Monday, March 2nd, 2015
Here’s another one of those Resident Advisor documentaries about the electronic music scenes in various cities. This one features New York. And like the others, it’s as much as about the culture of the place (or at least certain aspects of it), as music itself. In this particular episode, we’re treated to a long list of complaints about gentrification (and plenty of F-bombs I should warn you). Whether you agree with it or not – and there’s a lot to disagree with – it gives a window into how some people see the world.
It also appears to me that if you’re really into electronic dance music, you’d be better off in Berlin, Detroit, or Jo’burg than New York or Paris, where rising rents are putting a lot of pressure on the edgy underground scene.
If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Thursday, February 26th, 2015
Rahm Emanuel is heading to a runoff in his bid for re-election as Chicago mayor. I discuss the matter in my latest piece over at City Journal. In short, while Emanuel has done himself no favor with his “Rahmses” style and unapologetic catering to the upscale Chicago, much of the dissatisfaction with him comes from a denial that the bill for past decisions is finally coming due.
Here’s an excerpt:
The dynamic Emanuel seemed just what the flagging city needed. His dead-fish-mailing, F-bomb-dropping style seemed perfectly in tune with hardboiled Chicago sensibilities. He started fast, unleashing a blizzard of initiatives and announcements that boosted the morale of the city’s establishment. And four years on, Chicago has hit its stride in many ways. In November, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that jobs in the greater downtown area had reached an all-time high. The city has enjoyed a tourist boom, drawing over 50 million visitors last year, and several new hotels are expected to open. Chicago’s downtown tech scene has seen strong growth. Thousands of new apartments are going up in downtown every year.
Chicago is also uniquely burdened among major American cities by its twin deficits. Both the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago are in dire financial condition. Illinois’s unfunded pension liability stands at $111 billion. It owes another $56 billion in unfunded retiree health-care obligations. Chicago itself faces $35 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. The total liability for all local government obligations adds up to as much as $83,000 per household. This flow of red ink can’t be staunched with simple “belt tightening.” One wonders if Emanuel understood the full extent of the financial hole when he sought the mayor’s office.
It’s tempting to pin the blame for Emanuel’s travails on hubris, and he has committed his share of unforced errors. He manages the local media with Washington-style spin control. He’s also shown a lack of regard for the optics of leadership. Daley projected a South Side “neighborhood guy” persona even while cozying up to the Loop business class. By contrast, Emanuel seems unconcerned about coming across as an elitist. His schedule is full of meetings with wealthy donors. Over half of his top donors benefit in some way from city largesse. Emanuel built a fancy selective-admission school named after President Obama on the white and wealthy North Side while closing 50 public schools in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.
Click through for the whole thing.
Thursday, February 19th, 2015
Interior of the Palladium concert hall in Carmel, Indiana. Photo by Zach Dobson
My latest post is online at New Geography and is called “The Emerging New Aspirational Suburb” and is about how upscale business suburbs are reinventing themselves as sub-regional centers in their own right, including more urban nodes and amenities like arts facilities and events. In part this is exploiting their strong market position, but it’s also a response to the now evident challenges that face many suburbs as they reach maturity. The piece focuses on Carmel, Indiana, which as more of the pieces put together than anyplace else I know of currently, but the same approach is being pursued elsewhere.
It’s a longform piece, but here are some excerpts:
Beyond the historic downtown, Carmel has also implemented multiple New Urbanist style zoning overlays, including on Old Meridian St. and Range Line Rd. (the city’s original suburban commercial strip). These promote mixed use development, buildings that front the street, and multi-story structures. Infrastructure improvements and TIF have been used in these areas as well. There’s also a major New Urbanist type subdivision in western Carmel called the Village of West Clay.
[Mayor Jim Brainard] also keenly aware of global economic competition and the fact that Indiana lacks the type of geographic and weather amenities of other places. He frequently uses slides to illustrate this point. In one talk he said, “Now this picture, guess what, that’s not Carmel; but this picture is the picture of some of our competition. Mountains – that’s San Diego of course, mountains, beautiful weather, you know I think they have sunshine what, 362 days out of the 365…. What we’ve tried to do is to design a city that can compete with the most beautiful places on earth. We’ve tried to do it through the built environment because we don’t have the natural amenities.” While the claims to want to equal the most beautiful places in the world may be grandiose, the key is that mayor believes Carmel’s undistinguished natural setting and climate requires a focus on creating aesthetics through the built environment.
