The Magazine

Going Downtown

How cities prosper, and why they decline.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By JAY WEISER
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The City

A Global History

by Joel Kotkin

Modern Library, 256 pp., $21.95

The City sweeps 5,000 years of urbanism into 200-odd pages of text, from the earliest city-states of ancient Sumer to the modern Third World megacity of Lagos. And Joel Kotkin frames his chronological treatment by tracing three urban aspects through the millennia: Successful cities, he argues, prosper through a balance of security, the sacred, and commerce. These themes, while provocative, neglect the economic factors that create cities and let them prosper. The ambition is stunning and the research immense, but the result is often simplistic.

Security is a necessary function: If there's no protection from internal crime or external invasion, no one will invest in the city. Kotkin correctly observes that post-World War II American cities deteriorated because they lacked internal security, with widespread crime. He also looks at security from external threats (the Roman Empire's cities flourished and waned with its military might) but doesn't consider whether a superior location and a skilled population are more important than defeating the occasional invader.

It's true, as Kotkin observes, that the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 destroyed that city's primacy in the Islamic world, but Baghdad is still (despite its current troubles) a major city. Similarly, modern Berlin and Tokyo bounced back after destruction. Kotkin doesn't address the recent work of the urban economist Edward Glaeser, who argues that cities historically arose at key junctions, like river mouths, to eliminate distance in the interaction of goods, people, and ideas; and that once a city is in place, human capital can create advantages that persist even after the original reason for foundation is superseded.

Kotkin offers a Goldilocks analysis of urban commerce, arguing that there can be too much, too little, or an amount that is just right. But the right amount is determined by the city's reason for being. It isn't clear that a booming commercial sector (in the sense of a major producer or entrepot of goods; Kotkin's definition is vague) is needed for success: As he notes, Paris has thrived for centuries as a government center. Kotkin frowns on the commercially oriented ancient Phoenician city-states for neglecting their political and military strength, leading to absorption by larger empires. But the Phoenicians had a centuries-long run as independent states, as did the German city-states of the Holy Roman Empire.

In this, he confuses the appropriate weight for commerce with the issue of efficient political scale. Some eras have had sufficient stability to permit long-distance trade, but insufficient economies of scale to support large states. In these periods, city-states can cheaply defend and govern a small area, and can buy whatever else is needed abroad. In other periods, a larger state may, in contrast to individual city-states, be a cheaper provider of public goods like security, roads, and a legal system since it can spread the cost out across an empire and penalize free riders who want to use the services without paying for them.

The Pax Romana is a famous example. When larger political entities are more efficient, the city-states get absorbed, but the cities remain: Athens, Milan, and even the old Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre are still with us today. (The recent city-state revival in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Persian Gulf emirates was enabled by free-riding on larger powers like the United States and Great Britain for the costs of external security.) Excess or insufficient emphasis on commerce has nothing to do with it.

By focusing on commerce as an end in itself, Kotkin underplays the role of infrastructure in creating the conditions for commerce. Kotkin does note the investment in public transportation that fueled Manhattan's early-20th century skyscraper boom. But this is a key process rather than a sidelight. Chicago's Loop was named after its mass transit system; Los Angeles created its leading position in the Southwest by landing the termini of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads and, despite lacking a great natural harbor, building a major port. And four centuries ago, Japan's Tokaido road--now the route for the bullet train--helped create a national market. (Oddly, Kotkin claims that Japan's urban development during this period was slowed by restrictions on foreign commerce. But Edo [now Tokyo], with a population of one million, may have been the world's largest 18th-century city.)

The sacred character of cities, too, is treated inconsistently. At times Kotkin indicates that cities need a prominent civic religion, and at other points, that objects of civic pride like landmark skyscrapers can fill the function. Certainly something is needed for civic cohesion: In Making Democracy Work, Robert Putnam found that medieval northern Italian cities with a dense network of voluntary organizations (many of them religiously based) had more social cohesion and better-performing local economies in the 20th century than southern Italian cities that had thin networks in the Middle Ages. But there is no predictable relationship between civic religion and urban success.

Following in the footsteps of Max Weber's now-discredited Protestant Ethic thesis, Kotkin praises Calvinism as the backbone of Dutch 17th-century Golden Age economic achievement. But the hardcore Calvinists were actually the bitter enemies of the Amsterdam merchant class that drove the boom. Reheating the Protestant Ethic thesis for a new region, he trots out Singapore dictator Lee Kuan Yew's new model Confucianism, combining personal and family improvement, moral order and collective will, to somehow explain the success of late-20th-century cities in raucous East Asian democracies like Taiwan and South Korea. In any event, it's hard to make Confucianism into the secret of economic success since non-Japanese East Asian cities declined for 200 years before their recent boom.

Some of Kotkin's other historical examples of the impact of sacredness don't pan out. If Renaissance cynicism undermined the Italian city-states, then the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which revolutionized religious practice there, should have reinvigorated them. But they continued to decline as economic power shifted to the Atlantic world. Soviet cities lacked reverence for sacred places, Kotkin says. But while the Communists trashed traditional religion, they created cults of Stalin and the heroic worker as emotional and all-encompassing as anything in the Counter-Reformation. They even renamed St. Petersburg for Lenin, who got his own shrine in Moscow's Red Square. If Kotkin is right, the prosperous secularized cities of today's Western Europe should be suffering, while today's Islamic cities, many with spectacular mosques and pervasive religiosity, should be world leaders rather than basket cases.

Kotkin explains that many Islamic cities are backward because they lack cosmopolitanism--the openness to other cultures found in many famous cities over the centuries--which he views as a byproduct of commerce. The definitively noncosmopolitan cities of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, however, had well-performing autarkic economies to go along with their evil political systems, at least for a while. Causation may run in the other direction, with a cosmopolitan culture encouraging an openness to commerce.

