, your shiny new suburb fills up and so growth comes to a halt, then often about the same time it gets old. This send all of those positive factors into reverse, triggering a cycle of decline that will ultimately cause major problems in vast tracts of suburban America that aren’t either a) wealthy communities or b) in markets that have tight restrictions on new building (which preserves these communities at the expense of rendering them unaffordable).
The perfect display of this is happening before our eyes in Indianapolis as the Indianapolis Business Journal reported this week in a major story called, “Aging suburbs face long road back” which sadly is likely behind a paywall at this point.
Like many places, the old city of Indianapolis found itself losing population to suburban areas further out in Marion County due to a variety of factors. Their solution to this problem was city-county merger, a system called Unigov. In a sense, it was regional government in which the city annexed its suburbs.
Problem solved, right?
No so fast. The problem is that growth at a rate of 200,000+ people per decade plus further expansion of the urban footprint sent growth out past the boundaries of the merged city and into the surrounding counties. As this happened, the old suburbs of Marion County themselves got old and fell out of favor, and are increasingly zones of suburban blight. The city is now close to being right back where it started. Unigov bought Indianapolis 40 years, but other than using that captured suburban tax base to build up downtown – a legitimately important and impressive accomplishment – it otherwise continued with business as usual. The result is that vast tracts of the city are now behind the 8-ball, with no plan or prospect for near term change. Per the IBJ:
Poverty is encroaching on the outer townships of Marion County, adding to their handicap in the competition with doughnut counties, where houses are newer, and sidewalks, sewer connections and bike paths come standard. Now, Marion County’s suburban neighborhoods also face the flight of national retailers and poverty-driven challenges for their school districts. Spreading poverty makes it even more difficult to market a four-bedroom, two-bath house on a suburban lot in, say, Warren Township on the east side against a similar product over the county line. “That’s a tough nut to crack,” said John Marron, an analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. “To me, it’s easier to sell the authentic urban experience.”….. For decades after Unigov merged city and county government in 1970, Marion County’s suburban townships propped up the city’s tax base. Now they could become a drag.
Wayne Township has the largest low-income area outside of Center Township, with 20 square miles and 62,327 residents. Many of those neighborhoods are inside the I-465 belt. One encompasses a cluster of apartment complexes just south of Ben Davis High School. Marron thinks the changes in Wayne Township stem from its concentration of homes built in the 1970s or earlier—a less desirable housing stock than is available farther west in fast-growing Hendricks County….The median Wayne Township sales price in 2013 was $66,505…“We have not seen any significant economic development here on the west side for some time” [says Wayne Township schools Superintendent Jeffrey Butts].
This was entirely predictable. Given that Wayne Township’s officials, no matter what they might say in this article, are dead set against change (such as merging their independent fire department with IFD), don’t expect much change in the results.
One thing the IBJ didn’t highlight but represents a big overhang in these aging suburbs is the aging in place population. A lot of these places skew older as there are baby boomers and up who bought and have simply stayed put. On the one hand, this is great. On the other, that long term population masks the fact that there’s no next generation moving in, so as the older generations start to die, the situation is going to continue to degrade. We already saw this happen in a lot of the inner city.
But the most telling quote in the entire article was from West Side Chamber of Commerce President Rick Proctor when he said, “There’s probably never going to be enough money to retrofit all of Indianapolis with the amenities all of us would like in our neighborhoods.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!
The bottom line is that the type of development that’s been ongoing in Indy and most American communities can’t ever generate enough tax revenue to pay to provide the infrastructure, amenities, and services necessary to support it. To show you what I mean, I’ll show you a picture from the old city, the supposed “urban core”. This is my block:
As you can see, the infrastructure here is minimal. Not even curbs much less sidewalks. Spend any time in Indy as you’ll immediately get it that this place has always been cheap. Even the old city was never built right to begin with.