The city’s demographics have also expanded to become much more diverse. The minority population grew 295% between 2000 and 2010, adding 9,630 people and growing minority population share from 8.7% to 16.3%. 12% of the city’s households speak a language other than English at home. Many of these are highly skilled Chinese and Indian immigrants working for companies like pharmaceutical giant Lilly. Even black professionals are increasingly moving to Carmel, with the black population growing 324% in the 2000s and black population share doubling to 3%. Carmel is not a polyglot city today, but it’s far more diverse than in the past.
Critics also pointed to state figures showing Carmel with nearly $900 million in total debt. While it is a wealthy community that can afford the payments, in a conservative state like Indiana, a suburb accumulating nearly a billion dollars in debt raises eyebrows.
Click through to read the whole thing.
I should note that the mayor of Carmel disputes media accounts about cost overruns on various projects that I cite in the piece. He attributes these to other explanations, such as deliberate decisions to increase scope.
Sunday, February 15th, 2015
I was privileged to give the opening keynote at Governing Magazine’s Summit on Performance and Innovation in Louisville last week. Not only was it great to get to speak there in its own right, it’s particularly special for me because Louisville is my hometown.
My talk was on innovation, the imperative for innovation today, the barriers to innovation, and how to create fertile soil for innovation to flourish. The video is embedded below. It should be cued to the right spot, but if you have problems, my talk starts at 24:44. If the video doesn’t display for you, click over to watch on You Tube.
Monday, February 9th, 2015
[ I’m going to be giving a keynote at Governing Magazine’s Summit on Performance and Innovation in Louisville this Wed. The entire conference is live streaming at Governing’s web site. My session is Wed at 1:30pm, but looks like a lot of great stuff you won’t want to miss, such as the mayor’s roundtable immediately following me.
As you know, I recently joined the Manhattan Institute and its quarterly magazine City Journal. So obviously I’m interested in promoting our work. I think it’s fair to say that for those of you with a strong left orientation, you’re not going to agree with some of what’s published in City Journal. On the other hand, I think that regardless of what your political philosophy is, you’ll find some things that you do resonate with – but more importantly things to engage you. I want to share a couple of pieces from the magazine to give you a sample of what you might find. Here’s one by Mario Polèse from the Winter 2014 issue talking about how (some) downtowns have come back – Aaron. ]
Not so long ago, most urbanists were predicting the demise of downtowns. The data, after all, pointed unambiguously to declining central-city populations and expanding suburban ones in nearly every American metropolitan area between 1950 and 1980. Manhattan lost a quarter of its residents, for example, and Boston nearly a third. The exodus wasn’t confined to the United States. The population of inner London fell by more than a million residents during the same period, and my hometown, Montreal, watched the central borough of Ville-Marie hemorrhage half its population between 1966 and 1991. Businesses were fleeing, the urbanists noted. Central business districts were becoming vestigial organs, legacies of a bygone era before the automobile and the truck liberated us from the tyranny of proximity and brought us the suburban shopping mall.
But downtowns didn’t go the way of the dinosaur. In fact, most of them have begun to grow again. Of the 50 largest central cities in America, all but five saw their populations grow between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, and only two exhibited declines after 2010. For some, the turnaround came in the 1980s; for others, in the 1990s; and for still others, more recently. The title of Alan Ehrenhalt’s recent book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, reflects the nature of this shift—which, again, isn’t limited to the United States. But why are downtowns coming back? And how can we account for the holdouts?
The modern history of the central city is a story of three consecutive waves. The first began during the decades following World War II, though its full impact on urban economies became apparent only later. It involved a structural change sometimes called “deindustrialization” or “tertiarization”: a massive shift from manufacturing to services. The principal beneficiary of this shift was the “business services” sector, which includes finance, insurance, real estate, engineering, management consulting, advertising, publishing, and legal services.
All these business services sought out locations offering a high potential for personal interaction. The objects of exchange weren’t goods but information; human relations were the glue that held the sector together. Unlike manufacturing, business services required little floor space to generate income. Office towers allowed numerous firms to inhabit small spaces, producing correspondingly high property values. In the downtowns of large cities, such industries as manufacturing and warehousing, which demanded a lot of space, were unable to afford the rising cost. They began to decamp for less expensive locales. Meantime, the development of standardized containerization meant that trucks could now carry cargo from ships directly to factories and warehouses. Manufacturers and wholesalers no longer needed to be adjacent to ports and railheads in cities like New York and Montreal, giving these businesses more flexibility in choosing their locations.
