What’s With the “New” Downtown?

When it comes to press reports about urban conditions, we have two rules of thumb. First, if the headline is upbeat about this or that city “coming back,” we read the text of the article very carefully because, sure enough, most of the time the optimistic tone of the headline is not reflected in the facts reported in the body of the article. Second, if the newspaper in question is the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, it’s a good bet that the upbeat tone of the headlines is inaccurate, and is not matched by the article’s content. Case in point, today’s front-page story, Sam Allen and Hector Becerra, Downtown Is Alive, L.A. Times, May 20, 2012, at p. A1. It tells us about how downtown Los Angeles is being revived by the presence of new sports venues; how the games of the Lakers, Kings and Clippers at the downtown Staples Center cause “thousands [to] jam the sidewalks.” Thousands? Really? That’s what it says.

But unfortunately, even if true (which in our opinion is doubtful — try to visualize “thousands” of people on a sidewalk and calculate the space they would occupy — a photo would have been helpful), that may convey a misleading picture because in the next paragraph the Times ‘fesses up that those “thousands” seem to be pretty ephemeral — if you “travel a block or two in any direction . . . the crowds begin to thin out considerably.” Not only that, but if you skip to the end of the article (at p. A29), you learn that few of the game goers “linger in the bright plaza, but most [hurry] toward their cars, eager to beat the traffic heading out of downtown.” So much for those lingering “thousands” that are supposedly revitalizing downtown. And as you wend your way through this article, you also learn that the local residents — those who actually live downtown — don’t want to have anything to do with the, er, exuberant visiting sports fans, and prefer their own quiet venues.

Still, the Times article presents two bits of data that stimulate thought. First, we learn that Joel Kotkin, the cold-eyed realist when it comes to assessing changes in urban conditions, is quoted as saying, that “Downtown has some great neighborhoods that have their own specific function.” Sounds right, but for all our regard for Kotkin’s judgment, that does not amount to the makings of a genuine downtown revival as a vital human habitat, particularly for families with children, as opposed to a few trendy yuppies and boomer empty nesters.

So let’s see if the Times story is backed up by numbers. According to the Times, “Downtown’s residential population jumped 50% between 2000 and 2010 from 26,000 to 39,000.” Fifty percent sounds like a lot but according to our calculator, that’s an increase of 13,000 in ten years, or an average of 1300 per year. We find these figures    underwhelming because, to give you some idea, the flow of traffic on the 101 Freeway that serves downtown (not counting the Golden State, the Pasadena-Harbor Freeways, the Santa Monica, and the San Bernardino Freeways) is 160,000 to 165,000 cars per day, or — taking the lower number and averaging it over a 24-hour day, that comes to an average of over 6600 cars per hour. Which means that the vaunted 10-year increase in downtown population comes to under two hours’ worth of traffic on the 101 alone. We remain underwhelmed.

Finally, the Times story is noteworthy for what it does not tell the reader. Who are those 13,000 who took up residence downtown during the past decade? Are they permanent residents, or are they merely unattached young people drawn to a trendy urban lifestyle in one of Kotkin’s hip neighborhoods, or taking advantage of cheaper downtown rents in lofts and older buildings? Are they committed to a long-term future that includes having and raising children in the city? Or willl they, when the time comes to procreate, head back to the suburbs to be near Mom and Dad, and enjoy the comparative economic benefits, safety and amenities of suburbia? You tell us.

Another such puff piece comes to us from Salon (Will Doig, Rust Belt Chic: Declining Midwest Cities Make a Comeback, May 12, 2012 — click here. But before you start packing your bags and heading for Cleveland, check this out:

“But Rust Belt chic is at least partly a romantic fantasy, and that makes it a risky way to try to revitalize. Last year, Guernica magazine ran a withering critique of what it called “Detroitism,” the fetish for crumbling urban landscapes mixed with eccentric utopian delusions, “where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the $100 house and community garden of their dreams.” What these dreams seldom include, however, are the almost unimaginable systemic problems many of these cities suffer from: failed schools, violent crime, the threat of municipal bankruptcy. Photographers parachuting in to shoot Michigan Central Station and Anthony Bourdain’s gushing endorsement may be clouding the fact that cities in crisis won’t be lifted by chicness alone.

“What struggling cities need are jobs, and not just jobs at coffee roasteries in abandoned railroad terminals that make for great style-section articles. ‘The only way [a turnaround] will really happen is by reintroducing meaningful, equitably compensated work into these cities,’ says Catherine Tumber, author of ‘small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.’ ‘This longing can be expressed aesthetically, but it can only be satisfied by restoring the workforce.’”

So much for trendy revivals of the old, “rust belt cities.”