Out of Control Policy Blog

Beautiful people, save us!

Most cities are losing middle-aged, middle class native born Americans, also known as swing voters. As more people head for the suburbs, our cities are also losing political clout, and as Joel Kotkin argues here, policy has become increasingly homogenous. How has it affected priorities?

The focus now is on what sociologist John Kasarda calls "visual prosperity" – the attempt to dress up urban areas with fancy edifices, cultural attractions and high-end housing.

"Patronage aside, Democratic Party policy in the cities," said Fred Siegel, professor of urban history at New York's Cooper Union, "often boils down to how to attract the beautiful people."

The policies of many of the brightest stars in the Democratic firmament – Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm – seem predicated on this beautiful-people principle. All emphasize the creation of cafe districts, arts entertainment and culture palaces as the best means to revive urban centers. In Los Angeles, Mayor James K. Hahn is similarly hitching his legacy to a $2-billion double feature for the leisure class – the proposal for the ersatz Champs-Elyses on Grand Avenue and the glitzy LA Live project around Staples Center.

There is an alternative to the culture-and-arts approach to revive declining cities. It's sewer socialism, a back-to-basics strategy that encourages business investment and the development of healthy neighborhoods.

Such an urban agenda has its origins in the early decades of the last century. In the West, it unfolded under the tutelage of business-oriented progressives who invested heavily in basic infrastructure – public education, transit, water and power systems – to encourage commerce and improve the living conditions for at least part of the middle and working classes.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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