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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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.