The Growing and the Forgotten

Joel Kotkin’s attack on Santorum for his politics rural resentment drew a puzzled response from Cap’n Transit. Although both Kotkin and Santorum are opposed to the kind of urbanism the Cap’n and I promote, their approaches are the exact opposites of each other. Kotkin represents America the growing; Santorum represents America the forgotten. The same distinction applies to people who are not so conservative, and people on the same side of it (for example, Kotkin, Richard Florida, and Thomas Friedman) have more in common with one another than they’d probably like to admit.

America the growing is an America that is working just fine as it is. It needs more growth because capitalism always does, but it has no huge problems that can’t be solved with just more ingenuity. Kotkin’s perfect America looks like Texas. It’s rich, it thrives on bigness, and it’s doing better economically than the national average. It’s also diverse and forward-looking: its best days are ahead of it. Perhaps it looks like the growing parts of the Great Plains, but there, too, his post critiquing Santorum emphasizes diversity. This is the same as Richard Florida’s vision, except that Florida prefers the growth of gentrified, liberal inner-urban neighborhoods; the only difference between Florida and Kotkin is that Kotkin’s preferred regions lag Florida’s in gentrification, and still have fast suburban growth.

America the forgotten is the exact opposite. Its best days were behind it, and it feels bypassed by recent trends, with resulting economic decline. When there’s nothing else to do, one can keep one’s own cultural traditions. Some politicians channel this to an anti-immigrant politic. Santorum has not, his Puerto Rico language gaffe aside, but instead chose to talk about religion, gay rights, and contraception, staking positions that are often far to the right of what is mainstream in most of the US.

The same forgotten appears in cities, only it takes different forms. The Wire and the books that went into it are about forgotten urban areas; David Simon says, “The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse.” Urban NIMBYism is essentially the same viewpoint, only it’s more middle-class or at least working-class: we have a functioning community, we’re under constant assault by the powerful and by outsiders, and we need to not change.

The booster mentality of the growing does not lend itself into that kind of analysis. It has not to my knowledge produced anything as scathing as The Wire, because it tells people that they are fine as they are, and do not need to change. It’s understandable when done to boost the self-esteem of people who have too little of it; but there’s a big difference between telling a woman with a BMI of 22 that she’s not fat, and telling the global upper middle class that everything is great. It’s the death of social analysis.

As a result, this view ignores social problems until after they’ve been solved – for example, the environmental problems of today, as opposed to those that have been improving over the lat few decades. It’s unmistakable in Thomas Friedman: for example, in The World is Flat, writing about some social problems caused by the entry of Wal-Mart into regions, he says he was pleasantly surprised by the Wal-Mart executives for taking those problems very seriously and planning to address them. Of course Wal-Mart is still swatting down discrimination lawsuits and still plays towns against each other. Or, again with Friedman, consider his use of the language, “Win, win, win, win, win” about gas taxes. The point is not that he supports high gas taxes; it’s that to him such policies are obvious solutions, which nobody but special interests opposes. The fact that those special interests are fighting for their political survival does not concern him; he does not think he needs to be persuasive to people who buy gas, to explain to them why they’d be better off in a society where everyone thought of themselves as part of a common general interest rather than in one where everyone thought of themselves as part of a special interest.

Friedman is more stereotypical than Kotkin and Florida, but the difference between them is one of degree rather than kind. Florida ignores the very real economic tradeoffs a city must make when staking development strategy. No worries, he tells the business class: just be hip and trendy and don’t worry and you’ll succeed. Kotkin believes in a very different strategy, but sells it the same way, grasping at straws to convince people that they should just avoid megacities and density for every possible reason.

Of course, the knockers and the forgotten have their own set of problems, coming from xenophobia and fear of change. They, too, sometimes think things are fine as they are, or even more so as they used to be, and this leads to romanticism, which ironically can then set the stage for boosterism of another sort. The best antidote to some of the social philosophy behind The Wire is Mad Men: in the era David Simon admires, things were still bad, setting the stage for the destruction of today. But at least it can be done right, even if not by Santorum and other reactionaries.


  1. Cap'n Transit

    I’m not baffled, I’m annoyed. I don’t think Kotkin represents “America the Growing.” I think Kotkin’s arrogant triumphalism hides a deep fear that we’re right and the suburbs are unsustainable. He’s desperately clinging to the lies of the 1950s, because if they’re false he knows that his world will soon be forgotten.

