Tag Archives: New York City

The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe


Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

A City’s Scale And Its Promises

Editor’s note: We at Rust Wire love cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit. But how welcoming are these places to everyone? This piece was contributed by New Yorker Frank Dix, a native of my hometown of Erie, PA. What do you think after reading his essay? Can someone who is gay ever feel truly at home in a place like Erie? This piece seems especially relevant in light of several recent high-profile suicides by gay teens.-KG


People who have made a life in New York usually remember their hurry to get here. The draw of the city may have developed early, but plain ambition does not quite sum it up. Whether you grew up in Erie, PA as I did, some other Rust Belt town, or in another region altogether, what you get here –and in Los Angeles and Chicago, I hear – is the chance to dissolve into a new crowd, and perhaps later, with confidence, to piece together what feels like your own tribe. If you happen to be gay then you realize, over time, that your hometown might not promise either one convincingly.

Certainly, many small towns and cities, including Erie, are rich with at least a few examples of visible gay men and women who are genuinely part of the community, reliable as local fixtures. But even the richness of these few can feel strained in contrast to the options and space afforded to straight friends. At the same time, for young gay men and women, it requires extra work to imagine how their adult selves and future partnerships might compare to the daily lives of their parents, relatives, and family friends.

The next best thing – or at least what is available – is to turn toward the community and observe it a little more closely, for clues. Gradually, a certain cast comes into view, sometimes plainly, sometimes opaquely through hints and jokes: the hairdresser, the dance instructor, the choir director, the figure painter…that eclectic interracial couple seen riding around town in a Rolls Royce or peddling their tandem bike. Job prospects notwithstanding, you could probably get along just fine in this company, if bigger cities did not seem at once vast and better suited.

After settling in, it does not take long for New York to start delivering on its promises. Instead of the easy insult, on the whole you find tolerance, either sincere or grudging; there are consequences here. Instead of the rare, relatable professional you find entire, remarkably specific guilds of gay actors, bankers, journalists, and lawyers, each having a membership in the hundreds. A fresh, blank page replaces the well-worn scripts left at home.

That page does not stay blank forever. You rush to fill it in as though just given permission. Peers are discovered, friendships maintained, romances begun and tested, probably not for the first time but perhaps for the time in-earnest. Broadly speaking, these impressions of Erie and New York are probably not so different from what others might tell, gay or straight. The promise of excitement – and a compelling love life –takes hold of all sorts of people, year after year. Finding a personal rhythm within this scale is a victory, always. But there are tradeoffs.

In the very place you left, where, if intact, the bonds were tighter, chances were better that you would meet your partner earlier, maybe through a childhood friend or at one of a handful of parties or lounges. In a city the size of Erie, even running a simple errand means seeing a friend or an acquaintance along the way. That closeness is a reliable comfort for many; it once was for me.

Still, navigating the coming out process, and imaging maturity, has a way of guiding other thoughts. Within the broad sweep of identity, being gay can settle somewhere between a singular focus and an afterthought. New York, with its large and vibrant gay community, offers a rough parallel to the relative freedom straight people take for granted. While not cozy, the city is attractive, in part, because it extends an honest chance to discover and express your-self as a gay adult. Here, the common grievance is not a lack of examples or choices, but trouble building the kind of strong bonds that people enjoy in smaller cities. The act of balancing intimacy and opportunity, I’ve noticed, can play out a little differently for gay men…

Traveling back home on the Acela from DC on a Sunday last October, I could not have been the only New Yorker savoring memories of the weekend. Activists and everyday citizens in the tens of thousands had just gathered for the National Equality Weekend, to bring critical attention to the concerns of the gay community. In marching and rallying, it had never been easier for me to consider personally what it means to be a part of a community. An hour or so from New York, I decided to get a drink. Among the passengers in the snack car there were two fit young men, iPhones raised, Grindr apps glowing, perhaps deciding to find each other.

-Frank Dix


Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Editorial, Featured