Out of Control Policy Blog

Still hip to be square

If you can't read this entire Joel Kotkin piece, here are some particularly interesting bits. And if you're really lazy, just read the stuff in bold.

    The world's great cities face serious, even catastrophic problems. Terrorists have planted bombs in London's Underground and bus systems. Floods have wiped out New Orleans, and fires incinerated scores of impoverished Africans living in crowded, seamy Paris apartments.

    Everywhere–from New Orleans to London and Paris–the middle classes, whatever their colour, are deserting the core for safer and more affordable suburbs, following in the footsteps of high-tech industries and major corporations.

    Yet rather than address serious issues like housing, schools, transport, jobs and security, mayors and policy gurus from Berlin and London to Sydney and San Francisco have adopted what can be best be described as the "cool city strategy." If you can somehow make your city the rage of the hipster set, they insist, all will be well.

    ...
    Berlin epitomises the trend. In the 1990s, massive funds were expended to make the restored German capital into the business capital of Mitteleuropa. These ambitions foundered on the city's high taxes, red tape, and generally anti-business culture. Over 100,000 jobs have left in recent years, unemployment is nearly 20 per cent and the population is declining, as people flee to the suburbs or more prosperous parts of Germany.

    Faced with such problems, what does the mayor of the bankrupt city propose? Cut taxes, build new infrastructure, find ways to keep the middle classes and businesses? No, Mayor Wowereit pegs the future to selling Berlin as "the city of glamour." To him, "the most decisive aspect is to bring creative young people to Berlin." Somehow, he believes, this will turn the city's sad economy around.

Hip cities often become stagnant and socially bifurcated:

    Perhaps there is no more searing evidence of the limitations of a culture-based economy than New Orleans. Once a great industrial and commercial centre, the city–despite its huge port–has roughly half the US average of jobs in manufacturing and wholesale trade. Other, more business-focused cities, notably Houston, have taken the lead in the high-paid service jobs connected to trade, such as finance, engineering and medical services. The energy industry, once the lynchpin of the local economy, also decamped, primarily to Houston. All this happened despite New Orelans being a city that was heavily gay, very cool and extremely hip.

    By the time of the flood, tourism and culture, along with a huge social service bureaucracy, was driving the economy. The problem, of course, is that tourism pays poorly; a 2002 study for the AFL-CIO showed that nearly half of all full-time hotel workers could not earn enough to keep a family out of poverty.

    Lost in the ghastly images of New Orleans's poor is the fact that the city's whites, about 27 per cent of the population, are wealthier and more educated than their counterparts nationwide. They, of course, welcomed the new nightclubs, coffee shops and galleries that dotted their grander neighbourhoods. New Orleans epitomised the inequality of the hip cool city. While the national gap between black and white per capita income stands at about $9,000, in New Orleans it is almost $20,000.

Kotkin's bottom line:

    [P]olitical leaders must realise that great cities need schools for families, transport that works, jobs for the middle and the aspiring working classes. And they must acknowledge the continuing need to invest heavily in public safety, particularly in an age of terror.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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