Deindustrialization is Not Progress

In his column, World Watch, Josh Leon argues that American cities shouldn’t give up on industry so quickly to accommodate the creative class.

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If you happen to be employed in an industrial sector, stop reading and go figure out how to join the creative class. If you live in a city that is disproportionately dependent on industrial sectors, take a U-Haul to a more creative city, valley or research triangle. If you’re living in a converted factory loft, don’t ask what happened to the people who used to be employed where your designer kitchen now stands. Forget about the good things an actual working factory might do for a city. The very thought is as obsolete as the 12.5 million non-creative Americans with the audacity to expect living wages for assembling our stuff. This message brought to you by a smart-growth movement that actually fashions itself progressive!

It’s amazing to me how easily we’re giving up on industrial sectors like manufacturing, which traditionally offer higher-than-normal wages and benefits. An excellent piece in this summer’s Dissent by Berkeley activist Zelda Bronstein argues that supposedly enlightened “new urbanists” are failing miserably when it comes to maintaining these sectors in cities. Industrial employment, she argues, is not at all as peripheral to the modern job market as champions of the creative class would like to think. In fact, a good percentage of cutting-edge workers, like engineers, are employed in those supposedly obsolete factories. Nevertheless, industrial districts have been systematically undermined by proponents of smart growth who favor zoning for more aesthetic (not to mention more profitable) high-end residential and commercial space.

A recent cross-web exchange I had with quintessential new urbanist Richard Florida is illustrative of this blasé attitude toward all that we’re losing. One of my previous columns on this subject criticized Florida’s March Atlantic piece along these lines. His response broadly rejected the notion that “old industries” could be rebuilt, protected, or reinvented by public action. Such interventions would make “little economic sense.” We can instead help hard hit manufacturing cities “gradually shift away from declining industries.” In other words struggling cities might just as well drain their superannuated life blood in favor of new economy industries like tech or finance. Even Florida seems to admit that these sorts of employment sectors will probably never make up for what these cities are now shedding.

To be fair, Florida’s policy proscription also called for “generous social safety nets.” He’s hopeful about the urban revival and the innovative mixed usages of space that it entails. That to me is a notable break from the anti-urbanism that underpinned decades of suburban flight and “urban renewal.” His most famous book, The Rise of the Creative Class, stresses the importance of thriving art and music scenes alongside the techno-geek scene. Tolerance toward marginalized groups like gays and lesbians, he asserts, is also key to economic growth. My basic problem with Florida’s thesis is that it sees the creative class as the alpha and the omega of urban vitality. It bases success on how well cities cater to this sacred minority. Urban planners worldwide increasingly develop accordingly, both for the better and the worse.

More dense and diverse usages of urban space are the better. Let’s examine the worse. As Florida tells it in Rise of the Creative Class, “the existence of a large and growing new class of highly paid creative workers is not the problem; rather, I submit, it is a healthy sign.” But it is not a healthy sign. Saskia Sassen’s seminal research finds that the most visibly dystopian class hierarchies are in the very places that successfully attract high-powered knowledge sectors. Highly paid professionals bring with them vast low-income labor markets. Their presence requires the retail workers, housekeepers, private security guards and restaurant servers who staff the glittering, diverse districts craved by Florida and other purveyors of the new urban consensus. These workers compete for shelter amidst ethereal rental prices pushed upward by the high-end professionals they serve.

Fostering industrial employment is at least a partial answer to mitigating this imbalance. No, I’m not arguing for some kind of twentieth-century stasis. These sectors, like every sector, need to adapt and find new comparative advantages for the times. But conceding their extinction is akin to civil war surgery. Maybe planners are getting this. Bronstein reports that more major cities are restricting the conversion of industrial property, retaining industrial jobs and pursuing smart growth.

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Tags: real estatebuilt environment

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