Monday, December 19, 2005

Joel Kotkin on "The Ideological Hurricane" and Houston

Based 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.

11 Comments:

At 1:13 AM, December 20, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how the best anyone in Houston can hope for is a massive calamity to affect another city...

 
At 5:46 PM, December 20, 2005, Blogger Mark said...

It seems to me that it really doesn't take much for us to convince ourselves that we are superior to other people. Personal responsibility and such are good things, sure. But how much of Houston's success and for that matter anyone's success is due to the circumstances we were born into or other things beyond our control like geography and resources and wealth.

 
At 7:06 PM, December 20, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Going back 100 years, I think it's fair to say people could have expected New Orleans to become the Chicago of the South, with similar geographic advantages. It didn't. I think it's fair to look for reasons why, esp. social and cultural ones.

 
At 9:57 AM, December 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Both cities are along the Mississippi but only one was a center for rail freight coming from the farms of the midwest to the atlantic northeast...

 
At 10:45 AM, December 21, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

...and only one was at the mouth of the greatest North American river system feeding into the trading oceans of the world.

Check out this map of the feeds to NOLA:

http://education.sdsc.edu/optiputer/
htmlLinks/mississippirivermap.gif

 
At 11:21 AM, December 21, 2005, Blogger kjb434 said...

Having lived just outside of New Orleans for 18 years of my life, you truly see everything about this article is true.

Baton Rouge and Shreveport are two other cities in Louisiana that have grown and have much small urban problems because they didn't implement policies like the city of New Orleans and Orleans parish. I've live near Shreveport for 4 years of my life while I was in college, the city doesn't play to special interest groups like New Orleans did and has programs that cute the welfare dependant citizens. The city is growing along with Baton Rouge as much faster rates.

These two other cities won't be as large as Houston with similar social policies, but they will be much healthier than New Orleans.

 
At 9:32 AM, December 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"promote family and moral revival" Yes, what urban cores need are family and moral revival.

New Orleans didn't become Chicago because it was in the South--plain and simple as that. The post Civil War South was anti-growth, anti-outsider, anti-everything not Southern. Chicago wasn't.

 
At 2:12 PM, December 23, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

And that Chicago-NOLA cultural comparison is pretty much exactly the same comparison Kotkin is making between Houston and NOLA.

 
At 10:56 PM, December 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you might be overstating the importance of the Mississippi and understating the importance of rail, highways, and air with regard to shipping.

 
At 10:31 AM, December 25, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Today - maybe, but definitely not for 50 or 100 years ago.

 
At 4:23 PM, December 29, 2005, Anonymous Peter Bishop said...

I'm late on this because I'm just getting caught up, but...

I don't think you can blame the "urban welfare state and creative class policies" for the notriously corrupt and ineffective New Orleans (and Louisiana) politics. Glad to see that Shreveport and Baton Rouge have escaped that, but the state has been saddled with one of the worst examples of political leadership for a century. On the same vein, are we to the rate of uninsured children in Texas (the highest in the country) on it's being a "place of aspiration and upward mobility, of hard work and individual accountability." That's Ebenezer Scrooge blaming Bob Cratchet for his poverty.

Each system (NOLA and Texas) are out of balance in opposite directions. Individual responsibility and social conscience are both necessary elements to a healthy city and society. When someone like Kotkin recommends only one side of that balance, the city and the society are at risk...

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home