Monday, November 07, 2005

Cities, Again

I was disappointed with Chicago when I went there last December: it was freezing cold, Hyde Park was practically empty with U of C out of session, and I was only there for about 9 hours before heading to Michigan (which was even colder). But this time, I remembered why I loved Chicago again: riding the L from O'Hare through Mexican neighborhoods and Wicker Park to downtown, then north past Wrigley Field to Lakeview, where I was staying at a friend's apartment. He'd sent me the key in the mail beforehand and was out of town, so for a couple of days it was like I had my own place. I called a couple of friends who were living there this year, and to my own surprise, I still knew the city better than they did. We went to a great, low-key bar just a block away from my friend's apartment, I drank Fuller's ESB and was generally having the time of my life.

The next day I went downtown, and I didn't even mind so much that 1) I was alone for my birthday, and 2) the conference predictably kinda sucked -- it didn't even seem to matter that much. The weather was beautiful in Chicago -- I was sweating nearly to death carrying my bag, a big bag of books ("Hey! University press discounts!") and still wearing my wool jacket, which I needed to store my camera, phone and iPod. But the downtown was full and happening, and I got to eat Chicago-style pizza at Giordano's and go to a few of the places I really liked. I cut out on the conference early after giving my paper and met up with another friend later that night for dinner. Then my brothers picked me up to take me back to Michigan.

Lansing was more hectic than I thought it would be: my brother Sean was coaching his football team in the state playoffs that Friday night, so my mom came into town and we went to the game. Originally I thought we might just spend the weekend in Lansing, but my dad had hurt his hip, so we planned a trip to Detroit, which turned into a big extravaganza at my aunt's house with the whole extended family. I must have only spent an hour, at most, at my parents' house the entire trip: I don't think I even sat down. I barely got in time visit with Gavin and Danielle and play with their daughter, and to talk with my friend Kelly Hoover at my parents' place.

My aunt's was even more chaotic than usual: when we got there, my cousin Julie was putting out a fire she'd accidentally started by starting the gas grill without opening it: the grill tools were all inside, and quickly caught fire (and caught the grill on fire too). So it was boiled hot dogs and Chicken Shack chicken. My cousin Mike had a baby just a couple of months ago: Chase looks just like Mike, but with a slightly more froggy, amorphous face. I got to see my grandma, and talk with my Uncle Chris (who had just turned forty two days before my birthday -- my mom turned fifty-four the day before).

At some point, we all started talking about Detroit. Both sides of my family have lived in Detroit (and later, its suburbs) for a few generations, and very few of us have gone very far. My sister and cousin live in Ann Arbor, and my brother in Lansing. When my uncle moved back from Cleveland, I was the only one within first-cousin status or better who lived more than an hour away from the city. So my family's fate has been tied to Detroit's for some time: my great-grandparents moved their families there in the thirties and forties in search of jobs, my parents' generation grew up in the city through the golden-age fifties, turbulent sixties, and free-fall decline in the seventies, eventually all moving in to the Oakland and Macomb county suburbs. After a few moments of hope and opportunity in the nineties, Detroit is pretty much headed into the toilet again, and all of us were interested in why this had happened and what if anything could be done to turn it around.

My dad in particular, who's worked for local government in Detroit for almost thirty-five years, has especially upset: he can see the city falling apart first-hand, as the roads decay, the people turn to drugs and prostitution (this in particular I think bothers my dad) and the city embarks on one half-assed scheme after another to try to turn things around, while a few well-connected people get richer and richer.

My uncle John talked about how he and my aunt had tried to buy a house in Detroit in the seventies, but discovered that the banks had red-lined practically the entire city: they foresaw long-term decline, and weren't willing to extend mortgages on properties they thought were likely to go down in value. And lo and behold, they were right, although it's hard to argue that the banks didn't help things long. (This is part of the story of white flight that hardly ever gets told; it also explains why my parents wound up living in my grandparents' house before our family moved to the suburbs.)

We talked about Cleveland, where my uncle lived until recently, and how they were able to seemingly turn things around until reality caught up and the bottom dropped out. (Who's really going to the Rock-n'-Roll Hall of Fame more than once?) And we talked about Philadelphia, which has some of the same problems as Detroit (deteriorating infrastructure, political corruption, lots of poverty and racial conflict) but has been undergoing a strong boom thanks to a handful of things Detroit doesn't have (and is unlikely to get): a great location in the mid-Atlantic where we can scoop up people priced out of NYC, lots of colleges, major players in the pharmaceutical and telecommunications industries, and built-in tourism in the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall. The last one I think may in the last instance be decisive: industries can move, and you can always have a convention or party somewhere else, but historical, profitable, one-of-a-kind landmarks aren't going anywhere. And as much as I love Joe Louis's fist, Detroit is sans any of that.

What's the model? my uncle John asked. How do you get people to come back? My uncle Chris offered up Seattle, which sounded great until we all conceded that we'd never actually been there. I put forward Chicago as the great city of realists: it's not especially concerned with perfection, or stamping out corruption, partly because its aldermen and public services fight for neighborhoods and execute beautifully. You have to fix the schools, someone said. My brother said that it's impossible to "fix" an entire school district the size of Detroit's: it's like fixing every school in the entire western part of the state! He thinks (and I agree) that if Detroit broke up its district into smaller pieces, it might be able to turn a handful of schools around at a time, which is a more realistic approach to change.

I offered up the argument that you don't actually want lots of families in your city -- they hog tax resources and don't spend money. What you want -- self-consciously parroting the "cool cities" argument -- are childless, income-having taxpayers, whether young or old, gay or straight. The problem of course, is that this strategy is a recipe for population decline: you can support an expensive, exclusive, and relatively low-population city like San Francisco or Boston with a makeup like this, but not a city of a million-plus people like Philadelphia or the old Detroit. You need major industries: and particularly in Detroit (if anywhere in the US at all) those kinds of industries just aren't coming back.

This dovetails nicely into two new news/magazine articles on cities: the Times's "Saying Goodbye California Sun, Hello Midwest," which is about how priced-out Californians are beginning to leave for less fabulous (but larger and cheaper digs), and "Uncool Cities," a new shot in the gut from Joel Kotkin.

I've written on Kotkin's position before, and I still think he makes everything too much of an either-or: either you invest in infrastructure or you invest in culture, either you attract singles or you attract families, etc. I'll say it again: everyone rides the subway. You can't attract the creative class into high-crime areas with dilapidated roads and nonexistent public transit or services either. Even the bohemians will eventually pack up and leave: I can't remember meeting an artist who had a loft in Camden. The creative class vs. traditional cities argument is really about jobs and marketing: it seems ridiculous to pretend that our older cities don't have an image problem, or to act as though if we were to just fix everything that's broken, things might be the way they were.

In my own thinking, I don't see most of Kotkin's points as being incompatible with that of Richard Florida and co., and insofar as Kotkin shows how some cities have hoodwinked themselves by thinking that they can put in a casino, sports-stadium, or arts theatre and wish the rest of their problems away, he performs a great service. But I can't shake the suspicion that his arguments are really a stalking-horse for plain old conservatism: a prescription to cut taxes, cut through your union contracts, cut down on crime, and cut out the whole nonstarter "tolerance" thing. Then close your eyes and wish the rest of your problems away.

1 comment:

Matthias Ripp said...

I like Chicago a lot! Very good architecture!