What would it cost to retrofit this street with real infrastructure? What would it cost to perform routine maintenance and basic services like street lighting (currently provided at minimalistic levels), street sweeping (not performed) or snow plowing/salting (not performed either, unless there’s over six inches of snow)? Let’s just say it would be a huge amount of money. Now ask yourself how much in property and income taxes these mostly 2-3 bedroom, one bath worker cottages are likely to produce in taxes. It’s clear the math will never work. And this is in a neighborhood that still has a lot of pull to younger families thanks to its proximity to the urban commercial districts in the area.
I wrote an entire series on building suburbs that last, but one thing is clear. You have to at least build the infrastructure up front if you wait to have any hope. Because if you want to provide basic streets and arterials, etc. until later, then you’re not going to be able to afford it. If your development can’t support the cost of full infrastructure, that’s a powerful market signal that it’s not viable. This is a government concern because it’s the government that’s forced to come in after the collapse and pick up the pieces – or try to anyway. Of course, that would be the same government that got us into this mess in the first place.
The most tragic thing about all this? Despite the ample evidence of the catastrophe that awaits, Indianapolis is still doing more of the same. Right now in Franklin Township, one of the few places inside the city limits that is still a greenfield from a development perspective, the city is approving and permitting out vast tracts of low-grade sprawl there. We are building tomorrow’s addition to our pile of problems right now. And nowhere in any city initiative that’s currently ongoing is there any hint of changing that. The same is true all over America. I might suggest the old adage applies: if you’re in a hole, first stop digging.
Monday, May 5th, 2014
This post originally appeared on July 11, 2011.
Obviously states aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but a number of folks have suggested that state’s aren’t just obsolete, they are downright pernicious in their effects on local economies.
One principal exponent of this point of view is Richard Longworth, who has written about it extensively in his book “Caught in the Middle” and elsewhere. Here’s what he has to say on the topic:
In the global era, states are simply too weak and too divided to provide for the welfare of their citizens…The reason is a deep, intractable problem. Midwestern states make no sense as units of government. Most Midwestern states don’t really hang together – politically, economically, or socially. In truth, these states and their governments are incompetent to deal with twenty-first century problems because of their history, rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Longworth expounds upon this to identify a series of specific issues, which I’ll put into my own terms.
1. States do not represent communities of interest. With some exceptions, states consist of cities, rural areas, and regions that have very distinct histories, geographies, economies, and and event cultures. As a result, it is incredibly difficult for legislators and leaders from various parts of the state to find common cause.
Here’s how Longworth describes Illinois:
Illinois, like Indiana, is three states, and for the same reasons. The southern third, again south of I-70, is a satellite of the South – more give to conservative religions, gun racks in pickup trucks, and a deeply conservative Republicanism….Most of the rest of the state is called Downstate to differentiate it from Chicago, even though some of it, such as Rockford, is actually north of the city. It is an unfocused place…what unites this heterogeneous region is a dislike of the third region, Chicago. Chicago dominates Illinois – politically and economically…If the rest of Illinois obsesses about Chicago, Chicago gives the impression – an accurate one, in fact – of never thinking about the rest of Illinois.
Additionally, I might add my observation that this creates a situation where the policies which are right for one area may be wrong for another. Since it is the nature of governments to promote uniform rules, this often leaves one or even all regions of a state with suboptimal rules. In fairness, there are are often some types of flexibility, such as that provided by different classes of cities. But important macro policies remain one size fits all.
Consider Illinois. It’s a combination of a global city core in Chicago, a Rust Belt hinterland, and a southern fringe region. State policy is set by the Chicago elite as a general rule, and predictably it follows a big city, global city favorable model: strong home rule powers for large municipalities, a high tax/high service type model, strong public sector unions, etc. This pretty much works for Chicago, but for downstate it puts their communities in a major economic vice since they don’t benefit from global city friendly policies and are competing against other places that have optimized in other ways.
Indiana being one example. It is pretty much the opposite. Its largest city region is only about 25% of the state’s population, meaning Indiana is dominated by rural and small city constituencies. As a result, Indiana has optimized for a “Wal-Mart” strategy such as through its low-service/low-tax approach, weak environmental rules, and very weak (I’d argue nearly non-existent) home rule powers for even its largest municipalities. This is great if you are a small manufacturing city trying to beat out Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois for low wage manufacturing and distribution jobs (which sounds bad but is realistically the best short term play these places have). But it’s pretty terrible if you are Indianapolis and trying to fight to have a place in the global economy, attract choice talent, build biotech and high tech business clusters, etc.
