The Emergence of Boutique American Cities

Democracy: A Journal of Ideas has a great article (reg required) on the changing role of cities in America. Joel Kotkin argues America now consists of "boutique" cities — Boston, San Francisco, and New York City — which house educated, elite, and wealthy residents at the exclusion of most everyone else. In boutique cities the debate is over where to put the next sushi bar, or if one neighborhood has too many coffee shops, or how condos should be regulated…not how to solve the affordable housing problem.

Spatially, the boutique city can be found in certain locations–Manhattan, Chicago’s "Gold Coast," much of San Francisco, Seattle, and West Los Angeles–but it can best be viewed as an interconnected archipelago of interrelated elite communities. Its fundamental economic power lies not so much in the efficiency of place but in harnessing the influence of the media and financial elites. It depends also on the energies of a steady stream of young, educated workers and legions of poorly paid, often immigrant, service workers.

Boutique cities comprise of the elite and the poor who take care of the kitchens. It’s hard to be a middle class person in San Francisco, one reason why San Francisco’s population is now shrinking and why there are more dogs than kids here. Of course some see this as a good thing — high culture reigns, artists flourish, geeks create million-dollar companies, and every other person you meet has a college degree (SF is the second "smartest" big city).

What boutique cities leave behind, however, is the "incubation of social mobility" that metropolises historically have provided. Houston, Charlotte, Orlando, Phoenix, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis: all these cities are now better "aspirational cities" for middle class people. The problem is they’re all trying (and failing) to become boutique cities by introducing slick cultural ammenities.

Kotkin concludes by asking what the role of cities should be in the 21st century. Are cities as relevant now that an entrepreneur in Bloomington is just as connected to the global economy via the Internet as an entrepreneur in San Jose? Are some cities better served as city-states (Shanghai, London, New York)? Will cities ever return to their roots of being home to a socioeconomically diverse citizenry or will a bifurcation of boutique and aspirational cities continue?

All good questions. But for the moment I gotta get back to fighting for a third sushi bar and fourth coffee shop in my little San Franciso neighborhood!

8 comments on “The Emergence of Boutique American Cities
  • Interesting post Ben.

    I’m honestly torn. Unlike many peers my age, some of the first things I did when I got here to Miami where take part in some of the “high culture”, mainly the Art Museum and a historical mansion that is now open to the public

    Yet affordable housing for those leff fortunate is often a conundrum. I’m fortuante that I seem to be on the right track for future ecnomic well-being; a young male with a college degree from a private university has an edge, and the field I am entering, Public Relations, pays nicely as the years go by.

    But what about the others? The kind folks who cook in the kitchens, drive the cabs, give me directions in Spanish when I got lost, or the staff here on campus who make me laugh after a long day?

    Miami isn’t quite there yet, though many people want it to be. South Beach itself has been revived into an expensive ocean front metropolis, complete with designer botiques, sushi bars and five star hotels. Of course this remains mostly on the main strip of Ocean Drive, but you can see the sentiment is spreading.

    I think one of the reason New York City can flourish given its outrageous real estate prices is the fact that affordable alternatives in New Jersey and Queens and Brooklyn are availble. One can “work their way up” to living in the city itself over time, however those folks are, once again, college grads who often earn handsome incomes once their early dues are paid.

    There’s a lot of tension in Harlem right now, with real estate developers wanting to rebuild it into a “white man’s town” while the locals are fighting bitterly to keep the neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural background intact.

    I’ve heard plenty about San Francisco–my aunt has lived there for over 30 years. I see nothing wrong with having a highly educated population along with plentiful ‘high culture’ activities, but if the pendulam swings too far in one direction, who will be left? The shrinking population is a testament that perhaps thigns have gone a bit too far?

    Cities have to provide some mobility or else they die. My native Philadelphia, much as I love the food, has seen this happen. The job market there sucks–businesses left years ago and haven’t gone back. College grads get their degrees and leave, and the city is all the worse for it. Yet, if it were loaded with nothing but highly educated, high income earning individuals and real estate prices reflected as such, families would leave, the population would taper off and eventually the home prices would drop.

    Oh, and one last thing. One of my favorite past times is eating (food!) and it’s always better in the immigrant neighborhoods. Not one upscale restaurant gave me a meal that could compare. And what is life without good food?

    OK.. enough sociological debate. I’m off to eat!

  • Thanks so much for posting this. It’s an interesting article, although I think Kotkin is off base on his premise that cities are trying to be “hip and cool” and promote condo living to attract primarily the wealthy.

    I think it’s the opposite — most are doing this to attract the new “middle class,” or a sub-set of it that comprises well-educated, creative economy workers. In today’s labour-scarce economy, the growing global companies will go where their workforce is.

    If the wealthy like it, that’s a bonus, but cities don’t make money off the independently wealthy. They need the businesses that employ the middle income earners.

    I’ll respond in more depth on my blog (

    BTW – I’ve especially enjoyed reading your posts this past week, and the college-choice-decision adventure.

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  • As a 21-year-old in geographic flux, this is something I’ve had to think about.

    Obviously, most college-educated people feel at home around other college-educated people, in an environment catering to college-educated tastes and activities. But these are not homogeneous, and they need differing levels of material, social, and economic support.

    I’m from Berkeley, and while I dig sushi and higher learning, I’m neither entrepreneurial nor particularly social. Many of the opportunities provided by living in a university town and near hubs of hipsterism and high-tech innovation are basically lost on me–yet they are still reflected in the high rents I would pay to live there as an adult. So should I live there? If it weren’t for the family ties and the sense of belonging, the answer would probably be a simple No (provided my income prospects didn’t unexpectedly soar).

    Ask yourself what you are paying for in a location and what you are truly likely to make use of. If you are a performance artist or a tech visionary, clearly you will place high and specific demands on a location. If not, you just might be better off in a place like Philly, which though not an economic powerhouse, nevertheless (I found, during my college years in the area) has a vibe that grows on you and cheap, excellent food if you look.

    (Moreover, with Cody’s in Berkeley now closed, Amazon is the premier book venue in either city, and a key player in making a low-upkeep highbrow lifestyle possible across the country.)

  • SF isn’t a “boutique city” because it excludes people. It’s a great city because it has a lot to offer. Great weather: not to hot, not too cold. California, including SF, has great universities and colleges, including the community colleges, which enable a lot of social and economic mobility, which is true of lots of California. Same with New York and lot of other places.

    So what makes it so “boutique”? Nice places to live are popular, and therefore cost more because more people want to live there, which raises the price of living there. That is democracy in action.

    This isn’t a nightclub where someone tells you that your shoes aren’t cool enough to merit entrance. It’s a city. Move here if you can stand to trade a small apartment for great culture. it’s a trade off.

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