Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Rotting of America's Great Cities

For all the beautiful color renderings, the flawless logic of a design’s concept and its details, an architectural design often fails to solve a site’s most urgent problems. If the site’s context consists of crime, environmental contamination or just plain hideous neighboring structures, there’s only so much that a beautiful and functional building can do. Expand these odds to the scale of an entire city, and good design can appear futile in addressing overwhelming problems that plague failing metropolitan centers. Humility would seem to be helpful in tempering the illusions that some designers have in solving a complex problem that transcends buildings. But too much humility can kill the passion required to be create innovative solutions with real practical potential. Often times the solution lies beyond architecture, beyond forming spaces, and in more mundane disciplines like economics and public policy.

There are many wonderful books that discuss the form of the city, its patterns and its man-made landscapes. What have captivated my interest have been writings that describe cities by intersecting their form, political organization and their economic evolution. Joel Kotkin (whom I’ve posted about here ) studies the city with very different criteria. He is less concerned with whether a city is beautiful or even charming than whether it works: does the city maintain population and attract newcomers? Is its infrastructure and educational system favorable to those who depend on them to succeed to a better stage in life? Are there jobs to be had? Is there a perennial sacred core that will always attract residents? The best cities are the ones that maintain the best balance between health, education, cultural diversion, and economic development.

Kotkin therefore attacks the imbalance between values that affect most of America’s largest cities of today. He examines in particular the seemingly incurable problem of the underclass that resides in inner-city areas, and lays much of the responsibility on bad policies enacted by city governments, names ‘urban liberalism’. Far from correcting historic racial injustices, these policies have produced greater inequality by fostering a large and permanent underclass exclusively dependant on government services for welfare, schooling, transportation and safety. By relying completely on state largesse, they forgo the act of choosing, an essential exercise towards improving one’s lot in life.
Kotkin’s exhaustive essay for The American Enterprise magazine describes the unique nature of what constitutes the underclass in America and dispels the influence of race in this current social divide typical of our cities. He points to pre-Katrina New Orleans as an example of all that is wrong and points to other less picturesque but more bustling cities elsewhere in the Sunbelt on what’s going right.

Kotkin begins:

Last September’s tragedy in New Orleans revealed, in the starkest manner, the soft underbelly of America’s cities. After all the 1990s rhetoric insisting that “Cities are back!” we got a glimpse behind the facades of a major urban center and tourist mecca which revealed many utterly dependent and disorganized residents, looking more like Third Worlders than denizens of a modern metropolis. In the process, the urban liberalism that has dominated city administration for the last generation was unmasked...

...To be sure, New Orleans is a unique case. Built below sea level, it has one of the most heavily African-American populations in the nation. It has long been among America’s poorest and most crime-ridden cities. Its economy has been in a not-so-genteel decline for generations. And New Orleans has a long history of inept and corrupt governance.

Despite having a huge port, the industrial, commercial, and professional base in New Orleans is far smaller than normal for a city of its size. The main local business is now tourism, which pays low wages—historically almost 50 percent below the national average. Before Katrina ever whirled, roughly one in four New Orleanians was poor, and 100,000 locals lived in “high poverty zones” where more than 40 percent of residents were poor.

Having lived there myself during the Eighties, this comes as no surprise. Unsafe streets were only a few blocks away from the fabulous St. Charles Avenue, and going to a public school was unthinkable for anyone who had any minimal value in education.

Kotkin does not shy away from identifying who makes up the underclass in the U.S. He also makes the distinction between those who may be poor now but are working to prosper in the future and those who don’t:

In many important ways, the problems of America’s urban underclass are radically different from those of their European counterparts. In this country, the deepest and most intractable problems are not in cities with heavy immigrant populations (as in Europe) but rather in places like New Orleans that are dominated by native-born African Americans. Most of the cities with the highest concentrations of poverty in America—New Orleans, Louisville, Atlanta, Cleveland, Philadelphia—are predominantly black cities.

These are also cities that most immigrants skip over. Only 5 percent of New Orleans residents were born outside the country—compared to 28 percent in Houston, 40 percent in Los Angeles, and 36 percent in New York City. This decade, immigrants to the U.S. are headed to cities like Phoenix, Houston, and Orlando that have burgeoning economies. Immigrants who do settle in heavily black metro areas generally move outside city limits, to places like Northern Virginia, Baltimore County, or Kenner (outside of New Orleans).

