Monday, February 1, 2010

Reaganomics, and the Downfall of Urban Areas.

THERE WERE ONCE more than 700 manufacturing plants in the city of Philadelphia, and they employed around 250,000 people.

Now, there are countless old factories in various states of decay, not to mention numerous old industrial structures that have been re-purposed as condos, offices, artist studios, stores and businesses of various sorts. Only 40,000 manufacturing jobs remain in the city and many of those employees now reside outside the city limits.

In Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin argues that market forces pushed industry out of the city, and ultimately out of the country. She writes that we are now a society of consumers, not producers. That's not exactly controversial. Then she says that the consumers are better off than the producers. Now I'm confused.

Her primary argument is that capitalism and public policy created the landscapes of America. Culture has the ability to draw people - and thus money - but Zukin speaks of culture less in terms of art and more in terms of commerce.

It's hard not to think of this work as a relic from the Reagan era, when money ruled the world and designer clothes were a sign of success.

We were a divided country back then as we are now, but the divisions seem wider now. The Baby Boomers have hit retirement age and their portfolios have plummeted in recent years. States are strapped for cash. Unemployment is the highest since Reagan ran the country. The national debt is ginormous and showing no signs of ever coming down to Earth.

In the age of telecommuting, can market forces continue to determine where we live? Aren't we beyond the garish display of wealth? Have we learned nothing from the recent economic crisis?

I found Zukin to be interesting and even poetic at times. I also found her research to be lacking concrete evidence, sometimes relying upon hers or other people's opinions and observations.

As a person interested in the fate of cities, and specifically this rust belt town that I live in, I wanted more from her than just saying that urban spaces are liminal areas that merge commerce with culture, space with time, and public with private. No kidding.

We need, she says, to create public value. We need to think about social return on investment to citizens rather than shareholders' financial return. Really? Good luck convincing Wall Street on that one.

Zukin's examinations of past experiences are interesting but what do we do with them? How do we apply those lessons? Where are the answers?

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