Over the past decade many city leaders have gravitated toward what might be called an arts-and-culture-led strategy. Even though most cities—including ballyhooed places such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Boston—have achieved mediocre (or even negative) job growth and continue to lose middle-class families, they’ve celebrated revivals of their urban cores based on the migration of largely affluent “hip” residents.
Back to Basics
Much of this misplaced focus on culture is related to the decline of blue-collar jobs in fields like manufacturing and warehousing, a shift that many experts have long considered all but inevitable.
Reflecting this widespread belief, a number of mayors began focusing on glittering new culture and sports palaces, convention centers, and often publicly subsidized luxury-condo developments.
But the limitations of this approach are becoming obvious, particularly now as the real estate “bubble” begins to deflate.
These cold realities call for a new appreciation of some of the basic elements that have sustained cities for generations: broad-based economic opportunity, investment in infrastructure, and the cultivation of blue-collar industries such as manufacturing and warehousing.
Manufacturing’s role in promoting job and income growth is often understated. Although overall industrial jobs have diminished by almost five million since the late 1970s, the loss has been concentrated largely in lower-skilled positions, according to a 2006 Federal Reserve Bank of New York study. The number of higher-skilled positions, generally paying better wages, has increased by 37 percent. These workers remain in great demand across much of the country.
Manufacturing and other blue-collar professions are also important because they provide a path to upward mobility for people with less than four-year degrees and serve as a launchpad for younger white-collar workers employed in finance, marketing, and design jobs connected to the industrial infrastructure.
These dynamics can spark a more lasting kind of urban renaissance.