So over time, business services replaced manufacturing as the principal economic base of large cities. You might define the tipping point as the moment when combined employment in the three main industry classes that constituted business services—finance, insurance, and real estate; professional, scientific, and technical services; and administrative support services—surpassed employment in manufacturing. In New York, that moment arrived in 1980. Manufacturing still accounted for a quarter of the city’s employment in 1970; today, it has fallen to well below 10 percent. The tipping point came in 1988 in Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, and some 15 years later in runner-up Montreal.
Until the late 1980s (or later, depending on the city), business services hadn’t grown enough to undo employment and land-use patterns that downtowns had inherited from the industrial era. Heavily polluted brownfields were left vacant, as were unused docks, empty warehouses, and factory shells. But many of these industrial sites have since been transformed. In Montreal’s old port, for instance, one abandoned dock now houses a science museum; a second has become a popular entertainment venue.
The growth of business services irreversibly altered not only the appearance of most big-city central neighborhoods but also their employment profile. This brings me to the second wave, which we might think of as the residential counterpart of the first. It was a turnaround in the population decline of central neighborhoods.
To see why it happened, we need to understand the forces that had previously been driving households away from the center: rising incomes, growing ownership of cars, the postwar baby boom, and high crime. A general rule of housing economics is that as incomes rise, households demand more floor space per person. As they prospered during the postwar years, families aspired to better, bigger homes, perhaps with a garden and even a pool. They found the space they sought in the suburbs, where land was cheap and plentiful. Automobile ownership also rises systematically with incomes, and it enabled numerous households to move to those spacious suburbs. And the baby boom, of course, meant more households with children, which demand more space than childless households do. Over the four decades following World War II, these trends produced ideal conditions for urban flight and suburban growth, especially when combined with the growing urban crime and disorder that marked the era.
But eventually, the lure of the suburban dream began to diminish. Starting in the 1990s, incomes rose less rapidly than in the past, slowing the demand for housing space. Automobile ownership stopped rising, stabilizing at about 800 cars per 1,000 people, according to the World Bank. Single-person and childless households accounted for an increasing share of the American population. The suburbs kept growing, but the great era of rapid suburban expansion seemed to have ended.
It can be argued, too, that tastes and preferences changed. The car is no longer the status symbol that it once was, having been replaced, among today’s youth, by concert tickets or the latest smartphone. As America’s infatuation with the car wanes, owning a two-garage split-level house becomes less glamorous. In an article published in Urban Studies in 2006, City Journal contributing editor Edward Glaeser and Joshua Gottlieb convincingly demonstrated Americans’ change in preferences toward urban living. Before 1990, the larger the city, the higher the average wages paid there, even after accounting for cost of living. After 1990, that relationship reversed itself, meaning that workers now accept lower wages for the privilege of living in big cities. They must be receiving something in return, the authors argue—specifically, access to the amenities and pleasures that central big-city living offers, from restaurants and museums to concerts and learning institutions. I’m inclined to agree with Glaeser and Gottlieb that the fall in urban crime rates since the 1980s explains only part of the new taste for urban living, but it, too, was important.
But the most powerful reason for the second wave was the first wave, which produced well-paying jobs downtown. That is, the main reason households began to return to the center was that the best jobs were there. New Yorkers have long since grown familiar with gentrification, the replacement of poorer, generally blue-collar, populations by wealthier, professional ones. But the phenomenon took place in downtowns all over North America.
The two waves that I’ve just described reshaped central neighborhoods, making them magnets for rising cohorts of entrepreneurs in digital firms. This is the third wave, currently in full motion: high-tech start-ups seeking out central neighborhoods. Downtowns are the new battlegrounds of the digital economy.
True, Silicon Valley remains the top player in that economy, whether you’re measuring the number of high-tech start-ups per year or the amount of venture capital invested. That isn’t about to change; few places can match the Valley’s buzz, its location near two top engineering schools, its superb scenery, and its local supply of risk-tolerant venture capitalists—not to mention the entrepreneurial spirit that California, despite its dysfunction, seems to bring out in people. Nevertheless, smaller clusters of high-tech start-ups are springing up in many central cities. New York’s cluster has (predictably) been dubbed Silicon Alley (see “Net Gains,”); London’s, Silicon Roundabout. San Francisco’s South of Market area, or SOMA, is an emerging hub of high-tech activity. Following a multibillion-dollar cleanup, the South Boston waterfront area, a short walk from the financial district, is also becoming a high-tech hub, attracting firms from nearby Route 128 and Cambridge.
