Who's Your City?, by Richard Florida
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Who’s Your (Academic) City?


Dean Dad is an academic and blogger who’s just read Who’s Your City? He’s well-aware of the tradeoffs between the energy of spiky places and the lower living costs and availability of academic jobs in other areas.

Any advice on where he should go – or how to manage these tradeoffs?

Dean Dad writes:

The conceit of the book seems to be that once you understand what goes into making an area hot or cold, you can use that information to locate yourself where the action is likely to be. Better life options, real estate appreciation, and general coolness await those who correctly spot the next Seattle. To that end, the book includes a series of (admittedly nifty) maps, and several top-five lists broken down by stage of life and sexual preference …

As an academic, though, there was something both frustrating and troubling about the whole enterprise. As Florida acknowledges in passing, certain professions aren’t particularly place-specific. Education, health care, and law enforcement, for example, can be found pretty much anyplace you find a significant number of people. In higher ed, below the superstar level, many of us take jobs where we can find them. When a relatively flat national market confronts a ’spiky’ economic landscape, you have a choice: have decent purchasing power in an out-of-the-way or out-of-fashion place, or struggle mightily somewhere where other people are in hot industries. Buy in a cold area, or rent in a hot one.

The top R1 universities can pay top dollar to lure superstars despite the price of housing in, say, Berkeley. But that’s a very narrow segment of the higher ed market, even though it gets most of the attention. Community colleges, for example, can be found in all sorts of communities, both hot and cold. And most of them define part of their mission as serving the community in which they’re located.

If the community seems to be in decline, should part of the mission of the cc be to facilitate individual escape? Given Florida’s correct insight that age-based losses are hard to recoup, doing right by individual students could have the unintended side effect of hastening the decline of the service area. That’s a tough sell to local taxpayers. “Help us drain this festering craphole of young talent!” It doesn’t look good on a billboard.

That’s not Florida’s fault, of course. But the idea that you should simply go where the action is strikes me as impracticable for most of us in higher ed, and of dubious wisdom even for those who could. In my grad school days, I was physically close to a great deal of sophisticated culture, but couldn’t afford almost any of it. Ever since, I’ve been a little skeptical of the idea that it’s ‘hot metro region or bust.’ Given the income scale non-superstar academics face, it seems to me that there’s something to be said for the cheaper regions. And that would be true of any industry in which paychecks tend to be modest. Being house-poor (or apartment-poor) in a hot area renders you unable to take advantage of most of what makes it hot.

Without quite meaning to, I think Florida walked directly into a really fundamental dilemma: the economic world is spiky, but the nation-state is flat. The two don’t play well together, and higher ed is just one sign of that (and a minor one, at that). Self-help is fine, but those best situated to take advantage of it need it least. There’s a much bigger issue at hand here. I’m glad Florida did so much to outline the problem. I just don’t have a clue how to solve it.

DD makes two very important points here. The first one is micro – where should I go? The second more macro – this spiky world thing is a big problem, how do we collectively deal with it.

I think the book shows its worth right here in the way DD frames his own location problem. I wrote the book not just to illustrate the spiky world but to give people – like DD – a framework with which to understand it, think it through and make the best possible decision. There is no one best solution, only a series of real tradeoffs – that DD identifies – facing all of us. I, btw, was in a very similar place as DD twenty or so years ago during my PhD program at Columbia. I never, ever thought I would leave NYC. But I went to Buffalo, then Columbus and then Pittsburgh, spending more that two decades essentially moving for work. My grad school associates who refused to move from NYC and turned down jobs at midwestern universities made a different decision and mainly moved out of academe. And after more than two decades studying and also living through these locational tradeoffs, I believe a book like this one was very much needed. Honestly, it seems like DD – as frustrated as he may be – has used the book more or less exactly as I had hoped.

The second issue, the macro one, I also tackle in the book and have been discussing here. Try as we might no individual – and no city – can “solve” the spiky world problem. This is a national -no, at bottom, it’s a global – problem. On this level the book serves as a wake up call: it’s goal is to get beyond flat world mythology and encourage economic and policy-makers and all of us, really to look at the world as it actually is. Left to its own devices, I argue, the world is only going to get spikier. The ambitious and the resourceful may be able to navigate this spiky terrain, but many, many more will become stuck. This will lead not just to rising economic and geographic inequality but rampant political polarization, a greater cultural divide, increasing fear and anxiety, declining social cohesion and greater political and social instability. How do we deal with it? We build institutions to pump up the valleys – this is a core mission of the Prosperity Institute, and we are working closely with the Province of Ontario and Toronto region to develop mechanisms to do just that. If mayors and local leaders are aware of it, why are national and global leaders literally asleep?

Back to the main point: Anyone have some practical advice for Dean Dad?

One Response to “Who’s Your (Academic) City?”

  1. andrew Says:

    DD seems to create an unnecessarily rigid dichotomy based around cost of living based on the whole notion that culture costs so much money that academics (and the relatively poor) couldn’t afford it anyway. As a poor academic who’s lived for the last 14 years in some of the most expensive, hot cities on earth, I just find this to be patently false. I’ve lived in San Francisco for over 10 years and have lived in New York City for the last few. I’ve also lived for a time in Europe, New England, and the South.

    Yes, real estate is expensive. Yes, cities are filled with people who have way more purchasing power than academics. But let’s get some perspective. I could buy a larger apartment when I lived in the south, and had more free money to spend. But on what? The restaurants there were often overpriced and lousy, and there was nothing to do.

    The sheer density of people in the megacities is what makes them so rich. You’ve got an infinite number of little clubs, art galleries, restaurants, etc., catering to every specialty, and they’re all in fiercy competition so they’ve got to be good. There are plenty of places in SF and NYC where you can get amazing meals relatively cheap. $100 will get you year-round admission to the MoMA, where you not only can see their massive permanent collection, but about 24 different shows a year but several hundred free modern and classic films they screen in their two theaters free of charge. There are hundreds of art galleries that don’t charge admission. There are free events all over every weekend.

    People get together to play soccer and tennis in the parks for free, you can get tix to the opera and fantastic concerts last minute on craigslist, etc. Yes, housing is more expensive, especially if you’re thinking a giant suburban house. But academics can afford to own a small apartment in a lot of neighborhoods, and it’s only a short subway ride to everything.

    I’m not trying to say that life can’t be hard – but c’mon, there are tons of underpaid artists and writers of all kinds making ends meet here. And they’re not all secretly thinking, “I just wish I had a giant McMansion out in West Virginia.”

    I’m not going to tackle the problem you raise about CCs, except by way of raising a question to Richard: you paint a pretty grim picture of the problems of rising economic and geographic inequality in your last paragraph, but honestly, the solutions you suggest seem fairly faint-hearted and even resigned. I honestly don’t think there IS a solution to the community college issue DD suggests. My parents were raised in a rural coal community that had gone defunct. The teachers there all told their students that their only hope was to get out of the town and never come back. They did, but the ones that stayed behind are not doing well. But with ever-softening national borders and increasing global mobility of bodies, services, and capital, I just can’t see any hope for non-educated Americans to compete in the future. Especially given the state of our high schools and even many colleges in this country. You say “pump up the valleys” as if you could just turn these completely burnt out regions into places competitive with megacities, but I can’t possibly understand how? And with what? Money from megacities?

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