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.