« Obama's Plan | Main | The Power of Obama »

September 25, 2007

Types of Cities

Sounds like Portland is a rather nice place to live -- a fact backed up by everybody I know who has ever lived there, despite what Cato says. This has actually puzzled me since I went to Seattle and noticed all the awesome coffee shops and bookstores and generally nice features. Why can't DC have all that. There are, after all, lots of young, computer savvy white people in Mt. Pleasant, but nary a coffee shop to serve them. It's barbaric!

But it actually makes sense: Cities like Portland and Seattle are trying to create a livable city to retain and attract a certain type of resident. Namely, educated, young, white people. Portland's 78% white, Seattle's a bit under 70%. So you structure the city thus that there's lots of educated white people bait, including cafes, bookstores, wireless internet spots, bike trails, etc.

DC, by contrast, has a lot of white people working in it, but is actually only 39% white, and has a city government that does not derive primary political support from transient white voters. So the character of the city actually does more to represent its inhabitants. Which seems rational. Moreover, the white people there basically have to be there. You don't move to DC because it's awesome, you move because it's where your work is. So there's little need to construct an affirmative agenda to attract residents.

Read the comments: As they make a fairly good case that this post is wildly off-base.

See update. Sometimes things come out wrong.

September 25, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Sorry, I don't see any of the "bait" you discuss as being attractive specifically to *white* people.

I see it being attractive to a yuppie (for want of a better word) of any race/ethnicity/origin. And guess what, a majority of such folks in this country *happens to be white*.

A really off-tone (heh) post by you, Ezra.

Posted by: RNA | Sep 25, 2007 1:47:56 AM

WTF? Is this post as clueless (if not racist) as it seems to be? Is this a late night parody post?

I don't even get the "move to dc because that's where the work is" -- WTF? There are no yuppies in DC? Everyone in DC is a martyr? Doing it for the country?

Has your site been cracked?

Posted by: feh | Sep 25, 2007 2:21:24 AM

This is an extraordinarily peculiar post. Do you think the DC government is actively discouraging the opening of coffee shops in Mt Pleasant? Do you think the government of Portland is actively encouraging the opening of coffee shops?


Posted by: Bloix | Sep 25, 2007 2:22:45 AM

Those folks do happen to be white. And what a coincidence! I'm sure the plan was simply to attract affluent residents, but dang it if they didn't end up creating overwhelmingly white cities in the process.

Posted by: Mike B. | Sep 25, 2007 2:22:50 AM

PS- easterners often think that Portland and Seattle are similar cities. But aside from being in the Northwest, they are not remotely comparable. Seattle is an international metropolis, a major port, a manufacturing center, a hi-tech city, home of a major university, a world-wide tourist attraction, and the corporate, financial, and legal center for a large and growing section of the country from Idaho to Alaska. It's also one of the most beautifully sited cities in the world. Portland is a much more modest town, fronting on a river of no particular charm, the banking and commercial center of a region that is engaged primarily in a single extractive industry (timber) and in agriculture. Portland is a nice place to raise a family but it's no Seattle.

Posted by: Bloix | Sep 25, 2007 2:34:13 AM

Mike B- that's an ignorant comment. Blacks came to the North and to California in the Great Migration of the 1st half of the last century in search of factory jobs. They didn't go to the northwest, which had no industry. They went to Chicago and Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Newark and St Louis and LA, which did. That is why the Northwest has comparatively few African Americans, not because of any racist policies.

Posted by: Bloix | Sep 25, 2007 2:37:53 AM

Well, well, Ezra. I guess folks can always find something that somebody who one respects that is way off beat, and I think you've got this one incorrect.

Without plowing through data, as a Portlander by transplant (from San Francisco), I can't agree with this statement:

Cities like Portland and Seattle are trying to create a livable city to retain and attract a certain type of resident. Namely, educated, young, white people.

I'd phrase it thusly: Portlanders for decades have been trying to maintain and gently expand a livable city that is kind to the environment and to its people. We are not trying to attract a certain kind of person, but perhaps certain kinds of people find our priorities match their desires.

