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Lewyn Addresses America
Tuesday, 13 December 2005
I beat up on Joel Kotkin beating up on Portland
Joel Kotkin wrote this strange and often-silly article for the Portland paper, so I thought I give it the treatment it deserves. I expected more from him.

Portland lost in its own reflection

Few cities in North America are as widely feted as Portland. For many, Portland represents the epitome of "smart" urbanism, a paragon that puts other, less-brainy places to shame.
Pilgrims travel once or twice a month from as far as California and Canada to study Portland's transit system, economic development and land-use strategies. Lots of educated people, trees, clean air and good buzz help Portland get on all the right lists -- from "most livable," "most fit," "healthiest," "most competitive," "most literate" and "best for walking."
It's enough to make even a modest city booster blush. But before you all turn red, is all this praise deserved?
Much like its bigger soul mate, San Francisco, Portland isn't an old-style "city of big shoulders" but a lifestyle choice for the enlightened elite. They're the people who read more than average, walk or bicycle regularly and drink lots of good coffee.

COMMENT: Note the naked class warfare appeal. How dare they drink good coffee? And what the heck is a “City of Big Shoulders” anyhow?

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.

COMMENT: Only 10.3% of Portland households earned over $100,000, according to the 2000 Census. Only 9.9% of them had income under $10,000 per year. That leaves about 80% of Portland households in the “working and middle classes.” That seems like a lot of working- and middle-income households to me. By contrast, in Houston (a city Kotkin praises a few paragraphs down) 11.8% of households earn more than $100,000 (MORE than Portland’s 10.3%) and 11.6% earn under $10,000 per year (again, slightly MORE than Portland’s 9.9%).

In other words, Portland has MORE working- and middle-class people than Houston. Presumably most of them have jobs. So Portland may actually have more middle- and working-class jobs than Houston.
Maybe Kotkin doesn’t think that Portland jobs are “real” jobs. If so, he should educate readers on what his “traditional standards” are and why Portland meets them less than Houston does.
But can a city survive -- and thrive -- primarily as a marketer of an urban experience?

COMMENT: And the evidence that Portland in fact survives “primarily as a marketer of an urban experience” is, um, um.... well, I don’t know because Kotkin doesn’t tell the reader. (Having only been to Portland once for about 12 hours, I don’t know any more than Kotkin does).

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.

COMMENT: No “functional warehouses and factories?” Then how come 12.5% of Portlanders work in manufacturing (again, MORE than Houston’s 10%). And according to the Wal-Mart website, there are actually two Wal-Marts in Portland zip codes, and a few more in neighboring cities. And where there are Wal-Marts, I think there are probably strip malls. But I’ll have to concede one point to Kotkin: evidently he has somehow learned that those Wal-Marts and factories rely on their customers’ and employees’ “high level of self-esteem.” I know how to dig up information on Census websites, but they don’t give me any information on cities’ self-esteem levels.

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.

To some extent, this high regard, like that of any well-chiseled middle-age narcissist, reflects something of a Portland reality. Portland, as its boosters are forever telling everyone, is a physically attractive place. Parts of the city -- like the much ballyhooed Pearl District -- look very much like famed urbanist Jane Jacobs' idealized urban district.

Rhapsodizers often miss the differences between Portland today and Jacobs' gritty Manhattan neighborhoods of more than 40 years ago. Those New York areas were home to large numbers of families and immigrants; they boasted both real bohemians (those without money) as well as people who worked with their hands. Most residents were there for employment and family; many hoped they'd move up into a nicer neighborhood someday.

Upward mobility was the common theme of the time. Urbanites wanted to get ahead -- not "soak" in the ambience -- and saw the city as a means to get there. "A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle class people . . . greenhorns into competent citizens," Jacobs suggests. ". . . Cities don't lure the middle class, they create it.”

Contrast that with genteel Portland, which increasingly places its bet largely on luring the hip, cool, iPod-toting creative class -- "the young and the restless," as one story recently put it. These hipsters are supposedly the engine of the city's future.

