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Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Creating a Culture of Honest Critique

City Lab ran an interesting piece about Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, called “Dallas Finds Its Voice.” Lamster was brought to the city from New York by a joint hire between the newspaper and the University of Texas at Arlington. The goal was apparently to bring in a top notch out of town critic who wasn’t afraid to apply the same lens to Dallas that he did to the Big Apple. He appears to have succeeded:

Mark Lamster’s very first assignment for The Dallas Morning News was a bombshell. His review of the George W. Bush Presidential Center appeared on the front page of the paper in April of last year, days before the library opened to the public. It didn’t pull any punches. “Everywhere competent, it nowhere rises to a level of inspiration,” Lamster wrote. The newspaper’s newly minted architecture critic called out the project’s host, Southern Methodist University President R. Gerald Turner, for a directive that “precluded a work of more adventurous design.”

“It was very embarrassing to a lot of what I’d call boosters in town,” says Bob Mong, the editor-in-chief of The Dallas Morning News, who brought Lamster down from New York. Mong nevertheless put it smack dab on A1. “It got everyone’s attention, let me tell you. When you stand back from it and look at what he wrote, it holds up very well today.”

Readers greeted Lamster cautiously. “Must be a Democrat,” said one commenter. “The review was written before the yankee [sic] got there,” chimed another.

But while Johnny Football would’ve ruined one of Dallas’s greatest institutions, Lamster is elevating the city through his reporting and criticism. “Welcome to Dallas: Paradox City,” a September report on the conflicting interests driving development there, could double as a mission statement for his work as a critic. Earlier this month, he explained the function and history of a complex of jails that he describes as the “unholy gateway to our city.” That report segues neatly into “Building the Just City,” the title for the third annual David Dillon Symposium, a conference he is helping to host today and Saturday for the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

Lamster’s hiring seems to have filled a key gap in Dallas, namely finding a knowledgeable critic who is willing to call them like he sees them. Finding this sort of realistic self-assessment is very hard for cities that aren’t in the first cultural tier. In my experience, grade inflation and softball reviews are rampant.

I’ve thought about the dynamics of this with regards to smaller cities for a while. One is that the audience is primarily made up of locals who aren’t plugged into cultural capitals. The comparison is generally versus what existed in the local market previously – which often results in seeing marked improvement – rather than a comparison against an outside standard or a comparative benchmark. One reason I started my blog as a regional blog is that so few people were aware of what was going on in places even just a short drive down the interstate that they believed things like downtown condo construction meant something special was happening in their town – as opposed to the reality that it was simply a trend that was hitting everyone else also washing over their city. Critics, maybe because in smaller cities newspapers and such sometimes simply assign a local reporter to that beat, seem to judge by the same standards.

A second problem is social. And it’s a two-fold problem. The first part is that strong critique has likely never been a part of the local culture, thus it’s simply not how things are done in the town. It’s hard to argue with this in a sense as a community is certainly free to adopt those values. But such a value set comes with consequences.

The other part is that even in regions as big as two million or more, the cultural class isn’t that large and is very interconnected. It’s inevitable that you are going to have to interact with the people you write about socially at some point. So if you write a critical review, that’s going to make for some awkward moments. In a place with no culture of it, people might not react well to being critiqued, and the reviewer himself probably doesn’t have a lot of experience at dealing with blowback, and so is emotionally sensitized to it.

Thirdly, there’s generally a desire in these places to want to support local businesses, cultural groups, etc. A lot of the folks engaging on the field of battle culturally are those who could have left town, but elected to stay. And there’s a desire to support them in their choice. In fact, the people who did make that choice can even feel entitled to that support. This isn’t just in small places either as “buy local” reigns almost unquestioned as preferred among the intelligentsia.

Again, that’s a valid cultural decision to make. I myself prefer to patronize local establishments where I can, and I’m even willing to pay a bit of a penalty in terms of price and quality to do it. But too often I think local purveyors of various products and services and cultural activities are basically given a free pass on quality. And often the people doing the truly best work aren’t appreciated, particularly if it’s innovative. By definition innovative work is contrary to the conventional wisdom, and to the extent that smaller local markets seek to boost their status by glomming on to trends, innovators can seem genuinely uncool. Additionally, people locally may not recognize or be willing to pay for true quality. For example, their definition of a luxury watches might include Rolex, but they’ve never even heard of say FP Journe.

Now Dallas is bigger than the regions I had in mind. I speculate based on the article that they had a similar relationship to criticism, however. It would take a local to say for sure what cultural factors are at work. But it’s interesting to see them stepping out a bit. I haven’t done enough analysis of Lamster’s work to judge, but if the comments even on City Lab are any judge, he’s already stirring up trouble.

Whatever the case, this shows that the Dallas Morning News at least wanted to try to elevate the game of Dallas. As I wrote in a previous post, some in Dallas are no longer satisfied with purely commercial success and are seeking, like other boomtowns before it, for Dallas to get classy too. This would appear to be in line with those efforts. That requires a community that’s willing to take a hard look in the mirror and be honest with themselves about where they don’t measure up versus their aspirations (and boosterism rhetoric). When it comes to architecture, they’ve apparently gone in search of someone who will hold up that mirror. The question is what they are willing to do with the images they see.

Friday, October 10th, 2014

More On the Midwest vs. the South

My post on Sunday about SEC vs. Big 10 football produced quite a stir. There are 165 comments and counting, and it even prompted posts by Richard Longworth and Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Not everyone was critical but the ones that were basically say that it’s ludicrous to say that football proves anything. I don’t think that it does. But I will make three points:

1. The differing fortunes of the two conference is yet another in an extremely long series of data points and episodes that demonstrate a shift in demographic, economic, and cultural vitality to the South.
2. Sports is one of the many areas in which Midwestern states have clung to traditional approaches, even though those approaches haven’t been producing results.
3. Demographic and economic changes have consequences. It’s not realistic to expect that the Midwest’s excellent institutions will necessarily be able to retain excellence when supported by hollowed out economies.

I’d like to throw up a couple of charts to illustrate the longer term trends at work. The first is a comparison of per capita personal income as a percent of the US average for Illinois vs. Georgia since 1950:

il-vs-ga

Here’s the same chart of Ohio vs. North Carolina:

oh-vs-nc

If I put up the population or job numbers, the same charts would show the South mutilating the Midwest. (Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina were all about the same population in 1980, but the latter two have skyrocketed ahead since then for example). What’s more, the South’s major metros score better on diversity and attracting immigrants than the Midwest’s major metros as a general rule.

These charts show the convergence in incomes over time. The decline in relative income of the Midwest is possibly in part to increases elsewhere, not internal dynamics. But think about what the Midwest looked like in 1950, 60, or 70 vs the South, then think about it today and it’s night and day. The Midwest may still be endowed with better educational and cultural institutions than the South, but we can see where the trends are going. Keep in mind that those things are lagging indicators. Chicago didn’t get classy until after it got rich, for example.

Now we see that Southern income performance hasn’t been great since the mid to late 90s. This is a problem for them. As is their dependence on growth itself in their communities. I won’t claim that the South is trouble free or will necessarily thrive over the long haul. But they seem to have a clearer sense of identity, where they want to go, and what their deficiencies are than most Midwestern places.

Longworth seems to buy the decline theory but has a different explanation of the source, namely that Chicago has sucked the life out of other Midwestern states:

In the global economy, sheer size is a great big magnet, drawing in the resources and people from the surrounding region. We see this in the exploding cities of China, India and South America. We see it in Europe, where London booms while the rest of England slowly rots.

And we see it in the Midwest where, as the urbanologist Richard Florida has written, Chicago has simply sucked the life – the finance, the business services, the investment, especially the best young people – out of the rest of the Midwest.

To any young person in Nashville or Charlotte, the home town offers plenty of opportunities for work and a good life. To any young person stuck in post-industrial Cleveland or Detroit, it’s only logical to decamp to Chicago, rather than to stay home and try to build something in the wreckage of a vanished economy.

This seems to be a common view (see another example), even in the places that would be on the victim side of the equation. But I’ve never seen strong data that suggests this is actually the case. Are college grads and young people getting sucked out of the rest of the Midwest into Chicago?

