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

Joel Kotkin


The future of American cities depends precisely on such sentiments. Particular urban centers might enjoy a renaissance due to temporary booms in specific sectors - high-tech around San Francisco, oil in Houston, finance in New York, entertainment or aerospace in Los Angeles - but urban America's long-term prospects depend on developing a new sense of purpose for those who live and work in cities.

This will require a dramatic change in the approach taken by most civic elites. Over the last half century, urban boosters have tended to equate urban dynamism with such things as massive office towers and corporate headquarters. They primarily use quantitative indicators, such as growth of population or workforce, to measure their city's success, much as in the glory days of the 1950s or 1960s. Yet clearly the era of urban demographic expansion has come to an end; even in Los Angeles, a city long synonymous with explosive growth, population increases have receded to no more than 1 percent annually.

Rather than rely on the patterns of the mid-twentieth century cities, today's urban economies must find their succor in the distinctive functions that cities played during the preindustrial era as centers of culture, artisanship, and commerce. This scenario is already being played out in part in small "boutique" cities, such as San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, and even San Jose, each of which increasingly prospers by providing entertainment, fashion products, and high-end business services to the thriving technology-related industries in their immediate hinterlands. Although these cities constitute only a small and rapidly diminishing fraction of their metropolitan populations, yet have some of the lowest vacancy rates among cities. Seattle's population, for example, has remained steady at around 530,000 over the past twenty years while the suburbs, now with more than a million people, have doubled. Once mere bedroom communities, Seattle's outer ring now employs far more people than the city itself.

Some economists, such as Harvard's Edward Glaeser, maintain that even larger cities can come back purely on the basis of high-wage, high-skilled sectors. True, mega-cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington boast the largest populations of college-educated people. But it seems highly unlikely that they can enjoy a long-term renaissance if they fail to provide opportunities for minorities and the surging immigrant populations who now account for approximately half the poor in New York and over 60 percent of the poor in Los Angeles.

If such a democratization of the current urban recoveries fails to materialize, the relentless, crippling rise in urban poverty rates -from 14 percent to 21 percent between 1970 and 1996 - seems unlikely to abate, much less reverse itself. Indeed, gaps between rich and poor are also growing dangerously, not only in the declining industrial cities, but also in the great megapolitan regions around New York and throughout highly urbanized California. The continued presence of nearly 5,000 gangs with a quarter million members in some 80 American cities - drawn largely from poor Latino and African-American youths alone should also give pause to anyone breaking out the champagne to celebrate an urban "renaissance."

In the end, the future of these large metropolitan areas will hinge upon their ability to turn their increasingly polyglot populations into powerful engines for sustained economic growth. With federal aid to cities in a secular decline, cities increasingly will need to do what they have done traditionally - from the days of Alexandria and Venice to pre-1960s New York - namely, build upon the skills and energies of their own people. Writing about New York in the 1950s, urbanologist Jane Jacobs observed:

A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle class people . . . greenhorns into competent citizens . . . . Cities don't lure the middle class, they create it.

Creating this middle class requires, first and foremost, developing a more conducive atmosphere for small, growing companies. Increasingly, as the detachment of corporate bureaucracies from the core cities grows, only "bottom up" economic development makes any sense. Now the prime generators of new jobs, firms with under 20 employees expanded their workforce by more than 9 percent in the early 1990s, while firms with over 2000 workers cut their rolls by 2 percent. This pattern exists in virtually all sectors, except for finance, and includes manufacturing, trade, and services.

Unfortunately, most large urban areas - with a few notable exceptions such as Dallas and Houston - continue to experience start-up rates well below those of the fast-growing smaller cities in the South and West. To reverse this situation, cities must find a way to lower the relative costs that restrict entrepreneurial growth. Cities such as New York, with business costs more than 40 percent above national norms, place enormous obstacles in the way of smaller local firms. Other cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston also suffer from large, if somewhat less dramatic, cost differentials from both surrounding areas and other regions.

Ultimately, suggests economist David Friedman, it is the persistence of "monolithically governed" urban political structures that threatens the successful transformation of cities today. Rather than focusing on the needs of entrepreneurial firms, many urban politicians still favor providing incentives to large corporations, particularly when they threaten to leave. New York City recently paid $2 million to keep Price Waterhouse in town. The city, which has a structural deficit of over $2 billion, pays out some $500 million annually in such ill-disguised "bribes" to precisely the kinds of firms that are not, as a group, creating new jobs.

Efforts to reduce costs and regulatory burdens across the board could have an enormously salutary effect on urban prospects. During the severe economic downturn of the early 1990s, a handful of smaller cities in Los Angeles County - notably Burbank, Glendale, West Hollywood, Culver City, and Santa Fe Springs - found ways to compete more effectively in the harsh new economic climate. Instead of raising revenues from business, as Los Angeles did, these communities generally lowered their fees and worked to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens, making it easier for firms to start, expand, or relocate. As a result these cities have enjoyed rates of revenue, job, investment, and retail sales growth far above that experienced by the city of Los Angeles.

This is not to suggest that cities can ever hope to compete on price alone. But at the very least they must manage to preserve a decent enough quality of life to offset higher costs. In this respect recent gains by several large cities, notably New York, in reducing crime represents a critical achievement. In 1996 just eight cities - New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago - accounted for a quarter of the entire nationwide drop in homicides.

Reductions in crime and other manifestations of urban decline - graffiti, beggars, "squeegee" men - also enhance the desirability of the city as a place to visit and conduct business for the vast majority, who live mostly on the periphery. But even with crime in secular decline, cities still face a daunting series of challenges, including poor schools, an aging infrastructure, and a still considerable degree of lawlessness. Education may pose the most serious problem: by 1996, some 75 percent of fourth-graders in urban areas nationwide were reading below basic-skills levels, while less than 6 percent were rated as proficient or advanced. "We have lost a generation," observes Carole Hoover, President of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. "We forgot that human development and economic development are tied together."

