A superstar city is born

What makes a “superstar city?” Just a bunch of rich people? A concrete jungle where dreams are made of? A place where good jobs grow on trees? Or is “superstar city” just another name for Los Angeles or New York, which are the only two places where superstars of film, television, and music live? According to a recent article in The New York Times titled, “Why Midsize Cities Struggle to Catch Up to Superstar Cities,” the answer is that superstar cities are defined by being richer and more popular places to go work in than bullshit-ass hovels like Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As author Eduardo Porter sees it, despite being home to five higher education institutions and whatever an “Innovation Quarter” is, Winston-Salem struggles to “draw both highly educated workers seeking well-paid jobs and high-tech companies that want to employ them” and is therefore doomed to crumble into dust while also crapping its municipal pants.

Now is an exciting time to be a city planner in America. As places like New York, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area become expensive/inconvenient/soul-crushing etc., the young people who once flocked to those places seeking interesting jobs with high salaries are starting to reconsider their options and realize that other places exist and that one can actually live there while feeling deeply fulfilled. This has led cities into a full-on arms race as they attempt to make themselves attractive places to live, going so far as to literally offer people money to relocate. According to Porter, the way to grow a “middling city” into a “superstar city” is to convince both large companies to set up shop there, as well as lure in plucky entrepreneurs who can grow their budding businesses into flowers of innovation. And according to my own experiences living in an area where people from big cities relocate to at a rate of a bajillion people (give or take) a day, cities seem convinced that the best way to do this is to give someone the necessary permits to open an axe-throwing bar.

The idea informing both Porter’s piece as well as most of the cities hoping to “rejuvenate” themselves comes from urban theorist Richard Florida and his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class. Basically, Florida posited that the rise of the tech industry led to a new class of worker in America who wore glasses with plastic frames, had a lot of money from their jobs doing artsy computer stuff, were vaguely likely to start their own business, and were the absolute best and most powerful people in the universe. If your city were just able to get those people to come and start businesses there, then it, too, can be a superstar.

Despite having nearly 20 years to realize that measuring a city’s success by how many yuppies live there is a terrible idea, Richard Florida is still really into the dominance of the “creative class.” Writing earlier this month for CityLab, Florida noted that his so-called creative class is spreading out, opting to live in places like Pittsburgh, PA, Cincinnati, OH, and Richmond, VA at higher rates than ever before. Given that the creative class “often garners the highest paying jobs,” Florida sees this as an unimpeachably good thing.

But cities are not sports teams. You can’t just throw some affluent millennials into a neighborhood and use the fact that they make a lot of money to say that the city as a whole is improving in the same way you can immediately tell whether the Cleveland Cavaliers are good or not depending on if LeBron James happens to be signed to them. Often, when high earners move to a city in droves, a city’s character can change, its history papered over or even erased in the name of “innovation” or “progress.” In Durham, North Carolina, where I live, transplants and their money have effectively forced longtime residents of color out of the neighborhoods where they and their families have lived for generations — a problem that is by no means exclusive to this area.

Meanwhile, rather than making an attempt to become a member of the community as it exists and immerse themselves in what makes it unique, developers often displace local businesses and replace them with stuff they assume the members of the “creative class” crave. Generally, this means a sudden explosion in expensive juice places where you order off an iPad, coworking spaces that take up entire blocks, new coffee shops that seem old, expensive restaurants that look cheap, and the aforementioned axe-throwing bar. Businesses like these are less the building blocks of community and more like amenities on a stationary cruise ship for the wealthy and uninteresting.

Even still, this logic makes sense when you look at it through a certain (dumb) lens. For those who believe that governments should be run like businesses, then your goal at the end of the day is to bring in more tax revenue than you spend on city services and parks and roads and shit. In this sense, then, cities attempting to achieve superstar status are attempting to “hack” their tax base by luring in the affluent and looking the other way as they displace those with lower incomes who might be more in need of a city’s public resources.

But this mentality, which prioritizes growth over all else, is both cruel for reasons that are obvious and ineffective for ones that are not. The language surrounding “superstar cities” implicitly speaks to a world in which a select few cities are winners and the vast majority of others are losers — after all, it’s much more likely that when a start-up attempting to growth-hack their way into becoming the next Facebook that they end up becoming the next Moviepass. Why would a city government want to take those odds? Perhaps if, for example, Pete Buttigieg had asked himself that question during his first term as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he would not have razed literally 1,000 buildings and evicted 6.7 percent of his city’s tenants in the name of economic development. But he did, and now South Bend’s black and brown communities are arguably worse off than they were before he disrupted City Hall, while Buttigieg himself gets to run for president.

This isn’t to say that cities should just do nothing if their local economies are struggling. But maybe it’s better for a local government to concentrate on using the tools at its disposal to help the people who already live there become happy and financially stable, rather than openly pining for some asshole with an app to come in and start paying a bunch of taxes. Maybe instead of superstar cities, we should be aiming for “position player cities,” cities that know what they do best and do the shit out of it, even if they’ll never become hubs for start-ups or biotechnology research firms. People loved Manute Bol, the rail-thin seven-foot seven-inch NBA center who averaged 6.4 blocks per 36 minutes, because he was unique, charming, and incredibly good at one thing, not because he tried to emulate Michael Jordan.

Perhaps cities should do the same. If your city has a bunch old houses laying around, then fix them up, give them to people who need them, and see what happens. If you’ve got a river running through your downtown, fish all the trash out of it and send some tourists rafting down that motherfucker. If your town is home to the biggest Christmas store in America, don’t kick the weirdos who own it out and sell the building to WeWork, throw a really annoying Christmas parade. The best type of new resident of a city is someone who falls in love with a place for what it is and wants to be there because they think it’s a special place, not because it ticks all the boxes on some imaginary list of universal prerequisites. I guess what I’m trying to say here is never trust somebody who tells you to turn your city into a crappy version of New York rather than the best version of itself.

All Rights Reserved for Drew Millard

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