Thursday, December 5th, 2013
From the High Line in New York to London’s Silicon Roundabout to the Dharavi slums in Mumbai to bicycling in Copenhagen, British writer and urban historian Leo Hollis offers a broad and sumptuous survey of contemporary urban life in his new book, Cities Are Good For You. Unfortunately, his claim doesn’t quite stick, as Hollis never fully explains what the vignettes and case studies he has assembled add up to—while his scrupulous reporting uncovers plenty of unflattering urban details. The reader comes away with only a vaguely positive impression of cities’ potential to increase prosperity and improve lives.
Sunday, December 1st, 2013
Jim Russell and Richey Piiparinen have released a new whitepaper on Cleveland that should be read by anyone looking to reboot the economies of struggling post-industrial cities. Released under the auspices of Ohio City, Inc., “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland: A Theory of Change For Legacy Cities” looks at how a lack of population churn has stunted Cleveland’s ability to connect to the global economy.
This paper puts a different spin on talent and the knowledge economy. “Knowledge” is not just facts acquired through education or work experience. It also includes the set of personal relationships and knowledge of other places and social networks that we all carry to some extent. Global cities not only score well on traditional knowledge measures, but because they are destinations for migrants, they excel in this more broader notion as well.
Cleveland is not a global city. In fact, in his book Caught in the Middle, Richard Longworth said, “When I went to Cleveland I found not alarm but complacency. In a city that is being destroyed by global forces…I found almost nobody willing to actually talk about globalization or global challenges…In all my travels through the Midwest, Cleveland was the only place, big or small, that seemed heedless of the global challenge.”
Part of that comes from a lack of migrants coming in to bring global knowledge and connectivity to global networks. Using IRS data from Telestrian, Russell and Piiparinen note that Cleveland actually only ranks 34th in America in its outflow of people, versus being the 28th largest metropolitan area. The city is actually doing a better than average job of retention.
The problem is that Cleveland ranks 47th in inflow of people. Attraction is very weak. Hence population decline, but also an inbred, closed society. About 75% of the people in metro Cleveland were born in Ohio, versus 30-60% in other, more globalized cities. Among large metros in the US, Cleveland ranks 6th in its percentage of the population living in the state they were born. (In fairness, this in part derives from a low foreign born percentage and the fact that the Cleveland region isn’t a multi-state metro).
I did my own analysis to take a look at the in-migration shed of the city. Cuyahoga County (the central county of the Cleveland region) had reported in-migration from 320 counties during the 2000s, with 228 of these sending at least 100 people to Cleveland. I decided to contrast with better preforming Columbus. There, the core county of Franklin drew people from 486 counties, with 335 of them having at least 100 people. Now Columbus is a huge university town, so I also looked at Indianapolis. Indy’s central county of Marion, which is significantly smaller than Cuyahoga in population, drew from 381 counties, including 273 of 100 or more people.
Clearly Cleveland is drawing fewer people from the outside world, and drawing from fewer places, than cities that are performing better, though one could quibble with the causality arrow here.
As a result, we see what is frequently true in such places. Cleveland’s social and power networks have balkinized. They don’t receive much new information or many new people, and what they do receive they don’t integrate well. Hence what Longworth observed. Cleveland needs much more demographic churn to open up these social networks and generate more global connectivity.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s evidence this is already happening. The authors note that several central city areas have attracted newcomers from both inside and outside of the region – and these are disproportionately young. My own analysis showed that Cleveland had surprisingly strong downtown population growth of 4,200 people, one of the best showings in the Midwest.
The authors also note other potentially encouraging trends. A good number of Cleveland’s gentrifying neighborhoods are also becoming more not less diverse. While all they note diversity doesn’t mean people automatically start interacting with each other, it’s a start. What’s more, they suggest that the decline in social capital that results in diverse neighborhoods might paradoxically be a plus, as Cleveland suffers from excess social capital today. Lastly, they note that Cleveland has pretty high churn already with both New York and Chicago, making it one of the few similar types of cities that already has well-established migration paths. They believe this is poised to continue as high costs and “cool fatigue” push people out of many of today’s key global hubs like New York.
The potential for Cleveland in capturing this is significant in their view. As the paper notes, “This scenario, then, that’s unfolding in which coastal talent is arriving, or re-arriving, into the legacy city landscape can foretell an economic sea change…The long-term economic potential for this talent migration rests not in how many microbrews are consumed or condos are leased, but rather how it affects Cleveland’s global interconnectivity. These migrations are re-arranging Cleveland’s historical insular social networks, with the gentrifying neighborhoods acting as urban portals to the global flow of information.”
This was not intended as a critique of microbreweries. Rather, the idea is that luring people is about way more than just boosting the consuming classes, it’s about tangible change in the social and economic structure of the community.
No one should pretend that positive indicators like strong downtown population growth means Cleveland’s problems are solved. I’d describe this more as “green shoots” than anything. But it’s undeniably positive and provides a platform for further growth.