Thanks to the Census Bureau, we now have a view, albeit limited, into this. The American Community Survey releases county to county migration patterns off of their five year surveys sliced by attribute. There seems to be some statistical noise in these, and for various reasons I can’t track state to metro migrations, but thanks to my Telestrian tool, I was able to aggregate this to at least get metro to metro migration. So here is a map of migration of adults with college degrees for the Chicago metro area from the 2007-2011 ACS:

degree-migration
Net migration of adults 25+ with a bachelors degree or higher with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2007-2011 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This looks like a mixed bag to me, not a hoover operation. What about the “young and restless”? Here’s a similar map of people aged 18-34:

ya-migration
Net migration of 18-34yos with the Chicago metropolitan area. Source: 2006-2010 ACS county to county migration data with aggregation and mapping by Telestrian

This is an absolute blowout, with a massive amount of red on the map showing areas to which Chicago is actually losing young adults. Honestly, this only makes sense given the well known headline negative domestic migration numbers for Chicago.

I do find it interesting that there’s a strong draw from Michigan. Clearly Michigan has taken a decade plus long beating. There’s been strong net out-migration from Michigan to many other Midwestern cities during that time frame, and its the same in Cleveland, which also took an economic beating in the last decade. This is just an impression so I don’t want to overstate, but it seems to me that a disproportionate number of the stories about brain drain to Chicago give examples from Michigan. Longworth uses the examples of Detroit and Cleveland. These would appear to be the places where the argument has been truly legitimate, but that doesn’t mean you can extrapolate generally from there.

What’s more, even if a young person with a college degree does move to Chicago from somewhere else, will they stay there long term? They may circulate out back to where they came from or somewhere else after absorbing skills and experience. It’s the same with New York, DC, SF, etc. I’ve said these places should be viewed as human capital refineries, much like universities. That’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a big plus for everybody all around. Chicago is doing fine there. But it’s a more complex talent dynamic than is generally presented, a presentation that does not seem to be backed up by the data in any case.

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

More Praise For Boring

As a follow-on to my Guardian piece last week “In Praise of Boring Cities” I want to highlight a companion piece by Victoria and Albert Museum curator Rory Hyde called “Bollards, Bricks and Black Cabs: Why the Best Urban Objects Are Mundane.” His arguments in it are in line with my old adage that the mark of a great city is it how it treats its ordinary things, not its special ones. Every city does their main street, their war memorials, etc. up right. There’s no distinctiveness there. But what about the average street, space, or object? That’s when the real values of a place are often revealed. As Hyde puts it:

Mundane city objects also offer a glimpse into the operational logic of a city. Pedestrian buttons, building materials or the Johnston typeface are the visible moments when vast urban systems reveal themselves. They are the hooks that invite our participation in the system. Despite or because of their mundanity, they are the city – as close as we can get to this big machine we inhabit.

Whatever you think of these projects (does it matter that the traffic light MoMu celebrates was actually designed in 1965, not 1868 as the label claims? Kind of, yes), noticing city objects “in the wild” can jolt you out of the moment to reflect on the millions of design decisions that bring the city into being. Boring objects can teach us that the city is an intentionally constructed project – and therefore a project that can be changed for the better.

Again, I’d add that by inspecting these elements, something important about the city and its people is revealed.

As I wrote previously, it’s London, a city chock full of iconic buildings and such, that perhaps best embodies the notion of treating the ordinary as special. This is easily seen in its black cabs, retro telephone boxes, and police uniforms. True, there’s an element of kitsch at work. But that too is a part of the city. It’s just another small entry showing the why London has remained arguably the premier city in the world for so long.

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Houston: Opportunity Urbanism and Walkability

I wanted to highlight a couple of recent pieces about Houston. The first is a short Houston Matters podcast with Joel Kotkin, who highlights again his theme of “Opportunity Urbanism” in Houston. It’s a pretty succinct statement of the Houston value proposition. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

One observation I’d have is that I don’t see it as necessarily inevitable that Houston became the energy capital of the US. After all, in 1978 Hollywood thought Dallas, not Houston, was the city in which to stage a TV show about an oil family.

