Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review essay: who loses when a city develops?

Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class--and What We Can Do About It (Basic Books, 2017)

Peter Moskowitz, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood (Public Affairs, 2017)

We've got to make sure the people here are being lifted up from the rising tide.
--ZAK PASHAK, Detroit (quoted at Moskowitz 2017, p. 76)

Peter Moskowitz has a passion for social justice and a talent for long-form journalism, and both come across in How to Kill a City. Built around four urban case studies--New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco and New York City--he looks at the harms that have come to individuals and communities in the last decade's urban resurgence. The damage isn't hard to find, either: people priced out of their longtime homes, landmark buildings torn down and neighborhood establishments shuttered, diverse communities taken over by upper middle class whites.

My main complaint with Moskowitz is that his targets, and the rage they inspire, are too easy. It's easy to point to the racist origins of our cities' physical design, to juxtapose the struggles of the marginalized with the amusements of the upper middle class, to nostalgize everything that's lost and find fault with everything that's replaced it. "Every year I'd see fewer sex workers walking down Washington Street at night" (p 164). Or to complain about cultural differences--"The New York that increasingly engulfs me seems even less interesting than I am" (p 163)--or insensitivity. That's too bad, because while there's a fair amount of explanation and a great deal of (mostly justifiable) outrage over what's happened, there's very little by way of alternative course of action (though see pp. 210-213).

Joe Cortright and his colleagues have documented that poor urban neighborhoods that haven't gentrified, and that's most of them, have become more marginalized. Meanwhile the financial, ecological and cultural consequences of suburban sprawl are not sustainable. The path forward for urban neighborhoods is not some unnamed something-that's-way-better-than-gentrification; it's gentrification that takes account of everyone new and old, black and white, rich and poor.

To extend the quotation above, which Moskowitz dismisses as mere rationalization, a non-rising tide doesn't lift any boats. (Or, maybe, in a zero-sum sort of way, a few get rich at the expense of all the others.) A rising tide, though, doesn't necessarily lift all boats. As Moskowitz describes throughout his book, rising tides can also swamp the boats. The answer is not to wish the tide away, or to curse it, but to manage it for the benefit of all.

That is, of course, easier said than done. A number of cities have tried to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification, but their instruments are blunt and their effects uncertain.

Happily Richard Florida, who comes in for his own share of Moskowitz's rage (pp 78-83) as a supposed advocate of unchecked gentrification, is on the case in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis. He describes the causes and ill effects of "winner-take-all urbanism": The most highly prized talent and the most profitable industries, which used to be spread across many smaller and medium-sized cities, increasingly concentrate in a few superstar behemoths (Florida 2017, p 18). Winner-take-all urbanism stems partly from the clustering effect taken to its extreme, but also to "efforts of urban landlords and homeowners to restrict what is built, and in doing so to keep the prices of their own real estate holdings high" (p. 24), and in some "superstar cities," land prices artificially inflated by "the global super-rich... looking for safe places to park their money" (p. 39). As a result, the "creative class" reap all the economic benefits of development, while the service and working classes are often worse off after paying for housing (Table 2.2, p. 31). The less advantaged are shunted into neighborhoods with more crime, worse schools, and the dimmest prospects for upward mobility (pp 149-150) Inequality is most severe in our most successful cities (Fig 6.1, p 110): a 2016 Brookings Institution study found only nine of the top 100 metro areas were more socially inclusive in 2014 than they were in 2005, although nearly all had experienced economic growth during this period (p. 91; the updated version is cited below).

Florida being Florida, there are a lot of data and indexes to measure these phenomena. The ultimate metric is the New Urban Crisis Index (Fig 10.1, p. 187) which combines economic segregation, wage inequality, income inequality and housing affordability. Bridgeport, Connecticut ranks highest overall (.978); Los Angeles is #2 and the top large metro (.972). Of Moskowitz's four cases, New York is #3 (.967) and San Francisco is #6 (.922), while the still-digging-out New Orleans is #36 (.787) and Detroit is #85 (.681).

Cedar Rapids scores a relatively benign .233 which ranks it #316 of 359, but one wonders: Have the costs of post-flood development in hip New Bohemia been borne by the working class people who used to live there (a la New Orleans, described in Moskowitz's chapters 1-3)? Is the MedQuarter going to contribute to an island of prosperity while pushing everyone else away (a la Detroit, described in Moskowitz's chapters 4-6)?

Florida's concluding chapter includes a multi-faceted strategy for a more effective urbanism (pp. 191-215):
 (a) more effective clustering by developing the land we have more effectively and efficiently--deregulating land use but also using tools like land value tax to replace property tax, and tax increment local transfers to overcome local prejudice;
 (b) strategic investments in infrastructure including mass transit and high-speed rail;
 (c) building more affordable rental housing including vouchers;
 (d) turning the tens of millions of low-paid service jobs we are stuck with into higher-paying jobs, including higher but locally-based minimum wage;
 (e) anti-poverty investments in people (providing resources or helping them move to new and better neighborhoods) and neighborhoods (schools & early childhood development);
 (f) to deal with urban disasters abroad, shifting the focus of America's foreign and international development policies from nation-building to city-building; and
 (g) to overcome hostility to urban areas in state and federal governments today, a bipartisan movement of mayors to help cities and communities get the increased control they need to address all these challenges.

Florida's proposals are individually debatable, but provide a starting point for ensuring that everyone has a place at our communities' tables. Moskowitz's passionate accounts serve to show that funding urban development without demanding that benefits flow widely leads to gains at the top, stagnation or misery for everyone else. Cities should develop and develop boldly--and regressive state governments should get out of the way--but must not leave its residents to the mercies of whatever happens.

"Gentrification: What Do We Know?" 26 July 2016
Kristen Jeffers, "Gentrification in Shaw Isn't So Black and White," Greater Greater Washington, 7 July 2017
Richard Shearer, Alec Friedhoff, Isha Shah and Alan Berube, "Metro Monitor: An Index of Inclusive Economic Growth in the 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas," Brookings Institution, March 2017
Josh Stephens, "Pursuing Inclusion, Equity in the Nation's Capital," Planetizen, 10 July 2017
David Whitehead, "Gentrification in DC is a West-of-the-Park Issue, Too," Greater Greater Washington, 21 July 2017

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