2. Arbitrary state lines encourage senseless border wars. With limited exceptions, the major cities of the Midwest (and often elsewhere around the country) were founded on major bodies of water like rivers, lakes, or an ocean. These were often boundaries of states, thus major cities are frequently at the edge, not the center of states. This means not infrequently you find multi-state metro areas, which creates structural conflicts of interest. The logical economic unit is the metro area, but it matters from a local fiscal point of view (i.e., the ability to collect income, sales, and property taxes) where particular businesses locate. Thus we frequently see the case where localities spend tons of money on incentives simply to get businesses to relocate within the same metro area. You can have bidding wars without multiple states (such as neighboring suburbs competing over a Wal-Mart), but these seldom involve major state level incentives.
Longworth again summed this up masterfully in a recent blog post called “The Wars Between the States” where he documents the incentives being doled out to convince companies to move back and forth across the state border in the Kansas City metro area:
It would seem impossible for Midwestern states to get any sillier and more irrelevant, but they’re trying. In a time of continuing recession and joblessness, with crunching budget problems, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and no real future in sight, these states have decided to solve their problems by stealing jobs from each other.
The most recent example is the so-called “border war” between Kansas and Missouri, as the two states compete to see how much money they can throw at businesses to move from one state to the other. The focus of this war is Kansas City — both the Kansas one and the Missouri one, basically a single urban area divided not only by an invisible line down the middle of a street but by a mindless hostility that keeps its two parts from working together.
Competition with “Europe, India, China and the rest of the world” has nothing to do with this juvenile job-raiding. In fact, this “border war” keeps Missouri and Kansas from competing globally — indeed, robs them of the tools they need to compete globally. Some rational thought shows why. It’s precisely these states’ inability to compete globally that causes them to declare war on the folks next door. In a global economy, Kansas and Missouri aren’t competing with each other, any more than Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin are competing with each other. The real competition is 10,000 miles away and all Midwesterners know that we’re losing it.
[ Update 5/5/2014: It looks like Missouri and Kansas may be about to declare a truce in their border war ]
3. Many state capitals are small, isolated, and cut off from knowledge about the global 21st century economy. In some states the state capital is a large city that is well-connected to the global economy – Atlanta, Indianapolis, St. Paul, and Nashville come to mind. But often state capitals were selected because they were in the geographic center of the state, not because they were major centers in their own right. Some, like Indianapolis, managed to grow into major cities. But many others did not. Think Springfield, Jefferson City, Frankfort, etc. This means that the state capital of many states is not very large, and often not very plugged into the global conversation. Longworth again captures the implications of this:
There is another reason why state governments are botching the economic needs of their states. Some 150 to 200 years ago, state capitals were picked not for economic reasons, but for geographic ones. Many of them remain in this isolated irrelevance today, far from the real action of any of the territories they are meant to govern…In this era of globalization, with overnight shipping and instant communications, this shouldn’t make any difference. In fact, it does. Global cities such as Chicago depend on face-to-face contact, and isolated state capitals live out of earshot of this conversation. The winds of globalization are transforming state economies and generating new thinking about state futures, but the news takes a long time to get to the state houses and legislatures.
4. Metro areas are the engines of the modern economy, but the rules for municipal and regional governance are set by states, and often in a manner that is directly contrary to urban interests. In this Longworth channels the Brookings Institution, which has tirelessly documented the importance of metro area economies to the nation as well as all the ways states, frequently controlled by non-urban legislators who are actively fearful of cities, have often imposed enormous burdens on those metro areas by tying them down with a morass of Lilliputian rules. Again Longworth:
States set the boundaries of urban jurisdictions and decide whether or how they can merge. They tell cities who they can tax and how, whether this helps cities or not. State governments help finance local infrastructure and dictate, from miles away, how that money is spent. State priorities on education and workforce programs leave city residents incompetent to deal with the global job market. Highway funds go to rural areas, not to cities that need them more; job creation money goes to wealthy areas, not to the core of battered cities.