The other is a long Architect Magazine piece called “Planning the Boom” which looks at Houston’s infill development, its first ever comprehensive plan, and whether it will ever be able to create a compelling pedestrian environment. Here’s an excerpt:

Growth, of course, is Houston’s raison d’etre. According to a recent TheWall Street Journal article, “Success and the City,” Houston has added jobs at a prodigious rate: 263,000 since 2008 (the New York metro area, by contrast, has added 100,000 during the same period). The article preaches the gospel of Houston: lack of formal zoning makes it easy to obtain building permits there and enables the city to be responsive to changing land-use demands.

A lot of things, many of them good, can happen in the absence of zoning. The laissez-faire philosophy enables a certain dynamism. Things can develop here—like the uncanny proliferation of tin-clad modernist houses in one Inner Loop neighborhood—that would never be permitted in a more precious city. Houston has tremendous energy and a copious amount of intellect. Industries like oil and aerospace have long attracted smart, ambitious people. The population is immensely diverse. Houston (though Dallas might argue otherwise) can be thought of as Los Angeles to Austin’s San Francisco. But is an interesting city the same as a good city?

The questions that I kept asking on my visit, and in a series of conversations I’ve had since, are: How much can Houston grow without cultivating more of a walkable, urban ethic? How long can a city that is clearly becoming denser continue to be almost completely car-dependent? Can a city that doesn’t believe in zoning find a way to create streetscapes that are not lined with multilevel parking garages?

Thanks to Derek Kastner for sending this my way.

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

The Decline of the Midwest, the Rise of the South

The New York Times ran an article last week that’s nominally about football, but really gives insight into the decline of the Midwest and the rise of the South. Called “As Big Ten Declines, Homegrown Talent Flees,” this piece ties in perfectly with my recent essay on the differing social states of the Midwest and South. The NYT’s money quote says it all:

The SEC sold excellence. The Big Ten sold tradition.

Ironically, it is the formerly stigmatized “backwoods” South that has embraced excellence while the former industrial champion of the Midwest has spurned it. I don’t think that Midwesterners understand how much things have changed in the South. I hear the same stereotypical view of the South that might have had a lot of truth decades ago but have changes substantially. For example, those who think it is both a good thing and bad have quipped that Indiana is like an extension of the South into the Midwest. I don’t think so.

For example, Charlotte built a light rail system. Dallas has poured a billion dollars into a downtown arts district. Atlanta has a multi-billion infill strategy around its former Belt Line railroad. Nashville eliminated downtown parking minimums and implemented a form based code. South Carolina has its German style apprenticeship program. North Carolina built Research Triangle Park – in 1959. Southern cities like Atlanta have proudly claimed and built success around their black heritage. And Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce CEO said, “To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.” Outside of Chicago, does anybody in the Midwest talk like that?

Sure, there are bits and pieces here and there in the Midwest that speak to excellence. But they are the anomalies in a region that has retrogressed. Whereas in the South they’ve massively elevated their game in the last 40 years and are working hard to keep getting better. Sure, low costs and taxes play a role in their success. Climate and the universality of air conditioning as well. But they aren’t content to rest on just that. They want to get better. Meanwhile the Midwest is regressing towards what the South used to be such as, for example, by turning paved roads back to gravel because they can’t afford the maintenance.

The NYT piece brings up an interesting factor driving the rise of the SEC vs. the Big Ten, namely the shift in underlying population ratios over time: “An instructive comparison is Michigan and Georgia. In 1960, Michigan had twice Georgia’s population; in 1990, it was nearly one and a half times as big; today, their populations are roughly equivalent.”

The decline in Midwest population and economic heft brings with it a price that has to be paid. It’s showing up in the football world today. But it’s sure to hit the academic prowess of the Midwest’s major state schools as well. How long can these places maintain their relative rankings of excellence without the financial firepower to play in the big leagues? There’s more inertia on the academic side, but don’t think it won’t eventually happen here as well. The same is true in many other aspects of civic life. Even mighty Chicago has nearly bankrupted itself in its efforts to keep up with other global cities.