The authors don’t suggest any particular policies in response to their findings. They were more interested in moving beyond the traditional “brain drain” frame of talent and inject both some key facts around Cleveland’s migration patterns and their talent churn theory of civic change into the local discourse. They got a nice writeup in the Plain Dealer, so they are off to a good start there. But more work will need to be done in the future on an effective policy response.
Sunday, November 17th, 2013
Not long ago there were pretty clear boundaries between the personal sphere and the commercial one, as well as more clear boundaries between public and private space. What’s more, most things, both personal and commercial, were heavily based on a model of exclusive use. Today these lines are increasingly dissolving in ways that upset current business models and lifestyles. It portends a present and a future in which property is increasingly shared, not exclusive, and where there are a mixture of public, private, personal, and commercial entities intersecting in the same spaces. The key driver of this is technology, which has reduced barriers and transaction costs in a way that enables things like car sharing that would have been impossible not long ago. However, our legal frameworks have often not kept up with this. Some people who benefit from the current models would like to keep it that way. But if we let the marketplace evolve, then institute good rules to fit this new reality, it promises to hold huge benefits to the public.
First an example that’s by now old hat. In an age before cell phones and personal computers, there was a more rigorous separation of work and personal life. People need to be physically co-located in a office. They commuted there every day, worked in a dedicated personal office or cubicle, then went home where work as a rule did not intrude. Today’s workers are checking email every waking hour (and even being interrupted during the night), while also spending much more time on personal things (online banking, fantasy football, or random web surfing) while in the office. The internet has enabled distributed work environments, in which teams collaborate from offices, airports, and homes around the world. Companies increasingly have turned to “hoteling” or other shared space concepts in the office on the assumption employees no longer need dedicated space. Many people have flexible work arrangements or otherwise telecommute. In the latter case, home and office have literally merged.
This has had huge benefits across the board. Companies love it because they can access cheap labor pools overseas, effectively recruit people with a need for workplace flexibility, and reduce their office space needs. Joel Kotkin has said the latter trend may mean America has hit “peak office.” Workers get the flexibility they like, can save on commuting costs, access geographically remote clients, etc. The environment benefits from reduced commuting. The ultimate green commute is one you don’t have to make. I would say that the balance of the benefits here has accrued to business, while workers have sometimes had arrangements they don’t like forced on them. Still, on the whole this shows great promise of being a win, win, win.
The “hoteling” concept and “just in time” delivery aren’t limited to corporate uses. Things like car share are bringing them to the household market. The average personal car is supposedly idle 90% of the time. When you factor in all the additional infrastructure costs needed to support a one person, one car model (e.g., parking), the deadweight loss from all that idle capacity is stunning. Imagine factories that sat idle 90% of the time doing nothing. If a corporate manager had this low a rate of asset utilization, he’d be in deep trouble.
When you sign up for Zipcar or another service, you avoid some of this deadweight loss. By effectively sharing a fleet of vehicles with others, a relatively small number of cars can serve a large number of people, greatly improving asset utilization rates and delivering big value to consumers, even when they are paying a business to manage the fleet for them. It’s a huge form of productivity gain. This also has the effect of converting transportation from a largely fixed cost to a mostly variable one, with signficiant impacts on the decision making process for everything that involves transportation (mostly positive, I believe).
Though having a limited addressable market at present, obviously car sharing in the Zipcar style poses a threat to the entire US car industry, arguably one of the most important employers in the country and one President Obama himself personally intervened to save during the meltdown. Clearly the highest levels of politics in America will defend the car industry, though to date there’s been very little complaint from them about car sharing.
Things have been different when it’s transport service providers who are threatened. Public transit agencies have long been unrelentingly hostile to jitney services. Today car service booking tool Uber and ride sharing company Lyft have experienced an all out regulatory assault from entrenched interests. Lyft is a particularly interesting case. It’s a peer to peer ride sharing platform. Just as 90% of the time a private car is unused, when it is used, 80% of the available seat capacity goes vacant. Again, this is a massive deadweight loss. (The amount of theoretically wasted capacity in the world of private cars is stunning). Imagine an airline trying to make a business out of 20% load factors. It just doesn’t work, yet we as individuals run a “business” like that every time we drive our cars solo. Lyft helps fill up those empty seats, and even get some money – “donations” – in the process.
In other words, Lyft is a business that effectively turns your personal vehicle into a pseudo-livery vehicle. I’ve long argued that we should have “every car a jitney” by legalizing it and having personal auto polices cover ancillary commercial use as a matter of course. Lyft is trying to solve that problem and make it happen. Obviously the traditional “commercial” sector (e.g., taxis), which is highly regulated and subject to many taxes and fees hates this. They feel, rightly to some extent, that there’s a double standard. This is the type of conflict and legal uncertainty are spurred when the boundaries between personal and business, and between exclusive and shared use, start breaking down.
