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December 15, 2005

Christmas Sneer

'Tis the season to be jolly, and all that.  But, apparently, not if you want to accuse someone--or a lot of someones--of being naughty.  This past Sunday, author Joel Kotkin launched a broadside against Portland, Oregon by publishing a dismissive op-ed in the Oregonian that derides the city thus...

Portland is becoming what I call an Ephemeral City. What do ephemeral cities do? Not much by traditional standards. They don't create a lot of jobs for working or middle-class people. Instead they mostly exist to celebrate themselves and provide an attractive setting for visitors and would-be migrants...

An ephemeral city doesn't compete with lesser places -- you know, those ugly cities with functional warehouses and factories, Wal-Marts and strip malls -- for jobs, companies or investors. An ephemeral city's economy relies largely on a high level of self-esteem among its residents.

Not to put words in Kotkin's mouth, but he seems to believe that Portland is simply too focused on creating an enjoyable city--the horror!!--and not enough on...well, manufacturing or strip malls or something sturdy and middle-American.

Now, I happen to feel that most of what Kotkin is trying to pass of as "analysis" is simply sneering.  And if you scratch the surface, much of his case simply falls apart.

Economist Joe Cortright and George Washington University prof MIchael Lewyn have done a good job pointing out the inconsistencies in Kotkin's thinking -- and, just as importantly, showing where Kotkin's just mouthing off, as opposed to marshalling facts in support of an argument. Just to pile on, here are a few things that I thought worth mentioning...

  1. Kotkin writes:  "Portland's sprawl has continued to spiral about as much, or even more, than most American regions."  This, as it turns out, is simply false -- unless, of course, Kotkin has some special definition of "spiral" or "sprawl" in mind.  Back in reality, though, greater Portland has had some remarkable success in recent decades in curbing the loss of farmland and open space at the urban fringe. 

  2. More Kotkin: "Four decades ago, author Neil Morgan used the term 'narcissus of the West" to describe an already self-indulgent San Francisco. Now it's time for the City by the Bay to move over -- the City of Roses wants to take its place in front of the mirror."  Hmmm.  Seems like San Francisco's done surprisingly well for itself over the last couple of decades -- it attracted over 100,000 new residents since 1980; has one of the highest median family incomes in the country; is the major center of the business and finance industries on the west coast.  Etc.  San Francisco ephemeral?  Every city should be so lucky.

  3. Still more..."Portland already has one of the lowest percentages of little tykes among American cities."  True enough.  But the share of households with kids is higher in Portland than in, say, San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver.  Portland's just barely behind Minneapolis-St. Paul on this measure.  But it's barely worth quibbling over numbers here, since it's not at all clear to me why it matters what share of in-city households have kids.  Some cities attract and hold families with kids; some don't.  It depends on a lot of factors -- the amount of single-family housing in the city; the size and density of the city; median incomes; poverty levels; the age and education levels of the population; whether empty-nesters choose to move out of their urban homes; you name it. (I doubt that the alleged "high level of self esteem" among Portland's residents has any role at all here.) And as Kotkin points out, lots of people move to the suburbs to have kids, for all sorts of reasons.  So how does this make Portland a bad city, exactly?

  4. And this..."As regulation helped boost the housing prices in the close-in areas, the middle class has moved farther and farther out. It turns out that most families -- yes, they still exist -- usually opt not to raise their kids inside sardine cans if they can at all help it."  This isn't even wrong -- it's just incoherent.  You see, Portland can deal with its population influx--resulting from its deserved reputation for quality of life--in one of two ways.  It can accept more density by building more multi-family housing within the city, for example by letting developers turn existing single-family homes into duplexes, condos, apartment complexes or row houses.  Or it can prohibit density by stopping new construction, which would cause the price of the existing housing stock to rise as demand for housing outstrips supply.  Either way, lots of middle-income families with kids will choose to move to the suburbs, either to seek a different combination of amenities, or lower prices. But in Kotkin's view, these basic market dynamics--more people competing for a finite amount of land--somehow prove that Portland is kid-unfriendly, narcissistic, and over-regulated.  (Maybe if Portland could just make some more land, everyone could get a big house and a big green lawn at a reasonable price, all within city limits -- and a pony!!)