The Big Ten obviously saw the writing on the wall and decided to expand outside the region. I dislike this for reasons of, naturally, tradition. But it’s a rational response to a declining marketplace. Similarly, the Cleveland Orchestra established a Miami residency in the pursuit of cash to keep its artistic excellence intact. Might some of these institutions at some point become Midwest in name only? Time will tell.

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

In Praise of Boring

My latest piece is online in the Guardian. It’s called “In Praise of Boring Cities.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got herself in a bit of trouble for dismissing Arlington, VA as a “soulless suburb.” I argue that to a great extent soulless is in the eye of the beholder. And that a lot of inner cities could stand to be a lot more Maytag repairman type boring when it comes to actual delivering on the services citizens deserve.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Soulless” and “boring” are to some extent judgmental code words for “stuff I don’t like.” Sophisticated urbanites tend to look down on much of suburban life. But I suspect many suburbanites find downtown obsessions – contemporary art, say, or elaborate ways of preparing coffee – equally tedious. Why isn’t their thumbs-down verdict on urban pretentiousness just as valid?
….
Those of us who love urban areas’ walkability, variety and novelty often have a tendency to universalise – not to say sacralise – our values and tastes. But in an ever more diverse world, different people are going to have different ideas about the good life. We need to be more tolerant of those who make different choices. (In Arlington you can’t even argue that the car culture is killing the environment, since as Adler notes they’ve focused much more on transit and density than your average place). Some people like stability, predictability, rootedness and a lot of what suburbs have to offer. There’s nothing wrong with that. We frequently fail to recognise that our own personal preferences are in most cases just that. And too often in urbanist discussions, that means white hipster preferences.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Thoughts On My Neighborhood Post-Ferguson

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.

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Diverging Fortunes

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a story on Portland that featured Yours Truly. I recapitulated a few observations I’ve had over the years, including that it’s truly remarkable how a small city like Portland has captured so many people’s imagination, and also that “people move to Portland to move to Portland.”

A Portland writer named Steve Duin appears to have had an aneurysm over the piece and, among other things, criticized my statement about why people move to Portland, saying:

She quotes Aaron Renn, an urban-affairs analyst, who insists that while Los Angeles attracts starlets and New York the financiers, “People move to Portland to move to Portland,” as if the city is a space between Pacific Avenue and Park Place on the Monopoly board, not a vibrant, creative, accessible and accommodating urban scene.

Which only proves that he completely missed the point. All I’m saying is what he’s saying in different words, namely that people move to Portland for its lifestyle and amenities. This is exactly what every Portland booster claims, namely that what they’ve created is attractional. I’m simply pointing out the obvious: people move to Portland primarily for lifestyle and leisure, not career or economic reasons. People move to Portland because they want to live there.

Portland’s economy has actually picked up of late. Its unemployment fell below the national average in 2013 after having been above it for 14 straight years. But I want to highlight a disconnect between a couple measures of economic performance.

I’ve written many times that Portland has done very well in terms of per capita GDP. In fact, from 2001 to 2013 (the maximum range of data available from the feds), Portland was #1 out of all 52 large metros in the US in its percentage increase in real per capita GDP.

On the other hand, looking at how much of that economic value ends up in people’s pockets tells a different story. From 2001 to 2012 (I don’t think 2013 has been released yet), Portland only ranked 40th out of 52 in its percentage increase on this metric. Portland declined from a per capita income of 104.9% of the US average in 2001 to 98.6% in 2012.

I threw this divergence into a quick chart:

portland-gdp-vs-persinc

It would be interesting to dig into these numbers. I would particularly be interested in seeing where the GDP growth is coming from, as unlike say San Jose, there’s no obvious driver I see.

Update 9/23/14: I did a quick back of the envelop calculation of total GDP growth by industry. Only a few industry totals are available, but the biggest gainer was Manufacturing, up 300%. Education, Health, and Social Assistance were #2, followed by Professional and Business Services. Natural Resources, Retail. Information, and FIRE were at the bottom.

Speaking of San Jose, I see an even more remarkable divergence there. It was #2 in per capita GDP growth over the 2001-2013 time frame. Looking at the overall Bay Area total real GDP, it increased by 30.1% from 2001 to 2013. Keep in mind I’m using the inflation adjusted figured here, so there’s no inflation in that metric. But at the same time the Bay Area lost 2.4% of its jobs.

The Bay Area grew its economy by almost a third while shedding over 75,000 jobs. Pretty remarkable.

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Technology Assimilation and Generational Change by George Mattei

[ This week a guest post from George Mattei on technology and generational change - Aaron. ]

I remember clearly the first time I saw the internet. It was circa 1992, I was in my late teens, and my best friend’s uncle had just installed an early version of Prodigy internet service on his computer. He showed it to us – describing how you could look up news, get weather and even send letters all electronically. It was a really neat service, and I immediately saw that it would be popular. However, I’m not sure if I realized how transformative the internet would be.

Looking back on that moment, and projecting forwards to the golden years of my life, I can’t help imagining that one day I will be like those old ladies you would meet every once in a while that would tell the story about the first time they saw a “horseless carriage”. Those are great stories, if only because of the context – it’s interesting to imagine what life was like back when cars were a rare and fascinating and before they had permanently transformed life as we know it.

I has been rare so far that a truly transformative technology appears that absolutely revolutionizes our everyday lives. 70-80 years ago it was 2 things – automobiles and the infrastructure they begat, and alternating current electricity – which suddenly empowered people to live in far flung locations and still have access to all of the amenities that previously were only reserved for those in the cores. In recent years clearly the internet and communications innovations have revolutionized how we live and work and play.

A hallmark of these technologies is that few realize at first how transformative they will be, and it takes at least 20-30 years for their effect to be fully realized. After all, by the year 2000 everyone knew the internet was the next big technology, but few realized how powerful social networking would soon become. In the same way few realized in the early 20th century the impact that automobiles would have on depopulating cities and creating vast, sprawling metro areas.

Interestingly, generations seem to react to these disruptive technologies differently, often based on the period in their life cycle when they appear. There appears to be a definable pattern which – in my opinion at least – is as follows:

  • The old guard fears it
  • The new guard embraces it and molds their life around it
  • The children of the new guard moderate it to fit into but not define their lives

We can draw parallels between the Boomers and Millennials, both the first generations to come of age during the blooming of a disruptive technology, by looking at some of the criticisms of these generations by older generations:

  • They are self-centered
  • They are too wrapped up in their lifestyle which is dominated by (automobiles) (the internet).
  • Their embrace of this technology leads to social ills:
    • For Boomers, the love of automobiles and suburbia drained our cities, led to de facto segregation and stretched our ability to fund infrastructure
    • For Millennials, the love of the internet has led to decreased face-to-face social skills, a need for instant gratification and no less than the death of privacy itself.

To some degree these statements are probably correct. This is not to downplay the obvious advantages that new technologies bring to the table – clearly automobiles and the internet have contributed tremendously to our economic and cultural advancement – but to illustrate a cultural phenomenon. A generation raised during the early blooming of a transformative technology tends to embrace it. They seek to change the world, and see technology as one of the main tools to mold their own future and their generational aspirations. The ascendant generation is quite willing to overlook or minimize the detrimental effects that new technology can have. Even more, their blatant disregard for past social norms and constructs is necessary in order to rewrite the world in their vision. Just as the Boomer’s Summer of Love and Woodstock (not possible without cars) destroyed the Ozzie and Harriet/Superman vision of America, the internet is transforming our society today, with all the benefits and risks that entails.

Older generations, on the other hand, seem to see disruptive technology primarily as a threat – after all, they were once young world-changers too, and they formed the world to their liking. And now suddenly here comes this new generation with this new technology that will upend their functional social framework in favor of a new paradigm…a frightening prospect for them. How else to explain the legions of Boomers and older people that cannot bring themselves to become functionally literate with computers? They are often afraid they will “break it”, when this fear is mostly unfounded. Contrast this to driving. It is one of the most dangerous things we do in a typical day, and yet few of us think much about it. Some of this is due to brain plasticity-studies show that younger brains are more adaptable to technology than older ones are. This combination of less adaptable minds and well-established social construct are leading Boomers to join the legions of past generations bemoaning the ills of a new generation.

