Urban Mythology and Its Fundies
The latest silver-bullet fix-all in urban planning has snuck up on us as quietly and unassumingly as each which preceded it. It's understandable that our fragile psyches require these fix-alls to properly inform our motivation for a better life. For most of us, the lack of any possibility for quick and simple permanent solutions in life would cause us to throw up our hands and give up too easily. Being assured that the real, final solution is only a simple, obvious bit of common sense somehow assures us that there is no reason to despair.
In the post-war years, American cities underwent a substantial decentralizing. It had already been underway before the war, but the power and prosperity inspired by 15 years of aggressive bureaucratic expansion, and the renewed vastness of family sizes inspired by 5 years of under-sexed war waging led to the suburbanization of the middle classes. The heavy subsidizing of the automobile industry (mostly by way of its highway infrastructure) exacerbated this immensely in the 1950s and 1960s (and continues today).
What this led to was the end of the urban middle class. It has not really existed for 50 years now, except in very tiny, exceptional communities in a handful of large American cities. Initially, the cities lost their middle class to the cheap, heavily subsidized lifestyles promised by suburbia. Large, efficient, quiet, self-sufficient homes pulled residents away from cities in droves. Those who remained did so because they had little choice (the urban poor) or because their exceptional status or wealth shielded them from the inconveniences of urban life (and in many cases, the wealthy maintained their rural retreats already, anyway).
Urbanists and sociologists have since spent the past 50 years mourning this loss. In many ways, the continued absence of an urban middle class in most of America's largest cities is a rather sad story. It speaks on one hand of poor city management, of dangerous city ghettos and social inequities which cause a whole catalogue of social ills. Racial inequality, lack of social mobility, improper focus on city resources and poor urban planning have led to cities which the middle class simply do not want to live in when they have a choice. The average "middle-class" urban neighborhood is neither as safe, as clean, as affordable or as accessible (and often not even as fun) as the average suburban working-class town or neighborhood. Social and urban planners have thus focused much of their energies, year after year, on resolving these issues and inequities to either improve poor urban neighborhoods (in essence, creating middle classes from scratch) or to create the conditions which cities that continue to hold diverse urban populations seem to possess.
But the end of the urban middle class also points to another set of failures on the parts of civic leaders, national politicians and cultural figureheads. These involve the ignorance of the real diversity of Americans, in their desires, abilities, social standing and economic choice. In the 60s, the solution for urban blight was the installation of downtown pedestrian malls meant to attract the patrons now rushing to suburban shopping centres. In the 70s, the public funds pouring into "redevelopment" resulted in colossal convention centres and sports complexes, whose insidious legacies of pork barrel politics survive to this day. By the 1980s, planners were endeavoring to create a circus type atmosphere in downtowns, with "festival marketplaces" and even more government installations, to encourage the middle class to visit downtown for reasons other than work.
It wasn't really until the 90s, with a booming economy led by increased international trade and service-led job growth, that the planners began to focus on downtown living. New Urbanism enveloped the nation, replacing both long-blighted downtowns as well as spreading out over numerous suburban regions, creating demi-urban villages which mimicked the diverse pedestrian neighborhoods of pre-war cities. The mimicry wasn't really fooling many, however. Though it attracted the young urban capitalists for which it was built, it failed to convince the expansive suburban working class. It also failed to really mirror the traits which had made city life what it was in that increasingly vague and distant past to which urbanists continued to focus their covetous planning.
New Urbanism often exacerbated its pedestrian and high-density credentials through the use of "transit villages", which focused residential and retail development into compact areas adjacent to newly-built mass-transit corridors, such as Washington's Metro, Los Angeles' MetroLink, San Francisco's BART, and other similar regional transit projects. However, the majority of the housing manufactured in these areas were enormous projects carried out by a single developer, which made them more reminiscent of the cataclysmic redevelopment of the 60s and 70s than the gradual building of density, diversity and popularity of the urban neighborhoods they poorly emulated (often cited as Greenwich Village in New York, North Beach in San Francisco, and their few surviving cousins scattered throughout the country). These projects were meant to serve the residential needs of relatively wealthy individuals first and foremost, offering high-end living space in a trendy area, with adjacent retail (of dubious utility to the nearby residents). The retail which located in these villages tended to be boutique clothing and "lifestyle" shops which provided luxury goods to both local residents and wealthy consumers in the larger surrounding metropolitan area. Ample parking meant that the street level of a New Urbanist village was essentially a mall for suburban motorists, with the added long-term investment potential (for the developer and perhaps the city, and occasionally the resident as well) of dwellings and sometimes (though not often) offices.