The age mix in Portland is quite healthy, as can be seen on our streets, our shopping areas and our service establishments. There are fewer racial minorities in Portland than many other mid-size Metro areas, but that reflects historical patterns and certainly doesn't seem to reflect discrimination in significant measure. There are active asian minorities, blacks who arrived originally during WWII for the war industries, many latinos of more recent vintage and many other distinct national-origin groups. We celebrate Cinco de Mayo in our riverfront park in a major way, along with craft beer celebrations, blues festivals, and roses (lots of roses).

We get along and socially mix across age, culture and racial differences far more than any other city I've visited or lived in. For me on arrival, the only thing that startled me on arrival was the large percentage of blue-eyed folks - a reflection of early migration in the 19th century from the nordic countries. Another characteristic is how many folks here migrated at one time or another from the 'best' cities in CA or elsewhere in the west to obtain a better overall quality of life.

On the topic of the urban growth boundary and planning, there is more citizen involvement and public support than anywhere I've heard of. We clearly have one the best (three-county) metro transit systems in the US, and its still expanding. Multnomah County (approx 600,000) is most of Portand and we voted 78% for Kerry in 2004. So yeah, this is a progressive city and we are dammed proud of it.

This is a quite laid back culture, and our active arts and entertainment scene reflects a vibrant mix of interests. Suits on the street and in restaurants (for example) are almost a rarity - it is pretty hard to distinguish the wealthy from middle class or working class. We don't carry umbrellas even though it rains. Lots of people bike to work on our extensive bike network. A recent national survey found that Portland had the most polite drivers in the nation. Did I mention our many bookstores - including the mammoth Powell's Books. We read, we drink lots of coffee (like Seattle), and we are active, involved folks.

Why younger people? Portland is home to many colleges and universities - google for their names. Portland State Univ. is in the center of downtown and specialized in urban planning - it is also bigger than Oregon State Univ. (Corvallis) or Univ of Oregon (Eugene). Oregon Health and Science Univ. is the state's only public medical/dental/nursing institution and a large academic health center - once again in the heart of the city. Many or most of these students work and study, and it is quite usual for college to extend for more than 4 years. Students largely live in the city and are not concentrated. They like music and coffee shops, a lot, and we have grown supply for that demand. Lots of people here want to keep Portland weird (like the Austin TX folks).

So, I'm disagreeing with the CATO nuts and I'm sorry to say with you as well. This isn't a city filled with young white hipsters who distain their fellow citizens and visitors. We certainly aren't perfect, but it's pretty damn good for all who live here.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Sep 25, 2007 2:45:47 AM

We get along and socially mix across age, culture and racial differences far more than any other city I've visited or lived in.

This, I think, is one of the larger cultural differences between Portland (where I've visited frequently but never lived) and Seattle (where I've lived for almost a decade.

Posted by: djw | Sep 25, 2007 3:25:59 AM

Ezra,

You seem to assume that government is the source of all human activity: "So you structure the city thus that there's lots of educated white people bait, including cafes, bookstores, wireless internet spots, bike trails, etc."

A reality-check:

Seattle does not have its many restaurants & coffee shops because of a government program; and I don't think it has all that many bookstores and in any case none of them are government-supported or sponsored. Its bike trail system is not very good at all.

Posted by: David Sucher | Sep 25, 2007 3:47:15 AM

The fundamental problem with this post is that it conflates the ideas of affluent and white. While there is a strong correlation, especially in urban environments, it is tone-deaf. Also, Seattle, unlike DC, does not have blacks as its largest non-white population, instead it is asians and southeast islanders, along with hispanics (recently, and growing, although not in the way it is growing in Eastern Washington). Seattle has a very old and strong black community, but it isn't all that large in terms of population percentage.

