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Geography of Aspiration

• May 23, 2013 • 8:23 PM

Broadway in New York City, circa 1840. (PAINTING: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Try to replicate it with development schemes all you want, but you’re overlooking what makes New York City—and other places of ambition—so great.

Places have ambition. In this urban hierarchy, you aim to be New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. In the part of the Rust Belt west of the Cuyahoga River, Chicago is the city of dreams. In any development scheme, you pick a star and try to replicate it in your own backyard. “The Next Silicon Valley!” Yet all the schemes, placemaking, and tolerance overlook what makes a global city such as New York so great:

New York, on the other hand, will fight you every moment of every day. It will force you to justify your own existence and roll up the carpet while you’re still on it. It will throw every ounce of itself at you and ask you why you think you’re worthy of gracing the city with your presence. “I am monolithic,” New York screams as the subway whisks along Wall Street and no street alike under your feet “and your struggles mean nothing to me.” This is a city that feels no shame about trying to fucking kill you.

The salmon spawns of people will dull your willingness to engage in human contact. The cost of living will force you to question your appreciation for 3 a.m. Indian delivery. One day you’ll wonder why, in a city of a hundred billion people and a new restaurant/bar/hovel opening every six minutes, it’s so hard to make new friends, as you sit alone in the same bar waiting for the same group to arrive.

But New York is also exciting, and an adventure—and for some people it’s exactly what they need. That daily battle against the forces of the city itself, that justification of your own right to dream and find victories and even just exist forces them to fight for themselves—perhaps for the first time in their life. The city gives no quarter, but you learn to give no quarter in return. There is no “if you built it they will come” in New York—the city has too much to offer for it or anyone else to give a shit about your new project/restaurant/art gallery/crashspace/hackspace/jeans line/photography studio/bike repair shop.

I doubt this NYC is what Boston has in mind when trying to keep college graduates from leaving. Three a.m. Indian delivery in Cambridge won’t make the Big Apple any less enticing. If you want someone to give a shit about your pop-up market, move to Portland. If you want to be the best of the best, the best you can be and then some, you go to New York. All the awfulness be damned.

I’ll let Austin booster and entrepreneur Austin Gunter explain the allure of San Francisco:

San Francisco, on the other end [of the spectrum from Portland], is such an intensely driven city that you cannot help be swept up in what is going on all around you. That’s part of the point, and why I chose to move there. Practically everyone you meet in San Francisco has something awesome that they’re creating, and without realizing it, they help you get better just by being around you. San Francisco’s culture involves hustling and kicking the most ass possible, and you feel like a chump if you aren’t working as hard as everyone else.

San Francisco is a refinery. The city takes raw talent produced in Pittsburgh and makes it world class. Few places provide that kind of intensity, that level of personal economic development. That’s the attraction, not cool urban amenities.

Moving away from the intangibles, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York tackles the benefits of big city:

Theoretical research in urban economics suggests that the large and thick local labor markets found in big cities can increase the likelihood of job matching and improve the quality of these matches. These benefits arise because big cities have more job openings and offer a wider variety of job opportunities that can potentially fit the skills of different workers. In addition, a larger and thicker local labor market makes it easier and less costly for workers to search for jobs.

The theoretical research spells trouble if you aren’t sitting atop the urban hierarchy. Your town can build the latest High Line park. Such public spaces do not a thick local labor market make. The economic geography of aspiration includes talent producers and refineries. Austin produces talent. San Francisco refines it. Portland eats it, like cupcakes.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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