Sunday, May 07, 2017

 

I Don’t Mean to be Reviewer #2, But…


Academic peer review is supposed to be a form of professional quality control, filtering out the silly or severely flawed research and only letting the good stuff get through.  Sometimes it even achieves that.  But as a system founded on small numbers and anonymity, it can fall prey to some predictable pathologies.  

In the academic twitterverse, there’s a running joke about “reviewer #2.”  This is the reviewer who trashes a perfectly good piece because it isn’t the piece he would have written.  In reading Richard Florida’s new book, The New Urban Crisis, I felt some reviewer #2 coming on.  The book outlines a serious issue well, takes a few bold and thoughtful positions, and, as always with Florida’s stuff, makes its case in an uncommonly readable way.  But I still came away frustrated, because it isn’t the book I wanted it to be.  I admit freely that this says more about me than it does about Florida.

The New Urban Crisis, as Florida sees it, is that superstar cities are becoming victims of their own success.  Cities like Boston, New York, and Seattle have gone from struggling to wildly prosperous in the last thirty years, due in no small part to the economic advantages of talent clustering that the creative economy generates.  In fact, they’ve become so prosperous that they’re pricing out many of the middle and working class people who form the civic backbone of cities -- police officers, teachers, nurses.  Florida draws openly on the work of Jane Jacobs, who famously argued that the life of cities derives from mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-background neighborhoods at pedestrian scale.  When a city’s success brings such rapid upscaling that mixed-use neighborhoods become canyons of skyscrapers of luxury condos owned by global elites who only stay there a few months per year, the pedestrian life of the city suffers.

Florida notes, correctly, that the 70’s and 80’s image of cities as gritty and suburbs as sylvan is looking dated in the major metros; now, the cities are aspirational and often unaffordable, and suburbs are dealing with levels of poverty and economic struggle that they were built, in many ways, to escape.  The most prosperous cities are often the most segregated, even as they’re the “bluest” politically; this won’t come as news to anyone who knows Boston or New York well.  I was struck by a passage, buried mid-paragraph, addressing the politics of contemporary suburbia:

“Economically distressed suburbs in red states are the ones that swing blue, while economically distressed suburbs in blue states are the ones that swing red…” (165)

Another:

“[T]he metros where the middle class is largest are whiter, have a larger working class, and have higher levels of political conservatism --- all features of economically declining places.  Furthermore, the metros that had bigger middle classes in 2000 are the ones that saw the largest middle-class declines by 2014.”  (99)

Florida does a real service in noting the persistent ironies about demography and politics.  Political theorists (hi!) have been known to write entire books about such things.

Florida lands on an intriguing mix of policy prescriptions for dealing with the new urban crisis.  He mentions NIMBY (not in my back yard) groups disparagingly, preferring to call them urban luddites.  By making housing scarcer than it could be, he suggests, they drive up costs for new people, generating windfall gains for existing owners.  He resurrects Henry George’s (!) idea of taxing land, as opposed to property, with the idea that taxing land instead creates a positive incentive for development.  If a given lot has the same tax bill whether it’s surface level parking or a fifty-story apartment tower, the economic argument for apartment towers gets a lot stronger.

Florida is honest enough to admit, though, that those same economic incentives lean towards building high-cost housing, rather than something that teachers and cops could afford.  That’s where he turns to politics.

Here he draws on the work of the late political theorist Benjamin Barber to argue that we should devolve power to the municipal level whenever possible, on the grounds that local leadership is more in tune with local needs than national leadership could be.  Let Boston be Boston, and make Washington matter less.

Which is where I become reviewer #2.

First, and most basically, letting Boston be Boston also involves letting Lynchburg be Lynchburg.  Given America’s racial legacy, any argument for devolution has a serious burden of proof.  (And even Boston is hardly innocent when it comes to racism…)  The sleight of hand in the argument shows itself whenever Florida refers to “metros” rather than “cities.”  Metros are regions that include other political entities, usually called suburbs.  But they have their own political representation.  Grosse Pointe is part of the Detroit metro, but it is not part of Detroit, and it has no intention of becoming part of Detroit.  Arguments from devolution, like arguments from home rule, often quickly become arguments reinforcing segregation.  Conceptually, they don’t have to, but on the ground, they do.  Invoking “metros” as the unit of analysis simply defines segregation away.  On the ground, it does not work like that, and it will not work like that.

At a different level, the major urban crisis in America isn’t in the Bostons or Seattles.  It’s in the Springfields, the Uticas, and the Scrantons.  Those cities aren’t suffering from affluenza; they’re suffering from declining tax bases, poverty, and an economy that’s shifting away from them.  These cities go almost entirely unmentioned in the book, and his proposed solutions are almost entirely irrelevant to them.  St. Louis’ major struggle isn’t with NIMBYism or international elites owning condos they only use seasonally.  Milwaukee may be segregated, but it’s not prosperous.  These urban crises aren’t “new,” but they’re severe, and they’re largely ignored.  A municipal leader in one of these cities looking for answers in Florida’s book will come away empty-handed.

I could imagine several possible responses.  Will those cities follow in the wake of the major metros?  Will they gradually shrink into provincial outposts?  Are they doomed to become backwaters?  I recently lived for several years in a suburb of Springfield, Mass.  I did not see any signs of hipster millennials selling artisanal pickles in Springfield.  Instead, I saw city leaders grasping desperately for a casino, and I saw my neighbors in the suburb being utterly clear that they were not part of Springfield.  It was only 90 miles away from Boston, but economically, it was on another planet.  What should Springfield do?

An attempt to answer those questions would have to deal with issues of political economy that cannot be understood, let alone addressed, taking the municipality as the unit of analysis.  Those issues are national or global.  London’s standing as a global capital of finance is at risk not because of NIMBYs but because of Brexit, which is what devolution looks like in practice.  Historically, movements for inclusion have favored socializing conflicts, rather than privatizing them, and there’s a reason for that.  I understand the temptation to give up on Washington -- really, I get it -- but we’ve had a confederacy before, and we know what happened.  No, thanks.

My “beat” is community colleges, so I’ll just note here that the shift in the physical distribution of wealth in the US from relatively spread out to relatively concentrated puts community colleges in a tough spot.  Community colleges are spread out, by design, and they’re almost always defined by geography.  Half of them were built in the 1960’s, at the high point of suburbanization.  Community colleges in expensive places deal with the issues Florida notes -- good luck affording a nice Boston apartment on a Bunker Hill CC salary -- and the ones in the Youngstowns of the world deal with the dilemma that sometimes they serve the community by acting as a springboard for talent to escape.  When your funding and political support are local, that’s a problem.  The entire system was built on the assumption of a sort of spatial equality that is fading into history.  It’s hard to prepare a middle class for an economy that no longer wants one.

To some extent, the critique isn’t entirely fair. Florida set out to write about superstar cities, and he did it well.  But they can really only be understood in contrast to all of the other ones, the ones where most of us live.  Abetting what Christopher Lasch called, over twenty years ago, “the secession of the successful” isn’t likely to help anyone but the successful, and they don’t need it.  Yes, it would be nice to create more affordable housing in New York City; I’m on board.  It would be nicer if other places offered more options for a decent life.  That’s the book I’d like to read.



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