Remember the middle class? Politicians certainly do. They just don't want to live near them, suggests Joel Kotkin:

Ultimately, in good times or bad, cities have to want a middle class to have one. And politicians, if asked, will genuflect to the idea of maintaining a middle class, yet their actions on taxes, regulations, schools, development suggest otherwise.

Indeed, in reality most urban areas have focused on creating what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously dubbed the "luxury city." To pay for often inflated public employee costs, the luxury city can only survive off the wealthy and on other groups empty nesters, singles and students who demand relatively little in the way of basic services like schools and public health facilities.

City planners and urban developers favor the unattached: the "young and restless," the "creative class," and the so-called "yuspie" the young urban single professional. Champions of the unattached suggest that companies and cities should capture this segment, described by one as "the dream demographic," if they wish to inhabit the top tiers of the economic food chain.

Sounds like a short-term plan at best. And it can't ever be more than that:

The University of Chicago's Terry Nichols Clark, one of the most articulate advocates for this new urban pattern, says cities should focus on acting not so much as vehicles for class mobility, but as "entertainment machines" for the privileged. For these elite residents, the lures are not economic opportunity, but rather "bicycle paths, beaches and softball fields," and "up-to-the-date consumption opportunities in the hip restaurants, bars, shops, and boutiques abundant in restructured urban neighborhoods."

In this formulation cities become the domicile primarily of the young, the rich (and their servants), as well as those members of the underclass who persist in hanging around. What emerges, in the end, is a city largely without children, particularly of school-age, and with a diminishing middle class. Ironically, these are places that, despite celebrating diversity, actually could end up as hip, dense versions of the most constipated suburb imaginable.

My daughter, who lives in the Kansas City metro, might describe this process as "Lenexafication."

Weirdly, I'm expected to delight in this transformation into Fun City:

Another key group coveted by cities are the legions of baby boomers who have already raised children. No longer cohabiting with offspring, they are expected to give up their dull family existence and rediscover the allure of a fast-paced, defiantly "youthful" lifestyle. The new retirees, suggests luxury homebuilder Robert Toll, "are more hip-hop and happening than our parents." They are more interested in indulging "the sophistication and joy and music that comes with city dwelling, and doesn't come with sitting in the 'burbs watching the day go by."

Right. Which is why I live three blocks from a grade school, being so hip-hop and happening and what all.

A month or so ago, Trini and I were looking at downtown residences, purely as a function of architecture of course, and she observed that with one of the multi-use facilities under construction, with retail on the ground floor and residences above, "you could live here and never have to leave the building." Coming from someone who is demographically, anyway "young and restless," this is a kick in the nuts to the Urban Playground crowd.

To some extent, Oklahoma City is immune to this sort of thing: at 600-odd square miles, it will never be devoid of places that look suburban, and its public employees don't account for an overwhelming proportion of local spending. (There are 4,450 of them, about one for every 125 residents; Bloombergland has over 300,000 municipal employees, one for every 27, though New York provides some services that Oklahoma City does not: OKC public schools, for instance, are independent of the city government.) Still, even here catering to bored singles is considered essential these days, especially if we're to keep up with the likes of Austin. And to the extent it halts the ongoing brain drain, I can't really complain about it; we might even get some designers and artists out of the deal.

And here's the punchline: neighborhoods change demographics all the time, without the city or the county or any group of planners doing much of anything at all. In the five and a half years I've been at Surlywood, the surrounding area has trended decidedly younger; we're even getting families with young children. There are several possible explanations for this: the overall retro look of the neighborhood (people do notice things like that), the presence of one of the better schools in the urban district, the handy location. (Very few things I need to bother with in this town, other than work, are more than five miles away, and my commute is only 18 minutes.) If we somehow get some yuspies down the block, that's fine too.

The Vent

  1 June 2009

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 Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill