[Paleopsych] Prospect: Joel Kotkin: Uncool Cities
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Wed Nov 16 22:40:19 UTC 2005
Joel Kotkin: Uncool Cities
[No. 115 / Oct 2005]
From London and Berlin to Sydney and San Francisco, civic authorities
agree that the key to urban prosperity is appealing to the "hipster
set" of gays, twentysomethings and young creatives. But the only
evidence for this idea comes from the dot-com boom of the late
1990s--and that time is over
Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow with the New America Foundation
and author of The City: A Global History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005)
The world's great cities face serious, even catastrophic problems.
Terrorists have planted bombs in London's Underground and bus systems.
Floods have wiped out New Orleans, and fires incinerated scores of
impoverished Africans living in crowded, seamy Paris apartments.
Everywhere--from New Orleans to London and Paris--the middle classes,
whatever their colour, are deserting the core for safer and more
affordable suburbs, following in the footsteps of high-tech industries
and major corporations.
Yet rather than address serious issues like housing, schools,
transport, jobs and security, mayors and policy gurus from Berlin and
London to Sydney and San Francisco have adopted what can be best be
described as the "cool city strategy." If you can somehow make your
city the rage of the hipster set, they insist, all will be well.
New Orleans, the most recent victim of catastrophic urban decline, is
a case in point. Once a great
commercial hub, the city's economic and political elites have placed
all their bets on New Orleans becoming a tourist and culture centre.
Indeed, just a month before the disaster, city leaders held a
conference that promoted a "cultural economy initiative" strategy for
attracting high-end industry. The other big state initiative was not
levee improvement but a $450m expansion for the now infamous
This rush to hipness has its precedents, perhaps even in Roman
festivals or medieval fairs. But in the past, most cities did not see
entertainment as their main purpose. Rome was an imperial seat;
Manchester, Berlin, Chicago and Detroit foundries of the industrial
age; London, New York, and later Tokyo, global financial centres.
Perhaps even worse, the lure of "coolness" leads cities to ignore the
fundamental issues--infrastructure, middle-class flight,
terrorism--that have so much more to do with their long-term
prospects. Cities once boasted of their thriving middle-class
neighbourhoods, churches, warehouses, factories and high-rise office
towers. Today they set their value by their inventory of jazz clubs,
gay bars, art museums, luxury hotels and condos.
The advocates of this approach are a new generation of "hip cool"
mayors, including Ken Livingstone, Berlin's Klaus Wowereit, San
Francisco's Gavin Newsom, Baltimore's Martim O'Malley, Detroit's "hip
hop" mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the gay chief executive of Paris,
Ken Livingstone sees London's future tied to "the richness, breadth
and diversity of its cultural and creative resources." Theatres,
sports stadiums, museums and cinemas are, he notes, "what many of us
enjoy most about living here." Culture, not commerce, is "London's
heartbeat." For a city "vulnerable to the up and downs of the global
political and economic system," the mayor proclaims, culture and
tourism represent an ideal way to counteract "the negative impact of
This refocus of urban policy around culture and tourism has wide
appeal, particularly in continental Europe. Expensive--and
increasingly economically marginal cities--like Paris, Vienna and
post-cold war Berlin have all embraced the notion of a
culturally-based lifestyle economy.
Berlin epitomises the trend. In the 1990s, massive funds were expended
to make the restored German capital into the business capital of
Mitteleuropa. These ambitions foundered on the city's high taxes, red
tape, and generally anti-business culture. Over 100,000 jobs have left
in recent years, unemployment is nearly 20 per cent and the population
is declining, as people flee to the suburbs or more prosperous parts
Faced with such problems, what does the mayor of the bankrupt city
propose? Cut taxes, build new infrastructure, find ways to keep the
middle classes and businesses? No, Mayor Wowereit pegs the future to
selling Berlin as "the city of glamour." To him, "the most decisive
aspect is to bring creative young people to Berlin." Somehow, he
believes, this will turn the city's sad economy around.
Similar thinking has been picked up by political and business leaders
in grittier places like Liverpool and Manchester, Cleveland, Baltimore
and Detroit. Faced with population decline of 30 to 40 per cent over
the past half century, these cities have all created programmes
designed to lure gays, bohemians and young "creatives" to their towns.
