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September 25, 2007

Why I Shouldn't Write About Urban Policy at 2am

It's the way of blogging that you sort of wish some ill-considered and poorly-worded posts would be forgotten rather than linked a lot, but since my late night musings on Portland, Seattle, and DC seem to be taking the latter route, best to clarify. My point was not that "black people don't like coffee shops," but that compared to a lot of other cities that are considered attractive destinations for techie white folks, DC's residential districts have a distinct lack of coffee shops (and other fun stuff). Matt's argument about Mocha Hut actually hurts his case, because Mocha Hut, along with Busboys and Poets and 14U, are new businesses that have only entered the U Street corridor as it became...whiter. Indeed, as people like Matt, who now hangs out at those coffee shops, moved there. In this case, white is actually standing in for affluent, because the sort of people who spend $4 on a latte and demand wireless internet for their laptops tend to have money in the bank, whatever their race.

Meanwhile, I think DC is awesome, too. But what struck me when I went to Seattle was how much more livable Seattle was. What makes DC awesome is the collection of people pulled their for work (and no, the existence of the suburbs doesn't change the fact that most of us, Matt and myself included, moved to DC for a job). Defense wonks and political journalists and Hill staffers and health policy types. It's a city filled with folks I want to talk to. But it's not a city that puts much special effort into being really livable, or pleasant, for said folks. Seattle and Portland really do seem to put a lot of affirmative thought into building a city their residents will enjoy, and that's in part because "enjoyability" -- as opposed to "Congress is there" -- is a big part of the reason people move to Seattle and Seattle needs to keep it that way. DC, meanwhile, is much less homogenous, and so trying to shift the character to aid any particular group requires a lot more in the way of tradeoffs.

But all in all, it's a post I rather wish I hadn't written, and had instead just said at a bar, so people could take apart the point privately. Ah well.

September 25, 2007 | Permalink



my post on your last thread relating to this, talks to the fact that there is an historical perspective that is important to consider, and bears on some of the things i think you were trying to say.
the ancestor cities of the east, and also, california, are very different from the "newer" cities, such as those in oregon, washington and nevada, which have seen an exodus of more affluent and educated people, from places such as california, escaping to a more halcyon place, in a sense, abandoning the "older", great grandmother cities, with their aging chronicles of social and environmental challenges.
...in many ways, the "newer" cities are more liveable and halcyon than their older counterparts....
...many people with means have migrated away for a more bucolic lifestyle and left some of the old and complex problems behind.
kind of like abandoning an old house with leaky pipes and falling plaster, for a newer one, with less history, more amenities and fewer problems.
...i lived in portland, oregon in the forties, and there was not very much there, while the great-grandmother cities of the east, had already borne many generations of children and bore a complex tapestry of social and environmental challenges.
...newark had an ironbound section, with roaring chimneys and smokestacks... long before vancouver, washington had any outskirts, to speak of.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 25, 2007 1:30:47 PM

Dear Ezra:

Here's the thing: I read the initial post with a curious blend of surprise and queasiness. It struck me as ill-considered -- at best -- and too glib by half. I should also admit that I was interested. As an urbanist (what a silly thing to be called), I wondered if you had data to back up your implicit point, which, no matter what you're claiming now as you're walking back from the ledge, was that white people like coffee shops more than black people (no thought to class or any other variable that I could/can discern). Anyway, I wasn't surprised that I couldn't find any evidence on my own. So I'm even less surprised that you don't have it. And less surprised still -- not to mention really sorry for you -- to find that you were doing the equivalent of drunk dialing.

All of that said, I wish that your follow-up post hadn't kept the real apology below the fold. This is one of those situations where you screwed up, I think, so you may as well admit it and move on. Don't spend a lot of words telling your readers how sorry you are that others are linking to and talking about your screw up. Any smart person will no that's the case.

Good luck putting this behind you,


Posted by: Ari | Sep 25, 2007 1:51:04 PM

And of course any educated person -- except the spelling-challenged Matt Y, perhsp -- will know that how "know is spelled. See what happens when you're writing in a rush. I think I've just made my point, though in a minor key.

Posted by: Ari | Sep 25, 2007 1:56:37 PM

Here in Sacramento, we are quietly smug that the top city planner from Portland took over the planning department here and brought some Portland employees with him. Work your magic here too please, Mr. Former Portland Planner! Make us affirmatively pleasant and livable!

(You're doing fine. It was a late night post, and the bulk of your work here is solid. We're with you. I've forgotten this one already, except for the smugness about my town.)

Posted by: Megan | Sep 25, 2007 1:56:39 PM

Graciously done, Ezra.

