11.13.2017

Rising in the East, Falling in the West

Heading off to an urban university on the East Coast from my suburban West Coast hometown was not unusual in the 1990's, but staying put after graduation was highly unusual.  The Bay Area was riding a tech boom that brought an abundance of jobs and prosperity to go along with the sunny weather and beautiful scenery.  Meanwhile, Philadelphia had been on the decline for a half-century and was teetering on the brink of municipal bankruptcy and urban anarchy.

Obviously, I've quite enjoyed my 25+ years here on the East Coast, which have coincided with the ascendance of cities in general and Philly (and in particular my part of it) in specific.  I've written at length of how great a package Philly has to offer, including density and green space and affordability and culture and diversity and mobility and the list goes on and on.

While promoting Philly, I've been careful not to totally rag on my old stomping grounds, because the Silicon Valley has done quite for itself since I last lived there, and I certainly don't begrudge the choices of friends and family members who adore Bay Area living.  But I do want to sound a few notes of caution about the possible future trajectory of the place I grew up in and places like it.  After all, over the long haul, the narrative of cities and regions can change dramatically; Philly's has seen boom and then bust and then boom again in, relatively speaking, a short time span.

So there's no reason why Silicon Valley's success will last forever.  In fact, there are some glaring fissures in the structure of places like the Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle (less so So Cal), which threaten to unravel those places over the next few decades if things proceed as they currently are.

Let's start with rampant housing unaffordability.  The tech boom has created an abundance of very well-paying jobs, but a variety of factors have kept local real estate markets from adding enough new or renovated units to keep up with the growing demand.  This has strained working class families' household budgets to a breaking point, and led to rampant homelessness.  Just in the past week, for example, see here and here for coverage of this.

Which brings up another, more ominous issue, which is touched on a bit in these articles, which is the racial aspect of some of this divide between haves and have nots.  Historical communities of color are gentrifying rapidly as a result of the housing shortage, resulting in the mass displacement of households and the loss of invaluable cultural touchstones.  Add to that the lack of diversity in the employment bases and management levels of the tech companies driving this boom, and you have the recipe for simmering anger about inequity.  All this at a time when our youngest generations are unprecedentedly attuned to and appreciative of the importance of diversity and of the need to fight hard to secure and celebrate it.  In other words, this sort of divide is utterly unappealing to many of our brightest future leaders.

We struggle with things here in Philly too, for sure.  But the operative word there is "struggle," in that while we are all at varying degrees of "getting it," we are at least acknowledging the importance of such issues and are wrestling with how to do better.  In contrast, we see rampant cluelessness, snobbery, and outright racism and sexism from some of the Bay Area's most prominent icons and companies .  Or, we see absolute apathy and indifference, from the vast majority of people who are shielded from such issues on account of a sheer lack of any semblance of diversity (hello, Portland!) or of absolute and untouchable segregation of affluent neighborhoods from pockets of poverty (looking at you, Seattle).

Of course, racism and classism drives much of the affordability crisis in elite West Coast cities, with affluent whites and Asians (many of whom vote D and protest Trump) often leading efforts to restrict new housing supply, employing a variety of tactics (minimum lot sizes, easements) and offering a variety of justifications (historic preservation, environmental conservation), with the resulting squeeze disproportionately felt by black and Hispanic households of lesser means.  Housing may feel expensive in Philly, but it's nothing compared to Seattle and Portland and the Bay Area, with no easy mechanisms in those places to make it less so.  And we haven't even covered transportation, for many households the second largest expense after housing, and which can be mitigated for poorer families by Philly's extensive transit system but which often requires one car per adult in West Coast cities.

Maybe my East Coast bias is showing, in terms of the kind of information I am consuming from which I am drawing these conclusions.  But it seems to me that the next generation highly values urban places that are affordable, culturally rich, authentically diverse, well served by non-car modes of transportation, and at least trying to overcome issues of racism and sexism (if not seeing some successes in those spaces).  Circa 2017, and for the foreseeable future, that sounds much more like Philly than the Bay Area to me.  Call me a homer, but I'm bullish on Philly's future on these fronts, and conversely I worry that places like the Bay Area are not far from a day of reckoning that will turn these tiny fissures into irreparable gashes.

PS American Revolution buffs should be able to recognize the image above and its relevance to my post today.  Yeah, history is another thing Philly has going for it.  👦
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