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One of the most striking things I’ve noticed during my travels across the United States is that, despite the malling, interstating, and Wal-Marting of America, regional diversity isn’t dead yet. I arrived at this notion first, and most arrestingly, during a trip through the south-central portion of the nation.
After landing at Dallas-Fort Worth, I spent roughly three weeks making a wide loop through five states. Oklahoma is cattle and oil country, but as soon as you cross the border into Arkansas, you enter Ozark mountain-man territory. Venture southwest past Little Rock and Hot Springs and suddenly you’re smack in the middle of the Mississippi Deltaa shift, one might say, from Branson to the blues.
The outposts of western Louisiana may share a state with the cosmopolitan debauchery of New Orleans, but psychologically they are worlds away. Moving west from New Orleans through southern Louisiana, you encounter pockets of French Creole and French Cajun territory (which are not the same thing) before crossing the Texas border.
Back in Texas, Dallas feels different from Houston (and, for that matter, from its “Metroplex” neighbor, Fort Worth). Each of these cities, in turn, feels very different from the border region, where residents of Laredo, Eagle Pass, and other Rio Grande cities share a bilingual, binational, and bicultural perspective.
My point is that distinctivenessgeologic, climatic, ethnic, racial, religiousremains tangible in this country. Sure, national television and chain stores have bound Americans together like never before, and yes, category-killer retailers have done their best to squeeze out quirky mom-and-pop stores. But anyone who looks beyond the fast-food joints just off the interstate will discover that life feels different depending on where in the United States you are.
This much, I think, Joel Kotkin would agree with. Kotkin, a California-based scholar, has made a cottage industry of writing geographically based techno-futurist tracts. Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy addressed how ethnic ties are becoming a key factor in driving success in the new international economy. Now, in The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape, Kotkin has shifted his focus from the world to the United States.
The tumbling NASDAQ has taken some of the shine off Kotkin’s volume, but my concerns go beyond that. To be fair, it’s not his thesis that bothers me; here’s the gist:
The growing importance of information industriesthose involved in the dissemination, processing, and creation of informationhas…[made] more and more of [America’s] economic growth dependent on nontraditional factors, most particularly the locational preferences of individual entrepreneurs and skilled personnel….These changes profoundly alter the very nature of place and its importance by deemphasizing physical factorssuch as access to raw materials and portsand placing greater emphasis on the concentration on human skills…Increasingly, companies and people now locate not where they must but where they will.
In other words, Kotkin argues, the advent of the Internet, broadband, cell phones, and cheap air travel has enabled people to work anywhere, yet still remain connected. Places without traditional industrial infrastructures can suddenly attract high-salaried information workers, as long as they have something elseocean or mountain views, pleasant weather, available loft spacethat’s desirable to the newly mobile information class. The flip side is that places that fail to adapt to the new rules will see their fortunes decline.
Kotkin’s theory sounds plausible. The problem is that the book doesn’t convince me that his theory works as a dominant organizing principle for labor, leisure, and location in America. The New Geography, which checks in at a rather slender 189 pages of text, is chock-full of references to intellectual giants such as Daniel Bell, E. Digby Baltzell, and Jane Jacobsbut the on-the-ground evidence it offers really doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
For one thing, Kotkin’s main anecdotes about digital freedom concern high-tech supercapitalists Bob Metcalfe and Stuart Leventhal. Metcalfe worked in Silicon Valley, developing ethernet technology and building 3Com, the company he founded, into a high-tech giantthus becoming a multimillionaire. Tiring of the Valley, he and his wife relocated to the pleasant town of Camden, Maine, keeping in touch with high-tech currents via Internet, FedEx, and other modern wonders. For his part, Leventhal”a venture capitalist,” Kotkin tells usleft Palo Alto, where he made money investing in high-tech ventures, for Park City, Utah, a formerly down-and-out mining town that has reinvented itself in the past two decades as a pricey playground for the rich.
