The Glorious Reurbanization of America

The Beat coffeehouse in Downtown Las Vegas

ReViva Las Vegas 

In April I traveled to Las Vegas with many of my fellow Venture for America fellows to attend a small conference called “City as a Startup.” The conference was generally about the potential for startups to revitalize the many American cities that have failed to recover fully from the desolation of suburbanization, deindustrialization, and white flight in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and more specifically about the Downtown Project, veteran entrepreneur and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s ambitious attempt to bring back sin city’s original center with $350 million of his own money. 

Like nearly every other town in the west, downtown Las Vegas grew up around a railway station. When gambling was legalized in 1931, Vegas became famous for its casinos, some of which, like the Golden Nugget, still stand today. When room ran out downtown, casino builders moved south along Las Vegas Boulevard, creating the infamous Strip. Unfortunately the economy went south with the Strip, and old downtown slowly decayed into a wasteland of crumbling casinos, bail bond and pawn shops, and cheap motels with residents who rent by the month. 

I first visited downtown Las Vegas in 2009 to play in Trouble in Vegas, one of the largest ultimate frisbee tournaments in world. The official tournament hotel was the Plaza, which I remember as a dimly lit maze of slot machines manned by the sorriest-looking sort of people, a scene made even more ridiculous when 2,000 mud-covered ultimate players queued up for the buffet after the first rainy day of the play. Extending west from the hotel’s main entrance was the Fremont Street Experience, which I can best describe as a seedier version of the Atlantic city boardwalk. Beyond that, as far as I could tell, there was nothing.   

The Fremont Street Experience 

For the last few years Hsieh has been trying to change that, by, according to the website, investing $200 million in real estate, $50 million for small businesses, $50 million for education, and $50 million for tech startups via the VegasTech Fund. He wants to transform the nothing at the end of the Fremont Street Experience into a community that attracts young people from across the country with a culture and economic value independent of vice city tourism. It’s ambitious to say the least. 

I went to Vegas looking for the answer to one question: will the Downtown Project succeed or not? I confess, I was a doubter. Many municipalities have poured ten times what Hsieh has into their urban centers, to little or no effect. Eventually, I thought, Hsieh’s money would run out, and when it did, I predicted, the local economy would fall back to pre-exogenous-bump levels. Hsieh’s actions seemed to me at best tragically noble, and at worst an example of veteran entrepreneur hubris.  

The fantastically pedestrian friendly Container Park in DTLV 

When I arrived in April I was eager to see what had changed since 2009. Unfortunately, aside from the awesome Container Park, my first impression told me “not much.” Downtown Vegas was still the inhospitable patchwork of motels, casinos, and empty lots I recalled. But as time went on my opinion changed. My friends who lived in Vegas pointed out the objectively decent independent coffee shop, and the breakfast place that had opened with Hsieh’s financial support but that was now profitable and in fact, bustling. I saw Downtown Project plans for new retail developments and (gasp) a grocery store. I talked to small business owners who seemed genuinely invested in the community. The relocation of the Zappos HQ into the old city hall really had increased foot traffic. The clincher came on Friday, my fourth day in Vegas and the night of the monthly First Friday festival, when I realized that Downtown Vegas was becoming “going out” destination for locals—beating out the world-famous albeit notoriously expensive clubs on the Strip. 

By the time I left Vegas, I realized that I was asking the wrong question. The Downtown Project WILL succeed. Not because of the $350 million dollars, or because of the bodies brought in through the relocation of the Zappos, or because of cool but weird culture that Hsieh has layered on top of Las Vegas’ already zany vibe, although those things are all certainly helping. The Downtown Project will succeed because it is riding a larger trend, a trend that will define this generation just as profoundly as suburbanization, deindustrialization, and white flight defined the generation of our parents: (the glorious) reurbanization (of America).

From Wall Street to Main Street

This is a picture of Canada, but whatever
For years rents have been rising in America’s major metropolitan centers, New York, San Francisco, Boston, DC, Austin. For years twenty-somethings have flocked to dense urban centers as if driven by some mysterious Jungian urge, mumbling by way of explanation only “because there’s stuff to do there.”  For years the business district elite have been riding up the subway lines, slowing pushing out the established poor and turning neighborhoods from big city backwaters into hipster playgrounds.  For years the urbanists who frolic on front lines (myself included) have been posting troubled comments about the byproducts of their own progress.

For years we’ve been been reading articles about the terrible decay in rust belt cities, southern cities, western cities, eastern cities, and most of all, Detroit. For years local government officials have been holding desperate meetings to brainstorm schemes to save their deteriorating downtowns, and for years ambitious urban planners and even more ambitious average citizens have suggested schemes composed of equal parts fantasticism and lack of funds. For years we’ve been sharing stories of hope about the startup, small business, or the urban farmer redefining the face of _______. For years politicians have admonished us for relaxing in Wall Street’s shadow while main street still bakes under sweltering macroeconomic sun.

And yet for years I—and I think many others who went to Vegas—have been ignoring the obvious: that the impossible to meet demand for urban living in top tier cities, combined with the somewhat perverse fascination with the fate of cities broken by the triple blight of the previous generation, is catalyzing reurbanization not only in the top tier cities, but all across America. It’s already in the data: the 2010 census reported that urban population growth has been outpacing growth in rural areas, and as everyone knows, with population growth comes new business, economic expansion, and rising rents. Of course we’re talking about the future, not the past, and therefore nothing is for sure, but when you add up the evidence the odds seem pretty good. 

