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Friday, October 20, 2006

Does Culture Explain Urban Development?

This theory of urban development which puts a vague notion of culture at the center of the analysis is from The Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank that has William Kristol and Peggy Noonan, among others, on its Board of Trustees:

A Tale of Several Cities, by Julia Vitullo-Martin, Commentary, WSJ: ...Why does Boston prosper ... while Philadelphia languishes...? Why does much of Boston look like Hollywood's idea of a hip, fabulous place to live, while downtown Philadelphia seems to be a bleak postindustrial landscape...?

The answers are not to be found in conventional 20th-century analysis, which emphasized the ... decline of industrial jobs, the burdens of excessive taxation, the inevitability of racial tensions and the dominance of geography. After all, in traditional urban terms, Philadelphia and Boston are nearly twins, both founded by Protestant-Anglo stock in the 17th century, both blessed with prime locations, beautiful waterfronts, good vernacular housing, historic buildings, Olmsted parks, renowned museums and fine universities. And both are high-tax cities that have lost their industrial base. Yet one now thrives while the other declines.

At least part of the answer stems from their underlying cultures. In his "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia" (1979), E. Digby Baltzell argued that Boston Brahmins, with their belief in authority and leadership, embraced a sense of responsibility for civic life, while Philadelphia Gentlemen, with their inward but judgmental Quaker ways were deeply unconcerned about their city's welfare. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, they abdicated their role in government and watched indifferently as Philadelphia became, by the 1960s, the worst run city in the nation. The Brahmins ... cared about their city -- and so, subsequently, did the Irish politicians with whom they warred and the Italians who replaced the Irish.

Such cultural analysis -- long out of fashion as too soft (as as opposed to econometrics) or too racist (who is to say that one culture is better than another?) -- is due for a comeback. It starts to explain, in a way that mere fiscal analysis does not, why Miami has become the gateway to Latin America, why Los Angeles rules the Pacific Rim and why Chicago controls the Midwest. And it helps us to understand how New York City moved in 30 years from the humiliation of near bankruptcy to being the dominant city on earth.

The old answer of urban success was deterministic: taxes and geography. Cities with superb natural harbors, for example, become the natural capitals of trade... Yet as the historian Richard Wade has noted for years, against the tide of his field, this theory has its flaws: If the sheer excellence of a harbor truly determined a city's fate, then the greatest city in America would be Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

What flourishing cities often have in common, instead, are two crucial cultural characteristics: combativeness and cunning. New Yorkers, for example, fought back from their 1975 bankruptcy with every tool at their disposal, fair and unfair. ... New York armed itself with brilliant leadership, cut its bloated operating and capital budgets, cajoled ... federal loan guarantees from Congress, poured money into fixing up thousands of units of abandoned housing, fought crime and graffiti -- and emerged triumphant. ...

That same energy contributes to New York's cyclical boom-and-bust nature, regularly pushing speculation beyond the limits of an exuberant boom, thereby encouraging a bust. New Yorkers have done this for centuries while, for example, more temperate Chicagoans have not. Seemingly more stolid than New Yorkers, Chicagoans have transformed Carl Sandburg's brawling city of big shoulders into what is probably the most beautiful of postindustrial cities.

Chicagoans actually think about beauty in a way that New Yorkers do not, caring for their public gardens -- which go unvandalized though they are also unpoliced -- and embracing Mayor Daley's seemingly quixotic decision, 20 years ago, to put flowers wherever he could fit them, starting with highway barriers. (At the time, New York's parks commissioner, Gordon Davis, complained that he couldn't even get his own staff to plant flowers in front of his headquarters.) Cherishing their unparalleled lakefront -- originally a gift of businessman Montgomery Ward -- Chicagoans keep it free of invasive development...

Cunning and combativeness, however, often restore cities financially without making them many new friends ... But what makes cities successful -- or even just lovable -- can seldom be quantified. Even Baltzell, who admired the mind and achievements of Puritan Boston, said that his heart and loyalties were rooted in Quaker Philadelphia, which he criticized so harshly. As poet Phyllis McGinley wrote, perhaps in astonishment, "Some love Paris and some Purdue."

"The answers are not to be found in conventional 20th-century analysis." I think 21st-century analysis can explain more than this implies. For example, though these only scratch the surface, see Before Glaeser, "Urban Economics Was Dried Up" or The New York Paradox which "helps us to understand how New York City moved in 30 years from the humiliation of near bankruptcy to being the dominant city on earth." In any case, it will take a lot more than this to convince me that a theory of urban development that uses "cunning and combativeness" and the supremacy of particular cultures as its primary explanatory variables dominates or even augments existing theoretical explanations of urban success.

    Posted by on Friday, October 20, 2006 at 12:09 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)


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