Richard Florida’s “creative class” argument for cities is reminiscent of the special case of sexual selection in evolution. In the late 20th century sprawl became not a fitness trait in the competition for survival in terms of the forms which human habitats could take, but rather one which involved a subjective preference which swept over the population, like enormous tail feathers on peacocks or the ability of the male fruit fly to dance.
As with the examples of the natural world, these preferences actually involve characteristics which weaken the fitness for survival of the organism once environmental survival pressures increase. The “creative class” may now be a special class, able to select more dense urban living as a preference, but fairly soon energy and environmental realities will obligate most non agricultural elements of the economy to contract for efficiency; the equivalent of actual fitness for survival in a world with little cheap energy.
That being the case, I was intrigued by the title of Mr. Florida’s latest essay: “How Much Are You Willing to Pay to Live in America’s Best Neighborhoods”. The point made in the report is that the cultural equivalent of peacock feathers and fruit fly dances, “good” schools, restaurants, safe streets, etc., are worth the cost because they are the characteristics which give communities an advantage in attracting and retaining people.
Very cool and quite true I’m sure, but my natural contrarianism couldn’t help but pose a divergent question: “How much are you ‘willing’ to save to live in America’s ‘worst’ neighborhoods”? That’s really the question we have always been asking on the Rational Urbanism blog and website. ‘Willing’ and ‘worst’ are in quotes of course because everyone is willing to save money, all other things being equal, and the case I am making is that a recently acquired cultural bias, the equivalent of a horribly unadaptive sexually selected trait, has caused society to sometimes (suburban sprawl) see fitness for its opposite and vice versa thus defining much of what is actually “best” as “worst”.
But let’s pursue this. People are willing to pay huge amounts to live in certain communities. For some, the very few who make up the ultra rich, there is very little actual cost in terms of time and stress to acquire the benefits believed to correspond to these better neighborhoods. For most, however, paying for these benefits will add some combination of work time, quality, or type: one will have to work longer, better, or in a more competitive field In order to earn the income required if one wishes to live in these more selective places. If the reader will forgive the slight lack of precision in the metaphor, those huge tail feathers are beautiful, but they make it easy for the mongoose to find the peacock, and harder for the peacock to get away…he better be quite a bit better than others at escaping the mongoose ’cause the mongoose will be after him more often, and he will always be dragging around those tail feathers as he struggles to get away.
In human terms these are very real issues. At a party in Wellesley just last night my wife and I met a woman whose husband was not there because the pressures of being a professor at M.I.T. are such that four hours on a Saturday night in July couldn’t be spared from work. Living in Newton isn’t cheap!
Even in Podunk western Massachusetts living in Longmeadow, Wilbraham, or Northampton can cost quite bit with average home prices and values hovering between $250,000 and $350,000. Put down 10% on even the low end of that scale, add in just the property taxes and insurance on a 30 year mortgage and you are easily paying at least $2,000 a month just for housing, get anywhere near the upper end of the median price or value and that number jumps easily to $3,000 a month…for 30 years.
That’s a lot of time and a lot of pressure to do whatever it is you are obligating yourself to do consistently…really well…for a long time.
How about paying less than $1,000 a month for 15 years for a higher quality home? That way you don’t have to spend that much time, doing what you do, if you’d like, in a mediocre fashion in a fairly non-competitive field. And it gets better. How much do you think a genuine Italian pastry costs in Cambridge? What about in Springfield’s South End? I know, let’s ask Chuck Marohn! I went to a cute little Farmer’s Market in suburban Connecticut the other day. I was hungry, so I paid almost $8 for an “artisanal” empanada. On Thursday I got 2 somewhat less pretentious empanadas from a food truck downtown, 2… for $4…and I was able to go to a party on Saturday night and spend
My daughters never asked me to buy them a fleece from North Face…
I’d never heard of “Uggs”…
My neighbors don’t know or care what car I drive or if I even have one (one!)
And how awful must this neighborhood be for it to cost so little to live here? How few amenities must there be? How enormous the cultural desert? How bleak the landscape?
All of the bars, restaurants of the BID
The Springfield Central Library
You get the idea…the list could go on…and on and on.
The only arguments against really are “bad schools”, and dangerousness (please begin your rational urbanist journey here).
How much more time are you ‘willing’ to spend with your family, in leisure, in private pursuits (a blog perhaps), or in volunteering in your community? How much less pressure are you willing to live under to make that next mortgage or car payment or just to get by to next month? How much would you enjoy knowing that your family’s well-being isn’t in danger if you don’t spend EVERY moment possible doing what the market deems MOST valuable and producing what others judge to be of the BEST quality?
My wife and I have done the math. As long as ONE of us can spend a LITTLE time doing something FAIRLY well…we can continue to live right here.
As for the rest of you: “Have fun storming the castle!”