When I quote Paul Krugman, which I often do, it’s almost always for an observation about economics. After all, Krugman won his Nobel Prize for economics, and his columns in the New York Times and the subjects he addresses in his newsletter routinely focus on economic issues.
In a recent column, however, Krugman “sang my song”– explaining why many Americans have deserted rural and suburban residencies in order to live in densely populated urban neighborhoods.
He also addressed the impact of America’s rural/urban split on the country’s political culture wars.
I have an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s a very densely populated area — according to census data the area within a one-mile radius of my place has around 100 residents per acre, or more than 60,000 per square mile. This dense (and, to be honest, affluent) population supports a huge variety of businesses: restaurants, groceries, hardware stores, specialty shops of all kinds. Most of what you might want to do or buy is within easy walking distance.
In effect, then, I live in what some Europeans — most famously Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris — call “a 15-minute city.” It’s a catchy if slightly misleading name for a concept that urbanists have long advocated: walkable cities that take advantage of the possibilities of density.
Modern politics being what it is, alas, it’s also a concept that has been caught up in the culture wars and become the subject of wild conspiracy theories. And as usual the people who yell loudest about “freedom” are actually the ones who want to practice coercion, preventing other Americans from living in ways they disapprove of.
I often come across articles glorifying rural life, and promoting movement “back to the earth.” Like Krugman, however, my husband and I are urban people. We lived many years in historic, near-downtown neighborhoods, and when we got too old to comfortably navigate our last (three-story) house, we moved to an apartment in the very center of our city’s downtown.
Krugman’s column described what has been so liberating about that move: urban life is easy. As he points out, “Running errands is a snap; because you walk most places, you don’t worry about traffic jams or parking spaces.”
And those perceptions of crime and grime? They are simply wrong.
Krugman’s New York is one of the safest places in America, and as the Indianapolis Business Journal recently confirmed, Indianapolis’ downtown is the safest area in our city. (It’s pretty clean, too!)
There’s an unwritten rule in American politics that it’s OK for politicians to disparage big cities and their residents in a way that would be considered unforgivable if anyone did the same for rural areas…. There seems to be a widespread sense that only people living a car-centered lifestyle, or a pickup truck-centered lifestyle, are real Americans….
Now, I don’t know how many Americans would choose the walkable-city lifestyle if it were widely available, but surely many more than are living it now. Unfortunately, urban planning — for cities are always planned, one way or another — is yet another casualty of the politics of grievance and paranoia.
That last observation really hits home.
In conversations with people who are clearly flummoxed by our choice to live downtown, we often hear concerns centered on the very elements of urban life that we celebrate. In Indiana, the “buckle of the Bible Belt”), the center of a city is where you find the most diverse population mix–and for far too many Hoosiers and other Americans, diversity equals danger.
It must be dangerous downtown, because there are so many people who don’t look like me…
There’s a reason apartments and condominiums are being built at a rapid pace in the city core. It’s an attractive, vibrant, quintessentially urban place to live. Even with constant residential construction, occupancy levels are 93- 95%.
When weather permits, my husband and I like to sit in the outdoor/sidewalk section of the restaurant next door to our building, and watch the young, multi-ethnic crowds walk and bike (and scooter) by. We look up Massachusetts Avenue at the multitude of restaurants, bars and shops we regularly patronize.
In an era where media is filled with reports of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia, our little patch of urban life remains welcoming and enthusiastically “woke.” And I’m gratified to report that the young people who dominate residency in our apartment building are unfailingly polite and helpful to us “old folks.”
We aren’t the only Americans drawn to what urban life has to offer: According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2020, only 14 percent of the U.S. population still lived in the rural counties that continue to dominate American politics and dictate public policy.
I hope I live long enough to see fair representation for the remaining 86% of us.
24 thoughts on “Me And Paul (Krugman)”
Thanks Sheila, really good column.
My daughter and her family live in Chicago—Rogers Park, about as diverse an area as you could find. I’m too much of a suburbanite to want to actually live in a city’s heart but I sure do appreciate the attraction, for all the reasons you listed and more.