This ephemeralisation of urbanism derives, in part, from the theories
of Richard Florida, an American academic whose theories about the
"creative class" have captivated many city leaders. Using research
drawn largely from the dot-com era of the late 1990s, Florida insists
that the key to urban success lies in attracting such groups of young
twentysomething singles, artists and homosexuals. Florida's favourite
hip cities, not surprisingly, are places like Sydney, San Francisco,
Portland, Seattle and Boston, areas with lots of students, artists and
gays--and the lowest percentages of families. Other less hip locales
have been duly forewarned, as a headline in the Washington Monthly put
it, that cities "without gays and rock bands are losing the economic
There is little evidence that this is really how urban economies work.
It turns out that many of the most prized members of the "creative
class" are not 25-year-old hip cools, but fortysomething adults who,
particularly if they have children, end up gravitating to the suburbs
and more economically dynamic cities like Phoenix, Boise, Charlotte or
The false promise of Florida's "creative class" has been obvious for
the last five years, particularly with the collapse of the dot-com
boom. In the late 1990s there did appear to be a new kind of urban
economy--driven by black-clad graphic designers, programmers and
marketeers--that was bringing new jobs, wealth and residents to old
urban areas from San Francisco's "multimedia gulch" to New York's
ultra-trendy "silicon alley."
Then the dot-com economy fizzled out, leaving whole districts of New
York, San Francisco and Boston with huge vacancy rates and declining
job rolls. San Francisco has lost roughly 10 per cent of its jobs and
4 per cent of its residents since 1999. Its job growth rate, like most
of the "hip" cities heralded by Florida, has lagged behind the
national average, not only in overall jobs but in high-wage
technology, business and financial service jobs.
There have also been social costs. These cities have become the most
divided by class in the US, and often suffer large homeless
populations. In some, the largely immigrant service class labour to
keep the wealthy population properly served, at least until they can
afford to move to the suburbs.
Perhaps there is no more searing evidence of the limitations of a
culture-based economy than New Orleans. Once a great industrial and
commercial centre, the city--despite its huge port--has roughly half
the US average of jobs in manufacturing and wholesale trade. Other,
more business-focused cities, notably Houston, have taken the lead in
the high-paid service jobs connected to trade, such as finance,
engineering and medical services. The energy industry, once the
lynchpin of the local economy, also decamped, primarily to Houston.
All this happened despite New Orelans being a city that was heavily
gay, very cool and extremely hip.
By the time of the flood, tourism and culture, along with a huge
social service bureaucracy, was driving the economy. The problem, of
course, is that tourism pays poorly; a 2002 study for the AFL-CIO
showed that nearly half of all full-time hotel workers could not earn
enough to keep a family out of poverty.
Lost in the ghastly images of New Orleans's poor is the fact that the
city's whites, about 27 per cent of the population, are wealthier and
more educated than their counterparts nationwide. They, of course,
welcomed the new nightclubs, coffee shops and galleries that dotted
their grander neighbourhoods. New Orleans epitomised the inequality of
the hip cool city. While the national gap between black and white per
capita income stands at about $9,000, in New Orleans it is almost
The prospect for older industrial cities, which lack much of a basis
for tourism and culture, are even less encouraging. Detroit, in
particular, under its "hip hop" Mayor Kilpatrick, continues to slide.
Baltimore, another city that has openly embraced the "creative class"
theory has languished. It also experienced a shocking increase in
crime, and now suffers one of the highest homicide rates in America.
Little recognised amid the creative class craze is the fact that a
strong and growing middle class is still the key to well balanced
urban life. Without a permanent middle class, cities through
history--from ancient Rome and 17th-century Venice to 19th-century
Amsterdam--have lost their balast, become ever more divided by class,
and ceded their central role.
London and other amenity-rich cities like New York, Paris, San
Francisco and Boston will not become ruins, any more than Venice and
Amsterdam did after they entered their elegant dotages. Even New
Orleans, owing to its location and historical significance, and
troubled Berlin, by dint of being Germany's capital and possessor of
an enormous cultural legacy, are unlikely to go the way of Detroit.
Indeed, as long as the world economy expands, such cities may find
their sustenance as amusement parks for adults. But the people will
come from other more dynamic rising cities--places like Shanghai,
Singapore, Taipei, Perth, Calgary, Los Angeles, Houston or
Phoenix--that still retain their "animal spirits" and remain the locus
of middle-class aspiration.
New Yorkers and Londoners still possess the essentials for a more
vital future. But first their political leaders must realise that
great cities need schools for families, transport that works, jobs for
the middle and the aspiring working classes. And they must acknowledge
the continuing need to invest heavily in public safety, particularly
in an age of terror.
These challenges come with a price, and require public money to pay
for them. In contrast, the "coolness" strategy both costs little and
offends no one. It is the path of least resistance, but one that
offers only poor returns.
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