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The Ephemeral City

Officials are betting the future on culture and tourism. But whatever happened to staying power?

June 27, 2004|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University. He is the author of "The City: A Global History," to be published by Modern Library.

The much-ballyhooed urban revival, at least in advanced countries, is actually a subtle shift in the role of cities. For most of history, they represented what is permanent and solid -- the sacred place, the citadel of power, the center of commerce. Today, they are increasingly a place of transient values, where people sojourn for a time of their life, or part time, but where they don't grow up or spend much of their lives. The fashionable and faddish, not the enduring and faithful, are king. Most key decisions are made somewhere else.

Welcome to the ephemeral city.

Central to the ephemeral city are cultural industries and tourism. Many urban planners and business leaders look to them as keys to survival. No longer do they labor to retain middle-class families and factory jobs or worry excessively about economic competition with suburbs and exurbs. Instead, they nurture their cities' fashionableness, "hipness" and style.

Montreal, for example, once a financial and business-service capital, seems intent on wiping out much of its remaining industrial base -- its still vibrant garment sector, in particular -- in favor of a strategy centered on marketing the city as a "hip and happening" place. In San Francisco, Miami and New York, culture-based tourism is among the largest and most promising industries. And Las Vegas and Orlando manufacture "experiences," complete with eye-catching architecture and round-the-clock live entertainment.

Many European cities -- most notably Paris, Vienna and Berlin -- also have embraced the culture-based economy. Having largely failed to meet its aspirations to become a global business center again, Berlin celebrates its highly subsidized bohemian community as its primary economic asset. The city's relevance is increasingly defined by its edgy galleries, unique shops, lively street life and growing tourist trade -- not by its export of goods or services.

Even in such unlikely places as the old Lancashire industrial hub of Manchester, England, and Detroit, the largely desolate auto capital, political and business leaders hope that by creating "cool cities" to attract gays, bohemians and young "creatives" they might solve their profound economic and social problems. In Manchester, the accouterments of this kind of growth -- loft developments, good restaurants, clubs, museums and a sizable, visible gay and singles population -- have revived the town center but have done little to create anything approaching a broad-based economic rebound.

One particularly absurd case of this phenomenon is Philadelphia, a city that has lost half a million people since 1950 (Phoenix recently overtook it as the nation's fifth-largest city). Faced with the reality of a mediocre economy at best, and a city government known for its corruption and ineptitude, Philadelphia's boosters focus on how to make their city cooler and more attractive to singles. One of the city's most prestigious economic development organizations launched a campaign to persuade residents to rig a Forbes magazine e-mail survey so that the City of Brotherly Love could be named "best city for singles" in the country.

The ephemeral-city strategy ignores some disturbing realities. Many of the young people lured to "cool" urban places, says demographer Bill Frey, often depart when they start families and businesses. Increasingly, he adds, even upwardly mobile immigrants, critical contributors to the urban resurgence in the United States, and nontraditional families -- such as couples without children -- when they hit their mid-30s, are moving to the suburbs.

Urban centers in Europe and Japan face a more extreme demographic crisis. Low national birthrates are reducing the ranks of young people, the group most attracted to large cities, while choking off the traditional pool of migrants from the countryside. All that is left behind, increasingly, are singles, students, the older affluents and, in Europe at least, an often alienated, growing population of immigrants from developing countries.

Although it is hard to see how this population mix could be the foundation for a full-scale urban revival, some cities, or parts of cities, may survive -- even thrive -- on such an ephemeral basis. For one thing, culture-based strategies tend to be popular with the media.

In the 1990s, the brief but widely acclaimed rise of urban technology districts -- New York's "Silicon Alley" and San Francisco's "Multimedia Gulch" are two examples -- linked hipness and urban edginess to high-wage Information Age growth. When the Internet and software industries contracted, matured and then moved to the suburbs or lower-cost locales, all that remained was hipness and edginess. But the fundamental elements of late-1990s demography remain strong enough to transform these urban spaces into high-end residential resorts, if not economic powerhouses.

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