An interesting and informative blog today; speaking to those who actually opt for that “15 minute city” life. I’m thinking of another song, admittedly an old song, “To Each His Own”. I have never lived in an urban area but spent 20 years working in the Indianapolis City County Building and watched the downtown area being imploded and demolished to make room for the new concept of a Downtown Shopping Mall. I did enjoy the benefits of easy shopping on lunch hours at the City Market, the many department stores, small specialty shops and the vast options of dining but never wanted to live there. It was restful to return to the suburbs with open spaces, trees and the many options of flowering landscapes…with shopping nearby.
If we have been paying attention to Sheila these years on her blog, we are well aware of her love of urban life. It just isn’t for everyone and, “According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2020, only 14 percent of the U.S. population still lived in the rural counties that continue to dominate American politics and dictate public policy.” Is the Department of Agriculture referring to those who fit the definition of agriculture as “the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for growing crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool and other products.”? (Oxford Dictionaries) Rural Marion County on the southeast side; once a farming area with many acres of beautiful green crops and green spaces to clean the air are now vast empty areas or filled with cookie-cutter housing developments and some apartment buildings where people moved to escape from those “multi-ethnic crowds”. That provides the explanation for me as to why the rural vote is Republican to its core, but they didn’t opt for urban living, or couldn’t afford it.
My preference is somewhere in the middle; in the suburbs with “multi-ethnic” residents and nearby shopping. My low to middle-income neighborhood fits that description but the reality is that the black and Hispanic residents, as well as the white residents, remain behind closed doors and drawn blinds so we remain integrated but separate and it deeply saddens me. Is a puzzlement!
City life is not for me. I don’t want to sit on my balcony or patio and have someone’s eyeballs looking at me. I hate traffic noise and smelling someone else’s cooking. I want to see greenery outside my windows and don’t care to people watch. I’d rather watch the birds and bees. I grew up in suburbia and that’s okay as long as I can’t see or hear my neighbors. I don’t want to live so close to another home that I can hear them fighting or farting. For those that do, more power to you.
I worked for Schwitzer in my mud 20s to mid 40s (from 1974 to 1993) which was in the long building North of 10th street between Massachusetts Ave and Brookside Drive. We would go downtown on Mass Ave, and back then it was mostly boarded up buildings with just a construction company, an Architectural firm, and a few low end businesses and a few retail and restaurants on the South end. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the LGBT community started bringing gay bars and other businesses in, and as so often has happened, others followed, until it is now a vibrant and exciting area in which to live. The same also happened in Lockerbie Swuare, the old North Side, and has also been happening for a number of years between College and Meridian from Eastbto West, and Fall Creek and 38th street from North to South. It’s very common in cities across the country for the LGBT community to reclaim abandoned areas both commercial and residential.
Every time I commute to downtown Indy, I cannot fathom doing that daily from suburbia. My longest commute was in Miami – nearly 90 minutes to the heart of downtown. I would have never chosen that for myself. The company did it for the $’s. It made for super long days.
If all things economics didn’t matter, I wonder where people would live and work.
I have a hint of claustrophobia but don’t want to feel isolated, so small cities are my choice. Muncie was a good choice until they let Walmart build two supercenters. #idiots
Terrific column. I lived in Meridian-Kessler for a number of years. It’s a great neighborhood but I opted to move near downtown 25 years ago. I’ve lived in Fletcher Place and Fountain Square neighborhoods and enjoy the diversity and walkability of both. I need my 18 year old car only 3-4 days a week. I can walk to restaurants, have my go to coffee shop and bakery. Lots of shops, too. We have low crime rates but you wouldn’t know that if you listen to the media or subscribe to Next Door.
I’m well past my partying days, but it’s easy to see the attraction of being in the middle of the action. I do enjoy the fact that I live within walking distance of the local performing arts hall. Nearly everything I need is less than five minutes by car and there is a wildlife area only fifteen minutes away where I can see egrets, herons, anhingas, and gators. One other great thing is that something is always in bloom, even if it’s only the hibiscus. I feel like I have the best of all worlds. Now I just need to have a few more liberals move in.
I am now living in Washington Heights on the Upper Westside of NYC and for the first time in my life, I am in the minority. The stereotypes of New Yorkers and minorities that I learned growing up in rural Indiana couldn’t be more misguided. New Yorkers are friendly, caring, and couldn’t be more welcoming. I miss my Hoosier friends, but I do not miss the Hoosier “one size fits all” culture.