The big kahuna in provoking outrage of late has been AirBnB, an application that lets people rent out rooms in their homes as de facto hotel spaces. Again, the same principle applies. An empty bedroom is deadweight loss just like an empty office or an idle factory. It makes sense to put those spaces to work where feasible. This had been done previously in the form of house swaps and couch surfing. But the rise of commercially oriented AirBnB has raised hackles, especially in governments that have strict rules and high taxes on hotels. There have been a number of media articles of late taking note of or weighing in on the controversy. For example, in the New York Times piece, “The Airbnb Economy in New York: Lucrative but Often Illegal.”
Again, the benefits are clear in the improved utilization of space which is a pure efficiency gain. What’s more, AirBnB was even used by the government during Hurricane Sandy to find temporary free housing for those displaced by the storm. Peter Hirshberg noted that this type of distributed app might be the real killer app for smart cities, and will play an increasingly important role in urban resiliency. But it legitimately does create a set of parallel environments and rule sets, and exposes a world in which ancillary commercial activity at a residence is something that doesn’t really fit into our existing categories.
The list of situations like this are endless. Many zoning laws don’t appropriately allow home based businesses. Fund raising bake sales have been banned because it’s not legal to sell products prepared at home. In some places there have been issues with selling vegetables from home gardens.
Then there’s the disputes arising from the increasing use of public space for commercial purposes, whether that be curb side intercity bus service or food trucks. Pushcart style food vendors, often ethnic, are also often technically illegal (e.g., rogue elotes stands).
In short, traditional barriers are falling and boundaries are dissolving, especially when it comes to those key dimensions of personal-commercial, exclusive-shared, and public-private.
I don’t want to suggest all of the complaints about these are unfounded, though many of them are pure rent seeking. From the standpoint of someone running a fully commercial operation, who complies with massive amounts of costly red tape, it certainly seems unfair that others are allowed to operate what are basically businesses under a lighter tough regulatory scheme. The status quo isn’t necessarily where we need to be.
But let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Our economy is in huge need of a massive injection of dynamism and new value creation. Many observers have said we need a completely new economic model. Walter Russell Mead has called this “beyond blue”. Richard Florida styles it the “great reset”. But clearly the old ways of doing things aren’t working and we need change.
This new style “shareable” economy based on peer to peer production in a distributed, small scale form is one that promises to provide at least part of the answer. It also renders addressable a huge amount of previously trapped value. Companies reaped huge amounts of gains by eschewing vertical integration in favor of more networked relationships. That’s corporate-speak for peer to peer sourcing. Similarly, things like hoteling, just in time delivery, etc. have let to much greater and more effective asset utilization. The amount of under-utilized assets in the household sector is stunning. This is about bringing to that household sector the same types of efficiency boosting and value creating techniques previously employed only by traditional businesses.
But beyond the sheer efficiency gains, I think it’s under appreciated in developed countries how economic informality can create economic dynamism. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto noted that lack of property titles and difficulties of the formal economy perpetuated poverty because people in developing countries couldn’t access the system for credit to fuel business, etc. In the developed world we’ve got a similar problem brewing. Our economy has been largely entirely formalized to the point where we are choking in red tape that has produced an economic system that has failed too many of its residents and leading to the creation of these informal economies as a safety valve. And our societies are very ill equipped to deal with that as we’ve become excessively formalized.
We don’t need to establish property titles as we already have them, but we do need regulatory systems that enable entrepreneurship and new business models like peer to peer to thrive. What’s more, I think enabling some level of an informal sector to flourish is actually a good thing, as it’s a de facto “incubator” for new ideas that can later be developed into a more officialized system. Without a toleration of informality, these would never get off the ground. I’ve highlighted how this worked with regards to uncertain property titles on abandoned buildings in Berlin that helped launch the creative scene there. I also highlighted similar trends in Detroit. Those again were born of desperation, but we’re starting to get there in our economy more broadly.
It seems hypocritical to me for businesses to suggest that consumers be prohibited from doing exactly what business does every single day to improve productivity and generate more value. (It would hardly be the first time though. Business love globalization – for themselves. They can buy raw materials in Brazil, manufacture in China, do their IT in India, etc. But you try applying “consumer direct globalization” by purchasing your drugs from Canada or buying an out of region DVD and see how far you get. It’s a completely two tier system designed to free corporations while trapping the consumer in hyper-segregated markets).
This would seem to be one area where the left and right could agree. Free marketers should love light-touch regulation and lower taxes in the new peer to peer economy. The left should like the way it frees consumers from dependency on big business/neoliberalism, sustainability, etc.
Adjusting our rules to make this happen is an imperative. A non-profit called Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center recently issued a report called “Policies for Shareable Cities” that talk about what a lot of places have been doing to make this happen. For example, they explained how Portland updated its zoning code to allow “food distribution” an accessory use in all zones in order to facilitate the development of the Community Supported Agriculture Model. Similarly, Marcus Westbury has talked about the need to update the software of cities in order to help redevelopment, as he helped with in the Renew Newcastle project.
But beyond new rules, maybe we should just go along with no rules for a while, and let this sector develop. After all, that’s what we did with tech. The government took a hands off approach and the feds even prohibited levying taxes. This helped the United States build a massive industry off internet technology, one that has continued to thrive even with the rise of offshoring. We should do the same here to see if we can replicate that success with peer to peer shared production in the household/personal sector.