Finally, the fact that few essential living services or places of work were housed in these new villages failed to make them successfully portray the "teeming urban environment of olde" (at least in the by-now-totally-warped sense of historical interpretation used by most social planners). Despite their status as transit villages, residents were more likely to commute by car to jobs in the office parks in adjacent suburbs, often rather far away from their homes. Their cars were needed to visit the massive "big-box" retail from which the majority of their groceries and consumer goods had to be acquired (few residents could feasibly sustain themselves at the Gap, Pasta Pomodoro and the Bose store, which were the more common tenants in the retail space below their dwellings).
Thus, with New Urbanism, the dream of increased urban efficiency was lost, the idea of diversity squashed, and the lure of the suburbs exacerbated. The working class and middle class continued to see urban life as a hassle or an expensive hobby of youth. The Urban poor continued to flee the inner city as soon as they were able to, rather than waste resources improving their own neighborhood, which in such cases as it happened only became increasingly threatened with New Urban gentrification. The half-century decline of city life had not been stopped. Sociologists had not been vindicated.
The past few years have brought about a new catch-phrase for civic leaders who continue to struggle with this dubious task: The Creative Class. In its simplest terms, and not in those of the catch-phrase's creator, the theory of the Creative Class is as follows: rather than focusing on populating a neighborhood with diversity of classes, occupations, buildings and land uses, cities should focus on narrowing their focus of diversity to different types of wealthy socialites. Though specific neighborhoods in large American cities are referenced as case studies in the rise of the Creative Class, the concept is riddled with contradictions and over-generalizations.
The theory of the Creative Class, as its name suggests, focuses on injecting a single class type into a city in order to improve its value and social prospects. Rarely has a theory such as this passed moral muster without being branded elitist. But this is exactly the type of accusation this essay is meant to paint, not only of this newest innovation on the road to Urban Utopia, but of all that preceded it. The Creative Class is composed of computer geeks who drink copious amounts of alcohol and somehow have tons of time to socialize while the vital networks they are supposed to manage supposedly run themselves. The Creative Class is composed of artists, actors, ad copywriters, graphic designers and product engineers, essentially focusing on creations of a class which does not produce manufactured products, but manufactured lifestyles. Almost as an afterthought, the Creative Class is composed of the select few businessmen, financiers, bureaucrats and shop owners who somehow manage to secure free time to party and imbibe despite the tenuous state of the economic forces at work on the underside of the urban business world. In other words, the Creative Class is the socially cushioned Upper Class.
The Creative Class is described as a class of individuals who like to party, who spend lots of money on their social life, who shop style over substance, and who apparently never age or have kids. Their importance for city managers is in creating a teeming street life which increases property values, focuses retail on an increased luxury component, eliminates the blight of poorly maintained buildings and infrastructure, and curbs the presence of the urban poor. The parts of American cities dominated by the Creative Class are eerily similar to the actual (if not the intended) inhabitants of New Urbanism's creations. But with the new nomenclature, we can easily see why they look, act and smell the same as the inhabitants of high-end monocultured urban neighborhoods. From San Francisco's Castro District to Los Angeles' Hollywood, from the faux-urban environs of the booming DC metro to the entirety of the city of San Diego: the Creative Class is the class which is creating a new type of city.
The city which the Creative Class has Creatively Created is a city where class is what counts (say that five times fast...). America, perhaps, has come full-circle with the European aristocracies from which it revolted 250 years ago. After all, the Creative Class, for all their wealth and free time, cannot possibly be the struggling working class, the busy entrepreneur or the red-eyed mother of four. They are the leisured class, focused on their recreational capabilities, focusing on style, capable of affording both without the inconvenience of the long climb up the social or corporate ladder which once existed for all Americans.