This “best of times, worst of times” narrative has another act, however. To explore this, we can look at another interesting phenomenon – that is the trend of Millennials to live in urban areas. As an interconnected generation, Millennials truly are more communal. Even though, as some studies show, their face-to-face skills may suffer from frequent use of digital communication, they have an ethos – partly born of the internet – that respects everyone’s ability to provide input and be part of the group – and this bleeds into how they live. For example, it’s much easier to go down the block in an urban neighborhood to visit your buddy that just posted a good new bar on Foursquare than it is to get in the car to drive 5 miles. That kind of interconnectedness and immediate social gratification seems to be driving Millennials’ living choices.

This is not totally unlike – if somewhat opposite from – the Boomer’s drive for independence. Automobiles at the time represented freedom- from public transit, from parents and from general locational dependence. Suddenly the individual’s ability to choose their own path was paramount, and the freedom of driving seemed to represent this best. While this may have led to the depopulation of our urban neighborhoods, it’s also highly unlikely that the Civil Rights movement would have ever been successful without the Boomer’s viewpoints. They may relish the freedom to live far away from those of a different race or lower income, but Boomers also favor the right of a person of any race to achieve all they are able to. This manifested itself in strong support for the Civil Rights acts of the 1960’s which ended legal segregation in this nation.

While the type of technology itself may partly explain this change, there may be another more overarching reason that Millennials are embracing urban living. The automobile is not the Millennial’s technology of choice. To them a car is a utility, much like electricity. They don’t see it as defining their world or their lives, and they will not allow cars to do so. That’s not to say they don’t use them, but the way in which they use them changes greatly from how Boomers used them. This is why services like Uber and Lyft – not possible without the internet and smartphones – are gaining in popularity in urban areas.

So we see the final phase of this pattern – Millennials are reversing some of the ills of the automobile age, while still recognizing their utility. In fact this is not surprising. Having grown up in the maturing age of the automobile, Millennials are much more likely to have a balanced view of the technology. They have seen both the good and bad it can bring, and will likely keep the best parts of the technology while mitigating the worst parts of it.

Since it appears that timing can shape generational proclivities as much as anything else, we can project this pattern forward to the future of the Internet age. Just as we can now see the side-effects the automobile caused in because of the passage of time, the negative side-effects of Millennial’s technology embrace is just beginning to be understood. But we should anticipate that, as with the Boomers, there will be a more critical judgment applied to the Millennials’ choices as time goes on. Furthermore, while today’s Millennials are likely to overdose on smartphone technology, their children may revolt somewhat against this technology and move towards a more balanced integration of these tools into their lives. In truth, this is where the final assimilation of a new technology occurs.

What will the future bring for our cities and for our communications, and hence for ourselves? No one really knows. However, if I were a betting man, I would bet that this pattern of pendulum swings will continue. For our cities, this is good news – it means that the trend towards urban living is not likely a fad and will continue to strengthen over time until cities reach a more balanced equilibrium with the suburbs. However, for those urbanists that believe the suburb is dead and cities will once again rule the day, a note of caution is in order. Modulation is not conquest, and it’s unlikely that Millennials will give up the best features of the automobile and the benefits they convey.

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

When the People Are Corrupted

This is another installment in my series on corruption. The New York Times ran an article last week about Buddy Cianci entering the race for mayor of Providence. Cianci is a larger than life figure in Rhode Island. Dubbed the “Prince of Providence,” he served two previous stints as mayor of the city – both times ending up forced from office due to felony convictions.

I don’t know the details of the first case, in which he pleaded no contest to a felony assault charge over attacking someone with “a lit cigarette, ashtray and fireplace log.” There’s got to be more to that story than I know because I can’t imagine a felony charge resulting from something like that, or that he’s plead no contest knowing it would get him removed from office.

The second time was he was convicted of racketeering charges (though actually acquitted of all but one of the things he was charged with) as part of an FBI investigation called “Operation Plunder Dome” that resulted in a number of convictions. He did 4+ years in federal prison as a result.

Now Cianci is back and running for office again. Apparently he remains quite popular and there is so much fear among many that he’ll actually win – he’s running as an independent – that various candidates have dropped out of the race in an effort to avoid splitting the vote and letting Cianci somehow slip in.

