Monday, August 27, 2007

Consumer Cities

Part of the reason that I got interested in studying gentrification is its importance in shaping American (and, as I am finding out world) cities. It is a fascinating location of a whole bunch of fundamental theoretical debates. And I don't mean "theoretical" in the sense of academically removed ivory tower stuff, but real fundamental debates about the underlying social issues facing American society. Gentrification, and the debates surrounding gentrification, narrow in on fundamental questions about the role of public financing for housing, jobs, education but also issues surrounding the environment, diversity and the role of public and private institutions in the development of new political ideas.

But, there are times when I find it uncanny how well timed things are. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I was discussing Lance Freeman's book in the context of the paper that I was am writing when the next day the AYR published a review of it. But, today I found something that is probably even more directly relevant. From the Creative Class Group (Richard Florida's consultancy business), there was a link to this article in the International Herald Tribune. It is discussing the role of demand-driven location decisions in the economic development of cities and how cities can cater to those demands. There was one particular part that caught my attention, however:

The number of these "consumer immigrants" - those moving back to the city seeking a better quality of life - is relatively small compared with the hundreds of thousands of poorer economic migrants who traditionally head to the inner city.

But the "consumer immigrants" have a special significance because they are rich. They are the wealthy, educated, creative types that Bloomberg wants to engage with in his PlaNYC, his initiative to ensure that the extra million souls he predicts will arrive by 2030 do not produce an unlivable crush in Manhattan.

He is pushing for a congestion charge to cut traffic and pollution, plans an all-hybrid taxi fleet, wants to plant one million new trees, and would like to make sure that every New Yorker lives within a 10-minute walk of a park. These are all innovations that the upper-middle classes increasingly take for granted.

In his reinvention of New York as a greener city, Bloomberg may have drawn comfort from the cover story of New York magazine this week. It showed that, despite the city's grime and noise, New Yorkers are among the healthiest in the country.

Interestingly, this is precisely the conversation that I am responding to in the paper that I am currently writing (vainly, it seems — though seeing this gives me hope that the issue is important). There are several critiques that I have of this and I outline them below.

First, it is true that the number of "consumer immigrants" is vastly outnumbered by the number of "economic migrants" nation-wide. But, the thrust of this argument assumes that assumes that the "poorer economic migrants" are not simultaneously consumers or may desire nice places to live[1]. And, wouldn't the economic payoff of those vastly numerically more numerous migrants be, overall, a greater economic boom to the city if it captured that demand?

Second, the initiatives that Bloomberg is proposing are seen, in many ways, as very progressive causes. And, I would argue that they are in fact very progressive causes. The problem is that the solutions are not. They reflect, in a certain way, the return of a New York tradition: the Rockefeller Republican. The effect of congestion pricing is also going to mean that places like Home Depot, Costco, etc. are going to be able to write off the extra overhead costs, but the smaller business person who relies on delivery to Manhattan is going to face a signficant reduction of profits. I in principle I agree with the fact that we need to reduce the use of cars; however, the recent subway problems after the flood indicate that money might be better invested in the mass transit system. Same with the "greening" of the taxis: Bloomberg ain't payin' for it - he's making the taxi drivers do that.

Finally, and I think that this made me the most irate, it might be true that New Yorkers as a whole may be becoming more healthy. But, let me offer an alternative explanation beginning from the premise of this article that more rich people are moving to the city. More rich people are moving in. Rich people tend to have better health than poor people and rich neighborhoods have better health than poor communities (net of individual differences in income)[2], therefore, it may simply be that the sick people are dying or being pushed out. The implied assumption in that statement is that all New Yorkers are healthier but, in fact, it may just be that New York residents are richer - which is the very point of this article.

There are reasonable debates to be had about whether the "consumer city" is good or bad public policy and I would be interested to hear what people think about these proposals. While the environmental effects and social mixing of diverse cities are important, we also have to think about policies that are fair to the service-workers and current residents that provide the cheap labor that makes the "consumer city" possible. Furthermore, we also have to see that the demands and needs of all city residents are met and not necessarily pander to the few rich "consumer immigrants" that might move to the city.

Ah, so much here -- so I am going to go finish this paper now and let you know what I find out about these issues...

[1] On another note of language, it is interesting how this argument might be able to recast the immigration debate — or if it will be used to recast the immigration debate.
[2] A. Diez Roux, 2001. (For propriety's sake I should mention that I work on a project on which Ana is a co-PI)


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