So why did I go to Vegas a doubter? Maybe it's because the idea of America the exception, America the the abnormally car-driven, the obsessively NIMBY, the still racist, America the country that is determined to remain suburban if only to spite environmentalism, logic, and the rest of the world, is deeply rooted in our collective conscious. Or perhaps I'm just unimaginative. I was raised in a suburb, as were most of my peers, and to see an urban-focused America as an eventuality and not a dream is difficult.

1, 2, and 4 aren't real countries 
Hsieh has fortold the glorious reurbanization of America, or at least the part that concerns downtown Las Vegas, and acted on it. He might lose a good chunk of the $150 million he’s invested in small business, startups, and education (It was never meant to be profitable in the normal sense anyway) but what he loses he will almost certainly make back in real estate appreciation, and, thanks to the value added to the community by Downtown Project development initiatives, much faster than he would have if he had just bought the land and sat on it. Downtown Vegas would probably still be a desert without the Downtown Project, but I don’t think that it would have always been a desert without it; Hsieh is essentially speeding up an eventuality.

And what an eventuality! An America that says no to sprawl, no to gridlock, and no to endless rows of houses that all look the same. An American that achieves drastic energy savings by choosing to walk and giving up on acres of watered green lawn. An America that spends Saturday afternoons strolling down sidewalks and meeting friends in public parks, instead of stuffed in front of the TV. An America where every corner has a coffee shop, where every street has a bike path, where investment comes from the community for the community, where local art and industry are embraced, where historic buildings are repurposed, where children are raised by the entire village, and where all of the irritatingly overenthusiastic urbanists have died via spontaneous combustion into flames of violent, actualized joy.

Do The Thing Right

If reurbanization is happening anyway, what's the point of the Downtown Project, or of any other revitalization initiative? The answer is the question I should have been asking when I went to Vegas—not “can we do it?" but “how should we do it?” 

To answer that question, first we need to ask, “who is ‘we’?” 

I and most of the people who will read this blog post belong to a certain social class. Some of us were born into it (I was), and some of us joined by attending a certain college or holding a certain job; like all social classes, it’s a bit fuzzy around the edges. We are young, in our teens, 20s, 30s, and even early 40s. Most of us our unmarried and without children. We vary significantly in professions, incomes, and lifestyles, but we feel that we have right to any profession, income, or lifestyle, and that we have found our particular path primarily through our own preferences, guided perhaps by a couple shakes of fate. We are mobile. We are not are parents. We like whiskey and those of us who don’t pretend to. We are the gentrifiers. While wealth or ethnicity may differentiate us (we are diverse, albeit disproportionately rich and white) it does not separate us, and for the moment at least, the world is wonderfully flat. 

If the percentage of recent college graduates in the US is a good proxy for the size of this social class (although not all who belong attended college and not all who attend college belong), we are large and we are growing: about one third of 25-29 year olds hold a bachelor’s degree. Everyone I can see from my current location—the second floor window of a coffee shop in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle—belongs to this social class. There are so many of us that sometimes it can be easy to forget that “we” are still a minority, and that the urban future we crave may not create an idyll for everyone. 

I don't feel obligated to source these graphs...
The first and most obvious problem with reurbanization driven by “we” is gentrification. In places like New York, Chicago, or Detroit, where the urban core has been poor for decades, “we” are relatively obvious and gentrification is an omnipresent issue. In places like downtown Las Vegas, the unbuilt urban cores of the South, and certain abandoned rust belt centers, “we” is less obvious, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Poor people move where the rich don’t want to be, and if the rich move back to the city, they’ll move back to the ‘burbs, creating the pattern foreign in America but familiar in many foreign countries. According to the Brookings Institution report on suburban poverty in 2010, the number of American suburban poor grew by 53% from 2006-2010 while the number of urban poor grew by only 23%. 

...because you should recognize the graphic design.
I’m not sure, but I suspect that for the poor the suburbs might be worse: transportation is more difficult, jobs are less concentrated, and perhaps worst of all, they are less visible to to the wealthy, who in this democracy unfortunately have political influence proportional to their disproportionate wealth. It’s hard to pretend that inequality isn’t a problem when you drive past the slums every time you drive into town to see a play, but when the poor are shunted out of sight the incentive to introduce corrective measures evaporates. 

We need to ask “how can we create spaces for low-income families in this new urban America?” The answer is probably not rent control, because we’ve tried that and it didn’t work, but it might look something like rent control. It might be generous tax incentives for developers of low income housing or business that employ low skill workers. It might look like housing vouchers. It might look like better suburban transportation networks, or a larger role for suburban community or neighborhood organizations in local politics. It might look like better education—something Hsieh has made a priority. It will look like a lot of the same questions that have been asked before, and that still have no clear answer. It will be frustrating. 

A more insidious issue with reurbanization by “we” is the construction of spaces defined by the needs and preferences of only part of the population. The wealthy have always led the evolution of culture in capitalist societies, but tradition doesn't make it fair. What if (gasp) “they” don’t like whiskey? Ideally reurbanization by"we" will take cues from the long traditions of community organizing and participatory planning—think community surveys, focus groups, and open comment and revision forums for new urban development projects. Again, it will be frustrating. 

I worry that the narrative of “we need to do something, anything to save our city” will persist, is persisting when the narrative really should be “what can we do to manage to this process, to do the thing right this time around?” I worry that “we” will dive into this new urban age with too much gusto, and let our euphoria eclipse consciousness of the fate of the remainder. Most of all I worry that we will forget that equality of opportunity is not self-sustaining and that the wonderfully flat world our small subset of America lives in today was fought for by our parents and their parents, and given a couple more generations of accumulation can easily be erased. 

It’s coming. It will be glorious. But it can be better. 

This one needs a citation: http://www.madpeck.com/


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