Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


new-york-broadway

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

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.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.