Supercities and trustafarians

by Rob Horning

20 February 2007


A week ago Joel Kotkin wrote an article for the WSJ about fading American “supercities” (New York, San Francisco) and the B-list cities (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Charlotte) that are gaining population at their expense by providing better value (mainly via cheaper real estate) and catering to a more family-oriented middle-class lifestyle. That is, they are pseudo-urban suburbs. I lived in Las Vegas and Tucson and have been a frequent visitor to Phoenix, and I am always struck by how similar these places are: they all feature walled-in middle-class housing-development fortresses, a logical rectilinear street plan which makes finding shopping zones seem almost instinctive, chain retailers predominate, but small businesses pop up in the interstices if you are looking for them. What makes them most suburban-like is how one’s insulation from the lives of others is upheld pretty well—traveling in cars assures that. More than anything they resemble the interzones between Eastern cities—take away the climate and mountain views, add some trees, and they become indistinguishable from the suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut. Suburbs often get a bad rap, obviously, which may be unfair (but then again…)

That B-list cities would thrive seems to fly in the face of theories about the so-called creative class who flock to urban centers in pursuit of alternalife and almost incidentally happen to fuel all sorts of innovation that business can seize upon. As much as I am suspicious Richard Florida (though since when is he a leftist?) and his cheerleading for the supposed creative class, I think cities such as Phoenix are geared toward ordinary life and ordinary aspirations; they are no place for the unusually ambitious or curious. According to Andrew Beverege, a sociologist Kotkin cites, New York must find “ways to address the basic issues that affect the middle class — high housing costs, taxes, regulation, schools and lack of support for diverse small businesses, particularly in the outer boroughs. How else can New York hope to create opportunities for a population already overwhelmingly minority and predominately working class?” And that would probably be a good thing (though it will only make the outerboroughs more like suburbs and less like the city), but it has little to do with the larger premise of the article, that Manhattan has become, in the mayor’s words, “a luxury product” and this bodes ill for its future.  The city, it seems, is not necessarily threatened by the loss of a middle-class at its core. Instead it is a magnet for those unsually ambitious people who want to work on a cosmopolitian scale, who aren’t particularly motivated (at least yet) by procuring middle-class security and Wobegonian above-averageness. New York seems necessary not only to siphon off the self-aggrandizing egomaniacs (like me) to prevent them from spoiling the pace of life in B-list America, but also to put the pleasures and benefits of Middletown in proper perspective. That such big-dreaming people will live beyond their means and be surrounded by outsize examples of luxury and wealth may only help to motivate them; such accoutrements provide the backdrop necessary to sustain the whole overachieveing ideology that values global influence or essentially unspendable wealth over the refreshments of a quiet, steady life.

What drives Kotkin’s piece is instead a chance to heap scorn on “trustafarians”:

The high-price trend is further exaggerated by the large concentrations of “trustafarians,” or those with large amounts of inherited capital, in these areas. Many of these people have multiple residences — in some Manhattan buildings as many of half of the owners are non-residents — but can still drive up prices. Together with top-end business types, they can create what Mr. Gyourko describes as “the Vailization” effect: that is, turning part of the city into something akin to a high-amenity resort area, a “scarce luxury good” for a relative few and those who must remain behind to service them.

This has obvious middle-class populist appeal (the poor middle class, always under assault if you listen to American politicians) and seems to suggest that there is something galling about inheritance in general. Which calls to mind this astute remark economist Brad DeLong made on the subject:

The very first thing that any society’s wealthy try to buy with their wealth is a head start for their children. And the wealthier they are, the bigger the head start. Any society that justifies itself on a hope of equality of opportunity cannot help but be undermined by too great a degree of inequality of result.

What we see in New York’s “trustafarians” (and it would be nice to see a figure on their numbers) is a group who are so far ahead, they presumably no longer need to run the race. The waste (Bataille-style expenditure?) is evident and seems to express a kind of contempt on the hard-working burghers who carry more than their share of the economy’s productivity load. It exemplifies the income inequality, much discussed recently, that has supposedly begun to sour the mood of the average bourgeois (the article’s target audience). Presumably the dead hand of inherited capital would work to dissuade those ambitious types who give New York its specific character, and trustafarians also are assumed to drive up the costs of everything in pursuit of their meaningless and inefficient status displays. Still, the trustafarian seems like a straw man; if anything they probably serve to patronize the production of nonmainstream culture, not stifle it as this response at BoingBoing suggests. Kotkin’s article brandishes its antielitism:

This is something of an oddity, where the fashionable “left” defines successful urbanism by its ability to lure the superaffluent, the hypereducated and the avant garde — or what Dr. Florida calls “the greatest number of the most skilled people.” One wonders what true progressives like Harry Truman or Fiorella La Guardia would think of such an approach.
La Guardia or Truman understood that great cities become so, in large part, due to the strivings of the upwardly mobile middle class and families, not the elites of any stripe.

But this smacks more than a little of flat-out anti-intellectualism, stopping just short of championing mediocrity. Middle-class existence is not incompatible with intellectual pursuit; I wonder why commentators like Kotkin imply that it is.

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