COMMENT: Who is the “Portland” Kotkin refers to? The mayor? The city council? His friends who live in Portland? And whoever Kotkin defines as “Portland”, how can it “place its bet” on anything? ? Has Kotkin visited Portland’s bookie population to find out what the city’s residents are betting on? Has the city council passed some sort of law stating that “we only want the hip, cool, iPod-toting creative class” but excluding “real bohemians . . . as well as people who worked with their hands.” ? I don’t know. And Kotkin doesn’t tell us.
But who isn't high on this agenda? Certainly it can't be families. Portland already has one of the lowest percentages of little tykes among American cities. The city schools are emptying out, down 14 percent in 10 years.

COMMENT: According to the 2000 Census, there are about 112,000 people under 18 in Portland. (And according to the 2004 Census estimate, there are now 113,000 under-18 Portlanders). By contrast, in 1990 there were just over 95,000. So the number of Portlanders under 18 has increased by about 17 or 18% since 1990.

Kotkin’s statement that Portland has one “of the lowest percentages of little tykes among American cities” is both meaningless and contradicted by Census data. Meaningless because Portland is growing, which means that its population is increasing among all age groups even if the percentage of its population in the under 18 age group is small. By contrast, many cities are losing population hand over fist (as Kotkin himself has pointed out in numerous articles). As of 2000, 6.6% of Portland residents were under 5- only slightly fewer than the 7% national average. 21.7% of Portlanders were under 18, compared to the 25.5% national average. Less than the national average? Sure.

But more than a lot of other cities- for example, both hip Boston (5.4% under 5, 19.8% under 18) and anything-but-hip Knoxville (5.9% under 5, 19.7% under 18).

According to the 2000 Census, 16% of Portland households were married couples with children. That’s almost as high as the national central city average (18%), and higher than such brawny, un-hip cities as Buffalo (12), Knoxville (13), Louisville (12), Richmond (10), Baton Rougte (15) and Birmingham (13). The lowest, Washington, clocks in at 8 percent. In other words, Kotkin is just dead wrong.

Nor, despite the obligatory liberal genuflection, it can't be ethnic minorities, either. Portland has one of the lowest percentages of minorities and immigrants of any major city on the Pacific Coast. Hardworking Latin laborers or opportunistic Asian traders -- the canaries in the economic coal mine -- seem to be opting instead for less-lovely but more commercially vital places such as Los Angeles, Phoenix or Houston.

COMMENT: It is true that Portland is less Hispanic than the cities Kotkin mentions (perhaps because they are closer to Mexico). But on the other hand, Portland is becoming more like those cities over time. Between 1990 and 2000, Portland’s Latino population more than doubled (from just under 14,000 to about 36,000). Portland’s Asian population increased from about 23,000 to about 33,000 (a 40% increase).

And Kotkin’s “opportunistic Asian traders” (to use his sterotype-clogged language) actually seem to prefer Portland to Houston and Phoenix. Portland’s population is 6.4% Asian, while Houston’s is 5.3% Asian and Phoenix’s is 2% Asian.

If they're the leading drivers of Portland's future, what is the local "creative class" creating? So far, nothing exceptional in the way of jobs or new companies. Now clearly on the rebound, Oregon's economy started lagging the country's five years ago.

But so far the data suggests that the rebound is stronger in places like Medford and Eugene, as well as the burgeoning suburbs which, compared to their high-priced counterparts in California, are attractive not so much to hipsters but to families.

COMMENT: See data above (noting that Portland continues to attract families). And Kotkin’s point would be more persuasive if he actually cited some data instead of referring ominously to unspecified “data.”

"People like the downtown, but the growth is elsewhere," notes local economist John Mitchell.
But the economy isn't the only place suburbia is doing better than the sophistos suggest.

COMMENT: Note the pointlessly insulting reference to "sophistos." This sort of writing belongs in a high school newspaper.

Like the "creative class," the city's much ballyhooed "green" planning policy has been less than wildly successful.

Even before Al Gore, looking out from one of his estates, discovered sprawl, Portland's planners declared war on single-family homes, backyards and insufficiently dense development. To stomp out such deviant behavior, the city -- to the hosannas of the planning profession -- proudly imposed tough restrictions, notably the urban growth boundary, on new development.