It's true that the rich roads of central London, the avenues of imperial Paris and the bazaars in the hills of Rome were very intriguing and fascinating places 500 years ago. That is, if you were a wealthy member of the local community or a visiting dignitary. You enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world. Forget the boring additions of running water, electricity, antibiotics and democracy. This ancient world is the one our civic leaders are now focusing their immense (overwhelmingly suburbanite-funded) resources upon: creating "lifestyle villages" which attract the wealthy partiers.
Stratification, segregation, division, exclusion. The new America is a place where elderly religious bigots run the government and wealthy waifish faggots run the urban museums. They play the opposition game on the nightly news, but the results of their philosophies on the lives of every other American is the same: your choices and social mobility are not their concern, their retention of power and position are the goal. The middle class and working class do not have much interest in cohabiting with the Creative Class. Not only have the economics become prohibitive with the asset price inflation attacking their trendy villages, but the atmosphere created by their divisive classism and ruinous redevelopment of American cities has cleansed everything interesting, original or livable which may have once held promise for repopulating those cities with the diverse and productive population which made them great not so long ago. And their self-righteous attacks on the alternatives which the Suburban Class has chosen instead ensure that never the twain shall meet.
Americans who work hard to improve their lives wish to enjoy the best standard of living possible for their means. This is currently offered to the middle class almost exclusively in the suburban sprawls of large and mid-sized cities. The "blame" for this lies with the same paternalists who are now trash-talking the "McMansion" and holding fast to the BANANA principle: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. The social paternalists who dominate modern urban affairs prevent just enough of both density and sprawl to keep urban asset prices fixed just above the living ability of the average middle class American to afford. Then they turn around and slam into our face the statistics of all we're missing and all we're doing wrong by fleeing to the suburbs where things make more sense. Limited financial and occupational choices mean that prudent economic sense prohibits mortgaging one's future or standard of living for the sake of an idealized cultural atmosphere propagandized as the morally proper way to live, whilst those who choose such a life in most cases have little understanding of the economic and social climbing required to achieve the much higher standard of living (if measured in terms of health, life expectancy and personal productivity, as well as decreased incidence of drug use, disease, and exposure to violent crime) which is offered by the suburbs of America today.
50 years ago the bureaucrats made the decision to incent Americans to migrate to the suburbs. Americans have since made the suburbs their own, have thrived and have built neighborhoods which are well-fit for the lives they love. By pushing the reoccupation of a caricature of the city of olde, are America's bureaucrats and social engineers admitting they made a mistake to push us out to the corn fields? And if so, why are their policies preventing the mass return to the city? Are they merely being cultural elitists? Do they just continue to see their city, despite its inaccessability and broken promises, as something we mere mortals simply cannot properly appreciate? Do they really appreciate it objectively and all the way down? Or are they also fooling themselves, in a haze of booze and debt, into believing that they have nothing better to ask for? Could it be worse - could it be that they did not think that the middle class and working class would build stable, thriving suburban neighborhoods which were functional, enjoyable and eventually offered more than urban neighborhoods ever hoped, and they resent that? Whichever is the answer, the result is the same.
Perhaps it's time for social engineers to stop telling us what's wrong with our cities, our towns and our neighborhoods, be they Teeming Olde Urbania, New Urban Villiages, or McMansionated Suburbia. Perhaps it's time for us to take responsibility for the functionality and permanence of the places we call home. Perhaps we need to stop treating our cities the way we treat our McMansions: rather than expecting a slash and burn investment opportunity, we must invest something of ourselves into them, make them our own, make them work, and keep working on them. Work on what is accessable to us, on what we can control, and stop looking to civic and social "leaders" to solve the problems that need not be problems after all. Cities were meant to be places where all men could work, live and play. Focusing on one type of man or only one type of function is what has destroyed our cities. Focusing on bringing them all back together, in our own, personal, achievable way, will save it. It's not simple. It's not quick. It takes a lifetime to do right.