A Bit of a Chill For Hot Times In the Big City
Mar 24, 2002
By Joel Kotkin
Publisher: The Washington Post

The Washington Post

It's been all over the news for a few years now: America's cities are back. Whether highlighted by a spanking-new downtown stadium or yuppie-filled condos in once-crumbling districts, this story of "urban renaissance" has made an appearance in various newspapers, magazines and television reports over the past decade. No longer written off as hopeless anachronisms, cities have been struttin' their stuff, puttin' on the Ritz.

Well, I'm sorry to be the sourpuss at the soiree, but the facts - demographic, economic and technological - just don't bear out the notion of a massive revival. Look behind the gloss and the glitz, and it appears that the media - largely located in big cities and tied to urban economies - have often seen what they want to see.

"Cities boom once again; Census numbers affirm an 'urban renaissance'" is the way USA Today put it in a March 19, 2001, headline. But it's not fair to pick on that newspaper alone. The hype is everywhere. "The American inner city is rebounding - not just here and there, not just cosmetically but fundamentally," claim Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio, authors of the widely acclaimed book "Comeback Cities."

Reporters have found signs of renaissance not only in perpetually overhyped New York, but also in aging cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Words such as "revival" and "comeback" have been used so often they have become boilerplate. A Philadelphia Inquirer article last year described Cleveland's new sports complex, including a baseball stadium and basketball arena, as the "centerpiece of its urban renaissance." The same language shows up on real estate Web sites promoting these cities. One site's memorable breathless formulation: "Dancing to a New Detroit."

Journalists can wax poetic about a few blocks of revival around Washington's new MCI Center - after all, they are among the people likely to be drinking their lattes there - but that represents just a drop in the local economic bucket compared with the retail sales generated by a new shopping mall or a Wal-Mart "power center."

This is not to say that there hasn't been some progress. A few select places - San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and New York (actually, parts of Manhattan) - did enjoy significant increases in wealth and jobs in the 1990s. But a closer examination of population change, job growth figures and real estate data should lead mayors, developers and other urban hypesters to consider putting the corks back into their champagne bottles. For example, all of the Rust Belt cities mentioned above experienced population declines over the past decade. Pittsburgh, often cited at development conferences as an exemplar of renewed urbanism, lost population in its entire metro area - the suburbs as well as the city.

Why does this matter? Because recognizing the reality of the 1990s decline - and the greater forces that are driving people, jobs and wealth away from urban centers - represents a critical first step for cities interested in staging a true long term recovery. A belief that history is on their side, or even that the tide has turned, is a dangerous illusion that could lead urban officials to adopt strategies that will be ineffective at best and downright damaging at worst.

The first dose of reality comes from the demographic trends seen in the 2000 census. When the numbers were first released, much was made of how many people had decided to make the move into cities. But for every three households that migrated in, five moved out - more or less the pattern of previous decades. This outward migration took place in virtually every age category, but most heavily in the critical 35 to 44 age group.

The fastest growth, particularly among middle-income whites, has taken place at the suburban periphery in "non-metropolitan" areas such as Forsyth County, Ga., Douglas County, Colo., and Loudoun County in Virginia. These patterns have led us to a remarkable demographic milestone, according to University of Michigan demographer Bill Frey: For the first time since early in the last century, more whites live in the quasi-rural countryside outside the metropolitan areas than live in the core urban areas.

The same can be said about jobs. Economic growth in the 1990s, like population, flourished not only in the suburbs, but even farther out. Job growth in these lower density regions, notes the Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, stood at 15 percent, while the more densely packed urban areas averaged less than 6 percent.

Some urban experts are well aware of how much the reporting has gone beyond the reality. John Kasarda, a longtime researcher of American migration patterns, said it's crucial to distinguish between a "positive cycle" in urban fortunes in the late 1990s and the long term trend. "For middle-income people from the 1970s to the 1980s and into the 1990s, the trend [to disperse] is unmistakable," says Kasarda, a professor who directs the Kenan Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "When someone moves into the city, the media notices because it's 'man bites dog.' But it's not telling the bigger story."

