Friday, April 19, 2013
The Rise and Fall of the Ephemeral City
Eight years ago, at the height of America's Roaring "Aughts," Joel Kotkin of Metropolis Magazine wove and eloquent essay or words deconstructing the relevance of our nation's great and not so great cities. Recently, Google managed to lead me back to this article, and revisiting the article through the glasses of 2013 says more about the smug arrogance of idealism that led us where we are than anything Kotkin could have prepared for us.
While his article waxes and wanes between insight and speculation, he's clearly schooled in an understanding urban development, at least in theory. In short, industry and Detroit will die, San Francisco will become a cultural epicenter for wealthy singles and gays, and Philadelphia and Cleveland will try and fail.
A novel idea in 2005, much has since been said about the "boutique city" model that drove the economy in cities like San Francisco for much of the early 21st century. In fact, the article brought back beer soaked memories of pseudo intellectual conversations with hipsters at Dirty Frank's shortly after my move to Philadelphia.
Kotkin alludes to the notion that the model was designed to fail, if not in the article itself, but in the fact that he dubs these cities ephemeral. Major cities cannot sustain themselves on art galleries and high end cocktails. Not solely because that audience doesn't often breed, but simply because a population can only have brunch but so many times.
Basically, there are only so many douchebags to go around.
That's not to say the model can't work. It does and has. Small towns like New Hope and Ojai, CA serve their regions as islands of upscale boutiques offering little more than culture. Smaller communities can thrive as cultural hubs devoid of any economic diversity simply because they're manageable.
Fortunately this two dimensional approach is better at creating theme parks than cities. Major cities need diversity to thrive, and diversity is what makes a city interesting. Kotkin frequently notes San Francisco in his article, and perhaps he did this knowing what it had in store. If the city isn't yet struggling with the fallout of economic homogeneity, it soon will.
I'll admit much of my real time relationship with San Francisco comes from Facebook, but the daily comments from San Franciscans are highly indicative of a city in denial. While Philadelphians are posting pictures of everything from trips to Eastern State Penitentiary to comments about daily interactions with our uniquely colorful population, San Franciscans are posting pictures of brunch and cocktails followed by lengthy rhetoric about how great San Francisco is without so much as a picture of the one thing that actually makes it so great, it's geography.
It knows its' fate, and it's not a new one. The city itself was founded on instant gratification and self indulgence, starting with the Gold Rush and culminating in the Sexual Revolution, an ideal that lingers mostly in the smug ramblings of the yuppies that killed it.
I don't want to turn this into my own smug "San Franciscans Suck" rambling, and the truth is it's not the only city that went down this path. When I first moved to Portland in 1999, the most common question any Portlander asked was, "why did you move here?" It was a valid question at the time. It was a damp, gray, depressing town with a poor job market and slow witted pale people. A few short years later Portland capitalized on the trend of the Ephemeral City, catering to poor hipsters draining their trust funds.
It was a farce, and Portland is now struggling to cope with a population of 35 year old degree hoarders with no job experience and empty trust funds.
Perhaps the worst characteristic of these ephemeral cities is the social cluelessness caused by their deliberately constructed cultural isolation. It's ironic that these cities often view themselves as cultural oases while their liberal trailblazing required outsourcing the diversity that once made these cities interesting. What's worse, ten years later, their population is so out of touch with their own causes that they labor under the delusion that the rest of the country wishes they could be so lucky.
The truth is the rest of the country doesn't take them seriously. While most Americans might treat San Francisco as the butt of a South Park joke, the larger and perhaps subconscious reason Americans laugh at San Francisco is because they visit, interact with its citizens, and realize immediately that it isn't a real city. It's 900,000 people struggling to make rent, quoting Harvey Milk, and blowing smoke up their own asses.
Although Kotkin doesn't delve too deep into an analysis of post industrial cities like Cleveland and Philadelphia, he does reference them, and not so glowingly. While we continue to struggle with many of the same issues we struggled with in 2005, I'd be curious to hear his take on Philadelphia's current state.
He wrote that Center City isn't large enough to carry the city, a fact that remains true to this day. But that's simplistic. The notable fact is that Philadelphia saw an enormous influx of middle class residents, families, and new business, and the trend has continued since 2005.
It's no doubt Philadelphia would have gladly taken the building boom cities like Chicago and Miami enjoyed in 2005, but NIMBYs and old Philadelphian cynicism played a vital role, knowingly or not, in keeping Philadelphia from getting carried away. The 2005 building boom didn't just erect a lot of skyscrapers across the country, it redefined cities.
Philadelphia continues to attract the rich, the poor, and everyone in between. Cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh weathered the collapse of manufacturing and outsourcing, and survived. More importantly, they retained their identity. Likewise, Philadelphia's philosophy remains unchanged, appreciating socioeconomic diversity, and recognizing that a city needs it to live.
Philadelphians are still Philadelphians and always will be. Cultural movements will come and go, continuing to make us a greater nation. But in the end, new to the city or born and raised, we Philadelphians live our lives by many of the same human principles laid out by our nation's first urban pioneers. Philadelphia will continue to struggle with poverty and crime, but we will never suffocate at the hands of our own arrogance.