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Urban America is often portrayed as a tale of two kinds of places, those that “have it” and those who do not. For the most part, the cities of the Midwest—with the exception of Chicago and Minneapolis—have been consigned to the second, and inferior, class. Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit or a host of smaller cities are rarely assessed, except as objects of pity whose only hope is to find a way, through new urbanist alchemy, to mimic the urban patterns of “superstar cities” like New York, San Francisco, Boston, or Portland.
With his questionably Constitutional move to protect America’s vast undocumented population, President Obama has provided at least five million immigrants, and likely many more, with new hope for the future. But at the same time, his economic policies, and those of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, may guarantee that many of these newly legalized Americans will face huge obstacles trying to move up in a society creating too few opportunities already for its own citizens, much less millions of the largely ill-educated and unskilled newcomers.
In this difficult recovery, many of the strongest local economies have been those with a high share of educated people in their workforce, particularly areas where technology companies and other knowledge-based industries are growing most rapidly.
Mayor de Blasio has his work cut out for him if he really wants to end New York’s “tale of two cities.” Gotham has become the American capital of a national and even international trend toward greater income inequality and declining social mobility.
There are things the new mayor can do to help, but the early signs aren’t promising that he will be able to reverse 30 years of the hollowing out of the city’s once vibrant middle class.
The current protests in Hong Kong for democracy reflects only part of the issues facing Chinese cities, as they grow and become ever more sophisticated. In just four decades, China has gone from 17.4 percent to 55.6 percent urban, adding nearly 600 million city residents. And this process is far from over: United Nations projections indicate that over the next 20 years, China’s urban population will increase by 250 million, even as national population growth rates slow and stall.
This is the introduction to a new report commissioned by the Greater Houston Parnership and HRG and authored by Joel Kotkin with help from Tory Gattis, Wendell Cox, and Mark Schill. Download the full report (pdf) here.
Over the past decade, we have witnessed the emergence of a new urban paradigm that both maximizes growth and provides greater upward mobility. We call this opportunity urbanism, an approach that focuses largely on providing the best policy environment for both businesses and individuals to pursue their aspirations.
Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and along the U.S.-Mexico border may seem to suggest that race has returned as the signature issue in American politics. We can see this already in the pages of mainstream media, with increased calls for reparations for African-Americans, and expanded amnesties for the undocumented.
Coverage of America’s changing urban scene tends to focus heavily on large metropolitan areas and the “megaregions” now often said to dominate the economic future. Often missed has been a slow, but inexorable, shift of migration and economic growth to smaller cities, a geography usually ignored or dismissed, with the exception of college towns, as doomed to lag behind by urban boosters.
For more than a century, Southern Californians have dreamed of their region becoming host to a great global city. At the turn of the 20th century Henry Huntington, who built much of the area’s first mass-transit system, proclaimed that “Los Angeles is destined to become the most important city in the world.”
Of course, builders of other cities – St. Louis, New Orleans, Chicago and even Cincinnati, Ohio – have made similar predictions. But L.A.’s claim, unlike the others, had a significant resonance. Not only was the region growing rapidly throughout the previous century, and now stands as North America’s second-largest population center, but it dominated a host of fields, notably entertainment and aerospace, and was highly influential in energy, fashion and manufacturing.
When our urban pundit class speaks of the future of cities, we are offered glittering images of London, New York, Singapore, or Shanghai. In reality, the future for most of the world’s megacities—places with more than 10 million people—may look more like Dhaka, Mumbai, or Kinshasa: dirty, poverty- and disease-ridden, and environmentally disastrous.
The globalization of cities and their elites often comes at the expense of many of the people who live there. Forced to compete with foreign capital and immigrant workers, native-born residents of cities from Los Angeles and London to Singapore often feel displaced, becoming strangers in what they thought was their own place.
In ways not seen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, America is becoming a nation of increasingly sharply divided classes. Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict breaks down these new divisions for the first time, focusing on the ascendency of two classes: the tech Oligarchy, based in Silicon Valley; and the Clerisy, which includes much of the nation’s policy, media, and academic elites.
The Proleterianization of the Middle Class
From early in its history, the United States rested on the notion of a large class of small proprietors and owners. “The small landholders,” Jefferson wrote to his fellow Virginian James Madison, “are the most precious part of a state.” To both Jefferson and Madison, both the widespread dispersion of property and limits on its concentration—“the possession of different degrees and kinds of property”—were necessary in a functioning republic.
If California is to change course and again become a place of opportunity, the impetus is likely to come not from the perennially shrinking Republican Party but from working-class and middle-class Democrats.
In the coming election, we will hear much, particularly from progressives, about inequality, poverty and racism. We already can see this in the pages of mainstream media, with increased calls for reparations for African-Americans, legalizing undocumented immigrants and a higher minimum wage.