Posted by: Dave Sucher | Sep 25, 2007 1:56:53 PM

To add to jacqueline's comment, an interesting full-circle thing is going on here in some of the older cities in Florida. Right now, in Saint Petersburg, this former retirement town--which not too long ago was truly a "God's Waiting Room" that was home to few under the age of 70--is filling up with singles, young couples, and families, many of whom come from cities like Seattle and San Francisco, where they were priced out of their neighborhoods. In the past ten years, a thriving artists' community has emerged, and we have a year-round arts and music festival calendar, plus all the old-money stuff (art museums, grand old buildings, beautiful old hotels) has been refurbished and discovered by all the new residents even as it continues to be enjoyed by the oldsters.

Another nice thing: because the city was built over a hundred years ago, the city is blessed with a very human scale--there aren't too many tall-tall buildings (save a handful of new condos going in here and there), and there are huge swaths of public greenspace along the waterfront. Time and again, residents have voted down even the tiniest relenting to developers who want to stuff things along the waterfront, and it looks like the parks are pretty much here to stay. Which is a good thing, since the banyan trees are 60-100 years old, too, so beautiful and such great shade-spots for enjoying the lattes and gelatos and books you bought at one of the various shops and cafes (lots of them, too).

I probably shouldn't have written this on a nationally-read blog. I kind of like the lack of gridlock around here.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 25, 2007 1:59:08 PM

Considering how wired and alcoholic the NW is I'm sure most folks there read your post at a bar.

Posted by: Fred F. | Sep 25, 2007 2:37:44 PM

Fred, as a Seattlite, I was so offended by your comment I nearly spit out my Pabst Blue Ribbon!

Posted by: Raznor | Sep 25, 2007 2:49:42 PM

On the original post, as someone who went to school in Portland and currently lives in Seattle, I was so happy to hear a DC-ite praise my home city that I didn't mind the weird white percentage, especially as I consider the nearly all-white homogeny of the northwest to be the biggest downside (which is one reason I prefer Seattle to Portland, btw).

Perhaps if you were in more of a right mind you might have compared age demographics of Seattle and Portland to DC. It seems likely to me that many people who move to DC to work are over 40, and I would guess that coffee shops are more popular with the under 35 crowd.

Posted by: Raznor | Sep 25, 2007 2:58:27 PM

I see what you were saying, however inelegantly it came out in print.

I go to coffeeshops and drink coffee. No laptop either, just an old paper notebook.

I'm a radical.

Posted by: Garuda | Sep 25, 2007 3:03:22 PM

One thing here that strikes me as odd is that people found the suggestion that coffee shops largely cater to white people racist. The assumption is that coffee shops are a marker of some kind of inherent refinement, which black people lack.

In fact, coffee shops are a very particular, ultimately European cultural artifact. In non-white neighborhoods I have lived in New York, people don't need coffee shops because they sit on stoops or porches, or even set up chairs on the sidewalk, to engage in casual, coffee-shop type interaction. The idea that you have to go somewhere and spend money on a beverage to participate in a certain kind of social/cultural/intellectual life is dumb. Coffee shops are a class marker primarily in white American culture.

My roommate has been yelling at me about Bordieu's Distinction for a couple of weeks, and I think I'll have to read it now...

Posted by: BP | Sep 25, 2007 3:27:31 PM

BP, one of my favorite books on the topic is Paul Fussell's Class. It can be rather un-PC, but his observations about America's proles, middle class, upper-middles, "aristos", and X-classes are amusing and oftentimes pretty dead-on.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 25, 2007 4:23:41 PM


A coffeehouse or similar establishment is actually a pretty useful "third place" that is neither an unfettered public space like the sidewalk or a fully private space like one's home. Having places like this available in your neighborhood fosters neighborliness in that it gives people a place to get to know one another without need to plan/schedule/clean/lay-in-supplies that is involved with socializing with others in your home.

Jane Jacobs, IIRC, discussed the usefulness of such places in Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The lack of "third places" is one reason why many thinking adults who must spend their day in the suburbs find the setting boring

There may very well be a class component to this, but also consider "family" taverns filled the same role in a lot of non-rich urban neighborhoods.

Posted by: Chris Anderson | Sep 25, 2007 4:29:11 PM

If that's the worst mistake you ever make at 2 in the morning ...

