Cities

Shuffle Off

It’s not Scranton, but here’s an article from New York magazine about people who have moved from New York City to Buffalo and are trying to make the long-benighted city a better place.

I certainly understand the experiences and motivations of the people profiled in the article. I lived in New York City for around seven years, and decided, along with my wife, to move to Austin, which though not as cheap or rundown as Buffalo, is definitely smaller and less expensive than New York. I don’t regret having lived in New York at all, but I’m definitely happier here in Austin. One of the Buffalo transplants, Jana Eisenberg, said something that comes pretty close to my own feelings about leaving New York:

But when I ask Eisenberg what she misses most about New York, she says, “I don’t miss my old life in New York. I only miss the life in New York I know I never would have had.” What [Eisenberg and her husband have] done instead is construct a life in Buffalo that is, ironically, much closer to the New York life they once imagined for themselves than their actual New York life ever was, or ever would be.

I’m working as a freelance writer and living downtown across the street from a beautiful park and my daughter is in an excellent public school. Such a combination is not impossible to achieve in New York, but it’s certainly more difficult and costly to do there than it is in Austin.

I hope this sort of thing is happening around the country in other neglected towns and cities, and I hope it can bring genuinely positive urban revitalization (rather than just create mini-Williamsburgs surrounded by ghettos). If accompanied by good urban planning and community activism, I think it can. There’s no good reason, especially with modern communications, that one should have to move to one of only a few big cities to have an interesting life. If cities like New York and San Francisco continue to be too expensive for all but the rich (or those willing to live beyond their means), this smaller-scale urbanism will continue and succeed.

(Tip of the hat to Brian C. for sending me the article.)

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M(a)us(ol)eum Cities

(Because it’s fun to make fun of parentheses-heavy academic book titles.) As I wrote about earlier, some cities’ cores seem to be emptying out, or at least becoming more ethnically and economically homogeneous, as high prices make it harder for low- and middle-income people to afford living in them. Paris, San Francisco, Manhattan, Rome, and London are perilously close to becoming “museum cities,” beautiful and rich, but accessible to most by day-pass only. A recent article in Canada’s National Post describes the end point of the trend in an examination of Venice, a city with few permanent residents at all. Venice has become primarily a place where wealthy foreigners buy summer residences and cruise ship tourists take photos and buy souvenirs. Once again, I’m not really sure what can be done about the trend, but when a city’s economy is reduced to taxing foreigners, selling trinkets, and polishing the marble, I can’t help but feel that it has become a mausoleum, a monument to its past but a real city no longer. Density and diversity (of all sorts) are the defining characteristics of cities, and the disproportionate economic clout of the wealthy seems to be reducing both. As the author of the piece, Kelvin Browne, puts it:

In a global economy, only a few cities are the most desirable places to live. They draw their inhabitants from around the world. Locals have to fight for space with these outsiders, who can choose any place they want to call home, even if briefly.

It’s sad to see this happen in cities I love (especially in San Francisco, my birth city and, indeed, my favorite city) but I do hope that it will lead to a revival of urbanism, density, diversity, and local culture in smaller cities and towns. If San Francisco is becoming blander, it’s time to make Scranton more interesting.

(Via TreeHugger)

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The Urge to Surge

I’ll admit that I haven’t found the U.S. presidential race as compelling since Hillary Clinton (finally) dropped out. I almost miss her. (But not quite.) However, John McCain has been running such a surprisingly incompetent campaign that I’m beginning to regain my sense of wonder at the stupid things politicians say. For instance, McCain apparently told the Urban League today that the successful methods used by American troops in Iraq during the recent “surge” might fruitfully be applied in our own country’s high-crime neighborhoods:

“You go into neighborhoods, you clamp down, you provide a secure environment for the people that live there, and you make sure that the known criminals are kept under control. And you provide them with a stable environment and then they cooperate with law enforcement.”

I try not to be too much of an alarmist, but talk of a military-style “clamp down” in American neighborhoods is certainly on the short list of things I’d rather not hear from a possible future president.

(Via Reason Hit & Run.)

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Urban Inversion

The New Republic has an interesting article on the way cities in the past twenty years or so have found their central cores filling up with rich people, while the poor displaced by the resulting higher prices are moving out into the suburbs. (The Atlantic had a story on the same theme, “The Next Slum?” in its March 2008 issue.) The phenomenon is a bit frightening to me, as I have always preferred living in cities to living in the suburbs, and have never in my life run the risk of being described as “affluent.” I think it’s certainly a good thing to encourage density, street-level retail, public transportation and all the other New Urbanist recommendations in central cities. But I wonder if there’s not a way to do so that could also allow teachers, nurses, waiters, and artists—important but not (usually) lucrative jobs—to live there, too. (Taxing rich people at a higher rate seems an obvious solution, though my social democratic tendencies are at war with my distrust of government on this issue. I would like to see greater income equality, but I’m not comfortable with giving our federal government such a giant windfall.) All the high-rises going up in Austin, for instance, are luxury high-rises. If rich people live in them rather than in McMansions built on pristine suburban land, I suppose that’s a good thing. But if cities become playgrounds only for the rich, they will lose much of the diversity of population and activity that made them interesting in the first place. Perhaps in thirty years, children who grew up in cities will lament their sterile surroundings and seek out the gritty reality of places like Windy Ridge, North Carolina.

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