Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Urban liberalism fails

Thanks to reader Daniel for pointing out this article by Joel Kotkin in The American Enterprise. Kotkin was author of The Rise of the Ephemeral City, an excellent article about the troubles cities invite by invoking Creative Cities liberal-welfare economic policy. Ideological Hurricane is another cautionary tale for municipalities engaging in central planning economic interventions for the sake of fashion.

The truth is that, rather than improving conditions for average residents of their cities, many urban politicians and interest groups have promoted policies that actually exacerbated a metastasizing underclass. Urban liberals tend to blame a shrivelling of Great Society programs for problems in cities. Observers such as former Houston mayor Bob Lanier have suggested, however, that the Great Society impulse itself is what most damaged many cities—by stressing welfare payments and income redistribution, ethnic grievance, and lax policies on issues like crime and homelessness, instead of the creation of a stronger economy.

This modern liberalism veered far from the traditional progressive visions of politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia. Those leaders believed in the basics: building up the economic infrastructure that government has long been responsible for (like ports and transportation), efficient and honest provision of services like education and policing, and mainstream, even conservative, social policies. Today, only a handful of mayors like Chicago’s Richard Daley, Jr., Charleston’s Joseph Riley, and Houston’s Bill White still stick to this “back to basics” focus. Most other urban leaders have turned to more ephemeral issues, less mainstream values, and economic policies that largely surrender to public worker unions, spiced with an emphasis on cultivating arts, entertainment and pro sports, tourism, and show-projects.

Certainly New Orleans was following a very conventional program of urban liberalism. Local leaders had become convinced that becoming a “port of cool” was the ticket to success. Never mind the grubby fiscal and regulatory basics of encouraging business activity. Instead, city and state leaders adopted Richard Florida’s trendy “creative class” theory, and held a conference just a month before Katrina promoting the idea that a cultural strategy of fostering edgy arts and boutique entertainment districts was a promising way to bring in high-end industry. Over the previous decade, city leaders had already transformed the once-bustling warehouse district into a tourist zone. Before the hurricane hit, state and city officials were looking to expand the now-infamous convention center at a price tag of some $450 million.

Amidst the focus on les bons temps, high-paying core industries like the port and energy production were left to decamp to places like the less lovely but far more business-friendly and efficient city of Houston. This is a tragic story which played out in similar ways in many city halls.

The result of these unfortunate political decisions was to leave many urban cores with nothing but some often largely vacant office towers, Potemkin tourist districts, lousy public schools, ineffective police departments, and blocks of decrepit neighborhoods where residents are more dependent on government checks or jobs, or criminal activity, than on paid employment. The results of this decoupling of cities from the global economy has been all too evident. Wealthy elites who own or patronize restaurants, high-end hotels, loft developments, and cultural institutions have done fine. Younger, single, and gay residents of cities have enjoyed themselves. But for working- and middle-class families with children, cities have become hostile environments.
Read the whole thing


Pietr said...

Where have I seen all that before?
In London in the 80s, was the remains of the Port of London;literally a short walk from the city was big sky, wide oceans and the world.
Now it is a housing estate.
What they did made the old men choke.
They build a 'red brick road' at one pound a brick(which was redeveloped two years later);they moved all the printing presses there(following the successful outcome of the News International strike), and the Telegraph went bankrupt.
At the time I pointed out something obvious.
Pressroll arrived by ship on the south bank at Chamber's Wharf;three hundred yards away, next to a dock, was the press.
On the north side.
They didn't bring ships into the dock.No.
They drove the pressroll on trucks, twenty miles through the Dartford Tunnel.
The docks were turned into a maritime museum and a marina.
That makes at least two of those in the 'docklands'.Like they needed another.

MapMaster said...

The stylish utopia-building egomania of municipal councillors is well-summed up by Coun. Fred Tranquilli's rebuttal of complaints that there's not enough money in budgets for road repairs after the pyramids have been built: "There's no sense having good roads if you have nowhere to go."