Absolutely! I currently live in the country on the home place, but I have lived in German towns and Japan towns where you could walk everywhere to get the things you needed. Loved it! Would do it again without hesitation.
But, public transportation was wonderful in many of those cities also.
I still like my yard and vegetable garden. I still can about 100 quarts of tomatoes and 50 quarts of beans every summer and eat them in the winter. I basically eat out of my garden from May-Nov. and would not have it any other way. I still pick raspberries and blackberries in the fence rows of farmers I know like I did as a child and I still get chiggers as a result.
I hated living in a dorm and an apartment when I was in school. I am weird in that I don’t like to eat out. I enjoy concerts and theater but I prefer small intimate settings to crowds and large performance halls. People just like different things and living downtown would not work for me.
So diversity is healthy for both the human population and the environments in which we live. Makes sense to me.
If you ask other peoples opinion of where we lived, we lived downtown. In reality, we lived in a neighborhood called the “Old Northside”. It was a suburb of late 1800’s Indianapolis where doctors and lawyers lived. We were two blocks from the President Harrison House. In the last few years the neighborhood has finally gotten a good mix of walkable restaurants. We had a yard (tiny by today’s suburban standards) but completely landscaped from the curb in the front to the alley in the back, but the small size made that manageable and fun. We had a big 3 story house and an apartment above the detached carriage house garage. We loved it and we loved the neighborhood with its mix of big houses and dense apartment buildings. We loved it so much we stayed for 34 years.
Just this week we moved to a good sized condo. Not being able to cook in mess created by the move, the last three nights, I have walked less than two blocks to three different restaurants. While I have association fees, I figure our monthly maintenance costs have dropped to 1/3 of what they were. My environmental foot print (utility bills) will drop to 1/3 of what they were. Again the driving factor for us was to get rid of the stairs, but not the convenience of living downtown.
Technology has always driven modern city development in the US, first the bicycle, next street cars, then cars. I don’t know. what the next big shift will be, but I do know that in the age of automobiles, Americans have forgotten that cities need to be built for people to live and not for cars. The spread, big houses, and big lawns seems to be creating spaces that, beyond the age of fossil fuels, may be unmaintainable.
As a graduate student, many moons ago, at the University of Texas Institute of Urban and Regional Affairs, there seemed to be common human aspiration for choices where to live. There seems to be a conscious and/or unconscious desire for defensible space. This desire crosses into choices for urban density to lower density rural. A sense of community can be found everywhere.
My maternal grandfather was a successful farmer in West Texas, the nearest neighbor a mile away. Each would light a kerosene lamp placed in a window toward each other. Lit after sundown, it was a welcomed signal ‘all is well’. Long before email and even a phone, checking in with our neighbors is communal defensible space. During the past 29 years, it has been fascinating to observe the transformation of downtown Indy and Mass Av. Both have become far more defensible spaces. Spatial design is relevant only when the intent results in healthy communal connection among those who choose to live and work there.
Post COVID recovery will determine whether work/life balance in downtown will sustain continued growth and thriving economy. The optimist believes it will, and it will be even better.
I grew up in suburbia. After college I lived and worked in East Side Manhattan for 2 years and fully enjoyed the experience. My parents were horrified and scared for me! I learned that everyone in NYC felt safe in their own neighborhoods, and less safe outside them.
All this ignores the fact of who can afford the “urban” life. This brute truth is continually and increasingly fed by the “democratic” disease of gentrification – it is completely neutral to age, race, ethnicity, gender choice, religion – all you need is the “bucks”. The other 90% or so can conveniently fade behind the buildings. Unfortunately, they are being organized in their frustration and they vote their anger.
I have had the debatable privilege to live in the full range of rural, small town, suburban, and city environments. As a child I went to 11 different schools by 11th grade. I have lived in the Ouachita mountains with the nearest neighbor a mile away through dense forest, some tiny towns and farms in Indiana, some small towns, Fort Wayne, and now alternate between our duplex in north side Indy (Warfliegh neighborhood) and an old cottage in Fort Myers Fl. Sorta been there done that. There is much to be said for and against each environment – convenient access, noisy apartment neighbors, peace and quiet, smell of a pig lot, etc. I have lived with an economic and cultural cross section of folks and participated in some deliberate efforts to build relationships and acceptance across our varied populace.