There are numerous factual errors--perhaps inevitable given the scale of Kotkin's project. The Ottomans did not rename Constantinople as Istanbul; the Turkish Republic changed the name (a Turkish corruption of the original) in 1930 as part of Kemal Atatürk's modernization movement. Brooklyn was Manhattan's suburban hinterland from the 1807 invention of the steamboat, not starting with the 1898 municipal merger that created Greater New York. Manhattan's 1902 Flatiron Building was not a "key breakthrough." It wasn't even the tallest building in New York at the time. The Dutch Republic was not addicted to short-term thinking, notwithstanding the aberrational Tulip Mania of 1636-37. The Dutch poured hundreds of billions of dollars (in modern equivalents) into municipal and national canal systems, with a payoff over generations. And Nikita Khrushchev did not boast of surpassing the West as late as 1970; he was deposed in 1964, and silenced thereafter.

Kotkin's discussion of the suburban boom of the second half of the 20th century is more successful. While it is fashionable to denounce suburbia and the spread cities of the Sunbelt as sprawl, Kotkin views them as the latest iteration of the city. With the rise of inexpensive cars and superhighways, lower densities became possible. People could live in a single-family house on a patch of lawn and still get to work. But in praising suburbia, Kotkin mysteriously drops two-thirds of his triad. Commerce is often zoned out, and the suburbs notably lack civic sacred space. Instead, the suburbs offer privatized space, whether megachurches, gated communities, or shopping malls, where the customer is welcomed and others are excluded. This is novel, although it has precedents in pre-modern European cities like the City of London, which were governed by municipal corporations controlled by merchants.

Despite Kotkin's love of suburbia (he is a Los Angeleno), his view is crabbed, reflecting his inability to conceive of urban networks as opposed to single municipalities, whether in ancient Phoenicia or the modern Dallas Metroplex. Here, and in a series of op-ed pieces, he has juxtaposed virtuous 21st-century suburbia with what he considers to be soulless, service-industry-oriented center cities offering culture and coolness, and catering to the young, childless couples, and gays.

Kotkin believes that center cities can't survive without a mix of family types in residence, and without blue collar jobs. Yet this mix is an artifact of the hub-and-spoke infrastructure of the pre-automobile city, where all uses had to be within a short distance of the transportation hub. Even in these tighter confines, cities had always spatially separated uses. In the 8th century, Tang Dynasty China's capital, Chang'an, had merchant, government, religious, and aristocratic neighborhoods, and medieval Venice, as Kotkin notes, effectively zoned different industrial uses.

Kotkin's argument is perverse, condemning cool 21st-century downtowns for the very strategy that has made suburbs so successful: market segmentation. Starting in the 19th century, as municipal powers of annexation were limited, city boundaries no longer coincided with metropolitan ones. Suburbs, usually more compact than the old central cities, differentiated themselves from each other through zoning and municipal amenities, and people voted with their feet (which economists more formally call Tiebout voting). Some close-in, relatively dense suburban towns catered to lower middle class workers. Others had large-lot zoning that only executives could afford. And still others attracted large-scale office or retail use.

The gentrification of inner city neighborhoods, far from being an example of moral collapse, turns downtown into one more choice on the lifestyle menu in increasingly polycentric metropolitan areas. The trend goes back almost as far as suburbanization, with possibly the first gentrified neighborhood being New York's Greenwich Village in the 1880s. By now, revived downtowns, with their dense, architecturally rich and cosmopolitan atmosphere, have attracted affluent residents in cities as different as Manchester and Houston. And the process adds value to other worn-out neighborhoods. After 125 years, gentrification in New York is reaching as far as Brooklyn's impoverished, beat-up Bushwick neighborhood. The alternative is to become Detroit, with its miles of vacant lots that used to be housing.

Even if gentrifying neighborhoods become too expensive for middle class residents, the mix of populations and uses is still there on a metropolitan level. Suburbanites can drive in to spend a Saturday night in Cleveland's Warehouse District, a revived entertainment neighborhood; and the salt-of-the-earth blue-collar workers who staff New Jersey's distribution centers can truck their food, office supplies, and electronics into Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square for yuppies to buy.

While Kotkin correctly observes that new growth is concentrated in the suburbs (refuting Richard Florida's poorly researched argument in The Rise of the Creative Class that coolness is the only economic engine), this doesn't demonstrate the failure of inner-city revival. Downtown redevelopment almost has to be upscale, since generic housing, offices, or retail can always be built more cheaply at the metropolitan edge, where vacant land allows the creation of brand-new infrastructure, usually with less regulation. Only people with higher incomes and specialized tastes will pay the added costs of retrofitting older neighborhoods--though inner cities need to deregulate to reduce the suburban cost advantage as much as possible.

Kotkin is as blind to the post-1990 revival of center cities as earlier writers were to the evolution of suburbs, and his trinity of security, commerce, and sacredness is a dour one, suppressing the spark that brings life to urban areas. In this, he is the successor to a long line of nostrum-peddling 20th-century critics. Ebenezer Howard and Lewis Mumford believed that planning could generate self-contained humanistic cities outside the oppressive center. Le Corbusier envisioned towers in parks, and became the most merciless destroyer of cities since Attila the Hun. Jane Jacobs adored polyglot urban areas, but demanded that every block look like her Greenwich Village neighborhood.

"City air makes free," said the medieval Germans, referring to the escape from feudal constraints. Urban writers, too, need to remember that the market happily provides urban choices for different tastes.

Jay Weiser is associate professor of law at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business.