I could go on (and on) about Kotkin's whine, but I'll stop here -- except to note one thing.

A few years back, Portland contrarian Wendell Cox (one of Kotkin's sources for the article) held an anti-smart growth conference for conservative think tanks and funders.  From what I read the conference was, in essence, a training session for how to vilify smart growth.  The advice:  don't engage on the substance -- because that gets sidetracked into a discussion of what kind of communities we collectively want to create, which is smart growth's strongest turf.  Instead, the best way to stop smart growth is to tar its advocates as latte-sipping, brie eating urban elites who look down on ordinary Americans, are opposed to freedom of choice, and want to tell everyone else the how and where to live.

Kotkin's op-ed seems to flip this general strategy on its head.  Now it's Kotkin and his ilk who are looking down on people who've freely chosen to live in Portland -- they're narcissistic and self-important, and insufficiently interested in bearing children and building strip malls, Walmarts, and factories. 

So who's the sneering elitist now?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


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» Portlands needs more warehouses? from City Comforts, the blog
Clark Williams-Derry does a nice take down of an article by Joel Kotkin which, if you read it even half-carefully, indicates that Joel doesn't really know Portland very well. [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 20, 2005 4:30:27 PM

» Portlands needs more warehouses? from City Comforts, the blog
Clark Williams-Derry does a nice take down of an article by Joel Kotkin which, if you read it even half-carefully, indicates that Joel doesn't really know Portland very well. Btw, as I have written before on this blog, I have chatted with Kotkin (we sh... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 20, 2005 4:35:06 PM


I've been mulling over Kotkins piece, trying to decipher just what his actual problem with Portland is. You've dissected his incoherence well.

Another interesting bit: he cites the number of hours the average driver is in gridlock as a failure of the transit system. Does this make any sense to anyone else? What would Portland's gridlock be like WITHOUT the transit system?

And reading his article you'd think that Portland's urban planners single handedly passed the logging ban and convinced major companies to offshore their manufacturing, just to get rid of the pesky middle class and make room for more latte drinking iPod toters.

Posted by: Klintron | Dec 19, 2005 2:31:52 PM

The almost hysterical reaction to Kotkin's op-ed piece tells me that he did, in fact, hit a nerve.

A few years back I wrote a newspaper column suggesting that Portland was not a "great city," in the way that New York and London and even Seattle are "great cities." I said it was a perfectly nice city, a pleasant city to live in, a pretty city -- but it didn't have that indefinable quality of energy and excitement that distinguishes a "great city."

Needless to say, Portlanders read the piece and went ballistic.

Why are Portlanders so defensive about their city? More generally, why are Oregonians so defensive about their state? Do they have such an inferiority complex that even mild criticism -- indeed, anything short of gushing praise -- provokes them to pitch a hissy fit?

Posted by: H B Miller | Dec 22, 2005 3:49:41 PM

OF COURSE, Portland is not a "great city." I think one would have to be unfamiliar with cities to think that a small city can be a "great" one. So the silly reaction you received might have been only the mirror image of your own statement.

Posted by: Seattle Man | Dec 22, 2005 6:54:48 PM

portland is really swell. it has tasty things in it, like warm noises in the evenings and bubbling pops in afternoons. some rain, some sun. negative ninnies need to enjoy more sexual escapades, and portland is really great for that. but then again, those can be found in the smallest hum-drum up thru the biggest cultural meccas. so yeah. :-)

Posted by: eatpeople | Dec 23, 2005 5:43:36 PM

It's an interesting editorial and I don't think it's bad to try and poke someone a bit when they take themselves too seriously.

I think Mr. Kotkin is using the notion of "Portland is elitist" as a means to frame the common critques of smart growth / new urbanism.


It's a powerful tactic that is pretty persuasive these days (anti-intellectualism plays well - and since these are very complicated issues - it's easy to knock down the elitists).

Then again, maybe new urbanists are elitists (and Portlanders by implication). Whether that good, bad, right, or wrong is another debate. But it's a point well-taken.

Posted by: Zach | Jan 31, 2006 9:45:19 AM