Some urban regions have more or less given up any hope that their state will ever change or be a positive partner, such as Kansas City, as Longworth notes:
When the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation issued a report on the city’s future, it pretty much told the state to get out of the way. “Nations and states still matter,” it said. “They particularly can do their cities harm. But cities have to take the lead. San Diego did not become San Diego by looking to Sacramento, not Seattle to Olympia.” When the authors talked about Sacramento and Olympia, one felt their really meant Jefferson City.
I’d probably go even further than Longworth. I think that historically states imposed rules on cities deliberately designed to hobble their growth. For example, the laws that restricted branch banking in most states until recently had the effect of keeping big city banks from buying up rural and small town banks around the state. The end game of course is that when deregulation occurred, the banks in most big cities were so small because of these rules, they were easy prey to out of state acquirers. Thus most states saw basically their entire indigenous banking industry swallowed up.
Also, states seem to more or less treat their urban regions like ATM machines. Every study I’ve seen documents how, contrary to popular belief, cities actually are net exporters of tax dollars to their state government. Marion County, Indiana for example (Indianapolis), sends a net of about $400 million a year to the state – enough to cover the entire public safety budget of the city.
I actually don’t have a problem with some redistribution as cities are generally economic engines and more efficient to boot, so they should be expected to be donors at some level. On the other hand, when states proceed to starve those cities of the critical funds they need stay healthy and strip them of the powers they need to manage their own affairs, this is like sticking a knife in the golden goose.
Again I can use Indianapolis as an example. As part of a tax reform package the state took over all operating educational funding for K-12. So far so good. But they also imposed a funding formula that severely disadvantaged growing suburban districts by denying them equal per pupil funding. The net result was a major funding problem for the best suburban Indianapolis districts like Carmel, Fishers, etc. Many of these districts had to go to referendums to raise local taxes to make up the difference (which was no doubt the state’s plan all along – it simply outsourced the unpleasantries of a tax increase to localities). Here is a state that claims it wants to be in the biotech business, the high tech business, etc, yet it singles out the school districts where the labor force you are trying to attract for those industries is likely to live for outsized cuts. That hardly seems like a winning strategy.
Indiana also keeps its cities on a tight leash, with some of the weakest home rule powers around. Indianapolis basically can’t do much without legislative approval (a transit referendum, for example, will require specific legislative authorization). And the legislature seems to like it that way. Indiana’s property tax caps, which I support generally from a percentage of assessment perspective, include a lot of poorly advertised gotchas. For example, regardless of assessed value, the total tax levy can only grow at a rate equal to the average personal income growth over the last six years. I’ll caveat this by saying I haven’t studied this in detail and thus may be a bit off base, but the levy cap appears to be a de facto spending cap at current levels regardless in growth of tax base. This may be ok for some, but not others that are growing say their commercial office space base at a rapid clip and need to expand infrastructure and services to support it.
Clearly many of these policies have no real benefit to the Indianapolis region, which is more or less being asked to be the economic engine of the state and finance state government without being given the tools to do that job property.
The list goes on but that should give you a flavor. Similar things occur around the country.
To this list I’ll add one of my own, which has also been richly illustrated by Jim Russell. Namely,
5. States can’t to much to help, but they can do a lot to hurt. A lot of the national debate seems to center on whether the “red state” or “blue state” model makes the most sense. But to a great extent, policy almost doesn’t matter. In Ohio, with one set of state policies, Columbus thrives while Cleveland struggles. Tennessee is a right to work state with no income tax, but Nashville booms while Memphis stagnates. Texas is doing great with its red state model, but Mississippi and Alabama not so much. And even within Texas, there are plenty of places that are hurting badly.
While good policy can set the stage for growth, it can’t guarantee local economies will prosper. But bad policies can hurt regions that otherwise would thrive. Extremes of either the blue or red model seem to lead to problems. Witness California, for example, which seems to be holding up a sign to business saying, “Get lost.”
This puts states in the difficult position of being almost being able to aspire at best to being a neutral influence on their own economy. But it’s easy for them to screw things up.