Whether it is a sustained movement to improve education, reduce crime, or provide jobs for welfare recipients, the critical prerequisite for change lies in developing an urban leadership capable of and willing to force difficult changes. Cities can only thrive - and attract enough ambitious and talented people - if they can rekindle the sense of civic patriotism and pride of place so characteristic of the urban centers of the Renaissance and early modern periods.

"People do not live together merely to be together," wrote the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset. "They live together to do something together." In some cities, dynamic reformist Mayors - notably Indianapolis' Steve Goldsmith, Cleveland's Mike White, San Diego's Susan Golding, Philadelphia's Ed Rendell, Houston's Bob Lanier, and Milwaukee's John Norquist - have worked assiduously to reinstill a sense of civic purpose beyond the entrenched interests of public employee unions, activist groups, and entrenched corporate elites.

Perhaps most important has been the growth of grassroots economic development efforts. Many cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have witnessed an explosion in the number of merchant-financed Business Improvement Districts; nearly 1,000 such units now exist throughout the country. As the Manhattan Institute's Heather MacDonald suggests, districts such as New York's Grand Central Partnership have become "trailblazers in solving such urban quality of life problems as aggressive pan-handling, graffiti, and vandalism."

Realistically, not all cities will recover at the same pace and some might not improve significantly at all. In particular, cities built around the mass-industrial base and lacking the unique characteristics associated with vibrant urban life - immigrant communities, unique cultural attractions, global connections - may become only more and more obsolescent. "In this transition some cities may actually get worse," warns NYU's Mitchell Moss. "There's no reason for a Newark, Camden, or Detroit to get back, but there are cities that will flourish. They will be those that can attract people because of a particular industry, a university, an entertainment-something they can offer."

Ultimately the fate of cities relies on their ability to create compelling enough attractions - economic, artistic, architectural, educational, and so forth - to keep a large population of creative, hard-working individuals and families within the urban sphere. Steps being taken to convert obsolete office towers in both Chicago and lower Manhattan into housing and spaces for small, creative firms show how cities can begin to move from the era of high-rise bureaucracy to a more balanced, artisan- and small business-based economy.

But urban revival does not necessarily have to fit one mold. A vast city such as Los Angeles simply does not fit into the traditional, highly compact city pattern: its expanse is so huge that it could encompass the entire land mass of Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Milwaukee, with room to spare. Accordingly, in Los Angeles the renaissance city is being reinvented in dynamic, smaller "downtowns" such as Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Glendale, and even the oft-joked about "beautiful downtown Burbank." Not surprisingly, while Angelenos remain largely pessimistic about the city overall, recent polls conducted by Loyola University's Fernando Guerra found them remarkably upbeat about conditions in their own neighborhoods.

In this emerging reality, specific manifestations of civic renewal do not matter so much as the revival of the urban consciousness that animated the great cities of antiquity, the Renaissance, and the early modern period. With the long-term decline of the nation-state due to globalization and political devolution, cities have an opportunity to recover the sense of centrality and purpose that made them the object of admiration and inspiration for both residents and visitors.

The greatest threat to this potential "new age of cities," Martin Thom suggests, lies in the "pandemonium of ethnic cleansing" in which tribal rivalries undermine any overall sense of common purpose. For the city to flourish under the new circumstances, all the disparate groups - from the business elites to labor, from the tony districts to the middle-class and working-class immigrant communities - must realize that they share a common destiny. Successful global cities - from Hellenistic Alexandria and Renaissance Venice to the New York of Fiorello LaGuardia - create their own unique culture, one capable of bridging differences in race, ethnicity, or religion.

This spirit of pride and common sense of purpose is all too often missing even among those who have the most to gain from an urban recovery: land-owners, financial institutions, entrepreneurs, and craftspeople. Although national and global transportation and communications have made even small businesses global, a successful world city must have at its heart a strong, dedicated business leadership drawn from across various industries.

Over time, New York will not benefit greatly if Wall Street considers itself aligned only with its counterparts in London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, rather than with the fate of its host city. Nor can a new sense of Los Angeles be developed if the entertainment industry continues to focus only on its prestigious perch on the global stage, while ignoring decline close to the heart of its creative center.

Such a change among elites, as well as among the general population, requires a major change in values, including spiritual ones. "At the heart of every civilization," writes Braudel, "religious values were asserted." Many of the great cities of antiquity - Ur, Sumer, Rome, Venice, Constantinople - had religious monuments at their centers. Like these great cities, our contemporary ones might do well to develop as their symbols not soulless towers of steel and glass, but soaring new cathedrals, mosques, Buddhist temples, synagogues and expanding inner-city churches. In this respect a new Los Angeles skyline - anchored around a proposed massive new Cathedral - suggests a welcome return to classical and Renaissance notions of urbanity.

Such religious edifices - along with new concert halls, theaters, and arenas - represent one potential means of recovering the much diminished sensibility of commonality and civic pride. But far more important is resuscitating the sense of urban citizenship. As Rousseau observed: "Houses make a town but citizens make a city." First established in the polis of Greece and Republican Rome, and central to the rise of cities during the Renaissance and early modern Europe, this civic spirit remains the one crucial element without which no urban revival can occur.

Like the citizens of Rousseau's own hometown, Geneva, today's New Yorkers, Angelenos, Chicagoans, San Franciscans, or Houstonians have the opportunity to revive this spirit, creating a new "era of cities." In this effort, they also may well be determining whether our civilization sinks into a fragmented and disjointed high-tech version of the Dark Ages, or whether it enters a new Renaissance in which our cities are symbols not of our deepest despair, but of our highest aspirations.