Wednesday, November 13th, 2013
This week a trio of short films about Johannesburg, South Africa.
The first is a 1971 film by Alan Michael Levy called “Up the City.” It was uploaded by his son, who gave it a new contemporary soundtrack. I’m not sure entirely what to make of this, but it’s a peek behind the veil of apartheid South Africa (though not an overtly political one). Thanks to Urbanophile reader Stéphane Dumas for this. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
The second comes from a recent post by Kaid Benfield. It gives us a bit of the feel of the changes in South Africa through the lens of a building called Ponte Tower. Benfield’s article on it is also worth checking out. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Lastly, another look at contemporary Johannesburg. This one is another in the series of Resident Advisor documentaries on electronic music scenes in various cities, in this case, the Johannesburg house scene. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. (You’ll have to click over to the Vimeo site for high def).
Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
[ Ramsin Canon is one of the most keen left political observers I know in Chicago. Among other things he's been the politics editor at Gapers Blocks, a union organizer, and is now a law student I believe. Needless to say, he's no fan of "neoliberalism", even when practiced by those on the left. Here he provides his frame and critique of the current reigning governance model in our various levels of government re:cities. I may revisit this topic with my own thoughts in the future, but I'd like to make a couple of observations here. 1) Canon sees the locus of the problems facing cities as being at the federal level or otherwise beyond their control such that the response he decries is at least somewhat rational (if not the right one in his view). I take this as similar to my view that "gentry liberalism" has a certain sort of logic to it. 2) His articulation of the background is one that even many with diametrically opposite policy views could endorse. They just might take different lessons away (e.g., that federal intervention in cities actually caused many of the problems, see:urban renewal, downtown freeways, war on poverty, etc). This provides potential touchpoints for debate. In any case, this definitely makes you think about where we are, how we got here, and what to do about it. - Aaron. ]
Jamelle Bouie, a moderate liberal writer for The American Prospect, tweeted this:
There’s nothing good for workers in places where cities scramble to give benefits to companies for a handful of shitty jobs.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) December 12, 2012
around the same time that Mick Dumke, a left-leaning Chicago Reader reporter, wrote this:
Desperate for money, state and local governments around the country have explored all sorts of privatization deals, or public-private partnerships, as advocates prefer to call them. Florida, Arizona, and other states have sent inmates to private prisons. Detroit has considered outsourcing management of its street lighting system…Chicago isn’t just part of the trend. For more than two decades, it’s been one of the privatization leaders. “You could say they’re at the head of the pack,” says Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform at the libertarian Reason Foundation. “Chicago is reflective of the outsourcing that’s been going on for years.”
Not long after, we read about this:
Beginning January 1, Chicago’s parking meters will be the most expensive in North America. It’ll cost drivers $6.50 per hour to park in the Loop. Near downtown the rate will be $4 per hour. Other metered areas throughout the city will be $2 per hour.
For Skyway drivers, tolls are going up from $3.50 to $4.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration will explore the possibility of privatizing Midway Airport but will take a shorter-term, more tightly controlled approach than was employed by former Mayor Richard Daley’s team on the city’s first go-round.
All the while, Mayor Rahm Emanuel continues to be lauded by left-neoliberals and fellow travelers for his aggressively pro-business economic development policies, including mass privatization. Meanwhile labor unions and community organizations scrambled to find a critique of these policies that will resonate with a public increasingly incensed with a policy atmosphere that regressively taxes them while slashing jobs and services.
With the election over and no longer sucking all the air out of the room, and with President Obama comfortable ensconced in his second term but before the 2016 jockeying starts in earnest, now may be the time to step back and think about the big picture. What is this amorphous policy regime to which Mayor Emanuel, and mayors across the country hew? A policy regime that is comfortable enough for the wealthiest and most powerful Americans that they can comfortably donate both to Mayor Emanuel and Mitt Romney?
What we’re feeling viscerally, but seeing from too close to appreciate, is the logical end of decades of neoliberalization of government, which has transformed a managerial state into an entrepreneurial one. Our Mayors are now “entrepreneurs-in-chief,” and the result is that governance has been transformed from a participatory process of pooling resources and regulating behavior for the public good into one of government by private negotiation and enticement of capital through competition between states, cities, and even neighborhoods.
The neoliberalization process, broadly speaking, began in the 1970s. Neoliberalization impacted local governments in various ways, but the most directly relevant are, first, the shift in federal policy from direct spending to “pro-growth” policies and, second, the liberalization of trade and regulatory regimes that introduced international competitive pressures on localities, particularly cities. The abandonment of federal and state commitments to infrastructure and social welfare programs required localities to resort to debt (in the form of bonds) and the active pursuit of capital investment to make up attendant budgetary shortfalls. The introduction of international competitive pressures made this need more acute.
In the pre-neoliberal Keynesian context, cities behaved more managerially, responsible for administering programs like public housing and developing regimes like Euclidean zoning, as well as encouraging business development and protecting labor interests. When cities were “disciplined” by a loss of federal and state funds, they were expected to either shrink in size or find private sources for revenue–the antithesis of the Keynesian principles of recession response. Both to avoid capital flight and to attract new capital, therefore, cities must act entrepreneurially, engaging businesses and enticing them to develop new projects.
