Wednesday, May 13, 2009

What’s happening to the city?

For those of us watching cultural trends, it seems that there is a renewed focus on establishing the live-ability of the urban, downtown environments of our cities.  Lots of development work is going in to recapturing failed sections of cities, buying out old industrial districts and turning them into hip, upscale community centers like The Pearl in Portland.

But live-able for who?  I came across an article by Joel Kotkin recently who has done extensive research on the migrations of people in and out of these new urban centers.  There are some concerning trends:

City planners and urban developers favor the unattached: the “young and restless,” the “creative class,” and the so-called “yuspie”—the young urban single professional. Champions of the unattached suggest that companies and cities should capture this segment, described by one as “the dream demographic,” if they wish to inhabit the top tiers of the economic food chain.

Another key group coveted by cities are the legions of baby boomers who have already raised children. No longer cohabiting with offspring, they are expected to give up their dull family existence and rediscover the allure of a fast-paced, defiantly “youthful” lifestyle. The new retirees, suggests luxury homebuilder Robert Toll, “are more hip-hop and happening than our parents.” They are more interested in indulging “the sophistication and joy and music that comes with city dwelling, and doesn’t come with sitting in the ’burbs watching the day go by.”

I immediately thought of the Pearl District in Portland, a place with which I have sort of a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand, it is filled with cool shops, the best of all being Powell’s Books.  There are fabulous one-of-a-kind restaurants within easy reach.  The arts and parks are wonderful and the walking experience is a feast for the senses.  The light rail will take you anywhere else you want to go.

But I’ve often wondered what people with a four year old and a two year old do.  You don’t see people with kids very often wandering around Pearl.  I even went to the Pearl’s guide web site and looked for what I assumed would be some upscale schools, fancy boutiques for urbanite moms looking to buy their daughters some designer eco-friendly toys.  But a look at the marketing, photos, and highlights leaves the married-with-kids out of the mix.  Look for yourself.  You see the two demographics mentioned in Kotkin’s article.

I wonder what sort of effect this will have on smaller communities like Salem.  I know Salem wants to be like her big sister to the North and is on a rampage to upscale its downtown along these same lines.  Is the lifestyle of the “unattached” the goal of our vibrant urban centers?  What happens when newly-forming young families are forced to choose between the hip urban lifestyle and one that includes the possibility of children?  Is this a wise development choice?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem I see with this "capture the youth" mindset has to do with the trendy factor. Areas such as the Pearl District rely on their "hotness" to attract those young people and their dollars. Lifestyle is huge to this demographic. But they are by definition extremely mobile. They don't have kids, they don't have a decade at their job, and often they are renters as opposed to homeowners. It would take very little for them to pick up and move to the next hotspot they have heard or seen to have greater job opportunities, more singles of their preferred sex, a better nightlife, etc. Then they're gone. Enough of them move out of the area and those that are left begin to look around and wonder why things aren't as hopping as they once were. Now they also start to look for something else. With these neighborhoods there is a very real danger they will eventually wither. So then what do we have? We have an area of overpriced unoccupied urban residential development and businesses with problems supporting themselves. This will just increase the out-migration and discourage in-migration. Sure prices will come down to a point, but this demographic is not primarily motivated by price alone. At this point the city will start to become concerned and the answer they all too often turn to is to throw tax dollars at the problem. Now the area has become a money vacuum with no real guarantee that the money will correct the problem. Because the problem is more than anything that you are relying on a quality that is by definition fleeting: being trendy.

And Salem, like always, is trying to be Portland's tagalong. It's like Portland is going to a party at a friend's house because the friend's parents are gone. There's gonna be lots of drugs, drinking, illicit encounters, and people drawing obscene things on the faces of those who have passed out. Salem heard Portland talking about it and really wants to go because it sounds pretty grown up. But really all it turns out to be is an environment where it is incredibly easy to make bad choices with long-lasting effects.

So now in Salem we have, among others, that monstrosity of a condo building where the old Capitol Inn used to be. Now, granted, the Capitol Inn was a problem. A pile of worn out tires drenched in diesel and set on fire would be an improvement. But to think that Salem is a market for upscale condominium units priced from $250,000 to $1,500,000 is ridiculous. Especially when you consider Salem's ability to provide jobs which offer an income level to support a home that is over one million dollars, not counting winning Megabucks twice. So now instead of focusing on development which provides an ongoing supply of jobs, such as offices or industrial improvement, the city of Salem is wanting to move people into the downtown area. The city has for sometime been desiring programs which encourage people to convert unused commercial improvements into residential uses. Perhaps if they had focused their desires on updating and bettering that commercial area Salem would be a much more popular place for people who are now looking at the country as a whole and asking, where are my best chances of finding a job?