To understand what’s happening, take a closer look at the neighborhoods being colonized. New York’s tech cluster is located chiefly in lower Manhattan—specifically, the Flatiron district, Tribeca, Chelsea, and nearby neighborhoods that have completed the transition from warehousing and manufacturing to residential and nonmanufacturing commercial uses. In London, the heart of the cluster is Shoreditch, an old blue-collar neighborhood to the northeast of the financial district. South Boston is also an old warehousing district with recycled rail yards and docks. These areas’ distinguishing feature is that each is within walking distance of the central business district. If the second wave took place because of housing, the primary factor here is proximity to other firms.
And not just other digital firms: as the tech industry moves away from simply making hardware and software and begins producing computer-accessible content—from music and video games to news and broadcasts—it finds value in being located near the entertainment, publishing, and broadcasting industries, traditional foundations of large-city downtown economies. Proximity to financial institutions, another traditional downtown pillar, is also helpful: meeting a rich banker or an eager venture capitalist is easier in lower Manhattan than in the New Jersey suburbs.
There are cultural reasons for the third wave as well. Asked on TV why his large computer-animation firm, Ubisoft, decided to locate in downtown Montreal, a founding shareholder pointed out that the company’s employees worked at all hours. They wanted to be able to walk across the street for coffee or a sandwich at midnight—or, alternately, to visit a bar at noon. Few wanted to commute, he added, and of those who did, many biked. Is it any surprise that such firms want to be in 24-hour cities, rather than in suburban districts that empty out after 5 PM? And that such employees are choosing to repopulate center-city neighborhoods, rather than drive in from afar? The symbiosis of workplace and residence is further strengthened by a growing construction trend in which condos occupy upper floors, offices occupy lower ones, and retail stores occupy the ground floor, creating a new generation of mixed-used neighborhoods.
It’s also the case that high-tech companies, like the business services of the postwar years, require relatively little floor space. Many need nothing more than a few laptops and desks and can consequently pay those downtown rents. And in some downtowns, third-wave firms can recruit graduates of nearby engineering or tech schools, such as Montreal’s McGill University and École de Technologie Supérieure. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was hoping to accelerate just this kind of symbiosis when he announced plans for an ultramodern technological campus on Roosevelt Island, across from Manhattan, to be run by Cornell University and the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology.
In several big American cities, though, the downtown resurgence hasn’t taken place; the areas continue to struggle and deteriorate. In most cities, the average office rent per square foot is higher downtown than in the suburbs—in New York, downtown rents are twice as high. But in Cleveland, according to data from the major real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, office space is no more expensive downtown than in the suburbs, and in St. Louis, it’s actually cheaper. Office-based firms in those cities don’t see downtown as a valued location and aren’t willing to pay more to locate there. Data for downtown Detroit are unavailable from Cushman, probably because demand from prospective clients is so tiny that there aren’t enough properties on the market for information to be produced.
An economic geographer would call this phenomenon a loss of “centrality,” which refers to the geographic point with the highest market potential for firms. It’s highly unusual for a big city to lose centrality. Even during the height of the population exodus—the 1960s and 1970s—the central business districts of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and most other cities never lost it. Why have Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis?
No simple answer exists to that question, though part of the explanation involves successive badly run city administrations, white middle-class flight, and a shrinking tax base, things that create a downward spiral of deteriorating services and rising taxes. And just as the reasons that some big-city downtowns have failed to revive are various, so are the solutions. No magic pill—be it a sports stadium, a convention center, or a shopping mall—can single-handedly bring back a moribund big-city downtown (see “Urban-Development Legends,” Autumn 2011).
Still, these troubled areas could learn a few lessons from the success of many of their peers across the nation. For one thing, the key to downtown resurgence is jobs—chiefly, jobs in business services. If finance firms, consultancies, head offices, advertising companies, and so on flee to the suburbs, the task of reviving a downtown will prove far more difficult.
