The headline of Richard Florida’s most recent essay on City Lab could just as easily read: “People Who Can Live Anywhere Like Living Near Cool Stuff” or “Rich People Like to Have Stuff to Spend Their Money On Nearby” or even “Poor People Can’t Afford to Live in the Same Places Rich People Want to Live”. I suppose there’s some nuance there when you start to break it down but that is the gist of the article.
When I teach young people about my experiences in Spain I have to start by explaining to them that the well-to-do often live in the center of Spanish cities because they want easy access to all of the things that the center city provides. At some point I say “think New York City and Manhattan” and they kinda sorta get it. If I transition to a more local example; like me and Springfield, the concept usually gets lost because it runs counter to fact.
There’s some irony imbedded in the reasons for that.
Even if someone of my income could afford to live in the trendier parts of Manhattan near all of the amenities that make it special, I couldn’t afford to see Broadway shows or dine at the trendiest places on a daily or weekly basis. The City Lab piece uses the Metropolitan Opera as its example of a cultural destination which lures the rich into living in the center city; at even $100 a ticket(i.e. cheap seats) my wife and I are not going on a regular basis unless that is our only focus because it wouldn’t leave a whole lot extra in the budget to do any of the other things available for me to do in Manhattan. So even if the working class and middle class live surrounded by all of the culture of superstar cities, access to biggest and best would be limited anyway, if not by proximity then by cost.
By contrast not only are urban centers in places like Springfield actually inexpensive places to live, the cultural amenities like concerts, sporting events, and even restaurants are priced at much more reasonable levels meaning that, if people wished to do so, the easy access provided by proximity could really be taken advantage of, even by those not in the 1% or the 10%.
I don’t want to be misunderstood here, having lived in Madrid, for example, I know that cultural capitals also provide interesting yet inexpensive experiences as well, but those are not the types of amenities that the article is addressing. In my experience both in Spain and here in New England there are always cultural experiences to be had which are both wonderful and cheap.
That said, the New York Philharmonic is better than the Springfield Symphony, the Rangers would destroy the Thunderbirds, and of course New York dining has a variety and excellence that a third tier city could never match (New York pizza on the other hand is way overrated…Sicilian>NY slice), but the Springfield Symphony experience is much better than not being able to go to the symphony, the Thunderbirds provide a greater opportunity to cheer for the home team and feel the rush that comes with a goal being scored than sitting at home in front of the tv, and interesting and unique gastronomical experiences can only be had when one can afford to pay the bill.
None of this touches on the most interesting question the essay leaves unmentioned however; why is the magnetic affect of cultural institutions in non-superstar cities so much less discernible? Within a 15 walk of my house there is an arena which houses the region’s sole professional sports franchise, the auditorium where the only professional symphony orchestra performs over a dozen concerts a year, a world famous sports museum celebrating the second most popular team sport in the world, a national Historic site and museum which are part of the National Park system, a fine arts museum with works from the medieval era through the 20th century with works from many of history’s best known artists, another museum with one of the largest collections of Asian Art in North America, a brand new children’s museum celebrating, arguably, the most famous American children’s author of all time, a science museum, a local history museum, one of the nation’s most impressive libraries, dozens of restaurants, bars, and clubs, and, now, a brand new resort-casino operated by the most famous casino brand in the United States.
But not only is no one moving here from Longmeadow or Wilbraham, but not even one of the city’s biggest boosters lives downtown. Not one. This essay is not about chiding them, (I’ve already written that one with the impact being the one who did live here quit his job and moved away: Go me!) it’s about contemplating why it is as it is.
Is it just too easy in a smaller city to get to any event, experience any amenity, and scurry back home? Are the suburban communities and rural towns of such high quality that our urban amenities can’t compete with what they provide at their scale?
It isn’t availability of high quality housing of any type in the center city; I sometimes call this place where I live a “mansion”, but apart from the basement apartment it has barely 3,000 sq ft of living space, there are homes 3x that size a five minute walk from here available for the same cost as a colonial in Longmeadow. Apart from that there are housing types of every sort in the core neighborhoods. It isn’t the schools either; the wealthy have private schools aplenty to send their kids to, and most of the big players don’t have school age kids.
A really good church friend of mine from back in my teen years told me once that he and his friends in the rural areas between Springfield and Worcester MUCH preferred the latter because Springfield was an “Orb” town. “What do you mean Orb?” I asked.
It’s “Bro” backwards.
Does the heavy presence of racial minorities, or even just the lack of Whites in the core of the city present too great a psychological barrier?
The question at the heart of it all is, are we in any way close to a change in the zeitgeist? Are we one restaurant, one club, or even one dollar per gallon in the price of gas away from seeing the effect amenities have on who resides in the core of the superstar cities visit an average city like this one?
Richard Florida laments that quality cultural experiences cause people to want to live near them because of his fear of gentrification. I reject that notion completely. Given the extant buildings and the empty plots of land available in Springfield’s core neighborhoods we could house every resident of Longmeadow and Wilbraham without displacing a single current resident; yet I would hasten to point out that I still have never met a poor minority resident of this neighborhood who wanted to stay here anyway; as I have stated before I cannot fathom fighting against the displacement of people who not only aren’t being displaced, but would like to be!
A successful downtown needs a mix of demographics certainly, and the most under-represented here are the well off. The art is here, the food is here, the buildings are here. It’s interesting that those can be enough to attract people in one place, but not at all in another.