Eh, I was born in Seattle, live here, and I love it (didn't grow up here, I grew up in Wenatchee, in Eastern WA, which is, to put it mildly, very conservative and also more racially diverse than Seattle at this point in time, as it is over 30% Latino). I love Portland too. As a good friend put it to his friends who were visiting the NW, go see Seattle (I think it is objectively more spectacular from a landscape type of view), live in Portland (more community oriented, less expensive, and more keen to trying progressive things instead of debating them to death).

I think both cities are great. I am looking forward to the days when Portland type folks can have anxiety attacks about whether they are a "real" city like Seattle does all the time. Seattle is, at best, a small city. A great small city, but probably a big town that is overcompensating for its insecurities. Portland is (no offense meant) a really great big town, that will someday soon join Seattle in its efforts to be "taken seriously."

In the meantime, it is as expensive as hell (relative to median wages) to live in either town, and the inherent natural beauty of both locations is really making it hard to have a normal job and live in either place. And while I am not sure this is true, it is getting rather absurd that there is a small group of folks who make $150k plus that own, literally, all property within the city limits, while approximately 80% of the urban workforce must live far outside the city or rent.

Coffee houses, bars, bookstores, and all the rest appeal to young professionals without family expenses, and thus are great things for people like Ezra (and me). That said, with all these awesome things around, the price of renting goes way up, as does the price of owning (in fact, it goes up so high that I would never even think of buying here...might as well buy a Monet). Those with families and less than huge incomes have to move away from the urban goodness, which is too bad, as the urban center remains filled with really wealthy families, or somewhat affluent singles who can spend a large portion of their income on enterainment.

Anyway, I think anyone who has a dog in the Portland v. Seattle fight is a bit misguided, they are both great, but the key ingredient to both is affluence, not skin color.

Posted by: abject funk | Sep 25, 2007 3:51:05 AM

Put another way, the urban cores of Portland and Seattle (inside the city limits) are overwhelmingly wealthy, with the less affluent living in the surrounding areas, whereas it seems that the affluent in cities such as DC appear to live on the outskirts, while the less well-to-do live in the city. True, there are wealthy burbs in Portland and Seattle (Lake Oswego, Bellevue, respectively, as well as other communities) which sometimes are even more wealthy than the cities. At the same time, Seattle is surrounded by suburbs where people "go to live" when they need to buy a house or condo, as it is simply not an option to remain in the city, no matter what neighborhood you are willing to live in. I do not think that is the case in DC. Also, those with kids often combine the less expensive housing and better schools of the suburbs when deciding where to settle down as families.

Recent studies show that there is only one neighborhood in Seattle that is considered "affordable" by normal standards of median household income, that is, home price is around 4 to 5 time the household's annual income. The neighborhood is called South Park, and it is on the far south edge of the city in a generally industrial area.

In short, Seattle is a very expensive town, and you have to make a ton of money to own a house and have kids here. You only have to make a lot of money to be single and rent here in a neighborhood that offers what Ezra experienced on his visit, or have two solid incomes to afford a modest house without kids.

If you live on the outskirts, it is less expensive, but then, you are either living in the suburbs (totally cool with me), or pretending that you live in Seattle, when in fact you only work in Seattle, which seems to miss the point of being near an urban center if you are interested in the amenities it provides other than employment.

Posted by: abject funk | Sep 25, 2007 4:24:12 AM

Did Seattle or Portland ever experience White Flight?

Posted by: Danny | Sep 25, 2007 4:53:36 AM

Thirty percent of all the people you meet who hail Seattle, Austin, Denver, Tucson, Portland or whichever "up & coming" city they currently reside in as an urban nirvana are transplants from Southern California.

Posted by: Mulholland | Sep 25, 2007 4:54:26 AM

Danny,

I dunno about Portland, but Seattle experienced white flight from its public schools during mandatory busing in the 70s and 80s, but I am not sure that the actual city experienced white flight to the suburbs. It is true that the suburbs grew at a rapid rate, and were mainly full of white people, but I think most of them were new residents, not necessarily white folks fleeing Seattle. Alternatively, if lots of white people fled Seattle, they were replaced by more white people, so I bet is was close to a net zero in terms of actual city demographics. Instead, lots of white residents went to private schools within the city instead of public schools, which is a shame but is slowly being addressed.

