Urban politicians have widely embraced the current concentration of power in Washington, but they may soon regret the trend they now so actively champion. The great protean tradition of American urbanism–with scores of competing economic centers–is giving way to a new Romanism, in which all power and decisions devolve down to the imperial core.
This is big stuff, perhaps even more important than the health care debate. The consequence could be a loss of local control, weakening the ability of cities to respond to new challenges in the coming decades.
The Obama administration’s aggressive federal regulatory agenda, combined with the recession, has accelerated this process. As urban economies around the country lose jobs and revenues, the D.C. area is not merely experiencing “green shoots” but blossoming like lilies of the field.
To be sure, the capital region has been growing fat on the rest of America for decades, but its staggering success amid the recession is remarkable. Take unemployment: Although the district itself has relatively high rates, unemployment in Virginia and Maryland–where most government-related workers live–has remained around 7% while the nation’s rate approaches 10%.
The reason is obvious: an explosion of government amid a decline in the private sector. Factories may be closing in Michigan, tech jobs and farms may be disappearing in California, but the people who grease the skids of the ever-expanding federal machine seem to be doing just fine.
This is most evident at the top of the job market. The capital region now boasts the healthiest technology employment picture in the nation. Virginia has the highest proportion of tech workers in the nation. Maryland ranks fifth, and the district itself is seventh.
The area also continues to enjoy continued growth in the lucrative professional and business service jobs category. Over the past year, according to latest estimates by www.jobbait.com, the D.C. area was the only region in the nation to enjoy growth in this field.
Signs of Washington’s ascent abound. The local real estate market appears to be on the mend even as others suffer continued strong declines in values and rising foreclosures. Hotel prices, dropping virtually everywhere else, look to be rising as well.
Occupancy rates, falling in most places, actually increased during the first half of 2009, as did revenues, which have taken a nosedive elsewhere. In New York prices have plunged–even the mighty Waldorf has been slashing rates.
In many ways, the economic disasters in New York and other cities have proved a boon for Washington. Wall Street’s demise, for example, has been D.C.’s gain as the locus of financial power leaves New York for the Treasury, Fed, White House and the finance-related congressional committees. K Street is the new Wall Street, where you play for the really big stakes.
This shift may soon spread beyond the financial sector. Want to get into the energy business? You can bypass Houston and head to the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency–they are the ones handing out subsidies and grants to “deserving” applicants. Thinking of expanding your city to accommodate new middle-class families? The people at the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development have their own ideas on how your cities and regions should grow.
Manufacturing might be important to your economy, but Washington–a region with virtually no history of productive industry–generally regards factories as polluters, greenhouse gas emitters and labor exploiters. If you have enough lobbyists you might be able to hang on, but don’t really expect much in the way of positive help.
Some “progressives” may like this model–after all, it originated in Europe, the supposed fount of all that is enlightened. Since the 18th century, Europe’s urban history has been largely dominated by great imperial centers–London, Paris, Moscow and Berlin–that treat other cities like something akin to poor relations.
Even today European cities and localities tend to have far less control over their destiny than in the U.S. Zoning, planning decisions and even economic strategy often originate from the center, as does the power to tax and spend. For decades, Europe’s legacy of ancient urban privilege–so critical in emerging out of the dark ages–has ebbed before the increasing power of the national capitals. More recently the super-capital of Brussels, like Washington, thrives in hard times that are decimating other European urban economies.
The great European capitals rose largely because they also served as the domicile of princes, bureaucrats and, until recent times, the clerical establishment. Other cities might have enjoyed a boom–such as Manchester during the industrial revolution–but, ultimately, hierarchy served to concentrate power in the great capital cities.
In contrast, American cities and communities traditionally have retained control over planning, development and other critical growth factors. Equally important, American cities, noted the great sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, were not dominated by aristocracy but were “heterogeneous from top to bottom.” Urban growth came primarily not by central design but as a result of the often ruthless schemes and lofty aspirations, often ruthlessly expressed, of local political and business leaders.
For example, the quintessential American city, New York, started as a commercial venture. As early as the mid-17th century 18 languages were spoken on Manhattan Island (population of 1,000) and numerous faiths practiced. In early New Amsterdam, the counting house, not the church or any public building, stood as the most important civic building.
Even after the Dutch were pushed out by the more powerful British military, the bustling island city–renamed New York–retained its fundamentally commercial character. It served briefly as the nation’s capital, but its power grew from its port and its immigrants. The city’s entrepreneurial spirit and social mobility startled many Europeans. As the French consul to New York complained in 1810, “The inhabitants … have in general no mind for anything but business. New York might be described as a permanent fair in which two-thirds of the population is constantly being replaced; where huge deals are being made, almost always with fictitious capital; and where luxury has reached alarming heights.”
This entrepreneurial pattern also drove the growth of New York’s many competitors–first the great industrial cities such as Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit and, later, West Coast metropolises like Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle. More recently, there has been a similar spectacular rise of formerly obscure places like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Miami.
Through much of this time Washington barely registered among the ranks of American urban centers. Despite early expectations that Washington would become “the Rome of the New World,” it lagged behind other American cities through much of the 19th century. The city was widely reviled as a fetid, swampy place with atrocious cuisine–hog and hominy grits were its staples–that offered little in the way of commerce, industry or culture. Even its great buildings were compared to “the ruins of Roman grandeur.”
The First World War, the Depression and then the Second World War each boosted Washington’s status but hardly into the first rank of cities. Few entrepreneurs were attracted to a city dominated by regulators, clerks and lawyers. The cultural center lay in New York and Boston–and later Los Angeles. The Bay Area, Massachusetts and later Texas evolved into the primary technological centers.
Not until the 1960s did Washington begin to emerge as something like a traditional national capital, with a large permanent population of well-educated and cultured citizens as well as a robust economy based on the defense industry and the expanding welfare state.
But the financial crisis of 2008 has set the stage for an unprecedented growth of the region, with a Democratic president and majority seemingly determined to expand federal mandates into every crevice of community life. There is an eagerness to use federal authority in unprecedented ways that could bring federal influence into virtually every minute decision made in an urban area.
This concentration of power is also bad news for urban economies, including New York’s. As New York University’s Mitchell Moss has observed, Gotham may be losing its perch as the true national financial center. But other cities also should take note of the trend. Polycentric sprawling cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta soon may find themselves forced to reorganize themselves along lines preferred by federal urban “experts.” Hard-pressed industrial cities may find new environmental restrictions on ports and other key infrastructures an impediment to a much-needed renaissance.
American cities are at a critical moment. Our competitive, commercial urban tradition certainly has its flaws, but it also has produced the advanced world’s most dynamic roster of rise of modern cities and regions. Ceding the power of urban planning to Washington will cripple the American city–except, of course, for the one that reigns as locale for imperial control.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin early next year.