More important, immigrant poverty—in places from Fresno, California to Miami—tends to be different in kind from that of our native born. Latino immigrants, who make up the vast majority of America’s poor newcomers, have tended to have above average rates of labor participation. They are working poor, and many supplement their low official incomes with money earned “off the books.” Our immigrants also tend to start businesses at a rapid rate—the percentage of Latino self employment is twice the rate of native-born African Americans, and the ranks of Latino-owned businesses are growing faster than white-owned businesses. Many arrivals from Third World regions like the Middle East, south and east Asia, and the former Soviet bloc start businesses at high rates once in the U.S., in some cases passing those of native-born whites.

Beyond the ethnically diverse historical heritage of New Orleanians themselves, the city was long gone the center of confluence for people abroad to gather. Actually I got the impression that the Crescent City was an unusually parochial one, in which the natives made it clear that opportunities to integrate and succeed was restricted to those born there, and especially if their family line went back many generations. New Orleans does not only borrow architectural influences from Europe but also old social influences as well, where static class stratification was the norm. Ironically Mayor Ray Nagin is fretting that his city is no longer a ‘black’ city, and explains that the influx of Mexican immigrants that is cleaning the city is bad for New Orleans. He seems to forget that his city was once controlled by the Spanish, who should be credited for the beloved architecture of the ‘French’ Quarter. New Orleans’ population has changed in composition many times over the centuries, and it’s precisely the fervent intermingling of diverse cultures that produced its famed music and cuisine. The urban liberal policies instituted since the 1960s and have turned a once diverse city into an impoverished mono-cultural one.

I particularly agree with Kotkin’s contention that what defines a mobile underclass from a static one is a difference in attitude:

The critical factor separating most U.S. immigrants from our underclass is this: Attitude matters. Most newcomers to America see this not as a land of oppressors (the sore exceptions tend to gravitate toward journalism, politics, or academia, so we sometimes get a skewed impression), but rather as a place of opportunity and fundamental fairness. This often contrasts mightily with conditions in the immigrants’ home countries. In many of those places, connections and ethnic privilege are essential to getting anything done.

Incidentally the last sentence is close to describing much of how New Orleans works. It’s no surprise that my parents left that city after a year living there. But what most grabbed me in this passage is Kotkin’s espousal of a profoundly conservative principle: that your success is not determined by factors beyond your control but what you as an individual can put your mind to. I find myself befriending immigrants much easier than native born people because they share a sense of optimism about life that I find appealing. I don’t care much for whiners, or those who blame all of their problems on others. I gravitate to people who are ‘going places’ not because of why I can profit from them, but rather because they encourage me pursue my own ambitions. As a conservative, the problem of poverty is less about money than about a poverty of the spirit. Generations of parents telling their young that life is unfair and that it’s pointless to even try have incurred huge costs to millions who stay in the inner city. This mentality that justifies failure is cultural problem, not a political one. Once the values that derive from this mentality are normalized within a culture, economic paralysis ensues and a gulf grows between those who are on the move on those who stay where they are or regress. The resulting inequality between the two groups becomes then a political matter, as politics is essentially when factions compete for privileges through government (or the entity that has a monopoly on force). Politics meshes well with the mentality of failure, as government can right perceived wrongs regardless of who is actually responsible and seeks to affect a group since it inherently cannot favor a particular individual. Kotkin suggests that the problem of the black underclass really began when political redress replaced economic self-sufficiency as the road to increased status in American life:

…Their new port created an industrial base that employed many working-class people, eventually including African Americans who migrated from the rural Mississippi delta after slave plantations and then sharecropping in that region faded. The development of this port complex, and the related energy industry, provided opportunities that raised poor Louisianians of both races from poverty.

But during the 1960s, the push for economic growth that created an upwardly mobile working class was replaced—in New Orleans as well as most other cities —by a new paradigm that emphasized politics. Political agitations promoted various forms of racial redress, and the rights of people to receive government welfare payments. By the late 1970s, African Americans in many American cities had gained more titular power than they’d ever dreamed of, including the mayoralty of New Orleans...