COMMENT: According to the Census Bureau, over 60 percent of Portland’s housing units are single-family homes. This hardly constitutes “war on single-family homes.” The urban growth boundary affects where single-family homes and other development is built, not whether it is built. In fact, the number of single-unit detached structures (i.e. single-family houses) in Portland increased during the 1990s, from 124,000 to 143,000.

Unfortunately, Portland's green urbanism has produced some unexpected results. 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.

COMMENT: On the one hand, Kotkin says Portland isn’t attracting immigrants. On the other, it isn’t attracting the “middle class” either. So who are those 17,000 children who moved to Portland between 1990 and 2000? And as noted above, Portland has plenty of people with middle-class incomes.

So Portland's sprawl has continued to spiral about as much, or even more, than most American regions, notes demographer Wendell Cox.

COMMENT: I think this argument is not completely nuts. But it seems to contradict Kotkin's attacks on the evils of Portland's planning system. Either Portland is not like everyplace else (in which case we can argue about the merits of the policies that led to that situation) or it is like everyplace else. If the latter is correct, there's no point attacking Portland's policies because obviously they are not radical enough to have a significant impact on anything.

Over the past few years Portland's population growth has slowed considerably, with the overwhelming majority of the Portland area's increases coming outside the city limits, and that percentage appears to be growing.
Some of this may be traced to the little-acknowledged fact about the creative class -- at some point many grow up and move out. One prime destination appears to be fast-growing Washington County, which beat the pants off Portland in a recent ranking of most-tech-savvy places in USA Today.

COMMENT: Kotkin does have a point here. The 2004 Census estimates were less kind to Portland than the 2000 Census data. But three caveats: First, many other cities actually lost population - as Kotkin himself has pointed out (See, e.g. ; compared to those cities, Portland is still a success. Second, the Census estimates are only estimates based on statistical projections, and may be less accurate than decennial Censuses. Third, Portland grew hand over fist for the past two decades, growing as fast as its suburbs. During both the 1980s and 1990s, Portland grew by over 20%, while America’s 100 largest central cities grew by only 6% in the 1980s and 9% in the 1990s.

Mass transit, the other linchpin of the Portland legend, also may be less a triumph than reported. According to the most recent Texas Transportation Study, drivers in greater Portland are stuck in traffic 39 hours a year, not far behind notoriously gridlocked Seattle, with 47 hours.

COMMENT: If Kotkin thinks Seattle is “notoriously gridlocked” he needs to travel more. According to TTI, the average metro area experienced 47 hours of congestion delay per traveler- as many as Seattle, and more than Portland. Los Angeles has more than twice as much congestion as Portland (93 hours), Houston over 50% more (63 hours). See

So if Portland's present accomplishments are less than stellar, what does the future hold ? Actually, it won't be too bad for those who like the way things are.
Given current trends, Portland's inner city will continue to be attractive to its core demographic niches. As an attractive Ephemeral City, it will remain a lifestyle pit stop for wayward twentysomethings and a lure for the financially secure's quest for quality of life.
It also might remain a blessed place for aging hipsters who can "create" for each other without enduring the hard competitive scene of Los Angeles, New York or even Seattle.
Population pressures may help. As the country grows to 400 million by 2050 -- due largely to the children of immigrants and babies raised out in the burbs -- there'll be enough young people, childless couples and nomadic rich to keep the Pearl District hopping. Suburbanites may still wander into town on weekends to take in a play, a game or some high-quality cuisine.
There even may still be a buzz about the place. Burdened by the complexities of managing mid-21st century super-sprawl, planners might still come to marvel at a preserved, archaic urban environment, much like today's visitors to Florence or Venice.
It will likely be an aggressively pleasant place, kind of a nice post-graduate college town -- a museum for 1960s values, a testament to good intentions and the enduring power of self-regard.

COMMENT: The last paragraph or two makes Portland seem pretty good compared to most older American cities. So why is Kotkin wasting its time attacking its "less than stellar" record?

Posted by lewyn at 1:27 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005 10:44 AM EST

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