Enticing investment can take many forms, of course. Among these are tax incentives like tax-increment financing (“TIF”) overlay districts or sales tax rebates, direct subsidies, and “particularized” regulations that permit the government to be more flexible to the needs of development parties. Particularized regulations (for example, development agreements with developers that exempt them from the controls in a zoning statute) counter the unpredictability and vicissitudes of the administrative and legislative process and thus have inherent value to businesses; it reduces risk by vesting contractual rights, and thus ensuring predictability. The parking meter “lease” deal is a perfect example.
The story of the parking meter lease deal is the perfect neoliberal story. Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, Chicago’s budget survived in large part on a particular tax, the real estate transfer tax. In the housing bubble years, there was no problem relying on this revenue to fund transportation, mental health clinics, and living wage city jobs. But as with the neoliberal bubbles of the past, it couldn’t last; between 2006 and 2009, revenues from the transfer tax cratered, from $242 million to $63 million. Between 2007 and 2008, the drop was over $80 million–representing nearly 40% of the budget deficit in the year the parking meter lease deal was made. It’s no secret now that Mayor Daley entered the deal to make up for a huge deficit without raising taxes.
Bubble that made some people very rich bursts. Revenues disappear. Working class families pay the price (see above, “most expensive parking.”) Only two options are available to the government of the New Model Entrepreneurial City: race to the bottom in terms of taxes and regulations to encourage “growth,” and thus boost revenues, and start selling off assets.
Why not raise property or luxury taxes, or institute a city income tax, to make up the deficit? Why not divert money from the TIF districts?
See above; Chicago is no longer a political community, it is an economic entity that is in competition with other cities in the region, in the state, across the world. In that mental framework, tax is cost, or price. You raise prices, you drive away your clients. In the case of the neoliberal city, the client is the developer, the investor, the employer. The federal government and the state are not going to give the city any real money; they are not investing in infrastructure, or education, or social welfare in any real way, the way they did up through the late 1970s and 1980s. The name of the game is “growth” through enticement of capital.
And capital plays the game perfectly. They condition “jobs” they’re supposedly creating on tax rebates, regulatory relief (i.e., from zoning codes), and more and more say in how the city is run–World Business Chicago being an example of that. Big business can always periodically threaten to leave the city, setting off the competition between cities and states that drive down standards, that abrogates regulations, that eliminates taxes.
This is our challenge in the coming era. Breaking this backward idea that the purpose of the city is to prostrate itself in pursuit of investment that is never really satisfied. Part of this will be a political solution: we need a Mayor unsatisfied with his pathetic role as an entrepreneur begging for investment, and willing to work politically to change the status quo. The other answer is a social one: alternative models to big business investment. Whether that means large-scale cooperatives, developing local sources of investment that can be pooled to provide employment, or some other method doesn’t matter. What matters is that cities begin to show that they can remove themselves from the uneven geographic development of capitalism that forces cities to regressively tax working class families and immiserate workers through wage depression and service elimination.
This post originally appeared in Same Subject, Continued on January 4, 2013.
Thursday, November 7th, 2013
Perhaps the most interesting urbanist election Tuesday was in Cincinnati, where the main issue in the campaign seems to have been the under-construction streetcar project. John Cranley, a Democrat who vowed to halt construction, as well as to cancel a pending parking privatization contract, was elected by a significant margin over Roxanne Qualls. Given that an anti-streetcar city council was elected as well, it seems likely Cincinnati will halt the project.
Let me stipulate that I was never really that big a fan of the streetcar. Not evil, but certainly not at the top of what I’d see as the priority list for Cincinnati. And I’m a resolute opponent of parking meter privatizations as most of you know. Yet I can’t help but see this as a perfect example of why Cincinnati, a city that has more assets than any comparable sized place in America, has long been a national laggard.
The New Republican Strategy: Cancelling In-Flight Projects
But before that, I’d like to highlight this as part of a national trend. As with Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel project in New York, Cranley (a Democrat backed by the Tea Party) has vowed to stop the streetcar project, even though $22 million has already been spent on it and another $71.4 million has already been obligated through contracts and is underway. (To put it in perspective, this is $95 million out of the total $133 million cost, a total that while, not cheap, certainly is nowhere near say stadium or major highway projects). Streetcar supporters say that it will cost more to stop the project than finish it. The project manager disputes that but admits the cancellation cost is unknown. I suspect the cancellation costs will be pretty steep, and local government will take a bath on it since there are a huge amount of federal grants on the project that can’t be used and would even have to be paid back. This will no doubt also tarnish Cincinnati’s reputation with the US DOT, and I wouldn’t expect any discretionary grants to be becoming their way anytime soon.
Christie and Cranley aren’t the only ones. Several Republican governors also turned back grants and cancelled projects approved by their predecessors. It’s worth mentioning that none of these guys ever turns back a highway grant, no matter how big the boondoggle. This belies the notion that Republican these politicians are actually fiscal conservatives.