So what do the experiences of Metcalfe and Leventhal have to say about the impact of the new economy on American geographical preferences? Not much. Rich people have always been able to live as they wanted. Sure, they now can stay in touch a bit better. But whether a rich businessman manages his business from Park City or merely spends a few weeks there in his vacation home doesn’t make much of a difference. For Kotkin to opine that people are now able to thrive outside traditional geographic corridors is a far cry from demonstrating that a lot of them will do so anytime soon.
Indeed, if anything, there’s widespread anecdotal evidence that people are still flocking to more traditional haunts. News reports last year were rife with accounts of Silicon Valley’s housing woes; remember those $70,000-a-year tech workers who lived in homeless shelters because they were priced out of the local housing market? Remember the tales of employees forced to make three-hour commutes, one way? Both trends strongly suggest that ordinary workers, and even the affluent, see value in locating in places where a lot of like-minded people are already well-established.
Such problems undermine Kotkin’s cute descriptions of the “new geography.” Consider “nerdistans,” Kotkin’s term for the newly built, outer-suburban communities populated mostly by highly educated and well-compensated workers. According to Kotkin, these suburbs are often characterized by conscious planning to accommodate the amenity needs of knowledge industries and their workers. This phenomenon is associated with once relatively sleepy places…[that] neither depend on the core city for employment, as many older suburbs did, [nor] seek to duplicate the traditional functions of the urban core, as is the case of featureless, ill-defined, conventional “overgrown suburbs” that have emerged as exurban business hubs….Successful nerdistans seek to eliminate…distractionscrime, traffic, commercial blightthat have commonly been endemic in cities, and increasingly in older suburban areas as well.
There’s no doubt that nerdistans exist; I’ve seen them sprouting up from Boise to Tucson. But Kotkin’s distinctions are more slippery than he suggests. For one thing, one man’s nerdistans may well be another’s “overgrown suburbs.” For another, Kotkin doesn’t prove that nerdistans are a development unique to the digital economy.
Kotkin doesn’t entertain the possibility that many nerdistan residents may be engaged in quite traditional types of labor, from education and retail sales to medicine, law, and real estate. When Kotkin bubbles about Japanese bento restaurants setting up shop next to Thai and Mexican restaurants in Camden, Maine, I think back to my trip last year to Greenville, S.C. Greenville’s economy is powered by such old-economy industries as cars, tires, photographic film, and textiles, yet its downtown also boasts a restaurant district of equal multicultural distinction to Camden’s; its clientele consists of affluent business executives for whom the word “engine” suggests moving pistons, not Internet searches.
Kotkin is equally unpersuasive about nerdistans’ prospects for lasting influence. He distinguishes nerdistans from places he labels “midopolises”the older suburbs that are now experiencing homelessness, crime, rampant drug use, poor educational attainment, and other ills that once existed only in cities. Yet he fails to explain why he expects these nerdistans, a few years hence, to fend off the same social problems that now wallop the midopolises.
Indeed, if anything, the de facto economic segregation that makes nerdistans so comfortable for their upper-middle-class residents also makes them inherently unstable. These communities need low-wage workers to function, yet low-wage workers can’t afford to live there; something eventually has to give. Either the low-wage workers will have to commute ever-longer distances to far-flung nerdistans or the nerdistans will have to start building affordable housingin which case they bring into their neighborhoods the kinds of class distinctions that hastened their denizens’ move to exurbia in the first place. This cycle of establishing new, affluent beachheads every so often has been playing out for decades; who’s to say that nerdistans represent the magic bullet that stops the cycle and makes everyone happy?
Kotkin also fails to take into account the ongoing plunge of the Internet economy. Viewed through this year’s prism, Kotkin’s optimism sounds quaint, even naive. “This trend toward virtualization,” he crows at one point, “seems virtually unstoppable.” Later, he uncritically cites Wired magazine’s assertion that the new technologies will bring “twenty-five years of prosperity, freedom and a better environment for the whole world.”
