My City Was Gone Different

I’m a relatively rare critter; a conservative who lives in the inner city.  We’ve discussed this before in this blog; there are a lot of things I like about living in Saint Paul.  And there are a lot of things about life in the ‘burbs that I dislike enough to have made the decision fairly simple. 

For me.

On the other hand, I can see why people live in the subs.  And – unlike both liberal new-urbanist utopians who want to change land-use policy to force people back into the city, and urban hipsters who hate the ‘burbs with a diamond-like intensity, and conservatives who want to chide all of us inner-city conservatives out into identical beige houses with nosy neighbors who piss and moan about the length of your grass – I figure “let people live and thrive wherever they want”.  I’m the last person who’s going to force people to do anything, except leave my house if they’re not invited.

Of course, being a conservative, even though I love Saint Paul (but largely detest its government), I find myself duking it out with a lot of “New Urbanist” twaddle (which should be no surprise, given so many of my neighbors are New Urban Twaddlists). 

For those of you who don’t follow the argument – the ideal of the New Urbanists is that the endless expansion of the cities is a bad thing, that a denser, more communitarian society is a better thing, that “sprawl” is the source of many ills, from environmental degradation to obesity to neoconservatism, and that we’d be better off as a society if more of us lived in high-density urban cores, sharing infrastructure and riding together on the bus and smelling each others’ cooking together and sharing “public space”, the better to get to know and love and live with each other.  Or something like that.   

Of course, part of the problem is that many of the so-called “benefits” of state-driven (as opposed to market-driven) “New Urbanism” – like the crime-reducing effects of “eyes on the street” in high-density housing – are buncombe.

But underneath it all was something that really got me wondering; why did New Urbanists adopt the city they did – the traditional Industrial Age city, with a defined “downtown” where most of the people worked, with closely-aligned industrial districts, to both of which people commuted by industrial mass-transit – as its model?  That type of city is a very new development in human society.  They developed in an era – and in the great scheme of things, it’s a very short era – when all of the things you needed for the kind of prosperity that could support a major city,  capital, infrastructure and information, were very centralized. 

Before the advent of mass capital and mass transit, cities developed differently; if you look at cities that first flourished before, say, 1835, they’re very different than later cities (and in the US, all of the major cities, including New York, really took off around or after 1800).  London, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin – the great cities of old Western Europe – didn’t really have a “downtown”, per se; there were certainly districts that drew the most attention – but before the Industrial revolution, they were very decentralized things (except for political power, of course); all of them still show the vestiges of their origins.  Particularly, in the era before mass transit, different crafts would coalesce around different neighborhoods in such cities; London and Paris and Basel and Amsterdam had streets and alleys and neighborhoods where the various artisans – goldsmiths, tinsmiths, bagel makers, butchers, brewers, coopers, boatbuilders, wheelrights, and every other kind of trade would live and work (and other merchants – carters and peddlers – would haul the products to other neighborhoods to try to sell for a profit). 

The industrial revolution changed that, moving the mass economy from a distributed peasant-and-artisan system to a centralized, capital-driven system with factories, central banks, and centralized information gathering and distribution.  Which coincided with the development of cities in America, giving most of them the tradition layout of a downtown (where the businesses, banks, government offices and newspapers were), some industrial and warehouse districts (where stuff got built and shipped), and clusters of residential neighborhoods where the entrepreneurs, management and workers lived, and from which they commuted to the downtown and industrial areas via mass transit – railroads, streetcars, subways, whatever.

It’s at about this point that history stopped, for the New Urbanists. 

Of course, that model of industry peaked between 40 and 100 years ago.  After World War II, the car, the TV and the telephone made it possible for people to live farther and farther out from the city core and still have big-city jobs (and connections to big-city things like “culture” and “information”).  That, combined with the native American desire for “elbow room” and a population of men and women that had just spent the best years of their lives living in barracks and riding on troop trains and being jammed into the holds of troop ships, led to the ‘burbs.

Ironically, it’s the New Urbanists who fit the caricature of the conservative – “standing astride history, yelling “stop” – when it comes to how cities work.  They want the world to roll back to about 1900, when cities had dense cores and sparse burbs, and people rode about on streetcars because it was the only practical way to get from, say, 42nd and Nicollet down to the Grain Exchange or the Milwaukee Road yards.

But events would seem to be passing them by – so it seemed to me.  And it’s always good to get some confirmation on this.

I spent a fascinating 53 minutes last night listening to this bit (warning – audio file) by  Joel Kotkin, author of “The City Everywhere: Urbanism in the 21st Century”, a critical look at the errors that drive new urbanism.

A potpourri of his points:

  • There’s a reason that 95% of urban growth is on the periphery
  • Nationwide, suburbs are evolving in a way similar to Hopkins (an old standalone small town that was engulfed in the ’60’s by the Minneapolis metropolis, but kept and is re-establishing its own identity as a city) or Maple Grove (which is building an ersatz urban core and identity of its own) or Bloomington (which has turned the Mall of America into a de facto downtown complete with city offices and services.
  • America’s growth is being led by immigrants – and middle class immigrants are flocking to the ‘burbs.
  • At the same time as this happens, the old-school cities – Boston, New York, San Francisco – have become too expensive for everyone but the wealthy; the middle class simply can’t afford to live on Manhattan or Georgetown or Nob Hill.  Cities, if current patterns hold, will eventually be white upper middle class enclaves interspersed with impoverished ghettoes.
  • The urban sprawl issue will eventually be a non-issue, as the ‘burbs and exurbs (think Forest Lake) and the urban-fringe countryside (think Elko/New Prague) will start to develop as stand-alone urban areas of their own.
  • Urban real estate developers who think that baby boomers are going to desert their suburban manses to live in condos downtown have “drunk the koolaid”.

The whole thing is a fascinating listen. 

11 thoughts on “My City Was Gone Different

  1. I think the increasing presence of immigrants in the suburbs is one of the most interesting things happening around here.

    I see it in Blaine, where I live. Even on my own street, which was pretty much Caucasian when I moved there seven years ago.

    Now, across the street is a Vietnamese family. Next to them, a Hispanic family. Around the corner from me, a Somali family.

    America doing what it does best.

  2. I moved to Hopkins precisely because it had sidewalks, multiple parks, bike trails, a downtown and an identity. I have pretty much the same mix of nationalities/ethnicities that Jeff mentions — plus no hookers, pimps, johns, drug dealers, shootings, and scam artists like I had when I lived at Lake and Columbus in mpls

  3. You think you don’t have scam artists in Hopkins?

    Look at your next property tax statement.

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