I have a love-hate relationship with academics who study the fields in which I have worked (I’m going to count city government and politics as two fields.) I love that I work in fields with entire areas of study with ongoing debates, new theories, and provoking ideas. But I hate that sometimes those debates, theories and ideas are so far divorced from the “real world” that they become useless to practitioners. This love-hate relationship was perfectly epitomized in the book I finished this weekend.
“Triumph of the City” by Edward Glaeser is a wonderful celebration of the benefits of a city. And even better? It comes from a conservative author, one with a pedigree that you would expect of an exurbian, free-market warrior. Glaeser really loves the idea of cities. Except for one thing. He seems to think that NYC is the only city in the U.S. that’s got it right and that older, Midwest cities are lost causes.
I’m being flippant. Let me explain. Glaeser is a renowned urban-studies author with impeccable credentials. His previous publications have appeared in the New York Times and academic journals, but also in “City Journal,” the Manhattan Institute funded journal that extols the virtues of Giuliani-style mayoralties and scoffs at efforts by Midwestern cities to reinvent and rebuild. One of Glaeser’s articles in “City Journal,” “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?” begins with this gem: “Probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there.”
Let me start with what I liked about this book. First, it was a recommendation from the fine staff at Mercantile Library (go there, soon) (and to my family that is worried about my second floor collapsing from the weight of the books I have bought, it was a library book that I have now returned). Second, Glaeser is a brilliant researcher. Each chapter is full of excellent examples, history, economics, anecdotes, and just damn interesting information about cities. I give Glaeser no grief for his exhaustive effort here. In fact, to hear a conservative talk about how great cities are and can be makes me wish there were a few more Glaesers living in the suburbs of Cincinnati.
“Triumph” touches on the theories in “Green Metropolis,” which is to say that cities are indeed more sustainable environmentally than rural areas or suburbs. He also describes the many ways in which a city can foster relationships, growth, innovation, and success. I’d be lying if I didn’t say he made a good case for the city, and for that, I applaud him.
But here is my central problem with the City Journal types. Everything always goes back to New York City. Which is, indeed, a city. Just not one that provides ANY sort of useful guidepost for those of us in flyover country. New York City is 26 times the size of Cincinnati. Manhattan alone has 5 times as many people of Cincinnati, despite the fact Cincinnati is 3.5 times larger in square miles. The differences are too numerous to mention and too significant for an accurate comparison. You can’t compare housing policy in Detroit to housing policy in NYC. You can’t compare public transportation investments in NYC to public transportation investments in Columbus. Everywhere you look in this book, all paths lead back to NYC. It’s like comparing every retailer to Walmart.
Many CJ-types (Glaeser mostly avoids this trap) also seem to believe that if only Mayor Giuliani had been cloned in the early 90s, cities everywhere would be thriving. First of all, I believe they almost always overstate how bad NYC was in the 80s. (Admittedly it had problems, but to hear some describe it, it was like Akron is today. Hardly.) And they always overstate how much Giuliani had to do with the turnaround. (His policies cleaned up the city, but the economic boom of the 90s, centered on our financial markets, helped quite a bit too.)
He often takes potshots at big transit projects, such as the Detroit People Mover. True, a largely failed project, but it should not be the only prism through which we view every other Midwestern transportation project. Glaeser would certainly scoff at streetcar efforts here in Cincinnati.
(I’m also tiring of people piling on Detroit. Too many people seem content to watch it collapse entirely so it becomes a useful illustration for their own urban theories. If they spent half as much time thinking of ideas to help Detroit as they do as criticizing it, Mayor Bing might be able to get something done.)
Glaeser makes another mistake of which I tire. In his chapter, “What’s Good About Slums?” (!) he implies that cities attract poor people (and consequently slums) because cities are where opportunities are. The mistake occurs when he cites a handful of Horatio Alger-esque stories as evidence that slums are positive because they give rise to individuals who become great citizens. The exception is not the rule! I doubt he is unaware of the abject poverty, drug trafficking and educational underperformance in the “slums” in many cities, but it sure seemed like he glossed over these critical problems in his effort to characterize slums as evidence a city is triumphant.
My final point (and I’m sorry this is so damn long) is that Glaeser’s central policy suggestion seems to be that cities should try to set conditions that make them more equal with suburbs. As an example, he suggests that we spread out the cost of services for the poor to regions or the federal government so cities don’t unfairly have to shoulder the burden of the needy. He also advocates a carbon tax and congestion pricing. All are decent ideas worth exploring but ones that are totally out of the realm of possibility in today’s politics. He’s telling a guy in line at the foodbank about the new five-star restaurant downtown. Good information? Yes. Helpful? No.
I’m grateful for the academics that study cities. Overall, Glaeser’s theory is correct—cities are indeed more sustainable, better for your health, more innovative, connected, and creative. My frustration arises from the limited hands-on experience Glaeser demonstrates with real American cities out here in flyover country. Boston, New York, London, Singapore, Milan and even San Francisco are wonderful places. But they provide an incomplete roadmap for a city like Cincinnati or St. Louis. If I were to give this book to the Mayor of Cincinnati, it would provide him minimal pragmatic advice for what to put in the next State of the City address.
Let me instead end with some love. I loved reading this book because more than anything, I had a great debate with it. If you spent an hour inside my brain while I was reading this, you’d have heard a hell of a conversation. Thanks for reading.