10 Questions: City Life

At a time when American cities are changing so rapidly--both as centers of our society, as a launch pads for escape to suburbs and exurbs--I thought I'd consult with the man who may be the country's leading expert on urban life, Joel Kotkin, author and Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He's the subject of this week's 10 Questions. We talked about the problem with trendiness in cities, what it takes to make a well-managed city, and why sustaining the middle class is so important.
(New America Foundation)
1. Mr. Kotkin, your book, "The City: A Global History," distills the essence of why cities were created-and what they are meant to accomplish-in about 200 pages. So here's the most basic question: how do you define a city-and what is it there for?

A city is a place that is more than a village or town. It provides all the essential needs, and also tends to have a strong sense of identity and purpose. In our expanding urbanized world, more and more places -- even small towns and some suburbs -- are becoming more like cities, particularly with the internet.

2. You've long criticized the middle class leaving cities for suburbs and exurbs-and leaving only the super-rich and poor in their place. What does it take for the middle class to stay in a city-and why is it so vital that they be there?

The middle class is the ballast that holds cities together. It allows for the broadest spectrum of employment and services. Keeping it in some cities will be difficult due to high housing prices and bifurcated job markets; in other cities, it's still safety and lack of opportunity. Almost everywhere it's schools. Economy, schools, safety are the keys to retaining a strong middle class.

3. What cities are putting forward the right policies to help make the middle class stay? Are there "best practices" that other cities could learn from?

If you look at migration statistics --- using AA degree and above educated people as a surrogate for middle class ---you can see the middle class is still headed to places like Dallas, Houston, Charlotte and Phoenix. Relatively low housing costs, expanding economies, good business climate seem to be key factors. Of the big cities, Houston, where I have done a lot of work, seems to be most conscious about these things even as it absorbs many poorer people and immigrants.

4. You've also attacked the trend toward building "trendy cities" with a focus on converted loft spaces and fancy coffee houses. What's wrong with them?

There's nothing wrong with them except that cities see them as an end to themselves. In New York, SF, LA, Chicago or Boston, there is clearly a strong group that likes this lifestyle and will pay for high-end amenities (well beyond coffee shops, as you know). But in other cities, where these populations are smaller, such efforts are probably a bit limited in effect. I think great cities can have these things, but they must be more and accommodate a broader population, including people who may have lived in the center but have grown up and can not possibly afford a decent lifestyle in the more attractive cores. For example, the future of NY is as much, if not more, about Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island than Manhattan; LA needs the San Fernando Valley instead of just

the far westside. You can have both, but without middle class areas a city can not really remain a place of aspiration. It becomes what one scholar calls "productive resorts".

5. You live in Los Angeles-which, in 2005, elected its first Latino mayor in over 130 years. How is Antonio Villaraigosa doing in a city that has long seen tension between its rising Latino population, its significant African-American minority, and "white flight" toward the San Fernando Valley and away from the city center?

This tension has existed for a while. Politically African Americans have done very well historically --- post-1970 --- in LA, with influence that may well have exceeded their numbers. Latinos have been the opposite but their numbers and level of political sophistication has exploded since the late 1990s. Latinos and African Americans will compete for jobs in government and power; hopefully this transition, which inevitably favors the more numerous and economically active Latinos, will be handled judiciously.

The Valley is not losing whites as fast as before, I believe but can not be sure. Many areas are becoming attractive to middle class of all ethnicities, including in particular Persians, Armenians and Asians, but also many entertainment industry people. Strong private schools and some decent charters as well as magnets show promise. It's not like the 70s and 80s; the Valley is proving pretty resilient, much like Queens and Brooklyn in NYC.

6. In New York, where I live, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city's schools-which have chronically underperformed. Mayoral control of schools seems to be a trend, starting with Chicago under Mayor Richard Daley. Has this new way of running the education system lived up to its promise?

My understanding is that most of these takeovers have not done much. The judgment on Bloomberg and Daley is not too favorable, despite the media spin. Personally the problems are deeper seated than Mayors can deal with, or are willing to pay the political price for. First, there are the very powerful teachers unions. But more important is how do you educated large populations of poor, often non-fluent English speakers. We did it back at the turn of the century and still have some success in the suburbs, but it is hard when family discipline may be breaking down and, as teachers tell me, parents are not involved.

7. You seem pretty hostile to public employee unions in general. How have they contributed, in your view, to the problems facing urban America? And how do you think they would respond to your critique?

My problem is not with the unions per se. They have a right to fight for their members. But the problem is the countervailing forces --- small businesses, neighborhoods, taxpaying middle class --- are much weaker than they were. The unions have no real strong opposition; the big real estate interests and elite populations really are not so concerned with city services outside police and fire.

8. Traffic is a crippling problem-not just for people living in cities but especially people commuting to them. The average American now spends more time commuting than on vacation. Have some cities found a way to better connect the suburban to the urban?

I would posit something more radical. We need to break the whole commuting culture as much as possible. In my current work in NYC, for example, we are suggesting that more employment shift to the outer boroughs, through entrepreneurial development, satellite offices or work at home. Queens and Staten Island have among the longest commutes in the country. In most other cities outside NY this decentralization is taking place but not to the extent that would make sense. It will come: the next generation will not put up with an hour's commute to go from one computer to another.

9. Is homelessness solvable?

This is very difficult as long as family and church networks are weakening in cities. The support systems need to be strengthened but government alone can not solve this.

10. What is your favorite city and why?

Trick question! I have my prejudices, if you will. My family is from NY (since 1900) and I think as an urban experience it is in a class by itself. But I live in LA because it has many of the positives of NY --- diversity, great restaurants, culture, economic dynamism --- but is less hierarchical. I also think it is a much better place to live than visit. Beyond NY and LA, I think if I was a young person looking for opportunity, I would look at places like Phoenix, Charlotte, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, even Las Vegas --- this is where younger educated people and particularly 35+ families are headed.