Posted by: ostap | Sep 25, 2007 4:38:48 PM

I'm late to all of this (that's what I get for going to bed at 10 and getting up to go to work at 5), so I need a moment to organize my thoughts (which have got me thinking I'll post about this at my own blog), but here's the thing that jumps out at me first: it sounds to me like all of this is "why can't I have the city I want that lacks a lot of the urban problems I don't really know how to solve?" You're right Ezra, this isn't about coffee houses and the like - but you use the word "livable" to describe something about a lifestyle choice (or set of choices), not the actual availability of, say, a home. Cities are, certainly, livable; but the life you get can put you in proximity to a lot of social, economic and political problems you might not otherwise want to confront, and almost nowhere that I can think of has more of that than DC. From the odd circumstances of its governance to, as you note, the fact that a plurality of its population is well educated and in many ways upper middle class, while far more of its population is poor and not well educated, DC puts a lot of social problems in people's faces in a way that other places do not (even Baltimore, really, doesn't have these tensions; the people who would be tense fled for the outer ring years ago). As such, I too think your original post was problematic but not for some sort of coded racism - what worries me is what it reflects about the young urban postcollegiate set these days, who want cities remade for them as nicer, more homogeneous communities (that in many ways will look and feel like the suburbs they left)... and the city planners and leaders who are all too happy to see that delivered to them. That's what the lack of affordable housing in the inner cities is about; that's what the debate over public education in cities is about; that's what "inner ring" suburbs are discovering as the problems of inner cities are pushed outward, especially south and west (it's why urban planners are jumping up and down, trying to get people to see what New Orleans is becoming post-Katrina). It's not surprising that cities that lack the well defined, older urban cores (i.e. a lot of cities south and west) feel less like this. The question is why that would seem desirable or preferable. And on that, I think, you probably need to think harder, day or night.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 25, 2007 5:08:53 PM

What an incredibly precious "controversy" this is.

Posted by: John-Paul Pagano | Sep 25, 2007 5:22:24 PM

nothing good comes out of anything at 2 in the morning.

Posted by: thehova | Sep 25, 2007 5:29:54 PM

Couldn't this also have something to do with the fact that it's harder to get small business loans in majority-black neighborhoods? Under this premise, businesses that need more start-up capital, such as espresso machines, are more likely to be found in whiter areas.

This also goes well with John Taylor and Josh Silver's theory of bank branching in minority neighborhoods to mitigate subprime loans. My overall point is that there's a whole world of economic analysis here beyond "omg why is the west coast so awesome." Come on, Ezra, you're more of a wonk than that!

Posted by: alli | Sep 25, 2007 5:29:58 PM

i agree with you, weboy....

in affluent and/or newer cities, that have brightly-lit parking,promenades, fortress-like malls for patrons and lots of security guards putting customers at ease,it is easy to enjoy late evenings browsing at barnes and noble and williams-sonoma.
it is like shopping in a theme park.

but in areas that lack those amenities... you might not want to be hopping around with a nordstrom bag at ten at night.

....there was an unforgettable scene in a film from the eighties, called "grand canyon".
an upscale attorney left a lakers game and took a wrong turn in his upscale car. instead of going on the freeway, he turned onto a city street where his car broke down.
he was far away from his home in beverly hills, where people were poor and the streets were not safe, and there was no starbucks on the corner.

i dont think ezra's post was meant to be about racism...i think it is about two americas.
people with ample means can insulate themselves in a safer world and urban planners can create new cities for those who have the money to live in them.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 25, 2007 5:30:27 PM

So, to what extent is Portland properly planned instead of just lucky, or the next in line? I've lived on the West Coast pretty much my whole life and cities seem to "have their turn in the spotlight." Seattle, early 90's, San Francisco, late 90's, now Portland. It has something to do with city planning, to be sure, but I imagine it also has something to do with Seattle, San Francisco, and the better parts of LA becoming way too costly. Bands, artists, and the creative folks can't live there any more so they look for the "next" city. Portland had to build some of the infrastructure to make itself attractive (the bike lanes and light rail are, truly, superb), but does Portland experience this birth if San Francisco stays reasonably priced? I'm not sure.

I imagine 10 years from now we'll be moaning about how expensive Portland is (as we do now for Seattle) and talking about the next west coast utopia (Bend?, Boise?, Spokane?) and it will have something to do with public policy. But, more likely it will be because all of these jealous east coast hipsters have cashed out and turned downtown Portland into the next North Beach or West Hollywood. Portland's heir will be determined as much by it's cost of living as by it's bike trails.

Posted by: Citizen (World) | Sep 25, 2007 5:33:02 PM

maybe I missed this in the original post, but how about Dos Gringos for a MtP coffee shop? Plus there are now at least three of them around 14th and Park where the Tivoli development is.

Posted by: andrew | Sep 25, 2007 5:38:46 PM

I don't know why the white, male progressive blogosphere was so reticent re: the Jena 6. You handle conversations involving race so elegantly! ;)

I might have written something intelligent about planning and cities and culture and equity, but I think Weboy took care of that for me!

Posted by: Redstar | Sep 25, 2007 6:12:10 PM

I happen to be a white D.C. citizen who moved here 10 years ago. No, I didn't come here because of a job. Yes, I find it livable and pleasant. In fact, I love D.C. and consider it my hometown now. My advice to you -- Go back to wherever it is you came from and stop slandering our city.

Posted by: Greg | Sep 25, 2007 6:21:06 PM

"one of my favorite books on the topic is Paul Fussell's Class. It can be rather un-PC, but his observations about America's proles, middle class, upper-middles, "aristos", and X-classes are amusing and oftentimes pretty dead-on."


Posted by: Petey | Sep 25, 2007 6:57:12 PM

Matt's just upset that you're usurping him.

Posted by: Petey | Sep 25, 2007 6:58:07 PM

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