I believe we need much more deliberate association and many small scale local initiatives. The most effort is necessary for the urban rural othering. Unfortunately our political/economic “leaders” are fully aware of this and are deliberately manipulating the elements that separate us for their own aggrandizement.
Since the criminal justice system in Indpls. has relocated several miles east of downtown this year a lot of space has been vacated in the city county building and much traffic diverted. Certainly, this will have an effect on the city center environment. The area between downtown and the new justice center is quickly redeveloping with major upgrades in streets and buildings. Seems like these are positive changes.
Having lived in both big cities and small to medium sized towns in my early life and now, for many decades, in a working class subdivision that has been swallowed by the city’s relentless march into surrounding rural counties, I am facing the very difficult decision about moving into a physically more accessible space.
Looking for such a place has shown me that money will dictate any success in a search for an affordable, handicapped accessible, single floor dwelling. There are very few options in the county that are affordable and within familiar, easy driving distance. Many new subdivisions are being built out in the donut counties, far from social and cultural amenities, even farther from family and friends. The costs of moving, the wrenching separation from decades of memories, the cost of HOA monthly fees would eat up my savings in just a few years. Granted, I don’t have many years left in the grand scheme of things, but I would rather spend the few I have left with some degree of comfort, especially in social relationships. The idea of institutional living, even in an apartment or condo community, leaves me uneasy to say the least. I like my space and privacy, my garden and the wildlife. It is a puzzlement, indeed.
JD – I’m so sorry that you are facing this dilemma.
My husband and I read the Krugman column in total agreement. We are currently living in a one bedroom apartment in Homestead neighborhood of Portland Oregon, a few blocks from our daughter and grandson. I fell in love with downtown Portland for its converted warehouses, walk ability and food, but two years later shops are closing and windows are broken with disturbing regularity. We have put off buying because of the market but it looks like downtown is not a good idea here sadly.
Unfortunately the cost of living downtown even in Indy has become quite expensive, I’m a 63 year old nurse and there’s no decent place in or near downtown Indy that we could reasonably afford. I don’t know who all the people are that can afford $400-500,000 (and up!) houses and condos but it sure ain’t me or any other working class folks i know…as gentrification has increased in Indy poor black and brown folks have been forced out to more affordable/ less desirable parts of town on the east and westside of the city. I’m glad that wealthy white folks like you and your husband like living downtown and fell safe there but it’s certainly not a welcoming or attractive place for some poor working stiff like me and my wife!
Like Paul Krugman, I also live on the UWS, though I’m not part of the affluent category. I’m fortunate to live in a subsidized senior building. Everything he says about the easy livability of our neighborhood is true. I’m one block from Central Park. Within a three block radius I have access to supermarkets, bodegas, restaurants, a farmer’s market, pharmacies, and, of course, Lincoln Center is just five blocks away. When I have to leave the neighborhood, public transportation is at my corner.
What Mr. Krugman doesn’t mention is that our neighborhood is 68% white and has become a hotbed of nimbyism–not in my neighborhood. The local community board is currently fighting a new homeless shelter, yet the online neighborhood bulletin board is filled with comments that our neighborhood is a hotbed of crime because of the homeless sleeping on our streets. Our neighborhood is one of the safest in the city. They are also fighting against public restrooms near the subway station for the delivery people who take bring takeout orders. New York is going through the worst housing crisis in its history, but my “neighbors” don’t want low income housing as it might lower their property values.
One of the biggest battles in our neighborhood is between cyclists and car owners. Manhattan crosstown (east/west) streets are narrow. Car owners believe the city owes them free street parking. Cyclists want protected bike lanes, taking parking off one side of these narrow streets. Car owners are ok with protected bike lanes, but want to keep parking on both sides of the street as well, thereby creating one lane for traffic which would often be blocked by UPS/FedEx trucks.
Our neighborhood seems to be filled with those who want the convenience of city living, but the quiet, car-centered atmosphere of suburbia. My frustration level is at is bursting point with these attitudes. I’d be happy if they moved to the suburbs and left the city for those of us who truly love it here.