    • Alon Levy

      The Houston suburbs really are growing. They won’t grow forever (see post in the pipeline), but they’re doing great for themselves now. Boosterism is never a sustainable enterprise. It wasn’t in the Babbitt era, and it isn’t today, regardless of whether it attaches to a rapidly growing exurban subdivision, or a rapidly gentrifying brownfield neighborhood.

    • kantor (@kantor57)

      problem is that in the recent history of the world there’s the tendency to sustain the unsustainable as long as possible (possibly dragging everybody else in the same black hole); I do not know if Kotkin really believes in what he says or else is simply arrogant; but I do not care, in either case he is, more simply, dangerous….

  2. Emily Washington

    I really like that you’ve lumped the “boosters” together into one category. I’m not sure that Simon literally thinks that the 35 years ago was a better time in the romantic, Paul Krugman sense though. To me, it seems that he’s saying specific policies of the last few decades — the drug war, increasing incarceration rates, public housing ( particularly with his use of the language “brick by brick”) — have been devastating to cities. I think there’s an important distinction between wanting to undo speicific policies and saying that if we could turn back the clock to a time when allegedly we had a more equal society, things would be better.

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know how romantic Simon really is, but consider that he’s not really a libertarian – on the contrary, he talks a lot about deindustrialization, and (in other interviews) talked about capitalism made people less than human. Of course he knows better than to prescribe revolution, but still.

      Another issue is his portrayal of the media, both on the show and in interviews. He is more explicitly romantic there, with bursts against bloggers, approving talk about how much better things were before online news, and general idealization of newspaper monopolies.

      • Emily Washington

        Oh yeah, I would imagine he considers himself a leftist although I wish the creator of The Wire had been a libertarian. You make a good point about the newspaper, maybe he does fit pretty well in the romantic category.

        • kantor (@kantor57)

          Libertarian is a very strange word; in a way it is an umbrella under which stands a crowd of people who have very little in common (for instance Ayn Rand, Henry Thoreau and Milton Friedman). As many other words of this kind it is used to justify one’s position, no matter how weird … I have a natural distrust in this “blanket” words, and even more distrust in the people who cover themselves with the blanket….
          But again, maybe I am a romantic….

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  4. ardecila

    Interesting. I’ve recently started to realize just how skewed the rosy picture we have of pre-war cities really is. Yes, cities were denser and transit mode shares were astronomical.

    On the other hand, violence was probably just as much of a problem as it is today, not among the minority groups of today but the European immigrant groups that most wealthy and middle-class Americans are descended from. Living conditions were awful and miserable.

    I definitely ascribe more to the progress-oriented mindset… reactionary thinking is not conducive to any sort of tangible improvement.

    • Alon Levy

      There were a lot of social problems, but crime rates were comparable to today, or even a bit lower. The crime wave only really started in the 1960s. One big difference is that the police departments in the 1920s and 30s were run by the white ethnic political machines (especially the Irish), so there wasn’t as much sense that the police are Them as opposed to Us. In contrast, when the riots happened, usually there were nearly all-white police departments and black-majority cities.

    • kantor (@kantor57)

      I’m all for progress myself; however there is no progress without a fair assessment of the past (and the present); there’s nothing reactionary in considering the evident mistakes of the past. After all they are the reason why we are here now…

      And again much depends on the meaning you attach to the word “progress”; I’m surprised that this word still carries a positive meaning, given the number of abysmal things that have been construed upon ..

      Maybe we are really all romantics..

  5. Wad

    I liked to say that Kotkin should have put out his own “Death and Life” response called “How Irvine Are You?” He talked up any city that developed exurbanly, grew really fast and voted Republican. Irvine is the pinnacle of his ideal, because everything worked out so well for it.

    Of course, this was standard operating procedure for the Sun Belt, and most other Kotkinian cities have little going for them now. You have momentum plays like Phoenix, monocultures like Las Vegas and Orlando, and a third one that is seeing more trouble ahead: the almoner economy (think Fresno or a city in decline like Detroit). An almoner economy is a city region that has an outsized income base occupied by government or social services workers.

  6. Nathanael

    The “Bring back the world that never was, but which we dementedly believe to have existed” reactionary romanticism is the ABSOLUTE WORST.

    I’m not kidding; this was the sort of philosophy which gave us Mussolini and Hitler. At least the other sorts of ideologues are looking to a future which they know has never existed, or to a present which does exist, or at least to a past which existed once. But the ones who are looking for a past which never existed are particularly unmoored from reality and prone to come up with really REALLY bad ideas.

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