Kotkin’s book was released a month or two before the long-predicted digital dive hit. The rotten timing isn’t his faultbut the focus of the book is. It almost seems as if Kotkin juiced up the digital angle to cash in on the late-’90s techno hype. What’s ironicand unfortunateis that his high-tech focus obscures a number of thought-provoking and worthwhile chapters on how America’s older cities have been adapting to the new economy.
Kotkin lauds cities that have harnessed their cultural amenities, their diverse populations, and their funky architecture as pathways to rebirth (San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle fall into this category) while finding fault with cities (such as St. Louis and Detroit) that have acted too cautiously, or not at all, to attract new-economy investment. Kotkin sees the key to urban rebirth as the simple economics of comparative advantage. “Today the hope for central business districts…lies not in clinging to the industrial-age paradigm of high-rises or massive factories but in rediscovering their preindustrial role as centers for the arts, entertainment, face-to-face trading, and the creation of specialized artisanal goods and services.”
Kotkin puts stock in preservation of regional uniquenessa pattern I’ve seen work in such places as Nashville, Memphis, and Kansas City, which have spiffed up their varied musical-heritage sites to attract educated tourists and their dollars. As a New Orleans developer and nightclub owner explained to Kotkin, “People are getting bored with housing tracts and strip malls. They want to go someplace where they can experience something different. It’s all about texture and character. People want a sense of the past, the spontaneous, and more than anything, the different.”
Kotkin’s insights on urban America aren’t exactly new, and I’m skeptical of some of his specifics, such as the degree of his pessimism about Detroit. (Last year, I was shocked to discover how much redevelopmententertainment, retail, commercial, and even housingwas going on in Detroit’s urban core.) But Kotkin is onto something when he notes the mutually beneficial relationship between cities and the gay and straight singles who live thereeven in seemingly soulless urban areas as Houston. “Sex is what sells the city,” a real estate developer told Kotkin. “It’s where the single people are, where you go to a bar to meet them….In Houston there are few places for people to walk around and promenadedowntown is the exception.”
Kotkin is sensitive to the downsides of this trend. Whereas affluent singles do pay taxes, they typically don’t have childrenwhich means that they may be tempted to take a diminished interest in local political matters, especially the school system. And Kotkin acknowledges the tensions that can emerge when working-class neighborhoods gentrify and squeeze out longtime residentsa problem that has afflicted San Francisco and Washington, among other cities.
However, Kotkin’s most fascinating passages address an urban trend that has gotten far less attention than it deserves: recent immigration. In a chapter titled “Welcome to the Casbah,” Kotkin takes readers inside Los Angeles’ “Toytown,” a once-derelict, 15-square-block area east of downtown that has been reborn as a multicultural wholesale trading center for toys: A “combination of largely immigrant entrepreneurship and the fostering of a specialized commercial district [has] created a bustling marketplace that employs over four thousand people, boasts revenues estimated at roughly $500 million, and controls the distribution of roughly 60 percent of the $12 billion in toys sold to American retailers.”
Kotkin notes that immigrants from Middle Eastern cultures have made a special mark in Los Angeles, suggesting that their experience in souk, or market, cultures has given them a commercial leg up:
Although they own barely 7 percent of the city’s apparel factories and constitute a negligible part of their workforce, the Middle Easterners comprise most of the higher-end stars of the regional industry…They are, if anything, more dominant in the textile industry, where over 120 Iranian companiesincluding Jewish, Muslim, and Christian entrepreneursalone have helped drive the sales of L.A.’s textile industry from $300 million in 1982 to an estimated $20 billion today.
Kotkin is no unalloyed booster; he acknowledges the dark side of immigrant enterprises, including the temptation for employers to pay immigrant workers too little for too many hours in unsafe conditions. Still, in these sections of the book Kotkin deserves credit for solid reporting, as well as skillful efforts to marry the often separate disciplines of sociology, economics, and urban planning. If only his dispatches from the nerdistans were as convincing. CP