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That New York City Magic

• August 09, 2013 • 3:26 PM

A construction worker on top of the Empire State Building as it was being built in 1930. The Chrysler Building is below and behind him. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Mayor Bloomberg is wrong: The Big Apple’s main attraction isn’t “safe and clean streets.” Why, then, do people move there?

New York City is cool. Detroit isn’t. That’s why the latter is bankrupt. So says NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg:

If you can attract people to neighborhoods across the city – residents, visitors, immigrants – by creating safe and clean streets, good schools and green parks, and cultural opportunities, you can set off a virtuous cycle of growth.

The cycle works like this: The more people we attract, the more jobs are created, the more tax revenue is generated, the more investments can be made in the city to make it a great place, the more people move here and visit here. And the cycle continues.

Population growth begets economic growth, begets revenue growth, begets – if managed and invested wisely – population growth. A virtuous cycle.

Now, there are challenges that come with the virtuous cycle, which is why housing here has gotten more expensive, despite the record amount of affordable and market-rate housing we’ve helped create.

But it’s far better to face the challenges of success, as I call them, than the crises that come with failure, as Detroit has been experiencing.

Bloomberg should check out IRS domestic migration data. From 2000-2010, the New York MSA lost over 1.3 million people. On net during that Census decade, 80,000 more people moved from NYC to Philadelphia than the other way around. Over that same time period, Detroit bled about 215,000 people. New York City is six times the failure that Detroit is in terms of attraction. That exodus looks like more of a death spiral than a virtuous cycle of growth.

Bailing out Bloomberg’s dismal demography are immigrants. Through sheer numbers and robust birth rates, the foreign born paved over the flaws so distressing Lena Dunham. She’s ready to pack her bags and move to Tampa. Tampa! Don’t make me trot out the numbers on Tampa.

While Bloomberg is quick to lump immigrants in with tourists and hipster migration, the Big Apple’s main attraction isn’t “safe and clean streets, good schools and green parks, and cultural opportunities.” The foreign born often end up in the neighborhoods with the dirtiest streets, worst schools, and a dearth of cultural opportunities. Does Bloomberg really think cool amenities drive international migration?

New York City is expensive and miserable. Those who make it there can’t wait to make it anywhere else. See Philadelphia. Despite all that, you can’t beat it in terms of economic development opportunity:

Using IRS migration data from the 2009-2010 period — which measures the inflow and outflow of citizens who file taxes from county to county — Eric Rodenbeck and his team at San Francisco-based design firm Stamen created a map of America that is as extreme as ever. By using the IRS figures and mapping them out on U.S. highways with open-source technology provided by OpenStreetMap, they’ve created a roadmap of the parts of America that are losing and gaining, and the results are surprising. “We realized that if you look at the biggest ‘losers,’ essentially what you’re looking at are the biggest cities in the U.S.,” Migurski says. One of those losers: New York county, which lost $1,306,548,000 and 15,100 people. “But does that actually mean New York is a big loser?” Migurski asks. “One of our ideas was that, you’re not a loser if you’re losing money. You’re an exporter.” The sort of exporter, he says, that boosts the rest of the U.S. economy.

The inflow of people makes much less, on average, than the outflow of people. New York is a talent refinery. You have greater earning power anywhere for having toiled there. Make of that what you will Cleveland, another net migration gainer with NYC over the Census decade.

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

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