Also, successful downtowns are mixed-use centers that are busy around the clock, not just from nine to five. A 24-hour downtown isn’t built overnight, so to speak. But it’s true that teaching institutions can sometimes bring in clienteles with a taste for 24-hour living. It wasn’t a coincidence that New York’s first gentrified neighborhood—long before the word “gentrification” came into fashion—was Greenwich Village, near New York University.
Another lesson is that you can’t separate the health of a downtown from that of the wider metropolitan area. Cities with resurgent central neighborhoods also have strong metropolitan economies. This means, for one thing, that strong national or regional corporate centers will find it easier to maintain strong downtowns; by contrast, smaller cities whose downtowns are largely dependent on retail have a harder row to hoe. It also means that revitalization initiatives can’t be limited to the central city. Some level of cooperation between city and metropolitan area is necessary—if only to ensure that they effectively share the cost of metro-wide infrastructure, such as public transit.
A related lesson: strong downtowns and suburbanization are not mutually exclusive, as anyone who has driven through the sprawling suburbs of Washington, D.C., or New York can testify. An exodus from the center can occur for two diametrically opposed reasons. Suburban office parks can spring up because a downtown is too strong (and therefore expensive) or because it’s too weak. Firms leaving Manhattan for cheaper office rents in New Jersey are the sign of a growing downtown; firms leaving central Detroit for the safer, cleaner suburbs are the sign of a dying one.
Finally, the many current policies that restrict real-estate supply downtown—rent control, restrictions on building heights, and so forth—are a luxury that only cities with solid, growing downtowns can afford because they drive up prices in the center and discourage people and businesses from settling there. How far we’ve come since the 1970s, when downtowns seemed doomed and governments were concerned with revitalizing them! Today, those governments are doing the opposite, restricting growth in downtown areas and, in too many cases, turning them into coveted prizes occupied by a lucky few. Abandoning these misguided policies would reinforce the gratifying shift that cities all over the country and the world are witnessing: a return to the center.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of City Journal.
Thursday, February 5th, 2015
[ Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations site is a great look at public transit for those seriously interested in the subject. He’s lived in many countries and has studied systems around the world, bringing a global perspective to local projects. And he takes an analytical, “good government” approach of proposing systems that both produce high value and are cost effective. Here’s his take on what’s need at the New York MTA – Aaron. ]
In the last few years New York’s MTA has gone through multiple cycles in which a new head talks of far-reaching reform, while only small incremental steps are taken. The latest is the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, which has just released a report detailing all the way the MTA could move forward. Capital New York has covered it and hosts the report in three parts. Despite the florid rhetoric of reinvention, the proposals contained in the report are small-scale, such as reducing waste heat in the tunnels and at the stations on PDF-pp. 43-44 of the first part. At first glance they seem interesting; they are also very far from the reinvention the MTA both needs and claims to be engaging in.
Construction costs are not addressed in the report. On PDF-p. 53 of the first part, it talks about the far-reaching suburban Grand Paris Express project for providing suburb-to-suburb rapid transit. It says nothing of the fact that this 200-km project is scheduled to cost about 27 billion euros in what appears to be today’s money, which is not much more than $150 million per km, about a tenth as much as New York’s subway construction. (Grand Paris Express is either mostly or fully underground, I am not sure.) The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report.
Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers. It’s the same problem as the use of cap-and-trade in California.
One of the most fundamental inventions of modern government is the broad-based tax, on income or consumption. Premodern governments funded themselves out of tariffs and dedicated taxes on specific activities (as do third-world governments today), and this created a lot of economic distortion, since not all activities were equally taxed, and politically powerful actors could influence the system to not tax them. The transparent broad-based tax, deeded to general revenue through a democratic process, has to be spent efficiently, because there are many government departments that are looking for more money and have to argue why they should get it. Moreover, the tax affects nearly all voters, so that cutting the tax is another option the spending programs must compete with. The dedicated fund does neither. If the broad-based tax is the equivalent of market competition, a system of dedicated funds for various government programs is the equivalent of a cartel that divides the market into zones, with each cartel member enjoying a local monopoly. In this way there’s a difference between the hodgepodge of taxes the MTA levies and wants to levy and Ile-de-France’s dedicated 1.4-2.6% payroll tax: the payroll tax directly affects all Francilien workers and employers, and were it wasted, a right-wing liberal politician could win accolades by proposing to cut it, the way New York Republicans are attacking the smaller payroll tax used to fund the MTA.
