Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spiked Cities

I’ve been a fan of Richard Florida’s for several years now. He’s a student of cities who has famously argued that the key to growth is in the “creative class” which tends to cluster in major urban centers. In contrast to Tom Friedman -- admittedly, that’s sort of like contrasting Sonny Rollins to Kenny G -- Florida argues that the world is “spiky.” Cities with high concentrations of creatives are the economic engines of the future; they stand out on charts like spikes.

Having followed Florida on twitter for a while, I’ve noticed that his position goes beyond noting creative clusters. There’s a general pro-urban, anti-suburban flavor to his thought. Add a few bike paths and a vibrant gay community, and you’ve pretty much found his recipe for growth.

Florida’s work strikes me as a really elegant way to contrast New York or Boston with, say, Detroit or Pittsburgh. It also reasserts, correctly, the importance of geography in the digital age. There’s a distinct -- and acknowledged -- echo of Jane Jacobs in his work, updated for the age of the web.

All of that said, though, I can’t help but wonder about the urban/suburban distinction when you get to the second- and third-tier cities; spiked, rather than spiky, cities. It’s one thing to say that lower Manhattan is more culturally interesting than Long Island, and even a better place to raise kids. It’s quite another thing to apply that to, say, Syracuse and its suburbs.

The smaller and declining cities of the Northeast and Midwest -- it may hold true elsewhere, too, but I’ll write whereof I know -- can generate many of the negatives of city life: crime, terrible schools, corrupt government, even a lack of supermarkets. But they do it without many of the advantages that Florida seems to assume come with urbanity: robust cultural life, walkable neighborhoods, the excitement of young people taking chances on startups.

In these settings, it seems to me that suburbs hold a real appeal. Yes, they can be sterile and boring. But the schools are better, the crime is lower, and the hassles of daily life are fewer. You can give your kids decent lives without being wealthy. Car dependency is a real issue, but frankly, most small cities don’t have public transportation at a level anywhere near Manhattan’s.

I bring all this up for a few reasons. One is the basic fact that these lower-tier cities may not have many people individually, but taken together, they and their suburbs encompass a huge proportion of the population. They support the majority of the community colleges in America -- you knew I’d get around to that -- so you can’t really understand community colleges without some sense of the communities they serve. And you’ll have a terrible time understanding American voters if you don’t understand the daily reality in which most of them live and work.

There’s also a real danger of missing the reasons that people make the decisions they do. It’s easy to stereotype suburbanites -- and I’ll admit some truth to some of it -- but if you have an unspectacular income and a couple of kids, there’s a good argument for them.

Fun trivia fact: in which state do most New Jersey residents work? Answer: New Jersey! Suburb-to-suburb commuting is the daily reality for much of the American workforce. The old “spokes of a wheel” pattern -- live in the burbs, commute to the city -- is the exception now. Yes, it’s cool to see cities embrace mixed-use development again, and I hope to see it continue. But the big story is that the suburbs have been going mixed-use for about the last thirty or forty years. The prototypical bedroom community has businesses now, and those businesses have employees.

Seen in this light, the spiky world starts to look less about geography and more about income. And the community college mission of filling the middle class starts to look harder. Cc’s are place-bound, often in places that live in the shadows of Florida’s spikes. While they produce some grads who transfer to elite places, they mass produce grads who are qualified for middle-income jobs. A few doctors, but lots of nurses. A few researchers, but a bunch of high school teachers.

And they do it in settings in which public sectors are struggling to provide even basic services. The economically powerful are able to pit one location against another in the battle for the biggest tax breaks, guaranteeing that the public sector takes a hit everywhere. The employers that hired community college grads in the past are exactly the ones being defunded, just as the colleges themselves are. The spikiest cities may be insanely prosperous, but most of the cities I’ve lived in and near are not. They’re struggling to maintain the basics of civic life, and community colleges are feeling that struggle.

Community colleges, like many of the cities that house them, prospered in the less spiky twentieth century. As much as I like Florida’s analysis, I fear its accuracy; if he’s right -- and I think he is, broadly speaking -- cc’s are at cross-purposes with history. We’re trying to generate a middle class for a country that no longer really wants one.

Bike paths in San Francisco are great, and I enjoy Boston and Seattle as much as anyone. But most of the country is more like Syracuse than Seattle. Spiky cities are great, but spiked cities are everywhere. They were the products of economies that generated a middle class that was the envy of the world. To the extent that community colleges carry those roots in their DNA, I fear they’ll get spiked, too.