The Urban Black Swan

Vincent Valk examines cautionary tales from Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Fort Lee to find the folly in making predictions about the best cities of the future.

The George Washington Bridge stretches into Fort Lee, New Jersey, once the world’s film capital. brendan.adamson via Flickr

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While doing some research for a story, I encountered Kiplinger’s Personal Finance‘s list of the “Best Cities for the Next Decade.” As far as city listings – a topic about which I am becoming increasingly familiar – go, this one is relatively benign. It is a well-intentioned effort based on the work of an academic demographer. Bob Frick, the Kiplinger’s editor who worked on the list readily admitted to me that it is “a conceit,” though he, of course, believes it to be a well-thought-out one. I mention all this by way of saying that I don’t really mean to single out Kiplinger’s. But their “conceit” reminded me of the “black swan,” or important, unforeseen event.

Jane Jacobs considered the city a complex organism, a series of interlocking and often unnoticed relationships that together form a greater whole. If it’s true (and I think it is) that cities are inherently complex, and it’s true (and I think it is) that completely unpredicted events have an outsized impact on history, then can we really predict the “Best Cities for the Next Decade?” Even if we can, what is the best way to gauge the odds of future urban success? Is it a fool’s errand?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. Even if I did, explaining them would be a very tall order for a blog post. I’m just asking.

If you want to see what I mean, drive over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan to New Jersey. Look at what’s across the river – the Palisades, a series of steep cliffs along the Hudson dotted with high-rise apartment towards. One thing that is not on the Palisades is a giant sign announcing the existence of Fort Lee.

Fort Lee is where the George Washington Bridge terminates in New Jersey. It was also the center of the motion picture industry until around 1920. And why not? It was just across the river from America’s largest, richest city. It was near the home of the man who invented the motion picture. Its hills were useful for shooting “Wild West” scenes. Now, maybe Fort Lee’s hold over the film industry was less than airtight (in retrospect, I’d guess it was), but there probably weren’t very many people who, in 1915, thought the industry would galvanize an obscure, still-new city nestled between mountains, ocean, and desert on the other side of the continent.

So, today, Hollywood is the movies. It all seems to make sense. But there could easily have been an alternative history with a Fort Lee sign on the Palisades and celebrities frequenting trendy nightclubs in Weehawken.

There are numerous other examples of this. Philadelphia was home to America’s first stock exchange, yet it is Wall Street, not Market Street, that is synonymous with high finance. Cincinnati was the first agro-industrial metropolis in the Midwest, yet nobody has ever written a poem about its big shoulders.

Retrospectively, we can see reasons for these things. New York rose to prominence because of the Erie Canal, or the Dutch commercial tradition. Chicago eclipsed Cincinnati because it is on Lake Michigan. It all seems so obvious.

But it was not obvious at the time. And, in spite of what we tell ourselves, there was never a guarantee that any of it would come to pass. The Erie Canal looks visionary to us, but, at the time, many considered it a colossal boondoggle, “Clinton’s ditch.” What has come to pass may feel like destiny to us, but, in general, destiny occurs after the fact.

I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t try to figure out what makes cities work, and what can help them succeed in the future. If I believed that, I wouldn’t be writing here. And there are some variables – say, economic diversity, or education – that I’m inclined to believe do make a difference. I’m just asking the question: do we really know what we think we know? When considering something as complex as the city, it is useful to keep the black swan in mind.

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Tags: new york cityphiladelphiachicagowatercincinnati

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