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A Post about Cities

San Francisco, and much of the Bay Area, defies logic with an increasingly costly housing market in the midst of what is still a regionally lackluster economy. What the housing prices suggest is that this is an area where people want to live, and are willing to pay hefty fees for that privilege.

In an essay in today’s SF Chronicle, Joel Kotkin labels San Francisco an “ephemeral city,” and the article’s subhead sums it up: “San Francisco has lost its middle class, become a ‘theme park for restaurants,’ and is the playground of the nomadic rich and restless leeches living off them.”

This move toward ephemerality is happening all over the globe, wherever cities are becoming too expensive for the median to live. London, Boston, Washington, D.C., Manhattan, and ever greater swaths of Los Angeles are able to truly support one of two types:
1. moderately wealthy couples
2. 20-something types with jobs who don’t mind living 3 or 4 to a flat

Such evolution is kind of depressing, since cities thrive on variety. Narrow demographics lead to stagnation.

The thing is, it’s not clear what could be done in San Francisco. It’s geography limits its residents and residences. And now that the world has gotten small due to air travel and telecommunications, the act of moving is not much of a limiting factor. And so those who can afford to, choose exactly where they want to live. And so the desirable cities end up filled with the wealthier-than-average. Who then end up pushing out those earning average, and turning cities into theme parks for the well off.

Kotkin has written other pieces dealing with these themes:

The Rise of the Ephemeral City
In this he talks about the foolishness of cities such as Cleveland and Philadelphia to become “cool” cities in an effort to combat downward trends.

Kotkin expresses displeasure with ephemeral cities for losing their core, their heart, for no longer being creative centers.

When talking about cities that work, Kotkin cites Phoenix. Yes, Phoenix is increasingly popular. Yes, you can afford housing there. But the reason is that Phoenix, well, isn’t really a city. It’s a suburb of itself. It’s “affordable” because it can expand for miles, and so land is relatively cheap. Comparing Phoenix to San Francisco is comparing apples to oranges.

I also take issue with the larger economic and environmental cost of Phoenix (or Las Vegas, or similarly rapidly growing cities). They’re a huge drain, requiring massive amounts of external resources, particularly water. And they are automobile-centric.

I’m having trouble getting a read on Kotkin, and I can’t find criticism (positive or negative) of him. His politics make me uneasy, as does his attribution of religion as a laudable guiding force for our cities. And the idea that he cites Singapore as the city that most exemplifies his criteria for greatness suggests a comfortablity with authoritarianism.

  1. I agree with the pricing issues. In the Washington, DC area it is difficult to get good people to work inside the beltway as the commutes are long for many. The good young developers are mostly out on the edges and some of the work is on the edges of the city. The commutes in these highly priced cities are also horrendous as the transportation systems have not developed at the same rates as the outward growth.

    It is tough considering moving from one of these cities to another. I seem to be only looking at San Franscisco (the Bay Area as a whole), New York, and Boston as logical next steps for work (listed in order of work preference). These area have intellectual and development communities formed around things that are of interest for me. While the internet closes distances that were just long before, it is still better to be in a face-to-face community. Innovation happens more quickly face-to-face.

    The cost of living in one of these explosive cost cities has its serious downsides in the reduction of quality of life for those with out the income to live moderately. The service communities suffer as the wages needed to keep good staff rise beyond what is recoverable with price increases. The only benefit is those left not in the higher income brackets are those passionate about the community that is there.

    This passion for the intellectual and development community is what attracts me to each of these high cost cities. Finding a community that is in line with my passions and interests is very important for me personally. This is why I have a strong interest in moving to an even higher cost city. The high cost area I live in does has an industry that does not align well with my desires and interests. It is a great place to raise a family, but it is a giant void as far as work that can take advantage of my passion for the work.

  2. Remember when you visited me in Iowa and we discussed housing differences? There is a four bedroom house across the road from me – very, very nice house with an asking price of $75k. I think it could be had for $65k. Maybe you should buy a vacation home here. HA!

  3. Sure, Phoenix is cheap (well, cheaper than most other cities). But it’s Phoenix.

    You can go enjoy the 100 degree mornings during the summer.

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