Cities: Drop Dead, Build on Your Strategic Advantages and Embrace Your Dystopia Memes

How can cities come back in this country when the messages they receive are so contradictory?  Check out below to see what I mean.
GOP: the Anti-Urban Party
I haven’t delved into politics on this blog, but an opinion piece by Kevin Baker in the New York Times compels me to comment.  His article, called “Republicans to Cities: Drop Dead”, raises the point that the GOP has become America’s anti-urban political party:
“The very word “city” went all but unheard at the Republican convention, held in the rudimentary city of Tampa, Fla. The party platform ratified there is over 31,000 words long. It includes subsections on myriad pressing topics, like “Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service for the Twenty-First Century” and “American Sovereignty in U.S. Courts,” which features a full-throated denunciation of the “unreasonable extension” of the Lacey Act of 1900 (please don’t ask). There are also passages specifying what our national policy should be all over the world — but not in one American city.
This wasn’t always so.  Republicans were quite active in cities during the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression, either as Progressive Movement reformists or as old-school political machine bosses in ways we generally associate with Democrats today:
“This wasn’t always the case. During the heyday of the urban political machines, from the Civil War to the Great Depression, Republicans used to hold their own in our nation’s great cities. Philadelphia was dominated for decades by a Republican machine. In Chicago — naturally — both parties had highly competitive, wildly corrupt machines, with a buffoonish Republican mayor, “Big Bill” Thompson, presiding over the city during the ascent of Al Capone. In the 1928 presidential election, the Republican Herbert Hoover swept to victory while carrying cities all across the country: Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Chicago; Detroit; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Houston; Dallas; Omaha and Los Angeles.”
Baker goes on to say that there is a glimmer of opportunity for Republicans to reach out to cities.  And in general, I agree.  However, that shift will likely come as the party realizes it must alter its platform to respond to a shifting demographic, not because of any altruistic endeavor.  There are numerous socially conservative African-Americans and Hispanics who would love to find the right political home for their priorities.  But as long as the GOP maintains its contempt for cities by focusing on its problems rather than solutions, and seeking to suppress urban votes rather than seek them out, that will be a long time coming.
Here’s to the future GOP: white, southern, rural/exurban, evangelical – and strictly regional on a national scale.
Cities and their Strategic Advantage
I saw that the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City held a two-day Inner City Economic Summit a couple weeks ago.  One of the outcomes of the summit was a list of seven strategies for inner city growth, summarized here:
1. Equity is an economic argument—not merely one of fairness.
2. This recession is atypical; our economy is facing systemic changes that require the alignment of economic development approaches to foster job creation.
3. Collaboration is key to affecting real change. Collaborative efforts are often most successful when a neutral, third party convenes stakeholders.
4. Community foundations often lead the charge, but anchor institutions and quasi-public agencies are other neutral conveners.
5. Cities have found unique ways to grow industrial activity; each city is different and should adapt solutions that complement its own assets and needs.
6. Whether linking community capital to city growth clusters can be scaled remains to be seen.
7. Existing sources of data about underserved small businesses are insufficient.
I like the fact that ICIC focuses on the competitive advantage of cities, because that’s what will ultimately bring investment back to them.  That, and the fact that the increasing desirability of cities among our nation’s younger and more diverse demographics will make that advantage more clear.  However, the strategies they cite strike me as not particularly innovative.  Some of the strategies raised here are similar to what I’ve heard from community development activists for years, especially here in Chicago.  ICIC may need to practice what they preach (see #3) and invite others to their table.  They should seek to develop stronger links with urban advocates along with their established ones with urban-oriented business leaders.
Ugh, Another Detroit Dystopia Story?
Aaron at the Urbanophile wrote an interesting review for a new documentary film entitled Detropia.  I haven’t seen the film, but I think I will seek it out to develop my own impressions.  Overall, Aaron seems to like the stylish visual approach that the film takes, and says the film is worthy of viewing on looks alone.  However, he brings up some weaknesses – the overly sympathetic and one-sided voice the film gives to labor, and the film’s dealing with ruin porn interlopers.  Indeed, the film’s promotional videos display a Swiss artistic couple that came to Detroit to check out the city’s decay and make their own statement, via gold-plated gas masks and expensive/ostentatious clothing, about the state of capitalism in America.  Aaron mentions that at the film festival he attended, the filmmaker mentioned that the approach of the Swiss couple “pissed me off”, but the follow-up question from the interviewer should have been, “what makes you any different?”  Simply being from suburban Detroit, as the filmmaker is, is not enough to make one miss that question.
And this ruin porn, urban dystopia meme that envelops Detroit really pisses me off.  I wrote a piece several years ago that I tried to peddle for a magazine article, with no success.  In it, I said that Detroit has become America’s whipping boy, a reminder of what could become of your city if you don’t act now.  Quoting from that article:
The image of Detroit serves as a constant reminder to cities of what not to become.  This is the real Boogeyman syndrome right here.  City leaders around the nation can always refer to Detroit as the quintessential urban dystopia, invoking images of crime and crumbling infrastructure.  By doing this they can garner support for (or more likely, against) a local project, because if this project does or doesn’t happen, you know what could happen to our fair city?  We could become like Detroit!
The image of Detroit allows the rest of the nation’s cities to avoid facing their own issues – urban and suburban.  As long as Detroit’s negative image remains prominent in people’s minds, they can forget about trying to improve what may be just as bad in their own communities.  I remember visiting Las Vegas about twelve years ago, and was astounded by the amount of homelessness I saw, away from the Strip.  No one associates homelessness with Las Vegas, but such an issue would be completely understandable to the average guy when talking about Detroit.
There’s a flip side to this that bothers me even more.  Those who purport to come to Detroit to get in on the ground floor of its renaissance all glowingly speak about how the city is a “blank slate” and the “new frontier”. 
Detroit is neither blank slate nor new frontier.
Despite its population loss, Detroit is our nation’s 18thlargest city with a population of more than 700,000.  As of 2010, the city had a gross population density of 5,144 persons per square mile.  Despite its current “emptiness”, only five cities ranked ahead of Detroit in population have a higher gross density than Detroit (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and, interestingly, San Jose).  A quick list of more-populated cities with gross densities lower than Detroit, with 2010 densities in parentheses:
Houston (3,501)                     Indianapolis (2,270)
Phoenix (2,798)                      Austin (2,653)
San Antonio (2,880)               Columbus (3,624)
San Diego (4,020)                   Ft. Worth (2,181)
Dallas (3,518)                         Charlotte (2,457)
Jacksonville (1,100)
In fact, of the 34 U.S. cities with a population over 500,000, Detroit’s gross density rank is… twelfth.  Of the 74 cities with a population over 250,000, Detroit would rank 24th.
Knowing this, let’s engage in a little thought exercise.  It has been widely reported that downsizing Detroit, closing off vacant areas and relocating citizens to more viable ones has been a serious consideration of the city.  Let’s say 25 percent of the city’s 139-square-mile area qualifies for this, and estimate that it holds only 10 percent of the city’s population – just 71,000 people, give or take a few.  That would mean the other 75 percent of the city, with 643,000 residents within 104 square miles, would have a gross density of 6,183 persons per square mile.
Clearly, Detroit is not empty.  It is a deeply troubled city that requires the innovative thinking that newcomers can bring, but it has a lot more downsizing to do to approach the “emptiness” of many other major cities.

One thought on “Cities: Drop Dead, Build on Your Strategic Advantages and Embrace Your Dystopia Memes

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