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Back to the Renaissance? A New Perspective on America's Cities Research

Joel Kotkin


The greatest competitive advantage of cities, both in the past and today, lies in this creative edge. As cultural, technical, and social concepts collided on the urban stage of meeting houses and marketplaces, cities gave birth to writing, the evolution of art, abstract concepts, and mathematics, thus giving the city a predominant role in the development of world culture. Imperial Rome absorbed from traveling Greeks and Egyptians much of their cultural and technical legacy upon which it built its own brilliant civilization. Similarly, the great trading and artisan cities of the Renaissance such as Florence and Venice are now remembered not chiefly for their business success, but for their enduring legacies of art, literature, and architecture legacies that flowered during the era of their effervescent commercial growth. Since antiquity, notes Mumford,

The city was primarily a storehouse, a conservator, an accumulator. It was by its command of these functions that the city served its ultimate function, that of transformer. Through its municipal utilities the kinetic energies of the community were channeled into storable symbolic forms.

In the nineteenth century, the infant American culture was nurtured largely by European immigrants who provided much of the creative spark. Although Paris remained the center of the avant-garde, eventually New York emerged as a powerful global artistic center of its own, with more than 20,000 working artists by 1925. Ultimately the mass migration of artists, scientists, and writers during the rise of European fascism all but guaranteed the emergence of New York and later Los Angeles as dominant global cultural centers.

The migration of European painters and sculptors to New York, for example, established the American city as the center of modern art and literature, supplanting long dominant Paris and other European cities. The "Europeanizing of American culture," as Laura Fermi puts it, also ended the hegemony of Europe over even its own cultural heritage, much as Alexandria replaced Athens as the center of Hellenistic culture in classical times.

Similarly, historian Kevin Starr has noted, the migration of German film-makers, actors, and craftspeople such as Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Max Reinhardt, and Marlene Dietrich fixed Southern California as the epicenter of the global film industry. So pervasive was the Berliner influence that at one Hollywood party, Otto Preminger, another of the émigrés, was shocked to find some of the guests chattering away in Hungarian. "Don't you guys know we're in Hollywood?" the director asked. "Speak German."

Even today, after decades of relative decline in urban economies, these same cities still dominate centers of global cultural life. Although many middle class people may have fled the cities, most of the creative community has remained, with New York and Los Angeles alone accounting for roughly 14 percent of the nation's artists. The cultural dynamism of these great cities—reflected in their ethnic diversity, eclectic restaurants, and bustling neighborhood life—continue to attract the educated younger people who are critical to the life of most creative fields. A 1992 Louis Harris survey of migration into New York, for example, found that newcomers ranked cultural amenities as one of the city's primary attractions.

The most powerful economic effect of these concentrations derive from the dramatic arts. From the temple-grounds of Egypt and Sumer to the institutionalization of formal theater in the Greek polis, theatrical performances thrilled city-dwellers and lured visitors from the hinterlands. Even today, the theater districts of New York and London attract millions of tourists who might otherwise stay at home. In 1994 alone, according to the state controller's office, the combined culture-based industries of New York—film, museums, and theater—added 12,000 jobs to the city's economy.

Despite repeated attempts by lower-cost states and counties to lure film and television production, the vast majority of the filmed entertainment industry also remains firmly ensconced in urban areas—primarily in Los Angeles, but also in such urban centers as Chicago, New York, and Miami. Southern California by itself accounts for more than 82 percent of all prime time television shows, with New York the center for an additional nine percent.

The persistent concentration of culture-based industries in cities stems largely from the dense concentrations of artists and skilled craftspeople. In Los Angeles, there are more than 4400 motion picture related service establishments and nearly 100,000 freelance workers. This unique constellation of people and companies cannot be easily reduplicated, as can the mass manufacturing or even conventional office economies, within the friendly confines of an "edge city" or small town environment.

The long-term future potential of these creative urban centers may be best exemplified in the field of multimedia, where the computer, entertainment, and information industries are now rapidly converging. By the logic of George Gilder and other futurists, such cutting edge industries—virtual reality, web-site development, internet-related technology, digital imaging, and computerized animation—should be clustering either in the emerging high-tech "edge cities" or in the bucolic Valhallas.

However, instead of locating in Irvine, Princeton, Santa Clara, Santa Fe, or Boise, the multimedia industry appears to be clustering in more dense, urban neighborhoods. Although this nascent industry is exceedingly hard to monitor, most studies indicate that three cities—Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco—boast by far its largest concentrations. This new industry, which barely existed a decade ago, employs over 130,000 people in the Los Angeles area and 60,000 each in San Francisco and New York.

The continuing appeal of cities to the young, educated, and adventuresome may be the critical factor behind the clustering of multimedia in urban districts such as Los Angeles' westside, Lower Manhattan, or San Francisco's "South of Market." Although different and highly competitive, each of these hubs share a common sensibility with respect to seeking out the urban creative edge, despite the admitted problems associated with city life. As one "South of Market" resident put it:

There's the taxes, high rents, city controls and lack of support. But we all stay because of the creative environment. The cool air rolls in and chills our bones and keeps the blood flowing.