The proposals of where to spend the money to be raised so opaquely are problematic as well. There is a set of reforms, based on best practices in Continental Europe and Japan, that every urban transit system in the first world should pursue, including in their original countries, where often only some of those aspects happen. These include proof-of-payment fare collection on buses, commuter trains, and all but the busiest subway systems; all-door boarding on buses; mode-neutral fares with free transfers; signal priority and bus lanes on all major bus routes, with physically separated lanes in the most congested parts; a coherent frequent bus network, and high off-peak frequency on all trains; and through-service on commuter rail lines that can be joined to create a coherent S-Bahn or RER system. As far as I can tell, the report ignores all of these, with the exception of the vague sentence, “outfitting local bus routes with SBS features,” which features are unspecified. Instead, new buzzwords like resiliency and redundancy appear throughout the report. Redundancy in particular is a substitute for reliability: the world’s busiest train lines are generally not redundant: if they have parallel alternatives those are relief lines or slower options, and a shutdown would result in a major disruption. Amtrak, too, looks for redundancy, even as the busiest intercity rail line in the world, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has no redundancy, and is only about to get some in the next few decades as JR Central builds the Chuo Shinkansen for relief and for higher speeds.
The only foreigners on the Commission are British, Canadian, and Colombian, which may have something to do with the indifference to best industry practices. Bogota is famous for its BRT system, leveraging its wide roads and low labor costs, and Canada and to a lesser extent the UK have the same problems as the US in terms of best industry practices. Swiss, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean members might have known better, and might also have been useful in understanding where exactly the cost problems of the US in general and New York in particular come from.
The final major problem with the report, in addition to the indifference to cost, the proposal for reactionary funding sources, and the ignorance of best industry practices, is the continued emphasis on a state of good repair. While a logical goal in the 1980s and 90s, when the MTA was coming off of decades of deferred maintenance, the continued pursuit of the maintenance backlog today raises questions of whether maintenance has been deferred more recently, and whether it is still deferred. More oversight of the MTA is needed, for which the best idea I can think of is changing the cycles of maintenance capital funding from five years, like the rest of the capital plan, to one year. Long-term investment should still be funded over the long term, but maintenance should be funded more regularly, and the backlog should be clarified each year, so that the public can see how each year the backlog is steadily filled while normal replacement continues. This makes it more difficult for MTA chiefs to propose a bold program, fund it by skimping on maintenance, and leave for their next job before the ruse is discovered.
I tag this post under both good categories (“good transit” and “good/interesting studies”) and bad ones (“incompetence” and “shoddy studies”) because there are a lot of good ideas in the report. But none of them rises to the level of reinvention, and even collectively, they represent incremental improvement, of the sort I’d expect of a city with a vigorous capital investment program and industry practices near the world’s cutting edge. New York has neither, and right now it needs to imitate the best performers first.
This post originally appeared at Pedestrian Observations on November 25, 2014.
Friday, January 30th, 2015
My latest piece is online in the latest issue of City Journal. It’s about the blowback people and firms ranging from Shinola to Hantz Farms have gotten when trying to bring what Detroit desperately needs to rebuild, namely investment. Here’s an excerpt:
Consider Shinola, a luxury-goods start-up that employs more than 250 people in Detroit, many engaged in the manufacturing of bicycles, leather goods, and watches. The firm has opened boutiques in New York and London and is running multipage ads in upscale magazines, boasting of its Detroit connection. But not everybody sees Shinola as a Detroit success story. “Shinola is using my city as its shill, pushing a manufactured, outdated and unrealistic ideal of America,” wrote Detroit native John Moy on Four Pins, a fashion website. He complains about Shinola’s out-of-town financial backers and its use of parts made elsewhere. When Shinola installed four outdoor city clocks, someone tagged them with graffiti.
What these and other incidents reveal is an “it’s our city” mind-set among locals deeply hostile to and suspicious of outsiders—and of outside investment. “Detroit is the only town in America where misery hates company, or at least distrusts it,” wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson about the Shinola controversy. Detroiters, he notes, view enterprising newcomers as “mere poseurs, parasites feeding off a hardscrabble heritage to which they lack any legitimate claim.”
I note that some of this is understandable emotionally, but the reality is that if Detroit wants to improve, that means more people and investment from the outside, and those people are going to demand a seat at the table too. Click through to read the whole thing.
