Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bowling Alone Urbanism

UpdateCoincidentally, Next American City serves up some evidence that is a counterargument to my position.

Subsidizing home ownership in the city is a bad idea. Among urban renewal policy wonks, conventional wisdom holds that helping lower income families secure a mortgage will improve a neighborhood. You care more about that which is yours. Social capital increases in distressed areas. A virtuous circle helps to spiral people out of poverty (and into the suburbs). That may be exactly what happens. It's still wrongheaded.

My beef with this approach has been that it stifles geographic mobility and individual economic development. Place is put in front of people, community first. I contend I'm correct to criticize, but offer the wrong rationale for my thinking. The problem is too much social capital.

I'm currently reading "Soft City" by Jonathan Raban. Raban wrote an article for the Financial Times that has influenced my view of the Rust Belt urban frontier. What made the city so liberating is the lack of social capital. You were anonymous, a tabula rasa. For Raban, social media is today's Soft City:

Now, in Seattle, I watch my nearly-16-year-old daughter lost to MySpace and Facebook. Her time is spent in an elective community of exactly the kind I once sought in the big city: she's "social networking" with friends in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Tokyo, along with a multitude of places I've never heard of. That freedom to experiment with personae, to play out fantasies of self, once the unique gift of the metropolis, is available on everyone's laptop, as they masquerade anonymously behind screen names and avatars.

Cyberspace is lamentably short of restaurants and drinking clubs, and its two-dimensional architecture doesn't strike me as much fun, though its fine retail district combines the virtues of Old Bond Street and Petticoat Lane. You can't eat dinner there but it meets, in virtual form, almost all the conditions of a true soft city, and does so on a global scale, as cosmopolitan as any provincial isolate could dream of. In Concrete, Washington, or in Goole in Humberside, you can enter it with a mouse-click; so maybe, thanks to the internet, we're all freed - somewhat - of the burning necessity to move to South Ken.

Emphasis added. Globalization punishes places that amass too much social capital. The only solution is to leave, head to big (soft) city. No longer. You can get online in rural North Dakota and surf the Kondratieff Wave.

Parochial problem solved? Perhaps not. To the heart of the Eurocrisis:

Maria Adele Carrai has two master's degrees from Italian universities in economics and Asian languages and is now earning her Ph.D. in international law in Hong Kong. Her linguistic credentials are formidable: Besides native Italian, she has nearly flawless English, a rarity in Italy, as well as French, Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin.

But the 26-year-old from a family of physicians in a small town near the Adriatic Sea, lacks an increasingly crucial key to unlocking the door to work in Italy: a "raccomandazione." It's Italian for the right word from the right person to get you hired, even if you might not be the best one for the job.

As Europe's economic crisis darkens the future of millions of youth, the culture of connections that has lain at the heart of hiring practices in much of the continent is becoming ever more entrenched, even as it harms prospects of recovery. It is blocking young talent or driving it overseas, and contributing to a vicious circle of stagnation that threatens to leave Europe behind in the game of globalization. ...

... Carrai, the linguist and aspiring international law expert, ruefully learned how much connections count even in the rarefied world of academia. She moved to Hong Kong to escape the stifling atmosphere of university nepotism: "I saw how it worked. I didn't want to stay in Italy and stick with this system."

"`Raccomandazioni' are to a certain degree a normal, human," she said. But cross a certain line "and it becomes corruption."

Raccomandazione is too much social capital. The Soft City should be the solution. In Southern Europe, perhaps in all of Europe, it didn't turn out that way. Why? Lack of geographic mobility is one explanation. The urban is parochial instead of cosmopolitan. Immigrants are stuck and isolated in the banlieues. You have to move to Hong Kong to get in on the game. Dynamic Europe, with few exceptions, is abroad in places with weak social capital. Italy's cities aren't soft enough.

Once again, I'm left with the magic of migration. Owning a home in a city is a double whammy. You live in a neighborhood of increasing social capital; locals only and migrants keep out. You are tethered to a mortgage that precludes you from chasing a job halfway across the country. This is a poverty trap, the worst of two worlds (city and country). To Robert Putnam: Bowling alone saved America. We need more soft neighborhoods.


Derek Tibbs said...

I'm interested in the ways in which Raban believes his daughter is making her own 'soft city' from among her collection of Facebook and Twitter connections.

My reading of Soft City left me with the sense that one must have the real, tangible, physical connection to both an actual place and actual people in order to fashion your own elective 'city' out of the structures of the real city.

I'm now 28, and have been using the varieties of online social network technologies since there very inception, and I still cannot see how it would aid in the making of my own soft city, at least as Raban described it in his book--which I read with pleasure years ago.

Jim Russell said...

Raban better articulates his meaning in a piece he wrote for the Financial Times:

"Yet in Soft City I was trying to write about metropolitan life as it had existed since the 18th century – as a theatre in which the newly arrived could try on masks and identities more daring and extravagant than any they had been allowed in their villages or small towns, as a place that guaranteed a blessed privacy, anonymity and freedom to its inhabitants and, most of all, as somewhere where every citizen created a route of his or her own through its potentially infinite labyrinth of streets, arranging the city around them to their own unique pattern."