The fact that Cianci is considered a viable candidate for mayor despite being notoriously corrupt shows something that tends to happen in communities where corruption is the norm. Namely that the people themselves become corrupted in the process.

This actually happened long ago in Rhode Island, which seems to have been crooked about as long as it’s been around. One of the most famous pieces of writing about the state is Lincoln Steffens 1905 McClure’s Magazine screed called “Rhode Island: A State of Sale.” Here’s what he had to say about the matter:

And Rhode Island throws light on another national question, a question that is far more important: Aren’t the people themselves dishonest? The “grafters” who batten on us say so. Politicians have excused their own corruption to me time and again by declaring that “we’re all corrupt,” and promoters and swindlers alike describe their victims as “smart folk who think to beat us at our own game.” Without going into the cynic’s sweeping summary that “man always was and always will be corrupt” it is but fair while we are following the trail of the grafters to consider their plea that the corrupt political System they are upbuilding is founded on the dishonesty of the American people. Is it?

It is in Rhode Island. The System of Rhode Island which has produced the man who is at the head of the political System of the United States is grounded on the lowest layer of corruption that I have found thus far — the bribery of voters with cash at the polls. Other States know the practice. In Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois, and Pennsylvania “workers ” are paid “to get out the vote,” but this is only preliminary; the direct and decisive purchase of power comes later, in conventions and legislatures. In these States the corruptionists buy the people’s representatives. In Rhode Island they buy the people themselves.

Rather than just businessmen buying politicians, the politicians bought voters, and virtually ever voter in the state was on the take, and in fact became quite peeved if their vote wasn’t purchased:

Nine of the towns are absolutely purchasable; that is to say, they “go the way the money goes.” Eleven more can be influenced by the use of money. Many of their voters won’t go to the polls at all unless “there is something in it.” But there need not be much in it. Governor Garvin quoted a political leader in one town who declared that if neither party had money, but one had a box of cigars, “my town would go for that party — if the workers would give up the cigars.” In another town one party had but one man in it who did not take money, and he never voted. A campaign marching club organized for a presidential campaign paraded every night with enthusiasm so great that the leaders thought it would be unnecessary to pay for votes in this town; few of the members voted. Another time, when no money turned up at a State election, one town, by way of rebuke to the regular party managers, elected a Prohibition candidate to the Assembly.

In this environment, the public is mostly indifferent to corruption and can even embrace it as part of the civic identity. Hence the viability of a known crook as a mayoral candidate.

It’s the same in Illinois. Even many of my highly educated professional friends there actually take pride in the state’s corruption, cracking boastful jokes about how it only proves Chicago is the best or something.

As Scott Reeder put it in an article earlier this year:

Well, another state legislator is heading to prison. You won’t hear much outrage in Springfield. Or dismay for that matter. In the grand scheme of things, the conviction of state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, on bribery charges is picayune. You’ll hear it whispered around the statehouse: “He ‘only’ took $7,000.”

llinoisans have become jaded to criminality among those we elect. A few years back, some Springfield wag printed up bumper stickers that said, “My Governor is a Bigger Crook than Your Governor.” This kind of cynicism has metastases through the electorate leaving political tumors of apathy, inevitability and suspicion.

Derrick Smith, the representative of $7000 bribe fame, was expelled from the House back in 2012 after being indicted, but actually won re-election with 63% of the vote.

And this bit in an article about corruption in Springfield:

Larry Sabato, a nationally recognized political analyst from University of Virginia, adds insight while talking about Illinois in an article written by Dave McKinney for Illinois Issues: “The central and most vital point about corruption is it flourishes where people permit it to, in part because they expect it in the normal course of events. A classic case comes from your state with Otto Kerner being caught solely because the people extending the bribes to him actually deducted it from their taxes as a necessary and ordinary business expense,” he says. “Their argument was, ‘This is how business is done in Illinois.’ That’s what has to change. It’s always up to the people. It’s a democracy. They have to go beyond the images.”

It’s one of the challenges that makes cleaning up corruption so hard. Once it has dug roots deep into the civic soil, the public becomes co-dependent and so there is no constituency for change.

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