Wednesday, January 28th, 2015
The “storm of the century” hit New England hard but was a bust in New York. I went out and surveyed the realm yesterday morning and filed at story over at City Journal:
New York’s “storm of the century” turned out to be a bust. Rather than the predicted 30-inch “snowpocalypse,” only eight to 10 inches hit most of the city. That’s not to say that it had no effect. It happened to be the perfect amount of snow needed to turn Central Park gorgeous. By 10 o’clock, park streets and paths had already been plowed, and joggers, kids with sleds, and even skiers were out enjoying the winter wonderland. With the streets mostly empty, the morning was a welcome respite from traffic noise, bicycle rickshaws—and bikes, period, as cyclists appeared to be skipping the festivities. I missed the clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages, however—a sad preview of what awaits if Mayor de Blasio succeeds in his quest to ban carriage rides.
Tuesday, January 27th, 2015
[ With the New York portion of the widely touted blizzard turning out to be a bust, I thought I’d dust off this 2009 piece I did for New Geography on cities, blizzards, and what the response to them says about the urban culture – Aaron. ]
January 1979 saw one of the worst blizzards in city history hit Chicago, dumping 20 inches of snow, closing O’Hare airport for 46 hours, and paralyzing traffic in the city for days. Despite the record snowfall, the city’s ineffectual response was widely credited for the defeat of Mayor Michael Bilandic in his re-election bid, leading to Jane Bryne becoming the city’s first female mayor.
In January 1978, a similar blizzard had struck the city of Indianapolis, also burying the city in a record 20 inches of snow. Mayor Bill Hudnut stayed awake nearly two days straight, coordinating the response and frequently updating the city on the snow fighting efforts through numerous media appearances. Nevertheless, the airport closed and it was several days before even major streets were passable. But when it was all over, Hudnut emerged a folk hero and went on to become arguably the most popular mayor in city history, serving four terms before voluntarily stepping aside.
While major snow is much less frequent in Indianapolis than Chicago, and Hudnut’s response certainly bettered Bilandic’s, these twin blizzards illustrate a powerful difference in citizen expectations between these two cities, reflecting two of the broad approaches to urban service provision in America today.
People in Chicago expect and demand high quality public services. Chicago is the “City that Works”, and woe be to the mayor when it doesn’t. That’s why every mayor since Bilandic has treated snow clearance like a military operation, deploying a division of armored snow trucks to assault the elements at the merest hint of a flake, often leaving more salt than snow in their wake. If Chicagoans pay relatively higher taxes than the rest of the country, at least its citizens know that they are getting something for their money, whether it be snow clearance, garbage collection, street lighting, landscaped boulevards, or bike lanes.
In Indianapolis, by contrast, public services are not the main concern. People gripe if snow is not cleared, but are not outraged. No Indianapolis mayor ever lost his job for failing to deliver good services. Rather, taxes have always been the primary issue. Nothing illustrates this better than the most recent mayoral election. Buoyed by an emerging demographic super-majority, a large campaign war chest, and the support of almost every establishment figure of both parties, Mayor Bart Peterson confidently raised city income taxes by 0.65 percentage points shortly on the heels of a major property tax jump. In the fall, however, he lost his re-election bid to political neophyte Greg Ballard, who ran on a taxpayers first platform. Ballard won without significant backing from his own Republican party, supported only by a collection of grass roots activists, bloggers, and his own relentless door-knocking campaign.
The divergent citizen and policy preferences of both cities continue to the present, amply illustrated by this very winter. Mayor Daley, facing a recession-induced budget gap, decided to save money by ordering that residential streets not be cleared by workers clocking overtime. Citizen unhappiness over the state of the streets during December snows led even the widely popular Daley to backtrack on this experiment, reverting to the traditional all out assault for the balance of winter.
In Indianapolis, after 12.5 inches blanketed the city this January, crews took several days to clear its snow routes and, as per its standard operating procedure, did not plow residential streets at all. The local media carried tales of people’s laments, but ultimately the city government knows that the response to the snow will be forgotten soon after it melts. Higher tax bills, by contrast, are long remembered. In an inverse situation to Chicago, people in Indianapolis sleep at night knowing that, if services haven’t been all that great, they at least have more money in their pockets.
While both cities have long seemed happy pursuing their respective courses, storm clouds are gathering over both strategic models of operation.
