Responding to a little New York-bashing

MLewyn's picture

Joel Kotkin just wrote a blog post on New Geography explaining why today's Obama voters will eventually turn into Republicans - a subject not particularly relevant to urbanism.  But a few paragraphs of the essay grabbed my attention, in particular this one:

The Holy Places of urbanism such as New York, San Francisco, Washington DC also suffer some of the worst income inequality, and poverty, of any places in the country.* The now triumphant urban gentry have their townhouses and high-rise lofts, but the service workers who do their dirty work have to log their way by bus or car from the vast American banlieues, either in peripheral parts of the city (think of Brooklyn’s impoverished fringes) or the poorer close-in suburbs... Not surprisingly, this prospect is not exciting to many Americans. So instead of heading for the blue paradises, but to lower-cost, those who move now tend towards low-cost, lower-density regions like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte and Raleigh.

I am certainly not going to deny that New York is more unequal than some Sun Belt cities, and that it has a serious affordable housing problem.  But I would add that to some extent this is a happy problem: New York is more unequal because it is attractive to people who can afford to live anywhere (and who are rich enough to bid up the price of real estate) and because its economy generates vast amounts of wealth for rich people.  Inequality is not a problem in places without rich people (e.g. Third World and communist economies).

On a personal note, I lived in one of Mr. Kotkin's low-cost paradises (Jacksonville, Florida) - low-cost because its blue-collar economy doesn't generate enough wealth to generate much of an upper class.   Now it is even lower-cost, because like many other low-cost markets that aren't tied to the oil industry or to state capitals and universities, housing values have collapsed and even its middle-class neighborhoods are a wilderness of vacant storefronts.

I didn't live in Jacksonville because I wanted to live there; I lived there because I HAD to live there for a job.  When I got a job in one of the Holy Places, I got out.  Now I live where I WANT to live (or at least closer to where I want to live; I might move to Manhattan next year).  For me, the Sun Belt was my internal exile, where I lived for lack of an alternative.  And of course, just as the rich people bid up the price of real estate, so does the presence of me and others like me.  

*By the way, if you look at the link cited by Kotkin, it doesn't prove quite everything he wants it to prove.  He links to a study that is  intended to show that if you adjust for cost of living, California's urban areas have higher poverty than official measures seem to suggest.  According to the claims of this study, the "real" poverty rate for San Francisco is 19 percent.   But even according to this study, San Francisco's poverty rate is lower than that of low-cost St. Louis, Los Angeles or New Orleans.



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