This seems to be the new normal, and it’s going to increasingly make doing anything difficult. A city or state can spend untold years on a project and actually spend a boatload of money, only to have one election result in everything being thrown into the trash, even if construction is half over. (In fairness, the Democrats have uncorked what I believe to be an even more toxic dynamic, namely refusing to enforce laws their politicians don’t like. I already see state level Republicans nibbling at this in response, and I think it is going to get very, very ugly).
Why Cincinnati Has Struggled
This also illustrates perfectly why Cincinnati has struggled for so long. It’s a city with deep and toxic public divides, maybe the worst I’ve ever seen in America. Until this is overcome, which seems unlikely, don’t expect Cincinnati to be reaching its potential anytime soon.
As for Cranley, he says “we want to move the city forward.” However, his entire campaign was premised on stopping the city from moving forward in a direction he didn’t like. He may have said some things I’ve missed, but in the coverage I’ve seen of this, he hasn’t put forth any alternative vision, merely typical election-cycle bromides about balancing budgets and more cops and firefighters. It’s difficult for me to believe that a guy who ran for office to stop stuff will suddenly morph into a someone with a positive agenda, but we shall see.
In that Enquirer article, a commenter named Mark Miller (which a commenter suggests may be a pseudonymous account named after a local Tea Party leader) said, “Today is a very sad day for Cincinnati. Not only are we going back four years, we are setting this city back 50 years or more. One only has to look at the Cincinnati subway to see what small thinking brings to this city. Once we were Chicago. Post subway we could only hope to be Indy or Toledo.” That’s revealing of the extraordinary regard in which it holds itself. It’s also not strictly true. But it does get at something, namely that Cincinnati has squandered advantages most places would kill to have while other cities that started without much have actually gone on to build things.
It just goes to show that the real measure of a city isn’t in the stuff it has, but in the culture of its people. I know many incredible people in Cincinnati, but the cold reality is that the culture of the city is one of smug self-regard and self-sabotage. Until that changes, don’t expect Cincinnati to achieve the greatness of which it is manifestly so capable.
Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
Chicago architecture critic, photographer and cultural commentator Lee Bey unearthed this gem of a 1961 video of Chicago called “City of Necessity” that is well worth watching. I know most people don’t watch videos online, but despite the 22 minute length, this one is a must for the serious urbanist. Among other things, it fills in part of the historical gap that exists in a lot of people (often including myself) about how our cities actually evolved to where they are today. According to Bey, this film was produced by local religious institutions in order to showcase the benefits of city living, while calling for a more fair and inclusive urban sphere. It’s shot in Chicago but is really about cities generally. Here’s the video, then a couple of my own observations after the embed. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
It’s clear that portions of this film would have transposed well to a timelapse film. Construction scenes, for example, frequently feature in timelapses. But what sets this apart from the contemporary timelapse, possibly because of its production by religious institutions, is the overwhelming focus on people. And not just crowds of people, but actual individuals and small groups. Last week’s time lapse is almost entirely about Chicago the built environment, with the people existing in the abstract to some extent (inhabiting it like scurrying ants) though not in the sense that we find any of the living, breathing human beings that make Chicago the city that it is. This film, by contrast, gives us a peek into the lives of a many Chicagoans, not just a look at the city in abstract.
Terry Nichols Clark once described cities as “entertainment machines.” The notion of the city as machine rather than a habitat for people permeates the time lapse genre. It also seems to be an implicit part of how a lot of people process the city, something I’ve always tried to caution against by saying that cities are about people, not buildings – you can’t say you love the neighborhood if hate the neighbors. Today more often perhaps its simple indifference to the neighbors.
Also, this film depicts a Chicago that’s much less diverse than today. It’s predominantly, though not exclusively, shown as white and black. That may be an artifact of what they chose to include, but my sense is that Chicago is much more diverse today, which perhaps shows the changes that an increase in immigration in the current era has brought.
In any event, this film is well worth watching.
Friday, October 25th, 2013
I’ve written a lot about the two Chicagos, one successful, one struggling. Obviously that’s a problem, but from the standpoint of a lot of Midwest cities that’s a nice problem to have as they have more broadly struggled to reinvent themselves for the new economy. While most Midwest cities have areas of relative affluence, mostly in favored quarter suburbs, very few of them have managed to pull off any type of material urban core revival. Although incomplete and not inclusive, Chicago has many square miles of thriving neighborhoods. How did this happen?
There are a lot of reasons, but I want to highlight one thing about Chicago that seems to me to be different from other cities: the unusually strong commitment of the corporate community to Chicago. I’ve written before about the decline of civic leadership culture resulting from structural economic change. And while Chicago has experienced many of the same things – the fortunes of its businesses and executives are seldom actually linked to the success of Chicago as a whole, for example – corporate leadership has retained an usually strong civic commitment.
