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!

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