Urban Legends: Cities Aren't Doing As Well As You ThinkJoel Kotkin has a new essay on how many cities are focusing on glitz - stadiums, convention centers, hip downtowns - and getting good publicity for it, rather than the basics of good city management: infrastructure and education. He addresses 3 urban myths:
- Myth: Cities are gaining people
- Myth: Cities are where the successful people are
- Myth: Cool cities attract the best jobs; uncool cities don't
I do want to disagree with one of his points:
"The idea that Cleveland and Oklahoma City, much less Detroit and Kalamazoo, can out-compete New York, San Francisco, London, or Paris on a hipness scale is simply bizarre. These cities will never win the battle for the dollars or affections of the young, the nomadic rich, and tourists."
I think you could probably include Houston in that list of cities, but I think he misses the point. We're not trying to match cities like New York and San Francisco, just "close the gap" enough to hold on to residents, especially younger ones, as well as make local corporate recruiting easier. As an example, Houston's theater and museum scenes certainly don't match New York, but they're "good enough" for all but the most sophisticated tastes. If we didn't have them, we would certainly lose more young people and have a harder time recruiting employees to local companies, but we've built them up enough to meet the vast majority of people's needs.
"Cities must return to a progressive focus on fixing their real problems--that is, the problems of the majority of the people who live there--not serving the interests of artists, hipsters, and their wealthy patrons. Right now school reform is often hostage to the power of teachers' unions. City budgets, which could be applied to improving economic infrastructure, are frequently bloated by, among other things, excessive public sector employment and overgenerous pensions. In the contest for the remaining public funds, the knitted interests of downtown property holders, arts foundations, sports promoters, and nightclub owners often overwhelm those of more conventional small businesses and family-oriented neighborhoods that could serve as havens for the middle class.
Ultimately, a new urban progressivism must challenge this power axis. It would force local governments to focus on the most important historical work of cities: the transformation of newcomers to America into successful, middle-class citizens. This has underlain the emergence of all great modern cities, from fifteenth-century Venice to seventeenth-century Amsterdam to twentieth-century New York. The American metropolis can be more than a way station for the wealthy young and part-time destination for the nomadic rich. It can be a place where average people live, thrive, and build communities across lines of race and class. Now that would be a cool city."
To be honest, I actually think Houston is doing many of the right things he's talking about. Yeah, we have gotten caught up in some of the glitz: stadiums, convention centers, a hip downtown - but we've also been pretty diligent on improving infrastructure and education. It's important we don't get the "grass is greener" envy problem and forget those real priorities that we're handling pretty well right now. It's easy to neglect your strengths until one day you wake up... and they're gone.