One way this has manifested itself is in defending corporate headquarters, especially through mergers. When Bank One of Columbus, Ohio bought first Chicago, First Chicago agreed to be bought, but insisted that the HQ be in Chicago. IIRC, Jamie Dimon was Bank One’s CEO at the time and took over the merged entity. (You can argue that with somewhere around 15,000 JP Morgan employees, Columbus still got the better end of the bargain, but the symbolism of the headquarters was important). Similarly, in the Continental-United merger, United was ok with Continental’s CEO taking over, but the merged airline had to be based in Chicago. When AON insurance reincorporated its HQ in London and moved 50 employees there (a fairly minor move in the grand scheme of things), the Chicago directors on the board, although they agreed with the business logic I suspect, decided to abstain from the approval vote.
You might throw out a name like Dan Gilbert as an old school industrial titan who’s a booster for his hometown of Detroit, but he’s of recent vintage. Clearly in other cities corporations and their chieftains are involved in various civic ventures, but my anecdotal observation is that there’s something different in Chicago.
A Well-Heeled Followup
In follow-up to my recent article on Chicago’s active pursuit of elite oriented urbanism, this week provided yet another clear example of it. In a shrewd move designed I suspect mostly to embarrass Rahm Emanuel by making him put his cards on the table, a south side alderman proposed implementing a $25/year bicycle registration fee.
Let’s put aside the merits of such a fee. I’m not categorically opposed to it as it regularizes and in a sense institutionalizes and officializes bicycles as a transport mode on par with the car, one able to stand on its own two feet. However, it’s also very clear that most of these proposals are simply gratuitous provocations designed to annoy bicyclists and cause them pain. I would probably say this is just trying to nickle and dime bike owners and would by unlikely to push one myself.
In this case, knowing bicycles are a priority of Rahm, the proposal is appears to be intended to force Rahm to reject it, while continuing to move forward with a raft of other fee increases he wants, including a $0.75/pack cigarette tax hike.
What I want you to consider is Rahm’s own stated rationale for why he rejects the bike tax:
Two years ago the city of Chicago was ranked 10th in protected bike lanes and 15th for startups. IBM did a survey. We moved to 5th in protected bike lanes – and are making more progress – and we moved from 15th to 10th, according to IBM, worldwide on startups. Now the two are not correlated, but it’s not an accident that Google and Motorola chose to move their headquarters to where the first protected bike lane went, and where there’s a mass transit stop. This is why transportation is so essential, not just to move people, but recruiting companies. So as it relates to her tax, she can propose it. It’s her idea. But I argue that’s not the right way to go [slight cleanup for flow]
A high school buddy of mine once said ZZ Top would never be a band accused of hidden sexual lyrics, because they’re not hidden. Similarly, it doesn’t take any parsing or inference to understand Rahm’s strategy to cater to the high end. He’s very transparent about it. It’s how he publicly justifies his decisions. Again, the point I want to make here is that, actual impacts on rich and poor and the wisdom of the tax aside, Rahm Emanuel defends his position by explicit appeals to its impact on the elite.
Here we have a guy who’s basically saying that if the city imposes a $25/year fee on the well-paid employees of one of the world’s largest and most profitable tech companies, firms like that might not choose Chicago. What does that say about how attractive he thinks Chicago is as a place to do business that companies might be so easily discouraged from choosing it?
Apparently high end residents and businesses can’t even have the most minor of inconveniences imposed, while the city piles on regressive “sin taxes” on a population that is addicted to tobacco and disproportionately low income. That’s Chicago’s policy in a nutshell.
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013
The current era of 21st century urban revolutions began in early 2011, with scores of cities during the Arab Spring. The uprisings have now taken on a newer, darker hue, with São Paulo’s protest over bus fares that has already spread to other cities in Brazil. A few uprisings have resulted in the deposing of hated Middle Eastern dictators, and many leaders have reached uneasy truces with their citizens, but observers sense that this conflict is far from over. Some see these as isolated incidents. It seems more like a global web of urban unrest searching for a voice.
Much of today’s social unrest was predicted by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, writing in the mid-1970s about social space in the city, and how it has been constructed to favor capitalism. The separation of work and home, for example, is a relatively modern spatial arrangement favoring wealth, and for no better example of this, one can see the hike in São Paulo bus fares acting as the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Brazilian poor. Lefebvre’s evaluation of the currents of the late twentieth century can now be updated, and it points to a looming social crisis.
Western states – Chinese, Syrian, or what-have-you – have the tools to utterly crush any alternatives to their power. The state is universally promoted as the “stable center” without which, we are assured, we would descend into chaos. It enables both a spatial flatness and instantaneous communication, collapsing space and time.
The working class, instead of rising up in Marxist-style class struggle, has continually been pacified by consumerism. Anyone interviewing a modern Chinese young adult would, if they got a candid response, hear the anger of this generation over the Tiananmen Square generation’s sell-out; economic freedom was offered by the state, and the people, starved for so long, chose it, rather than political freedom. Today, they pay the price. Placating the lower classes has become expensive, and the state has become overextended in doing so, but cannot stop at the risk of seeding a genuine revolt.
