What Becomes a City Most?

Culled from my reading over the last month: This piece in the Economist, about the Orange County suburb of Cerritos:
Of course, many American cities have built parks, performing-arts centres and fancy libraries while struggling financially. The key to Cerritos's success may be the timing of its investments. Cities such as Cleveland and Baltimore poured money into museums and other grand projects in the vain hope that they would lure businesses and young, creative folk. Cerritos began by building pipelines and roads, then moved on to business parks, policing and schools (including California's best high school). Only when it was rolling in money did it break out the titanium.

Local officials attribute the city's success to fiscal discipline and the ability to follow a long-term plan. That, in turn, is the result of its political culture. Cerritos has a tradition of powerful, long-serving city managers, to whom local politicians frequently defer. As Laura Lee, the mayor, explains, “There are many things we, as elected officials, do not understand.” Voters, it seems, like this arrangement greatly. In a 2002 poll, an astonishing 96% of residents said they were satisfied with the provision of public services.

As a later letter writer (from Baltimore) pointed out, it's much easier to build anew than it is to rebuild the old, and places like Cleveland and Baltimore (and Pittsburgh) face the second challenge, not the first. Still, as Bill Toland puzzles through the "hotness" factor in his latest Diaspora Report, there is something to be said for the idea that foundation work (in the building sense, not the giving grants sense) is itself an attraction. In a different context last week, I wrote elsewhere that Pittsburgh may never attract that Gen Y contingent looking for cocktails and panache. Pittsburgh may and should attract that contingent looking for a place where it can lift a bucket and wield a shovel, metaphorically speaking, urban adventurers looking for a place that needs help and a place where they can make a difference.


8 Responses to "What Becomes a City Most?"

Anonymous said... 9/10/2007 3:57 PM

Of course one must also consider that Orange County is.... well, Orange County. I'd say a comparison between such a place and an old industrial city in the northeast is an apples and oranges thing. Or even watermelons and oranges.

The idea of working on infrastructure first has its merit of course. But as already pointed out, rebuilding and building something new are different issues. The article is kind of unfair to Cleveland and Baltimore.

Mike Madison said... 9/10/2007 4:04 PM

As a Northern Californian myself, it's easy to get in the habit of bashing Orange County. "Infrastructure first," however, is not a typical OC motto, and if anything I think that old industrial cities should be *more* attentive to infrastructure than their Left Coast cousins, precisely because it's both more necessary and more difficult.

AZMike said... 9/10/2007 9:16 PM

There's another reason reason that comparing Cerritos to Pittsburgh is apples and oranges. Cerritos in one little suburban city in the gigantic sprawl of L.A. Pittsburgh is a real city and the center of its region. Revitalizing Pittsburgh is tied up with revitalizing the whole region. Cerritos is really just competing with other suburban cities the greater L.A. area, while Pittsburgh, as a region, has to compete with other entire regions.

So it's more than apples and oranges. It's like comparing apples to elephants.

EdHeath said... 9/11/2007 7:10 AM

Although it is hardly exactly the same, do you think that the residents of Upper Saint Clair and Cranberry/Mars are more satisfied with their local government than the average 'burgher? Wealth tends to improve the quality of government and breed satisfaction. There’s no word about how the residents of Cerritos feel about commuting to LA, or if they get any of LA’s smog. And I guess the sheen may come off the ... um, well the housing bubble may diminish that satisfaction a bit.

Jason said... 9/11/2007 2:35 PM

Sewers are underground...water is underground...infrastructure upgrades by definition cause traffic jams

tifs and other voodoo magic build cool buildings above ground - like giant development trophies

John Morris said... 9/11/2007 8:46 PM

Living in a so called city in which power outages from downed lines are a regular thing and it's ok with the city if heavy rains cause it's downtown to flood has been interesting.

The issue of downed lines in most of NYC ended after a blizzard in 1886.

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/11/2007 11:28 PM

What about the contrast with Mission Viejo, also of O.C.?

There, the first thing built was the world-class aquatics center. Many 50-meter pools, diving towers and such.

C. Briem said... 9/12/2007 8:06 AM

Another Pittsburgh-OC link: OC went bankrupt not too long ago.

To be fair, that is an apples and elephants comparision as well... but still.

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