Birds of A Feather

One of the handiest concepts for understanding how cities develop is the notion of "clustering," developed by Harvard business professor Michael Porter. Simple concept: It holds that, in some highly developed industries, leading practitioners need to be near one another, even when logic and high land costs might suggest that it's better to disperse.
by | March 2003
 

One of the handiest concepts for understanding how cities develop is the notion of "clustering," developed by Harvard business professor Michael Porter. Simple concept: It holds that, in some highly developed industries, leading practitioners need to be near one another, even when logic and high land costs might suggest that it's better to disperse. Hence, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the auto industry in Detroit, high finance in New York and scores of other advanced-industry clusters. But maybe it's not just high-tech or high- value industries that need to rub elbows. How else can you explain Los Angeles' windshield district? Located east of downtown, it is home to 18 automobile glass shops along a half-mile stretch of Mission Road. Along the road, people with colorful flags direct motorists with smashed windshields or chipped glass into the shops, where they get cut-rate service fast. "Everybody seems to know about this area," said one customer recently. "My dad told me to take the car to Mission Road. I said, 'Where on Mission Road?' He said, 'Just go. You can't miss it. You'll see the flags.'" Actually, that might explain why these local clusters exist: After a while, the depth, variety and quality of the businesses, sitting cheek by jowl, generate so much buzz that people drive for miles to patronize them. Hence, the value of a restaurant district, an arts district, an antiques row--or even a windshield district.

LOST AND FOUND

Here's good news: If your city is anything like Chicago, your residential price gradient is back. How's that? The price gradient is the calculation of how much housing prices decline the farther you get from downtown. For much of the period after World War II, the price gradient was backwards--prices increased the farther you got from downtown, against all logic. But sometime in the 1980s or '90s, the pre-World War II gradient reemerged in Chicago, ushered in by a boom in high-skill, high-wage downtown jobs and a generation that, raised in the suburbs, wanted a more urban style of life. How do we know the gradient is back? Because of a remarkable study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which examined housing sales figures from 1982 to 1998. Its finding: True to older historic patterns, housing values are declining today by more than 8 percent with each mile you travel from the city center. Other facts: Housing values are rising faster in areas with lots of poverty, vacant housing, African-American or Hispanic residents. Reason: These are the areas where gentrification has its greatest impact.

QUAINT NEW YORKERS

For such a politically liberal city, New York can be a remarkably conservative place. It was one of the last cities to give up elevator operators and trust people to push their own buttons. And there was stout resistance in the late 1970s and early '80s to automated teller machines. Now, the city's transit system wants to phase out metal subway tokens and the token sellers who sit in bulletproof booths. Among other things, they point out, only 9 percent of subway riders still use tokens; the rest use machine-generated computer cards called MetroCards. True to form, New Yorkers are raising a howl. "You can't ask the MetroCard vending machines for directions. You can't report a crime to one," said one transit advocate. Besides, he went on, "who wants a neutron-bomb subway system? I think it's a very basic principle." Transit officials patiently explain that these changes are meant to make the system more efficient as well as reduce labor costs. Among the improvements: More subway entrances will be open late at night, since riders can buy MetroCards from a machine 24 hours a day. "What we're doing is just what's done almost everywhere else in the world," says the transit system's president. But he knows what he's up against. When he arrived at the system in the 1980s, it still had a typing pool and no desktop computers.

'AUTO RECOVERY ZONES'

What are sidewalks for? If you think they are for pedestrians to walk safely, then welcome to Atlanta, where the state Department of Transportation considers them to be "auto recovery zones." As the DOT sees it, the sidewalk is a buffer, so if a driver veers off the road while talking on his cell phone, he has a chance to yank the car back on the road. This startling piece of information came out when a developer tried to get the DOT's permission to plant trees between his development's sidewalks and the street, to give the walkways a shaded appearance. Absolutely not, the DOT said. If a car hit a tree, one official said, it would surely hurt the car. But if a car roars up on a sidewalk, there's a chance it won't hit any pedestrians. "It's kind of like asking the question, which is the lesser of two evils? We want to protect the pedestrian, but we want to protect the drivers as well," the official said. Pedestrian advocates are amazed. The DOT "would rather have a pedestrian killed by a car than have a car fender dented," said one. Footnote: Atlanta is routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country for pedestrians. In 2001, 64 pedestrians were killed there. Some of them, apparently, were walking on auto recovery zones.

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