Backing down from a high service stance in government is almost impossible. Government spending only ever seems to go one way. Faced with that logic, and the clear expectations of its citizens, Chicago in effect decided to double down. With the much celebrated resurgence of urbanism, Chicago put its chips on a soaring Loop economy driven by an emerging status as one of the top global cities, a real estate boom, and a series of tax and fee increases. It embarked on a civic transformation epitomized by community showplaces like Millennium Park, miles of top quality streetscape improvements, a new terminal at Midway Airport and the start of a multi-billion dollar O’Hare modernization, one of the nation’s best bicycling infrastructures, and perhaps most ambitiously, a bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.
This model is increasingly showing signs of strain, however. Many taxes and fees, including the nation’s highest sales tax at 10.25%, appear to be close to maxed out. The real estate crunch hit hard at Chicago’s transfer tax revenue, another key source of city funds. This, in combination with a weak economy, has hammered the city’s budget, leaving Daley with tough, often unpopular choices to make. The CTA recently raised fares. City parking meter rates will be quadrupling under a privatization plan recently signed, hopefully plugging operating budget holes – something Daley had previously resisted. As with New York City, Chicago may be faced with the cold reality of both service cuts and tax increases.
More importantly, as with the dot-com bubble before it, there are real questions as to whether the financial and real estate driven economy that fueled Chicago’s boom will come back in full force any time soon. In the meantime, the economy and cost of living in the city are squeezing the middle class harder by the day, and despite perhaps America’s biggest condo boom, the city’s population is slowly shrinking. All this leaves Mayor Daley, although still very popular, with perhaps the toughest leadership challenge of his tenure.
Meanwhile Indianapolis faces problems of its own. It too has budget challenges, just as years of deferred investment are finally catching up with the city. Indianapolis has a $900 million unfunded backlog of curb and sidewalk repairs alone. It is the 13th largest municipality in America, but has the 99th largest transit system. And, more troubling, the city now finds itself outflanked by its own suburbs.
At one time Indianapolis could comfortably decide to purchase bronze-level services while other cities paid more for gold. But now its own suburbs are offering silver, and at a lower price point in taxes than the city is selling bronze. Many of its suburbs today not only have better schools and safer streets than the central city, they feature fully professional fire departments, large park acreage, lavishly landscaped parkways exceeding city standards, and even better snow removal. In the recent storm, upscale north suburban Carmel finished plowing its cul-de-sacs before Indianapolis finished its main arteries. When people can pay less and get more just by moving to the collar counties, that’s what they do. Tens of thousands of people have left the merged central city-county in recent years. Only a large influx of the foreign born has kept Indianapolis from losing population.
The current economy is exposing the long term structural weaknesses of both civic strategies. Chicago and Indianapolis show that both higher service and lower service models face big challenges and that neither approach represents a safe harbor in the current economic storm.
This post originally ran on February 14, 2009 at New Geography.
Monday, January 26th, 2015
As a change things around here at Urbanophile HQ this year, I want to resurrect something that was extremely popular, but too time consuming for me to produce, namely my Urbanoscope roundups of urban links. I’m going to do it a bit differently this time, and instead of a general curation from the entire web (stay tuned on that front) put out a monthly post with some of the best articles that appeared in other places where I’ve been a contributor: City Journal, Governing, Guardian Cities, and New Geography.
Firstly though, in his FT column this weekend Tyler Brûlé dissed the urban environment of the Bay Area, saying:
I have a theory about social media: that it exists not because people are dying to share everything but because of poor urban planning. The reason these channels have developed on the US west coast stems from millions of people being lonely and trapped in sprawling suburbs. Apparently, the Swiss are among the lowest users of social media in Europe. I’d venture this is due to village life, good public transport, and a sense of community.
In the current issue, William Bratton and George Kelling mount a defense of Broken Windows policing.
Nicole Gelinas says that New York votes should have booted Sheldon Silver a long time ago. One might say the same about Illinois house speaker Mike Madigan.
Charles Chieppo says Dallas should have paid competitive wages instead of relying on gold-plated pension sweeteners to retain firefighters.
Scott Beyer writes about revamping San Francisco’s Market St.
Oliver Wainwright takes a look inside Beijing’s airpocalypse, saying it renders the city “almost uninhabitable.”
Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, weighs in on the growing divide between Greater London and the rest of England.
John Sanphillippo makes the case for young people to choose authentic urban neighborhoods in lower cost cities in the Rust Belt like Cleveland and Cincinnati.
He also goes in search of the virtues of America’s decaying inner-ring suburbs.