The prime reason behind this dispersal trend: many Americans prefer the suburbs to the city. A 1997 Fannie Mae housing survey found that only one in 10 Americans wants to live in a major city. The reasons are familiar: fear of crime, a desire for better schools and open space and, often, the lack of affordable housing in close-in areas.

The corporate economy is following the same path. The paucity of new urban high-rise towers is one clear indication: for the first time since the invention of skyscrapers early in the last century, a booming economy did not translate into a burgeoning of steel and glass towers in our major downtowns. Despite the economic expansion of the 1990s, only one significant city - Charlotte, N.C. - saw its skyline transformed.

City lovers find these facts hard to accept. "Smart people have to be in New York," one Manhattan developer exclaimed at a recent conference. "That's not going to change."

Yet despite the fond hopes of that New Yorker, it is increasingly clear that many professionals and entrepreneurs prefer to locate themselves outside the major metropolitan areas. The cutting edge of the economy, the technology industry, is largely suburban. Many of the country's high-tech areas - Raleigh-Durham, the 202 corridor outside Philadelphia, the Irvine area in California - are prototypically non-urban. By the end of the '90s, much of the tech expansion was taking place in even more distant locations, such as Boise, Idaho, and Sioux Falls, S.D. "In the traditional mode of development, people went to where the work was," says Kasarda. "Now the technology allows people to work where they want, and that can be in a third-ring suburb or a small town."

The events of 9-11 are likely to accelerate these trends. An analysis of poll data by demographer Frey, undertaken after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, found that 27.7 percent of big-city residents had "a great deal" of personal concern about the attacks, compared with 11 percent in the suburbs, 9 percent in small towns and 7 percent in rural areas.

The impacts of these changes are, not surprisingly, palpable in the New York area, where real estate executives report a marked jump in interest, from both residential and commercial customers, in suburban locations. Brave talk of rebuilding the Twin Towers, common in the aftershocks of the disaster, has now faded as vacancy rates rise in lower Manhattan and the realities associated with rebuilding sink in. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the largest securities firm in Manhattan, has announced that it will buy the former Texaco headquarters in Westchester County.

Large companies - the traditional "anchor" tenants of large high-rise developments - are under increased pressure from their own insurers and stockholders to disperse their operations. "No one wants to be the next Cantor Fitzgerald," the bond trading firm that lost more than 600 of its 1,000 employees when the Twin Towers collapsed, points out Matt Walton, president of E Team, a California-based firm that advises companies and governments on emergency preparedness.

Over the long term, arguably the most damaging trends for cities relate to three important demographic groups - singles, married couples without children and immigrants. They have traditionally shown an interest in city life, but in the past decade, many opted for the suburbs, according to census figures.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of married couples without children - known affectionately by urban developers as DINKs (double income, no kids) - declined 2 percent in cities, while the number living in the suburbs rose by 10 percent. Meanwhile, the number of singles - whose ranks have been swelling as the children of the baby boom generation come of age - rose by 13 percent in cities, but by twice that in the suburbs.

More ominous for cities are changes in immigrant geography. Nearly half of Hispanics, and a majority of Asians, now live in the suburbs. James Allen, a demographer at California State University, Northridge, noted: "The immigrants often don't bother with the inner city anymore. Most Iranians don't ever go to the center city and few Chinese ever touch Chinatown."

None of this, however, suggests that all of America's cities will return to the torpor that afflicted them a decade ago. But these facts call for a new realism and a renewed sense of political urgency. In cities such as Philadelphia, Houston and Los Angeles, activist administrations have been replaced by more lackluster regimes. This could prove disastrous.

Cities can't prosper on either hope or hype. They don't need to be glorious, but they do need to be vital and attractive. Will they ever regain their position as the dominant centers of American life? That seems unlikely. But they can play an important role in shaping how we live, think and work - if we stop seeing success where, for now, only promise exists.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the Milken Institute. He is author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape" (Random House, 2001).