Slender Times for Cities

“Who’s Your City” asks Richard Florida in his new book. Yes, it’s another Richard-Florida-bashing screed from your favorite uncreative classless git.

I’m probably more guilty of committing these sort of ‘city hunting’ atrocities - described by Florida as the most important thing a person will ever do. I’m aware, however, that this habit of mine is unhealthy and I am rather alarmed that this master of the positive reinforcement of vices is encouraging more people to take the plunge and relocate, for the dubious and self-destructive reasons he cites as what cities ‘offer’ to their residents. Richard Florida, and many neo-urbanists of his ilk, are partaking too copiously in the bourgoise fantasy of the never-ending ephemeral city of leisure.

I’ve often wondered why the theory that economic booms and entrepeneurial originality could best arise in large, busy, ‘culturally rich’ cities held any water at all. My own observations of cities told me that they were filled mostly with debt-laden alcoholic youths and overgrown Peter Pans. I’ve always hated this, since I love looking at cities, I just hate being in them, or in any sort of proximity to the type of human beings that tend to congregate in them.

Lately, though, I think I am starting to understand the role of the city in economic growth and capitalism in the post-suburban world: it’s not that cities necessarily produce innovation or spark creativity; rather, it’s that the class of individuals who engage in entrepeneurial and creative work tend to both have a choice in where they live and they make that choice based on ephemeral desires revolving around what they plan to do with their leisure time.

Which begs the question: why do entrepeneurial businessmen and creative professionals travel? If they want to recreate at the corner bar or bistro, why do they need a Mini Cooper to escape the city in every weekend, or a nearby airport for that annual or semi-annual trip to the tropics? Why do they need to vacate when their chosen homes are so fucking edgy and engaging?

I think a certain disconnect exists in everyone who achieves a certain degree of affluence, where they start equating the enjoyment of their lives with the choice they theoretically have in their leisure activity. This is well demonstrated by the mere fact that Richard Florida’s theories of creative-class flight to edgy urban agglomerations are somewhat demonstrable if you identify the ‘creative class’ a bit more narrowly than he attempts to.

People take extraordinary pains to find a city that ‘fits them’, and this is done not for industrious or philosophic, or even usually aesthetic, reasons, as much as it is simple considerations of desired leisure activity. Alas, leisure activity does not one’s life make. ‘Free time’ comprises the vast minority of the human life, and yet few other considerations are given significant weight in the choice (among those who have one) of where to live.

The average person, including the average creative professional (you might even say that this applies even more so to the creative professional, or at least any creative professional who is professional enough to be gainfully employed and good at what they do), spends the vast majority of their hours working, and most of the rest sleeping. The demise of the commuter job and fluorescent-illuminated office space has been greatly exaggerated, and in light of current economic conditions and falling productivity, even the nosebleeds of the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley are demanding on-site accountability and presence by everyone from lay workers to managers to creative staff, to a far larger extent than was predicted at the start of the decade.

Combine with this the need for a less-than-dreadful commute, and the minimal free time remaining in the average worker’s day necessitates not copious locally-accessible nightlife hotspots, but rather easily accessible grocers, drug stores and fast food outlets.

When one plans to work for a living, the mid-sized suburban city provides much better a standard of living for the average American on just about all counts: shorter commutes in less wretched traffic, uncrowded grocery stores and dirt cheap housing. And for that large majority of the human race that procreates, such places also offer safe, convenient and well-run public schools, though Richard Florida seems Hell-bent on avoiding any acknowledgement that such mini-humans exist.

Sure, large urban areas often make attempts at aiding ailing commuters with cheap, efficient public transit, but as a long-time urban dweller in one of America’s most transit-friendly cities, I can personally attest to how much less convenient, more crowded, slower and more time-consuming such a mode of transit is compared to a rural or suburban commute in a smaller city. Public transit when compared to inter-(sub)urban auto commutes is often wildly preferable, and statistics back up its superiority. But when laid against the ease of an intrasuburb commute in a small town, the urban transit system loses hands-down. Thus, most San Francisco transit users often spend far more time in their morning commute than do commuters in Schenechtady leisurely making their 5-mile way to work in their SUV.

Night life? Sure, small towns and mid-sized suburbs don’t offer alcoholics and chemical addicts quite as many easy opportunities to stumble home from a hot spot without getting a DUI, and they admittedly offer homos far fewer cruisy parks and sex clubs, but I would venture a guess that the average city dweller makes far less use of such facilities than they think they will when initially choosing their locale (or at least far, far less than they really hoped they would). The reason is simple: they probably have to work for a living. One reason many urban bars and night spots are so creepy on a weekday night without a major national headline act is that the only customers are unemployed alcoholics.

