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Newsmaker Interviews

Joel Kotkin: The State of our Cities

By Bill Steigerwald


July 29, 2005

Joel Kotkin, an internationally recognized expert on the economic, social and political trends of cities, knows what makes cities grow, what makes them die, and what it takes to make them worth living in.
jpg Bill Steigerwald

In his latest book, "The City: A Global History," he shows that throughout time all successful cities have thrived only by doing three basic things -- staying sacred, staying safe, and staying busy.

An Irvine fellow with the New American Foundation, Kotkin has written five books, including "The New Geography," and is a regular commentator for The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and American Enterprise magazine. I talked to him by telephone from his home in Los Angeles:

Q: I thought cities are hellholes of poverty and crime and sin. How can you say they are "humankind's greatest creation"?

A: Because if you look at the history of almost everything man has achieved, if you take the 3,000- or 4,000-year perspective, almost everything that has been created that is ennobling -- most religious ideas, certainly scientific innovation, art, culture -- has been the product of an urban culture. When you follow the history of human evolution from the perspective of the civilization, it's largely a history of cities.

Q: Are cities around the world in decline or just changing?

A: There are several things happening. In the West, cities are evolving and the central cities are increasingly becoming these "ephemeral cities" ­ these hip, cool places of maybe cultural commerce and fashionability; places that people live in in a phase of their lives and then they grow up and they move somewhere else.

And there are places that are dependent on tourism. It's astounding how many major cities in the world, including London, rank tourism as No. 1 or No. 2 in their industry mix. Paris is another. New York is getting there. San Francisco has been there a long time.
There are other cities that are clearly ascendant as the bases of their national economies. Certainly, Shanghai has to stand out as being outstanding in that way. And then, of course, there are many cities in the developing world that are really becoming something that we've never seen before ­ cities that are getting larger and less important at the same time.

Q: Such as?

A: Lagos, Cairo, Mexico City ­ places that are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, but not really because there is so much industry. Historically, places became bigger because they were centers of empire, centers of religion or centers of commerce. You can't really say that about those cities. They're just largely feeding stations for the poor who could no longer live on the farms of the Third World. It's easier to get fed in Lagos than in some small village somewhere.

Q: What makes a city like New York so great for so long?

A: The thing that is most important about New York, of course, is its tremendous location. New York was destined, if you will, for greatness in a way that a few cities are ­ Sydney, Hong Kong ­ places that have great natural harbors. The harbor is what made New York New York.

Q: Back in the '70s, it was bankrupt, it had crime, it was a hellhole. Now it seems stronger than ever.

A: I think that what's happening is that New York and great cities in general have a regenerative character. There's something almost iconic about it that leads people to want to stay there or want to come there. If you look at the reasons why New York came back after the 1970s, there were several critical aspects:

First of all, there was immigration. New York would have depopulated the way many American cities have depopulated, except that immigrants came to New York because they felt it was a better place to be. It happened to be the place they came into and it was the place that they knew.

Second of all, the evolution of the economy towards high-end, financial services on a global basis was perfect for New York in the 1980s and 1990s. New York benefited from the deregulation of the Reagan Era. Reaganism was actually quite good for New York. I think that political change and deregulation helped New York, which is obviously a city built on market forces.

And the last, and very critical phase in the 1990s, was the rule of Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani, which was essentially an authoritarian but efficient administration that helped rein in the crime problem and imposed a kind of discipline on New York that played a critical role.

Q: How important is federal policy these days to American cities?

A: It's certainly less important, in that the urban constituency is now so weak politically that you just cannot have an urban agenda. The important thing, increasingly, is what do you do with the city itself? And what does the city government do? Unfortunately, many cities are adopting policies that are counterproductive in the long term. In a way they are trying to get a sugar high -- the whole convention center stupidity, and the luxury hotels and the performing arts centers.

Q: Are American cities in general getting better or worse?

A: I think it's a mixed bag. Certainly, most of the central cities in America are better than they were in the '70s. That was kind of a nadir. I don't think they've recovered in the glorious manner that the urban boosters put. Many of these urban recoveries have been very contained in small parts of cities. There certainly is a whole series of cities that have continued to be more irrelevant, and they are irrelevant even to their own populations. Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore are a fraction of what they were in 1950, both in terms of their population and in terms of their importance. There are other cities that have become these kind of ephemeral, fey, hip-cool places that are filled with overwhelming self-importance, but most of the society increasingly sees them as places maybe to go to a convention or a vacation, but not places that you would raise a family or build a business in. San Francisco, Boston, for example.

Q: Are America's cities and their leaders getting smarter about what they should be doing about tax and regulatory policy and things like subsidized stadiums?

A: Most of the stupidity is pretty pervasive, and they have been given encouragement by people who are telling them, "Well, what you really need to do is be hip and cool and if you attract these elites, that will turn your city around." Of course, that has given them an excuse, and a politically correct excuse, to ignore more basic problems -- like sit down with businesspeople and ask them why they left the city. Talk to companies. Talk to middle-class residents and ask them why did they stay, why they would go and what would make a difference to them. But those are issues that are difficult, and we want to do the things that are easy.



Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review.
©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.
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E-mail Bill at


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