The need for economic diversity

A post diagnosing why, exactly, ethnic neighborhood retail streets are often so much more exciting than equivalent yuppie neighborhood retail, even after controlling for factors like residential density. In the end, I’m just channeling Jane Jacobs — although she, not having the luxury of writing after the flowering of postindustrial economic hyper-stratification, possibly mis-diagnosed “the need for old buildings.”

Perhaps my original post was a little shortsighted, but one thing I’ll still cling to is that ethnic neighbourhoods are much more resistant to the kind of negative gentrification that guts a lot of thriving neighbourhoods.

okay, so I’m thinking along the lines of something I just posted in another thread, but maybe this is because of social-class heterogeneity? that is to say, income and wealth diversity may be more important than ethnic or sexual or whatever diversity in terms of making “interesting” neighborhoods. many ethnic neighborhoods are cool because they’re entrepots: there are rich and poor, still intermingling because of language barriers or whatnot. (many immigrant neighborhoods have much higher household incomes than one might think at first glance; about 40% of households in Little Village, a Southwest Side neighborhood usually described as “lower middle class Mexican,” earn more than Chicago’s median HH income — $38K in 2000. yes, the families are larger, too, but there is wealth there.)

the more interesting gay ghettoes, IMO, are those which are socially mixed: girls and boys, for instance, instead of being completely overrun with the Chelsea/WeHo/etc. guppie circuit clone-boy crowd. (“Aberzombie” sadly never caught on.) meanwhile, there are some very wealthy Chinese towns in Southern California — say, San Marino or Diamond Bar — and their strip malls are almost as boring as any in lily-white South O.C.: Starbucks, Sav-On Drugs, Charles Schwab, Cathay Bank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, a seafood dim sum restaurant, bubble tea, a bakery, an antiquities shop, and Ranch 99 Market (a local Chinese supermarket chain; mildly interesting, but nothing you haven’t seen before*). and time and again, you hear older African Americans saying that the community stuck together during segregation; there were rich and poor shopping on 47th Street or Pettigrew Street, but after integration anyone who could moved away and so did the businesses. 125th Street in Harlem is still really fascinating even though the chains have found it: yeah, there’s Starbucks, but also wig shops.

once a neighborhood is economically homogenous at any level — Southside Homes with its dirty liquor stores and check-cashing shops behind bars; middle-income Rolling Hills Acres with its Mall-Wart and Oldtyme Rural Buffet; or prosperous Society Hill with Crockery Shed and Farstucks — it gets predictable and boring.

I wonder how it would be possible to quantify this. income quintiles are easily accessible from the U.S. Census (Summary File 3), but how do we define neighborhoods or even trade areas — for neighborhoods whose businesses rely on tourists?

or, perhaps there’s a “sweet spot” in terms of neighborhood social capital. too much, as in a small town, and not only does everybody know your name, but everybody knows that you didn’t go to church last week and cluck-cluck, shame on you. that’s boring.

too little social capital, and everyone walks around alienated and ignorant of their fellow man, talking on their cellphones or listening to MP3s, all while compulsively shopping, drinking, and/or popping SSRIs to assuage their spiritual emptiness. that’s also boring.

but in between? that’s cool.
— pc

* Leonard, I know what you mean about how two Chinese supermarkets in two cities can look similar but have completely different products. part of this may be because the importing business is still so highly fragmented (you’re dealing with lots of tiny little suppliers, some of whom you only know because Auntie Grace lives next to so-and-so), so different retailers — because they have different supply chains — will have access to a vastly different array of goods. but once you have a real chain, like Ranch 99 Market, that has centralized buying, you can say goodbye to that variability. case in point: Safeway is the same from coast to coast, but local farmer’s markets all sell pretty much the same thing, right? of course not.

then again, maybe that’s a crucial distinction between interesting or boring neighborhoods: how much of the local business is really local.

** for those paying attention, I’ve covered the following chapters in “The Death and Life”:
Chapter 11, “The Need for {henceforth, TNF} Concentration” — in talking about residential density
Chapter 10, “TNF Aged Buildings” — principally because aged buildings provide for economic diversity, because “I mean not museum-piece old buildings” (p 187). little could she predict the still-to-come fashion of paying a lot to be in an old building.

elsewhere, I’ve mentioned a quirky street grid as one element that keeps an area interesting; that’s Chapter 9, “TNF Small Blocks.” and I think we all take for granted now Chapter 8, “TNF Mixed Primary Uses” — although that may also be a significant contributor. I was just in a party in Little Village, and my, there are a lot of factories left there. today’s gentrified neighborhoods are little more than commuter housing and shopping, just like the pre-Edge City suburbs.

One thought on “The need for economic diversity

  1. […] Well, no. Jacobs could praise the industrial-era city because she lived in it, and for better or worse the industrial might that created Greenwich Village and Wicker Park has fled for warmer, cheaper climes. I absolutely believe in economic integration—I’ve posited that economic diversity is the determining factor of a good neighborhood—but our era (characterized by a post-industrial economy and a constantly retrenching state) brings with it nearly unprecedented levels of economic inequality. Economic integration, already barely tenable when Jacobs wrote in the midst of the thirty glorious years, would take Herculean feats to accomplish today. Accusing “the policy makers” of “fearing” the “ordered disorder of street life and the dynamism it brings to urban living” when, in fact, the city perpetually teeters on the edge of bankruptcy strikes me as awfully foolish. As Vincent Scully, an equally unimpeachable observer of cities, wrote, “it is all very well for stylish architectural critics to write that the center city ought to be deliciously gritty and tough. Its inhabitants prefer it gentle and calm.” […]

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