And tourists. Aha! We are now starting to uncover the ultimate reason most large, expensive, edgy cities exist at all, in this economy of 12-hour shifts and copious credit card debt: we all visit these places on vacation.

Wherefore art thou, vacation?

I like to call vacations ‘times of total leisure’. Most of us experience leisure time in short bursts: one or two hours between dinner and bed on weekday evenings, maybe one or two precious whole days on the weekend (when everyone else is off, too, making it awkward to try to enjoy our environment in its ideal form). But then we also take one or two weeks at a time every few years (depending on your benefits package) to experience total leisure. Where we get the chance to really observe our world from the outside looking in. To see how the gears turn when we aren’t busy turning them ourselves.

And what do we do with them? We go somewhere else and observe someone else’s gears.

Here we find the purpose of what Joel Kotkin called the ‘Ephemeral City’: to provide recreation for the leisured class. The big city today functions as simply another entertainment venue writ large, to be enjoyed in addition to the galleries and theatres and museums within it. It is a playground for those who are not, at the moment, working in it. Incidentally, large cities are also the natural environments of the average trust fund baby - the permanently leisured.

So cities exist for leisure. This is why small and mid-sized towns and suburbs will be here for some while longer. Americans are working more than ever. They need bland, functional, simple environments in which to be productive citizens and not go crazy in the process. City-dwellers will always be transient and young, because the only things cities offer the working American is leisure, and that very contradiction makes peoples’ heads hurt by the time they want to pay off credit cards or drop a crotch sprog. After escaping they still go back - but just to visit. Thus the ubiquitous chime from Sally Suburbanite after her trip to the Big City: “I love to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

I need to learn from her.

Is this system sustainable? Can we continue to keep our most productive people in polluting, bland, shapeless suburbs and sending them to the cities only to spend their tourist dollars, supporting a system that keeps the youth of the country well-outfitted for a few years with a variety of drugs and bugs? Can broke cities continue to rely on tourist dollars for their sustenance as businesses leave to be closer to their workers and responsible taxpayers choose a home they can afford to pay off before they retire? Can cities remain an important part of American culture when they are only experienced for a week or two per year?

Probably not. Oil prices are making suburban life more expensive and few alternatives will bring the cost of personal auto transit back in line with the past half-century. People are working longer and taking fewer and shorter vacations and big cities are finding it hard to maintain a consistent culture at the whims of peak flow schedules. What will the coming decade bring - will cities and suburbs converge in cost? Will more people settle for the cheap predictability of small towns in exchange for actually living to be 85 with their liver intact?

In other words, what is the future of choice? This is the question Richard Florida fails to address. Sure, most of us would love to have copious choices in profession, mate and shopping whilst still being able to hit the streets every night for lights, booze and fornication. The ideas of these choices and opportunities are what continue to make cities attractive to young professionals (far, far more than easy commutes or better homes, for sure). But these attractions are also something which describe today’s big city as a product of the fat years of the past decade and a half.

But now the piggy bank is empty, the cards are maxed out, the NA meetings are every night at 7 and the house is upside-down. The layoffs are coming: will you be one of them or will you just be picking up a few extra hours of work to fill in for the ones who were? The slender times have begun. How will cities fare against the suburbs now? If cities really were an efficiency, a greener solution to a worn out and wasteful suburban culture, would not they have boomed in the early 90s and the late 70s? Where will Americans ride these times out? And will we learn anything from the collective experience of the past two decades?

Hopefully, as a society, we will learn several things:

One is that people need an environment that enables their everyday life, not their leisure life. Leisure is great, but it is a product of the ability to choose to have it. No everyone has it and not everyone will.

Second, cities need to focus on the daylight residents and workers it has that pay taxes and keep every last non-service business from fleeing. Nightlife and tourists do not the healthy city treasury make.

Third, basics like groceries, drug stores, cheap housing and safe schools will attract ambitious professionals far more than sex, drugs and booze. The professionals might be older and they might stick around for more than a generation, but that should be seen as a good thing, not as a city losing it’s ‘edge’. Services like groceries and affordable housing go much father in delivering what the average person perceives as a good standard of living than does an upscale bar and cute bistro at every 30-foot interval.

Finally, transit infrastructure only really makes a difference in the perceived superiority of city life when it rivals suburban highways in both speed and comfort. Few cities are really this ambitious with their transit projects yet, and I would argue that global guilt and dear oil are not enough to make the average American ignore the smelly person they have to stand next to for an hour-long jarring bus ride, just for the privilege of city life.

Choice is a luxury. If you feel you need to choose to move, ask yourself why what you have is so bad, what you expect to be solved with exercising your choice, and why you would rather give up on where you’re at. Home can be a wonderful place, no matter where it’s at, and not everyone has a choice when it comes to the where of it all.

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