The population of the Puget Sound region, and WA in general, has been rather rapid over the past few decades, and Seattle is a relatively small city proper (city limits), with other municipalities on its edges that won't be annexed, and only a small piece of unincorporated lands on its southern edge that might eventually be part of the city (White Center, Top Hat). Those areas are still unincorporated and may join Seattle, or one of its southern suburbs such as Burien or Tukwila. Such an annexation would greatly increase Seattle's racial diversity (and economic diversity as well), as these areas have many racial minorities and recent immigrants compared to other parts of Seattle. On a final note, the racial diversity of Seattle's suburbs has been on the rise over the past decade, meaning that Seattle is not alone in its need to address new populations, languages, economic issues, etc. The suburbs are starting to face the same social issues that cities have faced for many years.

Posted by: abject funk | Sep 25, 2007 5:30:44 AM

I had the fortunate ability to visit Eugene and Portland OR and Vancouver and Seattle WA this summer for a week and a half, first time ever being there. Fantastic places, and we got really lucky with the weather, didn't rain a drop. I did find the homeless population in both of the major cities to be surprising to me. I guess I didn't expect that many people on the streets. I'm from Boston and don't think I see as many in any given day. I wonder, are the shelters struggling to keep up out there? And are these all local homeless, or do come up from CA?

I've put a bit of thought into urban planning lately as I've recently moved to a smaller coastal city and thought they just could have done a bit better job with the planning, say like Portsmouth, NH. But I think it all comes down to money and people. I was reading an article in the local paper about how a parcel of land downtown took something like 10 years back in the 70s and 80s to finally be developed into the state it is today and it was financial hardship that caused it to be undeveloped for so long. Plus, city board members often have final say in what happens and humans are both imperfect and sometimes selfish after all.

Posted by: Adrock | Sep 25, 2007 8:57:42 AM

I agree with posters who think your analysis is pretty off-base. DC may be 39% white currently, but it is projected that by 2012 (I'm pretty sure that's the correct year), blacks will be in the minority in DC. The city is and has been moving pretty strikingly in the direction of becoming more white and more latino. More latino due to immigration and immigrant flows. More white because DC *is* attracting a lot of young whites and white empty nesters. And the city is going to great lengths to woo them because they provide a strong tax base without using many services (e.g., schools). DC is getting more coffee joints and wine bars and other gentrified retail. Maybe it's not happening overnight, but it is happening.

Posted by: Jeff | Sep 25, 2007 9:18:09 AM

Weird post Ezra. Conflating white and hipster/yuppie/affluent is obviously not the smartest thing to do. Except for the bad taste it leaves behind it is also widely misleading; I'm sure more asians go to Starbucks in Seattle than do whites in Omaha or Des Moines or other white as snow places in the ageing midwest. And there IS such a thing as a black middle class, as painfully selfaware and aspirational as its white ditto eg. Atlanta or Charlotte.

Posted by: Hakeem | Sep 25, 2007 9:31:58 AM

Well, the Pacific Northwest is pretty white as a region, although people of Asian descent are there (and have been there for as long as white people) in significant numbers. And it's become more heavily Latino recently (not as much IN Seattle and Portland though, more in the farming areas and the suburbs). The history of D.C. is quite different in that regard.

I will also note that Brooklyn is absolutely filled with fancy cafes, bookstores, and wireless internet spots catering primarily to the large Black population here. I would tend to think this is an issue of disposable income, hipster culture, and general trendiness more than race.

Posted by: brklyngrl | Sep 25, 2007 9:35:12 AM

and what do black people like? bars, liquor stores, pawn-shops, video-gambling arcades, and diners?!

