Neighborhoods and cities always change. Concerns about gentrification come when that change happens with such speed that those new to a place don’t even realize a community predates them.
After a special performance of 100% Philadelphia, something like an on-stage census map with real-life residents, at FringeArts, I was part of a panel discussing the issues the production brought up. The performance has been organized around the world. In each case, 100 residents of that city were selected to represent the dynamics of that place — race, location, income, politics, etc. Throughout the show, the residents are given prompted questions and move about stage to help give an in-person sense of thoughts on issues, both local and human-wide.
Newton is a small town in the northwest corner of New Jersey, where preserved forests, protected open space and state-backed farm land has curtailed suburbanization to maintain the foundation of what could be a thriving community in an urban age. It has a dense Main Street corridor and the anchor institutions of a 250-year-old town, as a gateway to this beautiful rural region. It also happens to be where I grew up.
Elsewhere in Sussex County, there are lake houses and golf courses that attract vacationers and tourists (and reporters) from the New York City market — that’s where my parents and other families came from. Though I believe there are unique assets, I also think this story is one that will relate to communities throughout the country and certainly elsewhere in the U.S. Northeast.
This is a photo of a parklet outside of my office in the University City neighborhood of Philadelphia. Parklets are essentially raised platforms put in parking spots meant to offer pedestrian-friendly seating in dense city communities. They also become something of a rallying cry for anti-car urbanism, by taking something for an automobile and giving it to pedestrians.
I am a pedestrian — I bicycle to work and use mass transit whenever I don’t. What’s more is that I sit in this parklet a lot. I benefit from it plenty — it’s very pretty — and I like and use parklets throughout Philadelphia. I think the parklet movement is a cool one. That said, I also think this particular parklet’s placement is misguided.
Cities want to attract and retain young educated talent to fuel their knowledge economies, drive a tax base and create a community that can continue to grow by welcoming more new people in the future. Modern markets are insatiable and indefinitely incomplete.
Boston was built by Puritans, who celebrated civic power and class authority. Philadelphia was built by Quakers, who championed equality and deference.
Two hundred fifty years later, though considerably fewer people in those cities consider themselves a member of either group, their impact is still chiefly responsible for Boston outperforming and Philadelphia underperforming in their contributions to the greater world.
That’s the chief argument of the dense, heavily-researched, 500-page, 1979 academic classic Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, written by University of Pennsylvania sociologist E. Digby Baltzell (1915–1996). The core of the book is said to be based on some 300 interviews with Proper Philadelphians and Brahmin Bostonians, and part of a decades-long research focus that Baltzell had on his Protestant brethren — he has been sometimes credited with popularizing the “WASP” term.
This is a book that is a fabulous read for understanding Philadelphia and Boston, but it is also a treasure for those who love new perspectives on American culture, U.S. history and the development of cities.
If we are to build cities based in the so-called knowledge economy, one of the primary methods for judging its success should be very familiar: net exports.
In culture, ideas, concepts, general intellectual capital and, yes, even businesses and organizations, it may be worth questioning whether your city is mostly taking from others or mostly giving to others. Indeed, one wouldn’t only want to export knowledge — we always want to take ideas from others to get better — but a good sign of the success of a healthy region is the clustering of smart, creative people and their creating ideas, projects, businesses, ideas that are worth being shared elsewhere.
Now, the stereotype stands that the suburbs are about wealth and the cities are about poverty. The suburbs are white. The cities are black (or Latino or some other non-white group).
The reality has always been more complicated — cities have always had white populations, both rich and poor — but this is a question of our national shorthand, and I believe that in the next 20 years or so, that perception is going to change.
Simply put, in the next generation, the divide will be simply more about space: the suburbs will have space, the cities will not. Of course, it’s a simplification. I know homes in Philadelphia with big yards in the Northeast and northwest, homes with pools and driveways along the dense riverwards and deep in West Philadelphia. But that’s not the point.
The point is what the stereotype will be. And when crime, demographics and poverty aren’t the issue, what else could be?
Metropolitan boosters — men employed in the late 19th century to encourage Americans to move west to burgeoning cities — have been of interest to me lately.
I’m interested in how that concept can be brought to modern concepts or urban renewal. I came across a portion of an essay in ‘A companion to the American West,’ collected by William Francis Deverell [p. 513]:
Integral to the hinterland and ‘instant city’ models of nineteenth-century western urban history has been the figure of the urban booster. Cities in the west have been promoted, hawked and downright lied about on a scale rarely matched elsewhere in the nation. Boosters in cities on the make — Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century, San Francisco in the 1860s, Denver in the 1880s, Seattle in the 1900s, Los Angeles and Oakland in the 1920s — spared little effort in luring the investment capital, industry and residents necessary to ensure sustained economic development. Western boosters and their allies engaged in what one historian calls ‘urban imperialism,’ an endless quest for control of the markets and economic bonanzas that guaranteed real estate profits. Booster scholarship has tended to focus on the art of promotion and to see cities as products less of social construction than of capitalist fantasies. But behind boosters is the most interesting feature of western cities: urban growth as an end in itself, an economic logic fundamental to capitalism, was elevated by western boosters to the level of civic religion. In some cities, for instance, space was rarely scare but capital was. In places like Los Angeles and later Dallas and Phoenix, this led boosters to cultivate real estate markets and encourage an urban morphology that spread development horizontally across vast distances. In other cities, an opposite geography was at work, and a great deal of scare capital went into creating very expensive space. In Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, immense amounts of capital were devoted to filling tidelands and wetlands that allowed the cities to grow…