...The new political gains of black Americans were widely regarded as a major step toward an improved social status. This coincided with the rise of a new form of urban boosterism—which showcased downtown renewal districts and insisted that the dramatic decline of city quality of life during the 1960s and 1970s had been reversed in the 1980s and 1990s. Urban elites, including in New Orleans, burbled about the vigor of their cities. Right through last year’s Gallup poll, leaders and residents of the Crescent City had (along with San Francisco) one of the highest levels of municipal self-esteem in the country. That now appears sadly delusional.

The truth is that, rather than improving conditions for average residents of their cities, many urban politicians and interest groups have promoted policies that actually exacerbated a metastasizing underclass. Urban liberals tend to blame a shrivelling of Great Society programs for problems in cities. Observers such as former Houston mayor Bob Lanier have suggested, however, that the Great Society impulse itself is what most damaged many cities—by stressing welfare payments and income redistribution, ethnic grievance, and lax policies on issues like crime and homelessness, instead of the creation of a stronger economy.

The last sentence regarding the Great Society could be applied to all cities. It seems that local governments of big cities spend an enormous amount of time trying to solve degenerate social pathologies but somehow have little to show for their effort. These aren’t problems that can be solved by better design. They are solved by better policies. And the sad part is that the policies currently pursued by many city councils and mayors virtually ignore solving fundamental economic and cultural problems in favor of developing speculative design projects that hope to spur a little bit of investment or a few creative types that can enliven a small district that benefits a small coterie. Kotkin is deeply critical of Richard Florida's promotion of the 'creative class' because it diverts city leaders from addressing the core problems that hamper the prosperity of the underclass in their city. He notes that many of the 'coolest' cities are struggling to keep their residents from leaving, suffer from higher rates of unemployment, and seem to be only enjoyed by a rich and ephemeral elite that contributes little to the welfare of the majority of that city's inhabitants. Other strategies included the construction of building or a complex of buildings that would supposedly act as a catalyst for new business, which more often thatn failed to materialize:

...Local leaders had become convinced that becoming a “port of cool” was the ticket to success. Never mind the grubby fiscal and regulatory basics of encouraging business activity. Instead, city and state leaders adopted Richard Florida’s trendy “creative class” theory, and held a conference just a month before Katrina promoting the idea that a cultural strategy of fostering edgy arts and boutique entertainment districts was a promising way to bring in high-end industry. Over the previous decade, city leaders had already transformed the once-bustling warehouse district into a tourist zone. Before the hurricane hit, state and city officials were looking to expand the now-infamous convention center at a price tag of some $450 million...

It never occured to these city leaders that their local schools are not educating kids, their cops are not making residents feels safe, and their most valueable citizens are leaving in droves for the suburbs. What's left is unconcealable detritus:

...The result of these unfortunate political decisions was to leave many urban cores with nothing but some often largely vacant office towers, Potemkin tourist districts, lousy public schools, ineffective police departments, and blocks of decrepit neighborhoods where residents are more dependent on government checks or jobs, or criminal activity, than on paid employment. The results of this decoupling of cities from the global economy has been all too evident. Wealthy elites who own or patronize restaurants, high-end hotels, loft developments, and cultural institutions have done fine. Younger, single, and gay residents of cities have enjoyed themselves. But for working- and middle-class families with children, cities have become hostile environments.

As much as some designers would like think they can directly address these problems, the actual everyday situation must improve before a beautiful building can have a complementary impact. Most of the time the social reality of an area can be nice regardless of the way the built environment in which they live has been designed. Whether the poor live in dense high rise blocks or single-family bungalows, as long as they are poor and live together they will likely stay that way. Wealthy families can lived in the most lifeless tract home suburbs or in dense high rises with with no street frontage and they would still remain wealthy and enjoy all the benefits that wealth brings in terms of safety, good schools and neatness. Cities that many Americans wouldn't consider at all to be the country's most beautiful are often the most healthy, offering a vibrant economic enviroment and attracting swarms of immigrants and middle class families. Places like Houston, Atlanta, Phoenix and Tampa, who all are among the least pedestrian friendly and least thoughfully designed cities anywhere are absorbing newcomers while New Urbanist inspirations like San Francisco, New Orleans and Philadelphia have been losing people steadily for decades. There are far too many fundamentals that trump the importance of a good urban plan or nice building proportions. Urban design is like window dressing to far graver issues affecting the city. First and foremost the city has to work.

I have posted other posts regarding New Orleans here and here.

Hattip: Real Clear Politics

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