Joel Kotkin on "The Ideological Hurricane" and HoustonBased in part on interviews conducted on a recent trip to Houston, noted urbanist Joel Kotkin has written a fascinating piece in The American Enterprise titled "Ideological Hurricane", with a sidebar column comparing Houston to New Orleans called "A Tale of Two Cities" (look for it at the bottom). It puts the New Orleans Katrina disaster in a larger historical context of urban politics and economic opportunity, including race and immigration, and makes a strong indictment of urban welfare-state policies. It includes references to and quotes from such Houston notables as former mayor Bob Lanier, current mayor Bill White, pastor Ed Young, and Metro Chairman and local developer David Wolff, as well as the inspiring story of local Nigerian entrepreneur Bobmanuel.
Excerpting this article is really difficult, because my normal standard of what is "excerpt worthy" would end up quoting far more than half the article. So here's my suggestion if you're not willing to read all nine pages, but want the Houston-related highlights: go to the page, then use the "Find in this page" option in your browser's Edit menu to search on the word "Houston". Read those sentences while using "Find Next" to move through the article. When you get to the "Tale of Two Cities" section at the bottom, read the whole thing (only a couple of pages) because it is pretty much all about Houston.
That should cover just about everything I wanted to excerpt except for these few concluding paragraphs:
The result of these unfortunate political decisions [urban welfare state and creative class policies] was to leave many urban cores with nothing but some often largely vacant office towers, Potemkin tourist districts, lousy public schools, ineffective police departments, and blocks of decrepit neighborhoods where residents are more dependent on government checks or jobs, or criminal activity, than on paid employment. The results of this decoupling of cities from the global economy has been all too evident. Wealthy elites who own or patronize restaurants, high-end hotels, loft developments, and cultural institutions have done fine. Younger, single, and gay residents of cities have enjoyed themselves. But for working- and middle-class families with children, cities have become hostile environments.
Today, most central cities feature horrific educational deficiences, crumbling infrastructure, and stultifying regulations that drive commerce ever more into the suburban periphery. Yet most city leaders—not to mention productive citizens in the rest of the nation—avert their eyes from these problems until a trauma like Katrina forces the products of our urban maladministration into view. Rather than re-examine their bankrupt social and economic premises, urban elites prefer to channel money into sports stadia and convention centers, hip lofts and restaurants, hoping somehow this will suck talent and wealth into their cities. As if today’s urban underclass will just fade away, and leave the cool hipsters unbothered to enjoy their entertainment districts.
This collapse of responsibility and discipline goes against the entire grain of urban history. From republican Rome to the golden ages of Venice, Amsterdam, London, and New York, cities have flourished most when they have served as places of aspiration and upward mobility, of hard work and individual accountability. By becoming mass dispensers of welfare for the unskilled, playpens for the well-heeled and fashionable, easy marks for special interests, and bunglers at maintaining public safety and dispensing efficient services to residents and businesses, many cities have become useless to the middle class, and toxic for the disorganized poor. Today’s liberal urban leadership across America needs to see the New Orleans storm not as just a tragedy, but also as a dispeller of illusions, a revealer of awful truths, and a potential harbinger of things to come in their own backyards.
Look beyond the tourist districts. Few contemporary cities are actually healthy in terms of job growth or middle-class amenities. Most are in the grips of moral and economic crisis.
If we are lucky, the flood waters of Katrina will wash away some of the ’60s-era illusions that fed today’s dysfunction. Honest observers will recognize that this natural disaster, which hit the nation so hard, was set up by the man-made disaster of a counterproductive welfare state.
More likely, many metro elites will continue to resist dramatic reforms like reining in civil service bloat, providing tax and regulatory relief for small businesses, or promoting family and moral revival. Even as they invoke the great mayors of the past, they will eschew a renewed focus on true progressive values of better and more accountable schools, good roads, and jobs that provide upward mobility.
Instead, our urban leaders and their enablers—from rich developers to social agitators—will insist their old strategies are working. The media will likely echo their press releases. This will work only until our cities crumble under pressure, as in New Orleans, explode from within, like Paris, or simply become irrelevant anachronisms at the margins of modern society.