The Magazine

American Cities of Aspiration

From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue: . . . and the decline of Euro-America.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By JOEL KOTKIN
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FOR MUCH OF THE PAST decade, Darik Volpa labored long and hard in the high-tech vineyards of San Jose and Boston. As an executive in the medical instrument industry, he earned good money, but could not achieve a middle class lifestyle in those pricey locales.

When Volpa decided in 2003 to open his own company, Understand Surgery, he chose to do it in far-more-affordable Reno, Nevada. His reasons--embraced by scores of other fast-growing businesses--ranged from the unfriendly business climates in places like California to the high cost of houses in many prominent cities. The need for affordable housing was especially urgent, given Volpa's desire to start a family.

"The Bay Area is exciting and has a great talent pool, but we would have minimal prospects there," explains the 34-year-old Volpa, whose five-person firm specializes in providing animations of surgical procedures. "For us, the issue is where do you start now, and where does a young person want to work. Reno is very attractive for that."

Now Volpa is ensconced in a large three-bedroom house he could never afford in the Bay Area. His odyssey reflects something more profound. It speaks to a chasm in America, separating two competing economic regimes, one that embraces growth and new opportunity and another that increasingly seeks to preserve its privileges and coveted lifestyle.

What differentiates these two Americas is not so much politics, but perspective on the future. Cities of aspiration like Reno accommodate job growth and attract young families who hope that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. They offer an environment that most of our forebears--wherever they might be from--would recognize as distinctly American. In the places people are leaving, what might be called Euro-America, the focus is on preserving older urban forms, cultivating refinement, and following continental norms in attitude, politics, and lifestyle.

Right now the demographic, economic, and political momentum belongs to the aspirational cities, places like Reno, Boise, Orlando, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City. They attract the most new migrants from other parts of the country, and an increasing number of immigrants from abroad. They have experienced some of the nation's sharpest increases in their numbers of new families.

Over the next quarter century, these areas are also projected to experience the nation's largest increases in the construction of new homes and industrial and commercial buildings. Equally important, much of the new growth they are enjoying is in those businesses--software development, medical manufacturing, high-end business services, to name a few--that increasingly define America's economic power. Meanwhile these same industries are a declining presence in such cities as Boston, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley.

Take an area like Lee and Collier counties in southwest Florida, among the nation's fastest-growing regions. Internet, software, and business service firms have found the lower-cost housing, more permissive business climate, and consistently warm temperature hard to resist. Financial and business services, information technology, and even manufacturing are all growing in this vast, and still largely affordable, corner of the country.

"We found we could expand our business and get as good or better people than we can get anywhere else," explains Rick Szatkowski, senior vice president at FindWhat, an Internet marketing company that relocated its 60-person headquarters from Silicon Alley in 2001 to Ft. Myers. "We have been able to grow and expand here in a way that would have been impossible in New York, where people can't afford to live and smaller businesses have a hard time operating."

The in-migration of educated people may prove the most important sign of the future vitality of aspirational cities. Boston may still be "the Athens" of America, but since the mid-1990s it and other Euro-American centers have been losing educated workers, particularly those over 30. Boston is one of the very few places that is now graduating fewer BAs than in the past decade. In contrast, the ranks of college graduates are mushrooming in aspirational cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, Las Vegas, and, most dramatically, the fast-growth regions of Florida, notably the region along the Gulf Coast.

EURO-AMERICA has always existed in pockets, most particularly among the East Coast's intellectual, cultural, and social elites. The strain can be traced from the old Tory opposition to the Revolution to the Hartford Convention, which considered New England's secession during the War of 1812. It found expression again in the Victorian sensibility of Henry James and, after World War I, among those disgruntled Bohemians who embraced Paris and the continent as culturally superior to their native country.