Posted by: logicat | Sep 25, 2007 9:41:07 AM

The population of the Puget Sound region, and WA in general, has been rather rapid over the past few decades, and Seattle is a relatively small city proper (city limits), with other municipalities on its edges that won't be annexed, and only a small piece of unincorporated lands on its southern edge that might eventually be part of the city (White Center, Top Hat). Those areas are still unincorporated and may join Seattle, or one of its southern suburbs such as Burien or Tukwila. Such an annexation would greatly increase Seattle's racial diversity (and economic diversity as well), as these areas have many racial minorities and recent immigrants compared to other parts of Seattle. On a final note, the racial diversity of Seattle's suburbs has been on the rise over the past decade, meaning that Seattle is not alone in its need to address new populations, languages, economic issues, etc. The suburbs are starting to face the same social issues that cities have faced for many years.

Posted by: seo yarismasi | Sep 25, 2007 9:51:27 AM

There's nothing to recommend DC, because the white "knowledge workers" like Ezra "have" to live there.

Reason there's nothing to recommend DC? It's full of assholes. Sorry, Ezra, but you seem to be a decent guy, but for every Ezra, there's at least five members of a certain nameless invitation-only online-based drinking circuit ... and Megan.

Posted by: Jay-Z | Sep 25, 2007 9:55:44 AM

Ezra, there are a lot of reasons that DC is not like Portland and Seattle that you completely miss:

Lack of major universities in the city to serve as an "anchor" for young people. Georgetown and American University are relatively small, and UMD-College Park is much more closely connected to Maryland, culturally speaking, than DC. You don't have a huge population of people who went to college or grad school here and then stayed here.

Next, lack of diversity of professional opportunities: There are more opportunities in the arts then people typically expect, but government is pretty much it, along with "dogodder" non-profits or a legal profession. The engineering/government contractor jobs are on the edge of or outside the beltway, so those professionals never end up in DC proper. Related to the latter is that the DC-metro area is heavily suburban-- lots of amenities that you'd find within walking distance in other cities (ethnic grocery stores and specialty shops) are typically in a suburb, a 15-20 minute drive from downtown.

Despite what I said about a more jobs in the arts here than you would think, there doesn't seem to be much of a thriving local literary/arts "scene" that would attract people here despite the high rents.

Finally, this town is full of people who had some dream to come here and work in the government or engage in policy issues, not because they like the city and environment and just want to move here for the sake of it.
While local politics (read any blog about Shaw's ANC) certainly helps impede any progress towards more thriving neighborhoods, there's much less impetus to promote it than there is in other cities to begin with. DC has more in common with the rust belt cities of the midwest than coastal cities. No one sits around wondering why Akron doesn't have more cafes.

Posted by: Tyro | Sep 25, 2007 10:09:57 AM

I'll attack Ezra from another angle. I live in Newark. In 1980, it was predominantly black and poor, and run by black politicians. Contrary to the Ezra theory, it did not want to stay the way it was. Newark did a number of things to become less poor, which also resulted in its being less black. (Chief among them was tearing down any public housing project it could find, and replacing them with any kind of housing that would attract taxpaying citizens.) It is still run by black politicians (although less so than before), but is now less poor, and far more Latino.

The moral of this story? Town governments generally want economic development, and that's how most towns are run. Including, I think, DC. Some do a better job than others.

Posted by: Joe S. | Sep 25, 2007 10:27:19 AM

Lack of major universities in the city to serve as an "anchor" for young people.

I don't know about Seattle, but this definition does not fit Portland at all. No one goes to Portland for the post-secondary education.

Posted by: Klug | Sep 25, 2007 10:40:02 AM

I gotta agree with abject funk about Seattle, especially about housing prices. I've lived here for about 7 years, and thought about buying. After taking good look at the market, though, I quickly realized that buying a house $40K to $60K OVER list price was a suckers gambit.

Of course, the housing market here, though still showing the highest year-over-year appreciation in the nation, is starting to unravel significantly.

A lively and informative place to get info on housing in Seattle is here:

http://seattlebubble.com/blog/

You get actual facts, good and bad, instead of the recycled Realtor talking points found in the PI and the Seattle Times.

Posted by: CKT | Sep 25, 2007 11:00:25 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.