As housing, transportation, food and living costs rise to newly unaffordable levels, a larger and larger segment of the population is left behind. An example of this is the phenomenon of food trucks, which has swept many cities in a few short years, creating a niche that is neither vending cart nor restaurant, but something new in between. Government regulation was swift in coming, notable not for its concern about health, but its concern about the economic protection of vested interests. In olden days, food vendors could just duke it out for the customer. Today, the government, anxious to keep the finely tuned economic hierarchy of the city in balance, rushes in to create order and regulate the problem away.
Struggles in Egypt, Syria, and now Brazil have nothing to do with traditional Marxist concerns about the rise of the industrial worker. With impoverished credibility, evidenced by the multiple failures of the socialist state, leftists have little to offer when considering the urban landscape that lies before us in cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Tunis, Cairo, and many others.
While the right cries “Marxist” at anyone protesting the greed and corruption of the global economic system, this smear is neither accurate nor serious. Old labels are used for lack of anything better, but the confrontations on the streets have neither a red flag nor a red book. Instead, the new mob – refusing to be pacified by the usual pop culture escapism – is searching for a new voice that is neither communist nor capitalist.
The American Occupy movement faded before it could contribute anything meaningful to the last election, but perhaps by consensus it decided that the election was already lost, regardless of which party won. Disbanded, the protest against the “one percent” was an inarticulate voice not ready for prime time. What is the opposite of globalism?
It is a new localism that will arise, refuting the power of the state and finding a yet unnamed ethic that rejects our flattened, instantaneous space-time for something hilly and slower. In the coming months and years these urban voices will continue to protest the state’s authoritarianism, as well as the high price of the global economic system. Eventually, these voices will likely converge into a newer socio-economic philosophy, yet to be defined. Lefebvre died in 1991 without ever seeing the protests at global trade talks at the turn of the millennium, but he would have approved of the dialectic. He would also have predicted that they would be crushed by the state, as happened. He would see today’s world as ripe for confrontation.
Flickr photo by Phillip Pessar, Frita Man Food Truck at Walgreens, Miami, Florida. “Food trucks in the Walgreens parking lot have become a regular thing.”
Richard Reep is an architect and artist who lives in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and he has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.
This post originally appeared in New Geography on July 12, 2013.
Thursday, October 17th, 2013
A couple weeks ago, noting the apparently immunity of global city Chicago to problems elsewhere in the city, I asked the question: What happens when global city Chicago realizes there’s a good chance it can simply let the rest of the city fail and get on with its business?
I’d argue we’re seeing the results right before our eyes.
At the same time murders in significant parts of the city are even higher than during the peak of the crack epidemic, when the city says its too poor to hire more cops, when 54 schools are closed and a 1000 teachers laid off, half the mental health clinics closed, libraries cut back, etc., Chicago has found a nearly limitless stream of money for elite amenities, most recently – and appallingly – $50+ million in TIF subsidies for a new DePaul arena. There’s also been hundreds of millions of dollars more in corporate welfare under Daley and Rahm.
Investing in success is a great idea – if you plan to harvest a return on that investment to fund city services and your safety net. It’s clear there’s no intention of doing this in Chicago. I discuss this in my most recent City Journal piece, “Well-Heeled in the Windy City.” Here’s an excerpt:
Clearly, cities like Chicago must retain a substantial portion of upscale residents and businesses. Detroit and other cities show the results of failure on this front. Yet the moral case for elite amenities has always rested on the assumption of a broader public good: what benefited the wealthy would also make life better for the rest of the city….Under Emanuel’s leadership, though, Chicago has made peace with a two-tier society and broken the social contract. Rather than trying to expand opportunity, Chicago has bet its future on its already successful residents—leading some on the left to call Emanuel Mayor 1 Percent. The Windy City isn’t alone in following this strategy. Detroit has gone bankrupt, but that hasn’t stopped city government from lavishing $450 million in subsidies on a new Red Wings arena.
Since I critique bike infrastructure as part of Chicago’s splurge for the elite, I want to clarify that point here where there are lots of bike advocates. I strongly support bike infrastructure. In fact, I once gave a presentation where I said protected bike lanes and bike share should be Rahm’s top two transport priorities on taking office because they are cost-effective and can leverage outside funds. However, even the most passionate advocates must admit that the optics are bad on making a full court press on bike lanes when cutting core services elsewhere. More importantly, Rahm’s explicit rationale on bike infrastructure has been luring talent for the tech economy, thus it is an elite focused venture. For example, the Sun-Times reported:
Emanuel called protected bike lanes central to the city’s sustainability plan and his efforts to make Chicago the high-tech hub of the Midwest. Chicago “moved up dramatically” in the list of major cities whose employees bike to work, he said.
“It’s part of my effort to recruit entrepreneurs and start-up businesses because a lot of those employees like to bike to work,” he said.
“It is not an accident that, where we put our first protected bike lane is also where we have the most concentration of digital companies and digital employees. Every time you speak to entrepreneurs and people in the start-up economy and high-tech industry, one of the key things they talk about in recruiting workers is, can they have more bike lanes.”